Pashtunwal - the Code of the Pashtuns

چی ذان نه وای بیه زحن نه وای

In the Pashto language, "-wal" is a suffix that most strongly resembles "-ness" in English. Pashtunwal, sometimes jokingly translated as "Pashtunity", is the traditional code of ethics and behavior for ethnic Pashtuns.

The Pashtuns have a dubious and likely impenetrable ancient history. Oral tradition post-Islam is that the Pashtuns are a lost tribe of Israel, and will compose the most important part of the Mahdi army during the end times. Interestingly enough, there are a few shreds of genetic evidence to support the claim, but nothing conclusive. Scattered accounts of various tribes of the region in the histories of Herodotus and his predecessors seem to indicate that the ancestors of today's Pashtuns have existed largely unchanged for thousands and thousands of years.

It should be no surprise then, that an extremely tribal society based on the ideal of the warrior-poet should not fail to produce a fairly consistent and rigid code of behavior, even without the advantage of a written language. Pashtunwal, sometimes called a code of honor, is passed down not just as a set of stories, but as the fabric of Pashtun society.

There are several general principles that show up with consistent emphasis. They are, in English alphabetical order: Aitbar; Badal; Jirga; Melmastia; Nanawatey; Namus; Nang; Saz; and Tor.

There are of course many, many more parts and sub-parts, some of which will be detailed along with the major points.


Aitbar, or "to trust", is an acknowledgement and systemization of the reality of conducting contractual business without a written language. The customs of Aitbar include the public swearing of oaths, and conducting contractual business like the sale of land with respected witnesses, usually tribal elders and members of family.


Badal translates variously to "exchange", "reciprocation", and "retribution", depending on the context. It is chiefly the latter with which the idea of Badal in the context of Pashtunwal is concerned. In fact, Badal is often translated as "vengeance". Badal takes many forms, practically speaking, but is generally seen in the form of long-held grudges and feuds.

There is a very strong tradition of retribution in kind, particularly for injuries or murders, and the problem can very quickly escalate without intervention, usually in the form of formalized apologies and blood money. In fact, large parts of Pashtunwal deal specifically with mitigation of, and satisfaction of, Badal.

Many famous and longstanding blood feuds started in distant memory over things as simple as an offhand remark. The remark demanded a similar slander, which was in turn taken as an offense, which demanded Badal of its own, tempers flared, and two hundred years later, there are two villages that periodically shoot each other up as soon as they've stockpiled enough bullets to do so. It's enough to make the Hatfields and McCoys scratch their heads.


Jirga is a meeting of elders for the purpose of making decisions. This tradition is in fact codified in current Afghan law, and has roots going back beyond recorded history.

Most people don't realize it, but Pashtuns have been using representative democracy for a few thousand years.

A Jirga can be held on as small a scale as a single village, and on as large a scale as a Loya Jirga, a gathering of representatives from every nook and cranny of the Pashtun tribes. Jirgas are composed of spingheri, or "white beards", a respectful term for an elder or village headman. A Jirga will hear disputes, make laws (known as Badnarr, or prohibitions, and Tarr, or accords), and generally function as both a legislative and judicial system.

They resolve everything from land disputes to blood feuds, and very often mediate. As noted under Badal, one of the more important functions of the Jirga is known as Teega, or "stone", which refers to the symbolic placing of a stone in a public place as an ad-hoc monument to a temporary truce in bloodshed. The tradition carries with it a story regarding the mythical "first Jirga", where a stone was placed to end a legendary feud with the words "Until I move this stone, no more blood may be shed." Teega is usually placed only in the direst of circumstances, and after deliberation both within the Jirga and with both parties.

The primary reason for the placing of a Teega is to allow a cooling-off period for both parties, so that negotiations and Tarr can be done with a clearer head. It is also important to note that "temporary" can be a very flexible amount of time; there are accounts of Teega still physically in place in villages that have outlived the original dispute by generations, but are still considered inviolate.

Violation of Teega carries severe penalties; not only would any right to Badal or other resulting grievances be forfeit, but the offenders would also be subject to the primary punitive tool of a Jirga, a Nagha, or fine. A Nagha is any forfeiture ordered by the Jirga, usually as restitution to the wronged party.

Should the hypothetical offender refuse to obey a Badnarr or Tarr, violate Teega, or refuse a Nagha, among other infractions, the Jirga can resort to its most potent powers, the raising of Lashkar. A Lashkar is basically a posse, empowered and drafted by the authority of the Jirga and commanded to fulfill specific purposes, such as seizing property, killing an outlaw, escorting a protected party, and in some cases, making war.


Melmastia, or "hospitality", is probably the most famous component of Pashtunwal. Made famous by the factual account "Lone Survivor", by US Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, Pashtun hospitality is one of the most interesting parts of Pashtunwal and frequently makes foreigners wonder how it could possibly work.

Aside from the absolute imperative to be as generous a host as is physically possible, certain facets of Melmastia extend to obligations not typically encountered in any other culture, such as the sheltering of even your worst enemies and the obligation to die in their defense.

Essentially, upholding Melmastia requires that one shelter and aid anybody who asks for assistance, with no exceptions and no reluctance. It was illustrated to me this way: If President Bush (this was when he was still in office) knocked on Mullah Omar's door and asked for shelter, Mullah Omar would have to take him in, feed him, put him in the best bed in the house, and do so indefinitely, even to the extent that Mullah Omar would be required to take up arms in his guest's defense against any comer.

The host does, however, have recourse. If the host feels that Melmastia is being abused in any way, he can petition the Jirga, who may elect to relocate the guest, order the guest to leave, or even punish the guest. Petitioning a Jirga is not something you would do to, say, boot out a freeloading inlaw, but it definitely keeps the more serious possibilities from ever happening.

Notably, the requirement even extends to fugitives from the law. Even if the host knows that the fugitive is fleeing justice, he will still offer full Melmastia until the situation is clarified by a Jirga or one of its representatives.

A humorous story regarding Melmastia: Mullah Nasruddin (a common butt of jokes in Pashtun culture - typically very dimwitted or ignorant) goes for a visit at his cousin's house. His cousin prepares a huge feast, and everybody is happy. The second night, another huge feast. The third night, another huge feast. The fourth night, his cousin serves a side of dal (a bland mush of lentils, typically seen as the food of the abjectly poor and not well liked) with the lamb. The fifth night, his cousin serves only dal. The sixth night, cold dal. Mullah Nasruddin, on the seventh night, seeing dal again on the table, says "What's wrong with this place? All the time, it's dal, dal, dal!"

The joke here is that Mullah Nasruddin is too thick to see the polite, unspoken, but increasingly pointed suggestion that he has overstayed his welcome. A Pashtun would never directly ask a guest to leave, though it would be very clear to the guest if they had overstayed their welcome with signals even more discrete than a side of dal. The other part of the joke is that Mullah Nasruddin is so abrasive that his cousin was only willing to have him for three days; visits of friends and even acquaintances commonly extend for weeks at a time, though may only happen once a year or even less frequently, due to logistics.


Very closely related to Melmastia is the concept of Nanawatey, or "going in". Nanawatey takes different forms in different places, but it is the ritual asking of pardon for grievances. There are several common rituals, some of which are directly dependent on Melmastia.

A person (let us call him the 'trespasser') may wish to end a feud or clear the air with an enemy or rival (the 'wronged'), and will present himself as a guest at the wronged person's home, staying under Melmastia until his host relents and pardons him. This happens even in extreme cases, such as a blood feud or similarly "capital offenses". Bear in mind that the wronged will have a strong case to make with the Jirga to have the guest evicted, depending on the severity of the grievance.

The trespasser may also rush to a funeral for the relatives of the wronged and beg to be a pallbearer, or as a last ditch effort, may publicly throw himself on the mercy of the wronged. One utterly outdated, but interesting form of this public obeisance is that the trespasser will appear in public with a lead around his neck and a piece of grass in his mouth, and press the lead into the hand of the wronged - a potent symbol, essentially saying "I am like livestock to you, below even a servant".

Another regional ritual for Nanawatey is for the women of the trespasser's household to approach the home of the wronged literally under cover of a Quran, and ask in the name of the holy book to have the grievances aired. The women of the two households will typically negotiate amongst themselves either as a form of initial contact, an icebreaker if you will, or sometimes even to the extent of forming a Tarr between the families to end the hostilities.

It is unthinkable to deny a woman's request under such circumstances to be at least heard, even if it is not entertained; to slight her honor, or even worse, to physically harm her, would be a violation of Namus, or the integrity of the honor of Pashtun women. A dispute involving violations of Namus is never settled by anything less than letting Badal run its full course, or through Tor.

A Jirga is not typically involved in Nanawatey, but it can be. For instance, in the case of extremely grave trespasses, or a particularly hostile wronged party, the trespasser may ask a Jirga to arrange a meeting for Nanawatey, though the inverse is never the case - the wronged party would never directly ask, or petition a Jirga, to arrange Nanawatey.


As previously mentioned, Namus is the integrity of the honor of one's female relations. Both men and women "have" Namus. Families also have Namus, and one's Namus can be damaged either by the trespass of another, or one's own transgressions.

The concept of Namus is pre-Islamic, and has a widely varying set of interpretations throughout the whole Mid-East and Southwest Asia. Under Pashtunwal, violations of Namus are some of the most grave offenses, as they are not eligible for reconciliation by Nanawatey or by direct intervention by a Jirga, and unless resolved separately (see "Tor" below), must be avenged by unrelenting Badal.


The simplest translation for Nang is "honor". Nang is something like "face" in Eastern cultures, something like the Western notion of workmanlike pride, and something like the idea of chivalrous honor. It is all of this, more or less - and then some.

Nang is at the root of all of Pashtunwal. It is the principle that a Pashtun should always strive to do right, speak right, and think right; to uphold the Nang of oneself and ones' kin, to obey the law, and to be righteous in all dealings, even and perhaps especially in Badal. If there was such a thing as an untranslatable word, Nang would be it. However, it's not untranslatable, it just requires quite a bit of illustration and explication.

One's Nang would be preserved by killing a rival's son in retaliation for the death of one's own son even if it meant escalating an exchange of Badal. One's Nang would be utterly destroyed by killing, accidentally, in the course of Badal, or otherwise, a rival's daughter.

One's Nang would be preserved by the ritual murder or forced suicide of one's own daughter who sullies her own Namus by sneaking off with a boy. One's Nang would be tarnished perhaps beyond repair by covering the incident up and trying to backdate a marriage proposal with the boy's family.

In the incident above, the boy's own Nang would be severely damaged, and in fact, his life is probably forfeit to preserve the Nang and Namus of his family and avoid Badal. (for this particular instance, see "Tor" below)

One's Nang would be strengthened by accepting the Nanawatey and blood money from the person who accidentally killed your brother. One's Nang would be restored for offering Nanawatey and paying the blood price for accidentally killing someone's brother.

One's Nang would be ruined for not carrying out Badal, or, on the flipside, for letting Badal drag on to the detriment of the family or tribe when one is originally at fault.


Also known as "swarah", Saz is compensation for murder, often known in English as blood money. It is sometimes money or other tangibles, but also often takes the form of intermarriage; one who is penitent for murder, or wishes to go beyond Nanawatey will approach the Jirga and make the offer to pay Saz. This is sometimes a direct offer, and sometimes the result of the Jirga's mediation, and will be very much driven by individual circumstance and standards.

The acceptance of Saz by the wronged party carries with it complete forgiveness and in the case of intermarriage, usually very close future ties between the families in question. Intermarriage for grievances is usually a very complex social and political game; the severity of the grievance, the social standing of both families, the available matches, and more will all go into determining the match. In some instances, the marriage of one's best daughter to the other's finest son is just barely sufficient; in other cases, having one's least desirable daughter marry off to the wronged party's distant cousin is enough.


Tor literally translates as "black", but is used in the Pashto language to mean many things, including blame, accusation, wrongdoing, guilt, and shame. As a concept relating to Pashtunwal, Tor is the absolute and inflexible treatment of violations of Namus.

Given that description, in a typically contradictory and paradoxical fashion, Tor is situation-dependent. For example, If a couple elopes without permission, but are officially married (usually by a sympathetic or unwitting outside mullah) they may only face essential exile from their entire extended families, with the families both suffering a good deal of embarrassment.

However, in the case of adultery or premarital relations of any sort, even between a couple who is formally betrothed, the punishment is almost always death for both, to cleanse the Namus of both families and avoid Badal.

In the case of rape, the woman is traditionally not held responsible, though there is usually unfortunately a social stigma. Instead, the rapist is handed over, usually by his own family, to the woman's family.

The woman's family has, essentially, two options: They can kill him, or hand him over to the Jirga, who will almost always sentence him to death in any case. If he is handed over to the Jirga, his family avoids Badal by disowning the son prior to his execution. If the woman's family kills him, the family is effectively exiled from the community.

In the event that the rapist's family refuses to hand him over, or he flees justice, the woman's family has the right to kill the rapist's brother or father, and in some cases the entire male line. Even if the rapist's brother or father are killed in his place, his life is still considered forfeit and it is not uncommon for the male relatives of the woman to hunt him down later.

One saying regarding tor is "یوازی مړ تور اوسپین بدل کیږی" - "Only death changes Tor to Spin (white)."

The pitfalls of writing oral tradition

This is all pretty well according to oral tradition, which is subject to variations in emphasis and application based on region. Sometimes the "region" in question is as small as a cluster of buildings that barely qualifies as a village; sometimes, it's a diaspora community relying on retellings of stories about the olden days; sometimes, it's a variation in both space and time.

A quick Internet perusal of information regarding "Pashtunwal" will turn up different names for the same concepts, different levels of regard, different customs, and different organizations and sub-headings. Some people consider Namus to be the feminine version of Nang. Some people put Pashtun wedding traditions under the heading of Bota (ransoming, something I didn't cover here) and consider them to be integral to Pashtunwal. Just like fairytales, everybody has their own version, but it's easy to trace the consistencies.

Don't expect this to get you integrated into a village somewhere in the Hindu Kush, but also consider it a good baseline, and food for thought the next time you run into mentions of tribal politics, power brokers, and infighting in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan.

Many thanks to clockmaker for help with organization, clarity, trimming, and proofreading!

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