Northwest Frontier: Akbar, the Safavids and the Question of Qandahar

The Fort of Qandahar

The Mughal-Safavid relations, as we have already mentioned, go back at least to the reign of Babur and Shah Ismail, the founders of these respective dynasties and empires. Shah Ismail had extended a helping hand to the young Babur when he had tried to wrest Samarqand from the hands of Shaibani Khan. We have also seen that Babur had not been averse to act a Shia and have the name of Shah Ismail announced after Friday prayers and mint coins bearing the Shi’i kalimaand the names of the 12 Imams. He had then been subsequently under their obligation when the Iranians, after the defeat of Shaibani Khan at their hands, honourably returned his sister who had been forcibly taken away by the Uzbek Khan. After Babur and Shah Ismail’s death, the Mughal-Safavid relations had still flourished. It was to Shah Tahmasp, that Humayun had turned for help. Zainab Begum, the sister of Tahmasp, out of her friendship for Hamida Bano Begum, recommended Humayun’s case to her brother who then provided Humayun the means and men to re-conquer his territory from the Surs. Apparently the relations between the two ruling families were also cemented through marriage ties which continued up till the time of Shahjahan. The type of relations enjoyed between the Safavids and the Mughals is articulated in a letter of Shah Abbas I who in a couplet expressed: “Between us and you there cannot be trouble. There can be naught but love and trust”.

But then, there were certain points of tension as well between the two Empires: which, too, were as old as the founders of the empires.

There were certain tensions which were due to ideological reasons: the dynasty of the Safavids was a staunch Shi’i, who sometimes, would go to the extremes of persecution in the name of religion, and would seldom leave a chance to assert their Shi’i identity. We have already seen how they had manipulated Babur when he re-occupied Samarqand. There are accusations that Humayun too was manipulated to a certain extent, when he went to Iran as a refugee. But then this point cannot be stressed to much extent as the attitude of the Mughals, contrarily, was quite flexible. Babur had had no problem at Samarqand in donning the Shi’i mantle. The attitude of Akbar in this regard is also quite clear, and we have seen it in his replies to Abdullah Khan Uzbek.

The real tension between the two, however, was on the question of Qandahar. We have already remarked on the greatly important position of this fort, both from the defence and economic point of view. It lay on the routes by which men and merchandise could pass between India, Persia and beyond. In the hands of India, it was a ‘steel door’ which hindered any entry into India from without; in the hands of Persia, it was the entry to the riches and merchandise of the East, and a lifeline to economic and commercial prosperity.

Babur, according to Riazul Islam, had an eye on Qandahar since he had conquered Kabul in 1504. He had almost captured it in 1507, but had lost it due to the pressure of the Uzbeks. He had again thought of doing so in 1517. It was around 1519-20 that, according to Hasan-i Rumlu, that he laid another siege of Qandahar. For three years he tried hard only to succeed, if we believe Hasan-i Rumlu and Khwandamir, in 1522. After its capture, it was assigned to Mirza Kamran. It remained in his charge at least till 1525.

This confrontation between the Safavids and the Mughals was the first of many conflicts over the wealthy and strategically located city.

At the time of Humayun’s accession, Kabul and Qandahar remained in the hands of Mirza Kamran. Though technically a governor, he was an independent ruler for all practical purposes. Thus for a decade after Babur’s death, the Persians had Kamran as their immediate neighbour and it was with him that they were dealing, instead of Humayun. In 1534-35, the governor of Khurasan, a brother of Shah Tahmasp, suddenly decided to move against Qandahar. This attempt was however foiled by Mirza Kamran who rushed to its defence from Lahore. The Safavids officially maintained that the attack on Qandahar had been launched without the official sanction and permission. In spite of this posturing, Tahmasp did not take the Persina failure in Qandahar lightly and took it as an affront to his authority and decided to personally move to take Qandahar and the adjoining regions. This expedition was launched in 1537. Mirza Haidar Dughlat informs us that the Mughal governor of Qandahar surrendered the fort to Tahmasp and retreated to Thatta. But then, very soon Kamran recovered the fort and Tahmasp was constrainted from retaliating due to troubles which he faced elsewhere (Azarbaijan). Humayun when he visited the Safavid court as a fugitive after 1540, apologised for this behaviour of Kamran and his folly in fighting against the Persians. But then while returning from Persian in 1544-45 with a Persian army, Humayun marched to Qandahar and after a six month siege forced Mirza Askari holding the fort to surrender it to him. Thus in 1545 Qandahar was wrested from Mirza Kamran. It was on 3rd September 1545 that Qandahar surrendered to Humayun. After its surrender, as per the understanding with the Safavids, Qandahar was handed over by Humayun to the Persians. The Persians now appointed Shah Murad, an infant son of the Shah as its governor with Budagh Khan as his deputy.

Qandahar had been wrested by Humayun with the help of the Persian army and now after handing it over to the Safavids, Humayun stood to gain nothing: Qandahar was with the Safavids, Kabul and Ghazni with Mirza Kamran. Humayun still had no place to turn to. And then, after the takeover of Qandahar the Safavid army also left him and returned back. He was left to fend for himself.

It was in this situation that Humayun was advised to seize the fort of Qandahar. Bayazid bayat informs us that Humayun was advised to take the fort on the pretext that as Kabul and Ghazni had not yet been taken, he had no place to leave his family. On top of it, the situation was also conducive: most of the Persian army had left Qandahar and Budagh Khan had very few forces left with him and was thus in no position to resist Humayun. Abul Fazl adds a further reason: Budagh Khan was quite oppressive and the people of Qandahar appealed to Humayun for succour. Fortunately for Humayun, the infant prince, Shah Murad died. It was then that, according the the Mughal sources (Jauhar Aftabchi, Nizamuddin Ahmad, Bayazid Bayat), Humayun decided to take over Qandahar. But then he wrote to the Safavid king that he was taking Qandahar fort from Budagh Khan as the later had been acting against the Shah’s orders, and handing it over to Bairam Khan, a Turkoman, a person acceptable to the Persians. He also re-itirated “the fort remains a dependency of the Shah”. Tahmasp was presented with a fait accompli.

Thus this was the situation of the fort at the time of Akbar’s accession. Qandahar was under the Mughals, but under a promise that it would be handed over back to the Safavids. At this time the relations between Persia and the Mughals can best be defined as a low phase: when the Safavids were feeling disappointed and let down by Humayun’s action of wresting Qandahar from them. The Shah, in fact, after Akbar’s accession is said to have sent an embassy which tendered not condolence on the death of Humayun but also reminded Akbar of his father’s promise to hand back Qandahar to the Persians. No mention of this embassy is however found in the Mughal sources, it being mentioned by the anonymous author of Afzal ut Tawarikh  – a history of Shah Tahmasp’s reign.

Around the same time, in 1558 another incident occurred: Bahadur Khan, the Mughal Governor of Zamindawar suddenly decided to attack Qandahar. The governor of Qandahar, Shah Muhammad, in panic appealed to the Safavids for help, reminding them of Humayun’s promise. But then when Bahadur Khan was repelled, Shah Muhammad refused to hand over the fort to the Persians. There is some controversy amongst the Persian sources and the Mughal sources regarding who actually offered help to the Persians. However the end result was that a large Persian army laid siege and ultimately occupied Qandahar. Abul Fazl in his typical way claims, it was Akbar who ordered the governor not to oppose the Persians and hand over Qandahar to them!

All this thus led to further worsening of relations between the two otherwise friendly empires. In 1562 another Persian embassy arrived at the court of Akbar. From a letter of the Shah sent through this embassy it appears that Tahmasp had soon after the occupation of Qandahar despatched another embassy under Shah Ghazi to Akbar’s court. It also appears that Bairam Khan too had despatched an embassy to the safavid court during this period.

The embassy of 1562 appears to have been an attempt by Tahmasp to resume cordial relations with the Mughals. According to Abdul Rahim, Akbar’s friendship was necessary to Tahmasp at this juncture due to the rise of Abdullah Khan Uzbek. We have already seen Abdullah Khan’s attempts to form an alliance of Ottomans, Uzbeks and Mughals against the heretic Safavids.

Akbar, it appears, did not respond: he was being wooed by two superpowers of the time, the Safavids and the Uzbeks. The Safavids at the moment had also taken over his fort at Qandahar.

Abul Fazl informs us that, undeterred by Akbar’s   non-response, another ambassador, this time with a letter of recommendation for Sultan Mahmud of Bhakkar to be made a Khan-i Khanan. But this embassy was dismissed with suitable replies and no response.

Tahmasp ultimately died in 1576 and between 1565 and 1576 there were no further official embassies – except perhaps the embassy which the governor of Khurasan and eldest son of Tahmasp. Sultan Muhammad khudabanda sent to Akbar’s court. But this probably was just to seek Akbar’s support in succeeding his father as the next Shah.

After Tahmasp’s death, Persia was in turmoil for a few years with first Shah Ismail II (the second son of Tahmasp) succeeding to the throne and then by Sultan Khudabanda (who was blind) in 1577. In 1587 his son Shah Abbas became the Shah after father’s abdication.

It was in 1591 that the first embassy of Shah Abbas arrived: it was the first with a purely political objective – to seek Akbar’s help against Abdullah Khan Uzbek. We have seen that by this time Abdullah had occupied the territories of Khurasan and had entered into some sort of alliance with Akbar about Qandahar and Herat. On hearing of Yadgar Sultan being despatched by Shah Abbas, Abdullah Khan Uzbek also sent his own embassy to the court of Akbar. According to Abul Fazl, Akbar held a council to consider the question of help to the Persians in liberating Khurasan from the Uzbeks. He was advised against it in view of his relations with Abdullah Khan: probably an allusion to the agreement on frontier at Hindukush. We have seen he had come to an understanding with Abdullah Khan on Qandahar in 1587.

The recapture or re-conquest of Qandahar had been on Akbar’s mind since long. In fact in 1574-75 Abul Fazl enumerated Qandahar as one of the unrecovered provinces of the empire.

Now in 1591 Abdur Rahim Khan-i Khanan was ordered to lead an expedition against Qandahar. If we believe Abul Fazl, then this task had been assigned to the Khan-i Khanan in 1589 itself. He was ordered first to win over the Baluch and Afghans of the region between Qandahar and the Mughal Empire. This attempt at diplomacy rather than outright military action was due to the presence of the Uzbeks in the Khurasan region. The sons of the late Sultan Husain Mirza Safavi (the governor of Qandahar who died the same year as Tahmasp), who were now holding Qandahar, on the other hand were also aware that they could not get any help from the Safavids due to the internal turmoil there. Thus one of them, Rustam Mirza, opened negotiations with the Mughals and in 1593 came to the court. Akbar awarded him the rank of 5000 and the subahdari of Multan. The other brother, Muzaffar Mirza, was also tempted to join the Mughal service, which he ultimately did in 1594. He was given an equal rank and appointed the governor of Sambhal. Thus without a war or siege, Akbar through diplomacy was able to enter Qandahar in 1595. The Mirza’s had in a way surrendered to Mughals due to their fear of Uzbeks.

The question of Qandahar was raised by the Persians not at this time but only when they had recovered Khurasan from the Uzbeks in 1598. The Persians were encouraged to take up Qandahar only in the last year of Akbar’s reign. The revolt of Salim had provided this opportunity to the Persians. However, as testified by the embassy of Mir masum sent to the Safavid court in his last years by Akbar, and its reception in Persia, it appears the relations between the two remained cordial. Mir Masum returned back only after the death of Akbar.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi