The Place of Islam in Mughal Culture
As regards their religious culture, Bengal’s Mughal ashrāf were distinctive in at least three respects—their special link with the pan-Indian Chishti order, their conceptual separation of religion and state, and, as a corollary to this, their disinclination to convert Bengalis to Islam. Since the Tughluq period, the Chishti order of Sufism had enjoyed a special status among Delhi’s rulers, who lavishly patronized the descendants of the great Chishti shaikhs with magnificent tombs and considerable tax-free land. Mirza Nathan counted himself a “faithful disciple” (murīd-i bandagī) of Shaikh Farid al-Din Ganj-i Shakar (d. 1265), perhaps because his ancestors had come from the Punjab, where the cult of that saint enjoyed special prominence. And Governor Islam Khan, the man most responsible for consolidating Mughal rule in Bengal, was the grandson of Akbar’s chief spiritual guide, Shaikh Salim Chishti, which explains why the governor once referred to Sufism as “our ancestral profession.”
The extent to which Sufi piety was integrated with the imperial vocation is aptly illustrated in vignettes from the career of Mirza Nathan. In early 1612, Islam Khan, having earlier promised Nathan a month’s leave of absence, subsequently ordered the junior officer to assist in repelling an Arakanese invasion of southern Bengal. The Mirza vigorously protested this order by shaving his head and donning the ragged garb of the faqīr, that is, one who abandons the world by embracing a life of poverty (fuqr). What is more, 4,700 of his fighting men, plus a large number of camp followers (bāzārīān), did the same. Some, the officer wrote, acted from fear of losing their rations if they did not mimic their patron’s behavior, and others did so “out of their simple and pure devotion for him.” The governor’s response to all of this is equally revealing. “Alright,” he replied through messengers,
On another occasion, exasperated over political intrigues during one of his military campaigns in northern Bengal, Nathan again referred to the Sufi model of renunciation, writing that he “derived consolation in his trouble by recounting what happened to Mansur Hallaj,” a reference to the classic martyr in the Islamic mystical tradition. And in 1624, when his loyalties were irreconcilably divided between Emperor Jahangir and his rebel son, the future Shah Jahan, and having betrayed both, Nathan ultimately chose the drastic step of deserting imperial service altogether. Feeling as though he were “thrown into the well of calamity,” he repaired on foot, and nearly alone, directly to the shrine of Mir Saiyid Ahmad al-Husaini in Malatipur, where in confusion and despair he fell before the successor to that saint, kissing his feet.
No body has to say anything about any mode of life one selects to lead. But in taking to the life of a Faqir, which is the profession of our ancestors, it will be graceful of you to come to us to receive our benediction and then to engage yourself in that profession.
It would seem, then, that Sufism, or more precisely the style of piety informed by institutionalized world-rejection and the cult of saints, was very much built into the ethos of Mughal service in Bengal. Just as a Mandarin official in contemporary Ming China could be a Confucian at his desk but a Taoist when at home or retired, in Mughal Bengal the activities of the soldier-administrator and the world-renouncing mystic/ascetic were similarly integrated. Tamed through routinized saint cults and the close historical ties between the Chishti order and the Mughal ruling house (and before that the sultans of Pandua and Gaur), Sufism’s world-renouncing vision formed, not an antithesis to the worldly business of running an empire, but a complement to it.
Secondly, the ruling class in Bengal maintained a clear separation between matters of religion and matters of state. We see this in the functional specialization of Mughal cities. As the provincial capital and administrative center, Dhaka was devoted to the secular concerns of revenue collection, politics, and military reviews. Even its most imposing mosques, such as the Satgumbad mosque (ca. 1664–76), bear the stuccoed stamp of their North Indian patrons and seem intended at least as much to display imperial power as to inspire piety. The city was also devoted to trade and money-making. Fray Manrique noted that Dhaka’s merchants had raised the city “to an eminence of wealth which is actually stupefying.”
By contrast, the ancient capitals of Pandua and Gaur were denied any political significance under the Mughals and emerged instead as Islamic sacred centers. One-third of all extant Mughal inscriptions down to 1760 are found on sacred sites in these two cities alone. Gaur’s sanctity rested primarily on the Qadam Rasul, a reliquary established by Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah in 1503, containing a dais and black marble stone purporting to bear the impression of the Prophet’s footprint. But the institutions most lavishly patronized by the Mughals were the older and more important tomb complexes in nearby Pandua—the shrines of Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq (d. 1398) and Shaikh Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam (d. 1459), Bengal’s most prominent Chishti saints. The latter had been the object of state patronage ever since the saint’s death in the mid fifteenth century, and by the end of that century it had become the focus of annual pilgrimages by Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah (r. 1493–1519). A century later, in 1609, Mirza Nathan made a three-day pilgrimage to the shrine, having vowed to do so should his father recover from an illness. And on the occasion of his own marriage, he made a pilgrimage to Gaur’s Qadam Rasul and the shrine of Shaikh ‘Ala al-Haq in Pandua.
A third feature of ashrāf religious sentiment was a hands-off policy toward non-Muslim religions. Unlike the contemporary Ottoman Empire, where Christian military recruits were converted to Islam as part of their assimilation into the ruling class, in Bengal, as in Mughal India generally, it was imperial symbols such as salt, not Islam, that conferred corporate identity on the officer corps. Moreover, bonds of loyalty among Mughal officers not only ran across community lines but persisted over several generations. When Mirza Nathan donned the garb of the Sufi by way of lodging a personal protest against Governor Islam Khan, several Hindu officers obstinately stood by Nathan and even suffered imprisonment and flogging for showing their loyalty to him. When brought before the governor to explain their behavior, one of the Hindus, Baikuntha Das, was interrogated with the words, “ ‘You are a Hindu; why did you join this rebellion?’ He replied, ‘God forbid! No rebellion will ever be raised either by Ihtimam Khan or his son [Mirza Nathan]. But as from my childhood, my father, at the request of his father, has given me to serve him and as I have been equally sharing his prosperity and adversity from my early life, so I can not leave his company.” ’
When making vows or swearing oaths, moreover, members of the imperial corps appealed to different deities according to the officers’ particular religious identities. On one occasion, a copy of the Qur’an and a black geode representing a form of Vishnu (sālagrām) were brought to a mixed group of Mughal officers who had resolved to swear an oath among themselves. Placing their hand on the Qur’an, the Muslim officers took solemn oaths in the name of Allah, while the Hindu officers, placing their hands on the geode, did the same in the name of Vishnu. Clearly, unlike the early sultans of Bengal, Mughal officials did not perceive Islam as the state religion. Except for a brief episode of Hindu persecution in the early 1680s—which in any event had been initiated in Delhi and not Dhaka—Bengal’s rulers, despite pressure from local mullās and Sufis to support Islam against other religions, maintained a strictly non-interventionist position in religious matters.
A corollary of this policy was the refusal to promote the conversion of Bengalis to Islam. Indeed, given the Mughals’ negative sentiments toward Bengal’s “natives,” one should hardly expect otherwise. For Muslims in the imperial elite, their religion and their family and political contacts with North India served, in their own minds at least, to distinguish them from the delta’s indigenous peoples. Islam Khan is known to have discouraged the conversion of Bengalis, and on one occasion he actually punished one of his officers for bringing about the conversion of a Bengali Hindu. In 1609, when the governor’s army was moving across the present Bogra region subduing hostile chieftains, one of his officers, Tuqmaq Khan, defeated the zamīndār of Shahzadpur. Soon after this the officer employed the son of the defeated raja as his personal servant and at the same time converted him to Islam. This news so annoyed the governor that he had Tuqmaq Khan transferred from his jāgīr. Clearly, the governor did not view government service as a reward for conversion to Islam. Moreover, it was not only Islam Khan who opposed the conversion, but also “the other officers of the State,” suggesting that this non-interventionist policy was a general one.