The Pashtun (also spelled Pushtun, Pakhtun, Pashtoon, Pathan) are a Pashto-speaking people residing primarily in the region that lies between the Hindu Kush in northeastern Afghanistan and the northern stretch of the Indus River in Pakistan. They constitute the majority of the population of Afghanistan and bore the exclusive name of Afghan before that name came to denote any native of the present land area of Afghanistan.
If you ask a Pashtun who is considered a Pashtun, they will tell you one of two things:
- Pashtuns are defined within the parameters of having mainly eastern Iranian ethnic origins, sharing a common language, culture and history, living in relatively close geographic proximity to each other. This includes Pashtuns as any individual or tribe sharing ethno-linguistic traits.
- The religious and cultural definition however, requires Pashtuns to be Muslim and adhere to Pashtunwali codes. This is the most prevalent view among orthodox and conservative tribesmen, who refuse to recognize any non-Muslim as a Pashtun. Pashtun intellectuals and academics, however, tend to be more flexible and sometimes define who is Pashtun based on other criteria. Still, the saying “To be Pashtun is to be Muslim” is prevalent amongst the people group.
Pashtu is the language of the Pashtun and one of the two official languages of Afghanistan. It is also the language of twelve million Pashtun in Pakistan. Pashtu belongs to the North-Eastern group of languages within the Iranian branch of Indo-European. Pashtu is written in the Perso-Arabic script.
Tribes that speak disparate yet mutually intelligible dialects of Pashto acknowledge each other as ethnic Pashtuns and even subscribe to certain dialects as “proper”, such as the Pukhto spoken by the Yousafzais in Peshawar and the Pashto spoken by the Durranis in Kandahar.
There were estimated to be about 11 million Pashtun in Afghanistan and 25 million in Pakistan in the early 21st century. And statistics taken in 2009 estimate that there are probably around 49 million Pashtuns across the globe. More recent statistics however, would put this number at around 52 million Pashtuns.