Are Pashtun a Tribe ?Tracing the meanings of the usage “Pashtun tribe by Shpoon Sial


Let me first discuss the colonial definition of tribal society which has mostly negative connotations. I will discuss the original definition in another post.
The colonial writers have defined tribal as follows.
1. Tribal society is “pre-literate”, which means that tribal societies are oral and they have not yet produced a written script and written literature.
2. Tribal society is at a lower evolutionary stage. that is they have evolved from “bands” into “tribes” but they have yet to evolve into “chiefdom” and then finally into the “state.”
3. Tribal societies have primitive mode of production. which means they are “pre-industrial”. that they do not produce or consume anything sophisticated. they only produce basic foods and basic tools to survive. there are no factories or any sophisticated production.
4. Tribal societies are “lawless” and “unstable.”
If points discussed above are the definition of tribal society then Pashtuns are not and have not been a tribal society for centuries.
Rebuttal to the colonial definition of “tribe/tribal.”
In the last post, I enumerated four features of colonial definition of tribe which I gleaned from various sources. So it does not mean that colonial scholars believed that in order to be a tribe all the definitions need to be fulfilled. But they must have some of the features outlined in the previous post.
My rebuttal to colonial definition:
1. So they say that tribes are “pre-literate”. well, we all know well that we have a Pashto language script for centuries and we have Pashtun authors that go way back in history. So Pashtuns cannot be defined as “pre-literate.”
2. They said that tribal society is at the lower stage and has to go through several stages in order to finally emerge as a state. Well, this is a stupid argument, to be frank. In philosophy, it is called “teleology” that is time moves toward a goal, in this case towards the state.
3. They said tribal societies are “pre-industrial” and have “primitive” mode of production. If that had been true then Pashtuns would have been eating Onion with bread and making only hunting tools. as pointed out by Akber S. Ahmed, go see the arms factories making sophisticated weapon in Darra Adam Kheil. no primitive mode of production can do that.
4. Colonial writers said tribal societies are “lawless”. My head explodes with anger when people say that. How come tribal societies are lawless. Pashtunwali and institutions like Jirga function as laws in tribal areas. if they had been lawless then as Hobbs said life would have been “nasty, brutish, and short” it was never like that. It is now thanks to our state policies, but this is not because of the internal mechanism of Pashtun tribal society.
I want to explain what we mean when we say Pashtuns are a tribe. Following are the defining features of Pashtun tribe.
1. tribes are kinship based group. which means that all Pashtuns consider themselves descendant of a common ancestor. For instance tracing back Pashtuns to Qais/Abdur Rashid or even way back to King Saul (yes, the same King Saul mentioned in the Bible and the Quran). Syeds are therefore not considered Pashtuns because they consider themselves direct descendants of the prophet
You can oppose “tribe” to “Ummah” which is not kinship based but is religious based or nation which is mostly defined territorially.
2. The kinship is patrilineal which means your father must be Pashtun. not necessary for all tribes but for Pashtuns it is.
3. Pashtuns are tribal because it is acephalous society which means that there is no chief or ruler. the society is organized and mediated by cultural institutions such as Jirga and so on. (Malik and Khan were the product of colonial interference. khans worked for the colonial government and were despised by ordinary tribal Pashtuns. Traditionally there was no khan, at least in the sense that we now have. Pashtuns who live under the state control such as in the so-called “settled areas” are strictly speaking not tribal because they live under the centralized authority of the state.
4. Tribal society has patron-client relationship. which means that Pashtuns do not accept a dominated position especially in their mode of production? They value independence and autonomy and control at least of their own household. that is why Pashtuns did not use to do business (especially, cloth merchants, or dukandari, which was left to Hindus and then to non-Pashtuns) because that would automatically put you in a client position, that is you persuade, cajole others to buy your stuff . Another example is Mulla, he is not considered Pashtun because he is a client rather than a patron that is he provides services rather than receiving services. He prays at funerals, leads prayers and so on. All of which are services, similarly, carpenter, weaver, cook, musician, all are considered non-Pashtuns because they serve others that provide services.

written by shpoon Sial


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