In the climate of war hysteria, one may be easily swayed by the narrative of Afghanistan as a patch work of primitive warring tribes. While its tribal nature is well known, it has a lot more to offer than the Afghans’ prowess on the battlefield, impressive as it is.
The poor but intrepid Afghans have dispatched four invaders into the dustbin of history: Alexander the great, the British, Soviet and now American. They also produced such great figures as Mahmud Ghaznavi, Mohammad Ghauri and Ahmed Shah Abdali.
These alone would earn them an honoured place in history. After all, the fighting spirit of man has always been admired and cherished. The Afghans have contributed great legendary figures throughout history from the early days of Islam. Below are glimpses into the lives of some of the great figures that Afghanistan has produced including many men of immense spirituality.
Abu Muslim Khorasani (719 – 755 CE)
Abū Muslim 'Abd ar-Rahmān ibn Muslim Khorāsānī, or Al-Khorāsānī, was an Abbasid general from the Khorasan region who led the Abbasid uprising that toppled the Umayyad dynasty. There are different accounts about his date and place of birth. Some sources claim that he was of Persian origin born in Merv near Isfahan (see here and here) while others claim he was of Afghan origins. His birth place is said to be in Sar-e Pol province of present-day Afghanistan (See, for instance, Alexander Mikaberidze (ed): Abu Muslim Khurasani, Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. I ).
The differing claims may have something to do with the fact that boundaries were quite fluid at that time. Dynastic rulers expanded their domain that would just as easily shrink if a stronger rival emerged in a neighbouring locality. Abu Muslim’s military prowess is not in doubt and there are some reports that he was poisoned by the Abbasid ruler Al-Mansur, resulting in his death at a relatively young age.
Ibrahim ibn Adham (718 – 782 CE)
Ibrahim ibn Adham is one of the most prominent of the early ascetic Sufi saints. Born in Balkh to an Arab family that had settled there, he renounced his throne to devote his life to asceticism. The story of his conversion is one of the most celebrated in Sufi legend. Sufi tradition ascribes to Ibrahim countless acts of righteousness, and his humble lifestyle, which contrasted sharply with his early life as the king of Balkh. As recounted by Abu Nu‘aym, Ibrahim emphasized the importance of stillness and meditation for asceticism.
Some writers trace his lineage to Abdullah, the brother of Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq. Given his prominence in Sufi circles, most authors trace his family tree of Sufi ancestors also to the second Khalifah, Umar bin Khattab. Accounts of Ibrahim’s life are recorded by medieval authors such as Ibn Asakir and Bukhari. Like many Sufi saints, several locations are mentioned as his burial place including Al Quds (Jerusalem), Tyre (Iraq) and Jablah in Syria.
In his Mathnavi, Jalaluddin Rumi describes the legend of Ibrahim in great detail. He also wrote his biography in Persian that was later translated into other languages such as Arabic, Urdu and Malay.
Moinuddin Chishti (1141 – 1236 CE)
Moinuddin Chishti, known as Gharīb Nawāz (Benefactor of the Poor), is the most famous Sufi saint of the Chishti Order of the Indian Subcontinent. He introduced and established the order in the subcontinent. The initial spiritual chain (or silsila) of the Chishti order in India, comprising Moinuddin Chishti, Bakhtiyar Kaki, Baba Farid, Nizamuddin Awliya, Ashraf Jahangir Semnani, constitutes the great Sufi saints of Indian history.
Born into a Sayyid family in Sistan (present-day Iran but at the time part of Afghanistan), Muinuddin Chishti arrived in Delhi during the reign of Sultan Iltutmish (d.1236). He then moved to Ajmer where his shrine is located and visited by millions of people every year.
He was influenced by the famous Hanbali scholar and mystic ʿAbdallāh Anṣārī (d.1088). His famous work on the lives of the early Muslim saints, the Ṭabāqāt al-ṣūfiyya, probably played a role in shaping Muʿīnuddīn Chishti’s worldview. The Chishtiyya order of mysticism takes its name from him. This particular tariqa (order) became the dominant Muslim spiritual group in medieval India and many of the most beloved and venerated Muslim saints were Chishti in their affiliation, including Nizamuddin Awliya (d.1325) and Amir Khusrow (d.1325).
In Ajmer, Muʿīnuddīn Chishti acquired the reputation of being a charismatic and compassionate spiritual preacher and teacher. Biographical accounts of his life written after his death report that he received the gifts of many “spiritual marvels (karāmāt), such as miraculous travel, and visions of angels”. Muʿīnuddīn Chishti was unanimously regarded as a great saint after he left this earthly abode.
Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273 CE)
Jalaluddin Rumi was born in Balkh (present-day Afghanistan) in 1207. He is known and revered globally. His most famous poem, Mathnavi, was written in Persian but has been translated into many languages. Many scholars have written about Rumi’s mysticism. His sayings are quoted extensively and provide great inspiration.
Allama Muhammad Iqbal has written in glowing terms about Rumi finding great inspiration from his Mathnavi as well as his other writings and sayings. Like many of the early Sufi saints, Rumi also was not attached to any land. He wandered from Balkh and finally settled in Konya, Turkey, where he is buried.
His mausoleum is visited by millions of people—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—every year reflecting his great appeal to people of all backgrounds. This explains why a great many people across the world own him including those in Iran, Turkey (where he is known simply as Mevlevi), Tajikistan and even in the US where he is held in great reverence by many scholars.
Ahmad Shah Durrani/Abdali (1722 – 1773 CE)
Ahmad Shāh Durrānī, also known as Ahmad Khān Abdālī, was the founder of the Durrani Empire and is regarded as the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah enlisted as a young soldier in the military of the Afsharid kingdom of Persia and quickly rose to become a commander of four thousand Abdali Pashtun soldiers. After the death of Nader Shah Afshar in June 1747, Abdali became the Emir of Khorasan. Rallying his Pashtun tribes and allies, he pushed east towards the Mughal and Maratha Empire of India, west towards the disintegrating Afsharid Empire of Persia, and north toward the Khanate of Bukhara. Within a few years, he extended Afghan control from Khorasan in the west to Kashmir and North India in the east, and from the Amu Darya in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.
Ahmad Shah’s mausoleum is located in Kandahar, adjacent to the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet (pbuh) in the center of the city. The Afghans often refer to him as Ahmad Shāh Bābā.
Muhammad Sediq Afghan (1958 - present)
Lest one gets the impression that Afghanistan has produced only warriors and mystics, Muhammad Sediq Afghan is a philosopher of mathematics. He is the founder and head of the World Philosophical Math Research Center in Kabul. His contribution to Mathematics has been recognized globally.
He is also a political activist. He played a prominent role in the 2003 anti-American protests in Kabul as well as a leading role in the Danish cartoon protests in 2008.