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Article

Afghan Trading Networks  

Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins

Afghanistan has long been conventionally regarded as a remote space peripheral to the wider world. Yet scholarship produced in the 2nd decade of the 21st century suggests its multiple connections to a wide array of regions and settings. Such connections are especially visible when viewed through the lens of the trade networks originating from the territories of modern Afghanistan. Scholars have come to recognize that Afghan traders have long been active players in many contexts across Asia and beyond. Such traders and the networks they form play a critically important role in connecting different parts of Asia with one another, including South Asia and Eurasia, as well as East and West Asia. The connective role performed by Afghan caravanners and religious minorities in the trade between India and Central Asia are especially well documented by historians. Increasingly so too are the activities of Afghan merchants in Ottoman territories. The trading networks Afghan traders have participated in are historically dynamic. Their orientating values shift across time and space between various forms of religious, ethno-linguistic, and political identity. The capacity to adapt to changing circumstances is helpful in understanding the continuing relevance of Afghan traders to 21st-century forms of globalized capitalism, in contexts as varied as the former Soviet Union, China, and the Arabian Peninsula.

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The Appropriation of Islam in the Maldives  

Boris Wille

The Maldives is one of four Muslim majority countries in South Asia. The contemporary Islamic Republic of the Maldives frames itself as a “100 percent Muslim nation.” The state religion is Islam, all 380,000 citizens are Muslims by law, and the practice of other religions is prohibited. Ever since the first Muslim exposure, probably in the 10th century, Islam has gradually evolved into a sociocultural configuration that affects most domains of archipelagic society and culture. It shapes foreign relations, informs legislation, and influences arts and architecture, as well as language and scripture. Scholarship of Islam and Islamization in the Maldives acknowledges the historical trajectories of the appropriation of Islam as well as its contemporary relevance in Maldivian identity and state politics.

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Deciphering the History of Modern Afghanistan  

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi

The historiography of modern Afghanistan is undergoing a transformation that involves tension between varieties of data, on one hand, and interpretative frameworks for that information, on the other hand. Textual sources in multiple languages are increasingly in dialogue, as are local and global voices addressing the history of Afghanistan. Growing awareness of inter-regional and international forces impacting the geographical space of Afghanistan has generated conversations among scholars working within and across historical eras and geographic frames of reference. Transnational and trans-temporal orientations have contributed to an interdisciplinary historical discourse where textual information shares analytical space with cultural, material, and visual data from modern Afghanistan. Greater volumes and more types of textual data have led to a historiographical shift away from isolationist views of the country to analyses that treat the territory and people of Afghanistan in relation to a wide assortment of external contexts, actors, and resources. For example, the increasing use of Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and colonial sources is revealing an ever-widening and highly influential range of relationships between Afghans and non-Afghans inside and outside the territory of Afghanistan that are being examined through prisms such as technology transfer and intellectual exchange, architectural and infrastructure development, literary and sartorial practices, and patterns of social and spatial mobility. These and other exciting historiographical developments are impeded from realizing their full potential by enduring explanatory recourse to undertheorized, decontextualized invocations of ethnicity; a perpetual emphasis on warfare; and an exclusionary analytical focus on Kabul as a metaphor for the country as a whole that combine to convolute understandings of global forces and their impact on state–society relations in Afghanistan. Together, these issues point toward a conspicuous gap in the historiography of Afghanistan, namely, a fundamental absence of attention to how power works there. Questions about power are political, and ironically, while the historiography of Afghanistan revolves around state politics, however limited to a handful of pinnacle elites, there is little political critique at work in this discourse as a whole. Whether based proportionally more on coercion or consensus, power involves classification and representation, and in the historiography of Afghanistan, there are few questions asked about the categories of analysis, that is, when they arose, how they congeal, what purpose they serve, for whom, and why. Power has a spatiality to it, and it is rare to find a sustained discussion of how power operates differently across distinct geographies in Afghanistan, or in short, how power in Kabul looks elsewhere. Power also involves culture, in particular the manipulation of language, and here again despite constant invocations of Pashtun-ness, there is a scarcity of attention to how Pashto the language and the culture it carries are situated in the state structure and historiography of Afghanistan, that is, the relationship between Pashto and the national elites in Kabul. Power also has a history of its own, often expressed in episodes of extreme violence in service of empire, and once more, the historiography of Afghanistan tends to elide the enduring impacts of imperialism, let alone offer paths of resistance to it as an aspirationally unrestrained coercive agency in principle. The people of Afghanistan have suffered grievously and inhumanely from national and international forms of power wielded against them, and the vast majority of Afghan people have been written out of the history of Afghanistan through uncritically reductive culture-based misrepresentations of state leaders in Kabul. Intellectual pathways are needed for building an awareness of and remediation of the serial imperial epistemological and physical-material violations perpetrated on ordinary Afghan people and reproduced in the historiography of this hyper-conditional national space.

Article

Developing Afghanistan since 1950  

Robert Rakove

While the story of Afghan development long antedates the Cold War era, the US-Soviet struggle accelerated it and accorded it global significance. Washington, and Moscow, among other actors, financed an array of ambitious modernization projects throughout Afghanistan. Afghan elites, especially Prime Minister (later, President) Mohammed Daoud Khan, consciously stoked the competition. Americans commenced a sizable irrigation and hydroelectric project in the Helmand Valley and subsequently committed to modernize Afghan aviation. The Soviets constructed myriad projects, ranging from the high-altitude Salang Pass tunnel to the Kabul Airport. After years of isolation, Afghanistan enjoyed a surfeit of attention from its industrialized patrons. Yet development programs often proved to be ill conceived, even counterproductive. The Helmand Valley project had ecologically disastrous consequences, while Kabul’s efforts to finance costly projects sparked unrest, even the occasional revolt. Frustration at unfulfilled promises led to increased upheaval within the capital, culminating in the overthrow of two governments in the 1970s. Yet the accelerated efforts of Afghan Marxists, reluctantly backed by the Soviet Union, brought calamity: a national revolt that led to decades of conflict within Afghanistan.

Article

Global Mobile Afghanistan c. 1900–Present  

Magnus Marsden

Afghanistan has long been associated in scholarly and more popular work with images of remoteness and isolation from the modern world. Over the first two decades of the 21st century in particular, however, scholarship on the country has increasingly brought attention to Afghanistan’s multiple connections to a wide range of contexts, both regional and global. This work has focused on the agency that mobile people from Afghanistan have exerted by connecting the country to global transformations, and shaping the influences these have had on its dynamics. Scholars have brought attention to the importance of social networks made of traders and merchants, students, religious scholars, as well as refugees and exiles in mediating Afghanistan’s connection with the global world over the 20th century.

Article

Modern Nepal  

Marie Lecomte-Tilouine

Within the study of the modern period of Nepali history, history is considered here both as a narrative with its internal logic, notably the periodization of history produced by Nepali historians, as well as a series of statements, events, regulations, etc., which are incorporated in this narrative. Periodization of history in Nepal establishes a direct and necessary link between modern Nepal and its national territory. Indeed, the beginning of the modern era is determined by the “unification” of the fifty independent kingdoms and tribal territories that gave birth to the anational territory of Nepal during the second half of the 18th century. Such a correspondence makes modernity and the unified territory of Nepal coincide in a single space time. Yet, a closer examination of the logic behind periodization sheds light on its Kathmandu-centric, and dynastic perspective. This resulted in the formation of a hybrid conception of the national territory and of its center of power. From being the standard of the territory’s time and space, the Kathmandu Valley became the chronotope of the historical narrative dealing with the first half of the 19th century. It continued to form the territory’s remarkable center following the seizing of power by the Rana prime ministers (1846–1951), but now by assuming a futurist dimension, which conversely, plunged the rest of the country back in time.

Article

The Mughal Empire  

Michael H. Fisher

Founded in 1526, the Mughal Empire expanded during the late 16th and 17th centuries across almost the entire Indian subcontinent (except for the southern peninsular tip). At its peak, the empire contained roughly 1.24 million square miles and about 150 million people (half of western Europe in size but double its population). The imperial dynasty was originally Turco-Mongol. But, especially under Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the dynasty established the Mughal Empire by incorporating Hindu and other Indian cultures and mobilizing India’s human and natural resources more effectively than any previous state there. Nonetheless, emperors almost constantly faced rebellions and revolts by rival members of the dynasty, imperial administrators, army commanders, regional rulers, and popular movements. By the early 18th century, the empire fragmented into successor states, but the dynasty remained on the throne until 1858 when the British Empire finally displaced it. Throughout, the imperial court patronized extensive histories and literature (in Persian and a range of Indian languages) and works of architecture and representational arts. The imperial administration compiled detailed records, including about the court, army, and the lands it ruled. Historians, from the time of the empire onward, have used these diverse source materials in their own analyses.

Article

Objects and Material Cultures in Afghanistan, c. 100–1500 CE  

Alka Patel

During the first 1.5 millennia of the Common Era (c. 100–1500 ce), the multiple cultural geographies constituting the contemporary nation-state of Afghanistan were collectively a place of significant and enduring encounters among traditions and lifeways from across Eurasia. Just as migrating and settling populations contributed new ways of believing and making to Afghanistan’s already rich socio-religious tapestry, objects that arrived through trade and pilgrimage also acted as conveyors of ideas originating elsewhere, often combining with existing traditions and resulting in innovative iconographies (visual content) and styles (methods of depiction, visual languages). An examination of Afghanistan through its objects and their material cultures during these centuries is especially rewarding, as this approach illustrates the multidirectional connections between Afghanistan and its Eurasian neighbors near and far. In turn, these transregional connections came to shape religions, languages, political systems, and other cultural aspects not only of Afghanistan but also of other contiguous areas throughout the first 2 millennia ce.

Article

Pashtuns  

Robert Nichols

With an estimated thirty million or more in Pakistan, twelve million in Afghanistan, and perhaps a million or more in a global diaspora, Pashtuns or Pukhtuns comprise a complex ethno-linguistic population with a rich cultural tradition and literature, varied political and economic contexts, and diverse national and Islamic identities. Historic and literary references to communities that have been thought to identify “Afghans” date to the 10th century and, according to the source and scholar consulted, many centuries earlier. The assumption of any uniquely “Pashtun” identity as equivalent to the diverse “Afghan” cultural, religious, and ethnic identities that evolved over centuries has obfuscated a full understanding of the emergence of distinct regional Pashtun ethno-linguistic communities and the origins of frequently studied cultural idioms. Millions of Pashtuns have lived in close and daily contact with many other ethnic groups (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluch, Punjabis, etc.), and color-coded maps of ethnic homelands in Afghanistan and Pakistan are best seen as guides to often complex social geographies rather than absolute markers of ethnically pure settlement areas. For perhaps a thousand years, Pashtuns and regional forefathers have circulated within imperial and merchant networks connected by Silk Road pathways, Persian and north Indian trade routes, and Indian Ocean sea lanes. Pashtuns sought livelihoods as horse traders, military entrepreneurs, agrarian pioneers, and regional rulers in the northern, eastern, and Deccan regions of India. An Afghan state with variable territorial claims consolidated after 1747. Leading Pashtun clans from around Kandahar and the eastern districts took positions in the dynasties that soon ruled from Kabul and core provinces. Pashtuns between the Oxus and Indus rivers adapted to, avoided, and served 18th- and 19th-century Russian and British imperial economic and political forces. In the high European “new imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Afghan territories were framed by treaty-negotiated boundaries. Never colonized, Afghanistan became economically dependent on British–India subsidies and linkages. Into the mid-20th century, Afghanistan’s Pashtun political dynasties and Islamic and political activists on both sides of the British-Indian Durand Line offered leadership and alternative visions of the future to anticolonial and Muslim nationalists, including those in British India. In recent decades, core Pashtun homelands and diasporic communities have fully experienced the disruptions and violence that followed the partition of British India in 1947, postcolonial “national” consolidation, conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, Cold War alliances and conflict, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and civil war. Like others, Pashtun lives were shaped by the transnational dynamics of economic globalization, urbanization, migration, and the international crises that traumatized the world after September 11, 2001.

Article

Religion and Environment in Bhutan  

Elizabeth Allison

Religion and the environment have been entangled for millennia in Bhutan. When Buddhism was introduced from Tibet in the 7th and 8th centuries, it incorporated existing animistic and shamanistic understandings of the landscape, developing a unique spiritual ecology built on long coevolution with the landscape. The notable disseminators of Buddhism in Bhutan—Songsten Gampo, Guru Rinpoche, Terton Pema Linga, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, and others—sanctified specific sites on the landscape with their Buddhist teachings. The cultural forms introduced by the Shabdrung in the 17th century have been nurtured into the 21st century, providing a strong sense of cultural identity and historical continuity. Building on cultural and religious traditions, Bhutan’s leaders shaped a contemporary nation fed by a wellspring of ancient wisdom, connecting environmental policy and practice to Buddhist roots, in the context of rapid modernization and change. The guiding development model Gross National Happiness emphasizes the interdependence of economy, ecology, culture, and governance. Forest and conservation policies draw on Buddhist values for their relevance, as do waste and reuse practices. Bhutan’s 2008 constitution codifies the obligations of all Bhutanese to maintain culture, ecology, and religion. A long cultural and religious history interwoven with the landscape has created a uniquely Bhutanese Buddhist form of traditional ecological knowledge that contributes to ongoing cultural continuity and ecological resilience.

Article

The Kushan Empire  

Xinru Liu

The Kushan Empire was a political power that started as a nomadic tribe from the Central Asian steppe and became established as sedentary state across South Asia and Central Asia. Migrating from the border of agricultural China in late 2nd century bce to north Afghanistan, by the 1st century ce, the Yuezhi nomads transformed themselves into a ruling elite in a large area from Afghanistan to the Indus Valley and North Indian Plain, embracing many linguistic and ethnic groups. Adapting the Persian satrapy administrative system into Indian kshatrapa administration, the Kushan regime gave much autonomy to local institutions such as castes, guilds, and Buddhist monasteries and meanwhile won support from those local communities. Legacies from Achaemenid Persia and Hellenistic cities, the cultures of various nomadic groups from Central Asia, and Buddhist and Brahmanical traditions merged to create a cosmopolitan Kushan material culture and art. Mahāyāna Buddhist theology and institutions matured in the Kushan economic and cultural environment and were propagated to Central Asia and China from there. Having under their control several important commodities, such as silk, lapis lazuli, and horses, demanded by elites from the Roman Empire, the Han Empire, and the Parthian Empire, the Kushan court sat on a key location of the Eurasian trade networks, or the Silk Road. The Kushan Empire benefited from the Silk Road trade economically and meanwhile received knowledge of faraway countries and facilitated transferring the information to the visions of the Romans, Parthians, and Chinese.