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The administrative organisation of the Delhi Sultanate was a product of many factors. The Sultans of Delhi had before themselves the model of the government of the Caliph. They had also inherited some of the practices and conventions of the race to which they belonged.
They also found in India a well-established administrative system from which they could borrow. The result was that the Sultans had to assimilate most of the machinery of government already existing in the country. Thus, the Government of the Sultans of Delhi has rightly been described as a Turko-Persian System in an Indian Setting.
The foreign elements in the Sultanate consisted of the Central Ministry, their military system and modifications of the taxation policy as well as tax structure of the country to some extent by the enhancement of the rate of land revenue and by the addition of certain new taxes such as Jizya, pilgrimage tax, heavier duties on Hindus and other non-Muslims than on the Muslim merchants.
All non-Muslims were deprived of the status of citizenship and they were accepted merely as Zimmis. They had to obtain their security of life and property by payment of a money consideration and their rights to perform their religious duties by payment of religious taxes.
Moreover, all higher positions carrying large powers as well as emoluments were reserved for Muslims only. There was no opening for the Hindus. While the outer framework of the administrative machinery, particularly in the lower rungs of the hierarchy, would seem to have been built on the earlier pattern, the spirit and policy of the Turkish Government was basically transformed.
There is no merit or substance in the contention of some writers that the Delhi Sultanate was a democracy. This claim is refuted by the simple fact that the Hindus, who formed a majority of the population, had absolutely no say in the administration of the country.
It is true that the Caliph or the Khalifa was the king of all the Muslims in all parts of the world but with the spread of Islam in various parts of the world it became practically impossible to enforce the authority of the Khalifa everywhere. However, the fiction of the unity of the Khalifa was maintained. This was continued in spite of the fact that the last Khalifa was put to death by Husian Khan, the Mongol leader.
What was actually done was that the Sultans of Delhi described themselves as the Deputy or Assistant of the Khalifa. They received investiture from the Khalifa and inscribed his name on their coins and also got the Khutba read in the name of the Khalifa. Ala-ud-Din Khalji refused to recognise the authority of the Khalifa and Qutb-ud-Din Mubarak himself took up the title of the Caliph.
Excepting these two rulers, the other Sultans of Delhi recognised the nominal authority of the Khalifa. However, actually no Sultan of Delhi bothered to obey the Khalifa. No Sultan believed that he got his authority from the Khalifa. Sultans of Delhi considered it more profitable to maintain their contacts with outside Muslim world and no wonder they recognised the nominal authority of the Khalifa.
The Sultan was the head of the Delhi Sultanate. He was the source of all power and authority. He was the sovereign head and commander of the army. His will was law. It was the duty of everyone to obey his command. Generally, the form of an election was maintained by the Sultans of Delhi. The nobles and the landlords and the most influential Ulema at the capital agreed upon a candidate and declared him as the Sultan.
Afterwards, a formal oath of allegiance was taken by them and later on by the people. It cannot be denied that the procedure of election was merely a fiction. The candidate had already decided the issue by conquest in battle and by overwhelming force. Of course, it had the advantage of being legal and conforming to the wishes of the jurists and the people.
It is true that an attempt was made to make the choice from the ruling family but the hereditary principle was not always followed. Although Jalal-ud-Din Khalji had already seated himself on the throne, the outward form of election was maintained. Many people did not take the oath of allegiance to the Khaljis for some time but they did so after some time.
The majority of the jurists believed that the Sultan could be deposed if he failed to carry out his trust. Injustice was considered to be a sufficient cause for dethronement. All writers agree that a man suffering from a mental or physical infirmity could not continue to be a sovereign.
Great importance was attached to the loss of power of judgment and eye-sight. The very fact that a large number of Delhi Sultans were removed from the throne shows that they were not considered to be sacrosanct. It is true that there were intrigues and rebellions even against competent rulers but those had not much chances of success.
The Sultan was required to be a person capable of dealing with the problems of the state. He was to be in full possession of physical and mental faculties. Ordinarily, the ruler was expected to be a male and no wonder the election of Sultana Razia created a lot of trouble.
It is true that the absence of a hereditary principle of succession had its defects but it enabled a large number of brilliant men to be the rulers of Delhi. It was not an easy thing to occupy the throne of Delhi and no wonder fools and pleasure-seekers could not afford to remain long on the throne. The Delhi Sultanate required all the care and work that a man could give. The rough and ready method of selecting the Sultan worked well and the right man was found at the right time.
It is true that the Sultan was recognised as the supreme interpreter of the law but actually he could not go against the recognised interpretation. It was not possible for him to disregard Ijma or preponderant concurrence of opinion on any point. Where the jurists disagreed, the Sultan could make his own decision but while doing so he was to get the advice of the learned jurists.
The Sultan was expected not to contravene the Sharia while making laws. The sovereignty of law was not merely a legal fiction. The Sultans of Delhi showed remarkable respect for the Sharia in their public dealings. It is true that there were certain violations but in many cases even the mighty Sultans humbled themselves before the majesty of the law.
The Sultan enjoyed great prestige. They were considered to be the heart of the system. Their existence was the primary necessity of social life. Without a ruler, all order was to vanish and the very existence of the human race could be endangered. It was his sword which cleansed the world of anarchy and of evil. A just Sultan could expect to find a place under the banner of the Prophet on the day of reckoning. It was the duty of the Sultan to give full protection to the people to develop themselves.
The Sultan was expected to protect Islam. He was to settle disputes among his subjects. He was required to defend the territories of Islam and keep the highways and roads safe for travelers. He was to maintain and enforce the criminal code. He was to strengthen the frontiers of Muslim territory against possible aggression. He was to wage a holy war against those who acted in hostility of Islam.
He was to collect rates and taxes. He was to apportion the shares of those who deserved an allowance from the public treasury. He was to appoint officers to help him in his public and legal duties. He was required to keep in touch with public affairs and the condition of the people by personal contact.
“The Sultan controls affairs, maintains right and enforces the criminal c6de; he is the Pole Star around which revolve the affairs of the world and the Faith; he is the protection of God in his realm; his shadow extends its canopy over his servants, for he forbids the forbidden, helps the oppressed, uproots the oppressor and gives security to the timid.”
It is not proper to contend that the Sultan was absolutely a despot and there was no limitation on his power. However, in actual practice absolute authority exists only in the dream of the despot. All political power is limited and depends on the co-operation of strong elements in the state.
According to Dr. A. C. Banerjee, “It is altogether impossible to discover in any intelligible principle the source of the power which the Sultans of Delhi enjoyed for three centuries. They did not owe their position to the Khalifs, the nominal rulers of the Islamic world, although some of them did invoke their authority in their support. Nor did they owe their sovereignty to the will of the people.
At the first instance, their sole right to rule this country was that of military conquest. But they failed to evolve any workable law of succession, or any tolerable method to secure dynastic continuity. Sons did not always succeed their fathers. The nomination of the dying ruler was unceremoniously set aside by the over-mighty nobles, but even the nobles did not have the decisive voice in selecting the ruler. The principle-if it is a principle at all-to which candidates appealed was that of force; and nothing but might was right.”
Dr. Tarachand rightly points out that the Sultans of the early Middle Ages, while paying lip-service to canonical theories, looked upon themselves as monarchs independent of the Caliph and deriving their authority directly from God. Minhaj-ud-Din Siraj gives the title of Zill Allah Fil Alamin to Iltutmish, Sayah-i-Yazdan to Nazir-ud-Din Mahmud and Balban. Amir Khusrau speaks to Kaiqubad as Sayah-i-Yazdani Pak. Qutb-ud-Din Mubarak Shah called himself Khalifatal-Allah.
There was a sort of compact between the Sultans and the Ulema by which the Ulema were to interpret the Quran in favour of the authority of the Sultan and the latter was not only to give high offices to the Ulema but also make endowments to the Muslim institutions and Muslim causes. The result was that the Ulema became a political force which could not be ignored by the Sultans.
The Sultans were primarily military adventurers and they did not care much for the niceties of political and religious thought. They welcomed thinkers, writers and poets to their courts so long as they did not interfere with the work of the state and if they did so, they were liable to be exterminated. Such a fate was met by Barani as he complained that the Sultans were not giving due attention to their office. The checks on the authority of the Sultans were the Ulema, the nobility and the soldiers of the standing army.