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Peace per Pakhtunwali

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By Rafi Ullah

A generally-held belief says that violence is socially-structured in the Pakhtun society. It, however, does not interest us here to contradict this estimation as the situation on the ground seems to prove that. The point to be dwelt on here is to see if peace can be brought in the Pakhtun homeland through its culture — Pakhtunwali. Traditionally, Pakhtunwali is defined as the unwritten code of life, tribal law or constitution of the Pakhtuns. According to Dr Sayed Wiqar Ali Shah, it is "one Pashtoon’s behaviour towards another Pashtoon." But a more judicious definition of Pakhtunwali is to be made by putting it in its historical context.

Pakhtunwali is the secular national culture of the Pakhtuns. It represents the national virtues and customs of the Pakhtuns and, hence, is but their national character. This definition can safely be termed as the historical view of Pakhtunwali. It is much stronger as opposed to the viewpoint projected by Pakhto-poets, such as, Amir Hamza Shinwari and Samandar Khan Samandar. Both of them see no difference between the nature of Islam and the disposition of Pakhtunwali.

As a matter of fact, Pakhtunwali has evolved from the phenomenal historical developments in terms of religion, politics and culture in the Pakhtun land. The fact is supported by Aryan, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist and Graeco-Roman remnants in the Pakhtun culture. Philosopher-poet Ghani Khan, son of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, observes, "Each race has contributed something to his virtues and vices, looks and beliefs, religion and love-songs." This fact clearly dichotomises the religion of Islam and Pakhtunwali and, thus, all efforts of devising compatibility between the two lose weight.

Pakhtunwali is not simple aggregation of some customs like melmastia (hospitality), nanawate (begging pardon), nang (honour and respect), paighor and badal (taunt and revenge), and so on. It is, on the contrary, the worldview the Pakhtuns hold. Its scope extends to religious, secular, political, economic, social, and philanthropic considerations. It provides a space for visual and abstract aesthetics, love affairs, peace and violence and relationship with the aliens. All postulates of Pakhtunwali, in this respect, are deeply rooted in the age-long Pakhtun history and psyche.

There is an intimate and reciprocal correlation between culture and place. "Given that culture manifestly exists, it must exist somewhere, and it exists more concretely and completely in places than in minds or signs," says Edward S. Casey, a distinguished professor of social sciences. In this context, the ongoing crisis in Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to be due to the absence of cultural spaces for native culture — above all for Pakhtunwali. This crisis of Pakhtunwali can be traced back even to the pre-British era but it gets more pronounced in the wake of Western colonialism and the current hidden hand of violence.

A century-old British occupation adversely affected the secular national culture of the Pakhtuns as it created a space for the mullahs’ role. The people, in some cases, rallied behind them for liberating their homeland. But as it was an age of crisis for the Muslim world, the Pakhtun mullahs got involved in Pan-Islamic and puritanical aspirations. And it is here that the cultural space for Pakhtunwali started shrinking as the tug of war between mullahism and colonialism ensued.

In the post-partition era, obsession with Pan-Islamism in Pakistan, the Cold War concerns, and the Afghan jihad eroded all prospects for the survival of cultures in the country. Pakistan’s Taliban adventure, 9/11, and the subsequent developments have virtually brought cultural life in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the brink of ruin. The major sufferers in the whole drama have been the Pakhtuns as "blood is the cheapest commodity" across their homeland. The situation will persist unless and until a viable cultural space has been (re-)created for Pakhtunwali in the Pakhtun land.

How can peace be attained through the culture of Pakhtunwali? For the purpose of simplification, we may take into account some of its core characteristics never noticed by any writer either local or foreign. These are mysticism, secularism, religious tolerance and pluralism. The reinvigoration of these forgotten features of the Pakhtun culture will certainly lead to social harmony and peaceful coexistence.

Mysticism has been the dominant aspect of the religious life in the Pakhtun society throughout history. Dr A. H. Dani writes, "… Gandhara (the land of the Pakhtuns) has been the home of Buddhism which led to the finest creation of Gandhara art and later the sufi Islam with many Muslim saints resting here…."

Majority of the Pakhtun leaders, such as Bit Neeka, Mirwais Neeka, Malikyar, Shekh Milli, Bayazid Ansari (Pir Rokhan), Khushal Khan Khattak, and Ahmad Shah Baba were either sufis or had mystic inclinations. Similarly, Sayyid Ali Tarmezi (Pir Baba), Akhund Darweza, Shekh Rahamkar (Kaka Sahib), Rahman Baba and Abdul Ghaffur (Akhund of Swat/Saidu Baba) were sufis to a reclusive extent. Their khanqahs and mazars have served as centres for social harmony and peace for centuries. The Pakhtuns have been visiting these centres both for spiritual and material considerations.

A couplet by sufi poet, Rahman Baba, says:

So many people pay homage
to them, after their demise,
That the shrines of saints
turn into a sort of bazaar.

A mystic religion naturally leads to religious tolerance. This is also true to the spirit of sufi Islam. Historically, religious tolerance has been an important characteristic of the Pakhtun culture. It had reached its zenith during the Gandhara Civilisation. In recent Pakhtun history, the Khudai Khidmatgar Movement greatly exhibited religious tolerance, let me say, in the true Buddhist spirit and tradition. Similarly, when large parts of the Indian Sub-Continent, on the eve of partition, were engulfed by the raging inferno of Hindu-Muslim riots, the Pakhtuns of Waziristan were saying goodbye to their non-Muslim fellow Waziristanis by hugging them affectionately.

A similar spirit of brotherhood towards non-Muslims was shown in Loralai. A Kakarhai ghaarha, a genre of folklore, by the departing Hindus of Loralai at the time of migration expresses their sentiments: "There can be no greater tragedy in my life than being separated from beloved Makhter (a place)."

The pluralistic vision of the Pakhtun culture makes space for change, development, adaptation, and mutual coexistence. Again, the Gandhara period and the Khudai Khidmatgar Movement are replete with examples in this respect. Similarly, the bazaar at the Pir Baba shrine has been a great evidence of the pluralistic spirit of the Pakhtun society till now.

Lastly, secularism makes Pakhtunwali a dynamic culture, amenable to change. Traditionally, the socio-political and economic spheres of the Pakhtun life have been regulated by hujra (centre for social and political activities) rather than dictated by jumat (mosque). In this sense, the Pakhtuns make a secular society. This fact, beyond doubt, lies at the core of the age-long social harmony in the Pakhtun homeland.

As disproportionate change in recent times has occurred in regard to separation between the realms of religious and mundane, especially in favour of the former, the Pakhtun society is destined to witness social, political and religious disturbances. In this context, it is the need of the hour to direct our collective efforts to the revivalism and renaissance of the true culture of the Pakhtuns, Pakhtunwali, in its historical context.