Between South Asia, Central Asia and the Iranian plateau of Sijistan lies a triangular shaped territory studded by bare and barren mountains covering an area of approximately 250,000 sq. miles. Starting from Dir in the north, this triangle runs along the Indus, takes a westward turn a few miles south of Dera Ismail Khan, and embracing within its fold Loralai, Sharigh, Degari, Harnai, Quetta, Pishin, Chaman and Qandahar extends up to Herat. From here it curves north-east and following the foothills of Hindu Kush comes back to Dir. This region includes the major portion of NWFP, a part of Quetta Division of Baluchistan and three-fourths of Afghanistan. In this triangular-shaped, hilly country divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan lives the world's largest group of tribesmen numbering over 30 million variously called Afghans, Pathans, Pashtuns or Pakhtuns.
Any attempt to delve deep into the history of these interesting people and history has attracted the attention of an unusually large number of scholars. In the modern period more and more western historians and researchers are taking keen interest in the past of this region and its people. But the larger literature on the subject, the greater the difference of opinion and deeper the confusion.
The difficulty arises because of the fact that the area is inhabited by a large number of tribes each of which makes different claims about its origin. The confusion becomes worse confounded when it is found that these claims do not conform to historical evidence and do not agree with the conclusions arrived at by the researchers. In view of this peculiar situation, it is proposed to give only the consensus of opinion and to simplify matters as far as possible. Many Pathans may not agree with what has been stated here; but unfortunately the nature of the subject is such that an agreement even on broad outlines seems difficult.
Let us first discuss the origin of the names Pathan and Afghan. The term Pakhtun or Pashtun, according to Raverty, is derived from the Persian word 'Pusht' meaning 'back'. Since the tribes lived on the back of the mountains, Persians called them Pashtun which is also pronounced Pakhtun. Some scholars think that the word Pashtun or Pakhtun comes from the old Iranian words parsava parsa meaning robust men, knights. In Indian languages it was spelt as Pakhtana or Pathan. Herodotus and several other Greek and Roman historians have mentioned a people called 'Paktye' living on the eastern frontier of Iran. By the word Paktye they meant the people of the frontier. (According to the Encyclopedia of Islam the word Pathan is from the Sanskrit word Pratisthana). Muslim historians from Al-Biruni onward called them Afghans, never using the word Pathan which expression was extensively employed by the Hindus. "No Afghan or speaker of Pashtu ever referred to himself as a Pathan and the word is an Indian usage." (The Pathans, by Sir Olaf Caroe)
"It is significant that neither Ibn Batuta nor Baber mention the word 'Pathan'. Baber gives the names of many east Afghanistan tribes, but nowhere does he mention Pathans, Pakhtuns or Pashtuns. He calls the people Afghans and their language, Afghani." (Afghan Immigration in the early Middle Ages, by K.S Lal)
As for the word Afghan, it appears in the inscriptions of Shahpur I at Naksh-e-Rustam which mentions a certain Goundifer Abgan Rismaund. According to Sprengler, a similar name 'Apakan' occurs as the designation of the later Sassanian Emperor Shahpur III. "The word Afghan, though of unknown origin, first appears in history in the Hudud-al-Alam, a work by an unknown Arab geographer who wrote in 982 A.D." (Afghanistan, by W.K Frazier Tytler). But according to the Encyclopedia of Islam: "the first mention of the Afghans in written history is in the Chronicle of al-Utbi in Tarikh-e-Yamini and an almost contemporary mention by Al-Biruni. Utbi records that Sabuktagin enrolled Afghans in his army." Another version states that the earliest recorded use of the name Afghan is by the Indian astronomer, Varaha-Mihira of the 6th century A.D. in the form Avagana. (Encyclopedia of Britannica).
"'The supposition that the Pathans are any different from the Afghans is not borne out either by the legendary accounts associated with the origin of this people or by historical or ethnological data." (Afghan Immigration in the Early Middle Ages, by K.S Lal). Both Bellew and Longworth Dames consider the two terms as appellation of a common people. There is no racial difference between the two. The two words are synonymous referring to one and the same people though a few writers try to make a distinction between Afghans and Pathans which is ephemeral.
For instance, some authors maintain that only those tribes living in southern Afghanistan, particularly between Herat and Qandhar and who speak Persian should be called Afghans while others living in the rest of Afghanistan, NWFP and Baluchistan speaking Pashtu language should be called Pathans. What they mean is that those who speak Pashtu are Pathans and those of them who speak Persian are Afghans. Sir Olaf Caroe makes a distinction between the Afghans and the Pathans on the basis of the hillsmen and plainsmen. He thinks that those living in the fertile plains of Qandhar, Herat, Kabul and Peshawar should be called Afghans and those living in the hills, Pathans. Lt. Gen. George McMunn divides Afghans into three groups: Abdalis, Ghilzais and Pathans (Afghanistan from Darius to Amanullah, by Lt. Gen. Dir George McMunn). But, as already stated, such distinctions are confusing and will lead nowhere. All should be called either Afghans, Pashtuns, Pakhtuns or Pathans.
There has, however, been no dispute over the name of the language they speak. It is called by one name only i.e., Pashtu. But its origin, again is disputed. Most of the authors are agreed that "it is both in origin and structure an Eastern Iranian language which has borrowed freely from the Indo-Aryan group." (The Pathans, by Sir Olaf Caroe). But one of the greatest authorities on the Pathans, Morgenstierne, on the other hand, feels that it is probably a Saka dialect from the north. The general opinion, however, is that Pashtu is a branch of the original Iranian language called Pahlawi.