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Monday, May 29, 2023

Sex Slavery In Islamic India

Women and children were special targets for enslavement throughout the medieval period, that is, during Muslim invasions and Muslim rule. Captive children of both sexes grew up as Muslims and served the sultans, nobles and men of means in various captives. Enslavement of young women was also due to many reasons; their being sex objects was the primary consideration and hence concentration on their captivity.

Psychology regarding Sex

Islam originated in the Arabian peninsula which is by and large stony and sandy. There is no luxuriant herbage, there are no lofty trees or winding rivers. Muhammad used to say that “three things gladden the eye of the gazer: green fields, running water, and fair faces.” Since green fields and running water were denied to the medieval Arab, he concentrated on deriving comfort and society mainly in fair faces. This phenomenon became prominent in the course of Islamic history throughout the world.

In the campaigns launched by Muslims, it was easy to capture women, more so after their menfolk had been massacred. The Prophet’s one great aim was propagation of his religion and as Margoliouth observes, “Abu Bakr (the chief campaigner for Muhammad’s creed) probably was aware that women are more amenable to conversion than men…. slaves than freemen, persons in distress than persons in prosperity and affluence.” Women slaves turned concubines could increase Muslim population by leaps and bounds when captured in large numbers. Hence there was particular keenness on enslaving women from the very beginning of Islam.

This was also encouraged by the injunctions of the Quran. Muslims are allowed four wives besides they are allowed to cohabit with any of their female slaves. Surah iv:3 says, “Then marry what seem to be good to you of women”; Surah iv:29, “Take what your right hand possesses of young women”, and Surah xxxiii:49, “Verily we make lawful for thee what thy right hand possesses out of the booty God hath granted thee.”

Muslims are allowed to take possession of married women if they are slaves. Surah iv:28 declares, “Unlawful for you are… married women, save such as your right hand possesses”, that is, female slaves captured in war. Manucci’s observation on the seventeenth century India is significant in this regard. He says that “all Muhammadans are fond of women, who are their principal relaxation and almost their only pleasure.” 

From the teachings of the Quran quoted above, it will be seen that while Muhammad restricted the number of lawful wives, he did not restrict the number of slave girls and concubines. All female slaves taken as plunder in war are the lawful property of their master, and the master has power to take to himself any female slave married or single. T.P. Hughes adds that “there is absolutely no limit to the number of slave girls with whom a Muhammadan may cohabit, and it is the consecration of this illimitable indulgence which so popularizes the Muhammadan religion amongst uncivilized nations, and so popularizes slavery in the Muslim religion”.

In brief, the climatic conditions of Arabia the birth-place of Islam, Muhammad’s life-style as a model for Muslims, and injunctions in the Quran and the Hadis, determined Muslim psychology about women. Islam permits polygamy with unbelievable liberality. A man can have four wives at any point of time, that is, if he chooses to have a fifth one, he can divorce one of the already at hand and keep the number within the legal limits of four.

Besides, he can have as many slave girls or concubines as he pleases. It is related in the Hadis that Muhammad said that “when the servant of God marries, he perfects half his religion…. Consequently in Islam, even the ascetic orders are rather married than single.” In Islam there is provision for temporary marriage (muta), multi-marriages, divorce, remarriage of widows, concubinage — in short, there is freedom from all inhibitions and reservations in matters of sex. The insistence is on everybody marrying and celibacy is frowned upon. According to a tradition derived from Ibn Abbas and quoted by Ibn S’ad, popularly known as Katib al-Waqidi the Prophet’s biographer, Muhammad said that “in my ummah, he is the best who has the largest number of wives.” [8]

It has been repeatedly said Musalmans are allowed by the Quran and the Hadis to have four wives. The aphorisms and maxims current about this phenomenon indicate that all wives could not have been procured in the normal way; some would have been purchased, some others captured. One aphorism says, “One quarrels with you, two are sure to involve you in their quarrels; when you have three, factions are formed against her you love best; but four find society and occupation among themselves, leaving the husband in peace.”  

According to another, “Wives there be four: there’s Bedfellow, Muckheap [dirty], Gadabout [idle] and Queen O’ women. The more the pity that the last is one in a hundred.”  Yet another says, “A man should marry four wives: A Persian to have some one to talk to; a Khurasani woman for his housework; a Hindu for nursing his children; a woman from Mawaraun nahr, or Transoxiana, to have someone to whip as a warning to the other three.”  The mention of so many nationalities in the sayings show that obtaining wives and concubines through all kinds of means — capture, purchase, enslavement — was in vogue among medieval Muslims.

In later times, this encouragement to polygamy was taken advantage of by Muslim conquerors. That Muhammad restricted the number of lawful wives but did not restrict the number of slave concubines, came handy to Musalmans. He “thus left upon the minds of his followers the inevitable impression that an unrestricted polygamy was the higher state…” Hazrat Umar, the second Caliph, was the first to allow instant divorce (by the pronouncement of talaq, talaq, talaq, three times) called talaq-i-bidat (innovative form of divorce), “to meet an extraordinary situation brought on by wars of conquests”.

Those wars brought in such an influx of women that constant divorce became necessary to falicitate quick acquisition of fresh spouses by divorcing the old ones. “Victory over an enemy would seem to have been consummated only when the enemy’s daughter was introduced into the conqueror’s harem” — a precept so enthusiastically practised by Muslim conquerors and rulers in India.

It is therefore no wonder that from the day the Muslim invaders marched into India to the time when their political power declined, women were systematically captured and enslaved throughout the length and breadth of the country. Two instances pertaining to two extreme points of time would suffice as examples.

When Muhammad bin Qasim mounted his attack on Debal in 712, all males of the age of seventeen and upwards were put to the sword and their women and children were enslaved. And after the Third Battle of Panipat (1761), “the unhappy prisoners were paraded in long lines, given a little parched grain and a drink of water, and beheaded… and the women and children who survived were driven off as slaves — twenty-two thousand, many of them of the highest rank in the land, says the Siyar- ul-Mutakh irin.”

The special interest of Muslims in sex slavery was universal and widespread and a plethora of evidence is available in contemporary Persian chronicles. In fact, Muslim historians derive extra delight in narrating anecdotes and stating facts about Muslim indulgence in sex and allied activities. Two incidents from the lives of the first two Sultans, Qutbuddin Aibak and Shamsuddin Iltutmish, may be mentioned here as examples.

On the arrival of Qutbuddin Aibak at Karman (situated between Kabul and Bannu), Tajuddin Yaldoz received him with great kindness and honour and gave him his daughter in marriage. A fete was held on the occasion and poetical descriptions in Hasan Nizami’s Taj-ul-Maasir follow — “of stars, female beauty, cup-bearers, curls, cheeks, eyes, lips, mouths, stature, elegance, cups, wine, singers, guitars, bar- bets, trumpets, flutes, drums, of the morning, and the sun.” 

And again, when Aibak, some years later tried to remove Yaldoz form his kingdom, he marched to Ghazni and occupied the throne. But only for forty days, for during this period he was “wholly engaged in revelry”, wine and riot, and the affairs of the country through this constant festivity were neglected, and the “Turks of Ghazni and Muizzi Maliks” invited Yaldoz back to his capital. Aibak was incapable of opposing him and retired to Delhi.

The following anecdote is related of Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish. He was greatly enamoured of a Turkish slave girl in his harem, whom he had purchased, and sought her caresses, but was always unable to achieve his object. One day he was seated, having his head anointed with some perfumed oil by the hands of the same slave girl, when he felt some tears fall on his head. On looking up, he found that she was weeping.

He inquired of her the cause. She replied, “Once I had a brother who had such a bald place on his head as you have, and it reminds me of him.” On making further inquiries it was found that the slave girl was his own sister. They had both been sold as slaves, in their early childhood, by their half-brothers; and thus had Almighty God saved him from committing a great sin. Badaoni states in his work, “I heard this story myself, from the emperor Akbar’s own lips, and the monarch stated that this anecdote had been orally traced to Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban himself.” 

Distribution of Slave Girls

Marriages brought servants and bandis, but the largest number of slave girls was collected during raids, campaigns and wars throughout the medieval period. We have briefly seen the achievements of Muslims in this regard from the time of Muhammad bin Qasim onwards. It was a consistent policy to kill all males, especially those capable of bearing arms, and enslave their hapless women.

Al Biladuri writes that “the governors (who succeeded Qasim) continued to kill the enemy, taking whatever they could acquire…” Most of the captives were distributed among nobles and soldiers. Two examples of this custom may be given, one from the Sultanate and the other form the Mughal period.

Muhammad bin Tughlaq became notorious for enslaving women and his reputation in this regard spread far and wide. Ibn Battuta who visited India during his reign and stayed at the Court for a long time writes:

“At (one) time there arrived in Delhi some female infidel captives, ten of whom the Vazir sent to me. I gave one of them to the man who had brought them to me…. My companion took three girls, and — I do not know what happened to the rest.” 

On the large scale distribution of girl slaves on the occasion of Muslim festivals like Id, he writes:

“First of all, daughters of Kafir (Hindu) Rajas captured during the course of the year, come and sing and dance. Thereafter they are bestowed upon Amirs and important foreigners. After this daughters of other Kafirs dance and sing… The Sultan gives them to his brothers, relatives, sons of Maliks etc. On the second day the durbar is held in a similar fashion after Asr. Female singers are brought out… the Sultan distributes them among the Mameluke Amirs” 

Thousands of non-Muslim women were distributed in the above manner in later years.

Shahjahan attacked the Portuguese in Hugh in 1632, and captured many women. One such was Maria de Taides “one of the sisters living in the palace of king Sahajahan.”  Maria de Taides was later married to Ali Mardan Khan. One Thomazia Martins also had been taken captive during the fall of Hugli. Many more like these were distributed among the nobles.


Slave girls had two main functions to perform, domestic service and providing sex if and when required. In medieval Muslim society sex slavery and concubinage were almost interchangeable terms. For the polygamous Muslim men of means slave girls and maids were as much in demand as kanchanis or dancing girls, concubines or even free born women.

Whether they were purchased in the open market, or captured during war, or selected during excursions, or came as maids of brides, in short whatever their channel of entry into the harem, the slave girls kept in the palace of the king or mahals of the nobles were invariably good looking. Their faces determined their place in the harem and in the heart of the master. Their being a little sexy was an additional attraction [27], but those with bad breath and odour in the arm- pits were avoided as unpleasant smell was repugnant to kissing and caressing.

They used to be elegantly attired. Their garments were sometimes gifted to them by their masters or mistresses. It was a custom that the princesses did not wear again the dresses they put on once, and gave them away to their bandis.[29] Some favourite slave girls were taught to sing and play on musical instruments. Many of them were trained to recite verses, naghmas and ghazals.

The habit of speaking elegantly in correct diction and immaculate pronunciation was so familiar to the females of Muslim society that maids too were readily distinguished by their refined language. Placed as they were, they knew how to win the hearts of their masters who gave them lovely and caressing names like Gulab, Champa, Chameli, Nargis, Kesar, Kasturi, Gul-i- Badam, Sosan, Yasmin, Gul-i-Rana, Gul Andam, Gul Anar, Saloni, Madhumati, Sugandhara, Koil, Gulrang, Mehndi, Dil Afroz, Moti, Ketki, Mrig Nain, Kamal Nain, Basanti etc., etc. Elaborating on their ethnic status Manucci adds that

“All the above names are Hindu, and ordinarily these …are Hindus by race, who had been carried off in infancy from various villages or the houses of different rebel Hindu princes. In spite of their Hindu names, they are however,-Mahomedans.” [30]

As a rule, “being kafir is a defect in both ghulam and bandi as by nature the Musalman detests to associate with or keep company of a kafir.” Obviously, the number of such converted slave girls was so large that even Hindu names of all of them could not be changed to Islamic ones. For instance, while under Aurangzeb women and children of the Rajputs and Marathas were regularly enslaved during raids and invasions, even nobles of lesser note indulged in reckless enslavement throughout. Sidi Yaqut of Janjira or Zanjira (Zanj is used for black African), once took a Maratha fort and seven hundred persons came out. Notwithstanding his word to grant quarter to the garrison “he made the children and pretty women slaves, and forcibly converted them to Islam… but the men he put to death.” 


Early in the eighteenth century Muslim rule in India set on its path of decline. The harems of royalty and nobility began to suffer from a financial crunch. Many slave girls in these establishments, unable to bear the rigours of penury, left their palaces and mansions and took up quarters in the cities to fend for themselves. Thousands of eunuch guards of the harems also took to the streets when their services were dispensed with or starvation knocked at their doors.

In their effort to provide means of livelihood for themselves many slave girls adopted the profession of dancing girls and prostitutes and hundreds of eunuchs, thrown out of employment, turned bhands and hijras. Prostitution is practised the world over, hijras are a people peculiar to India. Basically, and historically, they have come down or ‘descended’ from the medieval eunuchs.

A typical and complete hijra was Sultan Qutbuddin Mubarak Khalji (1316-1320). He occasionally dressed himself in female attire, embroidered with laces and adorned with gems, and went about dancing in the houses of the nobles like a typical hijra. Similarly, Hasan Kangu, the ruler of Malabar, often used to come to court {darbar-i-am) dressed in the fashion of females. He bedecked his arms and neck with jewellery and ornaments and used to ask his nobles to treat him to sexual passivity.[35] In short, the courts of Qutbuddin and Hasan Kangu presented licence and obscenity of the hijras in utter nakedness.

In the polygamous Muslim society some men possessed a plurality of women leaving many other men to remain unmarried. This led the latter to entice, abduct and enslave girls wherever possible as well as to make love to beardless boys (amrads) and hijras. Thus need combined with perversion contributed to the proliferation of hijras. This is amply reflected in a brief survey of life in Delhi in Muraqqa-i-Dihli (Album of Delhi) written by Dargah Quli Khan who visited the metropolis in 1738-39 and often walked through its streets.

Like in the fourteenth, in the eighteenth century also one found in the city of Delhi boys dancing in a world of lecherous sinners soliciting their hearts’ desire. Amrads were as much in demand as courtesans. During and after the decline of the Mughal empire, hijras did not remain confined to cities like Delhi or Agra. They spread far and wide but especially where the scions or governors of the Mughals established independent states like in Avadh or Hyderabad. A good number of hijras are found in Lucknow and in Hyderabad, as well as in cities like Bombay where ‘composite culture’ and a respectable presence of Muslims obtains.

These unfortunate hijras, who have continued as a legacy of the Muslim slave system, still play a pernicious and parasitical role in Indian society. Their aggressive demand for benefaction makes them detested. There are many negative aspects of Muslim slave system of which probably the hijra is the worst. But in medieval times hijras were as essential a part of Muslim society as any other section. In Delhi and its environs there are extant a number of mausoleums, called Gumbads, of the Saiyyad and Lodi period. It is an interesting fact that with Bare Khan Ka Gumbad (Dome and Tomb), Chhote Khan Ka Gumbad, Dadi ka Gumbad, and Poti Ka Gumbad, there is also the famous Hijre Ka Gumbad.

This excerpt is taken from MUSLIM SLAVE SYSTEM IN INDIA by KS Lal and reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.

(The story was published on Pragyata.com on August 3, 2017 and has been reproduced here)

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