Afghan Culture

Religion

Islam is the official religion of Afghanistan and the majority of the population is Muslim (approximately 99.7%).1 There are some very small residual communities of other faiths, including Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Baha’i. However, the numbers of minority Muslim and non-Muslim groups have significantly declined over the past decades as people have fled sectarian tensions and conflict. 


The Afghan government is established as a Sunni Islamic Republic. Therefore, there is a strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions. The moral code of the Islamic doctrine tends to govern the political, economic and legal aspects of an Afghan's life. Not all Afghans are strictly observant Muslims. For example, many people do not pray on a regular basis. Nevertheless, everyone tends to engage with Islam on some level as Islamic customs form the basis of many general cultural norms in Afghanistan. 


Islam in Afghanistan

The cultural and national identity of Afghanistan is deeply shaped by Islam. Faith in the religion is noticeable in dress, dietary codes, regular prayers and language. For example, reverence to Allah (God) is evident in the way many people speak; it is common to slip praise into casual conversation. Although the vast majority of Afghans believe in God and the holy Qur’an, not all may be formally educated in the religion.2 Low literacy in Afghanistan means that some people may have never read passages of the Qur’an and rely on others who have memorised the holy text to pass on the word of God. 


There are two main variations of Islam (Sunni and Shi’a) followed in Afghanistan that differ primarily in the way they have interpreted the succession of leadership in the religion. An Afghan’s ethnicity is generally presumed to determine which denomination of Islam they belong to. Most Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks are Sunni, while Hazaras constitute the largest Shi’a population of Afghanistan. There are some exceptions, such as the Pashtun Turi tribe and the Badakshan Tajiks who are Shi’a.3


The statistical estimations of each Muslim denomination’s size in Afghanistan are unclear. Shi’a leaders report that approximately 20-25% of the population is Shi’a, while Sunni leaders state the Shi’a constitute 10%. Most Afghan Sunni Muslims belong to the Hanafi Islamic school of law. It is estimated approximately 90% of the Shi’a population belong to the Twelver sect (following the Jafari school), although some are Ismali Shi’ites.4


Afghanistan has struggled with sectarian tensions between its Sunni and Shi’a populations. Sunni-dominated governments have histories of discrimination against minority Shi’ites. The Taliban, a radicalised Sunni terrorist insurgency group, continue to target and kill members of minority religious communities over their beliefs. They often attack Shi’a places of worship or religious ceremonies. Civilian casualties resulting from attacks deliberately targeting Shi’a mullahs and places of worship have increased markedly since 2016.5 The Hazara Shi’a population is generally the most common victim of ethno-religious terrorism.


Freedom of Religion

There are many restrictions on people’s religious practice in Afghanistan. Local Muslim religious leaders make efforts to limit social activities they consider inconsistent with Islamic doctrine.6 For example, women of several different faiths report continued harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, almost all women (both local and foreign) wear some form of head covering. 


It is important to consider that there may be opposing views regarding the role of religion in Afghanistan. Spirituality holds relevance and importance in almost every Afghan's life. However, some may view the institution of religion negatively, seeing it as a tool of oppression due to their experience of persecution and conflict. 


An Afghan that feels discontent with their religion may not make their thoughts and beliefs known to their family or community. Showing contempt, offense or a lack of reverence towards Islam can be considered blasphemous. Anyone accused of blasphemy or apostasy is likely to face strong societal discrimination and can be sentenced to severe punishments, such as death.7 Such laws and penalties surrounding blasphemy and apostasy from Islam have been used to harass religious minorities especially.8 Journalists can be targeted for publishing stories that could be perceived as conflicting with the principles of Islam. Threats of kidnapping and death directed at journalists, employees of NGOs and others are serious and common.


Central Intelligence Agency, 2018

2 South Eastern Region Migrant Resource Centre, 2009

3 Minority Rights Group International, 2018

4 U.S. Department of State, 2017

5 Minority Rights Group International, 2018

6 U.S. Department of State, 2017

7 U.S. Department of State, 2017

Minority Rights Group International, 2018

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