Sultanates: Ghaznavid

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The Ghaznavids were a Turkish slave-soldier dynasty (mamluk or ghulam) who ruled a sultanate that rose to dominance in eastern Iran, central Afghanistan, and modern-day Pakistan during the eleventh and twelfth centuries c.e. Though on the periphery of the Muslim world at the time, this sultanate was to play a major role in the formation of Persian literature and the opening of India for Muslim control. Motives aside, the Ghaznavids were great patrons of arts and literature, and their courts were magnets for a large number of poets, artists, and scholars. The Persian national epic, the Shah-nameh, was dedicated by Firdawsi (940–1025) to Sultan Mahmud (r. 998–1030). Even more than the Samanid dynasty that preceded them, the Ghaznavids brought a huge realm under the control of a single dynasty that made Persian the primary language of communication, both officially, as the language of the chancery, and artistically, as the preferred language of panegyrics addressed to the sultans. Moreover, Iranians would start writing their histories now in Persian, a move of momentous cultural significance. Arabic continued to enjoy the primary position as the language of science, and religion, yet Persian now stood on its own and soon would come to replace Arabic in most fields.

The founder of the dynasty was Sebuktigin (r. 977–997), a Turkish commander in the semi-independent city of Ghazna. Though part of the Samanid state, Ghazna was governed by army generals who ten years earlier had rebelled against the central authority. Sebuktigin managed to consolidate his rule in Afghanistan and was able to defeat the Hindushahis princes, wresting from them the Kabul river basin and the Panjab plains. Meanwhile, the Samanid emirs, under severe pressure from Turkish invaders from the inner Asian Steppes, had to turn to Sebuktigin and his son Mahmud, who was already the commander of the Samanid army. Having saved the Samanids, Mahmud came to inherit most of their domains, bringing their rule to an end.

Through a life of continuous military campaigning, Mahmud (r. 998–1030) built a vast empire; by the time of his death he had united eastern Iran and the southern parts of the Oxus River, Khwarazm, northern Iran, Afghanistan, and northern India. The army that conquered this realm was made up of professional Turkish slave-soldiers who were bought and trained for the purpose of fighting. Its core was the ghulam-e saray, an elite palace guard. Alongside this core was a wider force of Turkish slave-soldiers. The Ghaznavids, in turn, employed other auxiliary soldiers, such as Iranians, Arabs, and Hindus. In its campaigns in India, the Ghaznavid army was augmented by ghazis, or volunteer Muslim paramilitary groups. In many respects, the story of the Ghaznavids prefigures the story of the Ottoman Empire: each at the periphery of the Muslim world, each made up of a Turkish core, and both staunchly orthodox in their ideology.

This expanding military sultanate was, however, in the long run impossible to maintain. It would be dealt a crushing defeat soon after it reached its zenith. Mahmud, busy campaigning in India, where looting Buddhist monasteries had become a very profitable enterprise, failed to realize the danger posed by the advancing Seljuq Turkish tribes. His son Mas˓ud (r. 1030–1041) was no match to the challenge when the moment arrived. The battle of Dandanqan (1040) in Khorasan was so decisive that the Ghaznavid Sultan, having been forced to abandon all of the northern parts of his empire, was even contemplating deserting Ghazna. This being a military empire, the soldiers soon killed their discredited sultan.

The battle of Dandanqan signaled a turning point in the history of the Ghaznavids. Mawdud (r. 1041–1048), the new sultan, would work on consolidating what was left of the empire, which meant an expansion toward the Indian subcontinent. First Ghazna and then Lahore would be made the capital cities of what was now the first important Indian Muslim sultanate. Less is known about the remaining one hundred and fifty years of the dynasty than is known about the earlier phase, since far fewer sources are preserved, but this should not skew a present-day assessment of the historical significance of the later Ghaznavids. By turning their energy to northern India, they made possible the Islamization and conquest of large parts of India by later Muslim invaders. Their courts remained centers of literary and cultural activity, producing such important works as the Persian translation of the classic in statecraft, Kalila va Dimna, and the poetry of Mas˓ud Sa˓d Salman. In 1186 the Ghurids brought this dynasty to an end.

The Ghaznavids were fortunate to be immortalized by the adoration and admiration that was showered on Mahmud and later sultans by poets, ulema, and ideologues. Their rise to power would become exemplary in the mirror-of-princes literature. Moreover, Mahmud and his page Ayaz would become the ideal lovers for the Sufis, who sang of their love in their poetry. Some modern Indian Muslims would revive the memory of Mahmud as a Muslim Indian hero.

See alsoPersian Language and Literature ; Sultanates: Seljuk .


Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran 994–1040. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963.

Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The Later Ghaznavids: Splendour and Decay, The Dynasty in Afghanistan and Northern India 1040–1186. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977.

Walid A. Saleh