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Amanullah Khanlocked

  • Ian Talbot

Amanullah Khan (1892–1960), amir of Afghanistan, was born on 2 June 1892 at Paghman, Kabul. He was the third son of Amir (King) Habibullah (d. 1919), but his mother, Ulya Hazrat, was the ‘first queen’. She used her considerable skill and intelligence to prepare him for the throne. However, Amanullah contracted two unhappy arranged marriages—with Peri Gul in 1908 and Shahzada Khanum (d. 1911) in 1910—while in his teens, at his mother's instigation. He also imbibed her Anglophobia. This was reinforced by the father of his third, and lifelong, wife, the talented Soraya Tarzi, whom he married in 1913. Mahmud Beg Tarzi, his father-in-law, had spent many years in exile and had been greatly influenced by the liberalism and anti-colonialism of the Young Turk movement. Tarzi encouraged Amanullah to support the so-called War Party of the Young Afghans during the First World War. The latter espoused pan-Islamic anti-British sentiments and were committed to modernizing Afghanistan.

Amir Habibullah was more pro-British, although Afghanistan remained neutral during the war. Amanullah and Mahmud Beg Tarzi fell into disfavour because of their pro-Turkish sentiments, as did many of the Young Afghans, who were gaoled. These circumstances aroused suspicion following Habibullah's mysterious murder on 19 February 1919 during a hunting expedition from his winter court at Jalalabad. Amanullah, who had remained in Kabul, seized the throne from his uncle Nasrullah. He was backed by the army, the Young Afghans, and the powerful figures of Tarzi and Ulya Hazrat.

Amanullah's position was strengthened by his assuming the mantle of Afghan nationalism in the Third Anglo-Afghan War, which he launched in May 1919. The peace treaty which followed the month-long conflict was a personal triumph: it guaranteed Afghanistan the right to control its own foreign affairs, something the British had denied to earlier amirs, who, in Lord Lytton's colourful phrase of 1877, were 'earthen pipkins' between the two iron pots of Britain and Russia. Amanullah was brought back to earth the following year by the disastrous hijrat episode. Indian Muslims began a religiously ordained flight to Afghanistan in response to British treatment of the defeated ruler of Turkey. By August 1920 about 50,000 muhajirin (refugees) had flocked to Afghanistan. The impoverished country could not absorb such an influx and had to expel the refugees.

In 1919 Amanullah embarked on a number of reforms, which included the abolition of forced labour, the granting to women of freedom of choice in marriage, and anti-corruption and anti-smuggling measures, and culminated in the promulgation of Afghanistan's first constitution in 1923. These reforms alienated his country's traditional tribal and religious leaders. The Mangal tribes, led by the Lame Mullah, responded by rising in revolt in Khost in 1923–4. Amanullah made some concessions to religious pressure in its aftermath. However, following his return from a successful European visit with Queen Soraya in July 1928, he embarked on further ambitious reforms. These included such controversial measures as the requirement of Western dress at court functions, the discouragement of purdah, the changing of the day of rest from Friday to Thursday, and the reduction of allowances and subsidies for mullahs (clerics). Such reforms were just part of a vast programme which would have revolutionized Afghan society. Before many could be implemented Amanullah faced another serious tribal revolt in November 1928, led by the Shinwaris. Many mullahs supported it, including the influential hazrat of Shor Bazaar, one of the most important commercial centres of Kabul. The hazrat's Mojadidi family claimed the hereditary right to crown Afghan kings at their coronation. Opposition also emerged in the north from the Tajik leader Bach-i-Saqao, who briefly supplanted Amanullah and reigned as King Habibullah.

Amanullah fled from Kabul on 14 January 1929 and abdicated in favour of his older half-brother Inayatullah. At Kandahar, Amanullah tried to rally Pashtun support against the Tajik ruler in Kabul, but his attempts were unavailing and he had to slip across the border to India. On 22 June 1929 he and most of his family sailed from Bombay to Europe. Exile in genteel poverty in Italy awaited him. Amanullah Khan never returned to Afghanistan before his death in Switzerland on 26 April 1960; he was buried in Jalalabad.

Amanullah was a sincere individual given to emotion. Despite the claims of his critics, he was a pious Muslim who placed importance on the substance, rather than the outward trappings, of religion. The overthrow of the modernizing shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pehlavi, in 1979 questions a too easy assumption that Amanullah was a man before his time. His judgement, however, that without a centralizing and modernizing ideology Afghanistan would break up into its constituent tribal elements appears prescient in the light of late twentieth-century developments.


  • L. B. Poullada, Reform and rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919–1929 (1973)
  • R. T. Stewart, Fire in Afghanistan, 1914–1929: faith, hope and the British empire (1973)
  • I. A. Shah, The tragedy of Amanullah (1933)
  • S. K. H. Katrak, Through Amanullah's Afghanistan (1929)
  • L. W. Adamec, Afghanistan, 1900–1923: a diplomatic history (1967)
  • V. Gregorian, The emergence of modern Afghanistan (1969)
  • G. MacMunn, Afghanistan from Darius to Amanullah (1929)
  • G. N. Molesworth, Afghanistan, 1919 (1962)
  • M. H. Kakar, Afghanistan: a study in internal political developments, 1880–1896 (1971)
  • A. Guha, ‘The economy of Afghanistan during Amanullah's reign, 1919–1929’, International Studies, 9/2 (1967), 167–82


  • BL OIOC, political and secret department files, LPS
  • National Archives of India, New Delhi


  • BFINA, news footage
  • IWM FVA, actuality footage


  • black and white photographs, March 1928, Hult. Arch.
  • black and white photographs, 1929, Hult. Arch.
  • photographs, repro. in Poullada, Reform and rebellion