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Khan

By:
Gene R. Garthwaite
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Khan

As a title, khan has traditionally designated leaders of tribally organized nomads from Central Asia to Northern India, Iran, Anatolia/Turkey, and Southern Russia. The title became widely spread following Chinggis Khan 's Mongol unification in the thirteenth century. Khan was not used in the Arabic-speaking world, except in the Persian Gulf region. It is commonly found in Il khanid and post-Il khanid sources in Persian, where its plural form is khavānīn, an Arabic broken-plural pattern, rather than khānān, which would be in accordance with most Persian human plurals. In colloquial Persian, however, khan with the suffix -hā is heard.

The etymology of khan (leader) is obscure and probably Turkic; however, there is also the possibility of an etymological link with Korean and ultimately with Chinese (or possibly proto-Mongolian and then Chinese), but a link with Persian is generally rejected. Khan, among the Avars in the context of the Byzantine Empire, like that of Mongol usage, is linked with the titles khāqān (Persian); hākān (Turkish); and qayan or khaghan (Mongolian), which are used to designate a holder of an office higher than khan, such as a great khan or emperor. In addition, khāqān was used in Arabic as early as the seventh century to designate a rank such as emperor. The thirteenth-century Secret History of the Mongols makes the distinction between rulers of nomadic confederations (khans) and the emperor of China (khāqān). Ögedei (r. 1229–1241), son and successor to Chinggis Khan (d. 1227), was first titled khan and then khāqān (great khan or emperor), which became the form for successors in the Chinggisid lineage. Furthermore, the Mongols called Beijing “Khānbalīq”—Turkish for “City of the Khan”—after they moved there from Karakorum. Khan consequently signifies a title, an office, a form of address, membership in the ruling Mongol lineage and Mongol successor states and thus an attribute of rulership.

Similar usage of khan, and even khāqān in terms of universal lordship, was followed by the Ottomans and the Ṣafavids, Afshārs, and Qājārs of Iran and by nomads tribally organized in Central Asia and Iran, even Persian-speaking ones, such as the Bakhtiārī. Khan followed the Ottoman sultan 's name in his tughrah (imperial monogram) on official documents, and Ottoman sultans often styled themselves as “khāqān al-barrayn waal-baḥrayn” (“ruler of the two lands and the two seas”). For rulers in all of these dynasties, the use of khan identified them with a tribally organized nomadic past and the Mongol tradition of rule and constituted an element in their legitimacy.

Khan was also used as an administrative title and then as an honorific and form of address. In Ṣafavid Iran, khan designated a governor of lesser rank than the beylerbeyī (governor-general) but higher than sultan, and in Mughal India its use was limited to nobles and courtiers. In eighteenth-century Iran, khan was a rank that could be bestowed by the shah on administrators and military and tribal leaders. In the case of Karīm Khan Zand (r. 1758–1779), founder of the Zand dynasty who never assumed the title of shah, khan even stood in place of shah. In the Bakhtiārī confederation, khan gradually displaced the Turkish term āqā (elder, leader) as a general male honorific in the nineteenth century, and its use was no longer restricted to the ruling Bakhtiārī lineage. Ḥusayn Qulī Khān (d. 1882), the first Bakhtiārī Il-khānī, or confederation leader, appropriated khāqān as his title in a stone-carved inscription (c.1880).

In the twentieth century, khan as an honorific and form of address fell from general use except for tribal leaders, and after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its use even in the tribal context, with the implications of hierarchy and subordination, was discouraged. In Pakistan, however, khan has survived as a surname. Khan continues today as part of the title for the Ismāʿīlī spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, not unlike khāqān, “universal lordship”, in meaning.

See also AGA KHAN.

Bibliography

  • Cleaves, Francis Woodman, trans.The Secret History of the Mongols. Cambridge, Mass., 1982–.
  • Elisseeff, N.“Khan.”Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by P. Bearman, T. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs, Brill 2008, Brill Online.
  • Morgan, David. The Mongols. 2d ed.Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
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