The very first ruler in history to assume the title of "Sultan" was Mahmud of Ghazni, founder of the Ghaznavid Empire. His title signified that although he was the political leader of a vast swath of land, encompassing much of what is now Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, the Muslim Caliph remained the religious leader of the empire.
Who was this unusually humble conqueror? How did Mahmud of Ghazni come to be the Sultan of a vast realm?
In 971 CE, Yamin ad-Dawlah Abdul-Qasim Mahmud ibn Sabuktegin, better known as Mahmud of Ghazni, was born in the town of Ghazna, now in south-east Afghanistan. The baby's father, Abu Mansur Sabuktegin, was Turkic, a former Mamluk warrior-slave from Ghazni.
When the Samanid dynasty, based in Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) began to crumble, Sabuktegin seized control of his home town of Ghazni in 977. He then went on to conquer other major Afghan cities, such as Kandahar. His kingdom formed the core of the Ghaznavid Empire, and he is credited with founding the dynasty.
The baby's mother was likely a junior wife of slave origins. Her name is not recorded.
Rise to Power:
Not much is known about Mahmud of Ghazni's childhood. We know that he had two younger brothers, and that the second one, Ismail, was born to Sabuktegin's principal wife. The fact that she, unlike Mahmud's mother, was a free-born woman of noble blood would turn out to be key in the question of succession when Sabuktegin died during a military campaign in 997.
On his deathbed, Sabuktegin passed over his militarily and diplomatically skilled eldest son Mahmud, 27 years old, in favor of the second son, Ismail. It seems likely that he chose Ismail because he was not descended from slaves on both sides, unlike the elder and younger brothers.
When Mahmud, who was stationed at Nishapur (now in Iran), heard of his brother's appointment to the throne, he immediately marched east to challenge Ismail's right to rule. Mahmud overcame his brother's supporters in 998, seized Ghazni, took the throne for himself, and placed his younger brother under house arrest for the rest of his life. The new sultan would rule until his own death in 1030.
Expanding the Empire:
Mahmud's early conquests expanded the Ghaznavid realm to roughly the same footprint as the ancient Kushan Empire. He employed typical Central Asian military techniques and tactics, relying primarily on a highly mobile horse-mounted cavalry, armed with compound bows.
By 1001, Mahmud had turned his attention to the fertile lands of the Punjab, now in India, which lay southeast of his empire. The target region belonged to fierce but fractious Hindu Rajput kings, who refused to coordinate their defense against the Muslim threat issuing from Afghanistan. In addition, the Rajputs used a combination of infantry and elephant-mounted cavalry, a formidable but slower-moving form of army than the Ghaznavids' horse cavalry.
Ruling a Huge State:
Over the next three decades, Mahmud of Ghazni would make more than a dozen military strikes into Hindu and Ismaili kingdoms to the south. His empire stretched all the way to the shores of the Indian Ocean at southern Gujarat before his death.
Mahmud appointed local vassal kings to rule in his name in many of the conquered regions, easing relations with non-Muslim populations. He also welcomed Hindu and Ismaili soldiers and officers into his army. However, as the cost of constant expansion and warfare began to strain the Ghaznavid treasury in the later years of his reign, Mahmud ordered his troops to target Hindu temples, and strip them of vast quantities of gold.
The Sultan Mahmud loved books, and honored learned men. In his home base at Ghazni, he built up a library to rival that of the Abbasid caliph's court in Baghdad, now in Iraq.
Mahmud of Ghazni also sponsored the construction of universities, palaces, and grand mosques, making his capital city the jewel of Central Asia.
Final Campaign and Death:
In 1026, the 55-year-old sultan set out to invade the state of Kathiawar, on India's west (Arabian Sea) coast. His army drove as far south as Somnath, famous for its beautiful temple to the lord Shiva.
Although Mahmud's troops successfully captured Somnath, looting and destroying the temple, there was troubling news from Afghanistan. A number of other Turkic tribes had risen up to challenge Ghaznavid rule, including the Seljuk Turks, who had already captured Merv (Turkmenistan) and Nishapur (Iran). These challengers had already begun to nibble away at the edges of the Ghaznavid Empire by the time Mahmud died on April 30, 1030. The sultan was just 59 years old.
Mahmud of Ghazni left behind a mixed legacy. His empire would survive until 1187, although it began to crumble from west to east even before his death. In 1151, the Ghaznavid sultan Bahram Shah lost Ghazni itself, fleeing to Lahore (now in Pakistan).
The Sultan Mahmud spent much of his lifetime battling against "infidels" - Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Muslim splinter-groups such as the Ismailis. In fact, the Ismailis seem to have been a particular target of his wrath, since Mahmud (and his nominal overlord, the Abbasid caliph) considered them heretics.
Nonetheless, Mahmud of Ghazni seems to have tolerated non-Muslim people so long as they did not oppose him militarily. This record of relative tolerance would continue into the following Muslim empires in India: the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) and the Mughal Empire (1526-1857).
Duiker, William J. & Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History, Vol. 1, Independence, KY: Cengage Learning, 2006.
Mahmud of Ghazni, Afghan Network.net.
Nazim, Muhammad. The Life and Times of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, CUP Archive, 1931.