Mahmud of Ghazni

Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030) was the first sultan of the Ghaznavid dynasty in Afghanistan. A zealous Sunni Moslem, he plundered wealthy India and used the booty to patronize culture in Ghazni, making it the center of Perso-Islamic civilization.

Born on Nov. 2, 971, eldest son of Emir Subuktigin, Mahmud helped his father gain a kingdom from the Samanids through successful campaigns against Turkish nobles of Samarkand and Bukhara. In 997 he overthrew his younger brother, Ismail, who had been nominated by Subuktigin as his successor, and 2 years later Mahmud was confirmed as sultan of Ghazni by Caliph al-Kadir. Challenged several times by the Qarakhanid rulers, Mahmud repulsed all attempts against his territories. Elsewhere, he annexed parts of Murghab (1012) and Khwarizm (1017). In the south and the west he asserted his suzerainty over Seistan, Ghor, Qudsar, and Baluchistan.

Mahmud is chiefly remembered as the plunderer of India. Between 1000 and 1026 he mounted at least 17 raids against India with the aim of extirpating idol-worshiping Hindu infidels and destroying Hindu temples, which were great repositories of wealth. His most important expedition was against the temple of Somanth in 1025. It is estimated that Mahmud took from India jewels, gold, and silver in excess of 3 billion dinars, in addition to hundreds of thousands of slaves. His only territorial acquisition in India was the Punjab (1021).

A patron of the arts, Mahmud attracted poets from all parts of Asia. Among these were Uzari, Asadi Tusi, Unsuri, and perhaps the most famous of them all, Firdausi. All were commissioned to write panegyrics. Firdausi's Shahnamahas placed Mahmud among the immortals of history. Fanatical, cruel to Hindus as well as to Moslem heretics, fickle, and uncertain in temper, Mahmud was extremely greedy of wealth. He refused to pay the 60,000 goldpieces he had promised Firdausi for the Shahnama, making the poet so bitter that he wrote a satire about the Sultan.

When Mahmud was about to die, he ordered all his hoards to be placed before his eyes. He grieved over his impending separation from his wealth but refused to give the smallest amount to charity. Yet though he loved money passionately, he also spent it lavishly. A library, a museum, and a university were endowed at Ghazni. To his court came scholars like al-Biruni; Utbi, the historian; Farabi, the philosopher; and Baihaki, the diarist. Mahmud became the hero of many legends, many of them centering on his relationship with his favorite slave, Ayaz.

The administrative system that Mahmud established—using a predominantly Turkish elite, often of slave origin, promoted to army commands, and a Persian elite responsible for civil and revenue administration—was used in Moslem India for several centuries. He died on April 30, 1030, and his tomb at Ghazni has survived.

Further Reading on Mahmud of Ghazni

The outstanding work on Mahmud and his times is Clifford Edmund Bosworth, The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran, 994-1040 (1963). A superior biography is Muhammad Nazim, The Life and Times of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (1931). Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia (4 vols., 1906-1924), gives information on Mahmud's scholars.

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