Even conversion does not remove the Kafir stigma for the Kalash

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Zubair Torwali

Zubair Torwali

Zubair is a writer and activist for the rights of all the marginalised linguistic communities of north Pakistan. He is the founder of the civil society organisation Idara Baraye Taleem wa Taraqi and the author of Muffled Voices: Longing for a Pluralist and Peaceful Pakistan (2015), among other writings. He lives in Bahrain, Pakistan.

The Kalash people, now no more than 5,000 in number, are the only existing Dardic community living today with their ancient religion and culture intact. They speak the Kalasha language and currently live in three valleys: Bumboret, Rumbur and Brir in southern Chitral in North Pakistan. This article explores the significant social pressures currently encouraging the Kalash to convert to Islam, though this has not solved the difficulties the Kalash face.

Pakistan is a culturally diverse country with more than 70 distinct languages spoken here. Many of these ‘minor’ languages and related cultures are under immense pressure of extinction. The majority of these endangered languages are spoken in northern Pakistan and are Muslim, except for the Kalash community, which has a tiny population of about 5000 people who still adhere to a worldview that is not Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or Muslim. Because they are non-Muslim in a country with 98 percent Muslim population, many people apprehend that this community will soon disappear because of the soft assimilation and ‘forced conversion’. Whether these fears are true or fictitious, this article examines the situation on the basis of past history as well as evidence from the activists of the Kalash community.

‘Kafiristan’ (Land of the Pagans) was a term applied by the surrounding Muslims in the south for the people of the mountainous communities of Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalaya—from the Panjshir valley in Afghanistan across the northern areas of Pakistan to the borders of Kashmir—people who were largely still non-Muslim at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is interesting that the so-called Kafirs of this area succeeded in keeping their ancient beliefs and ‘primitive’ traditions alive until the end of nineteenth century, even though they were surrounded by an expanding Islamic world.

But the situation drastically changed with the advance of the Afghan king Emir Abdul Rahman’s army into the valleys of today’s Nuristan in Afghanistan in 1895, killing many and converting the rest. A considerable number of the ‘Kafirs’ in Afghanistan fled the persecution and took refuge with their brethren, the ‘Black Kafirs’—present day Kalasha—across the Durand Line in Chitral, in then British India.

For researchers, the Kalasha provide living examples of customs somewhat similar to the now-extinct cultural traditions of many communities from Hindu Kush, Karakoram and western Himalaya. These people living in three remote mountainous valleys in Pakistan are the last remnants of the ‘Kafirs’ of the Hindu Kush, who in 1896 numbered more than 100,000 (1) but are now a small indigenous community surrounded by encroaching Muslims. Recent estimates put their numbers around 5,000, which indicates a drastic decline in the population of those Kalasha people who still practice their religion and traditions.

The Kalasha religion, like the population of the community, is in considerable flux today as it is faced with mounting challenges and increasing social pressures seeping in from the surrounding region. According to Peter Parke’s Livestock Symbolism and Pastoral Ideology Among the Kafirs of the Hindu Kush, this region, including the upper Dir and Swat valleys, “practiced archaic polytheistic religions which, though differing in many traits—such as the names of divinities, the morphology of religious festivals, the contents of the mythologies—had at their core a common symbolic system based on what has been termed a ‘pastoral ideology’” (2).

Once found throughout southern Chitral, the Kalash people (3) are now confined to three smaller valleys: Bumborate, Rumbur and Briri in southern Chitral, bordering Afghanistan, in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northwest Pakistan.  Many experts and researchers claim that their unique religion, language and culture are on the verge of extinction due to a combination of factors related to social pressure and missionary work. Contrary to the commonly held beliefs by ordinary Muslims, the faith of the Kalash—which is a mixture of rituals, festivals, and mythologies (3)—acknowledges a creator god but also a pantheon of deities with specific roles. Shamans play a specific and dominant role, and fairies and spirits are common (4). Scholars tell us that the Kalash have incorporated many influences from the nearby pre-Islamic Nuristan in Afghanistan, who were also known as ‘red Kafirs’. However, we can trace the religious practices and cultures of all mountain communities of the Hindu Kush to before the sixteenth century.

The often one-dimensional religious and intellectual upbringing of many in Pakistan makes the Kalasha appear to be very ‘strange creatures’, for it is difficult to understand them through a rigid belief system. In February this year when at a university in Lahore, Pakistan, I asked the audience if they knew of any region named Kafiristan in Pakistan. Their answer was the Kalash land. These people are still known as Kafirs, or ‘unbelievers’, in Pakistan; and being Kafir in Pakistan gives a free license to the Muslim preachers and general public to convert them to Islam by any means. Syed Gul Kalasha, aged 35, who is an archaeologist working for the museum in Chitral as curator states, “I am well respected by my museum colleagues in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Yet non-Kalash people try to flirt with me because they think I am a Kalash and have no cultural restrictions. People usually think of us as pagan, unbelievers, and regard us a godless people. This embarrasses us most”.

Remembering her days at the university, Ms. Gul added, “When I was at my university, I became the victim of a very sad story which still haunts me. The hostel warden, who was also our assistant provost, once saw a girl and a boy sitting together and consequently blamed me for making their meeting possible. She not only attacked me as a person, but also attacked my religion and culture”.

She went on, “Fellow students often avoid meeting me. They would also avoid sharing a dining table with me, thinking I am infidel and hence ‘impure’”. Ms. Gul further noted, “My director is very friendly, and being a lover of cultures and archeology, he respects me the most. But there are colleagues who laugh at me and look down upon my faith. Many people think we are a ‘free commodity’ and they try to flirt with me. Even older men do that, too”.

She continued, “I hide my identity when I travel because of the fear that people will laugh at me and look down upon me. Once I was told by an old man to get out of the room where I was one of the special guests at a public university in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa”. Recalling her mistreatment, she concluded, “Of course, there are good people, but when some people attack my religion it is extremely hurtful. People also think, being a religious minority, we do not love Pakistan. We are often forced to chant ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ [Long live Pakistan] at many public occasions”.

Luke Rahmat is a Kalash activist working to preserve his culture and religion. He shared with me a screenshot of a Facebook post written in Pashto by a visitor to the Kalash valley. Mr. Luke asked me to translate the post for him. The post included a photo of two underage Kalash girls. The visitor had written, “Kalash girls in Chitral are like chicks, samosas and jaleebi and are for sale”. By samosas and jaleebi he meant that the girls are alluring and erotic.

Kalashi Girl, in traditional cloathing. Photo @Wikimedia Commons

A 2017 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan entitled “A Call to Preserve Kalash Rights and Culture” alerted:

In June 2016, a 14-year-old Kalasha girl’s home was attacked by Muslims with rocks and sticks. The girl had converted to Islam. Next day, she went to her parent’s home and put on the traditional Kalash dress, which led some Muslims to believe that she had reverted to her Kalash faith. The situation became so grave that police had to intervene and fire shots into the air to disperse the crowd. The police took the girl from her home to Chitral. To the Kalash the incident was a reminder of the intolerance that has crept into the otherwise peaceful area and also raised questions about the conversion of minors. In May 2017, an organized effort was made to stop Chilim Joshi—the spring festival. Posters were also distributed to disrupt the festival. An environment of fear is being created in the valleys. The Kalash expected and demanded that the state create a conducive environment to ensure peace and order (5).

It is worth remembering here that Pakistan’s Constitution does not allow forced conversion by means such as “coercing, intimidating, threatening or forcing someone to leave one’s religion or adopt another religion”. Nor does it allow forced marriages or marriages of minors. With the passage of a 2020 Act (6) the Constitution has also unequivocally given full freedom for citizens to practice their religion and religious rituals, propagate their religion and freely visit their religious places.

Local authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in Chitral, however, assert that there is no forced conversion of the Kalash people, nor is anybody being intimidated in order to change religions, and the “majority Muslim community ‘has cordial relations’ with the Kalash”.

When Kalash converts to Islam, they not only set aside their religion but also their language and festivals, and in many cases their family as well.

Even though there is no evidence of forced conversion among the Kalash, the overall social fabric around them compels many Kalash men, and sometimes women, to convert. They live among a larger population of Muslims; hence Islam is not alien to them. The Tablighi Jama’at, a Muslim missionary movement, has great influence in the Kalash valleys, and their representatives frequently visit Kalash families. Among the promises the Tablighi Jama’at are achieving a sense of “elevation”, “purity” and “social interaction”. Kalash men are motivated by these spiritual as well as worldly benefits (3).

As in the case of Sayad Gul Kalash, one of the motivating forces to convert for a Kalash is to get rid of the burden of the stigma with which the majority population treats the Kalash people, who are not welcome in many social, educational and political domains.

Kalash women and men are free to choose their marriage partner, and Kalash woman can choose a Muslim man as spouse without restriction from other Kalash people. However, she still must convert to the Muslim faith, as Islam does not allow the union of believers with unbelievers in marriage.

Although Kalash converts might assume they are elevated, pure, and acceptable to Muslims after conversion, many tensions arise in the community, which result in the destruction not only of Kalash culture and language but also of the co-existence between Kalash and Muslims.

The distinction of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ increases with conversion. Kalash converts think of their Kalash neighbors as ‘them’ after conversion and no longer want to interact with them. They usually think of their past life as “immoral”, “unhygienic and impure”. Converts are also rejected by their Kalash families, and usually are not welcome.  In this way conversion increases conflict in communities.

On the other hand, many converts become disillusioned when they are not fully accepted by their ‘new community.’ Their past Kalash identity never ceases to matter in their new community, among whom they are often differentiated as “Sheikhs”. Converts with families still considered Kalash Kafirs are also under constant pressure and not treated equally. This stigma of having a kafir family never leaves converts. Religious men, especially extremist mullahs, insist that the Kalash people need to give up their old religion and convert to Islam. When a social media post suggests that the Kalash are now the only remaining Dardic population who have retained their faith, a worker of the Jama’at Islami from Swat based in Lahore responded that “adhering to one’s old religion is sheer ignorance”.

I contacted a number of Muslim men around the Kalash and none of them was ready to comment. At last, one Imam of a masjid, mosque, named Qari Israr was ready to give his views. Hoping that I would represent Muslims in a better way, Qari Israr said, “The perception that the Kalash are pressured to change religion is totally baseless. We have been living here for centuries and my forefathers, who were Kalash, had left their religion lived here. Thank God that He gave us hida’yat (the right path)”. Qari further elaborated that there is no pressure or forced conversion. The Kalash become Muslim by their own will. Pressure is forbidden in Islam. And Islam does not permit any such act, Qari Israr said while telling me Allah Hafiz.

The assertion by the Muslim population that Kalash covert to Islam as their own choice, and the denial of such happening by the government officials, has always been in practice in order to hide facts. These people and the officials either do not understand the plight of the Kalash people or, hailing from the majority belief system, give a cover to the phenomena. As we saw, the Kalash were more than 100,000 in 1896—even after the war against them by Emir Abdul Rahman—who were decreased to hardly 5000 persons now indicate the depletion of the community; and we see no visible increase in their population every year. Moreover, the narrations by Sayad Gul Kalash and Luke Rahmat are ample examples of the pressure the Kalash community is a victim of. There is an imperative need to admit the pressure on them to convert to Islam and to take steps to protect the Kalash from such assimilation forces.


  1. Naqvi, F. H., “People’s Rights or Victim s Rights or Victim’s Rights: Reexamining the Rights”, Indiana Law Journal, 1996.
  2. Parkes, P., “Livestock Symbolism and Pastoral Ideology Among the Kafirs of Hindu Kush”, 1987.
  3. Kazmi, A. S., “From Spirits to God: Stories of the Kalash Converts from Before and After their Conversion”, Narrative Works, 2016.
  4. Cacopardo, A., “The Other Kalasha A Survey of Kalashamun-Speaking People in Southern Chitral”, 1991.
  5. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan-HRCP, “A call to preserve Kalash rights and culture”, 2017.
  1. Senate of Pakistan, “Protection of the Rights of Religious Minorities Act 2020”, 2020

Note: This article was first published by Culturico on 12 July 2023.

Link: https://culturico.com/2023/07/12/even-conversion-does-not-remove-the-kafir-stigma-for-the-kalash/

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