The history of the written word in Pushto goes back to 522-486 BCE with the discovery of a three-line poetic piece engraved on the rock of a mountain near Baghistan, Iran. If so it can be assumed that the written history of Pushto is 2,500 years old. However, researchers have identified three periods of the history of Pushto literature.
The first period begins with Ameer Korer Ghuri (747 CE), the second period starts with Bayazid Ansari (1535-1579) popularly known as 'Pir Roshan' or the enlightened Pir, while the third period — according to one theory — began in 1908 when Rahat Zakheli Baba (1884-1963) wrote the first ever short story in Pushto language.
Hamish Khalil, in his book Da Qalam Khawandaan (A directory of Pakhtoon men of letters), has mentioned around 3,000 Pakhtoon poets and writers between 1800 and 1975 who were prolific writers and have contributed to Pushto language and literature by writing books both in prose and poetry.
Pushto has never enjoyed official recognition and patronage, as it has never been the court language despite the fact that Ahmed Shah Abdali and Sher Shah Suri were Pakhtoon kings; even they preferred Persian to Pushto for court proceedings and other matters.
After the advent of the British, Pushto language and literature took a new turn. The British and Orientalists rediscovered literary giants like Khushhal Khan Khattak (1613-1690), Rahman Baba (1653-1711) and other classical poets and writers.
Pakhtoon writers and poets of the early 20th century began to express their feelings and emotions by bringing out literary magazines and pamphlets.
These journals not only helped Pushto to flourish but also brought about a change in the social, political and cultural vision of the Pakhtoon nation. Translations were also done into Pushto from English.
Nun Paroon was one such literary magazine published from New Delhi in pre-partition era edited by the founding director of the Pushto Academy University of Peshawar, Maulana Abdul Qadir (1905-1969).
Abdul Ghafoor alias Saidu Baba brought out the first ever Pushto monthly magazine in the pre-partition era titled Islam in 1884. In addition to Pushto, it used to publish scholastic and literary translations from Persian as well as Urdu classics. It was followed by Anjuman, Payam-i-Haq and Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam.
One cannot term these journals as being pure literary as they carried religious teachings too. Often they would not touch upon social issues or criticise government policies. After all, the environment was not conducive for freedom of expression under the British Raj.
Many attempts at bringing out weekly newspapers and monthly journals were made but each one faced closure following the imposition of the 1910 Press Act. Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan), founder of the Khudai Khidmatgaar Tehrik, launched the first ever full-fledged Pushto magazine Pakhtoon under the auspices of Anjuman Islah-i-Afaghina in 1927 to bring about a qualitative change in the outlook of the Pakhtoons.
Prominent men of letters affiliated with the Tehrik would contribute their poetic and prose works in it but in 1930 Bacha Khan was arrested and the magazine was closed down.
It was re-launched in 1931 under Abdul Khaliq Khaleeq and after several closures and re-launches, it was finally banned it in 1948.
With the publication of Pushto weeklies and monthlies like Sailaab (1931), Strray Mashay (1932), Azad Pakhtun (1932), Rahbar (1936) and Jamhooriat (1937), the scope of public awareness was enhanced.
Social issues became dazzling headlines and fiery editorials were printed. After partition, Abdul Haleem Asr (1910-1978) brought out the first Pushto weekly magazine Insaaf in 1948 from Mardan which published literary pieces and research articles aimed at promoting the region's language and literature.
A government sponsored magazine Jamhoor-i-Islam (later renamed Abaseen) attracted writers and poets as it paid well and also highlight the government's policies and programmes. Apart from these magazines, some Urdu daily newspapers like Shabaz, Anjaam and Baang-i-Harum also catered to Pushto readers by publishing a separate supplement.
The magazines Pakhto and Qand also contributed to modern Pushto literature. So much so that two professors have recently submitted their doctorate theses to the University of Peshawar on the role and contributions of these historic literary journals.
Today more than 100 literary magazines are published in Pushto from various places like Afghanistan and of course from Peshawar, Kohat, Mardan, Bannu, D.I.Khan, Charsadda, Karachi and Quetta. Most of these literary magazines have gone out of print due to financial constraints, yet they are considered milestones in the history of Pushto literature.
Despite various problems, it is the poets and writers who have had kept the Pushto language alive and enriched.