Jan-Fishan Khan

Jan-Fishan Khan
Born ?
Paghman, Afghanistan
Died 1864
Sardhana, India
Nationality Afghan
Occupation Warlord and Nawab (noble)
Children Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah Sardar Bhadur Mir Khan
Parent(s) Sayed Qutubuddin Khan
Relatives Shah family

Sayyid Muhammed Shah, better known by his title as Jan-Fishan Khan, was a 19th-century Afghan warlord.[1][2] He participated in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42) and the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and on both occasions, he supported the British. For his services to the British, Khan was granted the estate of Sardhana and is the forefather of the Nawabs of Sardhana. Interestingly, he is also an ancestor of Naseeruddin Shah, the Indian actor, and of Zamiruddin Shah, vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University.


Jan-Fishan Khan was the son of an Afghan noble, Sayyid Qutubuddin Khan, of Paghman, the family's ancestral home in Afghanistan.[2] His family has historically claimed descent from Ali ar-Ridha, the eighth Imam,[3] through Najmuddin Kubra and the Arab Sufi Syed Bahaudin Shah.


In the First Anglo-Afghan War, Sayyid Muhammed Shah, also known to the British as the "Laird of Pughman",[4] supported Shah Shuja and the British Army against other Afghan forces,[5] apparently in order to honour a family allegiance to Shah Shuja.[2] In 1840, he was awarded the title "Jan-Fishan Khan" by Shah Shuja for his support.[6][7] According to writer James Moore, the title means "The Zealot" (however this is a misunderstanding of the meaning of the Persian idiom which can mean "zealous" in the sense of 'ready to sacrifice one's life', as it is defined in Steingass).[8][9] One of Jan-Fishan Khan's descendants Saira Shah has correctly explained that this nom de guerre translates literally as "scatterer of souls".[10] Shah recounts that the appellation has a double meaning: first, that of a warlord scattering the souls of his enemies, and second, one based on a Sufi couplet describing the supplicant's devotion to God:

If I had a thousand lives
I would scatter them all at your blessed feet.[10]

Having accompanied Sir Robert Sale's force on its march from Kabul to Jalalabad, Jan-Fishan Khan was honourably mentioned in despatches for his assistance.[7] In the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Jan-Fishan Khan again helped the British to quell the mutiny.[5][11] Lethbridge (1893) gives the following summary in The Golden Book of India, a genealogical and biographical source:

"At the time of the Mutiny, the head of the family, Sayyid Muhammed Jan Fishan Khan Saheb, took the side of the Government at once. When the Mutiny occurred at Meerut, he raised a body of horse, consisting of his followers and dependents, and officered by himself and his relatives; accompanied General Wilson's force to the Hindan; was present in both actions, and thence to Delhi, where he remained with the headquarters camp until the city was taken, when his men were employed to keep order in Delhi.[5]

Exiled from Kabul ever since the British retreat from Afghanistan, Jan-Fishan Khan eventually came to settle in Sardhana, a town near Meerut in the North-Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and was given the hereditary title of Nawab of Sardhana in recognition of his services.[5] He had lost several of his sons in the fighting.[2][4][7]

The Sardhana estate

According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India (1908): On account of services rendered to Sir Alexander Burnes in his Kabul mission, and subsequently to the British in the retreat from Kabul, a pension of Rs. 1,000 a month was given to the family, which settled at Sardhana. As a reward for subsequent help to the British in the Indian mutiny, the title of Nawab Bahadur, and confiscated estates assessed at Rs. 10,000 per annum, were conferred on Jan Fishan Khan, with concessions as to the revenue assessed. The pension was also made permanent. During the lifetime of the first Nawab, and for some time after, the family added largely to the estate, but speculations in indigo and personal extravagance caused losses. The estate was taken under the Court of Wards in 1895, and in 1901 the debts, amounting to 1 million (100,000 = 100,000 Rupees), were paid off by a loan from Government.[3]

Tradition has it that the town of Sardhana (population 12,059 in 1891, growing to 12,467 in 1901 and 47,970 by 2001) was founded by a Raja Sarkat, whose family ruled there until their expulsion by the Muslims. Sardhana was once famous as the residence of the Catholic ruler Begum Samru.[3]

Sufi connection

According to his descendant Idries Shah's obituary, as well as being an Afghan warlord, Jan-Fishan Khan was also a Sufi sage.[1]

Statements attributed to Jan-Fishan Khan by Idries Shah in his books on Sufism include: "The candle is not there to illuminate itself", "You may follow one stream. Realize that it leads to the Ocean. Do not mistake the stream for the Ocean" and "The visible places of Sufi study are like lamps in the dark. The inner places are like the Sun in the sky. The lamp illuminates an area for a time. The sun abolishes the dark". Khan also features in several teaching stories and some didactic passages in these books.[12]


After Jan-Fishan Khan's death in 1864, his three sons succeeded him as Nawab, the last being Saiyid Ahmad Shah,[13] who succeeded in 1882.[14]

Jan-Fishan Khan has a number of notable descendants, including his great-grandson, the author and diplomat the Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah who married the author and traveller Saira Elizabeth Luiza Shah; great-great-grandchildren: the authors and Sufi teachers Idries Shah and Omar Ali-Shah and the storyteller Amina Shah; and great-great-great-grandchildren: the author and filmmaker Tahir Shah; the author, reporter and documentary filmmaker Saira Shah, and Safia Nafisa Shah, Tahir's twin sister, who edited the book Afghan Caravan.[15] Omar Ali-Shah's son, Arif Ali-Shah is a filmmaker and has led Sufi study groups.

Other famous descendants in India, Pakistan and Canada include the former Indian Deputy Chief of Army Staff & Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University Zameerud-din Shah, acclaimed actors Naseeruddin Shah and Syed Kamal (Syed Bilaluddin Shah), as well as the Pakistani-born English cricketer Owais Shah, and Canadian realtor Agha Sarwat Ali Shah.

More descendants: Saiyed Shamim Shah (Salimabad Farms, District kheri, Uttar Pradesh), Maimoona Shah, Kalim Shah (deceased) Najma Shamsi, Parveen Wajid, Pervez Shah.

Saiyed Rizwan Shah, S. Kamran Shah, Shadman Shah, Shabnoor shah, Shahnoor Shah, S. Shiraz Shah, S. Faraz Shah, Hina Shah, Saba Shah, Saher Shah, S. Nadeem Shah


  1. 1 2 Obituary of Idries Shah, The Independent (London) of 26 November 1996.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Shah, Saira (2003), The Storyteller's Daughter, New York, NY: Anchor Books, ISBN 1-4000-3147-8, pp. 19–26
  3. 1 2 3 Imperial Gazetteer of India, v. 22, p. 105, Oxford, 1908. Retrieved from here on 2008-11-14.
  4. 1 2 Sale, Florentia Wynch (1844). A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841-2. London: John Murray, pp. 45, 142, 373
  5. 1 2 3 4 Lethbridge, Sir Roper (1893), The Golden Book of India. A Genealogical and Biographical Dictionary of the Ruling Princes, Chiefs, Nobles, and Other Personages, Titled or Decorated, of the Indian Empire., London, UK/New York, NY: Macmillan and Co., p. 13; reprint by Elibron Classics (2001): ISBN 978-1-4021-9328-6
  6. Moore, James (1986). "Neo-Sufism: The Case of Idries Shah". Religion Today. 3 (3). Retrieved 1 November 2009.
  7. 1 2 3 Text accompanying lithograph depicting Jan-Fishan Khan, Leicester Galleries Retrieved on 14 November 2008.
  8. Steingass, Francis Joseph (2007). A comprehensive Persian-English dictionary. India: Asian Educational Services. ISBN 81-206-0670-1. First published 1892. New edition 2007.
  9. See Steingass dictionary on-line search
  10. 1 2 Shah, Saira (2003), The Storyteller's Daughter, New York, NY: Anchor Books, ISBN 1-4000-3147-8, p. 19. Also see similar interpretations of the title in Sale (1844) Retrieved on 14 November 2008.
  11. Letter from Col. R.J.H. Birch, Secretary to the Government of India in Indian Mutiny 1857 - 58 -- Vol.1 briefly mentions Khan's help for the British.
  12. Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi, pp 152, 186, 269-270, Octagon Press, 1980. It also contains a passage in the section 'Letters and Lectures' entitled 'Which do you seek -- appearance or reality', attributed to Jan-Fishan Khan.
  13. Staff (1908). "Imperial Gazette of India, Vol. XXII, Samadhiala to Singiiana". Oxford. Retrieved 31 May 2009.
  14. Lethbridge, Sir Roper (1893). "The Golden Book of India; a genealogical and biograhical dictionary of the ruling princes, chiefs, nobles, and other personages, titled or decorated, of the Indian empire, with an appendix for Ceylon". Oxford. Retrieved 31 May 2009.
  15. Review of Afghan Caravan by Safia Shah Retrieved on 14 November 2008.

Further reading

External links

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