Islamic Studies Taliban
Abdullah Al-Arian
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0088


In the aftermath of the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan at the hands of the mujahideen, religious fighters supported by the West, a movement of students from local Islamic schools began their bid for power. They came to be known as the Taliban, derived from the Arabic word for “student.” Made up primarily of ethnic Pashtun tribes, these survivors of the decade-long Soviet occupation formed militias to subdue the various regions of Afghanistan in 1994. By 1996, they had conquered nearly the entire country, ruling the population through a strict, literalist interpretation of Islamic law. In addition to its international isolation, human rights abuses, and destruction of historical artifacts, the Taliban became known for hosting the transnational terrorist organization al-Qaeda, and its leader, Osama bin Laden. However, it was only after the attacks of September 11, 2001, plotted by bin Laden from the remote regions of Afghanistan, that the Taliban became a major subject of interest to Western scholars.

General Overviews

The years preceding the 9/11 attacks yielded a limited number of studies, usually focused on Afghanistan’s transition from the Soviet era to the Taliban, as examined in Goodson 2001 and Maley 1998. Others have offered more broad historical studies of Afghanistan, attempting to place the Taliban phenomenon in a wider context, as in Edwards 2002 and Roy 1995.

Rise of the Taliban

Several important works explore the means by which the movement came to power, such as Gohari 1999 and Marsden 1998. Matinuddin 1999 examines the Taliban as a “phenomenon” and discusses the wider implications of the violent rise to power of a religious movement.

Post-9/11 Literature

In the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan emerged as a burgeoning subject of study. This led to a rush of publications in subsequent years, some offering a superficial glance at the Taliban or examining Afghanistan’s rulers purely from the perspective of the immediate strategic goals of the United States. Nonetheless, a number of more rigorous studies have attempted to shed light on what had been a rather obscure and understudied religious movement. Even some works that address the topic through the prism of 9/11, such as Bergen 2001, Cooley 2002, and Coll 2004, offer useful insights into the shaping of Afghanistan, from its resistance to the Soviet invasion to sheltering the world’s most infamous fugitive.

Wider Perspectives

In addition to the post-9/11 literature that covers the Taliban’s role in providing a safe haven from which al-Qaeda plotted its attacks, a wider range of studies emerged in the aftermath of those events. This period also features broader works on the history and culture of Afghanistan, such as Ewans 2002, and more meticulous examinations of the Taliban’s term in power, its ideology, policies, and effects on the population, such as Marsden 2001, Maley 2002, Nojumi 2002, and Crews and Tarzi 2008. In addition, some documentary films have attempted to chronicle life under the Taliban and its resurgence, including Obaid 2004 and Smith 2006.

Taliban and International Relations

An area that deserves its own category is the study of Afghanistan and international relations. These works document the rise of the Taliban through the influence of neighbors such as Pakistan, as in Abou Zahab and Roy 2004 and Hussain 2005. Others, such as Jahanpour 1999, Rashid 1999 and Rubin 2002, examine the effects of the Taliban on the region or, in Maley 2000 and Rashid 2000, the movement’s view of international relations. Together, this body of literature offers a wider view of the Taliban, not only as a local religious movement, but also as a state actor in the international arena.

Taliban and Women

The issue of human rights under the Taliban has received a considerable degree of attention within modern scholarship on Afghanistan. Specifically, the Taliban’s treatment of Afghan women has been the subject of academic study as well as heated political debate. Ellis 2000 chronicles the toll that two decades of war has taken on women in Afghanistan, shifting the focus from foreign oppression during the Soviet occupation to domestic tyranny under the Taliban. Goodson 2001 and Hafizullah 2002 offer a good overview of the Taliban’s policies toward women. A Western journalist taken captive by the Taliban recounts her story in Ridley 2001, offering insights into the daily impact of those policies. Since the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan, a number of studies have critiqued the traditional perspective on women in Afghanistan. Barakat and Wardell 2002, Hirschkind and Mahmood 2002, and Riphenburg 2004 are prime examples of this growing body of literature.

Taliban and Culture

The treatment of culture under the Taliban regime has also received considerable attention in written works. Widespread reports of the banning of images and severe restrictions on education sparked debates on the nature of Islam and modern culture. Hafizullah 2005 addresses misconceptions about Afghan culture through the examination of traditional customs, which often appear to be in contradiction with the Taliban’s practices. Goodson 1998 directly tackles the effects of the Taliban on Afghan culture. Following the Taliban’s destruction of two enormous ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, an act condemned by the international community, a number of works addressed the issues raised by this incident. Manhart 2001 writes on the Taliban’s actions and the international response, while Kamali 2001 tackles the issue of iconography as interpreted by Afghanistan’s rulers more broadly.

back to top