Published on 24th February, 2023, in The Hindu.
After the sack of Baghdad in the 13th century, the Islamic world, dominated by Arabs since the 8th century, gave way to the Ottomans in Turkey, the Safavids in Iran, and the Mughals in India. These empires owed their success not to religion, but to gunpowder, a Chinese invention. Their fall by the 18th century was because of another Chinese invention they would ignore to please Islamic calligraphers: the printing press.
We tend to believe that the Islamic world was homogeneous and orthodox. However, this homogeneity was more aspirational than ground reality. This becomes most evident by observing the tombs of the mighty rulers of Turkey, Iran and India.
Inspired by paradise
In India, we find great tombs of Mughal emperors built in the middle of finely laid out gardens inspired by Islamic descriptions of paradise, the most famous being the Taj Mahal of Agra built in the 17th century by Shah Jahan for his favourite queen, Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan would be buried alongside her. Equally grand tombs had been built for Shah Jahan’s father, Jahangir, in Lahore, for his grandfather, Akbar, in Agra, and for his great grandfather, Humayun, in Delhi. Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb’s tomb is an extremely simple open-air unmarked grave in Aurangabad, in the complex of a local Sufi saint, as he wanted to return to the simplicity of the original Islam. The grand garden-tombs of Mughal emperors are linked to how these men saw themselves as chosen ones of god. Here, royal power was competing with the charisma of Islamic holy men ( pir), whose mausoleums ( dargah) were popular pilgrimages, and so alternate centres of power.
The Islamic world has never been comfortable with the idea of saints who connected with the divine directly through mystical experience and not through the law. Sufis were not prophets ( paigambar) through whom god (Allah) spoke to humans, yet they were seen as conduits to the divine. The puritanical Islamic orders despised them.
The early Islamic world was torn between the Sunnis who favoured caliphs and the Shias who favoured imams. Caliphs were elected leaders, while imams claimed descent from the Prophet’s family, his daughter Fatima and his son-in-law, Ali. Caliphs were favoured by Muslims of Arabia while imams found favour in Persia, a region that had dominated West Asian cultures until the rise of Islam. Both these arms of Islam were challenged by Sufis, who derived their power and popularity through direct communion with the divine. They served as missionaries of Islam, and no king could afford to ignore them.
For the love of god
The Sufi men became especially popular after the Mongol invasion. Suddenly, love of god became more important than the law; the emotional connection mattered more than the erstwhile logical military approach. To be a sultan, a warlord needed the support not just of the caliph or the imam, but of the local Sufi saint. It was not enough to have Friday prayers at the community mosque. Robes and cloaks worn by these spiritual leaders would be sought by ambitious men to legitimise their kingship. This is why the Mughals were extremely close to the Chisti order of Sufis, who dominated the Indian landscape.
Sufis were divided between the Sunnis and the Shias. Those who valued Arabic law as much as love became popular among the Sunnis while those who preferred Persian poetry, a more mystical ( irfan) approach connecting with local practices, were popular among the Shias. While Ottomans would choose the Sunni way, the Safavids would choose the Shia way.
The Ottoman empire was established by Seljuk Turks who had moved into Anatolia from Central Asia. They preferred the Turkish language to Arabic and Persian. They respected Sufis but kept them at arm’s length. Their prestige in the Islamic world rose when they conquered Constantinople, the last Christian stronghold in Asia, and defeated the Mamluks of Egypt to gain control over Jerusalem, Damascus, and Mecca. They saw themselves as the caliphs and so did not need to lean on the charisma of Sufi orders to establish their power. Like the simple tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, and the first two Rashidun caliphs, they avoided building ostentatious tombs. We find royal family members buried in a cluster, lacking the grandeur of individual garden-tombs we find in South Asia.
A new religion
In Iran, the Safavid dynasty rose from a Sufi order that was originally Sunni but eventually turned Shia and imposed their version of Islam on their people. The Safavid were closely connected with Sufi shrines. The emperor saw himself as a teacher and his courtiers as his disciples. The royals were buried in the compound along with members of the Sufi order. In other words, Safavid kings of Iran saw themselves in the radiance of holy men.
In India, since Humayun had sought help from the Safavids to conquer India, he was torn between the two paths. But Akbar seems to have forged a third way: one that placed himself above all, indicated also by his desire to form a new religion in which the emperor was both a spiritual and political leader. The independent glory of the Mughal emperor was most evident in the time of Akbar and Jahangir but it waned with Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, who needed the support of the clergy ( ulema) to claim the throne from rival brothers.
It can be argued that Akbar’s view of kingship in the Islamic world was shaped by the Brahmins in his court. The king’s court was not just a political space but also a religious space to gaze ( darshan) upon divine-royal splendour. Akbar followed many Hindu customs of kingship: doing the jharokha (window) darshan for the public and allowing people to prostrate before him. These Hindu practices irked the Muslim orthodoxy. Jahangir and Shah Jahan continued this practice but Aurangzeb discontinued it. Tragically, the tombs of both Akbar and Jahangir were looted in the 17th and the 19th centuries by those who chose to see them as invaders, not rulers who were trying to merge two very different world-views.