Ahmad Shāh Durrānī, also known as Ahmad Khān Abdālī, was the founder of the Durrani Empire and is regarded to be the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shah enlisted as a young soldier in the military of the Afsharid kingdom and quickly rose to become a commander of four thousand Abdali Pashtun soldiers. After the death of Nader Shah Afshar of Persia in June 1747, Abdali became the King of Afghanistan. Rallying his Pashtun tribes and allies, he pushed east towards the Mughal and the Maratha Empire of India, west towards the disintegrating Afsharid Empire of Persia, and north toward the Khanate of Bukhara. Within a few years, he extended Afghan control from Khorasan in the west to Kashmir and North India in the east, and from the Amu Darya in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south. Ahmad Shah’s mausoleum is located at Kandahar, Afghanistan, adjacent to the Shrine of the Cloak in the center of the city. The Afghans often refer to him as Ahmad Shāh Bābā (“Ahmad Shah the Father”).
Ahmad Shah was born in 1722 to Muhammed Zaman Khan Abdali, a chief of the Abdalis and governor of Herat, and Zarghuna Alakozai. It is believed that Durrani was born in the city of Herat, in present-day Afghanistan. Some claim that he was born in Multan in the Mughal Empire (present-day Pakistan) and taken as an infant with his mother Zarghuna Alakozai to Herat city where his father had served as the governor. On the contrary, several historians assert that he was born in Herat. One of the historians relied on primary sources such as Mahmud-ul-Musanna’s Tarikh-i-Ahmad Shahi of 1753 and Imam-uddin al-Hussaini’s Tarikh-i-Hussain Shahi of 1798.
Ahmad Shah’s father, Zaman Khan Abdali, was killed in a battle with the Hotakis around the time of Ahmad Shah’s birth. His family were from the Sadozai section of the Popalzai clan of the Abdalis. Ahmad Shah’s mother was from the Alakozai clan of the Abdalis. In 1729, after the invasion of Nader Shah, the young Ahmad Shah fled with his family south to Kandahar and took refuge with the Ghilzais. He and his brother, Zulfikar, were later imprisoned inside a fortress by Hussain Hotaki, the Ghilzai ruler of Kandahar. Shah Hussain commanded a powerful tribe of Pashtun fighters, having conquered the eastern part of Persia in 1722 with his brother Mahmud Hotaki, and trodden the throne of the Persian Safavids.
In around 1731, Nader Shah Afshar, the rising new ruler of Persia, began enlisting the Abdali Pashtuns from Herat in his army. After conquering Kandahar in 1738, Ahmad Shah and his brother were freed by Nader Shah and provided with leading careers in his administration. The Ghilzais were expelled from Kandahar city and the Abdalis began to settle in the city.
Commander in the Afsharid military
Ahmad Shah proved himself in Nader Shah’s service and was promoted from a personal attendant (yasāwal) to command a cavalry of Abdali tribesmen. He 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 Shah, and said, “Come forward Ahmad Abdali. Remember Ahmad Khan Abdali, that after me the Kingship will pass on to you. “Nader Shah used to say in admiration that he had not met in Iran, Turan, and Hindustan any man of such laudable talents as Ahmad Abdali possessed.”
Nader Shah’s rule abruptly ended in June 1747 when he was assassinated by his own guards. The guards involved in the assassination did so secretly so as to prevent the Abdalis from coming to their King’s rescue. However, Ahmad Shah 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 Shah 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 Shah would be their new leader, and already began calling him as Ahmad Shah.
After the capture of Qandahar, Nadir Shah sent him to Mazandaran where the young Pashtun became governor. At the time of Nadir’s death, he commanded a contingent of Abdali Pashtuns. Realizing that his life was in jeopardy if he stayed among the Persians who had murdered Nadir Shah, he decided to leave the Persian camp, and with his 4,000 troops he proceeded to Qandahar. Along the way and by sheer luck, they managed to capture a caravan with booty from India. He and his troops were rich; moreover, they were experienced fighters. In short, they formed a formidable force of young Pashtun soldiers who were loyal to their high-ranking leader.
Rise to power
In October 1747, the chiefs of the Abdali tribes met near Kandahar for a Loya Jirga to choose a 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 figure from the area, 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 and everyone agreed unanimously. Ahmad Shah was chosen to lead the Afghan tribes. Coins where struck after his coronation as King occurred near the tomb of Shaikh Surkh, adjacent to Nader Abad Fort.
Despite being younger than other claimants, Ahmad Shah 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;
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 titles Padishah-i-Ghazi (“victorious emperor”), and Durr-i-Durrani (“pearl of pearls” or “pearl of the age”).
Forming the last Afghan empire
Following his predecessor, Ahmad Shah Durrani set up a special force closest to him consisting mostly of his fellow Durranis and other Pashtuns, as well as Tajiks, Qizilbash and others. Durrani began his military conquest by capturing Ghazni from the Ghilzais 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 Durrani proved remarkably successful in providing both booty and occupation for his followers. Apart from invading the Punjab region three times between the years 1747–1753, he captured Herat in 1750 and both Nishapur (Neyshābūr) and Mashhad in 1751.
Durrani 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 the Afghan forces of the Durrani Empire. Having thus gained substantial territories to the east without a fight, Ahmad Shah and his Afghan forces turned westward to take possession of Herat, which was ruled by Nader 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 and his forces then pushed on into present-day Iran, capturing Nishapur and Mashhad in 1751. He then pardoned Shah Rukh and reconstituted Khorasan, but a tributary of the Durrani Empire. This marked the westernmost border of the Durrani Empire as set by the Pul-i-Abrisham, on the Mashhad-Tehran road.
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, Ahmad Shah with his forces 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. In 1752, Kashmiri nobles invited Ahmad Shah Durrani to invade the province and oust the ineffectual Mughal rulers.
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. His de facto suzerainity was accepted by the East India Company. Leaving his second son Timur Shah (who was wed to the daughter of Alamgir II) to safeguard his interests, Durrani finally left India to return to Afghanistan.
On his way back he attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar and filled its sacred pool with the blood of slaughtered cows. Durrani captured Amritsar in 1757, and sacked the Harmandir Sahib at which point the famous Baba Deep Singh and some of his loyalists were killed by the Afghans. 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. In 1751–52, the Ahamdiya treaty was signed between the Marathas and Mughals, when Balaji Bajirao was the Peshwa. Through this treaty, the Marathas controlled virtually the whole of India from their capital at Pune and Mughal rule was restricted only to Delhi (Mughals remained the nominal heads of Delhi). Marathas were now straining to expand their area of control towards the Northwest of India. Ahmad Shah sacked the Mughal capital and withdrew with the booty he coveted. To counter the Afghans, Peshwa Balaji Bajirao sent Raghunathrao. He succeeded in ousting Timur Shah and his court from India and brought Lahore, Multan, Kashmir and other subahs on the Indian side of Attock under Maratha rule. Thus, upon his return to Kandahar in 1757, Amidst appeals from Muslim leaders like Shah Waliullah, Ahmad Shah chose to return to India and confront the Maratha Confederacy.
He declared a jihad (Islamic holy war) against the Marathas, and warriors from various Pashtun tribes,and 25,000 warriors from various Baloch tribes joined him under the Command of King of Balochistan Mir Noori Naseer Khan Baloch .the Early skirmishes ended in victory for the Afghan and Baloch against the smaller Maratha garrisons in northwest India. By 1759, Durrani and his army had reached Lahore and were poised to confront the Marathas. By 1760, the Maratha groups had coalesced into a big enough army under the command of Sadashivrao Bhau. Once again, Panipat was the scene of a battle for control of northern India. The Third battle of Panipat (January 1761), fought between largely Afghan and Baloch armies of Abdali , largely Hindu Maratha army was waged along a twelve-kilometre front, and resulted in a decisive victory for Ahmad Shah.
Ahmad Shah sought to aid the Muslim city of Kashgar which was being conquered by the expanding Qing dynasty, artempting to rally Muslim states to check Qing expansion. Ahmad Shah halted trade with Qing China and dispatched troops to Kokand. However, with his campaigns in India exhausting the state treasury, and with his troops stretched thin throughout Central Asia, Ahmad Shah did not have enough resources to check Qing forces. In an effort to alleviate the situation in Kashgaria, Ahmad Shah sent envoys to Beijing, but the talks did not yield favourable prospects for the people of Kashgar.
Rise of the Sikhs in the Punjab
During the Third Battle of Panipat between Marathas and Ahmad Shah, the Sikhs did not engage along with the Marathas and hence are considered neutral in the war. This was because of the flawed diplomacy on the part of Marathas in not recognizing their strategic potential. The exception was Ala Singh of Patiala, who sided with the Afghans and was actually being granted and coincidentally crowned the first Sikh Maharajah at the Sikh holy temple.
After the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, when the Sikh once again resumed their infiltrations deeper into the region, finally capturing Lahore in 1764, where they established their short-lived Khalsa State extending from Jhelum to the banks of Jamuna.It was then that they rose against the Muslims, whose condition was getting progressively weaker due to the onset of the general decline of the Mughul Empire. Sensing danger to the cause of Islam, Shah Waliullah of Delhi wrote to Ahmed Shah Abdali asking him to help his brethren-in-faith. This was an open call for Jehad(religious war) it was Mir Noori Naseer Khan Baloch again who, with his army of twenty five thousand Baloch warriors came to the help of Ahmed Shah Abdali Against the Sikh Thus it was that a combined Muslim Army of Afghans and Baloch marched into India defeated and crushed Sikh in 1765.
Death and legacy
Ahmad Shah Durrani died on 16 October 1772 in Kandahar Province. He was buried in the center of Kandahar city adjacent to the Shrine of the Cloak, where a large tomb was built. It has been described in the following way:
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 the region’s first Durrani 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 (S.A.V.) 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.
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.)
Ahmad Shah’s victory over the Marathas 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 is reflected in a British intelligence report on the Battle of Panipat, which referred to Ahmad Shah as the ‘King of Kings’. This fear led in 1798 to a British envoy being sent to the Persian court in part to instigate the Persians in their claims on Herat to forestall an Afghan invasion of British India. Mountstuart Elphinstone wrote 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.
His successors, beginning with his son Timur and ending with Shuja Shah Durrani, proved largely incapable of governing the last Afghan empire and faced with advancing enemies on all sides. Much of the territory conquered by Ahmad Shah fell to others by the end of the 19th century. They not only lost the outlying territories but also alienated some 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 countries or units. This policy ensured that he did not continue on the path of other conquerors like Babur or Muhammad of Ghor and make India the base for his empire.
In Pakistan, a short-range ballistic missile Abdali-I, is named in the honour of Ahmed Shah Abdali.
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. The most famous Pashto poem he wrote was Love of a Nation.