Critique of ‘Aligarh School’ Theories of Mughal Decline

A critique of Aligarh group of theses has been developed by a number of historians from outside Aligarh, especially those belonging to the ‘Cambridge School’. Some of these theories try to demolish the basic class frame-work in which the thesis is developed by Irfan Habib. These attempts seem to reinforce the thesis in which the Indian society is viewed as an unchanging society. India had no class development. States existed before the colonial period with roots in the society. They were organized as oligarchies on patron-client basis and no social commitment, loyalty or legitimacy.

M.N. Pearson: One of the proponents of such a thesis is M.N. Pearson (“Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire”, Journal of Asian Studies, 35, ii, 1976). He suggests all this when he tries to argue that the only tie between the king and the 8,000 mansabdars “was the tie of a patronage and loyalty” which depended upon ‘continued military success’ and “neither religion nor racial origin provided any reason for loyalty”. He further suggests that the Mughal rule was was ‘indirect’: the subjects of the state constituted themselves into ‘one or more groups’ and each group had a head of some sort who according to Pearson, ‘was the intermediary with the Mughal administration on rare occasions when the group or member needed to be connected to this administration’. The 8000 mansabdars in an empire of ‘sixty or seventy million people’ was the maximum core of the empire: others were connected through them by their own patron-client ties. He then further goes on to reduce this number to 1000 men. His thesis is in fact such as to destroy the basic frame-work of the empire. And what was/ were the sources cited for his contentions? Secondary works. Further in Pearson’s view, we may find in Aurangzeb’s failure of 1666 the entrance to the circle of failure and decline from which the Mughal Empire was never to escape. Military failures demoralized the military nobility and they began to despair and calculate their personal loss or gain at the expense of the empire. “Since the fundamental ethos of the empire was military, and loyalty between ruler and servant personal rather than impersonal”, the Mughal mansabdars could afford to think “it was not their empire that was failing, it was Aurangzeb’s”. The setback that the Mughals had with Shivaji was the beginning of the end of the empire of the empire. The clients deserted and the empire crumbled: in 1663 Shivaji attacked Poona; 1664, sack of Surat; 1666, his escape from Agra.

Pearson is not alone in coming out with a critique of the Aligarh historians. C.A. Bayly, Om Prakash and Muzaffar Alam are some others who talk about the vigour of the 18th Century. According to all of them there was no agrarian crisis, no class consciousness. To them the Mughal Empire collapsed not due to any upheaval in the society but due to contradictions in the Mughal Empire itself. In fact there was growth in every sphere and the Indian economy developed without any hindrance.

Pearson also had rejected the agrarian crisis as “less than convincing”. The peasant revolts were a regular phenomenon and the intensity of revolts in the second half of the 17th C can’t be taken as a symptom of crisis. Pearson fails to distinguish between the zamindar revolts and the agrarian revolts. Revolts with peasant initiative were a new character which he fails to recognize. Thus there is a conceptual problem with him.

Secondly he fails to see that Irfan Habib mentions ‘agrarian crisis’ only in the context of late 17th Century. Thirdly, the evidence – the only piece of evidence which Pearson cites, is wrong: He cites Hamida Khatoon Naqvi for 144 ‘zamindar’ revolts under Akbar to build up his thesis of continuous revolts. But if one reads Naqvi on finds that this is the number ot total revolts including that of princes, nobles etc.: Out of these 30 were by princes and nobles; 80 by ‘leaders of annexed provinces (e.g., Gujarat, Bengal, Khandesh, Kashmir etc.) and 28 by zamindars (including stray references to individual acts).

In 1979 Karen Leonard came up with the ‘Great Firm’ theory of the decline of the Mughal Empire, published in Comparative Studies in Society and History (vol.21, no.2). According to her the analyses of the availability and distribution of economic resources had neglected one group whose relationship to the Mughal state and whose roles in the political system was quite crucial: the bankers – sahukars, shroffs and mahajans – particularly those in the ‘great firms’. It was these great firms which played a key role in the decline of the empire. According to her, the indigenous banking firms were indispensable allies of the Mughal state, and that the great nobles and imperial officers ‘were more than likely to be directly dependent upon these banking firms’. And thus the great firms’ diversion of resources, both credit and trade, from the Mughals to other political powers in the Indian sub-continent contributed to its bankruptcy and ultimately the downfall. The period of imperial decline coincided with the increasing involvement of banking firms in revenue collection at regional and local levels, in preference to their continued provision of credit to the central Mughal government. This involvement increased from 1650 to 1750, and it brought bankers, more directly than before, into positions of political power all over India.

J.F. Richards On first consideration, this theory does offer a plausible explanation for the downfall between 1690 to 1720. But then a serious challenge to the thesis is given by J.F. Richards who finds ‘serious problems of documentation’ in this theory. In fact she herself concedes that all her data is derived from secondary sources. Further Richards finds it hard to agree with her on the term ‘great firm’ in context of the the economy of Mughal India. According to him there were different kinds of commercial groups who carried on the essential services: graindealers/moneylenders (baqqal, mahajan) engaged in financing the land-tax system by lending cash to peasants, village headmen, rural aristocrat; and they also purchased, stored, shipped and sold grain etc from qasbas to larger towns and imperial cities. The moneychangers/money lenders (sarrafs) specialized in short term finance through hundis (bills of exchange) and a limited form of deposit banking. They also dealt with the coins and metal. Similarly, another group was that of brokers (dallals) who were ‘a highly specialized commercial group’. Then there were merchants and traders (seth, sahu) some of whom were very prosperous. Most of these commercial groups were of Hindus and Jains. However, even the wealthiest of these men were not ‘direct participants in the imperial system’ nor were they ‘indispensable allies of the Mughal state’. Their services were limited and dispensable. Further, her thesis is inconsistent: on the one hand she talks of Mughal indifference towards the money-lending firms. But then approvingly quotes information provided by Irfan Habib on advances to nobles: ‘the Emperor Akbar tried to establish a royal treasury and avoid reliance on money lenders, and he tried to advance loans from the treasury at an interest below that asked by bankers’. Then he cites that Aurangzeb tried to prevent petty officials who acted as intermediaries to recover debts for bankers from nobles and claimed one-fourth of the debt for this service!

Christopher A. Bayly ( Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983) and Muzaffar Alam ( The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab, 1707-48, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1986) of the Cambridge School try to argue that the political collapse of the imperial centre was not necessarily coterminous with general and overwhelming economic dislocation and social chaos. In his book Bayly argued that the Mughal rule was more like a grid of imperial towns, roads and markets which pressed heavily on society and modified it, though only at certain points. The system depended on the ability of the Mughal state to appropriate in cash as much as 40 % of the value of the total agricultural product (S. Moosvi). He further argued that the military power was the ultimate sanction, but like the medieval canon, the Mughal main force was a cumbersome and hazardous weapon to point at an adversary. It failed as, “the problem was that in the longer term it did not secure the obligation of its subjects ans so lacked the resources to carry on its course of military expansion”. The empire could only survive if it penetrated further beneath the level of the pargana administration, and into tight clan-like brotherhood of peasant farmers in the lands away from the great roads and the country towns – penetration required an ideology which justified appropriation of growing quantity of revenues. In one of his later works (Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830, Longman, London, 1989) Bayly has argued for a radical revision of the entire causal schema of arguments that turn on themes of cultural stagnation, military decline or elite debauchery. Instead, Bayly suggests that the Ottomon Safavid and Mughal empires were shattered by an aggregation of political tremors, which originated chiefly from within the folds of these empires. He argues that the relative peace and stability provided by the imperial authorities over centuries led to a gradual deepening of commercial networks, the extension of urbanization and the congealing of landed classes in the OSM territories. These interests then hardened into a new economic and social bloc that subsequently began to batter the main frame of empire and ultimately wasted and muscled out the previous institutions and accoutrements of rule.

Bayly is keen to emphasise that a combination of “accommodating indigenous capitalism” and fiscal emaciation caused the fatal unsettling of these gargantuan centralized bureaucracies. The decline, therefore, acquired the rhythm of a “structural adaptation” in which new commercial and landed interests moved vertically upwards and collided with the overarching frame of empire. Consequently, when the dust clouds cleared after imperial collapse, the former landscape was not heaped with inert social and economic debris but instead overlain with vibrant regional and provincial formations. Though appealing and seductive, Bayly’s argumentation leaves fundamentally unanswered the question he sets out himself: Why then did powerful interests in the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid empires decide progressively to withdraw their support during the early eighteenth century?

Richard Barnett In other words,according to Richard Barnett (North India Between Empires: Awadh, the Mughals, and the British 1720-1801, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980) and Andrea Hintz (The Mughal Empire and its Decline: An Interpretation of the Sources of Social Power, Ashgate, Brookfield USA, 1997) the great Mughal canopy that extended over the subcontinent gradually acquired a number of large discolorations, throughout the eighteenth century, in the form of patches that marked the emergence of a slew of “successor states” viz., Awadh, Bengal, Hyderabad, the Marathas and the Sikhs. These successor states worked the same type of networks to not only stem or intercept the flow of resources to the imperial center but also reverse them permanently by annexations, usurpations and expropriations. Much of the dissolution of the Mughal state was effected not by the regional elites and military aristocracy carrying out acts of outright defiance or opposition, but by wresting from the imperial authorities tax-farming (ijara) rights, jagirs on long term tenures and by securing appointments to administrative or governing offices. These regional formations, in fact, continued their formal genuflection to the Mughal authority, precisely because their differences with the imperial centre were one of degree and not of kind. Some distinctness from the imperial centre nevertheless existed and was reflected most acutely in the manner that the successor states were able to develop more efficient circuits for taxation and collection, and weave tighter linkages with local magnates and powerful social groups. Only towards the latter half of the eighteenth century were regional formations such as the Sikhs and Tippu Sultan of Mysore provoked to radically overhaul their social and political systems in order to harness firepower through modernized infantry and standing armies.

Muslim Presence in Early Medieval India: Merchant Communities

According to David Pingree, epigraphic evidence attests to the presence of Persian (either Zoroastrian or Muslim) merchants on the Konkan coast of western India as early as the late 7th century.*

[* David Pingree, ‘Sanskrit evidence for the Presence of Arabs, Jews, and Persians in Western India: ca. 700-1300’, Journal of the Oriental Institute M S University of Baroda, 1981, p. 177]

The geographer al-Masūdi visited Saymur (modern Chaul, south of Mumbai) in AH 304 / AD 916 and saw there a large community of Muslims comprising merchants from Basra, Baghdad, Oman, Siraf, and Yemen.*

[* Abul Hasan Ali al-Masūdi, Murūj al-Dhahab WA Mada’adin al-jawhar, (9vols ed & tr C Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille, Paris, 1861/77, vol I, p. 187; Buzurg ibn Shahryat Ramhurmuzi, Kitāb ‘ajā’ib al-Hind, ed. P A van der Lith and L. Marcel Devic, Leiden, Brill, 1883-86, pp. 142-44]

During this period the denizens of Sirāf were active in the maritime trade as far east as China, and the best documented of the Sirāf merchants, Ramisht (d. AH 537 / AD 1142), is said to have made a future in the Indian trade, with some of which he endowed and embellished the sanctuary at Mecca.*

[* Hugh R. Clark, ‘Muslims and Hindus in the Culture and Morphology of Quanzhou from the Tenth to the Thirteenth Centuries, Journal of World History, vol. 6, no. 1, 1995, (pp. 49-74), po. 59-60; SM Stern, ‘Rāmisht of Sirāf, a Merchant Millionaire of the Twelfth Century’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1967, pp. 10-14]

Muslim Communities and Structures in Early Medieval India: 8th – 10th Century

According to the contemporary sources, both literary and epigraphic, during 8th to 10th century, the Muslim merchant communities coming towards and settling in India, especially in the western parts, were provided with both neighbourhood mosques (masājid) and congressional mosques (jawāmi’ or masājid-i ādhīna) standing in close proximity to idol temples (but-khāna) endowed with minarets from which the call to prayer (adhān / azān), the takbīr (the cry ‘God is great’ – Allaho Akbar) and the tahlīl (the statement that there is no god but God- ‘Ash-hado an lā ilāha illallāh’) were given.*

From the contemporary epigraphs we also come to know that the name ‘Muhammad’ was usually transliterated as Madhumati, Madhumata or Madumod. The name ‘Ali was on the other hand transliterated as Alliya, or Aliyama.

The existence of these diasporic communities is confirmed by inscriptions of the Rashtrakutas and Kadambas found on the west coast of India.

For example, the Chinchani copper-plate inscription of Śaka Samvat 848 (AD 926) mentions that a Tajīka (Turk/Muslim), named ‘Madhumati Sugatipa’ (Muhammad Lord of the Virtuous) son of ‘Sahiyarahara’ (Shahriyar), evidently a Persian Muslim, governed the region of Sanjan (Samyana) which was situated on the Karnataka coast of western India for the Radhtrakutas during the reigns of Krishna II (AD 878 – 915) and Indra III (AD 915 – 928), who elsewhere describes his dominion as including the Tājikas and Purasikas (Muslims & Persians/Parsis).

This inscription indicates that ‘Madhumati’ (Muhammad) established ‘free ferries and a feeding house’ and endorsed the establishment of a Hindu monastery and an endowment to ensure its support by a Brahman who was an associate of his minister. The foundation is mentioned in a later inscription too which is dated Śaka Samvat 956 (AD 1034). This later inscription also refers to the merchants Alliya (‘Ali), Mahara (Mihr), and Madhumata (Muhammad).**

Contrarily we also find reference that when a mosque was damaged in a sectarian riot in Cambay, the Chalukyan king Jayasimha Siddharaja (1094-1144) paid for its reconstruction. We also get a report that a Jain merchant funded construction of a mosque in the coastal Gujarati town of Bhadreśvar.***

Further south along the Konkan coast, two inscriptions in the name of Kadamba ruler Jayakeśin I (c. 1050-80) found at Panjim in Goa, attest the presence of Muslim communities in that region.

The first of these inscriptions, dated AD 1053, grants permission to an official named Chadama, son of a Tajīka merchant Madumod (Muhammad), to collect taxes from ships entering the port in order to fund construction of a “mijigiti” (masjid/mosque).

The second is a royal inscription of AD 1059 and it reports the grant of a village to the said Chadama, who is mentioned as the son of Madhumada (Muhammad), son of Aliyama (‘Ali), a Tayika (Tajīka) merchant who hailed from the port of Cemulya (Saymur).^

Apart from the coastal towns of Karnataka, Konkan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, Muslim merchant communities also are attested to in the cities of the Gangetic plain.

Al-Muqaddasi, for example, reports the existence of a jāmi’ (congressional mosque) in the suburbs (al-rabāz) of Kannauj, the capital city of Gurjara-Pratiharas, a kingdom considered by the contemporary Muslim geographers as inherently hostile to Islam.^^

A mihrab datable to 9th-10th century survives at Gwalior near Kannauj, confirming that Muslims and mosques existed even within the urban centres of Gurjara-Pratiharas.^^^

This mihrab adapts a contemporary Indic architectural vocabulary and anticipates the idiomatic transformations associated with later Indo-Islamic architecture.



* al-Masūdi, Murūj al-dhahab (9 vols, ed. & tr. C Bardier de Meynard & Pavet de Courteille, Paris, 1861-77), I, p. 382; idem, Le Prairies d’or, tr. C B Meynard & Pavet de Courteille, Paris, 1962, I, p. 154; Abu Ishaq al-Farisi al-Istakhri, Kitāb Masālik wa’l Mamālik, ed., J de Goeje, Brill, Leiden, 1967, pp. 173, 176; Anon., Hudūd al-‘Ālam, ed., Manuchehr Sutudeh, Teheran, 1962, p. 66; JH Kramers & G Wiet, Configuration de la terre (Kitāb surat al-ard, ed., JH Kramers, Brill, Leiden, 1967, p. 320; V Minorsky, Hudūd al-‘Ālam, “The Regions of the World”: A Persian Geography, 372 AH – 982 AD, Karachi, 1980, p. 88

** Epigraphia Indica, no.32, 1957-58, esp. 47, 50; D C Sircar, Studies in the Society and Administration of Ancient and Medieval India, vol I: Society, Calcutta, 1967, pp.77-85; David Pingree, ‘Sanskrit Evidence for the Presence of Arabs, Jews and Persians in Western India: ca. 700-1300,’ Journal of the Oriental Institute MS University of Baroda, 1981, vol 31, no.1, (pp. 172-82), pp.176-77; Ranabir Chakravarti, ‘Monarchs, Merchants and a Matha in Northern Konkan (c. AD 900-1053),’ in idem, (ed.), Trade in Early India, New Delhi, pp. 257-81 (pp.65-69)

*** G. Bühler, ‘The Jagducharita of Sarvananda, a Historical Romance from Gujarat,’ Sitzungsberichte der Philosophisch-Historischen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, vol 126, pp.1-74 (p.18); Elliot & Dawson, The History of India as Told by its own Historians, 4vols, Delhi, 1990, vol 2, p. 162

^ D C Sircar, Studies in the Society and Administration of Ancient and Medieval India, vol I: Society, Calcutta, 1967, p.77; David Pingree, ‘Sanskrit Evidence for the Presence of Arabs, Jews and Persians in Western India: ca. 700-1300,’ Journal of the Oriental Institute MS University of Baroda, 1981, vol 31, no.1, (pp. 172-82), p.178

^^ Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Muqaddasi, Kitāb Ahsan al-Taqāsīm fi Ma’rifat al-Aqālīm, ed., MJ de Goeje, Brill, Leiden, vol III, p. 480

^^^ Michael D. Willis, An Eighth Century Mihrab in Gwalior,’ Artibus Asiae, vol 46, no 3, pp. 227-46

Photo: A 9th or 10th Century Stone Mihrab now preserved on the exterior wall of Gwalior Fort, Gwalior


The Medieval Period in Indian history is difficult to clearly define. It may be perceived as the long phase of India’s transition from the ancient to the immediately precolonial times (which some historians regard as India’s early modern age). The latter period would naturally be imagined commencing from Vasco da Gama’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, or, alternatively, the establishment of the Mughal Empire (1526). The renewed Islamic advance into north India, roughly after the year 1000 and leading to the rise of the Delhi sultanate (1206), can be held to mark in political and cultural terms the beginning of the medieval period.

What is characterized by many historians as “Indian feudalism” appears to have reached its high mark around AD 1000, by which time there came into vogue, in several of the Hindu principalities of north India, the practice of making secular hereditary grants to kinsmen of the rulers as well as to high officials and vassals. These were in addition to grants made for the maintenance of temples and priests that had continued since the early centuries of the Christian era.

The tendency to create secular grants was particularly marked among the Chandellas of Jejakabhukti, Paramaras of Malwa, and Chahamanas of Ajmer.

The peasants under these conditions, though increasingly subjugated as a consequence of the hereditary control of grantees over land, were still far from being reduced to serfdom. They essentially remained small producers who were not entirely immune to fluctuations in the market demand for agricultural products. Urban centers, shrinking since the decline of the Gupta Empire, also started reviving, particularly in northwestern India around this time.

There was also a general revival of foreign commerce, which is attested to by Arab geographers’ accounts and reinforced by Marco Polo, as well as Chola epigraphs. This revival in turn gave a fillip to the export of items like hemp and sugar, stimulating small-scale production, including that by peasants cultivating cash crops.

On the whole, by the beginning of 11th century, the agrarian economy in many parts of India appears to have reached a point where a considerable social surplus was available for appropriation by local potentates controlling land, making them more resourceful and assertive.

The rise of a new warrior class represented by rautas (rāwats) or Rajput cavalrymen was a development of far-reaching significance of this period. By the seventh century, charioteers of the ancient period began to give way to cavalry belonging to newly risen warrior clans as the armed servitors of Hindu rulers in north India.

Such a development must have been greatly aided by the arrival of the concave saddle and the use of a primitive wooden stirrup that enabled a mounted warrior to charge with a lance or sword. Contributing significantly to political fragmentation and decentralization of political authority within existing state systems, the rāwat cavalrymen tended to add a new layer of superior right holders in the rural society in north India. They were to survive often as khots and muqaddams in the Delhi sultanate, described to us as chewing betel leaf and riding horses in Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi by Ziya’ Barani. 1

The early years of the 11th century also witnessed renewed interaction between Islam and Hindu civilizations after a gap of about 275 years since the Arab conquest of Sind and southern Punjab early in the eighth century. This renewed expansion laid the pattern of subsequent Islamic penetration of the Indian subcontinent.

The nature of Ghaznavid authority in the Punjab until AD 1186 was not apparently very different from that of the Delhi Sultanate during the 13th century. As was the case with the iqta‘ system of the Delhi sultanate, an arrangement making it possible to appropriate a large part of the agrarian surplus and use it for the maintenance of a town-based war machine had precedents in the administration of the Punjab and Sind annexed to the Ghaznavid Empire in the 11th century. An important feature of this arrangement was the incorporation of a large body of Hindu hereditary chiefs in the state structure. The Ghaznavid sultans resorted to large-scale enslavement of ordinary inhabitants captured during raids into the territories of Hindu rulers, but they also recruited Hindu soldiers and commanders as mercenaries.

This led to the emergence of a large body of troops, cavalry as well as infantrymen, within the Ghaznavid army who were Hindus commanded by their own leaders (muqaddams). These Hindu soldiers and other state personnel lived at Ghazni and Lahore in their separate quarters where they freely observed their social and religious rituals. The widow of a deceased Hindu resident of Ghazni is reported by a contemporary to have performed sati publicly.

Masud’s military commander, Tilak, following the custom of Hindu rulers (rāis), installed a kettle drum at the gate of his mansion at Lahore. The presence of troops identified by Abu Rehan Alberuni as Kanaras (those hailing from Karnataka) suggests that not all the Indian military personnel in the Ghaznavid army were inducted through enslavement or as levies contributed by subjugated chiefs. Evidently, some of the Hindu warrior groups from distant regions of the Indian subcontinent were recruited as mercenaries.

The raids by Mahmud, however, did generate, as Alberuni testifies, strong resentment against Muslims among Indians who had to face the brunt of his savagery in northwestern India. References in some of the Gahadavala and Chahamana inscriptions to a “Turukshka danda,” a tax on Muslims or for meeting expenses on defense against raids by them, support this impression. But textual and epigraphical evidence also suggests the presence of Muslim settlements in many of the territories controlled by Hindu princes during the 11th and 12th centuries, which shows that ordinary Muslims were not harmed. Similarly, despite Alberuni’s assertion of Hindu hostility to Muslims, he himself refers to his free discourses with Brahmans, who in time became anxious to learn about the new discoveries of science that went beyond their own books.

Alberuni himself responded to a desire in circles of the scholarly world of Islam to obtain an accurate knowledge of Indian sciences and Hindu beliefs and customs. He tried to satisfy this quest in a magisterial work, Kitāb al-Hind (Alberuni’s India, translated by E. C. Sachau).

On the Indian side during the same period, curiosity to understand the Greek concepts of astronomy preserved in early Islamic writings was quite manifest. This emerges not only from what Alberuni tells us about Brahman scholars reciprocating his curiosity about their scientific knowledge and beliefs but also from the appearance in Sanskrit of astrological works entitled Tajika-nilakanthi (Arab Astrology) composed round this time. The Sanskrit legend on the Ghaznavid tankas, for example, illustrates an attempt to interpret Islamic concepts for a Hindu audience: V. S. Agarwal cites, in this context, the rendering of the word “allah” as “avyakta” (invisible one). According to him in “The Sanskrit Legend on the Bilingual Tankas of Mahmud Ghazni,” this “happy rendering” shows a “genuine understanding of each other’s philosophical concepts” on the part of Hindu and Muslim scholars brought together under Ghaznavid tutelage. 2 The attitude of sympathetic appreciation of Indian culture and philosophy survived on the Muslim side in the writings of Amir Khusrau as well as in the recorded conversations of some of the Chishti Sufis of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The establishment and consolidation of the Delhi Sultanate (AD 1206–1236) was no doubt linked to the military superiority that the Ghurids enjoyed over their Hindu adversaries. They had easier access to superior-quality Central Asian warhorses and were already using the iron horseshoe not yet used in India. Their greater expertise in the use of the iron stirrup possibly enabled them to resort to the use of mounted archers against the mounted lancers of their opponents to good effect. This initial military advantage was enhanced by their success in building a state structure that extracted a very large part of surplus through the working of an assignment or iqta‘ system.

The establishment of the Delhi Sultanate led to important economic changes. The growth of a cash nexus coexisting with the iqta‘ system and the imposition of tax-rent (set at half the value of produce) over a very large area in the beginning of the 14th century perhaps represented the most significant of these changes. These, in turn, led to a considerable expansion of internal trade, drawing food grains and other agricultural products to the towns and so leading simultaneously to a new spurt of urban growth.

Numismatic evidence of the period also suggests the prevalence of brisk commerce, India’s favorable balance in overseas trade leading to the inflow of gold and silver in large quantities. Both the expansion of commerce and accompanying urban growth were partly facilitated by the introduction of crafts based on new technological devices and skills like papermaking, the spinning wheel, sericulture, and liquor distillation introduced from abroad.

The new arcuate (involving use of the arch) building technique not only accelerated building activity but also gave rise to the subsidiary crafts of brick making and manufacture of lime mortar. This new building technique transformed the architectural scene of urban settlements in most places outside Assam, Orissa, and peninsular India. Apparently, the use of force was necessary in some—indeed, many—instances. Slave labor could be employed at the new crafts. Large-scale enslavement in times of war and natural calamities gave rise to a brisk slave market at Delhi.

The Delhi sultans, like their Arab and Ghaznavid predecessors in Sind and the Punjab, came to treat the Hindus of the conquered territories as zimmis, who, according to Islamic political theory, would enjoy the status of protected people on payment of jiziya, a poll tax. At the same time, the impossible task of calculating and realizing jiziya from the vast Hindu population was circumvented by calling the land revenue realized from the predominantly Hindu rural sector khiraj-o-jiziya (tribute and poll tax).

Until the mid-14th century, none of the sultans tried to impose the jiziya outside the towns. Firuz Shah Tughlaq (AD 1351–1388) did try to impose the jiziya as a poll tax on all Hindus, including the Brahmans, hitherto exempt, and this led to a strong protest by the Hindus of Delhi. In all probability, this measure petered out in Firuz Shah’s own lifetime. Subsequently, the jiziya was never properly levied in the Delhi sultanate or in any one of the successor states.

The Delhi sultans, despite the religious bigotry of some of them, were generally obliged to be quite tolerant toward the public display of Hindu rites in the towns and localities controlled by the sultans, including the capital city of Delhi. Sultan Jalal al-Din Firuz Khalji (1290–1296) is quoted by Ziya’ Barani in Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi as having complained that crowds of Hindu men and women daily “pass under the walls” of his palace, “beating drums and blowing their trumpets, proceeding to the Jamuna, where they worship idols and perform acts of kufr (infidelity),” without his being able to check them.3 Barani himself describes how in the 13th century, the Hindu Multanis and Shahs of Delhi had accumulated abundant wealth by lending to the nobles of the Delhi sultanate against drafts on their as- signments. These prosperous Hindus had also built for themselves a large number of new temples in the territory controlled by the sultans. Firuz Shah Tughlaq (AD 1351–1388) sought to remove some of these temples on the basis that these were built without the formal permission of the authorities.

By the end of the 13th century, the top crust of military officers in the Delhi Sultanate, initially dominated by the Sultan’s Turkish slaves and the freeborn Tajik (Persian-speaking) officers, came to include—in addition to a number of Ghurid aristocrats—men belonging to such eth- nic groups as the Khaljis, Qaraunas (Turks serving under the Mongols), and more importantly, Indian converts to Islam. These Indian converts were looked down upon by others as upstarts and intruders. By AD 1253, the Indian Muslims had come to acquire a position where one of their leading representatives, ‘Imad al-Din Rehan, managed to outmanoeuvre, for a brief interlude, the slave nobles at the court of Nasir al-Din Mahmud Shah (AD 1246–1266). Under the Khalji and Tughlaq Sultans, the Indians became still more visible in the nobility. Writing around 1356, Ziya’ Barani gives vent to his resentment over their rise by referring to many of them as belonging to different menial castes (baghban/gardener, khammar/distiller, mali/gardener, naddaf/cotton-dresser, etc.), being both Hindus and Muslims.

Inclusion of many Hindus in the nobility, apparently, flowed from the clout gained by Hindu guards (paiks) whose special task was to protect the person of the Sultan. Prompt intervention of the paiks had prevented an assassination attempt by one of ‘Ala al-Din Khalji’s nephews to capture the throne in 1301. It was again with the support of commanders of paiks belonging to the Parwari warrior clan (many of them Hindus) that Khusrau Khan ruled as a Sultan for several months, after having assassinated Qutb al-Din Mubarak Shah Khalji in AD 1320. Hindu officers belonging to the category of financiers managing land revenue became prominent under Muhammad bin Tughlaq (AD 1325–1351). Some of them, like Bhiran Rai, the mutasarrif (auditor) of Gulbarga in 1340, became the target of disaffected nobles resisting Muhammad bin Tughlaq.

The changes in the composition of the nobility were accompanied by a process of conflict and accommodation with Hindu local chiefs within the power structure of the Delhi Sultanate at different levels. The creation of a new layer of rural intermediaries identified by Ibn Battuta (AD 1333–1344) as chaudhuris, each one of whom exercised jurisdiction over a nominal group of 100 villages, may be taken to mark a stage in this process. The chaudhuris, remunerated through revenue-free land grants, continued to be a part of the fiscal administration of the countryside not only in the Delhi sultanate but in the Mughal Empire as well.

Contrary to his reputation as a sultan who treated Hindus harshly, Firuz Shah Tughlaq (AD 1351–1388) extended unprecedented concessions to hereditary chiefs who were mostly Hindus. In his proclamation on the eve of his march to Bengal (AD 1354), Firuz Shah gave an assurance to the local chiefs of the region “beyond the Kosi” (in Insha-i Mahru by ‘Ain al-Din ‘Abdu-llah bin Mahru) that the revenue demand for the current year would be remitted. He also promised to reduce burdensome taxes and to stick to the settlement, possibly favorable to the chiefs, made by the then-ruler of Bengal, Haji Ilyas Shams al-Din Bhankara (1341–1358). 4 Partly corroborating this information, Barani also hints at the reconciliation of chiefs who were in rebellion for many years during Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s reign (AD 1325–1351).

The new literary trends in Persian writing produced in India as well as in those of the Indian languages including Sanskrit, during the 14th and 15th centuries, often reflect an acute awareness of India as a distinct cultural and political entity in which elements identified with Islamic presence are perceived as acceptable components. The long patriotic passages in the Nuh-sipihr (Nine Heavens) of Amir Khusrau are the most striking illustration of this trend. Norms of chivalry and social cor- rectness highlighted by Vidyapati Thakkura, popularly known as Thakkur Pheru, in Purusha-Pariksha (The Test of a Man; 1412–1416) projected a ruling-class culture free of religious rancour. In one of the stories narrated by Vidyapati, the heroic exploits of two Rajput warriors in the service of Muhammad bin Tughlaq are extolled for having defeated and killed a Mongol chief referred to as Kaphara (kafir, infidel).

The same period also witnessed the spread of Sufic doctrines among Indian Muslims; the most influential of them was the teachings of the Chishti Sufis. As revealed by Nizam al-Din Auliya’s conversations recorded by his disciple Hasan Sijzi, these doctrines not only leaned toward greater tolerance for unorthodox attitudes and practices but also spoke of the Chishtis’ appreciation of some of the beliefs and practices of the Hindu yogis they met frequently. As Muhammad Habib opined in Politics and Society during the Early Medieval Period, “converting non- Muslims was no part of the mission of Chishti sufis”; claims suggesting that particular Muslim communities were converted by early Chishti saints, according to him, are later inventions. 5 The impact of Chishti teachings, however, contributed significantly to molding the popular Islamic beliefs and practices in a major part of the subcontinent. The rise of devotional cults within Brahmanic Hinduism during the same period was a parallel development that contributed to blunting the clash of religious doctrines. This process was further strengthened by the emergence of the nonadulatory nirguna bhakti cults identified with Kabir, Nanak, and others during the 15th and 16th centuries.

By the end of the 14th century, the Delhi Sultanate had come to acquire a reputation for amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims, so that Sharf al-Din ‘Ali Yazdi, the chronicler of Timur, was prompted to describe the Muslims opposing Timur in his expedition (AD 1398), as “Hindus,” “faithless ones,” “faithless Hindus,” “hypocrites.” Massacres of such Muslims were therefore implicitly held to be justified because of their association with Hindus.6

The situation during the 15th century, in most of the regions controlled by states succeeding the Delhi sultanate, was not very different. One significant development of the 14th and 15th centuries was, of course, the emergence of regional Hindu powers, such as the Sisodiyas of Mewar, the Gajapatis of Orissa, and the Vijayanagar Empire, who frequently fought with their Muslim neighbors over territorial disputes, which tended to create a false impression of an ongoing conflict between Hindu and Muslim powers for supremacy. Recurring clashes of Mewar with the sultanates of Gujarat and Malwa until the first quarter of the 16th century contributed to such an impression.

A continuous state of war between the Bahmanis and Vijayanagar, which was obviously rooted in their conflicting ambitions over the Raichur Doab, was another conflict of the period, in the course of which much religious bigotry was displayed on both sides. That the element of religious divide in interstate conflicts of the 15th century was often a superficial matter is shown by the claim of Rana Kumbha of Mewar in one of his inscriptions that he was a “Hindu sultan” (Hindu suratrana) and his putting the name Allah in Arabic characters on the top layers of his Victory Tower. The Vijayanagara emperors for long used the title “sultan over Hindu rayas” (Hindu raya suratrana) and also kept in their employ a large contingent of Muslim horsemen, who were provided all facilities to perform their religious rites. The Bahmanis on their part incorporated in their ruling apparatus Hindu chiefs. Indeed, they promoted south Indian Brahmans in their central government on such a scale that it gave rise to a tradition that the founder of the dynasty was originally a Hindu brought up and trained by a Brahman.

In other successor states of the 15th century, too, the trend of accommodating Hindu local chiefs in the state structure at different levels and their growing power and influence was as manifest as it had been in the Delhi Sultanate during the 14th century. Strong zamindar support to Sharqi rule was indicated by the widespread resistance offered by the local chiefs of the Gangetic Plain to the Lodi takeover of Jaunpur in AD 1489. Many of these chiefs in the end had to be accommodated in the Lodi service.

The prominent role played by Purbia Rajput soldiers and their captains, led by Medini Rai under Mahmud Khalji (AD 1518) of Malwa, is well known. The authority wielded by some of the Hindu chiefs under Ilyas Shahis in Bengal, which led to the capture of power by one of them, Raja Ganesh (AD 1415–1418), again points to a similar situation.

Rushbrook Williams has surely misread this situation when he suggests that in the beginning of 16th century, Hindu and Muslim powers in India were arrayed against each other for a final showdown. According to him, in his work, An Empire Builder of the Sixteenth Century, he writes: “The Rajput con- federacy led by Mewar was almost ready to seize the empire which lay within its grasp.”7

As discussed, India of the 15th century was a rather bewildering mosaic of regional powers, many of them ruled by Hindu warrior clans. Each one of these powers imagined itself a successor of the Delhi sultanate in the region it controlled and also had the tendency to accommodate within its structure cultural and religious groups other than those represented by the ruling clans. It was symptomatic of this situation that an alliance of Indian powers cutting across the religious divide confronted Babur at Kanwa under Rana Sanga’s command in AD 1527. Out of the supposed total strength of 100,000 troops who fought at Kanwa against Babur, it must be remembered, the number of Muslims was put at 22,000 (12,000 Mewatis, and 10,000 Afghans).


1. Ziya’ Barani. Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi. Ed. Saiyid Ahmad Khan, Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1860–2, 288.

2. “The Sanskrit Legend on the Bilingual Tankas of Mahmud Ghazni.” Journal of Numismatic Society of India 5 (1943): 155–61.

3. Ziya’ Barani. Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi. 216–17.

4. ‘Ain al-Din ‘Abdu-llah bin Mahru. Insha-i Mahru. Ed. and tr. S. A. Rashid, Lahore: 1965, 17.

5. Muhammad Habib. Politics and Society during the Early Medieval Period. Ed. K. A. Nizami, Vol. 1, New Delhi: 1974, 368.

6. Sharfuddin ‘Ali Yazdi. Zafarnama, Vol. 2, Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1888, 74, 123, 138, 144.

7. Rushbrook Williams. An Empire Builder of the Sixteenth Century. Delhi: S. Chand, n.d., 18.


A Bilingual Coin of Sultān Mahmūd of Ghazna

A Bilingual Coin of Sultān Mahmūd of Ghazna One of the most interesting and least understood periods in the history of the region is the time between 711 and 1200 AD, i.e., from the time when the first Arab conquerors under Muhammad bin Qasim established the so-called Emirate of Sind to the end of Ghaznavid rule in Punjab.

One reason why this period is of special significance is that it represents the first extended encounter between Islam and the religious traditions of India, notably Hinduism (Buddhism too, but more on that another time). Given how the interaction and conflict between these two traditions has shaped – and continues to shape – the history of the region, looking back to the earliest encounters is especially important. Though not studied as intensely as some other periods, the history of the early medieval period in Northwestern India has attracted its share of scholarship, from the contemporary writings of Al-Biruni, Al-Maqdisi and Ibn Hawqal to the work of modern historians such as Romila Thapar, Finbarr Flood and Derryl MacLean. These works describe a fascinating process of interaction, integration and antagonism between two great cultures in an ancient land.

In this piece, I will only consider a narrow but interesting set of issues, motivated, as often, by a coin – a bilingual Ghaznavid dirham circa. 1128 AD. The silver coin was minted in the name of the greatest ruler of the Ghaznavid dynasty, Mahmud, who is famous – at least in South Asia – for his repeated attacks on India and his destruction of the great temple at Somnath in 1024. While his attacks ranged over large parts of northern India, Mahmud annexed only regions that lie in modern Pakistan.

The coin was struck in 419 AH (AD 1028) at Lahore, which was then known as Mahmudpur – itself an interesting bit of historical information (the name “Mahmudpur” can be read clearly in the margin of the image on top at the 6 o’clock position). The complete inscription in the margin reads (as far as I can reconstruct it from this and other similar coins):

bismillāh zariba hādha-al dirham mahmudpur tis’a ‘ashra wa arba’ mi’ah (In the name of Allah. This dirham struck at Mahmudpur 419).

The central text on this side of the coin reads:

lā-ilāha ill-allāh / muhammad rasūl-ullāh / yamīn-ud dawlah / wa amīn-ul millah Mahmud (There is no God but Allah / Muhammad is His messenger / protector of the state / and custodian of the community Mahmud).

The inscriptions at the 12 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions together read al-Qādir Billah, which was the name of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, to whom Mahmud nominally professed allegiance.

Even more interesting is the reverse side of the coin, shown on the bottom. The text is in Sanskrit, written using the Sharada script, which was used throughout the region at the time and is the ancestor of the Gurmukhi and Kashmiri scripts.

The text in the margin declares that the “tanka” – the Indian equivalent of the dirham – was struck in Mahmudpur on the given date, but it is the central inscription that is most interesting. The text reads:

avyaktam ekaṃ, muhamadaḥ avatāraḥ, nrpatiḥ mahamudah.

This translates as:

The Invisible is one; Muhammad is His manifestation (avatar); Mahmud is the king. The margin also has a Sanskrit translation of the statement about the mint and date, including the Arabic bismillāh (in the name of Allah) translated as avyaktīya nāme (in the name of the Invisible).

I rely on the reading reported by Flood in Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (with citations to several other works), but also given by Thapar in Somnatha: The Many Voices of History, and other sources, such as the entry for coin number 39207 in the Zeno Oriental Coins database and CoinIndia.

This inscription, which is the first known “official” translation of the Muslim declaration of the creed (shahada) into Sanskrit, is interesting for three reasons. First, the very fact of putting a Sanskrit version of the shahada on a coin signals a certain outreach to the conquered Hindu population.

After all, they were the only ones who would be expected to read the Sanskrit version. Perhaps there was also an element of proselytization in the move, trying to acquaint Hindus with the basis of Muslim belief. In any case, it was a remarkable acknowledgement of the need to communicate across communal lines.

Second, the exclusive Islamic declaration, “There is no God but Allah” is translated as “The Invisible is one” (or sometimes as “the Unmanifest is one”), which excludes nothing. Indeed, it is best read as an affirmative statement declaring the unity of all that is ineffable and immaterial – the great world spirit, so to speak.

For Hindus who believed in the undefinable, unchangeable reality – Brahman – at the core of everything, this would not have been a stretch at all. This is especially so if MacLean is correct and the major form of Hinduism prevalent in the area was Pasupata Saivism with its strongly monotheistic beliefs.

Finally, the most remarkable aspect of the translation is the declaration that the Prophet Muhammad is a manifestation (avatar) of God – not a messenger, as Muslims believe.

From an orthodox Islamic viewpoint, this is a heretical statement, but there it was on the coins of that most pious protector of Islamic orthodoxy, Mahmud “the idol-breaker”!

It is worth noting that, as far as is known, these bilingual coins were issued only at Lahore, and only for two years (418 and 419 AH).

In an end note, Flood (p. 279) quotes Tye and Tye, as suggesting that these might have been fiduciary coins for local use. Nevertheless, given the importance of Lahore to the empire – it was virtually a joint capital with Ghazni – and the fact that in AD 1028 (when the coins were issued), it was governed by Mahmud’s hand-picked governor, Malik Ayaz (of Mahmud-o-Ayaz fame), the issuance of the bilingual coins and the text of the Sanskrit inscription cannot be dismissed as an anomaly.

Clearly, there was an explicit and official attempt to reach across the communal divide, not only in form but also in ideas – perhaps to promote a version of the Islamic creed that would win greater acceptance among the Hindu populace. Nor was this the only such example. Mahmud’s son, Mas’ud I, also issued coins depicting Hindu iconography, including an image of Nandi, the bull of Shiva, which had been a prevalent motif in the Hindu Shahi coinage before the Ghaznavids.

Indeed, these Hindu motifs continued to be used on Ghaznavid coins by Mahmud’s successors in clear contravention of the orthodox Islamic proscription against images. Some coins also used Sharada inscriptions naming the king and occasionally invoking Hindu deities. These iconographic practices persisted into the Ghorid dynasty as well. But the history of bilingual coinage and syncretism between Islam and Hinduism in the region goes back somewhat further, and has some ironic twists.

As far as is known, the first bilingual coins by any Muslim rulers in India were struck in Multan by the Sāmid Amirs who reigned there in the 10th century. Multan was then the capital of what is sometimes called “Northern Sindh”.

After the initial Arab conquest in 711, Sindh was rules by a succession of governors appointed by the Umayyad administration, and then by the Abbasids after they took over in 750 AD. However, the hold of the caliphate on Sind became increasingly tenuous, and by the early tenth century, the region had split into a southern part, ruled from Mansurah by descendants of ‘Umar bin ‘Abd-ul-‘Aziz al-Habbāri, and a northern part, ruled from Multan by the descendants of Sāmah bin Lu’ayy. Both dynasties were of Qurayshi Arab origin, and professed nominal allegiance to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Multan, at the time, was famous for its magnificent Sun Temple, which was a major center of Hindu pilgrimage.

The Sāmid rulers seem to have supported the temple and a tolerant, perhaps syncretic version of Islam. However, sometime in the mid-tenth century, the rulers of Multan converted to Ismai’ili Islam, and transferred their allegiance from the Abbasids to the Fatimid caliph in Cairo, who was also the Isma’ili imam. Initially, the Isma’ili religious leadership in Multan appears to have continued on a tolerant course, but this aroused the wrath of the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Mu’izz, who sent a new preacher (dā’i), Jalam bin Shayban, insisting that the Isma’ili Amir of Multan purify the local religious practice (per Isma’ili doctrine, of course), and end support of “idol worship”. In a famous incident, the Caliph, hearing that a major local idol had been destroyed by the new preacher, asked that the head be sent to him as proof of destruction.

It has been believed, on the authority of Al-Biruni, no less, that this refers to the destruction of the Sun Temple and its idol, but other evidence, summarized by MacLean, suggests that it was probably another, lesser idol.

Nevertheless, it is ironic that the first recorded instance in Punjab of systematic idol-breaking in the name of Islamic purity came from Isma’ilis rather than orthodox Sunnis.

A second irony is that it was the Isma’ili presence in Multan that attracted the most famous of “idol-breakers”, Mahmud, to attack Multan in 1010 AD, depose its Isma’ili ruler whom he regarded as an apostate, and annex the province into the Ghaznavid empire.

Apart from his religious objections, Mahmud may also have been motivated to punish the rulers of Multan for transferring their allegiance away from the Abbasid caliph, to whom Mahmud pledged nominal fealty.

The bilingual coins are thought to be from the early Isma’ili period Multan around 965 AD. The text on these very small coins is usually hard to read. However, one side had the name of the ruler in Arabic (top panel) while the other often had a Sanskrit word, written in the Sharada script, with Hindu religious significance (bottom panel). According to Flood, four distinct Sanskrit inscriptions have been identified – two referring to Vishnu, one to Lakshmi, and the fourth to “Madhumadi”, which is regarded as the Sanskritized version of “Muhammad” (also used elsewhere in India at the time). If this is true, the coins represent an attempt to insert the Prophet of Islam into the Hindu pantheon.

Perhaps it was such practices that raised the ire of al-Mu’izz and motivated him to send a “purifier”.

To summarize the sequential ironies of the situation: First, Isma’ili Muslim rulers in Multan attempted to create a syncretic culture among the Hindus and Muslims of their emirate; then they were chastised by an Isma’ili Caliph in Egypt who ordered them to destroy idols and temples – which they did; but their Isma’ili faith was still seen as heretical by the pious Sunni king, Mahmud, who invaded and annexed their kingdom; and then, Mahmud’s own hand-picked governor in the region made another similar effort at syncretic outreach, minting coins with statements that orthodox Muslims would have regarded as heretical – but only in Sanskrit! History is a lot more complicated than what the saffron brigade wants us to understand!

Reading List: 1. Romila Thapar (2005) Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History. Verso. 2. Finbarr B. Flood (2011) Conflict and Cosmopolitanism in “Arab” Sind. In: A Companion to Asian Art and Architecture, R.M. Brown & D.S. Hutton (eds), pp 365-397. Blackwell. 3. F.B. Flood (2009) Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter. Princeton University Press. 4. D.N. McLean (1989) Religion and Society in Arab Sind, Brill. 5. J. Tye and M. Tye (1995) Jitals: A Catalogue and Account of the Coin Denomination of Daily Use in Medieval Afghanistan and North West India. John Tye.

CAS Publications 2018

The Books Published by CAS Department of History during the session 2017-18 which would be available for sale from April onwards:

1. ‘Abdul Qādīr Badā‘ūni, ​​Muntakhab ut-Tawārīkh

​​​​​(Volume I, 2, 3) [Persian Text]

2. Surat Singh,​​​​Tazkira-i Pīr Hassū Tailī

(Facsimile Print of the Manuscript with an Introduction and a biography of the Author)

3. Mohammad Habib,​​Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznin

4. Mohammad Habib,​​The Delhi Sultanate in History

5. Jamal M. Siddiqui,​​​Aligarh District: A Historical Survey

6. Irfan Habib,​​​​Essays in Medieval Indian History: From c.700 to c.1500

Apart from this the e-journal Bulletin of Sultania Historical Society, volume 1, no’s. 1-4 are available free to download from our website.