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date: 09 December 2023

Afghan Circulations in the Persianate World, c. 1000–1800free

Afghan Circulations in the Persianate World, c. 1000–1800free

  • Hannah ArchambaultHannah ArchambaultDepartment of History, Southern Oregon University


This article traces the movement of Afghan peoples across the Persianate world between 1000 and 1800 ce. Afghans rose to prominence with the rise of the Delhi Sultanate, the first Muslim-ruled polity in northern India. Over the following centuries Afghans moved throughout the Persianate world, a region stretching from the Ottoman territories in the west to the courts of Southeast Asia and as far north as the trading center of Astrakhan. In the territories of what is now the modern nation-state of Afghanistan, a series of Muslim dynasties, including the Ghaznavid (c. 977–1186) and Ghorid Sultanates (c. 1011–1215) as well as a Timurid court based in Herat (c. 1405–1507) and regional representatives of the Safavid and Mughal Empires, were all led by Turkic, Tajik, and other Turco-Mongol lineages. It was not until the 18th century with the Durrani Empire (c. 1747–1842) that an explicitly Afghan-led government came to power in Afghanistan itself. Instead, the main focus of Afghan society and activity was centered within the Indian subcontinent and its mountainous northwestern frontier. As with many other premodern communities, Afghans built their careers around mobility. From humble origins as pastoral-nomadic peoples based in the Sulayman Mountains and their environs, they built careers as peripatetic merchants and as soldiers, ruled as kings, and traveled India’s highways and byways as mendicants. Afghans also became specialists in frontier zones, cultivating relationships across cultural and political frontiers that helped to facilitate integration across regions. Their political interests were informed by their economic interests, and many moved fluently between roles as merchants and as courtly and military officials. Afghans served and eventually ruled the Delhi Sultanate, became nobility within the Mughal Empire and organized its opposition, and established regional centers of Afghan power across the subcontinent. At the end of the 18th century, it was the rising influence of the British East India Company authority and their efforts at controlling the circulation of peoples, ideas, and materials that eventually marginalized Afghans in Indian society, reconstructing them as outsiders.


  • South Asia


A people known as Afghans lived along India’s northwestern frontier for centuries before the turn of the second millennium of the Common Era. Sanskrit, Chinese, and Arabic sources dating from the 6th century onward confirm a people by this name residing in the northwestern frontier of the Indian subcontinent.1 Later texts would commonly refer to the Zhob and Sulayman Mountain regions as “Roh,” the homeland of the Afghans. People in these territories participated in a pastoral-nomadic way of life known as kūchī or powindah, terms that remain common to this day.2 Sheep and goats were their primary agricultural products. In order to care for these animals, Afghan communities developed regular seasonal routes between highland summer pastures and the valleys and lowland plains of the Ghazna Plateau where they overwintered. The physical demands of this lifestyle and regular movement encouraged the development of a relatively egalitarian society and decentralized system of politics centered around kinship and around grazing rights. Competition over grazing territory often led to conflict, resulting in regular pressure for the outward migration of less successful groups who failed to establish claims to adequate grazing territories.

By the 11th century, Afghans had begun to put their knowledge of the mountainous passes to use, becoming movers of goods and of people. Massive, well-armed kūchī and powindah caravans transported goods along routes connecting the wealthy marketplaces of the subcontinent to the Silk Road capitals of Central Asia. Some of these caravan routes would remain in use into the 19th century.3 As such, Afghans were well situated to benefit from the renewal of a millennia-old pattern of migration that saw nomadic and semi-nomadic Central Asian groups periodically invade northern India, raiding and at times settling there. Central Asian groups had long been able to leverage their privileged access to horses and superior knowledge of cavalry warfare against India’s infantry-based armies. When Ghaznavid and Ghorid armies began moving into northern India (or Hindustan), they had to first negotiate their passage through Afghan-controlled mountain passes, trading for supplies with the communities they encountered and inviting those in search of employment to join their forces as soldiers.4 As these armies established garrisons and captured the capitals of Lahore and then Delhi, Afghans contributed to the foundation of the subcontinent’s first Muslim-ruled polity, the Delhi Sultanate.

In the centuries that followed, although some Afghans would migrate west and northward along trading networks connecting Central Asia and the Middle East, most would settle in South Asia, where opportunities for trade and employment proliferated in this wealthy center for global commerce. In India, Afghans would also eventually become known as Pathans, a term related to the Pashto language spoken by some, but not all, Afghans. The term is also related to the category of Pashtun, an ethnonym that would evolve by the mid-18th century in the territory of Afghanistan in concert with language, class, and lineage-based associations as distinct from other regional and especially Persian-speaking communities.5 For much of the era under consideration, however, these terms were not clearly distinguished from one another and not subject to the rigorous nationalist politics that have defined these categories since the late 19th century.

Rising through the Ranks in the Delhi Sultanate

The Delhi Sultanate was established in 1206 by Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, a Turkish slave-general of Muhammad Ghori (r. 1173–1206). Nominally associated with the Baghdad-based Abbasid Empire, it quickly became an ethnically and religiously diverse political world in which free and unfree individuals, Central Asian and local Muslims, and a growing number of Hindus jostled for influence. It was in this context that, in the 1250s under the leadership of the commander Ulugh Khan (who eventually became Ghiyas al-Din Balban, r. 1266–1287), Afghans began to appear more commonly in the sources, first as soldiers and then in more trusted roles as commanders, especially under the reign of Muhammad bin Tughluq (r. 1325–1351).6

For Sultanate leadership in the 13th and 14th centuries, Afghans’ primary value came from their social marginality. Unlike the bandagān or military slaves who also served the court, Afghans were free-born servants (nawkar). Within the Central Asian institution of military slavery (bandagī), young children were enslaved, converted to Islam, and then fostered and trained in the arts of warfare, administration, and the finer arts of courtly etiquette. Distanced from their natal kin, their primary loyalty, at least in theory, lay with their masters. Over time, a separate tradition of nawkarī also arose, the free employment of low-status groups whose ignoble heritage, as with the bandagān, likewise seemed to place them safely beyond the pale of political ambition. Like the bandagān, the nawkar was imagined to be dependent upon their benefactor to sustain their newfound privilege.7 Thus, Afghans in Sultanate service initially occupied a status not dissimilar to that of the military slave.

Afghans soon began to cultivate skills and resources that facilitated their escape from marginality, however. Horses and cavalry warfare were key elements of medieval and early modern combat, and Afghans quickly became closely associated with the horse trade between Central Asia and Hindustan. While the grassy valleys of the Kabul, Indus, and Helmand river systems in and around the territory of Afghanistan are inappropriate to large-scale horse breeding and are better suited to sheep and goats, Afghan merchants began to purchase large numbers of horses from the more distant territories to the north—of Balkh, Turan, and beyond—bringing them briefly to the Afghan lowlands to fatten them and then leading them by the tens of thousands across the passes of the Hindu Kush to be sold in Indian marketplaces.8 Afghans also began to market themselves as masters of cavalry warfare, even if in Central Asia it was the Mongols and the Turks whose talents were most widely acknowledged.

As the Mongol Empire expanded across Eurasia in the 13th century, Delhi sultans recruited Afghans to man the fortresses along the subcontinent’s northwestern frontier, fending off the Mongol advance.9 They soon began to be recruited for similar purposes in the east, particularly securing the main trading route between Delhi and Bengal.10 It is very likely that, just as they continued to do in later years, Afghans began to pursue marriages and other alliances with locally powerful families across the subcontinent, often recruiting sons-in-law and other family members to join in family enterprises—be it long-distance trade, professional soldiering, or other endeavors. As Afghans became localized, the category of “Afghan” itself became increasingly porous. Individuals and entire communities could “become,” whether through a more rapid transformation or over the course of generations, Afghans. Even up to the late colonial era, South Asia’s diverse and highly mobile military labor market allowed for a surprising degree of movement both within and across superficially sturdy cultural boundaries—Afghan and Rajput identities were particularly fluid.11

What did it mean to “be” or to “become” an Afghan? Whereas the in the 20th and early 21st centuries the term has reflected geographic or ethnic origins, for many in this era it was also a soldiering identity that gestured to one’s resume and skillset—the training one had received and the leaders one had served. It also held connotations with respect to style of speech or accent, religion, dress, and mindset on the battlefield.

Many migrants from Roh spoke Pashto, but although the language certainly continued to be used in informal speech, it was their embrace of Persian and of various North Indian languages that facilitated their careers in India. Even for those who remained in the environs of Afghanistan, it was Persian, not Pashto, that operated as the primary written language until at least the 18th century, although Pashto-language texts began to emerge in the late 16th century.12 As growing numbers of migrants from the territories of Roh found employment in India and as word spread along established trading and kinship networks, newly arrived Afghans developed a particular reputation and social status—as “uncivilized” and “uncouth” outsiders, beyond the pale of respectable society but well suited to the battlefield. Sultanate writers like Amir Khusrau caricatured them as nearly wild creatures, “man-slaying demons” whose form and unfamiliar speech cast fear in the hearts of those they encountered.13 As observers of early modern warfare often noted, a soldier faced his battlefield opponent in a particular fashion—one that set him apart as a Rajput, an Afghan, a Turani, or a Maratha.14 There is little doubt that Afghans cultivated their reputations to their benefit in India’s highly competitive military labor market, but also began to develop a more elevated profile.

Afghans Become Kings

At the end of the 14th century, the Central Asian conqueror Timur (r. 1370–1405) accomplished what his Mongol forebears in the 13th century had failed to achieve—the conquest of Delhi. Yet Timur had little desire to stay in India. After a lucrative looting campaign, he and his forces retreated to Central Asia, leaving a chaotic political landscape. From among an array of contestants for the Delhi throne finally emerged a fourth major Sultanate dynasty—the Sayyids (r. 1414–1451). During their brief rule, Sayyid authority barely extended beyond the bounds of the capital, while much of the rest of northern India devolved into small regional polities.

The Sayyid kings leaned upon Afghan talent to maintain their tenuous hold on power. Afghan members of the nobility began collecting large territories in the form of ʿiqtās, or grants of land.15 This cohort of increasingly powerful Afghan nobility relied upon kinship-based recruitment methods that encouraged further migration from Roh, but also drew upon local Afghan settlements as reservoirs.

In 1436, Bahlol Khan Lodi, an Afghan whose family had participated in Sultanate politics for generations, inherited the valuable ʿiqtā of his father at Sirhind.16 Having secured a valuable position for himself in the Sayyid court, he soon turned to the task of seizing the throne. Bahlol Khan Lodi first manufactured an elaborate scheme to gain his forces’ access at the court of a high-ranking Sayyid-affiliated nobleman named Hamid Khan. When he had done so, his troops surprised Hamid Khan’s men, placed Hamid Khan in chains, and then set to work seizing his territories.17 Using the resources of Hamid Khan’s former stronghold as a launchpad, they then turned their attention to Delhi—Bahlol Lodi took the throne in 1451 and ruled until his death in 1489.

Bahlol Lodi and his successors Sikandar and Ibrahim Lodi governed until 1526, during which time they reasserted Sultanate authority across key portions of northern India. Their rule also coincided with a remarkable cultural efflorescence—the Lodi and Sur courts (the latter a short-lived Afghan dynasty that governed between 1540 and 1556) patronized important literary projects in several languages, undertook architectural works, and along the way carefully cultivated ties with major Sufi lineages. The first order of business, however, was to reassert political control. This proved a difficult task, not least because Bahlol Lodi faced antagonism from many corners of the Sultanate nobility who viewed him with suspicion.

In order to overcome this challenge, Bahlol Lodi invited members of his kin network to travel from Roh and join him, promising them wealth and power. They readily heeded the call. With their support the Sultanate expanded its footprint, even achieving a major victory over the breakaway Jaunpur Sultanate in 1479. However, reliance on his kinsmen also placed important limitations on the new king. Lodi was obliged to reward his supporters with generous titles and control over territories in order to secure their loyalty. Empowered Afghan members of the nobility began establishing their own power centers and resisted Delhi-based efforts at retrieving tax revenues.18

Hoping to correct this, Bahlol Lodi’s son Sikandar (r. 1479–1517) and grandson Ibrahim (r. 1517–1526) both devoted themselves to the project of reestablishing a more unitary sovereignty. Among other shifts in policy, Sikandar implemented new regulations around the ʿiqtā system that reorganized land grants and revenue collections, established new expectations for the receipt of royal orders (farmāns) by subordinates, and punished those whom he deemed guilty of disloyalty.19 Still, the Lodis struggled to retain power in the face of factional conflicts. During Sikandar Lodi’s reign, for example, a significant conflict emerged between members of the Farmuli and Sarwani lineages regarding the proper order of Lodi succession. The Sarwanis, who were on the losing side of this dispute, fled Delhi and sought shelter in the Gujarat Sultanate.20 They eventually returned to Delhi after Sikandar’s death, lending their support to his successor, Ibrahim Lodi.

As the Sarwani–Farmuli dispute illustrates, Afghans did not just remain in the vicinity of Delhi but rather migrated across the subcontinent, settling in parts of Gujarat, the Deccan, Malwa, Bihar, Bengal, and even further afield at the very frontiers of the Persianate world. India’s military marketplace was among the most important vehicles for Afghans’ territorial and status-based mobility. Both part-time and professional soldiers as well as merchants routinely traveled hundreds of miles to find work, living and fighting alongside an array of different religious and ethnic communities. While Afghans may have entered a region to do the work of their distant courtly employers, many soon found common cause with those living more locally.

Regional Sultanates

From the 13th through the 15th centuries, an array of regional Muslim-ruled polities began cropping up across the Indian subcontinent. Most were founded in the aftermath of Delhi Sultanate campaigns that, from the turn of the 14th century onward, began extending even to the southernmost tip of the subcontinent. Afghans participated in these campaigns, often performing their usual roles as experts in frontier warfare before settling in the regions they had earlier conquered. One such figure, Malik Magh Afghan, played a leading role in an early rebellion against Delhi centered at the northern Deccan city of Daulatabad.21 While his effort failed, other non-Afghan elites soon followed in his footsteps, forming the Bahmanid Sultanate. Other breakaway polities soon cropped up in places like Gujarat, Bengal, and Khandesh.

In the Deccan Sultanate courts that emerged in Bijapur, Golconda, Ahmadabad, Berar, and Bidar, Afghans made space for themselves in an ambiguous “middle ground” between two group identities—Deccani and “foreign” or āfāqī—that began to form soon after the states’ founding. By the 16th century, Deccan-based Afghans were perceived as not quite either.22 Unlike explicitly āfāqī communities such as the Iranis, who guarded their identities through tightly controlled intermarriage patterns, Afghans seem to have actively sought out regional connections.23

This was also true in the Gujarati cities of Cambay and Baroda, where Afghan communities were established in the mid-14th century. Their existence is known to history only because, like other Afghans whose names found their way into the sources of the era, they played a leading role in a rebellion against the Delhi Sultanate-appointed governor of Gujarat, and in doing so, forced chroniclers to take notice of them. After the sultan sent forces from Delhi to crush the rebellion, these Afghans fled into the countryside and found shelter with local groups, hinting at preexisting relationships that may have bound them to the region for years or even decades prior. In the years that followed, this Afghan–local alliance would regularly complicate efforts by Sultanate officials to sustain Delhi’s authority in Gujarat. At the same time, Gujarat-based Afghan communities cultivated mercantile connections along Gujarat’s prosperous Indian Ocean-facing coast.24 When an independent Gujarat Sultanate began to take form in the early 15th century, Afghans enthusiastically threw their support behind various contestants to the throne, illustrating their continued commitment to regional politics.25

Afghans also began to settle in the eastern provinces of Bihar and Bengal as Lodi armies pursued the remains of the Jaunpur Sultanate’s forces eastward in the late 15th century. Although certainly present at least in small numbers a century earlier, by the end of the Lodi era a number of Afghan and closely affiliated families (among them the Nuhanis, Sarangkhanis, Lodis, Farmulis, Surs, Kakars, and Sarwanis) had become embedded at all levels of Bihari and Bengali society and politics.26 Eastern India became a major center for Afghan power, however, with the rise of a new power in Hindustan—the Mughals—from the early 16th century onward. This inaugurated what become known as the Turko-Afghan era of governance in Bihar as anti-Mughal dissidents fled east. A coalition of the so-called “twelve landlords,” which included Afghans, Hindus, and others, cultivated a decentralized political system with several capitals, including at Patna and at Gaur.27

Sur Interregnum

In 1526, Babur (d. 1530), who had previously ruled a small Timurid kingdom in Kabul, led his Central Asian army to victory against Ibrahim Lodi at the Battle of Panipat in North India. Yet, this did not yet spell the end of Afghan power in the region. The nascent Mughal state would soon be nearly extinguished by a resurgent Afghan force led by an Afghan named Farid Khan, better known to history as Sher Shah Suri. Shortly after the enthronement of Babur’s son Humayun (r. 1530–1540, 1554–1555), Sher Shah mustered a multiethnic coalition to drive the Mughals out of India. Humayun spent years in exile at the Safavid court in Iran before finally returning to India after Sher Shah’s death.

Sher Shah began his career as a minor figure of non-descript Afghan heritage in Bihar and served a variety of masters before striking out on his own. During his service with the regionally powerful Afghan Nuhani household, Sher Shah began maneuvering a growing share of authority into his own hands until, by the 1530s, he had brought nearly the whole of the province of Bihar under his power. He then used eastern India as a launchpad to force Humayun’s forces out of their new claims.

Sher Shah adroitly redirected recruitment networks that had formerly fed the Lodi armies to build an impressive force of his own. As he became a plausible threat to the newly established Mughals, Afghan soldiers that had formerly served even as far afield as the Gujarat Sultanate began to arrive in search of service with him. But Suri’s armies broke from precedent, even as they drew upon recruitment networks that had served their predecessors. Likely taking heed of the political fragmentation that had doomed the Lodi court and those preceding it, he organized a rigorously centralized and comparatively egalitarian body of troops in which even noblemen were obliged to participate in hard physical labor and submit themselves to discipline.28

The demands he made of his followers were softened by the delivery of regular and generous pay. For this, he needed reliable income streams, achieved in part through personal supervision of the administration, where he introduced several innovations that would later be borrowed by the Mughal emperor Akbar. Perhaps more importantly, he made strategic alliances in the 1530s with three powerful widows who brought with them expansive estates, treasure, and family connections.29 Most important among these was his marriage to Bibi Fateh Malika, a widow with close ties to formerly high-ranking Lodi nobility both by blood and by marriage. Sher Khan funneled her wealth into the conquest of key portions of Bengal.30

It is also important that each of his wives was of ambiguous or even non-Afghan background, with one being from Sarangkhani or Turkoman heritage, another whose name suggests she was a (possibly converted) Hindu, while Bibi Fateh Malika was a Farmuli Shaikhzada. Their diverse identities reflect Suri’s careful cultivation of alliances. Despite Sher Khan’s reputation as an Afghan king, he built his career upon a military that incorporated both Afghan and non-Afghan elements. While Afghan soldiers traveled great distances to seek service in his ranks, he also recruited from other key soldiering groups in India. Apart from Afghans, Turks, Shaikhzadas, and Indian Muslims, he also built durable ties with Rajput communities, most notably the Bhojpur-based Ujjainiyyas. These became central components in Sher Khan’s power and illustrate a growing overlap between Rajput and Afghan identities during this era.

Sher Shah Suri forced Humayun out of India after two key battles in 1539 and 1540, but he suffered an untimely death just a few years later in 1545. His son, Islam Shah, failed to fend off Humayun’s efforts to retake India the following decade. The resurrection of Mughal power did not spell the end for Afghan engagement in South Asia, however. Rather, it offered new avenues by which Afghans might circulate. Most importantly, it would in time result in a transformed articulation of Afghan identity.

Cultural Production, Consumption, and Patronage in the Pre-Mughal Era

The Lodi and Suri dynasties were important consumers and patrons of religious and cultural production, helping to cultivate a shared multiethnic, multireligious, and multi-linguistic North Indian culture. Sufi networks were especially important institutions in this era, and were built upon inheritances of charisma, blood, and spiritual and intellectual training. Members of a lineage (or silsilah) could expect to rely upon ready-made connections at the various Sufi khānaqāhs (monasteries or hospices) and in wider society. Moreover, Sufis, at times funded by courts and elsewhere independently, often settled in far-flung frontier zones where their settlements became centers for conversion and of intercommunal and intercultural cross-conversation. Sufi institutions facilitated connections both geographically and culturally. Afghan political elites communicated their deep roots within pre-Mughal India primarily by patronizing existing Sufi shrines.31

The Lodis were profligate builders, constructing mosques, stepwells, tombs, and gardens across Delhi.32 Many were centered around the saintly graves that decorated the city, and most especially around the dargāh of the famed Hazrat Bakhtiyar Kaki (b. 1173–d. 1235), a Chishti Sufi.33 The Lodis also associated themselves with Abdul Quddus Gangohi (d. 1537), a Chishti whose ties to the Lodi nobility survives in the form of his maktūbāt (collection of letters), and whose dargāh in Saharanpur district remains popular to this day.34 Gangohi’s followers represented a cross-section of North Indian society, and, thanks to his popularity, his voice carried significant political clout. Sufi networks extending outward from Gangohi and his shrine, as with other Sufi “blessed men,” were one of the primary social institutions that ordered Afghans’ lives. Later these same Sufi connections helped to make sense of the chaotic disruptions experienced by Indo-Afghan society after the Mughal conquest.35

Afghans were also interested in other kinds of patronage. Although the Lodis must have used Pashto as a spoken language, they continued the Delhi Sultanate tradition of Persian as a primary vehicle of administration. As growing numbers of Hindu scribal communities entered administrative service, Persian dictionaries were compiled and widely shared, even as the Lodis also began using Hindawi for administrative purposes.36 Along with Persian, the Lodis also patronized translation into and out of Sanskrit and North Indian vernacular languages. In some cases this reflected a deliberate effort to bridge a cultural divide, while in others they spoke to an audience whose existing familiarity with the norms of both literary traditions would allow for the appreciation of such cross-linguistic play.37

Under Sur patronage, texts such as Mir Sayyid Manjhan’s Awadhi-language Madhumālatī and Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmāvat were composed. Both were Sufi meditations on the nature of God, and drew heavily upon the Indic romance genre to express their ideas. Such texts, widely popular and retold in the centuries to come, formed part of a longer tradition of vernacular Sufi romances dating back at least to the 14th century.38 Their composition and popularity speak to cosmopolitan and multilingual audiences and patrons. Afghan approaches to history writing also came to reflect the esthetics and emotive registers of the Indic romance genre, even after the fall of Afghan power in Delhi. As a result, texts such as Rizqullah Mushtaqi’s Waqiʿāt-i Mushtaqī (d. 1581) and Shaikh Kabir’s Afsāna-yi Shāhān (c. 1605–1627), which take as their subject the history of Afghan government in northern India, were peppered with anecdotes, and with seemingly ahistorical tangents and stories that made them appear unreliable to latter-day readers hoping to find “sober” accounts outlining the rise and fall of dynastic fortunes.39

Afghans in Mughal India

When the Mughals first arrived in India, Afghans had already been deeply rooted participants in Indian society for centuries. They were obvious competitors to the Mughals, but also potential allies. In fact, Afghan discontents to Lodi rule were among those that invited Babur to invade India in 1526, joining the Mughal side at the Battle of Panipat.40 In the centuries that followed, many Afghans joined Mughal service through the same processes that drew others into the imperial fold. As the empire seized control over sources of revenue, some ambitious Afghans sought reliable salaries, titles, and respectability within the Mughal system.

For others, however, memories of pre-Mughal Afghan sovereignty remained fresh. These individuals had to be lured and cajoled into imperial service. In many cases, Afghans first entered the service of Mughal princes in rebellion against their fathers. Princely rebels like Salim (later Jahangir), Khusrau, and Khurram (later Shah Jahan) all forged alliances with regionally powerful Afghan households based in frontier regions like Khandesh, Malwa, and especially in Bengal.41 Similarly, Prince Aurangzeb spent long stints in the Deccan frontier where he established close ties with Deccan-based Afghan groups that later returned with him to northern India to fight on his behalf during the succession struggle of 1657 to 1658.42 Service to Mughal princes offered Afghans a nuanced political position that opened the door to their subsequent entry into imperial service.

Afghan anxieties about serving the Mughals were often mirrored by Mughal suspicions about Afghan loyalty. Indeed, while many served the Mughals, very few ultimately achieved high rank.43 It is for this reason that a transformed Afghan conception of self and community can be traced to this period. Building upon earlier presentations of Afghans as uncouth and unsophisticated, stereotypes of Afghans as the offspring of jinn (a category of beings known to the Islamicate world as shapeshifting, fire-born cousins of humanity) circulated widely at the Mughal court.44 Texts like Nimatullah’s Tārīkh-i Khān Jahānī (1615), written at the behest of the high-ranking Afghan nobleman Khan Jahan Lodi, pushed back against this origin story by tracing descent instead from the Abrahamic figure Yaqub (or Jacob). The Tārīkh-i Khān Jahānī also identifies Qays Abdul Rashid Pathan, a purported companion of the Prophet Muhammad and early convert to Islam, as the originator of the system of tribal lineage that had organized Afghan society in the centuries since.45 This version of Afghan ethnogenesis, although apparently drawn from an existing oral tradition, was first given systematic order in Nimatullah’s text.

The Tārīkh-i Khān Jahānī foregrounds the organizing principle of Afghan tribes, presenting genealogies (later summarized in the popular Makhzan-i Afghānī) that a reader could use to locate his own place within that world. While in the pre-Mughal and early Mughal eras, Afghans had used kinship and lineage as a means of social organization that broadly corresponds with the English-language concept of a “tribe” (represented in Persian variously as khayl, tāʾifat, ʿashīrat, qabīlat, qaum, etc.), it was only in the Mughal era that these lineage orders were formalized in writing, developing at the same time new significance. For the first time, tribal affiliation was presented as primary even to Sufi association. Whereas members of the Lodi dynasty had sought to affiliate themselves with existing Sufi networks and their sacred geography across Hindustan, beginning in the Mughal era Afghans began to express a new understanding of Sufi lineage centered around Afghan saints, affiliated first and foremost with their tribe, and only secondarily their silsilah. The notion of tribe began to overlap with the religious silsilah or chain of inheritance in Afghan conceptions of community.46 This crossover between religious and genealogical inheritance was also important for mobile Afghans whose memories of homeland, of decisions around migration, and of inheritance became increasingly linked to legends of saints that had selected sites for settlement, located sources of fresh water, and around whose tombs emerged new urban centers. Afghans in Mughal India were still mobile participants in a larger Persianate world, but they had also begun to carve out an autonomous space for themselves within it, built around its own system of rules.

In the 1580s, the Mughals began to reassert their interest in the region of Kabul and its environs at the same moment as a powerful millenarian and ultimately anti-Mughal movement began to gather steam in the region. The movement was centered around a figure known as Bayazid Ansari (d. 1575–1576), often referred to as the Pīr-i Rawshan or “Enlightened Master” by his followers. A member of the Barki or Ansari clans, Ansari’s popularity during his lifetime built upon his saintly personality and miraculous powers, as well as his authorship of the Khayr al-Bayān, a Pashto-dominant text that also relied on Persian, Arabic, and Hindawi, which outlined Ansari’s teachings.47 Ansari’s text centered around a message of imminent apocalypse built on an esoteric interpretation of the prophetic message.48 The movement was universalist in its message, posing a potential challenge to tribal hierarchies by denying their significance. Yet the predominance of Pashto within the Khayr al-Bayān ensured that it spoke directly and primarily to Pashto speakers. His early encounters with Mughal power during his childhood in Hindustan also led him to cultivate a reflexively anti-Mughal perspective in his messaging. However, it was only after his death that the Rawshaniyya gained real traction.49

The movement found momentum in the 1580s as the Mughal state sought to quash a rebellious movement led by the emperor Akbar’s brother, the governor of Kabul. After sending the Mughal army to put down the rebellion, Akbar sought to impose a more centralized rule in the region. Rising in protest, the local population threw their support behind Ansari’s son, Jalala, whose kinship and disciple-based ties as well as personal charisma helped him to recruit soldiers and disciples to the cause. At its height between 1586 and 1591, Rawshaniyya fighters inflicted painful punishment upon the Mughal army, killing its soldiers by the thousands. By the turn of the 17th century, however, the Mughals were using divide-and-rule tactics in order to reassert imperial power across the province. Jalala was killed in battle against the Hazara community of Ghazni in 1601.50

The Rawshaniyya movement is primarily remembered thanks to its source text, the Khayr al-Bayān, whose adoption of Pashto marks the first known use of the language in a written form. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, however, Afghans would continue primarily to participate in an Indo-Persianate literary world whose contours were deeply informed by the Mughal court. Many would also continue to participate in the world of Mughal political patronage and economic opportunity. Among those that were most closely associated with Mughal service included the Khweshgis and the Yusufzais, but in reality most Afghan tribal groups resident in the subcontinent took service under the Mughals at various points.51

Afghans under Mughal Service and Beyond

The Mughal nobleman Khan Jahan Lodi, patron of the Tārīkh-i Khān Jahānī, was among the highest-ranking Afghans ever to serve the Mughal court. His rise to influence and eventual fate neatly sum up Afghans’ ambiguous position in the Mughal world. Granted intimate access at Jahangir’s court (r. 1605–1627), Jahangir’s successor Shah Jahan (r. 1628–1657), by contrast, distrusted Lodi from the beginning. Seeing his political star fade, Lodi rebelled and fled south to the Deccan, surrounded by members of his own household as well as by other Afghan nobility who hoped for a brighter future in the free-wheeling political climate of the unconquered Deccan Sultanate territories. Khan Jahan Lodi soon began to doubt his choice, however. When he was confronted by other members of his party who had hoped he would seize upon the political disorder at the Nizam Shahi court in Ahmadnagar and establish his own kingdom, he worried instead about his own reputation and that of the Afghan community more broadly. Would his decision to abandon Mughal service doom them? Lodi’s uncertainty and delay eventually resulted in his capture and execution by Mughal forces in early 1631. However, others in his party moved more decisively.52

The 17th century saw Afghans migrate in both directions across the Mughal–Deccan frontier. One cause for this was the gradual weakening and collapse of the surviving Deccan Sultanate courts in Ahmadnagar, Golkonda, and Bijapur, alongside the Mughals’ expansionist orientation. For Mughal discontents, conditions in the south promised opportunity. Afghan noble households such as the Miyanas, formerly minor players in Mughal politics, made names for themselves after they headed south to Bijapur in the 1630s. By the 1660s they were among the most powerful players in South India. In the 1670s, Abdul Karim Khan Miyana became regent to the child-king Sikandar Ali Shah (r. 1672–1686), making him briefly the king of Bijapur in all but name.

The Miyanas’ remarkable trajectory was built from several elements. They effectively marketed their military skills and recruitment networks to Bijapur’s commanders; they worked readily alongside (and at times in competition with) other influential regional groups, including Marathas, Siddis, and Deccani Muslims; and they specialized in service at the frontiers of Sultanate power in the south. Within a few short years, the Miyanas had established claims in the former Vijayanagara territories of the Karnatak and the southeastern fringes of the Coromandel Coast. They then began investing in trans-oceanic trade with Southeast Asian ports, turning profits raised in these distant marketplaces back into their political careers at the Bijapur court.53

If some Afghans were leaving Mughal service, however, many Afghans formerly under Sultanate employ began petitioning for Mughal service, a choice that offered greater stability of contract than the Sultanate courts could offer, as well as tempting sign-up bonuses.54 Such shifts in patronage were often facilitated by networks built around kinship and, at times, around friendship. As the Deccan Sultanate system collapsed in the last decades of the 17th century, and as Mughal forces flooded into formerly Sultanate-held territories, such connections proved essential. Among the most powerful servants of the Mughal court at the turn of the 18th century was the Afghan commander Daud Khan Panni, who used his own familial and service relationships in both the now-defunct Bijapur Sultanate and at the Mughal court to cement his dominant position in the freshly conquered Mughal territories of South India. In many respects, Panni’s career represents the pinnacle of Afghan power within the Mughal world. Tightly connected with the Bijapur-based Miyana household, Daud Khan Panni and his kin used Mughal administrative systems and Bijapur Sultanate-era inheritances to organize a portfolio of interests stretching nearly the length of the subcontinent from the Gujarat coast and the interior of the Deccan southward into the Karnatak and the port cities of the Coromandel region, controlling ships, market towns, recruitment centers, textile-production centers, and Mughal taxation rights known as jāgīrs in lucrative locales.55

Eighteenth-Century Reordering

As fractures began to appear in the late 17th-century Mughal Empire and as a full-scale imperial crisis blossomed in the first half of the 18th century, the landscape of opportunity again shifted for Afghans in and beyond the subcontinent. As ever, mobility was key. An array of Afghan power centers emerged in the small South Indian territories of Karnul, Kadapa, and Bankapur, and in central and northern India in regional kingdoms like Bhopal, Tonk, Farrukhabad, and in the kingdom of Rohilkhand, east of Delhi. By the middle of the century, a major Afghan-led polity centered in the territories of modern Afghanistan straddled provinces formerly claimed by the Safavid and Mughal Empires.

This upwelling of Afghan power corresponded with political and economic changes across Eurasia. Even as the strength of long-distance oceanic commerce and the influence of European trading companies reshaped global economies in the 18th century, old overland trade routes such as those between South and Central Asia nevertheless continued to flourish. Major imperial structures such as the Mughal state and the Safavid Empire in Iran weakened or entirely unraveled, producing new opportunities both commercially and politically, but also undermining systems that had shaped the careers of powerful figures like Daud Khan Panni only a few years earlier.56 For Afghans as for others, the 18th century marked a reorientation. Although some continued to find opportunities for military service and in the horse trade across the subcontinent even into the early 19th century, it was increasingly to Afghanistan itself, especially with the rise of the Durrani Empire (1747–1842), that Afghans began to turn their attention.

Within the Indian subcontinent, the 18th century was structured by two broad and overlapping processes. The first, corresponding with the decline of centralized Mughal power, was the rise of regional polities, many of which continued nominally to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Mughal emperor. Afghans not only established their own principalities in this era, but also found service to non-Afghan states such as the Mughal successor state of Hyderabad and the Maratha polities. Many of these opportunities evolved from and drew upon earlier recruitment networks, settlements, and relationships. Yet there were also new, or perhaps resurgent, patterns of Afghan movement that also characterized this era as freshly arrived migrants from Roh found work in an increasingly politically unstable India.57 The state of Rohilkhand was founded by such figures involved in the horse trade. Bhopal was also founded by a recent migrant who, after first serving as a mercenary in many of the rising regional states of 18th-century India, finally established his own, relying in part on the military labor of the local Rajput and Gond communities. In the Bangash court at Farrukhabad, practices of recruiting and incorporating new soldiers were self-consciously broad, drawing on both Afghan and Rajput tradition and demonstrating that South Asian military culture in the 18th century remained cosmopolitan in its outlook.58 Yet the new generation of Afghan migrants who arrived in the early 18th century were different from those that had long been settled in the subcontinent. They were relatively unfamiliar with and uninterested in well-established systems of Mughal governance.59 Recent ties with Afghanistan itself perhaps facilitated the willingness of Afghan courts in Rohilkhand and Farrukhabad to eventually shift the compass of their political allegiance toward a rising Afghan-ruled Durrani court based in Qandahar.

We know comparatively little about Afghan mobility elsewhere in Eurasia. There are, however, scattered references to Afghan mercantile communities, specialists in trade with the Indian subcontinent who were resident in the major cities of the Safavid Empire, the Uzbek-ruled territories of Turan, and even as far as Astrakhan at the edge of the Russian Empire.60 As the Safavid Empire crumbled at the turn of the 18th century, Afghans became increasingly prominent players in the region. An Afghan Ghilzai commander named Mahmud Khan led a large multiethnic force into the Safavid heartlands, laying waste to Safavid cities such as Kerman and Isfahan. His siege of Isfahan in 1722 drew attention even in Europe, marking the arrival of Afghans in the global imaginary.61 Afghans, for their part, continued to focus on imperialist politics that drew upon long-held Safavid and Mughal claims. When a new king, a Turkic Afshar who styled himself Nadir Shah (r. 1736–1747), eventually rose to power from the ashes of the Safavid Empire, Afghans joined his forces in large numbers. They did so even as Nadir Shah pushed back against Ghilzai claims in Safavid territories. Forming a major component in Nadir Shah’s armies, Afghans traveled the length and breadth of his emerging empire and contributed to Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739.

In 1747, Nadir Shah was assassinated. From among those serving in Nadir Shah’s regiments, an Afghan named Ahmad Khan Abdali (later Ahmad Shah Durrani, r. 1747–1772) launched a bid for kingship, eventually seizing large portions of modern Iran, Turan, and the North Indian provinces of Panjab, Kashmir, and Sindh. Most importantly, Abdali based his capital in Qandahar, in what is now the modern nation-state of Afghanistan. For this reason, Ahmad Shah Durrani is in the 20th and 21st centuries often considered the founder of the modern nation-state of Afghanistan, but he understood his power in terms more familiar to the Mughal and Safavid sovereigns who dreamed of world-conquering empires. Durrani repeatedly invaded India, sacking the Mughal capital of Delhi in 1757 and defeating a large Maratha-led force at Panipat in 1761. In doing so, he demonstrated his power to shape Hindustan’s politics. He also forged allegiances with the various Afghan-ruled polities of northern India, granting the Bangash and Rohilla nobility title and office within the Durrani system.62

Much of the Durrani Empire’s success was built with treasure seized from formerly Mughal-ruled territories in northern India.63 Ahmad Shah used these resources to fund campaigns across large portions of Khorasan, Turkistan, and into the former Safavid provinces, seizing the cities of Herat and Mashhad. He drew upon Mughal but especially Safavid models of governance, relying on members of the Qizilbash community (a Turkish group that had been at the core of the Safavid regime) to fulfill the state’s administrative requirements.64 Throughout Ahmad Shah’s reign, he was obliged to negotiate with an array of autonomous-minded figures both within and beyond his own Sadozai tribe, for whom a state actually centered within the territory of Afghanistan proved an unwelcome novelty. Ahmad Shah vacillated between rigorously punishing all critics within his boundaries and focusing his attention beyond the frontiers. His nascent empire proved unstable. Even before his death, the Sikhs had recaptured most of Panjab. His sons Timur Shah (r. 1773–1793) and Zaman Shah (r. 1793–1803) watched more territory slip away. As they lost access to India’s vast resource base, they found themselves increasingly constrained elsewhere. Both men worked urgently but ultimately ineffectively to cultivate alliances with what remained of the Mughal dynasty in order to restore the Durranis’ ties to the subcontinent.65

Larger transformations were underway across the Indian subcontinent and Eurasia more broadly. Even as new ties were forged between Indo-Afghan states and the Durrani court in Qandahar and Kabul in the middle of the 18th century, another political center was taking shape to the east: the British East India Company’s government in Bengal. In 1774 the armies of the Mughal successor state of Awadh—backed by Company forces—defeated their neighbor, the Afghan-ruled Rohilkhand state. Afghans in India now found themselves in increasingly unfamiliar circumstances. The changes were especially visible in the context of the soldiering economy. As opportunities dried up in the regions falling under the control of the British East India Company, many fled to the Maratha territories where Afghan and other soldiering groups were still in demand.66 Among them was the future ruler of the Afghan polity of Tonk, Muhammad Amir Khan, a mercenary who first served under the Marathas. With the exception of the Sikh kingdom in Panjab, the Maratha territories provided the most durable resistance to British East India Company expansion—the last of the Anglo–Maratha wars was not concluded until 1819. Some Afghans also sought service in the East India Company armies.67 Yet changes in the military culture of East India Company-governed regions—the regularization of the army, a growing preference for peasant-soldiers rather than contract-based cavalrymen, and British biases about the characteristics of India’s diverse soldiering communities—ensured that Afghans were increasingly marginalized. The horses that Afghan merchants had long supplied to Indian courts were also less in demand. The British preferred larger Arabian-style horses to the smaller breeds supplied by Afghan merchants.68 Politically, Indo-Afghans found themselves limited to governing a small handful of surviving but increasingly isolated “princely states” in places like Bhopal, Tonk, and Karnul. More generally, they found themselves castigated as rogues and “mere” horse dealers. Moving into the 19th century, Afghans still migrated to India, but now they served as laborers, deprived of the powerful political networks that had formerly connected them.69

What survived of the Durrani Empire after the turn of the century scrambled for resources as the state fragmented among its claimants. By 1839, the British began directly intervening in Kabul’s politics, undertaking the first of the Anglo–Afghan Wars (1839–1842) in a bid to strengthen their position against the growing threat of Russian influence in Central Asia. The first Anglo–Afghan War served as an early volley in the so-called “Great Game” between Britain and Russia, and marked the rise of indirect colonialism in the region. Ironically, the rise of an Afghan-led state in Afghanistan in the mid-18th century was quickly followed by the dismantling of many of the economic and political ties that had long bound Afghans tightly to the subcontinent. Although Afghans would continue to move between the two regions, their mobility within the Persianate world was increasingly truncated.

Discussion of the Literature

The question of whether Afghans did things differently because of their pastoral-nomadic or “tribal” background has long haunted scholarship. The question finds its origins in the Mughal period, when many of the earliest and most influential sources on pre-Mughal Afghan history were penned. Their authors, whose personal sympathies and sources of patronage varied considerably, all nevertheless grappled with a shared problem—namely, how to make sense of the Afghan–Mughal relationship in light of their politically fraught history.70 Later, under British colonial rule, Afghans and their histories were similarly subject to distrustful examination. An amalgam of stereotypes marked Afghans both in romantic terms (as an archaic and tribal or clannish people, not unlike the Highland Scots) and in suspicious ones (as bloodthirsty militants and religious extremists), a combination durably commemorated in the character of Mahboob Ali in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901). In more recent decades, scholars have begun to push back at such framings, most productively by raising questions about how Afghan identity has been constructed at various points.

Early work by scholars such as R. P. Tripathi and S. M. Imamuddin described the Lodi dynasty as anarchic, with unitary sovereignty rejected in favor of power-sharing arrangements among unsophisticated tribal elders.71 The Lodis, they argued, were an aberration from the Turko-Persian model of kingship upheld by earlier Delhi sultans, a divergence explicable primarily on account of their cultural encumbrances. John Richards lent support to this, arguing that the Lodis were unable to secure control over precious metal streams because they failed to embrace a disciplined hierarchy of royal authority.72 Most recently, André Wink has argued that Afghans were so shaped by their pastoral-nomadic origins in the Sulayman Mountains that they retained an antipathy for settled society even after migrating into South Asia, continuing to prefer ties of blood to those of territory. He suggests that this situated Afghans well for trade, but more poorly for empire-building.73 Others disagree. I. H. Siddiqi and Raziuddin Aquil have argued that Afghans had long served prior Delhi Sultanate regimes and must have been well versed in practices of centralized monarchy. Moreover, they argued, the Lodis experienced similar challenges to earlier Sultanate dynasties in controlling factional pressures.74 Both scholars also point to external factors that limited the Lodis’ strategic choices.

Scholars focusing on the high Mughal era have posed similar questions. Relying on Mughal-era sources that commonly accused Afghans of pride and obstinacy, scholars have commonly accepted that Afghans under Mughal rule were a potent source of disorder, even if many served the Mughal court with distinction. Such a perspective is neatly articulated by Rita Joshi, among others.75 A related argument can be found in Joseph Arlinghaus’s study of the Rawshaniyyas in Afghanistan itself, in which he underlines the powerfully anti-Mughal nature of this Afghan-led millennial movement, but also foregrounds the central importance of tribal organization in understanding Afghan society more broadly.76

The same framework carries through to studies of the 18th century, most influentially by C. A. Bayly, who indicated that the disintegration of early modern empires across South and West Asia led to a rash of tribal “break outs” in which “unstable coalitions of tribal warriors . . . overthrew or dispersed the old prebendal nobilities” across the imperial realms.77 Deeply influenced by Bayly but eventually moving beyond him, Jos Gommans argued for the rise of what he termed an “Indo-Afghan empire” loosely spanning parts of Iran all the way to northern India and beyond.78 This decentralized order, he argued, was built upon Afghan mobility and a “dual economy” that drew upon traditions of “pillag[e] and ransom,” but also upon institutionalized taxation regimes borrowed from the empires they had displaced. This system was also doubled in a separate sense—the successful construction of a regime that, for the first time, bridged Central and South Asian worlds.79 Whereas Bayly had imagined a spontaneous eruption of formerly subdued tribal peoples, Gommans articulated an emergent trans-regional system constructed on the foundations of centuries-old patterns of migration.80

Dirk Kolff’s work on early modern South Asian military culture more broadly has helped open the door to new questions about Afghan identity itself.81 According to Kolff, the early modern category of Afghan—particularly among non-elite soldiering communities—was highly permeable. In this respect, Afghan identity was much like the Rajputs and Marathas, two communities with which Afghans enjoyed substantial overlap. Nevertheless, a unique typology began to arise within the Mughal military universe around the category of the Afghan soldier, one marked, according to Gommans, by expectation of a particular ferociousness on the battlefield but of faithlessness to all except their fellow Afghans.82

Approaching Afghan identity from a different angle, Nile Green has focused on when and why Afghan history was first written down.83 The drive to cement an authoritative account of Afghan ethnogenesis and descent emerged in the context of tensions during the early Mughal period. Authorship of these texts in Persian demonstrates Afghans’ commitment to the Persianate world even as they fought to defend their status within it. Beyond the North Indian arenas of centralized Mughal authority, however, Afghan identity was less directly shaped by Mughal pressures. In South India, Hannah Archambault argues that Afghan members of the Deccan Sultanate elite cultivated close allegiances with both local and transregionally influential groups. These same Afghan households expanded their business interests well beyond the horse trade, investing in commerce links with Southeast Asia, Bengal, and the Hijaz, and situating themselves as intermediaries between coastal ports and the overland routes that crisscrossed the inland subcontinent.84

Studies of literary and Sufi traditions have shed important light on Afghan history and again complicate binary assumptions about Afghan identity. Simon Digby’s early study of a manuscript recording the dreams and reminiscences of an Indo-Afghan soldier and devotee of the Sufi shaykh Abdul Quddus Gangohi (d. 1531) offers one such example.85 Elsewhere, studies of the vernacular romances of the late Sultanate era by scholars like Aditya Behl and Ramya Sreenivasan, while themselves focused on the esthetics, (re)appropriations, and politics upheld by these texts, also indirectly shed light on the social and cultural worlds of northern India under Afghan governance.86 The edited volume After Timur Left (2014) brings together a number of important studies addressing the social and cultural world of 15th-century India, within which Afghans were key actors. Studies by Simon Digby and Nile Green examine Sufi networks in the Mughal Deccan that enjoyed significant Afghan followings.87 Thibaut D’Hubert’s work on the Indo-Afghan poet Alaol, who was captured and brought to the Arakanese court in the 17th century, helps to illuminate the cultural worlds of Afghan elites in this era as well as its Persianate frontiers. Alaol’s linguistic facilities in Persian, Hindawi, Sanskrit, and Bengali allowed him to rise to the highest rank in this Buddhist court, and speaks to the mobile and cosmopolitan universe in which Afghans participated both in and beyond the boundaries of the Indian subcontinent.88

Primary Sources

Afghans primarily left their mark in Persian-language archives up through the end of the 17th century. Perhaps more surprisingly for modern advocates of certain formulations of Afghan and particularly Pashtun nationalisms, only a small number of Pashto-language sources survive prior to the 19th century, demonstrating the extent to which Afghans located themselves as participants within a Persianate world. While only a handful of sources authored by Afghans in vernacular South Asian languages survive (Alaol’s Bengali-language compositions serving here as an example), Afghan participation in these literary spheres is demonstrated by their patronage of such works as well as interest in translation.89

Afghans, especially before the 17th century, only rarely picked up the pen themselves. An early example of an Afghan voice in writing comes to us in the form of an amended copy of the Latāʾif-i Quddusī (1531). Primarily authored by the non-Afghan Shaykh Ruknuddin, a manuscript copy also incorporates an additional 22 anecdotes by the Indo-Afghan soldier Dattu Sarwani, a disciple of Shaykh Abdul Quddus Gangohi, and presents a rare opportunity to explore the worldview of non-elite Afghans in India.90 The first surviving histories of the Afghan people arrived a few decades later after the establishment of the Mughal Empire. These Afghan-centered texts, all written in Persian, include the Waqiʿāt-i Mushtaqī (1581) by Rizqullah Mushtaqi, Afsāna-yi Shāhān (c. 1605–1627) by Shaikh Kabir, Abbas Khan Sarwani’s Tārīkh-i Sher Shāhī (1585), Tārīkh-i Shāhī by Ahmad Yadgar (c. 1572–1576), and most importantly, the Tārīkh-i Khān Jahānī, compiled around 1615 by Nimatullah (an Irani) and possibly co-authored by Haybat Khan Kakar, an Afghan, but patronized by the powerful Afghan nobleman Khan Jahan Lodi.91 During a period in which there was little consensus over Afghans’ past, these authors (only some of whom were Afghan) sought to articulate an authoritative version of Afghan history, and particularly to outline Afghan histories of rule in Hindustan, to a Persian-literate audience. They did so in conversation with official Mughal sources that presented an often-unflattering alternative.

Another important source on Afghans in this era comes in the form of biographical compendiums such as the Dhakīrāt al-Khawānīn (c. 1650–1651) by Shaykh Farid Bhakkari or the better-known Maʾāsir al-Umarā (composed across the 1740s and 1770s by Shah Nawaz Khan and Abdul Hayy Aurangabadi). Both offer considerable material on Afghan elites, with Bhakkari a former compatriot of the Afghan nobleman Khan Jahan Lodi and Shah Nawaz Khan sharing social circles with prominent Deccan-based Afghans.92 Nevertheless, because Afghans—whether as merchants or as soldiers—were often to be found in frontier contexts, many court-sponsored or state-centered accounts address Afghans only where it becomes necessary to do so, treating them with suspicion. Still, many of the well-known sources for the Delhi and regional Sultanates, Mughal, and post-Mughal eras turn out to offer important insights into Afghan history when they are carefully combed and read against the grain.93

European observers offer increasingly useful insight from the 17th century onward, but must also be read with caution. Early British and Dutch East India Company representatives commented regularly on what they could make of inland politics, and offer insight especially with respect to Afghan participation in South India’s economic and political sphere.94 Early European observers of Afghans include Pére Francis-Xavier Wendel, whose Les Mémoires de Wendel sur les Jāt, les Pathān et les Sikh (c. 1770) offers insight into Afghans’ role within the 18th-century subcontinent. Another observer of Afghan life in the region of Afghanistan itself is Mountstuart Elphinstone’s Account of the Kingdom of Caubul (1815), which describes his 1808–1809 overland mission to Kabul as an envoy of the East India Company. A keen observer of his surroundings and an influential colonial scholar-administrator, details from his narrative have been spliced together with other works like the Bāburnāma in efforts at constructing an overarching theory of Afghan tribal organization.95

No written sources in Pashto survive before the 16th century. Pashto came into view only after the Mughal Empire had stretched across India, and finally began to establish its own literary position after the turn of the 18th century. As the Mughals sought to reestablish their predominance in and around the province of Kabul, Bayazid Ansari articulated the ideals of his millennialist Rawshaniyya movement in a quadrilingual text known as the Khayr al-Bayān, which combined Pashto, Persian, Arabic, and Hindawi.96 Subsequently, a Sunni Hanafi textbook titled the Makhzan al-Islām (c. 1605) would be widely recopied throughout the 17th century, helping to institute a more standardized written form of the language.97 Finally, at the turn of the 18th century, the Tārīkh-i Murassaʿ (c. 1708), written by Afzal Khan Khattak, a former Mughal servant turned rebel, would inaugurate the language’s use in the genre of historical chronicles. Initially a servant of Mughal interests in the Kabul region, in the 1670s Khattak joined and eventually led a growing regional rebellion against the Mughal government.98 When he later composed the Tārīkh-i Murassaʿ, he chose to base his history in Pashto, translating large parts of the Tārīkh-i Khān Jahānī for its opening section. The text would go on to inform later Pashto-language historical projects.99

However, Despite Pashto’s rising prominence, Persian remained the preferred language for a wider audience. Persian’s continued predominance speaks to Afghans’ continued sense of belonging within a transregional Persianate world. This remained the case even during the administration of Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of the Durrani Empire, under whom patronage of Persian-language histories continued to prevail. This can be seen in the examples of Mahmud al-Husayni’s Tārīkh-i Ahmad Shāhī (1776) as well as the Tārīkh-i Husayn Shāhī (1798) by Imamuddin Husayni.100 The latter text, as with several other accounts focused on the Durrani court, were, despite their subject matter, composed in India. That these foundational sources were penned in places like Murshidabad (Bengal), Lahore, and Lucknow also speaks to the continued entanglement of these regions. Hafiz Rahmat Khan, who governed Rohilkhand in the mid-18th century, patronized a mixed Persian-Pashto-language Tawārīkh-i Hāfiz Rahmat Khān by Pir Muazzam Shah.101 Even after the fall of Rohilkhand in 1774, the former scribes, bureaucrats, soldiers, and others who had served the Indo-Afghan court continued to operate within an inherited Persianate literary context as they sought to make sense of the changing political circumstances of late 18th-century Hindustan.102

Further Reading

  • Aquil, Raziuddin. Sufism, Culture, and Politics: Afghans and Islam in Medieval North India. New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Archambault, Hannah L.Geographies of Influence: Two Afghan Military Households in 17th and 18th Century South India.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2018.
  • Arlinghaus, Joseph. “The Transformation of Afghan Tribal Society : Tribal Expansion, Mughal Imperialism and the Roshaniyya Insurrection, 1450–1600.” PhD diss., Duke University, 1988.
  • Bayly, Christopher A.India and West Asia, c. 1700–1830.” Asian Affairs 19, no. 1 (1988): 3–19.
  • Crews, Robert D. Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • D’Hubert, Thibaut. In the Shade of the Golden Palace: Alaol and Middle Bengali Poetics in Arakan. South Asia Research. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Digby, Simon. “Dreams and Reminiscences of Dattu Sarvani a Sixteenth Century Indo-Afghan Soldier.” Indian Economic & Social History Review 2, no. 1 (1965): 52–80.
  • Gommans, Jos. The Rise of the Indo-Afghan Empire, c. 1710–1780. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1995.
  • Green, Nile. “Introduction: A History of Afghan Historiography.” In Afghan History through Afghan Eyes. Edited by Nile Green, 1–52. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Green, Nile. “Tribe, Diaspora, and Sainthood in Afghan History.” Journal of Asian Studies 67, no. 1 (2008): 171–211.
  • Habib, Irfan. “Evolution of the Afghan Tribal System.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 62 (2001): 300–308.
  • Imamuddin, S. M. “The Nature of Afghan Monarchy in India.” Islamic Culture 32 (1958): 268–275.
  • Joshi, Rita. The Afghan Nobility and the Mughals: 1526–1707. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1985.
  • Kolff, Dirk H. A. Naukar, Rajput, and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market of Hindustan, 1450–1850. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Kumar, Sunil. “Bandagi and Naukari: Studying Transitions in Political Culture and Service under the Sultanates of North India, 13–16th Centuries.” In After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth Century North India. Edited by Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, 60–108. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Lee, Jonathan L. Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present. London: Reaktion Books, 2018.
  • Naqvi, Naveena. “Writing the Inter-imperial World in Afghan North India, ca. 1774–1857.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2018.
  • Orsini, Francesca, and Samira Sheikh. “Introduction.” In After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India. Edited by Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, 1–46. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Richards, John F. “The Economic History of the Lodi Period: 1451–1526.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 8, no. 1 (1965): 47–67.
  • Sherman, William E. B. “Apocalypse, Again: Language, Temporality, and Repetition in an Afghan Apocalypse.” Cross Currents 68, no. 2 (June 1, 2018): 260–283.
  • Siddiqi, Iqtidar Husain. Afghan Despotism in India, 1451–1555. Aligarh, India: Indian Institute of Islamic Studies, 1969.
  • Warner, H. William. “Mobility and Muscle: Afghan Migration and the Frontiers of British India, c. 1800–1947.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2017.
  • Wink, André. “On the Road of Failure: The Afghans in Mughal India.” In Islamicate Traditions in South Asia: Themes from Culture & History. Edited by Agnieszka Kuczkiewicz-Fraś, 269–338. New Delhi: Manohar, 2013.