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Ahmad Shah Abdali Photo

Ahmad Shah Abdali

All you need to know about Ahmad Shah Abdali the Founder of Modern Afghanistan

You will learn everything there is to know about Ahmad Shah Durrani, also known as Ahmad Khn Abdali or Ahmad Shah Baba, who was the founder of the Durrani Empire and the contemporary state of Afghanistan. After you read this simple article you will know all information about the Durrani’s and the most respected and best Pashtun Tribe Leader Ahmad Shah Abdali.

Biography and Life of Ahmad Shah Abdali

The former founder of modern Afghanistan was Ahmad Shah Abdali, later known as Ahmad Shah Durrani. Before becoming king in 1747, Abdali served as a cavalry general under the Persian emperor Nadir Shah. He constructed an empire that stretched from eastern Persia to northern India, and from the Amu Darya to the Indian Ocean, throughout his reign. Abdali was a brilliant Pashto poet as well.

Ahmad Shah Baba (Father Ahmad Shah) enjoyed a colorful life. Abdali was born in 1722 to Sadozai 1 Pashtun tribe’s Zaman Khan Abdali and Zarghuna Alokazai 2, also a Pashtun. Durrani was born in Herat or Multan 3, according to scholars. He was the second son of his father. Durrani’s father was the Governor of Herat, therefore it’s easy to believe he was born there. However, his father was imprisoned by the Persians before Durrani was born, and following his release, he traveled to Multan, choosing the area because he had kin there. When Zaman Khan returned to Afghanistan to battle the Persians, he left one of his wives in Multan, which some historians believe was Alokazai. Zaman Khan, sadly, died when Durrani was only a tiny toddler — how he died is unknown.

Durrani’s childhood is unknown, but he was apparently raised by his mother and mother’s brothers after his father died. Durrani’s adolescent years are better documented, as he got increasingly active in “politics” and the struggle of the Pashtuns living under and battling against the Persian empire.

Durrani’s mother is known to have given up her daughter to Haji Ismail Khan, the new ruler of Herat, who falls in love with him and sends him to Sabzawar in Herat province. Nothing is known about Durrani until 1732, when he and his older brother fled to Kandahar, where they are apprehended by the ruler, Mir Husain, due to Husain’s hate for the Abdali line. Fortunately, in 1738, Nadir Shah conquers Kandahar, and the lads are released. When Nadir Shah meets the young Durrani, he falls in love with him.

Durrani and his older brother, along with other Abdali clan members, have joined Nader Shah’s armies by 1740. The Abdalis became recognized as Nadir Shah’s army’s backbone. Durrani served as a member of Nader Shah’s personal staff, a treasury official, and a “orderly” officer during his time with him. Nadir Shah and his troops stormed Delhi during this time, capturing the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. Around the same time, Nizam-ul-Mulk Chin Qalich Khan Asafjah, a former prime minister and renowned physiognomist, observed Durrani and told Nadir Shah that he saw “marks of greatness” in him and “predicted that he was destined to become a king.” “Remember Ahmad Khan Abdali, that the kingship would pass on to you after me,” Nadir Shah not only believed him and agreed, but also had a conversation with the young Durrani about which there are recorded reports. The descendants of Nadir, on the other hand, should be treated with kindness,” the King advised Durrani (Singh 1959; 31). Durrani followed his word by having his son, Timur Shah, assist Mirza Shah Rukh, Nader Shah’s grandson, in his escape from prison and return to Masshad. Timur Shah was then promised the hand of one of Shah Rukh’s daughters.

Nader Shah and the Durani’s

Nader Shah was a paranoid monarch who would inflict harm on his own subjects. Finally, he was slain in his sleep by members of his own staff. According to legend, Bibi Sahiba, one of Nadir Shah’s Afghan wives, summoned Durrani and informed him about the murder shortly after it occurred, sparking a struggle between the Afghans and Persians in Nader Shah’s army, with Durrani leading the Afghans. Before leaving Nader Shah’s royal tent, where his dead body lay, “Ahmad Khan managed to take the seal of Nader Shah from his finger, took possession of the Koh-i-Noor diamond and other possessions, and saluted his dead body for the last time,” according to Durrani historian Ganda Singh.

The army of Nader Shah was disbanded, and other kings gained control of various regions. This is how Afghanistan (and its most recent borders) came to be.

To choose who would be the next king, a loya jirga, or gathering of tribe elders, was convened. Durrani was chosen over the other contenders for the title because of his pedigree, charisma, fighting prowess, and strong relationship with Nader Shah.

So, in 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani was crowned King of the Afghan Tribes at a ceremony held in Kandahar, the empire’s capital at the time. Durrani was 25 years old at the time of the ceremony, which took place at a mosque. A mullah poured wheat on his head, signifying that God and his nation had chosen him.

Durrani began to be known as Durr-i-Durrani, Pearl of Pearls, a title bestowed upon him by Nader Shah (he even wore a pearl earring), and Ahmad Shah Durrani rather than Ahmad Shah Abdali. The name of the entire Abdali tribe was thereafter changed to Durrani.

Durrani had his work cut out for him as the new King of ‘Khorasan’, as Ganda Singh describes:

“Upon his succession, Ahmad Shah Abdali faced two major challenges: organizing Afghan tribes and consolidating his dominion. True, he had Nadir Shah’s Persian model to emulate. However, because the situation in Persia at the time of Nadir’s accession was not the same as that in Afghanistan when Ahmad Shah ascended to the throne, it was difficult to mold the Afghans after the Persian model. For ages, the Persians had been accustomed to total submission to a dictatorial government.  As a result, Nadir was able to flourish without facing serious opposition from an established monarchy, despite the fact that it was foreign, and this proved to be a very advantageous situation for him. On the other hand, Ahmad Shah had to establish a monarchy for the first time amid a warlike and independent people who had only had a brief taste of Nadir’s reign. The system, under which they had been forced to pay homage to a foreigner in order for him to maintain his control over them, was more terrible than lovable. They were inclined to see the exaltation of their own nation with even greater jealousy than the tyranny of a foreign master due to their intrinsic love of equality. As a result, he had to chart his own way.” (Singh 1959; 33)

Durrani devised a clever strategy. He first earned the favor of the ex-Abdalis, now Durranis, by returning their territory. He was “a king to extend Afghan power, to establish an Afghan nationality, and to disseminate Afghan ideologies,” according to his biography (Singh 1959; 34). Since the ‘country’ was so tribal, he attempted to gain the allegiance of tribal chiefs, without whom he would be unable to dominate a tribe. He was exceedingly patriotic and committed to his people. With foreign wars and conquests, he was able to sustain and supply an army, maintain his reputation, and spoil tribal chiefs. He took Ghazni from the Ghilzais between 1747 and 1748, then pushed his way up to Kabul and ultimately Peshawar. Durrani and his troops have control of Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir by 1749. Durrani controls all of modern-day Afghanistan by 1757.

Durrani Empire

When the Nadir Shah’s empire fell apart, many neighboring areas were left desolate and easy to conquer. The Shah invaded India nine times between 1747 and 1769, plundering the country. With no intention of ruling those places, he and his soldiers took whatever they could from Delhi, Agra, Mathura, and Vrindavan. He married Hazrat Begum, the daughter of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, about this time. Suleiman Mirza, Timur Shah – who would eventually succeed his father as King – Sikandar, and Parwez were Durrani’s four sons.

Ahmad Shah Durrani is credited with introducing artillery to his Pashtun tribes’ troops in Afghanistan, as well as “professionalizing” the army (Giustozzi 2008; 3). He was a popular leader, both because of his past and because of how he governed. Because of his capacity to truly understand the Afghan people, he was able to unite Afghan tribes, bring peace to the country, and lay the groundwork for modern Afghanistan. He tried to convert non-believers to Islam. […he] established a military school which was ethnically mixed, opening the military career to non-Pashtuns, created the first Afghan postal service […] and the first press publication” (Giustozz 2008; 5). As his leadership charmed and inspired recruits, his army grew to over 40,000 men at one point. He earned the respect and control of neighboring Uzbek and Baloch tribes because of his “wide mind and sympathetic attitude.” Mountstuart Elphinstone, a Scottish historian, wrote extensively about Durrani, but one of his quotes best summarizes the King’s rule:

His military courage and activity are spoken of with admiration, both by his own subjects and the nations with whom he was engaged, either in wars or alliances. He seems to have been naturally disposed to mildness and clemency and though it is impossible to acquire sovereign power and perhaps, in Asia, to maintain it, without crimes; yet the memory of no eastern prince is stained with fewer acts of cruelty and injustice.

The King Ahmad Shah Abdali was also an avid poet, mostly writing in his native Pashto, but also in Persian:

By blood, we are immersed in love of you.
The youth lose their heads for your sake.
I come to you and my heart finds rest.
Away from you, grief clings to my heart like a snake.
I forget the throne of Delhi
when I remember the mountain tops of my Afghan land.
If I must choose between the world and you,
I shall not hesitate to claim your barren deserts as my own.

His poetry evokes strong feelings of patriotism and nationalism, as well as the breathtaking scenery of Afghanistan.

When the Sikhs in Punjab rebelled, his empire began to decline. Durrani subdued them, but they rebelled again. This back-and-forth lasted a few years in the early 1760s, until he finally lost control of the Sikhs. By the early 1770s, “with cancer eating away at his face and Ahmad Shah’s enemies eating away at his empire,” he had spent the last ten years of his life in Kabul, managing his domestic and foreign affairs (Dupree 1973; 339).  According to legend, he wore a silver false nose as the cancer ate away at his face. Durrani died of cancer in Murghah, Herat Province, in June 1773, when he was fifty years old. He is buried in a mausoleum in Kandahar that still stands today, with an epitaph that reads:

The King of high rank, Ahmad Shah Durrani,
Was equal to Kisra in managing the affairs of his government.
In his time, from the awe of his glory and greatness,
The lioness nourished the stag with her milk.
From all sides in the ear of his enemies there arrived
A thousand reproofs from the tongue of his dagger.
The date of his departure for the house of mortality
Was the year of the Hijra 1186.

Notes

  1. Sadozai’s are a part of the Popalzai tribe of Pashtuns.
  2. Part of the Abdali Pashtuns.
  3. Previously a part of India, it is now a part of Pakistan. In Multan, there is a monument commemorating Ahmad Shah Durrani’s birthplace.
  4. As is typical when writing about Afghans in history, information varies greatly, with some sources saying one thing and others saying the exact opposite. Typically, this is due to issues with preserving our history, as well as biases. Of course, a Pashtun will have a different understanding—and thus interpretation—of Ahmad Shah Baba as a ruler than a Hazara or a Sikh.
  5. The Koh-i-Noor diamond passed through many hands and empires before landing in the English Empire, where it now resides in a collapsible part of Queen Elizabeth I, the Queen Mother’s coronation crown.
  6. And if said with a slightly different accent on the last word, could mean the Pearl of the Age.
  7. A mausoleum that appears to house Kerqa Sharif, also known as the Shrine of the Cloak and containing a cloak worn by Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

Work Cited

“Ahmad Shah Durrani.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 12 May 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Print.

Giustozzi, Antonio. “Afghanistan: Transition Without End, An Analytical Narrative on State-making.” Crisis States Working Papers 2 (2008): n. pag. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Scottish historian and once governor of Bombay Poemhunter.com, (n.d.). Ahmad Shah Durrani – Ahmad Shah Durrani Biography – Poem Hunter. [online] Available at: http://www.poemhunter.com/ahmad-shah-durrani/biography/ [Accessed 5 Dec. 2015].

Afghan-web Biographies website

Singh, Ganda. Ahmad Shah Durrani: Father of Modern Afghanistan. London: Asia Pub. House, 1959. Print.

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