M. Nazif Shahrani

M. Nazif Shahrani

Professor Emeritus


  • Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 1976
  • M.A., University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 1972
  • B.A., University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI, 1970

Research Interests

Islamic movements, identity politics in failed/failing nation states, Islamic movements, Muslim family and gender dynamics, cultural ecology of nomadic pastoralism, and the political ecology of state-society relations in Soviet and post-Soviet Central Asia, Southwest Asia and the Middle East.

Courses Recently Taught

  • Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East
  • Peoples and Cultures of Central Asia
  • Post-Taliban Afghanistan and Global War on Terror
  • Seminars in Anthropological Studies of Central Asian and The Middle East, topics change by semester, recent topics include:
  • Anthropology of religion with focus on Islam
  • Family, Gender and Population Dynamics in Central Asia & the Middle East
  • Islam and Politics in Central Asia and the Middle East
  • Nomadic Pastoralism in Central Asian & Middle Eastern History and Society
  • Representations of Islam and Muslims in Anthropological Literature
  • Social Change in Central Asia
  • States and Societies in Central and Southwestern Asia

About M. Nazif Shahrani

Two facts have shaped my career as a “native” anthropologist. My personal conviction, formed in the mid-1960's as a college student in Afghanistan, that anthropology was a discipline relevant to the future development of countries such as my own homeland. Sociocultural anthropology in particular, I believed, offered analysis of, and remedies for, contemporary social problems - grinding poverty, injustice, inequality, socioeconomic and technological under-development. And a second set of events, utterly beyond my control and entirely external to anthropology, tested my understanding of the purpose and relevancy of anthropology-i.e., the Soviet inspired military coup and the subsequent establishment of a Communist government in Kabul (1978), the rise of popular Islamist resistance, a jihad, the direct Soviet military intervention, the perpetuation of an intense armed struggle and a devastating civil war in Afghanistan, my homeland and chosen place of ethnographic research.

My initial field research (1972-1974) was a study of the cultural ecological adaptation of a small Turkic-speaking Kirghiz pastoral nomadic group and their sedentary neighbors, the Wakhi, in northeastern Badakhshan, Afghanistan, the province of my birth and early education. I collected ecological, economic, demographic, social organizational and historical data pertaining not only to the Kirghiz and Wakhi adaptation to high altitude and severe climatic conditions, but also to the constraints of a politically induced social and economic realities of closed frontier conditions imposed by Communist China and Soviet Russia in the region.

My first book, The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers (1979) adhered to all the long-held conventions of scientific ethnographic presentation--i.e. ethnographic truth, objectivity and impartiality (indifference?). It was the onset of the prolonged tragic war in Afghanistan that effectively robbed me of the opportunity to return home to work or do fieldwork, thus radically altering the trajectory of my personal and professional life, including the nature of my long-term personal and professional involvement with the Kirghiz and with Afghanistan.

During this century of wars (colonial, anti-colonial, nationalist, revolutionary, interventionist, and war on terrorism) producing economic devastation, ethnocide, genocide, and massive displacement of peoples as internal and external refugees--all in the name of freedom and liberty--it seems that anthropology and anthropologist have historically managed to ignore these painful and pervasive sociopolitical issues of our time. Hence, Afghanistan was lost to anthropology after April, 1978, because it was no longer safe for traditional ethnographic research. However, unlike most of my non-Afghan colleagues, I could not in good conscience abandon research on my homeland. Morally, emotionally and intellectually I could not ignore the war in Afghanistan. My commitment to studying the conflict had an urgency I had not felt about my earlier research.

My new interest in the so called “low-intensity” wars and their human consequences was a problem generally avoided by anthropology and anthropologists. It directly raised the prickly question about what practical relevance did the kind of anthropology I had learned and practiced have when addressing the situation facing the Kirghiz, Wakhi and the rest of the peoples of Afghanistan? Why was the future of these communities and the nation not a subject of anthropological inquiry? Why had I and other researchers only tried to deal with the present in terms of the past without considering the thoughts and imaginations of these peoples about their future? What was my moral responsibility as an individual, a native, and an anthropologist toward the communities I had studied?

I continued my long-term research on the Kirghiz (who fled to northern Pakistan and were later resettled as refugees in eastern Turkey), not simply as exotic tribal ethnographic specimens, but as an historically, socially and culturally constituted community long embedded within the body politics of the Afghan nation-state, and currently gripped by a complex, national and international ideological-political-military conflict of major local, national, and global proportions.

My central research inquiries since the early 1980’s have been directed toward an understanding of the impact of Islam upon the social imagination of the people of Afghanistan concerning their future, and the impact of such images of the future upon their present actions and activities. Some of the issues addressed include problems of state-building, nationalism, and social fragmentation in multi-ethnic nation-states such as Afghanistan; the political economy of international assistance to modern states and the politicization of ethnic identities; the role of Central Asian vernacular didactic literature in the social production of local knowledge and practices of Islam, and in contemporary educational and Islamist political movements; and the conception, nature and styles of traditional local leadership in Central Asia based on analyzing the life histories of Kirghiz khans and other Central Asian leaders. More recently, I have also examined the reasons for the failure of Afghan Mujahideen groups to form a viable government following their stunning military victory against former Soviet military occupation forces of the 1980s. The political failure of Afghan Mujahideen resulted in devastating inter-ethnic wars (1990s), culminating to the Rise of Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist rule and the current US led international war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and opening new research opportunities in the newly independent nations of Muslim Central Asia I have begun fieldwork in Uzbekistan. The impact of Soviet rule upon traditional Muslim Central Asian societies and cultures in general, and its effects upon the structure and functions of Uzbek oyila (family/household) constitute a major focus of my current and future research. More specifically, I am examining how former Soviet Central Asian Uzbek have experienced and managed their lives and careers as individual members of Uzbek Muslim families within the broader context of Soviet colonial rule, and the particular demands of the dominant Soviet “political culture of scientific atheism.” So far, I have attempted to address these issues through detailed investigation and reconstruction of the social history of about thirty carefully selected Uzbek oyila in both rural and urban areas (1994). In addition, I have also studied Islamic movements in post-Soviet Central Asia and how the anti- Islamic policies of newly independent regimes in the region have contributed to the rise of Muslim militancy in the region.

Honors and Awards

  • Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship, Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University (1984-1985)
  • Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for International Scholars, Smithsonian Institute (1997-1998)

Publication Highlights

The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War, (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press), 2002, pp. xli + 302

Revolutions and Rebellions in Afghanistan: Anthropological Perspectives. M. Nazif Shahrani and Robert L. Canfield, eds. Berkeley, Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1984, pp.xiv + 394.

Modern Afghanistan: The Impact of 40 Years of War. Editor and contributor, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2018. Pp. xix +372

Revolutions and Rebellions in Afghanistan: Anthropological Perspectives. M. Nazif Shahrani and Robert L. Canfield, eds. Being re-published with a new “Preface” by Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2018. Initially was published in 1984 by Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, University of California, pp.xiv + 394.

The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War. 2002. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2002, pp. xli + 302. First published as The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1979 pp.xxiii + 264.

Afghanistan’s Alternatives for Peace, Governance and Development: Transforming Subjects to Citizens & Rulers to Civil Servants. Afghanistan Papers No. 2 (August 2009). Ottawa & Montreal: A co-Publication of Center for International Policy Studies (CIPS) & The Center for International Governance Innovations (CIGI), available at <cigionline.org>.

“Great Games” on the Crossroads of High Asia. Iranian Studies. 2019, 52:3-4, 611-620, Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/00210862.2019.1653098.

“Peace in Afghanistan: A Northern, Non-Pashtun Perspective”. In Incremental Peace in Afghanistan. Ana Larson and Alexander Ramsbothan, Eds. Special Issue 27 of Accord: An International Review of Peace Initiatives. London: Conciliation Resources. 2018

“US Policies and Practices toward Afghanistan and Central Asia since 2001.” In Afghanistan and Its Neighbors After the NATO Withdrawal, Amin Saikal and Kirill Nourzhanov, ed. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016, pp. 17-31.

“Why Muslim Sectarian Politics of Rage in the Age of “‘Empire of Trust’?” Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, 2016, 1(1):28-46.

“Life and Career of Haji Rahmanqul Khan, 1913-1990”. Berlin Geographical Papers. Andrei Dorre, Hermann Kreutzmann and Stefan Schutte, eds. Center for Development Studies, Freie Universitat, Berlin. 2016

“The Impact of the 2014 U.S.-NATO Withdrawal on the Internal Politics of Afghanistan: Karzai-style Thugocracy or Taliban Theocracy?” Asian Survey, Vol. 55, 2015, Number 2, pp. 273–298.

“Political Islam in Afghanistan”. The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics, edited by John L. Esposito and Emad El-Din Shahin, Oxford University Press., 2013, pp. 453-74.

“Center-Periphery Relations in Afghanistan”. In Local Politics in Afghanistan, Conrad Schetter, ed. London: Hurst Publishers Co., 2013, pp. 23-38.

“Taliban and Talibanism in Historical Perspective” The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, edited by Robert Crew and Amin Tarzi. Harvard University Press, 2008

Reclaiming Islam in Uzbekistan: Soviet Legacies and Post-Soviet Realities Journal of Turkic Civilization Studies No. 2 (2006), pp. 77-103.

“King Aman-Allah of Afghanistan’s Failed Nation-Building Project and its Aftermath” (a review article), Iranian Studies, volume 38, number 4 (2005), pp. 661-675.

The Challenge of Post-Taliban Governance. ISIM Newsletter, 2003, 12:22-23.

“War, Factionalism, and the State in Afghanistan” American Anthropologist, 104(3) September 2002, pp. 715-722

“Pining for Bukhara in Afghanistan: Poetics and Politics of Exilic Identity and Emotions,” in Reform Movements and revolutions in Turkistan 1900-1924: Studies in Honour of Osman Khoja, edited by Timur Kocaoglu, (Haarlem, Netherlands: SOTA), 2001, pp 369-391

“Afghanistan can Learn from Its Past,” New York Times, Op-Ed Page 13, Sunday, October 14, 2001

“Resisting the Taliban and Talibanism in Afghanistan: Legacies of A Century of Internal Colonialism and Cold War Politics in a Buffer State:” Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs, v(4), 2000, 121-140, published by the Center for Strategic Research, Ankara, Turkey