The Middle Way: An Analysis of Why the Delhi Sultanate’s Treatment of Hindus Was One of Moderation
The Republic of India maintains its identity as one of the most pluralistic nations in the modern world, in which people of different religions co-exist under a single national identity.
Part of the origins of this pluralism can be traced back to the time when Muhammad bin Qasim first recorded a Muslim presence in the Indian subcontinent by conquering Sindh province in modern-day Pakistan in AD 712.
About three centuries later, Muslim rule was established in northern India under the leadership of Qutb-ud-din Aibak, who founded the Delhi Sultanate under the Mamluk dynasty in 1206. The Delhi Sultanate, which lasted till 1526, is known as the period of cultural interconnection.
How were Hindus treated during the Sultanate period?
A Muslim minority ruled over a variety of subjects, most of whom were of Hinduism. It is difficult to judge the nature of the subjugation of the Hindus under the Delhi Sultanate, as one must look at various aspects of the Sultanate’s rule to assess their attitude towards the Hindus. Religious perspectives, artistic exchanges, and the fact that Hindus were an integral part of the Sultanate’s economies all influenced how the Sultanate treated its Hindu population; Which ultimately best reflects the sultanate’s subjugation of the Hindus as neither liberal nor oppressive, but moderately tolerant.
Although there was general resentment towards Hindus during the period of the Sultanate, it seems that the different political climates of each dynasty allowed the Muslim authorities to follow the middle path of religious tolerance toward the Hindu population. This restraint is well reflected in the fact that the Islamic rulers of India, even before the start of the Sultanate, had declared their Hindu population heretical. This title protected the rights of non-Muslim citizens in the Islamic State, albeit with some restrictions, such as the jizya tax.
The Hindus maintained this position throughout the period of the Sultanate, which shows how the Muslim sultans did not actually oppress their Hindu subjects, but at the same time were never overly generous towards them. The Sultanate’s first two dynasties, the Mamluks (slave dynasty) and the Khiljis, generally known to be intolerant of their subjects, destroyed many Hindu temples during their reign. However, the third ruler of the sultanate, Shams-ud-din Iltutmish of the Mamluk dynasty was generally able to keep religion free of his politics, unlike his successor rulers.
It shows how politics affected the Sultanate’s tolerance of Hindus. Iltutmish started his rule in 1210 AD, four years after the establishment of the Sultanate. As such, he had to establish some sort of stability in his Hindu subjects, so as to avoid internal and even external conflict with the surrounding Hindu kingdoms. Obviously, this stability could not have been achieved if Iltutmish had taken a tough stand against Hinduism.
Thus, he had to be relatively liberal and keep religion free from his politics according to the political conditions of the time. Once Iltutmish established stability, however, the political climate changed and prompted the later rulers of the Mamluk and Khilji dynasties to engage in less tolerant behavior towards Hindus, evidenced by the destruction of temples and heavy taxation. The rule of the Sultanate’s third dynasty, the Tughlaqs, also shows how the political climate moderated the religious tolerance of the Sultanate.
Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq is known to have been the most tolerant sultan during the period of the Delhi Sultanate, which influenced the political environment in which he and his successor ruled, creating an environment of moderate tolerance. Muhammad Tughlaq expanded Hindu religious freedom and even encouraged them, even to participate in the Hindu festival of Holi.
Sources at the time confirm this, as the historian Ziauddin Barani, much to his disapproval, points out that Hindus were indeed able to practice their religion freely and openly during the reign of Muhammad Tughlaq: “Heuristic customs are openly practiced in Muslim cities, idols are worshiped in public and the traditions of Hinduism are followed with greater faith than before.” Ibn Battuta also reveals that Hindus had many religious freedoms at that time, as he writes how Hindus were able to independently sanctify the pilgrimage to the Ganges.
Unfortunately, Muhammad Tughq’s liberal policies created a political climate that alienated his Muslim allies, such as Ziauddin Barani, from the fatwa-e Jahandari voice. This probably created an environment where some Muslim rulers embraced Hindus, while others merely condemned them, creating a liberal model of religious tolerance. The political climate that Muhammad Tughluq left behind also led to a relatively liberal attitude towards Hindus during the reign of his successor, Firoz Shah Tughlaq.
The political climate of tolerance created by Muhammad Tughlaq influenced Firoz Shah’s incredibly intolerant policies, as he had to please Muslims that his predecessor had alienated, which in turn created another rule of liberal tolerance. Firoz Shah essentially reversed the policies of his predecessor, as he was incredibly intolerant of Hindus. He forced many conversions on death threats and often looked to Muslim religious leaders and ulema for guidance in matters of the state.
Although Hindus were treated poorly under Firoz Shah, the environment created by Muhammad Tughluq had a lasting positive effect on many Hindus which helped to balance the repressive rule of Firoz Shah. The later dynasties, the Sayyids, and the Lodis softened the policies of Firoz Shah more generally to moderate levels of tolerance.  Nevertheless, politics played a part in this because by that time the sultanate had lost much of its hold in southern India, and probably did not risk alienating Hindus for fear of rebellion against an already weak state. could lift. One can clearly see how politics played a role in establishing different policies of tolerance towards Hindus throughout the period of the Delhi Sultanate.
Generally, Hindus experienced a moderate level of tolerance during the period of the Sultanate, as they could practice their religion freely, but were subjected to certain restrictions that differed from ruler to ruler based on the political climate. Even the rulers were different. Merely looking at politics and prominent figures will not give a complete picture of the nature of the condition of Hindus in the Sultanate. The interaction among the common people of the Sultanate should also be taken into account.
The Hindu and Muslim commoners of the Delhi Sultanate tolerated each other quite well, which again shows the intermediate level of acceptance of Hindus in the Sultanate.
Ziauddin Barani clearly had a fanatical attitude towards Hindus, even calling for an all-out war against “abusive infidels, polytheists, and people of bad dogmas and bad religions”. Barani, however, also reveals that the Muslim attitude towards Hindus may differ among the common people, as he observes: “Kafirs [Hindus] … build houses like palaces, wear brocade clothes and make them… They take Muslims into their service Barani shows that Hindus also appointed some Muslims under his direction, which paints a positive picture of Hindus under the Sultanate.
Unfortunately, Hindus who were able to do so were few in number, and Muslims in general employed Hindus. However, the fact that Hindu citizens, though only a few, got the opportunity to employ Muslims, actually reflects the Sultanate’s balanced attitude towards some Hindu citizens.
Many Hindu commoners superficially embraced Islam to break out of the rigid caste system prescribed by Indian society. In this way, many who remained spiritually Hindu found recognition among the common people of Delhi. However, many foreign Muslims who came to India were intimidated by Indian Muslims as many of them came from such lower castes.
Once again, a moderate level of tolerance on the part of the Sultanate is seen here, as many Muslims living in the city of Delhi learned to accept Hindus, but hated many Muslims who were not originally from India. The artistic reciprocity between Hindus and Muslims also seems to have influenced the policy of liberal acceptance of the Hindu culture in the Delhi Sultanate.
The indo-Muslim culture was refined during the Delhi-Sultanate period, and such cultural and artistic exchanges influenced the Sultanate’s dealings with Hindus. Since Muslims were a minority in the Delhi Sultanate, they often got Hindu laborers to build mosques, among other things. However, Hindus were not familiar with the architectural styles of Muslim cultures, such as round domes and arches.
It is possible that at first, many Muslims took up the issue, but as time went on, many Muslims were eventually satisfied with Hindu architecture as Hindus were the driving force behind the construction labor.
In fact, during the 14th century and onwards, many Muslims began to adopt Hindu symbols in their architecture. The Mosque of Sidi Sayyid, built around 1500 AD, features the geometric pattern of Muslim art, but a tree design is also prominent a common Hindu motif.
The artistic influence of Hindus on Muslims seems to have created a kind of respect or admiration between the two groups, which was undoubtedly beneficial to many Hindu subjects under the Sultanate. At the same time, however, the Sultan was often involved in the destruction of many Hindu temples, which apparently had a bitter effect on the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. Overall, one can see that the Sultanate’s treatment of Hindus can be considered moderate, due to the adoption of Hindu architecture in contrast with the continued destruction of Hindu temples. Like architecture, music also displayed a similar influence on the Sultanate’s dealings with Hindus.
The Sultanate’s differing attitude towards Hindu music again appears to affect the liberal tolerance of their Hindu themes. Although Islam strictly discouraged music, many sultans adopted Hindu music in their court and encouraged it among the people.
In this way, not only Hindu music could flourish in the Sultanate but the condition of Hindus also improved. Music particularly helped relations between the Sultanate’s Hindus and Muslim Sufis, as many Hindu women began to sing Sufi hymns during their workdays because of their rhythmic quality, which pleased many Muslims.
However, it is also likely that the condition of the Hindus somehow deteriorated under the sultans who were vehemently opposed to music, as the rejection of Hindu music would likely translate into a feeling of hostility towards the Hindus themselves. Clearly, artistic exchanges played an important role in influencing how the Sultanate treated its Hindu communities, as various aspects of Hindu culture were able to help or harm their position under Muslim rule, which Again shows the moderately tolerant attitude of the Sultanate. The final factor in understanding why the Sultanate took such a liberal approach towards the Hindus lies within their economic system.
The large Hindu presence within the Sultanate’s economic system is another factor that helps to present the Sultanate’s tolerance towards Hindus as moderate. The huge population of Hindus within the economic system of the Sultanate made them very employable. This alone constituted the moderate character of the Sultanate’s rule, as they could not do much to increase the Hindu population due to the fact that economic life, in the words of Satish Chandra, “remained in the hands of the Hindus.”
The sources at that time also stated that Hindus were in fact an integral part of the Arthashastra of the Sultanate. The task of Hindus is to buy a commodity from outside, or to buy it in the market when the prices are low and to sell it when the prices are high. Ziauddin Barani remarks that “how shameful the profession of Hindus is” and that “a man who calls himself a Muslim and still repents as to his profession … is ignorant of the Muslim faith.”
The fact remains that theologians opposed it. To this extent, many commodities were left only in Hindu hands, such as grains. At the same time, the Hindu Sindhis effectively monopolized many parts of the trade related to carpentry, blacksmithing, and others.
Thus, it would be foolish to severely persecute Hindus because of the power the Sultanate possessed through economic control. At the same time, the Sultanate did not want Hindus to become too wealthy, as Ibn Battuta remarks how some Hindus who had monopolized jewelry in Daulatabad were incredibly wealthy. In this case, one can see how and why the Sultanate chose a policy of restraint toward the Hindus.
Hindus were the cornerstone of most of the economy of the Sultanate, so the rulers could not oppress Hindus for fear of economic consequences. However, the Sultanate had to stop the growing Hindu wealth by imposing certain taxes on them, which were not too harsh but were able to keep the Hindus satisfied within the economic system. In fact, it seems that several dimensions should be taken into account in assessing the Sultanate’s rule over the Hindus. Finally, all these aspects effectively contributed to the notion that the Sultanate’s rule was of liberal tolerance toward Hindus.
The period of the Delhi Sultanate will forever be known as a time of cultural and religious interconnectedness, where a Muslim minority ruled over a Hindu majority for over 300 years. This period helped lay the foundation for a pluralistic India, as the Muslim conquerors established relations with their Hindu subjects, with whom they could not be too harsh or too liberal.
The Hindus became an integral part of the Muslim society of the Sultanate as evidenced by the political, artistic, and economic aspects. These factors inevitably compelled the rulers of the Sultanate to find a balance in administering their rule over the Hindus, giving them enough satisfaction to ensure that the Sultanate ran smoothly, as well as providing the majority of the population with was to be kept under control. This policy of moderation reflects the true character of the period of the Delhi Sultanate, as it gave the world a first taste of the rich Indo-Muslim culture, and it set the stage for the vast cultural pluralism that defined the modern Indian sub-continental culture.
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