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Ahmad Shah Durrani

Ahmad Shāh Durrānī (c.1723-1773) also known as Ahmad Shāh Abdālī (احمد شاه ابدالي) and born as Ahmad Khān Abdālī, was the founder of the Durrani Empire and is regarded by many to be the founder of modern Afghanistan. After the assassination of Nader Shah Afshar, he became the Amir of Khorasan and later became the founder and ruler of his own Empire. The Pashtuns of Afghanistan often call him Bābā ("father").

Early years

Ahmad Khan (later Ahmad Shah) was born in Multan, Punjab, Pakistan. He was from the Sadozai section of the Popalzai clan of the Abdali Pashtuns, and he was the second son of Mohammed Zaman Khan, chief of the Abdalis. In his youth, Ahmad Shah and his elder brother, Zulfikar Khan, were imprisoned inside a fortress by Hussein Khan, the Ghilzai governor of Kandahar. Hussein Khan commanded a powerful tribe of Afghans, having conquered the eastern part of Persia a few years previously and trodden the throne of the Safavids.

In around 1731, Nader Shah Afshar, the new ruler of Persia, began enlisting the Abdalis in his army. After conquering Kandahar in 1737, Ahmad Khan and his brother were freed by the new Persian ruler. The Ghilzai were expelled from Kandahar and the Abdalis were allowed to settle there instead.

Serving Nader Shah

Nader Shah favored Abdali due to his young and handsome features. Abdali was then given the title of “Dur-i-Durran” (Pear of Pearls) by Nader Shah and thus Ahmad Khan changed the Abdali tribe's name to the Durrani tribe. Ahmad Khan proved himself in Nader Shah's service and was promoted from a personal attendant (yasāwal) to command a cavalry of Abdali tribesmen. Ahmad quickly rose to command a cavalry contingent estimated at four thousand strong, composed chiefly of Abdalis, in the service of the Shah on his invasion of India.

Popular history has it that the brilliant but megalomaniac Nader Shah could see the talent in his young commander. Later on according to Pashtun legend, it is said that in Delhi Nader Shah summoned Ahmad Khan Abdali and said, "Come forward Ahmad Abdali. Remember Ahmad Khan Abdali, that after me the Kingship will pass on to you. But you should treat the descendants of Nader Shah with kindness." The young Ahmad Shah's response was, "May I be sacrficed to you. Should your majesty wish to slay me I am at your disposal. There is no cause or reason for saying such words!".

Nader Shah's assassination

Nader Shah's rule abruptly ended in June 1747, when he was assassinated. The Turkoman guards involved in the assassination did so secretly so as to prevent the Abdalis from coming to their King's rescue. However, Ahmad Khan was told that Nader Shah had been killed by one of his wives. Despite the danger of being attacked, the Abdali contingent led by Ahmad Khan rushed either to save Nader Shah or to confirm what happened. Upon reaching the King's tent, they were only to see Nader Shah's body and severed head. Having served him so loyally, the Abdalis wept at having failed their leader, and headed back to Kandahar. On their way back to Kandahar, the Abdalis had decided that Ahmad Khan would be their new leader, and already began calling him as Ahmad Shah.

Rise to power

Later the same year (1747), the chiefs of the Durrani (Abdali) tribes met near Kandahar for a Loya Jirga to choose their new leader. For nine days serious discussions were held among the candidates in the Argah. Ahmad Shah kept silent by not campaigning for himself. At last Sabir Shah, a religious chief, came out of his sanctuary and stood before those in the Jirga and said, "He found no one worthy for leadership except Ahmah Shah. He is the most trustworthy and talented for the job. He had Sabir's blessing for the nomination because only his shoulders could carry this responsibility". The leaders agreed unanimously. Ahmad Shah was chosen to lead the tribes. Coins where struck as his coronation as King occurred in October, 1747, near the tomb of Shaikh Surkh, adjacent to Nadir Abad Fort.

Despite being younger than other claimants, Ahmad had several overriding factors in his favour:

  • He was a direct descendant of Sado, patriarch of the Sadozai clan, the most prominent tribe amongst the Pashtuns at the time;
  • He was unquestionably a charismatic leader and seasoned warrior who had at his disposal a trained, mobile force of several thousand cavalrymen;
  • He was the undisputed heir of Nadir Shah's Kingdom.
  • Haji Ajmal Khan, the chief of the Mohammedzais (also known as Barakzais) which were rivals of the Sadodzais, already withdrew out of the election

One of Ahmad Shah's first acts as chief was to adopt the title "Durr-i-Durrani" ("pearl of pearls" or "pearl of the age") because Nader Afshar always used this title for him.

Military campaigns

Following his predecessor, Ahmad Shah set up a special force closest to him consisting mostly of his fellow Durranis, Tājiks, Kizilbāshes, and Yūzufzais.

Ahmad Shah began his military conquest by capturing Ghazni from the Ghilzai Pashtuns and then wresting Kabul from the local ruler, and thus strengthened his hold over eastern Khorasan which is most of present-day Afghanistan. Leadership of the various Afghan tribes rested mainly on the ability to provide booty for the clan, and Ahmad Shah proved remarkably successful in providing both booty and occupation for his followers. Apart from invading the Punjab three times between the years 1747-1753, he captured Herāt in 1750 and both Nishapur (Neyshābūr) and Mashhad in 1751.

Ahmad Shah first crossed the Indus river in 1748, the year after his ascension - his forces sacked and absorbed Lahore during that expedition. The following year (1749), the Mughal ruler was induced to cede Sindh and all of the Punjab including the vital trans Indus River to him, in order to save his capital from being attacked by Ahmad Shah. Having thus gained substantial territories to the east without a fight, Ahmad Shah turned westward to take possession of Herat, which was ruled by Nadir Shah's grandson, Shah Rukh of Persia. The city fell to Ahmad Shah in 1750, after almost a year of siege and bloody conflict; Ahmad Shah then pushed on into present-day Iran, capturing Nishapur and Mashhad in 1751.

Meanwhile, in the preceding three years, the Sikhs had occupied the city of Lahore, and Ahmad Shah had to return in 1751 to oust them. In 1752, he invaded and reduced Kashmir. He next sent an army to subdue the areas north of the Hindu Kush. In short order, the powerful army brought under its control the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara peoples of northern, central, and western Afghanistan.

Then in 1756/57, in what was his fourth invasion of India, Ahmad Shah sacked Delhi and plundered Agra, Mathura, and Vrndavana. However, he did not displace the Mughal dynasty, which remained in nominal control as long as the ruler acknowledged Ahmad's suzerainty over the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. He installed a puppet Emperor, Alamgir II, on the Mughal throne, and arranged marriages for himself and his son Timur into the Imperial family that same year. He married the daughter of the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. Leaving his second son Timur Shah (who was wed to the daughter of (Alamgir II) to safeguard his interests, Ahmad finally left India to return to Afghanistan. On his way back he couldn't resist attacking the Golden Temple in Amristar and filled its sarovar (sacred pool) with the blood of slaughtered cows and people. Golden Temple is to the Sikhs what Mecca is to the Muslims hence his transgressions were of great proportion. Ahmad Shah captured Amritsar (1757), and sacked the Harmandir Sahib popularly known as the Golden Temple. This final act was to be the start of long lasting bitterness between Sikhs and Afghans.

Third battle of Panipat

The Mughal power in northern India had been declining since the reign of Aurangzeb, who died in 1707; the Marathas, who already controlled much of western and central India from their capital at Pune, were straining to expand their area of control. After Ahmad Shah sacked the Mughal capital and withdrew with the booty he coveted, the Marathas filled the power void; in 1758, within a year of Ahmad Shah's return to Kandahar, the Marathas secured possession of the Punjab, and succeeded in ousting his son Timur Shah and his court from India.

Amidst appeals from Muslim leaders like Shah Waliullah, Ahmad Shah chose to return to India and face the formidable challenge posed by the Maratha Confederacy . He declared a jihad (Islamic holy war) against the Marathas, and warriors from various Pashtun tribes, as well as other tribes such as the Baloch, Tajiks, and Muslims in India, answered his call. Early skirmishes ended in victory for the Afghans. By 1759, Ahmad Shah and his army had reached Lahore and were poised to confront the Marathas. By 1760, the Maratha groups had coalesced into a great army that probably outnumbered Ahmad Shah's forces. Once again, Panipat was the scene of a confrontation between two warring contenders for control of northern India. The Third battle of Panipat (January 1761), fought between largely Muslim and largely Hindu armies who numbered as many as 100,000 troops each, was waged along a twelve-kilometre front, and resulted in a decisive victory for Ahmad Shah.

Administration & government

He used to hold, at stated periods, what is termed a Majlis-e-Ulema, or Assembly of the Learned, the early part of which was generally devoted to divinity and civil law-for Ahmad Shah himself was a Molawi and concluded with conversations on science and poetry. He as a rule did not interfere with the tribes or their customs as long as they did not interfere with his ambitions.


The victory at Panipat was the high point of Ahmad Shah's and Afghan power. His empire was among the largest Islamic empires in the world at that time. However, this situation was not to last long; the empire soon began to unravel. As early as by the end of 1761, the Sikhs had begun to rebel in much of the Punjab. In 1762, Ahmad Shah crossed the passes from Afghanistan for the sixth time to crush the Sikhs. He assaulted Lahore and Amritsar. Within two years, the Sikhs rebelled again, and he launched another campaign against them in 1764, resulting in a severe Sikh defeat. During his 8th Invasion of India, the Sikhs vacated Lahore, but faced Abdali's army and general, Jahan Khan. The fear of his Indian empire falling to the Sikhs continued to obsess the Ahmad Shah Abdali's mind and he let out another campaign against Sikhs towards the close of 1766. This was his eighth invasion into India. The Sikhs had recourse to their old game of hide and seek. They vacated Lahore, but faced squarely the Afghan general, Jahan Khan at Amritsar, forcing him to retreat, with six thousand Abdali's soldiers killed. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia with an army of about twenty thousand Sikhs roamed in the neighbourhood of the Afghan camp plundering it to his heart's content. Never before Ahmad Shah Abdali had felt so helpless, his dream of capturing the whole of India was dying before his own eyes. The Sikhs thereafter ruled the region till Peshawar until 1849 losing to the British in the Second Anglo-Sikh War. In the spring of 1761, Ahmad Shah, returned to Kabul; and from that period, up to the spring of 1773, was actively employed against foreign and domestic foes; but at that time his health, which had been long declining, continued to get worse, and pre-vented his engaging in any foreign expeditions. His complaint was a cancer in the face, which had afflicted him first in 1764, and at last occasioned his death. He died at Murghah, in Afghanistan, in the beginning of June 1773, in the fiftieth year of his age. He was succeeded by his son, Timur Shah Durrani.


Ahmad Shah's successors, beginning with his son Timur, proved largely incapable of governing the Durrani empire and faced with advancing enemies on all sides it was at an end within 50 years of Ahmad Shah's death. Much of the territory conquered by Ahmad Shah fell to others in this half century. By 1818, Ahmad Shah heirs controlled little more than Kabul and the surrounding territory. They not only lost the outlying territories but also alienated other Pashtun tribes and those of other Durrani lineages. Until Dost Mohammad Khan's ascendancy in 1826, chaos reigned in Afghanistan, which effectively ceased to exist as a single entity, disintegrating into a fragmented collection of small units.

At the same this policy ensured he did not continue on the path of other conquerors like Babur or Mohammad Ghori and make India the base for his empire. What he did accomplish was create the basis for Afghanistan as a modern-day nation. Indeed, the name "Afghanistan" finds official mention for the first time ever in history, in the Anglo-Persian peace treaty of 1801. Ahmed Shah has therefore earned recognition as "Ahmad Shah Baba", the "Father" of Afghanistan.

His victory over the Marathas also influenced the history of the subcontinent and in particular British policy in the region. His refusal to continue his campaigns deeper into India prevented a clash with the East India Company and allowed them to continue to acquire power and influence after their acquisition of Bengal in 1757. However, fear of another Afghan invasion was to haunt British policy for almost half a century after the battle of Panipat. The acknowledgment of Abdali's military accomplishments are reflected by British intelligence reports on Panipat, which referred to Ahmad Shah as the 'King of Kings'. Fear of an alliance between the French and Afghans led in 1798 to a British envoy, to the Persian court, being instructed to stir up the Persians against the Afghan Empire.

The most important historical monument in Kandahar is the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani, in his tomb his epitaph is written:

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 (1772 A.D.)

"Under the shimmering turquoise dome that dominates the sand-blown city [of Kandahar] lies the body of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the young Kandahari warrior who in 1747 became Afghanistan's first king. The mausoleum is covered in deep blue and white tiles behind a small grove of trees, one of which is said to cure toothache, and is a place of pilgrimage. In front of it is a small mosque with a marble vault containing one of the holiest relics in the Islamic World, a kherqa, the Sacred Cloak of Prophet Mohammed that was given to Ahmad Shah by Mured Beg, the Emir of Bokhara. The Sacred Cloak is kept locked away, taken out only at times of great crisis but the mausoleum is open and there is a constant line of men leaving their sandals at the door and shuffling through to marvel at the surprisingly long marble tomb and touch the glass case containing Ahmad Shah's brass helmet. Before leaving they bend to kiss a length of pink velvet said to be from his robe. It bears the unmistakable scent of jasmine.

Wrote Mountstuart Elphinstone of Ahmad Shah:

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.

Ahmad Shah's poetry

Ahmad Shah wrote a collection of odes in his native Pashto language. He was also the author of several poems in Persian.

See also



  • Ahmad Shah Durrani, 1722-1772: Founder and first king of modern Afghanistan : revolutionary reformer, poet or feudal lord by Nabi Misdaq
  • Diwan-i Ahmad Shah Abdali by Ahmad Shah Durrani
  • Panipat ki Akhiri Jang (Unknown Binding)Sang-i Mil (1974)by Kashi Raj
  • Marathas : Rise and Fall (ISBN 81-7169-886-7) B R Verma and S R Bakshi
  • Ahmad Shah Durrani. Father of Modern Afghanistan. by Singh, Ganda. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1959.
  • Shahnamah-i Ahmad Shah Abdali (Da Pashto Akedemi da matbu°ato silsilah) (Unknown Binding) by Hafiz (Author)
  • Waquiyat-i-Durrani by Munshi Abdul Karim : translated by Mir Waris Ali; Punjabi Adabi Akadami, Lahore (Pakistan) 1963

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