The collapse of the government in Kabul in Afghanistan, as well as the anniversaries of the 9/11 attacks that were launched from within that nation, have been very much in the public mind in recent weeks. In light of these painful scenes, we would do well to recall both the history and the religious traditions of this country, which are more diverse than many realize.
While the formal existence of Afghanistan as a state began in 1880 at the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, archeology indicates that Neanderthals lived there around 52,000 BC. from India which was one of the earliest centers of civilization reached parts of Afghanistan around 2000 BC. The country is mountainous but is nonetheless a crossroads to India and it borders the old Silk Road, the trade route from the west to China. The largest language group in Afghanistan is the Pashtun, which derives from the earliest forms of Persian, suggesting forays by Iranian merchants.
The first great empire to develop in what is now Afghanistan was Kamboja, which developed under the influence of the migrant Indo-Iranian peoples, who brought with them the Sanskrit language and early parts of some of the scriptures. Hindu. Forms of Hinduism continued to exist there for several centuries and today few remain. But in the 6th century BC, the Persian Achaemenids entered the territory and asserted their rule, but this led to three centuries of conflict. It was during this period that Buddhism entered the territory, and we also saw the rise of Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic faith associated with the Persian Empire around 600 BC. The prophet Zoroaster was a visionary who declared the existence of the one true god, whom he called Ahura Mazda. His faith was complete with good and bad angelic beings, and he taught on judgment day and the afterlife. It has ties to the Hebrew religion of ancient Israel. However, while the historical existence of Zoroaster is debated, many scholars believe his homeland was in Afghanistan, which explains how the Persian religion so quickly became dominant in the region.
Persian rule in Afghanistan and elsewhere ended with the arrival of Alexander the Great from Macedon around 330 BC. Alexander could be quite merciful to those who submitted to Greek rule, but to those who resisted, he was utterly brutal. Large numbers of Greeks were also killed in the process. After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BC, his empire split into a series of smaller principalities. A Greco-Indian kingdom called Yavana held power in Afghanistan for the next two centuries, ruled by Greek kings. As always, wherever the Greeks went, they brought their own pagan Greek gods, whose images appear on the coins of the time and in the temples that are now in ruins. Alexander’s name survives in the names of several Afghan cities, including Kandahar, which is a modified version of Alexander’s Afghan name, Iskandar.
The successors of the pagan Greeks were peoples of Indian origin known as the Mauryan Empire, which led to the growth of Hinduism as well as the introduction of Buddhism to Afghanistan. The years that followed saw a series of invaders and kingdoms rise and fall, including the Huna, Kidarites, Alchon Huns, White Huns, and Kabul Shahi. In many periods that followed, Afghanistan was divided and ruled by smaller kingdoms.
From a religious perspective, the biggest impact on Afghanistan has been the invasion by Islamic Arabs under the control of the Umayyad regime headquartered in Baghdad. Muslims waged war on the Persian Empire and defeated them in AD 642, and the last Persian Emperor, Yzadegerd III fled for his life at the Battle of Nihawand. First by the edge of the sword, then by a century of missionary work sponsored by the Umayyads, the majority of the population embraced Islam.
In the centuries since the introduction of Islam, Afghanistan has been invaded several times, the most devastating of which was the Mongol invasion. The Mongols succeeded, in large part because of their utter desire to slaughter anyone who stood in their way. For example, after the Mongols had finished destroying the city of Bamyan, the deserted site was renamed “The City of Cries”.
Mongolian control of Afghanistan shifted to another round of invasions and empires, the Afsharid, Durrani and ultimately the British, who were expelled after three painful and fruitless wars. In 1826, a central government under a monarchy was established under the name of the Barakzai dynasty. After many adventures, the monarchy was overthrown in 1973, which triggered a series of coups, the last of which was a pro-communist regime led by Hafizullah Amin.
The rise of Marxism led to anti-religious propaganda and attempts to modernize the country, including laws banning beards on men, educating women, banning forced marriages, land reforms and, of course, atheism. of state. These reforms were accompanied by massive imprisonments and purges to suppress resistance. The Communist regime had long-standing ties with the Soviet Union. So when the revolution against the Marxist government broke out, the Soviet Russians invaded to calm things down. Like the British before them, the Russians quickly found themselves in an impossible war. But the religious impact on Afghanistan was considerable, as national resistance to the Russians merged with religion, and Islam became the major resistance to the Soviets … with financial support from Saudi Arabia and the states. -United.
In 1947, the Islamic faith made up about 84% of the total population. Of the rest, about half were Sikhs and the rest were from other Eastern faiths or monotheistic religions. After the final withdrawal of the Russians, 99.7% of the Afghan population was Islamic, the vast majority being Sunni and a minority of 9% being Shiite. Non-Muslims living in Afghanistan represent only about 0.3%.
The fate of non-Islamic religions over the past decades has been less than positive. In 1970, there were approximately 1,000 Afghan Zoroastrians. The Baha’is have lived in the country since 1880, but today there are around 16,000. It is estimated that there are between 1,000 and 18,000 Christians in Afghanistan who practice their faith in secret. There are around 600 Hindus and 1,300 Sikhs left. Most Jews were forced to convert to Islam when the Taliban first took power in the 1990s and it is not known what happened to them, but there are expatriate Afghan Jewish communities in Israel and elsewhere. And just to note, until a few weeks ago there was still one Jew living in Afghanistan, Zablon Simintov, a merchant who was also the keeper of the last and only synagogue in Kabul. In August 2021, business contacts in Israel hired a private security agency to quietly expel him from the country. Sic transit gloria, thus pass all glory.
Gregory Elder, a resident of Redlands, is Professor Emeritus of History and Humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Catholic Priest. Write to him at Professing Faith, PO Box 8102, Redlands, CA 92375-1302, email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Fatherelder.