Zahir Shah was an ethnic Pashtun who was born on 15 October 1914, in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was the son of Mohammed Nadir Shah, a senior member of the Barakzai royal family 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. 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.
Zahir Shah was educated in a special class for princes at Habibia High School in Kabul. He continued his education in France where his father had been sent as a diplomatic envoy, studying at the Pasteur Institute and theUniversity of Montpellier. 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. 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.
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”. For the first thirty years he did not effectively rule, ceding power to his paternal uncles, Mohammad Hashim Khan And Shah Mehmood Khan. 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. By the end of the 1930s, agreements on foreign assistance and trade had been reached with many countries, most notably Germany, Italy, and Japan.
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. During this period Afghanistan’s first modern university was founded. During his reign a number of potential advances and reforms were derailed as a result of factionalism and political infighting. Zahir Shah was able to govern on his own in 1963 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.
In 1973, while Zahir Shah was in Italy undergoing eye surgery 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. In August 1973, Zahir Shah abdicated rather than risk an all-out civil war.
Zahir Shah lived in exile in Italy for twenty-nine years in a four-bedroom 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. 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.
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. After the fall of the Taliban, there were open calls for a return to the monarchy. Zahir Shah himself let it be known that he would accept whatever responsibility was placed on him by the Loya Jirga. However he was obliged to publicly step aside at the behest of the United States as many of delegates to the Loya Jirga were prepared to vote for Zahir Shah and block the US-backed Hamid Karzai. 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.” He was given the ceremonial title “Father of the Nation” in the current Constitution of Afghanistan symbolizing his role in Afghanistan’s history as a nonpolitical symbol of national unity. The title of the ‘Father of the Nation’ dissolved with his death.
Hamid Karzai, a prominent figure from the Popalzai clan, became the president of Afghanistan and Zahir Shah’s relatives and supporters were provided with key posts in the transitional government.
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. 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.