The Depraved Annals of the Muslim Aristocracy in Medieval India
An essay series narrating the horrifying details of the ruling Muslim aristocracy in Medieval India
There is a fundamental reason Syed Ahmad Khan, the original author of the Partition of India, found the need to establish Muslim-only institutions foremost of which was the Aligarh Muslim University. As he was growing up, he found to his dismay that Muslim imperial power had imploded spectacularly, irretrievably, in this dark country of ignorance populated by a majority who were infidels who stood for everything that Islam prohibited: idol worship and the worship of many Gods. Worse, despite centuries of absolute Muslim rule, large-scale genocides and conversions, the resistance of these infidels was still stubborn and unyielding. Even worse, the new infidels, the British Christians with better equipment and greater cunning had made sweeping conquests. But the worst of all was the actual condition of the Musalman: in less than a century, former rulers had become destitute. Equipped with no education (unless you count Madrassa mind-poisoning as education), no skills, no talent, and no wisdom, the significant Musalman population had now become an object of mockery, derision and poverty. Thus, in a Hindustan that had changed almost overnight for the worse for Muslims in India, Syed Ahmad Khan found an urgent need to initiate steps that would in the long run turn around the fortunes.
Indeed, Syed Ahmad Khan’s grief and fury emanated from a profound firsthand experience of belonging to that Muslim social strata which had wielded and enjoyed real power, wealth and influence for centuries. This social stratum was in many ways the real power behind every minor and major Sultan that ruled large parts of Bharatavarsha: the Muslim aristocracy and nobility. From another perspective, while the Sultan was the absolute despot, he had little time to enjoy the luxuries of his despotism in the way that this aristocracy enjoyed. A major part of the Sultan’s day was dedicated to quelling his paranoia: he had to constantly watch out for intrigues and plots apart from carrying out the donkey labour called administration. On the other hand, the aristocracy simply had to prove their loyalty and total obedience to the Sultan. They were free to spend the rest of their time in unabashed indulgence. It is precisely this class that the Sanatana resurgence seeded by Shivaji and later, the British blasted out of existence.
If the history of the Muslim period is genocidal and blood-soaked, the concatenate history of the Muslim aristocracy or nobility is depraved and debauched, and merits a separate volume.
Broadly speaking, this medieval Muslim nobility can be divided into classes: the Government and the civilian.
The aristocracy attached to the Government included high-ranking nobles, courtiers, military commanders, bureaucrats and provincial governors with a well-defined hierarchy. The exact status of a person in this aristocracy was typically denoted by a title. At various points in the Muslim history of India, these titles included Malik, Amir, Khan, Siphesalar, Mansabdar, Julaha, Sheikh, and Sayyad.
In the civilian realm, this nobility was represented by the Ulema (clergy), the Mashaikh (typically, scholars of Islamic jurisprudence) and some fabulously wealthy Muslim businessmen.
The most distinguishing feature of the Muslim ruling aristocracy right from the days of Qutubudin Aibak up to the Mughal Empire was the fact that its topmost echelons were inhabited by foreigners. During the rule of the so-called Delhi Sultanate, Turkic Muslims had completely monopolized all high offices. Iltutmish nurtured a band of semi-barbaric Turkish Muslims and Central Asian warriors as his personal bodyguards. They were accountable only to his Royal Self and nobody else and enjoyed a special status. His successor, the arch Islamic bigot and inveterate Turkish racist Balban had personally expelled as many non-Turkic Muslims in his administration as was realistically possible. Equally, both Iltutmish and Balban were dependent on the power and support of the cabal known as the “dreaded forty,” a gang of Turkic schemers and courtiers, the real power behind the throne.
Eventually, more foreigners poured into India after Muslim rule was more or less firmly established. These included Persian, Abyssinian, Egyptian, Afghan and converted Mongol adventurers, bandits and plunderers who quickly became part of the ruling Muslim elite. An early example of an influx of this sort occurred after Genghis Khan devastated the Khwarazmian Empire. Its former courtiers and high-ranking officials fled in droves all the way from Central Asia and landed in Lahore and soon sat on powerful seats of the Delhi Sultanate.
Under the Lodi dynasty, a whole slew of barbaric Afghan adventurers—basically, primitive tribals—poured into India like acid. Even during the Mughal period—so beloved to our eminent distorians—the topmost positions of the Government were dominated by Iranians and Turanis, all of them foreigners. It reflects the foreign-looking character of the Mughal Empire that Farsi and not Sanskrit (or any other Indian language), was considered the language of culture and refinement. The top layer of the Mughal aristocracy was the Mansabdar, the richest and the most privileged class of the Empire akin to the closed club of Lutyens Delhi under Nawab Nehru’s sultanate. This aristocracy was zealously guarded and there was only one entry gate to it: birth. No amount of merit or hard work entailed admission into it. This is the real caste system which no book of Indian history talks about.
Then there was the other class of faux nobility: Hindus who were forcibly converted and had entered government service. It didn’t matter how brilliant, accomplished or competent they were. They were barely tolerated and bore the ignominy of being called a “Hindu” or “Hindi,” a psychological device meant to constantly remind them of their vile origins as former Kaffirs. The story of Imad-ud-din Raihan (or Rihan) is highly illustrative. He was a former Hindu who grew close to sultan Nasir-ud-din, the puppet that Balban had installed. Despite his powerful position, the Turkic Muslim aristocracy openly derided him in colourful language: “ “baseborn Indian eunuch,” “Hindi ruler,” “renegade Hindu,” “vile upstart,” “conspirator,” “usurper,” “scoundrel,” “impotent,” “overthrower of ancient laws,” “obnoxious,” and “rascal.” Eventually, the “pure” Turkic Muslim nobility united under Balban’s leadership and ensured that he was expelled and then killed.
Yet, for all their exaggerated boasts about being noble, regal, accomplished and cultured, what were the exact qualifications of this foreign Muslim nobility? The foremost qualification was Islamic fanaticism and an ability to conduct war against the infidels on a savage scale. This is Bernier’s eyewitness description:
Forget the aristocracy and look at their patron Sultans. Every king of the so-called Delhi Sultanate up to Ala-ud-din Khalji was a slave, which is why the Delhi Sultanate is also referred to as the Slave dynasties of Delhi.
Then there is the other nuance. Indian Muslims who rose in economic status and became part of the nobility soon found a need to justify their newfound eminence by tracing their origins to Baghdad, Turkey or Egypt. This insane theme has remained intact from so many distant centuries up to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a third or fourth generation convert from Hinduism. Pakistani textbooks shamelessly trace his bloodline to the Prophet Muhammad himself by spinning all sorts of fantastic tales about his alleged Arabic origins. Needless, this is a direct outcome of conversion to Islam, which makes perverse psychological demands. V.S. Naipaul provides one of the most original and penetrating expositions of this mindset of a new convert.
The foregoing account delineates merely some defining traits of the medieval Muslim nobility. But to put this in graspable perspective, here is the hierarchy given by the medieval Muslim chronicler, Ziauddin Barani.
The lowest in the military hierarchy was a Sarkhail, who was a commander of ten horsemen. Then he computes upwards.
One Sipehsalar= 10 Sarkhails
One Amir= 10 Sipahsalars
One Malik=10 Amirs
One Khan= 10 Maliks
However, these definitions altered under the rule of different sultans. According to Shiab Umari,
One Khan=100,000 troops
One Amir=10,000 troops
One Malik=1,000 troops
Their salaries were truly fabulous. It was a mix of Iqta (share of revenue or tax collected at source), Jagir (land grant) and cash. At various points in history, a Khan received as much as Two Lakh Tankas a year during the Delhi Sultanate. A distinguished commander could earn as much as ₹ 18,000 a month if he proved his worth to Akbar. Then the sultans offered another carrot to these officials: if you manage your areas judiciously, you get a bonus apart from the normal revenue share. This obviously paved the way for the near-total bleeding of the populations under the control of Muslim governors.
Acharya Jadunath Sarkar gives us a brutal miniature portrait of the extent of wealth, luxury and power that the Muslim aristocracy enjoyed through such heartless exploitation:
This is the mere preface of a much darker chapter containing the details of the depravity of the Muslim aristocracy which we shall narrate in the next part.
To be continued
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