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The Ghilzais (also known as Ghiljies or Ghaljis) are the largest Pashtun tribe located mainly in southeastern Afghanistanmarker, between Kandaharmarker and Ghaznimarker and extending eastwards towards the Suleiman Mountainsmarker into Pakistanmarker where they can also be found in large numbers. They are the most populous Pashtun tribe in Afghanistan. They are largely nomads and so are often referred to as Kuchis, along with other nomadic groups.


One theory states that the name of the Ghilzai is derived from Khaldjī, meaning either "Son of Mountain " or "swordsman."

Another etymological tradition, disavowed by the Ghilzai for obvious reasons, is that the name comes from the Pashtun word for thief, ghal, and zay, which means "son of." The folk story is that the ancestor of the Ghilzai was a prince who either abducted or eloped with the daughter of a local ruler. The couple are identified as "either Shah Hussain, a Ghurid prince, and Bibi Mato, a granddaughter of Qays Abdar Rasheed, the putative ancestor of all Pashtuns, or Mokarram Shah; Hussain from Ghor, and the daughter of a Pashtun noble."

History and origins

The Ghilzais are an Afghan tribe but their origins are not certain. They are reputed to be descended at least in part from the Khalaj or Khilji Turks, who entered Afghanistan in the 10th century, as well as the numerous other invaders from Central Asia and the Middle East who have entered Afghanistan over the centuries. According to Elphinstone, the Khilji, "though Turks by descent...had so long settled among the Afghans that they had almost identified with that people."

During the 14th and 15th centuries, various Ghilzai Afghan dynasties took control over vast areas of India. The Lodi Dynasty ruled over the Delhi Sultanate during its last phase. The dynasty, founded by Bahlul Khan Lodi ruled from 1451 to 1526 when the last Lodi ruler, Ibrahim Lodi died. Other Ghilzai dynasties included the Suri Dynasty who was founded by the powerful medieval conqueror, Sher Shah, who soundly defeated the Mughal Emperor Humayun in Chausa on June 26, 1539 and again in Bilgram on May 17, 1540.
When the Hotaki tribe revolted against Safavid rule under the leadership of Mir Wais Hotak, the Ghilzai came into loggerheads with their western neighbors. Mir Wais Hotak, the leader of the Hotakis, had visited the Persian courtand understood their military weaknesses. The Pashtun tribes rankled under the ruling Safavids because of their continued attempts to convert the Pashtun from Sunni to Shia Islam. Spawning Afghan nationalism, Mirwais succeeded in expelling the Safavid Georgian Governor of Kandaharmarker and assumed the post for himself. His eldest son, Mahmud, effected a successful invasion of Persia which culminated in the conquest of Isfahanmarker and the deposition of the Safawi Shah Soltan Hosein. Mahmud was then crowned Shah and ruled for a brief period before being deposed by his own clansmen. His nephew and successor reigned for a brief period of four years before being killed by fellow Afghans, while fleeing towards Kandahar. The Safawi dynasty was then restored in the person of Soltan Hosein's only surviving son, Tahmasp II.

In more recent times, three of the communist presidents were Ghilzais, Nur Muhammad Taraki (of the Taraki tribe), Hafizullah Amin (of the Kharoti tribe), and Mohammed Najibullah (of the Ahmadzai tribe). Although the Khalq was dominated mostly by Ghilzais, many of the Mujahideen were also Ghilzais in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdur Rasul Sayyaf.

In the 1990s, the Taliban leadership as well as rank and file were mostly composed of Ghilzais , along with Wazirs , which made them at odds with the Durrani tribe who are currently represented by the administration of President Hamid Karzai. The Ghilzais remain one of the largest and most prominent ethnic groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan and continue to enjoy considerable autonomy. Taliban leader Mohammed Omar also belongs to the Ghilzais.

Location and economy

The Ghilzais are concentrated in an area spanning Ghaznimarker and Kalat-i-Ghilzaimarker eastward into western Pakistan, but are predominantly a nomadic group unlike the Durranis who can be found in permanent settlements. They regularly cross over between the two countries often being exempted from customs due to the acceptance of their nomadic traditions by officials from both countries. Population estimates vary, but they are most likely around 20% to 25% of the population of Afghanistan and probably number over 9 million in Afghanistan alone with 4 million or more found in neighboring Pakistan. Most Ghilzais are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school and are often devout to their faith and also follow the Pashtun code of honor known as Pashtunwali. Most Ghilzais work as herdsmen as well as construction workers and in other jobs that allow them to travel. Often possessing great mechanical aptitude, the Ghilzai nonetheless have an extremely low literacy rate hovering below 10%.


  1. Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North West Frontier Province, H.A. Rose, pg. 241
  3. Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North West Frontier Province, H. A. Rose, pg. 241.
  4. At the Court of Amîr: A Narrative. By John Alfred Gray, pg. 203.
  5. A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases: Hobson-Jobson. By C. Burnell, Henry Yule, pg. 371.
  6. Ewans, Martin (2002) Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics HarperCollins, New York, Page 30 ISBN 0-06-050507-9

See also

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