Mohammed Zahir Shah

Mohammed Zahir Shah
محمد ظاهر شاه
King of the God granted Kingdom of Afghanistan and its dependencies[1]

Portrait of Zahir Shah
King of Afghanistan
Reign 8 November 1933 – 17 July 1973
Predecessor Mohammed Nadir Shah
Successor Monarchy abolished (Daud Khan as President of Afghanistan)
Head of House of Barakzai
Reign 8 November 1933 – 23 July 2007
Born 15 October 1914[2]
Kabul, Afghanistan
Died July 23, 2007(2007-07-23) (aged 92)
Kabul, Afghanistan
Burial Maranjan Hill
Spouse Humaira Begum
Issue Princess Bilqis Begum
Prince Muhammed Akbar Khan
Crown Prince Ahmad Shah Khan
Princess Maryam Begum
Prince Muhammed Nadir Khan
Prince Shah Mahmoud Khan
Prince Muhammed Daoud Pashtunyar Khan
Prince Mir Wais Khan
House Musahiban
Father Mohammed Nadir Shah
Mother Mah Parwar Begum
Religion Sunni Islam

Mohammed Zahir Shah (Pashto: محمد ظاهرشاه, Persian: محمد ظاهر شاه; October 16, 1914 – July 23, 2007) was the last King of Afghanistan, from the Musahiban bloodline, who reigned for four decades, from 1933 until he was ousted by a coup in 1973. Following his return from exile, he was given the title 'Father of the Nation' in 2002, which he held until his death.[2]

Family background and early life

Zahir Shah was born on 16 October 1914, in Kabul, Afghanistan.[2] He was the son of Mohammed Nadir Shah, a senior member of the Muhamadzai Royal family, also known as the family of King Saul from the Tribe of Benjamin and commander in chief of the Afghan army under former king Amanullah Khan. Nadir Shah assumed the throne after the execution of Habibullah Ghazi on 10 October 1929.[3] Mohammed Zahir's father, son of Sardar Mohammad Yusuf Khan, was born in Dehradun, British India, his family having been exiled following the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Nadir Shah was a descendant of Sardar Sultan Mohammed Khan Telai, half-brother of Amir Dost Mohammad Khan. His grandfather Mohammad Yahya Khan (father in law of Amir Yaqub Khan) was in charge of the negotiations with the British leading to the Treaty of Gandamak. After the British invasion following the killing of Sir Louis Cavagnari in 1879, Yaqub Khan, Yahya Khan and his sons, Princes Mohammad Yusuf Khan and Mohammad Asef Khan, were seized by the British and transferred under custody to the British Raj, where they forcibly remained until the two princes were invited back to Afghanistan by Emir Abdur Rahman Khan in the last year of his reign (1901). During the reign of Amir Habibullah they received the title of Companions of the King (Musahiban).

Zahir Shah was educated in a special class for princes at Habibia High School in Kabul.[4] He continued his education in France where his father had been sent as a diplomatic envoy, studying at the Pasteur Institute and the University of Montpellier.[5] When he returned to Afghanistan he helped his father and uncles restore order and reassert government control during a period of lawlessness in the country.[6] He was later enrolled at an Infantry School and appointed a privy counsellor. Zahir Shah served in the government positions of deputy war minister and minister of education.[4] Zahir Shah was fluent in Pashto, Persian, and French.[7]

The last king of Afghanistan

Studio photograph of Zahir Shah in military uniform, seated in a heavy, carved armchair. (1930s)

Zahir Khan was proclaimed King (Shah) on 8 November 1933 at the age of 19, after the assassination of his father Mohammed Nadir Shah. Following his ascension to the throne he was given the regnal title "He who puts his trust in God, follower of the firm religion of Islam".[4] For the first thirty years he did not effectively rule, ceding power to his paternal uncles, Mohammad Hashim Khan and Shah Mahmud Khan.[8] This period fostered a growth in Afghanistan's relations with the international community as in 1934, Afghanistan joined the League of Nations while also receiving formal recognition from the United States.[9] By the end of the 1930s, agreements on foreign assistance and trade had been reached with many countries, most notably Germany, Italy, and Japan.[10]

Zahir Shah provided aid, weapons and Afghan fighters to the Uighur and Kirghiz Muslim rebels who had established the First East Turkestan Republic. The aid was not capable of saving the First East Turkestan Republic, as the Afghan, Uighur and Kirghiz forces were defeated in 1934 by the Chinese Muslim 36th Division (National Revolutionary Army) led by General Ma Zhancang at the Battle of Kashgar and Battle of Yarkand. All the Afghan volunteers were killed by the Chinese Muslim troops, who then abolished the First East Turkestan Republic, and reestablished Chinese government control over the area.[11]

Following the end of the Second World War, Zahir Shah recognised the need for the modernisation of Afghanistan and recruited a number of foreign advisers to assist with the process.[12] During this period Afghanistan's first modern university was founded.[12] During his reign a number of potential advances and reforms were derailed as a result of factionalism and political infighting.[13]

Zahir Shah was able to govern on his own in 1963[8] and despite the factionalism and political infighting a new constitution was introduced in 1964 which turned Afghanistan into a modern democratic state by introducing free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women's rights and universal suffrage.[12]

At least 5 of Afghani little Pul coins during his reign bore the Arabic title: المتوكل على الله محمد ظاهر شاه,[14] "AlMutawakkil 'ala Allah Muhammad Zhahir Shah" which means "The leaner on Allah, Muhammad Zhahir Shah". The title "AlMutawakkil 'ala Allah", "The leaner on Allah" is taken from the Quran, Sura 8, verse 61.

By the time he returned to Afghanistan in the twenty-first century, his rule was characterized by a lengthy span of peace, but with no significant progress.[15]


In 1973, while Zahir Shah was in Italy, undergoing eye surgery as well as therapy for lumbago, his cousin and former Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan staged a coup d'état and established a republican government. As a former prime minister, Daoud Khan had been forced to resign by Zahir Shah a decade earlier.[15] In August 1974, Zahir Shah abdicated rather than risk an all-out civil war.[15]

Zahir Shah lived in exile in Italy for twenty-nine years in a villa in the affluent community of Olgiata on Via Cassia, north of Rome where he spent his time playing golf and chess, as well as tending to his garden.[6][7][16] He was barred from returning to Afghanistan during Soviet-backed Communist rule in the late 1970s. In 1983 during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Zahir Shah was cautiously involved in plans to head a government in exile. Ultimately these plans failed because he could not reach a consensus with the powerful Islamist factions.[4] It has also been reported Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and India had all tried to persuade Zahir Shah to return as head of a neutral, possibly interim, administration in Kabul.[17]

In 1991, Zahir Shah survived an attempt on his life by a knife-wielding assassin masquerading as a Portuguese journalist.[15]

Return to Afghan politics

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the defeat of Najibullah's Soviet client government a majority of the various Mujaheddin groups favored a return of King Zahir Shah.[18] However, the ISI of Pakistan feared Zahir Shah's Position on the Durand Line issue. Therefore, the official ISI policy was to push one of the most violent Mujaheddin commanders, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as the new leader of a radical Islamist government. This position proved to be fatal for Afghanistan and it triggered a brutal civil war. Zahir Shah would not return to the country for another decade.

Zahir Shah is seated at the far right during the oath ceremony of Hamid Karzai on 7 December 2004

In April 2002, while the country was no longer under Taliban rule, Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan to open the Loya Jirga, which met in June 2002.[19] After the fall of the Taliban, there were open calls for a return to the monarchy.[15] Zahir Shah himself let it be known that he would accept whatever responsibility was placed on him by the Loya Jirga.[19] However he was obliged to publicly step aside at the behest of the United States as many of the delegates to the Loya Jirga were prepared to vote for Zahir Shah and block the US-backed Hamid Karzai.[19] While he was prepared to become head of state he made it known that it would not necessarily be as monarch: "I will accept the responsibility of head of state if that is what the Loya Jirga demands of me, but I have no intention to restore the monarchy. I do not care about the title of king. The people call me Baba and I prefer this title."[15] He was given the title "Father of the Nation" in the current Constitution of Afghanistan[20] symbolizing his role in Afghanistan's history as a symbol of national unity. The title of the 'Father of the Nation' dissolved with his death.[21]

Hamid Karzai, a prominent figure from the Pashtun Popalzai clan, became the president of Afghanistan and Zahir Shah's relatives and supporters were provided with key posts in the transitional government. Zahir Shah moved back into his old palace. In an October 2002 visit to France, he slipped in a bathroom, bruising his ribs, and on 21 June 2003, while in France for a medical check-up, he broke his femur.

On 3 February 2004, Zahir was flown from Kabul to New Delhi, India, for medical treatment after complaining of an intestinal problem. He was hospitalized for two weeks and remained in New Delhi under observation. On 18 May 2004, he was brought to a hospital in the United Arab Emirates because of nose bleeding caused by heat.

Zahir Shah attended the 7 December 2004 swearing-in of Hamid Karzai as President of Afghanistan. In his final years, he was frail and required a microphone pinned to his collar so that his faint voice could be heard.[15] In January 2007, Zahir was reported to be seriously ill and bedridden.


On 23 July 2007, he died in the compound of the presidential palace in Kabul after prolonged illness. His death was announced on national television by President Karzai.[15][22] His funeral was held on 24 July. It began on the premises of the presidential palace, where political figures and dignitaries paid their respects; his coffin was then taken to a mosque before being moved to the royal mausoleum on Maranjan Hill.[23]


He married his first cousin Humaira Begum (1910–2002) on 7 November 1931 in Kabul. They had six sons and two daughters:[1]

Name Birth Death Marriage Their children
Date Spouse
Princess Bilqis Begum 17 April 1932 1951 'Abdu'l Wali Khan HH Princess Humaira Begum
HH Princess Wana Begum
HH Princess Mayana Khanum
Crown Prince Muhammed Akbar Khan 4 August 1933 26 November 1941(1941-11-26) (aged 8)
Crown Prince Ahmad Shah Khan 23 September 1935
Princess Maryam Begum 2 November 1937
Prince Muhammed Nadir Khan 21 May 1940 6 February 1964 Lailuma Begum HRH Prince Mustapha Zahir Khan
HRH Prince Muhammad Daud Jan
Prince Shah Mahmoud Khan 15 November 1945 7 December 2002(2002-12-07) (aged 57) 18 April 1966 Safura Begum HRH Princess Bilqis Khanum
HRH Princess Ariane Khanum
Prince Muhammed Daoud Pashtunyar Khan 14 April 1951 2 February 1973 Fatima Begum HRH Prince Duran Daud Khan
HRH Princess Noal Khanum
Prince Mir Wais Khan 7 January 1956

In January 2009 an article by Ahmad Majidyar of the American Enterprise Institute included one of his grandsons, Mustafa Zahir, on a list of fifteen possible candidates in the 2009 Afghan Presidential election.[24] However Mostafa Zaher did not become a candidate.

See also


  1. 1 2 Royal Ark
  2. 1 2 3 Encyclopædia Britannica, "Mohammad Zahir Shah"
  3. Encyclopædia Britannica, "Afghanistan Mohammad Nader Shah (1929–33)"
  4. 1 2 3 4 "The King of Afghanistan". Daily Telegraph. 2007-07-24. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
  5. "Mohammad Zahir Shah, 92, Last King of Afghanistan".
  6. 1 2 Judah, Tim (2001-09-23). "Profile: Mohamed Zahir Shah". The Observer. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
  7. 1 2 McCarthy, Michael (2001-09-24). "War On Terrorism: Opposition – Exiled king declares himself ready to return". The Independent. London: Look Smart: Find Articles. Archived from the original on 2007-11-09. Retrieved 2007-07-23.
  8. 1 2 Chesterman, Simon; Michael Ignatieff; Ramesh Chandra Thakur (2005). Making States Work: State Failure And The Crisis Of Governance. United Nations University Press. p. 400. ISBN 92-808-1107-X.
  9. Jentleson, Bruce W.; Paterson, Thomas G. (1997). The American Journal of International Law. Oxford University Press: 24. ISBN 0-19-511055-2. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. Dupree, Louis: Afghanistan, pages 477–478. Princeton University Press, 1980
  11. Andrew D. W. Forbes (1986). Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: a political history of Republican Sinkiang 1911–1949. Cambridge, England: CUP Archive. pp. 123, 303. ISBN 0-521-25514-7. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  12. 1 2 3 "Profile: Ex-king Zahir Shah". BBC. 2001-10-01. Retrieved 2008-02-01.
  13. Judah, Tim (2001-09-23). "Profile: Mohamed Zahir Shah". The Observer. Retrieved 2008-02-01.
  14. Mercuguinness
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Barry Bearak, "Former King of Afghanistan Dies at 92", The New York Times, 23 July 2007.
  16. Gall, Sandy (2007-07-23). "Mohammad Zahir Shah". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
  18. Inside ISI: The Story and Involvement of the ISI, Afghan Jihad, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, 26/11 and the Future of Al-Qaeda.
  19. 1 2 3 Dorronsoro, Gilles. "The Return to Political Fragmentation". Afghanistan: Revolution Unending, 1979–2002. C. Hurst & Co. p. 330. ISBN 1-85065-683-5.
  20. "The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan".
  21. "The late King was always fondly referred to by all Afghans, cutting across ethnic boundaries, as "Baba-e-Millat" or 'Father of the Nation', a position given to him in the country's Constitution promulgated in January 2004, about two years after the collapse of Taliban rule. The title of the 'Father of the Nation' dissolves with his death." "Last King of Afghanistan dies at 92". Archived from the original on September 30, 2007.
  22. "Mohammad Zahir Shah, Last Afghan King, Dies at 92"
  23. "Afghanistan's King Mohammad Zahir Shah Laid to Rest", Associated Press (Fox News), 24 July 2007.
  24. Ahmad Majidyar (January 2009). "Afghanistan's Presidential Election" (PDF). American Enterprise Institute. Archived from the original on 2009-09-18. Zaher is the grandson of the late King Muhammad Zaher Shah. He is currently head of Afghanistan’s environment preservation department and a member of the UNF. There has been speculation that the UNF will nominate Zaher as its candidate for the upcoming election. Despite being an heir to the royal family, he lacks a popular base.
  25. Royal Ark
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mohammed Zahir Shah.
Mohammed Zahir Shah
Born: 16 October 1914 Died: 23 July 2007
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Mohammed Nadir Shah
King of Afghanistan
8 November 1933 – 17 July 1973
Succeeded by
Republic declared
Titles in pretence
Loss of title
King of Afghanistan
17 July 1973 – 23 July 2007
Succeeded by
Crown Prince Ahmad Shah
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