Sultanates: Delhi

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The Ghorian prince Shahab al-Din (who assumed the title of Mu˓izz al-Din Muhammad on becoming the sultan in 1202) conquered extensive territories in North India up to Bengal during the years 1175 to 1206. His Turkish slave Qutb al-Din Aibek became an independent ruler following his death in 1206. Aibak was succeeded by his slave Iltutmish (1211–1236), who, after having established himself at Delhi, received diploma of investiture as the "Sultan of India" from the Abbasid caliph. The Delhi sultanate thus formed was ruled over by the Turkish slaves down to 1290; by Iltutmish's descendants until 1266, and by Ghiyas al-Din Balban (1266–1286) and his offspring subsequently. Later, during the period 1290 to 1412, it was ruled over successively by two non-Turkish dynasties, the Khaljis (1290–1320) and Tughlaqs (1320–1412). The sultanate underwent great expansion during the reign of ˓Ala˒ al-Din Khalji (1296–1316), under whom Gujarat was annexed, and the southern states down to Tamil Nadu were subjugated. By the time of Muhammad Tughluq (1325–1351), all the major South Indian states had been annexed. However, before his death a large number of provinces had seceded, forming independent principalities such as the Bahmanis in the Deccan. Timur's invasion in 1398 weakened the sultanate irretrievably; thenceforth it ceased to be a pan-Indian entity.

Shahab al-Din's original principality, Ghor, comprised the Afghan province of the same name located in the zone more exposed to Iranian culture. It was organized on a clan and family basis; the royal office was confined to the Shansbani clan while the military commanders (pahalwanan) were of the Kharmil and Salar clans. The troopers were recruited from among the inhabitants of Ghor and those of the lowlands (garmsir) in the Hilmand valley. After the occupation of Ghazni by the Ghorians in 1173 and 1174, the Ghaznavide tradition of governance identified with a corps of Turkish slaves and a system of temporary land assignments (iqta˓) was incorporated in the Ghorian state structure. These institutions combined with Ghaurian control over the sources of horse supply, and their greater expertise in mounted archery and use of crossbows may explain the sweep and rapidity of their conquests in India. The Delhi sultanate's success in checking the Mongols had much to do with the efficacy of its military organization identified with the iqta˓ system. ˓Ala-al-Din Khalji's measures of price control and assessment of a land-tax by measurement (wafa-e biswa) also greatly enlarged the sultanate's fiscal resources.

Structure of Delhi Sultanate

During the thirteenth century, the sultans' nobility consisted of two main segments: the Persian-speaking Tajiks and the Turkish slaves. The latter were more influential; many of the high military positions and assignments were held by Turkish nobles of slave origin known as the forty (chahalgani). Balban's reign witnessed the eclipse of the forty. There emerged a new set of nobles many of whom, like Khaljis, were not necessarily of Turkish origin. There was also a perceptible tendency toward accommodating within the ruling elite Indian and Mongol converts to Islam as well as some of the Hindu warrior elements (rawats) having a long tradition of military service. Ziya Barani's perception of the rise of the "low born" appears to be a reflection of this tendency, which became quite strong during Muhammad Tughlaq's reign (1325–1351).

Once they received land tax at the rate of one-half of the produce, the sultans did not disturb the rights of the non-Muslims on the lands they tilled. Down to Firoz Shah Tughlaq's accession (1351), no attempt was made to impose jizya—a tax on the person rather than on the land, usually on non-Muslims—on any section of the non-Muslims, though the land tax itself was often called khiraj-o-jizya. Again, the Hindu chiefs (rays and ranas) were left in possession of their principalities in lieu of annual tribute; some of them were even recruited as the officers of the sultan's government. Similarly, the village headmen (khuts and muqaddams) were incorporated into the machinery of revenue collection. ˓Ala al-Din Khalji is reported to have prevented them from shifting the burden of their share of land tax to the ordinary peasants.

Economic and Cultural Impact

The state patronage in the Delhi sultanate was distributed among deserving members of the Islamic elite by the head of the ecclesiastical affairs (sadr al-sudur), who also acted as chief judge (qadi-e mumalik). He enforced the orthodox law through a network of local courts.

The establishment of Delhi sultanate coincided with the coming to India of new skills and crafts such as the manufacture of paper, the arcuate technique in buildings, and the spinning wheel. The sultanate was marked by an urban revival and commercial expansion. Both Delhi and Daulatabad (in the south) were exceptionally large cities by the standards of the time.

The sultanate gave rise not only to a large Muslim population but also to the implantation of a culture revolving round the Persian language. As the noted poet Amir Khosrow (d.1325) showed, the Muslim stream began to merge with the traditional Indian to create a genuinely composite culture. This was reflected in the realm of architecture where the two merged, to create not only the Qutb Minar at Delhi, but a number of other splendid monuments as well. The Sufic schools interacted with the Yogic, and played their part in bringing about the later monotheistic movements of Kabir and Nanak.

See alsoSultanates: Ghaznavid ; Sultanates: Mamluk ; Sultanates: Seljuk .


Habib, Irfan. "Formation of the Sultanate Ruling Class of the 13th Century." In Vol. 1, Medieval India. Edited by Irfan Habib. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992

Jackson, Peter. The Delhi Sultanate: A Political and Military History. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Iqtidar Alam Khan