I often had the pleasure of sitting with Abdul Ghani Khan, the elder son of Bacha Khan. He told me once how his father first put him into a madrassah, wishing to make him into a great Islamic scholar. “Then, when the religious scholars got rid of Amir Amanullah Khan,” – the date was 1929 so Ghani must have been about 15 years old – “my father took me out of the madrassah, saying that he would never let his son study with mullahs again.”
This marked the beginning of a stand-off between the Pashtoon conservative religious establishment on the one hand, and its progressive nationalistic establishment on the other. The stand-off and animosity continues to this day. At the time of the deposition of Amir Amanullah Khan, the following poem was penned and published in Bacha Khan’s Pashtoon magazine:
ما وی ې دا سړئ زمونږ ه قوم کې خلل دی
اوس دی و کتو ې ګیری والا غل دی
I told you this guy wanted to drive a wedge in our nation
Now you have seen for yourself that the bearded one is a thief.
The sentiment lives on. A poem is currently doing the rounds on social media and has received thousands of likes. It has been circulated by the very active, youthful Pashtoon nationalistic lobby. It goes like this:
ې دا ټول ملایان را جمع کړه
سین ته یی ګذار کړه افغانستان ور نه بیغمه کړه
Assemble all those mullas
Cast them in the river, rid Afghanistan of them once and for all.
One may laugh at these sentiments – one may even share them – but one cannot deny that they do not help the cause of Pashtoon unity. Such sentiments also amount to painting all religious scholars with the same brush. I can reel off the names of several Pashtoon scholars – eminent and great scholars – who have been Pashtoon nationalists. Furthermore, to condemn all religious scholars as unpatriotic or a liability, is to ignore the immense contribution the Pashtoon religious establishment have made to the cause of Pashto and Pashtoonwali.
Let me take one example: the example of the Pashto language. I was lucky enough to attend what I think was the last public speech that Bacha Khan ever gave. The date was 1987. There was a Pashto language conference in Peshawar. In support of the theme of the conference, I well remember Bacha Khan’s words:
ې د ا Žبه ورکه شي هغه قوم خله ورکیږي
If a nation’s language is lost, that nation will itself be lost.
We all know that after the creation of Pakistan, the Pashto language was removed from the curriculum of schools, even in the predominantly Pashto-speaking provinces of the Frontier and Balochistan. In Pakistan at least, Pashto has the questionable distinction of being the only language that the more educated you become, the worse your Pashto becomes. Compare the Pashto of your average highly educated Yusufzai doctor, for example, with the Pashto of his totally uneducated mother. The mother’s Pashto will invariably be vastly superior.
The only place where Pashto language lived on was in religious madrassahs. As a Pashto speaker of English origin, I am often asked how I have learned such good Pashto. One reason, I say, is that I use Pashto on a day-to-day basis in my work. Another reason is that I studied for several years under Pashto-speaking religious scholars.
Not only did they speak the purest Pashto you can imagine. Their medium of instruction was also Pashto. Indeed, they would have no compunction in reciting the translation of the Holy Quran – revealed in the clearest Arabic (Al-Quran, 16:103) – in pure Pashto, without even reciting the original Arabic text first. The student would follow the text in Arabic, while he listened to the teacher’s translation in Pashto. Their classes were Pashto classes, besides being Quran lessons.
Now this last bastion of the Pashto language in Pakistan’s educational establishments is also under threat. The boards of religious education that control madrassahs in Pakistan have stipulated that exams can be written in Persian, Urdu or Arabic – but not in Pashto. Having been sidelined from the secular educational system, Pashto language now stands in danger of being sidelined from religious madrassahs also.
It is strange that the very vocal Pashto nationalist lobby in Pakistan have not inveighed against this further sidelining of the Pashto language. To do so would at least offer an opportunity to the nationalists to make common cause with the madrassah community. But after nearly a century of mutual hostility, perhaps it is considered bad form to be seen to be talking in unison with the religious establishment.
However, to do so – and there are several other issues on which Pashtoon nationalists could if they wanted make common cause with mullahs – would constitute a meaningful step towards Pashtoon unity. After all, it was Bacha Khan who said:
یا به یو کیږئ او یا به ورکیږئ
Either you will unite, or you will be consigned to oblivion
And there can be no unity without a reconciliation between Pashtoon patriots on the one hand, and men of piety on the other.[:]