The Eastward Journey of Muslim Kingship

Article for The Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. John Esposito.

"The Eastward Journey of Muslim Kingship"

A Pictorial History of Islam in South and Southeast Asia

(1000 - 1700)

Bruce B. Lawrence
Duke University
1 September 1997


Islam is above all a pan-Asian religion. It shapes the beliefs and practices of millions of Asians, from Central to South to Southeast Asia. There are other pan-Asian religions - Hinduism to the far south, Buddhism to the far east - but none that spans the southern rim of the Asian continent to the extent that Islam does. But how did Islam become not only a religious marking but also a civilizational force from the Arabian Sea to the shores of the Pacific? That question cannot easily be answered. In what follows I will suggest that it requires close attention to the emergence of distinctive social patterns in South Asia that have parallels, though not equivalents, in Southeast Asia. It was Muslim invaders from the northeast who brought with them, or developed after arrival, traits that have since characterized the Islamic experience in South Asia for much of its known history. Centuries later, it was Muslim traders, coming from Arabia as well as India, who began to settle in significant numbers in the archipelago known today as Southeast Asia. They too professed and pursued Islamic loyalty but in different circumstances, with disparate outcomes. Despite their conjunction in this essay, the Muslim communities of South and Southeast Asia remain discrete and separate, both in the ideal norms they profess and in the day-to-day practices they pursue. Though it is difficult to link together two distant regions of Asia that have never known a fully shared history, the one symbolic marking that they share, Islam, justifies such an effort, especially in an encyclopaedia that takes as its subject the entire spectrum of Islamic history. South Asia There are patterns of social mobility and civic organization that typify South Asia from the Indo-Aryan period (1000 BCE) on:

  • a militarized society, with a standing army which requires regular use, often to invade and conquer adjacent regions;
  • autocratic rule by a military leader invested with instrumental power but often claiming divine authority and patronizing scholars to further that claim;
  • monuments commemorating religious heroes as well as rulers of the past, built by the military leaders to strike awe in the living.

In this sense, the prehistory of Islamic South Asia is not to be located in the life of Muslim societies further to the west but rather in the reigns, or imagined reigns and legacies, of the most illustrious kings of previous dynasties. Two stand out: Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) and Asoka the Munificent (r. 272-236 BCE). Together they project Greek and Buddhist legacies into South Asia. Alexander was a brilliant soldier who wanted to be remembered as a wise king. Among the scholars he patronized was Aristotle. He represented the Achaemenid style of governance linked to the Persian emperors Cyrus and Darius. Asoka founded the Mauryan dynasty. He had no courtier to rival Aristotle, but through the monumental building inspired by his dramatic conversion to Buddhism, he continued the style of royal patronage familiar from his Persian-Greek predecessors. Even though no literary texts survived, Asoka's monuments did persist, and they were used and reused by successive dynasties, including the later Muslim monarchs of Central Asia whom we examine below. Persian is the crucial element, and the thesis we present about Islam in South Asia accents Persian influence. While one can identify Arabic and Turkish elements, they matter less than the Persian. Despite the fact that Islam is often identified with Arabic language and Arab norms, they provided merely the patina for Muslim expansion into the subcontinent. While Turks comprised the main source for Muslim armies, neither the Turkish language nor Turkish cultural forms characterized the outlook of these newcomers to Hindustan. For beyond the Arabic patina and the Turkish frame was the central image of this newly emerging social formation. The picture had its own design, and it was Persianate. Persianate is a new term, first coined by the world historian Marshall Hodgson. It depicts a cultural force that is linked to the Persian language and to self-identified Persians. But Persianate is more than either a language or a people; it highlights elements that Persians share with Indo-Aryan rulers who preceded Muslims to the subcontinent. Two elements are paramount:

  • hierarchy, which consists of top down status markings, that link all groups to each other but in a clear order of rank that pervades all major social interactions;
  • deference, which requires rules of comportment toward those at the top of the status scale, especially the reigning monarch or emperor.

The office of emperor depended, first of all, on military prowess, with defense of the realm, provision of public works, cultivation of land, collection of taxes, and dispensation of justice among his major administrative tasks. But equivalent to these functional aspects of his office were the adornments of that office: magnificent palaces, expansive gardens, a lofty throne and garments of unimagined splendor. In short, the emperor was the focal point of a court culture that included a whole set of specialists: architects and artists, craftsmen, musicians, poets, and scholars. If the above profile describes the totalitarian ideal of a hermetically sealed hieratic system of governance, it omits several crucial elements that came to describe the kind of imperial rule exercised by the new Aryan elites - the Persianate Turks who came to dominate North Indian life from the 10th century on. Chief among these, as Robert Canfield (1991) has noted, were:

  • the use of the Persian language itself in a wide range of functions, administrative as well as literary, and
  • the development of an expanding cultural elite that saw itself expressing Persianate values, even when they were not fully allied with Islamic norms.

One might call this expansion and rearticulation of Indo-Aryan social values either Persianate, if one wants to stress the importance of Persian as a linguistic component, or Islamicate, if one wants to acknowledge the way in which Islam itself is invoked even when the connection between cultural observance and religious loyalty is very slim. Sometimes the two terms are so close that they can be used interchangably. Crucial in each case is their expansion of connotative meaning to include more than linguistic usage (Persian) or religious commitment (Islamic).

Four Indo-Muslim rulers stand out as embodiments of the new Turko-Persian Islamicate culture that comes to prevail in South Asia from the 11th century on:(1) Mahmud of Ghazni (r. 997-1030); (2) Shams ud-din Iltutmish (r. 1211-41), (3) Muhammad ibn Tughluq (r. 1325-1351); and (4) Akbar (r. 1555-1604). We begin with Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (r. 997-1030). Because his reign set the tone for much of what followed, his legacy has been marked by contoversy. He was a dogged campaigner who conducted no less than 17 miltiary forays into India and also delighted in chronicling his own military feats: like other Persian and Turko-Persian rulers, he commissioned the official histories that he wanted to have stand as the record of his reign for posterity. Was he a religious zealot or a cosmopolitan pragmatist? Later historians remain divided, but his repeated military campaigns provide the basis for his successful rule. Mahmud not only pillaged and destroyed; he also built and rebuilt cities within his reign. He was particularly adroit as a patron. In the 1020s the celebrated Firdausi came to Mahmud's court and presented his epic poem, the Shahnameh. Other courtiers included historians, lingists and mathematicians, and even a polymath who was all three: the incomparable comparativist, Abu Raihan Ahmad al-Biruni. Mahmud lured al-Biruni to join his royal entourage in 1018 AD, but since the sultan was often campaigning, the scholar had to accompany him. Al-Biruni criss-crossed Northwest India with the Ghaznavid army during several forays, before both men settled in Ghazni in the mid- 1020s, where they remained till Mahmud's death in 1030 AD. Al-Biruni resented the imposition of royal demands, yet his forced travels allowed him to expand his achievements in the mathematical studies to include a comprehensive survey of India that remains a classic. The Kitab al-Hind surveys the range of Hindu culture, distinguishing between history, social customs and doctrines with a rare ethnographic sensitivity. It was completed just before Mahmud's death. Al-Biruni, despite his prolific output, with over 146 writings to his credit, is renowned chiefly for the Kitab al-Hind and a handful of other extant works, roughly 22. They comprise but a mere 15 % of his entire corpus. Mahmud's legacy fared better than that of al-Biruni's, at least for awhile. Since Ghazni was a city on the edge of a powerful Iranian empire, the Samanid, Mahmud built it up to be a capital city said to rival Baghdad in its cultural refinement. The warriors who were the mainstay of Mahmud's conquests and his administration, were actually Turkish slaves who had served under Persian rulers. In the 11th century they asserted their independence, so much so that this initial period of Turko-Persian Islamicate expansion is often known as the Slave Dynasties. The new Muslim elites of South Asia were Turks who favored Persianate culture and who governed in the name of Islam. They still favored their westward flank, and in addition to seeking caliphal recognition, they tried, but failed, to conquer Khurasan. Instead they expanded to the east and south, not limiting their patronage to Ghazni but extending it to another city, Lahore. It was the wealth of India which drew them further into the subcontinent, and led them to develop Lahore as a further center of Islamicate culture.

FIG 1 - GHAZNAVID MAP [credit Schwartzberg Atlas]

The Ghurids displaced the Ghaznavids, and pushed the leading edge of Turko-Islamicate culture still further into the Aryan heartland, to Delhi itself. Invading from the Hindu Kush mountains, the Ghurids razed Ghazni and captured Lahore before winning Delhi. The Ghurids then made Delhi their capital, and established a composite architectural style that became a pattern for other parts of Hindustan. It was the Ghurids whose successors became known as the Mamluks, or slave kings, of North India [not to be confused with the Mamluks of North Africa, another slave dynasty of premodern Islamic history]. The Mamluks and their successors - the Khaljis, the Tughluqs, the Sayyids and the Lodis - were collectively known as the Delhi Sultanate. From the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries (1206-1526 AD), they dominated North Indian society. In the aftermath of Mongol incursions to the north and west, they welcomed refugees, including architects and artists, musicians, poets and religious scholars, most of them specialists in high Persianate culture. What these specialists had learned in Central Asia, in regions such as Transoxiana and Khurasan, they in turn transmitted, and also refined, in the new cosmopolitan centers of South Asia ruled by former Turkish slaves.

FIG 2 - GHURID MAP [credit Schwartzberg Atlas]

Among the many monuments that come from the Mamluk or Slave period few rival the Quwwat al-Islam ('The Might of Islam') mosque that is featured in Figures 3-5. Though the actual name of the mosque is still debated, its central location in the new capital underscores the symbolic importance attached to it by Muslim rulers. Construction of the mosque began in 1191. It featured an enormous open quadrangle courtyard set on an earlier Hindu temple site. Hindu craftsmen used material from the demolished temples to construct a culturally hybrid place of worship. Included in the central courtyard of the Quwwat al- Islam mosque is a huge iron pillar of particular interest.

FIG 3 - IRON PILLAR [credit B. Lawrence]

The pillar predates Muslim rule by at least six hundred years. It is an imposing structure made of pure malleable iron, impervious to rust, and an inscription, still preserved, dedicates it to the God Vishnu in memory of a Hindu king! That same reflex - to combine Hindu tastes and art in an Islamic structure - is confirmed in the other edifice that separates the Quwwat al-Islam mosque from others. It is the dominant minar, known as the Qutb Minar, that stands next to the mosque. Five storeys in gradually diminishing height, it shows a perfection of calligraphic symmetry and floral ornamentation. Depending on the perspective of the viewer, one can either see a markedly Islamic building, since Arabic words are clearly etched in each band, or one can discern a distinctive blend of Islamic and Hindu motifs, since the floral patterns that frame and interlace the Arabic words are reminiscent of both Hindu and Buddhist structures from South Asia.

FIGS 4 & 5 - QUTB MINAR DISTANT, THEN CLOSE UP [credit both - B. Lawrence]

Also part of the same mosque complex is among the earliest tombs that Muslim rulers in India had built for themselves. Its construction was ordered by the powerful Mamluk dynast, Sultan Iltutmish (r. 1211-1241), six years before his death. Iltutmish did what no ruler before him had done: he consolidated all the disparate regions of North India into an independent polity, a kingdom bearing an Islamic stamp but allowing Hindus first safety, and then inclusion within the ruling strata of the Delhi Sultanate. He also held off, as much by diplomacy as by force of arms, the feared Mongols whose zeal for conquest had brought them to the borders of Hindustan. He further cultivated Sufi masters, acknowledging them as spiritual lodestones not only for his subjects but also for himself and his court. It is fitting that Iltutmish would choose to have his own tomb set within the premier mosque of 13th century Delhi, since he himself had extended the scope of the Quwwat al-Islam mosque and completed the Qutb Minar. His tomb, though never completed, became the benchmark for royal mausolea in Muslim South Asia. It boasts a marble centotaph beautifully centered within receding red sandstone arches. Its decorative inscriptions and geometrical designs exhibit a high level of workmanship, reflecting both Islamic and Hindu aesthetic motifs.

FIG 6 - ILTUTMISH TOMB [credit B. Lawrence]

If Iltutmish set the tone for inspired rule in the 13th century, then arguably the most important of the Turkish slave dynasts in the next century was Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq (r. 1325-51). On the extent of his empire, see Figure 7.

FIG 7 - TUGHLUQ EMPIRE MAP [credit Schwartzberg Atlas]

It was his father, Ghiyas ud-din Tughluq, who had first defended the Sultanate militarily against Mongol threats. It would be difficult to exaggerate the fear and revulsion of nascent Indo-Muslim Turks at the Mongol legions. In the words of the premier mid-14th century Deccani historian, 'Isami, they were "a wretched people, with narrow eyes, flat noses and mouths as wide as the gates of a palace. From their depressed noses flows a paste-like yellowish fluid, day and night." Ghiyas ud-din not only coped with the Mongols but also annexed a major region in the south and put down a rebellion in Bengal. Upon his death in 1325, he left his son and successor a vast, though far from integrated, territory. It was the singular mark of Muhammad ibn Tughluq's reign that he tried to subdue and consolidate several rebellious rulers - Muslim as well as Hindu - of the South in order to forge an expanded Islamicate realm. He picked a bold means to effect his goal: he shifted many Turco-Persian elites from the northwest to the central south, from Delhi to Devagiri in the Deccan. It was not an easy move. It involved the forced transfer of approximately 10 % of Delhi's Muslim population. It wrought havoc among the Muslim elites who were 'chosen' to realize the imperial project. Many died from the rigor of the long journey from north to south India. One can document the suffering and resentment felt by the unfortunate migrants, and several contemporary and later historians have taken this approach, but one may also see in the move Muhammad ibn Tughluq's pragmatic genius. He was faced with a daunting challenge in the northwest of his kingdom. From the mid-thirteenth century on the Mongol threat loomed large, preempting other imperial strategies. While his predecessors may have plundered the south in order to reinforce the north, it seems that Muhammad ibn Tughluq sought to integrate the south, or the Deccan region, into the northwest, or Indo-Gangetic plain. His goal was to safeguard and protect Islamicate society from the feared Mongol infidels. The resulting migration lasted ten years, from 1313-1323. It made possible what otherwise would have been unimaginable: the annexation of the formerly independendent kingdoms of the Deccan into the Delhi Sultanate. To seal the symbolic significance of this largescale shift, Muhammad ibn Tughluq had the former capital city of Devagiri renamed Dawlatabad and made it a co-capital of the Delhi sultanate, on a par with Delhi. The success of the Sultan's managerial boldness depended on spiritual as well as material resources. But which had priority? Even for those who opposed the move from Delhi to Dawlatabad, as did the historian 'Isami (earlier mentioned), its outcome was seen as dependent on a spiritual resource whose mediators were shaykhs rather than sultans. In a bold reversal of hierarchical loyalty, 'Isami atributed the ultimate source of power not to the Slave sultan but to the spiritual slave or faqir. The 'true' masters of the realm were the Sufi masters, those whom Iltutmish earlier had acknowledged as superior beings. Later rulers also came to identify faqirs with the core values of Turco-Persian Islamicate culture, and among their major representatives in Hindustan were the Chishti saints of North and South India. The logic of hieratic reversal presents a new reading of history. What had saved North India from the Mongols, according to 'Isami, was was not Muhammad ibn Tughluq's army but his respect for the shrine of Shaykh Mu'in ad-din Chishti (d. 1236) in Ajmer. The evidence? The Sultan himself, who had journeyed to Ajmer as a pilgrim after a successful engagement with the Mongols. The Sultan, however, could not control saintly power, and the decline of Delhi as an imperial city from 1327 on was due, above all, to the loss of its saintly patron, in this case, Mu'in ad-din's principal successor in Delhi, Nizam ad-din Awliya (d. 1325), but also to the Sultan's subsequent rudeness toward Nizam ad-din's successor, Nasir ad-din (d. 1356). By the same logic, 'Isami explains the prosperity of Dawlatabad after the great migration ending in 1323. The city's prosperity was not due to military or political, social or economic factors but rather to the spiritual influence of the Chishtiya. And the link was again to Shaykh Nizam ad-din, for the Chishti patron of Delhi had commissioned one of his own successors to migrate to the Deccan. It was the lineage of this man - Burhan ad-din (d. 1337), then succeeded by Zain ad-din Din Shirazi (d. 1369) - that made the Deccan prosper. In the words of a poem penned by 'Isami:

It was the grace of Zain ad-din that made This stormy world like the garden of heaven. From his aroma the Chishti garden became fragrant; Under his protection the whole of Deogir was saved. Because the Tughluq governor sought his shelter, The Tughluq star rose to the height of Saturn. Wherever you see a fortunate amir It's due to the blessing of a lowly faqir.

Discerning the relationship between amir and faqir is complicated, however. It is complicated by the natural tension between their respective roles. Often that tension is concealed in the historical sources that project the only record, apart from archeological artefacts, that we have of premodern South Asia. As indicated above, nearly all the sources result from imperial patronage: the story we have is the one told by the ruler's appointed historian; they are versions doublechecked, then approved by the subjects being recorded. They are, in every sense, official biographies or chronicles.

And so, in the case of Muhammad ibn Tughluq, it is not his own historian but the historian from a political rival, the Bahmanid empire of the Deccan, who gives him both a backhanded complement, to have been blessed by Mu'in ad-din, and a direct rebuke, to have neglected Nizam ad-din's successor, Nasir ad-din Chiragh-i Dihli (d. 1356). At the same time, the Sufi sources themselves are often reluctant to acknowledge links between notable saints and non-Sufi rulers. Muhammad ibn Tughluq is usually classed as a non-Sufi ruler. Yet we know from an Arabic source, the travelogue of the famous traveler, Ibn Battuta, that Muhammad ibn Tughluq, even before he become sultan, had consulted Shaykh Nizam ad-din, and it was this saint who allegedly exclaimed: "We have given him the kingdom." It would seem natural then that Muhammad ibn Tughluq was one of the privileged few to bear the bier of the shaykh to his final resting place in 1325 AD, yet no Chishti source records that fact. The key is to see the relationship, always fraught with tension, between the autocratic temporal ruler and his ally, who was also his rival, the all-powerful eternal ruler, the Sufi saint. The most frequent outcome is cooperation between Shaykhs and Sultans. That tradition continued throughout the Delhi Sultanate, and also in other parts of India, but it did not supplant or erase the implicit rivalry between these two repositories of public authority. Indeed, one can trace the influence of saints, and their rivalry with rulers, from Muhammad ibn Tughluq to the next giant of Indo-Muslim culture, the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1555-1604). If saints had become the major custodians and transmitters of Turko-Persian Islamicate values by the mid-14th century, by the mid-16th century they were still more important. A revealing barometer of this development is Akbar's checkered relationship to Chishti saints in general, and to Shaykh Salim Chishti (d. 1571) at Fatehpur Sikri in particular. The Mughals were, in fact, not Mongols (as their name implies) but Indo-Timurids; they were the Indian legatees of Timur who, though not a Mongol, claimed Chingizid lineage. Timur (or Tamerlane) also was akin to Mongol military and ruling ideals. He combined in his person the notion of great military conqueror and supreme spritual leader. His function was similar to that of the familiar Perso-Turkish kings, but his extensive conquests lent even more credibility to his claim of divine inspiration and support. Characteristic of Mughal veneration for their esteemed ancestor is the miniature in a Mughal chronicle embellishing his death. From the ornate dome at the top to the humble servants at the bottom, all seem to be frozen in the moment of loss that is represented by the deceased hero in the center.

FIG 8 - DEATH OF TIMUR [credit copy of Akbarnameh in Khuda Bakhsh library, Patna]

While the focus of the miniature is Timur, its patron is Akbar. The exquisite execution is characteristic of the numerous album folios that date from the period of Akbar. It indicates his interest in, and patronage of, the whole spectrum of portable as well as monumental art. Akbar identified with Timur, and at the same time he raised the Indo-Timurid legacy to new heights. Akbar began, as did all his most illustrious ancestors, with a stunning record of military success. He assumed rule when he was but a mere 13 years of age. A brief glance at the extent of the Mughal empire in the mid-16th century reveals the challenge he faced. He ruled a realm that more nearly represented the Ghurid than the Tughluq map of Hindustan. His father Humayun, after succeeding Babur as the second Mughal dynast, had spent over 15 years in exile in Safavid Iran and the reconquest of India was left to Babur's grandson, Akbar.

FIG 9 - MUGHAL EMPIRE AT HUMAYUN'S DEATH [credit Schwartzberg Atlas]

Akbar spent almost all the early years of his reign engaged in military campaigning. The results of his tactical skill and extraordinary presence as a military leader are evident on the following inset map.

FIG 10 - MAP OF MUGHAL EMPIRE AT AKBAR'S DEATH [credit Schwartzberg Atlas]

He combined military success with economic reform. Among his major economic achievements was to unite the maritime, commercial province of Gujarat with the agricultural heartlands of the Punjab and Gangetic basions, making possible an enormous expansion of trade and production during his reign. But it was his ability to conquer militarily and then to assuage his former enemies diplomatically that earned him the largest place in Mughal annals. Akbar also succeeded in attracting able men, both Hindu and Muslim, to serve him as courtiers. His chief tax officer was Todar Mal, a Hindu whom Akbar recruited over objections from Muslim notables. Through Todar Mal Akbar constantly experimented with tax reforms until he evolved a system of administration and extraction that optimized his resources, and remained in place till modern times. Akbar had more trouble achieving control and accoountability in the religious establishment, and that includes his management of Sufi Shaykhs as an alternate source of authority not only to the 'ulama, guardians of everyday ritual and law, but also to the Mughal court. We should not be surprised that none of the official Mughal accounts explains either the nature of the Sufi brotherhoods or the attitude of their legatees and devotees toward the emperor. Instead, the Akbarnameh, written by Abu'l-Fazl under Akbar's direction, tells only the perspective of his royal patron, and reduces the Emperor's attitude to Sufi masters to a single central frame narrative. That narrative highlights blessings received by Akbar from Shaykh Salim Chishti. It is the reclusive, ascetical saint from a village near Agra who solves the major problem facing the young emperor: how to produce a male heir. At age 28 Akbar had produced only daughter, but in a visit to Shaykh Salim en route to Ajmer, Akbar is told by the saint that his favorite wife will produce a male heir; further, that he will be blessed with no less than three male heirs. Both predictions prove true, and it is in witness to the saint's power and its sequel that the future Jahangir on birth is named Prince Salim. The account of Shaykh Salim, Emperor Akbar and Prince Salim looms large in the official history of Akbar's reign known as the Akbarnameh because it provides the pretext for Akbar's later decision to move his imperial capital from Agra to Sikri, renamed Fatehpur Sikri. What the imperial version omits is what later readers must provide: a series of suppressed motives that bind the emperor to the Shaykh while still allowing the emperor to be the final repository of truth and authority. Without denying the spiritual motives attributed to the emperor by Abul-Fazl, we can see another, pragmatic motive at work: Akbar identifies with an illustrious India-specific order, enhancing his own legitimation as a South Asian Muslim monarch. For all the retrospective stress on the solidity of Akbar's claim to rule, one may still doubt that he quickly forgot the exile of his father Humayun from India, an exile prompted in part by Humayun's inability to counter the ideological claims as well as the military prowess of Sher Shah Suri of Bihar (r. 1539-1545 AD). Alternatively, Akbar might have linked himself to the then dominant tomb complex of North India, the mazar of Shaykh Nizam ad- din Awliya (d. 1325) in Delhi. Why didn't he? We know, for instance, that his decision to build a tomb honoring his father, Humayun, was in part dictated by the proximity of its site to the tomb of Shaykh Nizam ad-din. The tomb complex of Humayun remains till today a magnificent example of Akbar's attention to memorials for the dead. Though its actual designer may have been Humayun's widow, its patron and guiding force was the young emperor. Its central structure combines indigenous building traditions with familiar Persianate emphases. Just as white marble inlay in red sandstone lightens the octagonal formality of Humayun's tomb, its setting in a four-cornered garden on a vast plane augurs a new tradition of tomb gardens known as the Mughal style.

FIG 11 - HUMAYUN'S TOMB [credit B. Lawrence]

While his predecessors favored Delhi, the young Akbar was suspicious of its past. Delhi was, after all, the stronghold of Turco-Afghan elites with minimal loyalty to the fledgling Mughal dynasty. For over 300 years, Delhi had been the capital of Muslim dynasties in North India, and it was only Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) who had opted to make Agra his new capital. Agra had continued to serve as the capital for his successor, the last Lodi sultan, Ibrahim (1517-1526). It remained the imperial center for the brief period of Babur's reign (1526-1530), but Humayun, both before and after his exile in Iran, had preferred Delhi. In securing his own rule at Agra (1556-1570), Akbar had to be aware of the tension between Agra and Delhi as rival imperial centers. It may have been in part due to their asymmetry (Delhi having the longer history, Agra the more immediate strategic advantage) that Akbar sought still another base from which to project his distinctive version of imperial authority. But one could not simply choose another site. The choice had to have symbolic and legitimating power such that others would be led to accept the rightness of the emperor's decision. By linking Sikri to the saint who predicted the birth of his heirs and successors, Akbar made its selection as a new imperial center seem logical, even compelling. There were also other advantages that appealed to the spiritual dimension of Akbar's multifaceted personality. Having chosen Fatehpur Sikri, he was able to confirm and continue his affiliation with the tomb of Shaykh Mu'in ad-din in Ajmer while also drawing on the power of a living saint, Shaykh Salim, and through him on the spiritual baraka that derived from his ascetic patron, Shaykh Farid ad-din Ganj-i Shakar (d. 1265) in the Punjab. Through a two-fold, redoubled Chishti loyalty, Akbar could spiritually anchor his imperial legitimacy in provinces adjacent to Uttar Pradesh, the Punjab and Rajasthan. Both regions were crucial to the political-military ambitions of his reign.

FIG 12 - SHAYKH SALIM CHISHTI'S TOMB [credit B. Lawrence]

Akbar had begun to sponsor monumental art on a new and expansive scale even before the foundation of Fatehpur Sikri.As important as Akbar's affiliation with Chishti saints was for the Fatehpur Sikri phase of his life, it became irrelevant during the final 20 years of his reign. His abrupt shift in loyalty had an impact on institutional Sufism that reverberated throughout the Mughal period. Just as neither Shaykh Salim nor Shaykh Mu'in ad-din remained a constant focus of Akbar's allegiance, so Fatehpur Sikri was sited as a temporary rather than a permanent capital city. For Akbar, it was the emperor not a place nor a saint who was lauded as the apogee of authority - spiritual and temporal - in the Mughal polity. To the extent that his person became the metaphor for his realm, spiritual luminaries could only function by being linked to or subordinated within the aura of ultimate, imperial authority. The absolutist claims which were raised by Akbar, or by Abul-Fazl in Akbar's name, forced a redefinition of both sainthood and dynastic succession. In 1577 Abu'l-Fazl's father, Shaykh Mubarak, drafted the mahzar or decree. Its intention was to affirm the spiritual supremacy of the Emperor: he became officially superior to all religious functionaries and all religious instituions. By this time the Chishti silsila had already lost whatever benefit its partisans - whether shrine custodians, living saints, or Hindu/Muslim devotees - may have gained by the favor that Akbar had showered upon them. Courtiers like 'Abd an-Nabi and Shaykh Mubarak were removed from active advocacy of either their own Sufi legacy or the active mystical interests of others. Nor did the construction of Shaykh Salim's tomb within the walled courtyard of the central mosque at Fatehpur Sikri promote the spiritual agenda of the Chishti lineage that he represented. Instead, the founding of Fatehpur Sikri affirmed Akbar - his brand of islamic observance and his legitimate claim to rule as Timur's offspring. Akbar's visit to saints' tombs after 1577 reveals his changed mood. He visits Delhi but once and spends most of his time at Humayun's tomb. When he does visit a couple of provincial saintly shrines, he uses these visits to draw attention to his own superior claims to spiritual favor. The Sufi exemplars who shaped the first phase of his rule were eclipsed, then gradually forgotten toward the final years of his life. One of Akbar's most solemn acts of remembrance concerned his own burial site. Like Iltutmish (see above), he opted to plan for his own tomb in advance of his actual death. The site, named Sikandara, suggesting the link between Akbar and another legendary military genius, Alexander the Great, was located on the outskirts of Agra in a sumptuous garden complex. The actual construction, and perhaps even elements of the design, were left to Akbar's son and successor, Jahangir. Its major feature, dwarfing the tomb itself, is the gate shown below, which was not finished till 1614. The red sandstone forms the backdrop for intricate geometric patterns, including the reverse swastika, as well as delicate floral designs, all etched in black and white marble. Floating atop the entire edifice, almost suspended by their light surface, are four white marble minarets.

FIGS 13 & 14 - SIKANDRA GATE, THEN CLOSE-UP [credits - B. Lawrence]

The elderly Akbar may not have aniticipated the full beauty of his final resting place, but in the depiction of him commissioned by his grandson, Shah Jahan, we can detect a figure so engaged by nature, in this case, a tiny sparrow, that the ethereal quality of his tomb seems entirely fitting.

FIG 15 - ELDERLY AKBAR [credit Sackler Gallery ]

If the glorification of the emperor lay at the heart of Mughal art and architecture for Akbar, it was an emphasis that he transmitted to his successors. The Great Mughal - whether Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan or Awrangzeb - had more concern with his own office and image than with loyalty to another authority - spiritual or temporal. Sufi saints fit the emperor's clothes, not the reverse. Jahangir is often portrayed as similar to his father, devoted to brotherhoods in general but to the Chishtiya in particular. But in fact, after 1618, Jahangir too turned from Chishti devotionalism to a more diffuse spirituality, one that also encompassed the rival Naqshbandi Sufi order. The miniature below is reckoned to have been painted in 1616, toward the end of a three year period when Jahangir resided in Ajmer. The saintly figure to whom he is handing a book, is Shaykh Husain,the primary custodian of the Ajmer shrine. A Persian quatrain on the border suggests that the Emperor, though solicited by kings (including James I of England!), looks to dervishes instead for guidance. But the miniature communicates another message that may contradict lyrical truth: the angelic figures above and below the hourglass throne attend to the Emperor, and the Emperor alone, as the figure of destiny. The ones above register both awe at his halo and distress at their broken arrows, while the ones below are writing a band that reads: "O king, may the span of your life be a thousand years." In the register of eternity, both the saint and other kings are but witnesses to the axis of Divine Favor, the Indo-Timurid Emperor.

FIG 16 - JAHANGIR WITH SHAYKH AND KINGS [credit Milo Beach in The Imperial Image]

What is hinted at in the miniature becomes more compellingly clear in the architectural achievements of Jahangir's reign. Many are monuments to the dead, or mausolea. While his own father's at Sikandra registers his own genius, others of lasting influence are at least in part due to the impact of his favorite wife, Nur Jahan, whom he married in 1611. Nur Jahan, together with her brother, Asa Khan and her father, I'timad ad-Dawla, formed a family clique that increasingly came to control the affairs of the Mughal empire, especially as Jahangir (d. 1627) began to suffer ill health in the 1620s. When her own father and mother died in the same year, 1621, Nur Jahan, as an act of filial devotion, oversaw the financing and construction of a garden tomb for them that is at once lovely and lavish. It builds on the concept of nine bays that characterized Humayun's tomb but subordinates each bay to a central vault. Each interior room is painted with flowers, vases, and wine vessels, while the exterior surface of white marble is suffused both with precious stone inlays of paradisiacal images and with marble screens not unlike those found at the stomb of Shaykh Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri. What is perhaps most intriguing about I'timad ad-dawla, however, is its anticipation of the crowning achievement of Mughal funerary architecture, the Taj Mahal. It is no accident that the tomb of I'timad ad-dawla, not completed till 1628 and only after the outlay of vast sums, was the first major monument of Mughal India fully executed by a woman. While Humayun's tomb and Akbar's plan for his own mausoleum signaled the honor accorded emperors, I'timad ad-daula honored a first minister, but in fact, honored the woman who made its construction possible, his daughter who was also the emperor's wife, Nur Jahan.

FIGS 17-18: I'TIMAD AD-DAULA DISTANT AND CLOSE UP [credit - Trish O'Rielly]

More than proximity in Agra link the tomb of Nur Jahan's parents, I'timad ad-Dawla, and the Taj Mahal. It was soon after her own marriage to Jahangir in 1611 that Nur Jahan arranged to have her niece, the daughter of her brother, Asaf Khan, himself a courtier at the Mughal court, married to the heir apparent, Prince Khurram, later Shah Jahan. That woman, Arjumand Banu, later became known as Mumtaz Mahal, and it is she, of course, who occasioned the still more extravagant outpouring of funds from the imperial treasury, the result of which was the monument known now as the Taj Mahal. It is not possible to understand the vagaries of history that produced such an extraordinary architectural legacy without realizing that its planning, as also its execution, depended on the absolute supremacy of the reigning monarch. The notion of divine kingship, stretching back to Timur, but emboldened by Akbar was continued by Jahangir but even more so by Shah Jahan. From 1628 till 1658 he guided the affairs of state as a military officer, as an administrator, as a patron and as a conciliator with the firm hand that his grandfather, Akbar, had earlier displayed. The result was extraordinary material wealth but also the recirculation of that wealth through patronage, in portable arts but even more in monumental architecture. The miniature below illustrates the extent to which Shah Jahan, whose very name means "World Ruler", conceived himself as the apogee of the Timurid lineage. Not only are the angels more riveted on his person than were the angels depicted on the earlier minature of Jahangir but the angel in the middle holds an umbrella on the border of which is inscribed Shah Jahan's geneaology going back to Timur. Like the lion and the sheep, natural rivalries among humans are eliminated; all are cowed by the imperial presence. So too are the holy men: in two rows they stream toward the center. They face two scales, representing the balance of justice maintained in the world by the emperor who combines power (the angel with the sword) and patronage (the angel with the crown). Though one might criticize the artistic technique of this miniature as less than perfect (imperial trousers should never be fully exposed!), its message is clear: Shah Jahan rules as Shahanshah-i Adil, the Just Emperor.

FIG 19 - SHAH JAHAN ON GLOBE [credit Milo Beach, The Imperial Image]

And the Taj Mahal, even more than the Peacock Throne or the massive monuments of Delhi, became the major achievement marking Shah Jahan's 30 year reign of justice. It commemorates Nur Jahan's niece, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631. It was her death which spurred the grief-stricken emperor to construct a monument of staggering proportions. Situated on the bank of the Yamuna river in a garden complex covering 42 acres, it is flanked by two perfectly proportioned mosque structures (only one of which is an actual mosque) that do no more than backdrop the transcendent perfection of the central tomb complex, the Taj itself. Begun one year after Mumtaz Mahal's death, it was nearly completed by 1643 when Shah Jahan lavishly celebrated the anniversary or 'urs for his wife's death. The whole complex is essentially Persianate in tone and Timurid in structure. Its basic structure resembles Humayun's tomb yet its fluid character, its graceful inclusion of inlaid motifs with marble screens, harks back to the tomb of I'timad ad-dawla. Yet because of the extensive and haunting Quranic verses that lace its borders from every side, the Taj Mahal may be a vast allegorical anticipation of the Day of Resurrection as imagined in Muslim cosmology and graphically depicted in the writings of the major Andalusian Shaykh, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240), well known both to Shah Jahan and to his courtiers. It is possible to relate every feature of the Taj to the allegory of Final Judgment. Its vast gardens become the Gardens of Paradise, the main entrance its gateway, the fountains heavenly streams, while the marble tomb looms as the base of the Throne of God, supported by the four minarets. Even in a less exalted interpretation of the Taj Mahal it remains an architectural wonder, the apotheosis of Shah Jahan's attempt to harmonize his own vision of Islamic loyalty and Timurid glory.

FIGS 20, 21 & 22 - TAJ MAHAL UNFRAMED & FRAMED [credit: Trish O'Rielly]

Shah Jahan's vision of perpetual justice, divinely ordained and artistically etched, was channeled to his oldest son and successor, Dara Shikoh. He was a mercurial figure, trained in the military and diplomatic arts without which no dynast could succeed, but at the same time genuinely committed to mystic pursuits. Unlike his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he seemed not only to engage saints in his service but also to submit himself to their guidance. While still a youth, he is said to have visited a famous Qadiri saint in Lahore when in the throes of a debilitating illness. He recovered, and credited his recovery to that saint, Miyan Mir. Later, in 1640 he became the disciple of one of Miyan Mir's major successors, Mullah Shah Badakhsi. The miniature below, completed in 1635, just before the death of Miyan Mir, shows Dara Shikoh at the feet of both saints, and they alone have haloes around their heads. The contrast with the earlier miniatures of Jahangir and Shah Jahan could not be more complete.

FIG 23 - DARA SHIKOH WITH MIYAN MIR & MULLA SHAH [credit: Sackler Gallery]

It was not Dara Shikoh, however, but his younger brother, Aurangzeb, who succeeded Shah Jahan and became the last, the longest ruling and possibly the most controversial of the great Mughal emperors. After defeating his brothers in a bitter war of succession, he also imprisoned his aged father, Shah Jahan, in Agra Fort. From 1658 to 1707, Aurangzeb maintained at least the outer unity of the farflung Mughal domain. During the first half of his reign (1658-1681), he conducted protracted military operations against the insurgent Marathas, from Delhi. He moved his capital to the Deccan to a town which he expanded, fortified and renamed Aurangabad. Though he was not successful in defeating the Marathas, Aurangzeb did perpetuate the Turco-Persian Islamicate tradition. More than his Indo-Timurid predecessors, he stressed Islamic juridical norms as the heart of his own life quest. He lived a simple life, keeping dress, food and diversions to a minimum. He earned income from writing copies of the Qur'an, which he then distributed to the poor. His own modesty is reflected in his tomb, originally a stone cenotaph near the Chishti tomb complex known as Khuldabad. It was later covered with a plain marble slab inside a marble screened terrace by the Nizam of Hyderabad (early 20th century).

FIG 24 - AURANGZEB'S TOMB [credit - B. Lawrence]

Not only was he personally pious but he extended his own preferences to the administration of the empire. He either curtailed or eliminated official patronage to music, poetry, history and even painting. While his efforts to repair and maintain mosques won him the gratitude of the Muslim religious classes, less popular was his creation of a moral policeman or muhtasib for all major towns and cities in the empire. The muhtasib could enforce juridical limits on wine consumption, gambling and other 'objectionable' forms of behavior. Even less popular was his decision in 1679 to reimpose the jizya, which obliged his Hindu subjects to pay a property tax levied on all non-Muslims. Not all aspects of Aurangzeb's personality were consistent. He is said to have criticized the extravagance involved in the construction of the Taj Mahal, even though its occupants were his own mother (and, after 1666, his father). Yet he clearly loved gardens and could not suppress the urge to have his own favorite wife, Rabi'a Daurani, who died in 1657, buried in a monumental white tomb that he directed his eldest son to model after the Taj Mahal. The resulting edifice is a gaunt structure. Completed in four years by the son of the architect of the Taj Mahal, it captures the marvelous central domb of the Taj but the structure is but half the size of its model, and also seems to have its minarets so sharply positioned near the tomb that its verticality not its harmony is accented. Also, there is no inlaid work in the tomb itself and the exterior panels are covered with less intricate or gracious panels than one finds at the Taj Mahal. Yet the Bibi ka Maqbara (Tomb of the Wife), as it is popularly known, is the last imperial Mughal tomb built in a four-cornered garden complex. Like its patron, it represents the fading of an aesthetic tradition that dominated for over a century from the accession of Akbar (1556) to the imprisonment of Shah Jahan (1658).

FIG 25 - BIBI KA MAQBARA TOMB [credit - B. Lawrence]

While it is impossible to bring out the full legacy of Mughal and by extension Muslim rule in South Asia, one can see in the above figures that tombs and books stand out as royal emblems. They remain marks of a Turkish, then Timurid imperial will to stamp the future with the actions of the past. From Iltutmish to Akbar to Shah Jahan one can glean a consistency of intent, if not of style, while in Aurangzeb we witness a half-hearted effort to rely only on the Sacred Word, and so demote the visual, expressive element of Persianate culture so evident in his illustrious predecessors. In every case, it is kings and kingship that perpetuate, even as they redefine, a tradition of absolute rule in the name of Islam.


1- In General:

Joseph E. Schwartzberg. A Historical Atlas of South Asia For South Asia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Robert L. Canfield, ed. Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

2- South Asia:

Richard Eaton, "Remembering/Imagining Persia: Medieval Deccani Migrants and the Iranian Homeland", Rockefeller Workshop 3 on "South Asian Islam and the Greater Muslim World", North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC (22-25 May 1997). Simon Digby, "The Sufi Shaykh and the Sultan: A Conflict of Claims to Authority in Medieval India", Iran XXVIII 1990: 71-81. Milo C. Beach. The Imperial Image: Paintings for the Mughal Court. Washington, DC: Freer Gallery, 1981.

Milo C. Beach. The New Cambridge History of India 1.3: Mughal and Rajput Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Catherine B. Asher. The New Cambridge History of India 1.4: Architecture of Mughal India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. John F. Richards. The New Cambridge History of India 1.5: The Mughal Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

3 - Southeast Asia:

Anthony H. Johns, "Islam in the Malay World" in R. Israeli and A. H. Johns, eds. Islam in Asia, vol. II: Southeast and East Asia. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1984: 115-161.

Ross E. Dunn. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

M.B. Hooker, ed. Islam in South-east Asia. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1983. (Several contributors but especially Roy F. Ellen and A. Day). Leonard Y. Andaya. The World of Maluku: Eastern Indonesia in the Early Modern Period. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y. Andaya. A History of Malaysia. London: Macmillan, 1982. James Siegel. Shadow and Sound: The Historical Thought of a Sumatran People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Crucial datelines:

South Asia: 1030 - death of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni 1191 - construction of Quwwat al-Islam Mosque in Delhi 1241 - death of Sultan Iltutmish 1351 - death of Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq 1526 - battle of Panipat, beginning of Mughal rule 1605 - death of Emperor Akbar 1643 - near completion of the Taj Mahal 1707 - death of Emperor Aurangzeb

Southeast Asia: 1292 - Marco Polo's visit to Acheh in N. Sumatra 1297 - death of al-Malik as-Salih in Samudra 1345 - Ibn Battuta's visit to Pase in Sumatra 1400 - founding of Melaka 1478 - Islamic conquest of Majapahit kingdom in Java 1511 - Portugese capture of Melaka 1488-1530 - rule of Sultan Mahmud Sjah of Melaka 1613-45 - rule of Sultan Agung in 2nd Mataram dynasty


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact for further information