Paleo-Talibothra Found!!


A chance conversation reminded me of something, which led to another trip down the ‘stacks in Reg and Google Books and, lo and behold, I may have hit at the birthplace of TALIBOTHRA! Now, understand that this is an exercise in what professional historians call “speculative scholarship”. As a professional historian, I believe it is my right to engage in such activities that are strictly off-limits to the lesser yous.

We all know that the word Taliban is plural of the Arabic Talib meaning “one who seeks”. Most commonly it is a contraction of Talib-i ‘Ilm, “one who seeks knowledge/learning” aka “student”. Our current Taliban got the moniker because they belonged to a particular generation of seminary/madrasa students in Pakistan (’86-’90). So, Taliban = Talib-e ilm. All good? Now check it:

I. “The Talib ilm or Student in Affghanistan is very different from the same species usually so called in India and Sindh. Like the members of our European Universities in the middle ages, the Affghan Student carries about his sword and dagger, and is fonder of broil than he is of his books. The duello of course is unknown, as the usual way to resent an insult is to draw a sword and cut the opponent down. As Mussulmans, they dare not openly indulge in the “wine and wassail” but the “emerald cup”, in other words Cannabis sativa under the forms of bhang and charas, forms no contemptible succedaneum.”1

II. “One evening in the month of September 1853 he had completed his day’s work, and as he was seated outside his house receiving and hearing petitions, a man came up and handed to him what appeared to be a petition. As Mackeson was examining it, the miscreant drew a dagger, either from his sleeve or beneath his shirt, and stabbed him. He lingered some days, but the wound was fatal, and he died on September 14, 1853. The assassin was a Talib-ul-Ilm (a searcher after knowledge, i.e. a religious student), a resident of the Kuner Valley.”2

III. “Everywhere Mullahs, Shekhs and Sayads are objects of reverence, whose temporal wants are freely attended to. Mullahs of note attract to their mosques a number of wandering adventurers from other countries known as talib-ilm or seekers after learning; but who are most frequently idle vagabonds, ready to join in any piece of mischief which comes in their way: and sometimes the regularly employed spies of robbers and dacoits.

The Talib-ul-ilm, or ‘seeker of wisdom’ is the name applied to a mixed class of vagrants and idlers who, under the pretense of devoting themselves to religion, wander from country to country, and on the whole lead an agrreable and easy life.”3

Say what you will, those British were preceptive people.4

Related: Check Talibothra here.

  1. Richard F. Burton, “Notes and Remarks on Dr. Dorn’s Chrestomathy of the Pushtu or Affghan Language,” The Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Jan 1849. []
  2. Robert Warburton. Eighteen Years in the Khyber, 1979-1898. (London: John Murray, 1900) []
  3. Gazetteer of the Peshawar. 1897-98 (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 1989): 102-12 []
  4. I can’t help but share some other gems from the Gazetteer about the Pathans: “Their superstition is incredible and knows no bounds”. “The Pathans are a lively people, superstitious beyond belief and proud to a degree but brave and hospitable, two virtues compensating for many vices, among which may be mentioned distrustfulness, envy, resentment and vindictiveness.” “The Pathans are said to be naturally very avaricious and grasping, selfish, merciless, strangers to affection and without gratitude.” And perhaps my favorite colonial recommendation ever: “The poetry (of the Pathans) possesses some merit, and is worthy of attention from us by way of encouragement. Their music, too, though noisy, and the result of vigorous performance, is not without its peculiar merits, to judge from its exciting effects on a Pathan audience.” Good Times, yeah? []

122 Replies to “Paleo-Talibothra Found!!”

  1. LOL @ The Santa Clause article.
    90% of my family is Christian, and half of the Christians are Russian Orthodox Old Believers. i celebrate christmas too, and the traditional way is more fun! btw, santa claus was primarily inspired by a saint from the orthodox church

    and as a muslim, all i gotta say is Eid Mubarak!

  2. Why Muslim culture needs more fun
    “Is the popularity of Santa Claus in Turkey an example of the West’s ‘cultural imperialism’? Or should Muslims question why they don’t have similar symbols of laughter and joy?”
    “When we are speaking about Santa Claus, decorated pine trees, and nicely packed presents, we are referring to a certain type of Christian culture that arose in the West in modern times. Medieval Christianity, with its scary gothic cathedrals, inquisitions, witch hunts, and exaggerated fear of sin and demons, was certainly much less fun.

    Even today there is a big difference between Eastern Christianity and its Western, especially American, counterpart. Go to a Protestant church in southern California, and then an Eastern Orthodox one in Russia, and you will see the difference.

    Islam, too, is predominantly an Eastern religion. Its culture evolved mainly in the pre-modern Middle East, and within agricultural societies consisting mostly of peasants. (The merchant class, which was quite influential in the earliest centuries of Islam, declined gradually as the world trade routes shifted away from the Middle East.)

    Agricultural societies are not dynamic. People don’t travel and see new things. If the land is arid, like it is in the Middle East, sustenance becomes life’s main challenge. You do not have many resources to feed your family, let alone buy gifts and organize parties. What you pray for most is not a good education, or a career. Rather you pray for more rainfall.”
    LMAO, soberly though.

  3. [cntd.]
    The perception that the government is sponsoring Muslim organisations on the basis of theological criteria—for example, holding Sufis to be more favourable than Salafis [an orientation of Islam that seeks literal emulation of the early Muslim community and a literal interpretation of the Koran and Hadith]—runs counter to the secular separation of Church and state, even though such a separation is itself upheld as a marker of moderation which Muslims should aspire to. As Asma Jahnangir, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, pointed out in her 2008 report on the uk, “it is not the Government’s role to look for the ‘true voices of Islam’ or of any other religion of belief. Since religions or communities of belief are not homogenous entities it seems advisable to acknowledge and take into account the diversity of voices… The contents of a religion or belief should be defined by the worshippers themselves.

    There is also a risk of discovering extremists where none exist, if an interpretative framework based on the simple binary of ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ is imposed on the complex and dynamic picture of Muslim religious life. For example, since the 1990s, a major trend among young Muslims has been identification with the global ummah as a third way alternative to either assimilating into what many perceive to be a hostile society or following their parents’ religio-cultural traditions, which are bound up with South Asian languages, poetry and ‘folk’ practices such as reverence for holy men or pirs. The emphasis is thus on purifying oneself from these cultural accretions which are seen as contaminating the Islamic message. This ‘return’ to the original Islamic texts and a global version of Islam is often seen as a Salafist precursor to extremism although it is more likely to lead to new kinds of positive engagement with British society.

    The basis for this theological and cultural approach to preventing violent extremism is twofold. First, there is the idea that terrorist radicalisation is rooted in religio-cultural rejection of Western modernity. Second, is the idea that such rejection needs to be combated by a government-led ‘battle of ideas’.

    The government sees the emergence of an inter-linked global insurgency as the real threat represented by Al-Qaida: “At various moments Al-Qaida and its associates have made the transition from terrorism to insurgency, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. As insurgencies they have posed different and a wider threat to the uk and its interests than their forebears.”

    The terrain on which this ‘battle of ideas’ is to be fought is thus the attitudes and opinions of mainstream Muslims in Britain. The possibility of anti-Western extremists winning over mainstream Muslims to their cause comes to be seen as a strategic challenge to British national security. The danger here is that British Muslims become, in the imagination of the counter-terrorist system, no longer citizens to whom the state is accountable but potential recruits to a global counterinsurgency that is threatening the state’s prospects of prevailing in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This international dimension means that the attention focused on this extremism is of a completely different kind to that focused on, say, right wing extremism, which is taken to be no more than a public order threat. What emerges is a determination that the problem can only be fully addressed if Muslims take it upon themselves to do more, to actively mobilize against the extremists, and that therefore more pressure should be brought to bear upon Muslims in general and their community organisations.

    A full copy of the report can be downloaded for free at

  4. Excerpts from:
    The Building of a Docile Islam in Britain: How not to Prevent Violent Exremism

    [UK Government] believes that by selectively directing resources at ‘moderate’ Muslim organizations to carry out community development and ‘anti-radicalisation’ work, it can empower them to unite around ‘shared British values’ to isolate the ‘extremists’. With hundreds of millions of pounds of funding, the Prevent programme has come to redefine the relationship between government and around two million British citizens who are Muslim. Their ‘hearts and minds’ are now the target of an elaborate structure of surveillance, mapping, engagement and propaganda.
    […] What we found in our research was that there are strong reasons for thinking that the Prevent programme, in effect, constructs the Muslim population as a ‘suspect community’, fosters social divisions among Muslims and others, encourages tokenism, facilitates violations of privacy and professional norms of confidentiality, discourages local democracy and is counter-productive in reducing the risk of political violence. Moreover, there is evidence that the Prevent programme has been used to establish one of the most elaborate systems of surveillance ever seen in Britain. […]The aim was to reduce the circulation of “extremist ideas” and tackle the widespread discontent and disaffection which extremists were thought to exploit. This was to be achieved by strengthening the hand of moderate Muslim leaders through government contact and targeted capacity building.
    […]The question we pose here is whether freedom and confidence for the majority can be enabled by imposing a lack of freedom and confidence on a minority.
    […] The problem with attempting to mobilise all these Muslims against ‘extremism’ is that it, in effect, constructs Muslims into a ‘suspect community’ in which the failure of Muslim individuals or organisations to comply with this mobilization makes them suspect in the eyes of the counter-terrorist system and shifts them from the bottom layer of ‘mainstream Muslims’ to the middle layer of extremists. However, Muslims may want to avoid participating in the government’s Prevent programme for a number of reasons which have nothing to do with support for political violence.

    For Muslims organizations that are able to present themselves as ‘moderate’, significant financial and symbolic resources are being offered by central and local government. The danger is that the distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ is flexible enough to be exploited by government to marginalize those who are critical of its policies. And the use of government funding to promote particular interpretations of religious texts is potentially dangerous.

    The terms ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ are at times defined in practice by the degree to which Muslims support or oppose central government or local authority policies.
    The category of ‘moderate Muslims’ is at times defined theologically, leading to the potential danger of government sponsorship for its preferred religious trends. Extremism is seen by the government as a ‘twisted reading’ or misreading of Islam that justifies terrorism. To counter this extremism, the Prevent programme seeks to identify and empower moderate Muslims who can offer an alternative reading of Islam.
    In Bradford, the Council of Mosques has been supported by Prevent funding of £80,000 from the dclg’s community leadership fund in 2008/09 to develop a teaching resource for madrassahs known as Nasiha. Much of the resource is an impressive attempt to introduce key religious concepts. There is a perception, however, that, on occasion, the resource might appear too eager to interpret the original Islamic sources as having meanings useful to the Prevent programme. For example, verses are interpreted as meaning that “the root cause of extremism, racism and bullying is hatred—and all three can destroy a community… Hatred can also lead to arrogance and anti-Western sentiments— again this is not what Islam teaches”. Another verse is interpreted as meaning: “We have to communicate with our local authorities and get involved in electing suitable leaders for our religion”.

  5. Related to Dalrymple, and C.M Naim’s piece:

    Evangelical US megachurches like Saddleback are market-driven, with transcendence not on the menu:

    “It seemed the butt end of Christianity: stripped of history and icon­ography, wholly immersed in its secular surroundings, constructed according to a business model and promoted by motivational speakers – bland, cheerful, dull.”

  6. Related to Dalrymple’s piece:

    A ‘Hyper-Masculinised’ Islam?:

    “I grew up in an upper-middle class Muslim family in a small North Indian town. My father had first studied for a few years at the Firangi Mahal, the famous Sunni Muslim seminary at Lucknow, then gone on to study in a government highschool. Our family had some other ties too with the Firangi Mahal, and one particular former classmate of my father was a frequent visitor at our house. But I didn’t learn my religion from my father or his friends. I learned it from Apa and Ammi, my mother and grandmother, respectively. I never saw my father observe the requirement of daily prayers until he was on his deathbed. But Apa and Ammi never missed any of the five daily prayers; neither did Mama, our beloved nanny, who had come as a young widow to work for my mother, almost as a part of her dowry.

    Ammi taught me how to pray; she also had me read to her from two books. One had stories about the many Biblical prophets that the Muslims also revere, the other was a wonderful biography of the Prophet Muhammad, especially written for children. A maulvi came every day to teach me how to vocalise the Qur’an. I ‘read’ several sections of the holy book, and memorised some twenty or so shorter súras in order to perform the daily prayers. I was encouraged to pray, but no one forced me. I prayed when I liked, and I liked it when I prayed.”

    […]”The more I thought about the matter the clearer something became to me: the crucial thing was that I had learned my religion from the women in my family while the two young men had learned it from their fathers or from the men at the local mosques.

    I grew up observing the Islam of the women, which was practiced by them without any direct influence of a male member of the family or any male outsider. It included the shari’a rituals of prayer and fasting but also many other expressions of devotion and piety. It included celebrations of saints, remembrances of dead elders, recitations of religious verses, and a whole lot more. What was most important about these practices, as I only much later realized, was that they did not reflect any self-consciousness that was imbued with power and authority.

    On the contrary, they expressed, on the part of their practitioners, a profound sense of humility and need. I should perhaps emphasize the first word. Humility before God and His elect was definitely the strongest impression I received from the religious acts of my grandmother, mother, and the other women in the family. There was never about them a sense of being someone special before God as Muslims; in fact, for them being a Muslim meant that one was humble and uncertain about one’s final fate where God was concerned. No doubt that attitude was also connected, as I see only now, to their own position in the household as women. No matter how great a control they had in the zanána and in family matters, the bottom line for them was to accept what the men decided. That said, it was still true that during the formative years of their children’s lives, when both girls and boys lived in the zanána, the women played a very significant role. “

  7. Dalrymple’s latest

    “Nanda probably gives undue space—an entire chapter—to the liberalisation of the economy since 1991, material that is widely available elsewhere, she might have said a little more about the homogenising tendencies of modern Hinduism, and the way local and regional cults and variants are falling out of favour as faith becomes more centralised. Small devtas and devi cults giving way instead to the national hyper-masculine hero deities, especially Lord Krishna and Lord Rama, a process scholars call the ‘Rama-fication’ of Hinduism.

    For this tendency, the best source remains Romila Thapar’s essay Syndicated Hinduism. Here, Thapar shows how, since the mid-19th century, reformers such as Vivekananda have systemised Hinduism into a relatively centralised nationalist ideology that now increasingly resembles the very different structures of the Semitic religions its more extreme adherents tend to abhor. “The model,” writes Thapar, “is in fact that of Islam and Christianity…worship is increasingly congregational and the introduction of sermons on the definition of a good Hindu and Hindu belief and behaviour are becoming common and register a distinct change from earlier practice.” According to Thapar, this homogenising process is accelerating: “The emergence of a powerful middle-class,” she believes, has created a desire for a “uniform, monolithic Hinduism, created to serve its new requirements”. This new Hinduism masquerades as the revival of something ancient, but it is really “a new creation, created to support the claims of [Hindu] majoritarianism.”

    Ironically, there are strong parallels in the way this new Hinduism is standardising faith to what is happening in South Asian Islam. There too, the local is tending to give way to the national as the cults of local Sufi saints—the warp and woof of popular Islam in India for centuries—loses ground to a more standardised, middle-class and textual form of Islam, imported from the Gulf and propagated by the the Wahabis, Deobandis and Tablighis in their madrasas.

    Today, as a result, the great Sufi shrines of the region find themselves in a position much like that of the great sculptured cathedrals and saints’ tombs of northern Europe five hundred years ago, on the eve of the Reformation. As in 16th century Europe, the reformers and puritans are on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals and the devotional superstitions of saints’ shrines. As in Europe, they look to the text alone for authority, and recruit the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle-class, who looked down on what they see as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

    There is a similar if more gradual process at work in Hindu India: researching my Nine Lives, I found tantriks in West Bengal who lived in fear of Marxist ‘anti-superstition committees’, which beat up tantrik babas they accuse of bring perverts, drug addicts, alcoholics, even cannibals. Everywhere, the deeply embedded syncretic, pluralistic folk traditions that continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities are finding it difficult to compete with the homogenising mainstream.”

  8. “In the small town of Vassalboro, Maine, a few topless waitress jobs in a coffee house drew 150 applicants. Women in this small town are so desperate for jobs that they are reduced to undressing for their neighbors’ amusement.

    Meanwhile, the Obama government is going to straighten out Afghanistan and Pakistan and build marble palaces to awe the locals half way around the world.”

  9. This thread is dying. Argh!

    “The naive armchair warriors are fighting a delusional war” by Alastair Crooke
    ” ‘I don’t like the term ‘war on terror’ because terror is a method, not a political movement; we are in a war against radical Islam,’ says Kissinger. But who or what is radical Islam? It is those who are not ‘moderates’, he explains. Certainly, a small minority of Muslims believe that only by ‘burning the system’ can a fresh stab at a just society be made. But Kissinger’s definition of ‘moderate’ Islam sounds no more than a projection of the Christian narrative after Westphalia, by which Christianity became a private matter of conscience, rather than an organisational principle for society.

    If radical Islam, with which these experts tell us we should be at war, encompasses all those who are not enamoured of secular society, and who espouse a vision of their societies grounded in the values of Islam, then these experts are advocating a war with Islam – because Islam is the vision for their future favoured by many Muslims.”

  10. to the extent that religion is today yet another kind of “self-realization”, it is perhaps natural RE: “that it should take this form in a contemporary capitalist culture where “self-realization” is the ultimate good (that “self-realization” could come about in any way — tattoos, shopping, religion, choice of career, but the point is that all of these are reducible to the same paradigm, and is thus something new as a historical matter), and is hardly “about” Islam, except in the sense that is the vehicle it must adopt in a particular society (I think of it as similar to McDonalds only selling veg food in Jaipur; that does not point to the victory of traditional “Indian values”, but to the victory of McDonalds (with, potentially, the creation of some “newness” in Indian values)).” /comment-page-2#comment-157523

    Enjoyable read, relevant to Qalandar’s aforementioned comment.

    “This process is ‘glocalisation’; consumers take the globalised artifact (Barbie) and make it local (Fulla). It is a positive step for Barbie and Barbie-like dolls everywhere.

    I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the glocalisation argument. McDonalds usually trots it out to make the claim that they “respect” Muslim cultures because they offer halal Big Macs. In the case of Barbie dolls, I think it is important to realize that while dolls like Fulla and Razanne do offer an alternative to Barbie, the dolls remain inherently consumerist and construct their own discourse of femininity.

    Take Razanne, for example. While she comes in different ‘colors’ to represent different ethnicities, all variations of the doll have exactly the same features, with only slight dissimilarities in their complexions. Fulla is created in the same factory in China as Barbie, and looks almost like Barbie’s twin sister with larger eyes and a slightly darker complexion. Thus, the Western concept of beauty which was first introduced though Barbie, remains unchanged when it comes to these ethnic dolls. In the end, glocalization isn’t about finding the ‘agency’ of consumers in globalization – it’s about Barbie done differently to sell more stuff.

    To a large extent, these dolls are being treated as marketing tools in order to sell Islam. Fulla has sparked a craze in the Middle East; you can find Fulla chewing gum, bags and bicycles, matching clothes, and a matching pink prayer rug for her young owner. A toy-store owner in Syria was quoted in “The New York Times” as saying “If you’ve got a TV in the house, it’s Fulla all the time. The parents complain about the expense, but Fulla gives girls a more Islamic character to emulate, and parents want that.” Forgive me if I want something other than a doll to teach my (potential) daughter my religious and cultural values.

    A writer at “The Guardian” aptly sums it up , “For parents it will be the same story regardless: an empty wallet and a houseful of small plastic people with fixed smiles and molded matching accessories.”

  11. I might add that even the British “voluntariness” is overrated: they were facing complete chaos and civil war/anarchy in India, and chose to dishonorably exit in haste, leaving Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs to slaughter and rape each other over a boundary drawn by a British bureaucrat without any participation by those who would be governed by it. And even after 1947, the Brits chose to fight on with great brutality in Kenya; then there was the 10-year anti-Communist insurgency operations in Malaya; troops in Oman in the 1970s; and most prominently of all, 1956 Suez. These examples show just how voluntary British voluntariness was (as late as 1939 there were basically NO SIGNS that the British were preparing to leave India). The real remarkable achievement here is how the Brits have (beyond all other empires, including those of other Western European powers) won the PR stakes: it has become conventional wisdom that the British Empire was better than everyone else’s: more humane, kinder, gentler, more civilized, both in its practice and in its winding up (at least part of the problem has been that the situations that clearly reveal the fraud inherent in these judgments — apartheid South Africa; white supremacist Rhodesia; “let’s get out and let ’em go to hell” India/Pakistan — are dismissed as aberrations or as someone else’s responsibility/problem). It nauseates me.

  12. Here is calmer johnson’s prognosis and remedial advice.OBAMA calls BOSTON PD STUPID FOR DISTURBING ONE RESIDENT IN HIS HOUSE.
    Some body should ask Obama( a global Sherrif) ,How stupid is it to kill innocent peoples in their houses and streets from Air. People who he is never going to meet or identify? As Forrest Gump would say ‘Stupid is as stupid does’

    “There is an important lesson for us in the British decision, starting in 1945, to liquidate their empire relatively voluntarily, rather than being forced to do so by defeat in war, as were Japan and Germany, or by debilitating colonial conflicts, as were the French and Dutch. We should follow the British example. (Alas, they are currently backsliding and following our example by assisting us in the war in Afghanistan.) ”

  13. This little gem is burried deep in the story.

    “It is unclear when Boyd and his family returned to the United States, but in March 2006, Boyd traveled to Gaza and attempted to introduce his son to individuals who also believed that violent jihad was a personal religious obligation, the indictment said. The document did not say which son Boyd took to Gaza. ”

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