Kabul – The Hazara people form the third largest ethnic group concentrated in the Hazarajat, a mountainous region in the central highlands of modern-day Afghanistan. They speak Hazaragi, a dialect of the Persian language and one of the main languages of the country besides Pashto. The Hazaras were once the largest ethnic group in the region but lost their autonomy in the 1890s. A significant population can be found in Kabul, Herat, as well as in the Samangan province. Many of them also reside in the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan. Among all the ethnic groups inhabiting Afghanistan, the Hazaras are considered distinct due to their unique combination of physical, linguistic, and cultural traits.
Countless studies regarding the Hazara ancestry suggest that they are of Turkic origins combined with Mongolian and Persian influences. It is believed that they descended from the Mongols who swept out of Central Asia in the 13th century. The name Hazara is derived from the Persian word hazar, meaning “one thousand,” which was primarily adapted from the Mongolian term ming. The word refers to their forbearers, a military unit in the Mongol army that accompanied Genghis Khan. Although the present population of the group is yet to be determined, their number is estimated to be between two to three million.
Sometimes called the Hazara Mongols, the Hazara are mostly adherent of Shia Islam faith, although a small number are Sunni. Those living in Afghanistan practice Imami and Ismaili, two of the major subsects of Shia. A large number of the inhabitants of Hazarajat are Imami Shia followers with marginal Ismaili. Many of the Sunni Muslim Hazaras reside outside of Hazarajat, particularly in urban areas. They are more immersed into non-Hazara culture and speak Dari, which is similar to the Dari language spoken across Afghanistan. The Hazaras who settled outside of Hazarajat, regardless whether Shia or Sunni, can speak the regional variety of Dari of their location of residence.
Safeguarding the Hazaragi Language
Afghanistan has two official languages, five regional languages, and several minority languages. Yet, the Hazara people have kept their language intact for thousands of years. With more than 2 million speakers in Afghanistan alone, Hazaragi is also spoken by as many as 4 million in the neighboring countries of Iran, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, and even as far as Australia. Most Hazaragi speakers that live in big cities can also speak Dari while Hazaras that live in Iran are fluent in Farsi. Despite the phonetic differences between Hazaragi and Dari, both speakers can understand one another.
Dari is used in formal settings, such as in schools and traditional institutions, as well as in interacting with other Persian or Afghan speakers. Hazaragi, on the other hand, is mainly used for oral or casual settings. Over the years, the persistent migration of Hazaras to other countries have led to a decreasing number of native Hazaragi speakers. Due to the remoteness of their native land and the uneasy state in Afghanistan, many have resettled in a bid for a better life. This explains the big Hazara populations found in Pakistan, Iran, and in Australia, where they have formed an organization called The Hazara Council of Australia.
As they adapt to their different environments, many Hazaras have learn to speak other languages to interact with the people around them. Nonetheless, they have retained a great knowledge of their ethnic identity and traditional culture, especially their language. Hazara Australians are fluent in English but many of them use Hazaragi as their first language. Meanwhile, a huge number of Hazaragi speakers, especially those from the Hazarajat region, are devoted to maintaining their heritage and hope to continue speaking Hazaragi throughout their lives.
Image from Christophe Cerisier, https://www.flickr.com/photos/22763351@N05/