Theodore Leighton Pennell

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Theodore Leighton Pennell

Theodore Leighton Pennell (1867–1912), was an English Protestant missionary and doctor who lived among the tribes of Afghanistan. He founded Pennell High School and a missionary hospital in Bannu in the North-West Frontier of British India, now Pakistan. For his work he received the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal for public service in India. He published a work on his life under the title Among the wild tribes of the Afghan frontier in 1908. Pennell House at Eastbourne College was named after him.


  • There is no section of the people of Afghanistan which has a greater influence on the life of the people than the Mullahs, yet it has been truly said that there is no priesthood in Islam. According to the tenets of Islam, there is no act of worship and no religious rite which may not, in the absence of a Mullah, be equally well performed by any pious layman; yet, on the other hand, circumstances have enabled the Mullahs of Afghanistan to wield a power over the populations which is sometimes, it appears, greater than the power of the throne itself. For one thing, knowledge has been almost limited to the priestly class, and in a village where the Mullahs are almost the only men who can lay claim to anything more than the most rudimentary learning it is only natural that they should have the people of the village entirely in their own control. Then, the Afghan is a Muhammadan to the backbone, and prides himself on his religious zeal, so that the Mullah becomes to him the embodiment of what is most national and sacred. The Mullahs are, too, the ultimate dispensers of justice, for there are only two legal appeals in Afghanistan—one to the theological law, as laid down by Muhammad and interpreted by the Mullahs; the other to the autocracy of the throne—and even the absolute Amir would hesitate to give an order at variance with Muhammadan law, as laid down by the leading Mullahs. His religion enters into the minutest detail of an Afghan's everyday life, so that there is no affair, however trivial, in which it may not become necessary to make an appeal to the Mullah.44
  • The more fanatical of these Mullahs do not hesitate to incite their pupil [talibs] to acts of religious fanaticism, or ghaza, [jihad operation] as it is called. The ghazi [jihadist] is a man who has taken an oath to kill some non-Muhammadan, preferably a European, as representing the ruling race; but, failing that, a Hindu or a Sikh is a lawful object of his fanaticism. The Mullah instills into him the idea that if in so doing he loses his own life, he goes at once to and enjoys the special delights of the houris and the gardens which are set apart for religious martyrs. When such a disciple has been worked up to the degree of religious excitement, he is usually further fortified by copious draughts of bhang, or Indian hemp, which produces a kind of intoxication in which one sees everything red, and the bullet and the bayonet have no longer any terror for him. Not a year passes on the frontier but some young officer falls a victim to one of these ghazi fanatics. Probably the ghazi has never seen him his life, and can have no grudge against him as a man; but he is a “dog and a heretic,” and his death a sure road to Paradise.45
  • The Afghan noblemen maintain the strictest parda, or seclusion, of their women, who pass their days monotonously behind the curtains and lattices of their palace prison-houses, with little to do except criticize their clothes and jewels and retail slander.…The poorer classes cannot afford to seclude their women, so they try to safeguard their virtue by the most barbarous punishments, not only for actual immorality, but for any fancied breach of decorum. A certain trans-frontier chief that I know, on coming to his house unexpectedly one day, saw his wife speaking to a neighbour over the wall of his compound. Drawing his sword in a fit of jealousy, he struck off her head and threw it over the wall, and said to the man: “There! you are so enamoured of her, you can have her.” The man concerned discreetly moved house to a neighbouring village.…The recognized punishment in such a case of undue familiarity would have been to have cut off the nose of the woman and, if possible, of the man too. This chief, in his anger, exceeded his right, and if he had been a lesser man and the woman had had powerful relations, he might have been brought to regret it. But as a rule a woman has no redress; she is the man's property, and a man can do what he likes with his own. This is the general feeling, and no one would take the trouble or run the risk of interfering in another man's domestic arrangements. A man practically buys his wife, bargaining with her father, or, if he is dead, with her brother; and so she becomes his property, and the father has little power of interfering for her protection afterwards, seeing he has received her price.
  • …The two greatest social evils from which the Afghan women suffer are the purchase of wives and the facility of divorce. I might add a third—namely, plurality of wives; but though admittedly an evil where it exists, it is not universally prevalent, like the other two—in fact, only men who are well-to-do can afford to have more than one wife.
    • T. L. Pennell. Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier: A Record of Sixteen Years’ Close Intercourse with the Natives of the Indian Marches, London, 1909, p 115-195, as quoted in Bostom, A. G. (2015). Sharia versus freedom: The legacy of Islamic totalitarianism.

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