Turning King to Messiah: The Islamic King in Central Asia and India – By Roy S. Fischel

Roy S. Fischel on A. Azfar Moin’s The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam

A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, Columbia University Press, 2012, 368pp., $28.00
A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, Columbia University Press, 2012, 368pp., $28.00

Tales of kings have always ignited the imagination. From Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France to the contemporary House of Windsor, kings remain interesting not only in terms of their policies but also — and perhaps even mostly — in terms of their personalities and private lives. Fascination with kings is not limited to Europe but can be found in Western historiography of Asia as well. This fascination has produced a fair amount of writing regarding the politics, personality, family life, ideas, and even emotions and most intimate thoughts of the Mughal emperors of India (1526-1857). Their idiosyncrasies attracted as much attention as their actions as rulers and conquerors, from Akbar’s discussions with clerics of various creeds and his amused abuse of Jesuit priests to Jahangir’s painting of his own dreams.

A. Afzar Moin’s main goal in The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam is to provide the conceptual and intellectual framework for the institution of kingship, which is lacking in traditional historiography. His holistic explanation of the institute of kingship focuses on the particular way it developed in Central Asia beginning in the fifteenth century, and how it was further developed by the Mughals in India of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Previous studies on politics and sovereignty in this vast yet interconnected region concentrated on the Orthodox notions of Islam and focused on textual traditions that reflect theoretical and juristic attitudes. They emphasized the authority of the learned classes (‘ulamā) and their interpretation of the scriptures in determining what constituted proper devotion, social order, and political authority. Moin argues that understanding this manifestation of the universal institution of kingship as based solely on scriptural or Orthodox traditions is limited and lacking. While not denying the importance of elements that derived from theology books, he argues that from the fifteenth century, another component became important in the formulation of Central Asian kingship: the attribution of sanctity to the king (pādshāh) himself.

What enabled this shift in the conception of kingship was wider changes in the ways in which Islam was practiced. From the fourteenth century, or possibly even earlier, new forms of devotion reshaped religiosity and society, working against the monopoly of the ‘ulamā. The new forms of devotion depended upon the mediation of holy men, typically Sufi saints, whose physical presence served as a link to the divine. As a result, for most people Islam became increasingly identified with the physical embodiment of sacrality rather than textual traditions. What was naturally opposed by the ‘ulamā became a way of engagement with Islam for the masses: the development of concrete and physical relations rather than abstract and textual ones.

This form of engagement with the divine found its way into the political sphere, connecting kingship with sacrality, with the king accepting the role of the holy man. Accordingly, kingship was no longer solely manifested in writing but was also publicly performed: the body of the king had a physical presence on the stage of sovereignty. Combining elements of kingship and sacrality in theory and practice became possible with the increasing spread of millennial ideas within the Islamic world. Millennial ideas were based on a shared Muslim belief that time was cyclical. At the end of every thousand-year cycle, a savior (messiah or mahdi in the Muslim tradition) is expected to appear, correcting injustices and reassuring order for the following cycle. The late medieval and early modern era was ripe for such ideas. The Muslim East was facing radical social and political changes with the decline of the Mongol order in the fourteenth century, leading to the spread of various millennial and eschatological beliefs as discussed recently by Matthew Melvin-Koushki, İlker Evrim Binbaş, and others in the volume Unity in Diversity: Mysticism, Messianism, and the Construction of Religious Authority in Islam. The concurrence of social and religious change, political transformation, and the spread of millennial and messianic ideas allowed the rise of this new concept of kingship that integrated sovereignty and messianism.

Rustam Approaching the Tents of King Kubad, from the Shahnama – Image via Wikimedia Commons

On this theoretical ground, Moin’s original study analyses how kingship developed in theory and practice. His departure point is Timur (1336-1405, also known as Tamerlane), the last great Central Asian conqueror, the pivotal character and reference point for everything that followed. Even though Timur saw himself as a Muslim, his legitimacy, as developed mostly by his descendants, drew on Mongol and other non-Islamic political idioms. One was based on his identification with and monopolization of the astrological-millennial title “Lord of Conjunction” (sāhib qirān). His image also became associated with ‘Ali, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, who by the fifteenth century became a central figure in messianic practices within Islam. This link was possible due to the cyclical concept of time within millennial cosmology, in which “one sacred being replaces another in space and across cycles of time.” This cyclical concept symbolically connected current characters to historical or mythical figures.

Timur’s links with both non-Islamic Mongol traditions and Islamic ideas created the foundations on which the following dynasties developed their own concepts of sovereignty. By the sixteenth century, Timur’s descendants had lost Central Asia. The last scion of the dynasty, Babur (1483-1530), found his way to India where he established his rule. Due to the importance of Timur, Babur and his descendants proudly styled themselves as Timurid. But for the very same reason, their opponents tried to discredit them by calling the dynasty Mughal (i.e., Mongol), a name that came down in history to our days. As descendants of Timur, the Mughals not only used the name of Timur, but also carried down the Timurid model of sovereignty and continued to develop it in their new homelands.

The logic behind the Mughal-Timurid notion of kingship relied on the worldview of the Mughals and the society in which they operated: the world works according to principles of order and interconnectivity, and time is cyclical. Events are not coincidental occurrences. Rather, thinkers actively sought meanings and links between occurrences, earthly or celestial, manifest or hidden. Kings, who as millennial beings held an axial position, had a special role in maintaining order, so the exercise of sovereignty required ordering and explaining all occurrences. In order to demonstrate the king’s pivotal position in maintaining good order, symbols had to be manipulated publicly by means of ritual, ceremony, or in writing, painting, and architecture.

Kings had a special role in maintaining order, so the exercise of sovereignty required ordering and explaining all occurrences.

At the heart of these public displays stood the body of the king as the ultimate symbol of order. Manipulation of such symbols could be effective only because the subjects shared the very same view: one that gave an equal place for the hidden and the manifest, or what we would mark today as esoteric (magic, occult, or spiritual) and rational. The image of the king as a millennial sovereign was not imposed on unwilling audiences. Rather, this image was created within a world that looked for such symbols. The Mughals gained support by pouring themselves “into the mythic molds of the hero, the saint, and the messiah-molds shaped by collective imagination and social memory.”

Use of this millennial language did not intend to replace the Islamic scriptural system but existed in parallel to it. Just as Timur’s image combined scriptural traditions with popular practice — ‘Ali and the Lord of Conjunction — Mughal rulers maintained association with both Orthodox and millennial idioms. Some, most notably Akbar (r. 1556-1605), tried to fuse the two. Others, such as Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) and Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658), maintained separation between them, using each in a different context. The parallel systems and their interaction continued even under Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), who is considered a strict Orthodox ruler. This realization suggests much less contradiction between Aurangzeb and Akbar, who are often positioned as complete opposites. Even the greatest ideological opponents of the Akbarian ideas of fusion such as the Naqshbandi Sufi Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) or the historian ‘Abd al-Qadir Badauni (c. 1540-1615) expressed their opposition in language that shared much with the millennial ideas whose employment by Akbar they strongly opposed.

Even more striking than the use of Akbar’s opposition of the same idiom is that the contemporary Safavid rulers of Iran also based their claims of sovereignty on similar ideas. The surprise is derived from the different background and logic of this dynasty. Unlike Babur, founder of the Safavid state Shah Isma‘il I (1487-1524) based his rule not on the prestige descended from a political and military ruler ancestor. Rather, he turned a pre-existing mystical organisation — the Sufi order founded by Safi al-Din of Ardabil (1252-1334) — into a political organization, while using the spiritual authority associated with the Sufi legacy. Even though many consider the Mughals and the Safavids to stand on opposing sides in terms of religion and state due to this basic difference, Moin convincingly demonstrates that we should understand them as acting within similar intellectual environment.

Moin’s persuasive approach to the worldview and the theory that lies behind Mughal kingship is not without its limitations. He focuses mostly on the representation and projection of kingship, but the questions of reception and response remain for the most part theoretical. Moin rightly argues that the success of this model of kingship depended on the popularity of the ideas of embodiment and millennium. But to what extent did local sensitivities dictate the formulation of kingship? The problem of reception becomes clearer when we consider the reality that the Mughals encountered in India. Even though Mughal kingship was not Islamic per se (compared to the scriptural system), it relied heavily on ideas that crystallized in Islamic Central Asia and Iran. Interaction with and adoption of local ideas was bound to happen among the Mughals, who ruled over the overwhelmingly non-Muslim India. Interaction of the Mughal elites with Indic thought is well documented and included translations of Sanskrit works into Persian, patronage of vernacular literature as discussed by Allison Busch in The Courtly Vernacular (Ph.D. Diss., Univ. of Chicago), and full participation of non-Muslims in the state. But it was not only a question of foreign ideas and Indian society. Even within India, Mughal rule varied between regions according to local customs and circumstances, as suggested by Farhat Hasan in State and Locality in Mughal India. Yet the inevitable impact of Indic ideas and notions of kingship, sacrality, or cosmology and the interaction of the diverse population in India with this idea of kingship are not discussed in depth. In a sense, the result seems to position the Mughals as foreign to the subcontinent, in line with quite outdated views.

The Millennial Sovereign presents a unique and fresh contribution to the study of politics, thought, and culture in the early modern period. While the aim of the study is to explain the theory behind kingship in one corner of Asia, its value goes beyond the realm of political thought under the Mughals. Moin offers a new framework that brilliantly connects people, ideas, and thought with ideology and representation, concepts that historians have hitherto not treated as part of the same intellectual sphere. Compared to recent works that analyzed the particularities of Mughal institutions and their Central Asian origins, most notably Lisa Balabanlilar’s Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire and Munis D. Faruqui’s The Princes of the Mughal Empire, Moin takes a step back, choosing to look not only at details but also at the thought and principle behind the political institutions. His analysis of the cosmology and the religious, social, and political background as developed in post-Mongol Central Asia is a strong analytical tool that could be used to explain a wide array of intellectual as well as political developments and their impact on state and society.

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