The total number of Baluch in Baluchistan (in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan), the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere in Asia and Africa is variously estimated at between three and five million. Their history up to the time when they were drawn into Western colonial history in the 19th century is poorly known. A copious literature has been produced on them since then, especially in English, but also in Persian and several other European and regional languages. But so far there has been no attempt to synthesize and interpret all the available material.
Baluchistan is generally understood by the Baluch and their neighbors to comprise an area of over half a million square kilometers in the southeastern part of the Iranian plateau, south of the central deserts and the Helmand river, and in the arid coastal lowlands between the Iranian plateau and the Gulf of Oman. Its boundaries are vague and not consistent with modern provincial boundaries. It appears to have been divided throughout history between Iranian (highland) and Indian (lowland) spheres of influence, and since 1870 it has been formally divided among Afghanistan, Iran, and India (later Pakistan). It is unclear when the name Baluchistan came into general use. It may date only from the 12th/18th century when Naṣīr Khan I of Kalat during his long reign in the second half of the 12th/18th century became the first indigenous ruler to establish autonomous control over a large part of the area.
The origins of the Balōč and of their name are similarly unclear. They appear to have lived in the northwestern part of the area (southeast of Kermān) at the time of the Arab conquest. But their activities may even at that time have extended a considerable distance to the east. They appear to have migrated farther east, and beyond Makrān, beginning around the time of the arrival of the Saljuqs in Kermān in the 5th/11th century, and continuing intermittently for the next five centuries, up to the spread of Safavid power in the 10th/16th century, with major movements probably in the 6th/12th and 9th/15th centuries.
How and when the Balōč arrived in the region of Kermān is unknown. Their claim (in their epic poetry; see baluchistan, iii, below) to be Arabs who migrated from Aleppo after fighting at Karbalāʾ cannot be taken at face value. The various inconclusive theories concerning their origins are reviewed by Dames (1904, pp. 7-16).
The scanty evidence for them between the Arab conquest and the arrival of the Saljuqs is also difficult to evaluate, partly because of the authors’ characteristic urban prejudice against nomadic tribes. But it suggests that they numbered in the tens of thousands at most; that they were pastoralists, herding sheep and goats; and that, like other Middle Eastern pastoralists, they were highly mobile, if not entirely nomadic, living in tribal communities (in the sense that they construed their social relations according to genealogical—patrilineal—criteria); and that they were poorly integrated into the settled polity, which they continually harassed.
In terms of general cultural values and world view, the Baluch in recent times resemble neighboring Muslim tribal populations in both the historical and the ethnographic records. What has emerged as distinctively Baluch, beside the language, Baluchi, is the structure of their social and political relations. But this structure is more likely to be a product of their recent pluralist experience in Baluchistan than a heritage of their earlier history. (It has not yet been changed significantly by their incorporation into modern state structures.) Baluch identity in Baluchistan has been closely tied to the use of the Baluchi language in intertribal relations. Modern Baluchi has a clear pedigree, with a number of grammatical features and vocabulary of the “Northwest” Iranian type (see baluchistan, iii, below). But Baluch ethnicity today cannot be so clearly defined. On the one hand, many communities generally recognized as Baluch by themselves and by others are of alien origin and have been assimilated over the last four centuries. On the other hand, there is no evidence that all the considerable number of scattered communities known as Baluch in other parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Soviet Turkmenistan (most of which are not presently Baluchi-speaking) are in fact historically related, or, if they are related, that they separated from each other in Baluchistan.
Within Baluchistan the population is not ethnically homogeneous. Some communities are identified (by themselves and others) as Balōč (see 10 below), with the implication that they are descended from those who entered the area as Balōč; while others, though considered members of Baluch society now and identifying as Baluch in relation to the outside world, are known within Baluch society by other tribal (e.g., Nowšērvānī, Gīčkī, Bārakzay) and subethnic (e.g., Brahui, Dehwār, ḡolām, Jaḍgāl, Mēd) designations, with the implication that they have adopted Baluch identity relatively recently—but not that they are for that reason in any way outsiders. Some of these “Baluch” predate the arrival of the Balōč. Others (e.g., the Bārakzay, q.v., who are of recent Afghan origin) postdate them. There are also remnants of what were (under autonomous Baluch rule, as well as under the British, 1666-1947) larger non-Muslim communities, mostly Hindu, Sikh, Ismaʿili, or Bahai traders, who are not considered Baluch. The Baluchi language was the language of interethnic as well as intertribal relations. Although participation in Baluchi intercourse generally seems to have led to assimilation, being Muslim appears to have been a necessary precondition. However, the Baluch in the Makrān who became Ḏekrī (Zikri) in the 10/16th century did not for that reason cease to be Baluch. The Baluch generally claim that all Baluch are Hanafite Muslims, although, apart from the Ḏekrīs (who are known but rarely discussed), there are some small Shiʿite communities on the northwestern fringes of Iranian Baluchistan, a fact which is unknown farther east.
The vast territory of greater Baluchistan has been divided historically into a number of areas, among which Makrān (in the south), Sarḥadd (in the northwest), and the area known earlier as Tūrān that includes the modern towns of Kalat and Khuzdar (Qoṣdār/Qozdār; in the east), have been the most significant. Stronger Iranian and Indian political centers to the west, north, and east (particularly, Kermān, Sīstān, Qandahār, Delhi, Karachi), and even the sultan of Oman to the south, have intermittently claimed suzerainty over parts of these areas, and considered them as their legitimate hinterland. The idea of one Baluch community in a politically unified Baluchistan may have originated in Naṣīr Khan’s successes in the 12th/18th century. His successors were unable to maintain control of the part of the area he claimed to rule as khan, let alone continue to pursue what appear to have been his ambitions to incorporate all the Baluch into one nation. But the policy of indirect rule pursued by the British, who began to encroach in the area during the following generation, and maintained the khan irrespective of internal processes that would either have destroyed or transformed the khanate, kept alive the idea of a unified Baluchistan—against considerable odds—at least up to the borders that the British negotiated with the Qajar government in Iran, and the Afghan government in Kabul in the second half of the 13th/19th century. By 1947, the idea of Baluchistan was too firmly established to be superseded or transcended by the new concept of Pakistan. The political activities of the Baluch in Pakistan (who constitute probably two thirds of the total Baluch population) reinforce and confirm Baluch identity in Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
The Balōč appear to have become culturally dominant in the area in the late medieval period, along with the spread of Baluchi as a lingua franca—though the details and causes of each process are unclear. It was not until much later that the majority of the population of the area came to identify themselves as Baluch, probably as a result partly of the success of Naṣīr Khan’s policies, and partly because of the later British administrative classification. The assimilation of almost the whole population to Baluch identity and the dominance of Baluchi (at least for public, political purposes) is difficult to explain, since the tribesmen who established the khanate of Kalat (and therefore also the political autonomy and identity of the area) in the mid-11th/17th century spoke not Baluchi, but Brahui, and conducted their administration in Persian by means of a bureaucracy recruited among the Dehwār, who were Tajik peasants. Immigrant Baluchi speakers (Balōč) were probably not numerically dominant except in non-agricultural parts of the area.
Baluchistan remains a palimpsest of cultural and linguistic discontinuities. Although the existing literature is much greater than for other comparable tribal areas of the Iranian world, the underlying heterogeneity raises a number of problems for any systematic account of Baluchistan and the Baluch. These problems cannot yet be definitively treated. Far more historical and ethnographic research is needed. What follows is only a preliminary synthesis.