Guards and slaves of Muslim sultans



April 23, 2022

Guards And Slaves of Muslim sultans


Zoya Ansari describes an aspect of Muslim rule in the subcontinent

In Delhi sultanate the Sultan was the focus of attention and possessed massive individual authority in his person and office. In this respect his person was always exposed to risk and he required round-the-clock protection. Resultantly, the sultanate employed a large number of imperial guards in which the sultans had also a number of picked soldiers called jandars who acted as his personal bodyguards. The requirement for employment in this was that only tall, handsome, brave young men of impressive physique were chosen and were given full military training and great care was taken about their appearance, upkeep and equipment. It was their duty to be present on all occasions when the sultan appeared in public. Sultan Ghiasuddin Balban employed Sistaani soldiers and paid them sixty to seventy thousand jitals a year. These men surrounded the sovereign with drawn swords adding to the magnificence of his processions and, at the same time, impressed his people. The jandars were generally slaves of proved loyalty and were commanded by a trustworthy noble who was styled sar-e-jandar; sometimes there were two sar-e-jandars, one for the right, and the other for the left.
Another body of fully armed soldiers called silahdars waited on the sultan when he gave public audience or rode out. Their leader was called sar-silahdar; there were generally two sar-silahdars, one for each wing. The female quarters were guarded by eunuchs who were Muslims imported from the neighbouring countries. Even the custom of employing eunuchs to guard the female quarters was adopted from the Byzantine and other non-Muslim courts. This segment of state employees was held quite important during Muslim rule and had access to the inner quarters of royal household. The eunuchs also acted as messengers between the inmates of the harem and the outer world. Minor household posts were given to them and they served the sultan as attendants in his private chambers. Occasionally a very capable eunuch impressed the monarch with his intelligence or efficiency and some even rose to a position of power.
For the inner pavilions and halls outside the female quarters there was another guard called sare-par dahaaran-i-khas. An important noble was their leader. Special care was taken at night when a trusted official called the officer of the gates inspected all the doors to see that they were properly bolted and barred and that the guards were in their places. An additional body of picked infantry, mostly consisting of slaves, was kept in readiness and formed part of the royal guard in hunts and processions. This was considered a well-knit force that was known for its efficiency and loyalty. The sultan and his household were dependant on their loyalty and good service and kept on periodically rewarding them to keep them in good humour. The sultans were largely successful in keeping control of this powerful force surrounding the sultan and members of his household.
Another important segment of the Muslim sultans was large-scale employment of slaves who were an integral part of the royal household and played an important part in the administration of the country. The Abbasids were the first Muslim dynasty to employ large numbers of Turkish slaves who ultimately catapulted to the position of rulers. However, the Muslim Turkish rulers of the sultanate maintained this method of recruiting new blood to their own ranks as slaves became and in varying degrees, an integral part of the government machinery. The system had certain obvious advantages as each slave had to struggle for promotion and usually rose by sheer merit. He climbed from the lowest rungs of the ladder gaining invaluable experience and in the process they not only made good careers but also amassed tremendous fortunes.
In addition there was a personal bond between the monarch and the slave which was sanctified by sentiment and custom: for slaves were treated kindly and were looked upon as members of the family. They were well provided for and even inherited their master’s property. Slavery did not imply any disgrace; it was, on the other hand, a source of pride to belong to a great man’s household. The master also took pride in the greatness of his slaves. The slaves were first given minor household offices and if they showed promise, they were gradually promoted to higher posts according to their merit, no office in the state being considered too high for them. Their power, at times, proved dangerous to the unity and stability of the sultanate. Iltutmish and Balban had to deal with powerful slave nobles of previous reigns and Firuz Shah’s last days were clouded by the machinations of some of his slaves whose misdoings ultimately resulted in anarchy; yet monarchy had to rely on its slaves against the high-handedness of nobles. Some of Alauddin Khilji’s success can be attributed to his possession of fifty thousand slaves who not only formed fighting squads of guards and soldiers but were also employed in every branch of the administration.
Even this number was surpassed in Firuz Shah’s reign as a department was organised to deal with the slaves. The generals were encouraged to take numerous prisoners and to present them to the sultan after proper training; one hundred and eighty thousand slaves are said to have been collected and entrusted with different kinds of work. The sultan’s personal guard absorbed a large number. Whenever the monarch marched out, several thousands of these slaves would accompany him divided into bodies of archers and soldiers, some of them walking, some riding Arab and Turkish horses and some even on the backs of specially trained buffaloes. There was no department of the household or administration where they were not in evidence: the capital and the provinces were alike full of them. No less than twelve thousand were taught different arts and crafts so that they might set up as independent artisans; some were even sent to Makkah to spend their lives in prayer and meditation.
The slaves in the royal household received a salary of 20 to 125 tankahs in cash, in addition to food and clothing. In view of their numbers it is not surprising that the slaves had to be administered by an independent department with its own officers, accounts office and treasury. The large number of slaves acquired by Firuz Shah is a measure of his success in pacifying the sultanate after insurrection had raised its head in every nook and corner owing to Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s harshness. These slaves were prisoners of war, captured rebels and their multitude is an index to the progress of the royal arms in the refractory areas. Firuz Shah displayed great sagacity in dealing with the captives. Instead of annihilating them, he trained the prisoners to be useful and loyal citizens. Their lives had been spared and were well treated; naturally they became faithful supporters of the regime; large numbers were settled in outlying areas to form a nucleus of loyal citizens in every district which had hitherto been particularly recalcitrant. These men enriched the life of the empire in every sphere and played a considerable part in bringing about the prosperity which was such a marked feature of the sultanate. TW

Zoya Ansari has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


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