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Comparing the Muslim Slave Dynasties of India and Egypt

Mamluk rule across the Middle East and India during the 13th and 14th centuries has been a historical phenomenon for not just the Muslim world, but the entire world. A whole class of slaves rising up the military ranks to positions of rule over the societal elite has yet to be repeated at any point in history. Raised to think only in terms of loyalty, strategy and survival, it is easy to see how a Mamluk could have rose to the rank of military general and not only influence administrative decisions, but eventually become a Sultan. This is exactly what happened in Egypt in 1257 AD. The commander of Sultan Malik al-Salih’s personal army, Qutuz, took control of the state 7 years after al-Salih’s death, the death of al-Salihs wife Shajar al-Dur, and her new husband, Aybak. Qutuz’s reign marked the beginning of the Bahri Mamluk Dynasty of Egypt. About 70 years later India would see its own adoption of Mamluk rule when General Malik Tughluq gained control of Delhi and the Punjab from Khusraw Khan in 1320 AD, forming the Tughluqid Dynasty.

The difference in the rise to power by the two Mamluks is only one example of the many differences that existed between the two states and their governing customs. However, of all the differences, there seems to be one that stands out; the contrasts in Sultanate succession between the Mamluks of Egypt and India.]

Very Brief History of the Egyptian Mamluks
The incoming Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt was a welcomed change by the masses, who were growing tired of the Ayyubid Dynasty. Though the Mamluks had been an established part of society in Egypt during Ayyubid rule, it was not until the reign of Malik al-Salih that they would actually gain any administrative influence. al-Salih’s reign also marked a rapid increase of the Mamluk population. When al-Salih became Sultan, he was adamant on increasing the amount of Mamluk soldiers in his personal army. By increasing the Mamluk army size al-Salih increased their political influence.

After a domestic violence dispute in which al-Salih was killed by his wife, Shajar al-Dur took power until she too was killed. Once Shajar was killed, there was an opening for the Sultanate and the Mamluks, specifically Qutuz, took the opportunity to take control of the kingdom.

Once in power, Qutuz was expected to set up a familial dynasty, like all preceding Sultanate dynasties. However, the Mamluks used their administrative expertise to their advantage, and abolished a lineage-based succession in favour of a meritocracy.

What ibn Khaldun had to say about the Egyptian Mamluks
ibn Khaldun had this to say about the Egyptians Mamluks and their administrative customs,

Often they use them in the service of the state, appoint them to high state offices, and some of them are chosen to sit on the throne of the Sultans and direct the affairs of Muslims, in accordance with divine providence and with the mercy of God to his creatures. Thus, one intake comes after another and generation follows generation, and Islam rejoices in the benefit which it gains through them, and the branches of the kingdom flourish with the freshness of youth. - ibn Khaldun

One can see by what ibn Khaldun has said here that the Mamluks of Egypt were very astute in their belief in Islam and looked to its teachings when making important decisions. This would be an important observation by ibn Khaldun, especially because of the Mamluk claim to be protectors of Islam, particularly Sunni Islam. ibn Khaldun also points out their disfavour of dynastic rule. He informs us of the Mamluk favour for keeping the Sultanate, the ruling class, and the military class, in check by maintaining a constant threat of regicide and exile. He proclaims their active execution of their threats by consistently overthrowing the Sultan whenever they felt change was needed. Moreover, like the military, their appointment to particular offices was not based on lineage, but by merit. Merit, in this case, could mean anything from public popularity to killing your opponents. The Mamluks of Egypt use of this tactic when removing their Sultans resulted from struggles among the ranks of army commanders, which tended to culminate with the death of the incumbent and the rise of a new leader. This process became cyclical during their 100 year reign.

Very Brief History of the Indian Mamluks
We can compare and contrast this with the Indian Mamluks, who operated in stark contrast to their Egyptian counterparts. They did not depend on the military as a ruling class, nor was there always an ensuring struggle for ascendancy to the throne. The Indian Mamluks were constantly under threat by neighbouring kingdoms and incoming armies. They never worried about internal struggles during the Sultans rule. They practiced dynastic rule, where the most capable son ascended to the throne after the death of the previous Sultan. However, there are conflicting reports that the very first succession to the Mamluk throne was the result of patricide by Jawna Khan against Malik Tughluq. The story, as reported by the great traveler and historian ibn Battuta is that Jawna Khan had built a pavilion to honour Malik Tughluq upon his return from successful annexation of East Bengal. During an elephant parade, the roof of the pavilion, according to ibn Battuta, collapsed as Jawna Khan had planned, instantly killing Malik Tughluq. Another prominent historian at the time, Barani (a sharp critic of Malik Tughluq), denies the report that it was intentional and that the roof collapsed because of poor design. Regardless, Jawna Khan took the throne and eventually came to be known as Muhammad bin Tughluq. He died of an illness himself and was reluctantly succeeded by his cousin Feroz Shah .

Once Feroz Shah died of an illness at 83, the royal family was entrenched by an internal struggle for ascendancy. Mahmud took over the reigns for a very brief period, but was probably better known for running away to Palam when Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) rampaged through Persia and Northern India while en route to China.

How They Ruled
When contrasting the Mamluks of Egypt and India, one tends to overlook that the Egyptian Mamluks ruled over a majority Muslim population while the Indian Mamluks ruled over a majority Hindu population. If one delves deeper into Mamluk rule, one can conclude that this was the main dividing point for the system of succession that evolved out of the two states, but certainly not the only one.

One should take note of the fact that the Mamluks of Egypt and India alike, ruled over their states while successfully keeping themselves culturally distant from the masses. Throughout the reigns of both Mamluk dynasties, they kept their Turkish heritage alive by conducting a large chunk of administrative duties in their Turkish language. This isolated them from the population, something the Mamluks enjoyed. However, this distinction that they laid upon themselves created a very small margin of support from the masses. Narrow support meant, whether in Egypt or India, they would have to keep a tighter grip on the masses. This was none more evident than in India, where the Mamluks were very strict about corruption, and did not tolerate any lawlessness or disobedience to the monarchy. Punishment for such crimes was usually death. Muhammad bin Tughluq was so “strict about corruption”, according to ibn Battuta, that he carried out executions and tortures everyday, and frequently had dead bodies piled up on the front of his palace.

In Delhi, the extraordinarily defensive Mamluks probably emphasized dynastic rule not only to preserve their Turkish heritage, but also to ensure the maintenance of Muslim power in a predominantly non-Muslim state. The possibility of losing control to another Muslim Dynasty was also out of the question, since they feared giving up power to non-Turkic Muslims.

Dynastic rule amongst the Indian Mamluks could also have been a defensive mechanism used by them to get over a possible inferiority complex. We could argue they believed without the monarchy they had nothing. They were proud that even though they were of slave origin, they still conquered lands and maintain control over populations where slavery was not nearly as common as in the Middle East.

The evolution of the Egyptian Mamluk Sultanate succession system may have been the result of the opposite conditions that had undertook the Indian Mamluks. While the Indian Mamluks ruled over Hindus, the rule of the Egyptian Mamluks was over a majority Muslim population, which comparably made the notion of Turkish rule over Egyptians more acceptable. Middle Easterners would also have been more accepting of Turkish rule than the Indians because of their previous experience with Turkic rule under the Seljuk Dynasty. The Egyptian Mamluks also had a strong military presence south of Cairo, where the Nile Barracks was located and housed the Bahri Mamluks, allowing them to maintain a strong following and influence.

Ultimately, successive rule through meritocratic appointment would not have been a problem for the Mamluks since they were the military class in Egypt, and also the ruling class. Also, with the Caliphate not too far from Cairo, the Mamluks had no fear for an Islamic uprising.

However, for all their power, the Egyptian Mamluks were still a defensive bunch, like the Indian Mamluks. Their defensiveness, though were based on two very different reasons. While the Indians were defensive because of their presence over a majority non-Muslim population, they did not have to worry about their opponents relegating them slavery, as the Egyptians did. The Egyptian Mamluks, because of their proximity to the Nile Barracks, and the widespread use of slaves in Egypt and the Middle East, were constantly fighting off propaganda from their opponents who invoked their slave-status as reason for uprising against them. Despite the opponents the Egyptian Mamluks’ system of meritocratic succession lasted for approximately 100 years.

Concluding Thoughts on the Mamluks

Ultimately, the most interesting contrast between the Mamluks of Egypt and those of India came down to a contrast between meritocratic successions versus inherited succession. Both systems worked out very well for each dynasty. Had the opposite occurred and the Mamluks of India practiced succession-by-merit and the Egyptian Mamluks took up inherited succession, neither government would have survived past the first generation. The Hindu population and local Muslim opponents of the Indian Mamluks would have seized the opportunity to overthrow their Turkish Monarchy and implement a more local style of government. The Egyptians would not have survived either, since Mamluks’ sons were barred from joining the elite corps, effectively undermining a possibility of their sons growing up to be great military leaders or members of government. Thus, one can say that there is an interesting contrast between the forms of succession used by the Mamluks of Egypt and that used by the Mamluks of India. Yet, out of all that was, each was perfectly suited for their societies, and, had not these regimes been overthrown by external powers, both could have reigned much longer and perhaps even popularized their systems of succession on a more global scale.

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