Indian History Part 56 The Tughluq Dynasty Section IV Muhammad Tughluq: Ill-Starred Dreamer

 Canberra, 8 June 2017


Muhammad Tughluq was unquestionably the ablest, purely in terms of qualifications, of the crowned heads of medieval times. He was learned and accomplished; endowed with a marvellous memory and keen intellect; and possessed an extremely versatile mind with an enormous capacity to assimilate knowledge. Muhammad was a lover of the fine arts, a cultured scholar and an accomplished poet; well-versed in logic and philosophy; and an acknowledged rhetorician and theologian. The list of his qualities is long and impressive.

Although he was imbued with all these stellar qualities, considering the events and non-accomplishments during his reign, he emerges as a man of amazing contradictions, so much so that later-day historians have even questioned his sanity. However, no contemporary writer has given even the slightest indication of Muhammad having an unsettled mental state. Even so, it could be speculated that this omission was out of fear of the sultan’s revenge if such an assessment was written in his lifetime. There is no doubt that Muhammad was head strong and short tempered, and extremely impatient to achieve tangible results in short order in all his schemes. His impatience was further aggravated by the popular apathy shown by the people towards his generally well-intentioned schemes. There is no doubt however that Muhammad had a blood-thirsty side to his personality, which is an opinion bolstered by accounts of events during his reign provided by religious persons.

Contradictory Characteristics

From the beginning of his rule, Muhammad displayed vicious and extremely cruel tendencies in the administration of justice. The treatment meted out to his own nephew, Baha ud-Din Gurshasp, who rebelled is a case in point. As his reign progressed and more and more of his grandiose schemes failed miserably, he became even more sadistic and blood thirsty. Extreme punishments for minor offences became the norm in the kingdom, especially when the sultan was involved in deciding the outcome of the case. All contemporary chroniclers mention the ruthlessness of the punishments and their arbitrary nature, providing several graphic examples of Muhammad’s savagery against his own people. Within a very few years of his assuming power, tyranny replaced justice in the sultanate, a fact attested in several different narratives.

Muhammad Tughluq’s fundamental urge was to attempt the conquest of the immediate neighbours of the kingdom in the sub-continent. On the other hand, he attempted to maintain cordial relations with other foreign countries and their rulers. For example he entertained the Chinese Emperor’s request to rebuild a temple that had been destroyed by Muslim forces so that Chinese pilgrims could visit it again. He also exchanged gifts with the Emperor and certainly maintained friendly relations. Muhammad was also gracious and generous to a fault with foreign visitors to his kingdom. Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan historian, was one of the recipients of the sultan’s generosity. He was given three villages as his fief and 10 Hindu slaves as servants for the duration of his sojourn in India—an extremely generous gift for an absolute stranger.

Contradicting such generosity was his overweening and egotistic pride in his own actions that was combined with a ferocious and vengeful temper that accompanied the failure of his schemes. He sincerely believed that he did everything better than anyone else, in the world. This led to his assuming an extremely arrogant posture towards one and all. The more he failed, the haughtier he became; till he became an insufferable egomaniac who held the balance of life and death of all his subjects on his personal whims and fancies.

Contradictory behaviour patterns were common place in Muhammad’s life. He maintained a very high standard of morality in his personal life, while being a blood thirsty autocrat as a sultan. He was free from the vices common to the nobles and aristocracy of the age. It is reliably reported that he treated his mother with extreme respect at all times throughout her life. In private life he was generous to a fault and extremely humble in his personal dealings, continuing to maintain affectionate relationships with his earlier friends and nobles who had served with him when he was a prince. He was brought up as a soldier and loved military activity, excelling as a general and commander in the battlefield. In fact he died in the field, practising his military acumen and planning a combined land and river assault on a rebel who he was chasing across the kingdom. A fitting tribute to a warring general, perhaps the only one that could be given in the case of Muhammad Tughluq.

Muhammad Tughluq – A Mixture of Opposites

Some later-day historians have attempted to depict Muhammad Tughluq as being ‘normal’ in his behaviour, often quoting the manner in which he tried to separate religion and the State and tried to institute revolutionary changes. This is an incorrect assessment as there was nothing ‘normal’ in his behaviour pattern. Muhammad was a mixture of inherently contradictory characteristics, a trait that he displayed throughout his reign.

He was arrogant and at the same time humble, moderate and even servile at times. He displayed extreme generosity that was unevenly mixed with a closed mind and the narrowmindedness that comes with it. He had great reverence for the abstract concept of justice and the established form of law, behaving like an ordinary citizen in the court of law if he was the accused, while also inflicting barbarous punishments for very petty offences as a judge. He could be the epitome of a kind and caring monarch at times, while at others he could behave casually in the cruellest manner.

If anything, he was a mixture of contradictory characteristics, with no assurance of which of them would become prominent when he was dealing with his subjects.

Radical Religious Policy

Muhammad believed that spiritually the sultan stayed at an exalted height and that his character was too strong to be dominated by the priestly class. Barani, his chronicler and occasional critic, complains about Muhammad’s thorny relationship with the clergy and denounces his rationalism. No doubt this criticism was egged on by the sultan’s direct questioning of traditional orthodoxy in the practice of Islam. Till Muhammad’s rule, the Maulvis, religious teachers and interpreters of the Quran, were considered above the law, ensconced and sacrosanct in their religion and pious stature. However, Muhammad was the first sultan to punish Maulvis who flouted his authority, were involved in aiding rebellion, or embezzled funds.

Muhammad ignored the Sharia, the Canon Law of Islam, which controlled all aspects of governance and life for a Muslim. He conducted the political aspects of ruling a kingdom based on reason and decreed that in administrative matters, secular considerations must always prevail. This brought him into direct conflict with the Ulema, the clergy, who had always influenced state policy. Regarding religious influence on the running of the State, Muhammad Tughluq’s attitude was extremely pragmatic. He consulted and accepted the advice of theologians only when it was reasonable and expedient to do so. Even in the delivery of justice—an area in which the ruling of the Quazis, the theologian-justices, were considered sacrosanct—Muhammad ventured to overturn judgements that he found to be defective. In enforcing these steps, he put an end to the domination of the Ulema in political affairs and administrative matters of the State. This created a group of influential religious leaders to harbour anti-sultan sentiments that they surreptitiously used to influence the common people against Muhammad. However, in his personal life he was a devout Muslim, observing all the laid down practices to be considered a diligent follower of the tenets of Islam. Muhammad was perhaps the first Muslim ruler in Delhi to attempt the difficult segregation of religion and State in a Muslim autocracy.

Muhammad Tughluq, like Balban before him, considered his own person closer to God than any of his subjects and referred to himself as the ‘Shadow of God’. This is a slightly different version of the concept of ‘the divine right to rule’ that was practiced during the medieval times across the monarchies of the world—in Europe, Japan, and South-East Asia. Early in his reign, Muhammad very clearly broke away from the Caliphate of the Middle-East, establishing his independence in all matters, both temporal and spiritual. However, towards the later part of his rule, when his unpopularity was almost at its zenith and Muhammad had become aware of it, he reversed his policy towards the Caliphate. He requested the impoverished and ineffectual Khalifa (Caliph) in Egypt to confirm him as the sultan of Delhi, in an attempt to boost his sagging popularity. This act of paying obeisance to the Caliph did not restore his popularity and Muhammad was both surprised and chagrined to notice the apathy of his subjects to his rule.

Although in his younger days he was interested in understanding the more spiritual aspects of religious practice and often associated with proponents of the Sufi sect, there is no record of his having held liberal religious views. In fact most chronicles praise his policy of religious persecution of non-believers while also blaming him for his generosity towards non-Muslims. The contradictory characteristics of Muhammad is in full display here. It is also reported that his overt patronage of Hindu yogis enraged orthodox Muslims, not only the clergy or the Ulema. He is stated to have been an ardent patron of the Jain sage Jinaprabha Suri whom he honoured and felicitated. This is also a paradox, since the Jain sage was completely wedded to the practice of non-violence and Muhammad Tughluq was almost an incarnation of violence. Considering his controversial behaviour and contradictory characteristics, it can be assumed that Muhammad’s efforts at exploring other religions and faiths was an intellectual exercise aimed at gaining greater information and knowledge—after all Muhammad Tughluq was renowned for his learning and cultural interests. He was not attempting to reform orthodox practices.

Contrary Opinions

Some early English historians, led by the famous Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859) believed that Muhammad Tughluq had a streak of insanity in him from early times, a view shared by a number of later-day European writers. However, no contemporary writer mentions, even once in the chronicles, any kind of mental instability. Even Ibn Batuta, who had nothing to fear from the sultan’s vengeance when he wrote his account, does not mention mental imbalance. It has been mentioned by some Europeans that the accusation of madness was primarily based on the fact that Muhammad often gave the death penalty even for very minor offences. This trait was not really madness, but a lack of a sense of proportion combined with a vicious and short temper. Further, the death penalty was a common punishment in medieval Europe and other kingdoms of Asia. The Muslim clergy who were sidelined throughout his reign were also biased against the sultan and were capable of influencing opinions, attempting to make Muhammad’s judgements seem those of a deranged monarch and therefore inappropriate. Therefore, the assertion of the European writers can be discounted as wrong, or even biased, assessments of Muhammad’s character, which over a period of time perpetuated the myth of his madness.

The other charge that is still placed on Muhammad is that he was an atheist. This is a totally untenable accusation. As mentioned earlier, he was known for his meticulous observation of the demands of Islam as a private citizen. He adhered to the dogma, precept and practice of Islam and even punished people deviating from the strict code of the religion. These are not the actions of an atheist. At best, he could be considered a sceptic, especially in his younger days, questioning the teachings and laid down practices of what was, and continues to be, a strict religion that did not invite or encourage debate regarding its concepts and principles. Muhammad Tughluq was an orthodox Sunni Muslim, nothing more, nothing less.

He is also considered by many, most of them later-day historians and analysts, to have been a sort of a visionary devoid of any pragmatism; a king found of building castles in the air who dreamt up impossible schemes. Even this assessment needs to be corrected. He was not a dreamer out of touch with reality. Almost all his initiatives and reforms, that later-day historians tend to mock as the musings and deeds of a deranged mind, were sound and constructive, and practical applications of extensive analysis by the sultan himself. The fault lay in his not sharing his reasoning for an initiative to be put in place and explaining to this subjects the benefits that would accrue. He lost out in the art of communication. Muhammad Tughluq was more a flawed idealist than a dreaming visionary.


Muhammad Tughluq, even today, brings out extremes of opinion amongst students, analysts, and historians of repute. There are attempts to prove his madness on one end of the spectrum and efforts at trying exonerate him of all faults at the other end. These are two extremes of opinion, whereas the truth lies somewhere in between the two. The failed schemes that he instituted—relocation of the capital, foreign military expeditions, and appointment of new officials recruited from the common people—were ambitious beyond measure and some of the concepts were far ahead of their time. They also demonstrate a lack or lapse in judgement, not a streak of insanity as has been claimed. In any case, either insanity or lack of judgement in the character of a king would invariably lead to debacles for the kingdom.

There is however no doubt that Muhammad’s character flaws and frequent policy decisions that invariably turned out to be wrong contributed immensely to the decline of the Delhi sultanate

‘He was not a monster or a lunatic, as has been suggested by some, but there is no doubt that he was a mixture of opposites, for his many good qualities of head and heart seem to be quite incompatible with certain traits of vies in his character, such as revolting cruelty, frivolous caprice, and an inordinate belief in his own view of things. He might have had god ideas, but he had not the capacity to execute them.’

R. C. Majumdar

In The Delhi Sultanate, p. 87.

Volume VI of the series ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’

Indian historians dealing with medieval India are divided on religious and ideological lines, even though most of them tend to be unbiased, to the extent possible, in their assessment of people and historical events. However, in the contemporary narratives, as well in modern analysis, Muhammad Tughluq continues to be an enigma and a point of contest and debate. Hindu sympathisers tend to brand Muhammad as having been excessively cruel and brutish, whereas the Islamic scholars regard him as a philosopher king who was ill-starred and misunderstood. In the final analysis, the truth in this case also would lie somewhere in between.



About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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