Pakistan | Facts and History

Pakistan's Delicate Balance

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Pilgrims at a shrine in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Yawar Nazir / Getty Images

The nation of Pakistan is still young, but human history in the area reaches back for tens of thousands of years. In recent history, Pakistan has been inextricably linked in the world's view with the extremist movement of al Qaeda and with the Taliban, based in neighboring Afghanistan. The Pakistani government is in a delicate position, caught between various factions within the country, as well as policy pressures from without.

Capital and Major Cities

Capital:

Islamabad, population 1,889,249 (2012 estimate)

Major Cities:

  • Karachi, population 24,205,339
  • Lahore, population 10,052,000
  • Faisalabad, population 4,052,871
  • Rawalpindi, population 3,205,414
  • Hyderabad, population 3,478,357
  • All figures based on 2012 estimates.

Pakistani Government

Pakistan has a (somewhat fragile) parliamentary democracy. The President is the Head of State, while the Prime Minister is the Head of Government. Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif and President Mamnoon Hussain were elected in 2013. Elections are held every five years and incumbents are eligible for reelection.

Pakistan's two-house Parliament (Majlis-e-Shura) is made up of a 100-member Senate and a 342-member National Assembly.

The judicial system is a mix of secular and Islamic courts, including a Supreme Court, provincial courts, and Federal Shari'a courts that administer Islamic law. Pakistan's secular laws are based on British common law.

All citizens over 18 years of age have the vote.

Population of Pakistan

Pakistan's population estimate as of 2015 was 199,085,847, making it the sixth most populous nation on Earth.

The largest ethnic group is the Punjabi, with 45 percent of the total population. Other groups include the Pashtun (or Pathan), 15.4 percent; Sindhi, 14.1 percent; Sariaki, 8.4 percent; Urdu, 7.6 percent; Balochi, 3.6 percent; and smaller groups making up the remaining 4.7 percent.

The birth rate in Pakistan is relatively high, at 2.7 live births per woman, so the population is expanding rapidly. The literacy rate for adult women is only 46 percent, compared with 70 percent for men.

Languages of Pakistan

The official language of Pakistan is English, but the national language is Urdu (which is closely related to Hindi). Interestingly, Urdu is not spoken as a native language by any of Pakistan's main ethnic groups and was chosen as a neutral option for communication among the various peoples of Pakistan.

Punjabi is the native tongue of 48 percent of Pakistanis, with Sindhi at 12 percent, Siraiki at 10 percent, Pashtu at 8 percent, Balochi at 3 percent, and a handful of smaller language groups. Most Pakistan languages belong to the Indo-Aryan language family and are written in a Perso-Arabic script.

Religion in Pakistan

An estimated 95-97 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim, with the remaining few percentage points made up of small groups of Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsi (Zoroastrians), Buddhists and followers of other faiths.

About 85-90 percent of the Muslim population are Sunni Muslims, while 10-15 percent are Shi'a.

Most Pakistani Sunnis belong to the Hanafi branch, or to the Ahle Hadith.

Shi'a sects represented include the Ithna Asharia, the Bohra, and the Ismailis.

Geography of Pakistan

Pakistan lies at the collision point between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates. As a result, much of the country consists of rugged mountains. The area of Pakistan is 880,940 square km (340,133 square miles).

The country shares borders with Afghanistan to the northwest, China to the north, India to the south and east, and Iran to the west. The border with India is subject to dispute, with both nations claiming the mountain regions of Kashmir and Jammu.

Pakistan's lowest point is its Indian Ocean coast, at sea level. The highest point is K2, the world's second-tallest mountain, at 8,611 meters (28,251 feet).

Climate of Pakistan

With the exception of the temperate coastal region, most of Pakistan suffers from seasonal extremes of temperature.

From June to September, Pakistan has its monsoon season, with warm weather and heavy rain in some areas. The temperatures drop significantly in December through February, while spring tends to be very warm and dry.  Of course, the Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges are snowbound for much of the year, due to their high altitudes.

Temperatures even at lower elevations may drop below freezing during the winter, while summer highs of 40°C (104°F) are not uncommon. The record high is 55°C (131°F).

Pakistani Economy

Pakistan has great economic potential, but it has been hampered by internal political unrest, a lack of foreign investment, and its chronic state of conflict with India. As a result, the per capita GDP is only $5000, and 22 percent of Pakistanis live under the poverty line (2015 estimates).

While GDP was growing at 6-8 percent between 2004 and 2007, that slowed to 3.5 percent from 2008 to 2013. Unemployment stands at just 6.5 percent, although that does not necessarily reflect the state of employment as many are underemployed.

Pakistan exports labor, textiles, rice, and carpets. It imports oil, petroleum products, machinery, and steel.

The Pakistani rupee trades at 101 rupees / $1 US (2015).

History of Pakistan

The nation of Pakistan is a modern creation, but people have been building great cities in the area for some 5,000 years. Five millennia ago, the Indus Valley Civilization created great urban centers at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, both of which are now in Pakistan.

The Indus Valley people mixed with Aryans moving in from the north during the second millennium B.C. Combined, these peoples are called the Vedic Culture; they created the epic stories upon which Hinduism is founded.

The lowlands of Pakistan were conquered by Darius the Great around 500 B.C. His Achaemenid Empire ruled the area for nearly 200 years.

Alexander the Great destroyed the Achaemenids in 334 B.C., establishing Greek rule as far as the Punjab. After Alexander's death 12 years later, the empire was thrown into confusion as his generals divided up the satrapies; a local leader, Chandragupta Maurya, seized the opportunity to return the Punjab to local rule.

Nonetheless, Greek and Persian culture continued to exert a strong influence on what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Mauryan Empire later conquered most of South Asia; Chandragupta's grandson, Ashoka the Great, converted to Buddhism in the third century B.C.

Another important religious development occurred in the 8th century A.D. when Muslim traders brought their new religion to the Sindh region. Islam became the state religion under the Ghaznavid Dynasty (997-1187 A.D.).

A succession of Turkic/Afghan dynasties ruled the region through 1526 when the area was conquered by Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur was a descendant of Timur (Tamerlane), and his dynasty ruled most of South Asia until 1857 ​when the British took control. After the so-called Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, was exiled to Burma by the British.

Great Britain had been asserting ever-increasing control through the British East India Company since at least 1757. The British Raj, the time when South Asia fell under direct control by the UK government, lasted until 1947.

Muslims in the north of British India, represented by the Muslim League and its leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, objected to joining the independent nation of India after World War II. As a result, the parties agreed to a Partition of India. Hindus and Sikhs would live in India proper, while Muslims got the new nation of Pakistan. Jinnah became the first leader of independent Pakistan.

Originally, Pakistan consisted of two separate pieces; the eastern section later became the nation of Bangladesh.

Pakistan developed nuclear weapons in the 1980s, confirmed by nuclear tests in 1998. Pakistan has been an ally of the United States in the war on terror. They opposed the Soviets during the Soviet-Afghan war but relations have improved.