Although some historians have attempted to make broad generalizations regarding India’s experience with Islamic rulers, a closer inspection of the historical record reveals a fair measure of diversity in the practice of India’s Islamic courts. Whereas the earliest examples of the Indian Sultanates (such as those based in Delhi) were invariably discriminatory towards Hindus and Muslims of pure Indian stock, some of the later Sultanates (mainly those founded by rulers born and raised in India) were more liberal in practice, and much more inclined to forge cooperative alliances with local Rajputs and other Hindus.
Founded by alien conquerors, the Delhi Sultanate tended to favor Muslim royal clans that were typically of Turkic descent and migrants from Central Asia. Later, Afghan nobles and descendants of Abbysinian (Hapshi) warrior-slaves also rose to prominence. Iranians (often Shiites) formed a faction opposed to the typically Sunni Turks and Afghans, and also competed for power, propagating Persian cultural models whenever they could. However, as a minority, and with limited political authority, these Sultanates had to rely on Hindu intermediaries, and local Muslim converts for collecting taxes and for maintaining order. Thus Hindu and Muslim zamindars, and administrators from the Brahmin, Kayastha, Khatri, and other castes became indispensable instruments in the Islamic courts, sometimes even occupying very high offices. These courts were also dependant on the support of the mercantile classes which included both foreign-born merchants and traders, as well as money-lenders from several local communities, including Hindus, Jains, and Hindu converts to Islam such as the Khojas, Bohras and Memons of Gujarat.
The stability of these Sultanates depended at least in part on the acquiescence and loyalty of the Hindu and local-born Muslim intermediaries, who when provoked, frequently aided and abetted coups and rebellions against the dominant Sultans. In the fourteenth century, the Delhi Sultanate disintegrated due to regional rebellions. These were in all likelihood triggered by the domineering rule of Muhammad ibn Tughlaq (1325-51) whose intransigent and expansionist policies led to widespread hostility and resentment. It was in the wake of this collapse of the Delhi Sultanate that various regional nobles asserted their independence and founded local Sultanates. The Sharqi Sultanate of Jaunpur and the Gujarat Sultanate of Ahmedabad were both founded by Indian-born Muslims, others such as Ahmednagar and Bengal by descendants of Abyssinian warrior-slaves, and Khandesh by a ruler who claimed Arab descent. Sher Shah Suri was another Indian-born Muslim who briefly challenged Mughal authority to found an alternative state in the Gangetic plain.
These regional Sultanates not only relied more actively on Hindu political and military allies, they were also more liberal in adopting Indian practices, or making concessions to native traditions. For instance, the Muslim nobility in Gujarat and some other regional Sultanates treated Hindu noble families with relative equality and respect, and Muslim princesses were married into the families of Hindu allies, just as Hindu princesses entered into the Muslim royal households. This was in contrast to the practice of the Mughals who even as they sought Rajput princesses as brides, did not permit their own daughters to be wed into Rajput families. Mughals accepted the Rajputs only as inferior partners, whereas the regional Sultanates were more likely to treat their Hindu allies as equals.
While relations between the Hindu and Muslim nobility were sealed through marital ties, at the popular level, convergence came about through the similarity of the Sufi and Bhakti mystical cults who shared a disdain for social hierarchies and instituted religions. To secure a measure of social peace and stability, the regional Sultanates tended to favor Sufic flexibility over Quranic absolutism, and unlike in Delhi, many of the regional Sultanates supported the local language and actively promoted a vernacular literature, and encouraged traditional arts and crafts. Muslims in Bengal, Gujarat and Kashmir began to write poetry and literature in the vernacular instead of in Urdu, and in Khandesh (Burhanpur) and Ahmednagar, Sanskrit and Marathi literature found favor along with Urdu literature. In Jaunpur, miniature paintings followed traditional Pauranic themes, and the illustrations to the Gita-Govinda commissioned at the Jaunpur court are especially attractive.
Likewise, the Deccan courts who were riven by rivalries amongst the various Indian-Muslim and foreign-origin dynasties also sought to improve relations with Hindus – who were permitted to rise to the highest positions in government. These courts were particularly open to native Hindu artistic influences, and amongst the finest genre of Indian miniatures are the Deccan interpretations of various Indian ragas – whether produced in Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Bijapur or Hyderabad. These miniatures share a great deal of commonality with the miniatures of the Maratha courts in Pune, Kolhapur and Sawantwadi.
Thus these courts evolved a distinct Indianized Muslim culture that distinguished them from those founded by invaders from the North-West. These courts reflected the composite character of the Indian converts to Islam who retained several elements from their previous traditions in terms of social customs, house-forms, language, literature, music, art and architecture.
Amongst the richest of these Sultanates was the Gujarat Sultanate, based first in Ahmedabad, and later in Champaner. Gujarat, which already had a thriving pre-industrial manufacturing base and an extensive network of ports and mercantile towns by the 13th century, continued to flourish and develop further during the reign of Ahmad Shah I (1410-42) and later Sultans up to the reign of Bahadur Shah (1526-37). The 18th C Mirat-i-Ahmadi observes that the author of Tazkirat-ul-mulk says that “Usmanpur (an Ahmedabad suburb) had at least one thousand shops, and in all of them were traders, artisans, craftsmen, government servants, and military people, both Hindu and Muslim..” Other travelers to Ahmedabad also left glowing accounts of the city noting how it boasted several palaces and residential neighborhoods set amidst numerous gardens and artificial tanks with wide roads and several market-places.
Not only were Gujarat’s cities important production centers for textiles and other manufactured goods, the ports of Gujarat did a thriving business in the trade of timber and spices and a variety of other goods that were shipped from various ports in South East Asia and the Indian Malabar coast, and further transported to East Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Products from the Indian hinterland were also shipped out from the ports of Gujarat. During the 15th and 16th centuries, this led to Gujarat’s cities ranking as amongst the most prosperous in the world, and the Sultanate rulers graced their capitals with some of the finest marvels of Indian architecture.
Both the former capitals: Ahmedabad and Champaner boast an array of outstanding monuments that in some ways outshine those of the Mughals. Remarkable for their ornate three-dimensional decoration derived from Hindu and Jain architecture, these monuments seamlessly incorporate motifs considered traditionally auspicious – such as the Jain ‘lamp of knowledge’ and the ‘kalpalata’ (wish-fulfillment creeper) and the ‘kalpavriksha’ symbolizing fecundity and prosperity. Amongst the most aesthetic of Ahmedabad’s mosques are those commissioned by the Hindu queens of Ahmedabad’s Muslims rulers such as those attributed to Rani Sipri and Rani Rupmati.
Bengal was another state where the Sultanate monuments borrowed profusely from earlier native traditions – in this case Hindu and Buddhist. In the 14th century capital of Pandua, artisans who had been active in the Kakathiya capital of Warangal (before it was sacked) gained employment alongside local craftspeople whose ancestors had earlier served the Pala and Sena rulers. Thus, like in Gujarat, many motifs considered important and auspicious in Bengal’s Buddhist or Hindu traditions came to be incorporated in both the religious and secular architecture of the Pandua and Gaur courts. (Although to some extent, this may have occurred unintentionally, since many mosques were built over pre-existing monasteries and temple complexes) Nevertheless, relatively unaffected by trends in Persia or Central Asia, the Bengal Sultanate developed its own architectural idioms, innovating and adapting from native Bengali traditions. Bengal’s Muslim mystic poets and song-writers, like their Bhakti counterparts, also drew heavily from folk traditions.
In the Northern Deccan, Muslim peasants continued to speak Kannada and celebrate Id and other Muslims festivals with traditional singing and their highly sophisticated folk-dances adapted by the Sufi orders to suit the occasion. In many cases, communities celebrated festivals important to both Hindus and Muslims.
In this way, before their defeat at the hands of the Mughals, the regional Sultanates were generally able to avoid the destructive excesses and trauma that was experienced under the Delhi Sultanate, and were able to contribute to the material and cultural life of the Indian states in a more meaningful way. Not only did trade and commerce thrive in their ports and urban centers, the art and architecture commissioned by these Sultanates ought to be seen as an important component of the Indian cultural legacy, and should be ranked with the very best of India’s artistic output.