Dot Wordsworth


How a seeker of knowledge became a finder and destroyer of forbidden things

Toxic virus or Taleban: it’s funny how the mild-mannered Liz Kendall has attracted for her Blairite associations the most violently pejorative terms. Hardly had the Labour leadership contest begun before her allies were being called ‘Taleban New Labour’.

No one thought New Labour was really much like the Taleban. That’s why the metaphor was effective: it suggested generalised maleficence. Many people presume that the Taleban is some immemorial movement within Islam, like the Hanbali school or the Wahhabi sect. But it dates back no more than 20 years, to the exiles who returned to Afghanistan having developed strict practices while students of Islamic law in Pakistan. Talib, more fully talib al-ilm, is a ‘seeker of knowledge’ in Arabic. The plural taleban is a Persian form.

When they took over Afghanistan in 1996, one of the less disagreeable habits of the Taleban was to snip off over-exuberant fringes of curly hair from the heads of innocent men who passed their roadblocks. The Taleban took it upon themselves to Command Right and Forbid Wrong. The phrase has its origin in the Quran.

But even the unimpeachably hardline 9th-century Islamic jurist Ibn Hanbal had ruled there was no obligation to pursue hidden wrong: if you heard music but couldn’t tell where it came from, you need not investigate; if chess-players had covered their wicked board, you need not uncover it and break it. This was not enough for the Taleban: they festooned the streets with tape from cassettes they found hidden.

Michael Young in his Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (2000) mentions some of the things to be forbidden: lutes, pigeon fancying, the shaving of beards, gambling, the pursuit of beardless youths, signet rings, performing monkeys, joking, scattering watermelon rinds, mandolins, imitating the opposite sex, murder and gramophone needles.

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