Book Review: Muzaffar Alam's 'The Mughals and the Sufis' explores the Sufi influence in Mughal rule

Print edition : February 11, 2022

A portrait of Aurangzeb.

Painting shows the marriage procession of Dara Shikoh. Photo: wikimedia commons

The author explores the significance of critical relationships between the powerful Mughal court culture and various strands of Islamic mysticism.

WITH nearly 50 years of research and teaching experience in the best of universities in India and the United States, Muzaffar Alam has offered a work that has the quality of a swan song, the culmination of a life-long intellectual activity to produce a book on a theme that was long waiting to be written and one that only he could have done on a such a majestic scale. With a style marked by reticence, hedging and evasion, much needed to survive in the dirty waters of medieval Indian history, Alam taught for many years at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi before leaving two decades ago to serve as the George V. Bobrinskoy Professor in South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Besides his lasting collaborative research of much value, the distinguished scholar’s previous books have broken new ground. Beginning with an important intervention in the form of The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India, 1707-48 (1986), Alam went on to write his equally famous book, The Languages of Political Islam in India, c.1200-1800 (2004). He has now come up with this substantial piece of work, The Mughals and the Sufis: Islam and Political Imagination in India, 1500-1750.

Moving away from what he calls the traditional paradigm that champions political and fiscal history over other equally important dimensions, Alam explores in the present book the significance of critical relationships between the powerful Mughal court culture and various strands of Islamic mysticism by deploying a wide range of source material, mainly in Persian but also in Urdu and Arabic. Some of the key texts used to write the book are still unpublished, but the author has the enviable expertise to read manuscripts—an ability gained from his early education in the Islamic seminary at Deoband in western Uttar Pradesh, which is often in the news for its regressive stand on social and cultural issues affecting Muslim communities.

The author takes a secular position on matters political much as he seems to keep critical distance from the dominant secular historiography. The central concerns of the book and the broad conclusions remain within the ambit of the consensus in academic history, dominated by secularists, on what the Mughal political idioms were like. Yet, the details the author has offered are awe-inspiring. As the saying goes, the devil lies in the details.

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In keeping with his approach of avoiding a head-long conflict with the entrenched orthodoxies in related fields of Mughal history and yet attempting to offer something different, especially on religion and political culture, which are generally studied with the felt need to emphasise religious tolerance and communal harmony, Alam’s detailed introductory discussion (listed as Chapter One) does away with any systematic historiographical analysis of existing scholarship. In the process, the usual meaningful exercise of stock-taking of the field that would set the agenda for the author has been abandoned.

Long view of Sufism

Instead, the introduction offers what has been termed as a long view of Sufism and political culture in India, within Muslim intellectual traditions, from the time of the later Mughals down to the 19th and 20th centuries. The key figures include Shah Waliullah (died 1762) and Saiyid Ahmad Shahid (died 1831) at one end of the spectrum, and Shibli Nu‘mani (died 1914) and Muhammad Iqbal (died 1938) at the other. In Alam’s considered opinion, studying these later stalwarts’ understanding of Islam and political imagination in the heyday of Mughal power can offer a better and informed long-term perspective than anachronistic readings of texts and historical situations, which are often the case in politically charged histories of the public domain. Academic histories are not free from these blemishes either.

Alam has thus sought to steer clear of some of the hotly debated issues such as questions of conversion and Islamisation, grievances relating to cases of demolition of temples, cow slaughter and frequent rhetoric on collection of the discriminatory tax called jizya, etc. Instead, a focussed reading of some interesting sets of sources has been offered to show a complex picture of complicated relationships between the rulers and the Sufis—important for far-reaching consequences to Mughal politics and society. This is specially so when the author takes the reader deep into the underbelly of the 17th century Mughal empire, with a fascinating set of material known to experts but never properly used.

Starting with the shaky foundations in the early 16th century, under Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur and Nasiruddin Muhammad Humayun, who were no less formidable in their own distinct ways, the Mughal empire was firmly established by the end of the century by Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (Chapter Two).

Also read: What is Sufism?

With a long history of large-scale empire building in India, the Mughals were quick to grasp the norms of governance and indeed the political theory required to manage and control the vast subcontinental diversity. Given the fact that religion and politics get entangled in India with terrible consequences even in the 21st century, religious justification of political power in Indian history has been a fait accompli for long. Men of religion needed political patronage and protection, and rulers needed legitimacy from the former on account of their popular appeal. The intercession by holy men also meant divine blessings procured directly from God and His Prophets and other representatives on earth, in this case important figures and shrines of the popular saints such as Khwaja Gharib Nawaz Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer.

Living legends from a variety of Sufi lineages such as the Chishti, Suhrawardi, Firdausi, Shattari and Qadiri were active in India with a long history behind them. They were known for being committed to what is professed as the Shariat, or Muslim law, and yet free from the bigotry or fanaticism that is generally associated with custodians of Islam, the theologians, or ulama. They were also free from communal biases in relation to non-Muslims, identifiable as Hindus, and sectarianism of the kind that sought to vilify communities of Muslims such as Shias. The Mughals realised the value of this approach quickly. They needed to maintain a critical distance from the Naqshbandis, the Central Asian strand of Sufism that came in the wake of the conquest. Naqshbandis combined their mysticism with aggressive accumulation of wealth and assertion of uncompromising commitment to Sunni Hanafi interpretation of Islamic principles.

Inclusive culture

The struggle between the two strands of Sufism—accommodation and compromises in the given situation of the Indian environment and extraordinary emphasis on Islamic piety bordering on Sunni fanaticism—marks the defining feature of Mughal-Sufi relations from the late 16th century. The inclusive Mughal imperial culture privileged Indian Rajputs and Iranian Shias, identified itself as part of a broad and liberal Islamic political and cultural tradition, and understood the value of devotional practices of the kind the Chishtis and the Qadiris upheld.

Shaikh Abdur Rahman Chishti (died 1683), the 17th century Sufi scholar belonging to the Chishti-Sabiri order and hailing from Awadh, articulated the latter position powerfully in his voluminous writings. A set of his compositions titled Mir’atul Asrar, which is a huge collection of Sufi biographies prefaced with a detailed exposition of some of the important features of Sufism, has been used by Alam in Chapter Three to show how it was possible to remain within the fold of Islam and yet be eclectic like Indian Sufism. Sufis were not bound by any narrow interpretation of Islam and so they could be free from the kind of biases betrayed by Sunni theologians and Naqshbandi Sufis.

The author has pitted the more acceptable Chishti position in Mughal India quoting Abdur Rahman as writing that Sufis have no mazhab, or commitment, to any juridical school of Sunni Islam, against a rhetorical statement of the leading Naqshbandi Sufi Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi (died 1624), who is also styled and venerated in some strands of Islamic traditions as Mujaddid Alf-i Sani, or renovator of Islam, in the second millennium of the Hijri calendar. Sirhindi had remarked that if a prophet were sent among Muslims of his time, he would have practised the Hanafi interpretation of Islam.

Also read: ‘At stake is survival of Indo-Islamic civilisation’

There were few takers for this kind of assertion in the Mughal system, and yet the sons and grandsons of Sirhindi were able to make considerable inroads to the extent that they were much privileged by the time Aurangzeb took reins in the middle of the 17th century. It served both—Aurangzeb needed legitimacy for his horrible butchery inside the imperial household and the Naqshbandis coveted power and prestige, which the early ancestors of their spiritual lineage enjoyed in Central Asia.

This is to the extent that Shaikh Muhammad Ma‘sum (died 1669), son and leading successor of Sirhindi in his Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order, sought to own responsibility for the execution of the saintly prince and Shah Jahan’s heir-apparent, Dara Shikoh (died 1656), with his own hands, with reference to a dream in which he received a sword from God to do away with the latter. In the last chapter, Alam narrates the horrendous bloodshed and transformation of Mughal polity under Aurangzeb, with the Naqshbandis getting entrenched in the Mughal court and outside.

This was at the cost of a huge investment in what is identified as cultural synthesis relevant to sustain the empire. The result was a complete mayhem by the end of Aurangzeb’s reign. His immediate successors, who were nominated and backed by the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufis, made a mess of it. The more eclectic approach of the kind Sufis of the Chishti and Qadiri orders proposed and important figures such as Dara Shikoh and his equally accomplished sister Jahanara (died 1681) adopted as social and political ideologies relevant for the time have been brought out in interesting detail. Besides the hagiography and defence of Indian Sufism in his Mira’tul Asrar, Abdur Rahman Chishti composed a few other powerful treatises aimed at transcending differences between religious beliefs and communities.

One of the texts, Mira’t-I Madariya (studied in Chapter Four), appropriated the popular mystic figure of the 15th century, Shah Badiuddin Madar, whose extraordinary career began as a prodigious Jewish child in Syria and whose shrine, dargah, is located in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Tradition claimed that he was directly guided by God, the prophets (Moses, Jesus and Muhammad), celestial beings and the leading saint of India, Moinuddin Chishti. Thus, he was identified as part of the Chishti tradition even though many of his practices appeared heretical, or outside the pale of Islam, with his close disciples styling themselves as yogis or dashnami sanyasis, sunk in artificially created ecstasy with the help of intoxicants such as hashish and ganja, and puffing with chants of Dam Madar.

Translation of ‘Puranas’

Abdur Rahman also composed a brilliantly imagined text called Mira’tul Makhluqaat (analysed in chapter five), claiming it to be a translation of an ancient Indian Sanskrit textual genre known in Mughal intellectual circles as Puranas. The translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were already known since the time of Akbar. Abdur Rahman had himself translated the Bhagavad Gita into Persian. These were done with the dual process of their interpretations, oral or written, in Awadhi and Braj versions of medieval Hindi, before they were put into writing in Persian.

Mira’tul Makhluqaat is extraordinary in the sense that it showcased how the Brahmanical Hindu mythical time of ancient Gods were very much part of the Islamic notion of time since the arrival of Adam on earth. Ancient Gods belonged to the people of jinns, made of fire, and descendants of Adam, including Hindus, are human beings, made of soil.

The jinns were ordered to withdraw to mountains, giving space to humans, but they could also be deployed to take care of injustices in the world, as in the case of the battle of Mahabharata. This being kaliyuga, it can also witness the horrendous violence on the family of the Prophet, especially the martyrdom of his grandson, Husain, by miscreants identified as apostates (murtadd) and barbarians (malechh).

These condemnations are attributed by Abdur Rahman Chishti to Mahadeva (Siva), who in turn is supposedly narrating these episodes to his wife Parvati, who is shown as being keen to know about Adam and Prophet Muhammad (Mahamat).

Also read: Beyond the Hindu-Muslim binary

Alam’s details from this work are blended equally interestingly in the next chapter (six), in which Dara Shikoh works with a battery of pundits on a new translation in Persian of Yogavasistha. Whereas until the time of Akbar, the Hindu traditions were beginning to be known through translations in line with the policy of sulh-i kull, peace with all, by Dara Shikoh’s time in the middle of the 17th century it was possible to imagine that the powerful Mughal prince could style himself after the ideal Hindu king, Rama of Ayodhya. This was the aim behind Dara’s preparation of Yogavasistha, mentioned in the beginning of the text itself about the prince seeing a dream in which he was seeking blessings from the sage Vasistha, in front of Rama who is placed on a higher pedestal and styled as an elder brother.

On Vasistha’s advice Rama embraced him with great love, and passed on the sweetmeat given by the former. This was taken as the sign for getting a new translation of the text done, which was in line with translations and studies of other texts seeking common ground for Islam and Hindu traditions, symbolically referred to as the merging of the two oceans, in a text with the title Majma-ul-Bahrain.

Pretext to remove Dara Shikoh

None of these were found to be contradictory to Dara Shikoh’s commitment to Sufism and Sufi figures from the past, and attachment to Qadiri Sufi saints of his own time. That there was no difference between Hindus and Muslims was also supported by the doctrine of wahdatul wujud, unity of being, which was similar to Advaita Vedanta. But the no-holds-barred emphasis on these ideas for a common and harmonious public culture was used by Aurangzeb as a pretext to remove Dara in his bid to capture the Mughal throne.

Mughal princesses

This violent move created a huge difficulty within the Mughal household as well. Alam has discussed this in his penultimate and detailed 72-page chapter (seven), pointing to the contested loyalties of Mughal princesses, but focussing on their remarkable devotional and intellectual investments. This is especially with reference to three of them—Aurangzeb’s sisters Jahanara and Raushanara (died 1671), and his genius daughter Zebun Nisa (died 1701).

Jahanara was close to her father Shah Jahan and her elder brother Dara Shikoh and, following the latter, was heavily devoted to Sufism, with deep attachment to Moinuddin Chishti and his shrine. She also became a disciple of the leading Qadiri Sufi in Kashmir, Mulla Shah Badakhshi (died 1661), and had a couple of books on Sufism to her credit. In the war of succession, she had sided with Dara Shikoh and tried to reason with Aurangzeb for sanity without success.

Aurangzeb did not create any difficulties for her subsequently, but he did not follow her will to be fully implemented. As the richest Mughal princess of the time, she had left behind a sum of three crore rupees to be distributed among the attendants of the Chishti shrines, but Aurangzeb allowed only a third of it to be distributed as per some reading of the Shariat that he adhered to.

Jahanara’s less accomplished sister, Raushanara, had sided with Aurangzeb in the struggle for power. He pampered her with some independence and creature comforts with a mansion outside the fort. Her love life was a matter of gossip, and this was blamed for her untimely demise at the age of 53, with people even suspecting that Aurangzeb ordered her to be poisoned to death.

Also read: A story of 1857

Alam has given details of her long correspondence with Shaikh Saifuddin, the young Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufi operating from the Mughal court with access to ladies of the harem. The letters, the ones written by the Sufi, have survived. They refer to the princess cultivating mystical whispers of the heart, zikr-i dil. Saifuddin was convinced that Raushanara had reached the stage where she could be recognised as an accomplished Sufi in her own right. From there she could have only grown as a Sufi teacher, poet and writer, but that was not to be, whatever the truth relating to her death.

Aurangzeb doted on Zebun Nisa, exposing her to the best teachers of the time. But as it happens, involvement in politics proved to be her nemesis. She had the guts to support a brother who had rebelled against their father for whom ruthless power was beyond all bonds. She was promptly put under arrest, with some freedom to continue her scholarly pursuits, mainly reading works of poetry and composing some of her own, published under an apt pen name, Makhfi, the hidden one. Among the people she was allowed to correspond with was a Naqshbandi old man and grandson of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, Shaikh Abdul Ahad Wahdat (died 1713).

Wahdat is known in posterity as a fine poet who wrote under the pen name Gul (rose). One of his letters to Zebun Nisa, includes this couplet in Persian:

Bas kunam gar in sukhan afzun shawad

Khwud jigar chi bud ke khara khun shawad

I should stop, for if I speak further

Not just the liver, even a stone will bleed.

According to reports, mentioned by Alam, Aurangzeb cried on hearing the news of Zebun Nisa’s death and ordered a tomb to be built over her grave. Though privileging the puritanical Naqshbandis all his life, Aurangzeb himself was buried at the Chishti centre of Khuldabad in the Deccan (1707). By then, the Mughal state was in a terrible crisis, but its foundations were deeply embedded in the country’s composite culture. It took 150 years to decline and fall with a final and vengeful push from the British in 1857. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, died reciting some painful Sufi poetry in faraway Rangoon.

The author and publisher deserve to be commended for bringing out this magnificent piece of work.

Raziuddin Aquil is Professor of History, University of Delhi.