In this article we will discuss about the nature of state in medieval India.
The nature of State in Medieval India has been a subject of great controversy amongst the scholar. Scholars like Dr. R.P. Ashraf, Dr. Ishwari Prasad, Prof. A.L. Srivastava, etc. hold that the Muslim state in Medieval India was theocracy. For example Dr. R.P. Tripathi says, “All the institutions that the Muslims either evolved or adopted were intended to sub-serve the law.”
Similarly Dr. Ishwari Parsad says that like other Muslim states, the state in Medieval India was a theocracy. The king was both Caesar as well as Pope. But, his authority was restricted by the principles of Shariat. His rule was based on religion and the Ulemas predominated the State.
However, certain other writers like Dr. I.H. Qureshi holds, “The supremacy of the shar” has misled some into thinking that the Sultanate was a theocracy. The essential feature of a theocracy— the rule of an ordained priesthood—is however, missing in the organisation of Muslim state; the jurists are laymen who claim no sacerdotal immunity from error. Gibb is right in calling the Islamic policy theocentric. Even Mohammad Habib says, “It (Muslim state in India) was not a theocratic state in any sense of the word” and that “its foundation was, nevertheless, non-religious and secular.”
In view of the two conflicting views offered by the scholars regarding the nature of the state in Medieval India, it becomes imperative to examine this issue more thoroughly. First of all, we must try to find out what is meant by theocracy. Only then we will be able to arrive at some conclusion regarding the nature of state in Medieval India.
The term theocracy is derived from the Greek word theos, meaning God. Therefore, a theocratic state is one which is governed by God or sacerdotal class.
According to the Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary theocracy has been defined as “that constitution of a state in which the Almighty it regarded as the sole sovereign, and the laws of the realm divine commands rather than human ordinances-the priesthood necessarily becoming the officers of the invisible ruler .”
An analysis of this definition shows that theocracy has three essential features:
(1) Presence of sacerdotal class or priesthood,
(2) Prevalence of the law of God, and
(3) The sovereign or ruler who promulgates this law. Let us examine how far these elements were present in the state in Medieval India
In the first place, we can agree with Dr. Qureshi that there was no ordained or hereditary priesthood in Medieval India which is the essential feature of a theocracy. The Jurists were laymen who claimed no sacerdotal immunity from error and certain laymen like lbn Battuta acted as Qazi of Delhi during Muhammad bin Tughlaq.
However, the appointment of lbn Battuta was a unique case. It cannot be denied that mostly the Jurists were taken from class of Ulemas.
These Ulemas were orthodox and wielded great influence with the Sultan. Even Dr. Yusuf Husain has testified that these Ulemas were orthodox and were given education in Madrasas. This education had a distinct religious voice. The Jurists and advisers of the Sultans and kings were appointed from amongst these Ulemas and they interpreted the Shara (Islamic law).
According to lbn Hasan, “The protection of Shariat has two aspects: The propagation of the knowledge of Shara and its enforcement as law within the state The one implies the maintenance of a class of scholars devoted to the study, the teaching and the propagation of that knowledge, and the other the appointment of one Prom those scholars…as an adviser to the king in ail acts of state. The scholars devoted to that knowledge are called Ulema and the one selected from among them is termed Shaikh-ul-Islam”
He further says that the Shaikh-ul-Islam was the representative of Ulema and it was his duty to bring “to the notice of the king what he thought detrimental or prejudicial to the interest of his religion, and the king had little option in acting upon such an advice.
The Shaikh-ul-Islam not only supervised the educational institutions but also exercised a sort of censorship over the books prescribed, in various educational institutions as well as over the moral ideas of the people. The Shaikh-ul-Islam also kept a close touch with the Muslim scholars to ensure a regular supply of Muslim theologians.
These Ulemas exercised great influence on the rulers. Henry Bloch-mann says although Islam has no state clergy, but we find a counterpart to our hierarchical bodies in the Ulemas about the court from whom the Sadars of the provinces, the Mir Adils, Muftis and Qazis were appointed. At Delhi and Agra, the body of the learned had always consisted of staunch Sunnis, who believed it their duty to keep the kings straight.
How great their influence was, may be seen from the fact that of all Muhammaden emperors only Akbar, and perhaps Alauddin Khilji, succeeded in putting down this haughty sect.
The second feature of a theocracy is the prevalence of the law of God, or religious law (as opposed to secular law). It is admitted by almost all the scholars that the Medieval Indian state was run on the dictates of the Shara. Dr. Qureshi himself admits that Shara, “is based on the Quran which is believed by every Muslim to be the word of God revealed to his prophet Muhammad …On these two rocks—the Quran and Hadis (the prophet’s interpretation on the revelation embodies in his tradition) is built the structure of Muslim Law….This Law was the actual sovereign in Muslim lands” In other words, we can say that it is admitted on all hands that the Law which prevailed during Medieval India was Shara, it was not a secular Law.
This religious law naturally went against the interests of the non-Muslim population of the country which was in majority. It is admitted on all hands that the Hindu population suffered from a number of disabilities. These included the imposition of an invidious taxation Jazia.
According to Abu Hanifah; Jazia was collected from the Hindu as an alternative to death. It was imposed for the first time in India by Muhammad Bin Qasim, the conqueror of Sindh because he could not apply the Quranic law strictly on the Hindus who were in much greater numerical strength. He followed an policy of religious tolerance towards Hindus of Sindh and Multan.
This precedent was followed by the later Turkish and Afghan rulers of India. Sir Jadunath Sarkar says that it was considered to be the highest duty of the Muslim rulers to carry on Jihad by “waging war against infidel lands (Dar-ul-Harb) till they became a part of the realm of Islam (Dar-ul-Islam), and their populations are converted into true believers.
During the rule of the early Muslim rulers, the Hindus were relegated to an inferior position and were not permitted to observe their religious rites in public. They were also not permitted to carry on any religious propaganda or to build new temples or repair the old ones, Certain disabilities were also imposed on them with regard to civic rights and employment under the State.
In tact they were considered as second rate citizens as compared to the Muslim population. Prof A.L. Srivastava says “Throughout the period of the Sultanate of Delhi (1206 —1526) and in fact for nearly 40 years after its extinction, there existed in our country two grades of citizenship—the superior grade for Muslims who constituted the privileged class, and the inferior grade for the Hindus who were treated as a depressed class in their own homeland.”
The Brahmans were exempted from the Jazia by the early Sultans but Firoz Tughlaq imposed Jazia on them also. This was greatly resented by the Brahmans and they resorted to hunger strike. According to Afif, seeing miserable conditions of the Brahmans the Hindus of Delhi went to them and said that they should not sacrifice their lives for the sake of jazia and offered to pay jazia on their behalf.
V.A. Smith says that as a result Firoz Tughlaq became little lenient and reduced the amount of jazia to be paid by the Brahmans, but he did not fully exempted them from this tax.
Dr. Pandey is of the opinion that jazia was only collected from the Hindus living in the cities, and those living in the countryside were not subjected to it for the purpose of realisation of jazia the entire population was divided into three categories: those belonging to the first category had to pay 48 dirhams while those belonging to the second and third categories had to pay 24 and 12 dirhams respectively. Women, children, beggars and lame people were exempted from jazia. This tax was purely a religious tax and was a clear proof of discriminatory policy followed by the contemporary rulers.
All the rulers during the Medieval times were bound to rule according to the law of Islam. Though the Muslim rulers were permitted to frame new laws according to the circumstances with the counsel of wise men, but very few rulers dared to frame such laws and the Shara continued to be supreme throughout the Sultanate period.
Many rulers during Medieval times were tolerant by nature but none (except Akbar) could ever dare to make laws which could ensure equity and fair play to all the sections of the population. We do not come across any law or regulation promulgated by the other Medieval Indian rulers to this effect. It was for the first time- Akbar, who promulgated a number of regulations for the good of the people.
These regulations included the abolition of the practice of enslaving prisoners of war, pilgrim tax and jazia. Akbar also passed number of laws imposing restrictions on the sale of liquor,, child marriage, restraining of early marriage, prohibition of sati, widow re-marriage etc.
He took a bold step of according freedom to the people to choose the religion of their choice. He even permitted the forcibly converted people to go back to their original religion. Although, Akbar laid down certain rules and regulations, these survived only during his life time. Furthermore the orthodox nobles and Ulemas greatly disliked these rules.
In the third place, we find that during the Medieval times no ruler could be safe on his throne unless he enforced the Shara. No doubt, certain rulers like Ala-ud-Din Khilji and Muhammad Tughlaq made efforts to free themselves from the restraints of Shara but this was greatly resented by the Ulemas.
That is why the Ulemas obtained from the successors of these two rulers an assurance that they would rule according to the tenets of justice and law. It is well known to the students of Medieval Indian history that Firoz Shah Tughlaq fully lived up to undertaking and carried on his administration according to the religious laws.
Similarly, Akbar’s policy of tolerance was greatly disliked by the orthodox Muslims and they secured a promise from his successor Jahangir that he would defend Muslim religion. Another example is provided by Aurangzeb who claimed that he was fighting against Dara Shikoh, an apostate, for the re-establishment of the Law of Islam.
Position of Khalifa:
Although the Sultan rulers of Delhi considered themselves as fully independent, they acknowledged the suzerainty of Khalifa. According to the Muslim Law there could be only one ruler of the Muslims and Delhi Sultans always gave the impression that they were acting as the representatives of the Khalifa.
They put the name of the Khalifa on their coins and inscriptions. Ala ud Din Khilji was the first ruler who abandoned the policy and asserted his independence. He did not approve of the interference of the Ulemas in the matter of administration because he believed that any interference by the religious officials in the state’s affairs was harmful.
He held that as the Khalifa was the agent of God in religious matters, the king was the agent of God in worldly matters.
Justifying this stand, Ala-ud-Din Khilii said that I am not sure whether my stand is in accordance with the principles of Islam or not, but I do whatever I feet is in the interests of the State. Even Qutb ud Din Mubarak, son of Ala ud- Din Khilji, tried to bypass the authority of the Khalifa and himself took the title of the Khalifa.
Apart from these two Sultans, all other rulers of the Sultanate period attached much importance to the position of the Khalifa. Some of these Sultans even tried to obtain certificates from the Khalifa, the last one to do this was Firoz Tughlaq.
The Mughal rulers tried to assert their independence of the Khalifa by assuming the title of Badshah. They did not recognise the suzerainty of Khalifa or any other Muslim ruler outside India. For example, they did not recognise the Sultan of Turkey who had assumed the title of Khalifa also.
Thus the Mughal rulers widely differed from the Sultans of Delhi in this regard. Akbar particularly tried to evolve a new theory of kingship which was essentially .National in character He made an effort to remove all checks on the authority of the king which existed in the nature of the Ulemas or Millat.
In fact he combined in himself both the ecclesiastical authority as well as the secular power, because he felt that the separation of the two powers was detrimental to the interest of the state. No doubt, this policy of Akbar was greatly resented by orthodox Sunni Ulemas but ultimately Akbar emerged victorious.
Akbar was one of the first Muslim rulers to propound the theory of the divine origin of monarchy. He asserted that the king was God’s representative on the earth and his shadow (Zill e-Illahi) and greater knowledge and wisdom were given to him than any other human being. This theory of divine origin of monarchy though not quite popular with the Muslim nobility, was accepted by vast majority of the Hindu population. In fact they felt that this theory was akin to their ancient Indian view of sovereignty. They welcomed this theory also because it rejected the Quranic law as the basis of State and promised a benevolent system of Government.
The subsequent Mughal rulers like Jahangir and Shah Jahan also continued to believe in the theory of divine origin of monarchy. Even Aurangzeb claimed to be the advocate of divine theory. It may be noted that although the Mughal rulers believed in theory of divine monarchy and considered themselves as a part of God, but they could not act against the religious laws prescribed by Quran in order to make any modification in this law. All the rulers were bound by the Shara and no Mughal ruler could dare to openly challenge its authority.
Muslim Concept of Sovereignty:
According to the Muslim principles of sovereignty for all the Muslim rulers there can be only one Muslim king wherever they might be living and this Muslim ruler was the Caliph (khalifa). According to Dr. A. B. Pandey just as according to the Muslim there is one God, one prophet, and his teachings are contained in one book. Similarly there should be only one ruler for the Islamic state.
The God has sent his representatives to all the countries to carry out his orders and Muhammad Sahib as the last representative of God. To carry out orders of the prophet tantamount to carrying out the orders of the God, but even for the prophet, it was obligatory to carry out the orders of God.
After the departure of Muhammad there was only one ruler of the entire Muslim community and he was the Khalifa or Imam. According to the Sunni principle the sovereignty resides in the Muslim brotherhood which can bestow it to any true Muslim. But usually the Sun ii Muslims bestowed this sovereignty on persons belonging to the Qureshi dynasty, the dynasty to which Muhammad belonged.
The Khalifa or the Imam was to be elected by entire Muslim public. But in actual practice it was not feasible for the entire population to take part in the election and only some prominent members residing at the capital participated in the election. Thus we find that the Muslim concept of sovereignty had certain peculiar features.
Some of the important features were as follows:
1. God is the master and ruler of the entire world and Khalifa is the human representative of God on this earth.
2. The human ruler or Khalifa was acting according to the religious principles.
3. All the Muslims of the world wherever they may be residing, must have one ruler and that ruler is known as Khalifa or Imam.
A. Imam must be elected by the people.
5. According to Dr. Tripathi, sovereignty resides in the Muslim brotherhood which can transfer it to any true Muslim and make him the ruler.
6. Imam has the supreme power and nobody can interfere and challenge his authority.
7. It is not only a legal duty but also a moral duty of the people to carry out orders of the Imam.
8. The income of the state is the property of the society and it cannot be considered as the individual income of the Imam or his family members.
9. The Imam possessed military as well as civic powers and exercised both direct as well as indirect control over the ruler.
According to Dr. R. P. Tripathi, an important feature of “the Muslim conception of sovereignty was its indivisibility. Within his powers the Imam was supreme. No power on earth could even share with him his sovereign rights He was the final living authority”.
He further says, “In fact all the powers of a strong executive head were vested in the Imam.”
Though Imam had very extensive powers he could not go against the rules of Shariat. He was as much subject to the rules of Shariat as any other citizen He had even to show due regard to the orders of the Sultan.
As Dr. Tripathi says:
“Another and more practical check on the power of the Imam was the Muslim doctrine of obedience to the sovereign.”
Another important feature of the State in Medieval India was that it was military in character. The Muslim rulers maintained a strong military force for the maintenance of law and order within the country and for the protection of the country from any possible aggression. In fact, the State was a police state and it discharged mainly the functions of maintenance of law and order and collection of revenues.
The Government paid no attention to the welfare of the people No doubt, Government made some arrangement for the education of the Muslim population, but it did practically nothing for the education of the Hindu population, who had to depend on their private efforts. The State was in no sense a welfare state.
The rulers paid no attention to the economic and social development of the people, nor did they pay any attention to the promotion of literature and culture. Whatever encouragement was given to the fine arts it depended, on the personal attitude and interest of the rulers.
Similarly no attention was paid to the development of means of communication or the use of ordinary public. Whatever roads were constructed they were built mainly for the use of the military. In short, we can say that the State in general did not bother about the welfare of the people at all. Only some of the benevolent rulers like Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan paid some attention to the welfare of the people.