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What would make an eye specialist, Professor M. Yaseen Khan Durrani, look at Afghanistan and decide to compose a book on Afghan history? Perhaps it is his nostalgia, Pashtun identity or Durrani genealogy — his grandfather hailed from Herat in Afghanistan, moved to Amritsar in India and then migrated to Pakistan after Partition. Whatever the reason, A Brief History of Afghanistan: The Emergence of a Muslim Homeland (550BC-2016) can be — in a moment of generosity — considered an earnest contribution from our civil society, an attempt to present a soft image of Afghanistan in historical context, and one that gives the casual reader an opportunity to look at Afghanistan from a perspective different from its present situation as a war-torn country. From a scholarly or academic point of view, however, the book is not entirely accurate.

A Brief History of Afghanistan contains 13 chapters; the first three present an overview of the region’s past and the history of the Pashtun tribes. In order to cover a long span of time, the author states that Afghanistan has had three names through the ages: Ariana in antiquity, Khurasan in the Middle Ages and now Afghanistan. The author writes: “Khurasan was a land that is today known as Afghanistan” — this classification is general and raises many questions as the boundaries of Ariana and Khurasan are different from the boundary of present-day Afghanistan, which was formed during the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman in the late 19th century.

The third chapter illustrates the development of the region’s racial origins during the Islamic era. Dr Durrani briefly tells readers about the Islamic caliphate during the early period of Islam, also known as the period of Khilafat-i-Rashida (11-30AH), and there is significant information about the Umayyads and Abbasids. He eulogises the progress of Muslims in science and education and how they brought about revolutions in agriculture and architecture. There is mention of the Ghaznavid, Ghurid, Seljuk, Khalji, Kurd and Ayyubid dynasties, and of the Crusades and Nuruddin Zangi. Then abruptly, the author jumps to highlight the life and works of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the most important Persian poets of Afghanistan. The second part of this chapter tells us about Genghis Khan and his successors. Yet another part records general information about the Ottoman empire and the Sur empire. Further, the author notes the life and contribution of Khalid bin Walid, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), in four pages.

An attempt to present a soft image of the war-torn country is appreciable, but not entirely accurate or coherent

All this information may have significance, but it is not presented consistently. Thus, most of the discussions are fragmented and not properly integrated with each other. This is a weak aspect of the book, methodologically speaking. In the later parts of this same chapter, Dr Durrani provides valuable information about the Timurid and Pashtun dynasties — eight Pashtun dynasties are listed there. This discussion is considerably short in contrast to the earlier parts and unfortunately not articulated well. Furthermore, the given information is not properly linked with the rest of the discussion. However, the illustration of Pashtun genealogy through the use of charts is indeed useful and interesting for readers.

The Sur and Mughal empires are discussed next. However, the contributions of their monarchs and kings are unfolded mostly in the context of the Indian subcontinent and the reader would be hard put to find any sizeable discussion regarding the role of these empires in ‘the emergence of Afghanistan as a Muslim homeland’. In demonstrating the origins of the Durranis, the author’s use of terminology is confusing: he uses both terms — empire and dynasty — to categorise Durrani rule. Here again he devotes substantial space to Pashtun genealogy, but after discussing events of the 17th and 18th centuries, the author suddenly jumps into the contemporary period of former president Hamid Karzai in the 21st century.

Following up with a chapter on the modern state of Afghanistan, and then with a biographic chapter on the life and works of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of modern Afghanistan, the next two chapters present biographical notes on various Durrani rulers. Thus, so far the book reads as a kind of compilation that provides concisely significant information about Pashtun rulers from Durrani to Karzai and their various achievements.

The chapter titled ‘Fall of Durrani Empire’ catches one’s attention. The reader assumes that the author may identify the cause of the Durranis’ downfall, and while the author asserts that the decline of the empire was brought about by the Great Game — the rivalry between Britain and Russia over control of Central Asia — he does not offer any critical analysis of his statement. The fact of the matter is that the whole discussion is centred on descriptive studies of events of the 18th and 19th centuries. Additionally, most of this chapter, nearly two-thirds, in fact, is devoted to illustrating the character of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, who — according to the author — was an Afghan Muslim ruler in India.

In ‘The Current State of Afghanistan’, the author presents biographical notes on President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula, as well as Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah. There is also the inclusion of Anahita Ratebzad, who served as vice president from 1980 to 1986. Oddly enough, the author does not proffer any justification for why he selected these four personalities to illustrate the present state of Afghanistan, or what is their contribution towards making Afghanistan a Muslim homeland.

In the book’s final chapter, ‘The Afghan People’, Dr Durrani briefly presents the demographics of the country with a focus on ethnicity, languages and religion of the various peoples settled there. He then quickly moves to introduce some significant personalities who played a positive role in Afghan society. These include Abdul Ahad Momand, the aviator who became the first Afghan astronaut; Faiz Ahmad, founder of the Afghan Liberation Organisation and his wife, the political activist Meena Keshwar Kamal; Sharbat Gula, the “third world Mona Lisa” who came to global attention when her photograph appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine; Queen Soraya Tarzi, the progressive wife of King Amanullah; Vida Samadzai, an Afghan-American actress; television and radio celebrity Zohra Yousuf Daoud; Niloofar Rahmani, the first female pilot in the Afghan military; Malalai of Maiwand, a freedom fighter during the Second Anglo-Afghan War and activist and parliamentarian Malalai Joya. However, it seems the author has applied his own pick-and-choose rule in his selection of important Afghan personalities.

As A Brief History of Afghanistan has not been written by a historian, therefore academic standards of historiography have not been applied. The author may be commended for wanting to highlight a soft image of Afghanistan, but the quality of this book can certainly be improved through proper editing and careful reading by an expert on Afghan history.

The reviewer is chairman of the Department of Islamic Studies and Arabic at Government College University, Faisalabad

A Brief History of Afghanistan: The
Emergence of a Muslim Homeland
(550BC-2016)
By Prof. Dr M. Yasin Khan Durrani
Ophthalmology Update, Islamabad
360pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 18th, 2018