Theocratic as well as Military state:
Before we discuss the issue whether the Delhi Sultanate was a theocratic state or a military state, it would be proper to say a few words about the nature of a theocratic state and military state.
A theocratic state is one whose entire functioning is based on the tenets of a religion and a military state is one which depends on the military strength for its survival.
The Sultanate state was a theocratic as well as a military state. It combined religious elements as well as military elements. The Delhi Sultanate like that of all other Muslim states of the time was a theocracy. This meant that its political and administrative institutions were, in theory, derived from the Islamic Law (Shariat) based upon the precepts of Quran. Islamic theocracy, in a larger sense, also meant that the entire Islamic world was united under the religious and political authority of the Caliph, the representative of the Prophet.
Every Muslim State was look upon as the Caliph’s dependency and its ruler had to pay allegiance to the Caliph and to seek confirmation for his right to rule as the deputy of the Caliph. Islam being the religion of the State, it was the primary duty of the State to promote Islam. The theocratic law was supreme and the civil law was subordinate to it. The Ulemas, in general, interpreted the Islamic laws and thus had an influential position. The Sultan was expected to show remarkable respect to the Shariat, to levy taxes according to the Shariat.
In practice, however, this theory passed through some modifications. In a country like India, where non-Muslims constituted an overwhelming large majority of population, and the political and social conditions differed very widely from those contemplated by the Muslim-jurists, it was not possible to maintain the full rigidity of the Islamic law. Also the degree of modifications depended on the personality, capability and power of the ruler and the situations circumventing his freedom, initiative and judgement.
The Delhi Sultanate also combined several elements of a military state. Usually it is said that a military state does not follow religious tenets. But the Delhi Sultanate which sometimes appears to be a military state derived its inspiration from religion.
In fact as against the invasions of the foreigners like the Huns, the Shakas and the Kushans, the foreign Muslim invaders invaded India primarily for the sake of spreading their religion. They therefore used their military power, defeated the Indian rulers and established their rule which by and large was based on Islamic injunctions. Military in a theocratic as well as a non-theocratic state is used for crushing internal revolts.
During the period of the Sultanate the military commanders were appointed governors or Iqtadars’ of the ‘Idtas’ or provinces or territorial units. The state’s major revenue was spent in maintaining the army. Accordingly state revenue policy was dictated by military expenditure. The state suppressed the internal revolts, maintained peace and defended the empire from foreign invaders on the strength of its military.
The Sultan himself was the commander-in-chief of the army. The Sultan’s success primarily depended upon his military skill. Balban and Alau-ud-Din paid great attention towards making effective reforms in their military organisation and successfully faced all internal and external dangers.
Nevertheless, the Sultans also took interest in public welfare programmes like construction of canals, roads, postal arrangement and currency reforms etc. Many took interest in controlling prices. Several Sultans patronized, art, architecture, music and literature etc. Thus we can say that the Sultanate State combined several elements.
The Delhi Sultans and the Caliphate:
According to the Islamic theory, the Caliph was the spiritual and temporal head of the entire Muslim world. He was Pope and Caesar combined. A ruler of any Muslim state wherever it might be located was looked upon a Caliph’s deputy. The Sultans of Delhi paid ceremonial homage to the Caliphs of Egypt (though Caliph’s power had lost its earlier strength and significance) and sought formal recognition for their being his deputy.
Iltutmish was the first to receive such recognition and on his coins he described himself as a deputy of the Caliph. Ala-ud-Din discontinued the practice, while his son Mubarak himself assumed the title of Caliph, brushing aside the fiction of allegiance to the Caliph. But Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq sought the recognition of the Caliph in order to recover his waning prestige.
His successor Firoz had his highest regard for the Caliph and described himself as his deputy. He had his ruler-ship twice confirmed by the Caliph. After him, no ruler sought the Caliph’s confirmation. The earlier practice was in fact conventional and did not effect the Sultan’s power.
Theocratic state and the Ulemas:
The Muslim divines, called the Ulemas were the authoritative interpreters of Islamic Law. They were a highly influential body and their fatwa was sought on all religious questions in dispute. The Sultans consulted them not only on points of Muslim Law but also on matters of State policy. This was becoming a convention, and the Ulemas felt convinced that they had to be consulted on matters both sacred or secular.
Few rulers had the moral courage to resist their interference or avoid consulting them. Ala-ud-Din was the first Sultan to check their pretensions and disregarded their advice. Muhammad Tughlaq also took courage and adopted a policy which was against their orthodox presumptions and sentiments. As a result he had to face the arrogance and hostility of the Ulemas.
Firoz Tughlaq had all respect for the Ulemas and their views. Thus the Ulemas had a great influence over him. The Sultan was completely under their domination. And when the Ulemas had a free hand, their orthodoxy and narrow outlook had very harmful effects.
The Sultan as the Supreme sovereign:
According to the Muslim theology sovereignty was vested in the Muslim Law. Subject to general conformity with the Law, the Sultan was the head of the state and he enjoyed unlimited powers. All legislative, executive and judicial powers were concentrated in his person. His order was the law in the state. He was the highest commander of the army. He appointed all ministers, nobles and other officers of the state.
What could curb the despotism of the rulers was that they could not defy the Muslim law. But in fact, not in theory, many rulers were the supreme interpreters of the Law. There was no law of succession to the throne. It was not necessary that the eldest son or the daughter of the Sultan should succeed. However, tradition developed that the throne belonged to the eldest son.
The Sultan also had the right to nominate anyone as his successor. These were wars of succession and a lot of blood was shed for capturing the throne. However, the experiment of placing a woman (Raziya was the only example) or minor on the throne failed. In several cases ‘sword’ decided the issue of succession.
Another important check on the royal power was the privileged position of the nobles. At the time of Iltutmish, there was the struggle between the crown and the nobles for clutching the real power. Nobles dominated during Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud’s time. Balban kept the nobles at check. Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq showed through his coins bearing the message that he was the shadow of God. During Lodhi rule nobles claimed the status of equality with the king. Everything depended on the personality of the ruler.