Pashtun tribes names written on page in tree type

Pashtun Tribes

Pashtun Tribes: Unveiling the World’s Largest Tribal Society

The Pashtun tribes, a prominent ethnic group primarily inhabiting Afghanistan and Pakistan, stand as the world’s largest tribal society, boasting a population exceeding 60 million. This formidable community is intricately organized, comprising 350 and 400 tribes and clans, with a rich tapestry of cultural and historical nuances.

Tribal Confederacies

Traditionally, Pashtun tribes are categorized into four major tribal confederacies, each with its distinctive identity:

  1. Sarbani (سړبني)
  2. Bettani (بېټني)
  3. Ghourghushti (غرغښت)
  4. Karlani (کرلاڼي)

In addition to these, there are allied tribes like Ismailkhel, Khel, Ludin, Sakzai, and Zai, adding further complexity to the tribal landscape.

Folkloric Genealogies and Ancestral Roots

Folkloric genealogies trace the roots of the Pashtuns back to Qais Abdur Rashid and his three sons—Saṛban (سړبن), Bēṭ (بېټ), and Gharghax̌t (غرغښت). An adopted son, Karlāņ (کرلاڼ), plays a pivotal role, with controversy and uncertainty surrounding his identity and the identity of his adoptive father, Ormur Baraki, the progenitor of the Karlani confederacy.

Tribal Organization

Pashtun tribal organization operates on various levels, creating a hierarchical structure within the community. The primary unit is the “tribe,” subdivided into kinship groups known as khel and zai. These, in turn, break down into playing, consisting of several extended families.

Levels of Pashtun Tribal Organization:

  1. Tribe: The overarching unit.
  2. Khel and Zai: Kinship groups within the tribe.
  3. Plarina: Subdivision within Khel and Zai, comprising multiple extended families.

A striking feature of Pashtun tribal organization is the existence of numerous subtribes within a more prominent tribe. Individuals may identify with multiple sub-tribes in different social situations, fostering a dynamic and multifaceted sense of belonging within the tribal structure.

Complex Social Dynamics

The social dynamics among Pashtun tribes are intricate and influenced by cooperative, competitive, or aggressive relationships. Large tribes often house dozens of subtribes, each with its unique identity, contributing to the multifaceted nature of Pashtun society.

In navigating this complex tribal structure, the Pashtun people maintain a strong cultural identity rooted in historical connections and kinship. This intricate tapestry of tribes, clans, and subtribes adds depth to the Pashtun narrative, reflecting a resilient and vibrant community.


  • How many tribes  are there?
    • The Pashtun community comprises between 350 and 400 tribes and clans, contributing to the rich diversity within the world’s largest tribal society.
  • What are the four major tribal confederacies among the Pashtun tribes?
    • The four major tribal confederacies are Sarbani, Bettani, Ghourghushti, and Karlani, each with its unique cultural identity.
  • Who are the allied tribes associated with the Pashtun confederacies?
    • Ismail Khel, Khel, Ludin, Sakzai, and Zai are among the allied tribes that add complexity to the Pashtun tribal landscape.
  • How is the Pashtun tribal organization structured?
    • The tribal organization includes tribes, subdivided into kinship groups called khel and zai, further broken down into playing, which consists of extended families.


In unraveling the intricate tapestry of Pashtun tribes, it becomes evident that this community, comprising over 60 million people, is not merely a homogenous entity but a diverse and dynamic collective. The four major tribal confederacies, along with numerous sub-tribes and clans, contribute to the complexity and richness of Pashtun culture.

Folkloric genealogies, ancestral roots, and the significance of Karlāņ add layers to the historical narrative. At the same time, the organized tribal structure, with its levels of tribes, Khel, zai, and playing, showcases the depth of social organization within Pashtun society. The cooperative, competitive, and aggressive dynamics among tribes further highlight the nuanced relationships that shape Pashtun interactions.

The Pashtun people maintain a strong cultural identity rooted in historical connections and kinship despite the complexities. The multifaceted nature of belonging within tribes and sub-tribes reflects the adaptability and resilience of the Pashtun community in the face of evolving socio-cultural landscapes.

This exploration of Pashtun tribes serves as a testament to the diversity within the world’s largest tribal society, inviting a deeper understanding and appreciation for a community that thrives amidst its intricate cultural mosaic complexities.

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