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Mahmud of Ghazna

Mahmud of Ghazna

Mahmud of Ghazna, 971?-1030, Afghan emperor and conqueror. He defeated (c.999) his elder brother to gain control of Khorasan (in Iran) and of Afghanistan. In his raids against the states of N India, Mahmud, a staunch Muslim, destroyed Hindu temples, forced conversions to Islam, and carried off booty and slaves. Hindus especially abhorred his destruction of the temple to Shiva at Somnath in Gujarat. Mahmud's territorial gains lay mainly W and N of Afghanistan and in the Punjab. At Ghazna (see Ghazni), his capital, he built a magnificent mosque. His successors in the Ghaznavid dynasty, which Mahmud founded, ruled over a reduced domain with the capital at Lahore until 1186.

See biographies by M. Nazim (1931) and M. Habib (2d ed. 1967); C. Bosworth, The Ghaznavids (1973) and The Later Ghaznavids (1977).

Mahmud of Ghazni (محمود غزنوی Maḥmūd-e Ghaznawī) (November 2, 971 - April 30, 1030), also known as Yāmīn al-Dawlah Maḥmūd (in full: Yāmīn al-Dawlah Abd al-Qāṣim Maḥmūd Ibn Sebük Tegīn), was the ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire from 997 until his death. Mahmud turned the former provincial city of Ghazni into the wealthy capital of an extensive empire which included modern-day Afghanistan, most of Iran as well as regions of north-west India including modern-day Pakistan. He was also the first ruler to carry the title Sultan, signifying his break from the suzerainty of the Caliph.


Mahmud belonged to the Yamini tribe, a Turco Persian clan residing in the Nakhistan district of Turkistan. The Yamini tribe were the descendants of the last prince of Persia, Yazdgard i Shahryar, whose family fled to Turkistan after his death.

Mahmud's father Sebüktigin, , whilst only twelve years old, was taken prisoner by a neighbouring warring tribe and sold as a slave to a merchant named Nasr the Haji. He was purchased by Alptigin, the Lord Chamberlain of the Samani ruler of Khurasan. However, when Alptigin later rebelled against the Saminid influence, capturing Zabulistan and Ghazni, he raised Sebüktigin, to the position of General and married his daughter to him. He served Alptigin, and his two successors Ishaq and Balkatigin. He later succeeded the throne from another slave of Alptagin, and in 977 became the popular ruler of Ghazni.

Sebüktigin enlarged upon Alptigin's conquests, extending his domain north to Balkh, west to Kandahar including most of Khorasan, and east to the Indus River.

Sebüktigin was recognized by the Caliph in Baghdad as governor of his dominions. He died in 997, and was succeeded by his younger son Sultan Ismail of Ghazni. Mahmud rebelled against his younger brother, Sultan Ismail of Ghazni, and took over Ghazni as the new Sultan.

According to Ferishta, Mahmud's mother was a Persian noble from Zabulistan this information contradicts Ferdowsi's satirisation of Mahmud for being the son of "the slave of a slave". However, both appear correct. Though Mahmud's tribe was royal in origin, his father was initially kidnapped and sold as a slave to a governor who was himself a slave before reaching the rank of Governor, and later, king.

Military campaigns

In 994, Mahmud was engaged with his father Sebüktigin in the capture of Khorasan from the rebel Fa'iq in aid of the Samanid Emir, Nuh II. During this period the Samanid state became highly unstable, with shifting internal political tides as various factions vied for control, the chief among them being Abu'l-Qasim Simjuri, Fa'iq, Abu Ali, the General Behtuzun as well as the neighbouring Buyids and Qarakhanids.

Consolidation of rule

Sultan Mahmud's first campaign was against the Qarakhanid Empire in the north of his Empire. After his defeat he had to enlist the alliance of the Seljuk Turks in southern Soghdia and Khwarazm and diplomatically secure his north by 998. In 999 under the reign of 'Abd al-Malik II of the Samanids engaged in hostilities with Mahmud over Khorasan after political alliances shifted under a new Samanid Emir. These forces were defeated when the Qarakhanids under Nasr Khan invaded them from the North even as Fa'iq died. He then solicited an alliance and cemented it with by marrying Nasr Khan's daughter.

The Multan and Hindu Shahi struggles

Mahmud's first campaign to the south was against the Ismaili Fatimid Kingdom at Multan in a bid to curry political favor and recognition with the Abbassid Caliphate engaged with the Fatimids elsewhere. Raja Jayapala of the Hindu Shahi Dynasty in modern-day Pakistan (Lahore and Kashmir) at this point attempted to gain retribution, for an earlier military defeat at the hands of Ghazni under Mahmud's father in the late 980s that had lost him extensive territory, but was again defeated. His son Anandapala succeeded him and continued the struggle, assembling a powerful confederacy which was defeated once more at Lahore in 1008 bringing Mahmud control of the Hindu Shahi dominions of Updhanpura.

There is considerable evidence from writings of Al-Biruni, Soghidan, Uyghur and Manichean texts that the Buddhists, Hindus and Jains were accepted as People of the Book and references to Buddha as Burxan or as a prophet can be found. After the initial destruction and pillage, Buddhists, Jains and Hindus were granted protected subject status as Dhimmis.

Ghaznavid campaigns in the Indian Subcontinent

Following the defeat of the Rajput Confederacy, after deciding to teach them all a lesson for combining against him, discovering that they were rich, and that their temples were great repositories of wealth, Mahmud then set out on regular expeditions against them, leaving the conquered kingdoms in the hands of Hindu vassals annexing only the Punjab region. He also vowed to raid India every year.

Mahmud had already had relationships with the leadership in Balkh through marriage. Its local Emir Abu Nasr Mohammad, offered his services to the Sultan and his daughter to Mahmud's son, Muhammad. After Nasr's death Mahmud brought Balkh under his leadership. This alliance greatly helped him during his expeditions into Northern India.

The Indian kingdoms of Nagarkot, Thanesar, Kannauj, Gwalior, and Ujjain were all conquered and left in the hands of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Kings as vassal states and he was pragmatic enough not to shirk making alliances and enlisting local peoples into his armies at all ranks.

The later invasions of Mahmud were specifically directed to temple towns as Indian temples were depositories of great wealth, in cash, golden idols, diamonds, and jewellery; Nagarkot, Thanesar, Mathura, Kanauj, Kalinjar and Somnath were all thus raided. Mahmud's armies stripped the temples of their wealth and then destroyed them at Varanasi, Ujjain, Maheshwar, Jwalamukhi, and Dwarka.

Political challenges and his death

The last four years of Mahmud's life were spent contending with the influx of Oghuz Turkic horse tribes from Central Asia, the Buyid Dynasty and rebellions by Seljuqs.

Sultan Mahmud died on April 30 1030. His mausoleum is located at Ghazni in modern Afghanistan.

Campaign timeline

As a Prince

  • 994: Gained the title of Saif-ud-daula and became Governor of Khorasan under service to Nuh II of the Samanids in civil strife
  • 995: The Samanid rebels Fa'iq (leader of a court faction that had defeated Alptigin's nomination for Emir) and Abu Ali expel Mahmud from Nishapur. Mahmud and Sabuktigin defeat Samanid rebels at Tus.

As a Ruler

Note: A historical narrative states in this battle, under the onslaught of the Gakhar tribe, Mahmud's army was about to retreat when Jayapala's son King Anandapala's elephant took flight and turned the tide of the battle.

  • 1008: Nagarkot
  • 1010: Ghur; against Mohammad ibn Sur
  • 1010: Multan revolts. Abul Fatah Dawood imprisoned for life at Ghazni.
  • 1011: Thanesar
  • 1012: Joor-jistan: Captures Sar(Czar??)-Abu-Nasr
  • 1012: Demands and receives remainder of the province of Khorasan from the Abassid Caliph. Then demands Samarkand as well but is rebuffed.
  • 1013: Bulnat: Defeats Trilochanpala.
  • 1015: Ghaznis expedition to Kashmir fails. Fails to take the Lohara fort at Lokote in the hills leading up to the valley from the west.
  • 1015: Khwarezm: Marries his sister to Abul Abbas Mamun of Khwarezm who dies in the same year in a rebellion. Moves to quell the rebellion and installs a new ruler and annexes a portion.
  • 1017: Kannauj, Meerut, and Muhavun on the Yamuna, Mathura and various other regions along the route. While moving through Kashmir, he levies troops from the vassal prince for his onward march. Kannauj and Meerut submit without a fight.
  • 1021: Kalinjar attacks Kannauj: he marches to their aid and finds the last Shahi King Trilochanpala encamped as well. No battle, the opponents leave their baggage trains and withdraw from the field. Also fails to take the fort of Lokote again. Takes Lahore on his return. Trilochanpala flees to Ajmer. First Muslim governors appointed east of the Indus River.
  • 1023: Lahore, Kalinjar, Gwalior: No battles, exacts tribute. Trilochanpala, the grandson of Jayapala is assassinated by his own troops. Official annexation of Punjab by Ghazni. Also fails to take the Lohara fort on the western border of Kashmir for the second time.
  • 1024: Ajmer, Nehrwala, Kathiawar: This raid was his last major campaign. The concentration of wealth at Somnath was renowned, and consequently it became an attractive target for Mahmud, as it had previously deterred most invaders. The temple and citadel were sacked, and most of its defenders massacred.
  • 1024: Somnath: Mahmud sacked the temple and is reported to have personally hammered the temple's gilded Lingam to pieces and the stone fragments were carted back to Ghazni, where they were incorporated into the steps of the city's new Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) in 1026. He placed a new king on the throne in Gujarat as a tributary and took the old one to Ghazni as a prisoner. His return detoured across the Thar Desert to avoid the armies of Ajmer and other allies on his return.
  • 1025: Marched against the Jats of the Jood mountains who harried his army on its return from the sack of Somnath.
  • 1027: Rayy, Isfahan, Hamadan from the Buyid (Daylami) Dynasty.
  • 1028, 1029: Merv, Nishapur lost to Seljuk Turks

Mahmud's campaigns seem to have been motivated by both religious zeal against both the Fatimids Shiites and non-Muslims; Buddhists, Jains and Hindus. His principal drive remained the Ismaili Shiites, Buyid Iran as well as favor and recognition of independence from the Abbassid Caliphate. The wealth plundered from the Rajput Confederacy and his Indian campaigns went a long way towards meeting those ends. By 1027, Mahmud had accomplished this as well as capturing most of modern-day Pakistan and North- Western India as well as obtaining formal recognition of Ghazni's sovereignty from the Abbasid Khalifah, al-Qadir Billah, as well as the title of Yameen-ud Daula.


It is also noted that Ghazni reveled in being renowned as an iconoclast. Mahmud, like the Arabs in Sindh, recognized the locals as Dhimmis. Holt and Lewis state that "he shed no blood except in the exigencies of war". and was tolerant in dealings with his own Hindu subjects, some of whom rose to high posts in his administration, such as his Hindu General Tilak

Regional attitudes towards Mahmud's memory

In Afghanistan, Mahmud is celebrated as a national hero and a great patron of the arts, architecture and literature as well as a vanguard of Islam and a paragon of virtue and piety.

In modern Pakistan he is hailed as a conquering hero who established the standard of Islam upon heathen land, while in India he may be depicted as raiding iconoclastic invader, bent upon the loot and plunder of a peaceful Hindu population. Conversion to Islam of the native population has also become a controversial topic with the versions of sword enforced mass conversions vs. inspirational missionary activity. Over the past century with the rise of Hindutva and the Partition of India, a lot more attention has been focused on casualties, temple destructions, slavery and forced conversions to Islam than before. This controversy has been further stoked by the depictions of the historical Mahmud as either a hero or a villain by the polarization of nationalist or ideological orientations.

Iranians remember him as an Orthodox Sunni who was responsible for the revival of the Persian culture by commissioning and appointing Persians to high offices in his administration as ministers, viziers and generals. In addition Iranians remember him for the promotion and preference of Persian language instead of Turkish and patronage of great nationalist poets and scholars such as Ferdowsi, Al-Biruni and Ferishta as well as his Lion and Sun flag which is still a national symbol in the modern state of Iran.


Under his reign the region broke away cleanly from the Samanid sphere of influence and hastened their end. While he nominally acknowledged the Abbassids as Caliph as a matter of form, he was also granted the title Sultan as recognition of his independence.

By the end of his reign, the Ghaznavid Empire extended from Kurdistan in the west to Samarkand in the north-east, and from the Caspian Sea to the Yamuna. Although his raids carried his forces across the Indian Subcontinent, only the Punjab and Sindh in modern-day Pakistan, came under his permanent rule; Kashmir, the Doab, Rajasthan and Gujarat remained under the control of the local Rajput dynasties.

The wealth brought back to Ghazni was enormous, and contemporary historians (e.g. Abolfazl Beyhaghi, Ferdowsi) give glowing descriptions of the magnificence of the capital, as well as of the conqueror's munificent support of literature. He transformed Ghazni the first center of Persian literature into one of the leading cities of Central Asia, patronizing scholars, establishing colleges, laying out gardens, and building mosques, palaces, and caravansaries. He patronized Ferdowsi to write the Shahnameh, and after his expedition across the gangetic plains in 1017 of Al-Biruni to compose his Tarikh Al-Hind in order to understand the Indians and their beliefs.

On April 30, 1030, Sultan Mahmud died in Ghazni, at the age of 59. Sultan Mahmud had contracted malaria during his last invasion. The medical complication from malaria had caused lethal tuberculosis. He had been a gifted military commander, and during his rule, universities were founded to study various subjects such as mathematics, religion, the humanities, and medicine. Islam was the main religion of his kingdom and the Hanafi school of thought was favoured. The dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, Dari was made the official language.

The Ghaznavid Empire was ruled by his successors for 157 years, but after Mahmud it never attained the same splendour and power. The expanding Seljuk Turkish empire absorbed most of the Ghaznavid west. The Ghorids captured Ghazni in 1150 A.D., and Muhammad Ghori captured the last Ghaznavid stronghold at Lahore in 1187. The Ghaznavids went on to live as the Nasher Khans in their home of Ghazni until the 20th century.

Modern Pakistan has named one of its medium-range missiles in honour of him.

See also



  • Ferishta, History of the Rise of Mohammedan Power
  • Alexander Berzin, Berzin Archives: The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire, 2001
  • McLeod, John (2002). The History of India. London: Greenwood Press. ISBN-0-313-31459-4.

External links

Preceded by:
Ismail of Ghazni
Ghaznavid Ruler
Followed by:

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