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The Eastward Journey of Muslim Kingship >
The Great Indo-Muslim Rulers in South Asia

Four Indo-Muslim rulers stand out as embodiments of this new Turko-Persian Islamicate culture that prevailed in South Asia from the eleventh century on: Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 997–1030), Iltutmish (r. 1211–36), Muhammad ibn Tughluq (r. 1325–51), and Akbar (r. 1555–1604).

Because the reign of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (what is now Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan) set the tone for much of what followed, his legacy has been marked by controversy. Mahmud was a dogged campaigner who conducted no less than seventeen military forays into India, and he delighted in chronicling his own military feats. Like other Persian and Turko-Persian rulers, Mahmud commissioned the official histories that he wanted to stand as the record of his reign for posterity. Was he a religious zealot or a cosmopolitan pragmatist? Historians remain divided, but Mahmud's repeated military campaigns provided the basis for his successful rule. He not only pillaged and destroyed; he also built and rebuilt cities within his reign. As a patron, he was particularly adroit. In the 1020s the celebrated poet Firdowsi came to Mahmud's court to present his epic poem, the Shahnameh. Other courtiers included historians, lingists, and mathematicians, and even a polymath who was all three: the incomparable comparativist, Abu al-Rayan Ahmad al-Biruni.

Mahmud lured al-Biruni to join his royal entourage in 1018, but because the sultan was often campaigning, the scholar had to accompany him. Al-Biruni crisscrossed northwestern India with the Ghaznavid army during several forays before Mahmud and al-Biruni settled in Ghazna in the mid-1020s, where they remained until Mahmud's death in 1030. Al-Biruni resented the imposition of royal demands, but his forced travels allowed him to expand his mathematical achievements to include a comprehensive cultural and historical survey of India that still remains a classic. His Kitab al-Hind (Book of India) surveys the range of Hindu culture, distinguishing among history, social customs, and doctrines with a rare ethnographic sensitivity. It was completed just before Mahmud's death. Despite his prolific output, with more than 146 writings to his credit, al-Biruni is renowned chiefly for this survey and a handful of roughly twenty-one other extant works, a mere 15 percent of his entire corpus.

Mahmud's legacy fared better than al-Biruni's, at least for awhile. Because Ghazna was a city on the edge of a powerful Iranian empire, the Samanid, Mahmud built it up to be a capital city to rival Baghdad in its cultural refinement. The warriors, who were the mainstay of Mahmud's conquests and his administration, were actually Turkic slaves who had served under Persian rulers. In the eleventh century they asserted their independence, so much so that this initial period of Turko-Persian-Islamicate expansion is often known as “the Slave Dynasties.” The new Muslim elites of South Asia were Turks who favored Persianate culture and who governed in the name of Islam. They still favored their westward flank, and in addition to seeking caliphal recognition, they tried but failed to conquer Khurasan (in northeastern Iran). Instead, they expanded to the east and south, not limiting their patronage to Ghazna but extending it to another city, Lahore. The wealth of India drew them further into the subcontinent, leading them to develop Lahore as another center of Islamicate culture.

The Great Indo-Muslim Rulers in South Asia

The immense congregational mosque in Delhi known as Quwwat al-Islam (“Might of Islam”) was one of the first built in India. Begun in 1191, the mosque stands on the site of a pre-Islamic temple whose ruins were incorporated in the structure. The tall iron pillar in the courtyard, originally dedicated to the Indian god Vishnu around 400, was re-erected as a trophy to symbolize Islam's triumph over Hinduism.

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The Ghurids displaced the Ghaznavids in 1192, and pushed the leading edge of Turko-Islamicate culture further into the Aryan heartland to Delhi. Invading from the Hindu Kush mountain range, the Ghurids razed Ghazna and captured Lahore before winning Delhi. The Ghurids then made Delhi their capital and established a composite architectural style that became a pattern for other parts of Hindustan. The Ghurids' successors became known as the Mamluks, or “slave kings,” of North India (not to be confused with the Mamluks of North Africa, another slave dynasty of premodern Islamic history). The Mamluks and their successors—the Khaljis, the Tughluqs, the Sayyids, and the Lodis—were collectively known as the Delhi Sultanate. From the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries (1206–1526), they dominated North India. In the aftermath of Mongol incursions to the north and west, they welcomed refugees, including architects and artists, musicians, poets, and religious scholars, most of them specialists in high Persianate culture. What these specialists had learned in Central Asia, in regions such as Transoxiana and Khurasan, they in turn transmitted (and further refined) in the new cosmopolitan centers of South Asia that were now ruled by former Turkic slaves.

The Great Indo-Muslim Rulers in South Asia

The towering Qutb Minar (1199–1368), the minaret attached to the Quwwat al-Islam mosque in Delhi, combines foreign and indigenous elements. Like earlier minarets in Afghanistan, it was built in flanged stages separated by balconies, but it uses a local material, sandstone.

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Among the many monuments that come from the Mamluk period, few rival the Quwwat al-Islam mosque (“The Might of Islam”) located in Delhi. Although the actual name of the mosque is still debated, its central location in the new capital underscores its symbolic importance to Muslim rulers. Construction of the mosque began in 1191. It featured an enormous open quadrangle courtyard set on an earlier Hindu temple site. Hindu craftsmen used material from the demolished temples to construct a culturally hybrid place of worship, combining Hindu tastes and art in an Islamic structure. Included in the central courtyard of the mosque is a huge iron pillar of particular interest. The pillar predates Muslim rule by at least six hundred years. It is an imposing structure made of pure malleable iron, impervious to rust, and an inscription, still preserved, dedicates it to the god Vishnu in memory of a Hindu king. That same hybrid is confirmed in another edifice that separates the Quwwat al-Islam mosque from others: the dominant minaret known as the Qutb Minar that stands next to the mosque. Five stories in gradually diminishing height, it shows a perfection of calligraphic symmetry and floral ornamentation. Depending on the perspective of the viewer, it can seem to be a markedly Islamic building, with Arabic words clearly etched in each band, or a distinctive blend of Islamic and Hindu motifs can be noted, because the floral patterns that frame and interlace the Arabic words are reminiscent of both Hindu and Buddhist structures from South Asia.

Also part of the same mosque complex is a tomb that is among the earliest that Muslim rulers in India had built for themselves. Its construction was ordered by the powerful Mamluk ruler, Sultan Shams al-Din Iltutmish (r. 1211–36), six years before his death. Iltutmish did what no ruler before had done: He consolidated the disparate regions of North India into an independent polity, a kingdom bearing an Islamic stamp but allowing Hindus first safety then inclusion within the ruling strata of the Delhi Sultanate. He also held off, as much by diplomacy as by armed force, the feared Mongols, whose zeal for conquest had brought them to the borders of Hindustan. He further cultivated Sufi masters, acknowledging them as spiritual lodestones, not only for his subjects but also for himself and his court. It is fitting that Iltutmish would choose to have his own tomb set within the premier mosque of thirteenth-century Delhi, because he himself had extended the scope of the Quwwat al-Islam mosque and completed the Qutb Minar. Although never completed, his tomb became the benchmark for royal mausoleums in Muslim South Asia. It boasts a marble cenotaph beautifully centered within receding red sandstone arches. Its decorative inscriptions and geometrical designs exhibit a high level of workmanship, reflecting both Islamic and Hindu aesthetic motifs.

The Great Indo-Muslim Rulers in South Asia

In carving the decoration of the Qutb Minar, Indian stonemasons replaced the traditional representational motifs of Indian architecture with Arabic inscriptions and vegetal ornament.

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If Iltutmish set the tone for inspired rule in the thirteenth century, the most important of the Turkic slave rulers in the next century was the sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq (r. 1325–51). His father, Ghiyas ud-Din Tughluq, had earlier militarily defended the sultanate against Mongol threats. The levels of fear and revulsion of the nascent Indo-Muslim Turks at the Mongol legions would be difficult to exaggerate. In the words of the premier mid-fourteenth-century Deccani historian, Isami, the Mongols were “a wretched people, with narrow eyes, flat noses, and mouths as wide as the gates of a palace. From their depressed noses flows a paste-like yellowish fluid, day and night.”

Ghiyas ud-Din not only coped with the Mongols, he also annexed a major region in the south and put down a rebellion in Bengal. Upon his death in 1325, he left his son and successor a vast, though far from integrated, territory. It was the singular mark of Muhammad ibn Tughluq's reign that he tried to subdue and consolidate several rebellious rulers—Muslim as well as Hindu—in the south to forge an expanded Islamicate realm. He picked a bold means to effect this goal: he shifted many Turko-Persian elites from the northwest to the central south, from Delhi to Devagiri in Deccan (the Indian peninsula south of the Narmada River). This was not an easy move. It involved the forced transfer of approximately 10 percent of Delhi's Muslim population. It wrought havoc upon the Muslim elites who were “chosen” to realize the imperial project. Many died from the rigor of the long journey from northern to southern India.

The Great Indo-Muslim Rulers in South Asia

The Delhi sultan Shams al-Din Iltutmish (r. 1211–6) exemplifies the Turko-Persian-Islamicate culture that dominated South Asia from the eleventh century. His tomb in Delhi, made of red sandstone that contrasts with the white marble cenotaph, set a standard for royal mausoleaums in the region.

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One can document the suffering and resentment felt by the unfortunate migrants, and several contemporary and later historians have taken this approach, but one may also see in this move Muhammad ibn Tughluq's pragmatic genius. He was faced with a daunting challenge in the northwestern part of his kingdom. From the mid-thirteenth century on the Mongol threat loomed large, preempting other imperial strategies. Although his predecessors plundered the south in order to reinforce the north, Muhammad ibn Tughluq sought to integrate the south (the Deccan region) into the northwest (the Indo-Gangetic plain). His goal was to safeguard and protect Islamicate society from the feared Mongol infidels. The resulting migration lasted ten years (1313–23), and it made possible what otherwise would have been unimaginable: the annexation of the formerly independendent kingdoms of Deccan into the Delhi Sultanate. To seal the symbolic significance of this large shift, Muhammad ibn Tughluq had the former capital city of Devagiri renamed Dawlatabad and made it a co-capital of the Sultanate, on a par with Delhi.

The success of the sultan's managerial boldness depended on spiritual as well as material resources. But which had priority? Even for those who opposed the move from Delhi to Dawlatabad, as did the historian Isami, its outcome was seen as dependent on a spiritual resource whose mediators were shaykhs rather than sultans. In a bold reversal of hierarchical loyalty, Isami attributed the ultimate source of power not to the Muhammad ibn Tughluq but to the spiritual slave or faqir. The “true” masters of the realm were the Sufi masters, those whom Iltutmish had earlier acknowledged as superior beings. Later rulers also identified faqirs with the core values of Turko-Persian-Islamicate culture, and among their major representatives in Hindustan were the Chishti saints of North and South India.

The Great Indo-Muslim Rulers in South Asia

The burgeoning Muslim population of the Indian subcontinent in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries led to the construction of mosques and the copying of the Quran. This manuscript of the Quran, transcribed at Bijapur in Deccan in 1483, uses the rough paper and swooping bihari script typical of the region.

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This logic of hierarchic reversal presents a new reading of history. What had saved North India from the Mongols, according to Isami, was was not Muhammad ibn Tughluq's army but his respect for the shrine of Shaykh Muin ad-Din Chishti (d. 1236) in Ajmer. The evidence was the sultan himself, who had journeyed to Ajmer as a pilgrim after a successful engagement with the Mongols. The sultan could not control saintly power, however, and the decline of Delhi as an imperial city from 1327 on was considered a result, above all, of the loss of its saintly patron, in this case, Muin ad-Din's principal successor in Delhi, Nizam ad-Din Awliya (d. 1325), but also to the sultan's subsequent rudeness toward Nizam ad-Din's successor, Nasir ad-Din Chiragh-i Dihli (d. 1356).

By the same logic, Isami explained the prosperity of Dawlatabad after the great migration ending in 1323. The city's prosperity was not due to military, political, social, or economic factors but rather to the spiritual influence of the Chishtiya. Again, the link was to Shaykh Nizam ad-Din, for the Chishti patron of Delhi had commissioned one of his own successors to migrate to Deccan. It was the lineage of this man—Burhan ad-Din (d. 1337), then succeeded by Zain ad-Din Din Shirazi (d. 1369)—that made Deccan prosper. In the words of a poem by Isami:

It was the grace of Zain ad-Din that made This stormy world like the garden of heaven. From his aroma the Chishti garden became fragrant; Under his protection the whole of Deogir was saved. Because the Tughluq governor sought his shelter, The Tughluq star rose to the height of Saturn. Wherever you see a fortunate amir It's due to the blessing of a lowly faqir.

Discerning the relationship between amir and faqir is complicated, however, by the natural tension between their respective roles. Often that tension is concealed in the historical sources that project the only existing record, apart from archeological artifacts, of pre-modern South Asia. As previously indicated, nearly all the sources result from imperial patronage: the story that prevails is the one told by the ruler's appointed historian; they are versions double-checked, then approved by the subjects being recorded. In every sense, these records are official biographies or chronicles. In the case of Muhammad ibn Tughluq, for example, it is not his own historian but the historian of a political rival, the Bahmanid empire of Deccan, who gives him both a backhanded compliment, to have been blessed by Muin ad-Din, and a direct rebuke, to have neglected Nizam ad-Din's successor, Nasir ad-Din (d. 1356).

At the same time, the Sufi sources are often reluctant to acknowledge links between notable saints and non-Sufi rulers. For example, Muhammad ibn Tughluq is usually classed as a non-Sufi ruler, yet it is known from an Arabic source, the travelogue of the famous traveler Ibn Battutah (1304–68 or 1369), that Muhammad ibn Tughluq, even before he became the sultan, had consulted Shaykh Nizam ad-Din. The shaykh allegedly exclaimed: “We have given him the kingdom.” It would seem natural then that Muhammad ibn Tughluq was one of the privileged few to bear the bier of the shaykh to his final resting place in 1325, yet no Chishti source records that fact. The key is to see the relationship, always fraught with tension, between the autocratic temporal ruler and his ally, who was also his rival, the all-powerful eternal ruler, the Sufi saint. The most frequent outcome was cooperation between the shaykhs and the sultans. That tradition continued throughout the Delhi Sultanate as well as in other parts of India, but it did not supplant or erase the implicit rivalry between these two repositories of public authority.

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