The people of Pakistan share a rich history that can be traced back more than 5,000 years. The Indus River Valley civilization—which encompasses present-day Pakistan and western India—was one of the world’s most important cultural centers. The Indus River, which flows through eastern Pakistan, has provided a fertile valley that has been the country’s largest population settlement for thousands of years. Today, of the 165 million people who live in Pakistan, more than 60% live along the Indus River. Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad (the “home of Islam” in the Urdu language), is located in the nation’s northeastern region and is home to less than 1 million people.
There are four major ethnic groups in Pakistan, and their regional distribution is crucial to understanding their significance. The country’s rich diversity is reflected in regional ethnic variations. Most members of Pakistani ethnic groups are tribal and follow closely held family structures. Pakistan’s ethnic diversity can be linked to the country’s diverse physical geography. For example, in the mountainous northwestern region, the higher elevations are dominated by the Pashtun people. The Pashtuns are known for their grit and courage in occupying the harsh northwestern environment for thousands of years. Pakistan’s Pashtuns migrated eastward from Afghanistan and can trace their ancestry to ethnic groups in Central Asia and Iran. They are also known for their strength and bravery against foreign invaders, and they have protected their homeland for more than a millennium. In fact, Pashtun warriors stopped the progress of ancient Greek emperor Alexander the Great and his forces at the Indus River. Because of their historical valor, Pakistan’s army has a large number of Pashtun soldiers. Pashtuns are also known for their animal-herding skills and can be seen today with mountain goats and sheep in remote northern Pakistan.
To the east of the Pashtun homeland are the Punjabis, who occupy the fertile Indus River Valley of Punjab Province. The name “Punjab” refers to the confluence of punj (five) and ab (river). The Punjabis’ homeland extends into neighboring India. However, Pakistan’s Punjabis are characterized by their unique language and religious diversity. The nation’s Punjabis are predominately Muslim while their counterparts in India are followers of Sikhism, a major South Asian religion that originated in Punjab. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born in the present-day city of Lahore, Pakistan. Sikhism is seen as a combination of Islam and Hinduism, and Guru Nanak tried to establish common ground between the two religions.
The Sindhis—residents of Pakistan’s Sindh Province—live to the south of Punjab. All the rivers that flow through the Punjab and Pashtun homelands drain into Sindh Province and empty into the Arabian Sea. For this reason, Sindh is home to some of Pakistan’s best ports and shipping harbors, and many Sindhis work in large fishing communities along the coast. Also, the abundant water resources available in this delta region of the Indus River have enabled the Sindhis to create some of the world’s leading cotton and textile industries. The Sindhis use their ports to ship cotton worldwide. Also, Karachi, the largest city in the Sindh region, is one of Pakistan’s most important seaports.
The Sindhis, one of the country’s most ethnically diverse peoples, settled in Pakistan over hundreds of years, inspired by Arab travelers and Muslim rulers. The majority of Pakistan’s Sindhis are descendants of Muslim conquerors who arrived in present-day Pakistan and northern India during the 10th century. The Sindhi people are also composed of Hindus, who converted to Islam and Urdu-speaking Muhajirs (who emigrated from India in the late 1940s after the subcontinent was divided into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan). The Sindhi culture is a mixture of Afghan, Arab, and Muslim traditions. Many Sindhis have a unique identifier affixed to their last names. Their names usually end with “ani” or “ni,” which is common even among Hindu Sindhis in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
The Baluchis constitute Pakistan’s fourth major ethnic group. Residents of Baluchistan Province in the nation’s southwestern region, the Baluchis are descendants of the Syrian Aleppo group that migrated from Syria to present-day Pakistan some 1,000 years ago. Baluchis are known for nomadic animal herding, and they speak their Indo-European language. In recent years, many Baluchis have moved to their western neighbor Afghanistan, which is considered their traditional homeland.
Islam is the state religion of Pakistan. Pakistan emerged as an Islamic nation in 1947 when it separated from British (Hindu) India. Islamic movements inspired by such leaders as Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Mohammad Ali Jinnah led to the establishment of Pakistan as one of the few countries in the world created as a distinct Muslim nation. Almost 95% of Pakistan’s people follow Islam. Within this Islamic population, more than 70% are Sunni Muslims, and 20% are Shia Muslims.
Pakistan is one of the few Muslim nations that also has Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist populations. Hinduism is prevalent among Pakistan’s Sindhi people and was mostly brought over from India during the partition of 1947. However, Sindhis follow several religions, including Sufism (a mystical variation of Sunni Islam that is a unique blend of Islam and pre-Islamic faiths), Hinduism, Christianity, and Wahabbism (a strict fundamentalist form of Islam). Islam was introduced into Pakistan by Arab Muslim rulers during the 9th and 10th centuries. Sufi Muslims are known for their unique music and dance. Sufism’s mystic nature has attracted Muslims and non-Muslims within Pakistan, particularly in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Some of the world’s largest mosques can be found in Pakistan, including the Badshahi Masjid (known as the Royal Mosque) and the Shah Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.
Scholars believe that there are more than 300 dialects and language groups in Pakistan. The country’s linguistic diversity is influenced by interaction with languages from the Arab world and Central Asia. Pakistan’s official language for business and government is Urdu, which evolved from Indo-European and Afro-Semitic language groups. Urdu is a mixture of Arabic and Persian and is quite similar to Hindi, the official language of India. In fact, Hindi and Urdu speakers can converse with each other. The only major difference is the script used for writing. Regarding some speakers, Punjabi is Pakistan’s most widely spoken language, with more than 48% of Pakistanis as primary speakers. Other provinces, including Sindh, Baluchistan, and the Northwest Frontier (NWF), have their language groups, with Pashtun spoken in the NWF. The Sindhis use a unique language derived from the early Indo-European languages brought in by the Greeks, Persians, and Arabs from western Asia. Baluchis speak their Indo-European language, Baluchi, spoken by more than 6 million Pakistanis nationwide. Due to the influence of the United Kingdom’s colonial legacy, English is the nation’s second official language after Urdu. With a vibrant youth population and Western cultural influences in Islamabad and Karachi, English is quickly becoming a major language in Pakistan. Smaller language groups, including Arabic and the Dravidian language Brahui, have added to the country’s linguistic diversity. Pakistan’s languages are linked to India, its neighbor to the east. Such western Indian languages as Gujarati and Punjabi are commonly spoken in the country and have a unique Pakistani dialect. Even Urdu, Pakistan’s official language, is widely spoken in northern India. These similarities are crucial to understanding the common cultural history of these South Asian neighbors.