As 1999 came to a close, calamities were foretold. At the stroke of midnight on December 31, there would be havoc: banks would collapse, electrical grids would fail and planes would fall out of the sky. The fear was that as the year ticked over from ’99 to ’00, computers would be unable to read the new date and would reset themselves, causing huge infrastructural collapse.

The anxieties of 1999 had a technological premise that, mercifully, turned out to be unfounded. But if computers and coding hadn’t existed, something else would have sparked dramatic predictions at that time. As the calendar moves from one millennium to the next, humans tend to expect major events, whether this takes the form of upheavals or miracles, the end of the world or the dawn of a new era.

It was just like that when 1592 was drawing near. This was the thousandth year in the Hijri calendar and for several years prior the Muslim world was gripped with expectation. Many believed a new Prophet would manifest himself in 1000 AH. As Azfar Moin describes in his book, The Millennial Sovereign, while most thought the mujaddid or Renewer would be a religious leader, some rulers were not above hinting that they were the awaited One.

Akbar was one such king.

From being a teenager thrust onto a shaky throne to being the projected Renewer of the Second Millennium, Akbar’s apotheosis was years in the making. But by the time Abu’l Fazl wrote the Akbarnama, the process was complete – at least in the minds of his devoted coterie. Abu’l Fazl describes Akbar as the insan-i-kamil, the perfect man. His being was filled with divine light. Water that he breathed upon cured disease. His penetrating gaze could look into the hearts of men.

The infallible ruler

It is hard here to peel apart the political calculation from mystical belief. Did Akbar style himself as a saint-king in order to arrogate the power wielded by the ulema to himself? Was Akbar projected as a quasi-divine, miracle-working figure because this could unite the diverse subjects of his empire around his charismatic self? Or did Akbar and his followers believe that Akbar truly was a uniquely blessed holy king?

In the decade or so prior to the Millennium, Akbar extended his authority over areas that religious authorities had controlled. He issued a decree of infallibility, by which his judgements prevailed over the views of any of the ulema in the Sharia courts. He adopted the policy of sulh-i-kull or Universal Peace that offered shelter to all, regardless of sect and creed, refusing to give Sunni Islam a special place in the empire.

As the Millennium approached, he adopted more and more signs of holy exaltation. He granted darshan daily at the palace jharokha to the masses while elite members of his court who accepted him as their pir or spiritual leader were inducted into the Din-e-Elahi. They had to prostrate themselves before him, and wear talismans that were inscribed “Allah Akbar,” and they greeted each other with the phrase “Allahu Akbar” which means “God is great (akbar)” but could also be understood as “Akbar is God.”

To his devotees, even Akbar’s shortcomings were miraculous: his dyslexia likened him to the many prophets – including Muhammad – who were not literate. Abu’l Fazl declared that Akbar’s inability to read liberated him from the iron hand of tradition. Instead of copying what had always been done – naql – the emperor approached the world through his ‘aql, his capacity for reason and judgement. This allowed him to forge his own path.

Critical interrogation

This attitude of critical interrogation, rather than unquestioning reverence, is visible in the way Akbar approached the past thousand years of Islam. Ten years before the Millennium, the emperor ordered that a history of this epoch be written. The Tarikh-i-Alfi or History of a Thousand Years told of the historical caliphs and kings of Islam that came after the Prophet. The Tarikh would have to deal with historical figures who were revered by some sects and reviled by others, and Akbar did not want any one sectarian view to predominate. He ordered that the text be composed by seven scholars, each of whom would write the history of one year before passing the baton to the next. By ensuring that the book was written by committee, Akbar saw to it that no authorial voice would dominate.

The work inched along. In five years, only the first 35 years had been covered by the septet of scholars. Impatient, Akbar put the entire project in the hands of a Shia theologian, Mulla Ahmad of Thatta, who rapidly wrote up six centuries in three years. But Mullah Ahmad publicly said many anti-Sunni things in his preachings, and one night a young Sunni nobleman lured Mulla Ahmad out of his home, pretending the Emperor was calling him, and murdered him in the street.

Although the young murderer was well-connected and many pleaded his case, Akbar refused to value a Sunni life over a Shia one, and had the Mulla’s killer condemned to death. This caused more resentment among the Sunnis who dug up Mulla Ahmad’s grave, exhumed his bones and burnt them, ensuring he would never be resurrected on Judgement Day.

Those who continued to work on the Tarikh after Mulla Ahmad grumbled that the narrative he had left behind was biased in favour of the Shias. Some even said his text was heretical but they dared not revise a narrative that Akbar had approved.

Figure 1. The massacre after the destruction of the Tomb of Husain at Karbala on the orders of Caliph al-Mutawakkil. From a Tarikh-i-Alfi, Mughal, Lahore, made between 1582-'94. British Museum, London, accession no. 1934,0113,0.1. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

A grand project

The intrigues, jealousies and resentments surrounding the writing of the Tarikh-i-Alfi could be a Mughal The Name of the Rose. But it seems no more blood was spilled over this book in the next six years as the project was brought to a close. The three volumes of the Tarikh-i-Alfi were presented to Akbar in 1002 Hijri.

The Tarikh-i-Alfi was the first grand, illustrated historical manuscript made in Akbar’s kitabkhana. May others followed, including a history of Genghis Khan, one of the Timurid dynasty, the Persian translation of the Baburnama, and the Akbarnama that gave such a glowing account of Akbar’s own life. As the first of the great Mughal illustrated histories, the Tarikh-i-Alfi is extraordinarily important.

Sadly, hardly any of the book has survived. Milo Beach compiled a list of 26 illustrated pages that are scattered across the world, and one more page has appeared at auction since. All of these relate to events in the 8th and 9th centuries and may belong to a volume authored by Mulla Ahmad, but it is impossible to guess how many pages the entire book once had.

As paintings go, scholars have found the Tarikh’s compositions choppy: the way the text panels interrupt the scenes have been described as awkward, and the distribution of events on the page has been called illogical. This criticism could apply to the page in the British Museum that shows a massacre that occurred in Karbala in 850 when al-Mutawakkil, a Sunni Caliph from the Abbasid dynasty, ordered the destruction of the grave of Husayn, the Shia Caliph and martyr.

It seems to me, however, that the scribes who were writing this text expected the artists to follow the format of Ilkhanid books from the 14th century, where modestly sized illustrations stayed within the small strips that were set aside for them within the text box. This page from a Shahnama made in Iran in 1341 is a likely example of what the Mughal calligraphers expected the finished page of the Tarikh to look like.

Figure 2. Manuchihr and Qaran Fight Salm. From the dispersed copy of the “Small Mongol Shahnama,” Ilkhanid dynasty, Shiraz, 1341. Collection of the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, acc. No. AKM28. CC BY-NC 2.5 CA

Following that model, the Tarikh’s page was probably meant to look like this, with all the writing and illustrations confined to one broad column, that would leave ample margins that could be thumbed without causing damage to the writing or the illustrations in the book.

But instead of accepting the small intervals between the words that were allotted to them, the painters commandeered every inch available on the page. Indeed, if we look closely this detail (below) from the Tarikh we can see the planners of the page had drawn a box to contain the text and image. The artist has contravened these borders – you can see them under the painted flames at lower right – and extended the painting to the very edge of the page.

Detail, Fig 1.

The artists of this manuscript must have been the very people who had just finished making the gigantic Hamzanama. How could they not want to break out of the box? Their imaginations could hardly remain caged within these tiny slivers of space. The painting winds above, around and between the text panels, turning the page into a dynamic visual field that seethes with energy.

In fact the paintings dominate the page and text panels turn into visual elements that support the pictorial composition. For instance, here in the uppermost part of the Karbala scene, the text panel becomes a continuation of the high wall behind which a Shia defender has just been killed.

Detail, Fig. 1

The narrow gap between two blocks of text that was left for the artist in the middle of the page is too small to contain much action so the artist turns it into an alley outside the fort wall, where nothing significant occurs. Instead the composition swells into the right hand margin where a captive awaits execution in an open ground.

Detail, Fig. 1

Below, in the foreground, the artist unites the space set aside for him between text blocks with the broad margins at right and bottom and fills this space with tumultuous scenes. The city of Karbala is on fire and desperate women, both veiled and unveiled, clamber onto boats to make a desperate escape.

Detail, Fig. 1

Extending the painting to the edge of the page, the artist has made his work vulnerable, and there are passages that are rubbed away, and even tears that have been patched up with blank paper. But by taking this risk, the artist has transformed the experience of the manuscript, and in the silent contest of wills between the scribe and the painter, the painter undoubtedly has won.

Let us look at a second page in the Cleveland Museum of Art that is painted on both sides, the fascinating details of which have been carefully deciphered by the museum’s curator Sonya Rhie Quintanilla. The page shows the disasters that befell the Abbasid empire during the rule of al-Mutawakikil, the same Caliph who had ordered the destruction of the grave of Husayn.

Disasters Befall the Empire in al-Mutawakkil’s reign. From a Tarikh-i-Alfi, Mughal, Lahore, made between 1582-94. Cleveland Museum of Art, Dudley P Allen Fund. Acc. No. 1932.36a. CC0 1.0

The text on this page recounts the misdeeds of this Caliph who cruelly persecuted Shias, Christians and Jews. The illustration shows how his evil acts brought down the wrath of heaven upon his land. Once again, the scribe has left three gaps in the text column for the artist to fill, and once again the paintings spill out of these confines to occupy every part of the page that has not been written upon.

In the uppermost part we see a hailstorm in Egypt; unprepared, people try to protect themselves from the pelting ice. The first line of text, on the right, cleverly becomes part of the shelter towards which the Egyptians rush. The artist translates 9th-century Egypt to Mughal India, showing the kinds of costumes and architecture that must have surrounded him, but he probably never saw hailstones in real life and they look like strings of tinsel suspended from the sky.

Detail, Fig. 3

Egypt’s hailstorm was an anomalous climate event and an omen of a time out of joint. Heedless of any warnings, the Caliph ordered a new palace to be built for himself. We see this building activity at the centre of the page. Again, the artist finds the gap set aside for him in the text column to be too small to hold anything but incidental detail; the activity of the builders and supervisors spills onto the margins and the edge of the text box even becomes the corner of a room under construction.

Detail, Fig. 3.

At bottom we see more miseries suffered by the people under this iniquitous king: a devastating earthquake in Antioch in 859 CE that destroyed the entire city. Walls, towers and trees topple and hapless innocents are buried alive. The stunning depiction is both dramatic and empathetic as the artist depicts panicked horses and dead humans flung about with titanic force. The destruction of these buildings becomes a commentary on the vanity of the tyrant who thinks he can build an enduring a palace, that was pictured just above.

Detail, Fig. 3

On the reverse of this page it is evident that the scribe anticipated no paintings and left no space for them. The words that describe the eventual and deserved assassination of al-Mutawakkil are encased in an uninterrupted block of text. All around it the artist occupies the margins to depict a final disaster that befell al-Mutawakkil’s realm: a terrible drought in Mecca which left the pilgrims in this holiest of places parched.

At bottom, workers desperately dig water channels. Above them, the Caliph’s representatives spread out coins and bargain with merchants who have brought water – in goatskins, according to the text, but here shown through the beautiful pitchers and ewers by their side. The upper margin shows the pilgrims within the holy sanctuary, praying before the Ka’aba. Here, the artist slips in a lesson and a surprise.

The Drought in Mecca. From a Tarikh-i-Alfi, Mughal, Lahore, made between 1582-94. Cleveland Museum of Art, Dudley P Allen Fund. Acc. No. 1932.36b. CC0 1.0

In this place, where the Quran is the only book we expect to see, a figure holds an open book on whose pages some words are written in a microscopically small hand. On the left page Quintanilla reads the phrase “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” with which every chapter of the Quran opens. But on the right is written “Allah,” then “Akbar” and “Padshah”.

Disconnected, without conjunctions, the words could be read as “God is Great, says the Emperor,” or as “God is Akbar, the Emperor” – that audacious pun that was already in circulation in the innermost circles of Akbar’s court.

Here, however, on a page that speaks of an unjust ruler whose evil deeds brought disaster upon his land, the tiny inscription can stand also as a witness to the virtues of a good king. Akbar, who was committed to protecting all the subjects in his realm, who, despite the muttered criticisms that he must have heard from the Sunnis at court, allowed a Shia to pen the history of a bad Abbasid ruler from the perspective of his victims; who refused to discriminate between different kinds of subjects when this Shia man was murdered, and would not spare his Sunni killer; the ruler who was committed to sulh-i-kull, peace for all: perhaps this inscription tells us that such a Padshah who is great, who is Akbar, is next to God.

Kavita Singh is a professor of art history at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

This article is supported by MAD [Salon + Lab + Fellowship], which explores contemporary issues of nation building and fosters endeavours at the intersection of the Arts + Sciences + Humanities.