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Hindu slavery under Islamic dominion in India – Monidipa Bose Dey

Author: Monidipa Bose Dey
Publication: Bharatabharati.in
Date: April 24, 2023
URL:      https://bharatabharati.in/2023/04/24/hindu-slavery-under-islamic-dominion-in-india-monidipa-bose-dey/

India’s post-independence Nehruvian scholars, in order to impose western theological ideology of secularism within the arena of Indian history, were focused on glorifying foreign Muslim invaders and whitewashing their atrocities on Indic kings, subjects, and their places of worship. In that zeal, they conveniently overlooked one important chapter: Hindu slavery under Muslim dominion. While it is true that slavery was not introduced in India by the foreign Muslim invaders and had existed in India even in the BCE era, historically the system was institutionalized and turned into a hugely profitable business during Muslim rule, which focused on the expansion of slavery for both commercial and political purposes.

Prior to this, slavery in ancient India was humanist in nature and slaves were not seen as commodities for making profit through sale, a major reason why foreigners like Megasthenes, aware of the fate of slaves in western nations, failed to see any slaves in India and declared that all Indians were free (Indica of Megasthenes, cited in Om Prakash, “Religion and society in Ancient India,” 1985, p. 140).

While the western world right from ancient times was well acquainted with slavery, it was Islam that started the practice of slave trade, taking it to gargantuan proportions, making it run for profit like any other commercial activity. Prophet Muhammad had continued with the prevailing Pagan Arab practice of keeping slaves; and as per his first orthodox biographer Ibn Ishaq, he had set a precedent by selling a few captured Jewish women and children of Medina in exchange for horses and weapons in Egypt (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaqs Sirat Rasul Allah by A. Gillaume, 1987, p. 466). The Quran also expressly permits Muslims to acquire slaves through conquest.

Slavery and empire-formation tied in particularly well with iqta and it is within this context of Islamic expansion that elite slavery was later commonly found. It became the predominant system in North India in the thirteenth century and retained considerable importance in the fourteenth century. Slavery was still vigorous in fifteenth-century Bengal, while after that date it shifted to the Deccan where it persisted until the seventeenth century. It remained present to a minor extent in the Mughal provinces throughout the seventeenth century and had a notable revival under the Afghans in North India again in the eighteenth century. — Al-Hind: the Making of the Indo-Islamic World by Andre Wink, vol. 1, pgs. 14-15

There have been many discussions on the movements of traders, scholars, religious figures, and invaders between India and Central Asia, and how they established economic and cultural links between North India and Central Asia. One group of people, however find no mention among the aforementioned groups and are not discussed, despite being the most important part in the transportation of people as a market commodity across borders. These were the Hindu slaves who formed to be an important part in the medieval Central Asian markets, and a part of the empire building efforts made by the foreign Muslim invaders, the Delhi Sultanate and the Timurid (Mughal) dynasties.

During the invasion of Muhammad al-Qasim, invariably numerous women and children were enslaved. The sources insist that now, in dutiful conformity to religious law, ‘the one-fifth of the slaves and spoils’ were set apart for the caliph’s treasury and despatched to Iraq and Syria. The remainder was scattered among the army of Islam. At Rūr, a random 60,000 captives were reduced to slavery. At Brahamanabad 30,000 slaves were allegedly taken. At Multan 6,000. Slave raids continued to be made throughout the late Umayyad period in Sindh, but also much further into Hind, as far as Ujjain and Malwa. The Abbasid governors raided Punjab, where many prisoners and slaves were taken. — Al-Hind: the Making of the Indo-Islamic World by Andre Wink, vol. 1, pgs. 172-173

Owing to the Hindus being identified as kafirs or non-believers in Muslim societies, Hindus were especially in demand in the early modern Central Asian slave markets, along with Europeans, Shia Iranians, and Zoroastrians. So high were the demands for Hindus from India in the Central Asian markets that the Muslim rulers in India provided Hindus with the status of a ‘dhimmi’ (protected) on expediency grounds (something which is profitable or advantageous, though not morally correct).

The presence of Hindu slaves in medieval and early modern Central Asia, has been overlooked and received little attention within the arena of Indian history. For example: Bukharan waqfnama (1326) had listed multiple times the presence of Hindu slaves, while another similar document (1489) from the archive of Sheikh Khwaja Ahrar talks about Hindu slaves working as artisans and laboring in farms. There are also mentions of Hindu slaves among the Turkic pastoral groups, found documented in the historical records of a war victory of the Uzbek ruler Shibani Khan over Tanish Sultan.

The Hindus were taken to the Central Asian slave market in large numbers in a variety of ways. As found documented in various commercial records, many slaves were transported by caravan traders, who bought them directly as slaves or received them in barter for other goods (such as horses). As documented by a Portuguese Jesuit missionary Father Antonio Monserrate (1581), the Punjabi tribe Ghakkars so often bartered Hindu slaves in exchange for Central Asian horses that it gave rise to the proverb, “slaves from India and horses from Parthia”.

The Central Asian slave markets saw an exponential rise in Hindu slaves after Shah Jahan’s defeat in Balkh (1646-47), following which many Hindu soldiers in the defeated Timurid army were taken away as slaves to Samarqand, Turkestan, and Tashkent. They were taken in such huge numbers that a 33 year old Hindu male slave, who would have normally fetched a price of 225 tanga in Samarqand in 1589, after the 1647 Timurid defeat was getting a price as low as 84 tanga.

In rare cases skilled Hindu artisans were also often sent as gift slaves to Central Asia by the Muslim rulers in India. As for example, Badr al-Din Kashmiri documented that four Hindu masons were gifted as slaves by Akbar to the Bukharan ruler Abd Allah Khan II. Shah Jahan had also reportedly sent 100 Hindu slaves to the Ashtarkhanid rulers Imam Quli Khan and Nadir Muhammad. Often Hindu travelers and traders on the way to Central Asia were kidnapped and forcibly sold as slaves, and there are historical reports of hundreds of such Hindu families forced into bonded labour (S. Gopal, Indians in Central Asia – 16th and 17th centuries, in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, pp. 17-18). Such Hindu slaves were also reported by Babur who mentions in his records of seeing such 200-300 Hindu families forced to live as slaves in Afghanistan, who were involved in catching birds as their livelihood (Babur-nama: Memoirs of Babur, translated by Annette Beveridge, p. 225).

Among various factors that led to such an exponential rise in trade of Hindu slaves in the Central Asian markets during the Muslim dominion in India, two most significant factors were the constant wars and tax revenue policies of the Muslim rulers. During the early Arab invasions of Sind (early 8th c. CE), historical records state that many thousands of Hindus were taken as slaves by the armies of Muhammad Qasim. This system of taking Hindu prisoners as slaves became even more prominent during the later Turko-Afghan invasions into the Indian subcontinent.

As per the Tarikh-i Firishta, in 1014, after taking over the city of Thanesar, “the army of Islam [Ghaznavid army] brought to Ghazna about 2,00,000 captives, and much wealth, so that the capital appeared like an Indian city, no soldier of the camp being without wealth, or without many slaves“. Few decades later another Ghaznavid ruler Sultan Ibrahim looted Multan and took with him 1,00,000 Hindu captives to Ghazna (Muhammad Qasim Firishta, Tarikh-i-Firishta, pp. 27-28, & 48-49).

The Arab historian al-Utbi in his 11th century book Tdrikh al-Yamirii, documented that Mahmud of Ghazni occupied Peshawar in 1001, and captured around 1,00,000 Hindu youths. Again in 1019, after his 12th raid into India, Mahmud returned with so many Hindu slaves that their market value per head was reduced to only 2-10 dirhams. Owing to such low prices traders arrived in droves from faraway places to buy them, and soon many Central Asian countries, such as Khurasan and Iraq, were filled with Hindus slaves.

During the 12th-15th rule of the Delhi Sultanate there are innumerable mentions of the large number of Hindu slaves easily available at low prices. As per expert views, it is believed that the revenue system put in place by the Delhi Sultanate was one of the major factors that caused such a high rise in Hindu slave numbers. These foreign rulers and the iqtadars under them, ordered their armies to forcibly abduct as many Hindus as possible as a way of extracting taxes (Kidwai, Sultans, Eunuchs and Domestics, p. 87).

It was Alauddin Khalji who during his reign institutionalised the system of forced abduction and enslavement of Hindus who failed to pay their taxes (Barani, Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi, edited by Saiyid Ahmad Khan, pp. 57-59, 382). This policy of enslavement of Hindus for taxes continued well into the Mughal era, and worsened under Shahjahan, as recorded by both Manucci and Manrique (KS Lal, Slavery in India: Muslim Slave system in India, p. 58).

The Muslim rulers also increased their Hindu slave numbers when they attacked other regions as a part of their kingdom expansion. As for example, Qutb al-Din Aibak, during his invasion into Gujarat (1197) enslaved around 20,000 Hindus, and during his raid at Kalinjar (1203) enslaved further 50,000 Hindus.

K.S. Lal is his book states that forced enslavement of Indians from the raids “gained momentum” under the Khalji and Tughluq dynasties; and as per Barani, Alauddin Khalji owned around 50,000 slave-boys, and another 70,000 slaves were forced into various architectural works, while Firuz Tughluq owned 180,000 slaves.

The Fatawa-e-Alamgiri framed under Aurangzeb’s orders (late 17th century) holds a compilation of the laws (Hanafi-based sharia law) for the Mughal Empire, which included the laws on slavery.

Some of the slavery-related law are (Fatawa i-Alamgiri, Vol 1-6, Sheikh Nizam):

  • “the right of Muslims to purchase and own slaves,
  • a Muslim man’s right to have sex with a captive slave girl he owns or a slave girl owned by another Muslim (with master’s consent) without marrying her,
  • no inheritance rights for slaves,
  • the testimony of all slaves was inadmissible in a court of law
  • slaves require permission of the master before they can marry,
  • an unmarried Muslim may marry a slave girl he owns but a Muslim married to a Muslim woman may not marry a slave girl,
  • conditions under which the slaves may be emancipated partially or fully.”


The documented history of forced enslavement and trade in Hindus slaves under Muslim dominion is so vast a subject that it cannot be covered in one such short article, and to do complete justice to the topic and to the slaves, a book would perhaps be a better option.

This article discusses the slave trade in general to give a brief insight into the horrific system that was in place in medieval India under Muslim dominion, a subject rarely discussed. Besides the Hindu men forced into enslavement, even more horrific were the conditions of the Hindu women and children captured by these Muslim armies, who were turned into sex slaves and sold in central Asian markets, a topic that I will take up as a separate article. – Firstpost, 26 February 2023

- This article discusses the slave trade in general to give a brief insight into the horrific system that was in place in medieval India under Muslim dominion, a subject rarely discussed. – Monidipa Bose Dey

-The author is a well-known travel and heritage writer.
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