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Book excerpt: Aurangzeb willingly disregarded religious scruples when it suited him

In her biography of one of the most reviled rulers in Indian history, Audrey Truschke looks at the controversial Mughal emperor with a fresh perspective.

books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:50 IST

Like every other Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb was born a Muslim and practised his inherited religion throughout his life. It is impossible to know the inner thoughts of long-dead kings, but, based on actions, it appears that Aurangzeb was more pious than his imperial predecessors.

He prayed with greater regularity than his forefathers, and he abstained from drink and opium, indulgences that had killed several male members of the Mughal family. In the 1660s, Aurangzeb memorized the Quran. In his later years he sewed prayer caps and copied the Quran by hand, both pious pursuits.

But Aurangzeb’s approach to religion was hardly puritanical. On the contrary, he consulted with prominent Hindu religious figures throughout his life, as had earlier Mughal kings. For example, in the 1680s Aurangzeb conducted a religious discussion with the Bairagi Hindu Shiv Mangaldas Maharaj and showered the saint with gifts.

The king had strong links with Islamic Sufi communities, another time-honoured Mughal tradition, as evidenced by his burial at a Chishti shrine in Maharashtra. An image of Aurangzeb depicts his visit, along with two of his sons, to the shrine of Muinuddin Chishti (d. 1236) in Ajmer, Rajasthan, probably around 1680. Aurangzeb’s interpretation of Islam also included many talismanic aspects. For instance, he once wrote out prayers and had them sewn to banners and standards that were carried into battle against enemies of the state.

Prince Aurangzeb facing a maddened elephant. (Wikimedia Commons)

Aurangzeb often performed his piety on a public stage for the benefit of both himself and others. For example, sewing prayers to battle standards ensured victory in his eyes and those of his troops. The king once threw a written prayer into flooded waters (which caused them to subside, according to Bhimsen Saxena). Another historian tells of how Aurangzeb dismounted during a military clash in order to pray as an expression of devotion, that also buoyed his troops with the confidence that God was on their side.

Aurangzeb wanted to be, and be seen as, a good Muslim.

As a Muslim ruler, Aurangzeb’s religious ideals demanded that he dispense justice and protect his citizens. As the king put it in a letter to his grandson Azimusshan, ‘You should consider the protection of the subjects as the source of happiness in this world and the next.’ But the emperor ran into repeated problems regarding his public relationship with Islam. When the two conflicted, Aurangzeb generally sacrificed religious obligations on the altar of state interests, although such decisions weighed heavily on his heart.

Aurangzeb broke Islamic law when he deposed his father and imprisoned him for the better part of a decade. As I have mentioned, the sharif of Mecca stated this judgement clearly and rebuffed Aurangzeb’s requests for recognition as the legitimate ruler of Hindustan while Shah Jahan lived.

Aurangzeb never ceased soliciting the sharif of Mecca to change his mind, which suggests that lacking approval from Muslim religious leaders bothered the Mughal emperor.

The problem resolved itself when Shah Jahan died in 1666, Aurangzeb but the intermediary seven-and-a-half years of ruling in violation of Islamic principles took a toll on Aurangzeb.

A European traveller a few decades later opined that Aurangzeb’s ‘rigorous abstinence’, including from alcohol, was the king’s penance for his earlier sins against his father. Whether this precise connection is accurate, being branded an illegitimate Muslim monarch likely prompted Aurangzeb to become more devout. Many of his more obvious pious pursuits, such as memorizing and copying the Quran, began in earnest after his ascension. Here, Aurangzeb’s religiosity did not shape state policy so much as his kingly experiences inspired changes in his religious life.

Over the course of his reign numerous other clashes arose between Islamic religious ideals and Mughal state interests. Aurangzeb privileged the latter almost invariably.

For instance, during the assault on Bijapur in 1686, a delegation of Bijapuri theologians pleaded with Aurangzeb to end the siege on the grounds that warring against fellow Muslims was unjust. Aurangzeb remained unmoved and persisted with his brutal tactics until Bijapur fell. The emperor then ordered some Bijapuri palace wall paintings wiped out, perhaps as a limp attempt to reassert the theological righteousness of the Mughal state by adhering to the hard-line view that images are idolatrous.

Author Audrey Truschke looks at the controversial Mughal emperor with a fresh perspective in her new book Aurangzeb. (Twitter)

When he thought it served imperial interests, Aurangzeb even compromised Islamic principles that he had earlier endorsed. For instance, in 1700 Mughal soldiers captured nine Hindus and four Muslims during the siege of Satara Fort, a Maratha stronghold. Following the Fatawa-i Alamgiri, a legal book that Aurangzeb had sponsored, a Mughal judge sentenced the Muslims to three years in prison and offered the Hindus a full pardon if they converted to Islam. Dissatisfied with such leniency, Aurangzeb ordered the judge to ‘decide the case in some other way, that control over the kingdom may not be lost’. The rebels were all executed before sundown.

The ulama, the learned men of Islam, were not blind to Aurangzeb’s willingness to disregard religious scruples when it suited him. Accordingly, like earlier Mughal rulers, Aurangzeb clashed with the ulama, especially in their role as qazis (Muslim judges), throughout his reign. On seizing the throne, he named Abdul Wahhab chief qazi because the prior chief would not overlook the sin of overthrowing Shah Jahan. Decades later Aurangzeb fell out with Shaykh al-Islam, Abdul Wahhab’s son who was also a qazi, because he refused to sanction Mughal assaults that sought to overthrow the Islamic kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda and killed many Muslims. Shaykh al-Islam soon resigned and went on a hajj to Mecca, a time-honoured Mughal method of removing men who refused to toe the imperial line.

Dating back to Akbar’s reign, the ulama were a key component in the balance of Mughal power. Akbar ridiculed the more uptight members of this community and exiled certain vocal individuals. Like Akbar, Aurangzeb was not above displacing problematic members of the ulama, such as Shah Jahan’s chief qazi who refused to sanction Aurangzeb’s ascension. But, when possible, Aurangzeb took a softer approach of placating the ulama, especially by providing them with income.

Excerpted with permission from Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, Audrey Truschke, Penguin Random House India.

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