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48 CULTURE ••

Religion

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school of Sunni jurisprudence, although Shiite law was given equal status in the 2004 constitution.

Mohammed decreed all Muslims should pray fac- ing the Kaaba in Mecca, the Black Stone suppos- edly given to Ibrahim by the archangel Gabriel.

ISLAM IN AFGHANISTAN

The village mosque is the centre of Afghan Islam, where the local mullah is the prime interpreter of the Quran for his traditionally non-literate flock. Many village mullahs cannot read either, so their knowledge of the holy book is often based on oral tradition, mixed with other Afghan codes, such as Pashtunwali, that remove them by some degrees from the Islam recognised by scholars. Afghans place much stock in their non- hierarchical society, and the same goes for religion. Tradition is vitally important, and while this has led to some insular practices (including common village strictures against women’s education and being allowed to work), in many other areas it has led to the broadly tolerant nature of Afghan society. Belief in magic and djinns (invisible creatures made from fire mentioned in the Quran) is widespread. Holy men have always been important in Afghan culture. Pirs (local

saints) are revered while sayids (descendants of the Prophet Mohammed) are especially respected. In addition, wandering holy men called malangs are thought to be touched directly by Allah; these are rare individuals who leave the security of the family and village structures to follow the path of Sufism, Islam’s mystical tradition. Many Sufi orders (tariqa) exist in Afghanistan, mostly of the Naqshbandi and Qadirriyah traditions, each following a charismatic leader. Sufism seek knowledge of Allah through direct personal contact, often through rituals of music or poetry aimed at inducing a trance-like state of rapture – a heresy to orthodox Muslims (although Sufis also pray in the traditional Muslim manner). Sufi tariqa have produced several Afghan leaders, and played a key early role in the Jihad against the Soviets. Radical Islam played little part in Afghan culture until society started to fracture during the war. Fundamentalist groups like Gulbuddin Hek- matyar’s Hezb-e Islami weren’t popular with the majority of Afghans, while the foreign fighters who followed the ultra-orthodox Wahhabist sect from Saudi Arabia frequently despised the Afghans they were fight- ing for their supposedly lax attitude to religion. The strain of Islam followed by the Taliban similarly ran counter to much of traditional Afghan belief. The Taliban were the children of Pakistan’s madrassas (Islamic col-

leges), which often offered the best chance of any education for those raised in the refugee camps. Here they were influenced by the austere Deoband creed, at once sympathetic to and influenced by the Pakistani Islamist parties, and Saudi Wahhabist who provided much of their fund- ing. The madrassa-raised Taliban were free of the tribal strictures of

THE FIVE PILLARS OF ISLAM

Muslims express their faith through five core beliefs, named here in Dari:  Kalimeh – the creed that ‘There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of God’  Namaz – praying five times a day at fixed times, prostrated towards the holy city of Mecca  Zakat – the giving of alms, generally interpreted as 2.5% of a person’s income  Rouza – dawn-to-dusk fasting during the month of Ramazan  Haj – performing the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime, if able

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ZIARATS

Ziarats (shrines) are of great importance in Afghan Islam. Although Islam does not traditionally recognise saints, the graves of pirs, or anyone thought to have achieved closeness to Allah, often attract local cults. People visit their ziarats, typically festooned with brightly coloured flags, to pray for the intercession of the pir for a particular favour. Women visit some for help conceiving, or to get a love-match in marriage. Other ziarats are renowned for their curative abilities. Caretakers often sell amulets containing earth from the grave or verses from the Quran to aid the fortunes of visitors. The graves of shahid (martyrs who have died in battle) are regarded as particularly potent. In

Khost, the graves of 38 Arab and Pakistani fighters killed by a US bomb in 2001 have become a famous ziarat. Their political beliefs are totally irrelevant – as shahid their graves are holy ground. Ironically, the ultra-orthodox foreign fighters who supported the Taliban would have scorned and punished such behaviour as idolatrous. Presumably as more visitors come to pray to them, they spin in their graves a little faster.

Pashtunwali and had an exile’s lack of knowledge of Afghan and general Islamic history. Instead they preferred to deal with absolutes, shun- ning debate, moderation and the West. The radical laws they enacted once in power were far removed from most Afghans’ concepts of Islam. In particular, their virulent anti-Shiism led to persecution of the Haz- aras, and the banning of festivals like Nauroz that were perceived to be anti-Islamic.

Other Religions

Afghanistan has long hosted populations of Jews, Sikhs and Hindus, all of which have now dwindled. At the start of the 20th century, Afghan Jews numbered around 40,000, a number that has plummeted since the founding of Israel to just one man in Kabul, Zablon Simintov, who keeps an unobtrusive synagogue on Flower St. Before the arrival of Islam, Kabul was a Hindu city, but most Afghan Hindus and Sikhs arrived in the country following the mid-19th century influx of Indian court musicians to Kabul. Around 1200 Hindu and Sikh families remain in Afghanistan, mostly merchants in Kabul, Kandahar, Ghazni and Jalalabad. Muslim occupation of Hindu and Sikh properties after years of war (particularly Hindu cremation grounds) has caused some tensions. Christianity is a more controversial subject. Afghanistan’s large Chris- tian Armenian population was expelled in the 19th century after being accused of assisting the British, and it wasn’t until 1933 that a church – a chapel inside the Italian embassy – was allowed to open, still Afghani- stan’s only officially sanctioned church. Afghans remain highly sensitive to Christianity taking a foothold in the country. In 2001 the Taliban arrested several international aid workers on charges of proselytising, and in 2006 there was an international furore when an Afghan Christian convert was tried and threatened with the death penalty for apostasy – he was later granted refugee status in Italy.

ARTS

Poetry

Both Dari and Pashto poetry plays an enormous role in Afghan culture, and a good Afghan education places as much emphasis on the writings of the great poets as on the Quran. Afghanistan’s greatest poets are Abdul Rahman Baba and Khushal Khan Khattak, who both wrote Pashto poetry in the 17th century, a time

CULTURE ••

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