The Hazara People of Afghanistan

Hazara woman in Afghanistan
A worried Hazara woman in Afghanistan. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

The Hazara are an Afghan ethnic minority group of mixed Persian, Mongolian, and Turkic ancestry.  Persistant rumors hold that they are descended from Genghis Khan's army, members of which mixed with the local Persian and Turkic people.  They may be remnants of the troops that carried out the Siege of Bamiyan in 1221. However, the very first mention of them in the historic record doesn't come until the writings of Babur (1483-1530), the founder of the Mughal Empire in India.

 Babur notes in his Baburnama that as soon as his army left Kabul, Afghanistan the Hazaras started raiding his lands.

The Hazaras' dialect is part of the Persian branch of the Indo-European linguistic family.  Hazaragi, as it is called, is a dialect of Dari, one of Afghanistan's two largest languages, and the two are mutually intelligible.  However, Hazaragi includes a large number of Mongolian loanwords, which provides support for the theory that they have Mongol ancestors.  In fact, as recently as the 1970s, some 3,000 Hazara in the area around Herat spoke a Mongolic dialect called Moghol.  The Moghol language historically is associated with a rebel faction of Mongol soldiers who broke off from the Il-Khanate.

In terms of religion, most Hazara are members of the Shi'a Muslim faith, particularly from the Twelver sect, although some are Ismailis. Scholars believe that the Hazara converted to Shi'ism in the time of the Safavid Dynasty in Persia, likely during the early 16th century.

 Unfortunately, since most other Afghans are Sunni Muslims, the Hazara have been persecuted and discriminated against for centuries.  

The Hazara backed the wrong candidate in a succession struggle in the late 19th century, and ended up rebelling against the new government.  Three revolts over the last 15 years of the century ended with as many as 65% of the Hazara population being either massacred or displaced to Pakistan or Iran.

 Documents from that period note that the Afghan government's army made pyramids out of human heads after some of the massacres, as a form of warning to the remaining Hazara rebels.

This would not be the last brutal and bloody government repression of the Hazara. During Taliban rule over the country (1996-2001), the government specifically targeted Hazara people for persecution and even genocide.  The Taliban and other radical Sunni Islamists believe that Shi'a are not true Muslims, that instead they are heretics, and thus that it is appropriate to try to wipe them out.  

The word "Hazara" comes from the Persian word hazar, or "thousand." The Mongol army operated in units of 1,000 warriors, so this name lends additional credence to the idea that the Hazara are descended from the warriors of the Mongol Empire.

Today, there are almost 3 million Hazara in Afghanistan, where they form the third largest ethnic group after the Pashtun and the Tajiks.  There are also around 1.5 million Hazara in Pakistan, mostly in the area around Quetta, Balochistan, as well as around 135,000 in Iran.