Mohammed Zahir Shah

Mohammed Nadir Shah Kabul Ahmad Shah Khan, Crown Prince of Afghanistan

Mohammed Zahir Shah
محمد ظاهر شاه
King of Afghanistan
King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in 1963.jpg
Portrait of Zahir Shah, 1963
King of Afghanistan
Reign8 November 1933 – 17 July 1973
Installation8 November 1933
PredecessorMohammed Nadir Shah
SuccessorMonarchy abolished (Daoud Khan as President of Afghanistan)
Head of House of Barakzai
Reign8 November 1933 – 23 July 2007
PredecessorMohammed Nadir Shah
SuccessorAhmad Shah Khan
Born15 October 1914[1]
Kabul, Afghanistan
Died23 July 2007(2007-07-23) (aged 92)
Kabul, Afghanistan
Maranjan Hill
SpouseHumaira Begum
IssuePrincess 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
FatherMohammed Nadir Shah
MotherMah Parwar Begum
ReligionSunni Islam

Mohammed Zahir Shah (Pashto: محمد ظاهرشاه‎, Persian: محمد ظاهر شاه‎; 15 October 1914 – 23 July 2007) was the last King of Afghanistan, reigning from 8 November 1933 until he was deposed on 17 July 1973.[2] He expanded Afghanistan's diplomatic relations with many countries, including with both Cold War sides.[3] In the 1950s, Zahir Shah began modernizing the country, culminating in the creation of a new constitution and a constitutional monarchy system. His long reign was marked by peace in the country that was lost afterwards.[4]

While on vacation in Italy, Zahir Shah's regime was overthrown in a "white coup" in 1973 by his cousin and former prime minister, Mohammed Daoud Khan, who established a republic.[5] He remained in exile near Rome until 2002, returning to Afghanistan after the end of the Taliban government. He was given the title Father of the Nation, which he held until his death in 2007.[1]

Family background and early life

5 September 1963 Dinner in honour of King Mohammad Zahir Shah of Afghanistan with John F. Kennedy

Zahir Shah was born on 15 October 1914, in a city quarter called Deh Afghanan (Afghans village) in Kabul, Afghanistan.[1] He was the son of Mohammed Nadir Shah (1883-1933) a senior member of the Muhamadzai Royal family and commander in chief of the Afghan Army for former king Amanullah Khan, and of Begum Mah Parwar Begum (d. 1941), a Persian-speaking woman. Nadir Shah assumed the throne after the execution of Habibullah Kalakani on 1 November 1929.[6] Mohammed Zahir's father, son of Sardar Mohammad Yusuf Khan, was born in Dehradun, British India, his family having been exiled after the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Nadir Shah was a descendant of Sardar Sultan Mohammed Khan Telai, half-brother of Emir Dost Mohammad Khan. His grandfather Mohammad Yahya Khan (father in law of Emir Yaqub Khan) was in charge of the negotiations with the British resulting in the Treaty of Gandamak. After the British invasion after the killing of Sir Louis Cavagnari during 1879, Yaqub Khan, Yahya Khan and his sons, Princes Mohammad Yusuf Khan and Mohammad Asef Khan, were seized by the British and transferred to the British Raj, where they remained forcibly until the two princes were invited back to Afghanistan by Emir Abdur Rahman Khan during 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 Elementary Primary built by 1904 of United Kingdom Habibia High School, many subjects were taught in English, and Secondary in went to the Amaniya High School (built during King Amanullah of France, in which many subjects were taught in French. This School was renamed by Nadir Shah to Esteqlal High School[7] after the fall of King Amanullah. For example, Prince Zahir Khan had to study in Infantiere Military School in Winter (school year in Kabul, 21 March to November). Then he was sent to France for further training in Kabul.[8] He continued his education in France where his father had served as a diplomatic envoy, studying at the Pasteur Institute and the University of Montpellier.[9] 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.[10] 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.[8]

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. After 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".[8] For the first almost thirty years he did not effectively rule, ceding power to his paternal uncles, Mohammad Hashim Khan and Shah Mahmud Khan, both serving as prime ministers.[11] This period fostered a growth in Afghanistan's relations with the international community as during 1934, Afghanistan joined the League of Nations while also receiving formal recognition from the United States.[12] By the end of the 1930s, agreements on foreign assistance and trade had been reached with many countries, most notably with the 'Axis powers': Germany, Italy, and Japan.[13]

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 during 1934 by the Chinese Muslim 36th Division (National Revolutionary Army) commanded 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.[14]

Despite close relations to the Axis powers, Zahir Shah refused to take sides during World War II and Afghanistan remained one of the few countries in the world to remain neutral. From 1944 to 1947, Afghanistan experienced a series of revolts by various tribes.[15] After 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.[16] During this period Afghanistan's first modern university was founded.[16] During his reign a number of potential advances and reforms were derailed as a result of factionalism and political infighting.[17] He also requested financial aid from both the United States and the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan was one of few countries in the world to receive aid from both the Cold War enemies.[18] In a 1969 interview, Zahir Shah said that he is "not a capitalist. But I also don’t want socialism. I don’t want socialism that would bring about the kind of situation [that exists] in Czechoslovakia. I don’t want us to become the servants of Russia or China or the servant of any other place."[19]

Zahir Shah was able to govern on his own during 1963[11] and despite the factionalism and political infighting a new constitution was introduced during 1964 which made Afghanistan a modern democratic state by introducing free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women's rights and universal suffrage.[16] However the new system of governance was unstable and Zahir Shah acted cautious in the reforms. Some groups believe these moves paved the way for the eventual communist takeover in 1978.[20]

At least five Afghani little Pul coins during his reign bore the Arabic title: المتوكل على الله محمد ظاهر شاه,[21] "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 2002, his rule was characterized by a lengthy span of peace.[22]


Amid civilian and military discontent over the regime,[23] in 1973 while Zahir Shah was abroad in Italy[24] his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan staged a non-violent military 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[22] and felt that Zahir Shah lacked leadership and that the parliamentary system prevented real progressivism.[25] In August 1973,[26][22] Zahir Shah sent a letter from Rome to Khan in Kabul declaring his abdication, saying he respected "the will of my compatriots" after realizing the people of Afghanistan "with absolute majority welcomed a Republican regime".[27]

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.[10][28][29] He was prohibited from returning to Afghanistan during the late 1970s by the Soviet-assisted Communist government. In 1983 during the Soviet–Afghan War, Zahir Shah was cautiously involved with plans to develop a government in exile. Ultimately these plans failed because he could not reach a consensus with powerful Islamist factions.[8] It has also been reported that Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and India had all tried to persuade Zahir Shah to return as chief of a neutral, possibly interim, administration in Kabul.[30] Both the Soviet Union and the United States sent representatives to meet him, and President Mohammed Najibullah supported Zahir Shah to play a role in a possible interim government in the quest for peace.[31] In May 1990, Zahir Shah issued a long statement through Voice of America and the BBC calling for unity and peace among Afghans, and offering his services. This reportedly led to a spark of interest and approval among the Kabul populace. However, the idea of a revived political role for Zahir Shah was met with hostility by some, notably radical Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.[32]

In 1991, Zahir Shah survived an attempt on his life by a knife-wielding assassin masquerading as a Portuguese journalist.[22] After the fall of the pro-Soviet government, Zahir Shah was favored by many to return and restore the monarchy to unify the country and as he was acceptable to most factions. However these efforts were blocked mostly by Pakistan's ISI, who feared his stance on the Durand Line issue.[33] In June 1995, Zahir Shah's former envoy Sardar Wali announced at talks in Islamabad, Pakistan, that Zahir Shah was willing to participate in peace talks to end the Afghan Civil War,[34] but no consensus was ever reached.

Return to Afghanistan

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

On 18 April 2002, at the age of 87 and four months after the end of Taliban rule, Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan, flown in an Italian military plane, and welcomed at Kabul's airport by Hamid Karzai and other officials.[35] His return was widely welcomed by Afghans, and he was liked by all ethnic groups.[36][37] There were proposals for a return to the monarchy –[22] Zahir Shah himself let it be known that he would accept whatever responsibility was given him by the Loya Jirga,[38] which he initiated in June 2002.[38] However he was obliged to publicly renounce monarchical leadership 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 U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai.[38] While he was prepared to become chief 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."[22] Karzai called Zahir Shah a "symbol of unity, a very kind man" and a "fatherly figure."[37]

Hamid Karzai, who was favored by Zahir Shah, became president of Afghanistan after the Loya Jirga.[39] Karzai, from the Pashtun Popalzai clan, provided Zahir Shah's relatives with major jobs in the transitional government.[40] Following the Loya Jirga he was given the title "Father of the Nation" by Karzai,[41] symbolizing his role in Afghanistan's history as a symbol of national unity. This title ended with his death.[42] In August 2002 he relocated back to his old palace after 29 years.[39]

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. During his final years, he was frail and required a microphone pinned to his collar so that his faint voice could be heard.[22] During January 2007, Zahir was reported to be seriously ill and bedridden.


Tomb of Zahir Shah

On 23 July 2007, Zahir Shah died in the compound of the presidential palace in Kabul after prolonged illness. His death was announced on national television by President Karzai,[22][43] who said "He was the servant of his people, the friend of his people, he was a very kind person, kind hearted. He believed in the rule of the people and in human rights."[44] His funeral was held on 24 July. It began on the premises of the presidential palace, where politicians and dignitaries paid their respects; his coffin was then taken to a mosque before being moved to the royal mausoleum on Maranjan Hill in eastern Kabul.[45]

Personal life

Zahir Shah was reportedly shy, modest and "soft-spoken". He liked photography, chess,[18][46][47] and smoking cigars.[48]

Zahir Shah was fluent in Pashto[clarification needed], Dari (his mother tongue), and could speak English and perfect French.[28]

Into his family he was known as Baba.[49]


He married his first cousin Humaira Begum (1918–2002) on 7 November 1931 in Kabul. They had six sons and two daughters:

Name Birth Death Marriage Their children
Date Spouse
Princess Bilqis Begum (1932-04-17) 17 April 1932 (age 88) 1951 'Abdu'l Wali Khan Princess Humaira Begum
Princess Wana Begum
Princess Mayana Khanum
Crown Prince Muhammed Akbar Khan 4 August 1933 26 November 1942(1942-11-26) (aged 9)
Crown Prince Ahmad Shah Khan (1934-09-23) 23 September 1934 (age 85) 1961 Khatul Begum Prince Muhammad Zahir Khan
Prince Muhammad Emel Khan
Princess Hawa Khanum
Princess Maryam Begum (1936-11-02) 2 November 1936 (age 83)
Prince Muhammed Nadir Khan (1941-05-21) 21 May 1941 (age 79) 6 February 1964 Lailuma Begum Prince Mustapha Zahir Khan
Prince Muhammad Daud Jan
Prince Shah Mahmoud Khan 15 November 1946 7 December 2002(2002-12-07) (aged 56) 18 April 1966 Safura Begum Princess Bilqis Khanum
Princess Ariane Khanum
Prince Muhammed Daoud Pashtunyar Khan (1949-04-14) 14 April 1949 (age 71) 2 February 1973 Fatima Begum Prince Duran Daud Khan
Princess Noal Khanum
married Muhammad Ali, Prince of the Sa'id
Prince Mir Wais Khan (1957-01-07) 7 January 1957 (age 63)

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.[50] However, Mostafa Zaher did not become a candidate.


Titles and styles

Styles of
Mohammed Zahir Shah of Afghanistan
Emblem of Afghanistan (1931-1973).svg
Reference styleHis Majesty
Spoken styleYour Majesty

Mohammed Zahir Shah used the title His Majesty during his reign.[51]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Encyclopædia Britannica, "Mohammad Zahir Shah"
  2. ^ "Profile: Ex-king Zahir Shah". 1 October 2001 – via
  3. ^ *C-SPAN: Afghan King & Queen 1963 Visit to U.S. Reel America Preview (official U.S. government video; public domain).
  4. ^ Judah, Tim (23 September 2001). "Profile: Mohamed Zahir Shah" – via
  5. ^ "State funeral for Afghanistan's former President". UNAMA. 19 March 2009.
  6. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, "Afghanistan Mohammad Nader Shah (1929–33)"
  7. ^ "Lycee Esteqlal". World News.
  8. ^ a b c d "The King of Afghanistan". The Daily Telegraph. 24 July 2007. Retrieved 18 March 2008.
  9. ^ "Mohammad Zahir Shah, 92, Last King of Afghanistan". The New York Sun.
  10. ^ a b Judah, Tim (23 September 2001). "Profile: Mohamed Zahir Shah". The Observer. Retrieved 18 March 2008.
  11. ^ a b 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.
  12. ^ Jentleson, Bruce W.; Paterson, Thomas G. (1997). "Encyclopedia of U.S. foreign relations". The American Journal of International Law. Oxford University Press: 24. ISBN 0-19-511055-2.
  13. ^ Dupree, Louis: Afghanistan, pages 477–478. Princeton University Press, 1980
  14. ^ 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 28 June 2010.
  15. ^ Giustozzi, Antonio (2008). "AFGHANISTAN: TRANSITION WITHOUT END" (PDF). p. 13.
  16. ^ a b c "Profile: Ex-king Zahir Shah". BBC. 1 October 2001. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
  17. ^ Judah, Tim (23 September 2001). "Profile: Mohamed Zahir Shah". The Observer. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
  18. ^ a b Steyn, Mark (6 October 2001). "The man who would be king, if you don't mind". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  19. ^ "Before Taliban". Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  20. ^ "The Letter From the Afghan King" – via
  21. ^ "GILAD ZUCKERMAN COINS COLLECTION - KUMPULAN MATA-MATA UANG - مسكوكات - אוסף מטבעות גלעד צוקרמן". Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h Barry Bearak, "Former King of Afghanistan Dies at 92", The New York Times, 23 July 2007.
  23. ^ Anthony Arnold (1 June 1985). Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. Hoover Press. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-8179-8213-3.
  24. ^
  25. ^ Mohammad Hashim Kamali (1 January 1985). Law in Afghanistan: A Study of the Constitutions, Matrimonial Law and the Judiciary. BRILL. ISBN 90-04-07128-8.[page needed]
  26. ^ "Mohammed Zahir Shah". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  27. ^
  28. ^ a b McCarthy, Michael (24 September 2001). "War on Terrorism: Opposition – Exiled king declares himself ready to return". The Independent. London: Look Smart: Find Articles. Archived from the original on 9 November 2007. Retrieved 23 July 2007.
  29. ^ Gall, Sandy (23 July 2007). "Mohammad Zahir Shah". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 March 2008.
  30. ^ Crossette, Barbara (7 March 1989). "India to Provide Aid to Government in Afghanistan". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  31. ^ Weymouth, Lally (17 January 1988). "TOUGH TALK FROM NAJIBULLAH" – via
  32. ^ Burns, John F. (3 June 1990). "King of Afghanistan, After 17 Years in Exile, Is on the People's Minds Again". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  33. ^ US-Pakistan Relations: Pakistan’s Strategic Choices in the 1990s by Nasra Talat Farooq
  34. ^ "Justice" (PDF). Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  35. ^ "April 18, 2002: Zahir Shah returns to Afghanistan after 29-year exile". Gulf News. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  36. ^ "Afghanistan: Afghans Welcome Former King's Return". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  37. ^ a b "No ordinary homecoming". BBC News. 17 April 2002. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  38. ^ a b c Dorronsoro, Gilles. "The Return to Political Fragmentation". Afghanistan: Revolution Unending, 1979–2002. C. Hurst & Co. p. 330. ISBN 1-85065-683-5.
  39. ^ a b "Former Afghan king returns to palace". BBC. 4 August 2002. Retrieved 31 March 2018.
  40. ^ Anderson, Jon Lee (30 May 2005). "The Man in the Palace". The New Yorker. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  41. ^ Ltd, Allied Newspapers. "Former Afghan king moves into his old palace". The Times. Malta. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  42. ^ "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 30 September 2007.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  43. ^ Bearak, Barry (24 July 2007). "Mohammad Zahir Shah, Last Afghan King, Dies at 92". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  44. ^ AP Archive (21 July 2015). "President Karzai announcing death of King Zahir Shah". Retrieved 8 March 2019 – via YouTube.
  45. ^ "Afghanistan's King Mohammad Zahir Shah Laid to Rest", Associated Press (Fox News), 24 July 2007.
  46. ^ Suro, Roberto (15 November 1987). "In Afghan King, a Soft Voice for a Soviet Pullout". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  47. ^ Hoodbhoy, Nafisa (11 November 2001). "A Future Veiled in False Hopes" – via
  48. ^ "Leaving Afghanistan: is it finally time to be positive about this blighted nation?". New Statesman. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  49. ^ Arabian Royal Agency
  50. ^ Ahmad Majidyar (January 2009). "Afghanistan's Presidential Election" (PDF). American Enterprise Institute. Archived from the original on 8 September 2009. 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.
  51. ^ "Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers, 1934, Europe, Near East and Africa, Volume II - Office of the Historian".