Medieval Persian References to the Israelite Origin of Afridi Pashtuns/Pathans

A number of medieval Persian texts written by Muslim scholars refer to the Israelite origin of Afridi Pashtuns/Pathans, who mainly inhabit the hill country from the eastern spurs of the Safed Koh to the borders of the Peshawar district in Pakistan. They occupy about one thousand square miles of the hill country south and west of Peshawar, believed to be the area where Osama bin Laden has found asylum.

A sprinkling of them are also spread out in certain parts of India like Malihabad (District Lucknow) and Qayamganj (District Farukhabad) in Uttar Pradesh, where they settled in the mid-eighteenth century. Afridi, whose population was estimated to be 275,000 in 1962, is one of the most prominent tribes of the warlike Pashtuns/Pathans/Afghans, whose total population was estimated to be 20 million in 1986. Sadly Pashtuns/Pathans/Afghans are the same people who largely fill the ranks of the Taliban today.

The ethnic and etymological origin of the name Afridi is obscure. But there are those who connect it with the Persian afridan, which means ‘newly arrived’, indicating that they were immigrants in the land from where they originally got this name. Some find its origin in the name of Afrata, a great intellectual and wife of Hisron (eighth in descent from the Biblical character David). The derivation of the name Afridi in the Hayat-i-Afghani of Muhammad Hayat Khan from afrida (a creature of God) is evidently a modern fabrication.

According to the legend, in ancient times a Governor of the province of Peshawar summoned certain members of the Afridi tribe to his court. With native pride, one such Afridi, took his seat at the entrance to the royal court, and as the Governor paused to ask him who he was, he exclaimed Zah sok yam? (Who am I?); and replied with solid indifference, Zah hum Afrida yam… (I am also a creature of God). Afrida means a created being in Persian (Farsi). From then on, the tribe were known by the name Afridi.

One of the oldest manuscripts in the world is Abu Suleman Daud bin Abul Fazal Muhammad Albenaketi’s Rauzat uo Albab fi Tawarikh-ul-Akabir wal Ansab (The Garden of the Learned in the History of Great Men and Genealogies) written in AH 717, in which the author traces the ancestry of the Afghans to the Israelites.

An outline of the main tribal traditions of the Pashtuns/Pathans/Afghans have been chronicled by Abul Fazl (1551-1602 CE) in Akbarnama. Slightly different versions are given in Sulayman Maku’s Tadhkirat al Awliya (allegedly of the thirteenth century CE), and in the Khazama.

A number of Pathan/Pashtun/Afghan historians subscribe to the theory of the Israelite origin of the Pathans/Pathans/Afghans. The first among them to trace the genealogy of the Pathans/Pashtuns/Afghans to Israel (an alternative name of the Biblical character Jacob) in a methodical manner was Khwaja Neamatullah. During a discussion at the Mughal emperor Jahangir’s court about the origins of the Afghans, the Persian ambassador amused the monarch by presenting the following account to support the contention that the Pashtuns/Pathans were descended from devils:

Books of authority recounted that King Zuhak, hearing of a race of beautiful women that lived in far off western countries, sent an army thither, which was defeated by the beautiful women, but afterwards, a stronger expedition being sent under Nariman, they were reduced to sue for peace and gave in tribute a thousand virgins. When, on its return march, the army was one night encamped close to a wild mountainous country, there suddenly came down upon it a phantom, smote and scattered the troops in all directions, and then, in that one night, ravished all the thousand virgins. In due course of time all became , and when Zuhak learnt this, he gave orders that the women should be kept in the remote deserts and plains lest the unnatural offspring should breed strife and tumult in the cities. This offspring was the race of the Afghans.

Annoyed at the disgraceful account of the origin of Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans, an Afghan/Pashtun/Pathan courtier, Malik Ahmad, entitled Khan Jahan Lodi, asked his secretary Khwaja Neamatullah Harawi to compile a complete account of the history of Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans. Neamatullah sent five historians, viz., Qutb Khan, Sarmast Khan Abdali, Hamza Khan, Umar Khan Kakarr and Zarif Khan, to the Afghan/Pashtun/Pathan territories in AH 1030/1621 CE to investigate the descent of Afghans. This eventually led to the compilation of Mirat-al-Afghani, according to which Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans are Israelites.

According to Mirat-al-Afghani, after their expulsion from their native land of Israel by Bakhtnasr (Nebuchadnezzar), they took refuge in Kohistan-e-Ghor and Koh-e-Firozah, and were later converted to Islam by Khalid-ibn-al-Waleed, who was of the same racial stock as the Afghans. He is said to have invited his fellow Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans to Arabia to embrace Islam. Led by Qais/Kais, the Afghans reached Arabia and after prolonged deliberations ultimately accepted Islam. Kais/Qais married Khalid’s daughter Sara, and fathered three sons from her – Sarban, Ghorghusht and Baitan. Numerous accounts forwarded by Afghan historians tend to favour this theory. Hafiz Rahmat Khan has presented genealogies showing descent from Talut – a prominent figure in the annals of Bani Israil (Children of Israel) in his Khulasat ul-Ansab.

Neamatullah has given detailed genealogical accounts of several Afghan/Pashtun/Pathan tribes, tracing their descent from Qais Abdul Rasheed, who himself is said to have sprung from the line of Jacob ( Israel) in his Tarikh-i-Khan-i-Jahani wa Makhzan-i-Afghani (AH 1021/ 1612 CE). Completed at Burhanpur, it gives an account of the Afghans, particularly the Lodis and the Surs. Naematullah writes:

…Khaled sent a letter to the Afghans who had settled in the mountainous countries around Ghor ever since the time of the expulsion of the Israelites by Bokhtnasser, and informed them of the appearance of the last of the Prophets. When this letter reached them, several of their chiefs departed from Medina; the mightiest of them, and of the Afghan people, was Kais, whose pedigree ascends in a series of thirty-seven degrees to Talut, of forty-five to Ibrahim…

Naematullah was the first historian to present a systematic genealogical table of Pathans/Pashtuns/Afghans from Israel/Jacob. However he can?t be given credit for propounding the theory of their Israelite origin. Less than ten years before the compilation of Tarikh-e-Khan-e-Jahani, another scholar Akhund Darwiza had declared the Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans to be Israelites in his Tadhkirat al-Abrar (an account of his adventures in Afghan territories) in 1611 CE.

Even before the political rise of Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans, Hamidullah Mustawfi had speculated that they were most likely Israelites in his monumental work Tarikh-e-Guzeedah (AH 730/1326 CE), as stated by Neamatullah. This is a general historical account dedicated to Khwaja Ghiyasuddin Muhammad, son and successor of Rashiduddin Fazlullah, and deals with the Mongols of Persia (modern Iran) and modern Trans-Oxiana.

Sheikh Mali of the Yusufzai tribe wrote in Pushto a book on the Israelite descent of the Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans between AH 816/1409 CE and AH 828/1412 CE. Another work in Pushto on the same subject is ascribed to Khan Kaju, written in circa AH 900/1493 CE. Upon these two works were based Tarikh-e-Hafiz Rahmat and Khulasat al-Ansab of Hafiz Rahmat Khan. Minhaj-i-Siraj Jurjari, who had close contact with the Ghurids and held posts of qazi (qadi), khatib, sadr-i-jahan and principal of the Nasiriya Madrassa, wrote in his Tabaqat-i-Nasiri (1259-60 CE), “In the time of the Shansbani dynasty there were people called Bani Israel living in Ghor,” and that “some of them were extensively engaged in trade with the neighbouring countries.” Tabaqat-i-Nasiri is an encyclopaedic history from the patriarchs and prophets, viz., Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the time of Nasiruddin Mahmud. It is an invaluable source of information for the history of the early Turkish sultans and their maliks and amirs. Abu Sulayman Daud’s Rauza-ul-Bab Twarikh-ul-Akbar-wal-Ansab (The Garden of the Learned in the History of Great Men and Genealogies) (AH 717/1310 CE) is considered the earliest work on the subject of the Israelite origin of Afridi Pashtuns/Pathans. It is a history of the Afghan/Pashtun/Pathan nation since the time of Moses. Genealogies of the Pashtun/Pathan/Afghan tribes, right up to King Saul, are given in the second chapter of the book, while Mustawfi’s Majma-ul-Ansab gives a detailed genealogy of Qais ( Kish), the tribal head of the Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans in a series of thirty-seven generations to King Saul and forty-five generations to Abraham.

We find a detailed account of the journey of Afghans from Israel to Afghanistan in Bukhtawar Khan’s Mirat-ul-Alam, according to which Afghans are descendants of Israel (Jabob/Yacov/Yaqub) through King Saul. It is worth mentioning the names of Syed Jalal-ud-Din Afghani and Syed Abdul Jabar Shah, the ex-ruler of Swat (NWFP, Pakistan), who have given genealogies of different Afghan/Pashtun/Pathan tribes right up to King Saul and conclude that the Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans represent the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadia Movement of Islam, draws upon Tabaqat-e-Nasri in his book Jesus in India (1899), where it is mentioned that during the Shabnisi rule there lived a tribe called Bani Israel, some members of which were good traders. He further records that in 622 CE during the prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, his military chief Khalid ibn-al-Waleed converted about half a dozen chiefs of the Jewish tribes to Islam. Qais or Kish was their leader. As neo-Muslim zealots, they fought bravely a number of battles for spreading Islam. As an expression of his appreciation, Muhammad showered gifts upon them and predicted that they would attain even greater victories. He decreed that the chief of the tribe would always be known as Malik and conferred the title of Patan upon Qais ( Kish). Patan is a Syriac word meaning rudder. Since the newly converted Qais was a guide to his people, like the rudder of a ship, he was awarded this title. And since then, his descendants have been called Pathan.

Another theory is that whenever people asked the Pathans/Pashtuns/Afghans about their nationality, they replied in Hebrew phasq or phasht. Phasq means “to liberate”, “to make free”, “to split”, while phasht means “to spread”. The word Pashtun seems to have been derived from this very word. In Hebrew, Pasht is the name of a deity and also of a city in Egypt. In the Pashto language Pastu means an inner room with just one entrance, which indicates that they might have migrated from Israel to their present mountainous country and called themselves Pusht after a village in Israel. Some believe that Pathans got their name from Jonathan’s great-grandson Pithon.

Some Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans believe that they descended from Bibi Qatoora, wife of Hazrat Ibrahim (Abraham). According to them, after the death of Bibi Sara, Ibrahim married Bibi Qatoora, from whom he had six sons. After distributing all his possessions among his sons, Ibrahim sent them towards the East. They settled down in Turan in the north-west of Iran, where they were soon joined by their brethren exiled by King Talut. All of them established themselves in Pasht. Pasht is identified with Parthia, which later came to be known as Tabaristan. Their settling down in Pasht earned them the name Pashtin followed by Pashtun, and Pashtaneh.

According to Pashtun/Pathan/Afghan genealogies, Kish married the daughter of Khalid ibn al-Waleed, from whom he had three sons – Sarban, Bitan and Ghurgasht, Sarban in turn had two sons – Sacharj Yun and Karsh. As per the tradition, the descendants of Yun are Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans.

It is noteworthy that the people of Asia Minor and Muslim historians call the Afghans/Pathans “Sulaimanis”, after King Sulaiman (Solomon).

There is a tribal tradition that the Pashtuns originated in Israel in the days of King Saul, from whom they claim descent through a son, Irmia (Jeremiah), and a grandson, Afghana, from whom the name Afghanistan is derived, with its inhabitants called Afghans. Pashtuns/Pathans/Afghans maintain that they grew great in Israel, where they were favourites of Daud (David) and Sulaiman (Solomon); and where the latter assigned them to guard the temple from the assaults of jealous demons. To aid them in this task, Sulaiman (Solomon), master of djins and afreets, taught the Afghans/Pashtuns/Pathans the language of hell. At this time there appeared a wicked magician, Bukht-ud-Nasir (Nebuchadnezzar), who scattered the tribes of Israel and sent the Afghans, as the most obstreperous, far to the east, to the land of Sham or Syria. From there they migrated to the mountains of Ghor in western Afghanistan, and settled down, adhering to monotheism, although surrounded by countless idolaters and polytheists. As the legend goes, in the time of Muhammad, an Afghan/Pashtun/Pathan, Qais or Kish, visited Mecca and embraced Islam, receiving the name Abdul Rasheed. He returned to Afghanistan to convert his people, and all the Pashtuns/Pathans/Afghans are the progeny of his two sons, Sarban and Ghurghusht, and daughter Bibi Matto.

Fareed-ud-Din Ahmad tries to prove the Israelite descent of Pashtuns/Pathans/Afghans from King Talut in his Risal-i-Ansab-i-Afghana.

The Pashtuns or Pathans are the world’s only claimants of Israelite descent whose claim is backed by so many medieval references, spanning hundreds of years.


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