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Islamic Expansion & Influence in India

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  • 0:02 Mahmud of Ghanzi
  • 1:45 Delhi Sultanate
  • 3:30 Tamer Lang
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While Islam would never manage to convert more than a small percentage of India's population, it would have a considerable impact on the history of India, as well as the development of culture in the subcontinent.

Mahmud of Ghanzi

The first Muslims to invade the Indian subcontinent came from Afghanistan led by Mahmud of Ghanzi. Finding a way through the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush, such as the infamous Khyber Pass, Mahmud was able to repeatedly raid a region that was largely unaccustomed to being attacked from across the mountains, aside from the occasional minor Central Asian incursion. Ironically enough, many of the soldiers in Mahmud's army were actually Central Asian in origin due to the institution of the Mamlukes.

Mamlukes were slaves who were converted to Islam at birth and then raised as an elite corps of soldiers who were absolutely loyal to their leader. These Mamlukes served alongside the rulers of the new states, who were heavily influenced by the Persian culture of their home in Afghanistan.

In reaching the Hindu populations of Northern India, Islam faced a problem that it had never seen before: an obviously civilized society with seemingly pagan beliefs. The Qur'an made its stance on the pagan idolaters of pre-Islamic Arabia very clear - these people should be converted or killed, as opposed to Jews and Christians, who were to be taxed but otherwise left alone. However, Indians did not have the same monotheistic ideas about religion as the Muslim invaders did, so the earliest attempts were focused on conversion or extermination. That said, these first invaders soon realized the impracticality of killing or converting so many people, so instead, Mahmud of Ghanzi had created a substantial Islamic culture built on Indian gold and Hindu sweat.

Delhi Sultanate

Out of these conquests into Northern India, all heavily militarized due to their Mamluke contingents, grew a government known to history as the Delhi Sultanate. Not surprisingly, it was centered on the city of Delhi, and while it remained heavily reliant on the influences of Islam and Persia, a considerable Hindu influence continued to creep in with respect to art and culture.

However, that newfound respect for native Indian culture did not translate to greater successes in actually conquering any more of India. Like earlier empires in India dating all the way back to Alexander the Great, the northern river valleys were relatively easy to conquer while the mountainous terrain of the Deccan Plateau proved to give the tactical advantage to the defending South Indians.

The Delhi Sultanate had much more success in two other facets, notably in defending India from the Mongols. However, the more enduring of the Delhi Sultanate's achievements on the lives of many in the subcontinent was nothing political. Instead, it was the role played by Sufis, or Islamic mystics. Traditional Islam presented a completely foreign idea of the nature of religion to Indians. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, the central idea was communing with the Greater Power, even to the point of becoming one with it. However, traditional Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, focused on worship, not necessarily becoming one with God. Sufism presented a way to be Muslim and through mysticism to still become one with God. As a result, while Islam never became a majority religion in much of India, it was able to gain many sincere believers through Sufism.

Tamer Lang

Ironically, the end of the Delhi Sultanate, which had itself originated from raiders from Central Asia, was to come from the Steppe. While the Sultanate had been strong enough to oppose attempts by the Mongols to conquer its lands, it was unprepared for the incursions of another invader from the north. The government in Delhi was weakened after years of excessive taxation with regional rulers less likely to offer their support to any initiative from the Sultan.

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