Biography of Ahmad Shah Durrani

Ahmad Shah Abdali
Ahmad Shah Durrani

by S. Ghilzai / January 20, 2016

Ahmad Shah Abdali, later known as Ahmad Shah Durrani, was the founder of modern Afghanistan. Before being elected king in 1747, Abdali was a cavalry general under the Persian emperor Nadir Shah. During his reign, he built a vast empire that extended from eastern Persia to northern India, and from the Amu Darya to the Indian Ocean. Abdali was also a brilliant Pashto poet.

Ahmad Shah Baba (Father Ahmad Shah) as he is affectionately called, lived a colored life. Abdali was born in 1722 to Zaman Khan Abdali, from the Sadozai 1Pashtun tribe, and Zarghuna Alokazai 2, also a Pashtun. Scholars dispute whether Durrani was born in Herat or Multan 3. He was his father’s second son. Durrani’s father was Governor of Herat, making it easily believable that he was born in Herat. However, before Durrani was born, his father was imprisoned by the Persians, and upon his release travelled to Multan, choosing the location because he had family there. When Zaman Khan went back to Afghanistan to fight against the Persians, he apparently left one of his wives in Multan- some sources thinking it was Alokazai. Unfortunately, Zaman Khan died when Durrani was still a small child – how, it is unknown.

Not much is known about Durrani’s childhood, but presumably, after the death of his father, he was raised by his mother and mother’s brothers. More is known about Durrani’s teenager years, as he became more involved in ‘politics’ and the struggle of the Pashtuns living under and fighting against the Persian empire 4.

It is known though that out of fear, Durrani’s mother gave her daughter up to Haji Ismail Khan, the new governor of Herat, who ends up loving Durrani and sends him off to Sabzawar in Herat province. Nothing more is written about Durrani until 1732 when he and his older brother flee towards Kandahar, where they are arrested by Mir Husain, the ruler, because of Husain’s hatred toward the Abdali clan. Luckily Nadir Shah soon conquers Kandahar in 1738, and the boys are let out of prison. This is when Nadir Shah meets the young Durrani and takes a liking to him.

By 1740, Durrani and his older brother have joined Nader Shah’s forces, among other members of the Abdali clan. The Abdali’s became known as the backbone of Nadir Shah’s army. Durrani held various positions throughout his time with Nader Shah, as part of his personal staff, as treasury officer, and “orderly” officer. During this time Nadir Shah and his army raided Delhi, seized the Peacock Throne and Koh-i-Noor Diamond 5. It was also around this time that Nizam-ul-Mulk Chin Qalich Khan Asafjah, a former prime minister and acclaimed expert in physiognomy saw Durrani and told Nadir Shah he saw in him “the signs of greatness” and “predicated that he was destined to become a king.” Nadir Shah not only believed him and agreed, but then had a talk with the young Durrani, of which there are even written accounts of: “Remember Ahmad Khan Abdali, that after me the kingship will pass on to you. But you should treat the descendants of Nadir with kindness”, said the King to Durrani (Singh 1959; 31). Durrani kept his promise by having his son, Timur Shah, help Mirza Shah Rukh, the grandson of Nader Shah out of prison and to the city of Masshad. Shah Rukh then offered the hand of one of his daughters to Timur Shah.

Nader Shah was a paranoid ruler, and would hurt his own people. Finally some of his own staff assassinated him in his sleep. The story goes that Bibi Sahiba, one of Nadir Shah’s wives, who also was Afghan, summoned Durrani and told him about the murder right after it happen, thus broke out a fight between the Afghans and Persians of Nader Shah’s army, with Durrani as the leader of the Afghans. According to Durrani historian Ganda Singh, before departing from Nader Shah’s royal tent where his dead body lay “Ahmad Khan managed to remove the seal of Nader Shah from his finger, took possession of the Koh-i-Noor diamond and other property and saluted his dead body for the last time.”

Nader Shah’s army and subsequent territories were broken up, and different rulers assumed heads of different areas. This was how modern day Afghanistan (and it’s most recent borders) was formed.

loya jirga, or meeting of of tribal elders was arranged to decide who would become the next ruler. There was a few men up for the title, including Durrani, but it was Durrani who was finally chosen because of his lineage, his charisma, his prowess as a fighter, and his close relationship with Nader Shah.

So in the year 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani was crowned the King of the Afghan tribes, in a ceremony in Kandahar, which at the time was the empire’s capital. The ceremony was held at a mosque, and Durrani was aged 25. A mullah poured wheat on his head, meaning he was chosen by God and his nation.

Durrani started going by the nickname of Durr-i-Durrani 6, Pearl of Pearls- a title given to him by Nader Shah (he even wore a pearl earring in his ear), as well as Ahmad Shah Durrani as opposed to Ahmad Shah Abdali. He then completely changed the name of the entire Abdali tribe to Durrani.

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

“Ahmad Shah had then two great problems to solve [upon his ascension]: the organization of the Afghan tribes and the consolidation of his kingdom. It is true that he had the Persian model of Nadir Shah before him to follow. But as the situation in Persia at Nadir’s accession was not identical with that in Afghanistan when Ahmad Shah came to the throne, it was not easy to mould the Afghans on the Persian pattern. The Persians had for centuries been accustomed to absolute submission to a despotic system of Government. Nadir, therefore succeeded without any serious opposition to an established monarchy, though foreign, and this proved a most favourable circumstance for him. Ahmad Shah, on the other hand, had to found a monarchy for the first time among a warlike and independent people whose short experience of Nadir’s monarchy, under which they had been compelled to pay tribute to a foreigner to tighten his hold over them, was more hateful than lovable. From love of equality, inherent in their blood, they were likely to view the exaltation of their own nation with even more jealousy than the tyranny of a foreign master. He had, therefore, to chalk out his own course.” (Singh 1959; 33)

Durrani enacted a smart plan. He first gave back the ex-Abdalis, now Durranis, their land, earning their support. He was “a king to extend the Afghan authority, to found an Afghan nationality, to spread Afghan ideas” (Singh 1959; 34). Since the ‘country’ was so tribal, thus he sought to win over the support of tribal chiefs- without which he would not be able to control a tribe. He stayed loyal to his people and extremely patriotic. He decided to heavily influence the Afghans with foreign wars, and with conquests, could maintain and supply an army, keep up his reputation, and spoil tribal chiefs.

Between 1747 and 1748, he conquered Ghazni from the Ghilzais, and worked his way up to Kabul and then to Peshawar. By 1749 Durrani and his army control Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir. By 1757, Durrani controls all of modern day Afghanistan.

With the collapse of the Nadir Shah’s empire, many neighbouring areas were left dilapidated and easy to conquer. Between 1747 and 1769, the Shah invaded (and looted) India nine times. Him and his army taking everything they could from the cities of Delhi, Agra, Mathura and Vrindavan- with absolutely no intention of ruling those areas.

Around this time, he married Hazrat Begum, who was the daughter of the then Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. Durrani had four son, Suleiman Mirza, Timur Shah – who would eventually succeed his father in becoming King – Sikandar, and Parwez.

Durrani is thought to have introduced artillery into his armies of Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan, and definitely managed to “professionalize” the army (Giustozzi 2008; 3). He was a well-received leader, both because of his past and because of the way he ruled. His ability to join the Afghan tribes, bring a kind of harmony within the country, and providing the foundation for modern Afghanistan was due to his ability to really understand the Afghan people. He attempted to spread Islam to nonbelivers. “He had also tried to enhance the inclusiveness of government through the creation of a Council of Elders, which included groups traditionally hostile to the Durrani monarchy, such as several Ghilzai and some non-Pashtuns […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). At one point his army was over 40,000 men strong because his leadership impressed and inspired recruits. He had a “broad mind and sympathetic attitude” earning the respect control of neighbouring Uzbek and Baloch tribes. The Scottish historian Mountstuart Elphinstone wrote profusely about Durrani, but one of his quotes sums up 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 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 invokes strong senses of patriotism and nationalism as well as the beautiful topography of Afghanistan.

The decline in his empire was when the Sikhs in Punjab rebelled. Durrani subdued them, but then again they rebelled. This back and forth went on for a couple of years in the early 1760’s, until he finally lost control over the Sikhs. By the early 1770’s, “with cancer eating away at his face, and Ahmad Shah’s enemies eating away at his empire”, he spent the last ten years of his life based out of Kabul, managing his domestic and foreign affairs from there (Dupree 1973; 339). Legend has it that he wore a silver false nose as the cancer ate away at his face. In June 1773, Durrani finally died of cancer in Murghah, in the Herat Province, at fifty years old. He is buried in a mausoleum 7 in Kandahar that still stands to this day with an epitaph reading:

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.

1 – Sadozai’s are a part of the Popalzai tribe of Pashtuns.

2 – Part of the Abdali Pashtuns.

3 – Then part of India, now part of Pakistan. There is a monument in Multan marked as Ahmad Shah Durrani’s birthplace.

4 – As is typical when writing about Afghans in history, information is very varied, with some sources saying one thing, and others saying the exact opposite. Typically, this is due to our issues with preserving our history, as well as biases. Of course a Pashtun will have a different understanding- and in turn interpretation-about Ahmad Shah Baba as a ruler, than a Hazara, or a Sikh.

5 – The Koh-i-Noor diamond passed through many hands and empires, until it finally reached the English Empire, where it remains today, 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 also apparently contains Kerqa Sharif, also known as the Shrine of the Cloak, 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, (n.d.). Ahmad Shah Durrani – Ahmad Shah Durrani Biography – Poem Hunter. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Dec. 2015].

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

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