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Khiljis were Pashtuns

Sayiedmomin Sayied

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After Islamic invasion of Afghanistan, Pashtuns have ruled Indian subcontinent several times. Those Pashtun Families or tribes who ruled Indian subcontinent and parts of modern Iran are, Abdalis, Ghoris, Hotakis, Lodhis, Khilji or Ghilzais and Suris. Furthermore they had played vital role in establishing other dynasties. For instance, they were with Babur, with Ghaznavis and the main reason of empowerment of Mamlok Turks who were bondservants of Shahubudin Ghuri. They perched on the throne which was the result of Ghori conquest. As far as Babar’s victory over Indian subcontinent is concerned, there were thousands of Lodhis and Suris in his army fighting their own cousins which ended Lodhi dynasty in Delhi. In Ghaznavi Military expedition maximum of their warriors were from Pashtun tribes who were mostly from, Ghazni, Paktia, Paktika, Zabul and Ghori Pashtuns. The reason behind their service for Ghaznavi Darbar was that Mahmood Ghaznavi’s maternal cast was Zabul’s Ghilzai Pashtun. Those from Zabul, Gardez, Paktia, Paktika and Ghazni considered him their nephew.

The main topic we are discussing in this particular research paper is Ghiljis and Khiljis. In the Middle Ages those who were involved in conquests of India used to have Religious motives behind their vanquishing. Most of their court lows were based on Islamic Sharia. There were narrow chances that a dynasty could have resisted on ethnic bases. The same went for Khilji sultanat. In khorasan and India they were called by different names such as, Gharazai, Garzai, Ghilzai, Ghiljai and Khiljai, which they never paid serious attention to. This alternation of wordings in names caused huge misunderstandings. Some historians of that time wrongfully distinguished these two names into two tribes, this apprehensions of minor word fluctuation has proved to be a huge vacuum for modern nationalists who are after blurring and fading away the legendries of Pashtun nation, but yet again they were unsuccessful  against solid reasoning, ground reality and concrete evidences. In this research paper I will bring on more evidence and arguments for readers so that they have no doubt left in Pashtunness of Khiljis.

Phonemic changes and its reasons: 

The reason why the word Ghilzai had been modified to (Khilji), was scarcity of grapheme and phonetic voices in Hindi and Persian. For instance, Hindus can hardly pronounce the phoneme of (ز (  (z) instead they pronounce it like (  (ج(J). such as (zamana) is pronounced (jamana), (zabardast) is pronounced (jabardardast). In the same in Persian we do not have the phoneme of ((ځ (dz) as an alternative they prefer ((ج (J). For example, (dzangal) (jangal), (dzai) (jai), (dzadzai) (jajai), (dzalibi) (jalibi) and so on.  Now let’s come to the phoneme ((غ, this phoneme is pronounced like (Gh) which becomes quite heavy and hard to pronounce at times. therefore, some Hindus and Persians preferred the easy way to pronounce (Ghilji), modified (gh) to (kh) and (dz) to (j) according to phonemic lows which ended up as (Khilji).

Persian, Arabic and Hindi have problems with what is the Pashtu ځ(“że”).  Already stated this letter is sole to Pashto, and not found in either Persian or Arabic, or in any of the European languages. In Persian this letter is frequently replaced for ﺝ “jīm”. Therefore, we have cases such as the Pashtu ځيب (pocket) “żeb” is distorted to جيب (pocket) “jeb”, ځنګل (Jungle) “żengal” is changed to جنگل (Jungle) “Jangal”, and so forth. This alteration can be understood even in how Pashtun tribal names are written and pronounced. Clear examples are ځاځی “Zazai” is changed to جاجی “Jaji” .

Also, one more interesting pervasive transformation that one notices is the interchange between ﺥ “Kh”, ﻍ “Gh” and ﻕ “Q”. An example of this triangular transformation is well understood by Nizamuddin Ahmad who proposed that the Khilji were descendents of Qulji Khan, Chengiz Khan’s son-in-law. He makes this wrongful assertion as he understands that “Q” and “Kh” are interchangeable, and since changing “Kh” to “Q” one can link Khilji with Qulji, he can construct linkage [1]. Nevertheless, this theory has no merit as the word Khilji was in common use at least two centuries prior to Chengiz Khan’s appearance in Afghanistan. Furthermore Alama Habibi points out that Minahaju-s Siraj the author of Tabakat-I Nasiri writes Sakhar, a territory south of Ghor, for the present day Saghar. [2]

So how does this brief introduction to the written relationship between Arabic and Persian help with understanding the origins of Ghilzai Pashtuns. Before we can answer that question, let us examine how the non-Pashtuns referred to the Ghilzi (singular Ghilzai) and the answer will become obvious. Ghilzi Pastuns have been variously called Khalji, Khilji, Ghalji, and example of each abound historical books. Caroe supports this assertion by stating, “Khalji is merely the Persianized” [3] term for Ghilzai. Nevertheless, the real and original pronunciation is Ghilzi. As we saw in the last paragraph “Kh” is interchangeable with “Gh” and “J” with Pashtu “że”, and if that transformation is performed the Persian/Arabic forms of Khalji, or Ghalji — in accordance with accepted phonetic differences … becomes GHALZI. This pattern of transformation between Arabic/Persian to Pashtu is not unique to the Ghilzi Pashtuns, but it is also true for the Zazi (Jaji) and Zadrans (Jadran).

Who are Khiljis?

According to etymology the word Ghiljai is derived from (Ghar-zai) which means the one from mountain in Pashto language. Also renowned as Ghilzaye, Ghalzai, Gharzai and Khilji  which creates greater part of Pashtun tribes. Their population is around thirty five million in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They prefer mountainous and tribal areas for their domicile. They live in eastern provinces of Jalalabad, laghaman, kunar and Noristan And southern provinces of Ghazni, Logar, Wardag, Paktiya, Khost, Paktika. They create majority of nomads of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Famous branches of Khilji tribes are Hotakis, Tarakis, Mangals, Zazais, Waziris, Mahsoods, Khogyani, Shinwari and etc. Ghilzais were the most dominant Pashtun tribe for thousand years until Ahmad Shah Durrani toke over the throne from Hotakis who emperors of Afghanistan and Iran. Azad khan Ghilzai after Nader Afshar ruled Azerbaijan for short period of time. (Khalidi: 2019, 3)

Ghijiz or khiljiz used to live in mountainous areas of Ghazni and Zabul. Persians had named them (koh-zaads) (Koh) Means Mountain and (Zaad) means son. Precisely it gives the same meaning of (Ghar-zai) which means son of mountain or the one form mountain. Now I want to bring poet from Shahnama e Firdausi which tells the story of an Afghan (Pashtun) Kohzad (Gharzai) and his Afghans and Bloch army moreover clearly mention their homeland (Zabul) the birth place of Sultan Jalaudin Khilji.

This name is misunderstood to a name of a place in Iran (Khilj). And Khiljis are considered those who are from Khilj, this theory is not more than a fantasy. All population of Khilj in modern day is around 60000 thousand how could they be in such large numbers in Ghazni or Zabul eight hundred years ago where as their current population is less than hundred thousand. On the other side population of Pashto speaking Khilji tribe is around thirty five million people in both sides of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Some historians claim that there were no Ghiljis live in the region of Zabul, Ghazni, Gardez and the Great Kandahar. They all were Turkic immigrants and nomads who came to Ghazni and Zabul after Islam. Some others think that there were some Pashtuns living in the region that got these Khilji or Ghilzai Turks assimilated to Pashtun nation in short period thirty one years.  In reply to first theory I would like to bring a poem from classic Persian poet Firdausi:

چنین ګفت دهقان دانش پژوه

مر این داستان راز پیشین ګروه

که نزدیک زابل به سه روزه راه

به یک سوی او دشت خرګاه بود

دګر دشت، زی هندوان راه بود

نشسته در آن دشت بسیار کوچ

زاوغان و لاچین و کرد بلوچ

یکی قلعه بالای آن کوه بود

که حصن و از مردم انبوه بود

مر آن حصن را نام مر باد بود

ازو جان نابخردان شاد بود

بدژ دریکي بدکنش جای داشت

که در رزم با اژدها پای داشت

نژادش زاوغان سپاهش هزار

همه ناوک انداز و ژوبین ګزار

به بالا بلند و به پیکر ستبر

به حمله چو شیر و به پییکار ببر

دورانش بمانند ران پیل

ګه رزم جوشان تر از رود نیل

به نیرو جدا کردی از کوه کمر

ګریزان ز رزمش بدی شیر نر

چو پیکار جستي زمردان مرد

زمردان به اوردی ازګرزګرد

ورا نام بودی کک کهزاد

بګیتي بسې رزم بودش به یاد

هزار و صد هژده اش سال بود

بسی بیم ازو در دل زال بود


Brief translation:

This particular poem narrates a story far before Islamic era. It discusses the story of a person recognized as  (Kak e Kohzad). Kak e Kohzad was the leader of Afghans and Balochs. He and his men were audacious and impudent. They were high ranked warriors, moreover exceptional swords men and preeminent archers. He (Kak e Kohzad) was an afghan ethnically and used to live in the three days distance from Zabul, furthermore has a castle in his region.

In the same books he mentions him again:

کک کهزاد اژدهای نر است

زګرشسپ و ارسام جنګي تر است

نژداش ز افغان سپاهش بلوچ

ابر دشت خرګاه بګزیده کوچ

دګر آنکه در کوه با ان دلیر

هزاران جنګی همه همچو شیر

به مردی فزونند هر یر یک زکک

بود کک زپیکار ایشان سبک

هزاران سواران افغان ګروه

زلاچین دلیران ابر مرد کوه



Yet again he (Firdausi) contemplates him an Afghan. In these both poems we can pinpoint his region which is unquestionably nearby Zabul, Helmand or Uruzgan. Furthermore, we came to know that he was an afghan. Now let’s discuss his name, (Kak e Kohzad). (Kohzad) in Persian means the one from mountain which is utterly parallel to the meaning of Gharzai or Ghiljai. To be precise, he was surely the leaders of Khilji or Ghilji Afghans(Pashtuns) living in the region of Zabul before Islam. So the first hypothesis that contemplated Ghiljis as migrated or nomads Turks from central Asia seems to be in contradictory with the historic facts. so we had better repudiate the theory.

Alauddin Khilji

Groundless claims about Khiljis:

At this moment, it is vital that I discourse an exceedingly imperative cluster of Afghans recognized variously as Khalaj, Khalji, Khilji, or Ghilzi (singular Ghilzai). They have been stated in numerous historic books and documents commencing with 10th and 11th centuries. Obviously , the Ghilzai Pashtuns have played an central part in constructing Afghan history. Afghan history would be inadequate without a whole consideration of them. Grounded on contemporary elucidations of western intellectuals, we will see, their origin appears to be covered in mystery and at times transparently erroneous. Scholars have been bewildered by their origin and the list of their origin kinds from being Israelis, Egyptians, Mongolian, Armenians, Tatars, Hepthlites, Sakas, Rajputs, Brahmans, Jats(Gypsies), Greeks, Turks and even Arabs.

Grounded on an wide analysis of the accessible texts, there is no hesitation that Ghilzais are Pashtuns who speak Pashtu–an Indo-European language of the northeastern Iranic sector. Its contiguous connected alive languages are the Pamiri languages of Afghanistan, and the current Ossetic spoken in Georgia and the southern Russian province of Ossetia. Pashtu is spoken by almost  40 million individuals separated between Afghanistan and Northwestern Pakistan.

From a historic viewpoint, a misperception has ascended that attaches the Turkish, contingent on phonation, “Khallukh” or “khallakh” خلِّخ (also known as Kharlluk خرلِّخ) with Arabized /Persianized “Khalji” or “khalaji” خلج of Afghan/Pashtun “Ghalzai” or “Ghilzi” غلځی. Properly, the writers of History of Nations of Central Asia state, “Arab geographers of the ninth and tenth centuries place them (Ghilzi) between the Turk tribes and often complicate the Khalaj (Ghilzi) with Khallukh (i.e. Kharlluk) as solitary diacritic symbols distinguish these two ethnynonyms in Arabic script. Therefore, evidence concerning to the Khallukh is frequently involved in descriptions of the Khalaj (Ghilzi). For instance, the Arab geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih, in his account of the lands of Turks opposes himself by locating the Khalaj both in the region of River Talas and ‘on this side’ of Amu Darya, i.e. present day Afghanistan.

The most renowned two repeatedly cited passages that reflect Ghilzai as Turks are those of Istakhari and Al-Khwarizimi, none of them were native to Afghanistan. Istakhari (circa AD 930) states, as written by Minorsky, ‘The Khalaji are a class of Turks who in the days of the old (fi qadim al-ayyam) came to the country stretching between India and the regions of Sijistan behind Ghur. They are cattle breeders of Turkish appearance (khilq), dress, and language’.Obviously this ‘Khalaji’ is not the Khilji/Ghilzai of Afghans. It would be astonishing for this ‘Khalaji’ to be linked to “Khilji/Ghilzai” of Afghanistan, as Nizam al-Mulk reports that Alaptagin ( r. 961-968 AD, Ghazni) sent Subuktagin to collect taxes from Khalaji and Turkman. Clearly, Nizam al-Mulk clearly distinguish the Turks and ‘Khalaji’; Also, Berthold reminds us that per Nizam al-Mulk, Alaptagin’s son, Sultan Mahmud, was eager of upholding an military that was representative of numerous nations. The facts seem to bare that aspiration for diversity as al-Utbi reminds us of Sultan Mahmud’s army composed of various tribes of Turks, Indians, Khalajis, Afghans, and Ghaznawis. Furthermore, it would be amazing for this ‘Khalaj’ to be related to the Khalji/Ghilzai of Pashtuns, as the author of Tarikhi Yamini, Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad al Jabbaru-a ‘Utb (Al-Utbi), who was Sultan Mahmud’s (971-1030 AD) secretary in his writings also make a difference amid the Turks and ‘Khalaji”. In his explanation of Sultan Mahmud’s mobilization against I’lak Khan in Balkh, he writes the Sultan advanced ready for action with an army composed of Turks, Indians, Khaljis, Afghans and Ghaznavides. Evidently, the words Turk and Khalji seem idiosyncratically. Therefore, “Khalaj” of Istakhari cannot be the “Khalji” of Al-Utbi, as it would be incredible for the “Khalaj” to have become non-Turk in the passage of thirty-one years. This ethnic change sustained to be comprehended, and in fact became a point of argument in 1290 AD between Turks and Afghans in India. The “Khilji/Ghilzai” were opposed to the throne of India by the Turks because of their race. Barani the author of Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi, writes the government of the country ‘passed from the family of Turks to that of the Khiljis�the gentry, commoners and soldiers�were amazed. It appeared strange to them how the Khiljis were sitting on the throne in place of the Turks, and kingship had passed from the race of the Turks to (the people of) another race’.

Sunidhi the Indian historian also mentions the dispute between Mamluk turks and Pashtun (Afghan) Khiljis over racial issues. lets have a look what she says:

When Turkish nobles conspired to murder non-Turkish nobles including Jalal-ud-din, he outmaneuvered them and, ultimately, after murde­ring both Kaiqubad and Kayumars, occupied the throne.(sunidhi:2010,3).

Furthermore, the Mamluk Turks felt humiliated since a non-Turk (Jalaludin Khilji) toke over the throne.

The Turkish nobles, who regarded Khaljis as non-Turks, felt humiliated under his rule. Some among them revolted or plotted against him. The young Khalji- nobles also felt dissatisfied with him as they found that there was no scope of fulfillment of their ambitions under the new monarch.) sunidhi:2010,4)

Now let’s have a look at some of these passages to perceive the difference. Minorsky quotes Al-Utbi (written circa 411/1020), as proclaiming his purpose to describe Sultan Mahmud Ghaznawi’s conquests “in India, as well as among Turks and Khalaj”.[19] Obviously, Al-Utbi who resided in Ghazni, and much nearer to the Afghans than others, who existed in Central Asia, contemplates the Khalaj dissimilar from the Turks. This division is highlighted by Firdausi (935�1020 AD ), the author of Shah Nama, who also was in Ghazni certainly discriminates Turks from Khalaj (Ghilzai) in this poem:

Bar-Avard mili za sang-u za gaj

Ki kas ra ba-Iran za Turk-u Khalaji (Ghilzai)

Nabudi gugar juz ba farman-I shah

Haman niz Jayhun miyani ba rah

Furthermore, lexicographer of Turkish languages Mahmud Kashghari,who studied the Turkic vernaculars of his period and inscribed the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages, Dīwānu l-Luġat al-Turk (Arabic: “Collection of the language of the Turks”) in 1072, also differentiates amid Turks and Khalaj (Ghilzai). In his legend of the ancestors of Turks, he states: ‘Initially they (i.e. Turkmans) were twenty-four tribes but the two tribes of Khalaj unglued from them; hence now the latter are not counted of them.

Minhaj Seraj, who is from Khorasan and is well familiar with the affairs of this land, knows a number of Turkish rulers of India, but has always referred to the Turkish and Turks and the Khaljiya as Khaljies.

Zia Barani, the Indian historian (1357 A.D.) in his book Tarikh-e-Ferozshahi, has a special chapter where he says the king must be among the Turks but when Malik Jalaluddin Khalji ascended the Delhi throne he says: “the people found it difficult to tolerate a Khalji king. Since Khaljies were not Turks Indian historians also considered them to be Afghans.

Jalal al-din Firuz (1290-1296), Silver tanka, Dehli ?
Weight: 10.78 gm., Diameter: 27 mm., Die axis: 2 o’clock
Legend with the name of the sultan and his titles /
Legend with the name of Caliph al-Must’asim, dated AH 69x

the term “khaljis” and “Afghan” joined, and  Khalaji started to substitute Khalaj as Persian and consciousness substitutes the grown-up untrustworthy Arabic historic documents. This is applicable from a historic viewpoint, as the Arabs were strangers to Afghanistan, on the other hand the Persians were more associated ethnically and well aware of the region, ethnicities and languages. Therefore, our priority ought to be  Persian records since it is more accurate and adequate. Al-Gardizi (d. 1061)–an Afghan historian and geographer– alive in the heart of Pashtun/Afghan region inscribes in his Zayn al-Akhbar about some ‘Afghan’ rebels against Sultan Mas’ud (AD 1031-41), while al-Bayhaqi (tenth century) mentions the insurgents as the ‘Khalaji’. What is noticeable from this divergence is that Al-Gardizi, who knew his people well, refers to this group of insurgents as ‘Afghan’, while, al-Bayhaqi considered them ‘Khalaji’, thus, this ‘Khalaji’ is most probable the Pashtun Khilji/Ghilzai who are Afghan.In one sense they are both correct, as ‘Khalaj’ are Afghan. Also, the unknown writer of Tarikhi-E Sistan (c. 1062) evidently differentiates between Turks and Khalaj. He reports the exodus of Ya’qub for Rokhad to fight Zanbil[‘s son] like this: “on the way back (Ya’qub) he slayed numerous Khalaj and Turks, taking their masses as well as many slaves back with him Pashtuns have a tendency to have actual strong ethnic association, and that is not dissimilar with Ghilzai Pashtuns., their recognition  with their tribe is really imperative. That is the reason why Bellow as cited by Raverty states that the Ghilzai ‘never styles himself anything but GHILJI.

Jalal al-din Firuz (1290-1296), Silver tanka, Dehli ?
Weight: 10.78 gm., Diameter: 27 mm., Die axis: 2 o’clock
Legend with the name of the sultan and his titles /
Legend with the name of Caliph al-Must’asim, dated AH 69x

Reasons why Khiljis have been mistaken to be Turks:

First: The Sakas, Kushanids and Huns came to Bactria and Tukharistan and southern Hindu Kush from Trans Oxiana and they were desert dwelling Arians and their culture resembled that of Turks of Altai and western China. These people probably had cultural and linguistic parallels with the Turks. Meanwhile these people got mixed with the aborigines of Ariana (ancient Afghanistan), the Tajiks and the Pashtoons. According to Jahan Nama their language and color changed. Therefore, Barthold and some other oriental scholars considered the Pashto speaking Ghaljies to be descendants of these people. Even the name Abdali is related to these people and Awdal=Abdal has derived from Haftal=Yaftal. Classic writers have written this name as Euthalite. The tribes of Kafiristan (present Nuristan), northeast Hindu Kush also referred to Moslem Afghans as Odal up to the 19th century. The Kabul Shahs of the 7th century whose titles and names were in Dari or Pashto were the descendants of the Dumi tribe of the Kushanids.

The second reason is that in Arabic script the word Tarak and Turk resemble each other and since Turks were well-known among Arab writers from the early years of Islamic period, therefore, they considered Tarak of the Afghan Khaljies to be Turks from the Turkish race. While the Taraki Ghaljies are famous Afghan nomadic tribes whose number in the plains of Ghazni (according to Shahnama from their land there was a way to Hindustan) surpass 50,000. Until the present time these people move towards the valleys of the Indus and Tukharistan during winter. They possess large herds of sheep, speak Pashto and are true representatives of Afghan culture.

  1. Abubakar, Asadullah. (2009), Ghilzai Afghans.?
  2. Caroe, Olaf, The Pathans: 500 B.C. � A.D. 1957, page 130
  3. Divan of Khushal Khan 669, Kandahar.
  4. Habibi, Abdul Hai.(1378), The short history of Afghanistan. Peshawar, Danish publishers
  5. Habibi, Allama, Khaljies are Afghans (Web: Khaljis are Afghans)
  6. Haleem, Safia. (2015) . Da Hindustan Pashtana . Internet page
  7. History of India Elliot, Tarikh Yamini page 32, 1966
  8. Khalidi, Doctor Noor Ahmad.(2019). Are Ghiljis and Khiljis the same people?. Internet website
  9. Kohzad, Ali Ahmad. (1977 ac) Afghanistan Dar Shahnama. Kabul.?
  10. Lal, Kishori Saran, History of the Khiljis, Asia Publishing House, New York, 1967, page 10
  11. Masalik-ul-Mamalik of Istakhri, 245.
  12. 11_ Sunidhi.(2010). Khilji dynasty. History discussions.
  13. Tarikh-e Yamini, 26
  14. Tabaqate-e Nasiri 1/387, Habibi edition
  15. Tarikh-e Yamini, 26
  16. Tabaqate-e Nasiri 1/387, Habibi edition
  17. The Tarikh-E Sistan trans. Milton Gold, Roma, Istituto Italiano Per IL ED Estremo Oriente, 1976 page 170
  18. V. Minorsky page 431
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