Some thoughts on:
Ahmed Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship & Sainthood in Islam, South Asia Across the Disciplines. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. pp. xvii + 343. ISBN 978-0-231-16037-7 paperback.
The Millennial Sovereign is the sort of contribution to the field that forces everyone to take note and to engage. A highly original construction of an argument that draws upon a variety of sources, including especially the visual that will appeal to the art historian, Moin contends that we need to reconceive radically our notions of Mughal kingship in the light of what is becoming a mainstream position in the study of Timurid Iran and its legacies, namely that in the fifteenth century beginning with Timur there was a convergence of notions of authority that produced the king and the saint, whose progeny was a sacral notion of kingship in which the sovereign himself was both a political ruler and a messianic redeemer of the last days. The book seeks to demonstrate that we cannot divorce Timurid notions of sainthood from kingship; it also shows how the political theology of the Shiʿi Safavids of Iran was more widespread than people think, and that contrary to much Mughal historiography, Akbar was the norm rather than the exception – it is no accident that the central chapter in the study is on him, albeit a rather disappointing one. Arguably, this development was due to the fact that Sufism had, by the early modern period, become the dominant idiom for expressing sanctity, spirituality and authority in the Persianate context (if not farther beyond). Kingship was performative and socially embodied and appealed to popular notions of the sacred even if our sources for them are irreducibly elite. The argument is developed in five chapters: on Timur as lord of the conjunction, on Babur as the visionary messiah and dynast, on Humayun and his alchemical court, on Akbar as the archetypal millennial sovereign, and on Jahangir as lord of time. There is then a brief conclusion on Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. The central focus is upon the public and socially embedded iconography of the sovereign and hence it is most appropriate that the cover image in taken from a famous painting in the Smithsonian of Jahangir as the sacral king (indicated by his halo) as the teacher and pivot for the Sufi shaykh, the Rajput notable, the Sunni ʿālim, and the European savant. There is also an assumption that the world had dramatically changed by 1700 so he makes no effort to discuss eighteenth century Mughals which is a shame because the use of royal iconography and reference to 'lords of the conjunction' did not disappear from either painting or literary representation. The eighteenth century remains rather understudied outside of the teleology construction of the backdrop to colonial modernity.
Before considering elements of his argument, it seems useful to flag the theoretical contributions and developments of certain positions in the book. The first is the shift towards intellectual and cultural history in the text, away from the Aligarh school’s focus upon the facts on the ground, the elements of the social and the economic. This is history in the grander scheme with its emphasis on ideology, on self-fashioning and producing the icon of the sacral monarch, and paying attention to the illocutionary elements of royal-sacral speech acts (which de-emphasising the centrality of the narrative textual traditions). Allied to this is an emphasis on the embodied nature of these processes in which ideology is located within the body of the sovereign and this is continuous with some recent studies in Sufism (one thinks of Shahzad Bashir’s and Scott Kugle’s books in an Indian and Persianate milieu) and in political theology (much earlier with Peter Brown but more recently Giorgio Agamben and Eric Santner). In one sense, this shift is merely recognition that what we considered to be a textual in times past was far too narrow. At the same time, the obvious rebuttal could be that this is a return to history as the unfolding story of great men and a return to the narratives of elites directly rejected by both Marxist historiography and the ‘subaltern studies’ school.
The second allied point is the turn towards connected histories as articulated by the likes of Cornell Fleischer and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, that we need to move beyond nationalist historiographies and recognise the interconnected nature of the early modern world which requires us to look at regions and across regions as well as across disciplines. Moin’s study works within the newer paradigm of looking at what Marshall Hodgson called the gunpowder empires in terms of their ideological continuities. Part of the argument is that the connectedness then allows us to spot and nuance where the links fail. At the same time, the broader context may dupe us into failing to see specificities of the local and spend too much time on the superficialities of the common.
The third concerns the ‘Islam’ debate, most recently evoked in the late Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? We still lack a serious and nuanced study of the history of Islamic political thought (Patrica Crone’s and Anthony Black’s accounts are partial and flawed); however, what is often noted is that a stricter shariʿa-minded conception of the sovereign as expression of imperial (Sunni) Islam and as upholder of the divine law often conflicts with the Turco-Mongol-Persian conception of the King as the representative of God on earth possessing the divine light or charisma (farr-i īzadī). This was directly expressed in a number of studies on India and Iran that juxtaposed the courts of the Sufi and the Shah and considered them to constitute two opposing notions of authority. Moin suggests, rightly, and partly through the appropriation of the centrality of the occult in the Islamic sciences, that the sacral kingship of the Mughal was at once Islamic, Turco-Mongol-Persian and even Indian. In this we can see continuities with the work of the late Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi who greatly emphasised the role of the role of ideology and the political philosophy of illuminationism (ishrāq) in the fashioning of the image of Akbar. In particular, Moin’s emphasis on the occult continues a trend of recent scholarship rejecting the occultophobia of much historiography in the field of early modern Eurasia. The intellectual history of the Islamicate Eurasian plane becomes a ‘hidden history’ of the true sciences of magic in which the heroes are Aḥmad al-Būnī (d. 1225), Sayyid Ḥusayn Akhlāṭī (d. 1397), Ibn Turka Iṣfahānī (d. 1434), Shams al-Dīn Khafrī (d. 1535), Mīr Dāmād (d. 1631), Mīr Findiriskī (d. 1640), Āzar Kayvān (d. c. 1618), Abū-l-Fażl (d. 1602), ʿAbd al-Sattār Lāhawrī (d. 1624), Sarmad (d. 1661), Dara Shikoh (d. 1659) as well as the many princes who patronised the occult arts in order to deploy their power. However, apart from the consideration of two astrological sources, Moin does not really establish the centrality of the occult in the way that recent studies by Matthew Melvin-Koushki and Evrim Binbas on the Timurids of Iran do. The final turn concerns the notion of the sacred and arguably of political theology itself. Following Michael Taussig (and ultimately in one sense Durkheim’s somewhat banal notion of religion as social fact and practice) – and I would want this to be far better critically evaluated – Moin argues that the sacred is both ineffable and immanent everywhere, embedded in social processes and not in canons of textual traditions. Sacred kingship in this sense relied upon the popular practices of the sacred, of magic, superstition, predicated upon popular traditions and not the discursive traditions (apud Talal Asad) of the elites; but again the basic problem remains of using elite texts to attempt to decipher this. The conjunction of these four important theoretical postures is rather difficult to reconcile and evinces the ambition of Moin’s project.
Chapter two considers the persona of Timur as lord of the conjunction and in many ways takes up the tendency in recent scholarship to emphasise the messianic moment of Timur’s conquests and his patrimony in Central Asia and India. The chapter begins with Ibn Khaldūn’s account and the consideration of sources on Timur as messiah. These would include conjunction astrology but the sources used remain literary. Moin attempts to show how the Timurid dispensation was merged with forms of ʿAlid loyalism in which devotion to ʿAlī and his descendants mingled with messianism in the form of figures such as Sayyid Muḥammad Nūrbakhsh. It is not entirely clear how the two are connected and I would argue that the forms of ‘confessional ambiguity’ articulated in the popular visitation of shrines and the spiritual promiscuity of many people is quite different from an occultist devotion to ʿAlī, his descendants and the magical arts that they purveyed. Ambiguity between Sunni and ShiʿI, between the Mongol and the ʿAlid, between the pagan and the Islamic is central to this presentation. However, there are obvious exceptions. For example, in his poetry in praise of Sulṭān Ḥusayn Bāyqarā (d. 1506), the prominent Persian poet Jāmī (d. 1492) in his pursuit of projecting the Sunni identity of the court at Herat, described the ruler as the messiah of his time, not as heir to ʿAlī but in response to others who claimed to be Shiʿi messianic heirs of ʿAlī. How are these traditions reconciled? Moin suggest through the notion that the lords of the conjunction were considered to be manifestations of ʿAlī – but this is not so clear with Timur himself, who is more famed for his devotion to ʿAlī and his descendants, not least through his revival of the Ilkhan practice of the dār al-siyāda and the stipends that went to the sayyids. He brings forth the evidence of the Kitāb Jahmasp or the Jāhmaspnāma which he, following Rieu, dates to the fifteenth century as evidence of an astrological history in which ʿAlī is central and whose tone is messianic and ʿAlid loyalist (but not Shiʿi). However, Moin admits that the work is probably thirteenth century not least because of its negative portrayal of Chinggis Khan – however, given that the Timurids wished to reconcile the Chinggisid and ʿAlid inheritances, the use of this source constitutes a problem. As Moin says, this is ʿAlī of popular lore, of the Mukhtārnāma, Abū-Muslim-nāmas and the Dāstān-i Amīr-i Ḥamza and similar romances and not of either Sunni or Shiʿi canonical texts; but do we have any evidence that the Timurids patronised such works not least because they present rather oppositional constructions of charisma and authority and posed a threat to the social and political order of their times?
Chapter three moves onto Babur as a calque for Shah Ismāʿīl. While they both struggle for the control of the former territory of Timur, they were quite different. Babur certainly saw himself as inheritor to Timur even as lord of the conjunction – one is struck by the way in which destiny unfolds in his own account the Baburnāma, albeit one in which Chinggisid elements work alongside more canonical Islamic motifs and references to scripture. In fact, Moin’s account of the run up to the battle of Khanua is somewhat reminiscent of the famous Elliot and Dowson project of Indian history in which the chronicles were expunged of their Islamic scriptural content. Yes, Babur was asserted his astrological importance over the ill-fated and pessimistic ‘bad magic’ of an astrologer. But his repentance for drinking wine (itself a violation of the Turco-Mongol-Persian notion of King’s social persona in the bazm u razm) was linked with the citation of scripture. The victory in the battle indicated not only that Babur is the lord of the conjunction, but that God has chosen him for the quality of his moral personality as well. The tension with the Persian astrologer also reflects the motif of the power differential between the turk ruler and his tajik functionary. The relationship between the Naqshbandīs is another source of difference between the two rulers – and that requires a far more detailed consideration than in the chapter. Babur never quite buys the claims of the Safavid and it is clear that one needs to consider Shah Ismāʿīl not only within the context of ʿAlid millenarian movements of the fifteenth century but also in terms of his claim to descent of ʿAlī in particular – as Kazuo Morimoto has shown, the sayyid lineage of the Safavids was not ‘fabricated’ in the time of Tahmasp but was already an element of their social capital before the conquest of Herat. One also wonders whether Moin is not conflating too much – the futavvat brotherhoods, antinomian bābāʾī Sufis (studied by Ahmed Karamustafa and Ahmed Yaşar Ocak), Timurid lords of the conjunction, Qizilbash heterodox Shiʿism. And what are we to make to Babur’s dissimulation as qizilbash in order to gain the support of the Safavids against the Uzbek to regain his patrimony – just as Humayun was to do later to regain the throne of Hindustan? Moin draws upon the important Shāhnāma for Ismāʿīl but one wonders: is ṣāḥib-qirānī always particular to Timur? And how do we explain Chaldirān? There is one small detail to correct – on page 90 Moin translates yādgār as ‘monument’ to the ahl al-bayt, but it seems clear that there is a reference to a messianic epiphet here: the Mahdī is the remnant of God (baqiyyatullāh) and for someone to be the remnant (yādgār is clearly a Persian form of baqiyyatullāh) of the family of the Prophet puts him in a messianic relationship with the Mahdī. It is not clear to me how this makes Ismāʿīl a second Timur.
Chapter four on Humayun begins with a Safavid portrayal of the divine pretensions of Humayun and the historiographical neglect of the second Mughal ruler. Moin stresses his close association with Shaṭṭārī Sufis – who were, it must be said, also close to the Suri rulers in what is often teleologically considered the Indo-Afghan interregnum – and drawing upon Khwāndmīr, the lettrist nature of the entourage. This chapter is rather disjointed. One cannot see how the choice of Shaṭṭārīs was due to their popularity – and shift away from the older Transoxianian support for Naqshbandīs (especially since in the previous chapter Moin says that Babur has already moved away from the Naqshbandīs in his taqiyya with Ismāʿīl). How would the claims of Shaykh Muḥammad Ghawth (d. 1563) and his spiritual mastery over Humayun and then the case of Masʿūd Sālār Ghāzī end up bestowing sacral kingship on Humayun? The use of the Qānun-i Humāyūnī is not sufficient evidence either for the absence of ‘rational administration’ on the part of Humayun – not least because he spent so much of his ‘reign’ without the reins of power – or for evidence of his divine kingship. His later submission to Shah Tahmasb also does not fit well – and hence Moin is perhaps too accepting of the insistence upon the heterodox nature of Qizilbash and Safavid religion in the historiography – even in the 1540s – to suggest that this did not include an avowal of Shiʿi Islam. The only way Humayun fits is through Moin’s suggestion that his relationship to Akbar was like that of Ḥaydar to Shah Ismāʿīl – but there is no serious consideration of evidence for this.
Chapter five on Akbar is the most important and takes up earlier studies of his religious policy and ideology. There are no new sources considered here. But we have a fairly mainstream new approach to the controversies of his time. For example, the dīn-i ilāhī becomes the cult of the millennial sovereign and sulḥ-i kull a mechanism of including elite devotees and not an expression of Chishtī influence upon Akbar. Rajeev Kinra recently in his work on Chandra Bhan Brahman has suggested that it has more to do with the accommodation of diversity and renders it ‘universal civility’ and locates in elements of Persianate and Indian norms devoid of any messianic spirit. Moin discusses Badāyūnī’s critique that locates Akbar’s heterodoxy as a millennial madness that fits with other versions of the messianic outbreaks such as the Mahdavī movement. The fulfilment of history in the millennium with Akbar is also indicated by the official chronicle as the Tārīkh-i alfī. In the example of Akbar we have all the elements of the occult, lettrism, sainthood and kingship as messianic figure and renewer of the age. What one cannot really see is where the popular aspects are. The dīn-i ilāhī was not a popular movement but an elite process. One should also consider the dual nature of the Akbarnāma – it was very much a projection of the social persona of the monarch but also an advice to the King as a treatise on statecraft, a desire for what Abū-l-Fażl wanted Akbar to become. The contrast with Shah ʿAbbās is instructive since apart from the bizarre Nuqṭavī episode, we see a routinisation and the process of becoming Shah and leaving behind the Qizilbash past of the millennial sovereign.
The final chapter on Jahangir is perhaps the most interesting. Here is the most extensive consideration of the iconography that takes us beyond the literary sources. Consistent with revisionists, Moin rejects the Naqshbandī reaction approach to Jahangir. The sources represent him as the Complete Manifestation of the Divine. Thus his approach to the Sikhs and even to the Shiʿi martyr Sayyid Nūrullāh Shūshtarī has less to do with an Islamic reaction and more about the assertion of his own authority and as well as his sufferance of the religious choices that his subjects (especially the elites) are allowed to make. The texts and the paintings of Jahangir portray him as a sacral figure, a Sufi saint, a thaumaturge, and axis mundi. What is also clear – and this was also true to Akbar – is how much the iconography also reflects Indic themes; in this context, it is useful to consider some of the baramasa calendars produced for Akbar and Jahangir which reflect this (such as the ones at the Raza Library in Rampur). He also patronised Christian festivals. The argument is that the millennial sovereign sits above the religious particularities of his subjects. The increasingly Christian icononography of Jahangir cannot be divorced, however, from the Jesuit presence at court and their desire to win him for their cause – and no doubt he strung them along.
The conclusion considers to what extent this theory of kingship and its social process unravelled in the seventeenth century. The problem is that teleological approaches to Shah Jahan and his sons tend to obscure our reading. A fuller account of the sources shows that there was no gradual drift to ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ in which the person of Dārā Shikoh was a throwback to his grandfather and great-grandfather. The Mughals continued to see themselves as the ultimate spiritual authorities and arbiters. Moin gives us further reason to take the iconography of Mughal painting seriously. His conclusion ends with an important observation: our reading of the early modern world has become skewed by the prism of reformism and modernism from the nineteenth century seeking clear cut identity markers and expressions in the texts. In a sense this is a plea for considering the simple point: if we want to make sense of what the reformers destroyed or replaced we need to pay attention to the wide range of textual and knowledge production that came before the various expressions of colonial modernity be that Aligarh or Deoband.
One wonders whether the ambition of the work takes over and details are brushed aside rather hastily without working through their connections and implications. One can quibble about lots of details and consideration and clearly some chapters are more successful than others – to my mind, the analyses of Jahangir and Shah Jahan are the most interesting. But the presentist mode of the approach – or rather the self-conscious desire to break out of the modernist mould – offers limitations as well. It is rare indeed to find a work of this ambition being uniformly successful so perhaps we should content ourselves with enjoying the traversal through a dazzling array of sources and then those who have already been won over by the millenarian conceptions of authority in the Timurid period will find further evidence to bolster their prejudices, while those somewhat sceptical of that turn in intellectual history will focus on the mistakes and hasty judgements. But all will profit from reading the Millennial Sovereign.