Reign of Mahmūd of Ghazna

Maḥmūd of Ghazna, founder of the Ghaznavid Dynasty, expanded his empire into Persia and India and built his capital Ghazna into an important Muslim political and cultural center.

Summary of Event

Maḥmūd of Ghazna established a Muslim empire in the tenth century that rivaled that of the ՙAbbāsids in Persia and encompassed territory from India to Afghanistan and parts of Persia. His capital of Ghazna south of Kabul was comparable to Baghdad and became a Muslim cultural and political center. [kw]Reign of Maḥmūd of Ghazna (998-1030)
[kw]Ghazna, Reign of Maḥmūd of (998-1030)
Maḥmūd of Ghazna
Ghaznavid Dynasty
Central Asia;998-1030: Reign of Maḥmūd of Ghazna[1360]
Expansion and land acquisition;998-1030: Reign of Maḥmūd of Ghazna[1360]
Government and politics;998-1030: Reign of Maḥmūd of Ghazna[1360]
Wars, uprisings, civil unrest;998-1030: Reign of Maḥmūd of Ghazna[1360]
Maḥmūd of Ghazna

Maḥmūd’s father was a Turkish slave who seized control of Ghazna in 977. When Maḥmūd came to the throne in 971, he had already earned a reputation as a capable leader. At his ascension, his kingdom included the area of what is now called Afghanistan and Iran, but the ambitious Maḥmūd carried out a score of expeditions adding the Punjab and more of Persia.

In his first years Maḥmūd consolidated his hold on the state. He gave nominal allegiance to the ՙAbbāsids ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids] of Baghdad who supported his conquests, but he was an independent ruler. He began his frequent invasions of northern India India;Muslim invasions of in 1001. From then until 1026, he led seventeen expeditions, which began during the summer and retreated before the monsoon season, which would have trapped his troops. In his first campaign, he entered the Punjab, leading fifteen thousand cavalry. There he faced the region’s ruler, Rajah Jaipal Jaipal , who countered with twelve thousand cavalry, thirty thousand infantry, and three hundred elephants. The two armies met at Peshawar, and despite his inferior numbers, Maḥmūd defeated the rajah and took him and a number of his entourage captive. Fifteen thousand Indians lay dead. Maḥmūd released his captives, but the despondent Jaipal abdicated and committed suicide.

Jaipal’s son Rajah Anandpal Anandpal prepared his revenge. He called on other Indian rulers to send aid, and many did, leading their armies. Their wives sold their jewels to finance the force. In 1008, the Indian army faced Maḥmūd again in the field between Und and Peshawar. The two forces stood opposite each other for forty days without engagement. Finally Sultan Maḥmūd drew the Indians out. The fierce Kohkar tribesmen attacked the Muslim troops with such force that the sultan considered retreat, but fortune intervened. Rajah’s elephant was frightened by the battle and began to flee the field. The Indian forces, believing that their leader was deserting them, followed suit, and Maḥmūd’s army won a great victory and proceeded to advance farther into India. Maḥmūd also defeated the Chandelās, the Pratihāras, and the Rājputs in his wars in India. Kanauj, Mathura, and Thaneshwar were among the cities that the sultan’s forces laid to waste.

Maḥmūd’s success can in part be attributed to the professionalism and egalitarian nature of the Muslim forces. Even slaves could rise to command (as did Maḥmūd’s father) if they displayed ability. In contrast, the Indians maintained a caste system that militated against such nurturing of talent. Furthermore, the rajahs of the north, whom Maḥmūd fought, were inferior to the Cōlas of southern India, who would have proven to be a stronger match but had little interest in aiding the northern rulers.

Maḥmūd added the Punjab to his empire and returned with slaves and valuable plunder from his success in India. Islam;India
India;Islam He then proceeded to build up Ghazna as a great cultural center of the Muslim world. He built palaces, gardens, caravansaries for travelers, mosques, and madrasas (schools). He invited artists and scholars to come to Ghazna. His noblemen also contributed by following his example as a builder and patron of the arts and scholarship. Ghazna became the most important cultural center in Central Asia. Art;Ghaznavid Dynasty

Although he was a great conqueror, he also proved to be a wise ruler and a champion of cultural life. He did not rule his Indian subjects harshly. He saw in India an opportunity to gain great wealth for his country and his goals. He allowed his Indian subjects to be ruled by their native leaders, and the Indian troops he commanded were under Indian officers. He zealously supported Islam, but he used Indian troops to fight his Muslim enemies. Indeed, he treated Muslims he thought heretical just as fiercely as Hindus. Although some Indian authorities claim he forcibly converted Hindus to Islam, apparently this is an exaggeration because he had many Hindu subjects. A Hindu by the name of Tilak was one of his best generals.

As a champion of the arts and scholarship, Maḥmūd brought many eminent persons to Ghazna. The philosopher al-Bīrunī Bīrunī, al- , also renowned as a mathematician and astronomer, came to Ghazna, as did the great Persian poet Firdusi Firdusi , who wrote the national epic Shahnamah (c. 1010; the book of kings). Al-Bīrunī spent time in the Indian lands of the empire studying Sanskrit documents and wrote of the destruction that his patron carried out among the Indians, noting their special hatred of him.

From 1024 to 1026, Maḥmūd fought his last campaign in India. He invaded the Arabian sea port of Somnath, destroying the city and its famous Hindu temple of Shiva. The Muslim chronicles report that fifty thousand Hindus were killed in the battle and that Maḥmūd himself destroyed the idol of Śiva. Six and a half tons of gold were looted, and the famous carved doors were carried off. It is this battle in particular that marked Maḥmūd as a merciless marauder for the Hindus. Afterward, he was forced to defend his empire from the north when Turkish tribes of Central Asia, notably the Seljuks, attacked him. He died in 1030. His successors continued to rule a section of northern India around Lahore until 1186.


Maḥmūd was one of the most important figures in Central Asian and Afghani history. He stands among the prominent leaders of the medieval Muslim world as both a conqueror and a builder of Islamic civilization. Although his empire did not last as long as those of the ՙAbbāsids, Seljuks, or Ottomans, he still left his mark. Maḥmūd is a controversial figure. Because he brought Islam to India, Muslim historians and writers regard him as a great figure. On the other hand, the British and the Indians consider him a ruthless invader and plunderer.

Maḥmūd transformed Ghazna into an important city that approached Baghdad and Constantinople in its brilliance and importance as a center of culture, art, and scholarship. Maḥmūd’s conquest of India mingled Central Asian and Indian cultures. Muslims brought the cultural and intellectual ideals of ancient civilizations to Central Asia and helped spread them throughout the subcontinent.

Further Reading

  • Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran, 994-1044. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963. A scholarly study of the beginning of Maḥmūd’s dynasty. Maps, tables.
  • Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The Later Ghaznavids, Splendour and Decay: The Dynasty in Afghanistan and Northern India, 1040-1186. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Covers the reigns of Maḥmūd’s descendants. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Flood, Finbarr Barry. “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum.” Art Bulletin 84, no. 4 (December, 2002). Argues that the looting of the temple in Somnath by Maḥmūd was part of a complex history, one that stands in stark contrast to the traditional argument that Maḥmūd’s act was indicative of a Muslim iconophobia (fear of icons) against South Asian iconophilia (love of icons). Footnotes, photographs.
  • Habib, Mohammad. Sultan Maḥmūd of Ghaznin. 2d ed. Delhi, India: S. Chand, 1967. This well-written biography provides an overview of not only Maḥmūd’s life but also the cultural and political context of the time in which he lived, including major developments in the centuries immediately before and after. Bibliography.
  • Haig, Wolseley, ed. Turks and Afghans. Vol. 3 in The Cambridge History of India. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1922. An exceptionally good scholarly account of Maḥmūd’s era.
  • Hashmi, Yusuf Abbas. Successors of Maḥmūd of Ghazna: In Political, Cultural, and Administrative Perspective. Karachi, Pakistan: South Asian, 1988. Discusses the political, cultural, and governmental influences of Maḥmūd on Central Asia.
  • Nazim, Muhammad. The Life and Times of Sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna. Lahore, Pakistan: Khali, 1971. A very detailed account, including a chapter on the sultan’s political structures. Includes appendices with Persian language sources. Map, bibliography, index.
  • Thapar, Romila. Narratives and the Making of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Includes a chapter, “Somnatha: Narratives of a History,” that focuses on what many regard the most symbolic act of Maḥmūd’s career: his destruction of the Hindu idol in the famous temple at Somnatha. The author deconstructs various interpretations of the event. Bibliography, index.
  • Utbi, Abdul Nasr Muhammad bin Muhammad al Jabbar al. Kitāb-i-Yamini. Translated by James Reynolds. 1858. Reprint. Lahore, Pakistan: Qausain, 1975. A rare, contemporary account of Maḥmūd by a court historian, carefully translated, with copious notes.