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HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Two books by medieval historian Iqtidar Alam Khan

Review: Two books by medieval historian Iqtidar Alam Khan

192pp, ₹1050; Primus Books

For over 60 years Iqtidar Alam Khan has been at the forefront of Mughal historiography. Alongside friend Irfan Habib, and others, he has put the Aligarh Muslim University’s History department’s Centre of Advanced Study on the world map for the way it has shaped our understanding of medieval and Mughal Indian history. During this time, he has published two biographies of Mughal nobles, an unusual achievement, a ground-breaking monograph on the role of gunpowder and firearms in medieval India, a historical dictionary of medieval India, and innumerable path-breaking studies on Akbar, his polity and his religious policy. These include an iconic 1968 paper on Akbar and his theory of kingship, a 1976 paper on The Middle Classes in The Mughal Empire, and a recent paper outlining the remembrances of Akbar by late Mughal chroniclers of the 18th century, and how they contrasted him with Aurangzeb. His foray into the pre-Mughal world therefore comes with deep engagement and takes some of the key political questions head on.

He starts by explaining how the Turkish invaders sometimes prevailed in battles despite facing much larger Rajput armies. They did so because they were using ‘‘iron stirrups, concave saddles as well as iron horseshoes that gave them a distinct military superiority over their Indian opponents in a situation where mounted archery was increasingly becoming the main form of armed contestation. The heavily-armed Rajput cavalrymen, more at ease in close combat involving the use of weapons like sword and spear, were thus often placed in a situation of military disadvantage.’’

But India was the first place, outside Spain, where the Tukish conquerors faced a predominantly non-Muslim populace, who did not belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and who, unlike, say, Iran, did not convert en masse. How was Islamic rule to be established in a pagan land? This is the first conundrum Professor Khan unravels for us. The Arabs who conquered and ruled over large swathes of Sindh and Punjab had resolved this problem by according Hindus, even though they were idolaters, the status of Zimmis, protected people. Land, its produce and revenue, was the chief source of income but it was not possible to directly access it, as there were entrenched intermediaries, the zamindars, variously known as Chaudhuris, Muqaddams, Khots. In order to rule, therefore, the Turkish Sultanates perforce had to depend on locals, for military and administrative purposes and out of these processes of adjustments evolved the peculiar nature of the Indo-Islamic ecumene. In time to come this ecumene would become the toast of the Islamic world for its riches and its intellectual achievements.

As he shows in the chapter entitled Hindu Chiefs in Sultanate Policy, it was not possible for the Sultanate to exist without local support. But right from the beginning, there were tensions between those who wished to be more accommodating to Hindus and those who were more puritanical. The early historian Ziauddin Barani, who, like the great poet Amir Khusrau, lasted several different dynasties and Sultans, describes many such debates. In the northwest parts of India there had already been several centuries of Muslim rule and both Indian Hindus and Muslims vied for a share in power. Barani was sometimes disgusted by the pre-eminence of the “Julahas”, his pejorative for low-caste origins of Indian Muslims. The word julaha, which simply means weavers, as Kabir was, is still used to denigrate low caste Muslims. But Hindus were powerful enough to be kingmakers, like in an attempted coup at the end of the 13th century, or even to become the Sultan, like Khusrau Khan, a Hindu convert who briefly ruled India after Alauddin Khalji’s death. Local alliances also dictated intermarriage. Ghazi Malik, later the founder of the Tughlaq dynasty, was keen for his nephew to marry the daughter of a powerful Hindu Bhatti chief but his initial proposal was met with sneers and “unutterable” insults. He then goaded the local tax collectors to harass the clansmen of the family and eventually they succumbed. The marriage produced Firoze Shah Tughlaq, who had the longest reign among the Delhi Sultans, and whose fort Kotla still remains a thriving station, for its stadium as well as for the benevolent ghosts who inhabit the Ashokan pillars which he placed there.

But even before the establishment of the Sultanate, as Professor Khan shows, Muslims had settled in the Gangetic doab and even in the south. A Pandian King of the 11th century had built a mosque for worshippers there. The Vijaynagar rulers, as Richard Eaton has also shown recently in his masterly survey, styled themselves as ‘Suratrans’ or Sultans and employed a Muslim cavalry contingent. Several Sanskrit inscriptions mentioning Turks or Muslims have also been found which indicate an early acceptance of the Muslim presence in the subcontinent. There were Muslim banduqchis, or gunners, defending Chittor during Akbar’s siege of 1568, and Muslim coppersmiths working at Nagaur in Marwa in the 15th century. Rana Kumbha of Mewar erected an inscription stating that he was a Hindu sultan while putting the name of Allah in Arabic characters on the top layers of his Victory Tower. Even after the Delhi sultanate was overthrown, Muslims survived in Bengal, Malwa and other places where Hindus were dominant, and increasingly were to remain so until the British arrived on the scene.

A caravanserai at Fatehpur Sikri. (Shutterstock)
A caravanserai at Fatehpur Sikri. (Shutterstock)

However, Professor Khan rightly points out that some precedents had been laid even before the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in the last decade of the 12th century, after Prithviraj’s final defeat by the Ghurid forces. The Chachnama, a chronicle of the Arabic conquest of Sindh mentions the deployment of Brahmans as tax collectors for the new regime. Qutubuddin Aibak, the founder of the Sultanate had a contingent of Hindu troops supplied by the local ‘Takaran’ ie the Thakurs. After his defeat, one of Prithviraj’s sons was allowed to rule from Ranthambore as a tributary of the Sultan. The notorious Mahmud Ghazni left behind a dynasty which ruled Punjab and Ghazni for 200 years, before the Ghurid conquest. But Mahmud of Ghazni had established his sway after defeating the Brahmin Hindushahi dynasty of Kabul, whose rulers Anandpal and Jaypal assisted his forays into India and Iran. And Mahmud Ghazni also employed many Indian mercenaries, from as far away as Kanara, or present day Andhra, and one of his generals was a Brahmin called Tilak who commanded a large contingent of Hindu soldiers for the Ghaznavids. He was powerful enough to keep a chhatri and have kettledrums beaten for him, and acted as the Governor of Lahore after Mahmud’s death. A Hindu woman in Ghazni even committed Sati with full ceremonials after she heard of her husband’s death in a campaign in the Indian hinterland. It is difficult, therefore, to treat these conquests as civilisational conflicts, let alone simple Muslim versus Hindu affairs.

These encounters also produced Al Beruni’s Kitab Al Hind, one of the greatest books ever written about India. Al Beruni, a polymath typical of the era, was well versed in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences, and also distinguished himself as a historian, chronologist and linguist. He wrote several treatises, even on scientific subjects, and brought a rare objectivity in his study of India and its knowledge systems. He spent years learning Sanskrit and interacted with hundreds of Indian learned men, chiefly Brahmins, before presenting his findings. He also carefully recorded oral testimony from persons representing different centres of Hindu learning. Professor Khan, however, here provides a revisionist account of the famous traveller. One of Al Beruni’s famous claims relates to the impact of Mahmud Ghazni’s conquests, when he said Indian learned men retreated to places like Kashi and Mathura and would not interact with foreigners, especially in Kashmir where even the entry of Muslims was banned. The claim has some credence because we know that Kashmir was perhaps the most important centre for Sanskrit and Buddhist learning in the beginning of the second millennium. Al Beruni also maintained that, “There is very little disputing about theological topics among Indians… At the most they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy.”

However, we are well aware of the often violent conflicts between Hindu and Buddhist rulers as well as the internecine battles between different Hindu sects. While Al Beruni complains of the insularity of Brahmins whom he describes as dogmatic and inward looking, not interested in dialogue, not interested in anything outside India, Professor Khan points to counterclaims within his own narrative. Al Beruni, for instance, also mentions how Brahman pandits at Ghazni, Lahore and Multan flocked around him when he explained basic concepts of Greek astronomy. He also makes clear that there were many Sanskritists who were capable of rendering Sanskrit texts into Arabic as well as Persian who collaborated with him.

Professor Khan’s chapter on the famous Sufi saint Abdul Quddus Gangohi of the 15th/16th centuries, famous in Hindi poetry as Alakh Das, illuminates several contradictions inherent in a plural medieval society. The Sufi Shaikh apparently left his native qasba Rudauli in Awadh, UP, because of the dominance of the Hindus, which had allowed “pork to be openly sold in the market,” among other things. But the same Hindu Rajputs were being supported by the Muslim Sharqi Kingdom of Eastern UP against the ruling Lodhi dynasty in Agra. Among those Lodhi nobles there were some who had gone “apostate” by mingling too often with Hindu saints and by “teaching their women dance.” Sheikh Abdul Quddus wrote many letters to the Lodhi Kings, and to Babar, asking for a removal of Hindus and a greater preference for Muslims in official positions, and for a stricter enforcement of Muslim laws. But the Sufi saint also wanted a greater protection for the Hindu middlemen who enjoyed rights on the land that had been granted to them. There were many Muslim jurists who ruled that it was illegal to take land away from the traditional tenants or holders, just as there were jurists who ruled against destruction of temples or forcible conversions, which is not to say that these practices didn’t exist.

190pp, ₹995; Primus Books
190pp, ₹995; Primus Books

Professor Khan’s slim but important book on medieval archaeology supports some of these conclusions. Over a period of a little more than a decade he covered over 10,000km, often by public transport, to produce a survey of many different kinds of public buildings. These include dams, barrages, canals, step well, aqueducts, irrigation tanks, sarais, bridges, manufacturing units like indigo vats, abandoned mines, furnaces, roads, kos minars, millstones, mortars, civilian housing complexes and fortifications etc. This astounding range obviously reveals an active and public-minded administrative structure. His surveys throw up interesting side stories, such as itinerant Hindu scholars who carry recommendation letters to stay in mosques in order to finish their studies, or tombs which transmogrify into samadhis, in one instance the deceased Sheikh Phool becoming Baba Phool Singh. But his most important survey here is of the Mughal sarais, of which he has mapped and surveyed closely some two dozen, from Aligarh to Jalandhar, which once dotted the Mughal highways to Surat, to Bengal and to the North Western Frontier. His drawings, photographs and physical description of the sarais reveal the public-spirited nature of the enterprises. Some of these were mammoth and were provided for through grants, and at others travellers paid for their fare. His analyses also extend to the class, range and numbers of people who might have used these places, which often provided separately for Hindus and Muslims. The caravanserais were separate from the dak chowkis, the postal stations. The well-ordered Indian information order rested on this physical structure. This modestly-titled endeavour is an enormous labour of love, meticulous and full of treasures to read.

Historian Iqtidar Alam Khan
Historian Iqtidar Alam Khan

These books not only present us with wisdom gained over a lifetime of mastery, they also delight in the subtlety with which Professor Khan presents his findings. His careful formulations illuminate for us the layered world of medieval kingdoms where religious identities and political loyalties did not always overlap, and where the state had to adjust to given realities of power, producing accommodation and coexistence, what another historian has called “living together separately”. But they also highlight for us the counter-intuitive but empirically sound formulation that a vast majority of India in the last millennium, for great lengths of time, was actually ruled by Hindus, not Muslims. However, there can be no simple divisions of Hindu and Muslim rule, nor can great distinction be drawn about the nature of their kingdoms. One can even say that the British conquered India as much from Muslims kings and potentates as from Hindu ones. The past may be past but it is certainly not dead in India since contentious issues of medieval history continue to have explosive effects on our contemporary politics. Therefore there can hardly be a more important book for our times.

Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi-based writer best known for reviving Dastangoi, the lost Art of Urdu storytelling.

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