Islam in India and South Asia

On the history of Islam in South Asia and in Subsaharan Africa, click on the link to the right or here:

This guide to World History allows students to survey and link the interrelations of culture and society in Islamic society in Asia and Africa from the mid 7th century to 1500 C.E.  This period predates the European explorations and colonial invasions that impacted Asian and African development from around 1500.  

Islam in India, Empires, Regions, Resistance 1200-1500 CE
The systematic introduction of Islam into India began in 1206 with the Islamic conquest of Northern India by the Ghurid ruler Qutb-ud-din Aibak.  Qutb-ud-din was a Turkish warrior slave of the sultan of Afghanistan. Qutb-ud-din's conquest ushered in an era of military feudalism for much of India and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate.  This style of a military state and administration would dominate a number of empires of the Islamic world and its periphery from this period through the 16th century.  It included the Mamluk dynasty and empire that dominated Syria and Egypt, as well as various attempts at military feudalism in the Khmer region of Cambodia, and the Mongol Empire that would dominate the great Central Eurasian plateaus from the late 13th to 14th centuries.

The Delhi Sultanate was not the first introduction of Islam into India.  Parts of the far northwestern parts of India's coastal border with Iran, the Sind, had been variously captured or under Islamic control or influence by around 712 C.E.  There is a strong regional component to Islam's success and the political domain of the Delhi Sultanate in the North. During the first dynasty, Iltutmish (r. 1210-1236)  managed to hold out against the Mongol Invasion which left garrisons of troops on India's northern border in the Panjab.  From around 1236-1239, Iltutmish's daughter, Raziyyat was a successful ruler for three years until she was deposed and killed in a palace coup.  (Kulke and Rothermund, 2010, p. 118).  See the contemporary chronicle, Tabaqat-i-Nasari, 

The Delhi Sultanate is conventionally divided by periods of its family and military dynasties.  Treating history as a discussion of dynasties distorts
social and power relations outside of palace dynamics.  By no means is all history a narrative of dynasties and royalty, but the political division of dynasties is still a convenient periodization in use:
1206-1290 Founding of the Delhi Sultanate and Aibak dynasty and Iltutmish
1290-1320 Khalji Dynasty
1320-1388 Tughluq Dynasty
1398 Timurid invasion and sack of Delhi by Timur 
1398 to 1451 regional dynasties and resurgence of Hindu regional power and resistance.  
1451-1526 Lodi Dynasty reestablishes the Delhi Sultanate
Soon after the initial conquests of Northern India, Qutb-ud-din authorized the construction of a major mosque complex in Delhi, the capital of his new state.  There he ordered the construction of the complex known as the Qutb Minar mosque complex.  The Qutb Minar was distinguished by its towering decorative minaret, influenced by the Ghaznavid minarets found in Afghanistan.

Interactive Map to Cultural and Political Sites in India

Al-Biruni on India

Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni (973-1048 C.E.) was a Muslim polymath scholar, scientist, mathematician and historian and sociologist.  Born in Uzbekistan his description of India is regarded as the first anthropological survey of the country.

His description of Hindu society and customs in India needs to be read with a critical perspective, yet the text is important for its descriptions of the caste system.

The complete text of Al-Biruni is available from the Columbia University Digital Collection.
Bīrūnī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad. Alberuni's India.  — An English ed.,  — London :  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1910. —  2 v.

On the Vijayanagara Empire: Resistance to the Delhi Sultanate and the formation of a Hindu empire in the South.
The Sultanate's central and southern Indian provinces were weaker and strongly resisted by a counter reaction among Hindus and other groups.  This included the success of the Vijayanagara Empire that emerged in Southern India 1346 and lasted until the military defeat at Talikota in 1565.  The Vijayanagara continued in local power until about 1646. 
Go to the Vijayanagara Research Project for material on archaeology and architectural history of temple and palace architecture

Ibn Battuta 1325-1354 CE

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier (Morocco) in 1304 and was possibly the most widely traveled individual until the era of modern exploration or the age of the steam locomotive.  As a trained legal scholar, Ibn Battuta managed to work his way as a judge (qadi) around the main core cities and to the periphery of the expansive Muslim world of the 14th century.  His travel account the Rihla (Travel) is one of the most famous travel accounts ever written and rivals Marco Polo's Travels as a seminal text for understanding the late Middle Age system of trade and travel.  After nearly thirty years of travels across Africa, into Russia, Yemen, India, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and China, Ibn Battuta returned to Tangier where he completed his book and finished his career as a judge. 

Along with Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah  (Introduction to History) and his longer sets of historical writing, Ibn Battuta provides us with as complete a historical survey of the system of interchange and cooperation that existed across Islamic civilization during through the 14th century.  As a survivor of the Black Plague, Ibn Battuta leaves us with comparative material on the status and level of various cities and regions of this period.

Doubts about whether Ibn Battuta actually traveled to all of the locations described in his Rihla (Travels) have been raised by a number of historians.  These historians particularly doubt his descriptions or ability to have traveled to the Volga River in Russia, or to parts of Yemen or the Pacific ocean islands of Southeastern Asia. 

For summary excerpts from his Rihla go to

An interactive map of Ibn Battuta's travels from his home in Morocco to China and back is available at:
Secondary Sources:  
Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (London: Croom Helm, 1986)

Ibn Khaldun writes a History of the World

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a Tunisian scholar who traveled widely across the Muslim world and wrote one of the most famous of all historical works, the Kitab al-Ibar, of which the Introduction has been translated into English as The Muqaddimah.  

Khaldun received an excellent education but was orphaned at the age of 16 when his parents and much of his family succumbed to the Black Death.  He worked as an administrator and consultant in government at courts in Fez in Morocco and Granada in Spain.  After a series of political intrigues that landed him into prison he withdrew from political life and began to study the social conditions of Berber and semi-nomadic peoples in the neighboring regions of the Sahara. He compiled regional histories and set out to develop a type of comparative history that also drew upon his own personal experience. Ibn Khaldun developed a theory about the rise and fall of dynasties and the importance ofasabiya or group feeling or solidarity as a factor in sociology and history of power dynamics. Like Ibn Battuta he worked as a judge (qadi) in Cairo and famously met the conqueror Tamurlane as part of negotiations with the Mongol ruler and the Mamluks. 

Exhibition website on Ibn Khaldun
The BBC has an audio podcast on Ibn Khaldun's importance at
An electronic version of Al-Muqaddimah  or the Introduction to the Kitab Al-Ibar is at

Islam in Southeast Asia 1200-1600
Islam was introduced into Southeast Asia by merchants and Sufis. Sufis came as teachers, traders and politicians and were accepted within royal court culture. This differed from the spread of Islam into Northern India during the Ghaznavid invasions and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate by Qut ad-Din in 1206.  In areas of Southeast Asia, Islam appealed to local elites and the royal court, and was syncretised into village culture.  (Lapidus, 2002, p. 382)  As Islam spread to Java, Sumatra and other parts of Southeast Asia, it appealed not only to elites but to common people for its ideology of individual worth and equality.  Islam provided an ideology and ethical system convenient to trade and commercial activity.

The arrival of Islam can be dated to around 1282, when the Hindu Malay ruler in Sumatra received Muslim advisers.  By 1345, our traveler Ibn Battuta (see tab above) described Shafi'i legal scholars in Sumatra.  (Lapidus, 384).  By 1474, Malay rulers were converted to Islam.  By the early 16th century, Muslim influences were found in Borneo and the Philippines. This process of Islamicization came into conflict with the newly arriving Portuguese missionaries and explorers.  By 1511 the Portuguese had conquered the Malacca region of Indonesia and other ports on the Persian Gulf.  The arrival of the Portuguese appears to have solidified support for Islam and enabled its spread by overland missionaries who migrated through parts of Southeast Asia.

Sources:  Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies.  (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 382-399.

The Spread of Islam in Africa 900-1500 C.E.

The diffusion of Islam into Africa occurred through several separate phases of development.  The initial spread of Islam into Egypt and across North Africa occurred between the late 7th century and early 8th century.  Egypt was conquered and converted to Islam between 639 and 642.  Fustat or Cairo fell to Muslim pressure by about 641.  Muslim armies and merchant based missionaries migrated swiftly across North Africa and captured or gained support for Islam across the entirety of North Africa between 685 to 715.

The spread of Islam across the Sahara to the Sahel, the West African states and to East Africa developed through merchant contacts and long-distance caravan routes of traders with the Arab Muslim cities of northern Africa.  By the 11th century the Senegalese coastal region had converted to Islam as had large areas of the Sahel across to the Sudan.  By the late 13th and 14th centuries large well established cities in the Sahel and Mali had large Muslim institutions.  The building of large prominent mosques at Timbuktu and other cities in Mali reflect this development.  These cities flourished as West African cities and kingdoms flourished from the prosperous trade in gold, salt, and various metal wares produced by the region.  It also marks the rise of an overland slave trade to northern markets.  

Other recommended general survey texts for a discussion of Islam in South Asia and Africa include: 

Herman Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, A History of India. (Routledge, 2010). 
I. Hrbek, ed., General History of Africa:  Volume III.  Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992)
J. Ki-Zerbo and D.T. Niane, eds., General History of Africa:  Volume IV.  Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. (James Currey / UNESCO, 1992)

A partial listing of online reference and primary source website follows:

University of Chicago South Asia portal

Columbia University South Asian History portal

Fordham Internet History Sourcebook

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