Are the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan descendants of an ancient Israelite tribe that migrated across Asia after it was exiled over 2,700 years ago? This intriguing question has been asked by a variety of scholars, theologians, anthropologists and pundits over the years, but has remained somewhere between the realms of amateur speculation and serious academic research. But now, for the first time, the Israeli government itself has shown formal interest, with the Foreign Ministry providing a scholarship to an Indian scientist to come to the Technion and determine whether or not the tribe that makes up the hard core of today’s Taliban have a blood link to any of the ten lost tribes of Israel, and specifically, the tribe of Efraim.
Mrs. Shahnaz Ali, Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute of Immuno-Haematology, Mumbai, has joined the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion), Haifa, to genetically study the blood samples of the Afridi Pathans of Malihabad in District Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, that she collected to confirm their putative Israelite origin.
Shahnaz, an expert in DNA profiling and population genetics, will be supervised by Professor Karl Skorecki, director of Nephrology and Molecular Medicine at the Technion Faculty of Medicine. Skorecki is famous for his breakthrough work on Jewish genetic research. Shahnaz’s research, which is expected to last anywhere between 3 months to a year, will be supported by a scholarship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the academic year 2009-2010. Shahnaz, who is staying in Haifa for the duration of her research, earlier worked at the prestigious Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). While the scholarship only provides Shahnaz with US$ 600 per month [excluding travel to and from India], her work will be followed closely by many here and abroad with an interest in the findings of her research.
While the vast majority of Afghan Taliban are Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the theory that they are descendants of the Afridi Pathans is widespread in the area. The theory is based on a variety of ancient historical texts and oral traditions of the Pashtun people themselves, but no scientific studies by any accredited organizations have upheld the claim. It continues to be believed by many Pashtuns, and has found advocates among some contemporary Muslim and (to a lesser extent) Jewish scholars. Official confirmation of the link by Israel’s esteemed Technion would lend immense weight to the argument.
Afridi Pathans have an age-old tradition of Israelite origin, which finds mention in texts dating from the tenth century to the present day, written by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars. According to some researchers, members of the tribe still observe many Israelite customs in their native places in eastern Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, though they have lost all these traditions of theirs in India. In Afghanistan and Pakistan they are all Muslim today and form the core of the Taliban. In his 1957 classic The Exiled and the Redeemed, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel’s second President, wrote that Hebrew migrations into Afghanistan began, “with a sprinkling of exiles from Samaria who had been transplanted there by Shalmaneser, King of Assyria (719 BC). Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, when asked about his ancestors, claimed that the royal family descended from the Tribe of Benjamin.
On the academic level, British researcher, Dr. Theodore Parfitt, has been conducting research on genetic effects and the presence of chromosome Y among numerous tribes around the world. This chromosome is prevalent among Jews in general and Cohanim in particular. In India he is assisted by a young researcher from the University of Lucknow – Dr. Navras Afreedi – who claims that his ancestors were Afreedi, descendants of the tribe of Efraim, and that many of the Pathans and other tribes are descendant from the Ten Tribes. Dr. Afreedi did his post-doctoral work at Tel Aviv University, entitled “Indian Jewry and the Self-professed Lost Tribes of Israel in India.”
Shahnaz’s genetic research would examine Navras’s theory that Afridi Pathans are descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Ephraim, which was exiled in 721 BC. The research uses DNA analysis to trace shared ancestries and origins of certain populations of interest in the eastern provinces of India; and to map the cause of a certain disorder which is very frequent in the large populations of those provinces, and to see if the DNA mutations originate in a certain “founder event”.
Shahnaz traveled to Malihabad and collected blood samples from the tribal population there. It is thought that the Afridi Pathans migrated to border are of Afghanistan and Pakistan, areas now considered ‘ground zero’ in the war on terror. Shahnaz herself, while aware of the possible connection, is cautious to jump to conclusions. “The research itself will take some three months, and after that we’ll see what happens. It could take a huge amount of time to analyze all the data, as it was taken from tribal people in India, and we will need to examine how much the men from this tribe mixed in with the local population,” she said.
Navras welcomed Shahnaz’s research grant. “It’s a great news that now my research would be analyzed scientifically,” he said on his blog, adding “I don’t know what would be the outcome of the DNA analysis, but it would provide us a direction to resolve the complex issue. I also hope that such effort will have positive ramifications and will bring the Muslims and Jews close and enable them to forget historical animosity.”