Ala-ud-din Muhammad Khalji

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Ala-ud-din Muhammad Khalji

Born 1200s

Died 1316

Indian sultan

"The usual policy of the Sultans was clearly sketched by Ala-ud-din, who required his advisers to draw up 'rules and regulations for grinding down the Hindus, and for depriving them of that wealth and property which fosters disaffection and rebellion.'"

Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage

A la-ud-din was one of the most noteworthy of India's Muslim rulers during the Middle Ages. Although Hinduism and not Islam (the religion of Muslims) is the majority religion in India, Muslim invasions in the 700s and afterwards spread the faith throughout the subcontinent, so that by Ala-ud-din's time Islam dominated the land politically if not in terms of population. Ala-ud-din launched an ambitious and bloody campaign of conquest that took him deep into southern India—and might have gone on to even more far-flung campaigns if he had not wisely heeded the suggestions of his advisors.

Muslims and Hindus

Today the Indian subcontinent is divided into several countries, most notably India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The latter two, in the west and east, respectively, have Muslim majorities, whereas India's population is overwhelmingly Hindu. It would be hard to imagine two religions more different than Islam, which worships a single God, and Hinduism, with its many gods. In large part because of the clash between Hinduism and Islam, India was separated into Hindu and Muslim nations when it achieved independence in 1947.

Hindu and Buddhist Rulers of India

Throughout the Middle Ages, there were numerous Hindu- and Buddhist-dominated kingdoms in India, primarily in the central and southern portions of the subcontinent. These have received far less attention than their Muslim counterparts, largely because the southern realms were not significantly connected to events outside the country. By contrast, the Delhi Sultanate was religiously linked with the Middle East and confronted invasions by the Mongols and Tamerlane.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to study Hindu dominions such as the Chalukya (KUH-luh-kyuh) empire, which rose and fell periodically between about 600 and about 1200. Most notable among the rulers of the Chalukya, who controlled the Deccan Plateau of central India, was Pulakesin II (pul-uh-KAY-shin; ruled 610–42). Like his foe Harsha (see box in Mansa Musa entry), against whom he scored a victory in 620, Pulakesin received a visit from the Chinese pilgrim Hsüan-tsang.

Among the kingdoms with which Pulakesin did battle was that of the Pallava dynasty. The latter ruled southern India from about 300 to about 900, and established settlements in the Malay lands of Southeast Asia. The Pallavas were overtaken by the Cholas, a dynasty of Tamils from Ceylon who controlled southern India from about 900 to about 1200.

Most notable among the Chola rulers were a father and son, Rajaraja I (ruled 985–1014) and Rajendra (ruled 1014–44). Rajaraja built their empire into a large and unified one, defeating a number of other kingdoms along the way. He was also the first significant ruler of India to employ naval forces, which he used for conquests of Ceylon and the Maldive Islands. Rajendra extended Chola rule far into the north of India, up to the Ganges River, and conducted extensive trade with Southeast Asia.

The roots of Hinduism in India go back thousands of years, but Islam only entered the country with an invasion by forces from the Middle East in 711. Thus began the first of many Muslim dynasties in India, this one a short-lived sultanate in what is now Pakistan. These Muslim invasions took place primarily in the north; in southern India, Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms prevailed (see box).

The Delhi Sultanate

During the late 900s, successive waves of Turkish invaders established their power in the cities of Lahore (now in Pakistan) and Delhi. One of the Turks' slaves was Qutb-ud-Din Aybak (kütbüd-DEEN eye-BAHK) who achieved his independence and in 1206 became ruler over an empire centered at Delhi. This marked the founding of the Delhi Sultanate, the first independent Muslim kingdom in India, with no ties to an outside ruler.

In 1290, the Khalji (kal-JEE) family began thirty years of control over the sultanate. The most important Khalji ruler, and the one who held the throne for the majority of those three decades, was the ruthless Ala-ud-din Muhammad (uh-LAH-ood-deen).

Taking control of the sultanate

Little is known about Ala-ud-din's life until the sultan—his uncle and father-in-law—appointed him governor of Kara, a state within the sultanate, in 1292. Three years later, Ala-ud-din marched on a number of enemy cities, and began making plans to overthrow his father-in-law.

Ala-ud-din moved farther south than any Muslim conqueror yet had when, in 1296, his troops plunged into the Deccan Plateau that forms the center of India. There they defeated a Hindu raja, or lord, in the region of Devagiri (dayvah-GEER-ee). As a result of this victory Ala-ud-din seized 17,250 pounds of gold, 200 pounds of pearls, and 28,250 pounds of silver. His men, buoyed by their success, supported him in his march to the capital, where he had his father-inlaw killed and declared himself the sultan.

Wars of conquest

The next fifteen years, from 1296 to 1311, were spent on a seemingly endless series of wars in which Ala-ud-din sought to gain control over southern India. He dealt severely with Hindu rajas whenever his forces clashed with theirs, and adopted the Muslim practice of treating a war of conquest as a jihad or "holy war."

By 1303, he had subdued most of the powerful kingdoms in north central India. Then he turned his attention to fighting back the Mongols, who were trying to invade the country from the northwest, and this took three years of his time. He then turned his attention to conquering central India, and by 1309 his forces had reached the southernmost tip of the subcontinent.

Alexander II

It had been centuries since any ruler had achieved this feat. Ala-ud-din was compared to Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.), the Greek conqueror who subdued more land in a shorter period of time than any general before or since. Alexander had special significance to India, since it was there that his wars of conquest had stopped. Alexander's example, in fact, had spawned the creation of India's first large empire under the Mauryans (324–184 b.c.), who united much of the country.

Conscious of Alexander's example, and of his reputation, Ala-ud-din issued coins that referred to him as "Alexander II." From his position of glory as ruler over most of the subcontinent, he considered an ambitious plan of world conquest. His advisors, however, told him that his energies would be better spent on consolidating his rule than on trying to conquer new lands.

Ala-ud-din wisely listened to his counselors. Certainly he had plenty of reason not to risk his gains, since he was already the wealthiest sultan in the history of Delhi. He did toy with the idea of starting a new religion— presumably one based on himself—but turned from this vain scheme to the serious business of running an empire.

Ala-ud-din's authoritarian state

The rule of Ala-ud-din was tyrannical and authoritarian, making use of secret police and spies. Known for his harsh treatment of enemies, he was particularly cruel toward Hindus, who he considered enemies of Allah. He imposed severe taxes on them, and forbade them to possess weapons or ride horses.

On the other hand, Ala-ud-din cultivated the arts, making Delhi a city more splendid than ever before. Thanks to the Mongols' invasions of the Middle East and Central Asia, waves of wealthy and talented Muslim refugees had poured into Delhi; and this, combined with the wealth he had gathered in his wars of conquest, helped Ala-ud-din turn the city into a center of learning and culture.

Muhammad ibn Tughluq

The dynasty that replaced the Khaljis four years after Ala-ud-din's death was the Tughluq (tug-LUK) family. Its most notorious member was Muhammad ibn Tughluq (c. 1290–1351), who assumed the throne in 1325.

Like Ala-ud-din, Tughluq was known for his ruthless treatment of Hindus, and the harsh measures he used to suppress rebellions. He once punished a rebellious noble by having the man skinned alive and cooked with rice; he then sent the remains to the man's wife and children—and the noble happened to be his cousin.

Yet Tughluq, who hosted the visiting traveler Ibn Battuta (see box in Marco Polo entry), proved a less effective ruler than Ala-ud-din. He lost both territory and influence during his reign, weakening the Delhi Sultanate and hastening its eventual downfall at the hands of Tamerlane (see entry) in 1398. Tughluq himself lost his life during an expedition against rebels in 1351.

Ala-ud-din also built a number of lasting monuments, even as his own life was fading away. Years of hard living had caught up with him, and in his last years he was weak both physically and mentally, allowing himself to be dominated by one of his generals. He died in January 1316, and the Khalji dynasty ended just four years later.

For More Information


Brace, Steve. India. Des Plaines, IL: Heinemann Library, 1999.

Dolicini, Donatella and Francesco Montessoro. India in the Islamic Era and Southeast Asia (8th to 19th Century). Illustrated by Giorgio Bacchin and Gianni de Conmo, translated by Pamela Swinglehurst. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.

Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization, Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.

Ganeri, Anita. Exploration into India. New York: Discovery, 1994.

Schulberg, Lucille. Historic India. New York: Time-Life Books, 1968.

Web Sites

"Delhi—India: History & Times." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"History of India—Ancient: The Chola Empire." History of India. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Itihaas: Medieval: End of Delhi Sultanate." Itihaas. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

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