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The theory that the Pashtun people originate from the exiled Lost Tribes of Israel originated after the 19th century. Pasthuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan. No scientific studies by any accredited organisations, or scholars, have upheld the claim. It continues to be believed by some Pashtuns, and has found advocates among some contemporary Muslim Pashtuns who try to increase their social status by claiming to be Semitic.
Theories and debates on Pashtun origins
Those who advocate the theory cite oral history and the names of various clans, which resemble the names of the Israelite tribes that were exiled by the Assyrian Empire 2,700 years ago, as evidence for this claim. Numerous ancient texts, such as the Rig Veda, composed before 1200 BCE, which mentions the "Paktha" as an enemy group (e.g. in 4.25.7c), and Herodotus in his Histories composed circa 450 BCE which mentions the Pashtuns as "Paktyakai" (Book IV v.44) and as the "Aparytai" = Afridis (Book III v.91) in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, yet no sources before the conversion of the Pashtuns to Islam mention any Israelite or Jewish connection, nor is the Eastern Iranian language of the Pashtuns taken into account when examining the claims of Hebrew ancestry.
It could be concluded that these claims appear to have emerged amongst the Pashtuns following the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan; it is conceivable that many tribes have created elaborate ancestral lineages to link themselves to prominent peoples mentioned in the Qur'an such as Jews, Greeks (see Alexander the Great in the Qur'an), and Arabs, all of whom have come to the region, but appear to have contributed a very small genetic input into the population rather than drastically altering the demographics of Afghanistan.
Pashtun Medieval texts
Some anthropologists lend credence to the oral traditions of the elder Pashtun tribes themselves. For example, according to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the theory of Pashtun descent from Israelites is traced to Maghzan-e-Afghani, a history compiled for Khan-e-Jehan Lodhi in the reign of Mughal Emperor Jehangir in the 16th century CE. The Maghzan-e-Afghani's Bani-Israel theory has been discounted by modern authorities, due to numerous historical and linguistic inconsistencies.
Some sources state that the Maghzan-e-Afghani, from an oral tradition, may be a myth which grew out of a political and cultural struggle between Pashtuns and the Mughals. This explains the historical backdrop for the creation of the myth, the inconsistencies of the mythology, and the linguistic research that refutes any Semitic origins.
Origin accounts in other sources
Bukhtawar Khan in his most valuable universal history Mirat-ul-Alam – The Mirror of the World – gives a vivid account of the journeys of the Afghans from the Holy Land to Ghor, Ghazni, and Kabul. Similarly Hafiz Rahmat bin Shah Alam in his Khulasat-ul-Ansab and Fareed-ud-Din Ahmad in Risala-i-Ansab-i-Afghana provide the history of the Afghans and deal with their genealogies.
Two of the most famous historical works on the subject are Tarikh-i-Afghana – History of the Afghans – by Niamatullah, which was translated by Bernard Dorn in 1829, and Tarikh-i-Hafiz Rahmatkhani, by Hafiz Muhammad Zadeek which he wrote in 1770. These books deal with the early history of the Afghans, their origin and wanderings in general. They particularly discuss the Yusuf Zyes (the Yusefzai, "Sons of Joseph") and their occupation of Kabul, Bajoor, Swat, and Peshawar.
European explorers and researchers
Sir Alexander Burnes in his Travels into Bokhara, which he published in 1835, speaking of the Afghans said: "The Afghans call themselves Bani Israel, or the children of Israel, but consider the term Yahoodi, or Jew, to be one of reproach. They say that Nebuchadnezzar, after the overthrow of Israel, transplanted them into the towns of Ghore near Bamean and that they were called after their Chief Afghan they say that they lived as Israelites till Khalid summoned them in the first century of the Muhammadans Having precisely stated the traditions and history of the Afghans I see no good reason for discrediting them… the Afghans look like Jews and the younger brother marries the widow of the elder. The Afghans entertain strong prejudices against the Jewish nation, which would at least show that they have no desire to claim – without just cause – a descent from them. [Sir Alexander Burnes, Travels into Bokhara, Vol. 2:139-141.]
Burnes was again in 1837 sent as the first British Envoy to the Court of Kabul. For some time he was the guest of King Dost Mohammad Khan. He questioned the King about the descent of the Afghans from the Israelites. The King replied that "his people had no doubt of that, though they repudiated the idea of being Jews".
William Moorcroft traveled during 1819 to 1825 through various countries adjoining India, including Afghanistan. "The Khaibarees," he says, "are tall and have a singularly Jewish cast of features." [Moorcroft, Travels in Himalayan Provinces of Hindustan and the Punjab; in Ladakh and Kashmir, in Peshawar, Kabul, Kunduz and Bokhara, 12]
J. B. Frazer in his book, An Historical and Descriptive Account of Persia and Afghanistan, which he published in 1843, says: "According to their own tradition they believe themselves to be descendants from the Hebrews… they preserved the purity of their religion until they met with Islam." [J.B. Frazer, A Historical and Descriptive Account of Persia and Afghanistan, 298]
Joseph-Pierre Ferrier wrote his History of the Afghans in 1858. It was translated by Capt. W. M. Jesse. He too was disposed to believe that the Afghans represented the Ten Tribes of Israel. In support of his view he recorded, among others, a very significant fact: “When Nadir Shah marching to the conquest of India arrived at Peshawar, the chief of the tribe of Yoosoof Zyes (Sons of Joseph) presented him with a Bible written in Hebrew and several other articles that had been used in their ancient worship and which they had preserved. These articles were at once recognized by the Jews who followed the camp. So the presence of Bibles among Afghans show their Jewish origin.”
Writings of explorers
George Moore published his famous work The Lost Tribes in 1861. He gave numerous facts to prove that these tribes are traceable to India. After giving details of the character of the wandering Israelites, he said: "And we find that the very natural character of Israel reappear in all its life and reality in countries where people call themselves Bani Israel and universally claim to be the descendants of the Lost Tribes. The nomenclature of their tribes and districts, both in ancient Geography, and at the present day, confirms this universal natural tradition. Lastly, we have the route of the Israelites from Media to Afghanistan and India marked by a series of intermediate stations bearing the names of several of the tribes and clearly indicating the stages of their long and arduous journey." [George Moore, The Lost Tribes]
Moore goes on to say: "Sir William Jones, Sir John Malcolm and the missing Chamberlain, after full investigation, were of the opinion that the Ten Tribes migrated to India, Tibet, and Cashemire [Kashmir] through Afghanistan." [George Moore, The Lost Tribes]
Moore has mentioned only three eminent writers on the subject. But reference can also be made to General Sir George Macmunn (Afghanistan from Darius to Amanullah, 215), Col. G.B. Malleson (The History of Afghanistan from the Earliest Period to the outbreak of the War of 1878, 39), Col. Failson, (History of Afghanistan, 49), George Bell (Tribes of Afghanistan, 15), E. Balfour (Encyclopedia of India, article on Afghanistan), Sir Henry Yule (Encyclopædia Britannica, article on Afghanistan), and the Hon. Sir George Rose (Rose, The Afghans, the Ten Tribes and the Kings of the East, 26). They, one and all, independently came to the same conclusion.
Another, Major H. W. Bellew, went on a political mission to Kandahar and published his impressions in his Journal of a Mission to Kandahar, 1857-8. He then wrote in 1879 his book Afghanistan and Afghans. In 1880 he was sent, once again on another mission to Kabul, and in the same year he delivered two lectures before the United Services Institute at Simla: "A New Afghan Question, or "Are the Afghans Israelites?" and "Who are the Afghans?" He then published another book: The Races of Afghanistan. Finally he collected all his facts in An Enquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, which was published in 1891.
In this work he mentions Killa Yahoodi ("Fort of the Jews") (H.W. Bellew, An Enquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, 34), as being the name of the eastern boundary of their country, and also speaks of Dasht-i-Yahoodi ("Jewish plain") (ibid., 4), a place in Mardan District. He concludes: "The Afghan’s accounts of Jacob and Esau, of Moses and the Exodus, of the Wars of the Israelites with the Amalekites and conquest of Palestine, of the Ark of the Covenant and of the election of Saul to the Kingdom, etc., etc., are clearly founded on the Biblical records, and clearly indicate a knowledge of the Old Testament, which if it does not prove the presence of the Christians at least corroborates their assertion that the Afghans were readers of the Pentateuch." (Ibid., 191)
Thomas Ledlie wrote an article in the Calcutta Review, which he subsequently elaborated and published in two volumes. He expressed his views on the subject very clearly: "The Europeans always confuse things, when they consider the fact that the Afghans call themselves Bani Israel and yet reject their Jewish descent. Indeed, the Afghans discard the very idea of any descent from the Jews. They, however, yet claim themselves to be of Bani Israel." [Thomas Ledlie, More Ledlian, Calcutta Review, January, 1898]
Ledlie goes on to explain: "Israelites, or the Ten Tribes, to whom the term Israel was applied – after their separation from the House of David, and the tribe of Judah, which tribe retained the name of Judah and had a distinct history ever after. These last alone are called Jews and are distinguished from the Bani Israel as much in the East as in the West." [Ibid., 7]
Modern researchers and writers
Among more contemporary writers Dr. Alfred Edersheim says: "Modern investigations have pointed the Afghans as descendants from the Lost Tribes." [Dr. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus, the Messiah, 15]
Sir Thomas Holditch in his The Gates of India says: "But there is one important people (of whom there is much more to be said) who call themselves Bani Israel, who claim a descent from Cush and Ham, who have adopted a strange mixture of Mosaic Law in Ordinances in their moral code, who (some sections at least) keep a feast which strongly accords with the Passover,… and for whom no one has yet been able to suggest any other origin than the one they claim, and claim with determined force, and these people are the overwhelming inhabitants of Afghanistan." – Sir Thomas Holditch, The Gates of India, 49.
There are many additional references, recorded incidents, manuscripts and artifacts related to the Hebraic history of the Pashtuns for the dedicated objective researcher who seeks them out.
In his 1957 classic The Exiled and the Redeemed, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, second President of Israel, writes 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). From the recurrent references in the Book of Esther to the "one hundred and twenty seven dominions" of King Ahasuerus, the deduction is permissible that eastern Afghanistan was among them." [The Exiled and the Redeemed, 176]
"The Afghan tribes, among whom the Jews have lived for generations, are Moslems who retain to this day their amazing tradition about their descent from the Ten Tribes. It is an ancient tradition, and one not without some historical plausibility. A number of explorers, Jewish and non-Jewish, who visited Afghanistan from time to time, and students of Afghan affairs who probed into literary sources, have referred to this tradition, which was also discussed in several encyclopedias in European languages. The fact that this tradition, and no other, has persisted among these tribes is itself a weighty consideration. Nations normally keep alive memories passed by word of mouth from generation to generation, and much of their history is based not on written records but on verbal tradition.Dr. Navras Aafreedi, an Indian historian who did a genetic study on the Afridi clan of Pashtuns in Malihabad, India, said that 650 out of the 1,500 members possess genetic material similar to genetic material found in Jews.
This was particularly so in the case of the nations and the communities of the Levant. The people of the Arabian Peninsula, for example, derived all their knowledge of an original pagan cult, which they abandoned in favor of Islam, from such verbal tradition. So did the people of Iran, formerly worshipers of the religion of Zoroaster; the Turkish and Mongol tribes, formerly Buddhists and Shamanists; and the Syrians who abandoned Christianity in favor of Islam. Therefore, if the Afghan tribes persistently adhere to the tradition that they were once Hebrews and in course of time embraced Islam, and there is not an alternative tradition also existent among them, they are certainly Jewish." [The Exiled and the Redeemed]
A University of Chicago research conducted in 2007 was unable to find genetic evidence of Semitic descent. However, recent media reports suggest that Israel is planning to fund a rare genetic study to determine whether there is a link between the lost tribes of Israel and the Pashtuns.Pathans, or Pashtuns, are the only people in the world whose probable descent from the lost tribes of Israel finds mention in a number of texts from the 10th century to the present day, written by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars alike, both religious as well as secularists.—Navras Aafreedi
Of all the groups, there is more convincing evidence about the Pathans than anybody else, but the Pathans are the ones who would reject Israel most ferociously. That is the sweet irony..
- Theory of Pashtun descent from Rajputs
- Nimat Allah al-Harawi Author of Tarikh-i-Khan Jahani Makhzan-i-Afghani
- Bnai Israel
- Ten Lost Tribes
- Saul first king of the united Kingdom of Israel (reigned 1047 - 1007) according to the Hebrew Bible
- History of Arabs in Afghanistan
- Bellew: Races of Afghanistan
- Yu. V. Gankovsky, Syed Bahadur Shah Zafar Kaka Khel: Pukhtana
- Sir Olaf Caroe (1958), The Pathans
Two recent articles summarizing the rejection of this theory by contemporary anthropologists are:
- Yossi Klein Halevi, "In Search of the Ten Lost Tribes", The Jerusalem Report, Jun 13, 1991, 18.
- Shalva Weil, "Our Brethren the Taliban?", The Jerusalem Report, Oct 22, 2001, 22.
- Are Taliban descendants of Israelites?, By AMIR MIZROCH, jpost.com, Jan 9, 2010.
- Alden Oreck, The Virtual Jewish History Tour: Afghanistan from Jewish Virtual Library
- Is One of the Lost Tribes the Taliban?
- Taliban may have origin in ancient tribe of Israel: Anthropologist finds many similarities
- Pashtun clue to lost tribes of Israel: Genetic study sets out to uncover if there is a 2,700-year-old link to Afghanistan and Pakistan
- Taliban may be descended from Jews
Links refuting the theory of Pashtun Jewish descent
- Bani-Israelite Theory of Paktoons Ethnic Origin on the site of World Afghan Jirgah. Archived February 6, 2005.