The Language and Literature of Afghanistan


Abdul Hai Habibi


The Origins of Pashto

Pashto is a language spoken by some 40 million people. It is the national language of Afghanistan and the Frontier Province and is also spoken in a part of Baluchisrtan. This language is not only related to the Indo-Germanic languages and has close affinities to old Aryan languages such as Sanskrit and Zind (Avesta) but is also considered by scholars as a link between the Indian and Iranian languages which remains spoken in Afghanistan.

Among the ancient words the words Arya, Aryana Veja and Arya Warsha, whose roots are present and used in Pashto, are in use today.[i] From this we see that the language has closeness to the original Aryan language, which according to Gustave Le Bon, was named Arek. Just as Sanskrit and Zend were derived from this original language in India and Old Persian in Persia, Pashto also takes its roots from Arek directly and it is spoken in the valleys of southern Hindu Kush mountains as far as the Indus River and in Seistan. According to Trumpp and Darmisterer it serves as the link between the languages spoken in India and Persia. It has closeness in words and grammatical structure to both Sanskrit and Avesta.


Pashto’s Name

Pashto is a language associated with the Pashtun nation and this name has been mentioned in Rig Veda as Paktas and it has a direct link with Bakhdi or Bakhti, which in Avesta was the name of Bactria. After that Herodotos, the Greek historian, has has called it Paktees and Paktwees,[ii] and Ptolmmey has written it as Pakteen. Hence the name of Pashto has been derived from (Pakhat-Paktwees-Pakteen) and it is pronounced as Pashto and Pakhto. In Veda it is equivalent to the (خ kh) of Avesta and (ک k) of Greek. Even to this day Pashtoon is pronounced with the letter (ش sheeen) and Pakhtun with the letter (خ khe).

Sounds, Words and Vowels of Pashto

There are 30 sounds in Pashto and its consonants are the letters:

ب  ،پ، ټ، ت، ج، چ، خ، ځ، د، ډ، ر، ړ، ز، ژ، س، ښ، غ، ک، گ، ل، م، ن، ڼ

But four other letters (ا،و،هـ، ى) are vowels. Alif (ا) represents the fatha (َ ) vowel pronounced with open mouth. Hae (هـ) also represents the fatha vowel, wow (و) represents the damma (ُ ) and yae (ى) represents the kasra ( ِ ). Among the consonants (tae ټ) does not exist in Persian but is present in Sanskrit and (tse څ), which like tes (تس) is present in Russian and German. (Dze ځ) is a letter between (zal ذ and jeem ج) which is close to the (ذ=dh) of Avesta. (Daal ډ and rrae ړ) are common with Sanskrit but do not exist in Avesta and Persian. (Zae ږ) is a letter between (zhae ژ and gaaf گ) and is peculiar to Pashto. There are sounds similar to sheen (ش) in Sanskrit, Avesta and Russian and (roon ڼ) is also present in Sanskrit.


Pashto Literature

We do not have literary documents in Pashto before Islam (7th Century A.D.) but we have at our disposal some poetry and prose which provides information on the literature of this language during the early Islamic period. The Hidden Treasure (Pata Khazana) which was written in 1729 A.D. in Kandahar refers to ancient Pashto books and presents some works of prose and poetry which dates back to the second century Highera.

Old Pashto poets whose writings are available are: The oldest Pashto poet whose poem of valor is in our hands and the author of Pata Khazana has documented him based on Tarekh Suri is Amir Krorr son of Air Polad Suri who ruled in the year 756 A.D. in Mandesh of Ghor. He died in the battle of Poshang of Herat in 770 A.D. and he was a contemporary of Abu Muslim Khorasani.

Another old Pashto poet whose poetry has been included in Pata Khazana from Larghoni Pashtana (Ancient Afghans) is Abu Mohammad Hashim ibn Zaid al-Sarwani Bosti. He was born in 837 A.D. in Sarwan of Helmand and is the author of the De Saloo Wazmah (The Desert Breeze) in Pashto which elucidates the rules of Arabic prosody.

Another old Pashto poet is Sheikh Reza Ludi, nephew of Sheikh Hamid Ludi, the monarch of Multan, who lived around 1000 A.D.

Other Pashto poets who lived before 1000 A.D. are:

Betney, around 1000 A.D

Ismail Sarbani, around 1000 A.D.

Sheikh Asad Suri, poet of the Suri court of Ghor, who died in 1033 A.D.

Skarandoi, son of Ahmad, the administrator of Feroz Koh of Ghor, around 1150 A.D.

Malikyar Gharsheen, around 1150 A.D.

Qutbuddin Bakhtyar Kakey, son of Ahmad son of Musa, 1179-1235 A.D.

Sheikh Taiman bin Kakarr, around 1150 A.D.

Sheikh Mati son of Sheikh Abas son of Omer son of Khalil, died 1226 A.D.

Baba Hotak, 1262-1339 A.D.

Sultan Bahlol Ludi, died 1488 A.D.

Khalil Khan Neyazi, around 1488 A.D.

Akbar Zamindawari, around 1350 A.D.

Sheikh Essa Meshwanay, around 1465 A.D.

Sheikh Bostan Barreitsh, around 1559 A.D.

Mullah Mast Zamand, 1543 A.D.

Mirza Khan Ansari, around 1591 A.D.

Dawlatullah Lawani, around 1591 A.D.

Zarghun Khan Nourzai Farahi, died 1515 A.D.

Dost Mohammad Kakarr, 1494 A.D.

Ali Sarwar Ludi, around 1591 A.D.

After the 10th century Highera (17th Century A.D.) we come across a large number of Pasho men of literature famous among whom are Khushal Khan Khattak (1613-1688 A.D.), Abdul Rahman Baba (born 1632 A.D.), Hamid Mohmand (around 1690 A.D.) and Pir Mohammad Kakarr (around 1770 A.D.).




Authors and Important Books of Pashto

After the 17th century we see a great deal of literature and written works in Pashto. They number to about 500 books on religion, mysticism, philosophy, poetry, literature, morals, law and medicine. Here we will only mention those old books which were written before the 17th century.

1.  We do not have the copy of the oldest book which was written in Pashto. The author of Pata Khazana mentions this book, Da Salooo Wazhma (Breeze of the Desert). Its author is the versatile Abu al-Hamd  Hashem bin Zyar al-Sarwani al-Basti, who was born in Sarwan of Helmand in 837 A.D. and died in Bost in 909 A.D. He was the student of the famous Arab writer Ibn Khalad abu-Aleyna and wrote the Breeze of the Desert on Arabic poetry. The author of Pata Khazana mentions this book as referenced in Larghoni Pashtana.

2. Another important book is Tazkerat-al-Awlia (Memoirs of Saints) which was written after 1215 A.D. in Arghasan of Kandahar. Its author is Suleiman bin Barak Khan of the Mako Sabzi tribe. This book provides the life history of a number of Pashtun poets and saints. In 1940 six pages of this book were included in the first volume of Pashtun Poets.

3. Another important book is Da Khudei Mena (Love of God) and is composed of the poetry of Sheikh Mati of the Khalili tribe. This poet was born in 1226 A.D. and died in 1289 A.D. and is buried in Kalat.

4. Elaam al-Wazey fe al-Akhbar al-Ludi (Flags of Vestige of the Ludis) was a book written in Pashto whose author is Ahmad bin Sayeed Ludi. It was completed in 1278 A.D. and provides information on the Ludi kings and includes their poetry.

5. Tarekh-e Suri (History of the Suris). Written by Mohammad bin Ali al-Basti, the book provides a description of the Ghorid monarchs and includes old stories about the Ghorid kings in Pashto. It was written around 1200 A.D.

6. Larghoni Pashtana (Ancient Pashtuns). Written by Sheikh Kata bin[iii] Yusuf bin Mati of Khalil tribe around 1300 A.D. It provides a description on a number of saints, poets and scholars. The author of Pata Khazana includes a number of passages from this work in his book.

7. Tazkerat-al-Awlia Afghan (Afghan Memoirs of Saints). Authored by Sheikh Qasem bin Sheikh Qadam bin Mohammad Zahed bin Mirdad bin Sultan bin Sheikh Kata, mentioned earlier. Sheik Qasem was born in Badani of Peshawar in 1549 A.D. and died in 1607 A.D.

8. Daftar (chronicles) of Sheikh Mali. Its author is Adam bin Mali bin Yusuf bin Mandi bin Khushi bin Kand bin Kharsaboon. The book describes the conquests of Swat and the distribution of the land there and was written around 1417 A.D.

9. History of Kajokhan Ranizai. It includes the history of Swat and Bunir and was written around 1494 A.D.

10. Gharghasht Nama. Poetry of Dost Mohammad Kakarr son of Babar Khan written in 1522 A.D. The book provides information on the life of Gharghasht and other Afghan saints.

11. Bostan-e Awlia (Garden of Saints), written by Sheikh Bostan son of Mohammad Akram from the Barreitsh tribe. It was written in 1589 A.D. in Shorawak of Kandahar and its author died in 1593 A.D. in Ahmad Abad of Gujrat.

12. Khair-al-Bayan of Bayazid (Bayazid’s Sayings) (Pir-e Roshan) son of Abdullah who was born in 1525 A.D. in Batapur. The book contains teachings of this personality.

13. Makhzan al-Islam (Repository of Islam) of Akhund Darweza bin Gada bin Saadi, died 1525 A.D. and who is buried in Peshawar. His book contains religious issues and propaganda against the teachings of Pir-e Roshan.

14. Keleed Kamrani (Key of Success) of Kamran Khan bin Sado Khan, the initiator of the Sadozai tribe. The book was written in 1628 A.D. in Shahr-e Safa of Kandahar and contains descriptions of a number of poets and Afghan spirituals.

15. Tuhfa-e Saleh (Gift of Saleh) of Mullah Allahyar Alekozai. It is a memoir of Afghan leaders around 1590 A.D.

16. Salook al-Ghaza (The Way of Champions of Faith) by Mullah Mast Zamand written around 1610 A.D. It contains articles to conduct jihad.

17. Ershad-al-Fuqura (Direction of the Dervesh), poetry of Nek Bakhta daughter of Sheikh Allahdad of the Mamozai tribe. The book was written in 1561 A.D.

18. Pashto version of Bostan Saadi which was translated from Persian by Zargoona, daughter of Mullah Din Mohammad in 1497 A.D.

19. Diwan of Rabia, contains poems by this woman and was written in 1509 A.D.

20. Pata Khazana meaning The Hidden Treasure by Mohammad bin Daud Khan Hotak. It is anthology of famous Pashto poets and was completed in 1729 A.D. under the patronage of Shah Hussain Hotak. This book was published by the Pashto Academy in Kabul in 1940. It was edited and annotated by Abdul Hai Habibi. Mohammad Hotak who was born in 1673 A.D. has written two other books in the Pashto language, Khulasa al-Fasaha (Summary of the Eloquent) and Khulasa al-Thib (Summary of Medicine).

There are a large number of other books in Pashto which are not mentioned here and many of which have not been published.


The Development of Pashto

From the time of Ahmad Shah Baba (1723-1773) Pashto has been the language of the court. Its first teaching text was written during the period of Ahmad Shah by Pir Mohammad Kakerr with the title of Marefa al-Afghani (Introduction of Afghani). After that the first grammar book of Pashto verbs was written in 1805 A.D. in India under the title of  Riaz al-Muhabat (Training in Affection) through the patronage of Nawab Mohabat Khan  son of Hafez Rahmatullah Khan, the famous chief of the Barreitsh. Nawabullah Yar Khan, another son of Hafez Rahmat Khan in 1808 A.D. wrote a book of Pashto words entitled Ajayeb-al-Lughat (Strangeness of Words).

Around 1873 His Majesty Amir Sher Ali Khan translated the ranks of civil servants and military ranks into Pashto. After 1882 A.D. a lot of Pashto books  were published in Kabul. Subsequent to the establishment of Literary Society of Pashto in Kabul Pashto texts, grammar and dictionaries were written. In 1937 A.D. the Pashto Academy was formed which helped in writing and publishing textbooks and literary works in the Pashto language and it was declared as the national language of the country.[iv]



[i] The word Arya comes from the root Arah meaning pure and agriculture. Veja at the present time in Pashto is present in the form of Avejah meaning land. Warsha in Pashto is varsho which means an elevated and suitable place.

[ii] In Pashto literature this name has been mentioned as Pashtunkhwa.

[iii] bin in Arabic means son of.

[iv] Afghanistan and a glance at the situation and different conditions and the general situation of the country. Kabul 1946, p. 26-31.