Posted by: Christian | June 1, 2008

A Pashtun-related Must Read

It is not often that I feel the need to suggest to people an academic article as immediate required reading. But this one is:

Caron, James M. ‘Afghanistan Historiography and Pashtun Islam: Modernization Theory’s Afterimage’, History Compass, 5/2 (2007): 314-329. Download PDF

James Caron, a recent PhD from the University of Pennsylvania (the only other American school besides Indiana University to have taught Pashto recently), has written an excellent article on the massive gaps in understanding Afghan Pashtuns. The article focuses on pre-1978 and gives special attention to the effects of Modernization theory on the “understanding” of Pashtuns and points out the lack of understanding of rural Afghan Pashtun’s experience of Islam.

Caron clearly did not just set out recently to study this area. He has obviously been working on it for a while. The main point I took, for my purposes, is that you ignore the non-elites and rural folks at your peril:

As dynamic elites in governments, nationalist movements, or global organizations introduce changes designed to modernize their societies, the argument goes, those societies and the people who compose them undergo a variety of regular, predictable, and inter-related changes. They either accept these changes or react against them, but non-elites are rarely portrayed as initiators of any meaningful social or intellectual change.

And the shortcoming are not just belonging to foreign scholars:

In historiography surrounding modern Afghan Pashtuns, it seems singularly difficult for scholars to write accounts addressing Islam, even before the anti-communist jihad period, that do not focus on insurgency. Those outlining a more broad-based account of Islam in society, whether it be institutional, genealogical/intellectual, phenomenological, or structuralist, are so few and far between as to be conspicuous in their uniqueness. This is, incidentally, often the case even in Afghan-language historiography available in print (leaving aside the vast quantity of normative religious texts).

Caron’s article also offers the valuable service of reviewing the notable works written post-1978 on Pashtuns.

Caron’s conclusion:

…the dominant trend in historical scholarship about Pashtuns’ experience of Islam in pre-1978 Afghanistan has been one closely linked to modernization theory, which bears strong historical as well as conceptual ties to the practical investments of imperial and other state structures in their attempts at ruling Pashtun populations. I have also argued that this view obscures other, potentially more interesting, aspects of the social life of Islam in Pashtun populations, by rendering invisible the lives and the concerns of non-elite rural populations. Inquiry into the links of populism and Islam in the 20th century, allied against aristocracies and unaccountable governments, is still quite rudimentary in scholarship about Pashtuns…

That’s my underlining, not Caron’s.

All of Caron’s arguments, in my opinion, merit serious consideration. Download the article.


  1. A really compelling argument. I’ve read in a few other places that unpopular top-down decisions have led to rural revolts that eventually cost Kings their thrones. This seems to really drill that down and get at the heart of it. Good stuff!

  2. […] of the state is the death-knell of local authority systems (a problematic statement indeed, read this). How to bring the central state into people lives without it being a threat? That is the main […]


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