Afghanistan's Islam

From Conversion to the Taliban

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Nile Green
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , December
     348 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The securitization of Afghanistan in the last three decades has meant that although almost every discourse on Afghanistan is connected to Islam, in itself Afghanistan’s Islam received little attention except through the prism of jihad (literally struggle, but loosely implies, holy war). Consequently, we know little either about religious heritage, or the present belief system and religious practices beyond Sufi-Wahabi binaries (read as good/bad Muslims). An edited volume by historian Nile Green, Afghanistan’s Islam: From Conversion to the Taliban makes an important intervention to narrow this gap in understanding the religious practices and faith in Afghanistan.

The book is broadly divided into four parts, each focusing on different phases in history--trying to cover a period of over a millennium. The first part covers the earliest phase from the 7th to15th century, “From Conversions to Institutions” of Islam in the region, while the second phase from 1500 to 1850 is on “the Infrastructure of Religious Ideas.” 

The third phase from 1850 to 1979 is the most critical—during which Afghanistan found itself sandwiched between two world powers: the British Empire and the Russian/Soviet Empire. The last part focuses on “Holy Warriors and (Im)Pious Women” from 1979 till 2014. 

Green’s introductory chapter is comprehensive and gives the “historical terrain of Afghanistan’s religiosity,” in particular, and the larger Eurasian region, in general (1). Looking at Afghanistan today we may be pardoned for thinking that the core values of the country always derived from Islam. But it was not always so. In fact, the conversion to the Islamic system was a slow process that took place over at least three centuries, often borrowing from previous practices of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Shamanism, Christianity, and Hinduism.

The chapter by Arezou Azad counters the general myth of the spread of Islam through sword and the argument that political and economic patronage helped in the mass conversion. She instead emphasizes that it was a “centuries-long process of acculturation and adaptation of rituals and belief systems . . . without abandoning their age-old religious practices and rituals” (41-55). 

The volume has three chapters focusing on women, which must be appreciated. The chapter by Nushin Arbabzadah centers on patronage by women from noble families in the Timurid era, most significantly by Queen Gawhar Shad, wife and consort of Shahrukh. She built two grand Friday mosques in Herat and Mashad (in present Iran), besides patronizing Khanqahs (Sufi hospices) and madrasas (then implied all kinds of educational institutions, but now mostly imply seminaries).

Besides the role of women in Islamic practices, the volume spends considerable space on understanding the Sufi practices and orders. With the Taliban and the rise of ISIS, one may see Afghanistan as the hotbed of extremism, but the land has been more famous in history for different Sufi orders, most significantly the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order with its center in Timurid Herat. 

The chapter by Jürgen Paul focuses on the rise of Khwajagan-Naqshbandiyya Sufi order in the Timurid era. Naqshbandiyya succeeded over other Sufi orders as they were “Shari’a minded and kept to the middle of the road in their social profile” (85). Besides, the Khwajagan were “remarkably flexible” and avoided extremes (85). Waleed Ziad analyzes the two manuals of Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufi practices to understand the “prevailing value systems and ethical premises of 18th-century Kabul and Peshawar and their expansive religio-intellectual orbits” (125). R.D. McChesney’s chapter is on the institutionalization of religious practices in the 16th to 17th centuries. 

Sana Haroon’s chapter is not on Afghanistan per se but on the Indo-Afghan borderlands, presently Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. Based on local Urdu and Persian sources, the chapter deliberates on competing views of Pashtun tribalism, Islam, and society in the Indo-Afghan borderlands in the context of anti-colonial politics in the 19th century that valorized the Pashtun tribe as a “model for the Muslim nation” (145-46). 

As a scholar on media studies, I found the chapter by Simon Wolfgang Fuchs “Unpacking the Multilingual Religious Thought of the Jihad” most fascinating. It is based on the analysis of five major journals published by five of the seven mujahidin (“holy” warriors fighting against the Soviets in 1970s and 80s, and were celebrated in the West, in contrast to later days Jihadi who too saw themselves as holy-warriors but are mostly seen as terrorists by the West) parties for the period of 1980 to 1991. It points to the early influence of the Islamic revolution in Iran on the Afghan jihad. The global significance of the Afghan jihad was debated ardently in these papers. 

The response among common people to the call to jihad in Afghanistan was overwhelming: “Afghans responded to the call of jihad at a time when beyond antiquated rifles they had no access to modern military equipment. They met the enemy practically empty-handed” (194). 

The chapter also deals with the debate in the mujahidin  literature on the system of administration and the “limit of inclusive polity,” and points to the personal egos and infighting among different leaders that led to the collapse of the collision government in the early 1990s, facilitating the rise of Taliban (202-204). More analysis in this direction of literature produced by the Taliban and other such groups can further help in understanding the practical ideologies of these groups beyond hallow rhetoric on extremism laden with Islamophobia.

The last chapter, based on an ethnographic study by Sonia Ahsan, deals with women of Khana-yi-Aman (shelters or homes of peace) in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban. Alessandro Monsutti rightly points in the afterword that Islam has become the primary idiom of politics in Afghanistan, and hence it needs to be understood in its “plurality within the public arena” (247).

This book helps, to some extent, better understand different facets of Islamic values and practices in Afghanistan through the ages. More importantly, unlike most works on Afghanistan, the chapters in this volume are based on primary and native-langauge sources. 

But no single volume can cover all topics, and the last section of the books leaves me with similar impressions. I am left wondering how common Afghans engage with religion in the present era. Moreover, in a country where Islam is taken as given, how are the experiences of being Muslim, but not religious and questioning the excess in the name of faith and custom, work? 

These and many more such topics can be the themes of the subsequent volume on Islam in Afghanistan. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mohammad Reyaz teaches at Aliah University in Kolkata, India, and is working on an ICSSR-IMPRESS project on Afghanistan.

Date of Review: 
July 22, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nile Green is Professor of South Asian and Islamic History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Sufism: A Global History and Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam.


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