Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Despite Growing Ulema Conservatism: Afghans Managed to Celebrate Nawruz

AAN Team 5 min

Increasingly, during the last few years, the millennia-old celebrations of Nawruz, the New Year which starts at the spring equinox, ie around 21 March, has become the object of a religious debate in Afghanistan. Although the spring festivity is a major official holiday and continues to be a popular occasion for families to go on a day outing or visit relatives, it has come more and more under criticism by Islamic scholars. AAN takes this bittersweet occasion to inaugurate the first installment of its Chat Mat section this (Afghan) year, looking at some of the problems Afghans faced while trying to celebrate Nawruz, and how they reacted.

Nawruz is over, and over Kabul finally a proper springtime sun shines, drying the mud in our alleys and making the white blossoms fallen from the almond trees sparkle on the ground.

This year again, Nawruz attendance was big in Mazar-e Sharif, where the country’s major event of the day, the hoisting of the janda flag takes place, with several hundred thousands visitors reported. Among a population under the pressure of way too many concerns – security, economy, foreign withdrawal and interference – the three days festival in the North continues to exercise a magnetic power of attraction for crowds of Afghans from all over the country.

A young Afghan met at the airport of Kabul on the evening of the first day of Nawruz, despite having just come back from the UK after an absence of three years, seemed only focused on reaching Mazar that very night. Against all probabilities, he proceeded straight away to the Saray-e Shomali, hopeful of finding transport to bring him there to meet his friends.

Notwithstanding customary fears of unrest, after the 1 April 2011 riots – during which the Mazar UN office was stormed and twelve people lost their lives – were joined by many of the visitors coming from the Nawruz celebrations (see our blog here), this year no security problems were recorded around the Rauza-ye Ali, the holiest shrine of Mazar and arguably of all Afghanistan.

On the other hand, a traditional destination for Nawruz picnics parties from the capital, Gulghundi hill in Parwan province, was spoiled by a bloody gunfight and the ensuing protest of the population. On the first day of Nawruz, Firdaws, the son of local former mujahedin commander Khwaja Nabi, precipitated an altercation with the bodyguards of a MP from the same province, Rahman Rahmani, in nearby Charikar. Their clash turned into a gunfight on the road to Gulghundi. Paying the highest price were three daytrippers from Salang district who had come to enjoy the famous flower-dotted hilltop and who instead got killed in the crossfire. The next day some four hundred Salangis came down en masse to Charikar, and blocked the main Kabul-Mazar road in protest demanding government action against the culprit. This popular mobilisation of course completely canceled this year’s Nawruz celebrations in Gulghundi, but at least it led to the Ministry of Interior taking strong and quick action against the perpetrator, notwithstanding the high-profile protection he enjoyed: Firdaws was arrested by the Parwan police on 24 March.

Inside Kabul, celebrations went altogether smoothly. Families went for a traditional walk or a kite flying session, respectively on the hills of Bibi Mahru and Tapa-ye Maranjan, although the rain did cut short these pastimes. A more insidious obstacle was provided, however, by the condemnation of Nawruz celebrations as un-Islamic, in the form of sheets affixed to the gates of many mosques of the capital.

Debates about the unlawfulness of Nawruz celebrations according to Islam have reached an unprecedented height in Afghanistan, with several Sunni scholars making political use of the issue to criticise Iran. The festival of Nawruz is indeed a major holiday in the neighboring country  – and its origins are closely connected with the Persian pre-Islamic religion – although, one could argue, similar celebrations of the arrival of spring are to be found in the past of most of the countries sharing similar climatic conditions and agricultural calendars, well beyond the Middle East. (1)

Already in the days preceding Nawruz, a pamphlet in Dari titled ‘The celebration of Nawruz is forbidden: Nawruz is the festivity of the fire-worshippers’ was distributed by Salafi students at the entrance of Kabul university and the major private universities of the city. Authored by Mawlana Ahmad Shah, a famous scholar of hadith and Quranic interpretation from the Dar al-Ulum Tahlim al-Quran wa al-Sunnat of Jalalabad (a private religious institution), it expounds the reasons why the New Year’s celebrations (and that of Mehrgan, a sort of symmetrical but less popular autumn festival) are not licit according to Islam. Interestingly, the pamphlet highlights the incompatibility of the celebration with the tenets of the Hanafi madhab, showing pragmatic efforts at finding common grounds with the major school of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) followed in Afghanistan, although this is not the one normally followed by Salafis.

Indeed, the Friday sermons in many mosques of Kabul, overwhelmingly non-Salafi, both the week before Nawruz and on the second day of the festivity, revolved around a condemnation of its celebration, on the grounds that it debases Muslims to the status of the fire- or idol-worshippers that used to celebrate it and leads people to indulge in illicit pastimes and drinking.

Kabul was not the only place where similar preaching against the marking of New Year was noticed. In Ghazni, where the celebration is not particularly big inside the city, a non-government Sunni ulema shura sent fatwas to the Shia Hazaras living in villages in the vicinity of the city, warning them that Nawruz celebration was un-Islamic. This is also the position upheld by the Taleban, who exercise a strong influence in the south of the province, and inside the provincial capital, too. Meanwhile, in Panjshir, Afghan daily Mandegar reported, some ulama attended community gatherings only in order to condemn them.

An authoritative argument in defence of Nawruz on religious grounds was instead provided by Khwaja Bashir Ansari, an Afghan religious scholar of international renown (currently residing in the US). Also, the government officially rejected religious criticism of the festivity through the words of the Deputy Minister of Culture and Information, while president Karzai himself attended a joint Nawruz celebration of several countries of the region in Turkmenistan.

AAN had the opportunity to listen to a passionate defence of Nawruz at the celebrations in the Qalah-e Ekhtiaruddin, the fortress of Herat, where it had been most graciously invited. The event, organised by a group of cultural activists from the city, consisted of an evening-long she’rkhwani, a poetry reading in which dozens of poets of all ages and origins took part, contributing humoristic ghazals in the strong Herati dialect and shehr-e sepid (free poetry) couched in modern language – only occasionally interrupted by a musical piece by traditional musicians or young pop groups. Guests of honour were several prominent intellectuals, foremost among them the Afghan candidate for the Nobel prize for literature, Rahnaward Zaryab.

In the suggestive scenery of the refurbished Arg of Herat – the city itself being a fortress in the preservation of the Nawruz traditions – the renowned novelist gave a long speech in defense of the New Year’s festivity. After reminding the audience that Nawruz celebrations have been included by UNESCO in the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2009, he spelled out three reasons why religious uneasiness about Nawruz does not make sense. These were remarkable in their originality and suggestiveness, as they associated the first day of spring with events that transcend the narrow boundaries of the debate about it being an undue Iranian influence, or a deviation from Islamic orthodoxy. He said:

‘Nawruz is the date on which Adam and Eve were reunited after long years of solitary wandering following their ejection from Eden; on which Noah finally cast the anchor of his Ark on top of Mount Ararat; and on which Othman, the third caliph of Islam and the second-last of the rightly-guided ones, ascended to power.’

Broadly speaking, Afghan people have reacted with a mixture of cautiousness and irony to this new restriction offered them. AAN heard a fruit-seller in Pul-e Khumri lamenting how his sales had dropped after the local ulema had lectured the people about the unlawfulness of the haft-mewa, the traditional Nawruz dish made of seven kind of fruit, dried or in syrup. But then again, he said, his business had been half-salvaged when customers started showing up, and, following the example of a resourceful mechanic, asked for a hasht-mewa (eight-fruit) concoction instead.

(1) In Iran too, religious  scholars seem not to be too happy with the lavish organisation of 2500 Nawruz celebrations countrywide arranged by president Ahmadinejad.


Nawruz Ulema