Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty-Two


The First Delhi Sultanate

Between 1206 and 1236, the Muslim kingdom in northern India asserts itself against Hindus, but cannot survive the leadership of a woman

IN 1202, the Muslim Ghurids had advanced into the Ganges valley, pushing the Sena into oblivion, welcomed by the people who had found the strict Hinduism of the Sena kings distasteful. The Ghurid sultan, Ghiyas ad-Din Ghuri, had only months to cherish his victory. He died of a sudden illness in Herat, back west of the Himalayas, leaving his brother Muhammad at the head of the brand-new Ghurid empire.

Muhammad Ghuri, deputized by Ghiyas to rule the Indian territories, had always been loyal to his older brother; now he was rewarded with the Ghurid crown. This was not good news for Ghiyas’s son Mahmud, who had expected to take over his father’s throne. Instead, Muhammad made his nephew deputy ruler of the western territories only. Mahmud was known for his love of wine and women, not for his skill as a governor, and Muhammad Ghuri was inclined to reward talent over blood. He had no children. Instead, the Tabakat-i-Nasiri tells us, he “purchased a number of Turkish slaves, and greatly valued them all, and raised them to competence and wealth.” Those slaves who served him well as soldiers were rewarded with deputy governorships of their own, so that Muhammad’s empire was ruled, under his watchful eye, by a network of nephews, cousins, and Turkish warriors who had begun their careers in slavery: the mamluks.1

“One obedient slave is better than three hundred sons,” an eleventh-century sultan had written, “for the latter desire their father’s death, the former his master’s glory.” The reliance of Islamic rulers on Turkish slave soldiers had been growing, over the previous decades. Young men bought at slave markets were placed in regiments, trained as soldiers, and separated from their old lives; given new names, new identities, cut off from all ties except those between slave and master. This dependence created loyalty; the master was the slave soldier’s employer, protector, and champion.2

When the mamluks converted to Islam—as they almost always did, once they were placed in a world where Islam was all they knew—they were set free; Islamic law forbade Muslims to keep each other in slavery. Highly skilled, guaranteed security if they stayed, mamluks generally remained on in the service of their ex-master. They almost always became part of the most elite corps; the invention of the stirrup meant that mounted soldiers were now the most powerful fighting force in the world; cavalry charges had become vital for victory, and the Turkish soldiers had grown up on horseback.

Muhammad Ghuri had placed mamluks in powerful governing positions over his conquered cities. When he died unexpectedly, the mamluks reshaped India.

In 1206, he had just put down a rebellion in the Punjab and was traveling back to Lahore, in the Ghurid heartland. Camping beside the Indus during the night, he was asleep when an assassin emerged from the dark (or, in some accounts, from underneath the surface of the river), stabbed him to death, and disappeared. He had been king of the Ghurids for less than four years.

The Tabakat-i-Nasiri attributes the murder to “a disciple of the Mulahidah.” Mulahidah is the Persian name for a particular sect of Shi’ite Muslims* much feared (and grudgingly admired) by the Crusaders, who had another name for them: the Assassins. According to twelfth-century travelers’ tales, the Mulahidah lived in the impregnable fortress of Alamut, in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea, and swore absolute allegiance to a leader known as the Elder, or the Old Man. If he ordered them to kill his enemies, they went out, dagger in hand, to fulfill the command unquestioningly. “They believe,” writes the Crusader Jean de Joinville, in his Chronicle of the Crusade, “that when a man dies for his lord, or in any good cause, his soul goes into another body, better and more comfortable; and for this reason the Assassins are not greatly concerned if they are killed when carrying out the commands of the Old Man of the Mountain.”3

This was colorful but not exactly accurate. The Mulahidah, better known to Western historians as the Nizari, had gathered, right at the end of the eleventh century, behind a charismatic Shi’ite leader named Hasan Sabbah, who hoped to lead a Muslim opposition against the advancing Turks. Sabbah had seized the mountain castle of Alamut around 1090, and with his followers had strengthened its defenses and then captured other nearby castles as well. By 1150, Sabbah had been followed by two successors, each of whom did the same, and his sect had established itself as a small mountain state, firmly opposed to Turkish power.


32.1 Ruins of the mountain fortress of Alamut.
Credit: © Getty Images


32.1 The Nizari

One of Sabbah’s political strategies had been the strategic murder, carried out by young devotees of the Nizari cause called fidaiyan (singular fidawi), of prominent Turkish leaders. The fidaiyan, not afraid to sacrifice their lives on their missions, were often successful, and increasingly feared; so much so that almost every twelfth-century assassination was chalked up to them by their Turkish and Sunni Muslim enemies. It was, in fact, hostile Sunni historians who first suggested that the fidaiyan were drugged with hashish into willingness to carry out their suicide missions. Hashishinbecame a derogatory Sunni term for the fidaiyan (who probably used no hashish at all); Crusader accounts picked up the term and Latinized it into Assassin; and thus the English language gained a new word for political killings, assassination.4

Muhammad Ghuri had mounted at least one campaign against the mountain state of the Nizari, and it is certainly possible that a fidawi was dispatched to remove him. But other accounts credit the Ghurid king’s death to an attack of conquered and resentful Khokars from the Punjab, or perhaps the machinations of one of his own officials. Whoever carried it out, Muhammad’s death brought an immediate end to the adolescent Ghurid empire. Within months, the whole huge expanse had fallen apart again under Ghuri’s rivaling successors. His nephew claimed the western territories as an independent king, and three of his Turkish slaves turned governors did the same over their own lands: one in Ghazni, a second in the Sind, and a third, Qutb-ud-din, in Lahore.

Qutb-ud-din outshone them all. He declared himself sultan of the north Indian lands, and although he ruled for only four years before dying in a fall from his polo pony in 1210, his sultanate lasted for over three centuries. The four years of Qutb-ud-din’s rule, after all, had built on the previous twenty years of his service to the Ghurids in northern India; and during those decades, he had worked hard to help the two Ghuri brothers transform their realm into a Muslim land. In his hands, it became a particularly Indian Muslim land: free from domination that came from beyond the mountains, but also a land where the old religious traditions were firmly stamped down into the mud. “He purged by his sword the land of Hind from the filth of infidelity and vice,” writes his contemporary, the Persian historian Hasan Nizami, “and freed the whole of that country from the thorn of God-plurality, and the impurity of idol-worship, and by his royal vigour and intrepidity, left not one temple standing.”5

At his death, Qutb-ud-din’s son Aram Shah set himself up as the next ruler of the north Indian kingdom. At once, he lost the southern cities of Gwalior and Ranthambore to revolt, and the eastern Bengalese province to the governor his father had appointed there, one Ali Mardan. Exasperated by this incompetence, a party of dissidents at Delhi invited one of Qutb-ud-din’s own Turkish slave officers (or ghulams), Iltumish, to come into that city and establish himself as a rival for the sultanate.6

Iltumish had not only been a trusted lieutenant of the dead sultan but was also his son-in-law; given that there was no neat tradition of father-to-son succession in the Muslim sultanates of India, he had as good a claim to the throne as Aram Shah. He accepted the invitation, and when Aram Shah marched south towards Delhi to drive him out, Iltumish met his brother-in-law outside the walls of Delhi and killed him in battle.

For the next twenty-five years, Iltumish would rule from Delhi, which became the capital of his sultanate. All twenty-five of those years were spent fighting. It took him another six years to drive out the other Turkish pretenders to power in Ghazni and the Sind, finally bringing both under his control by 1217. The city of Lahore (troubled, says Nizami, by “calamities, and changes of governors, and the sedition of rebels, [and] the flames of turbulence and opposition”) by itself held out until 1228, and Bengal was not completely under his control until 1231.7


32.2 Delhi under Iltumish

At the same time, Iltumish did his best to invade the still-Hindu lands that had not fallen to Ghurid rule. The kingdom of Orissa, on the eastern coast, suffered from fighting on its northern borders but managed to hold off the newcomers. A few Rajput kingdoms survived in central India, battered but still unconquered. Mewar, some 280 miles inland from the Indian Ocean, was chief among them; Iltumish mounted a major assault against the Hindu ruler of Mewar, Jaitra Singh, but although he was able to sack the city of Aghata, Jaitra Singh held out against him.

The repulse of the Muslim forces from Mewar was hailed, by the Hindus of India, as a religious victory. Iltumish, after all, was a Muslim ruler, remembered in his inscriptions as “protector of God’s territories,” builder of mosques and minarets. Halfway through his sultanate, the caliph in Baghdad—still holding on to the bare remnants of Abbasid power—recognized his rule by awarding him both a robe of honor and the ceremonial title Sultan-i-azam, “Great Sultan,” legitimate and God-ordained ruler over his conquered lands; this gave Iltumish and his successors the right to use the title “Auxiliary of the Commander of the Faithful” on their coins. The Hindu deities, as an inscription celebrating Jaitra Singh’s resistance exclaims, were “intoxicated with a drink of the blood” of the Muslim soldiers who had attacked them. Jaitra Singh’s successful defense of his crown was also a defense of the Hindu world against the Muslim invaders.8

Yet at the same time, Iltumish was pragmatically aware that the Hindus in his realm had to be treated gently. He promised them the status of dhimmi: non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim king, allowed to hold property and to claim legal rights but exempt from Islamic requirements, like resident aliens in a modern nation-state. Like the Crusaders, Iltumish was savvy enough to separate political realities from religious aspirations.9

In 1236, the Sultan of Delhi—now in his twenty-sixth year of rule—was campaigning against rebels hiding in the Salt Range mountains, north of his capital, when he became too ill to sit on his horse. He was carried back to Delhi and died there in April.10

He had fathered at least four children, three sons and a daughter; his oldest son, who had been governing Bengal as his vice-regent, had died prematurely seven years earlier, and his two younger sons were (in his eyes) weak and incompetent. So, shocking his people to their core, he left the title of Sultan of Delhi to his daughter Raziyya, twenty-one years old; in the words of the historian Peter Jackson, with “all the attributes of a successful ruler except one . . . she was not a man.”11

Raziyya had her supporters, but although they managed to engineer her enthronement, another equally strong cabal threw its weight behind her trifling (but male) brother Firoz (“a weak and licentious prince”). Raziyya claimed and held on to the title Sultan, but she found herself continually thwarted not just by her Hindu enemies, but by the subjects in her own sultanate who did not acknowledge her sovereignty. She was, according to all accounts, a competent, clear-thinking, strategic ruler, but even her attempts to prove her worth by wearing male clothing and armor threw the Sultanate of Delhi into a long and violent chaos. Raziyya, would-be defender of Islam, threatened Delhi’s very existence as an Islamic state; and it was, almost, unable to survive the contradiction.12


* After the death of Muhammad himself in 632, the leadership of the new Muslim community was claimed by the Prophet’s old friend Abu Bakr, who had the support of many of Muhammad’s followers. Others, though, believed that Muhammad’s closest male relative, his son-in-law Ali, should be the Prophet’s successor. Although Ali himself agreed to accept Abu Bakr’s headship, a subset of Muslims continued to insist that only Ali and his successors were divinely appointed, and that Abu Bakr and his immediate successors were illegitimate usupers. They became known as “Shi’ite” Muslims (the “party of Ali”), while the supporters of Abu Bakr became known as “Sunni” Muslims. As Farhad Daftary points out in his study of the Isma’ili sect, the early history of the Shi’ite movement is “shrouded in obscurity,” but within a century the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims had already developed significantly different theological doctrines, traditions, and laws. The events surrounding Abu Bakr’s succession are described in Bauer, The History of the Medieval World. pp. 295ff; Daftary’s useful capsule explanation is found in chapter 2 of The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma’ilis (I. B. Tauris, 1995).

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