Indian History Part 60 The Encroaching Islamic Influence Section I Governance of the Sulatanate

Canberra, 24 November 2017

From its very beginning, the Delhi Sultanate was governed in accordance with the Islamic Law, as laid down in the Sharia. Even though there were few exceptions to the strict adherence to the laid down norms, successive Sultans largely followed the injunctions of the Sharia in the administration of their kingdom. Essentially this made the Sultanate a theocracy; it was never a secular state, as claimed by some modern historians. The level of religious tolerance, or intolerance, varied over its 300-year history—tolerance waxing and waning with the personal proclivities of the Sultan and, more importantly, the power that he wielded as an autocratic ruler. There is however no doubt that only Islam was recognised as the true religion, even though the majority population was overwhelmingly Hindu in their religious beliefs.

It was not only the Sultan who was a staunch Muslim, but all prominent families in the Sultanate were also followers of Islam. Within the broader empire, there were Hindu chiefs who continued to rule their small principalities under the benevolent supervision of the Sultan, but they played only a very insignificant part in the governance of the kingdom. Only those who converted to Islam could aspire to rise to positions of influence and power in the administration. Further, all the resources allocated for welfare activities were utilised for Muslim purposes only, which is not surprising considering the religious basis of the Sultanate.

The Theocracy

Some modern Indian historians, Dr I. H. Qureshi for instance, have argued that the Sultanate, at worst, could be considered a ‘theocentric’ kingdom and that it was never a ‘theocracy’. The reason put forward is that in the absolute definition of the term, a qualifying characteristic of a theocracy is the requirement for it to be the ‘rule of the ordained priesthood’. This characteristic was obviously absent in the Delhi Sultanate since it was ruled by a succession of sultans. However, this argument is not tenable when applied to the Delhi Sultanate. In both letter and spirit, the Sultanate was an Islamic polity with its civil law subordinated and merged into Muslim canon law. In the Delhi Sultanate, the Muslim ulema—theologians and religious lawyers—although not hereditary positions, were fanatical and biased, perhaps even more than the ordained clergy.

Further, the Sultan was expected to protect and follow the Quranic Law, personally and in administering the kingdom. Theoretically at least, the Sultan could be removed from the throne if he did not follow this path. From the very beginning, the ultimate goal of the Islamic state in India was to convert the entire sub-continent to Islam. Essentially, achieving this aim required the destruction of local religions from the root and to convert Dar-ul-harb (land of the infidels) into Dar-ul-Islam (land of the Muslims). There can be no doubt that the Delhi Sultanate was a theocracy in all aspects.

The Sultan

The ruler of the Sultanate was called Sultan. In the narratives of the period, the terms king and Sultan, and kingdom and sultanate, have been used interchangeably – as convenient – since it was a time of transition and interaction of the languages. In principle, the sovereignty of the Sultanate resided in the entire Sunni population, almost all of them foreigners in the early stages of the establishment of the Sultanate. The Sultan had to be elected by this broad brotherhood. There were practical difficulties to every Sunni Muslim participating in such a process and therefore the power to elect a new sultan came to be bestowed on a resident in a group of important men—the noblemen at the core of the administration. Over a period of time electoral power started to be vested in the sultan himself, when a dying king was permitted to name his own successor. However, the person nominated by the king on his deathbed was not always acceptable to the nobles who then challenged and changed the decision. The ability of the nobles to do so has been demonstrated by history, but such a move invariably brought its own consequences.

The fact remains that the Sultanate did not have an accepted principle of hereditary succession, even though hereditary ascension was practiced in an equal number of cases as the elevation of a consensus candidate to the throne. In practice, the post of the Sultan was always restricted to the immigrant Turks, and in the later stages of the Sultanate, to an even smaller group of oligarchs. Only in the late 15th and early 16th century did the Afghans become the rulers in Delhi. According to Islamic theory, the true king is God and the Sultan is only His agent to enforce the divine law as enshrined in the Quran. The Sultan was meant to be a sort of chief executive, enforcer, and interpreter rolled into one being. The Sultan was also the chief justice, the highest judicial authority, and also the supreme commander of the army.

Even though the monarch was elected by a group of the most powerful and influential people of the capital, the process of such a selection, the methodology, was not uniformly accepted by all theologians and religious lawyers. This led to the creation of factions supporting one or the other contender that in turn led to civil war at times. Even so, in most cases the elections were reduced to mere formalities, especially when the contender to the throne was either very powerful or had already won the crown on the battlefield. Dethroning of a monarch is the automatic corollary of an elective monarchy and the nobility used this power often in the Delhi Sultanate. A monarch considered unworthy of the position was removed by common consent and through a variety of methods. In the Delhi Sultanate, the person of the Sultan was never considered sacrosanct, irrespective of his stature. The Sultans of Delhi were unique in their common character traits—almost all of them were Turkmen, whose zeal for Islam and its propagation were unquestioned; however, they gave the same importance to tribal affiliations making their governance a unique blend of religious fervour and tribal and family demands that had to be met.

It is clear that the Sultan derived his power in equal measure from religion and the military. He could be the quintessential autocrat with unfettered powers as long as he enforced the Quranic Law. Through the three centuries of the Sultanate’s existence there were only two Sultans who dared to sideline the Quranic Law without suffering any serious consequences—Ala ud-Din Khilji and Muhammad bin Tughluq. Their power and hold on the administration was such that they could not even be questioned, far less removed, for breaches in their upholding religious law. The unwavering loyalty of their large and powerful armies ensured that they were not challenged for their transgressions, even by the entrenched and powerful ulema. The two Sultans clearly demonstrated the primacy of temporal powers resident in military forces over the transient and virtual spiritual power of religion.

Purely from an outwardly appearance, the Sultan could essentially have been considered a military despot with all power concentrated in his hands. However, in actual practice his authority and freedom to act unilaterally were severely restricted. The Sultans were subservient to the Quranic Law, the Sharia, which had to be strictly enforced to ensure the support of the Muslim population. This popular support was critical to the individual continuing as the Sultan. Second, the Sultan could not interfere in the personal law of any of the groups amongst the population. There was no legal sanction for doing so and any interference was unlikely to be tolerated, by both Muslims and Hindus. The much proclaimed sovereignty that was vested in the Sultan—as an individual—is largely a myth. Every Sultan depended on the active support of a powerful group of nobles and the passive support of the general population for his survival as the monarch. Further, the support of the people had to be bolstered by the support and cooperation of the ulema—the learned and influential theologians and religious lawyers—who could sway the popular opinion very easily. The head that wore the crown was one with constant worries.

Islamic states as a whole and especially in India, were initially meant to be democratic institutions with no hereditary positions, including that of the Sultan. However, circumstances changed rapidly and it did not take long for them to transition to centralised autocracies, functioning on the fringes of hereditary rule. In the Indian sub-continent, the Sultan needed to function within a hostile Hindu environment. Powerful Hindu chiefs offered virulent resistance to foreign expansion at the expense of their territories and the loss of their own independence. At the same time, the Delhi Sultans faced the ever-present threat from the north-west, especially from the Mongols. In these circumstances the concept of an elected sultan would not have been conducive to establishing a Muslim state in India. Spreading Islamic influence needed concerted effort from a sustainable autocracy. The Sultanate had no option but to develop into a centralised oligarchy, if it had to sustain its presence in India. Even so, it came very close to being extinguished a number of times in the three hundred years of its existence, before finally being blown away in 1526.

The Administration

The Sultan appointed ministers to assist him with the administration and their numbers varied from dynasty to dynasty. The Slave dynasty sultans appointed four ministers—the prime minister or Vizier, and ministers for the army, royal correspondence and foreign affairs. Later dynasties added the portfolios of religious affairs and charity, and justice. There was also a nominal appointment of a ‘deputy’ sultan from outside the ruling family. This position became important and powerful only in cases where the sultan was weak and ineffective. Some other functionaries also operated close to the sultan, such as the comptroller of the royal household, a position that held great power.

The Titles

The titles of the six ministers who ruled the kingdom on behalf of the Sultan are given below:

Vizier (also spelt as Vazier or Wazir in some texts): Prime Minister

Diwan-i-ariz: minister for the army who also acted as the controller general of the entire military establishment

Diwan-i-insha: in charge of the royal correspondence

Diwan-i-rasalat: in charge of foreign affairs and also controller of the diplomatic correspondence of the Sultanate

Sadr-us-Sudur: minister in charge of religious affairs, endowments and charity

Diwan-i-qaza: this minster was also the chief qazi, an ordained priest who doubled as the head of the judicial department

The Sultanate was never divided into homogenous or territorially matched provinces and therefore there was no commonality in the administrative system imposed on different jurisdictions. In the initial phases of the formation of the Sultanate in the 13th century, it consisted of individual military commands called ‘iqtas’, each one being ruled by a powerful military commander. Ala ud-Din Khilji, who conquered the largest swath of territory, also did not attempt to rearrange the provinces, allowing the existing divisions to continue. There were two kinds of iqtas; the inherited ones and newly conquered ones. The new conquests were normally the flourishing Hindu kingdoms and principalities that were militarily annexed and brought under the rule of senior military commanders. Some defeated Hindu chieftains were also permitted to continue their rule as vassals of Delhi. The military commander of an iqta was called the muqti.

Some of the newly acquired provinces were ruled by amirs, normally noblemen, normally more powerful than the traditional muqtis, who were only military commanders. Each iqta was required to maintain a military force that was strong enough to maintain law and order in the province. The size and composition of these local forces varied considerably. Both the amir and the muqti had unlimited power over their individual iqtas, as long as they obeyed the Sultan’s orders and furnished the previously agreed number of soldiers when demanded by Delhi. They were also required to protect and enforce Islamic law in their fiefdoms. The result of such an arrangement was that most of these provincial rulers turned out to be petty despots, despite the injunctions from the Sultan to protect the peasantry, help the learned and other such pious and well-meaning homilies.

When the king in Delhi was weak and ineffective, it was not uncommon for these muqtis and amirs to go to war with each other, in order to expand their own territorial holdings. Some of the more powerful amirs also declared independence from Delhi at such times, sowing the seeds of a civil war when conditions in Delhi changed. Such rebellions were the principal cause for the decline and collapse of ruling dynasties that had already started decay at the core.

As the Sultanate expanded territorially and sultans started to pay more attention to the administration, some of the larger iqtas were further divided into shiqs. The shiq was ruled by a shiqdar, normally a military officer whose primary duty was to maintain law and order. Later an even smaller unit called pargana—an aggregate of a number of villages—was introduced. The pargana was administered by a choudhuri (spellings of this title varies in numerous ways in history books) who was mainly responsible for the collection of revenue. The Delhi Sultans instinctively adopted the Hindu system as the lowest unit of the administrative hierarchy. The village continued to be the smallest administrative unit with its own panchayat to settle disputes, functioning as a miniature commonwealth. The panchayat looked after most of the needs of the village such as local defence, education, sanitation and other needs. This was a shrewd move on the part of the Delhi administration, since it left the predominantly Hindu countryside with a sense of continuity and devoid of any feelings of being religiously or politically oppressed. For the Hindu villager, life hardly changed with the imposition of ‘Muslim’ rule at the centre. This was true at least in the initial phase of the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate.

The Army

The Sultanate and associated Islamic rule were imposed on the people of the sub-continent by force, not by common consent. Therefore, the Sultans always maintained a larger than normal army at their disposal. The Sultanate army normally had four classes of soldiers. The first were the regular soldiers who were permanently employed in the service of the Sultan; the second, the troops who were permanently employed by the provincial rulers, the muqtis and amirs; third, the men who were recruited during times of war; and fourth, the Muslim volunteers who formed militias in order to fight the ‘jihad’ or holy war.

The Sultan’s forces in the capital were divided into two elements—one being the slaves of the Sultan and other, soldiers who functioned directly under royal command. There were also another group of soldiers who were employed by high-ranking officials and senior nobles as their personal body guards. Till Ala ud-Din Khilji ascended the throne, the Sultan’s army was only a small nucleus who formed his bodyguards. In times of war, the Sultan relied on the forces that the muqtis and amirs send to Delhi, which formed the bulk of the Sultanate forces. Ala ud-Din reformed the concept of the military forces in the Sultanate by creating a standing army that was recruited, trained and paid by the central administration in Delhi. During his time these, truly Sultanate forces, numbered 475,000 cavalry and associated infantry and support personnel.

Firuz Shah Tughluq converted this formidable army into a feudal set up akin to the forces maintained in old times. The Khilji forces and the army of Muhammad bin Tughluq were renowned for their cohesiveness and exemplary fighting spirit that almost always created the winning edge in battle. The reintroduction of the feudal organisation by Firuz Shah, sapped these essential qualities of the force making them no better than the old Sultanate army that very seldom fought with a unity of purpose and command. The Lodi army was based entirely on clan and tribal affiliations and gradually disintegrated into the proverbial ‘tribal groups’ that was ill-organised and weak because of the inability of independent commanders to see beyond the immediate factor of status and prestige of the tribe. In the Lodi army, tribal affiliations always subsumed the broader aim of the campaign—unity in action or the pursuance of a central aim were impossible and far-fetched objectives.

The provincial forces were relatively less rigorously trained and not organised to the same level of efficiency as the Sultanate forces. Their discipline and payments were the purview of the provincial governors, even when they were in the service of the Sultan. However, they were regularly placed at the disposal of the Sultan during times of war. Since they served two masters, their loyalty was always questionable. During war with Hindu chiefs, Muslim volunteers were permitted to fight along with the army. These forces could be considered irregular forces and were not paid a salary but only allowed to share in the booty after the battle.

The Sultanate army continued the tradition of the sub-continental Hindu armies of having three arms; namely the cavalry, infantry and the elephant corps. Obviously the elephant corps was an addition after the Sultanate had been established because the Islamic forces of the Middle-East and Central Asia did not have war-elephants and were fully reliant on the swiftness and manoeuvre capabilities of their cavalry. Even after the introduction of the elephant corps, the Islamic forces maintained the cavalry as the backbone of the army unlike most of the Hindu armies that placed an inordinately high reliance on the elephants. At the zenith of the Sultanate, its cavalry numbered in the hundreds of thousands and was made up mostly of Turks and other foreigners. The infantry consisted of foot soldiers and archers, the majority of whom were Indian Muslims, meaning converts to Islam from the Indian sub-continent. Even though a later addition, the war elephants were much valued by all the Sultans. However, none of them seem to have mastered the operational and tactical level manoeuvres in employing these behemoths to use them effectively. By royal decree only the Sultan’s army was permitted to possess elephants, providing an indication of the value that was placed on a well-trained elephant corps. The army did not possess any formalised artillery or personal firearms but used incendiary arrows and rockets to good effect, especially in siege activities against well-defended forts. Gunpowder powered fire balls and stones were used as a sort of ‘mechanical’ artillery.

The cavalry was organised on a decimal basis. Ten troopers made up the fundamental unit of the cavalry and was placed under a sar-i-khail; ten such units were under a sipahsalar; ten sipahsalars fought under an amir; ten amirs under a malik; and ten maliks under a khan. Effectively a Khan commanded 100,000 cavalry and associated infantry. However it is doubtful whether more than a few khans had the full complement of forces at all times under his command. The army strength, calculated in such a manner, was more on paper than in actuality. The organisation was effective and accountability could be very rapidly spread to the lower levels of command. However, the discipline of the imperial army varied under different Sultans.

The Delhi Sultanate army was never a nationalist army but remained a mercenary force throughout the three centuries of its existence. It consisted of soldiers of diverse ethnicities and nationalities—Turks from various tribes, some even at war with each other; and Tajiks, Persians, Mongols, Afghans, Arabs, Abyssinians, Indian Muslims and even a smattering of Hindus. The army was a heterogeneous body with no national sentiment, bonded together in the person of the Sultan. Even though there was a minster for the army in the royal court, he was purely an administrative head directly responsible to the Sultan for the well-being of the army, particularly in times of relative peace. The Sultan was always the commander-in-chief and never transferred this position to anyone else. The army was predominantly Muslim in nature; majority of the soldiers and all officers were Muslims, and they were continually reminded that they were fighting in an alien land against infidels. The army was therefore held together by religious solidarity and practised fanaticism of an extreme kind. However, despite individual and at times collective fanaticism that created exemplary, and at times ruthless, fighting spirit, from an overarching strategic perspective the army was not well-trained and not optimally efficient. Contemporary chronicles provide such assessments, and they are also corroborated by different sources.

A review of the history of the Sultanate and its Sultans provide a clear indication that all the successful rulers were adept at military strategy and battlefield tactics, demonstrably brave as individuals, and led the army from the front in all major encounters. They were also students of geography and terrain, as far as possible reconnoitring the battlefield well in advance of a forthcoming battle. Some analysts have mentioned flanking parties of specially selected cavalry as being integral to the Sultanate army. These forces acted as the royal reserve, which was employed at the time and place selected by the Sultan depending on his appreciation of the flow of battle, and was capable of turning the tide in a contested and balanced encounter in its favour. However, it is doubtful whether any of the Delhi armies, other than the Khilji army, mastered the use of these shock cavalry to good effect. The concept, well-used by the Turks in the early days of the Sutanate, seems to have fallen into disuse over a period of time. This assessment is made based on the fact that if Ibrahim Lodi had Flanking Forces, and understood their optimised employment, he may not have lost the Battle of Panipat in 1526. This is one of the great ‘ifs’ of history that can only be speculated upon. [A detailed account of the First Battle of Panipat (1526) will be provided in a later volume of this series on Indian history, which deals with the arrival of the Mughals.]

The Justice System

Throughout the three centuries of the Delhi Sultanate’s existence, the justice department was the most ill-organised. The Sultan was the fountainhead of justice, responsible for upholding the Quranic Law, the only law that was recognised in the Sultanate. The Sultan played a personal role in providing justice, hearing cases and passing judgement. In trying religious cases he was assisted by a mufti or religious teacher, who came under the minister for religious affairs. In theory, the Sultan also had another person to aid him with secular cases called the qazi, but in practice both the mufti and the qazi were the same person. It is reliably reported that the Sultan regularly revisited the judgement given by the qazi, maybe because of the religious bias that the individual displayed in passing judgement. All provinces were set up with similar justice systems.

Some later-day historians have claimed that a majority of the Delhi Sultans delivered unbiased and swift justice. This is an attempt at softening the often delayed but always brutal and biased justice that was delivered to the non-Muslim population. Contemporary chronicles support this assertion. The chronicles tell a different story to that being propounded by modern historians. In the narrative of the modern historians, the attempt at rewriting history is clearly apparent.

The Sultanate justice system was haphazardly organised. Complaints could be registered anywhere since there was no laid down jurisdictions; and the highest court of appeal was the Sultan himself. However he also tried original cases. Penal law was very severe with mutilation and death penalty being very common punishments. Further, torture to extort a confession from suspects was common practice. To increase the confusion and the arbitrariness of the system, the judicial process was not uniform across the entire Sultanate. The jails were normally old forts, ill kept with the jailors being notoriously corrupt.

Even cases between Muslims and Hindus were judged and decided according to the Quranic Law. Further, even the Islamic Law itself was open to different interpretation according to the whims and fancies of the mufti or qazi, normally the same person. There was no commonality regarding the interpretations, at times even by the same person in different cases. Great injustice was meted out to the Hindus, who were considered second-class citizens since they were infidels. Even-handed justice was never guaranteed even if the complainant was a Muslim. Officially the government followed a policy of minimum interference in Hindu matters. However, practically there was direct injustice meted out to the Hindus, especially when the conflict was with a Muslim, in which case the ruling would always favour the Muslim.


The direct central governance of the Delhi Sultanate was restricted to the collection of revenue and for border protection. The Sultanate practised a discriminatory policy which provided welfare only to the people of the Islamic faith although a majority of the population was of the Hindu faith. The Hindus in this regard were ‘non-persons’ in the eyes of the administration. The Quranic Law was forced on the entire population including the non-Muslims and biased justice delivery was the norm rather than the exception. The combination of these factors made the Hindus either convert to Islam or resort to rebellion.

Rebellion brought immediate and ruthless retribution, if the Sultan was powerful. In cases where the Sultan was incompetent and the central authority could not be enforced, rebellions almost always deteriorated into civil wars. In both cases, the common Hindu populace suffered severe punishment. The Hindu princes and chieftains of North India battled this assault—military, religious and cultural—for nearly five centuries without succumbing before being battered into submission by the Mughals.

Copyright [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 Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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