Indian History Part 56 The Tughluq Dynasty Section VII: Firuz Shah Tughluq – A Sultan for Stability

Canberra, 31 July 2017


There are differing views regarding the personality and character of Firuz Shah Tughluq. Without fail all contemporary writers unanimously praise him as the most just, merciful and benevolent ruler. However, all of them were panegyrists of the realm and therefore expected to voice such praiseworthy sentiments. Taking the cue from these narratives, some of the early European historians supported the same opinion, heaping praise on Firuz, going so far as to compare him with Akbar, the great Mughal of later times. The later European historians, led by Vincent Smith an acknowledged authority on medieval Indian history, have voiced contradictory opinions. Smith emphatically holds a different opinion stating unequivocally that it is absurd to compare Firuz to Akbar. Similarly some later day Indian historians also agree with Vincent Smith. The truth, as usual in such circumstances, lies somewhere in between.

There is no doubt that Firuz was a man of peace, without being a pacifist, and that he possessed qualities of the heart while lacking those of the head. To start with, he was honest and sincere in his proclamations of striving for the welfare of the people. He created material prosperity through benign agricultural and revenue policies, while attempting to create free trade and commerce to the extent possible for the time. As the sultan, he dealt with the peasants with consideration, restricting the taxes in line with Qur’anic Law, thus permitting cultivators to become rich. Firuz should also be credited with widening the activities of the State into initiatives aimed at benefiting the common people, as opposed to the till then prevalent three-pronged obsession of the sultans—conquest, collection of revenue, and maintenance of law and order.

The not so pleasant side of his character, coming straight from his heart and drowning out pragmatic reasoning, created situations that were detrimental to the prestige of the dynasty. His indiscriminate benevolence led to a loss of order within the administration, with many instances of misplaced generosity recorded in contemporary chronicles. People, if they were so inclined, could take advantage of the mild and trusting nature of the sultan.

Firuz Shah undertook only minor military campaigns, compared to his predecessors. The campaigns, to Bengal and Sindh, were desultory affairs and did not lead to any clear or lasting results. Neither did these campaigns add to the prestige of the sovereign and the dynasty, nor did they enhance the material well-being of the Sultanate. Further, the Sultan had to stay away from his capital for two and a half years in each case, primarily because the planning and prosecution of the campaigns were flawed from beginning to end. Normally long absences of the ruling monarch from the centre of power would have resulted in another powerful noble usurping the throne. However, Firuz was blessed to have as his Wazir, Maqbul Khan, whose total loyalty to the crown and exemplary personal integrity ensured that no such event took place. Maqbul and Firuz shared a deep friendship that lasted till the death of Maqbul. There obviously must have been some good character traits in Firuz Shah that evoked such lifelong loyalty.

‘As the sultan’s deputy and alter ego he [Maqbul Khan] held the state security while his master was away, stood always between him and official worries, and administered the kingdom with exceptional skill and wisdom.’

Stanley Lane-Pool,

Medieval India under Mohammedan Rule, p. 142.

The Builder Sultan

A general atmosphere of plenty and prosperity prevailed in the Sultanate throughout Firuz’s rule. This situation permitted him to indulge in his passion for building and construction. He was keen to found new, and rename existing, towns. On his first march to Delhi after being anointed the sultan, when news reached him of the birth of his son Fath Khan, he laid the foundation of a new city at that site and called it Fathabad. On the way to subdue Bengal he founded the new city of Jaunpur (details provided in the previous chapter) and renamed the citadel of Ekdala in Bengal as Azadpur and the town of Pandua as Firuzabad. Nearer Delhi, he founded Hisar Firoza and Firuzabad, to which place he shifted his residence and also had one of the Asoka pillars placed there.

The system of canals that he had built, explained in detail in an earlier chapter, brought incalculable benefit to the Sultanate. Firuz Shah is credited with 845 public works—canals, reservoirs, bridges, baths, forts, mosques, colleges, monasteries, inns for pilgrims and travellers—no aspect of public buildings escaped his notice. He also had old buildings, such as the Qutb Minar and some ancient mausoleums, repaired. Surprisingly for such an avid ‘builder’ there is no mention of roads being built or repaired in any of the contemporary records. Since an efficient road system would have bettered trade and commerce, the uncertainty regarding the reason for Firuz not paying attention to roads and their upkeep is intriguing.

Royal Income

The major portion of the royal income came from land revenue, and was enormous especially after Firuz had the system revamped and also tried to curtail corruption. He also reinstituted the ‘jagir’ system that in turn perpetuated and entrenched a feudal society. Unfortunately he failed to see that this was a retrograde step that tended to foster rebellions because the feudal lords, over a period of time, became powerful and also directly commanded the loyalty of their peasants. The Sultan in Delhi lost out on the connection to the common people, who normally make up the core of the fighting forces on the kingdom. As will be seen, the jagir system contributed at a later date to the break-up of the kingdom.

Large tracts of land, consisting of two or more districts were given to nobles to rule and became minor viceroyalties of great wealth. The nobles ruling these places, paid annual visits to the capital, bringing presents and slaves for the Sultan, thus establishing a new custom that continued into the reign of the Mughal emperors.

Religious Policies

Firuz Shah was a religious person and a devout and practising medieval Sunni Muslim, with all the fads and foibles that such a stance entailed. He forbade worship of idols, paintings and portraits as they were blasphemous under Islamic practices. He enforced the Jaziya—the tax on non-believers—and also made the Brahmans pay it, although they had so far been exempt from doing so. He consulted the Quran before making any decision of importance and also before the commencement of any new initiative. He altered existing customs and traditions while reviewing even established laws of the Sultanate to ensure that they were in conformity with what was proscribed in the sacred Quranic Law. In instituting these ‘reforms’ and enforcing them strictly, Firuz laid the foundations for the conversion of the Sultanate into a firm theocracy. In turn it also started the process of the perpetuation of Hindus as second class citizens with very limited rights within their ancestral homeland.

Firuz clearly re-established the supremacy of the Ulema in all matters of State—both spiritual and temporal—bringing the Sultanate directly under their influence. This was a regressive step and one that undid the control that Muhammad Tughluq, his predecessor, had strived to enforce over the religious teachers throughout his reign. His acceptance of the sanctity of the Ulema was also one of the reasons for Firuz’s popularity with the more orthodox Muslims. The Sultan’s attitude of reverence to the Ulema was in stark contrast to that displayed by Muhammad Tughluq, who had scant regard for Muslim clerics and sages. Although he practised a bigoted and biased religious policy throughout his reign, Firuz was also popular because he mostly kept away from wars and invasions that often brought untold calamities on the common people. As the Sultan his priorities were clearly ensuring the stable prosperity of his kingdom.

Firuz Shah was a firm believer in the goodness of charity and was in his personal life a charitable person. As the ruler, he established three charitable institutions. One was a ‘bureau’ to assist widows and orphans and also to help poor and unmarried Muslim girls with the dowry necessary to get married. The second was an agency to provide employment, primarily recruiting into the administrative services in clerical positions, to the unemployed. Third was a charitable hospital that delivered not only free treatment but also provided diet and medicinal supplements free of charge. Obviously these initiatives were exclusively for the benefit of his Muslim subjects. The Hindus, bulk of the population of the Sultanate, could not enjoy the benefits of these initiatives. These charities further increased the popularity of the Sultan amongst the people of the Islamic faith.

There is no doubt that Firuz ardently cultivated a negative attitude towards non-Muslims of all elk. However, he did not think that this alone was sufficient, but considered it his duty and responsibility to forcefully and physically suppress all forms of ‘non-religions’, meaning any form of worship and any other faith other than those sanctioned by the orthodox Sunni Muslim creed. In his written autobiography, Futuhat-i-Firuz Shahi, Firuz declares the kingdom to be a ‘Musalman country’, perhaps the first time that such a claim was being made of a kingdom in the Indian sub-continent. He goes on to state that he condoned and even encouraged forced conversions of the infidels. In the same book he also explains his concept of royal duties and provides a succinct summary of the res gestae of his reign. He clearly mentions his personal revulsion at visiting atrocities on fellow Muslims, which he often claimed as the primary reason for his not wanting to venture into military conquests. He describes the torture methods employed by previous sultans and went on to abolish mutilations as was practised at that time as part of torture.

His actions indicate that Firuz Shah Tughluq was the greatest religious bigot of his times, a fact corroborated by his confession in his autobiography and by the reports of contemporary historians.

Personal Indulgences

Contemporary reports state that Firuz was addicted to wine and indulged in bouts of drinking even during military expeditions. However, to a very large extent he did not let this weakness interfere with his participation in the administration of the realm. More importantly, Firuz lacked the enthusiasm and energy to follow through a project to its logical conclusion. It can be speculated that this inability, or lack of interest to see an initiative to fruition, was a ‘Tughluqian Flaw’ that he shared with his more famous cousin and predecessor.

Firuz tended to be idle, was pleasure loving and very fond of easy living. Inevitably this attitude led to inadequate supervision of the administration, leading to the proliferation of corruption and inefficiency. His ingrained sense of benevolence permitted corrupt officials to flourish and for old and incapacitated soldiers to continue in service. The result of this ill-conceived benevolence was the continual lowering of standards in the civil administration and the gradual reduction in the efficiency of the army. The destruction of the army’s efficiency had a devastating effect on the well-being of the Sultanate since the kingdom had been forged, consolidated and maintained by the steel of the Muslim army.

In the Final Analysis…

Firuz Shah Tughluq was a mild-mannered sultan whose reign, in direct contrast to that of his predecessor, was relatively peaceful. The only turmoil erupted towards the end of his reign when he was old, almost senile, and incapable of making adequately thought-through decisions. However, four initiatives stemming from fundamental character flaws of the Sultan can be identified as having undermined the foundations on which the Sultanate had been built, with disastrous consequences for the dynasty and more broadly the Sultanate itself.

One, permitting the Ulema to influence all aspects of the administration of the State, partly as policy and partly as an article of religious faith was, without doubt, a retrograde step in keeping the kingdom socially cohesive. Two, the Sultan’s misplaced leniency in dealing with corrupt officials and bestowing favours to undeserving nobles created a group of people who were like a band of internal termites, gradually and inexorably gnawing at the core of the administration. There could only be one end-result—that of the felling of the behemoth—since the malady was not recognised and therefore no remedial action instituted.

Three, Firuz carried the injunctions of the Quranic Law to an extreme and openly stated his reluctance to wage war against Muslims. This made the nobles of the realm bold enough to start and continue revolts till their ends were achieved. Further, the Sultan’s attitude to waging war against Muslims was in direct contrast to the ruthlessness with which he pursued the subjugation of Hindu kingdoms and principalities. In the near to mid-term, these actions destroyed the overall stability of the kingdom. Four, the Slave System that Firuz established produced a large contingent of warriors who became the personal body guards of the Sultan. This development was aided by the disintegration of the standing army in Delhi, which had so far been the backbone of the Sultanate, by Firuz’s policy of the jagir system. The Slave contingent gradually became the Praetorian Guard of the Sultanate and went on to play a destructive role in the dynastic collapse of the Tughluqs.

To a large extent, stability prevailed during Firuz’s rule. His achievements in revamping and streamlining the civil administration at the beginning of his reign, must also be acknowledged. However, in a holistic analysis of his rule, Firuz cannot be pronounced a brilliant or even a successful ruler. When the balance between successes and failures are recorded for the full duration of his rule, Firuz’s weak policies stand out as one of the major reasons responsible for the chaos that visited the Sultanate following his death. The line can thereafter be extended to the break-up of the Sultanate itself.

Muhammad Tughluq could be considered to have scattered the seeds that eventually brought about the fall of the Sultanate. However, it was the ineptitude of Firuz Shah that accelerated the process of decline and disintegration. Napoleon, in a letter to King Joseph had written, ‘…when men call a king a kind man, his reign has been a failure.’ This assessment could have been tailor-made to describe Firuz Shah Tughluq and his long reign.

The irony of Firuz Shah is that the human qualities that made him immensely popular with his Muslim subjects were also the ones that were responsible for entrenching weakness in the central administration, which eventually brought down the Sultanate.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2017]
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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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