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Monday, August 9, 2021

The Sultans of the Levant and Delhi

There is a difference between the character of those Islamic movements that acquired power in the Levant and those that acquired power in the Indian subcontinent during the Middle Ages. The Arabs, Mamluks, and the Turks could forge a united Islamic kingdom in Asia Minor and other parts of the Levant but the Sultans who sat on the imperial throne of Delhi could not. A large-scale migration of Turks and other nomadic tribes from the steppes radically transformed the ethnicity and culture of the Levant, but that kind of migration did not happen in India. Only the ruling elite and the core section of their nobility and military arrived in India. The Delhi Sultanate was a military occupation, confined to the urban areas which were heavily fortified. It was not a settlement with total political and cultural domination like in the Levant. 

In the sixteenth century, the Rajput kings of Udaipur used to say, “We accept the suzerainty of the Delhi Sultan, but Delhi is far away.” The meaning is that the hegemony of Delhi was a mere formality and that in reality the power of Delhi did not extend till Udaipur. The Delhi Sultans could not expand their power to all of India. The vast countryside in India remained under the control of native powers. In the middle of the fourteenth century, two brothers Harihara I and Bukka Raya I, of the Sangama dynasty, founded the Vijayanagara Empire (Empire of Victory) which effectively blocked the progress of the Delhi Sultans into South India. Native forces emerged in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and other regions making it difficult for the Delhi Sultans to expand. 

The Levant was being ruled by two great empires, the Byzantine Empire, which was Orthodox Christian, and the Persian Empire, which was Zoroastrian. Once these two empires had been defeated, the Levant got fully transformed by the Islamic movements. The Arabs defeated the Persian Empire in 651 AD, the Abbasids decimated the Western crusaders and stabilized Egypt, and the Mamluks and the Ottomans took control of the territory of the Byzantine Empire through a series of wars fought between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. India presented a different picture. Hinduism was deeply institutionalized and deep rooted, and the country was divided into a large number of small and middle sized kingdoms. The Delhi Sultans could not break the edifice of traditional Hindu culture of this land and they could not subdue all the kingdoms. Their military was constantly being harried by the rebellions which kept erupting in different parts of the country. 

Here’s a brief picture of the Sultans who occupied Delhi’s imperial throne: 

In 1192, Muhammad Ghuri defeated Prithviraj Chauhan in the Second Battle of Tarain. With this victory, a large part of North India came under Ghuri’s control. He entrusted the running of his North Indian kingdom to his Mamluk general Qutb ud-Din Aybak. When Ghuri died in 1206,  Aybak became an independent sultan. Aybak was followed by his son-in-law Iltutmish who ruled from 1210 to 1236. After Iltutmish’s death in 1236, his daughter Radiyya Begum became the ruler. Radiyya's regime was overthrown in a coup. After her, a series of weak sultans followed.  In 1296, power went to the Khilji dynasty, in 1320 to the Tughlaq dynasty, in 1414 to the Sayyid dynasty, and in 1451 to the Lodi dynasty. The Timurid dynasty (also known as the Mughal dynasty) acquired power in 1526.

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