Fair Observer, 22 February 2017
Afghanistan’s Khorasan region is often associated with war and social conservatism, yet it has a rich history of religious tolerance and a passion for art.
Whether known to be the graveyard of empires or the land of lions, Afghanistan has always been perceived as the motherland of fearless, rural fighters. Yet the view of a mountainous, ruthless country does not give justice to the beauty of this historic land, regulated for centuries by codes and institutions that incorporated progressive thinking. Over 30 years of war and an unstoppable campaign against local tribal customs have contributed to enforce this conventional wisdom, portraying Afghans as conservative extremists who oppose any form of modernization.
Not surprisingly, this stereotype is also used by the Islamic State (IS). The group first set foot on Afghan soil in 2014, and it announced the establishment of the so-called Province of Khorasan the following year. “The people of Khurasan in general love Islam and warfare,” Shaykh Hafidh Said Khan, the appointed wali of Khorasan, told the IS Dabiq magazine, “and because of this, the region has a dormant force for supporting tawhid and jihad.”
The use of the term Khorasan is not casual. Historically, it refers to a broader area that includes northern Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The actual boundaries, however, have been the subject of tales and narratives that extend them to include the southern-central provinces of Afghanistan.
A controversial hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad), in particular, has later engraved the region with a deep symbolic meaning across many Islamist groups. It is said that an army will rise up from this region bearing a black banner, and it will lead Muslims to the final victory against the enemies of Islam. This has encouraged speculation, particularly referring to Afghanistan, spreading the belief that the Taliban or other groups like IS could be the prophesied army.
What many, including the Islamic State today, ignore is how the Afghan Islamic tradition is profoundly unrelated to this apocalyptic view. Throughout history, Afghan nationalist movements have been inspired by an Islam that did not fear to include elements of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, for centuries making Afghanistan one of the most spiritual and tolerant religious crossways. Even nowadays, in the old city of Kabul you can find an old temple where people worship Baba Ratan, a Sufi saint for Muslims and a guru for Hindus and Sikhs, famous for having professed miracles across India and Afghanistan, including Jalalabad, Kabul, Peshawar and Khorasan.
The impact of his teachings and poems is still alive in today’s Afghanistan, along with the spiritual footprint of other Sufi thinkers. Popular poetry, strictly related to religion and society, uses vocabulary of human rights and national pride, and Sufi scholars are believed to be the real architects of Afghan society.
This ascetic approach toward life is not relegated to the intellectual Afghan class. Afghan politicians recite lines of poetry in their speeches, and farmers use their birds as metaphors for life, recalling, perhaps, the lines that Iman Ghazali, the great 11th-century Sufi, wrote during his last state of illness: “A bird I am: This body was my cage/But I have flown leaving it as a token.” Even conservative clerics often use poems in Friday prayers, and the most violent warlords prefer to have pictures of themselves taken with flowers rather than an AK47.
“Many Muslims around the world do not agree with the way of Sufism, and this is saying a lot about Afghan people. Things have changed in the past years, but most of our people are still very moderate, compassionate and caring about each other. We are one of the few cultures which have to allow Sufism to grow,” explains Mahmud Kaber Khalili, grandson of the great poet Khalilullaj Khalili and son of the political leader Masood Khalili. In his book, Afghanistan Decoded, Mahmud Khalili has dedicated an entire chapter to his family’s historical hujra—a meditation room built in 1962 decorated only by poems.
Even during wartime, the hujra has been preserved with the highest respect by mujahedeen and Taliban alike. Poetry, in fact, has always been considered to have a powerful social role in Afghanistan, and people from different economic and social background pay the same level of respect to poets. Poetry festivals are held regularly in many provinces of the country, even the ones controlled by the Taliban, who have a long-standing poetic tradition.
Poetry of the Taliban brings together over 200 poems about grief and battle, as well as love and mysticism. Contrary to music, banned under the Taliban as religious propaganda, poetry had little to do with political ideology, and more with local traditions that characterized the Afghan identity.
The Afghanistan Ministry of Information and Culture has repeatedly lamented this misinterpretation of Afghan culture, and how the international community has paid so little attention to this fundamental peculiarity of the Afghan life. “We are the victim of terrorism,” says the spokesperson of the ministry, Haroon Hakimi. “It is unfortunate that birthplace of so many scholars who were spreading peace and love to the world has been affected by war, and known mainly for that.”
Sufism, in fact, has been used as a counterterrorism strategy by the West, but not as a source of interpretation and understanding of a great civilization. Khorasan’s Sufi intellectuals and poets such as Rumi are popular in the West, but not well-known for their religious beliefs and spiritual interpretations.
Indeed, the Khorasan region is also home of rigid interpretations of Islam, such as the Deobandi school, to which groups such as the Taliban belong. This interpretation is not much different from the Wahhabi teachings that inspired the Islamic State, and yet the space for political and social debate has always characterized this part of the region.
Baqi Hilaman Ghaznawi, a Sufi scholar and writer of many books in Dari and Pashto, explains: “Taliban are not al-Qaeda or Daesh[Islamic State]. In the 1990s, when they arrived, they respected our spiritual traditions.”
It is this spiritual narrative that characterizes the Khorasan region more than war and conservatism. The aesthetic passion for poetry and emotion of Afghans is something that can be felt in every aspect of their every day like. Yet neither the West nor the Islamic State are ready to recognize it.