- Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield
Following a semester-long reading and discussion of this book with my undergraduate and graduate students, I can confidently state that Thomas Barfield’s noteworthy Afghanistan proves to fill a gap for historians and students of Central Eurasia. As one of the leading anthropologists working on Afghanistan who has produced influential works, including Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), Barfield has given us a much needed and nuanced survey. His book makes both teaching and learning about Afghanistan an accessible and more enjoyable endeavor. This book is a yet further reiteration of how the disciplines of anthropology and history can no longer exist without cooperation.
Barfield’s experience in Afghanistan began in the 1970s as he carried out his fieldwork. He was in Kabul when Daud Shah (r. 1973–1978) replaced Zahir Shah (r. 1933–1973). His book successfully demonstrates that Barfield’s interest in Afghanistan has remained fresh and his knowledge has expanded since he began his relationship with the country nearly four decades ago.
Barfield’s book is a perfect teaching tool in upper-level history courses, for it provides a clearly defined thematic structure and seven maps ranging from basic topographic ones to nomadic migration routes and land use. One wishes, however, that the book contained a convenient glossary of regional terms. Barfield invites readers to refocus their attention on Afghanistan’s own inhabitants rather than merely on its wars and warriors. He promises to break away from the static histories that typically dominate the description and retelling of Afghanistan’s past. Nevertheless, the attention remains on Afghanistan’s rulers and their struggles over political legitimacy, making the book mostly about politics. Barfield argues that Afghanistan historically managed to maintain sufficient political order because only hereditary leadership, which believed that running the country was its business, took control of the country (p. 3). This approach helps the reader understand the dynamic processes through which the leading forces of the region gained and lost power and legitimacy.
For the benefit of the nonspecialist reader, the book begins with an exploration of the rich and complex human and geographic landscape of the country. Because of this well-organized introduction, the multi-ethnic and multireligious populations as well as their interactions and alliances become more manageable. In a rather unsettling statement, [End Page 234] however, Barfield confirms a problematic presumption to the idea that Afghan society is “biblical” or “medieval” because religion is a determining factor in culture and politics. As one of my students pointed out, all one needs to do to challenge this view is to recognize the undeniable significance assigned to religion in the cultural and political life in the United States of America. Although one could easily argue that these two cases are not equivalent, one needs to acknowledge that religion’s influence does not deem a country “medieval” and that it is not unique to this region. Furthermore, this statement does not necessarily reflect the complex story that Barfield tells in the book. This contention is somewhat resolved by the application of Ibn Khaldun’s fourteenth-century political model to the region. Ibn Khaldun’s model introduced the interactions and the tensions between the nomadic and sedentary Middle Eastern societies, which Barfield argues left Afghanistan a society that failed to integrate. The application of this model clarifies what is, in fact, unique to Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the story of the actual lives and roles of the nomadic populations remain rather abstract at the end.
The following chapters construct an analysis of premodern and modern political and cultural patterns by examining the ways in which Mongolian, Turkic, Persian, or their hybrid descendants imposed their power. The significance of the relationship between the center and periphery and the sedentary and nomadic populations emerge as central themes in this book. The examination of the similarities and differences between the administration patterns of various Mongol and Turko-Persian dynasties makes this book highly relevant to the scholarship...