A Muslim American Perspective on the Return of the Taliban in Afghanistan

August 17, 2021

Photo by Stacie Shafran, Wikimedia Commons. An Afghan girl in Panjshir Province, Afghanistan, 2009.

We at ING join many people around the world in viewing the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan this last week with great concern. While we do not yet know how they will govern, their policies and actions when they were last in power twenty years ago are grounds for considerable anxiety, as demonstrated by the massive waves of people rushing to leave the country as the Taliban took over.

Who are the Taliban?

In a nation of nearly 40 million people of diverse perspectives, languages, and ethnic groups, it is estimated that only 85,000 to 200,000 are members of the Taliban. Most Taliban are members of the Pathan ethnic group, who reside in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other nations. In the 80’s and early 90’s, Afghan fighters resisted an invasion from the Soviet Union and the Russian-backed government in Afghanistan. Following the withdrawal of the Soviets, the Taliban, or “students” in Pashto, who had initially gathered in conservative seminaries and refugee camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early 90s, emerged as a new faction during the Afghan civil war between the various groups of Afghan fighters. They came to power in Afghanistan as a militia in the mid-90s and politically controlled much of the country from 1996 to 2001. The backdrop for their rise is multi-faceted and includes decades of war with the Soviet Union, Afghan governments, and the United States, as well as interventions by other regional and global powers.

The Taliban and Women’s Rights

Past actions by some members of the Taliban are clear violations of several of the principles we identify as fundamental to Islam, including respect for life, human dignity, freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom of thought and expression. Additionally, the Taliban’s interpretation and practice of Islam reflects a very narrow and inflexible interpretation that has been informed by external and internal influences that have come into play during decades of warfare, including among them an inherited culture that is extremely patriarchal. This cultural context impacts their attitudes in many areas, especially their views and interpretations relating to women. They have been widely criticized by other Muslims for their treatment of women, specifically for their ban on women’s education and work, as well as their strict dress requirements, and their harsh punishments for violations of their laws. These measures restricting women’s rights clearly contradict a substantial body of Islamic tradition, starting with the Qur’an and Hadith, which guarantee the rights of women, including the right to education and work, the right to choose their spouse, and the right to inherit, own and keep their property and income. Furthermore, many sayings of the prophet Muhammad (p) encourage learning by both women and men, and history is replete with examples of Muslim women scholars and teachers. For more information about women’s rights in Islam, see questions 50 to 58 of ING’s FAQs.

The Taliban and Sharia

The Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia (often translated as Islamic law, Sharia refers to a way of life that is based on the Qur’an and prophetic tradition and is often open to interpretation) is much more rigid and extreme than that held by most Muslims. For instance, they have prohibited a wide variety of activities, including sports for women, kite flying, beard trimming, recreation, entertainment, and other matters that Muslims generally do not see as forbidden. Again, for more information on Sharia as understood by the majority of Muslims, see ING’s FAQs on the topic.

Finally, some members of the Taliban have engaged in actions viewed by the great majority of Muslims as prohibited by Islamic teachings, such as committing acts of violence against civilians. These actions and attitudes of the Taliban fly in the face of Islamic principles as they are held and understood by the majority of Muslims and are cause for grave concern as the Taliban returns to power.

Our Prayers and Commitments

As we pray for the people of Afghanistan, we pray also for members of the Taliban themselves that they may move away from the extremism that has marked their past and toward a more humane, nuanced, and mainstream understanding of Islam as it is understood and practiced by the great majority of Muslims. This understanding includes such foundational Islamic values as the centrality of mercy and compassion, care for the poor, and good treatment of all those one governs regardless of their religion. We also call upon all nations of the world, especially our own, to open their doors to refugees from Afghanistan, particularly those who may be most endangered by the Taliban’s rule. Finally, we pledge to continue our work for peace and understanding among all people, based on Islamic principles that we share with most of the Muslim world.

Resources on Islam and Muslims:

For live presenters:

For free scholarly presentations about Islam and ShariaIslam and Women, or Islamophobia and its impact on Muslim Americans and Other Groups, please write to: [email protected].