Book Review Tracing elements of power, religion in Muslim rule over India


Zubair Qureshi

Islamabad—Quaid-i-Azam University’s lecturer in History Dr Fouzia Farooq Ahmad has done a commendable work of research by writing the book ‘Muslim Rule in India: Power and Religion in the Delhi Sultanate’ that has drawn attention of students of history, critics and researchers not only in the subcontinent but also around the world.
The 288-page book under review is an academic work that reflects greatly upon medieval Indian political culture and power relations. The book poses the question of whether the Delhi sultans ever stabilized power of foundations of legitimate authority or did they remain dependent on coercion and patrimonial relations to sustain their rule.
To answer that question, the author adopts a rigorous methodology that lays out matrix for organizing historical material drawn from medieval chronicles allowing the reader to make sense of the rapid rise and fall of sultans and their nobility, the expansion and contraction of Delhi’s sway over surrounding and distant regions, and the swings between periods of long rule and interregna of rapid turnover of sultans. The major elements of author’s matrix include the composition of patrimonial nobility according to ethnic category, immigrant and local personnel, free and slave, Muslim and Hindu; the uneven reach of sultans’ authority according to core, province, and periphery; and the endemic instability caused by the absence of any rule for succession. Thanks to author’s consistent organization of chapters to examine these elements, the reader gains a clear idea of why efforts to expand the base of power from force to authority foundered time and gain, from one dynasty to the next. The decision to include chapters on Ghaznavid and Ghurid dynasties in the account shows the author is alert to the effects of historical antecedents on patterns of power, patrimonial relations, and efforts to deploy monumental architecture and import religious symbols, even if they were ineffective, from the Middle East to South Asia.
From the research emerges a picture of what the author terms a “conquest state” that proved immune to the efforts of different sultans trying different strategies— harsh and lenient treatment of rivals, spying on civil and military officials, shoring up power through symbolic means of largesse, monumental construction and patronage of religious scholars, greater and lesser control over tax revenues and economic production—to consolidate dynastic rule, with only one instance of a lasting rule by a designated successor (Muhammad ibnTughluq).
In addition to the robust organization of material, the author has undertaken prodigious research in primary sources in three languages as well as thorough reading of secondary sources. The author treats the primary sources with appropriate critical perspective, noting not only partisan bias for or against particular rulers, but also their silence on what the vast majority of townsmen and villagers thought of events in their time. Through inference she finds that the relevant population for sultans’ efforts to establish legitimate authority consisted of the royal household, patrimonial clients, and urban Muslim communities under the moral sway of Sufis and the nobles. The overwhelming majority of non-Muslim villagers counted only for their contributions to tax coffers.
In short the book can be a groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of the nature of power under the Delhi Sultanates.
Its fresh analysis of the Delhi Sultanates lends itself to comparative historical sociology of power and authority elsewhere in the Muslim world in the centuries between Abbasid collapse and the rise of early modern empires. To my mind, it is a welcome addition in the works of medieval Muslim history in general and Indian history in particular.

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