Medieval India: Enslavement of Hindus by Arab & Turkish Invaders

Turks were not the first Muslims to invade India. Prior to the coming of Turks the Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh in the early years of the eighth century. In conformity with the Muslim tradition, the Arabs captured and enslaved Indians in large numbers. Indeed from the days of Muhammad bin Qasim in the eighth century to those of Ahmad Shah Abdali in the eighteenth, enslavement, distribution, and sale of Hindu prisoners was systematically practised by Muslim invaders and rulers of India. It is but natural that the exertion of a thousand years of slave-taking can only be briefly recounted with a few salient features of the system highlighted.

Enslavement by the Arabs

During the Arab invasion of Sindh (712 C.E.), Muhammad bin Qasim first attacked Debal, a word derived from Deval meaning temple. It was situated on the sea-coast not far from modern Karachi. It was garrisoned by 4,000 Kshatriya soldiers and served by 3,000 Brahmans. All males of the age of seventeen and upwards were put to the sword and their women and children were enslaved.1  700 beautiful females, who were under the protection of Budh (that is, had taken shelter in the temple), were all captured with their valuable ornaments, and clothes adorned with jewels.2

Muhammad despatched one-fifth of the legal spoil to Hajjaj which included seventy-five damsels, the rest four-fifths were distributed among the soldiers.3 Thereafter whichever places he attacked like Rawar, Sehwan, Dhalila, Brahmanabad and Multan, Hindu soldiers and men with arms were slain, the common people fled, or, if flight was not possible, accepted Islam, or paid the poll tax, or died with their religion. Many women of the higher class immolated themselves in Jauhar, most others became prize of the victors. These women and children were enslaved and converted, and batches of them were despatched to the Caliph in regular installments.

For example, after Rawar was taken Muhammad Qasim halted there for three days during which he massacred 6,000 (men). Their followers and dependents, as well as their women and children were taken prisoner. Later on, the slaves were counted, and their number came to 60,000 (of both sexes). Out of these, 30 were young ladies of the royal blood. Muhammad Qasim sent all these to Hajjaj who forwarded them to Walid the Khalifa. He sold some of these female slaves of royal birth, and some he presented to others.4

Selling of slaves was a common practice

From the seventh century onwards and with a peak during Muhammad al-Qasim’s campaigns in 712-13, writes Andre Wink, a considerable number of Jats was captured as prisoners of war and deported to Iraq and elsewhere as slaves.5 Jats here is obviously used as a general word for all Hindus. In Brahmanabad, it is said that about six thousand fighting men were slain, but according to others sixteen thousand were killed, and their families enslaved.6  The garrison in the fort-city of Multan was put to the sword, and families of the chiefs and warriors of Multan, numbering about six thousand, were enslaved.

In Sindh female slaves captured after every campaign of the marching army, were converted and married to Arab soldiers who settled down in colonies established in places like Mansura, Kuzdar, Mahfuza and Multan. The standing instructions of Hajjaj to Muhammad bin Qasim were to give no quarter to infidels, but to cut their throats, and take the women and children as captives.7  In the final stages of the conquest of Sindh, when the plunder and the prisoners of war were brought before Qasim, one-fifth of all the prisoners were chosen and set aside; they were counted as amounting to twenty thousand in number (they belonged to high families) and veils were put on their faces, and the rest were given to the soldiers.8 Obviously a few lakh women were enslaved in the course of Arab invasion of Sindh.

Females and young boys provided sexual services. A Dutchman visiting India in the 17th century noted the sexual indulgence of  Muslim rulers and noblemen who were pampered and entertained by concubines and wives and freely ‘enjoyed’ the concubines in the presence of the wife.

All over the Islamic world, the conquered were castrated, including in India. This was done so men could guard harems, provide carnal indulgence for rulers, give devotion to the ruler as they had no hope of a family of their own and of course, this quickly reduced the breeding stock of the conquered. Castration was a common practice throughout Muslim rule possibly contributing to the DECLINE in India’s population from 200 million in 1000 CE to 170 million in 1500 CE.

Ghaznavid capture of Hindu slaves

If such were the gains of the “mild” Muhammad bin Qasim in enslaving kaniz wa ghulam in Sindh, the slaves captured by Mahmud of Ghazni, that ferocious and insatiable conqueror, of the century beginning with the year 1000 C.E. have of course to be counted in hundreds of thousands. Henry Elliot and John Dowson have sifted the available evidence from contemporary and later sources – from Utbi’s Tarikh-i-Yamini, Nizamuddin Ahmad’s Tabqat-i-Akbari, the Tarikh-i-Alai and the Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh to the researches of early European scholars. Mohammad Habib, Muhammad Nazim, Wolseley Haig and I myself have also studied these invasions in detail.9 All evidence points to the fact that during his seventeen invasions, Mahmud Ghaznavi enslaved a very large number of people in India. Although figures of captives for each and every campaign have not been provided by contemporary chroniclers, yet some known numbers and data about the slaves taken by Mahmud speak for themselves.

When Mahmud Ghaznavi attacked Waihind in 1001-02, he took 500,000 persons of both sexes as captive. This figure of Abu Nasr Muhammad Utbi, the secretary and chronicler of Mahmud, is so mind-boggling that Elliot reduces it to 5000.10 The point to note is that taking of slaves was a matter of routine in every expedition. Only when the numbers were exceptionally large did they receive the notice of the chroniclers. So that in Mahmud’s attack on Ninduna in the Punjab (1014), Utbi says that “slaves were so plentiful that they became very cheap; and men of respectability in their native land (India) were degraded by becoming slaves of common shop-keepers (in Ghazni)”.11  His statement finds confirmation in later chronicles including Nizamuddin Ahmad’s Tabqat-i-Akbariwhich states that Mahmud “obtained great spoils and a large number of slaves”.

Next year from Thanesar, according to Farishtah, “the Muhammadan army brought to Ghaznin 200,000 captives so that the capital appeared like an Indian city, for every soldier of the army had several slaves and slave girls”.12 Thereafter slaves were taken in Baran, Mahaban, Mathura, Kanauj, Asni etc. When Mahmud returned to Ghazni in 1019, the booty was found to consist of (besides huge wealth) 53,000 captives. Utbi says that “the number of prisoners may be conceived from the fact that, each was sold for from two to ten dirhams. These were afterwards taken to Ghazna, and the merchants came from different cities to purchase them, so that the countries of Mawarau-un-Nahr, Iraq and Khurasan were filled with them”. The Tarikh-i-Alfi adds that the fifth share due to the Saiyyads was 150,000 slaves, therefore the total number of captives comes to 750,000.13

Before proceeding further, let us try to answer two questions which arise out of the above study. First, how was it that people could be enslaved in such large numbers? Was there no resistance on their part? And second, what did the victors do with these crowds of captives?

During war it was not easy for the Muslim army to capture enemy troops. They were able-bodied men, strong and sometimes “demon like”. It appears that capturing such male captives was a very specialised job. Special efforts were made by “experts” to surround individuals or groups, hurl lasso or ropes around them, pin them down, and make them helpless by binding them with cords of hide, ropes of hessian and chains and shackles of iron. Non-combatant males, women and children of course could be taken comparatively easily after active soldiers had been killed in battle. The captives were made terror-stricken. It was a common practice to raise towers of skulls of the killed by piling up their heads in mounds. All captives were bound hand and foot and kept under strict surveillance of armed guards until their spirit was completely broken and they could be made slaves, converted, sold or made to serve on sundry duties.

In a letter Hajjaj instructed Muhammad bin Qasim on how to deal with the adversary. “The way of granting pardon prescribed by law is that when you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads, make a great slaughter among them, (Those that survive) bind them in bonds, grant pardon to no one of the enemy and spare none of them, etc., etc.14 The lives of some prisoners could be spared, but they could not be released. That is how the Arab invaders of Sindh could enslave thousands of men and women at Debal, Rawar and Brahmanabad. At Brahmanabad, after many people were killed, “all prisoners of or under the age of 30 years were put in chains”. All the other people capable of bearing arms were beheaded and their followers and dependents were made prisoners.15

That is also how Mahmud of Ghazni could enslave 500,000 “beautiful men and women” in Waihind after he had killed 15,000 fighting men in a “splendid action” in November 1001 C.E. Utbi informs us that Jaipal, the Hindu Shahiya king of Kabul, “his children and grandchildren, his nephews, and the chief men of his tribe, and his relatives, were taken prisoners, and being strongly bound with ropes, were carried before the Sultan (Mahmud) like common evil-doers”. Some had their arms forcibly tied behind their backs, some were seized by the cheek, some were driven by blows on their neck.16 In every campaign of Mahmud large-scale massacres preceded enslavement.

The sight of horrendous killing completely unnerved the captives. Not only were the captives physically tortured, they were also morally shattered. They were systematically humiliated and exposed to public ridicule. When prisoners from Sindh were sent to the Khalifa, “the slaves, who were chiefly daughters of princes and Ranas, were made to stand in a line along with the menials (literally shoe-bearers)”.17  Hodivala gives details of the humiliation of Jaipal at the hands of Mahmud. He writes that Jaipal “was publicly exposed at one of the slave-auctions in some market in Khurasan, just like the thousands of other Hindu captives”. (He) was paraded about so that his sons and chieftains might see him in that condition of shame, bonds and disgrace, inflicting upon him the public indignity of “commingling him in one common servitude”.18 No wonder that in the end Jaipal immolated himself, for such humiliation was inflicted deliberately to smash the morale of the captives. In short, once reduced to such straits, the prisoners, young or old, ugly or handsome, princes or commoners could be flogged, converted, sold for a tuppence or made to work as menials.

It may be argued that Mahmud of Ghazni could enslave people in hundreds of thousands because his raids were of a lightning nature when defence preparedness was not satisfactory. But even when the Muslim position was not that strong, say, during Mahmud’s son, Ibrahim’s campaign in Hindustan when “a fierce struggle ensued, but Ibrahim at length gained victory, and slew many of them. Those who escaped fled into the jungles. Nearly 100,000 of their women and children were taken prisoners”.19  In this statement lies the answer to our first problem. There was resistance and determined resistance so that all the people of a family or village or town resisted the invaders in unison. If they succeeded, they drove away the attackers. If not, they tried to escape into nearby forests.20 If they could not escape at all they were made captives but then all together. They did not separate from one another even in the darkest hour. Indeed adversity automatically bound them together. So they determined to swim or sink together.

Besides, right from the days of prophet Muhammad, and according to his instructions, writes Margoliouth, “parting of a captive mother from her child was forbidden”.  The parting of brothers when sold was similarly forbidden. On the other hand captive wife might at once become the concubine of the conqueror.21 This precept of not separating the captives but keeping them together was motivated by no humanitarian consideration but it surely swelled their numbers to the advantage of the victors. Hence large numbers of people were enslaved.

And now our second question – what did the victors do with slaves captured in large crowds? In the days of the early invaders like Muhammad bin Qasim and Mahmud Ghaznavi, they were mostly sold in the Slave Markets that had come up throughout the Muslim dominated towns and cities. Lot of profit was made by selling slaves in foreign lands. Isami gives the correct position. Muhammad Nazim in an article has translated relevant lines of Isami’s metrical composition.22  “He (Mahmud) scattered the army of the Hindus in one attack and took Rai Jaipal prisoner. He carried him to the distant part of his kingdom of Ghazni and delivered him to an agent of the Slave Market (dalal-i-bazar). I heard that at the command of the king (Mahmud), the Brokers of the Market, (maqiman-i-bazar in the original) sold Jaipal as a slave for 80 Dinars and deposited the money realised by the sale in the Treasury.”23

When Muslim rule was established in India, the sale of captives became restricted. Large numbers of them were drafted for manning the establishments of kings and nobles, working as labourers in the construction of buildings, cutting jungles and making roads, and on so many other jobs. Still they were there, enough and to spare. Those who could be spared were sold in and outside the country, where slave markets, slave merchants and slave brokers did a flourishing business, and the rulers made profit out of their sale.

Mahmud of Ghazni had marched into Hindustan again and again to wage jihad and spread the Muhammadan religion, to lay hold of its wealth, to destroy its temples, to enslave its people, sell them abroad and thereby earn profit, and to add to Muslim numbers by converting the captives. He even desired to establish his rule in India.24 His activities were so multi-faceted that it is difficult to determine his priorities. But the large number of captives carried away by him indicates that taking of slaves surely occupied an anteriority in his scheme of things. He could obtain wealth by their sale and increase the Muslim population by their conversion.

~ K. S. Lal. excerpted from the book. “Muslim Slave System in Medieval India”.  



1 C.H.I., III, 3.

2 Al Kufi, Chachnama, Kalichbeg, 84.

3 C.H.I., III, 3.

Chachnama, Kalichbeg, 154. Raja Dahir’s daughters also were counted among slave girls, 196.  E.D., I, 172-73 gives the number of captives as 30,000.

5 Andre Wink, Al Hind, 161.

6 Mohammad Habib, “The Arab conquest of Sind.” in Politics and Society During the Early Medieval Period, being Collected Works, of Habib, ed.  K.A. Nizami, II, 1-35. Al Biladuri, 122, has 8000 to 26000.

Chachnama, Kalichbeg, 155; E.D.I, 173, 211.

8 Ibid., 163; E.D., I, 181.

9 Appendix D, “Mahmud’s invasions of India” in E.D., II, 434-478.
Habib, Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznin, 23-59.
M. Nazim, The Life and Times of Mahmud of Ghazni, 42-122.
Lal, Growth of Muslim Population, 102-04, 211-16.

10 Tarikh-i-Yamini, E.D., II, 26; Elliot’s Appendix, 438; Farishtah, I, 24.

11 Utbi, E.D., II, 39.

12 Farishtah, I, 28.

13 Lai, Growth of Muslim Population in Medieval India, 211-13; also Utbi, E-.D., II, 50 and n. 1.

14 Chachnama, Kalichbeg, 155 and n.

15 Ibid., 83-86, 154, 159, 161 ff.

16 Utbi, E.D., II, 26.  Minhaj, 607, n., 5. Al Utbi and other chroniclers refer to Jaipal on many occasions. H.G. Raverty suggests that “Jaipal appears to be the title, not the actual name, of two or more persons”, Minhaj, 81n.

17 Chachnama, Kalichbeg, 152.

18 Hodivala, 192-93.

19 Maulana Ahmad and others, Tarikh-i-Alfi, E.D., V, 163; Farishtah, I, 49.

20 Lai, Legacy, 263-68.

21 Margoliouth, Muhammad, 461; also Gibbon, II, 693.

22 In his article “Hindu Shahiya kingdom of Ohind”, in J.R.A.S., 1927.

23 Cited in Hodivala, 192-93.

24 C.E. Bosworth, The Ghaznavids, 235.