Great Muslim Military Leaders: Sher Shah

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Allah controls the destinies of people at His discretion, and it is not up to us to understand why events often take one turn or another. One of the examples of what would be a silly end from a human point of view is the fate of the great commander and ruler Sher Shah (1486-1545), who possessed unsurpassed strength, will and courage and who was able to rise from a simple rank and file soldier to an army commander and, expelling from India the son of Babur, Humayun who had only just secured power and founded the dynasty of the Great Mughals, become the lord of a vast country himself.

Sher Shah carried out full-scale reforms in the country, introduced the rupee as the Indian currency and created a powerful state, however, Allah took his life during one of the military campaigns (Sher Shah died from the explosion of his own ammunition depot) after which his son could not retain the throne and lost the war to Humayun. The Great Mughals returned to India and the state of Sher Shah disappeared forever.

Early Years of His Childhood

Farid ibn Hasan Suri (future Sher Shah) was born in Bihar, in a family of noble Pashtuns from the Afghan Suri clan. His father was an amir of the Delhi Sultan and had a feudal fief (jangir) in Bihar. After the death of his father, Farid’s foster brothers took away his father’s inheritance from him. He had no choice but to enter the service of the governor of Bihar as a simple soldier. Very soon the governor could well appreciate the exceptional abilities of Farid. For his military prowess, he gave him the nickname Sher Khan, which means the Lion King.

The opportunity to take revenge on the brothers for the offense presented itself pretty soon. In April 1526, the troops of the ruler of Afghanistan (the former ruler of the Central Asian empire of Timur Tamrelan) Babur invaded North India. In the battle of Panipat, Babur, using technologies that were very advanced for those times (firearms and artillery), defeated the army of the Delhi Sultan, which was twice the size of his own army, and became the new ruler of the country, the Great Mogul. Farid entered the service of Babur and showed him his military skills. Babur restored to Farid his father’s fief and appointed him First Minister at the court of the governor of Bihar.

Waging War Against Mughals

Soon the emir of Bihar died and Farid became the guardian of his minor heir which meant the absolute ruler of Bihar. When next year, in the new capital of Agra, a rather young Babur (47 years old) died and a dynastic crisis began in the country, Farid decided to use this to become independent from the Great Mughals. He defeated the troops of his opponents, the Bihar dignitaries, and their ally, the Sultan of Bengal. The Sultan turned to Humayun for help, and at first Farid’s troops in Bengal were defeated by Humayun due to their superiority in manpower. But very soon Farid regrouped his forces and struck back. Humayun left India and fled first to Afghanistan and then to Iran to Shah Tahmasp I.

In 1539 Farid ibn Hasan Suri was crowned as the Delhi Sultan under the name Sher Shah (Lion Sovereign). Over the next five years, right up to his accidental death, Sher Shah conquered all of Northern India, including the Hindu principalities of mountainous Rajasthan not previously conquered by Babur. His sultanate now extended from Bengal in the east to Gujarat on the coast of the Arabian Sea.

Under His Administration

Sher Shah declared religious tolerance in the country. He attracted Hindus to civil and military service and greatly appreciated their skills and abilities. Sher Shah main achievement was the introduction of a new tax system which turned out to be so effective that it existed unchanged almost until the very end of the Mughal state. The country was divided into tax districts, where 4 tax officials were appointed to calculate tax, collect tax and maintain a tax register (in Persian and in Hindi, so that the local population could understand it).

The tax itself was now levied on land plots and depended on their size, yield and other conditions. In addition, under ruler Sher Shah, a hard currency, the rupee, first appeared in India. Rupiya was the name used by Indians to denote ‘money’ generically. What Sher Shah did was to establish a very specific singular item to be known as rupee. It was a coin containing 178 grains of silver. In this form, the rupee survived almost until the 20th century CE.

Sher Shah remained in the memory of the posterity as a strong ruler who expanded the country, built roads, cities, spread Islam in India, built mosques and fought against polytheists. The mausoleum of extraordinary beauty of red limestone with the tomb of Sher Shah built in his hometown of Sasaram in the Indian state of Bihar and resting on a pedestal in the middle of an artificial lake is often referred to as the Second Taj Mahal.