Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier

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Much of the political turmoil that has occurred in Afghanistan since the Marxist revolution of 1978 has been attributed to the dispute between Soviet-aligned Marxists and the religious extremists inspired by Egyptian and Pakistani brands of
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520200647
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/1996
  • Series: Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 334
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.88 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

David B. Edwards is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Williams College and Director of the Williams Afghan Media Project.

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Heroes of the Age

Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier

By David B. Edwards


Copyright © 1996 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91631-9



This book is about the lives of three great men from Afghanistan's past. It is also about the stories Afghan people tell one another about the past—stories in which men of quality are tested and, by dint of their single-mindedness, their courage, and their capacity, demonstrate the qualities of person and action by which greatness is achieved. The three men are a tribal khan, a Muslim saint, and a royal prince who became Afghanistan's king. Their stories come from a variety of sources. The khan's tale was recounted to me by his son and involves a feud in which the khan, while still a young boy, was required to avenge his father's murder. The Muslim saint is represented by a series of miracle stories told to me by offspring of his disciples; the stories center on how the saint came to wield spiritual and political authority along the Afghan frontier. The king, in princely fashion, is present through his own words—an autobiographical account of how he came to sit upon the Afghan throne and a proclamation in which he announces to his people the nature of his responsibility as their king and theirs as his subjects.

After surveying and comparing the moral meanings associated with these three lives in the first four chapters, I turn in the last chapter to a specific event: a widespread tribal uprising against the British Raj that broke out in the summer of 1897. This uprising was the severest attack on British colonial rule in India since the so-called Mutiny of 1857, and its principal leader was the Muslim saint whose life is examined in the third chapter. Through an analysis of both colonial and native accounts, I investigate the saint's role in this conflict, his relationship to the tribal groups that followed him, and the larger issue of how Islam traditionally functions as an encompassing framework of political association in frontier society. In addition, I also examine some of the structural reasons for the failure of this uprising, as well as the larger implications of these events for Afghanistan's future.

Throughout the book my concern is with the articulation of moral authority in Afghan society and the contradictions which different moral systems pose to one another and to themselves. The three great men whose lives I consider are icons of resoluteness. Each exemplifies a pure determinacy that stands outside the baser exchanges of average men, a determinacy that beckons even as it casts warnings of the perils that ensnarl those who would follow too closely an ideal. The final chapter on the events of 1897 records some of the dangers that arise when the determinant encounters the contingent and also draws attention to the moral threat posed by colonialism. Using the writings of another would-be hero, Winston Churchill, as a lens, I outline the moral significance attached to Islam by colonial authorities and indicate the larger, moral threat that the West was beginning to pose not only to Islamic religious leaders but also to tribesmen and kings as well.

Because my focus in this book is on the past, it might be said that this is a work of history, but my approach differs from traditional history in being centered on a few texts that are highlighted as cultural artifacts of a particular time and place. The search for logical coherence and chronological continuity in past lives and events is set aside here in favor of a different approach emphasizing the particular cultural coherences that can be found in and through stories. This approach has been pursued by a number of anthropologists interested in history, including Marshall Sahlins, whose rereading of Hawaiian historical texts has had an important influence on this work.

My concern for the cultural meanings associated with particular texts was also influenced by Hayden White's oft-cited essay, "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," in which he develops the point that "every historical narrative has as its latent or manifest purpose the desire to moralize the events of which it treats." However, whereas White was interested in his essay in the development of historical consciousness in the West over a broad sweep of time and in the relationship of state authority to changing modes of narrative construction, I focus in this book on a single time and place and the way in which competing forms of moral authority find expression in different kinds of narrative texts.

The ultimate objective of this book is to shed light on the sources of contemporary civil strife in Afghanistan. While I am not the first to address this subject, I believe that most of those who have tried to make sense of the situation so far have been distracted by the action on the ground and have missed what might be called the deep structure of the conflict. One reflection of this problem is the emphasis that different studies have given to the various ideological dimensions of the war. For most of the decade following the Marxist revolution in 1978, analysts assumed that the centerpiece of Afghanistan's troubles was the dispute between Soviet-aligned Marxists and Islamic fundamentalists. But gradually, observers started to consider the role of ethnic and sectarian divisions in the conflict, and then finally, in the past few years, journalists and scholars of various orientations and persuasions began to wonder aloud if, after all, the British hadn't gotten it right in the first place. Afghanistan was once and would remain a singularly wild and anarchic place that could only be managed (if at all) by men of ruthless violence and ambition. So it has seemed to conventional wisdom, and so it is that attention has drifted away from the Afghan morass to other more significant and potentially pacifiable geopolitical hot spots.

All of the factors—Marxism, Islamic fundamentalism, ethnic and sectarian loyalties, and personal ambition—that commentators have marshaled to explain Afghanistan's problems have undoubtedly played a role in the conflict, but something else is at work here as well that has to do less with ideology, identity, and anarchy than with certain deep-seated moral contradictions that press against each other like tectonic plates at geological fault lines below the surface of events. In other words, Afghanistan's troubles derive less from divisions between groups or from the ambitious strivings of particular individuals than they do from the moral incoherence of Afghanistan itself.

This incoherence goes back to the rise of Islam, but it has been greatly exacerbated since the end of the nineteenth century, when the expansion of colonial empires into South and Central Asia led to the fabrication of a nation-state framework on the unstable foundation of Afghan society. The artificiality of the nation-state in this setting and its incommensurability with Afghan social and political realities have deepened inherent contradictions within Afghan culture, contradictions that have increased under the pressure of trying to construct and maintain a framework of unity in defiance of underlying discords. While various social, economic, and political factors have kept the Afghan polity together since its establishment one hundred years ago, the moral fault lines below the Afghan nation-state have not disappeared just because the surface configuration has changed. The underlying situation remains the same, and obscure tectonic shifts of which one is hardly aware are always capable of producing violent surges at unexpected moments.

One reflection of the fundamental artificiality of the Afghan nation-state is the absence of a moral discourse of statehood shared by a majority of its citizens. Afghanistan has great heroes that are recognized by all and a common set of events that are generally glorified (especially the nineteenth-century insurrections against British occupation). Together these heroes and events do constitute what might be called a myth of nationhood, but there is no corresponding myth of the state to go along with it. The result is that although most Afghans hold to some notion of shared identity with one another, that identity is articulated horizontally between individuals, tribes, and regions rather than vertically between the state and its citizens.

Drawing again on White's article on narrativity, I argue that if one of the requirements of state authority is to impose its vision of significance and necessity on events and to infuse this vision with "the odor of the ideal," then it can be said that one of the failures of the Afghan state and one of the causes of its present inchoate condition has been its own persistent inability to make itself a necessary element of the Afghan moral narrative. In Afghanistan, other notions of community have persisted on an equal level with that of the state. Similarly, other moral orders have endured despite the development of an increasingly powerful central government, and they have continued to challenge the state in its assertions of legitimacy and its role in plotting the meaning and direction of ongoing events.

Traditionally, these contests of legitimacy have been discussed in terms of tribes and states, with Islamic leaders and institutions sometimes introduced as mediating elements in the relationship. In this study, however, I am less concerned with the social and institutional structure of this relationship than I am with the cultural principles that animated it, specifically, the principles of honor, Islam, and what I will call rule (i.e., state governance). My thesis is that honor, Islam, and rule represent distinct moral orders that are in many respects incompatible with one another. While this incompatibility has been mediated at various times by the delineation of distinct realms of activity within which tribes, states, and religious institutions have exerted their separate authority, the underlying incommensurability of honor, Islam, and rule persisted and became increasingly irreconcilable with the emergence of the nation-state.

In amplifying this thesis, I have located my study in a particular place—the eastern Afghan frontier—and a particular historical era—the late nineteenth century. The frontier is a critically important area because it was there that the pressure of British colonial rule was most dramatically felt and where the contradictions in Afghanistan's political status were most clearly illustrated. The late nineteenth century was a crucial period in Afghan history for similar reasons. In 1879–80 Kabul was occupied by the British for the second time in forty years. Because of the disastrous nature of the earlier occupation, the British decided on this occasion to get out as fast as they could. To rule in their stead, they chose a young prince, Abdur Rahman, who was relatively unknown to them and who had spent most of his adult life in exile in Russian Central Asia.

When Abdur Rahman took command, the country he was given to rule was up in arms. Few of his nominal subjects were ready to accede to his authority, and other royal princes were prepared to vie for the favor of tribes and ethnic groups that were themselves eager to assert autonomy from Kabul. Over a period of twenty years, Amir Abdur Rahman succeeded in eliminating his dynastic competition, destroying regional warlords who sought to govern independently of Kabul, and suppressing local revolts. In doing so, he also managed to quiet the threat of outside colonial intervention. So long as he could control his own people and protect against Russian encroachment toward their borders, the British largely abstained from intervening in Afghanistan's internal affairs, although they did continue to exert control over the country's foreign affairs.

But as the threat of direct colonial domination waned during Abdur Rahman's rule, a more insidious force began to be exerted on Afghan society in the form of the nation-state itself, the framework and mechanisms for which were initiated and implemented during Abdur Rahman's reign. As a number of recent scholars have demonstrated, the nation-state is not the natural and inevitable polity that we sometimes imagine it to be. Nor is it just an administrative arrangement that can be applied anywhere, anytime, like an architectural blueprint. The nation-state is, rather, the product of particular historical events that occurred in a particular place on the globe. As a consequence of European colonial expansion to other regions of the world, the nation-state was imposed elsewhere, but as recent history has tragically shown, it has remained in many regions an unnatural transplant maintained solely through terror and repression.

In the case of Afghanistan, the imposition of this new framework of political relationship conflicted with the existing arrangement in which kings, seated at various times in Qandahar and Kabul, extended their authority into the precincts of autonomous local principalities and tribes, while the local principalities and tribes did their best to offset (or at least gain advantage from) these extensions of state control through assertions of their own power. The advent of the nation-state presented a new challenge to this arrangement, a challenge that was as much moral as it was practical, and it is the objective of this book to convey a sense both of the underlying principles of honor, Islam, and rule as they traditionally coexisted in Afghan society and of the way in which this coexistence was undermined by the appearance of the nation-state under and after Amir Abdur Rahman.


In 1982, when I arrived in Peshawar to begin research for my Ph. D. dissertation in anthropology, the war in Afghanistan had already been under way for four years. During the next two years (and again for six months in 1986), I had the opportunity to watch its conduct from close at hand. In military terms, the mid-eighties was a period of protracted stalemate in which little was accomplished by either side. In ideological and political terms, however, this period was significant for being the time when what had seemed a fairly straightforward conflict between Marxism and Islam was clearly revealed to be something a great deal more complicated and contradictory. This was the time when the self-interested and parochial character of the Afghan resistance parties became unmistakably apparent, and large numbers of Afghan refugees began to lose their certainty as to war's meaning and value. It was also the period when the Afghan people as a whole began to confront the possibility that the conflict might go on for a very long time, that the millions who had gone into exile might be permanently dispossessed, and that the country they had left might come unglued for good.

The chaos I confronted in Peshawar was all the more remarkable to me because this was not my first trip to the region. Between 1975 and 1977, I had spent almost two years teaching English at a language center in Kabul. The mid-seventies were the golden age of economic development programs in Afghanistan, when teams from a half dozen nations vied with each other to bring the country "into the twentieth century"—or so they and most of the world imagined, for in those days the lightness and logic of development assistance seemed straightforward, and there were few outward signs of the trouble that lay ahead.

The late sixties and early seventies had witnessed a great deal of political turbulence, with violent student demonstrations a frequent occurrence, but the coup d'etat of President Muhammad Daud in July 1973 had brought some of the agitators into the government and pushed the remainder underground. The sole hint of any political unhappiness of which I was aware was a minor uprising that broke out in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul on a holiday weekend during my first summer in Afghanistan. I became aware of this event only because it caused the cancellation of a bus trip that I had planned to the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif. The press made little mention of the problems in Panjshir, and I only discovered much later that there had been attacks that day against government installations throughout the country and that they all had been organized by student leaders of the Muslim Youth Organization (sazman-i jawanan-i musulman).

When I left Afghanistan to attend graduate school, the idea I had in mind was to live in a mountain village somewhere in the Hindu Kush. The plan I had was a traditional one, long honored in anthropology, but it began to fall apart in the spring of 1978 when I saw headlines announcing the overthrow of President Daud and the establishment of a new revolutionary government in Kabul. Since I was in the early stages of my training, I had plenty of time to reorient the subject of my research plans and grant proposals from villages, kinship, and ritual toward other matters. What I didn't realize, however, was how little the existing anthropological works offered for understanding the kinds of dislocations and disturbances that I was to confront in my fieldwork.


Excerpted from Heroes of the Age by David B. Edwards. Copyright © 1996 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps
List of Significant Persons
1 Introduction 1
Beginnings 6
Recollecting the Past 14
Contested Domains 28
2 The Making of Sultan Muhammad Khan 33
Myth and History 43
Fathers and Sons 50
Men and Women 56
Friends and Enemies 63
Coda: Jandad's Punishment 73
3 The Reign of the Iron Amir 78
Mapping the State 82
The Once and Future King 88
The Armature of Royal Rule 94
Kingship and Honor 112
Coda: The Death of the King 123
4 The Lives of an Afghan Saint 126
Twice-Told Tales 128
Fathers and Sons 133
Identity and Place 138
Discipline and Power 142
Benefit and Gratitude 146
Purity and Politics 155
Pirs and Princes 158
Coda: The Journey to Koh-i Qaf 167
5 Mad Mullas and Englishmen 172
A Passage to India 175
The Events of 1897 and Their Explanation 176
Waging Jihad 181
The Fault Lines of Authority 196
Tales of Jarobi Glen 201
Conclusion 216
6 Epilogue 220
Re: Posting on the Internet 221
Embedded Codes 227
Notes 235
Glossary 271
Bibliography 279
Index 297
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