Awadh is known to capture hearts all across the world. It held a special place in Indian history, as well as foreign history, with British Governor-General Lord Dalhousie calling it the “cherry that will drop into (Britain’s) mouth one day”. Its line of nawabs has often had an undeniable say in the way the later Mughal courts were run. Saadat Ali Khan, being one of the first Nawabs of the province of Awadh, was not an exception.
Saadat Ali Khan or Muhammud Amin Musawi was a ruler who directly witnessed as well as embodied the rule of Mughal emperor Aurangazeb. In fact, he participated in Aurangazeb’s campaign against the Marathas, providing him with the first-hand experience, in such fashion that he was personally awarded the title of “Khan Bahadur” by the Emperor himself, which only enhanced his reign further. Khan also held the garrison commander of Bayana in a failed attempt at freeing Mughal soldiers in the Battle of Bhopal.
A descendent of Muhammad Nasir, a prominent official under the rule of Mughal descendent Bahadur Shah I, Saadat Ali Khan lived the life of a wealthy merchant, under the Shia sect of Islam. He stayed in Nishapur for most of his early life while his father lived in Patna.
Khan’s career bloomed out of humble beginnings, with the posting of “amil”, or the village head, despite living in deep poverty. So how did he reach the ‘Nawab’ status? Apparently, Khan would know of his eventual rise in standing.
During the reign of Jahandar Shah in 1712, Khan accompanied Sabarland Khan, a famed noble, while moving to Ahmedabad to accompany him. On this journey, a notable incident occurred. Due to heavy rains, Khan’s tent broke apart, causing Sabarland Khan to spend an entire night in a bullock cart, constantly criticising Khan for his carelessness in placing the tents. He accused Khan of acting like a “haft hazari” or a “master of seven thousand troops” in his anger. Khan took it in his stride retorted by claiming this statement to be an “auspicious prophecy”.
The next year, during the reign of Farrukhsiyar, Khan arrived at the city of Delhi. Using his connections, he landed a job as a “mansab”, or a hazari, owning a thousand horses. Unfortunately, his upward rise had to be put on pause for three years, as the ruler died that year, leaving Khan without a sponsor.
By the year 1719, under the reign of Shah Jahan II, Khan’s demeanour, passion skill got him into the good books of many, including Syed Hussain Ali Khan, one of the Sayyid brothers, who were notorious for causing the death of Farrukhsiyar, and were kingmakers. He appointed Khan as a “faujdar”.
After a whirlwind of events involving the Sayyid brothers, and a conspiracy against the king, Mughal emperor Muhammad Khan awarded him with the title of “Saadat Ali Khan”. From here, he was promoted to the rank of 6000 zat, a huge leap from his 1000 zat.
From here, he was made the governor of Awadh, in the year 1722. He began gathering troops right before leaving for the province of Awadh. On his journey, he was paused at Farrukhabad, where he met Muhammad Khan Bhangash, who informed him of the Shaikhzadas, who were essentially a tribe located in modern-day Pakistan, as well as parts of North India. He was told specifically of the power of the Shaikzadas who resided in Lucknow. This information proved to be incredibly fruitful for the governor of Awadh.
One night, after passing the Gomti river that graces the city of Lucknow, Khan attacked the Shaikhzadas, defeated them, and drove them out of their own palace. Despite being of Persian heritage, he fought valiantly against the Persian troops of Nader Shah, after swearing his allegiance to the Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shah, while leading a force of nearly 30,000 cavalries from Awadh.
He was brought before Nader Shah himself and was questioned by him. He was asked why he fought so ardently for the Mughal emperor, to which he responded saying he did not want to betray him. Shah admired his patriotism and genuine loyalty. After much deliberation, a settlement of 5 million rupees was paid by Muhammad Shah to Nader Shah, out of sheer force.
After this fiasco, Khan was denied the position of “mir bakshi” by Nader Shah, despite his undying loyalty, which angered him. After advising Shah to take over Delhi, he retired to his house in Delhi, and succumbed to the pain of “bodily ailments”. His loss was felt in waves throughout the courts of Delhi.
His children, all women with no children, were unable to act as an heir to his Nawab position, leading to it being passed on to his eldest daughter’s husband, who was also his nephew, Muhammad Muqim, later known as Safdar Jung.
Saadat Ali Khan was only the first in a line of powerful administrators who had mastered the art of handling power behind the scenes, in the hushed whispers of “advice”. His prophetic sensibility, as well as his sharp eye for tactics took him a long way that continued down the line of Nawabs for years and years.