Mahmud of Ghazni and Pashtuns

Ghaznavid sultanate was the first Muslim Turkish dynasty. The founders of this power were Turkic slave commanders from Central Asia in the service of Samanid empire of Khorasan (Persian dynasty). One of the Turkic slave Alptagin dispossessed indigenous rulers of Ghazni (the Lawiks) and ruled Ghazni as nominal vassals of Samanid empire. Sebuktagin, the fifth Turkic slave commander ruling Ghazni, was born in Barskhan district of Kyrgyzstan. He declared independence from Samanid empire and extended his rule over much of what is now Afghanistan. Sabuktaghin was succeeded by his son Mahmud.

The Ghaznavid power reached its zenith during Sultan Maḥmud’s reign. He created an empire that stretched from the Oxus to the Indus valley and the Indian Ocean; in the west he captured the Iranian cities of Rayy and Hamadan. Like his father Sabuktagin, he also recruited large number of Afghan (Pashtun) and Khalji merceraries in some of the campaigns (Tarikh-i-Yamini). When Sultan Mahmud invaded Hindustan, 12,000 Afghan horsemen and 12000 foot soldiers from Ghazna and Kandahar are said to have joined him (Khulasat-ul-Ansab). Akhund Darwezas Tazkirat al-Abrar wa al-Ashrar also has tales of Pashtuns in service to the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century. 

The fiercely independent Afghan tribes of Yaghistan (Pashtun highlands) maintained their independence. They used to carry out plundering raids on the frontier districts of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. In 1019 AD Afghans are recorded to have waylaid the troops of Sultan Mahmud as they were returning in detachments over the hill passes from Kanauj. The Sultan therefore marched against them about the end of same year, shortly after his return from Kanauj. In order to make them unawares, the Sultan gave out that he was going in other direction, but he turned around, surrounded them in their mountain haunts and did terrible execution against them.

In Utbi’s own words,

“When the pimples of the disgrace and infamy of the puritans of Tabaristan had passed away, the Sultan occupied himself in repelling the nation of the Afghans, who made their homes in the acclivities of cliffs and the summits of mountains, and for a long time had been accustomed, with violent success, to stretch out their hand (to attack) the extreme border of his territories. He departed from Ghazna, with the wish to turn upon them, and, by giving their nest to the winds, cut off the germ of that annoyance. He therefore made as though he were marching towards another place and had a design against some other people, and suddenly fell upon them and, fastening the sword upon them, gave many people to destruction.”

Baihaki’s chronicle confirms the above-mentioned event. Further attacks of Sultan Mahmud on the Afghans took place in 1020-21 AD and 1023-24 AD. 11th century Ghaznavid poets like Unsari Balkhi and Saad Salman mentions the attacks of Sultan Mahmud and his officers’ attacks on Afghans in their poetry and refers to them as ‘infidels’. Al-Utbi, Ibn-al-Atir and Fakhr-i-Mudabbir also refers to the turbulent Afghans as infidels in their accounts of Ghaznavids. The successors of Sultan Mahmud had struggle against the ever-rebellious Afghans residing in the mountains. According to “Zain-ul-Akhbar” of Abu Said Gardezi, Sultan Masud (son of Mahmud) posted Amir Ezid Yar in the territory south of Ghaznin , referred to as ‘Koh Paya-i-Ghaznin’ (i.e foothills) with specific orders to keep the rebel Afghans under control.


Ferdowsi reads the poem, the Shahnameh, to Mahmud of Ghazni – By Vardges Surenyants. (1913)


Mahmud of Ghazni receiving a richly decorated robe of honor from the caliph al-Qadir in 1000. Miniature from the Rashid al-Din’s Jami‘ al-Tawarikh.



1-Bernhard Dorn,;History of the Afghans

2- Utbi,;The Kitab-i-yamini

3- Andre Wink, the making of the Indo-Islamic world

4-Bernhard Dorn,History of the Afghans

5- Habibullah Tegay ‘Pakhtana”

6- “Afghans and their emergence in India as ruling elite during the Delhi sultanate period ” by Iqtidar Hussain Siddiqui


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