Are the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan descendants of an 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 government has shown official interest, with the Foreign Ministry providing a scholarship to an Indian scientist to come to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and determine whether or not the tribe that provides the hard core of today's Taliban has a blood link to any of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and specifically to the tribe of Efraim.
Shahnaz Ali, a senior research fellow at the National Institute of Immunohaematology, Mumbai, has joined the Technion to study the blood samples that she collected from Afridi Pathans in Malihabad, in the Lucknow district, Uttar Pradesh state, India, to check their putative Israelite origin.
Shahnaz, an expert in DNA profiling and population genetics, will be supervised by Prof. 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 three months and a year, will be supported by a scholarship from the Foreign Ministry for the 2009-2010 academic year.
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 her with $600 per month (excluding travel to and from India), her work will be followed closely by many here and abroad.
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 the 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 10th 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 in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, 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 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 chromosome Y among numerous tribes around the world. In India he is assisted by a young researcher from the University of Lucknow - Dr. Navras Aafreedi - who claims that his ancestors were Afreedi, descendants of the tribe of Efraim, and that many of the Pathans and other tribes are descendants of the Ten Tribes. Afreedi did his post-doctoral work at Tel Aviv University, titled "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 tribe of Ephraim, which was exiled in 721 BCE. The research uses DNA analysis to trace shared ancestries and origins of certain populations of interest in the eastern provinces of India, to map the cause of a certain disorder that 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 from the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, areas that are now "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.
"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," Navras wrote.