Delhi Sultanate

Delhi Sultanate under various dynasties
Delhi Sultanate under various dynasties

The influx of Muslim Turks into the Indian subcontinent began in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was spearheaded by a series of military dynasties, including the Ghaznavids, who ruled parts of Persia and invaded northern India, and the Ghurids, who started off as allies of the great Ghazanavid ruler Mahmud of Ghazni, but broke away after his death in 1030 and conquered much of northern India for themselves.

Aibak, a Turk born in Central Asia and taken to Nishapur as a slave of the Ghurid ruling house, served as a Ghurid administrator from 1192 until 1206, when he was freed and named sultan, or ruler, of a new dynasty based in the city of Delhi by his former masters.

While in the service of the Ghurids, he led a series of military campaigns in India, expanding the empire’s territory significantly and subjugating most of the land between the Indus and Ganges Rivers. Aibak’s reign, during which he spent the majority of his time trying to establish political institutions and geographic boundaries, was relatively short and he died in 1210.

Aibak was succeeded by his son, Aram in Lahore, who had little experience in politics and was overthrown and killed in 1211 by Aibak’s son-in-law, Shams ud-Din Iltutmish, who was favored by the army. Immediately upon assuming control of the sultanate, Iltutmish was faced with military challenges from both the neighboring Ghaznavids and the Muslim state in Sind. In a series of wars against them, Iltutmish reasserted his authority and by 1228 had conquered all of Sind.

According to the Muslim historian Ibn Batuta, Iltutmish was the first ruler of Delhi to reign independently of a larger state and in 1228–29 he received emissaries from the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the premier Muslim state, at least in name, of this period. Under his leadership, the Delhi Sultanate escaped destruction when the Mongol leader Genghis Khan swept westward through Central Asia.

Iltutmish died in 1236 and was succeeded by a series of weak rulers and the Turkish nobility, nicknamed “the Forty,” who controlled the sultanate’s most important provinces. His son Rukn ad-Din Firuz Shah ruled for seven months before being deposed by his sister, Raziyya, whom their father had initially chosen as the new ruler before his death.

Qutb Minar or Kutb Minar (both: kŭ`təb mē`när), minaret near New Delhi, India. One of the earliest Muslim monuments in India, it was erected (c.1230) by Iltutmish of the Delhi Sultanate Delhi Sultanate, refers to the various Muslim dynasties that ruled in India (1210–1526). It was founded after Muhammad of Ghor defeated Prithvi Raj and captured Delhi in 1192.
Qutb Minar, minaret near New Delhi, India.
It was erected (c.1230) by Iltutmish of the Delhi Sultanate

The sultana had been trained in political administration during periods when her father went off on military campaigns and left her in charge of maintaining the government. Raziyya encountered stiff opposition from many of the sultanate’s officials, and she was overthrown in 1240. Iltutmish’s youngest son, Mu‘izz ad-Din Bahram Shah, ascended the throne and worked to strengthen the northern frontier against the Mongols.

He stopped an attempt by his sister to regain control of the sultanate. However he too was overthrown in 1242 by senior government officials and was subsequently executed. The new sultan, Nasir ud-Din Mahmud, was a recluse and granted political authority to Ghiyath ad-Din Balban, his slave and future son-in-law.

Under Balban, the sultanate continued to ward off Mongol raiding parties and stopped revolts by rebellious Hindu rulers. When Sultan Nasir ud-Din, who had no children, died in 1265, Balban formally assumed the title of sultan, ruling for two decades until 1286.

The sultanate’s army was reorganized and improved under Balban and he ordered the construction of forts in and around Lahore in order to present a defensive line against the Mongol leader Hulagu Khan, who had invaded Iran in 1256 and was actively campaigning throughout Persia and the Arab Middle East during the second half of the 1250s. Between 1280 and 1283 one of the sultanate’s governors, Tughril, rebelled against Balban and the sultan led a military campaign against him, which resulted in the governor’s death during a raid by Balban’s forces on his camp.

The early period of the Delhi Sultanate came to an end in 1290 when Balban’s son, Bughra Khan, refused the throne and Malik Firuz Khalji overthrew Balban’s teenage grandson, Kaiqubad. The Turk Khaljids adopted Afghan customs after occupying Afghanistan and oversaw the rapid expansion of the sultanate, conquering Gujarat and Deccan during their reign from 1290 to 1320.

Sultan Ala ud-Din Khalji (r. 1296–1316) enlarged the army and introduced economic and tax reforms. Upon his death, he was succeeded by a series of inept rulers and internal strife led to the downfall of the Khaljids soon after his death.

The Tughlaq dynasty (1320–1412) rose to power and Sultan Muhammad Ibn Tughlaq (r. 1325–51) founded a second capital city at Deogir in order to control an increasingly vast empire. By moving the active capital south, the sultan could oversee the continued military campaigns in Deccan.

Under Muhammad a system of currency was introduced and taxes were increased to meet the sultan’s military expenditures. Much of the later years of his reign was spent dealing with revolts, trying to head off dissension from the clergy (ulama), and handling external threats, which resulted in the reduction of the empire’s territory.

Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq (r. 1351–88) was not as militarily successful as his predecessors, but was perhaps the dynasty’s greatest administrator-ruler. He reintroduced the jagir system, which paid army officers in grants of land rather than cash salaries, and introduced a justice system that rigorously enforced the laws.

Firuz Shah also focused on improving social services and opened up a large hospital, Dar us-Shafa, in Delhi and founded bureaus of employment and marriage. During his reign the state financed the expansion of existing cities, the construction of new ones, and the building of mosques, bathhouses, and canals. The religious policy of the sultanate under Firuz Shah was strictly Sunni and non-Muslims were required to pay the jizya tax and Shi’ite Muslims were placed under restrictions.

Upon Firuz Shah’s death in 1388, a succession crisis led to the downfall of the Tughlaq dynasty. In the midst of this crisis, Timurlane (Tamerlane) the ruler of Samarkand who was forging an empire in Central Asia, invaded India and captured and sacked Delhi in 1398.

Famine and the spread of disease followed the Timurid invasion, with thousands of slaves and much of the city’s wealth being taken back to Central Asia. The Tughlaq dynasty was no longer a single entity and several competing states were left to squabble over Muslim India. With the fall of the Tughlaqs, the Turkish sultanate of Delhi began its steady decline.

Despite periods of revival under the Sayyid dynasty (1414–1451) and the Lodi dynasty (1451–1526), the centralized sultanate no longer existed and both dynasties were faced with opposition from India’s Hindu population and rival Indian Muslim states. The sultanate was formally ended in 1526 when Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babur, a Chaghatai Turk who ruled in Kabul, ushered in the period of the great Mughal Empire.