Afghan and Afghanistan


 Abdul Hai Habibi

The word Afghan which is today the national name of all the peoples of Afghanistan, represents an indivisible unit under all historical, economic and social conditions in the heart of Asia. It is a name with a historical background of one thousand and seven hundred years.

Some people think that the name came into being after the establishment of the Afghan empire by Ahmad Shah Abdali in the 18th century. Afghans who are unaware with the history of the country have asked me whether these names have a long historical background or not? In this article I want to shed light on different aspects of this national and historical issue.

As far as my knowledge is concerned, the name Afghan has a long historical background. People called Afghans have lived in this land between the Helmand and the Indus rivers. The details of which are as follows:

Twenty years ago the archeological delegation belonging to the Chicago Institute for the East while tracing the Naqsh-e Rustam of Shiraz found an inscription in the Zardusht temple, written in two languages. Pahlavi Ashkani and Greek. This inscription had been engraved by Shapur the First, the second king of the Sassanid Dynasty, after the defeat and imprisonment of Valaerian, the emperor of Rome in 260 A.D. in the battle of Odessa. The inscription was engraved on the tablets of the walls of the temple. Since Shapur the First died in 273, the date of this inscription is considered to be between the years 260 and 273. (The deficient Persian translation of this inscription can be found in  Archeological Recollections, Vol. IV, after page 181. Printed in Shiraz in 1959).

The second line of the inscription mentions the city of Pashkabur as the eastern border of Kushan-Khisatar or the land of the Kushans. This word has been compared with Kaspapurus of Greek, Pl-lo-sha-po-Io as mentioned by Hsuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller and Parshapur and Parshawar of the Islamic historians. In the sixth part of this inscription, among the distinguished men of the Shapur empire, the name of Vindaparn Abgan Rismaud[1] has been mentioned. The inscription was read for the first time by
Sprengling and in 1940 he wrote an article about it in the Sematic Magazine of America. He compared the second word, Abgan, to the present name of Afghan.

Furthermore it is said that Shapur the Third, who ruled for 70 Years from 309-379, was given the title of Apakan, and we can conjugate this letter with the mentioned Abgan, which probably has been used as a praise word, symbol of chivalry, rectitude, nobility or the line of decent. Due to these facts some historians, like Sir Olaf Caroe, believe that some ancestors of the Durrani and Yusufzai tribes were the noble men of the Sassanid courts. (The Pathans, Page 80). We can say that the name Vindapharn Afghan Razm Bad is a reference to Vindapharn, the Afghan chieftain of the war who probably was an Afghan general. The name has been twice recorded in the Shah Nama of Firdausi also, who is thought to be the commander of the armies of Feridoun.


"Their commander was Qaran Kawgaan
And generals Sheroi and Awgaan.
                                               (Shah-Nama 1-110)

The mighty soldiers had gathered around the castle,
Armed with golden cudgels and golden helmets,
Their commander was Qaran Kawgaan,

Led by the valiant general, Awgaan".

                                              (Shah-Nama 1-116)

Although the stories of the Shah Nama do not have any historical merit there are some old facts recorded in it. For example in some of its verses the word Qaran has been mentioned which was the aristocratic family of the Ashkanian Period, and during the year 50  the Ashkanian governor in Mesopotamia was known by the name of Carenes. (Wais and Ramen by Minorsky page 341, Tehran).

The word Awgan of Shah Nama resembles the Abgan of the Sassanid period. But in ancient narrations he was a general in the armies of Feridoun related to Awa, the son of Samkanan. The German Carl Justi, in his book The Iranian Names says: Awa is an Avesta word meaning kind and patron. (Ferhang-i-Shah-Nama, p. 12, 1941) But in Shah Nama these two persons are heros of the era of Kaikhusrow who are mentioned in the great battle with Afrasiab as follows:

When Kaikhusrow saw the battle of Turks
ln which the sun shone no
more on earth.
He glanced at Awa and Samkanan

Two pugnacious lions of the battle field.
                                  (Shah Nama, Page 281, Vol 5).


However, we can conclude from these facts that Awa and Awagan were used in ancient Aryan narrations and Shah Nama, and if we consider the word to be originating from Avesta, as Justi has put it, then they probably mean kind and patron, for the heroes of that era were worthy of such titles. There is a possibility that subsequently the words became the names of tribes or nations. On the other hand if the words Abgan, Apagan and Awgan have been given prominence in ancient stories of the Sassanid period, just as Sprengling and Olaf Caroe believe, we can claim that the noun Afghan was used in the form of Abgan and Apgan in the third century and was also common in the courts of the rulers of that time. This is the most ancient document tracing the history of the word, and the Awgan of ancient narrations is similar to this word.

Other more ancient documents are the old texts of India where the word has been written as Avagana which resembles Abgan and Apagan of the Sassanid period. Varaha Mihira is an Indian astronomer and poet, who was born in the later years of the fifth century A.D. in Rajeen of India and about 505, became a celebrated figure. Pancha Sidhantika written by Mihira is a summary of five books on astronomy and he has also written other books on astronomy in which he gives descriptions of precious stones and the geography of India. This book is called Bahrita Sanhita and in verses 11, 16, 31 and 61 the word Afghan has been mentioned in the form of Avagana.  A. Foucher, the French scholar in his book The Ancient Way of India and Bactria toTaxila (Page 235-252 Note 17. Paris 1947) says that the word has been mentioned in the middle of the 6th century since Varaha Mihara died in 587. It is further said that be believed in Greek astronomy and stated that the world was round. Abu Raihan Beiruni has translated two books of this Indian astronomer into Arabic and his fame and knowledge has always been given prominence by scholars. On this basis the word Afghan has a historical background of 1400 years in Indian literature and Indian scholars have constantly mentioned it in their works.

 In pre-Islamic era the name Afghan has been mentioned in two documents, to the west in Sassanid Pars and in the east in India. At that time Buddhism was widespread in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Large Buddhist temples existed in the cities of Afghanistan like Balkh, Kunduz. Kapisa, Hadda, Laghman, Ghazni and Kandahar. Since the people of China were followers of Buddhism thereby a large number of Chinese pilgrims visited these cities. One of the Chinese pilgrims was Hsuen Tsang who came to Afghanistan in the first half of the seventh century. At that time Islam was appearing in Afghanistan but the Arabs bad not yet begun their conquests of Afghanistan. Hsuen Tsang left Liang Chu on the first of August in the year 629 and arrived at Samarkand on March 5. On March 20 he was in Khulm, April 20 in Balkh and April 30 in Bamian. He arrived in Kapisa via the snow capped Hindu Kush on May 10, and stayed in the capital of the Kabul Shahs until the end of summer and later journeyed as follows: On August 15 he arrived at Laghman where he stayed for three days. On August 15 he was in Nangarhar where he stayed for two months. On November 1 he was in Gandahara, later in the beginning of December he was in Peshawar. In the beginning of January 631 he travelled along the Indus river and reached Taxila on April 10.  Hsuen Tsang spent 12 years in India and returned to Taxila on December 15, 643  and once again visited the following cities of Afghanistan. On December 21 he crossed the Indus river on elephant back. On March 15, 644 he arrived at Laghman and stayed at the court of the King of Laghman for one month. On June 15 he reached Fa-La-Na or Banun. On June 20 he reached O-Po-Kien. On June 25 he arrived at Tsau-Kue-To or Ghazni. On July 1, he reached Aur-Tsa-Pa-Na or Kabul. On July 5, Kapisa, July 20 Andarab, August 1, Tukhara, and  December 8 Badakhshan. December 12 Pamir and after that he went to Yarkand and Khotan.

The itinerary of Hsuan Tsang entitled Si-Yu-Ki meaning the memoirs of the land of the East has been translated into the English and printed several times. A part of this book has valuable information on Afghanistan's geographical, religious, political and social events of that time. When Hsuen Tsang reached the province of Fa-La-Na, after staying in India, (Page 265 Vol. 1 of Si-Yu-Ki, English translation) he mentions a place called O-Po-Kien between Banun and Ghazni, north-east of Fa-La-Na and south-east of Ghazi. Before Hsuen Tsang, another Chinese traveller Fa-Hi-Yan has called this land Lo-Ye or Roh.[2]

Many historians especially General Cuningham, the author of the Ancient Geography of India (Page 89), correspond O-Po-Kien to be Awa-gan (Afghan) and further goes on to say that Hsuen Tsang did not
consider their language to be Hindi, but he says that it somewhat resembles the languages spoken in India, thus it must have been Pushto. On the other hand since O-Po-Kien has the same syllables as the ancient A-Wa-Gan, therefore we can say that he meant the present Afghans which still lie between the Indus and Ghazni and is the dwelling place of ancient tribes of the Afghans, who settled in the provinces of Paktia, Urgoon and Ghazni. Hsuen Tsang travelled from Bunun to Ghazni and crossed these mountainous provinces which were the home of O-Po-Kien or the Afghans.

       From the pre Islamic period we have the Sassanid, Indian and Chinese documents in which the name of Afghan has been mentioned. During the Islamic period the name has been consequently used in
Arabic and Dari books. The most ancient of these books is Hudood-ul- Alam which was written in 993 by an anonymous author. Minorsky, the
late historian, says that the author of the book was from the family,

or related to the court of the Al-Ferighun of Jouzjan. In this book Afghan has been mentioned several times. Later Mohammed bin Abdul Jabbar Utbi in Tarikh-e Yemeni mentions the name in the reign
of Subuktegeen and his family. Ibn-e Asir has, however, noted it down as Abgan. Similarly other historians in their authentic volumes have noted the name. Some of these are Fakhr-i-Mudabir who mentions it in
Adab-ul-Harb Qazi Menhaj Seraj in Tabakat-e Nasseri, Hamdullah Mustufi in Tarekh-e Guzida, Mohammad Qasim Fereshta and others also discuss the Afghan and Awgan tribes.

We can say that the word Afghanistan is also not a strange word which came into being in the reign of Ahmad Shah Abdali. A trustworthy proof of this is Tarikh-e Herat authored by Saifi Herawi (circa 1342) who calls the western lands, as far as the Indus, by the name of Afghanistan. From this it is evident that when Herat was the capital of the Kurts, and after the passing of the period of polItical unity of the Ghaznavids and the Ghorids, when the country was being vanquished by the belligerent armies of Genghiz, Afghanistan was a customary name but not to the extent as in the period of Ahmad Shah Durani.

During the Temurid period, Maulana Kamaluddin Abdul Razaq Samarkandi Herawi, who was born in 1337 in Herat, was a distinguished scholar, historian and statesman of the court of Herat. In Tarikh-e Mutala’ Sadain and Majma Bahrain he describes Afghanistan's geography as Saifi has recorded it to be a part of the large Khorasani empire ruled by the Temurids of Herat.

In 1553 when Babur headed for India with his armies and establIshed the Mughul empire in Delhi we can see in history books of the Babur Dynasty that the name of Afghanistan has been mentioned according to its formal geographical background. And the people of this land,
in order to safeguard their independence, were always engaged in wars with the tyrannic armIes of the Mughul Empire of India and the Safavids of Iran. Until finally, the great Mirwais and Ahmad Shah consolidated and brought unity among the people of Afghanistan and successfully established the Greater Afghanistan. Now we consider the one thousand seven hundred years old name  Afghan and the seven hundred years old name of Afghanistan to be the origin of national unity and significant historical events in our country.

I have fixed these eras from the mentioned documents, but the history of the Pakhtas=Paxtoons=Afghans is even older in this land and dates back to the Vedic eras of 1400 B.C.


Afghanistan, VOL. XXII No.2, Summer 1348 (1969)




[1] Sir Olaf Caroe. the author of the Pathans (Page 79) has written the three words of the inscription from the Greek text as read by Prof. Sprengling (The Sematic Magazine of America 1940) as Goundifer Abgan Rismaud. But the Persian text which has been prepared from the English by Prof. Sprengling (Archeological Recollections Vol. Four, Printed in Shiraz) the three words have been written as Vindapharn Aba-kan Razmi-yad. In the first letter the proper noun, Vindapharn is Pahlavi and Goundifer is Greek. In the second letter Aba-gan stands in place of the Greek Abgan. But the third word is probably razma + pat=razma+wad=razm+ pat. Pat=bad=baz=wad=baiz are different spellings of one word and take its source from Pati of Vedic, Sanskrit and Avesta which means the Owner or Lord. The spelling of ramzi+yad equals ramz+aud of Greek. For example Tabari (Vol. 1, Page 683) says: In the reign of Bashtasab Keyani, there were seven great chieftains, one of whom, Mehkabiz lived in the village of Gergan. Since the word Razma is ancient Persian and Ramsa in Avesta means a battle array and Raja, compared with Raji of Sanskrit (Rada meaning row), which is still used in the Pashto, therefore Rasma-wad or Rasmi-yad or Razma+pat=Razma + bad means a chieftain of war, thus Razmi+yad as compared with Mehkabiz, as Tabri has put it, is also likely to be correct.


[2]  In the reign of Babur after 1521 most historians refer to the eastern parts of Afghanistan as far as Hasan Abdal as 'Roh'. Mohammad Qasim Fereshta has noted that its borders stretched from Herat to Hasan AbdaI. Similarly the name is used subsequently in the Pashto literature. In fact this name has been used since ancient times in Hindi. In India, Afghans have been called Rohila and their dwelling places Rohil Kahand. This name is still used in India. In the southern Multan dialect of Punjab and Baluchi Roh means the western mountain range of that land which is the Suleiman range (The Pathans, By Sir Olaf Caroe, London 439).