Chapter 1
The Medieval Age

“If royalty did not exist, the storm of strife would never subside, nor selfish ambition disappear.”'

Abul Fazl

Muslim rule in India coincides with what is known as the Middle Ages in Europe. The term Middle Ages or the Medieval Age is applied loosely to that period in history which lies between the ancient and modern civilizations. In Europe the period is supposed to have begun in the fifth century when the Western Roman Empire fell and ended in the fifteenth century with the emanation of Renaissance in Italy, Reformation in Germany, the discovery of America by Columbus, the invention of Printing Press by Guttenberg, and the taking of Constantinople by the Turks from the Byzantine (or the Eastern Roman) Empire. In brief the period of Middle Ages extends from C.E. 600 to 1500.

Curiously enough the Middle Age in Europe synchronises exactly with what we call the medieval period in Indian history. The seventh century saw the end of the last great Hindu kingdom of Harshvardhana, the rise of Islam in Arabia and its introduction into India. In C. 1500 the Mughal conqueror Babur started mounting his campaigns. And since these foreign Muslim invaders and rulers had come not only to acquire dominions and extend territories, but also to spread the religion of Islam, war and religion became the two main currents of medieval Indian Muslim history.


War is the work of kings turned conquerors or conquerors turned kings. Therefore it was necessary for the medieval monarch to be autocratic, religious minded and one who could conquer, rule and subserve the interest of religion. Such was the idea about the king in medieval times, both in the West and the East.

The beginnings of the institution of kingship are obscure. Anatole France attempts to trace it in his Penguin Island, a readable satire on (British) history and society. That is more or less what he writes: Early in the beginning of civilization, the people’s primary concern was provision of security against depredations of robbers and ravages of wild animals. So they assembled at a place to find a remedy to this problem. They put their heads together and arrived at a consensus. They will raise a team of security guards who will work under the command of a superior. These will be paid from contributions made by the people. As the assembled were still deliberating on the issue, a strong, well-built young man stood up. He declared he would collect the said contributions (later called taxes), and in return provide security. Noticing his physical prowess and threatening demeanour they all nodded their assent. Nobody dared protest. And so the king was born.

In whatever manner and at whatever time the king was born, he was, in the Middle Ages, personally a strong warrior, adept at horsemanship, often without a peer in strength. He gathered a strong army, collected taxes and contributions and was surrounded by fawning counsellors. They bestowed upon him attributes of divinity, upon his subjects those of devilry, thus making his presence in the world a sort of a benediction necessary for the good of mankind. Once man was declared to be bad and the king full of virtues, there was hardly any difficulty for political philosophy and religion to recommend strict control of the people by the king.

There were thus monarchs both in the West and the East and in both autocracy reigned supreme. Still in the West they could wrest a Magna Carta from the king as early as in 1215 C.E. and produce thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesqueue and Bentham who helped change the concept of kingship in course of time. But in the East, especially in Islam, a rigid, narrow and limited scriptural education could, parrot-like, repeat only one political theory-Man was nasty, brutish and short and must be kept suppressed.

In the Siyasat Nama, Nizm-ul-Mulk Tusi stressed that since the kings were divinely appointed, “they must always keep the subjects in such a position that they know their stations and never remove the ring of servitude from their ears.”1 Alberuni, Fakhr-i-Mudabbir, Amir Khusrau, Ziyauddin Barani and Shams Siraj Afif repeat the same idea.2 As Fakhr-i-Mudabbir puts it, “if there were no kings, men would devour one another.”3 Even the liberal Allama Abul Fazl could not think beyond this: “If royalty did not exist, the storm of strife would never subside, nor selfish ambition disappear. Mankind (is) under the burden of lawlessness and lust…”4 “The glitter of gems and gold in the Taj Mahal or the Peacock Throne,” writes Jadunath Sarkar, “ought not to blind us to the fact that in Mughal India, man was considered vile;-the mass of the people had no economic liberty, no indefeasible right to justice or personal freedom, when their oppressor was a noble or high official or landowner; political rights were not dreamt of… The Government was in effect despotism tempered by revolution or fear of revolution.”5 Consequently, medieval Muslim political opinion could recommend only repression of man and glorification of king.

The king was divinely ordained. Abul Fazl says that “No dignity is higher in the eyes of God than royalty… Royalty is a light emanating from God, and a ray from the sun, the illuminator of the universe.”6

Kingship thus became the most general and permanent of institutions of medieval Muslim world. In theory Islam claims to stand for equality of men, in practice it encourages slavery among Muslims and imposes an inferior status on non-Muslim. In theory Islam does not recognize Kingship; in practice Muslims have been the greatest empire builders. Muhammadans themselves were impressed with the concept of power and glamour associated with monarchy. The idea of despotism, of concentration of power, penetrated medieval mind with facility. Obedience to the ruler was advocated as a religious duty. The ruler was to live and also enable people to live according to the Qur’anic laws.7 In public life, the Muslim monarch was enjoined to discharge a host of civil, military and religious duties. The Sultan was enjoined to do justice, to levy taxes according to the Islamic law, and to appoint honest and efficient officers “so that the laws of the Shariat might be enforced through them.”8 At times, he was to enact Zawabits (regulations) to suit particular situations, but while doing so, he could not transgress the Shariat nor “alter the Qur’anic law!”9 His military duties were to defend Muslim territories, and to keep his army well equipped for conquest and extension of the territories of Islam.10 The religious duty of a Muslim monarch consisted in helping the indigent and those learned in the Islamic law. He was to prohibit what was not permitted by the Shara. The duty of propagating Islam and carrying on Jihad mainly devolved on him.11 Jihad was at once an individual and a general religious duty.12 According to a contemporary Alim, if the Sultan was unable to extirpate infidelity, “he must at least keep the enemies of God and His Prophet dishonoured and humiliated.”13 It must be said to his credit that the Muslim Sultan, by and large, worked according to these injunctions, and sometimes achieved commendable success in his exertions in all these spheres.

As said earlier, there were autocratic monarchs both in the West and the East. Still in the West there appeared a number of liberal political philosophers who helped to change the concept of kingship in course of time. But Muslims could not think on such lines, so that when in England they executed their king after a long Civil War (1641-49), in India Shahjahan, a contemporary of Charles I ruled as an autocrat in a ‘golden age’. Even so autocracy took time to go even in Europe and there was no check on the powers of the king in the Middle Ages, except for the institution of feudalism.


Feudalism was a very prominent institution of the Middle Ages. It was prevalent both in Europe as well as in India, although there were many differences between the two systems. In Europe feudalism gathered strength on the decline of the Western Roman Empire. After Charlemagne (800-814) in particular, there was rapid decline in the monarchical power throughout Europe, and governments failed to perform their primary duty of protecting their peoples. The class of people who needed protection the most was the petty landowner. In the earliest times the lands were free whether these were held by ordinary freeman or a noble. In the absence of strong monarchy, the possessor of the free land, threatened or oppressed by powerful neighbours, sought refuge in submitting to some lord, and in the case of a lord to some more powerful lord. In the bargain he surrendered his land. For, when he begged for protection, the lord said: ‘I can protect (only) my own land.’ The poor man was thus forced to surrender the ownership of his land to his powerful and rich neighbour, receiving it back in fief as a vassal. (The word feudalism itself is derived from the French feodalite meaning faithfulness). His children were left without any claim on that land. He was also obliged to render service to his superior lord. In return he was promised protection in his lifetime by his lord. The origins of feudalism are thus to be traced to the necessity of the people seeking protection, and exploitation by those who provided it.

Conditions were not the same everywhere, but the system was based on contract or compact between lord and tenant, determining all rights and obligations between the two. The vassal was obliged to render military service, take his cases only to his own lord and submit to the decisions of the lord’s court, and pay certain aids to the lord in times of need, like free gifts or ‘benevolences’, aids at the marriage of the chiefs daughter, some tax when the chief was in trouble or as ransom to redeem his person from prison. These aids varied according to local customs and were often extorted unreasonably.

On the other hand, for providing security to the vassal, it became common for a chief or lord to have a retinue of bodyguards composed of valiant youths who were furnished by the chief with arms and provisions and who in turn devoted themselves to his service. These ‘companions’ received no pay except their arms, horses and provisions. With these companions or troops the lords also conquered lands, and gave certain portions of it to their attendants to enjoy for life. These estates were called beneficia or fiefs, because they were only lent to their possessors, to revert after death to their grantor, who immediately gave them to another of his servants on the same terms. As the son commonly esteemed it his duty, or was forced by necessity, to devote his arms to the lord in whose service his father had lived, he usually received his father’s fief, or rather he was invested with it anew. By the usage of centuries this custom became hereditary. A fief rendered vacant by the death of the holder was taken possession of by his son, on the sole condition of paying homage to the feudal superior.

In the feudal system, therefore, the vassal and the lord benefited from one another, although the latter much more, at the cost of the king. Junior vassals could become powerful and rise in hierarchy to become sub-lords or even great lords. They could have their own subordinate vassals in sub-infeudation. Kingly power, as always, continued to exist, but under feudalism it was widely diffused. The privileges the lords enjoyed often comprised the right of coining money, raising armies and waging private wars, exemption from public tributes and freedom from legislative control.14 Sometimes the kings had to make virtue of necessity even to the extent of granting titles and administrative fiefs to Counts etc. to be administered by them. But the struggle between royalty and nobility (as in England under William the Norman), continued. Of course, and ultimately, it ended in the power of the lords sinking before that of the king.

In India feudalism did not usher in that spirit of civil liberty which characterised the constitutional history of medieval England. Here the king remained supreme whether among the Turks or the Mughals, and the assignments of conquered lands were granted by him to lords, soldiers or commoners or his own relatives as salary or reward in consideration of distinguished military service in the form of iqtas or jagirs15, sometimes even on a hereditary basis, but they were not wrested from him. This system was bureaucratic. There was also a parallel feudalistic organisation but the possessor of land remained subservient to the king. It was based on personal relationship. The vassals were given jagirs and assignments primarily because of blood and kinship. On the other hand, the practice of permitting vanquished princes to retain their kingdoms as vassals, or making allotment of territories to brothers and relatives of the king, or giving assignments to particular families of nobles, learned men and theologians as reward or pension were feudalistic in nature. Some feudatories would raise their own army, collect taxes and customary dues, pay tributes, and rally round the standard of their overlord or king with their military contingents when called upon to do so. But the assignee had no right of coining money. (In fact, coining of money was considered as a signal of rebellion.) He maintained his own troops but he had no right of waging private war.16 He could only increase his influence by entering into matrimonial alliances with powerful neighbours or the royal family. In the Sultanate and the Mughal empire the feudal system was more bureaucratic than feudalistic, in fact it was bureaucratic throughout.17 Here the feudal nobility was a military aristocracy which incidentally owned land, rather than a landed aristocracy which occasionally had to defend Royal lands and property by military means but at other times lived quietly.

But there were also many points of similarity between Indian and European feudalism. In India Nazrana was offered to the lord or king when an estate or jagir was bestowed upon the heir of the deceased lord (Tika), like the feudal relief in Europe. As in Europe, here too the practice of escheat was widely prevalent. Aids, gifts or benevolences were common to both. These consisted of offerings at the ascension of the king to the throne, his weighment ceremony, on important festivals, cash and gifts at the marriage of the chief’s daughter or son, gifts or a tax when the chief was in trouble. In India the king always stood at the top of the regime. Feudal institutions are apt to flourish in a state which lacks centralised administration. The vastness of India makes it a veritable subcontinent, and the ruler’s position was naturally different in each kingdom or region according to local condition found there. But there was a central authority too. The idea of a strong monarch was inseparable from Muslim psyche and Turco-Mongol political theory. In India, under Muslim rule, great importance was attached to the sacrosanct nature of the king’s person. The Indian system arose from certain social and moral forces rather than from sheer political necessity as in Europe, and that is why it survived throughout the medieval period.

Whatever its merits and demerits, Indian feudalism recognised division of society into people great and small, strong and weak, haves and have-nots. Nobles were not equal to nobles; there were great Khans and petty Amirs. Men were not equal to men; some were masters, others their slaves. Women were not equal to men; they were subservient to men and considered to be their property. Perhaps the most prominent characteristic of the Medieval Age was the belief and acceptance of the 'fact' that men are not born equal, or at least they could not be recognised as such.

Feudalism in Europe gradually disappeared with the coming of Renaissance and Reformation, and formation of nation-states. In India phenomena such as these did not occur. There was nothing like a Renaissance in medieval India. There could be no reformation either, because “innovation” in religious matters is taboo in Islam. Some Muslim monarchs were disillusioned with the state of religion and the power of the Ulama (religious scholars).18 Thai is why, probably, Alauddin Khalji (C.E. 1296-1316) contemplated ‘founding’ a new religion,19 Muhammad Tughlaq (1325-51) was credited with similar intentions; and Akbar (1556-1605) actually established the Din-i-Ilahi. Muslims feared that Alauddin’s “new religion must be quite different from the Muhammadan faith, and that its enforcement would entail slaughter of a large number of Musalmans”.20 He was dissuaded by his loyal counsellors from pursuing his project. All the same it is significant that Alauddin Khalji and Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar did think of some sort of ‘Reformation’ in Islam, but the former was scared into abandoning the idea and the latter contented himself by just organising a sort of brotherhood of like-minded thinkers.21 Such endeavours, strictly prohibited in Islam, could hardly affect India's Muslim feudalistic society.

Europe in the middle ages too lived under a Roman Catholic imperium. Its unity was theological, while its divisions were feudal. After Renaissance the unity of the theological imperium was shattered and so were the old divisions. European societies, after centuries of theological and territorial wars, learnt to aggregate around a new category of the nation-state. In India Muslim theological imperium never came to an end, nor persistent resistance to it. Hence, the idea of a secular nation-state never found a ground here.

Among other chief agencies that overthrew the feudal system were the rise of cities, scouring of the oceans for Commercial Revolution and the spread of knowledge, scientific knowledge in particular. In India there was urbanisation under Muslim rule, but it has been grossly
exaggerated.22 India had large urban centres before the arrival of Muslims. Arab geographers become rapturous when describing the greatness of India’s cities-both in extent and in demography-on the eve of Muslim conquest and immigration.23 During his sojourn in India Ibn Battuta visited seventy-five cities, towns and ports.24 Under Muslim rule many old cities were given Muslim names. Thus Akbarabad (Agra), Islamabad (Mathura), Shahjahanabad (Delhi) and Hyderabad (Golkunda) were not entirely new built cities, but old populated places that were given new Islamic names, mostly after the ruling kings. Giving new names to old cities was not an extension of urbanisation as such, although it must be conceded that Muslims loved city life and encouraged qasba like settlements. Urbanisation in Europe gave impetus to industry and personal property and founded a new set of power cluster-the middle class. The rise of this new class, with its wealth and industrial importance, contributed more than anything else to social and political development in Europe before which the feudal relations of society almost gradually crumbled. The rise and spread of this class in India and its impact on society remained minimal and rather imperceptible. Edward Terry noted that it was not safe for merchants and tradesmen in towns and cities, “so to appear, lest they should be used as filled sponges.”25 Moreland on the testimony of Bernier and others, arrives at the conclusion that in India the number of middle class people was small and they found it safe to wear “the garb of indigence.”26 Europe broke the shackles of feudalism by embarking upon Commercial Revolution and took to the seas for the same. The Mughals in India fared miserably on water. Even the great emperor Akbar had to purchase permission of the Portuguese for his relatives to visit places of Islamic pilgrimage. Throughout medieval India there was little change in the field of scientific learning and thought.

Religious Wars

Like feudalism, inter- and intra- religious wars too were a very prominent feature of the medieval age. There were two great Semetic religions, Judaism and Christianity, already in existence when Islam was born. Most of the world religions like Vedic Hinduism (C. 2000-1500 B.C.), Judaism (C. 1500 B.C.), Zoroastrianism (C. 1000 B.C.), Jainism and Buddhism (C. 600 B.C.), Confucianism (C. 500 B.C.) and Christianity had already come into being before Islam appeared on the scene in the seventh century. All these religions, especially Hinduism, had evolved through its various schools a very highly developed philosophy. Jainism and Buddhism had said almost the last word on ethics. So that not much was left for later religions to contribute to religious philosophy and thought. So far as rituals and mythology are concerned, these abounded in all religions and the mythology of neighbouring Judaic and Christian creeds was freely incorporated by Islam in its religion, so that Moses became Musa; Jesus, Isa; Soloman, Sulaiman; Joseph, Yusuf; Jacob, Yaqub; Abraham, Ibrahim; Mary, Mariam; and so on. But to assert its own identity, rules were made suiting the requirements of Muslims imitating or forbidding Jewish and Christian practices.27

Muhammad was born in Arabia in 569 and died in 632. In 622 he had to migrate from Mecca to Medina (called hijrat) and this year forms the first year of the Muslim calendar (Hijri). Islam got much of its mythology and rituals from Judaism and Christianity, but instead of coming closer to them it confronted them. From the very beginning Islam believed in aggression as an instrument of expansion, and so “spreading with the rapidity of an electric current from its power-house in Mecca, it flashed into Syria, it traversed the whole breadth of north Africa; and then, leaping the Straits of Gibraltar it ran to the Gates of the Pyrenees”.28 Such unparalleled feats of success were one day bound to be challenged by the vanquished. As a result Christians and Muslims entered into a long-drawn struggle. The immediate cause of the conflict was the capture of Jerusalem by the Seljuq Turks in 1070 and the defeat of the Byzantine forces at Manzikart in Asia Minor in 1071. For the next two centuries (1093-1291) the Christian nations fought wars of religion or Crusades against Muslims for whom too these wars meant the holy Jihad.

Christianity thus found a powerful rival in Islam because the aim of both has been to convert the world to their systems. In competition, Islam had certain advantages. If because of its late arrival, there was any problem about obtaining followers, it was solved by the simple method of just forcing the people to accept it. Starting from Arabia, Islam pushed its religious and political frontiers through armed might. The chain of its early military successes helped establish its credentials and authority. It was also made more attractive than Christianity by polygamy, license of concubinage and frenzied bigotry.29 It sought outward expansion but developed no true theory of peaceful co-existence. For example, it framed unlimited rules about the treatment to be accorded to non-Muslims in an Islamic state, but nowhere are there norms laid down about the behaviour of Muslims if they happen to live as a minority in a non-Muslim majority state. Its tactic of violence also proved to be its greatest weakness. In the course of Islamic history, Muslims have been found to be as eager to fight among themselves as against others.

The Crusades (so called because Christian warriors wore the sign of cross), were carried on by European nations from the end of the eleventh century till the latter half of the thirteenth century for the conquest of Palestine. The antagonism of the Christian and Muhammadan nations had been intensified by the possession of Holy Land by the Turks and their treatment of the Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. In these wars, the pious, the adventurous, and the greedy flocked under the standards of both sides. The first crusade was inspired by Peter the Hermit in 1093, and no less than eight bloody wars were fought with great feats of adventure, heroism and killings. In the last crusade the Sultan of Egypt captured Acre in 1291 and put an end to the kingdom founded by the Crusaders. Despite their want of success, the European nations by their joint enterprises became more connected with each other and ultimately stamped out any Muslim influence in Western Europe. But the most fruitful element in the crusades was the entry of the West into the East. There was a constant conflict and permanent contact between Christianity and Islam.

In this contact both sides lost and gained by turns, both culturally and demographically, for both strove for expansion through arms and proselytization. The successors of Saladin, who defeated the Christians in the last crusade, were divided by dissensions. By the grace of those disenssions the Latins survived. A new militant Muhammadanism arose with the Mameluke Sultans of Egypt who seized the throne of Cairo in 1250. However, shortly afterwards there was a setback to Muslim power when the Caliph of Baghdad was killed by the Mongols in 1258. On the other hand, the prospect of a great mass conversion of the Mongols, which would have linked a Christian Asia to a Christian Europe and reduced Islam to a small faith, also dwindled and disappeared. “The (Mongol) Khanates of Persia turned to Muhammadanism in 1316; by the middle of the fourteenth century Central Asia had gone the same way; in 1368-70 the native dynasty of Mings was on the throne and closing China to foreigners; and the end was a recession of Christianity and an extension of Islam which assumed all the greater dimensions with the growth of the power of the Ottoman Turks… But a new hope dawned for the undefeated West; and this new hope was to bring one of the greatest revolutions of history. If the land was shut, why should Christianity not take to the sea? Why should it not navigate to the East, take Muhammadanism in the rear, and as it were, win Jerusalem a tergo? This was the thought of the great navigators, who wore the cross on their breasts and believed in all sincerity that they were labouring in the cause of the recovery of the Holy Land, and if Columbus found the Caribbean Islands instead of Cathay, at any rate we may say that the Spaniards who entered into his labours won a continent for Christianity, and that the West, in ways in which it had never dreamed, at last established the balance in its favour.”30

Crusades saved Western civilization in the Middle Ages. “They saved it from any self-centred localism; they gave it breadth-and a vision.” On the other hand, Muslim victories made Muslim vision narrow and myopic. So that today Christians are larger in numbers and technologically and militarily more advanced than Muhammadans. As these lines are being written (August 1990), their armies and ships are spreading all over the West Asian region beginning with Saudi Arabia.

To return to the medieval period. Religious wars between Christians and Muhammadans alone did not account for killings on a large scale. The Christians also fought bloody and long-drawn wars among themselves. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), for instance, decimated one-fifth population of the region affected by it. Then there was the Inquisition. Inquisition was a court or tribunal established by the Roman Catholic Church in the twelfth century for the examination and punishment of heretics. England never introduced it, Italy and France had only a taste of it. But in Spain it became firmly established towards the end of the fifteenth century. It is computed that there were in Spain above 20,000 officers of the Inquisition, called familiars, who served as spies and informers. Imprisonment, often for life, scourging, and the loss of property, were the punishments to which the penitent was subjected. When sentence of death was pronounced against the accused, burning the heretic in public was ordered as “the church never polluted herself with blood”. The number of victims of the Spanish Inquisition from 1481 to 1808 amounted to 341,021. Of these nearly 32,000 were burned at the stake.31

Islam outstripped Christianity in contributing to large-scale killings in wars waged for religion or persecution of heretics. Each human being has an idea or image of God in his mind. Consequently, there can be as many Gods as there are human beings. Even “according to one outstanding Sufi, the paths by which its followers seek God are in number as the souls of men.”32 In view of this it is presumptuous to claim that there is only one God or there are many Gods or there is no God at all. And yet in the name of One God, and at that “Merciful and Compassionate”, what cruelties have not been committed in the history of Islam? Arabia was converted during the life-time of Muhammad. Immediately after the death of Muhammad, to borrow the rhetoric of Edward Gibbon, “in the ten years of the administration of (Caliph) Omar (634-644) the Saracens reduced to his obedience thirty-six thousand cities or castles, destroyed four thousand churches or temples of the unbelievers, and edified fourteen hundred moschs (mosques) for the exercise of the religion of Muhammad.”33 In these unparalleled feats the number of the killed cannot be computed. Since many pages in this book will be devoted to Muslim exertions in their endeavour to spread Islam in India we may feel contented here to state that in this scenario religion and religious wars became the very soul of thought, action and oppression in the Middle Ages.


Middle Ages is also known as Dark Ages. It is so called because there were restrictions placed on the freedom of thought and any aberrations were punished as ‘heresy’. Any idea away from the traditional was looked upon with suspicion. New conceptions or knowledge gathered on the basis of new experiments was taboo if it came into conflict with the Church or contravened the Christian scriptures. This restriction on any new notions made the period a dark age. But it required constant monitoring of people’s thoughts and actions. The invention of printing and the rapid diffusion of opinion by means of books, induced the governments in all western countries to assume certain powers of supervision and regulation with regard to printed matter. The popes were the first to institute a regular censorship (1515) and inquisitors were required to examine all works before they were printed. Only one example would suffice to illustrate the position. Nicholas Copernicus was born in Poland in 1473: he taught mathematics at Rome in 1500 and died in Germany in 1543. He researched on the shape of the Earth, and concluded that the Sun was the centre round which Earth and other planets revolved. In his De Orbium Celestium Revolutionibus (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs) he even measured the diameter and circumference of the Earth fairly accurately. But the Church believed the Earth to be flat, and the fear of Inquisition discouraged Copernicus from publishing his ‘outrageous’ researches till about the close of his life, for the Church could do little harm to a man about to die. Even so, his book was forbidden to the Roman Catholics for long. The Inquisition freely used torture to extort confession; ‘heretics’ were broken on the wheel, or burnt at stake on cross-roads on Sundays for punishment as well as an example for others.

In the medieval India under Muslim rule there was no printing press and no research of the type done by Copernicus. The need for censorship arose because Islam forbade any innovation in the thought and personal behaviour of Muslims. “Beware of novel affairs,” said Muhammad, “for surely all innovation is error.” What was not contained in the Quran or Hadis was considered as innovation and discouraged. That is why Muslim learning in India remained orthodox, repetitive and stereotyped. Free thought and research in science and technology were ruled out. Fundamentalist writers like Khwaja Baqi Billah (1563-1603), Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi (1564-1624) and Shah Waliullah (1702-1763) were considered as champion thinkers.

As Muslims must live in accordance with a set of rules and a code of conduct, there was an official Censor of Public Morals and Religion called Muhtasib. It was his duty to see that Muslims did not absent themselves from public prayers, that no one was found drunk in public places, that liquors or drugs were not sold openly. He possessed arbitrary power of intervention and could enter the houses of wrong-doers to bring them to book. Sir Alexander Burnes relates that he saw persons publicly scourged because they had slept during prayer-time and smoked on Friday.34 I. H. Qureshi writes, “It was soon discovered that people situated as the Muslims were in India could not be allowed to grow lax in their ethical and spiritual conduct without endangering the very existence of the Sultanate.”35 Hurriedly converted, half-trained, Indian Muslims were prone to reverting to their original faith which was full of freedom. Therefore, all the sultans were very strict about enforcing Islamic behaviour on Muslims through the agency of Muhtasibs. Balban, Alauddin Khalji and Muhammad bin Tughlaq were known for their severity in this regard. Muhammad bin Tughlaq regarded wilful neglect of prayers a heinous crime and inflicted severe chastisement on transgressors.36 Women too were not spared; Firoz Shah and Sikandar Lodi in particular forbade women from going on pilgrimage to the tombs of saints.37 The Department of Censor of Public Morals was known as hisbah.38

Non-Muslims suffered even more because of censorial regulations. Tradition divided them into seven kinds of offenders like unbelievers, infidels, hypocrites, polytheists etc. who are destined to go to seven kinds of hell from the mild Jahannum to the hottest region of hell called Hawiyah, ‘a bottomless pit of scorching fire.’ A strict watch was kept on their thought and expression. They were to dress differently from the Muslims, they could not worship their gods in public and they could not claim that their religion was as good as Islam. A case which culminated in the execution of a Brahmin may be quoted in some detail as an example.

“A report was brought to the Sultan (Firoz Tughlaq 1351-88) that there was in Delhi an old Brahman (Zunar dar) who persisted in publicly performing the worship of idols in his house; and that the people of the city, both Musalmans and Hindus, used to resort to his house to worship the idol. This Brahman had constructed a wooden tablet (muhrak), which was covered within and without with paintings of demons and other objects. On days appointed, the infidels went to his house and worshipped the idol, without the fact becoming known to the public officers. The Sultan was informed that this Brahman had perverted Muhammadan women, and had led them to become infidels. (These women were surely newly converted and had not been able to completely cut themselves off from their original faith). An order was accordingly given that the Brahman, with his tablet, should be brought in the presence of the Sultan at Firozabad. The judges, doctors, and elders and lawyers were summoned, and the case of the Brahman was submitted for their opinion. Their reply was that the provisions of the Law were clear: the Brahman must either become a Musalman or be burned. The true faith was declared to the Brahman, and the right course pointed out, but he refused to accept it. Orders were given for raising a pile of faggots before the door of the darbar. The Brahman was tied hand and foot and cast into it; the tablet was thrown on the top and the pile was lighted. The writer of this book (Shams Siraj Afif) was present at the darbar and witnessed the execution… the wood was dry, and the fire first reached his feet, and drew from him a cry, but the flames quickly enveloped his head and consumed him. Behold the Sultan’s strict adherence to law and rectitude, how he would not deviate in the least from its decrees.”39

The above detailed description gives the idea of burning at stake under Muslim rule. Else similar cases of executions are many. During the reign of Firoz himself the Hindu governor of Uchch was killed. He was falsely accused of expressing affirmation in Islam and then recanting.40 In the time of Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) a Brahman of Kaner in Sambhal was similarly punished with death for committing the crime of declaring as much as that “Islam was true, but his own religion was also true.”41

Astrology and Astronomy

Most medieval people of all creeds and countries believed in astrology. Astrology literally means the science of the stars. The name was formerly used as equivalent to astronomy, but later on became restricted in meaning to the science or psuedo-science which claims to enable people to judge of the effects and influences of the heavenly bodies on human and other mundane affairs. Astrology was not to the medievals an unscientific aberration. It was based on the understanding that the relationship of man to the Universe is as the microcosm (the little world) is to the macrocosm (the great world). Thus a knowledge of the heavens is essential for a true understanding of man himself. “A knowledge of the movements of the planets and their position in the heavens, would therefore be of the utmost importance for man since, in the medieval phrase, superiors (in the heavens) ruled inferiors (on earth): and not only man but… all were subject to the decrees of heavens, which themselves… expressed the will of God.”42 Roger Bacon (1214-1292?) considered astrology as the most practical of sciences.43

Astrology was practised by Muslims as by all other medieval people. Muhammad bin Qasim, the first invader of India, was despatched on his mission only after astrologers had pronounced that the conquest of Sind could be effected only by his hand.44 Mahmud of Ghazni too believed in the predictions of astrologers.45 Timur the invader writes in his Malfuzat: “About this time there arose in my heart a desire to lead an expedition against the infidels and become a ghazi”, and felt encouraged when he opened a fal (omen) in the Quran which said: “O Prophet, make war upon infidels and unbelievers and treat them with severity”-and he launched his attack on Hindustan.46 The practice of consulting the Quran for fal was common among medieval Muslims.47 The savant Alberuni gives details of Hindu literature on astrology and astronomy seen by him.48 By and large Muslim kings and commoners in India decided their actions on the advice of the astrologers, soothsayers and omen mongers.

People’s faith in astrology was reinforced for seeking solution to their immediate problems and their curiosity to know their future. The first was done by astrologers and palm-readers by “examining the hand and face of the applicant, turning over the leaves of the large book, and pretending to make certain calculations” and then “decide upon the Sahet (saiet) or propitious moment of commencing the business he may have in hand.”49 Amulets and charms were also prescribed for warding off distress, removing fear, obtaining success in an undertaking or victory in battle and a hundred other similar problems.50 The second was done by preparing a horoscope. As usually practised, the whole heavens, visible and invisible, was divided by great circles into twelve equal parts, called houses. The houses had different names and different powers, the first being called the house of life, the second the house of riches, the third of brethren, the sixth of marriage, the eighth of death, and so on. To draw a person’s horoscope, or cast his nativity, was to find the position of the heavens at the instant of his birth. The temperament of the individual was ascribed to the planet under which he was born, as saturnine from Saturn, jovial from Jupiter, mercurial from Mercury and so on. The virtues of herbs, gems, and medicines were also supposed to be due to their ruling planets.

Kings and nobles gave large salaries to astrologers. The astrologers prepared horoscopes of princes and the elite. Muslim kings got horoscopes of all princes like Salim, Murad and Daniyal cast by Hindu Pandits.51 Jotik Ray, the court astrologer of emperor Jahangir used to make correct predictions after reading the king’s horoscope. He was once weighed against gold and silver for reward.52 There were men and women Rammals (soothsayers) and clairvoyants at the court.53 In short, the practice of consulting astrologers was common with high and low. The people never engaged even in the most trifling transaction without consulting them. “They read whatever is written in heaven; fix upon the Sahet, and solve every doubt by opening the Koran.”54 “No commanding officer is nominated, no marriage takes place, and no journey is undertaken without consulting Monsieur the Astrologer.”55 Naturally, the astrologers “who frequented the court of the grandees are considered by them eminent doctors, and become wealthy.”56

But there were charlatans also. They duped and exploited the poor and the credulous. Besides some people then as now had no faith in astrology. The French doctor Bernier was such an one. Describing the bazar held in Delhi near the Red Fort, Francois Bernier (seventeenth century) says that “Hither, likewise, the astrologers resort, both Mahometan and Gentile. These wise doctors remain seated in the sun, on a dusty piece of carpet, handling some old mathematical instruments, and having open before them a large book which represents the sign of the Zodiac. In this way they attract the attention of the passenger… by whom they are considered as so many infallible oracles. They tell a poor person his fortune for a payssa… Silly women, wrapping themselves in a white cloth from head to foot, flock to the astrologers, whisper to them all the transaction of their lives, and disclose every secret with no more reserve than is practised by a penitent in the presence of her confessor. The ignorant and infatuated people really believe that the stars have an influence (on their lives) which the astrologers can control.”57

Astrology and astronomy are closely interlinked. In medieval times astronomy was also considered a branch of psychology and medicine. Astronomy has an undoubtedly high antiquity in India. The Arabs began to make scientific astronomical observations about the middle of the eighth century, and for 400 years they prosecuted the science of najum with assiduity. The Muslims looked upon astronomy as the noblest and most exalted of sciences, for the study of stars was an indispensable aid to religious observances, determining for instance the month of Ramzan and the hours of prayers. Halaku Khan (Buddhist) founded the great Margha observatory at Azerbaijain. One at Jundishapur existed in Iran. In the fifteenth century Ulugh Beg, grandson of Amir Timur (Tamerlane), built an observatory at Samarqand. In Europe Copernicus in the fifteenth and Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century did valuable work in the field of astronomy. In medieval India many Muslim chroniclers wrote about the movements of planets and stars,58 but the name of Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur has become famous for his contribution to the science of astronomy. He built observatories or Jantar-Mantars at many places in the country for the study of the movements of stars and planets. A reputed geometer and scholar, Sawai Jai Singh II built the Delhi Jantar-Mantar in C.E. 1710 at the request of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah. The observatory was used for naked-eye sighting, continuously monitoring the position of the sun, moon and planets in relation to background stars in the belt of the Zodiac. His aim was basically to make accurate predictions of eclipses and position of planets. He devised instruments of his own invention - the Samrat Yantra, the Jai Prakash, and the Ram Yantra. The Misr Yantra was added later by Jai Singh’s son Madho Singh. The Samrat Yantra is an equinoctial dial. The Yantra measures the time of the day, correct to half a second; and the declination of the sun and other heavenly bodies. Other Jantar-Mantars of Jai Singh were built at Ujjain, Mathura, Banaras and Jaipur.59

Alchemy, Magic, Miracles and Superstitions

Alchemy flourished chiefly in the medieval period, although how old it might be is difficult to say. It paved the way for the modern science of chemistry, as astrology did for astronomy. In the medieval age alchemy was believed to be an exact science. But its aims were not scientific. It concerned itself solely with indefinitely prolonging human life, and of transmuting baser metals into gold and silver. It was cultivated among the Arabians, and by them the pursuit was introduced into Europe. “Raymond Lully, or Lullius, a famous alchemist of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, is said to have changed for king Edward I mass of 50,000 lbs. of quicksilver into gold.”60 No such specific case is found in medieval India, although there was firm belief in the magic or science of alchemy. A Sufi politician of the thirteenth century, Sidi Maula by name, developed lot of political clout in the time of Sultan Jalaluddin Khalji (1290-1296). He built a large khanqah (hospice) where hundreds of people were fed by him every day. “He used to pay for what he bought by the queer way of telling the man to take such and such amount from under such and such brick or coverlet, and the tankahs (gold/silver coins) found there looked so bright as if they had been brought from the mint that very moment.”61 He did not accept anything from the people but spent so lavishly that they suspected him of possessing the knowledge of Kimya va Simya (alchemy and natural magic).62

The general solvent which at the same time was supposed to possess the power of removing all the seeds of disease out of the human body and renewing life, was called the philosopher’s stone. Naturally, there was a keen desire to get hold of one. India was known for possessing knowledge of herbs which prolonged life. Alberuni writes about the science of alchemy (Rasayan) about which he so learnt in India: “Its (Rasayan’s) principles (certain operations, drugs and compound medicines, most of which are taken from plants) restore the health… and give back youth to fading old age… white hair becomes black again, the keenness of the senses is restored as well as the capacity for juvenile agility, and even for co-habitation, and the life of the people in this world is even extended to a long period.”63 In Jami’ul Hikayat Muhammad Ufi narrates that certain chiefs of Turkistan sent ambassadors with letters to the kings of India on the following mission. The chiefs said that they “had been informed that in India drugs were procurable which possessed the property of prolonging human life, by the use of which the kings of India attained to a very great age. The Rais were careful in the preservation of their health, and the chiefs of Turkistan begged that some of this medicine might be sent to them, and also information as to the method by which the Rais preserved their health so long. The ambassadors having reached Hindustan, delivered the letters entrusted to them. The Rai of Hind having read them, ordered the ambassadors to be taken to the top of an excessively lofty mountain” (Himalayas?) to obtain it. In the same book a story refers to a chief of Jalandhar, who had attained to the age of 250 years. In a note Elliot comments that “this was a favourite persuasion of the Orientals”.64 But Alberuni’s conclusion is crisp and correct. He writes: “The Hindus do not pay particular attention to alchemy, but no nation is entirely free from it, and one nation has more bias for it than another, which must not be construed as proving intelligence or ignorance; for we find that many intelligent people are entirely given to alchemy, whilst ignorant people ridicule the art and its adepts.”65

Belief in magic too was a universal weakness of the middle ages. “The invocation of spirits is an important part of Musalman magic, and this (dawat) is used for the following purposes: to command the presence of the Jinn and demons who, when it is required of them, cause anything to take place; to establish friendship or enmity between two persons; to cause the death of an enemy; to increase wealth or salary; to gain income gratuitously or mysteriously; to secure the accomplishment of wishes, temporal or spiritual.”66 So, magic was practised both for good purposes and evil intentions, for finding lucky days for travelling, catching thieves and removing diseases as well as inflicting diseases on others. The first was called spiritual (Ilm-i-Ruhani) and the latter Shaitani JaduAlthough Islam directs Musalmans to “believe not in magic”67 yet the belief was universal.68 It involved visit to tombs, use of collyrium or pan (betel), and all kinds of antics and ceremonials for desiring death for others and success for self. There were trained magicians (Sayana).69 They fleeced the fools, both rich and poor, to their hearts’ content. A highly popular book on magic among the Muslims in the medieval period was Jawahir-i-Khamsa by Muhammad Ghaus Gauleri.70

Belief in magic and sorcery and worship of saints living and dead was linked with belief in miracles and superstition. The argument was that the elders and saints helped when they were alive, they could still help when dead and so their graves were worshipped. There was belief in miracles for the same reason. An evil eye could inflict disease and there was fear of witchcraft. A blessing could cure it and so there was faith in the miraculous powers of saints. In medieval times physicians were few, charlatans many, and even witch doctors flourished. Amir Khusrau mentions some of the powers “of sorcery and enchantment possessed by the inhabitants of India. First of all they can bring a dead man to life. If a man has been bitten by a snake and is rendered speechless, they can resuscitate him even after six months.”71

There is nothing surprising about the belief in miracles by medieval Muslims, in particular about their Sufi Mashaikh. In theory Islam disapproved of miracles. In practice it became a criterion by which Sufi Shaikhs were Judged and the common reason why people reposed faith in them. Many Sufi Shaikhs and Faqirs were considered to be Wali who could perform karamat or miracles and even istidraj or magic and hypnotism.72 Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya held that it was improper for a Sufi to show his karamat even if he possessed supernatural powers.73 But belief in alchemy and miracles was common even among Sufi Mashaikh74 and there are dozens of hagiological works and biographies of Sufi saints containing stories of such miracles including Favaid-al-Fuad, Siyar-ul-Auliya and Khair-ul-Majalis which are considered by many Muslims to be pretty authentic. There are unbelievable stories, hardly worth reproducing. It is difficult to say when the stories of the karamat of the Sufi saints began to be told. But they helped the Sufis take Islam to the masses. It is believed that impressed by these stories or actual performance of miracles, many Hindus became their disciples and ultimately converted to Islam.

Belief in ghosts of both sexes was widespread. Nights were frightfully dark. Right upto the time of Babur there were “no candles, no torches, not a candle-stick”.75 Even in the Mughal palace utmost economy was practised in the use of oil for lighting purposes.76 The common man lived in utter darkness after nightfall. And ghosts, goblins and imaginary figures used to haunt him. Sorcerers and witch doctors tried to help men and particularly women who were supposed to have been possessed by ghosts.


Belief in astrology and alchemy, magic and witchcraft, miracles and superstition was there both in the West and the East in the middle ages. Europe released itself from mental darkness sooner because of spread of education and early establishment of a number of universities. Oxford was set up in the twelfth century, Cambridge in 1209. Paris University came into being in the twelfth, Angers in the thirteenth and Orleans in 1231. In Italy, Salerno was founded in the tenth century, Arezzo in 1215, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Siena 1246, Piacenza 1248, Rome 1303, and Pisa 1343. Such was the situation throughout Europe.77 The emergence of universities in such large numbers, with still larger number of schools whose selected pupils went to the universities, led to a spurt in learning which may explain the birth and flowering of Renaissance in Italy and Reformation in Germany. Martin Luther, who created a revolution in religion, was a student at the University of Erfurt founded in 1343.

In the early years of Islam the Muslims concentrated mainly on translating and adopting Creek scholarship. Aristotle was their favourite philosopher. Scientific and mathematical knowledge they adopted from the Greeks and Hindus. This was the period when the Arabs imbibed as much knowledge from the West and the East as possible. In the West they learnt from Plato and Aristotle and in India “Arab scholars sat at the feet of Buddhist monks and Brahman Pandits to learn philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, chemistry and other subjects.” Caliph Mansur’s (754-76) zeal for learning attracted many Hindu scholars to the Abbasid court. A deputation of Sindhi representatives in 771 C.E. presented many treatises to the Caliph and the Brahma Siddhanta of Brahmagupta and his Khanda-Khadyaka, works on the science of astronomy, were translated by Ibrahim al-Fazari into Arabic with the help of Indian scholars in Baghdad. The Barmak (originally Buddhist Pramukh) family of ministers who had been converted to Islam and served under the Khilafat of Harun-ur-Rashid (786-808 C.E.) sent Muslim scholars to India and welcomed Hindu scholars to Baghdad. Once when Caliph Harun-ur-Rashid suffered from a serious disease which baffled his physicians, he called for an Indian physician, Manka (Manikya), who cured him. Manka settled at Baghdad, was attached to the hospital of the Barmaks, and translated several books from Sanskrit into Persian and Arabic. Many Indian physicians like Ibn Dhan and Salih, reputed to be descendants of Dhanapti and Bhola respectively, were superintendents of hospitals at Baghdad. Indian medical works of Charak, Sushruta, the Ashtangahrdaya, the Nidana, the Siddhayoga, and other works on diseases of women, poisons and their antidotes, drugs, intoxicants, nervous diseases etc. were translated into Pahlavi and Arabic during the Abbasid Caliphate. Such works helped the Muslims in extending their knowledge about numerals and medicine.78 Havell goes even as far as to say that “it was India, not Greece, that taught Islam in the impressionable years of its youth, formed its philosophy and esoteric religious ideals, and inspired its most characteristic expression in literature, art and architecture.”79 Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was a Persian Muslim who lived in the early eleventh century and is known for his great canon of medicine. Averroes (Ibn Rushd), the jurist, physician and philosopher was a Spanish Muslim who lived in the twelfth Century. Al Khwarizmi (ninth century) developed the Hindu nine numbers and the zero (hindisa). Al Kindi (ninth century) wrote on physics, meteorology and optics. Al Hazen (Al Hatim C. 965-1039) wrote extensively on optics and the manner in which the human eye is able to perceive objects. Their best known geographers were Al Masudi, a globe-trotter who finished his works in 956 and the renowned Al Idrisi (1101-1154). Although “there is little that is peculiarly Islamic in the contributions which Occidental and Oriental Muslims have made to European culture”,80 even this endeavour had ceased by the time Muslim rule was established in India.  In the words of Easton, “when the barbarous Turks entered into the Muslim heritage, after it had been in decay for centuries, did Islam… destroy more than it created or preserved”.81 For instance, Ibn Sina had died in Hamadan in 1037 and in 1150 the Caliph at Baghdad was committing to the flames a philosophical library, and among its contents the writings of Ibn Sina himself. “In days such as these the Latins of the East were hardly likely to become scholars of the Muhammadans nor were they stimulated by the novelty of their surroundings to any original production.”82

Similar was the record of the Turks in India. No universities were established by Muslims in medieval India. They only destroyed the existing ones at Sarnath, Vaishali, Odantapuri, Nalanda, Vikramshila etc. to which thousands of scholars from all over India and Asia used to seek admission. Thus, with the coming of Muslims, India ceased to be a centre of higher Hindu and Buddhist learning for Asians. The Muslims did not set up even Muslim institutions of higher learning. Their maktabs and madrasas catered just for repetitive, conservative and orthodox schooling. There was little original thinking, little growth of knowledge as such. Education in Muslim India remained a private affair. Writers and scholars, teachers and artists generally remained under the direct employment of kings and nobles. There is little that can be called popular literature, folk-literature, epic etc. in contemporary Muslim writings. “The life of the vast majority of common people was stereotyped and unrefined and represented a very low state of mental culture.”83

Tenor of Life

The chief amusement of the nobles of the ruling class was warfare. In this they took delight that was never altogether assuaged. If they could not indulge in this, then, in later ages, they made mock fights called jousts or tournaments. If they could not always fight men, they hunted animals. Every noble learned to hunt, not for food-though this was important too-but for pleasure. They developed the art of hunting birds as well as taming and flying birds.84 Some nobles were “learned, humble, polite and courteous”85 but such were exceptions rather than the rule. Since there was little academic activity, most of the elite passed their time in field sports, swordsmanship and military exercises. Their coat of mail was heavy and cumbersome; a fall from horse was very painful and sometimes even fatal. Such a situation was common both in Europe and India. But in Europe the medieval age was an age of chivalry. It tended to raise the ideal of womanhood if not the status of women. Chivalrous duels and combats were generally not to be seen among Muslims in India. “Such artificial sentimentality has nothing in common with (their) warrior creed.”86

The medieval age, by and large, conjures up vision of times in which everything was backward. Life was nasty, brutish and short. The ruler and the ruling classes were unduly cruel. Take the case of hunting animals and birds. In the process fields with standing crops were crushed and destroyed, often wantonly. The common man suffered. Man wallowed in ignorance. Man was dirty, there was no soap, no safety razor. Potable water was provided by rivers, else it was well-water or rainwater collected in tanks, ponds and ditches. Political and religious tyranny, the institution of slavery, polygamy and ‘inquisition’ or ‘hisbah’ rendered life unpalatable. Men had few rights, women fewer. Wife was a possession; parda was a denial of the dignity of woman as woman. Medicine was limited, treatment a private affair, medicare was no concern of the state. Police was nowhere to be seen for seeming redressal of grievances while sorcery and magic, and ghosts and goblins were ever present to frighten and harm. Means of transport and communication were primitive. Most people hardly ever moved out of their villages or towns. Society was closed as was the mind.

But there was no scarcity of daily necessities of life. True, in medieval India there was no tea, no bed-tea. Coffee came late. It is mentioned by Jahangir in his memoirs.87 Tomato or potato did not arrive before the sixteenth century. Still, there was no dearth of palatable dishes for the medieval people to eat. Wheat and rice were common staples.88 Rice is said to be of as many kinds as twenty-one.89 Paratha, halwa and harisa, were commonly eaten by the rich,90 Khichri and Sattu by the poor.91 Muslims were generally meat-eaters and mostly ate “the flesh of cow and goat though they have many sheep, because they have become accustomed to it.”92 Fowls, pigeons and other birds were sold very cheap.93 Vegetables mentioned in medieval works are pumpkin, brinjal, cucumber, jackfruit (kathal), bitter gourd (karela), turnip, carrot, asparagus, various kinds of leafy vegetables, ginger, garden beet, onion, garlic, fennal and thyme.94 Dal and vegetables were cooked in ghee, tamarind was commonly used, and pickles prepared from green mangoes as well as ginger and chillies were favourites.95 There were fresh fruits, dry fruits and sweets. Apples, grapes, pears and pomegranates96 were for important people. Melons, green and yellow (kharbuza and tarbuz), were grown in abundance.97 Orange, citron (utrurj), lemon (limun), lime (lim), jamun, khirni, dates and figs were in common use as also the plantains.98 Sugar-cane was grown in abundance and Ziyauddin Barani, writing in Persian, gives its Hindustani name ponder. Mango, then as now, was the most favourite fruit of India.99 Sweet-meats were of many kinds, as many as sixty five.100 Some names like reori, sugar-candy, halwa and samosa are familiar to this day. Ibn Battuta’s description of the preparation of samosa would make one’s mouth water even today: “Minced meat cooked with almond, walnut, pistachios, onion and spices placed inside a thin bread and fried in ghee.”101 Wine and other intoxicants like hemp and opium, though prohibited in Islam, were freely taken by those who had a liking for it.102 Betel (then known by its Sanskrit name tambul) was an after dinner delicacy.103

Muslim elite were very fond of eating rich and fatty food, both in quality and quantity. Their gluttony was whipped up as much by the love of sumptous dishes as by their habit of hospitality. It also received stimulus from the use of drinks and drugs and was best exhibited during excursions, picnics and arranged dinners. According to Sir Thomas Roe, twenty dishes at a time were served at the tables of the nobles, but sometimes the number went even beyond fifty. But for the extremely poor, people in general enjoyed magnificent meals with sweetmeats and dry and fresh fruit added.104 All this was possible because food grains were extremely cheap throughout the medieval period as vouched by Barani for the thirteenth, Afif for the fourteenth, Abdullah for the fifteenth and Abul Fazl for the sixteenth centuries.105 The poor benefited by the situation but the benefit was probably offset by the force and coercion used in keeping prices low as asserted by Barani and Abdullah, the author of Tarikh-i-Daudi.

In matters of clothing also, India was better placed than many other countries in the middle ages. The textile industry of India was world-famous. The Sultan, the nobles and all the rich dressed exceedingly well.106 The costly royal robes, the gilded and studded swords and daggers, the parasols (chhatra) of various colours were all typically Indian paraphernalia of royal pomp and splendour. The use of rings, necklaces, ear-rings and other ornaments by men was also due to Indian wealth and opulence. The dress of the Sultan and the elite consisted of kulah or head-dress, a tunic worked in brocade and long drawers. The habit of dyeing the beard was common. It added in the old a zest for life as did the slanting of cap in the young. The Hindu aristocracy dressed like the Muslim aristocracy,107 except that in place of kulah they used a turban, and in place of long drawers they wore dhoti trimmed with gold lace. The Muslims dressed heavily but the Hindus were scantily dressed. “They cannot wear more clothing on account of the great heat,” says Nicolo Conti.108 “The orthodox Muslims wore clothes made of simple material like linen. The dress worn by scholars at the Firoz Shahi Madrasa consisted of the Syrian jubbah and the Egyptian dastar.109 But there was no special uniform for any one, not even for soldiers. In the villages the poor put on only a loin-cloth (langota) which Babur takes pains to describe in detail.110

Muslim women dressed elaborately and elegantly. The inmates of the harems of the kings and nobles, indeed even their maids and servants dressed in good quality clothes.111 Lehanga, angia and dupatta were the common set for women as seen in medieval miniatures. They wore shoes made of leather and silk, often ornamented with gold thread and studded with precious stones. Besides women all over the country wore all kinds of ornaments, the rich of gold and silver, pearls and precious stones, the poor of silver and beads. Care of the teeth, painting the eyes, use of antimony, lampblack, henna, perfumed powders, sandal-wood, aloes-wood, otto of roses and wearing of flowers added elegance to personality and beauty to life.112

Cities in medieval India were few, but they were large and impressive. Foreign visitors like Athnasius Nikitin and Barbosa give a favourable comparison of Indian cities with those of Europe. Cities and towns generally were built on the pattern of the metropolis of Delhi. Shihabuddin Ahmad, the author of Masalik-ul-Absar (fourteenth century), writes: “The houses of Delhi are built of stone and brick… The houses are not built more than two storeys high, and often are made of only one.”113 Besides, there must have been hut-like houses of the poor huddled together in congested localities. In the Delhi of the medieval period there was the fort and palace of the Sultan, cantonment area of the troops, quarters for the ministers, the secretaries, the Qazis, Shaikhs and faqirs“In every quarter there were to be found public baths, flour mills, ovens and workmen of all professions.”114 In the villages, the peasants lived in penury. But if there was little to spare, there was enough to live by.115 There were indoor and outdoor games for all to play-chess,116 backgammon, pachisi, chausar, dice, cards, kite-flying, pigeon-flying, polo, athletics; cock, quail and partridge fighting; and children’s games.117 Public entertainments, as on the occasion of marriage in the royal family, comprised “triumphal arches, dancing, singing, music, illuminations, rope-dancing and jugglery. The juggler swallowed a sword like water, drinking it as a thirsty man would sherbet. He also thrust a knife up his nostril. He mounted little wooden horses and rode upon the air… Those who changed their own appearance practised all kinds of deceit. Sometimes they transformed themselves into angels, sometimes into demons.118


There were certain characteristics of the medieval age which have survived to this day among the Muslims. These give an impression that Muslims are still living in medieval times. Therefore, the legacy of the medieval age is medievalism, especially among the Muslims. The days of autocracy, feudalism and religious wars are over, but not so in many Islamic countries. While Christians in the West are becoming modem and secular, the same cannot be said about Muhammadans. In the field of education, the Printing Press in Europe became a potential medium of developing and spreading knowledge. Medieval Indian Muslims were not interested in this development, but even now the teaching in maktabs and madrasas is no different from what it used to be in the medieval period. In religious matters freedom of expression and critical analysis is still suppressed as was done in the medieval age. As for example, the translator of the Japanese edition of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, Professor Hitoshi Igarashi, was found murdered in his University Campus on 12 July 1991. Mr. Gianni Palma, the Italian publisher of its translation, was attacked by an angry Muslim during a news conference in February l990. And Salman Rushdie himself lives in hiding in perpetual scare of assassination because of the Fatwa“The Islamic Government of Pakistan has decided to make death by hanging mandatory for anyone who defames Prophet Muhammad. Previously, a person convicted of blasphemy had a choice of hanging or life imprisonment.119 No wonder a Muslim like Rafiq Zakaria could write about Muhammad in the only way he did though many chapters of this book “fail to carry conviction… because they are too defensive and apologetic.”120 On the other hand many innocuous books concerning medieval studies or Islam have been banned in India in deference to the wishes of Muslim fundamentalists. Even now Muslim festivals and auspicious days are declared so, as was done in medieval times, after actually sighting the new moon, despite the strides made in the field of Astronomy which tell years in advance when the new moon would appear. In the social sphere, Muslim women are still made to live in parda, and polygamy is practised as a matter of personal law if not as a matter of religious duty. In the political field, Muslim rule in medieval India was based on the doctrines of Islam in which discrimination against non-Muslims was central to the faith. Even today Hindu shrines are broken not only in Pakistan and Bangladesh but even in Kashmir as a routine matter.

It would normally be expected that historical writing on Muslim rule in medieval India would tell the tale of this discrimination and the sufferings of the people, their forced conversions, destruction of their temples, enslavement of their women and children, candidly and repeatedly mentioned by medieval Muslim chroniclers themselves. But curiously enough, in place of bringing such facts to light there is a tendency to gloss over them or even suppress them. Countries which in the middle ages completely converted to Islam and lost links with their original religion and culture, write with a sense of pride about their history as viewed by their Islamic conquerors. But India's is a different story. India could not be Islamized and it did not lose its past cultural anchorage. Naturally, it does not share the sense of glory felt by medieval Muslim chroniclers. But some modern “secularist” writers do praise Muslim rule in glowing terms. All historians are not so brazen or such distortionists. Hence the history of Muslim rule in India is seen through many coloured glasses. It is necessary, therefore, to take a look at the “schools” or “groups” of modern historians writing on the history of medieval India so that a balanced appraisal of the legacy of Muslim rule in India may be made.


1 Cited in Bosworth, The Ghaznavids, p. 49.

2 Alberuni II, p. 161. Also Barani, Fatawa-i-Jahandari.

3 Fakhr-i-Mudabbir, Tarikh-i-Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah, p. 13.

4 Ain, I, p. 2.

5 Sarkar, A Short History of Aurangzeb, p.464.

6 Ain, I, pp. 2-3, 6.

7 Barani, pp. 293-94.

8 Barani, p. 64.

9 Barani, Fatawa-i-Jahandari, p. 73. Also Tripathi, Some Aspects of Muslim Administration, p. 5.

10 Adab-ul-Harb, fols.132b-133a.

11 Ibid, fols.56b; Barani, p.73;Adab-ul-Harb, fols.8b-10c.

12 Hasan Nizami, Tajul Maasir, S.H. Askari, Patna University Journal (Arts), Vol.18, No.3 (1963),p. 58.  Also Ruben Levy, Social Structure of Islam, p. 252.

13 Barani, p. 72. See also Fatawa-i-Jahandari, p. 40.

14 Hallam, The Middle Ages, I, pp.227-28.

15 Barani, p.62

16 P. Saran, Studies in Medieval Indian History, P. 10.

17 Moreland, W.H., The Agrarian System of Muslim India, p.221; Also Easton, Stewart C., The Heritage of the Past, pp. 285, 290, 297.

18 Ain, I, pp.xxxii-xxxiii.

19 Barani, pp.262-66.

20 Lal, History of the Khaljis, p.74 n.3; Barani, pp. 262-64.

21 “Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi” in Lal, K.S., Studies in Medieval Indian History, pp.233-47.

22 Naqvi, Hamida Khatoon, Urbanisation and Urban Centres under the Great Mughals, Simla, 1971.

23 Alberuni, Introduction, p.xxiii, I, pp. 199,202; Al Idrisi, Nuzhat-ul-Mushtaq, E and D, I, p.77. Also R.C.Majumdar, H.C.Raychaudhuri and K.K.Datta, An Advanced History of India, Macmillan & Co. (London,1958). pp.186.

24 S.A.A.Rizvi, Hindi trs. of Rehla in Tughlaq Kalin Bharat (Aligarh, 1956) pp. jklm. For detailed references see Lal, K.S., Growth of Muslim Population, pp. 36, 46, 55-63.

25 Terry, Edward, A Voyage to East India (London, 1655), p.112.

26 Moreland, India at the Death of Akbar, p.264.

27 Margoliouth, DS, Mohammed and the Rise of Islam, pp. 107,125-26, 145-46,250.

28 Arnold, The Legacy of Islam, p. 42.

29 William Muir, Calcutta Review, 1845.

30 Arnold, The Legacy of Islam, pp. 76-77.

31 The Modern Cyclopaedia, under Inquisition.

32 Rizvi, History of Sufism, I, p. 20.

33 Gibbon, Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, II, p. 713.

34 Burnes, Sir Alexander, Travels in Bokhara, I, p.313; Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, p.418.

35 Qureshi, Ishtiaq Husain, Administration of the Sultanate of Delhi, p.166.

36 Barani, pp.35, 41, 72, 285; Ibn Battuta, Def. and Sang., II, 34,52.

37 Lal, Twilight of the Sultanate, p.269.

38 It has its modern counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Iran it is known as Komiteh, or Committee, in Saudi Arabia Mutawar. The Saudi religious police is called the Committee for commendation of virtue and prevention of vice. They enforce strict adherence to Islamic code of conduct. In Iran, while the regular police are charged with enforcement of laws dealing with common crimes such as burglary or assault, the armed officers of the Komiteh walk the streets in their olive green fatigues, making sure that the strict moral standards of Islam are upheld. It is their job to make certain that unmarried men and women do not hold hands or walk together on the sidewalk, that storekeepers display large, glossy photographs of the nation’s senior Islamic clerics in their shops, that liquor is not served at private parties, and that women keep their hair, arms, and feet covered, preferably in the black robes called chadors.

39 Afif, p.388; trs. in E and D, III, p.365.

40 Farishtah, II, pp.417-18.

41 Nizamuddin Ahmad Tabqat-i-Akbari, I, p.323; Farishtah, I,p.182; Niamatullah trs. by Dorn, Makhzan-i-Afghana, pp.65-66. Also Lal, Twilight of the Sultanate, p.191.

42 Easton, Stewart C., The Heritage of the past, p.399.

43 Ibid., p.403.

44 Elliot’s Appendix, E and D, I, p.432. He cites Chachnama and Tuhfutul Kiram for source; Chachnama, trs. Kalichbeg, pp. 44-45, 190.

45 Farishtah, I, pp 32,33,37.  Also M.Habib, Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznin, p.56.

46 Timur, Mulfuzat-i-Timuri, E and D, III, pp.394-95.

47 Amir Khurd, Siyar-ul-Auliya, trs. Quddusi, p.657; Sijzi, Favaid-ul-Fvad trs. Ghulam Ahmad, pp.157-58.

48 Alberuni, I, pp.152-159.

49 Bernier, p.244.

50 Jafar Sharif, Islam in India, trs. by G.A. Herklots, pp.247-63.

51 Abul Fazl, Akbar Nama, trs. Beveridge, II, pp.346-47, 354-55 and 543 respectively.

52 Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, II, pp. 160, 203, 215, 235.

53 Ibid., p.235.

54 Bernier, p.245, also pp. 161-163.

55 Ibid., p.161.

56 Ibid., p.245.

57 Bernier, pp.243-44.

58 e.g. Barani, p.167; Ain, I,p.50.

59 In Ujjain (Ozene of Ptolemy’s geography) there was an astronomical laboratory in ancient times “on the meridian of which town the ‘world summit’-originally an Indian conception-was supposed to lie” (Arnold, The Legacy of Islam, p.93).

60 The Modern Cyclopaedia under Alchemy.

61 Barani, p.209. Also Badaoni, Ranking, I, p.233.

62 Amir Khurd, Siyar-ul-Auliya, trs. Quddusi, pp.246-47.

63 Alberuni, I, pp.188-89. Also Khusrau, Nuh Sipehr, E and D, III, p.563.

64 E and D, II, pp. 173-74 and note. Muhammad Ufi had occasion to live in India during the reign of Sultan Iltutmish (1210-1236 C.E.). He is “something better than a mere story-teller” (E and D, II, p.156).

65 Alberuni, I, p.187.

66 Jafar Sharif, Islam in India, p.218.

67 Quran, II, 96.

68 Amir Khusrau, Nuh Sipehr, E and D,III, p.563; Amir Khurd, Siyar-ul-Auliya, trs.Quddusi, pp.338, 650; Sijzi, Favaid-ul-Fvad, trs. Ghulam Ahmad, p.292.

69 Jafar Sharif, op.cit., pp.218-246, 274-77.

70 Ibid., p.219.

71 Amir Khusrau, Nuh Sipehr, E and D, III, p.563.

72 Amir Khurd, Siyar-ul-Auliya, Muhibb-i-Hind Press (Delhi 1309 H., C.E. 1891) pp.351-52.

73 Ibid., p.354.

74 Amir Khusrau, Afzal-ul-Favaid, Urdu trs. in Silsila-i-Tasawwuf No. 81, Kashmiri Bazar Lahore, p.95; Ibn Battuta, pp.164-66.

75 Babur Nama, II, p.518.

76 Ain, I, p.50; Lal, K.S. The Mughal Harem, pp.182-84.

77 Stewart C.Easton, The Heritage of the Past (New York, 1957), map on the end leaf showing University Centres and dates of their establishment.

78 Alberuni, Introduction, p.xxxi; Singhal, India and World Civilization, I, p.149.

79 Havell, E.B., History of Aryan Rule in India, p.256.

80 Arnold, The Legacy of Islam, Preface, p. v.

81 Easton, The Heritage of the Past, p.242.

82 Arnold, The Legacy of Islam, pp. 55-56.

83 Ashraf, K.M., Life and Conditions of the People of Hindustan, p.329.

84 Al Qalqashindi, Subh-ul-Asha, trs. Otto Spies, p. 68; Barani, p. 318.

85 Ibn Battuta, p.13; Ahmad Yadgar, Tarikh-i-Salatin-i-Afghana, Persian text, p.42.

86 Arnold, The Legacy of Islam, p.185.

87 Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, p.155.

88 Ahmad Yadgar, op. cit., p.52; Amir Hasan Sijzi, Favaid-ul-Fvad, Nawal Kishore Press, Lucknow, Urdu trs. p. 174.

89 Al Qalqashindi, Subh-ul-Asha, pp. 48, 49. Also Ain, I, pp.65, 66.

90 Barani, pp.316-19.

91 Ibn Battuta, pp.38,49; Babur Nama, II, pp.517-18.

92 Al Qalqashindi, op.cit., p.56. For various kinds of meat preparations see Jafar Sharif, Islam in India, pp.315-324.

93 Barani, p. 315. Also Masalik-ul-Absar, E and D, III, p.583.

94 Ahmad Yadgar, op.cit., p.59; Ibn Battuta, p.17.

95 Ibn Battuta, p.16; Al Oalqashindi p.50. Also K.M.Ashraf, Life and Conditions of the People of Hindustan, pp.28'2-83.

96 Ahmad Yadgar, op. cit., pp.50-52; Barani, p.569; Afif, pp.295-96.

97 Afif, pp.295-96; Ibn Battuta,p.17.In the time of Balban one man of kharbuza was sold for 2 jitals (Siyar-ul-Auliya, Urdu trs. Quddusi, p.205).

98 Barani, pp.568-70; J.R.A.S., 1895, p.531.

99 Ahmad Yadgar, op. cit., pp.51, 90.

100 Al Qalqashindi, p.50; Barani, p.318.

101 Ibn Battuta, p.15.

102 Jafar Sharif, Islam in India, pp.325-30.

103 Barani, p.182; Amir Khusrau, Deval Rani, p.60; Abdur Razzaq in Major, India in the Fifteenth Century, p.32. Also Ibn Battuta.

104 Ain., I, pp.59-78; Ashraf, op.cit., pp.282-84; Lal, Mughal Harem, pp. 125,189.

105 Barani, p.305; Afif 293-98; Abdullah, Tarikh-i-Daudi, Bankipore Ms., pp.223-24; Abul Fazl, Ain, I, pp.65-78.

106 Jafar Sharif, Qanun-i-Islami, p.304.

107 J.R.A.S., 1895, p.88.

108 Nicolo Conti in Major, India in the Fifteenth Century, p.33.

109 Diwan-i-Mutahhar quoted in K.A.Nizami, Studies in Medieval Indian History, Aligarh, 1956, p.90.

110 Babur Nama, II, p.519.

111 Lal, K.S., The Mughal Harem, pp.120-123,169.

112 Jafar Sharif, Islam in India, pp.301-313.

113 Masalik-ul-Absar, trs.  E and D, III, p.576.

114 Ioc. cit.

115 Lal, K.S., Twilight of the Sultanate, pp.259-60.

116 “Chess is so characteristic a product of the legacy of Islam that it deserves more than a passing mention. Modern European chess is the direct descendant of an ancient Indian game, adopted by the Persians, handed on by them to the Muslim world, and finally borrowed from Islam by Christian Europe” (Arnold, Legacy of Islam, p.32, citing H.J.R. Murrary, A History of Chess, Oxford, 1913).

117 Jafar Sharif, Islam in India, pp.331-338.

118 Amir Khusrau, Ashiqa, trs.  E and D, III, p. 553.

119 Reported in The Statesman, New Delhi, 4 August, 1991.

120 Review by G.H. Jansen of Rafiq Zakaria’s Muhammed and the Quran, Penguin Books, U.K., in The Times of India, 11 August, 1991.

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