Published On:29 June 2012
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

The Indian Muslims with Ties to Israel

By Joanna Sugden

Unlike the Bene Israel, the Banu Israil do not observe any Jewish customs or religious practices.

They call themselves the sons of Israel. Living within earshot of the call to prayer along a gully in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, is a small community of Muslims who claim Jewish ancestry.
The Banu Israil say their forefathers arrived in India one thousand years ago to spread the message of Islam after their conversion from Judaism. Orally they trace their lineage back to Jacob who appears in the Torah, the Bible and the Koran.

Now a team of scientists and historians is setting out to investigate the genetic links between this tiny Muslim population – there are around 30 such families in Aligarh – and the Jews of the Middle East.

“The whole story of the Prophet Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of the Hijaz is massively important,” says Tudor Parfitt, the Navon Professor of Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies at Florida International University.

“The boundaries between Muslims and other people of the Book [Jews and Christians] were created at this point in history. There was conflict between the Jews and Muslims and the Jewish communities of Arabia disappeared from history without a trace. If we can find that Jewish people traveled east to India it would be a major historical breakthrough,” he told India Real Time.

Mr. Parfitt has already been involved in genetic studies of Jewish communities in India, including the Bene Israel in Mumbai. The results showed a clear paternal link between the Bene Israel and Jews in the eastern Mediterranean. The historian also researched the so-called “Black Jews” of Cochin in Kerala in collaboration with a team of geneticists at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, headed by Professor Karl Skorecki. The results suggested a substantial contribution of Middle Eastern ancestry to the male lineage of the Black Jews whose claim to Jewish ancestry had long been questioned by so-called White Jews of Cochin.

Large numbers of Banu Israil moved to Pakistan after partition but Mr. Parfitt is now working to locate members of the community who stayed in India. So far the historian, who is famed for his decades-long search for the Ark of the Covenant, has identified and tested the DNA of Banu Israilis in Delhi and Aligarh. He is planning to carry out further research with a team from FIU into the surrounding population to obtain a sufficient number of control samples before publishing his findings.

“If the DNA suggests that the Banu Israil have Hijaz or south Arabian origin it would be a major piece of investigative genetic work… We will be able to say something about the movement of peoples in ancient times after the rise of Islam.”

Unlike the Bene Israel, the Banu Israil do not observe any Jewish customs or religious practices. According to some of the 20 to 30 Banu Israily families living in Aligarh in an area known as Banu Israilan, they are completely committed to Islam and there is nothing to distinguish them from the rest of the Muslim community.

“We pray, we observe Ramadan, we don’t want to move back to Israel,” says Nazir Ali Ahmed Israily, 62, after returning from evening prayers at the mosque near his large home in Aligarh.

Their situation is starkly opposed to that of the 7,200-strong B’nei Menasseh community remaining in northeast India that claims to be a “lost tribe of Israel”. They converted to Christianity in the nineteenth century but now observe Orthodox Jewish customs in the hope of Aliyah – the right to return to Israel. Some in the community were granted permission to do so in the late 1990s.

The story of those still hoping to emigrate from India has been documented in the film “A Prayer for Aliyah,” which was screened in Delhi on June 19. But the Banu Israil have no intention of making such a move if their Jewish status is confirmed.

Mr. Ahmed Israily, who is regarded as a community leader in Banu Israilan, says: “I’m proud to be Banu Israily but Islam comes before Banu Israil.”

For his eldest son, Mohammad Nabeel Nazir, being Banu Israily is of little worth compared to Islam.

“Being a Muslim makes us feel good, not being Banu Israili, we are proud to be Muslim,” says Mr. Nazir, a 24-year-old architect who chooses not to use the surname Israily.

Scientific confirmation of their oral history would make little difference to them, the father and son claim.

“Faith is more important than genetics, we are closer to people of the same faith than we are to people of the same genes,” Mr. Nazir says.

Researchers will look for overlap between the haplotypes – links of DNA – in the Banu Israil and the populations of south Arabia, Mr. Parfitt says.

“If there is an overlap, the chances are millions to one against it being a historical coincidence and we could build up a historical profile for them based on this data,” the professor adds.

“Practically all Jews share markers which situate their ancestry in the Levant… Jewish communities have far more [genetically] in common with other Jews than with the people with whom they have been living for thousands of years,” he says.

Naushad Ahmed Israily, a head teacher in Aligarh and younger brother of Nazir Ali Ahmed Israily, says he feels a close affinity with Israel.

“In the eleventh century AD, Mohammed Ghauri admitted to India and religious scholars – the Banu Israil – accompanied him and they settled down here, so we are having deep association with Israel,” the younger Mr. Ahmed Israily says.

It was their ancestor, Abdullah ibn Salam, who turned from Judaism and embraced Islam in the seventh century, he adds. But as part of a Muslim minority in India, Mr. Ahmed Israily claims the Muslim community is discriminated against.

“Once any person is pronouncing themselves a Jew the government is giving them more protection, the maximum possible,” he says.

Even this doesn’t tempt him to revert to full Jewish status.

“We don’t need extra protection because we have education and there is no problem being Banu Israil here in India,” he says.

Elsewhere, however, the status of Banu Israil is not so readily understood, according to the head teacher who is in his late forties.

“As Jewish people we have an emotional attachment [to Israel] but we don’t want a hostile relationship between Israelis and Arabs because we are on both sides.”

Two of his three brothers are now settled in Saudi Arabia, so they live in this tension daily, Mr. Ahmed Israily says.

“They don’t use the name Israily when they are in Saudi because the Saudis are allergic to this word.

“We don’t use the name on our passport. As soon as we go to the Middle East we hide our identity because of this type of problem.”

[Joanna Sugden is freelance journalist living in Delhi. Before coming to India in 2011 she spent four-and-a-half years as a reporter at The Times of London, covering religion and education. You can follow her on Twitter @jhsugden.]

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on June 29, 2012. Filed under , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

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