Afghanistan: the Tajik Ismailis of Takhar--an end to isolation.
One group of Muslim leaders and theologians, who represented the majority of the conservative and traditional segment of society, adopted a rejectionist approach, vehemently opposing concepts such as secularism, modernization and other reforms associated with imperialism, viewing such concepts as integral to a Western conspiracy designed to undermine Muslims and relegate them to a subordinate position. Their resistance to Western-oriented and sponsored modernization was based on the belief that only unwavering allegiance to the fundamentals of Islam would lead Muslims to a better future. In their view, Islamic identity should be the core guiding principle for an individual's behaviour and relations with other Muslims and the outside world. Their struggle eventually culminated in the formation of militant organizations with the mission to combat the cultural influence of the West, to end their physical and political subordination, and to disseminate Islamic values.
Other groups emerged which, while rejecting imperial domination, supported selected elements of modernization, including secularism, constitutionalism and human rights. They embarked upon a movement of social and political reform based on modern technological and scientific achievements. The leaders of these groups argued that economic prosperity and technological progress within the framework of Islamic values and traditions would enable Muslims to avoid the influence of alien ideologies, politics and cultures. At the same time, Muslims needed to abolish the asymmetrical relations the capitalist world economy had imposed on them. Liberal and moderate religious leaders and intellectuals were at the forefront of such movements, and their ideas contributed to a new socio-political awareness that compelled many Muslims to work towards reforming the rigid social, cultural and political structures in their respective countries.
The struggle for renewal and modernization of the Muslim world has accelerated considerably in recent times, especially in the most impoverished, neglected and peripheral regions, including war-torn countries such as Afghanistan. The two decades of civil war that wreaked havoc on Afghanistan's economy and polity caused many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to launch large-scale aid programmes aimed at rebuilding the country's infrastructures and civic institutions. An NGO that is at the forefront of integrated community development in Afghanistan is the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) that has been engaged in the reconstruction of the country since 2002. The principal objective of this article is to study the plight of the minority Tajik Ismaili community in the northern province of Takhar prior to and during the civil war in Afghanistan, and explore the role of the AKDN in the process of rebuilding economic infrastructures in Takhar, as well as its efforts to modernize the community and facilitate its integration into the twenty-first century.
The Tajik Community
The Tajiks constitute one of the major ethnic groups in Afghanistan. They are believed to be akin to Indo-European peoples. (1) having descended from the Greco-Bactrian dynasties that flourished in and around the oases of the Amu Darya (Oxus River) around 327-128 BC. The majority of Tajiks practise the Sunni faith of Islam, but a significant number follows the Shi'a and Ismaili faith. The Tajiks speak various dialects of the Persian language, but in the remote north-eastern parts of the country such as Pamir, Darwaz, Shughnan and other parts of Badakhshan province, they speak their own languages which are called by their respective regional names. For example. Wakhi refers to the language of the Wakhi tribes in the Pamir Knot, and Shughni to the people resident in Shughnan. (2)
Takhar is an under-developed province in the northern part of the country with an estimated area of 6,770 square miles. Its temperate climate and fertile land makes the province one of the breadbaskets of the country. However, the area suffered major devastation in 1998 when a powerful earthquake destroyed houses in Rustaq and claimed the lives of thousands of people.
Takhar is surrounded by the provinces of Badakhshan in the east, Qunduz in the west, the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Tajikistan to the north, and Parwan and Baghlan in the south. The province's ancient history has been one of successive conquests by invading tribes and occupation armies such as those of Alexander of Macedonia, (3) the Indian Maurya dynasties and the Arab Muslim armies around AD 652-664.
The province today is divided into sixteen administrative districts, each administered by an officer called hakim, whereas the provincial capital of Taliqan is headed by a wali or governor. Both hakim and wali are appointed by the central government in Kabul. The majority population in Takhar belongs to the Sunni faith of Islam, while a small number of Tajik Ismailis reside in a few villages in the northern part of the province.
Table 1: Population figures, Takhar, March 2003 (in thousands). (4) Total Rural Urban population population population District Female Male Female Male Female Male Baharak 4 4 4 4 -- -- Bangi 15 16 15 16 -- -- Chaal 11 11 11 11 -- -- Chah-aab 31 33 23 24 8 9 Darqad 9 10 9 10 -- -- Dasht-e-Qalah 8 9 8 9 -- -- Eshkamcsh 23 24 23 24 -- -- Farkhar 18 19 17 18 1 1 Hazar-Sumooch 7 7 7 7 -- -- Kalafgan 15 16 15 16 -- -- Khajabahuddin 6 6 6 6 -- -- Khaja-Ghar 33 34 30 31 3 3 Namakaab 4 4 4 4 -- -- Rustaq 68 71 63 66 5 5 Taliqan 84 88 69 73 15 15 Warsaj 14 15 14 15 -- -- Yangi-Qalah 16 17 13 14 3 3 Total 361 385 331 348 35 36
The Ismaili Muslims
The Ismailis belong to the Shi'a branch of Islam. As is well-known, the Muslims became divided into Sunni and Shi'a after the death of Prophet Muhammad on the question of leadership of the Muslim community. In 765. the Shi'a themselves became divided between Ithna'ashari (or Twelvers) and the Ismailis regarding succession to the Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. The Ismailis rose to political prominence in 969 when, under the leadership of their Imams, they established the Fatimid caliphate in North Africa and later founded the city of Cairo as their capital. Towards the end of the eleventh century, when the Fatimid state began to decline, the Persian Ismailis established their power base at Alamut in northern Iran under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah. Their rule collapsed during the Mongol invasion of Iran, forcing many Ismailis to flee to Central Asia and Afghanistan where a significant number of them settled and maintained taqiyya (dissimulation of their faith), in a hostile environment. (5) The Persian Ismailis re-emerged from obscurity when Imam Hasan Ali Shah, the Aga Khan I, left Iran in 1840 because of the hostility he encountered at the court of the Persian king and settled in British-occupied India. His successors remained in India until the mid-twentieth century when the Aga Khan III, Sultan Mohammad Shah, transferred his residence to Europe. The present, 49th Imam of the Ismaili community is His Highness Prince Karim al-Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, with his headquarters in France. (6) The Ismaili community today is found in diverse countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as Europe and North America. Under the leadership of the Aga Khan IV, the global Ismaili community has experienced a major process of modernization and transformed itself into a prosperous and confident part of the Muslim world.
The Tajik Ismailis of Takhar
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Tajik Ismailis lived in a particular area of Afghanistan called Ambar Koh in Takhar province, but escalating hostility between them and resident Sunnis forced them to leave Ambar Koh and settle in several villages in the Warsaj district. As a minority among the numerous Sunni Tajik residents of Takhar, the Ismailis were subjected to the dominant Sunni faith of Islam and its judicial system. Their increased integration into the Sunni legal system resulted in members of the community developing a conservative attitude toward social and cultural changes in the modern world. For example, the Sunni conservative milieu caused Ismaili women to remain secluded from the public; they were not permitted to interact with men including their co-religionists from other areas. For the same reason, contrary to Ismaili practice in other parts of the world, the women in Takhar could not attend schools and none received a modern education. (7)
The majority of people in Takhar are sedentary farmers with a small number of artisans, craftsmen and small storeowners that provide essential goods for the community. Agricultural land (water and rain-fed land) is scarce and the largest landholding is between 4-5 jeribs (equal to one hectare). Major agricultural products include com and berries, and the community purchases other necessary items from markets in Takhar.
The population of Takhar Ismailis is estimated to be around 4,760 in several villages. Table 2 lists Ismaili settled villages in Takhar and the names of former khalifas or traditional religious leaders who, until recently, supervised the religious, social, cultural and political affairs of their communities.
Table 2: Ismaili settled villages and khalifas in charge of the community, Takhar (8) Village Estimated Population (8 Former khalifas no. of persons/ households family) Dahanab 150 1,200 Ghulam Rabbani Dizil 25 200 Mullah Qadam Shah Ebroy 25 200 Ghulam Rabbani Hanoy 55 440 Mullah Abdul Rahim Khakhan 120 960 Imam Nazar Piyaw 130 1,040 Mullah Qadam Shah Sail Posida 50 400 ... Siyakoo 20 160 Mullah Abdul Rahim Takhar Provincial Center 20 160 Mullah Nazri Baig Total 595 4,760
The Tajik Ismailis constitute an overwhelming majority in these villages, except in Hanoy and Takhar provincial centre where there is a significant number of Sunni residents. As a result of Takhar's geographical remoteness, the Ismailis of Takhar remained isolated from their co-religionists in other parts of Afghanistan, such as the larger Hazara Ismaili communities in the central and northern provinces of Kabul, Bamiyan and Baghlan, and the Tajik Ismailis of Badakhshan. Although the Tajik Ismailis had been subject to the Sunni legal jurisprudence for centuries and deprived of representation in Afghanistan's polity, they persevered and maintained their collective identity, even as events forced them to assimilate into the dominant Sunni socio-cultural milieu for their very survival. They remained poor because the state did not embark upon economic development projects in their towns and villages to improve their standards of living.
The continuing impoverishment of the Ismailis in Takhar was also partly due to the ignorance and negligence of their traditional leadership. For hundreds of years, the Ismailis were ruled by local pirs and khalifas, primarily because there was no direct link between the Imam of the time and his followers. The system of religious leadership was hereditary which ensured that pirs were succeeded only by their sons. The pirs appointed trusted men as their khalifas or local representatives, whose chief function was to visit villages to collect religious taxes and organize 'book-reading' sessions of scriptures for members of the community who could not read and write. Since there were no jamatkhanas (houses of gathering) nor madrassas (religious schools), the community's religious life was entirely dependent on the pirs and khalifas, most of whom lacked modern education and rigorous training in religious studies. While these leaders enabled people to practise their faith to a certain extent, what was also needed, but not done, was for the leadership to take steps to improve the physical and material well-being of their lives. The prime objective of these traditional leaders was to ensure that the community remained loyal to them. They condemned dissident movement within the community and marginalized individuals who criticized the leaders for their reluctance to address social and economic problems of the community. As we shall sec, this situation changed radically in the early years of the twenty-first century when the Aga Khan established direct contact with the Ismailis of Afghanistan.
The Period of Soviet Occupation and Civil War
The Takhar province and in particular its Ismaili-settled region remained very much underdeveloped and neglected during the post-World War II period, in spite of the modernizing policies of Mohammad Zahir (1933-1973). Although elementary education was compulsory throughout the country, most Ismailis of Takhar could not afford to send their children to institutions of higher education after completing their elementary schooling. Most areas lacked schools, medical facilities, roads and other public services to help the people overcome their poverty. Like other minority communities, the Ismailis had no option but to remain loyal to Sunni rulers within and outside the government.
Even after the monarchy was overthrown in July 1973 in a military coup led by Mohammad Daoud, former Prime Minister and cousin of Zahir, and Afghanistan became a republic, the lot of Ismailis did not improve. Daoud was pre-occupied with consolidating his power and made no attempts to initiate development projects that might have boosted the local economy in Takhar and other areas where Ismailis resided. Daoud was killed in 1978 when the pro-Soviet Hizb-e-Demokratik-e-Khalq-e-Afghanistan, the Peoples' Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power and proclaimed Afghanistan a Democratic Republic. (9)
The new regime headed by Noor Mohammad Taraki initiated a number of social, cultural and economic reforms by issuing decrees from above, without involving the people in the process of change. The most significant decrees included nos. 6, 7 and 8 which were concerned with land reform and women's rights. Decree 6 reduced the burden of loans and mortgages, and exempted fanners owning four hectares of land from payment of debts and interests to their feudal landowners. Decree 8 limited the size of landholding to six hectares of better land and the rest was confiscated by the state without any compensation. Decree 7 stipulated rules and regulations concerning engagement and marriage ceremonies, and limited many expenses related to marriage, including the amount of mahr, the cash or commodity settlement the groom pays the bride on the day of marriage, to Afs. 300 (about US$ 4 in 2005). Mahr is meant to serve as insurance for the wife in case the husband divorces her later, so she should not become dependent on her family or other relatives. Decrees 6 and 8 did not bring any significant improvement in the life of the Ismailis because they were too poor to benefit from the reforms, although Decree 7 did bring a limited but temporary change to their matrimonial ceremonies. At the beginning local government officials punished families who violated the established rules and regulations concerning these social reforms. The ruling party's coercive methods of governance and its interference in family affairs gradually generated resentment among the people, both Sunni and Shi'a alike, causing them to oppose the regime's policies, viewing them as un-Islamic. (10)
The Soviet-backed government experienced internal division as the two factions of the ruling PDPA, Khalq (Masses) and Parcham (Banner) disagreed on the course of social, economic and political development. The Khalq faction headed by Noor Mohammad Taraki succeeded in removing prominent figures of the Parcham from the party and state, but soon differences emerged between Taraki and his Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin that culminated in the murder of Taraki. Amin assumed leadership of the party and state, but the Soviet authorities mistrusted him because of his efforts to normalize ties with the West and decided to remove him from power. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on 27 December 1979 and installed Babrak Karmal, leader of the Parcham faction of the PDPA, as the new head of state.
Unlike the previous heads of state, Karmal promised that his party and government would do their best to defend the rights of minority communities, and he made some efforts to enlist the support of the Ismailis. He remained in charge of the party and state until 1986 when he was forced to resign because of his failure to expand the party's base of support and promote Soviet interests. Karmal was exiled to the Soviet Union and replaced by Najibullah, head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency known by its acronym of KHAD, and handpicked for this position by the Soviet leadership.
Soon after the Soviet invasion, several groups of Islamist insurgents, collectively known as the Mujahidin, launched a jihad to overthrow the Soviet-backed government and establish an Islamic order. Their armed struggle gradually coalesced and intensified over the years until they began to seize peripheral villages and districts from government control. In areas where the militias established their authority, they brutalized the population and forced them to follow their restrictive religious practices. The Ismailis of Takhar were particularly vulnerable to these militias, who coerced them to follow their rules and pay taxes to finance the war against the government. Caught between the two rival political groups, the Islamist militias and the pro-Soviet government, the Ismailis adopted a dual policy of cooperation with both parties to safeguard their collective interests. This situation persisted until the Soviet imperial power began to falter and it was forced to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan; the last contingent of the Soviet armed forces left the country in February 1989.
The Soviet-installed government of Najibullah eventually collapsed on 28 April 1992 and an 'Islamic' order was established under the leadership of Sebghatullah Mojaddadi, head of Jabha-e-Milli-e-Nijat (National Salvation Front). Mojaddadi's tenure ended in June of that year and he was succeeded by Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of Jamiat-e-lslami (Islamic Society). Rabbani remained in control of Kabul until 1996 when the Taliban militia drove him out of Kabul and executed Najibullah. Rabbani transferred his headquarters to Faizabad, Badakhshan, and continued to act as head of state until late 2001 when the United States formed a coalition force and launched a military offensive that led to the overthrow of the Taliban and instalment of a transitional government headed by Hamid Karzai, a Pushtun from Qandahar. (11)
During the civil war between different Mujahidin groups (1992-2001) the Ismailis of Takhar remained under the control of militia forces loyal to Rabbani and his close aide and Minister of Defence Ahmad Shah Masoud of Panjshir. They were required to contribute money and men to support Rabbani and Masoud against their adversaries who were determined to overthrow Rabbani and establish their dominance. Further, to forestall the possibility of defection by the Ismailis to other parties, Rabbani and Masoud appointed an Ismaili commander, Mohammad Ali Noor Baig, to be in charge of the community in Takhar. Born in Piyaw village, Warsaj district, the commander is affiliated with Rabbani's Jamiat-e-lslami and had forged close working relationship with Ahmad Shah Masoud before the latter's assassination in 2001. (12)
Like other regions of Afghanistan, the unrelenting years of civil war in the 1990s destroyed much of Takhar's existing economic infrastructure, reducing much of the population to near-total destitution. Conflict and violence disrupted trade, commerce, social, educational and cultural development. The Ismailis in particular endured years of suffering and isolation during the wars. Lack of employment opportunities compelled poor and low-income Ismailis to migrate to urban centres in Takhar and Kabul to seek any type of employment in order to support their families. Economic hardship also caused many Ismailis from Takhar and other parts of Afghanistan to seek refuge in Pakistan and Iran, where they spent several years of exile in difficult conditions.
Beginnings of Modernization in Takhar
The fortunes of Ismailis in Afghanistan turned for the better at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the Aga Khan established direct contact with them and instructed his institutions to engage in the immediate provision of humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to the people of Afghanistan. The primary vehicle for mobilizing the assistance was the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of international development agencies created by the Aga Khan to improve the quality of life in the developing world. The AKDN oversees a number of institutions such as the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), the Aga Khan Health Service (AKHS), the Aga Khan Educational Service (AKES), the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), and others. The AKDN provides services to the people irrespective of their ethnicity, religion and gender, with the object of enabling poor and marginalized segments of societies in developing countries to attain a level of self-sufficiency. (13)
After the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the AKDN worked closely with government authorities in Afghanistan as a major donor agency in the process of rebuilding the country's economic, social, cultural and educational sectors. The goal was to reverse decades of underdevelopment and enable people of various communities who had suffered during two decades of war and were not receiving adequate development aid from international organizations. To this end, the AKDN has provided funds for a number of development projects both at national and local levels. The AKDN not only provides funds but also implements the projects, wherever possible, in close partnership with other international donor agencies. These institutions are managed by both expatriates and local people, recruited from Ismailis and other faiths.
In the province of Takhar in particular, the AKDN has sponsored a number of integrated development projects, such as the building of schools, bridges and water supply systems, to help people rebuild their lives. Table 3 lists completed and on-going projects in various villages of Takhar whose beneficiaries are both Ismailis and Sunni residents of the province.
Table 3: AKDN's Community Development Projects in Takhar (14) Region/Village Project Sponsoring Year of agency completion Bagh-e-Dash, Warsaj Piped water scheme AKDN 2003 Chashma-e-Garmak, Truck-motor bridge AKDN 2004 Farkhar Dasht-e-Qalah 50 wells AKDN 2003 Kalafgan Kalafgan School GTZ 2004-ongoing Khafdara, Farkhar Piped water scheme AKDN 2003 Piyaw, Warsaj School GTZ 2004-ongoing Tahatash, Rustaq Foot-bridge GTZ 2004 Taliqan Abdul Mojood Shahid AKDN 2003 School Chashma-e-Shir School GTZ 2003 Gulbars Taliqan GTZ 2004-ongoing School Wari Chardeh, Piped water scheme AKDN 2003 Warsaj Warsaj Valley 4 bridges, 6-10 metre GTZ 2005 span Zardaludara Olya, Piped water scheme AKDN 2003 Kalafgan Zardaludara Sufla, Piped water scheme GTZ 2004 Kalafgan
All the institutions of AKDN have engaged in the process of rebuilding the social and economic infrastructure of Afghanistan, including the province of Takhar. One of these institutions is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development which has established the First-Micro-Finance Bank. The Bank was registered as an investment support agency on I December 2003 and granted a formal banking licence by the central bank, Da Afghanistan Bank, on 18 March 2004. It commenced operations in May and gradually opened branch offices in various parts of Kabul. The bank provides short and long-term loans to farmers, businessmen and other segments of society. The bank established a branch in Takhar in 2005, hiring local Ismailis and Sunnis as loan officers. (15) Table 4 lists the amounts of loans the First Micro-Finance Bank has provided to the people in Takhar in 2005.
Table 4: Loans provided by the First Micro-Finance Bank in Takhar as of March 2005. (16) Total agriculture Total business loans & life loans disbursed District No. US $ No. US $ Bangi 32 15,800.00 4 2,000.00 Farkhar 7 3,500.00 23 11,500.00 Taliqan -- -- 52 26,000.00 Taliqan 1 -- -- 30 15,000.00 Taliqan 2 -- -- 17 8,500.00 Warsaj 21 10,500.00 7 3,500.00
By participating actively in the country's reconstruction and development efforts, the Aga Khan and his institutions have begun the gradual modernization of local Ismaili communities, such as in Takhar and elsewhere in the country. An important component of the modernization process has been the creation of a new and modern system of Ismaili community governance and the appointment of a new generation of institutional leaders for the Afghan Ismailis, replacing the traditional leadership of pirs and khalifas. The Ismaili National Council was founded with its headquarters in Kabul, with regional committees in provinces with significant Ismaili residents. A number of jamatkhanas were also built in most Ismaili towns and villages, officiated by individuals directly appointed by the Aga Khan. In Takhar the foundation of a jamatkhana was laid in 2003. Known as jamatkhana-e-qalah-chah, it is situated in Warsaj where an estimated 700 persons or about 130 families reside. (17) The establishment of new institutional structures and the appointment of a new generation of community leaders ended the traditional system of leadership that had dominated the Ismaili community in Afghanistan for hundreds of years, a system that had paralyzed critical thinking and innovative approaches in dealing with the social and economic development of the community.
With these new initiatives, both institutional and developmental, the Ismailis are now well situated to transform their socio-economic conditions and become empowered partners in the rebuilding of Afghanistan as a whole.
(1) Barbara F. Grimes (ed.), Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992); Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (2002).
(2) For details see, Hafizullah Emadi. 'The End of Taqiyya: Reaffirming the Religious Identity of Isma' ilis in Shughnan, Badakhshan--Political Implications for Afghanistan.' Middle Eastern Studies, 34:3 (July 1998): 103-120.
(3) Alexander built palaces and a new city, Aikhanum, at the confluence of the Kokchah and Oxus rivers near Khaja Ghar. Aikhanum means Lady of the Moon in the Uzbek language.
(4) Government of Afghanistan, Central Statistics Office, 2003.
(5) For more detailed information see. Hafizullah Emadi. 'Praxis of Taqiyya: Perseverance of Pashaye Isma'ili Enclave, Nangarhar, Afghanistan: Central Asian Survey, 19:2 (2000): 253-264.
(6) For a concise survey of the Ismailis, see Farhad Daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community (1998).
(7) An exception was found in one Ismaili woman, a local teacher from Iran, who is married to an Ismaili man from Takhar.
(8) Discussions with Mohammad Ali, former Ismaili commander from Piyaw village. Warsaj, Kabul 13 November 2003.
(9) Hafizullah Emadi. State, Revolution and Superpowers in Afghanistan (1990).
(10) Hafizullah Emadi. Repression, Resistance and Women in Afghanistan (2002).
(11) For details see, Hafizullah Emadi. 'Nation Building in Afghanistan.' Contemporary Review, 283:1652 (September 2003): 148-155.
(12) Discussions with Mohammad Ali of Takhar. Kabul, 13 November 2003.
(13) For further information on the Aga Khan Development Network and its programmatic activities, see its website at www.akdn.org.
(14) Discussions with Manzoor Hussain, National Engineering Program Manager, Aga Khan Foundation, Kabul, 27 April 2005. GTZ refers to the German Technical Corporation.
(15) Discussions with Faqir Mohammad Wais, Staff member, the First Micro-Finance Bank. Kabul, 27 April 2005.
(16) Annual Report, The First-Micro-Finance Bank, Kabul, March 2005.
(17) Two respected Ismailis, Qurban Ali Imam Nazar and Rohullah Ghulam Rabbani, whose fathers had previously served as resident khalifas, were appointed in charge of the newly-built jamatkhana, and to supervise religious rites and ceremonies of the Ismaili faith.
Hafizullah Emadi is a US-based development consultant and scholar writing on political and institutional development in the Middle East and Central Asia.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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