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8.1 Introduction
8.2 Understanding the State
8.3 Textual Sources on Statecraft
8.4 Modern Historians on the Nature of the State
8.5 Summary
8.6 Exercises
18th Century Successor


The process of formation of the Delhi Sultanate started with the rise of Qutbuddin Aibak to power in 1206. However, it was only during Iltutmish’s reign that the Sultanate of Delhi in real terms became free from the control of the rulers of Ghazni. Influence of Islamic thinking and tradition definitely had a bearing on the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, but it was the need of balancing different dominant groups within the ruling elite and the local challenges which primarily governed the decision making process. Satish Chandra writes, ‘…the state was not a theocracy. .... because shara as defined by the clergy was hardly the core concern of the sultans. It was formally Islamic in character, but was based not on social equality, but on hierarchy. In practice, there was little distinction between the lives of the ordinary people, Hindu or Muslim’. (Satish Chandra, Medieval India: From Sultanat to the Mughals, Delhi,1999). In the absence of any written law or constitution the state in the Delhi Sultanate functioned according to wisdom and political pragmatism of the rulers. It is important to undersand that the concerns of the state at the beginning of the 13th century when it was at its formative stage were different from the concerns of the state in the 14th century when it got consolidated. So it is suggested that the state under the sultanate needs to be understood as a process rather than a monolithic structure imposed from above. In this Unit we will explain the nature of the state mainly on the basis of two contemporary authoritative texts on state craft- Adabul Harb Was’h Shujaa’t and Fatawa-i-Jahandari. We have also analysed the views of modern historians on the nature of the state. All these should help you to understand the characteristics of the state under the Delhi Sultanate.


To study the state under the Delhi Sultanate we need to bear in mind the means of acquiring and maintaining power at that time. While it is true that power could be wrested by a group of people, usually with superior military skills, it is not as if this was enough for the rulers to rule. Rulers felt the need to legitimise their authority through various other means. Legitimisation included not just patronage of important groups of people like the nobles or religious classes [in the Delhi Sultanate, the ulema, i.e, theologians], architectural constructions, etc. but also by instituting various other systems of administration and control which would allow the ruling classes to demand and extract levies [in the forms of various taxes, for instance] which in turn would allow them to maintain their position of dominance. These administrative structures [which you will read about in Block 6] allowed the rulers to make their presence felt in areas that were far away from the central/political capital of the kingdom. To put it simply, these acts of legitimisation give the state a dominant position in society.

Thus, the state constituted, in real terms, of the central political authority as represented by the king/sultan, his court and courtiers and all his officials who were posted in
various parts of the kingdom as a visible appearance of the central ruling power; his 1

State in Medieval Times architectural constructions; his currency system, and the entire administrative apparatus which created a basic framework of control through which order and discipline was maintained upon the subjects of the kingdom. It was not a unitary object which may be identified with a single person or institution; rather, it was a category of interlinked and variegated political institutions through which political rule was sought to be stabilised.

In the Delhi Sultanate, the nobility who were an important part of the state, comprised largely of slaves who had very a complex relationship of loyalty with individual rulers. Once their master-ruler died, they had no attachment with the new ruler and often revolted against him. Struggle between the sultans and the nobles for power was a common phenomenon of the Sultanate. In the beginning the Turkish nobles monopolized all powerful positions, but with the coming of the Khaljis the character of the nobility changed. In the subsequent period different sections of the Muslims, including Indian Muslims, got a berth in the nobility. The ruling class in spite of its narrow social base was sensitive to the composite character of the local society. Growth of Sufism and Bhakti movements during the rule of the Delhi Sultanate indicates the spirit of toleration prevailing within the state.

There are certain very clear components of every state; for instance, every state must have a territory to govern over, people to rule over, an army to wage wars and to protect their own territories, a basic structure of laws and administration and officers to carry out their respective duties, etc. Also, we must not confuse the ‘state’ with
‘government’; state is the organisation of various segments into an organic whole aimed at controlling its territory, whereas government is the actions that the state takes to achieve this end. In other words, it is through governance that the state is able to maintain its dominant and hegemonic position over its peoples.


While studying state in ancient India in Block-1 you must have noticed that our main source for the Maryan state was the Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft in ancient India, written by Kautilya or Chanakya, the famous minister of the Mauryan king Chandragupta. In the case of the Delhi sultanate there are few sources which deal directly with the state in the early times. This was so because the Sultanate at this time was at a nascent political stage and was grappling to become stable and strong, a process which could take many years, if not decades. Also, texts and chronicles were usually written as products of patronage for the court; in other words, a scholar would need to seek approval from the Sultan to write about the kingdom, and would in return be given remuneration in various ways. Before we proceed further, it needs to be mentioned that these textual sources are only the views of individuals and may or may not represent the prevailing realities of the times. However, since this is all that we have as evidence, it is useful to know what they say with regard to the state. Two names stand out in the Delhi Sultanate in this matter.

Fakhr-i Mudabbir’s Adab ul harb wa’sh Shujat [‘Customs of Kings and Maintenance of the Subjects’] is the first of these texts. It is generally believed that it was written in honour of Sultan Shams al-Din Iltutmish [r. 1210-1236]. This text is organised in
40 chapters of which the first 12 deal with the virtues, qualities and duties of the sultan, and of details of the qualities that he should look for in his officials. The other
28 chapters concern various aspects of war and how it should be waged.

Mudabbir’s text needs to be situated in the context of the Delhi Sultanate which was, at this time, in its infancy. He is therefore eager that power remains in the hands of the ruling classes and the text reflects this concern. Also, there was the threat of the Mongols from Central Asia at this time, and all this together created a sense of insecurity amongst the court intelligentsia. Information provided by him for our
2 study of the state is aplenty, and the two following points are illustrative of the immediate concerns which determine the contents of his text.

• He is clear in his suggestion that before attacking or invading an enemy territory, the sultan must formally invite the opponents to either accept Islam [and thus his superiority] or agree to pay jizya, a tax payed by non-Muslims to the Muslim rulers.(Quoted in Aziz Ahmad, ‘Trends in the Political Thought of Medieval India’, Studia Islamica, 17, p.122, 1962).
• At another point he mentions that if a Muslim city is besieged by non-Muslims then Muslim women can march to its defence without the permission of their men, and slaves [who were employed in large numbers both by the sultan and the nobility at that time] without the permission of their masters. (Quoted in Ahmad, Trends in the Political Thought of Medieval Muslim India’, p.112).

Both these examples show that the ‘state’ and its ideologues were concerned about how to rule over a vast non-Muslim population in the subcontinent, and were trying to articulate various ways of doing so. While the first example is one which suggests peaceful negotiation, the second one is more militaristic and aggressive.

A few chapters of the book are also devoted to the theme as to how the state should govern it’s domains. As mentioned earlier, while the initial chapters advise the ruler on the virtues and qualities of rulers and administrative governance, the majority of the text is engaged with the idea of warfare. Considering that the text was presented to a sultan its dominant concern with warfare surely hints at the need for such advice at the time.

In explaining the duties and responsibilities of the king and his officers, Mudabbir classifies the state as either ‘oppressive’ [dominated by exploitation and force] or
‘just’ [which leads to general welfare and prosperity]. Justice has been one of the most important duties of the Islamic ruler from the earliest times, and finds mention in almost all texts relating to government. Towards this end there are strong moral exhortations for the officers in performing their duties. Therefore, it is obvious that the writer was keen that the state be seen in positive light by the subjects, and state officers must behave responsibly and fairly to ensure the stability and longevity of the state.

What is important to remember is that at this point there seems to be no definite, given structure called the ‘state’; what we have [as gleaned from this and other evidence] is a process at work to attain administrative and political coherence through proper, effective functioning. Towards that end, Mudabbir’s concerns are with ways in which this may be achieved and power be retained in the hands of the ruling classes.

Also, we should remind ourselves that it was perhaps for the first time in the political history of Islamic States that an Islamic ruling class found itself in a situation wherein the largest part of the subjects belonged to other religious traditions. This reality of the Indian subcontinent was a peculiar situation for which particular solutions and advice was needed. Actions based on traditional religious advice would hardly help the political state to function sensibly; what was required was an intelligently argued understanding both of political aims and of the ground realities. This is something which would manifest itself in the writings of our next author, Ziya Barani.

Barani was a counsellor in the court of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq [r. 1324-
1352]. He has written a number of texts, but what concerns us here is his Fatawa- i-Jahandari [‘Precepts on Governance’] which he wrote sometime between 1352-57
A.D. This text is arranged in the form of 24 ‘advices’ thus underlining the didactic nature of the text. It speaks of the proper ways of governance, and the text has been considered by many modern scholars as the first systematic enumeration of the art of governance in the Delhi Sultanate, and the only known text to do so.
18th Century Successor


State in Medieval Times The central point of Barani’s ideas on state and governance is also justice, the proper administration of which he considers to be the main duty of the ruler. He too is concerned with the maintenance of power for the ruling classes; in fact, he is far more emphatic than Mudabbir in his ideas about the virtues and vices of the high- and low-born people respectively. Contradictions are evident in his writings as well, although he was writing at a time when the Sultanate was much better grounded in its role as the state in the subcontinent. Thus, on the one hand he speaks at length about the virtues of the Muslims and the importance of giving high-born Muslims important state offices and speaks vociferously against the employment of Hindus, and the low-born people by the state; on the other hand, his idea of justice transmutes to clemency and mercy such as in the suspension of jizya when crops fail, or the distribution of state charity to the needy among the non-Muslims. His idea of a good
‘state’ therefore is one which would take the interests of both the ruling elites and the subjects into consideration.

Unlike Mudabbir, Barani does not repose much confidence in the inherent moral qualities of people. He does acknowledge them, but urges the sultan to use force where necessary to make the presence of the state effective. However, Barani’s crowning contribution is his idea of ‘state laws’ [zawabit], which is unique to him. This was articulated by Barani bearing in mind the realities of the Delhi Sultanate in which the state had to survive. Thus while the ideal Muslim ruler would be one who would uphold the faith of Islam, and punish all ‘infidels’, in reality this was not possible in a land where the majority of the subjects were ‘non-believers’. According to Barani, through the pursuit of justice the sultan could continue to be the ‘shadow of God on Earth’, realising temporal rule through divine mandate; at the same time, the realities of the situation meant that the Sultan could not always follow the prescriptions suggested by religion and its code of conduct. And since the maintenance of the kingdom and political rule —in short, the ‘state’ — was the primary objective of the sultan, it was often required that he ruled by pragmatism rather than according to what religion demanded of him in its strictest sense. Towards that end, Barani is the first person to articulate a set of ‘state laws’ which would help the sultan govern more effectively, such that his authority and privilege would be maintained. These
‘state laws’ allowed the sultan to override the precepts of religion if and when the need arose to maintain his hold over his territory; Barani was clear in his idea that if there was ever a conflict between political pragmatism [siyasat] and religious demands [sharia], then political pragmatism would always prevail.

In discussing Barani’s ideas on state and governance, Irfan Habib says that his vision of the state included a display of pomp and splendour to create an impact of the state and its might on the minds of the people; he also advocated restraint in the use of excessive violence, aware as he was that it led to a cyclical displacement of the ruling classes which in turn undermined the stability of the state.

Thus, between Mudabbir and Barani, it is clear that ‘state’ was not seen as a monolithic institution which could be simply superimposed by the ruling elite on the subjects of their conquered areas. On the contrary, ‘state’ was almost always a processual formation, articulated through multiple actions and a complex network of advise and practice, where the sultans had to take into account the ground realities of every area before deciding upon any action or policy. What was effective in one area may or may not be good for another area. Of course, there were some features which were more or less universal, such as taxation, as mentioned earlier. But the role of officials who would serve in the distant parts of the kingdom, the nature of local interests [e.g., some areas could be more connected to trading activities while others were more dependent on agriculture], the vagaries of everyday life [floods and famines], all went into determining how the ‘state’ would manifest and project itself. The gist of all this was the maintenance of power and effective rule, and almost any policy or method was acceptable towards that end. In this too, the ‘state’ in the Delhi Sultanate was very different from modern states which function on the basis of
4 written laws and practices as enshrined in the constitutions.

18th Century Successor

Map 1: Delhi Sultanate
Source: After A.B.M. Habibullah: The Foundation of Muslim Rule in India 5

State in Medieval Times



Modern scholars have used these texts and various other sources of evidence to opine about the nature of the ‘state’ under the Delhi Sultanate. It has been the focus of a lot of debate especially because it is generally believed that the Delhi Sultanate laid the groundwork upon which the Mughal Empire was later able to build its might and splendour. In his Economy and Society, Max Weber remarked in passing that the Delhi Sultanate was a ‘patrimonial state’. In explaining this concept, Jakob Rösel says that such a state is one in which the rulers are dependent upon a small number of trained and loyal state officers to exert control over the kingdom, and are involved in specialised administrative functions such as collection of taxes, control over trade and commercial activities, law and order, etc. In most other matters, it vests power in the hands of local power-groups and intermediaries at various provincial and regional levels. This idea, however, requires much investigation for which sufficient evidence may not be available at present and has therefore not been very popular in later characterisations of the Delhi Sultanate although it has been applied more successfully to the Mughal empire.

Historians like Stanley Lane-Poole, Ishwari Prasad, A.B.M. Habibullah, Muhammad Habib, K.A. Nizami, etc. and, more recently, Peter Jackson have characterised the Delhi Sultanate as a ‘centralised state’. This needs to be explained. The Delhi Sultanate was established after the second battle at Tarain in 1192 A.D. One of the important reasons why the Turks were able to establish a base in the subcontinent — first in Lahore, and after 1206 A.D. in Delhi which served as the capital of their kingdom thereafter with a brief interregnum between 1324-27 A.D. — was, according to Simon Digby (War-horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate: A Problem of Military Supplies) because of their superior military strength and organisational capabilities. On the other side, as Romila Thapar has argued (Early India: From the Origins to A.D. 1300) that disunity and in-fighting among the local [especially Rajput] power- blocs, along with inferior military tactics led to the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan in
1192 A.D. The kingdom that emerged thereafter was one which showed relative stability and was able to expand and consolidate its political base in course of time. This was in large measure because they were able to harness various resources available to them — a plan that would not have been possible without a centralised, authoritarian state which controlled the various organs of the state to control its resources for its benefit. To paraphrase Hermann Kulke, these models place the state under the Delhi Sultanate at the end of a continuum of pre-modern state formations. They depict the post-1200 medieval (‘Muslim’) state as a polity headed by a strong ruler, equipped with an efficient and heirarchically organized central administration based on a religiously legitimated monopoly of coercion in a (more or less) clearly defined territory.

However, more recent research has shown that while it is true that political rule of the Turks survived and consolidated itself consistently, it was not a smooth process which was unchallenged. The degree to which the state was ‘centralised’, i.e., how far the central, political power-group of rulers and court nobles could exert actual power and control in the wider kingdom has been much debated and there is as yet no consensus about it. Such studies suggest that the state at this time was only slightly bureaucratized, and there is no agreement about the degree of political fragmentation or segmentation on the one hand, and temporally and spatially fluctuating unitary tendencies within these states on the other. Central political power was constantly being challenged by various local power groups, and the sultan at the centre spent precious time and resources trying to subjugate such forces. Opposition also came from other nobles who were posted in different parts of the empire [as
‘iqtadars; officers assigned territories in lieu of salary, the revenue returns of which

were enjoyed by the officer with surplus going to the state] and wanted to carve out their own independent principalities.

It may however be said with some surety that there was a certain degree of centralised authority at work in the empire, and even where local powers were dominant they were expected to acknowledge the court and the sultan as their superiors. This is obvious from the fact that often the sultan would need to wage wars against ‘rebellious’ groups, be they state officials who had turned against the centre, or other local powers. Also, the centre was present in various parts of the kingdom through activities viz. tax collection, building roads, architecture, mosques, giving charity to religious foundations and individuals, and so on. An important feature of the presence of the state was the constant movement of the army from one part of the sultanate to another as it expanded its domains or tried to suppress uprisings. Often, local areas had to extend hospitality — in the form of providing food and shelter — to the central armies as they passed by. It should be mentioned here that in many cases [in the Delhi Sultanate] the local areas were governed by local chiefs, and even everyday administration continued according to local custom. The central presence in local areas did not necessarily upturn all existing structures at work, and they often worked in unison. A uniform administration across the empire would occur only with the maturation of political and administrative rule under the Mughals, which would be more than 200 years later.

There have been some other writings which have tried to characterise the state from other perspectives: Stephan Conermann, for instance, has suggested a more economic [‘prebendal’] nature of the Delhi Sultanate on the basis of his study of the Rihla of the 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta, while also emphasising the features of
‘patrimonialism’. Other scholars have focussed on other power groups, such as the sufis, to argue that the effectiveness of the state was often hindered because of the power of the sufi spiritual masters [pir] who had a strong influence over the people of the surrounding areas. Importantly, in this case the religion of the local population did not come in the way of the influence of the sufis. Usually the sufis settled in areas that were a little away from the urban areas, but perhaps the most dramatic situation arose in the reign of Sultan Ala uddin Khalji [r. 1295-1316], when the sufi pir Shaikh Nizam ud-din Auliya set up his hospice in the capital city itself, thereby posing a very imporatnt challenge to the effectiveness of the sultan’s political rule.

It is on such occasions that it becomes clear that for the effective execution of the policies of the ‘state’, it was necessary for rulers to keep politics separate from religion and religious activities and individuals. Such examples, as also the nature of language in the various textual sources available to us [which uses a religiously- coloured vocabulary] may sometimes suggest that the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate were engaged primarily in the glorification of Islam and the subjugation of other religious groups in their territories. Such an impression is abetted by the superior and authoritative position that the theologians were said to occupy in the court and other important offices that they may have held; but a careful examination will show that offices of the greatest consequence, especially of military command, went to able and loyal warriors who never practiced religious dogmatism. The theologians were in reality one [of many] group who remained in the official bureaucracy and served the purpose of legitimising kingly rule [through their knowledge, which was always couched in religion], of dispensing justice and education in madrasas.

But the suggestion that religion was the touchstone of medieval politics in the subcontinent — that the Delhi Sultanate should thus be termed an ‘Islamic’ state — is not fully supported by the available evidence. They may have sometimes used religion as a means to mobilise people or to explain certain actions, but all actions were in their essence political, and the ‘state’ under the Delhi Sultanate never took any special action for the glorification of religion if there was no attendant political gain.
18th Century Successor


State in Medieval Times As mentioned earlier, the ‘state’ also manifested itself through a variety of other actions in the larger realm. Chief among them were acts of building, and charity. As part of the dominance of the state, as also a physical marker of its presence, the state often encouraged construction of buildings, mosques, or canals and wells, etc. These would be physical, visible reminders of the presence of the state all over the realm, as also, manifestation of the glory of the state. Finally, the state also gave charitable endowments to the needy and to the intellectuals as part of it’s, patronage of it’s subjects.


In a way of summing up it may be said that the state under the Delhi Sultanate was not a unified entity which existed from the beginning to the end as a singular category. Rather, it was the coming together of various actions of the ruling classes as part of their act of effective governance. Some of its components were universal, such as taxation; others were variable, and there were still others which grew with the passage of time and according to need. Obviously, the immediate concerns of a newly emerging ‘state’ at the beginning of the 13th century were different from those of a more mature and confident political ‘state’ at the end of the 14th century. So, while the category of ‘state’ may still be employed as part of studying political governance under the Delhi Sultanate, it needs to be understood as a process rather than as a composite bloc that was superimposed upon the people. The ‘state’ was an organic entity whose primary exercise was to ensure political dominance and effective rule, and this was possible only by addressing the ambitions of the ruling classes and the needs and demands of the ruled; towards that end, through its many actions and offices it aimed to integrate the diverse components of the kingdom into one unified, governed whole. Any action was good as long as it achieved this desired end. It must therefore be seen as a continuing process of governance which, at particular points of time, could be identified as ‘state’, but when seen over a larger period, would emerge as a process at work. This governmental scaffolding was, of course, organised around the central person of the ruler whose own authority was enhanced by a skilful combination of effective rule, charismatic authority complemented by religious sanction from the ulema, and the bureaucracy as its main structural expression.

Thus, in as much as the ‘state’ was an expression of the vested interests of the ruling classes, it was a public political institution whose primary function was to bind together its subject population into a, universally disciplined mass — a community of people acculturated to structures of power — upon which political authority and power could be imposed. ‘Justice’, howsoever understood and articulated by the different groups, was the central axis of the state, and the degree of its success depended upon the skill with which the rulers were able to mobilize the [mainly economic] resources at their disposal, as also various other internal and external factors which determined their effectiveness.


1) Write a note on the features of the state under the Delhi Sultanate giving reference to Fakhr-i-Mudabir’s and Ziya Barani’s texts.

2) Analyse the views of modern scholars on the nature of state under the Delhi



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