Cultural sultanate

This book brings to life hitherto unknown and unexplored aspects of the cultural and social life in the Delhi sultanate.

Published : May 29, 2013 12:30 IST



THE sultanate of Delhi has been the focus of many studies for over a century but historians have been concerned mainly with its political history. We do know about the Sufi saints such as Hazrat Nizam u’ddin Auliya and poets such as Amir Khusrau, but not much attention has been paid to studying this crucial period in Indian history in order to explore its multiple cultural dimensions.

The Aligarh-based historian Iqtidar Husain Siddiqui’s book Composite Culture under the Sultanate of Delhi aims to fill these gaps in our knowledge and offer a detailed, yet succinct, view of the cultural life in the lands ruled by the Delhi sultans. This study also brings into sharp relief the various linkages between the policies pursued by the Delhi sultanate and the Mughal dynasty which succeeded it after the fall of the Lodis.

Siddiqui feels that the paucity of relevant evidence that can be found in conventional sources may be the reason why not much has been written about the life and culture under the Delhi sultanate. He has tried to rectify the situation by tapping into unconventional sources from the vast corpus of pre-Mughal Indo-Persian literature for his study. These include poetry, dastan (fiction or romance) literature and Sufi literature, including Mulfuzat (collection of utterances) and Maktubat (letters and epistles). They offer new information about and insights into the progress of the intellectual culture during the Delhi sultanate period. With characteristic modesty, the author has called his work “a preliminary inquiry”, hoping that it might lead to further research by scholars into the process of acculturation in India and the pivotal role played by Delhi in it.

The book is divided into three parts: Life and Culture; Delhi Sultanate and Central Asia; and Gender Studies. The first, also the biggest, contains six chapters: The Role of Hazarat-i-Delhi in the Process of Acculturation; The Position of Hindus in the Sultanate of Delhi; The Science of Medicine and the Emergence of Hospitals; The Role of Time and Space in History and Culture; Life and Culture under the Lodi Sultans (A.D. 1451-1526); and Interstate Relationship: The Sultanates of Delhi and Gujarat. The second part consists of two chapters: Sultan Jalal u’ddin Khwarazam Shah and the Mongol Advance; and Mongols in North-West India. The third and last part seems to be the most interesting, as it deals with a hitherto little-explored area of Gender Studies and its two chapters discuss the socio-political role of women in the Delhi sultanate, and the Sufi perspectives on women and marriage. As the book has been written by an erudite historian, it will appeal both to specialists and lay readers.

Siddiqui informs us that before its conquest by Malik Qutbuddin Aibak in A.D. 1193, Delhi was merely a military post and a pargana headquarters of little importance. When Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak died in 1210, his capital was Lahore. After his untimely death, the walis (governors) became independent rulers in their respective khittas (territorial units). The Delhi nobles invited Iltutmish, the wali of Badaon territory, and enthroned him as Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish. This heralded the process of Delhi emerging as the largest and most beautiful city of the Islamic world, next only to Khansa in China in population and size.

In Central Asia and Iran, the prefix Hazarat was added to the name of a sultan’s capital as a mark of respect. Soon, Delhi too began to be called “Hazarat-i-Delhi” and began to perform an important role in promoting sultanate culture in the surrounding regions. This was the period when scholars, poets, scientists, merchants, military men and slaves trained in different crafts came from various countries and settled in Delhi and turned it into an important urban centre. This gave rise to a multicultural ethos that gradually evolved into a composite culture, thus enriching India’s cultural heritage and making Delhi a repository of the finest knowledge that had developed in the eastern Islamic countries following their conquest by Ghengiz Khan and his successors.

It was in the sultanate period that Delhi witnessed the building of new forts, grand palaces, big mosques and colonies for the immigrants (such as the Arab ki Sarai near the shrine of Hazrat Nizam u’ddin Auliya) that provided an impetus to the new city’s socio-economic growth.

The capital was linked with outlying towns and territorial units through a network of thanas (police posts) to provide safety and security to merchants and other travellers. Karkhanas (workshops-cum-storehouses) were opened to produce items for the Sultan and his nobles, and this gave a boost to the cottage industry and led to the emergence of new skills and techniques. Trade flourished as the ruling elite was fond of items of luxury. The nobles lived in such great style that they were sometimes forced to take loans from moneylenders. According to Zia u’ddin Barani, during the reign of Sultan Ghiyas u’ddin Balban, moneylenders and bankers acquired great wealth. In 1351, the moneylenders of Sirsuti (present-day Sirsa in Haryana) extended a loan of several lakh tankas to Sultan Firuz Shah as he needed money to pay his army men.

This was also the period when Sufis, who had entered India in the beginning of the 13th century and settled down in various towns of north India, played a significant role, through their exemplary conduct and lifestyle, in raising the social consciousness against the caste system among Hindus. As they believed in the mission of service to mankind, there was no social discrimination at their khanqahs . Although slavery was no stranger to Islam, Shaikh Farid u’ddin Ganj-i-Shakar and his spiritual successor Shaikh Nizam u’ddin Auliya developed an abhorrence towards the institution. Siddiqui dispels the widely held notion that Sufi saints quietly converted a great number of low-caste people into Islam and thus made a huge contribution to the spread of the new religion in India.

Quoting Mohammad Habib, he maintains that Sufi saints were not interested in conversions, and their mysticism was strictly meant for those Muslims who had acquired a good understanding of the Islamic theology. One would not be wrong to infer that the simple, rather austere, lifestyle of the Sufi saints and their ideal of selfless service to humankind was the magnet that attracted those who suffered at the hands of high-caste Hindus. Low-caste Hindu artisans worked with Muslim slave artisans in the karkhanas , and this intermingling brought about a mixing of ideas. The Islamic principle that all believers are equal before God must have fascinated these low-caste artisans. Even now one can see that carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, etc., in north India are mostly Muslims.

Bridging the divide Another widely held view is that the policy of building bridges with the Hindu ruling houses and turning them into pillars of the empire began with the Mughal emperor Akbar. However, Siddiqui offers a detailed account of similar policies having been followed by Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak —who appointed a Hindu Rana (chief) from the Banaras territory the Sahib-i-barid (head of the intelligence service), disregarding the opposition from his Muslim courtiers—and his successors such as Sultan Ghiyas u’ddin Balban. The sultans also adopted a policy of non-interference in the religious and cultural affairs of Hindus although they were often under pressure from the immigrant ulama to offer the Hindus only two options: Islam or death.

There is also evidence that the Hindu places of worship that were damaged during military campaigns were repaired and restored and that the state made land grants for their upkeep. Significantly, Hindus were also absorbed into the bureaucracy, and certain castes such as the Khatris and Kalals seem to have risen in official hierarchy under the Delhi sultanate. Hindu land chiefs called Rai, Rawat and Rana were loyal supporters and allies of the Ghaznavid sultans.

The book under review also throws light on the process of synthesising that led to the fusion of Ilm-ul-Tib (commonly known as the Yunani, or Unani, system of medicine) and Ayurveda in the 13th century. The doctors who came from Central Asia did not know how to treat diseases that were specific to India and for that they had to interact with the local practitioners of Ayurveda. Several treatises on medicine were written in Arabic, drawing liberally from the Ayurveda classics in Sanskrit.

The Delhi sultans had no interest in founding a theocratic state. In fact, Zia u’ddin Barani, who was associated with Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq Shah as his nadim (counsellor), emphasised the need for the sultan to formulate rules and regulations regardless of the Sharia but in accordance with the requirements of changed time. Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq was interested in rationalist science ( Ilm-ul-Maqul ) as well as the history of Islam and held the second caliph, Umar bin Khattab, as his role model. In this respect, the Delhi sultans offer a direct contrast to the present-day Muslim politicians and clergy who never tire of invoking the Sharia with monotonous regularity and regrettable consequences.

The residents of Delhi, a city whose grandeur was unparalleled in the entire Islamic world in the 14th century, dispersed to various places and settled there as a consequence of Timur’s invasion. They took Delhi’s culture with them and planted its saplings in these places, thus spreading its influence far and wide. When Sultan Bahlul Lodi came to power in A.D. 1451, the situation changed for the better, ushering in a new epoch of cultural progress and economic recovery.

Siddiqui regrets that the social and cultural life of this period has not attracted the attention of present-day medieval historians and tries to fill this lacuna by offering a detailed chapter on it. He draws our attention to the fact that Sultan Sikandar Lodi had a refined taste in classical music and employed many musicians in his court. Siddiqui offers us an interesting piece of information, that on every occasion the musicians would begin with the raga Malegora and switch to Kalyan, while Kanra and Husaini were sung later.

Civil engineering, too, flourished, and fountains were constructed for the first time during this period. Festivals such as Nauroz and Jashn-i-Bahar were celebrated with great enthusiasm by the sultan and his nobles. Architecture, too, got a fillip, as is evident in the monuments of the Lodi period.

Women in power In the 13th and 14th centuries, Hindu and Muslim women in royal households were not passive spectators of events. They took up responsibilities and played an important role in the social and political life. In A.D. 1278, Naika Devi, the mother of Bhim Deo of Gujarat, became the regent as her son was a minor. She took Sultan Muiz u’ddin Muhammad bin Sam, the Ghurid ruler of Ghazna who had marched on a raiding expedition towards Gujarat, by surprise near Mount Abu and defeated him. After the death of Sultan Iltutmish, his widow Shah Turkan took over the reins of government as her son Sultan Rukn u’ddin Firuz Shah did not pay much attention to the affairs of the state and showed a proclivity to overindulge in pleasure. Had she not been consumed by her overpowering ambition that led her to get her son’s potential rivals killed, she could have continued in her position of power.

However powerful Shah Turkan might have been, she was not the reigning monarch. This fell to the lot of Sultan Raziya, the daughter of Iltutmish from Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak’s daughter Turkan Khatoon. That Muslim theologians approved her ascension to the throne is proof enough that under Delhi sultans, the spirit of ijtihad (reinterpretation of the Muslim canon law in accordance with the needs of the changed times) was kept alive. Sultan Razia discarded the veil, rode an elephant and held her court just like her father. Had she not favoured non-Turks, including the black Amir-i-Akhur (in-charge of the royal stable) Yaqut, the history of the subcontinent would have been different, as the Turk nobles brought about her downfall.

Women singers, too, had a pride of place in the court and enjoyed royal patronage. Zia u’ddin Barani mentions the names of Nusrat Khatoon, Nusrat Bibi and Mahar Afroz as excellent singers and dancers. Unfortunately, those were the days when the slave trade flourished and the demand for female slaves was on the rise.

Shaikh Ali Hujwari’s book Kashf-ul-Mahjub and Shaikh Shihabuddin Suhrawardi’s Awarif-ul-Marif were the two most important treatises on Sufism in the period of the Delhi sultans. Ali Hujwari considered marriage a hurdle in the path of spiritual progress and advocated celibacy. But only the Qalandars followed this precept. The Chishtis, the Suhrawardis and the Firdausis were not opposed to matrimony.

Although Shaikh Nizam u’ddin Auliya never married, he did not advocate celibacy either. All his chosen disciples to spread his mission in different parts of the country were married men. Siddiqui draws attention to the Chishti saints’ preference for gender equality. Shaikh Farid u’ddin Ganj-i-Shakar and his spiritual successor, Shaikh Nizam u’ddin Auliya, admitted both men and women into the circles of their murids and did not differentiate in providing spiritual instruction. The humanism of the Sufis was such that they did not flinch from disregarding the Muslim canon law if the need arose. The teacher of Shaikh Nizam u’ddin Auliya once escorted a Hindu woman back to her family although she had been forcibly converted to Islam.

It is not possible to do justice to a book of this nature in a short review. Those interested in the social and cultural life under the sultans of Delhi will find this book a must-read. However, one cannot help pointing out that this happens to be a beautifully produced but awfully edited book.

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