|Regions with significant populations|
|Nuristan, Kunar, Afghanistan|
|Nuristani languages, |
Pashto, serving as the lingua franca and widely understood as a second language
Sunni Islam (majority) and Shia Islam
|Related ethnic groups|
The Nuristanis, also known as Kafiristanis, are an ethnic group native to the Nuristan Province of northeastern Afghanistan, whose languages comprise the Nuristani branch of Indo-Iranian languages. A small community of Nuristanis are also settled in the neighboring Chitral region of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.
In the mid-1890s, after the establishment of the Durand Line when Afghanistan reached an agreement on various frontier areas to the British Empire for period of time, Emir Abdur Rahman Khan conducted a military campaign in Kafiristan and followed up his conquest with forced conversion of the Kafirs to Islam; the region thenceforth being known as Nuristan, the "Land of Light". Before their conversion, the Nuristanis practiced a form of ancient Hinduism. Non-Muslim religious practices endure in Nuristan today to some degree as folk customs. In their native rural areas, they are often farmers, herders, and dairymen.
The Nuristan region has been a prominent location for war scenes that have led to the death of many indigenous Nuristanis. Nuristan has also received abundance of settlers from the surrounding Afghanistan regions due to the borderline vacant location.
Noted linguist Richard Strand, an authority on Hindu Kush languages, observed the following about pre-Islamic Nuristani religion:
"Before their conversion to Islâm the Nuristânis practiced a form of ancient Hinduism, infused with accretions developed locally".
They acknowledged a number of human-like deities who lived in the unseen Deity World (Kâmviri d'e lu; cf. Sanskrit deva lok'a-).
Certain deities were revered only in one community or tribe, but one was universally revered as the creator: the Hindu god Yama Râja called imr'o in Kâmviri. There is a creator god, appearing under various names, as lord of the nether world and of heaven: Yama Rājan, or Māra ('death', Nuristani), or Dezau (ḍezáw) whose name is derived from Indo-European *dheig'h i.e. "to form" (Kati Nuristani dez "to create", CDIAL 14621); Dezauhe is also called by the Persian term Khodaii. There are a number of other deities, semi-gods and spirits. The Kalash pantheon is thus one of the few living representatives of Indo-European religion.
They believed in many deities, whose names resembled those of Iranian and old Vedic sources. There was a supreme deity named Mara or Imra, plus a multitude of lesser gods and goddesses known locally as Mandi or Moni, Wushum or Shomde, Gish or Giwish, Bagisht, Indr, Züzum, Disani, Kshumai or Kime etc.
Each village and clan had its guardian deity, with shamans advising those seeking help and priests officiating at religious services. The cult centered on the sacrifice of animals, mostly goats.
The area extending from modern Nuristan to Kashmir was known as "Peristan", a vast area containing a host of Nuristani cultures and Indo-European languages that became Islamized over a long period. Earlier, it was surrounded by Buddhist states and societies which temporarily extended literacy and state rule to the region. The journey to the region was perilious according to reports of Chinese pilgrims Fa-hsien and Sung Yun. The decline of Buddhism resulted in the region becoming heavily isolated. The Islamization of the nearby Badakhshan began in the 8th century and Peristan was completely surrounded by Muslim states in the 16th century. The Kalash people of lower Chitral are the last surviving heirs of the area.
The region was called "Kafiristan" because while the surrounding populations were converted to Islam, the people in this region retained their traditional religion, and were thus known as "Kafirs" to the Muslims. The Arabic word "Kufr" means disbelief and the related word "Kafir" means one who does not believe in Islam. Thus "Kafir" here is used to refer to their being non-Muslims; the province was therefore known as Kafiristan. The majority were converted to Islam during Abdur Rahman Khan's rule around 1895. The province is now known as Nuristan and the people as Nuristanis. However, among the rural population many old customs and beliefs like occasional production of wine have continued.
In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great encountered them and finally defeated them after they put up a stubborn and prolonged resistance, describing them as being distinct culturally and religiously from other peoples of the region.
Nuristanis were formerly classified into "Siah-Posh (black-robed) and "Safed-Posh (white-robed)/Lall-Posh (Red-Robed). Timur fought with and was humbled by the Siah-Posh. Babur advised not to tangle with them. Genghis Khan passed by them.
In 1014, Mahmud of Ghazni attacked them:
Another crusade against idolatry was at length resolved on; and Mahmud led the seventh one against Nardain, the then boundary of India, or the eastern part of the Hindu Kush; separating as Firishta says, the countries of Hindustan and Turkistan and remarkable for its excellent fruit. The country into which the army of Ghazni marched appears to have been the same as that now called Kafirstan, where the inhabitants were and still are, idolaters and are named the Siah-Posh, or black-vested by the Muslims of later times. In Nardain there was a temple, which the army of Ghazni destroyed; and brought from thence a stone covered with certain inscriptions, which were according to the Hindus, of great antiquity.
The first reference to Siah-Posh Kafirs occurs in Timur's invasion of Afghanistan in 1398 CE. Timur's autobiography (Tuzak-i-Timuri) amply attests that he had battled both with the Katirs as well as the Kam sections of the Siah-Posh (black-robed) Kafirs of the Hindukush mountains. Timur invaded Afghanistan in March, 1398. On the basis of local complaints of ill-treatment and extortions filed by the Muslims against the Kafirs, Timur personally attacked the Kators of the Siah-Posh group located north-east of Kabul in eastern Afghanistan. The Kators left their fort Najil and took refuge at the top of the hill. Timur razed the fort to ground, burnt their houses and surrounded the hill where the Kator had collected for shelter. The relic of the historic fort is said to still exist a little north to Najil in the form of a structure known as Timur Hissar (Timur's Fort). After a tough fight, some of the Kators were defeated and were instantly put to death while the others held out against heavy odds for three days. Timur offered them death or Islam. They chose the latter, but soon recanted and attacked the regiment of Muslim soldiers during night. The latter being on guard, fought back, killed numerous Kators and took 150 as prisoners and put them to death afterwards. Next day, Timur ordered his troops to advance on all four sides to kill all men, enslave the women and children and plunder or lay waste all their property. In his autobiography called Tuzak-i-Timuri, Timur proudly boasts of the towers of the skulls of the Kators which he built on the mountain in the auspicious month of Ramazan A.H. 800 (1300 CE)
Again, according to Timur's autobiography (Tuzak-i-Timuri), a military division of ten thousand Muslim soldiers was sent against the Siah-Posh (Kam) Kafirs under the command of General Aglan Khan to either slay these infidels or else to convert them into Islam. Tuzak-i-Timuri frankly admits that the regiment was badly routed by a small number of Siah-Posh Kafirs. The Muslim forces had to flee from the battle-field leaving their horses and armor. Another detachment had to be sent under Muhammad Azad which fought gallantly and recovered the horses and the armor lost by General Aglan and came back home, leaving the Siah-Posh alone.
It is notable that Timur does not boast of any killings or imprisonment of the Siah-Poshes as he does for the Katirs and numerous other communities of India proper. Also, he gives no further details of his conflict with the Siah-Poshes in his Tuzak-i-Timuri after this encounter, which clearly shows that the outcome of the fight against the Siah-Poshes was very costly and shameful for Timur.
Other references to these Kafirs are made in the fifteenth and later in sixteenth century during the Mughal period.
In 1839, the Kafirs sent a deputation to Sir William Macnaghten in Jalalabad claiming relationship with the fair skinned British troops who had invaded the country
At the time of the Afghan conquest of Kafiristan, a small number of Kom and Kati Kafirs fled east to Chitral (modern Pakistan) where they were allowed to settle by the Mehtar. There they practised their faith for a few more decades, before finally converting to Islam as well. The final known non-converted Kafir was settled in a Chitrali village known as Urtsun. This Kafir's name was Chanlu, and he converted in 1938, several months after being interviewed about the cosmology of the Kati.
In Chitral, the Nuristanis are known either as Bashgalis (as most migrated from a valley of Nuristan called Bashgal in the Chitrali Khowar language), or alternatively as Sheikhan (a generic term for recent converts to Islam). The exact population size of Nuristanis in Chitral is unknown, but members of the community estimate that they number at least 12 000. All of them are speakers of the Kamkata-vari language, also known locally as Sheikhani.
Prior to 1895, the Kafirs of Hindukush were classified into two groups― the Siah-posh (black clad) and the Safed-posh (white clad) Kafirs, also known as the Lal-posh (red-clad), so-called because of the colour of the robes they wore. But the British investigator George Scott Robertson who visited Kafiristan and studied the Kafirs for about two years (1889–1891) improved upon the old classification by recognising that the Safed-posh Kafirs were actually members of several separate clans, viz, the Waigulis, Presungulis or Viron, and the Ashkuns.  The later three groups of the Kafirs used to be collectively known as Sped-Posh Kafirs.
The term Siah-posh Kafirs used to designate the dominant group of Hindu Kush Kafirs inhabiting the Bashgal Valley. The Siah-posh Kafirs have sometimes been confused with Kalasha people of the neighboring Chitral region in Pakistan.
The Siah-Posh tribe was divided into Siah-posh Katirs or Kamtoz, Siah-posh Mumans or Madugals, Siah-posh Kashtoz or Kashtan, Siah-posh Gourdesh or Istrat, and Siah-posh Kams or Kamoze. The Siah-posh Katirs were further divided into the Katirs, who occupied twelve villages of the lower Bashgul (Kam) country, the Kti or Katawar, who lived in two villages in the Kti Valley, the Kulam, and the Ramguli, the most numerous group, living in twenty four villages in the Ramgul Valley, in the westernmost part of Kafiristan on the Afghan frontier.
All Siah-posh groups of Kafirs were regarded as of common origin. They all had a common dress and customs and spoke closely-related dialects of Kati. Nicholas Barrington et al. reported that the Waigulis and Presungulis referred to all Siah-posh Kafirs as Katirs.
While the Kamtoz of the lower Bashgul valley were the most numerous, the Kam of the upper Bashgul valley were the most intractable and fierce and dreaded for their military prowess.
General Issa Nuristani was second in command following the King during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Before his assassination, General Issa called the Nuristani people in a "Jihad" against the Soviet Army. Led by the Koms tribe, the Nuristani were the first citizens of Afghanistan to revolt against the Communist takeover in 1978. They played an important role in the conquering of some provinces, including Kunar, Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Panshir. Thereafter, Nuristan remained a scene of some of the bloodiest guerrilla fighting with the Soviet forces from 1979 through 1989. Following the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989, the Mawlavy Ghulam Rabani was declared as governor of the Kunar Province. The Nuristanis inspired others to fight and contributed to the demise of the Afghan Communist regime in 1992.
In a 2012 research on Y-chromosomes of five Nuristani samples, three were found to belong to the Haplogroup R1a, and one each in R2a and J2a.
Most Nuristanis are from the Kata Family and Janaderi Branch. However, there are other Nuristani tribes as well, some of the Kata of Janaderi people live in Ozhor (now Karimabad), Gobor, Buburat, Ayun, Broze and Mastuj. There is a very popular rock associated with this tribe located in Karimabad (Juwara) called kata bont (Kata is the name of the tribe; bont meaning "stone" in the Chitrali language).
The Nuristani do not have a formal tribal structure as the Pashtuns do, however they do designate themselves by the names of the local regions they are from. In total, there are 35 such designations: five from the north–south valleys and 30 from the east–west valley.
Some of these tribes include:
Living in the high mountain valleys, the Nuristani retained their ancient culture and their religion, a form of ancient Hinduism with many customs and rituals developed locally. Certain deities were revered only by one tribe or community, but one deity was universally worshipped by all Nuristani as the Creator, the Hindu god Yama Raja, called imr'o or imra by the Nuristani tribes.
Prominent sites include Hadda, near Jalalabad, but Buddhism never seems to have penetrated the remote valleys of Nuristan, where the people continued to practise an early form of polytheistic Hinduism.
Up until the late nineteenth century, many Nuristanis practised a primitive form of Hinduism. It was the last area in Afghanistan to convert to Islam—and the conversion was accomplished by the sword.