Meaning and Practice
Islam represents a potentially unifying symbolic system which
offsets the divisiveness that frequently rises from the existence
of a deep pride in tribal loyalties and an abounding sense of
personal and family honor found in multitribal and multiethnic
societies such as Afghanistan.
Islam is a central, pervasive influence throughout Afghan society;
religious observances punctuate the rythmn of each day and season.
In addition to a central Friday mosque for weekly communal prayers
which are not obligatory but generally attended, smaller community-maintained
mosques stand at the center of villages, as well as town and city
neighborhoods. Mosques serve not only as places of worship, but
for a multitude of functions, including shelter for guests, places
to meet and gossip, the focus of social religious festivities
and schools. Almost every Afghan has at one time during his youth
studied at a mosque school; for many this is the only formal education
Because Islam is a total way of life and functions as a comprehensive
code of social behavior regulating all human relationships, individual
and family status depends on the proper observance of the society's
value system based on concepts defined in Islam. These are characterized
by honesty, frugality, generosity, virtuousness, piousness, fairness,
truthfulness, tolerance and respect for others. To uphold family
honor, elders also control the behavior of their children according
to these same Islamic prescriptions. At times, even competitive
relations between tribal or ethnic groups are expressed in terms
claiming religious superiority. In short, Islam structures day-to-day
interactions of all members of the community.
The religious establishment consists of several levels. Any Muslim
can lead informal groups in prayer. Mullahs who officiate at mosques
are normally appointed by the government after consultation with
their communities and, although partially financed by the government,
mullahs are largely dependent for their livelihood on community
contributions including shelter and a portion of the harvest.
Supposedly versed in the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and Shariah, they
must ensure that their communities are knowledgeable in the fundamentals
of Islamic ritual and behavior. This qualifies them to arbitrate
disputes over religious interpretation. Often they function as
paid teachers responsible for religious education classes held
in mosques where children learn basic moral values and correct
ritual practices. Their role has additional social aspects for
they officiate on the occasion of life crisis rituals associated
with births, marriages and deaths.
But rural mullahs are not part of an institutionalized hierarchy
of clergy. Most are part-time mullahs working also as farmers
or craftsmen. Some are barely literate, or only slightly more
educated than the people they serve. Often, but by no means always,
they are men of minimal wealth and, because they depend for their
livelihood on the community that appoints them, they have little
authority even within their own social boundaries. They are often
treated with scant respect and are the butt of a vast body of
jokes making fun of their arrogance and ignorance. Yet their role
as religious arbiters forces them to take positions on issues
that have political ramifications and since mullahs often disagree
with one another, pitting one community against the other, they
are frequently perceived as disruptive elements within their communities.
Other religious figures include the muezzin who calls
the congregation to prayer and the khadim, the mosque
caretakers. Qari are experts at reciting the Quran; hafiz
know it by heart. Hafiz are often blind and associated with brotherhoods
at important shrines. Qazi, religious judges, are part
of the government judicial system responsible for the application
of Shariah laws.
Ulama is the term that describes the body of scholars
who have acquired ilm or religious learning. As such
they are seen as the transmitters of religious texts, doctrines
and values, as well as interpreters of the Shariah. Maulana
and Mawlawi are titles given to members of the ulama
and religious dignitaries. Sayyids among both Sunni and Shia refer
to descendants of the Prophet Mohammad who enjoy social and religious
prestige throughout the Muslim world.
Within Sufi networks there are a host of religious personalities
in addition to pirs. Among these are various types of
mendicants such as malangs who renounce the impermanence
of this world and embrace poverty in order to detach themselves
from the chains of materialism so as to better realize the divine.
Some malang attach themselves to, or swear loyalty to, a particular
brotherhood, but others wander alone, often garbed in colorful
creative clothing. Some, like faqirs, claim to have been
given a Divine mission and miraculous powers. They eschew home,
family and worldly goods, sleeping in mosques or graveyards, especially
those attached to shrines of saints. In a culture where family
and kin are basic to individual psychological and economic identity,
anyone who voluntarily relinquishes these ties is considered to
have been favored by God with a special mission. As a result,
they are respectfully tolerated and often given alms.
Veneration of saints and shrines (mazar, ziarat)
is not encouraged in Islam and is actively suppressed by some
groups. Nevertheless, Afghanistan's landscape is liberally strewn
with shrines honoring saints of all descriptions. Many of Afghanistan's
oldest villages and towns grew up around shrines of considerable
antiquity. Some are used as sanctuaries by fugitives.
Shrines vary in form from simple mounds of earth or stones marked
by pennants to lavishly ornamented complexes surrounding a central
domed tomb. These large establishments are controlled by prominent
religious and secular leaders. Shrines may mark the final resting
place of a fallen hero (shahid), a venerated religious
teacher, a renowned Sufi poet, or relics, such as a hair of the
Prophet Mohammad or a piece of his cloak (khirqah). A
great many commemorate legends about the miraculous exploits of
Ali, the first Imam of Shia Islam, believed to be buried at the
nation's most elaborate shrine located in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif,
the Exalted Shrine. Hazrat Ali is revered throughout Afghanistan
for his role as an intermediary in the face of tyranny.
Festive annual fairs celebrated at shrines attract thousands
of pilgrims and bring together all sections of communities. Pilgrims
also visit shrines to seek the intercession of the saint for special
favors, be it a cure for illness or the birth of a son. Women
are particularly devoted to activities associated with shrines.
These visits may be short or last several days and many pilgrims
carry away specially blessed curative and protective amulets (tawiz)
to ward off the evil eye, assure loving relationships between
husbands and wives and many other forms of solace.
Data as of 1997