Indian History Part 60 Section II The Caliphate and the Sultanate – Debating the Relationship

Canberra, 5 December 2014


The status of Delhi Sultanate vis-à-vis the Caliphate in Baghdad and the relationship that existed between the two continues to be open to a number of interpretations. Some of these interpretations are provided by few well-known historians, but with superficial proof and therefore do not stand the test of investigation. In their explanations, the Sultanate is explained away as being part of the larger Caliphate, perhaps in an effort to create an aura of legitimacy to the plunder and pillage that preceded the Islamic conquest of North India that, in turn, led to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. The assertion of the Delhi Sultanate being part of the Baghdad Caliphate is also based in long-held erroneous beliefs without any factual support. Convoluted explanations abound, attempting to provide legal and even historic basis for affirming that the Sultanate was part of the Caliphate. Some numismatic evidence has also been produced to establish that the authority of the Abbasid Caliphate enveloped the Sultanate and also the entire pre-Mughal Islamic period in the Indian sub-continent.

The attempts to place the Delhi Sultanate under the Caliphate should be considered concerted attempts to establish that there existed the earliest version of pan-Islamism in the medieval period and that it also included the Indian sub-continent of pre-Mughal times. This is fanciful thinking and far from the truth. The solution to the vexed issue, which is bound to raise heated debate, lies in examining three questions and finding answer that can be corroborated and authenticated. One, how far did the Delhi Sultans consider the Abbasid Caliph as the legal authority that permitted them to rule? Two, did any of the Sultans consider the Delhi Sultanate to be an integral part of the Caliphate? Three, why and how did the Turks break away from the Caliphate and start moving east, finally arriving in India?

The Caliphate Connection

Islamic jurists state that the establishment of a Caliphate is a canonical necessity. It provided the organisation needed for the smooth functioning of the society through building and cultivating a religious life that in turn produces a well-knit group. In the religious sense, the Caliphate was legally ruled by the Caliph and therefore allegiance to him was demanded by canonical law. On the other hand, Islamic states were organised into independent and sovereign groups, which were based on distinct political activity and therefore these groups were political in nature with the religious legality superimposed on them. The political function was also discharged through the Caliph, which made it imperative to acknowledge the authority of the elected Caliph.

Around 750 CE, the last Umayyad Caliph died. Abul Abbas ‘Saffiah’, supported by the Alids, Persians and some Arabs, got himself elected Caliph. He immediately destroyed the Umayyads completely, with pronounced ferocity. He also set aside his relationship with the Alids and Shiite groups, although he continued to be tolerant of them. Saffiah was succeed by Abu Jafar al-Mansur (754-75) who was a man of rare foresight. He set about enhancing the power and prestige of the Caliph, who till then adorned a pontifical throne. Mansur was responsible for creating the foundation of an organisation that was meant to establish the temporal power of the Caliph necessary to buttress the religious ascendancy of the position. He also ensured the permanence of his family and its power through creating a dynasty.

Like his predecessor, Abu Jafar was also ruthless in eliminating any potential challenger to the well-being of the dynasty. Towards the end of the Umayyad Caliphate Abu Jafar al-Mansur had, along with a number of other notable personalities, taken an oath of fealty to Muhammad, the great grandson of Hasan, the Prophet’s descendant. At that time, Muhammad had been recognised as Caliph. However, on becoming the Caliph, Mansur went on to ill-treat and oppress the descendants of Ali which made the Alids hostile to him and his successors.

Abu Jafar was suspicious of Muhammad and his intentions, and unsuccessfully attempted to capture him and his brother Ibrahim. Open hostility between the two resulted. The regions of the Hajaz and Yemen, along with some important nobles, religious teachers and priests, acknowledged Muhammad as the Caliph. The result was a rebellion against Abu Jafar, who did not waste any time in brutally suppressing the uprising. Abu Jafar then went on to wreak vicious vengeance on the tribes of the followers of Hasan and Husain. He also humiliated the clergy who had ranged against him in support of Muhammad and completely laid waste the towns of Medina and Basra. There was open rift between the Sunnis and Shias in the heartland of Islam.

Abu Jafar’s conflict with the Shiites made him initially dependent on the Persians and subsequently on the Turks to retain his power and control the Caliphate. The Arab elements who had been part of the broader support base till then gradually receded to the background. The majority of the Arabs were from rural backgrounds and they reverted to the old ways of tribalism, readily participating in rebellions and minor uprisings at will. By the time Caliph Mamun (813-33) ascended the throne, Turks had become the trusted bodyguards of the Caliph and during the time of Caliph Mutasim (833-42) they asserted complete control over the Caliphate. Turkish ascendancy was further entrenched because Mutasim was born of a Turkish mother and hated the Persians with a vengeance. The Turks were now powerful enough to function as the Praetorian Guard, capable of making and unmaking Caliphs at their whim and fancy.

Around the time of the Turk domination, a schism developed in the Shiite camp over the succession of the Imam, which in turn gave rise to Ismailism. This offshoot culminated in the founding the Fatimid Ismaili Caliphate in Cairo in 909 CE. The Fatimid Caliphate, dominated by Arabs, emerged as a direct challenge to the Abbasids, who continued to be a Turkish stronghold. There was interaction and conflict born of complex racial, religious and cultural influences.

The Turks of the Abbasid Caliphate became renowned as conquerors, administrators and military generals, emerging as unquestioned champions of orthodox Sunni Islam and the undisputed mainstay of the Baghdad Caliphate. Their recognised and distinguished association with the Abbasid Caliphate glorified the Turks and exalted their status. They claimed that the orthodox Sunni branch of Islam had flourished only because of their diligent protection. To further enhance their reputation they harked back to an old prophesy, passed down through generations and believed to have been given to Imam Abu Hanifa that stated, ‘Thy doctrine shall not wane so long as the sword continues in the hands of the Turks.’

The connection to the divine through their close association with the Caliph and the prestige and power it entailed was the primary reason for the Turks to continue their association with the Abbasid Caliphate, even when they began to found independent kingdoms. This direct connection to the Caliphate provided them with a sense of legality in their conquests and establishment of new kingdoms. It was also meant to remind them, and others, of the time of their glory when they were the sole defenders of the Caliphate and the Caliph was dependent on them for survival. On a lesser scale it was also an acknowledgement and mark of the Caliph having been their suzerain and source of power. In return for this formal acceptance of a subordinate status, the Caliph also provided acknowledgement of their independence by gifting robes of honour on particularly gifted adventurers, the first one to be so felicitated being Mahmud of Ghazni.

New Turkmen conquerors, sought formal approval from the Caliph for their military adventures, which was given with alacrity. The Caliph knew fully well that his permission to conquer and rule new territories as independent kingdoms was a mere formality that could be done away with if the conqueror decided that the Caliph was hesitant or reluctant in bestowing his blessings. As time passed, the Caliph was bereft of temporal power and recognised purely as the symbol of Sunni orthodoxy.

The Caliphate – Sultanate Interaction

Amongst the Delhi Sultans, Iltutmish was the first to receive a robe of honour from the Caliph in Baghdad. This act connected the Caliphate to the fledgling Sultanate, providing Iltutmish with formal recognition of his sovereignty that was necessary to entrench his rule in the newly conquered territory. The connection was emphasised by Iltutmish by adopting the title ‘Nasir Amir-ul-Muminin’. The title literally meant that Iltutmish was claiming to be the ‘helper’ of Amir-ul-Muminin – the Abbasid Caliph. However, the formal assumption of a subservient role did not mean that Iltutmish was in any way guided by the Caliph in ruling his kingdom. It was only a proclamation to the Islamic world of his historic connection to the Caliphate and nothing more. He was only keeping a long tradition alive.

The Sultans that followed Iltutmish, if at all they proclaimed their association with the Caliphate, did it more as an act of perpetuating a memory of greatness rather than as even a formal recognition of the authority of the Caliph, resident in a faraway place, beyond the borders of the Sultanate. The Baghdad Caliphate was destroyed by the Mongol chief Hulagu in 1258. Retaliatory action was not even contemplated by the Sultan in Delhi to support the Caliphate, a clear indication of the real situation. In fact, just two years later, the emissaries of Hulagu were welcomed in Delhi with great pomp and ceremony. It is clear that no sentiment was attached to the tenuous connection that existed between Baghdad and Delhi. Essentially, in the politics of the Sultanate, the Baghdad Caliphate held no meaning.


The use of the term ‘Nasir’ in the Sultanate coins has been pointed out as indicating a deep connection with Caliphate. This assumption is a leap of faith and cannot be corroborated. The use of the term was purely a matter of traditional boasting with no real significance, only meant to remind the people of the glorious past of the Turks. It is significant that none other than the famous Amir Khusrau has referred to Ala ud-Din as the Caliph of the age, which provides a clear indication of the independent status of the Sultanate. Further, Mubarak Shah Khilji proclaimed himself ‘Caliph’ and did not receive any condemnation from any quarter or retribution from the Caliph in Baghdad. It is clear that Islam in the Indian sub-continent had no apparent connection to the Caliphate. It can be correctly concluded that the Delhi Sultanate was never a part of the Caliphate, irrespective of the attempts being made by some historians to prove it so. It was also not part of a pan-Islamic movement that created a connected, grand Muslim state.

The Delhi Sultanate was simply a kingdom carved out by Turkmen generals, adept in the art of war but slightly inept in the administration of the conquered territories. They initially harked back to the connection of their forefathers to the Baghdad Caliphate to establish the legitimacy of their rule over their newfound kingdom. Attempts by later-day, modern historians to prove otherwise, is merely a biased and intentional attempt to ‘create’ history, where none existed. The simple fact remains that the connection to the Abbasid Caliphate was added to the titles of the sultans to commemorate the glorious past of the Turks, which in turn was expected to provide an added aura to the person of the Sultan.

© [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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