The Northwest Frontier: Akbar, Abdullah Khan Uzbek and the ‘Scientific Frontier’

Khyber Pass

We have seen that preceding the formation of the Mughal rule in India, there were three other great empires which were founded in Central Asia. These were the Ottoman Empire founded by Mehmet II at Constantinople in 1453; the Safavid Empire by Shah Ismail around 1501 in Persia; and the Uzbek Khanate by Shaibani Khan around the same time in the region of Trans Oxiana.

The Safavids and the Uzbek Khanate were immediately to the north and west of the Mughal Empire. The Safavids were not only a powerful dynasty but they posed a sectarian problem also: they were Shi’ites in the midst of the Sunni world, keen to export their views and creed. They controlled the whole of Iran as well as Khurasan, knocking at the doors of Kabul and Qandahar, the latter being a bone of contention between them and the Mughals. Immediately to their northeast was the Uzbek Khanate in the region of Mawra-un Nahr, comprising the modern states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.  Bu the time that Babur had established his empire, they were posing a serious threat to the Timurids. A part of Khurasan and Timurid centres like Herat and Samarqand had already been overrun by them. They were a threat not only to the Persians in Khurasan but also a real danger to the Mughals, even threatening Kabul.

The territory immediately to the northwest of the Mughal Empire, which bordered these two great empires was given to high mountain ranges and passes like the Karakoram and Khyber pass in the Hindukush, which acted as a natural doorway to the Indian sub-continent.

Another considerable importance of this region was that it was through these passes that much of the medieval trade routes passed. The overland route from Kabul through the Khyber Pass and Peshawar fed the markets of Punjab with horses from Central Asia; fruits, silks and porcelain from China, and precious metals as well as other valuable commodities from elsewhere. Indian spices, textiles and other goods travelled through these routes taking Indian merchants to the markets in Central Asia and Iran. The scale of this business traffic can be gauged from a reference by Nizamuddin Ahmad in Tabaqat-i Akbari. When an accidental fire broke out in Peshawar fort in 1586, it destroyed one thousand camel-loads of merchandise of those who had taken temporary shelter there due to a blockade of route.

These passes not only acted as passages for mercantile activity but also controlled other traffic to India as well. Thus the Hindukush was supposed to be the natural boundary and entry point to India.

The North West frontier for the Indian empires had always been problematic and kept on changing from beyond the Oxus to river Beas. During the Delhi Sultanate, the North West frontier generally lay across one part or another of the Punjab and its rivers. Under Shershah, it was in the Salt Range with the Rohtas Fort as the key point.

As per the conditions of medieval warfare, none of these was a satisfactory or viable frontier.  The Punjab Rivers, although acted as a natural defence when inundated could otherwise be forded. The Salt Range too was deficient being a low range of hills that could easily be surmounted and crossed. The Sulaiman Range, to the west of the Indus, which the British made their frontier, could not be made a frontier in our period. The Afghan tribes infesting the region made a regular garrisoning in this area impossible.

According to M. Athar Ali, a truly ‘scientific frontier’ could be secured only if an Indian government held Hindukush Mountains with Kabul and Qandahar as the two great fortresses commanding the only two possible routes from the north-west to India.

This importance of Hindukush was realized by the Mughals, if we believe Abul Fazl. It was one of Akbar’s great achievements that he ultimately set his frontier at the Hindukush, shifting it from the Indus, where it had been placed by the Mughals earlier. Thus according to Tarikh-i Alfi [Ahmad Thattavi] compiled on the orders of Akbar, the Hindukush was considered as the northern boundary of India.

[A] Akbar and the Uzbeks:

The Hindukush at this time separated the Uzbek kingdom of Balkh from the Timurid kingdom of Badakhshan on the one hand and Mirza Hakim’s principality of Kabul on the other. Both these kingdoms of Balkh and Badakhshan were a buffer between the Uzbek Khanate and the Mughal Empire.

In 1585, more by design than by accident, both Abdullah Khan Uzbek and Akbar agreed that Hindukush should be the frontier of the Mughal Empire. The reason was that if Hindukush was the frontier of the Mughal Empire, then no army from outside could invade India without making preparations on a large scale. Thus the element of surprise would be taken away. And from the Indian side Hindukush could be effectively defended by a comparatively small force.

It was because of this strategic importance of Hindukush that Akbar was so keen to hold the frontier of the Mughal Empire there. Abul Fazl approvingly cites the wise of the ancient who declared Kabul and Qandahar as the twin gates of India: Kabul leading to Central Asia and Qandahar leading to Persia. Qandahar, a small city in itself, was by its location a place of real importance. Lying on the main trade route between India and Iran, it was a focus of all the direct routes converging from the western frontier of India towards Herat and Iran. In the hands of an Indian ruler, it would form an excellent base for an army of invasion. If in the hands of Iran, it would lend security from attacks by way of the South.

Sujan Rai Bhandari (Khulasat ut Tawarikh) a contemporary of Aurangzeb, goes one step further and says that whenever Kabul and Qandahar were not part of India, Punjab was constantly under attack from foreign powers. And once the invading army was in the Punjab, Delhi could be directly threatened as no natural barrier separated Delhi from Punjab. The rivers of Punjab are fordable most of the time in the year. With the only exception of two months (July & August), rivers could be crossed easily.

If we test this statement of Sujan Rai Bhandari, one finds that Kabul and Qandahar were not a part of India when Turks invaded under Muizzuddin bin Sam [Mohd Ghori]. They were not part of India when the Mongols invaded: whether under Iltutmish or his successors or under Alauddin Khalji. Similarly Kabul and Qandahar were not a part of India when Babur invaded or Humayun re-entered in 1545.With Akbar invasions from the North West stopped.

 One should also remember that Hindukush could be kept only till it was flanked by both Kabul and Qandahar. Thus Akbar had made Bala Hisar Fort at Kabul. And that is why in 1586 the Attock fort was built by Akbar and it went on to strengthen India’s Northwest Frontier. Although the expenditure for the placement and maintenance of the army at Kabul exceeded the revenues collected there, it was a must. That is why Qandahar was so crucial and central to the Mughal policy. It is in this background that Mughal relations with Central Asia and Persia should be examined.

Let us also not forget the historical relationships which had existed in the past between the Mughal Empire and the Uzbeks on the one hand, and the Safavids on the other. We have seen that during the period of Babur, traditional rivalry existed between him and Shaibani Khan. In fact it was Shaibani Khan and the Uzbeks who had caused the loss of the homeland, Ferghana and Trans Oxiana. Not only Ferghana but Herat and Samarqand had also been lost by the Timurids. The desire to have these territories had been such that Babur had to ‘dissimulate’ and outwardly become a Shi’i to please the Iranians in order to win back these areas from the Uzbeks. Probably the desire to control these territories continued during the reign of Humayun. From a letter written by Abul Fazl to Hakim Hummam it appears that Akbar too burned with this ambition to re-occupy the ancestral lands of Central Asia.

The Mughal relations with Persia had been equally eventful and again dated back at least to the period of Babur – and even earlier. We know that Mirza Husain Baiqara, the senior Timurid prince whom Babur picks out for singular praise, had regulated his court as per Persian traditions. The first Safavid king Shah Ismail had not only entered into an alliance with Babur to free Samarqand from the clutches of Uzbeks under Shaibani Khan, but had also been instrumental in delivering back Khanzada Begum from the Uzbeks. Subsequently when Humayun was on the run, it was with the help of the Safavids that he was able to get back his lost empire. And these were the gratitude which the Mughals had towards the Persians: both Babur and Humayun held their territories due to the help of the Iranians.

Now at the time of Akbar’s reign, the whole of Mawra un Nahr , north of Kabul, was under the direct or indirect influence of the Uzbeks, while all the territories west of the Mughal borders  (Qandahar) was with the Safavids. Qandahar itself was being held by the Mughals, but under a promise that it would be soon handed over to the Safavids.  

Much work has been done on the North West frontier and the political problems which arose in that region due to the tensions between the Uzbeks, Persians and the Mughals. Some important works on this issue are those of Abdur Rahim [Mughal Relations with Persia and Central Asia, initially in the form of papers published in Islamic Culture, 1934-35], Riazul Islam [Indo-Persian Relations], A. Verma [Foreign Policy of the Mughals] and Mansura Haider [“Relations of Abdullah Khan Uzbek with Akbar”, Cahiers].

A reading of these secondary works along with the information contained in our sources points out two basic issues which dominated in Akbar’s response to emerging concerns in the North West: the rise of Abdullah Khan Uzbek in the 1580’s and the strategic centrality of the Qandahar Fort.

Born in 1533, Abdullah Khan Uzbek became the ruler of Bukhara in 1561. In the same year he proclaimed his father Iskandar Khan as the khaqan, the ruler of Turan. He steadily increased his powers: he seized Balkh in 1572-73. In 1583 when his father died, he proclaimed himself as the khaqan. Next year in 1584 he conquered Badakhshan; ultimately in 1588 he invaded and captured large areas of Khurasan.

In the early years of Akbar’s reign, till 1572, there was no interaction between the two contemporary rulers of Hindustan and Turan. The reason apparently was that till 1572 the kingdom of Balkh under Nazr Muhammad, and until 1583 Badakhshan under Mirza Sulaiman, existed between the two empires as buffer states. But then withAbdullah Khan’s expansion, these two small principalities were absorbed into the Turani Uzbek empire, which then went on to extend its influence over Khurasan. Kabul in the meanwhile was under Mirza Hakim, the half-brother of Akbar.

Thus by 1570’s the Uzbek Khanate and the Mughal Empire had common frontiers, which naturally gave rise to new tensions and speculations.

As far as the relations between them are concerned, it was Abdullah Khan Uzbek who took the first step and Akbar had to respond to these overtures. The relations between Abdullah Khan and Akbar can be easily divided into three distinct phases, viz., (a) 1572-77, (b) 1583-89, and (c) 1589-98. [It was in 1598 that Abdullah Khan Uzbek died].

The first phase was marked with Abdullah trying to engage Akbar who appeared more to rebuff than accept or acknowledge the overtures. In 1572, according to Abul Fazl, the first embassy from Abdullah Khan Uzbek arrived at the Mughal court. His emissary, Jahji Altamish, is said to have arrived with a letter from Abdullah Khan to Akbar. Although we do not know the exact contents of the letter, Riazul Islam and Verma cite circumstantial evidence and ‘subsequent developments’ to think that it was a letter which was directed against the Safavids. In fact Verma goes a step further to claim that the letter contained a scheme for the partition of Persia. According to Verma, the Iranian shah Tahmasp was growing old and civil war was imminent, providing an excellent opportunity to the Uzbeks to divide the Safavid Empire and occupy Khurasan. But then for this there was need to neutralize or take on board the other major player in the field, Akbar. Thus according to Verma and Riazul Islam, the letter contained a proposal to divide the empire between themselves, or atleast ask Akbar to tolerate the forward policy of Abdullah Khan.

Abdur Rahim and Mansura Haider, on the other hand believe the first embassy of the Uzbeks did not concern the Iranians. According to Abdur Rahim the probable reason was to make ‘an alliance against other rulers of Turan’. Abdur Rahim in this regard in fact goes on to quote Abul Fazl, who regarding the purpose of this letter writes:

“…to recall ancient relations and renew friendship in order that with the help of such divine glory, he might act vigorously against other princes of Turan. Another object was that he might repose in peace and be without apprehension of the strokes of world-conquering armies.” [AN, II, 534]

Mansura Haidar on the other hand feels that the basic reason for this embassy was the ‘internal circumstances’. She points out that when Abdullah Khan Uzbek decide to attack Balkh in 1572, the other Sultans of Mawra un Nahr became suspicious of his intentions and decided to collaborate with each other to thwart his designs. Further during this very time Khudabanda, the son of Shah Tahmasp also sent and envoy to Akbar. Both these things alarmed Abdullah of a possible Mughal involvement, thus his decision to send a friendship embassy to Akbar. This embassy would ensure the Mughal neutrality if not outright friendship.

Whatever Abdullah Khan Uzbek’s reasons for despatching this embassy, to us what is important to know is Akbar’s response to it. According to Abul Fazl Akbar received this embassy coldly and, in order to discourage further diplomatic relations, did not find it necessary to send a proper reply or a return embassy to the Uzbek Khanate.

In spite of lack of proper response or a return embassy from Akbar Abdullah Khan sent a second embassy to Akbar five years later in 1577. By this time his position had considerably enhanced and Shah Tahmasp of Iran was dead. He was also thinking in terms of expansion towards Khurasan. However, according to Abul Fazl this second embassy was sent by Abdullah Khan as his first ambassador Jahji Altamash ‘had been much impressed by the power of the Empire’. The embassy this time, we are informed by Abul Fazl, came with a letter with the purport that Akbar ‘should lead an expedition from India to Iran in order that they (Abdullah Khan and Akbar) may with united efforts release Iraq, Khurasan and Fars from the rawafiz (innovators).’ It also referred to the fact that the pilgrims also faced difficulty in going for Hajj due to the growth of the Safavids. Further the alliance was needed so that the Mughals may take hold of Qandahar. Although this actual letter does not survive, but its contents become apparent from a letter written as a reply to it by Akbar (Jami’ ul Insha, Munshi Bhagchand, MS BM). What appears is that the rapid increase in Abdullah Khan’s position was such that Akbar could not out rightly ignore him and his letter as he had done in 1572. However, in Akbar’s scheme of things, his friendship and alliance with Safavids was much more crucial that it could not be sacrificed at the altar of the Uzbeks. Further, according to Varma, this change in the attitude of Akbar which forced him to respond to the second embassy was that at this time Akbar was planning ‘to bring about a settlement about Badakhshan’ and apprehended an alliance between Mirza Shah Sulaiman of Badakhshan and the Uzbeks. It was during this time that Mirza Sulaiman had been overthrown by his grandson Mirza Shahrukh and in 1577 at around the same time as the embassy of Abdullah Khan, the embassy of shahrukh had reached Akbar’s court. But then Mansura Haider sees no such connection. According to her the danger of the emergence of a triple alliance between Mirza Sulaiman, Mirza Hakim of Kabul and the Safavids forced Akbar to respond to Abdullah Khan’s overtures. It was the dangers of the north-western frontiers which forced Akbar to act thus. But still his response was quite ambiguous and could be interpreted in any way.

Akbar thus sent a return embassy under Mirza Faulad with a letter to Abdullah Khan. In this letter Akbar politely but firmly reminded Abdullah Khan Uzbek that the Safavids were ‘specially connected with the family of the Holy Prophet, and that on this ground he could not regard a difference in law and religion as sufficient reason for conquest. He [i.e. Akbar] was also withheld from such an enterprise by old and valued friendship’. As to the question of opposing the ‘infidels’, Akbar contended that he was already engaged in fighting the Europeans (Portuguese). Akbar also wrote that with the conquest of Gujarat, a new route for Hajj had also opened and there was thus no hindrance due to the Persians.

According to Uzbek sources like Abdullahnama of Hafiz Tanish, akbar’s return embassy reached the court of Abdullah Khan in July 1578.

According to Abdur Rahim also, the contents of this letter were not dictated by ‘friendly feelings’ towards Iran, but more due to alarm at the growing power of Abdullah Khan and to avoid being a party to his ambitious designs. The object of the return embassy was to assess first-hand the real power. The rebuff to Abdullah Khan would also be cushioned through this embassy: Mirza Faulad was a known anti-Shia noble. In fact later he was put to death for murdering a Shia, Mulla Ahmad Thattavi, one of the authors of Tarikh-i Alfi. In this way you diplomatically say a no which was not vehement enough and may be changed to yes, if need arose and if Safavid-Mughal relations soured.

From this period onwards a shift is noticed in the respective positions of Abdullah Khan and Akbar which is reflected in a change of policy towards each other. By 1583 Abdullah Khan had conquered all of Mawra un Nahr and had emerged as the Uzbek chief of Turan. In this year he had not only assumed the title of the khaqan but by next year, in 1585 he captured Badakhshan. This very year Mirza Hakim died.

Mirza Muhammad Hakim (1554-85) had been more or less an independent and sovereign ruler of the Kabul region till his death. He had maintained close relations with the rulers of Turan, especially Abdullah Khan Uzbek. From late 1560’s his court had also been a hotbed of Naqshbandi activity, with prominent members of this Sufi order even holding high state positions. The elimination of this kingdom was crucial from the Mughal viewpoint for several reasons: (a) Since the period of Babur and Humayun, Kabul had been an alternate centre of political power, drawing the Mughal centre of gravity away from Hindustan; (b) Mirza Hakim was able to to portray himself, in contrast to Akbar, as the pillar of an orthodox Sunni state, building an alliance, for example, with the short-lived Sunni ruler of Iran, Shah Ismail II (c. 1576-77). (c) Mirza Hakim had on at least two occasions (in late 1560’s & early 1580’s) posed an explicit threat to Mughal territories in the north-west, and also had significant support amongst the so-called Turani nobles of Akbar’s court. Thus the death of Mirza Hakim and the absorption of the territory of Kabul into Akbar’s empire was a great boost for the Mughals.  

 In 1586 Balkh was captured by Abdullah Khan and its ruler Nazr Muhammad along with his sons fled to Akbar’s court. According to Abdur Rahim, at this juncture Akbar decided to save Badakhshan from falling into Uzbek hands. The road to Khybar Pass which was fit for wheeled traffic was also constructed for this purpose. In retaliation, in order to thwart Akbar’s endeavours to create road blocks for the conquest of Badakhshan, Abdullah Khan Uzbek took two steps: firstly he occupied Qandahar before Akbar could move , and secondly he tried to stir trouble in Akbar’s backyard: he stirred up the Raushaniyya leader Jalala to foment trouble in the northwest frontier’s tribal regions. According to Abdur Rahim, Jalala was in the pay of the Uzbeks. And in the expeditions against Jalala, Akbar lost Raja Birbar, one of his personal friends. Probably the fort of Attock was also constructed in view of the Uzbek threat at this time.

While Akbar was at Attock Fort, in 1586, that Abdullah Khan sent his third embassy. It was headed by Mir Quraish. He came with a letter and some presents for Akbar.

Mansura Haider debunks the thesis of Abdur Rahim and says that neither did Akbar attempt to ‘save’ Badakhshan from Abdullah Khan nor did the later try to ‘foment’ trouble through Jalala. She says that during this time the boundaries of Akbar and Abdullah Khan had come closer and the pressure of Abdullah Khan’s growing powers were being felt by Akbar. Abdullah Khan was trying to adopt a bolder and demanding attitude whereas Akbar had turned conciliatory. There were troubles for Akbar in not only the north-western tribal regions in Kabul, Zabulistan and Bajaur but also in Kashmir and Gujarat. To ensure safety in the northwest Akbar had to personally move to Punjab move on to Kabul after the death of Mirza Hakim. It was also a time when the Safavids under Khudabanda (1577-88) were quite weak and completely shattered by the invasions of the Ottomans as well as internal rebellions. And thus in these situations it was necessary to maintain a more conciliatory attitude towards the Uzbeks. Akbar, due to these political upheavals was also anxious to occupy Qandahar and save Kabul from the designs of Abdullah Khan.

 The contents of the letter sent by Abdullah Khan in 1586 are given in Majma’ul Insha [MS BM]. In this letter Abdullah Khan tried to justify his occupation of Badakhshan and blamed Mirza Shahrukh for attacking his territory while he was away and that ‘this faqir had acted out of friendship’. He also refers to the delay in sending this embassy due to his own problems and not due to any lack of regards for Akbar.

Abul Fazl while referring to this letter of Abdullah Khan says that it was sent as Abdullah Khan Uzbek ‘feared’ that Akbar would march against him and thus it was a letter of supplication which pulled at the chain of friendship.

The Uzbek sources on the other hand cited by Mansura Haider, on the other hand point to a different story: Abdullah Khan Uzbek wrote this letter as a proposal for an alliance against the Shi’i Iran and their religious tyranny and to safeguard the Sunnis. It was a duty of all the Muslims to do so.

‘So it was decided that early in spring we should proceed with the extermination of that misguided group and try our utmost to destroy them. If Emperor Akbar could extend material or moral support in this venture, it would be better. In case, however, this was not possible, protection must not be given to those who fled from our sword to your side.’[Abdullahnama]

Another similar letter was sent by Abdullah Khan Uzbek to Akbar through Nazr Be. In this also the Uzbek ruler talked of an alliance against the heretical Shias of Iran and the opening of the Hajj route for the Sunnis. But then it also contains the information that Abdullah Khan Uzbek had also entered into an alliance in this regards with the Khwarizmian ruler.

The purport of both these letters was not to form an alliance for an attack on Iran but in order to gain the neutrality of Akbar and stop him from sending any help to the Safavids.

In reply to these letters and the embassy, Akbar now decided to send a return embassy. This time it was headed by Hakim Humam with a letter to the Uzbek chief. Through this letter Akbar tried to address not only the chief concerns of the Uzbeks but also depicts his own diplomatic skills. He again re-iterated that the Safavids though not Sunnis but were still Saiyids and hereditary friends of the Mughals. In the light of repeated invasions of the Ottomans he felt duty bound to go for the help of the Iranians and requested Abdullah Khan to proceed to Khurasan so that they could meet there and jointly devise appropriate measures to assist the Safavids!

This was diplomacy and an attempt to disquise a plan to accommodate rival interests in Iran. The fact is he wanted the possession of Qandahar and had no problem if Abdullah Khan took some parts of Iran.

Both Riaz ul Islam and Abdur Rahim hint that the embassy of Hakim Hummam led to some sort of alliance between the Mughals and the Uzbeks.  Mansura Haider on the other hand provides documentary evidences from both the Mughal and Uzbek sources for this ‘alliance’ between 1588-90. According to her this alliance took place on the proposal put forward by Abdullah Khan Uzbek. To quote one of her evidences: in 1591 Akbar wrote a letter to Raja Ali Khan of Khandesh in which he conveyed that his plans for the conquest of Badakhshan were being postponed because of the ‘envoys of Abdullah had come to his court’ and that for him ‘nothing was more important than sincerity and friendship’. According to this pact, the boundaries between the two were fixed at the Hindukush. Badakhshan and Khurasan were given to Abdullah Khan and Kabul and Qandahar to Akbar. The agreement also involved an undertaking not to interfere in each other’s affairs.

This agreement became effective most probably with the despatch of the yet another embassy by ~Abdullah Khan Uzbek under Ahmad Ali Ataliq, who, as Abul Fazl’ s letters point out was sent to ‘strengthen peace and to purify the foundations of concord and make this Hindukush the boundary between us’.

We know that between 1588-89 Akbar was personally present at Kabul and thus Abdullah Khan feared of a possible invasion of Badakhshan. Akbar alludes to this himself through a letter written by him to Raja Ali Khan in Sept 1591 that on reaching Kabul in 1588 he proposed to recover Badakhshan and to assign it to Mirza Shahrukh.

On top of this the fluid situation was fast improving in Iran from 1589 onwards. And this forced Abdullah Khan to maintain good relations with Akbar. In 1590-91 he sent an army to occupy Qandahar. But in order to save their territory, the Mirzas of Qandahar decided to show their alliance with Akbar and iterated that Qandahar belonged to the Mughal Empire and they were holding it as the governor of Akbar. And only if Abdullah Khan wanted to begin a war with Akbar that he should attempt taking Qandahar. Abdullah now had to send a clarification to Akbar through Maulvi Husain Khurasani. This embassy was in fact to assess Akbar’s intentions on Qandahar. Akbar by now had decided to take action. He did not send a reply to the embassy of Abdullah Khan but in Feb 1591 asked the Khan-i Khanan to occupy Qandahar.

In 1595 Qandahar was conquered and then started an armed conflict with the Uzbeks on the possession of the regions of Garmsir and Zamindawar. Further tensions were created with the Ottoman-Uzbek relations getting better with a letter written in 1594 by Sultan Murad III to form an alliance against the Persians.

Thus after the occupation of Qandahar Akbar realised the urgency of sending an embassy under Khwaja Ashraf Naqshbandi to Abdullah Khan to show his willingness to accept Hindukush as the border. This embassy reached the Uzbek court in 1597. Before it could return back along with an envoy of the Uzbeks, Abdullah Khan Uzbek died.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi