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Pashtun men, Afghanistan, 1976Józef Burszta Digital Archive
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Is the Taliban Jewish?

Our History Detective columnist investigates the supposed Hebrew origins of the Pashtun tribe

Dan Shapira
October 01, 2021
Józef Burszta Digital Archive
Pashtun men, Afghanistan, 1976Józef Burszta Digital Archive

When I was very young, my friend and I set up a “committee against the war in Afghanistan.” The war in question was the Soviet intervention in this country, if anybody remembers. I also had fantasies about going to fight the Soviets there. Being against war while fantasizing about participating in one is a normal leftist thing. Ask me more about it.

The friend disappeared long ago in Me’ah She’arim. Maybe I should find him.

When the Soviets were in the process of leaving Afghanistan in a hurry, Biden-style, I was in the process of looking for a topic for my Ph.D. thesis. I was thinking that the Arab volunteers of jihad who had flocked to Afghanistan during the last part of the war and now were returning back to their countries could be the one. After all, this was the first Muslim victory in centuries. The Muslim world was by then generally very secularized, even with this strange Islamic Revolution in Iran, which was not so Islamic at all, and the return of the jihadi victors who had been seen prior to their going to Afghanistan as weird lunatics should have been making some impact in their respective countries. I thought this future impact worthy of study.

“There will be no impact, it’s nothing, this is not a topic” I was told by an Israeli academic luminary. But there was.

Then I wanted to study Islam and other religions in Bosnia. Then a civil war erupted, and they burned up the archives.

Now the Taliban are in the news again, as is the old myth of their supposed Hebrew-Israelite origins. An Israeli professor even believes there is something to it.

Almost everyone who ever wrote about the Afghans has found it necessary to refer to the legend of supposed Hebrew origins. The impact of this popular belief was so strong that in the early decades of the 20th century, in an era of racism and antisemitism, Afghan scholars in Afghanistan took great pains to prove that the Afghans are of neither Jewish, Turkish, Mongol, nor Greek origin, but rather of pure Aryan stock; and that the Aryans’ original home was in Afghanistan (it sort of was). Later on, the national airline was christened “Ariana.” On the other hand, many rustic or overly religious Jews and Israelis are also prone to believe in the Hebrew origin of the Afghan tribesmen; and several books, written by the hunters of lost tribes, have appeared in the last three decades.

In fact, the Western (and Jewish) myth of the Hebrew origins of Pashtun tribes evolved out of a combination of the lack of their written history up to the late 15th and early 16th centuries; very low level of traditional Islamic knowledge among the Pashtuns up to the last decades (the emergence of the Taliban, “the students of Religion,” was, partly, an answer to this ignorance); Anglo-Israelist views or awareness of the early-19th-century British scholars/officers in northwestern India; and the general noninterest/ignorance about “such remote places.”

A Zoroastrian priest instructing a child in the tying of the Kushti
A Zoroastrian priest instructing a child in the tying of the KushtiWikipedia

There are several arguments that are commonly brought up to claim the Hebrew origin of some Pashtun tribes:

1. Afghanistan is far away, and who knows how far the Lost Tribes of Israel might have traveled.

2. Some Pashtun women used to kindle lights at the end of the Muslim Friday holiday.

3. Some Pashtun tribesmen wear a shawl similar to tallit, sometimes with fringes.

These last two customs are not Jewish in origin but are Iranian imports.

The sudreh/sedreh is a sleeveless white shirt made of a whole cut of thin cotton with nine stitches and a small pocket (where good deeds are collected); it is worn by Zoroastrians, both men and women, along with a white woolen belt (kushtig/kusti/kostik) woven from 72 white woolen cords no more than a finger wide, with the strands divided at the ends into six knots of 12 strands each.

The Zoroastrian tradition acknowledges that sudreh and kushti are pre-Zoroastrian in origin; whereas the Pashtun tribesmen are no Zoroastrians, they are nominal Muslims (before the advent of Islam, most of them were Buddhists). What some accounts see as Jewish prayer shawls were simply a version of a sudreh.

As for the Friday lights, anyone versed in Zoroastrian lore would recognize the origins of the custom and its association with women’s observance and rituals.

The myth of the Hebrew origins of the Pashtun was invented by the first Pashto-writing authors, who suffered from a grave inferiority complex toward the Persians and sought to glorify the Pashtun past. The myth was created in northern India in the courts of Pashtun and partly-Mongol conquerors, who extended their hospitability to Catholic missionaries and enjoyed listening to their stories, including those from the Bible.

True that the Persians have poetry and civilization, but we the Pashtuns can boast noble origins, their line of reasoning went.

The Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group in modern Afghanistan, appeared late on the historical scene. The only clue to their early history is their language, which belongs to the eastern Iranian branch. Nevertheless, their quick rise to dominance in the region in the 15th century was as powerful as it was late. Lacking the long and developed cultural and historical traditions of the Persians, some early Pashtun writers created a literary myth of the noble origins of their people which traced their genealogy to the biblical Israelites, filtered through Quranic traditions.

Though there were speculations about the Lost Tribes prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, which were recorded in the Talmud and other sources of the first Christian centuries, these had no impact at all on early Islam. However, the notion of tribes who had disappeared is not strange to Arab and Arabic traditions, and may reflect the grim reality of living in the desert: Modern scholars know that in certain localities no tribe can survive for more than 600 years. As a result, the folklore of the desert dwellers is full of stories about the withering tribes that used to live in a certain part of the desert. In Yemen, as Serjeant observed, entire tribes sometimes surrendered themselves to starvation in times of duress and famine in order to preserve their honor and pass on the stories of how they all died an honorable death. There used to be an Arabic word for this custom, ma’fad.

The ideas of the loss of and changing identities are central to Islam, and Arab and Arabic traditions knew that there had once been others who preceded them. These were called al-’arab al-bā’idah, “the Lost Arabs,” a phrase closely connected to the Hebrew one, הערב האובדים. These included the tribes of Ād and Thamūd. Medieval Arab genealogists have added to the “Lost Arabs” two other groups, the Qaḥṭānī “Pure Arabs” who are said to have migrated from the land of Yemen following the destruction of the famous dam there, sadd Ma’rib; and the “Arabized Arabs,” musta’ribah, literally, “those who would wish to be regarded as Arabs,” who were the descendants of Ishmael the son of Abraham and Hagar. Thus, Muḥammad and the first people to listen to his prophecy were not “Arabs,” but those who would wish to be regarded as Arabs while speaking in the vernacular Arabic language, بـلسـان عـربـي مـبـيـن.

The Islamic tradition knows of Yājūj and Mājūj, the Gog and Magog of Ezekiel and the Revelation of John, but never mingled their story—until the 20th century—with the Lost Tribes of Israel. Following a dream, the ‘Abbāsid Khalīfah al-Wāthiq biLLah (816-847; r. 842-847) sent in 842 an expedition led by Sallām the Interpreter to check whether the wall built by Dhū ’l-Qarnein (the Islamic Alexander the Great) to hold back the Yājūj and Mājūj was still strong enough. The expedition reached the Khazar king, who told Sallâm that the wall was not to the north, as Sallām (and al-Wāthiq) had thought, but to the east. Apparently, Sallām and his men reached the Jade Gate; and some of them—led by Sallām—managed to return to Samarrā after their two-year-long journey.

Speculations about the Lost Tribes of Israel became a hot issue in Europe in the era of the great geographical discoveries and the Reformation. Manasseh ben Israel (1604-1657, born Manoel Dias Soeiro) convinced himself in 1644 that Peruvian Indians were the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, and published his views in 1650 (Esperança de Israel). Some eight years later, Mary Fisher (1623-1698), one of the Quaker “Valiant Sixty,” made her way by foot to meet the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648-1687) at Adrianople; she wrote that the Turks were of royal (i.e., Israelite) origin, and were closer to the truth than many so-called Christians.

The philo-Turkism and philo-Islamism of the Quakers and millenarists, accompanied by the Christian idea that Israel in the flesh had been replaced by Israel in the spirit, made a great impression on the Ottoman literati. Vānī-Efendi (d. 1685) wrote that it was when the Arabs had not wanted to fight a war of doom against the Rūm/Byzantines, that God sent Muḥammad the Quranic verse (9:39) “If you do not go forth (with the trumpets of Apocalypse), He will punish you with a painful punishment and will replace you with another people, and you will not harm Him at all. And Allah is over all things competent.” After depicting at length the history of the conversion of the Turks to Islam, their consequent wars with the Rūm/Byzantines, and the capture of the Rūm capital of Constantinople, Vānī-Efendi concluded that the Turks were the virtuous people who replaced the Arabs as God’s people. Hence the Turks are descendants of Abraham through Isaac, unlike the Arabs who trace their bloodline to Ishmael; and Vānī-Efendi adds that “as Jesus Christ was a descendent of Israel, so the Turks are descendants of Isaac.”

Vānī-Efendi was not just a Kurdish preacher from godforsaken Van. He was the most important Muslim cleric during the reign of the above-mentioned Mehmed IV, and he played a crucial role in the conversion of Sabbatai Zevi. Appointed by Mehmed IV to tutor the Jewish messiah in Islam, he himself (according to a Dönme tradition) learned a great deal from his catechumen, and was even accused of becoming a crypto-Jew who had the whole House of Osman secretly converted to Judaism.

It is well known that starting from the first years of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was in constant contact with Sunni powers east and northeast of the Shī‘a Safavid possessions in western Iran, namely with the Pashtun tribes, the Mughals in India, and the Uzbeks. It was so until in 1722, when an Afghan army led by Mahmud son of Mir-Wais defeated the Safavids at the Battle of Gulnabad. Mahmud also besieged Isfahan and forced Shah Sultan Hossein to abdicate, making Persia an Afghan possession. Which brings us back again to the Pashtuns.

The Afghans, or Pashtuns, were a rough stock, as they still are, who speak an eastern Iranian language. One of the earliest authors to write this language—the mystical poet Mīrzā Ansārī (d. after 1631)—spoke of his mother tongue as “an unripe language,” xāma žəba. One of the first prose works in Afghan/Pashto is “The Ornamented History,” Tārīx-i Muraṣṣa‛, by Afḍal Khan (1664/5-1740/1) who was the grandson of the poet and tribal leader Khūsh-ḥāl Khan Khatak (1613-1689); this was a collection of folklore sifted by the author, plus some retold written Persian accounts translated by the author into Pashto. The composition was finished in 1724, two years after the Afghan occupation of Persia and two years before the Afghans would be expelled from Persia, in an era of great turmoil which was also the peak of Afghan self-regard (prior to their victories over the British, the Soviets, and the Americans). The beginnings of the Tārīx-i Muraṣṣa‛ are Pashto translations of the Persian work Tārīx-i Khān Jahānī Makhzan-i Afghānī (1611/2) by Ni‘matullahHaravī, who served as the waqia-navīs, the court historian, of the Mughal Emperor Jihāngīr (r. 1605-1627). Another source was Juzjānī’s Ṭabaqāt-i Nāṣirī, a 13th-century Persian history composed in Delhi which mentions the settlement of Banī Isrā’īl near Ghor in Afghanistan.

According to this literary source, one of Prophet Ibrahim’s descendants, Ṭālūt (the King Saul), had two sons, one of whom was named Irmiya or Jeremia. Irmiya had a son named Afghān, who is supposed to have lent his name to the Afghan people. The Tarīkh-i Šēr Šāhī (written about 1580 under the Mughal Emperor Akbar) states that Nebuchadnezzar (Bakht Naṣr), who had invaded Jerusalem and destroyed it, expelled the Jewish tribes—including the sons of Afghān—from their homeland. When the Jews were dispersed, one of their tribes settled in the Harī Rūd area of south Afghanistan. Afghan legend states that this tribe accepted Islam during the time of the Prophet, when a group of their kinsmen, the Jews of Khaibar living in Arabia, sent word to them by one Khālid that the true Prophet of God, as prophesied in their scriptures, had appeared in Mecca.

Places called Khaibar exist both in Arabia and in Afghanistan; the first of these was famous for its Jews in the time of the Prophet, and every writer who was interested in Afghan affairs was sure that it referred to their origins (though they offered different explanations for them). Afghanistan also has the Sulaiman Mountains, which were generally thought in the popular imagination to reflect some evidence of ancient relations with Israel (though the Pashtuns did not use this name in their own language, rather they referred to the Sulaiman Mountains as “the mountainous mountains”).

The Afghans, the story goes, sent a delegation to Arabia headed by one Imra-ul-Qais, the apparent namesake of the Jāhilī poet, who met the Prophet, embraced Islam, returned, and converted his entire tribe to the new religion. The Prophet was so pleased with Imra-ul-Qais for showing his people the path of Islam, that he gave him the name of ‘Abdu-al-Rašīd (“the slave of One Going the Right Path”), and called him Malik (king) as he claimed descent from Ṭālūt (Saul) through 47 generations. Imra-ul-Qais/‘Abdu-al-Rašīd/Pehtān had three sons named Sarbān, Batān, and Ghurghust, from whom the Afghan tribes sprung. This myth became so rooted among the tribesmen that almost all of the present-day Afghan tribes claim descent from these three persons, especially the royal Durrānīs, the noble Yūsafzais and the Afrīdīs who stressed, during the British Raj, that they traced their origin to King Saul. In the 19th century, some Afghan tribesmen sometimes called themselves Bani Israil.

G. Moore, in his Anglo-Israelite bestseller (The lost tribes and the Saxons of the East and of the West, with new views of Buddhism, and translations of Rock-Records in India, London, 1861, pp. 143-160), also identified the Afghans with the Ten Tribes. It is not without interest that it was Moore who was apparently the first to assert the Israelite character of the Kareens of Burma (the Benei Menashe of the day).

By the mid-19th century, several grammars of Pashto were published, some of them providing without comment Hebrew verb forms to illustrate the peculiarities of the verbal system of the Afghan national language. Even in the 20th century, King Amanullah Khan (r. 1919-1926) once stated that the royal Durrānī were of the tribe of Benjamin (the tribe of King Saul).

The anecdotal character of the Jewish origins of the Pashtuns may be illustrated by a long quote from the introduction to Tarīkh-i Firištah by Muḥammad Qāsim Hindū Šāh Astarābādī (d. after 1623/4), translated by John Briggs as History of the Mohamedan Power in India, 4 vols., London 1829:

“The Afghans are Copts of the race of the Pharaohs; and that when the prophet Moses got the better of that infidel who was over­whelmed in the Red Sea, many of the Copts became converts to the Jewish faith; but others, stubborn and self-willed, refusing to embrace the true faith, leaving their country, came to India, and eventually settled in the Soolimany mountains, where they bore the name of Afghans. At the time when Abraham marched against Mecca, he was accompanied by several tribes of infidels from far and near, and, on that occasion, a body of these Afghans, it is said, also joined his forces. These tribes were eventually annihilated.”

To sum things up, Pashtuns are not of Hebrew origin; the myth of their Hebrew origin is a toy that Jews and English-speaking Protestants play with, in fact with themselves; now the supposed Hebrew origin of the Pashtuns is used, not without success, by their worst enemies, the Islamic State in Khorasan, to denigrate the Taliban’s Islamic credentials.

Dan Shapira is an interdisciplinary historian and philologist at Bar-Ilan University. He is working currently on medieval and early modern Jewish minority communities, the Crimea, and the Khazars.