The Impact of Education on Afghan Society in the 20th Century

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Dr. Imtiyaz Gul Khan*

With the establishment of Islamic civilization many centers and circles  of  learning were  established as  in  Kabul,  Kandhar, Balkh, Herat, Ghazni, etc1. Amongst the splendours of this civilization are great mosques in Ghazni, Herat, and Balkh, etc2. The mosques spread the message of God as well as allowed people to learn and serve. In addition, many Maktabas and Madrassas were established in cities and rural areas that encouraged interaction and acquisition of knowledge3. These traditional establishments gained fame and many people came from other regions to study from learned scholars in places like Herat4.

Students would go to these Maktabas and Madrassas to acquaint themselves with the fundamentals of Islam.  Side by side they learnt to read mainly the Holy Quran5. Figures to show the number of such literates is not available, however, the number of traditional schools was in the thousands.  Almost every village had a school6 that would have provided ample opportunities for the people to acquire knowledge. In addition to teaching the Quran and fundamentals of Islam, the more advanced centers of learning, in places like Herat and Balkh,7 were teaching Theology, Logic, Jurisprudence, Islamic Law, Medicine, Literature, and Grammar8. As these schools offered opportunities for obtaining a wider spectrum of knowledge, people often wandered from one Madrassa to another to acquire the best possible knowledge from experts9. Not only teachers (mullah and maulvi) but also historians, geographers, language literates, poets, philosophers, judges, mathematicians, doctors, etc., were the byproducts of this system.10   This stratum of society not only served the people of the region but outsiders as well and many of them had attained such levels of knowledge that even the students of  Samarkand and Bukhara were no match to them11.

Education in such traditional schools was attained through a gradual process without any pressure or force. Given the economic scenario in Afghanistan and the tribal nature of society many students did not continue beyond a certain point after they attained elementary knowledge of Islam.

Besides learning traditions and beliefs, skills such as calligraphy, miniature painting, architecture, etc12 were also taught.  What however was most important was that these traditional schools actually made people aware of the moralities of life established virtues of honesty, kindness, respect, obedience, helpfulness, generosity, hospitality, etc13. These virtues have survived and are still the strength of the Afghan people.   This trend continued even during the 19th   and 20th   century when intellectual curiosity and creative thinking were missing in traditional education14. By then these institutions were almost medieval in appearance and reached a limited segment of society15  as they did not evolve according to the requirements of the time.  Advancement of science and technology, therefore, was nonexistent in society16. Afghan literature of the period, cultivated in such centers like Herat, Kabul, Kandhar, Badakhshan, and Panjsher,  mainly dealt with social themes and only a few could venture in other fields like medicine, geometry, etc17. In addition, a majority of Afghans were not interested in acquiring education beyond the elementary level as they had inculcated among themselves a wrong notion that by studying beyond this level they would not remain good Muslims18. Such notions actually forced these schools to eliminate intellectual and rational sciences from their curriculum and emphasis was restricted to the religious part of education19. The reluctance of the state to participate in the education sector also did not allow these schools to prosper20.  As a result, these schools only produced mullahs and maulvis, who not only served in mosques and Madrassas but also were found in the company of ministers and chief courtiers for petty gains21.  In the urban centers a few of them also acquired bureaucratic positions to serve the government22. When the state finally took certain measures in the education sector the primary purpose was to produce a certain class of bureaucrats and teachers for the management of the affairs of the state.

With the introduction of modern education in Afghanistan during the 20th  century, the state decided to work for the welfare of society. After the 1920’s, the active and enlightened segment of Afghan society, inspired by rapid changes in Europe and other countries, took great strides towards progress and change23. In spite of the odds, particularly the hostile attitude of the religious clergy, the people gradually adopted the modern educational system24. This modernization of education made the society more competitive. And the inflow of new ideas and practices broadened the people’s outlook and as a result they were more willing to accept the new system25.  Through this system of education a larger portion of society benefitted as opposed to the 6 % of literates produced by the traditional system26. The higher literacy rate was achieved by the efforts of the state as it opened new schools in almost every village of the country. The credit also goes to the Afghan people who were desirous to participate in the welfare of society. The biggest stride that the state took was to provide education for girls as well, for the first time27.

Society in Afghanistan, particularly because of its tribal nature, was not in favour of women’s education28.  King Amanullah lost his power in 1929 due to an opposition by an organised clergy who thought that female education would encourage westernized thought and derail them from their religious faith. However, the state continued the policy of female education, comparatively at a slower rate.  As a result, by 1975, the literacy rate of women in Afghanistan had increased from nothing to 15%29. The education of women actually allowed them to have a participatory role in the affairs of the state and the welfare of the country. Because of these measures women for the first time in the history of modern Afghanistan furthered their own cause. They formed the Democratic Organization of Afghan Women and created awareness among women and pleaded for their education by publishing articles in various journals30.  In addition, they were also given representation in the parliament of the country to advance their welfare programmes31. Furthermore, a magazine for Afghan women was also published by them to promote social consciousness.  Such awareness amongst the female population resulted in measures taken by the state for the participation of women in the social, economic, and cultural life of Afghan society particularly for the development of education for girls and women32. Educated Afghan  women participated whole heartedly and worked as professors, scientists, lawyers, judges, journalists, poets, doctors, government officials, teachers, and as members of the parliament and leaders of their communities33. The facilities of education encouraged an increasing number of educated females to choose the teaching profession, and as a result an overwhelming majority of teachers were females during the period of turmoil in the 20th century, who contributed in the expansion of modern education34. Their participation in the spread of modern education was to such an extent that they themselves established a university at Bamiyan exclusively for women, when the conditions in the state were not favourable for their education.

The introduction of modern education in Afghanistan impacted other crucial areas such as healthcare. The development of education actually brought in the concept of modern health services by 1931, and an  institution  of  public  health  was  established  in  1956. By 1960, Afghanistan had some 1,800 bed facilities in hospitals and had established schools of medicine, nursing, etc35. These facilities provided the necessary doctors, trained medical personnel, nurses, laboratory and x-ray technicians, dentists, pharmacists, and mid wives to cater to the needs of the health care sector. As unhygienic conditions existed in the country the emphasis therefore shifted to preventive medicine to control preventable and epidemic diseases. The impact of education is further noticed in awareness programmes launched by the government and other agencies whereby health education was carried on by means of film, radio programs, articles in newspapers and periodicals, pamphlets, and rural development projects. Generally speaking the traditional preference for males in Afghan society resulted in a reduction in food allowances for women in favour of men and children.   To counter this, even when there was no food scarcity, the government provided vitamins, milk and cereals, to many school going children and factory workers for nourishment. There was also a trend shift in which the sick began going to hospitals and doctors for the treatment of their diseases as opposed to previous practices of going to mullahs for tawezes. Education made people accept western system of medicine, even though they were reluctant to part with native methods of treatment36. The opening of hospitals, foreign expertise along with human resources, and the effectiveness of drugs, medical aid facilities and sanitation were the factors that made people, living in even the remotest areas, accept modern facilities of treatment and cure37. Simultaneously, veterinary medicine, especially the preventive sort, was also accepted by the people without any reluctance. In recent years, animal clinics have been setup in many provinces and vaccine for black leg, rinderpest and other diseases has been extensively used.

Likewise, in the agricultural sector certain measures were taken to improve standards. The educated amongst the rural population were the first to adopt new techniques and reap its benefits. Others followed as the benefits became apparent. Before the introduction of modern education cotton production was approximately 10, 000 tons per year which reached approximately 22,000 tons by 195538.  The farmers also changed their field equipment to mechanized digging for the production of cereal crops. Similarly, improvements have been noticed in the production of wool by importing certain wool producing animals, establishing laboratories for wool grading, washing, bathing methods, etc. The use of fertilizers, certain insecticides and reliable irrigation has also helped both the farmers and the state. In addition, fruit processing plants were set up in many areas to help the farmers39. The educated class took bigger strides in the development of the fruit industry that generated high export revenues. Education facilitated not only to rebuild the infrastructure but it also helped to generate new resources for the people. As modernization took place a new source of employment became available to the people in the government sector as well as in the private sector. Jobs such as teachers, bureaucrats, engineers, doctors, judges, etc. attracted educated people. Such a scenario of assured economic progress attracted others to follow the path of education. As early as in 1957 approximately three million people were employed in the government sector40 out of which about 70% were those who had received at least secondary level education.

Education helped in gaining the necessary momentum for the implementation of  the  programs  to  modernize  the  state.  The  role of media, through the publication of various types of newspapers, pamphlets, journals, books, etc., was also appreciable.  The first news paper published in the country, Sirajul Akbar, made a constant effort to enlighten its readers and constantly promoted the cause of education, upliftment, enlightenment, etc. of the people.  Other newspapers such as the Anis, Kabul Times, etc41  followed this trend as well.  A number of editors of these papers were considered as Afghan intellectuals who knew the history of the people and its cultural background and strived for the enlightenment of the people, their welfare and the development of society. Likewise, periodicals published in the country advocated rural development, welfare of women, increase in literacy, the upliftment of society and the economic growth of the country. The publication of books was not been taken very seriously. In a society where rumors were rampant, Radio Kabul helped in disseminating information and knowledge through its programs which were primarily focused on propagating development schemes of the government. Likewise TV followed the same agenda, i.e. it propagated the policies and plans of the regime and helped in educating its viewers.

The establishment of the public school system simultaneously created an intelligentsia that started to think on national issues, reforms and the democratization of the country. This awakening had a strong impact on the political dynamics of the country. The first was the formation of a group called old   constitutionalists, in the beginning of the 20th century at Habibia College.  They demanded participatory democracy by bringing in fundamental changes in the political system42. The literate also considered the backwardness and isolation of Afghan society as reversible for which the modernization of Islam was necessary43. Reform discussions were held by young educated Afghans and this paved the way for many politico-social reforms that were subsequently introduced in the country. The political system was liberalized and as a result the parliament allowed, for the first time, approximately one third of its members to be freely elected.44  A movement called Wishzalmayan (The Awakened Youth) was established in 1947 and thereafter in the 1960s a political party called Khalq was established mainly among the students of Kabul University. Many of the members of these movements had to strive hard for the propagation of their programmes and were even imprisoned because of their activities45. However, these intellectuals were eventually divided on the basis of their ideologies; one was associated with the Left and the other opposed it46. Both leftists and liberals organised protests that were possible in the constitutional monarchy.  They protested against the abuses of the traditional system and gave solutions to social and economic problems. Even the ministries in the governments were influenced by their programmes concerning the welfare of their society. Daoud, for instance, who became prime minister in 1953, shared a number of the values of the liberal intelligentsia for the renewal of socio-economic modernisation47. Many more political parties emerged from time to time advocating social liberalisation of society, economic growth, spread of education, political awareness, etc. In political organizations like Khalaq, Parcham, Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), The New Democratic Organization of Afghanistan, Afghan Millet48, etc, the organisers were educated Afghans, many of whom had received foreign education. The awakening brought by such educated people allowed Afghans to participate in the political process and voice their grievances and requirements.

The new political dynamics prevailing in the country were also exploited by many to gain power in Kabul. There were coups and assassinations of the heads of Governments which created turmoil in Afghanistan on many occasions49.    The assassination of Daoud in the late 1970s and control of power by the leftists was followed by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  This forced many of the educated people who wanted to institute revivalist Islam in Afghanistan, to pick up arms against the communist regime and foreign occupation. Many of them were professors, engineers, doctors, etc.  Together, this group of intelligentsia, united citizens from all walks of life to fight a war against the Communists and Soviets50 that, for all practical purposes they won.

Over a period of fourteen years, from 1978-1992, these Afghans called Mujahedin played a key role in winning the war and restoring a civil government in Kabul after the withdrawal of the Soviets51. Some orphans and refugees who had relocated to Pakistan were educated in Madrassas and were trained in military operations; they emerged to take a lead in the affairs of the governance in Afghanistan. This group, called the Taliban, advocated the adherence of Islam for all walks of life but imposed it very strictly52.

The conflicts of the educated people falling under various organisations have played a vital role in the history of the country during the past hundred years.   Although many situations that arose because of their influence or indulgence were turbulent, yet the society in general, gained awareness of their rights and duties. They were even able to influence governments to alter their foreign policies, alignments, relations with neighbours and other countries and rectify their domestic policies to encourage national unity and reforms. When policies of the government were considered harmful for society they were not only opposed but violated against as well. For instance, the establishment of home schools for the women in Afghanistan was against the restrictions that were imposed by the Taliban53. Such decisions by society were taken only because some remarkable saplings were sown by Amanullah Khan for the widespread education in the country.


1              Wilber N. Donald, Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, New Haven 1962, pp.101-104.; S.B.Majrooh, “Education in Afghanistan, past and present,” The Sovietization of Afghanistan, ed. S.M.Y Elmi and S.B.Majrooh, Peshawar, 1985, p.127.

2              In 1018 a mosque of granite and porphyry was constructed at Ghazni. Connected with the mosque was a Dar al-Fonon (house of learning of arts), provided with funds to support both teachers and students for the learning of arts. During the Timurid period the cities of Afghanistan became brilliant with mosques and shrines, Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, pp.101-104.

3              Leiden E. J. Brill, Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. III, London, 1936, p.351; J. Pedersen, “Some Aspects of the History of the Madrassa” Islamic culture, vol. III, Hyderabad, 1929, p.526.

4              Percy Sykes, A History of Afghanistan, vol.I, London, 1940, p. 267; Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, p.14; G.B. Malleson, “The History of Herat”, History and Geography of Central Asia, vol. I, Afghanistan, ed, Nancy Hatch Dupree, England, 1972, p.89, 123.

5              Mountstuart Elephinstone, An Account of the kingdom of Caubul, vol. I, Karachi, 1815, pp.249-250.

6              Oliver Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.45.

7              In Afghanistan many Madrassas like Madrassa ye-Nizamia in Herat and Balkh, Madrassa ye-Char  Minar in Herat, Madrassa ye- Sheikh ul Islam in Herat, etc were existing during the 15th century and on wards. J. Pedersen, “Some Aspects of the History of the Madrassa” Islamic culture, vol. III, Hyderabad, 1929, p.534; Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, pp.102-103;“The History of Herat” History and Geography of Central Asia, pp.70-77.

8              An Account of the kingdom of Caubul, pp.249-250; Vartan Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, California, 1969, p.70.

9              Most of the schools in Heart and Balkh attracted learners from other regions to study the subjects and often a learner joined one Madrassa for studying a particular subject and joined another school for the study of other subjects where such expertise, An Account of the kingdom of Caubul,  pp.249-250.

10  A History of Afghanistan, pp. 268-271.

11  An Account of the kingdom of Caubul, p.287.

12  Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, pp.105-107. Connected with some of the mosques was a Dar al-Fonon (house of learning of arts), that provided knowledge for the learning of such arts for making a variety of articles from the Ghaznavides and onwards. Many specimens of inscriptions, ceramic wear with painting etc were produced, B. Rowland, Ancient Art from Afghanistan, New York,1976 Institute of International Education, Stockholm University, p.6,9,  (www. ne- pfo uio).

14  Hasan Kawun Kakar, Government and Society in Afghanistan, London, 1979, pp.161-162.

15  The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p.69.

16  “Mosque Education in Afghanistan”, Muslim World, vol. 58, 1968, p. 27.

17  The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p.72.

18  Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, New Haven 1962, p.73.

19  The Sovietization of Afghanistan, p.129.

20  The governments in Afghanistan took no steps to improve the education system during the 19th century owing to the disturbed situations prevailing in the country side and general unwillingness of society to learn about modern sciences and learning, Government and Society in Afghanistan, pp.161-162.

21  An Account of the kingdom of Caubul, p.282.

22  Government and Society in Afghanistan, p.161.

23  European Commission for Understanding and Solidarity, Netherland, January, 2003.

24  The Sovietization of Afghanistan, p.135.

25  Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture,  p.3,114.

26  Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, p.84.

27  Before 1920s afghan girls were not allowed to attend schools although rich urban and rural families had private tutors for their children including their girls. However a significant development was the attempt to initiate public schooling for girls in Afghanistan in 1921, when first girls’ schools got established in Kabul, The Sovietization of Afghanistan, p.128.

28  Martin Ewans, Afghanistan, a short history of its people and politics, London,

2001, pp.93-94.

29  Baverley Male, Revolutionary Afghanistan, London, 1982, p.222.

30  During  1920s  Anjuman-i-Niswan  (Organization  for  Women’s  protection  ) was formed to bring their complaints and injustices to the organization, Huma Ahmad-Gosh , “A History of Women in Afghanistan” , “Journal of International Women’s Studies,vol.4,May 3rd, 2003.

31  “The Situation of Women in Afghanistan”, Report of the Secretary General on Discrimination against Women and Girls in Afghanistan, (E/CN.6/2002/S), (

32  The first magazine for Afghan  women called Ershad-i-Niswan (Guidance for Women) was started in early 1920s. It was to encourage women to get education. Afghan women also submitted articles to other publications in which they dealt in the historical role of women, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p.244.

33  Encyclopedia  of  Afghanistan,vol.6,New  Dehli,2002,p.124; The  Situation  of Women in Afghanistan”, Report of the Secretary General on Discrimination against Women and Girls in Afghanistan, (E/CN.6/2002/S), (

34  Encyclopedia of Afghanistan, vol..6, p.124.

35  Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, p.213

36  Government and Society in Afghanistan, p. 165.

37  Government and Society in Afghanistan, pp. 164-165.

38  Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, pp.231.

39  Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, p.240..

40  Afghanistan, its people, its society, its culture, pp.200-201

41  Until the first half of the 20th  century outstanding poets, social and political thinkers, reformists, such as Mahmud Tarzi, Abdul Hadi, Anis, Ghobar, etc emerged who made a great effort to reform their society. Tarzi and his collegues made efforts through their publications to encourage important families to educate their children on modern lines. Certain privately owned news papers also appeared on scene to encourage people. Ittihad-i-Mashriqi, (the eastern union), Faryad (the clamor), Haqiqat (the truth), Setare-ye-Afghan (the Afghan star), and Anis were on the forefront. These intellectuals assimilated new ideas in a creative way and continued to dwell on the independence, nationalism, and above all modernization of the country, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p.180, 245.

42  In the early 20th century modern education system became the breeding ground of opposition movements demanding fundamental changes in the political system and called for the establishment of participatory democracy. These opposition movements began with the old constitutionalists at Habibia College ,thirty eight of whom were imprisoned and seven executed in 1909 on the charge of plotting a coup against king Habibullah, Ralph H. Magnus and Eden Naby, Afghanistan, Mullah, Marx and Mujahid, Oxford, 1998, p.99.

43  Afghanistan, Mullah, Marx and Mujahid, p.100.

44  Afghanistan, Mullah, Marx and Mujahid, p.101.

45  Hafizullah Emadi, State, Revolution and Super Powers in Afghanistan, London, 1973, pp35-36.

46  State, Revolution and Super Powers in Afghanistan, pp34-35.

47  For social, political and economic development the government called for mass support. Soviet Union rushed to support the government with increased military aid and a spurt of development proposals especially in petroleum exploitation, mining surveys, road construction, agriculture, and technical education, Nancy Peabody Newell and Richard S. Newell, The struggle for Afghanistan, London, 1982, p.46.

48  State, Revolution and Super Powers in Afghanistan, p34.

49  After the death of Mir Akbar Khyber in April 1978 the coup was organsed by Amin against Daoud and by 28th April 1978 Daoud and all of his family were killed in their presidential palace, Afghanistan, a short history of its people and politics, pp.135-136.

50  The  ulema,  community  elders,  the  intelligentsia,  army  officers,  religious to expel the invaders. There leaders were Hekmetyar, Engineer Habibur Rahman, Engineer Sayfuddin, Prof. Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, Prof. Burhan ud din Rabbani,etc M.Hassan Kakar, Afghanistan, the Sovietization and Afghan Response,California,1995,p.89; Peter Marsden, The Taliban, War and Religion in Afghanistan, London, 2002,pp.37-38.

51  Afghanistan, a short history of its people and politics,p.180.

52 Apratim Mukarji, Afghanistan, From Terror to Freedom, New Delhi, 2003, pp.82-86, 90.

53  Peter Schwittek, “About the school system under the Taliban” Afghanistan a Country Without a State,  ed, .Christine Noelle, Karim Canrad and Reinhard, Lahore,2004,pp.95-97.