Chapter 16–Fusion and Rivalry under the Delhi Sultanate



Doniger begins by introducing yet another example of a common theme that occurs throughout the book: Hinduism having not one historical center, but drawing from multiple peripheries. The example in chapter 16 is no exception and ties the idea to two groups that fought to be the historical center: The Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire.

In these times, people were distinguished (roughly) by their ethnicity instead of religion. Islam in India began peacefully at first, with Muslims entering as merchants. Then around 710-713, Muhammad ibn Qasim (whose people didn’t regard non-Muslims as heathens) invaded, with his soldiers intermarrying and introducing Muslim teachers and mosques. Three centuries later, from 1001­–1018, three invasions occur under the command of the Turkish Mahmud of Ghazni (who came away with 53,000 slaves and 350 elephants), with the sites becoming huge Turk communities and areas of immigration. The next 400 years following these invasions introduced a large selection of kings and dynasties. Generally, the Sultans didn’t try to convert Hindus, although many Hindus did convert–especially low caste Hindus; some even fought for the Ghaznavids. As Hindus started to convert, Islamic figures and concepts began to be added to Hindu values, sometimes even replacing or eliminating the Hindu versions.

Horses still played a central role in activities in India, but were now accompanied by elephants which were far better suited for the environment. Both animals were used as essential military equipment and luxury status items. India eventually had a sort of horse crisis, in that the need to import them became even worse due to horses dying from inappropriate diets.

Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, proclaimed that Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Hindus were all striving toward the same goal, and was regarded by many Hindus as “Islam Lite.” Kabir, one of the most famous bhakti Sants, preached in the vernacular and produced a religion of his own that distanced itself from both Islam and Hinduism–focusing on liberation on a spiritual level rather than an economic or political. During his life, both Hindus and Muslims criticized and attacked him; yet after his death, both tried to claim him.

In terms of temples and mosques, Muslim and Hindu kings competed in a sort of architectural monumentalism, with Muslims building forts, cities, and mosques, and Hindus building temples, complexes, and temple cities. Additionally, it has been recognized that Hindus were able to develop their most elaborate architecture (which included Persian and Turkic techniques), partially due to the Muslims tearing down the initial temples. As temple desecration became a problem with the new Islamic presence, it should be noted that not all was due to bigotry, although some was motivated by religious fanaticism. Regardless of motivation, temples were raided for either their wealth, or for their political or economic power. Interestingly, most Jaina temples were left intact (possibly due to their resemblance of a mosque). It was the norm of this period that the invading army destroy other people’s religious monuments and steal their treasures.

islamic architecture


One aspect that appears to be rather confusing is the absence of reference to the Mughal Empire after its first mention. Doniger makes it appear that the chapter is going to be about a “rivalry” between the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, as described on page 446. Yet, after this first reference to the Mughal Empire, it is never mentioned again; many times throughout the chapter Doniger refers to the Delhi Sultanate. After this initial mention of what the reader would assume to be the rivalry that the title suggests, it becomes confusing as to what the real rivalry is. Unless the Mughal Empire comes later in the story–as in later in time, and a later chapter, it’s unclear as to why Doniger claimed there was a competition between it and the Delhi Sultanate.

It is clear that the Hindus could’ve either obeyed or disobeyed the various Sultan rulers that occupied their land, dependent on the Sultan’s ideals and values. Depending on the Sultan in charge at the moment, the climate could’ve been rather neutral, or quite tyrannical. Doniger adds that the “Turks” had more power over the “Hindus.” (457) Does this mean that the Hindus in the area had no choice but to obey, otherwise face consequences? When she talks about fusion, is she referring to times where the Sultan was more neutral and didn’t have as much against the Hindus? It seems more likely that Muslims and Hindus would fuse their cultures during more neutral and inviting times, rather than times where Hindus were being enslaved and their temples being destroyed by Muslims. Additionally, what sorts of Hindus and Muslims were intermingling? Was it only the lower castes of both religions, or did more powerful and respectable castes also merge?

If it is true that during this period, people were more often distinguished by ethnicity than religion, then why at times is ethnicity being put up against religion? Most of the time Doniger refers to the opposing group as Muslims in association with the Sultanate, yet at times, she says that Turks in particular were more powerful than the Hindus. Considering areas that were heavily populated by Turks, Doniger implies specifically that Turkish Muslims were more powerful than Hindus. On the other hand, does this also insinuate that Muslims who weren’t Turkish did not have power over the Hindus? If so, why did a Turkish ethnicity equal power?

Lastly, Doniger’s mentioning of horses during this period was a nice reference to the changing of times. She seems to incorporate the theme of horses in nearly every chapter, and this chapter was no exception­. Elephants and their roles in the landscape are also introduced to the period, but make the reader wonder if elephants were much better suited for the environment, why weren’t they considered until now?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think both Muslims and Hindus claimed Kabir after his death, despite condemning him during his life?
  2. Why do you think low caste Hindus converted to Islam during the brutal time of Mahmud of Ghazni?
  3. How would you explain the evolving relationship between Muslims and Hindus during this time of Islamic power?



4 thoughts on “Chapter 16–Fusion and Rivalry under the Delhi Sultanate

Add yours

  1. To response your first question, I think it is possible that even after Kabir’s death, some Muslims and Hindus would still despite him if his philosophy does not accord with their religious beliefs. Similarly, during his lifetime, some Hindu or Muslims may already attempted to claim him or persuaded him to pick a side. As for the reason for some Muslims and Hindus to claim him, one possible reason could just because he is regarded as a prestigious person who brought up innovative ideas of reconciling conflicts among different religions and problems within a religion, such as what Doniger mentions about his thought about caste that caste is “irrelevant to liberation (Doniger 464).” Claiming a prestigious person to their own religion is an effective way to attract more practitioners and retain old practitioners since it can make a religion look like a better one that there are some great people who also believe in the same religion.
    As for the second question, I think the low caste Hindus can be roughly divided into three categories: pious devotees, indifferent practitioners, and resentful resistants. The groups that would convert to Islam were the second group and the third group since, for the third group, they were no longer convinced by the religious system of Hinduisms due to various reasons so that they would convert to other religions as long as they have chance; for the second group, since they felt indifferent towards their belief, then it would fine for them to stay with Hinduisms or to convert to other religions. While the historical background was that they were governed by Muslim kings, it would be reasonable for them to convert to Islam for reasons, such as they may be treated better.


  2. With regards to your first question, I think that similar to the reasoning that Xiangyuesun mentioned in his comment to this question, there are a lot of practical reasons for why Kabir was fought over after his death. Kabir’s poetry was very influential at the time and reached many different people of different faiths and castes. As a result, Hindu’s and Muslim’s had pretty good incentives to claim him for their own purposes and to advance their own agendas. Each side could utilize Kabir’s life work and poetry as effective methods of persuasion (some might even say propaganda) to advocate for their own motives. Furthermore, each could use Kabir to assert and further their own legitimacy.

    I also thought that Xiangyuesun’s categorization of the lower castes and how that impacted their likelihood and reasoning for converting was quite interesting.

    With regards to question 3, I think that the evolving relationships between Hindus and Muslims was quite complex. There were deep political, social, economic, artistic/architectural, and religious influences that each had onto the other. Sometimes these influences happened gradually and peacefully, other times they occurred quickly and forcefully (similar to some of the things you’d mentioned earlier in your post). I think it’s quite somewhat difficult to characterize the evolving relationship because it was different in different areas/regions and because the mechanisms with which the relationships changed also varied.


  3. Dear Nick,

    I thought I should interject a helpful, irenic note regarding your analysis of the “rivalry” mentioned in this chapter. Doniger cannot possibly be referring to a rivalry between the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, for these two states were separated by a significant time gap. The Delhi Sultanate, which was founded at the dawn of the eleventh century by Mahmud of Ghazni, suffered a major decline in power after its conquest by Tamerlane in the late fourteenth century, while the Mughal Empire was established by Babur (a distant descendent of Tamerlane) in the early sixteenth century, initially in Kabul but eventually in Delhi. Doniger’s dense prose style admittedly does not make it easy to discern the emergence of a clear thesis within each chapter, but after reading this chapter I inferred that the stated motifs of “fusion and rivalry” denote the occurrence of both intercultural borrowing and communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims during the period she covers. This is why the chapter makes a point to bring up the life and poetry of Kabir, a man who emerged from an ambiguously Hindu- and Muslim-tinged family background and used his familiarity with both religious traditions to scandalize religious allegiance as such, especially in its most bigoted forms.

    As for Question #2 regarding why low-caste Hindus converted to Islam during this period, there are two possible pat answers, neither of which will satisfy everyone in South Asia today. One answer is that by adopting Islam, these converts were freed from caste status altogether and became part of the moral of political community of the conquerors: the Ghaznavid minister and polymath al-Biruni in fact commented that the native religion of India was farthest from Islam with respect to permanently classifying people according to their station of birth. The second pat answer is that converts to Islam were automatically freed from the (presumably oppressive) poll tax, or Jizya, which Muslim law imposed upon non-Muslim subjects. Doniger beat me to this however by pointing out that the Delhi Sultanate invented a second poll tax to levy on Muslims on account of the need for state revenue (451).

    As a point of departure, I could point out that Doniger’s account of Sufism and its relationship to Bhakti appears defective, insofar as the term “Sufism” is often used (falsely) by Western scholars to encompass not only classical Islamic meditation practices, but also antinomian or syncretistic movements within nominally Muslim populations. In contrast, an important legal scholar affiliated with the Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood, Ahmad Sirhindi (known as the Mujaddid or “Renewer of the Faith”), was strongly opposed to the inter-religious speculation sponsored by the Mughal emperor Akbar, and furthermore was virulently anti-Sikh.


  4. As you know, I’m very interested in Kabir’s relation to the rest of the world- like I had said in class last week, I could not believe that Kabir was able to make the commentary he did without someone unleashing a bounty hunter on him. In his life, he vehemently encouraged seeking the truth within oneself and abandoning the hypocrisy associated with titles of religious affiliation. Both Muslims and Hindus attacked him in life, just as Kabir attacked the very principles that these religions clung to as sacred. An example of this is in the verses Doniger chose to cite:
    “Hindu, Muslim– where did they come from?/
    Who started this road?/
    Look in your heart, send out scouts:/
    where is heaven?” (463)
    He chose not to speak in Sanskrit in order to deliver his message to common people, and his ideas were downright revolutionary and unlike anything that had existed prior. Eradicating superiority complexes with a simple “There: No Hindu. No Turk” (464), Kabir surely had revolutionary spiritual goals. Of course these ideas rocked the boat in his life, but after his death, Islam and Hinduism both attempted to claim him as their own- contrary to everything he had preached. Several Hindu stories exist to explain why Kabir truly is more Hindu than Muslim, and although Doniger does not discuss them specifically, surely similar stories exist in Islamic tradition. Regardless of how harsh or radical his ideas may have been, the teachings and poetry of Kabir ultimately have a pretty decent message: don’t worry so much about meaningless actions that are empty in content, focus instead on gaining a deep spiritual understanding and “surrendering one’s ego to god” (462). In the song of Kabir’s lyrics we had listened to in class, there was one line that said something to the extent of: Muslim rulers read the Qur’an one moment and pillage the next. This reminds me of the Matthew 6:5 bible verse- only “hypocrites love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” In retrospect, Hindus and Muslims both realized that by having this guy on their side, they won’t look like the hypocrites that Kabir constantly reprimanded.


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