Book Review: Political Leadership among Swat Pathans / Fredrik Barth

Barth, Fredrik. Political Leadership among Swat Pathans. 1st Pbk. Ed. with Corrections ed. London: Athlone, 1965. Print. Monographs on Social Anthropology ; No. 19. 

This fascinating yet terrifyingly complex ethnography, published in 1959, is about the Pashto-speaking people (Pathans) of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area called Swat. Fredrik Barth claims the main purpose of his study as “to give a descriptive analysis of the political system of Swat, with special reference to the sources of political authority, and the form of organization within which this authority is exercised.” (p.1). In a region that lacks a centralized government administration, an anarchical tribal system is presented throughout the book. In the first two chapters, Barth writes about the general ecology and ethnology of the Swat region. The following two chapters are about the underlying social organization of Pathans and their frameworks of organization such as caste, neighborhood, marriage, and affinity. Then, from chapter 5 to chapter 9 Barth presents us with the main focus of the book, which is the political organization of Swat Pathans. Throughout these chapters, Barth writes about inequality and authority, land tenure and political relations within communities, authority and following of chiefs and saints, alliances and political blocs. In chapter 10, Barth gives us a brief history of the development of Swat state. And finally, the author ends the book with a conclusion in chapter 11. Throughout this book review, I will be presenting the contents of the book while asking the question: ‘In relation to the ways anthropologists have theorized the cultural diversity of the world, where in the world is this book about?’ and I will try to fit the Pathans of Swat into types of cultures that some anthropologists have defined. 

Starting with the general ecology and ethnology of Swat, Swat is a 120-mile valley with a population of 400,000. The residents in Swat are Pashto-speaking Pathans (of Islamic faith) who are descendants of a common distant ancestor called Yusuf; hence the people in this valley are called Yusufzai Pathans. The Pathan population sustains itself by the intensive cultivation of highly developed grain, in addition to cattle breeding for daily products and manure. Therefore, I would consider Pathans as an agricultural society as they consist of densely populated villages where land is considered valuable and is held in common by a lineage. In addition, leadership is dependent on land ownership.  

Moving to the underlying frameworks of organization, Barth claims that “the political choices of Swat Pathans are not made in a vacuum- there are several frameworks of organization which serve to order the population into categories and groups, and which to some extent determine their political choices.” (p.13). Therefore, he introduces three different ‘frameworks of organization’. i) The Spatial Framework – divides Swat into a hierarchy of subdivisions with a mixed reference both to a geographical area and to the social groups inhabiting it. The hierarchy consists of components such as regions, local areas, village groups, villages, wards, and houses. ii) Castes – The division by caste is an example of how Pathans share non-Islamic elements in addition to the Islamic ones. Castes among Pathans are without ritual or religious importance and can be altered during a person’s lifetime. Some of the castes are associated with highly specialized occupations (such as goldsmith) while others are dependent on patrilineal descent (such as Pirzada, a descendent of a Saint). Caste is important in the way that it defines a ranked hierarchy of groups, and relations between these groups in local communities (such as the superiority of a Sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet). iii) Patrilineal Descent Groups – These groups are not corporate but segmentary, and membership in them influences political choices. So, political clients are aligned with the genealogy of their leader. After defining the aforementioned types of classifications, Barth writes about neighbourhood, marriage, and affinity among Pathans of Swat. He claims that most of the marriage rituals are prescribed by Islam (circumcision, funerals, marriages, aiding, endowments, etc.). Besides, He writes that marriages play a significant role in establishing affinal ties. As both a patrilineal and patrilocal society, Pathans value women as they serve a political role in forming ties within families or political groups because they symbolize the pride of such units. Also, divorce is regarded as very shameful and is very rare. “When it takes place, the wife is said to be suspected of having committed adultery with a man more powerful than her husband and the latter’s prestige will suffer heavily.” (p.40).  

In the turning point of the book, Barth investigates relations of inequality and authority through different types of contracts as he believes that contractual agreements with a leader reveal Pathan ideas of differentiation and domination. He provides four types of contracts. i) Economic contracts – which is further divided into six categories that explain the complex relationships among agriculturalists, specialists who supply tools, craftsmen, private buyers or consumers, performers of various personal services, masters, private servants, the Army, etc. ii) House tenancy contracts – explains how landowners own houses in proportion to their land, which leads to villagers renting these houses. iii) Men’s house – a meeting house and a dorm where each one has a leader who hosts members. So, the structure of men’s house defines the relations of members to their leaders. iv) Saints and their followers – Saints are usually secluded from society and live an ascetic lifestyle. Their leadership is as important as the leaders of men’s houses as they use their religious standing for peacemaking whenever a conflict emerges. Therefore, they are provided land by the Pathans. After Barth investigates such relations and contracts, he looks into one of the most important political unit in Swat, the chiefs. The authority of chiefs derives from their control of the land. Through land, they gain control over house tenants, occupational contract holders and land tenants, and other dependants. Fredrik Barth’s description of chiefs reveals the existence of typical chiefdoms in which “chiefs enlarge their followings by giving gifts and feasts to their members in men’s houses. Furthermore, chiefs gain authority by defending their honour, particularly through blood revenge; but this activity is largely personal and falls outside the field of alliance.” (p.108). After providing a brilliant yet a very complex analysis of chiefdoms, Barth goes back to mentioning about Saints, but this time, he provides a more detailed description of the authority and following of Saints, with a lot of examples. He presents three modes of gaining influence. i) Control of land – “A Saint may obtain land by inheritance, gift, purchase, or conquest.” (p.93). Hence, by these various means of acquiring land, Saints acquire political autonomy and supreme authority. ii) Mediators – As was mentioned before, Saints play the peacemaking role whenever a conflict emerges among chiefs or members. Therefore, Saints and Chiefs are not in political competition, but they compromise each other in different ways. iii) Reputation for holiness and piety – The ‘Saintly’ behaviour implies moderation, piety, asceticism, dignity, wisdom, knowledge, and control of mystical forces. Hence these traits of a Saint lead to the awe in which Saints are held by the villagers. In the following parts of the book, Barth further digs into alliances and political blocs among all the mentioned leaders and political structures in which political clients are provided with the freedom of choosing what leader to follow, serve, and benefit from. Towards the end of the book, Barth gives a brief history of the region by explaining the formal organization of Swat State and its three constituent units of administration, army, and taxation. 

After the descriptive analysis of a society with a complicated political system, using the anthropological tools of defining societies and their place in the world, as mentioned before, I believe that it would be appropriate to label the Pathans of Swat as an agricultural society ruled by chiefdoms and saints. The family and marital organization of Pathan clearly shows their patrilineal and patrilocal residence patterns with an Islamic understanding of kinship and heritage. When it comes to Descola’s theory of classifying cultures, I believe that Swat Pathans present a mix of traits from both Naturalism and Analogism. Naturalism is evident because even though they share similar practices and lifestyles, religious people are divided into Sayyid, Mian, Pirzada, etc. And such a way of division reveals a belief in similar physicality and dissimilar interiority as religious people are believed to have a different religious rank depending on their piety and internal traits. On the other hand, the way people are divided into occupational ‘castes’ such as butcher, barber, carpenter, etc. reveal analogist characteristics as the people of such castes serve a different role in society through their occupational role and result in a hierarchy of power which leads to an understanding of both different physicalities and interiorities.  

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