As there was a surprising amount of interest in a Tweet of mine concerning the word ‘Taliban”, here’s a bit more detail.

First of all, “Taliban” is an English word, and functions (mostly) as an uncountable, proper plural noun (cf. “The French”). We rarely speak of “a talib” or of “Talibans”. Neither to we (often) say “six Taliban”, but rather, for example, “six Taliban fighters“. So, in a sense, the spelling and rules of use for the word “Taliban” are the business of the language community that uses it, just as we pronounce the final S in “Paris” and talk of “Parisians” not “Parisiens”.

Rather like the words lilac, bazaar, purdah, cummerbund, kaftan and kiosk, it comes to us from what used to be called Hindustani and is nowadays called Urdu, itself a language of rich borrowings from Persian and Arabic. Indeed it developed more or less as a lingua franca and its name comes from the Turkic word ordu meaning ‘army’ (from which the English word ‘horde’ comes). Standard Urdu, as spoken by, say, a taxi driver in Lahore, is mutually intelligible with the Hindi spoken by a taxi driver in Mumbai. This is why Bollywood movies screened in Karachi do not require subtitles. However, as Urdu becomes more ‘literary’ its Persian borrowings become greater. Thus, the Pakistan National Anthem (Pak sarzamin shad bad), written by the Urdu language poet Hafeez Jullundhri contains only one word of Urdu (a pronoun), the rest is pure Persian but is still intelligible to educated Urdu speakers.

I would suggest that the word “Taliban” actually came into English via Urdu, because although the Taliban themselves are largely Pathan (or, if you prefer Pashtun or Pukhtun) and active not only in Afghanistan but in the Pashto/Pukhto speaking areas of Pakistan, the word would have come to the notice of Western journalists via the Urdu and English media in Pakistan.

The origin of the word is Arabic — talib-ul-‘ilm — meaning “seeker of knowledge”, hence a student. An Urdu/Persian form exists too: talib-e-‘ilm. The word talib has long been used in Pashto to mean ‘student’, although technically (lacking the ‘ilm particle) it means any seeker, searcher or beggar. It is also used as an adjective (seeking, demanding). The great Pashtun poet Baba Ghani Khan uses the term widely, but only in the broad sense of a student, not as a student of Islam or of the Quran. Baba Ghani, who died in 1996, was blisteringly critical of the mullahs, and he never used the word “talib” in this sense. Baba Ghani’s talibs are wide-eyed and rather gauche, usually. Also, I never recall hearing or reading any plural form of “talib” before the late 1990s.

The suffix -an is one of the ways in which a plural is formed in Persian (a variant of which, Dari, is of course a widespread language in Afghanistan). That form of plural is found in Pashto also, and applies to animate nouns (-una is used for inanimate nouns, cf. kitaab/kitaabuna), but I still suspect that what we have here is basically an Urdu/Persian plural form. But this is just my theory.

It’s easy to forget, nowadays, that Afghanistan and the North West Frontier of Pakistan, although always observant in terms of religion, tended historically to be rather secular. It is only recently that the Arabic word for God (Allah) has entered non-theological discourse — traditionally, the Pashtuns preferred the Pashto word “Khuda”. Since Partition, the Pashtuns in Pakistan have generally voted for the very secular Awami National Party (founded by the father of Ghani Khan) in elections. Theocracy, and its attendant machinery like the fundamentalist Madrassas, is largely an import from Saudi Arabia (tragically encouraged by the West who saw the Mujahideen as a buffer against Soviet aggression).

The first time I heard a Pashto speaker use the word “Taliban” was probably in the mid-1990s, though I remember the place and the sense in which the word was used. The place was the Peshawar Garrison Club (the speaker was an Army officer), and the sense in which the word was used was mocking and ironic. Partly, the trigger-happy extremists at the other end of the Khyber Pass were being dismissed as mere students, almost as foolish schoolboys, but there was also rich irony — how could seekers after knowledge behave in such a bone-headed way in rejecting philosophy, science and culture?

So, what we have is this:

  1. An Arabic term: talib-ul-‘ilm (seeker-of-knowledge)
  2. Part of that term (talib) appropriated by Pashto to stand for the whole (rather as we use ‘cycle’ to stand for ‘bi-cycle’)
  3. A new meaning of talib emerging in Afghanistan and Pashtun Pakistan — students of fundamentalist Islamic madrassas.
  4. A (probably) new plural form — taliban — coined by the Urdu/English language press in Pakistan and coming to the notice of Western journalists and intelligence.

Taliban or Taleban?

It depends on how you transliterate the Pashto/Urdu script, which does not have vowels in the sense that English does (the Pashto/Urdu word طالبان is TA-LB-AN). It also depends on the local pronunciation of Pashto. How, for example, would a Pashto speaker transliterate the English word “book” pronounced in the South of England, as compared to “buck” or “book” pronounced by a Yorkshireman? I would tend to prefer “Taleban” as closer to the sound of Pashto as spoken in Kyber-Pukhtunkhwa, but there is no doubt that, in English at least, “Taliban” has won the day.

As you can see, the BBC wrestled with the same problem.