Traditions of Israelite Descent among Certain Muslim Groups in South Asia

Article excerpt

The South Asian Muslim groups of Pathans, Kashmiris, Qidwais, and Bani Israil, in spite of being antagonistic towards Jews, Israel, and Zionism, claim Israelite descent, which is seen by some scholars as an attempt on their part to distance themselves from their pre-Islamic polytheistic past by fabricating fake genealogies ascending to the founders of Semitic monotheism, the supposed patriarchs, accepted by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Their antagonism towards Jews stems from the negative interpretations of Quranic references to Jews and also from the Arab-Israel conflict. The religious Jews who take their claims seriously are those who perceive themselves as Jews as part of a larger group of Israelites, which also includes people who according to them have descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Unlike the B'nei Menashe from northeast India, these Muslim groups have no desire to migrate to Israel. However, many religious Jewish organizations are keen on penetrating into their world and persuading them to do so. The involvement of religious Jewish organizations wirh these Muslim claimants of Israelite descent in South Asia can have some interesting ramifications for Jewish-Muslim relations and the world at large.

My intention is not to establish the historicity of the claims of Israelite origins that certain South Asian Muslim groups make, but rather to explore why they claim what they do and what it is that makes some of the religious Jews take them seriously.

It would be interesting to note that the groups of Pathans, Kashmiris, Qidwais, and Bani Israil (Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, and Urdu for the Hebrew B'nei Yisrael, "children of Israel") are all Muslim and strongly anti- Zionist and antiIsrael and also greatly prejudiced against Jews, yet they choose to claim origins from the land of Israel, which is the sanctum sanctorum of Judaism, the core of Zionism and the geographical location of the modern Jewish state of Israel. The claims of Israelite origins made by these groups are not a recent development, rather traditions that have existed among these peoples for hundreds of years. Of the four groups, the Pathans1 and the Kashmiris2 share the belief that they have descended from the supposed Lost Tribes of Israel. The standard view of historians is that the Lost Tribes of Israel are nothing but a myth. The last evidence of lost Israelites belongs to seventh-century Assyria and consists of references to Assyrian soldiers with Hebrew names. The Pathan tradition of descent from a contemporary of Muhammad, Kais or Kish, believed to be thirty-seventh in descent from the Biblical character Saul or Talut,3 finds mention in several medieval Persian texts, daring from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century.4 One of the most important of these medieval Persian (Farsi) texts is the Mughal courtier Neamatullah's Makhzan-i-Afghani (1612 CE), according to which:

Khaled sent a letter to the Afghans who had been settled in the mountainous countries about 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. On this letter reaching them, several of their chiefs departed for Medina; the mightiest of whom, and of the Afghan people, was Kais, whose pedigree ascends in a series of thirty-seven degrees to Talut, of forty-five to Ibrahim. . . ,5

The tradition is based on the premise chat the Biblical stories are actually historical events and that the characters in these stories really existed. These groups in South Asia are resident in areas where there are no Jews; therefore their claim of Israelite descent cannot be attributed to any Jewish influence, nor can it be considered a byproduct of Christianity, as in the case of the Bene Menashe from northeast India, for none of these groups is Christian. Insistence on an Israelite origin, according to Olaf Caroe,6 stems from a desire on the part of Pathans to distance themselves from their pre-Islamic polytheistic past by fabricating fake genealogies ascending to the founders of Semitic monotheism, the supposed patriarchs, accepted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. …


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