The Cultural, Social And Intellectual State Of The People Of Afghanistan In The Era Just Before The Advent Of Islam


Abdul Hai Habibi


Throughout history those countries which are political entities and have politically defined territorial limits today have been the venue of a whole gamut of events. These countries have had boundaries which have waned and waxed. The basic factors responsible for this expansion and contraction were always economic and political. Every historical event could be considered to be the effect of manifold causes with history  narrating the story of what had happened. But, in every event, anywhere in the world, two basic elements, the land and the people, to both of which history is intimately linked stand out supreme. If we think that history is the product of these two elements, then disputes among different peoples as to who is to bequeath it would have been resolved. The frontiers of every country, in the course of history, have extended and shrunk. So that now, because of historical factors and the interaction of events, they have come to have politically fixed limits. Therefore, all events that have, in the past, occurred in a certain country are the legacy of the people inhabiting it. If a nation is going to write a history of their own it should be written with the present territorial limits of their country in view. But, as many historical happenings have origins in more than one country, and have produced results affecting lands beyond the confines of their origin, therefore, the causes and results of political, cultural and social phenomena cannot be confined to the present day borders of any single country. In order to insure continuity in his research, the historian is entitled to weigh and appraise past events and their causes in the countries bordering his native land. Neighboring countries, under the influence of the same political, military and intellectual trends are apt to have a common destiny. Moreover, neighboring people influence one another culturally and socially, with the ways of thinking of one intermingling with those of the other. This has resulted in the establishment of identical cultural patterns, understanding and commonness of interests in several adjoining countries.

In the pre-Islamic era this land was the breeding place or a junction of civilizations, cultures, thoughts and arts. The famous English historian, Mr. Toynbee in his book, Between the Oxus And the Jumna, says, "Afghanistan has been the link between Southwest Asia, the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent, Central Asia and Eastern Asia. Afghanistan has been a highway for migrating peoples and for expanding civilizations and religions, and it has been a key-point in the structure of empires. The examples of Afghanistan's role as a linkage in each of these aspects are so numerous that an exhaustive catalogue would fill a volume and would quite overload a chapter.'' From this scholarly analysis of Professor Toynbee we can make out that for thousands of years Afghanistan was instrumental in spreading to the lands bordering on it, that is, Iran, India, Transoxania and Central Asia, its own legacy and that which it had absorbed for outside. Likewise Afghanistan's civilization assimilated as its basic elements many varieties of alien patterns transforming them according to her own natural and economic trends and giving them a special Khorasanian and Afghan flavor.

Excavation of the temple of Kanishka the Great (Circa 160A.D) at Surkh-Kotal recently has produced evidence that the Kushanids were influenced by the older Graeco-Buddhic culture of Afghanistan. At the same time the Kushanids had been subject to the influence of the ancient creed of Afghanistan, Zoroastrianism. Regarding the genesis of the thought, culture and arts of the people of Afghanistan the Kushanid period could be considered as a special era. From the later years of the fourth century up to the advent of Islam and the first quarter of the eighth century temples contain relics belonging to creeds such as Buddhism, sun worshiping and fire worshiping.

Buddhist remains have been found in the Khowath Temple of Wardak, relics of sun worship in the Khairkhana temple of Kabul and the Zoon temple of Zamindawar, and of fire worship in the temple of Baghlan. Statues and idols of kings have also been unearthed in these temples. These discoveries have promoted archaeologists to express the opinion that idols of kings were put in these temples for the purpose of worshiping. The uncovering of statues of Kanishka from the Surkh Kotal temple of Baghlan has led to the further confirmation of this view. In an old Dari manuscript of unknown origin, it has been stated that there was a temple near the Bamian gate of the old city of Ghazna, in which the idols of the great grandfather of the Loyak dynasty of Ghazna had been placed. When the Moslem iconoclasts arrived there for the first time, the last king of the Loyaks put this idol in a silver coffin and placed it in a grave in the yard of the temple, which was converted to a mosque by the Arabs. Although this last statement is biased, yet it fits excellently with the discovery of the Kushanid statues in the Mahadizh Temple of Baghlan. Several other relics which confirm the aforementioned claim are at hand.

The first is that Hsuan Tsang in May 360 A.D., in his description of Kapisa says, "..Suna, the temple of the Spirit of Heaven,  is located to the south of Kapisa on the Aruna mountain. People worship it and every year princes and peasants, from near and far, come to attend the festival held in its honor. They bring with them gold and silver, horses and sheep and precious articles to offer to the holy spirit. (Si-Yu-Ki, Book xii). The Suna mentioned by Hsuan Tsang is, without doubt, the same temple of Zoon described by Bilazari (Futuh.) This temple was, after 656 A.D., taken by Abdur-Rahman Bin Samra, who broke to pieces the idol of Zoon, which was made of pure gold and had eyes of ruby. According to Arab lexicographers the word zoon means idol and idol temple (Al-Muarabe-e-Jawallqi and Lisan-ul-Arab). The word was also used in Arabic literature as in this line from Jarir  "the attendant of the fire-temple searched for the temple of al-zoon" or as Humaid says, "the magnificence of the pearls of al-zoon temple"   (Marasid,  vol ii, p. 676, Al-Muarab, p. 166).

From the foregoing it is evident that the idol of Zoon was present in the Sunagir temple of Zamindawar. A marble statue of Suriya, the sun god, was found during excavations carried out at Kotal-e-Khairkhana twelve miles to the north of Kabul. Monsieur Hackin has identified this temple with the temple of Surya (relics of Khairkhana, Kabul). Vestiges of the appellation, Surya, are found in the names of the Royal Suri Dynasty of Ghor and the Suri and Suriakhel Afghan tribes. The presence of the name of the Sun god, Surya, in the name of the Royal Suris of Ghor has caused its sanctity to be transferred to this family. The names of Rozi tribe living to the north of Herat today and of Rozabad or Surabad, a historical city of Khorasan, to which the famous expositor of the Koran in Dari, Surabadi, also belonged, have all been derived from that historical etymological root. According to Christensen, Surya was the Aryan Sun god (Mazda Parasti. p. 32).

The second evidence is that in the beginning of the Islamic Era there were several Shabahars in Afghanistan. The word Shabahar is still extant in the names Sheebar, Shaibar and Khaibar, its altered forms. Bahar has been derived from Waihara of Sanskrit, this word always had the meaning of temple and idol-temple in Dari literature. Khwarazmy in Mafatih-ul-Ulum writes: (p. 74)  al-bahar, the house of idols of India and the author Al-Yakobi in Albuldan relates the burning of the idol in the Shabahar temple of Kabul at the hands of Ibrahim bin Jibriel in 790 A.D. Another author, Abdul Hai Gardezi, has also mentioned Shabahar of Kabul in the same year (Zain-ul-Akhbar, p. 78, manuscript).

Hsuan Tsang visited the Royal temple or the Shabahar in Kapisa to the north of Kabul in 630 A.D. In Si-Yu-Ki, Book 1, he says that the halo of grandeur (ancient symbol of divine grandeur of the monarchs of Balkh) shines on its stupa from dusk until dawn. Therefore, we can assert that the word Shabahar is an exponent of an era in which the idols and statues of kings were placed side by side with the statues of Buddha, the sacred fire and the idols of the god Surya in these temples.

And lastly in the stone inscription of Baghlan written around 160 A.D. the words xoade and xoadeog have been used for emperor. The coins of the Kabul Shahs carry the word Khuduwayaka as the name of a Kabulshah, who reigned in the seventh century (Encyclopaedia of  Islam, Vol. 1). The same word exists in the names of dynasties such as Gozgankhudah, Saman Khudah and Bukharakhudah as chronicled by Arab historians and geographers like Ibn Khurdaziba, Thabri, and Yakobi. In later times Firdausi has also mentioned Kabul Khudai and Zabul Khudai in his Shahnama. In ancient and Pre-Islamic Afghanistan the word khudai stood for god-king, and was used along with the names of kings; but after conversion to Islam and adoption of the doctrine of unity by the people, this word was reserved for the one and only God. In its stead the word shah, having the form of shad in the old Dari inscription of Baghlan was used for king.

From ancient Aryan tales and literary works, of which the Shahnama in Pahlavi and Dari are examples, it could be inferred that the old ethos of Balkh, the Sacred Fire, Surya-worship, Buddhism and the remnants of Greek tradition merged together with king worshiping of the Paishdadian Aryans to produce a special brand of religion and thought in the Kushanid era. It is for this reason that students of the arts and crafts of the era, like Monsieur Foucher (Iranian Civilization, p. 388) and Hermann Goetz (Legacy of Iran, p. 153), consider the Kushanid school of art as the special work and creation of this land, occupying a place  between the Indian school of art and the Achaemenian school. This is true, because the art of the Kushanid period, rising and falling before the advent of Islam, was entirely nurtured in this land. It has many peculiarities which distinguish it from the artistic trends to its east and west. The designs engraved on the idols of Gandahara, because of their artistic value, were considered to be a symbol of beauty and elegance by the Dari poets of Afghanistan. If all the references made to this subject in Dari literature are gleaned together, they might well fill a booklet, but here a few couplets will suffice. A couplet from Sanai:          

       A creator ought to be omniscient, omnipotent and self-existent.

       To produce by his power of creation the idols of Kandahar.

While eulogizing Sultan Mahmood, Farrukhi says:

     The beauty of Kandahar does not have sugar lips,

     Though sugar-lipped is the idol of Kandahar.

According to Toynbee, Gandaharian art, along with the stupa building tradition of Kanishka and his successors, penetrated the heart of the Indian subcontinent and has left a deep imprint on Dari literature in the Islamic Era.

From the viewpoint of religion, art, politics and administration Afghanistan, just before the advent of Islam, was, as in the past, peculiar to itself. In spite of the fact that during the seventh century it did not have a firmly established centrality, and was divided into numerous principalities; yet the torch of knowledge and civilization shone, though weakly, in every nook and corner.

In the second half of the seventh century Islam reached Khorasan and spread to Seistan and the heart of Afghanistan. Though no written record of the internal conditions of Afghanistan at that time exists, yet the works of later Arab writers and historians reveal many interesting and significant aspects of life then, telling us that Afghanistan possessed a strong culture and a fairly high level of thought. In order to prove this assertion we will resort to citing some historical facts.

First, Hsuan Tsang, around 630 A.D. had on many occasions paid visits to the courts of the rulers of this land and studied the way they administered their domain. He mentions the existence of an organized system of administration, revenues, paid soldiery, administrators, judges, other government officials, irregular paid troops, and duties on the use of roads and bridges. The Chinese pilgrim divided the royal duties into four categories: first, attending to the affairs of the state and conducting sacrifice; second, helping people and paying the ministers and functionaries of the government; third, encouraging and patronizing able and accomplished individuals; fourth, giving alms and doing good to the clergy (Si-Yu-Ki, Book II, p. 142). This account by Hsuan Tsang reveals at that time the old culture and the administrative set-up of the Kushanids still survived, and state affairs were conducted in an organized manner.

Second, the rulers of this land, having inherited an ancient culture and traditions, had independent views of their own regarding kingship and statesmanship. For instance, in 737 A.D. when Asad bin Abdullah ruled over Khorasan, a farmer from Herat went to the court of Balkh and presented precious gifts to the ruler. In an address, on the occasion of Autumn, the farmer said: “God bless the Amir, we non-Arabs were for a period of four hundred years without a heavenly book to guide us, or a prophet to convey to us the message of the Almighty; but we were able to become master of the world with these qualities: endurance, wisdom and nobility and anyone who had these dispositions went anywhere, God bestowed success upon him" (Tabari, vol. 5. p. 465). The farmer of Herat said that these qualities are the qualities of kings. When Asad heard his wise words he pronounced him the noblest farmer of Khorasan.

Third, Al-Beladhuri around 883 A.D. in Futuh-Al-Buldan (p. 493) had made remarks about Rathbeel the administrator of Zabulistan. Rathbeel was a contemporary of Sulaiman bin Abdul Malik (714-717 A.D.) and Yazid bin Mudrak bin Muhallab, the ruler of Siestan. Beladhuri says, "he preferred fulfillment of one's promise, dignity, severity and toughness in statesmanship to outward civility". He once asked his contemporary Arabs, "what happened to those men who were lean and dark-complexioned, whose countenance spoke of punctuality in prayers and who wore shoes made of palm leaves." They replied, "they have passed away". Rathbeel said, “though you are more handsome and graceful, they were more loyal than you are and were forceful in their attack". In this dialogue Ratbeel shows deep inclination toward the first Moslems who were virtuous, simple, possessed a high moral character and distinguished themselves in loyalty, toughness and steadfastness. He admired the first Moslem conquerors for their high moral qualities, but has criticized his contemporaries for their inability to rule effectively.

Fourth, in the Khorasan of that day, the Zoroastrians also possessed a high culture and were famous for their integrity and high level of thinking. Moslem rulers have time and again benefited from their advice. During the reign of Marwan al-Hakam-e-Amawi, after 683 A.D., Seistan had a learned ruler, Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Amir, during whose rule Rustam bin Mehr-e-Hurmuzd-e-Majoosi, a theologian from Seistan, was famous for his learning. The Arab ruler said to him, “the tillers of the land have wise sayings, tell us some of them." Rustum spoke to him on morals, statesmanship and education:

"The friendship of the unwise, if based on pretense, is meaningless, and his devotion is only hypocrisy; he seeks his good in the ill of others. Friendship between people can be long-lasting only when no calumniators are involved. The wise are always strong, but only as long as ambition has not overcome them. The king's affairs and those of his kingdom could be right only when his ministers are good and honest". (History of Seistan, p. 106)

Fifth, the people of Afghanistan in the period just before Islam were familiar with all the sciences of their time. According to Al-Beruni, in the last days of the Ratbeel dynasty of Zabulistan, Ratbeel had sent an astrologer to the court of Haroon. The same interest in the sciences is observed up to around 796 A.D. in the court of Kabulshah. Al-Beruni says: “that Ougrabuthr, the teacher and guardian of Anandpal, son of Jaipal, the last Kabulshah, had authored a book Shik-hat Parat in astronomy” (Al-Hind, p. 105). The cities of Khorasan boasted of large libraries where scholars were busy in research. Ibn-e-Thaifur-e-Khorasani in Tarikh-e-Baghdad, (vol. Vll. p. 157), states, "from the time of Yazdgard, Merv had a large library". Atabi, the famous poet of the Abassid times, who had gone to Merv to copy the books says, "words are ours but concepts are theirs". According to Brockelmann (History of Arab Literature, vol. II, p. 36) the same Atabi  visited the countries of Ajam (non-Arabs) three times and saw the libraries of Merv and Nishapur and read books there.

Once the people of Afghanistan and the neighboring lands, possessed a brilliant civilization. Throughout history they have produced civilizations, cultures and artistic styles peculiar to themselves. The historical evidences cited above are good testimony to that ancient legacy. It was the creative and artistic talent of the people of this land that enabled them to take an active part in the making and spread of Islamic civilization, and master abstract sciences, such as literature, tafsir (interpretation), hadith (sayings of the Prophet) , and fiqh (jurisprudence) and the concrete sciences, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and history. Not only this, they also spread their sciences and the mixed Arab and Khorasani culture in India. The Complete History of Afghanistan, to be written in several volumes, is dedicated to this cause. Its first volume, in over a thousand pages, has just been published in Kabul.