The Coming of Islam

India Table of Contents

Islam was propagated by the Prophet Muhammad during the early seventh century in the deserts of Arabia. Less than a century after its inception, Islam's presence was felt throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Iran, and Central Asia. Arab military forces conquered the Indus Delta region in Sindh in 711 and established an Indo-Muslim state there. Sindh became an Islamic outpost where Arabs established trade links with the Middle East and were later joined by teachers or sufis (see Glossary), but Arab influence was hardly felt in the rest of South Asia (see Islam, ch. 3). By the end of the tenth century, dramatic changes took place when the Central Asian Turkic tribes accepted both the message and mission of Islam. These warlike people first began to move into Afghanistan and Iran and later into India through the northwest. Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030), who was also known as the "Sword of Islam," mounted seventeen plundering expeditions between 997 and 1027 into North India, annexing Punjab as his eastern province. The invaders' effective use of the crossbow while at a gallop gave them a decisive advantage over their Indian opponents, the Rajputs. Mahmud's conquest of Punjab foretold ominous consequences for the rest of India, but the Rajputs appear to have been both unprepared and unwilling to change their military tactics, which ultimately collapsed in the face of the swift and punitive cavalry of the Afghans and Turkic peoples.

In the thirteenth century, Shams-ud-Din Iletmish (or Iltutmish; r. 1211-36), a former slave-warrior, established a Turkic kingdom in Delhi, which enabled future sultans to push in every direction; within the next 100 years, the Delhi Sultanate extended its sway east to Bengal and south to the Deccan, while the sultanate itself experienced repeated threats from the northwest and internal revolts from displeased, independent-minded nobles. The sultanate was in constant flux as five dynasties rose and fell: Mamluk or Slave (1206-90), Khalji (1290-1320), Tughluq (1320-1413), Sayyid (1414-51), and Lodi (1451-1526). The Khalji Dynasty under Ala-ud-Din (r. 1296-1315) succeeded in bringing most of South India under its control for a time, although conquered areas broke away quickly. Power in Delhi was often gained by violence--nineteen of the thirty-five sultans were assassinated--and was legitimized by reward for tribal loyalty. Factional rivalries and court intrigues were as numerous as they were treacherous; territories controlled by the sultan expanded and shrank depending on his personality and fortunes.

Both the Quran and sharia (Islamic law) provided the basis for enforcing Islamic administration over the independent Hindu rulers, but the sultanate made only fitful progress in the beginning, when many campaigns were undertaken for plunder and temporary reduction of fortresses. The effective rule of a sultan depended largely on his ability to control the strategic places that dominated the military highways and trade routes, extract the annual land tax, and maintain personal authority over military and provincial governors. Sultan Ala-ud-Din made an attempt to reassess, systematize, and unify land revenues and urban taxes and to institute a highly centralized system of administration over his realm, but his efforts were abortive. Although agriculture in North India improved as a result of new canal construction and irrigation methods, including what came to be known as the Persian wheel, prolonged political instability and parasitic methods of tax collection brutalized the peasantry. Yet trade and a market economy, encouraged by the free-spending habits of the aristocracy, acquired new impetus both inland and overseas. Experts in metalwork, stonework, and textile manufacture responded to the new patronage with enthusiasm.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress