Read this article to learn about the classification of society and the Position of Women in sultanate period!

Medieval society was a society of great inequalities. This was reflected in the Muslim society even more than in the Hindu, the latter being predominantly rural where inequalities were less marked. In towns, the Muslim nobility led a life of great ostentation.

Some of the wealthy merchants, Hindu and Muslim, also led lives of ostentation. The great mass of people, in towns as well as in the countryside, lived a simple life and often had to face many hardships.

It was, however, not a life without joy, as numerous festivals, fairs, etc. relieved, to some extent, the monotony of their lives.

Medieval Society - Myth Busters!!!

Image Source:

The Ruling Class:


The Sultan and his chief nobles enjoyed a standard of living which was comparable to the highest standard in the world at that time, viz., to the standards of the ruling class in the Islamic world in West and Central Asia.

While Europe was still trying to overcome its backwardness, the opulence and wealth of the ruling classes in the Islamic world was dazzling, and set a standard which the ruling class in every country tried to emulate. Like the Hindu rulers, almost every sultan in India built his own palace.

Numerous gifts used to be bestowed on the nobles and others on such festive occasions as the sultan’s birthday, the nauroz (the Persian New Year) and the annual coronation day.


The nobles tried to ape the sultans in ostentatious living. They had magnificent palaces to live in they used costly articles of apparel and were surrounded by a large number of servants, slaves and retainers. They vied with each other in holding lavish feasts and festivals. However, some of the nobles also patronized men of arts and letters.

Major Religious Groups:

1. Muslims


The Turks were larger in number and more influential in administration and especially in the 13th and 14th century as they enjoyed the confidence of the rulers. The Turk noblemen, Maliks and Amirs were also playing important role, at least, in the beginning in the selection of the Sultans.


It was during the reign of the Khiljis that the Indian Muslims were given any position in the administration. Feroze Tughlaq was the first Sultan to give high position to Indian converts. Mohammad Tughlaq had a preference for foreigners and in his days almost all the high offices were under foreigners. Thus, the upper class of society among the Muslims consisted of the Turk nobles and very few Arabs, Afghans and Persians.


The next important class of the society was that of the Ulema. These Ulema did not enjoy their position on the basis of heredity but anyone who could become proficient in theology and especially, the Hanafi branch of ecclesiastical studies was given a position of honour both by the Muslim population and the royal court.

They were known as Muftis, Qazia, Imam and Khatib according to the various duties they were assigned to. Since the Sultanate was a theocracy, the Ulema wielded considerable influence on the administration of the country. With the exception of Ala-ud-din Khailji and Mohammad Tughlaq, all the other Sultans always needed to their advice. The influence of the Ulema on the State and their interference in political and administrative matters proved to be highly injurious.


The third class of the Muslim society was that of the slaves who had acquired a very important position during the days of the Slave dynasty and later on during the reign of Feroze Tughlaq who had as many as 1,80,000 slaves. Ala-ud-din had 50,000 slaves though he did not attach to them the same importance as Feroze Tughlaq did.

The slaves were not low born or financially poor but anyone who could fall in the hands of the victor was enslaved and had to serve the master faithfully and obediently. It was, however, a strange institution because under benign masters, slave could rise to any position.

We have, for example, a dynasty ruling for quite a long time. Malik Kafur was a slave but he, by dint of his merit, became the Commander-in-Chief of Ala-ud-did Khialji. Thus, the slaves formed a very peculiar section of the Muslim society.

Indian Muslims:

The fourth and the lowest section of the Muslim society was that of the Indian Muslims. In the beginning there were a very few converts and naturally they did not enjoy any position in society. They were also ignored by the Sultans as unreliable. It is said that Balban “could not bear the sight of the native Musalman in his Government” and lltutmish “is also reported to have felt an equal abhorrence for the Indian Muslims.”

This was perhaps, a false sense of prestige. During the days of the Khiljis the situation did not improve much although a few unimportant posts were offered to these converts. Their social position, however, improved during the days of Feroze Tughlaq and the Syeds and the Lodis who were not at all hostile to them.

The only satisfaction for the Indian Muslims was that they belonged to the faith of the ruling class otherwise they were forming the lowest strata of the society.

2. Hindus:

The majority of the population of the country consisted of the Hindus who were spread almost all over the country and, sometimes, the total population of the village or township consisted exclusively of these people only. The Muslims had settled mostly in the capital and the adjoining area and thus they were actually the real population of the country.

Before the advent of the Muslims they were rulers and were in possession of land but now they had to yield some of their privileges to the ruling class. Since they must be forming more than 95% of the total population of the country, they must have been in a position to get their desires fulfilled.

The State in the beginning had ignored the local population so for as the civil and military administration was concerned but they could not do so for long. Even Sultan Mahmud had to recruit them in both the civil and military departments and as the time advanced their number increased in all the branches of the Government. High positions were seldom given to the Hindu population.

The Zimmis (the Hindus who paid Jaziaj were free to observe their own religion in their own way without any let or hindrance from the side of the rulers. The non-payers also, more or less, were free to have their own way but they did not enjoy the same social status as they could be required to serve the army of the Sultan in time of need and their economic condition was also miserable.

Ibn-Batuta compares the social habits of Hindus and Muslims and observes that the vice of drinking was more common among the Muslims than among the Hindus. He also praises the hospitality of the Hindu population.

He notices that there were some who were believers of one supreme power while most of the people worshipped idols. It was perhaps due to the fear of uncertain future that the Hindus tried to save as much money as they could. The Mahajans sought the interference of the Sultan, if one did not clear off the debt.

Position of Women:

1. Marital Rights:

There was little change in the position of women in the Hindu society. The old rules enjoining early marriage for girls and the wife’s obligation of service and devotion to the husband continued. Annulment of the marriage was allowed in special circumstances, such as desertion, loathsome disease, etc. But not all writers agree with this.

2. Widow Remarriage:

Widow Remarriage is included among the practices prohibited in the Kali Age. But this apparently applied to the three upper castes only.

3. Tradition of Sati:

Regarding the practice of sati, some writers approve it emphatically, while others allow it with some conditions. A number of travellers mention its prevalence in different regions of the country. Ibn Battuta mentions with horror the scene of a women burning herself in the funeral pyre of her husband with great beating of drums. According to him, permission from the sultan had to be taken for the performance of sati.

4. Property Rights:

Regarding property, the commentators uphold the widow’s right to the property of a sonless husband, provided the property was not joint, i.e. had been divided. The widow was not merely the guardian of this property, but had the full right to dispose of it. Thus, it would appear that the property rights of women improved in the Hindu law.

5. Practice of Purdah:

During this period, the practice of keeping women in seclusion and asking them to veil their faces in the presence of outsiders, that is, the practice of purdah became widespread among the upper class women. The practice of secluding women from the vulgar gaze was practised among the upper class Hindus and was also in vogue in ancient Iran, Greece, etc.

The Arabs and the Turks adopted this custom and brought it to India with them. Due to their example, it became widespread in India, particularly in north India. The growth of purdah has been attributed to fear of the Hindu women being captured by the invaders. In an age of violence, women were liable to be treated as prizes of war.

Perhaps, the most important factor for the growth of purdah was social — it became a symbol of the higher classes in society and all those who wanted to be considered respectable tried to copy it. Also, religious justification was found for it. Whatever the reason, it affected women adversely, and made them even more dependent on men.