Except for the conquerors of the province of Sind (now in Pakistan) in 711, these first Muslim settlers were peaceful merchants; they were mostly Arabs and their contact with India could indeed be traced back to the pre-Islamic period. They were the ancestors of some of the Muslim communities in south India, notably in Kerala and in Tamil Nadu; adherents of the Shafi school of law. They developed a culture which-even when couched in Tamil or Malayalam-remained grounded in Arabic models. They always looked to Arabia and other Arab lands for inspiration.
But from the eleventh century onwards a new wave of Muslims arrived, not from the sea, but overland through the passes of Afghanistan. They were not Arabs, but Turks steeped in Persian culture. Although Turkish sporadically remained the spoken language of the ruling families till the eighteenth century, Turkish culture never really developed in India. It was the Persian culture which flourished in Ajam that took root in India, and remained dominant--down to the nineteenth century, well into the British period. In fact more Persian literature was produced in India than in Central Asia and even in Iran proper during this period. It is this Persian culture acclimatized to the Indian environment which came to be known as Indo-Persian culture.
The formation of this culture went through several phases. The first one took nourishment with the rise of the Ghaznavids and later the Ghurids around the north-west borders of India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, even though India had had contact with Persia at the time of the Samanids of Bokhara. Based in Ghazni in Afghanistan, the Ghaznavids had become the most powerful Sultans in the eastern lands of the Baghdad caliphate; they extended their rule to north-west India down to Lahore which became their second capital in 1022, and a major centre of Persian culture. The early Ghaznavids had at one time patronized the famous epic poet Ferdowsi (940-1020 CE), who along with other major poets patronized by them, inspired the early Indo-Persian poets of Lahore.
Among them Abul Faraj Runi (died 1091) and Mascud Sacd Salman (died in 1131) deserve special notice. Not only were they great poets, but they served as models later in the entire Persian world.
The same dynasty also had in Abu’l-Faḍl Bayhaqi, the first great historian writing in Persian. This area under the two dynasties produced a large number of Persian poets and Persian writers whose works have been noticed by later anthologists. Thus the Indo-Persian culture was undoubtedly founded as early as the eleventh century in Ghaznavid Punjab and its neighbourhood.
However, it is only in the following phase of the period of the unified Delhi Sultanate, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, that the Indo-Persian culture, as we know it, matured. At that time, Persianized Turkish dynasties were supreme not only in the Islamic world but in India also.
The successive dynasties of Delhi Sultans, being in constant contact with Iran and Central Asia, patronized the development of a local Persian culture. This period saw the beginning of a tradition of writing history in Persian which was to continue well into the British period.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of the first chapter of a book entitled “The Making of Indo-Persian Culture”,
edited by Muzaffar Alam, Franoise ‘Nalini’ Delvo
ye, and Marc Gaborieau, published by Centre De Sciences Humaines.