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Delhi Sultanate

Imtiyaz Yusuf
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Delhi Sultanate

The Delhi Sultanate (1206–1555) also known as Sultanat-e-Hind refers to Turco-Persian and Afghan dynasties antecedent to Mughal rule in India. The Delhi sultanates which ruled from Delhi were the successors to the Ghaznavid (977–1040) and the Ghūrīd dynasties (1186–1206).

The first Delhi sultanate, also known as the Mamlūk or Slave dynasty (1206–1290), was established by Quṭb al-Dīn Aybak (r. 1206–1210), who was the slave (mamlūk) general of the last Ghūrī ruler Muʿizz al-Dīn Muhammad (r. 1203–1206). Slavery was an integral part of the political system. It supplied the well-trained Turkish men who were specialists in warfare and government and loyal to their masters.

The Mamlūk dynastyʾs rule extended from the Khyber Pass to Bengal. Quṭb al-Dīn Aybak built the Qūwat al-Islam mosque and also initiated construction of the famous Quṭb Minār in Delhi, which still exists. The construction was continued by his successor Iltutmish and was completed during the reign of Fīrūz Shāh Tughluq.

Iltutmish (r. 1211–1236), who consolidated the dynastyʾs political foundations, faced several problem, such as defending his western border, resisting the internal intrigues of Muslim noblemen, and dealing with opposition from independent Hindu rulers. He was succeeded by his daughter Razia Sultana (r. 1236–1240)—the first woman ruler in Islamic history. Razia Sultana had to defend her throne against internal intrigue from discontented nobles and also from the Mongol invasion of Sindh, Multan, and Punjab. Balaban (1266–1287) was another famous sultan of the Mamlūk dynasty. He strengthened the army and did away with internal conspiracies to reduce his power and overthrow him. An effective ruler, he established peace, officiated with kingly decorum at his court, and resisted the Mongol incursions.

The last ruler of this dynasty was a weakling, deposed by Jalāl al-Dīn Fīrūz Khaljī in 1290, who then established his own dynasty. The Khaljīs were of Turkic origin and came to India through Afghanistan. Jalāl al-Dīn was succeeded by his nephew and son-in-law Muhammad, who took on the title of Sultan ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn Muhammad Khaljī (r. 1294–1316). ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn had a great impact on history of Muslim-ruled India. He was a bold ruler with keen political and economic acumen, and a successful military strategist who was able to ward off the Mongol invasions. He also introduced the kharāj (land tax), which was set at half the product of each iqṭāʿ (revenue district). As well, ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn initiated a food sufficiency policy, purchasing surplus grains from peasants and storing them for use in case of natural calamities, and he introduced the policy of fixing prices supervised by royal officials. ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn is remembered for seeking reconciliation with his opponents and treating them with respect and honor.

The last Khaljī king was Qutb Dīn Mubārak Shāh (r. 1316–1320) whose severity led to his murder by a slave named Khusraw Khān who then assumed power. An insult to Islam from his Hindu relatives prompted a Muslim general, Ghazī Malik Tughluq, to overthrow Khusraw. Tughluq then set up the next Delhi sultanate, the Tughluq Sultanate of Delhi (1320–1398).

Ghazī Malik Tughluq adopted the title of Ghiyāth al-Dīn Tughluq. He improved the state of administration, secured safety in his realm, and promoted agriculture by protecting the right of the peasants. He also conquered the Deccan and made Bengal, which was then ruled by the descendents of Balaban, into a vassal state. He died in 1325 and was succeeded by the famous Muhammad bin Tughlug who ruled for twenty-six years.

Muhammad bin Tughluq was a refined person, educated in Islamic sciences, philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. He was an astute ruler and firm administrator. His decision in 1327 to move the capital from Delhi to Devagiri in the South, renamed as Dawalatābād, reflected his expansive ambitions. But he faced many internal rebellions from East Bengal and Gujarat, and was ultimately unsuccessful. He died in 1351 and was succeeded by his cousin Fīrūz Shāh Tughluq.

Fīrūz Shāh Tughluq (r. 1351–1388) first addressed the dissatisfactions created by his predecessorʾs policies. He had to streamline financial policy and recover lost revenue. He built the new city of Fīrūzābād, repaired damage to the Quṭb Minār, and built many new townships. His rule became weakened after the death of his son in 1374 and subsequent intrigues. Fīrūz Shāh died in 1388.

Timur Lenk, the Turcic conqueror invaded India in 1398. He defeated the army of Mahmūd Tughluq, the last Tughluq king, at Panipat, and Delhi was destroyed.

After the arrival of Timur, two small dynasties came to rule from Delhi. First was the Sayyid dynasty (1414–1451), founded by Khidr Khān, who claimed to be a sayyid—a descendant of the Prophet. He joined Timurʾs campaign in India and Timur appointed him ruler of Punjab and Sindh. He eventually captured Delhi, then in a state of political chaos.

The Sayyid dynasty lasted only thirty-seven years. The last sultan, ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn ʿĀlam Shāh (1445–1451), had given up all power to an Afghan noble Bahlūl Lodī. Bahlūl seized power after ʿĀlam Shāhʾs abdication and established the Lodī dynasty (1451–1526). Bahlūl died in 1489 and was succeeded by Sikandar Lodī. Sikandar Lodī (r. 1489–1517), a capable sultan who ruled from Delhi, gained control over Bihar and entered into a treaty with Husayn Shāh, the ruler of Bengal, whereby both parties recognized each otherʾs borders.

Sikandar Lodī then established his capital at Agra. He was able to keep the Afghan nobles, who could be a source of trouble, under control. Sikandar Lodī died in 1517 and was succeeded by Ibrāhīm Lodī, who alienated the Afghan nobles, who in turn invited the Afghan adventurer Bābur to come and take over Delhi, which he did in 1526. This brought the Lodī dynasty to an end and marked the beginning of Mughal (Mongol) rule in India.

During the period of Delhi sultanate, there were several independent provincial dynasties. The Sharqī dynasty (1394–1479) of Jawnpūr extended from Aligarh to Bihar and Tirhut in the east, serving as a buffer zone between Bengal and Delhi. Islam was introduced in Kashmir in 1313 by Shāh Mīr or Mīrzā of Swat who became the ruler there in 1339, and was succeeded by his sons until displaced by powerful tribes. Sindh was ruled by Sūmras, who were Ismāʿīlīs. They were succeeded by Sunnī Sammas. The Sammas were replaced by Mughals of the Arghun tribe in 1527. Gujarat was ruled by Muzaffarids (1391–1573) until conquered by the Mughal king Akbar in 1573. In Deccan, the Bahmanī kingdom (1347–1527) lasted until its several parts were annexed by the Mughal kings namely Akbar, Shāh Jahān, and Awrangzīb.

The Muslim arrival in India during the era of Delhi sultanate marked the early meeting between Islam and Indian religions of Hinduism, Carvaka, Jainism, Buddhism, and related philosophies. During his rule Iltutmish made it clear that in India, with a non-Muslim environment, Islamic law could not be applied in its entirety. While ʿAlāʿ al-Dīn Khaljī included Hindus and Jains in his political setup, he and his son married into ruling Hindu families. He received Hindu rulers in his court with respect. Muhammad bin Tughluq appointed Hindus to administrative positions, including as governors of provinces.

Gradually Muslim arts, architecture, literature, philosophy and other sciences borrowed and absorbed motifs and concepts from Hindu philosophy, arts, architecture and literature, leading to the synthesis of Islam and Indian cultures. Local languages were adopted and Indian, Arabic and Persian classics were translated into Indian and Muslim languages, laying the foundations of Indian Islam. Muhammad bin Tughluq held religious dialogues with Indian scholars and saints, while Fīrūz Shāh Tuqhluq financed Persian translations of Sanskrit texts.

There was an interchange between Sanskrit, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, and Persian and Arabic languages. The interchange between languages contributed to the emergence of new languages such as Urdu in the north and Dhakni in the south, and great literary figures of the age, such as Amīr Khusraw (d. 1325) and Hasan Sijzī. The realm of music also saw the fusion between Persian, Arabic, Central Asian, and Indian instruments.

Persian, Afghan, and Central Asian Muslim scholars, Ṣūfīs, poets, and intellectuals traveled to India opening madrasahs and khānqāhs (Ṣūfī lodges), resulting in a minority of Indians converting to Islam, mostly from the lower castes. Islam offered the status of social equality and access to urban and cosmopolitan culture.

Sufism played a central role in the conversion process of Indians to Islam. Ṣūfī ascetics, such as Farīd al-Dīn Ganj-i-Shakr and Bābā Farīd (d. 1245)of the Chishtīyah order settled in Pakpattan in the Punjab. He attracted people from all sections of the local community who came to him seeking advice and spiritual direction and solace. Indians found compatibility between the devotional practices of Hindu Bhakti and Muslim Sufism, including practitioners such as the Malamatis, Qalandars, and Yogis, resulting in Hindu-Islam syncretism.

Muslims joined in Hindu festivals and Hindus worshipped at Muslim shrines, all contributing to cross-cultural exchange between Hindu and Muslim social customs and practices. Hindus who converted to Islam retained some of their past beliefs and practices, yet India largely remained Hindu and Muslims remained the political elites.

Other Ṣufī orders such as Suhrawardīyah, Naqshbandīyah, and Shaṭṭārīyah established their networks in India, represented by Ṣūfī shaykhs such as Bahāʿ al-Dīn Zakarīyā (d. 1267), Nīzamuddin Auliyāʿ (d. 1325), and ʿAbdallah Shattār (d. 1485). They settled in various parts of India, spreading their humanistic mystical mission through healing the sick, solving disputes, and giving spiritual advice. They represented the difference between the Islam of the royal courts and Islamic spirituality.

In the theological realm, the debate initiated by the Andulasian Sūfī ʿAbd Allāh Muhammad Ibn al-ʿArabīʾs (d.1240) promotion of the notion waḥdat al-wujūd (unity of being) arrived in India during this period and it was supported the local Chishtīyah. The Chishtīyah were opposed by the Suhrawardīs, who proposed instead the concept of waḥdat al-shuhūd (unity of appearance). Throughout the period of the Delhi sultanate, there was constant conflict between the ʿulamāʿ who sided with the state and the Ṣūfīs who were independent of the state. Thus the relations between the ʿulamāʿ and the Ṣūfīs were always in a flux. Some rulers, such as Fīrūz Shāh Tughluq, supported financially both the Ṣūfīs and the ʿulamāʿ, sought their advice, established charities to aid poor Muslims, built madrasahs and mosques, and removed taxes not recognized by Muslim law.

The dynasties of the Delhi sultanate implemented sharīʿah in a formal sense only. Most of the state policies were based on the opinions of the rulers and not on the religious texts as interpreted by the ʿulamāʿ. In the interests and needs of the worldly and social affairs, the rulers set up and implemented their own state laws instead of the sharīʿah.

Overall, Indian Islam during the era of the Delhi sultanate possessed the hallmarks of religious pluralism reflected in the Islamic and non-Islamic features of political ideology, the popular culture, the presence of Sunnī and Shīʿī communities, along with the ʿulamāʿ, the Ṣūfīs, and reformist movements.


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