In the Indian subcontinent there is a strange proverb, ‘A true Khan always excels and is a born king’. This is the reason why so many individuals in the sports or entertainment industry of India and Pakistan are called “King Khans”. Strangely many have nothing to do with being a Pashtun. Not many know that the reason behind this is due to the life of a man who lived 500 years ago and who was named Farid Khan.
What made this man so great that Even the British historian Henry Geroge Keene had to write about him, “No government-not even the British [imperial administration] has shown so much wisdom as this Pathan.” (page 42, ‘The Turks of India’)
Farid Khan, a member of the Suri Tribe is remembered by History thru his title Sher Shah Suri.
What is the relevance of tales of a legendary Pashtun king dating back five hundred years? Is it not a ‘Pidram Sultan Bod’ (Persian saying ‘my father was a King’) syndrome? Well it may be or it may not be depending on how one consumes the lessons of history.
History is not just the record of past events but the science of evolution of human civilization. Ibn Khaldun (the Muslim pioneer of modern science of sociology and scientific study of history, who lived around 1377 AD), termed history as the study of ‘laws governing the transformation of human society’.
According to the 19th century British historian, Sir John Seeley, ‘history without politics has no fruit and politics without history has no roots’.
Hence events and personalities of history are of vital importance to understand today’s events and sometimes to challenge today’s misconceptions or to suggest solutions and remedies to current issues.
The world is witnessing one of the strangest cultural polarizations known in history, where the common folks all over the world are being sandwiched between Religious extremists and fanatics on one side and on the other side by western, industrial, capitalist, imperialists and their regional allies.
One of the major epicenters of this conflict is the Af-Pak (Pakistan-Afghanistan and Central Asia) and in particular the Pashtuns as the determining factor. Once again in history they are being labeled as the antagonists, despite being the worst victims of the many ‘Great Games’ being played on their lands for centuries.
Today when Muslims who brought modern sciences, enlightenment and Rule of Law to the World and Pashtuns who introduced the concepts of multicultural/multi-faith welfare states in the age of intolerant imperialistic autocracies are being branded as radical extremists or “Talibanised terrorists”.
Historical personalities like Sher Shah Suri become relevant to fight these misconceptions, stereotypes and clichés. He was not only a man who just happened to have a ‘Pathan’ background but was a leader of the Pashtuns, who was proud to have a value in his faith as a Muslim and in his Afghan cultural heritage.
He not only utilized these traits to become leader but also imbedded these values in the polity and administrative excellence of his statecraft.
History describes him essentially an Afghan Muslim emperor of India. Historically the term Afghan was used exclusively for Pashtuns (the biggest monolithic cultural group of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was before the emergence of today’s Afghanistan and subsequent adaptation of term Afghan as a civic identity for all the nationals of the country.
In terms of excellence of ruler ship and of introducing new institutions, he was probably the greatest Muslim ruler after Umar bin Khattab (the second Caliph). He not only influenced the Muslim history but also civilizations outside the Muslim World.
His unique greatness lies in the fact that he rose from the position of an ordinary man to become the most successful ruler in the world of his time and not only conquered the subcontinent in a very short span of just five years (1539-1545) but also consolidated his empire with the world’s first professional and regulated civil service, together with a professionally organized army that was based on merit and excellence. His administration was based on justice, rule of law and equal opportunities that won him the admiration even of his worst enemies.
His miraculous achievements couldn’t be replicated. Not even by any of the dynasties that followed let alone any individual. This is what makes him a true legend. Very Few people know that the fictional character of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle book, Shere Khan, was named after Sher Shah Suri.
Sher Shah Suri was born Farid Khan but he earned the title of Sher Khan during his service with the rulers of Bihar, when he killed a fully grown tiger. He was born to an Pashtun feudal family of Hisar (Haryana East Punjab). His father was Mian Hasan Khan Suri son of Ibrahim Khan Suri. Sher Shah left home to build his own career after differences with his father over the ill-treatment of his mother.
The exact place of his birth is disputed. Some sources claim it to be Sasaram (Bihar, India, where he is buried). The most contemporary source (Abbas Khan Sarwani 1580 AD) indicates his birth place to be somewhere in present Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in North West Pakistan.
His grandfather Malik Ibrahim Suri is said to have died in Surezai near Peshawar in 1498 AD-a village of the settlers of Barakzai (Kakar) tribe from Gramshair (present Afghanistan) in those days and still referred to as Da Sher Shah Suri Kalay (Sher Shah’s village) by the locals.
Irrespective of his birth place and the fact that he grew up inside India, Sher Khan should NOT be confused with one of the urbanised “Indian Khans” of today who carry the surname to claim some particular ancestry with no particular relevance to Pashtun culture or heritage.
In those days of tribal and feudal India, ethnicity not only determined the sole identity and religion in case of Turks, Afghans and Persian immigrants, but also personal cultural traits and most importantly political strength.
Sher Shah gained his strength from the Pashtun tribes settled in India; he gained his inspiration from his cultural heritage and introduced Afghan system of leadership in Indian polity despite the fact that he employed many Hindus on highest positions due to his belief in merit and equality.
His most trusted talented minister and accountant general, Tudar Maal was a hindu and he revolutionized the revenue administration system of India. The same Tudar Maal was later appointed by the Mughal Emperor Akbar to continue the great work.
His military commanders however were from Pashtun tribes for obvious reasons but contrary to the contemporary practices, they were chosen strictly on merit and abilities not matrimonial or blood relations. Haibrat Khan Niazi was his most senior commander who encouraged thousands of Niazi Pashtun immigrants from Afghanistan to settle in South West Punjab (Mianwali) on Sher Shah’s instruction to strengthen the population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Muslim tribes of Punjab against the rebellious and turbulent Hindu Gakkars who were opposing an organised government and were causing law and order situations.
Khawas Khan, his successful operational commander, was originally a poor fox hunter but Sher Shah had an eye for talent so spotted his potentials and elevated him to the position of a general.
The legendary personality and work of Farid Khan seem like a fairy tale in today’s time of scientific empiricism but the legacy of his achievements and the testimonies of even his contemporary rivals besides the fact that he never patronized any “court historians” unlike the rulers of his time, leave little space for any exaggeration or fiction. No wonder Mr. Keene had to write “No government-not even the British has shown so much wisdom as this Pathan.”
Another important quality of Sher Shah Suri, which made him the best ruler of India even in eyes of Indian historians, was his excellent understanding of Islamic polity and relationship between state and religion in a Hindu majority India.
According to Dr. Ishwari Prasad, He was “head and shoulders” above Akbar and Aurangzeb as Akbar alienated orthodox Muslims (or majority of Muslims) due to his ultra-liberal un-Islamic religious views and heterodoxy beyond the fundamentals of Islam and that resulted in reactionary policies of successive Muslim rulers and eventually India ended up with a non-tolerant emperor Aurangzeb who persecuted non-Muslims for the “defense of Islam”.
Akbar was in some ways the equivalent of today’s branded “liberal Muslims” that normally represent themselves without any relevance to Muslims in the wider society. Aurangzeb Alamgir was the roughly the Mughal equivalent of today’s radical Islamic Extremists.
Sher Shah on the other hand was extremely cautious and balanced nevertheless an orthodox practicing Muslim. He was a strict and learned Muslim, a proud Afghan but at same time not narrow minded towards Hindus or other ethnicities. He followed a policy of Equality and Celebrated Diversity but at the same time he utilized authoritarianism and elitist autocracies to avail the full potential of the populace under his rule for the prosperity of his realm.
The visionary Khan built the famous GT Road, the first highway of its kind connecting Peshawar in North West Pakistan to Kolkata in South East India (2600 km later extended to Kabul Afghanistan).
The road was constructed for good governance and smooth and efficient administration. The GT Road along with its connecting roads facilitated communication, helped trade and commerce to flourish and made swift dispatch of soldiers from one place to another. The road also helped Sher Shah in introducing the first organized postal system in the Indian sub-continent and at that time the best in the World.
To facilitate the postal runners and the travelers, small inns, called “sarai” were constructed after every 20 miles with separate places of worship for Hindus and Muslims. These inns acted as halting places of government officials moving from one place to another. Each inn had a water pond by its side for drinking water for the animals / horses. Big canopy trees were also planted so as to provide shade lest the water dried up in scorching summers. Remains of these inns, specially the old trees and ponds can still be seen along the modern GT Road.
He established an excellent system of local authorities in 47 provinces (or Sarkars) with separation of criminal judiciary from civil executive under Islamic system of social justice. Hindus were exempted from any religious tax levied on Muslims.
He also minted the first Rupiya that was the precursor of the modern rupee. The same name and system is still used for the national currency in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Mauritius, Maldives, and Seychelles among other countries and even British rulers borrowed some its characteristics.
He organised the first professional non-tribal army based on strict disciplinary code of conduct and well defined salary structure.
The symbol of excellence of the great Moghal’s taste of construction is Taj Mehal and the manifestation of Sher Shah’s thinking is Ruhtas Fort-a great fort built for maintaining order and security in North Punjab. This shows the sharp contrast in attitude.
All these tasks were accomplished by him in just under 6 years between 1539 and 1544- a time period equal to today’s term of a democratic government that our leaders normally find too short to construct a dam even with modern technology and resources.
“Such was the state of safety of the highway,” observes Nizam-ud-din (Akbar’s Mir Bakhshi), who had no reason to be partial towards Sher Shah, “that if any one carried a purse full of gold (pieces) and slept in the desert (deserted places) for nights, there was no need for keeping watch.”
Mirza Aziz Koka, son of Ataga Khan, and probably Akbar’s closest friend and one of the most important mansabdar’s of the Mughal Empire (Sher Shah’s arch rivals), wrote this to Emperor Jahangir in one of his personal letters to him: “Specially Sher Khan was not an angel (malak) but a king (malik).
In six years he gave such stability to the structure (of the empire) that its foundations still survive. He had made India flourish in such a way that the king of Persia and Turan appreciated it. Hazrat Arsh Ashiyani (Akbar the great) followed his administrative manual (zawabit) for fifty years and did not discontinue them. In the same India due to able administration of the well-wishers of the court, nothing is left except rabble and jungles.”
Sher Shah’s life style, leadership and interaction with friends and enemies were a classic manifestation of ‘Pashtunwali’ the Pashtun code of conduct. He was not a soldier of fortune and unlike most famous historical personalities of that time whether in Asia or in Europe, he didn’t inherit any wealth or power from a royal background.
He planned his career carefully and tactfully from a humble position to throne of India as the most popular ruler of his time.
He started as the caretaker of his father’s estate to learn the basics of administration, joined the services of local courts of Bihar to learn the basics of government and then joined the Mughal court to learn about the weaknesses of Mughals and Rajput Courts (his future rivals) who according to him was far from the populace due to corrupt practices and conspiracies involving women, and undemocratic court structures inherited from Mongoloid and Hindu traditions.
The accounts of the contemporary historians speak of his belief in himself and uncompromising pride in his cultural values that made him sure of success and gave him a “killer instinct” of “planning like a fox and attacking like a lion”.
Like a true Pashtun, he was ruthless in his onslaught, fierce in his defense but extremely forgiving of his defeated enemy-a quality of character unknown at his time when enemies used to be decimated or enslaved.
His excellent treatment and respect for ladies of Mughal court was testified by the sister of his worst rival Hamayun (Gulbadan Begum, Emperor Akbar’s aunt and author of Hamayun Nama). He excelled himself in the study of his religion and Persian classics of that time but despite being an orthodox Muslim and proud Afghan, he was far from intolerant religious extremism and racist ethno-nationalism. On the contrary, he used the true spirit of his religion and cultural values for the benefit of the region that ruled which happened to have more non-Muslims than Muslims and where his own ethnic nation was an absolute minority.
His life and achievements gave birth to an idiom that “A true Khan always excel and is a born king”; that is why we see so many individuals called “King Khans” when they excel in sports or entertainment even if they have nothing to do with being a Pashtun.
Today those who associate Pashtuns with extremist Islamic militancy, intolerance, or ignorance in fact do so either due to ignorance propagated by sections of media or the due to the massive impact created by the actions of the foreign elements and ideas that have victimised Pashtuns and their culture more than they have caused any threat or damage to the rest of the world.
The elements in fact are the products of the dirty Great Games brought to lands of Pashtuns by the regional and global powers due to their strategic importance. Whether it was the communist aggression or American invasion or the consequent Alqaida inspired reactionary militancy, Pashtun civilisation has nothing to do it nor has it a lot to do with their Islamic faith.
Yes Pashtuns indeed has always jealously defended their independence and in fact defeated every imperialist power of their time but have never been imperialistic or intolerant extremists themselves. Whenever they ruled others, they brought stability and prosperity to the region under their rule and displayed a beautiful shade of Muslim civilisation.
No militant extremist idealise Sher Shah who represent an ordinary Pashtun-the common Khan who is the victim of aggression from every single imperialist of the modern history: from British colonialist to communist expansionist and now the American Imperialist and the cost of their constant fight for freedom left them poor and uneducated.
The Khan who is a labourer, a watchman or taxi driver in Karachi and gets killed there in gang wars of rival political parties or in his own lands, get blown up in an attack by a suicide bomber or become roasted sandwich in fight between the army and the fanatic extremists who don’t get their inspiration from Sher Khan but from twisted doctrines imported from elsewhere in the sacred name of Islam.
Yes Sher Khan did inspire and even today inspires many Pashtuns to achieve excellence in adverse circumstances and rise out of dust to skies. Ahmad Shah Abdali (another great 18th century Pashtun ruler) idealized him and established the last stable and prosperous Muslim Kingdom comprising today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir when the existence of Muslims were under threat from the rising Hindu revivalism and militancy after the fall of Mughal Empire hence providing stability to the region.
Ahmad Shah Abdali writes in a Pashtu couplet:
Da hameed ao da Fareed dawar ba bya shee
Che pa Tooro pukhtana kra guzaroona.
The reign of Farid Khan and Hameed Lodhi will come back
Once the sword of Pashtun valor is struck again
Doctor Khan Saib (first Chief Minister of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and then of West Pakistan-bother of Bacha Khan) was a leftist liberal but considered Sher Shah as his inspiration due to the fact that he was the first “socialist” king and due to his personalized style of management. Nevertheless the current liberal, secularists, ethnic nationalists have nothing to with do with Sher Shah’s or Ahmad Shah’s religious views.
Even the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan (Niazi) term Sher Shah as his ultimate ideal due to his sense of justice and leadership style. Every ambitious Pashtun to his understanding take inspiration from the Real King Khan except the fanatic militant extremists whom unfortunately many think as representative of Pashtuns.
Da Sher Shah aw da bahlol khabarai awram
Khalak wai che pa hind ba pukhtana wo badshahan
I hear the stories of Sher Shah Suri and Behlol Lodhi
They say that in India, Pusthun were the kings.
Khushal Khan Khattak – Father of Pashtun national poetry and leader of a Rebellion against the Mughal empire
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