New study on kingship and sainthood in Islam offers a striking new historical perspective

Field-changing book: New study is a work of history richly informed by the anthropology of religion and art

In a new and potentially field-changing study, A. 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 sixteenth 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.

“The Mughal emperors of sixteenth and seventeenth 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 sixteenth 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.”

Innovative contribution to our understanding of Mughal history
“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 sixteenth-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.”

A work of history richly informed by the anthropology of religion and art, The Millennial Sovereign traces how royal dynastic cults and shrine-centered Sufism came together in the imperial cultures of Timurid Central Asia, Safavid Iran and Mughal India. By juxtaposing imperial chronicles, paintings and architecture with theories of sainthood, apocalyptic treatises and manuals on astrology and magic, Moin uncovers a pattern of Islamic politics shaped by Sufi and millennial motifs.

He shows how alchemical symbols and astrological rituals enveloped the body of the monarch, casting him as both spiritual guide and material lord.

Ultimately, Moin offers a striking new perspective on the history of Islam and the religious and political developments that linked South Asia and Iran in early modern times.

Moin is assistant professor in the Clements Department of History at Southern Methodist University. His research and writing focuses on early-modern South Asia and the Islamic world. — Columbia University Press

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