Late in the 14th century C.E., the conqueror Timur (often called Tamerlane in early English records) “rose from Central Asia to conquer territories in Anatolia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, and Russia, and he was on his way to subjugate China when he died” (Moin 2012: 23). Timur’s empire resulted in the forced displacement of artisans and craftspeople to imperial centers, such as his own capital city of Samarkand. Such captivities are well-attested in royal chronicles and diplomatic travelogues.

The following passage gives us a different vantage: one mediated by the social memory of Afghans living in the Sulaiman Mountains, who were subject to the violence of Timur’s campaigns. The excerpt is taken from the life of an Afghan saint named Khwāja Yaḥyā Kabīr (d. 834/1430). Khwāja Yaḥyā Kabīr was a member of the Sarbanī Afghan confederation affiliated with the Suhrawrdī Sufi Order, and venerated by an Indo-Afghan Sufi community for centuries after his death. Stories of his life were put to paper in the genealogical chronicle The Khān Jahānian History and Afghan Treasury (c. 1021/1613). This tale shows us interrelated aspects of captivity in a rural Afghan setting: both how the local community relied upon saintly miracles to keep themselves safe from capture, and how Timur’s troops used local captives to investigate the religiopolitical landscape of newly-conquered territories. The concerns about captivity here exemplify the social experience of Afghans and other peoples who often found themselves facing the horrors of royal and imperial campaigns.

It is said that Timur ravaged Khorasan up to the foothills of the Kararānī, Nīāzī, and Lōdī Afghans, pillaging and plundering until his army reached the Sulaiman Mountains. Bandagī Hażrat Yaḥyā Kabīr, [who] was also in the foothills, was informed that Timur had arrived. Everyone fled up the mountainside, but Bandagī Hażrat Khwāja didn’t go. [His] disciples asked, “O Hażrat Shaykh, Timur is only one-sixth of a day’s walk away. God forbid that we become captives and are carried off.”

Upon hearing this, [Yaḥyā] gathered some dust from the earth and, reciting the Chapter of Sincerity three times, threw it toward the direction of Timur’s army.

By the decree of Exalted God, a veil fell between Timur’s army and the person of Bandagī Hażrat Khwāja. All the Mongols went blind, unable to see anything. The troops said to one another, “We hear the sounds of people moving, but see nothing with our eyes; this is a rare condition.” The situation was brought to the attention of Timur, who said, “Perhaps someone from among God’s friends is here, and thus we cannot see.” Timur ordered a retreat and the army accordingly crossed back over. They had only gone a short while along the road when the people could see once more.

Timur ordered, “Find out from these people which person is there.” A Shīrānī man from the Bōbak Khēls was captured by the Mongols and brought before Timur. [Timur] related what had happened and inquired as to its correct interpretation. The Shīrānī man answered, “Bandagī Hażrat Khwāja Yaḥyā Kabīr is in this place.”

Upon hearing this, Timur sent his own chamberlain—accompanied by that Shīrānī man—with a horse as a gift for Bandagī Hażrat Khwāja Yaḥyā Kabīr. When they reached Hażrat Khwāja Jīō, they kissed the earth and brought the horse into his blessed sight, apologizing and saying: “We have made a terrible mistake, and beg your forgiveness.” Bandagī Hażrat Khwāja did not take the horse, saying, “Ask for my prayers so that I might forgive you. However, don’t torment the Muslims, and be very cautious of Exalted God; for tyrants are seized most severely in this world and the next.”

The chamberlain returned and, coming before Timur, described the greatness and might of Khwāja Jīō which he had seen, relating every detail. Upon hearing this, Timur deeply regretted [the fact] that, “I remain forbidden from kissing the foot of such a friend of God.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the man from the Bōbak Khēl tribe made into a captive? What does this tell us about the limits of royal armies’ (and chroniclers’) knowledge about the lands in which they moved? What does the captive’s fate tell us about the circumstances in which Timur’s army sought and took captive local informants?  
  2. Indo-Afghan narrators clearly argue that the saint’s miraculous powers are responsible for the failure of Timur’s campaign in the Sulaiman Mountains’ foothills. How do you think tales such as this one altered communities’ behaviors in times of conquest?
  3. Does a story like this one tell us about how Afghan populaces successfully resisted captivity throughout history, imply the frequency by which Afghans suffered captivity at the hands of invaders, or reflect some combination of the two possibilities?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Moin, A. Azfar. The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam. New York: Columbia University, 2012.


Captives, Raiding, Religion, Violence