Research: A field-changing view of divine kingship in Islam

'The Millennial Sovereign' by Azfar Moin, book coverIn a new and potentially field-changing study, SMU historian Azfar Moin explores why Muslim sovereigns in the early modern era began to imitate the exalted nature of Sufi saints.

Uncovering a startling but widespread phenomenon, Moin shows how the charismatic pull of sainthood (wilayat) — rather than the draw of religious law (sharia) or holy war (jihad) —inspired a new style of sovereignty in Islam. Moin’s research is published in his new book, The Millennial Sovereign (Columbia University Press, 2012).

At the end of the 16th century and the turn of the first Islamic millennium, the powerful Mughal emperor Akbar declared himself the most sacred being on earth. The holiest of all saints and above the distinctions of religion, he styled himself as the messiah reborn. Yet the Mughal emperor was not alone in doing so.

The title of the book reflects the Mughal emperors’ messianic and Sufi beliefs, which also led these Muslim rulers to explore European Christianity, says Moin, an expert on the history of South Asia who teaches in the Clements Department of History of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

“The Mughal emperors of 16th- and 17th-century India — of Taj Mahal fame — were also avid collectors of Christian art. They even invited Jesuit missionaries to discuss the Bible. At first the Catholic priests were delighted that such powerful Muslim kings were attracted to Christianity, but they eventually realized that their hosts were more interested in the millennium,” Moin says.

“The first millennium of Islam occurred at the end of the 16th century,” he says. “The Mughals used this religiously charged moment to style themselves as saintly and messianic sovereigns. They called their queens ‘The Mary of the Age’ and ‘Of the Stature of Mary.’ This didn’t mean that they had turned Christian, but that they were Jesus-like in their sacredness.”

“This is a brilliant book,” said South Asia expert Francis Robinson, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. “It is the most innovative contribution to our understanding of Mughal history of my time. As a work of the first importance, and a step change in our knowledge of 16th-century India, it must be read by anyone interested in the fields of Islamic kingship, millenarianism and astrology in the Muslim world, and in the early modern world in general.”— Columbia University Press

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About Kathleen Tibbetts

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