The Hindus occupied an important role in foreign, as in domestic, trade, although foreign Muslim merchants, known as khurasani, also had a large share of it.
The rulers of the coastal kingdoms in the Deccan accorded to foreign merchants certain extra-territorial rights and special concessions, in consideration of the heavy taxes which they paid to the treasury.
An organized class of brokers handled the business on the coast and inside the country. The imports consisted mainly of certain luxury items for the upper classes, and a general supply of all kinds of horses and mules, in which India was deficient. The Hindus had never attached any importance to cavalry, but seeing the success of the Muslim horsemen, they started to substitute horses for elephants.
The exports included large quantities of food-grains and cloth. Among the agricultural products were wheat, millet, rice, pulses, oilseeds, scents, medicinal herbs, and sugar. Some of the countries around the Persian Gulf depended on the subcontinent for their entire food supply. Cotton cloth and other textiles were especially important items of export, particularly to Southeast Asia and East Africa, although some reached Europe. They were carried by the Arabs to the Red Sea and from there found their way to Damascus and Alexandria, from where they were distributed to the Mediterranean countries and beyond.
Many industries of considerable size and importance developed during this period, the most important of which were textiles, various items of metal work, sugar, indigo, and in certain localities, paper. The Muslims introduced a number of fine varieties of textiles, most of which had Persian or Arabic origin. Bengal was the main center of this industry, but Gujarat rivaled it as a supplier of the export trade during the Sultanate period.
Next in importance were a number of industries connected with metal work; the manufacture of swords, guns, and knives, as well as household needs such as trays and basins.
Manufacture of sugar was also carried on on a fairly large scale, and in Bengal enough was produced to leave a surplus for export after meeting the local demand. Paper-making was a minor industry, of which little is known except that Delhi was the center of a considerable market. These industries were mainly privately owned, but the government equipped and managed large-scale karkhanas, or factories, for supplying its requirements.
The royal factories at Delhi sometimes employed as many as four thousand weavers for silk alone. The example of the sultan of Delhi was followed by the rulers of the regional kingdoms, and the contribution of the state to the development of the industry was not a minor one.
In certain aspects of social life, the Hindus had virtual autonomy during the sultanate. This was in accordance with the established axiom of Islamic law; that while Muslims were governed by the Shariat, non-Muslim zimmis were subject to their own laws and social organization, but it was also a product of the Indian situation.
The Muslim rulers from the days of the Arab occupation of Sind accepted the right of the village and caste panchayats to settle the affairs of their community. This meant that the Hindu villages remained small autonomous republics, as they had been since ancient times, and in commerce and industry the Hindu guilds were supreme. This position continued throughout the Muslim rule, but during the sultanate, when the provincial administration had not been properly organized, Hindu autonomy outside the principal towns was particularly effective.
It is often forgotten—that a large number of independent or quasi-independent Hindu chiefs remained after the establishment of the sultanate. Some of them were rajas, or kings; others were only petty chieftains, controlling a few villages.
Many of them belonged to old families, but new principalities grew up even after the establishment of Muslim power at Delhi. The Rajputs often found new kingdoms for themselves in remote, easily defended areas in Rajputana and the Himalayas. From such movements during the sultanate come also some of the large landed estates still held by Rajputs in Oudh and in Bihar.
In these predominantly Hindu areas the old religion was fostered, and its cultural expressions kept alive even in the periods of greatest Islamic politics.