Abdulla Khan’s words were prophetic. The population of Indian Muslims grew rapidly through enslavement. This rapid growth gave rise to new problems. One was a tussle for power between foreign slave-Amirs and Indian slaves some of whom also attained to the position of nobles. As among the Turkish Amirs themselves, a bitter struggle for clout also raged between foreign Turks and Indian Muslims. The Hindus resisted enslavement and conversion. But once made Musalmans, they asserted their claim to equality with foreign Muslims. Distinction between the two has always been there and it is reflected in the writings of medieval chroniclers like Minhaj and Barani and the observations of Europeans like Bernier and Robert Orme.1 The Turks asserted that they belonged to the blue blood and were founders of Muslim rule in India. The India Muslims knew that the Turks were good fighters, but for administrative work indigenous Muslims were better suited. To keep them under control the sultans resorted to the time honoured policy of playing the one against the other. On one occasion Sultan Iltutmish dismissed thirty-three persons from service on account of their low birth, or their Indian ancestry.2 On the other hand Sultan Nasiruddin raised Indian-born Imad-ud-din Rayhan to the position of Vakil-i-Dar (Custodian of the keys of Palace Gates) after dismissing the all powerful foreign Turk Ghiyasuddin Balban. Minhaj Siraj’s description of the situation shows how high the feelings ran between the foreign Turkish and Indian ‘Julaha’ nobles. “The Maliks and servants of the Sultan’s Court were all Turks of pure lineage” (Turkan-i-pak) writes he, and Taziks of noble birth (Tazikan-i-guzida was). “Imad-ud-Din Rayhan (who) was castrated and mutilated, and of the tribe of Hind, was ruling over the heads of lords of high descent, and the whole of them were loathing that state, and were unable to suffer any longer that degradation.”3 The Turkish nobles rose in arms and the Sultan was persuaded to order the dismissal of Rayhan and recall of Ulugh Khan-i-Azam Balban (February, 1254). The language of Ziyauddin Barani is not less vituperative. He was a staunch believer in the racial superiority of the Turks and the baseness of Indian Muslims. He recommended that “Teachers of every kind are to be sternly ordered not to thrust precious stones down the throats of dogs… that is, to the mean, the ignoble, the worthless… To the low-born they are to teach nothing more than the rules about prayer, fasting, religious charity and the Hajj pilgrimage along with some chapters of the Quran and some doctrines of the faith… They (Indian Muslims) are not to be taught reading and writing for plenty of disorders arise owing to the skill of the low-born in knowledge… the low-born are capable only of vices… so they are called low-born, worthless, plebeian, shameless and of dirty birth.”

In this strife, the foreign slave-nobles had an edge over their Indian counterparts. They were closer to the Sultan and had influence with him. For most of them Indian-born Muslims were originally all slaves, “scum captives taken in thousands by chance of war or purchased at a vile price”. But like Turks they intrigued and maneuvred to rise to power. Malik Kafur and Nasiruddin Khusrau even staked their claims to the throne. In any case it took a few generations’ time for them to reach the stature of foreign nobles.4 Muslim society tended to be divided into ruling and other classes.

Strife among nobles

The attitude of ‘what art thou that I am not’ prevailed not only among some individual nobles but among all nobles, foreigner and Indian, and at all times. Besides the Turks, who were in majority but belonged to many clans, there were Abyssinians, Afghans (of many clans and groups), Tajiks, Persians and Mongols.5 All these sections had vested interests as individuals and groups. All sections had among them seasoned veterans, hardened by life’s tough experience. As their names indicate, Malik Qabul Ulugh Khani, the Superintendent of the Grain Market (Shahna-i-Mandi) under Alauddin Khalji, Muhammad Bihamad Khami, the historian, Jahangir Quli Khan, the nobleman of Jahangir, and Murshid Quli Khan, the Subedar of Bengal were all slave-nobles. No wonder, intrigue and manoeuvering went on throughout, and tooth and claw, sword and poison, were freely used to destroy rivals.6

In the beginning the number of the Turkish slaves was the largest. Besides the Turks, slaves from many other tribes, ethnic groups and countries also went on arriving in good numbers. Whether they were captured, purchased or lured into the country because of the bright prospects here, whether they were adventurers or were invited because they possessed talent as administrators, musicians or poets, in whatever capacity or through whatever channel they arrived, officially and technically their position was that of slaves. Bondage was a condition from which no one was exempt: including scholars and poets - Turks, Arabs, Gauls, Jews, Persians and Ethiopians. There have been many occasions to write about the Turkish slaves, their arrogance, their jealousies, their intrigues and their services. Some other prominent groups in medieval India were Afghans, Persians, and the Black slaves of Africa - Abyssinians or Ethiopians. A word only may be said here about each of these collectanea of ‘imported’ slaves, because we shall be referring to them in various contexts again and again.

From the eleventh century onwards, the Afghans started coming into India as soldiers of fortune in the armies of various invaders beginning with Mahmud of Ghazni. Muhammad Ghauri in his last expedition brought ten thousand Afghan horsemen with him.7 In the time of Sultan Iltutmish, the Khwarizmi Prince Jalaluddin, fleeing before Chingiz Khan, brought many Afghan soldiers with him. Some of these took service under Iltutmish.8 Balban appointed thousands of Afghans for garrisoning difficult outposts.9 Saiyyad Khizr Khan, because of his unpopularity as Timur’s nominee and lack of support in Hindustan, gave important assignments to men of Lodi, Sherwani, Niyazi, Jalwani and many other tribes of Afghans from Roh.10 The Turkish sultans considered the Afghans to be good soldiers, but men devoid of culture. Their queer ideas of unbridled freedom, and their traditional attachment to their tribal leaders were not conducive to discipline and harmony. Sultan Bahlul Lodi handled his turbulent Afghan nobles with studied tact; whenever he wrote a farman to his Amirs, he always addressed them as “Masnad-i-Ali” (Your Exalted Lordship).11 When Sikandar Lodi made an attempt to show them their place, he had to face hard opposition. His son and successor Ibrahim lost his throne because of their intrigues, recalcitrance and disloyalty. All the same till the coming of the Mughals, the Afghan rulers surrounded themselves with their Afghan co-tribals and favoured them with important appointments.

The Persians and Central Asians (Iranians and Turanians) were generally appointed on higher posts in administration. Minhaj Siraj says that people from Persia and adjoining countries came to India in various capacities. Fakhr-ul-Mulk Isami, who had been Vazir at Baghdad for thirty years but then had suffered some disappointment, arrived in Hindustan and was appointed Wazir by Iltutmish. A great scholar of Iltutmish’s reign was Amir Ruhani; he had come from Bukhara to Delhi during the upheaval of Chingiz Khan. Qazi Hamiduddin Nagori had also come from abroad. Muhammad Aufi, the author of the famous Jami-ul-Hikayat had also come to Delhi during Iltutmish’s reign.12 As noted earlier, because of the Mongol upheaval, there arrived in the court of Iltutmish and Balban not less than forty princes with their followers from Iraq, Khurasan, Mawaraun Nahr and adjoining countries.13 These followers comprised masters of pen and of sword, scholars and Mashaikh, historians and musicians. In the royal procession of Sultan Balban 500 Sistani, Ghauri, Samarqandi and Arab soldiers with drawn swords used to march by his side. Similar was the case with other sultans of Delhi. All this indicates that a large number of foreigners had come to India during the Sultanate period. During the rule of the Mughals specially, they rose to heights of glory. Bairam Khan who helped in the reestablishment of the Mughal dynasty in India was a Persian. In the court of Jahangir and Shahjahan Persian nobles wielded great influence because of the support of queens like Nur Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. The eminent position of Iranis and Turanis ever remained well entrenched.

The fate and fortune of the black Africans was not that good. For a general term they may be called Habshis or Abyssinians. A few, but only a few, rose to high positions like Malik Yaqut the Personal Attendant of Sultan Raziyah, but the contemptuous attitude of Turks towards him shows the position of Africans in the early years of Muslim rule in India. Later on some rose to become the Sharqi kings of Jaunpur and some kings in Bengal and the Deccan. But the majority of them were treated as lesser Muslims. Barbak Shah of Bengal (1460-74) maintained a large number of Abyssinians as protectors of his throne. He recruited 8,000 Habshis and gave them high positions in his government.14 The sultans of Gujarat and the Deccan also invited groups of Abyssinians and gave them “positions of respect and trust.”15 Male and female Abyssianian slaves were brought as presents for the Mughals.16 Habshi women were employed as harem guards in Malwa and other Muslim kingdoms. But the largest concentration of Habshis was in the Deccan where they formed even powerful political groups.17 The Quran and Sharia show no awareness of racial or colour prejudice. In the early seventh century, neither slavery nor bitter ethnic and national rivalries seemed to generate what the modern world would define as racism. By the late seventh century, however, blackness of skin was becoming a symbol that evoked distaste and contempt. Bernard Lewis points to the overwhelming evidence that racial slavery, as the modern world has come to know it, originated in medieval Islamic societies. Light-skinned Arabs, Berbers and Persians invented the long-distance slave trade that transported millions of sub-Saharan captives either by camel caravans across the deserts or by slave ships from East Africa to the Persian Gulf. Arabs led the way in classifying the diverse peoples who lived from the Horn of Africa on the east to the state of Ghana in the west as “blacks” - a single lowly group especially submissive to slavery because, as the famous fourteenth century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it, they “have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals”! Some Muslim writers ranked the Nubians and especially the Ethiopians somewhat higher than the despised Zanj, a vague term applied to the Bantu-speaking labourers imported from East Africa. In short, medieval Muslims came to associate the most degrading forms of labour with black slaves. In fact, the Arabic word for slave, ‘abd’, came to mean only a black slave.18

Black Slaves in India

These slaves were brought to India in very large numbers. Their position was generally that of inferior species. Sometimes they were not trusted. A case in point is seen during Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat. After the fall of Ahmedabad all officers of Sultan Mahmud Gujarati came to make submission to Akbar. These included Aitmad Khan “the slave and Prime Minister of Sultan Mahmud Guiarati”19 (who was originally a Hindu slave),20 Mir Abu Turab, Saiyyad Ahmad Bukhari, Malik Ashraf, Ulugh Khan Habshi, Jajhar Khan Habshi, and other amirs and chiefs of Gujarat “too numerous to mention”. Abul Fazl writes that Emperor Akbar desired to include the Habshis (Abyssinians) among the royal slaves on the same terms as they had been slaves of Sultan Mahmud. But Akbar’s officers were suspicious of them. Aitmad Khan too became surety for all Gujarati slaves except the Abyssinians.21 Therefore, for reasons of security, Akbar ordered the headmen of the Habshis to be made over to the great officers of the court.22

D.B. Davis in his Slavery and Human Progress attempts to estimate the number of blacks that would have been sold as slaves and imported into India. According to him “the importation of black slaves into Islamic lands from Spain to India constituted a continuous large-scale migration that in total numbers may well have surpassed, over a period of twelve centuries, the African diaspora to the New World”.23 The absence of a large population of black survivors can be explained by their high mortality rate; by assimilation with other peoples; and by the fact that many male slaves had been castrated. Even so in central part of India and on the western coast, there are communities of blacks who are descendants of African slaves. On some Western Coast Islands also there live descendants of black slaves. The Jinjeera Island, so called because of mispronunciation by Marathas of Jazeera meaning island, or Zanzeera meaning land of Zanj or Blacks, is their main abode. It is also called Habsan or the land of Africans or Habshis. In the seventeenth century these islanders, called Sidis of Jinjeera, served as admirals of the Mughals and were at constant war with the Marathas.

In short but broadly speaking, the foreign nobles consisted of Turks, Arabs, Mughals, and Persians. The others were Hindustanis (Indian-born), Deccanis, Blacks and Muwallads (offsprings of African fathers and Indian mothers). In some measure foreign Muslim scorn for blacks is confirmed by a similar attitude towards the brown Indians. Black slaves did not get any education, so blacks came to be regarded as stupid. Amir Khusrau talks of Hindus in a similar vein; Barani recommends that Indians should not be given more than elementary education. Still compartmentalization was not that complete. Instances of gratitude to a benefactor or compromise with self-interest were not unknown, but were not frequent. Party spirit too was stronger than patriotism. If the foreign Turks and Persians felt superior and monopolised higher positions, a Black could found a ruling kingdom at Jaunpur and a Hindu convert a ruling dynasty in Gujarat. But all nobles, foreign or Indian, exerted in the cause of Islam, undertook campaigns and captured captives. These captives were employed on all kinds of government and private jobs.


1 Minhaj, 827-28; Barani, Tarikh, 38-39, Fatawa-i-Jahandari, 97, 98, also 47; Bernier, 209.  Orme, ‘Of the Moors of Indostan’ in A General Idea of the Government of Indian.

2 Barani, 38-39.

3 Minhaj, 829.

4 Bernier, 209; Titus, Islam in India and Pakistan, 117.

Here are a few examples. Bahadur Nahar was a converted Rajput from Mewat. So also were Rai Daud of Jalandhar and Rai Kamaluddin Main of Ludhiana. Similarly three brothers, Sarang Khan, Mallu Khan and Khandu converted to Islam and rose to be nobles. Mallu Khan later became Mallu Iqbal Khan and Khandu was entitled Adil Khan. Soon enough Mallu was dropped and he became just Iqbal Khan, a pure Muslim, like of foreign lineage. Iqbal Khan’s sons were Saifuddin and Khudadad. By now the family had become pucca Muslim having dropped all Hindu appellations. Therefore it was not harmed by Sultan Mahmud when settling the affairs of Delhi after the upheaval of Timur. Mahmud sent the family of Iqbal Khan to Kol (Aligarh) just as Sher Shah returned the consort of Humayun to the Mughal because in both cases families of Muslims were involved. Such examples of claiming pure Muslim (or foreign) lineage after a few generations of conversion abound in medieval Indian history.

Yahiya, Tarikh-i-Mubarak Shahi, 175; Nizamuddin, Tabqat-i-Akbari, I, 260. Also Yazdi, Zafar Namait, II, 116; Farishtah, I, 158; Lal, Twilight, 21-22 and notes 52-53.

5 Many more are mentioned by Fakhre Mudabbir in his Tarikh-i-Fakhruddin of Mubarak shah.

6 Barani 47-48.

7 Niamatullah, Makhzani-i-Afghana. trs. N.B. Roy, 11.

8 Olaf Caroe, The Pathans, 135.

9 Barani, 57-58.

10 Niamatullah’s History of the Afghans, 14.

11 Abdullah Tarikh-i-Daudi, 12-14; Rizqullah Mushtaqi, Waqiat-i-Mushtaqi, 4 (a).

12 Farishtah, I, 66-67.

13 Minhaj, 598-99; Farishtah, I, 73.

14 Barbosa, II, 147.

15 Farishtah, II, 298; Lach, Asia in the making of Europe, I, 401-05.

16 Tuzuk, I, 167.

17 For details Lal, Indian Muslims, 50-61.

18 Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, OUP, 1990. Also Koenraad Elst, Indigenous Indians, 378-81.

19 Badaoni, II, 141.

20 Ain, II, 385.

21 Nizamuddin, Tabqat-i-Akbari, trs. E.D.,V, 342-43.

22 Abul Fazl, Akbar Nama, III, 10-11.

23 David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress, Oxford, 1984, 45-56.

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