In this new book, Muzaffar Alam synthesises two major areas of his expertise – Mughal History and India Islam – to show how rulers interact with religious figures and institutions. In the present Indian context, where the ruling regime is closely connected with religion, Muzaffar Alam’s book is startlingly relevant in showing similar iterations of such strong associations – and some of their consequences – between religion and rulers during the Mughal Period.

Like imperial dispensations in many places and times, Mughal India involved a complex nexus between political elites and religious divines. They had mutual sympathies as well as differences – sometimes apparently irreconcilable – regarding the management of politics and the social order. In this book I have tried to show the trajectory of these differences, historical and political, as well as the efforts on each side to accommodate and adjust with the other.

Amongst both political and religious elites, there were varieties of voices and positions. If one group of religious leaders made a plea to implement the injunctions of the shari‘a – with little consideration for prevailing social realities – there was also a powerful counter-impulse to maintain local tradition and be amenable to the demands of a different time. In the process of contestation and negotiation, then, there was a regular effort to invoke past practices and ideologies. The chapters of this book examine the fine grain of these efforts and debates.

During its three centuries of rule over India, the Mughal dynasty encountered a series of challenges and successfully overcame a number of them. These included armed resistance from several ethnic groups, such as Rajputs, Afghans, Marathas, etc. There was also periodic dissatisfaction, sometimes expressed even as open rebellion, by the same military and political elites – the so-called “Turanis” – that had accompanied the founding families from Central Asia into northern India.

The chief challenge that the Mughals faced was similar to that which confronted a number of other empires of the time from China to Europe: how to manage a diverse and varied subject population spread out across a vast territory. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that the bulk of their subjects did not share the same religion as the Mughals, ie, they were non-Muslims.

Preceding Muslim dynasties had encountered this challenge too. With the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate had come a demand from the “ulama for non-Muslims to be given the option of either accepting Islam or facing extermination”. The sultan of his day had resolved this question by suggesting that since Muslims did not have the required strength and resources – the Muslim state having just been founded – it was difficult to implement such a drastic injunction.

The ruler was supported in his stance by the powerful – and indeed virtually uncontested – Sufis of the time. The Mughals, however, had to deal with a more complex situation, having to walk a tightrope to placate, accommodate, and negotiate with divergent interest groups and ideologies.

Unlike the “self-made” sultan of the thirteenth century, who came from an obscure and humble background, the Mughals had their own significant cultural and religious heritage to contend with. They were the direct descendants of Timur, a highly significant figure in the cultural and political history of Sunni Muslim dynasties. Their ancestors in Central Asia had also had their own religious masters, who were virtually royal pirs.

With the Mughals, the rule established had not merely been familial and dynastic but included the rule of their spiritual masters. So the traditions that Indo-Muslim rulers had relied on before the Mughals were not uncontested any more; as a matter of fact this had grown into a contest that persisted throughout the Mughal period [. . .]

Notwithstanding the presence of those who, while claiming to be Sufis, instrumentalised the implications of wahdat al-wujud, the doctrine did overall promote an atmosphere of social harmony and community coexistence in Mughal India. A manifestation of this was also the nourishment it provided the Mughal policy of sulh-i kull (Peace towards All), discussed in several of the following chapters.

In addition to Dara Shukoh’s translation of the Yogavasistha, the same prince had several similar works to his credit, such as the Majma‘ al-Bahrain and the translations of shlokas from the Upanishads inspired by the doctrine. This spirit is further illustrated in the early-eighteenth century in the Awadhi Qadiri Sufi Shah ’Abd al-Razzaq’s proclamation (as well as the belief of his followers) that he was a close “friend” of Lord Krishna.

Closer to our own time in the twentieth century, these ideas found echoes in the poetry of Hasrat Mohani. Amongst the Chishtis, much before ’Abd al-Rahman Chishti, Mir ’Abd al-Wahid Bilgrami’s Haqa’iq-i Hindi was charged with the same spirit. In the early-nineteenth century the idea continued to retain its legitimacy amongst Muslim Sufis. While at one level we have in these incidents a sense of legitimacy being lent to the Other’s beliefs, on the other hand these are obviously contradictions of orthodox Islamic law.

The seventeenth-century Naqshbandi tradition, however, did not support these attitudes and practices. In one of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi’s letters in Maktubat-i Imam-i Rabbani, written in response to a letter of a Hindu named Hriday Ram, we see a scathing critique of the accommodative approach. Hriday Ram had shown interest in being initiated into the Naqshbandi order without, however, committing to Islam.

Sirhindi was aghast at his audacity. For a Hindu even to ask to join the order and speculate on possible affinities between Muslim and Hindu divinities struck him dumb – though not for long, as it soon struck him into pithy eloquence. Forcefully rejecting non-dualism, Sirhindi says “It is extreme folly to think of Ram and Rahman as one. Creation and the Creator cannot be the same.”

Even so, in the eighteenth century the major Mujaddidi–Naqshbandi luminary Mirza Mazhar Jan-i Janan (d 1784) took a more generous line on Hindu deities, equating the Vedas and the Dharmashastras with Muslim scriptures and law codes. He cited the well-known Qur’anic verse: “In each community there had been a prophet”, and therefrom argued that India cannot have been left without prophets.

Once, in the presence of his disciple, he snubbed his pir-bha’i (with whom he had shared a master) when the latter was critical of a visitor who had been relating his dream about Krishna and Rama, in which he had seen one of them in the middle of a fire and the other sitting at its edge. Of greater significance for our purposes is that in the line of a major eighteenth-century

Naqshbandi–Mujaddidi shaikh, Na‘im-Allah Bahraichi (d. 1803; he was himself a khalifa of Mirza Mazhar Jan-i Janan), there is evidence of two Hindu Sufis who, despite their intentions, were stopped from converting to Islam. An equally important piece of evidence which needs to be considered is the regular use by another nineteenth-century Naqshbandi–Mujaddidi Sufi, Shah Fazle Rahman Ganj Muradabadi (1793–1895), of terms like “Manmohan” (a common name for Lord Krishna) and “Parmeshar” in his Awadhi Hindi translation of parts of the Holy Qur’an, published with the title of Manmohan ki Batein [. . .]

Taken together, the chapters of this book provide a varied and complex reading of the relationship between various groups of Sufis and Mughal political culture over the course of some three centuries. By focusing on certain lesser-known and under-studied figures and their writings, I also hope to reorient our understanding of the cultural history of the Mughal period and its actors.

Muzaffar Alam is George V Bobrinskoy Professor in South Asian Languages and Civilisations at the University of Chicago. He was a professor of history at JNU, and is a scholar of Mughal history and Indian Islam.

Excerpted with permission from The Mughals and the Sufis – Islam and Political Imagination in India: 1500-1750, Muzaffar Alam, Permanent Black.