Pre-Islamic Hindu and Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan

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Newly excavated Buddhist stupa at Mes Aynak in Logar Province. Similar stupas have been discovered in neighboring Ghazni Province, including in the northern Samangan Province.

Before the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan communities of various religious and ethnic background lived in the land. South of the Hindu Kush was ruled by the Zunbil and Kabul Shahi rulers. When the Chinese travellers (Faxian, Song Yun, Xuanzang, Wang-hiuon-tso, Huan-Tchao, and Wou-Kong) visited Afghanistan between 399 and 751 AD, they mentioned that Buddhism was practiced in different areas between the Amu Darya (Oxus River) in the north and the Indus River in the south.[1] The land was ruled by the Kushans followed by the Hephthalites during these visits. It is reported that the Hephthalites were fervent followers of medieval Hinduism,[1] and that they worshipped Hindu aspects of God, known as Shiva and Vishnu, as well as Surya. ref name="Habibi-2"/>

The invading Muslim Arabs introduced Islam to a Zunbil king of Zamindawar (Helmand Province) in 653-4 AD, then they took the same message to Kabul before returning to their already Islamized city of Zaranj in the west. It is unknown how many accepted the new religion but the Shahi rulers remained non-Muslim until they lost Kabul in 870 AD to the Saffarid Muslims of Zaranj. Later, the Samanids from Bukhara in the north extended their Islamic influence into the area. It is reported that Muslims and non-Muslims still lived side by side in Kabul before the arrival of Ghaznavids from Ghazni.

"Kábul has a castle celebrated for its strength, accessible only by one road. In it there are Musulmáns, and it has a town, in which are infidels from Hind."[2]

— Istahkrí, 921 AD

The first mention of a Hindu in Afghanistan appears in the 982 AD Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam, where it speaks of a king in "Ninhar" (Nangarhar), who shows a public display of conversion to Islam, even though he had over 30 wives, which are described as "Muslim, Afghan, and Hindu" wives.[3] These names were often used as geographical terms by the Arabs. For example, Hindu (or Hindustani) has been historically used as a geographical term to describe someone who was native from the region known as India, and Afghan as someone who was native from a region called Bactria.


Location Artifacts found Other information
Temple at Khair Khana in Kabul. Marble statues of Surya, a Vedic solar deity.[4]
Gardez Statues of Durga/Anahita Mahishasuramardini.[4] They show, as per the Hindu religion, the Goddess Durga, the consort of Shiva slaying buffalo demon Mahishasura. The similar Avestan version says that the Bactrian goddess Nana, the consort of Oesho slaying the buffalo demon.
Hindu Temple at Chaghan Saray in the Kunar Valley in eastern Afghanistan.[4] Temple complex
Tapa Skandar 31 km north of Kabul.[4] Remains of settlement dating to the second half of the first millennium AD. Marble statue of Shiva/Osho and his wife Parvati.[4]
Tapa Sadr near Ghazni.[4] Statue of the Parinivana Buddha (Buddha lying down at the end of his cycle of rebirths).[4] 8th century AD
Gardez Śāradā script engraved on a marble statue of an elephant deity Ganesh brought by the panjabi Hindu Shahis who occupied the Kabul Valley.[4] 8th century AD
Nava Vihara Balkh
Airtam Near Termez A stone slab with a Bactrian inscription and a carved image of Osho.[5]
Tepe Sardar, Ghazni Large Buddhist monastery complex[6] The main Stupa is surrounded by many miniature stupas and shrines, ornamented with clay bas reliefs. There were several colossal statues of the Buddha, included one seated and of the Buddha in Nirvana. In one shrine which is in the Hindu style a clay sculpture of Durga slaying a buffalo-demon was found.[6]
Homay Qala in Ghazni Buddhist Cave Complex at Homay Qalay.[7]
Tepe Sardar Ghazni Nana clay - 10th Century.[8] 10th Century AD.[8] The cult of Nana was popularised during the Kushan period as several images of this deity are found in Afghanistan.[9]
Various Coins of the Shahi rulers of Panjab and Afghanistan have been found.[4] 650-1000 AD[10]
These coins were issued from at least eight mint towns, which suggests a wider range for their circulation[4]
Buddhas of Bamyan Bamyan Province
Hazarajat region
Believed to be built in 507 AD, the larger in 554 AD. Destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban.
Khair Khana Kabul[4] Hindu Temple,[4] two marble statues of Shiva[4]
Basawal Basawal is the site of a Buddhist cave temple complex in eastern Afghanistan. The caves, 150 in all, are partly hewn out in two rows and arranged in seven groups, which presumably correspond to the seven monastic institutions of Buddhist times.
Buddhist cave complex at Homay Qala[11]

Table of pre-Islamic dynasties of Afghanistan[edit]

Dynasty Period Domain
Kabul Shahi Closing years of the 10th and the early 11th century. Jayapala was defeated by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni.[12] in 1013 Kabul's last Shahi ruler [13] Gandhara (eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan) was overrun by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni.[12] (Kabul valley)
Zunbils The Zunbils were finally deposed by Ya'qub Saffari in 870 AD, founder of the Saffarid dynasty in Zaranj.[15][16] Zabulistan (southern Afghanistan).[16]

Islamic conquest of Afghanistan[edit]

The region around Herat Province became Islamized in 642 AD, during the end of Muslim conquest of Persia. In 653-4 AD, General Abdur Rahman bin Samara arrived from Zaranj to the Zunbil capital Zamindawar with an army of around 6,000 Arab Muslims. The General "broke off a hand of the idol and plucked out the rubies which were its eyes in order to persuade the Marzbān of Sīstān of the god's worthlessness."[17] He explained to the worshippers of the solar deity, "my intention was to show you that this idol can do neither any harm nor good."[18] The people of southern Afghanistan began accepting Islam from this date onward. The Arabs then proceeded to Ghazni and Kabul to convert or conquer the Buddhist Shahi rulers. However, most historians claim that the rulers of Ghazni and Kabul remained non-Muslim. There is no information on the number of converts although the Arabs unsuccessfully continued their missions of invading the land to spread Islam for the next 200 or so years. It was in 870 AD when Ya'qub bin Laith as-Saffar finally conquered Afghanistan by establishing Muslim governors throughout the provinces.

"Arab armies carrying the banner of Islam came out of the west to defeat the Sasanians in 642 AD and then they marched with confidence to the east. On the western periphery of the Afghan area the princes of Herat and Seistan gave way to rule by Arab governors but in the east, in the mountains, cities submitted only to rise in revolt and the hastily converted returned to their old beliefs once the armies passed. The harshness and avariciousness of Arab rule produced such unrest, however, that once the waning power of the Caliphate became apparent, native rulers once again established themselves independent. Among these the Saffarids of Seistan shone briefly in the Afghan area. The fanatic founder of this dynasty, the coppersmith's apprentice Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari, came forth from his capital at Zaranj in 870 AD and marched through Bost, Kandahar, Ghazni, Kabul, Bamyan, Balkh and Herat, conquering in the name of Islam.".[19]

— Nancy Dupree, 1971

By the 11th century, when the Ghaznavids were in power, the entire population of Afghanistan was practicing Islam, except the Kafiristan region (Nuristan Province) which became Muslim in the late 1800s.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Chinese Travelers in Afghanistan". Abdul Hai Habibi. 1969. Retrieved August 9, 2012. 
  2. ^ "A.—The Hindu Kings of Kábul (p.3)". Sir H. M. Elliot. London: Packard Humanities Institute. 1867–1877. Retrieved September 18, 2010. 
  3. ^ Vogelsang, Willem (2002). The Afghans. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 18. ISBN 0-631-19841-5. Retrieved 2012-08-16. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m The Afghans By Willem Vogelsang Page 184 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ReferenceA" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  5. ^ History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume 3 By Boris Abramovich Litvinovskiĭ Page 427
  6. ^ a b History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume 3 By Boris Abramovich Litvinovskiĭ Page 399
  7. ^ South Asian archaeology 1975: papers from the third International Conference Edited By Johanna Engelberta Lohuizen-De Leeuw Page 121 to 126
  8. ^ a b History of Buddhism in Afghanistan By Sī. Esa Upāsaka, Kendrīya-Tibbatī-Ucca-Śikṣā-Saṃsthānam page XX
  9. ^ History of Buddhism in Afghanistan By Sī. Esa Upāsaka, Kendrīya-Tibbatī-Ucca-Śikṣā-Saṃsthānam page 187
  10. ^ Early medieval Indian society: a study in feudalisation By R.S. Sharma Page 130
  11. ^ South Asian archaeology 1975: papers from the third International Conference, By Johanna Engelberta Lohuizen-De LeeuwPage, Published By EJ Brill, Page 119
  12. ^ a b The races of Afghanistan Being a brief account of the principal nations inhabiting that country, by Henry Walter Bellow Asian Educational services, Page 73
  13. ^ Pakistan and the emergence of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan By Rizwan Hussain page 17
  14. ^ Encyclopaedia of Historiography By M.M. Rahman
  15. ^ Medieval India Part 1 by Satish Chandra Page 17
  16. ^ a b Excavations at Kandahar 1974 & 1975 (Society for South Asian Studies Monograph) by Anthony McNicoll
  17. ^ André Wink, "Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World", Brill 1990. p 120
  18. ^ "Amir Kror and His pAncestry". Abdul Hai Habibi. Retrieved August 14, 2012. 
  19. ^ Dupree, Nancy (1971) "Sites in Perspective (Chapter 3)" An Historical Guide To Afghanistan Afghan Tourist Organization, Kabul, OCLC 241390