Who Are the Pashtun People of Afghanistan and Pakistan?

A Pashtun boy in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, 2010.
A Pashtun farm boy in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, takes a break from harvesting wheat. Chris Hondros / Getty Images

With a population of at least 50 million, the Pashtun people are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group​ and are also the second-largest ethnicity in Pakistan. Pashtuns are united by the Pashto language, which is a member of the Indo-Iranian language family, although many also speak Dari (Persian) or Urdu. They are also known as "Pathans."

One important aspect of traditional Pashtun culture is the code of Pashtunwali or Pathanwali, which sets out standards for individual and communal behavior. This code may date back to at least the second century BCE, although undoubtedly it has undergone some modifications in the past two thousand years. Some of the principles of Pashtunwali include hospitality, justice, courage, loyalty and honoring women.


Interestingly, the Pashtuns do not have a single origin myth. Since DNA evidence shows that Central Asia was among the first places peopled after humans left Africa, the ancestors of the Pashtuns may have been in the area for an incredibly long time - so long that they no longer even tell stories of having come from someplace else. The Hindu origin story, the Rigveda, which was created as early as 1700 BCE, mentions a people called the Paktha who lived in what is now Afghanistan. It seems likely that the ancestors of the Pashtun have been in the area for at least 4,000 years, then, and probably far longer.

Many scholars believe that the Pashtun people are descended from several ancestral groups. Likely the foundational population were of eastern Iranian origin and brought the Indo-European language east with them. They probably mixed with other peoples, including possibly the Kushans, the Hephthalites or White Huns, Arabs, Mughals, and others who passed through the area. Specifically, Pashtuns in the Kandahar region have a tradition that they are descended from the Greco-Macedonian troops of Alexander the Great, who invaded the area in 330 BCE.

Important Pashtun rulers have included the Lodi Dynasty, which ruled Afghanistan and northern India during the Delhi Sultanate period (1206-1526). The Lodi Dynasty (1451- 1526) was the final of the five Delhi sultanates and was defeated by Babur the Great, who founded the Mughal Empire.

Up until the late nineteenth century, outsiders generally just called the Pashtuns "Afghans." However, once the nation of Afghanistan took its modern form, that word came to be applied to citizens of that country, regardless of their ethnic origin. The Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan had to be distinguished from other people in Afghanistan, such as the ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara.

Pashtuns Today

Most Pashtuns today are Sunni Muslims, although a small minority are Shi'a. As a result, some aspects of Pashtunwali seem to derive from Muslim law, which was introduced long after the code first developed. For example, one important concept in Pashtunwali is the worship of a single god, Allah.

After the Partition of India in 1947, some Pashtuns called for the creation of Pashtunistan, carved from the Pashtun-dominated areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although this idea remains alive among hardline Pashtun nationalists, it seems unlikely to come to fruition.

Famous Pashtun people in history include the Ghaznavids, the Lodi family, who ruled the fifth iteration of the Delhi Sultanate, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousefzai.