Vienna, the Second Siege of

Vienna, the Second Siege of

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The rise and fall of societies, nations and civilizations does not take place overnight. Barring natural calamities or invasions, the process takes place over generations. Critical events are like flashes in the panorama of history that show up the stresses built up in societies over a period of time. An observer living in Istanbul in the year 1683 would have been awed by the expanse of the Ottoman Empire. Extending over three continents, it was by far the largest land empire in the world. In Europe, it extended to the very gates of Vienna, and included Hungary, Romania, Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, and parts of Poland, Ukraine and Russia. In Asia, it included Anatolia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iraq, the Persian Gulf region, Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon. From the Suez area, it extended over North Africa through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. The eastern Mediterranean was an Ottoman preserve. Only Sa’adid Morocco, with its capital at Marrakesh, separated the Ottoman Empire from the Atlantic Ocean and America. The world of Islam-with the exception of Safavid Persia-recognized its claim to the Caliphate. Its embassies were honored in Moghul India and in the Emirates of the Sudan and of East Africa. European monarchs eagerly sought trade and commerce with the realm of the Sultan. Ottoman ships plied the Indian Ocean, and carried goods and guns to places as far away as the Straits of Malacca. Its capital, Istanbul, was the largest cosmopolitan city in the world with a population approaching a million. Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Armenians lived peacefully together, each governed by their own religious code. Freedom of religion was guaranteed. The Empire, with extensive agricultural lands in Rumilia (European Turkey), Iraq, Syria and Egypt, was divided into 32 provinces, each with an appointed governor (pasha or bayg), with a rank commensurate with his position. Some of the provinces were grouped under a governor-general (beglerbeg). In turn, each province was divided into districts (sanjaks) administered by a sanjakbey who had the additional responsibility of supplying a prescribed number of troops to the governor in times of war. Administrative and military functions were thus combined at the local level, leading to efficient governance. The empire lay across the main east-west and north-south trade routes. External trade with Persia and India to the east, and the Italian city-states to the west was brisk. In North Africa, caravan routes cut across the Sahara and carried on a thriving trade with the states of the Sudan. Istanbul, Alexandria, Algiers, Smyrna, Aleppo, Adrianopole, Basra and Yemen were thriving trade centers. Tax revenues were derived from agriculture and trade. Land was owned by the state and was leased to peasants and officers of the army who were required to raise horses and supply soldiers (sipahis) in proportion to the land allocated to them. Crafts were organized into guilds. Members of the guilds were often associated with local Sufi zawiyas. The system ensured that the craftsmen were represented both in the economic and the social milieu of society.

The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic State governed by the Shariah. Although the Ottomans followed the Hanafi Fiqh, all four of the Sunni Schools of Fiqh enjoyed equal weight before the law. Even with their adversaries, the Safavids of Persia, who practiced the Ithna Ashari Fiqh, the Ottomans agreed on the principles of adl (justice) and ihsan (noble work). The Grand Mufti of Istanbul carried the title of Shaykh ul Islam, and was a powerful man in the Empire, although he held that position only at the pleasure of the Sultan. The mufti’s consent was required on important matters of legislation, including a declaration of war. The kadis performed the administration of justice at the local levels. Religious endowments, known as awqaf, maintained schools, roads, canals and other public works. In this function, the role of the awqaf was supplemented by the work of the Sufi zawiyas.

The Empire was held together by the army, an institution that had enjoyed the highest prestige since the early days of the ghazis of Rum. Since the reign of Bayazid I (d.1402), the standing army was composed of young men who were requisitioned from the conquered territories. These men, brought into Ottoman territories as boys, were trained in the arts of war, exposed to Islamic teachings, and inducted into the army. These were the janissars, who constituted the most efficient fighting machine in Europe for over three centuries. In 1683, the core of the standing army of janissars had approximately 120,000 men. This standing army was supplemented at times of war by sipahis provided by the provincial governors. Each sipahi was obligated to provide his own horse and armament, the expenses for which were offset from revenues derived from land allocated to him. There were more than 100,000 sipahis in the empire. In addition, the Tatars of Crimea supplied 30,000 troops when called upon to do so.

Sulaiman the Magnificent (d.1565) had endowed the Empire with the institutions that were to serve the Ottomans well into the following century. Under his successors these institutions had been allowed to decay, so that by 1683 the vast Empire was like an old oak tree, which was rotted from within. Under the façade of its outward expanse there were structural and technological weaknesses that were soon to surface and cause a galactic regression of its boundaries. The principal reason for this weakness lay in the structure of the Ottoman enterprise. The empire was like an inverted pyramid standing on its head. The efficiency of this structure depended on the capability of the Sultan. Under capable and far-sighted Sultans, such as Sulaiman, the Empire prospered. When the Sultan was incompetent, or had no inclination to govern, corruption set in.

In the hundred years following the death of Sulaiman the Magnificent, few Sultans, with the possible exception of Murad IV (1623-1640), demonstrated effective skills and capabilities. They spent more time in the harem than paying attention to affairs of the state. The harem itself emerged as a center of power wherein the mother of the Sultan and the Sultan’s consorts jockeyed for power. The chief eunuch of the harem became an intermediary between the harem and the court. Appointments to high posts were often made based on influence rather than merit. Neglect from the highest levels bred corruption. Under the circumstances, the burden of administering the Empire fell on the Grand Vizier, a position of high risk in the Empire. If the Grand Vizier was successful, he was rewarded with the highest honor and riches. If he failed, he faced execution. The process carried with it a ruthless logic. Only the most capable aspired to the office. The potential rewards were so great that the council of viziers themselves became a focus of intrigue and influence peddling.

The most important change in the Empire was a transformation of the standing army as a result of prolonged warfare with Persia and the Christian powers of Europe. Naval warfare in the eastern Mediterranean against the combined navies of Venice, Spain and the Vatican took a heavy toll at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). Naval engagements against the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean were ongoing and inconclusive. The campaigns in North Africa (1572-1578) against the armies of Charles V were prolonged and arduous. The intermittent war with Safavid Persia over the control of Azerbaijan and Iraq (1585-1610) was bloody. To the north, the Russians started a new front on the River Volga. The 13-year war with Austria (1593-1606) for control of Hungary brought no additional gains. These conflicts imposed an enormous strain on resources of men and material. The supply of young men from Albania and the conquered territories for induction into the janissars was insufficient to meet this demand. Up until that time, young men who were born into Muslim families were precluded from entry into the janissary corps. The strain of continued war and the losses sustained therein made the Ottomans change this policy. Native born Muslims were inducted into the janissarycorps for the first time. This had a two-fold impact. First, it increased the size of the standing army, adding to the burden on the treasury. Second, the old guard resented the introduction of the new recruits, and morale suffered.

The financial strain of enlarging and maintaining the army was compounded by the influx of silver from America. Starting with the year 1519, the Spanish transported enormous quantities of the metal from Mexico to Madrid. From there, the silver found its way into France, England, Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Simultaneous discoveries (1518) of silver mines in Germany added to the flood of this precious metal on the continent. As the currencies of Europe were based on silver, the infusion of so much silver lowered the value of the currencies. Inflation became endemic. The Ottoman soldiers and administrative personnel, unable to feed their families on fixed incomes, demanded an increase in pay. In 1589, the janissars rose in rebellion. The Ottomans responded by devaluing their currency and increasing taxation on the peasants. The increased taxation, in turn, caused an increase in migration from the villages to the urban centers, with resultant widespread dislocation in agriculture. A large number of these vagrants joined the auxiliary troops of the Sultan where their lack of discipline caused additional problems. The breakdown in the morale of the janissars reduced their fighting efficiency. Often, they made up for their reduced purchasing power by imposing themselves on the peasants and helping themselves to their granary and their fodder. A breakdown in discipline made them pawns in the competing centers of power in the harem and the council of viziers.

A combination of these adverse circumstances explains the Ottoman losses to the Safavids in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Iraq (1593-1640). Sultan Murad IV, who demonstrated an exceptional zeal for affairs of state, and a capability, intelligence and dedication unmatched since Sultan Sulaiman, arrested the slide towards disintegration. The first nine years of his reign were spent in consolidating his position within the court and eliminating competing centers of power. Taking personal charge of state affairs in 1632, he moved decisively, first to eliminate rebellious elements in the provinces, and then to recapture Tabriz (1635) and Baghdad (1638), which had fallen to the Safavids. A prolonged war with Persia ensued, at the end of which Baghdad remained in Ottomans hands but Tabriz reverted to Safavid (1639) control. By the Treaty of Zuhab (1639), the border between Anatolia and Persia was demarcated, and it corresponds roughly to the present boundaries between Turkey and Persia. To protect the peasants and the merchants from brigands, Sultan Murad issued theAdalat Nameh (Code of Justice), which served as a blueprint for justice in the Ottoman empire until the 19th century. Sultan Murad passed away in 1640.

There were no major hostilities with the European powers during the reign of Sultan Murad IV. The Europeans were fighting among themselves during the thirty-year war (1618-1648), and had neither the will nor the resources to start a conflict with the Ottomans. However, the situation changed soon after the death of Murad. The Knights of St. John, based in Malta, regularly raided the coasts of Syria and North Africa. The island of Crete, controlled by Venice, served as their base. In 1645, an Ottoman fleet set sail for Crete to drive them out. It was to be the start of a long war in which the two most powerful navies of the eastern Mediterranean, those of the Ottomans and the Venetians, tested their mettle against each other. The war lasted until 1669 when Venicefinally ceded Crete to the Ottomans.

In Istanbul, meanwhile, the process of disintegration that was evident before Murad IV was set in motion again after his death. His successor, Ibrahim (1640-1648), was weak, vacillating, and showed little inclination to govern. Intrigues in the harem and the court surfaced again. The Grand Vizier, Mustafa Pasha, tried to arrest the centrifugal forces. He reduced the size of the standing army, paid soldiers and bureaucrats alike on time, reduced taxes on peasants, and put the currency on a solid footing. His reforms evoked the jealousy of the harem and the court alike. Mustafa Pasha was framed, deposed and executed in 1644. The situation in the capital went from bad to worse, and in 1648, the janissars rebelled, dethroned and executed Sultan Ibrahim. Mehmet IV, then a boy of seven, ascended the throne. Since he was too young to rule, the Grand Vizier, Mehmet Pasha, managed the affairs of state. The job was always a precarious one and tenure depended on performance. In 1649, when the Turkish navy suffered reverses in their naval engagements against the Venetians in the Aegean Sea, Mehmet Pasha was dismissed and executed. His successor, Grand Vizier Ibshir Pasha was equally frustrated by palace intrigue from reforming the administration. He too was executed in 1655 and Kurpulu Mehmet Pasha was appointed the Grand Vizier. Mehmet Pasha was an able, intelligent, determined and experienced administrator. It was he who guided the ship of state while Sultan Mehmet IV was busy with the harem and hunting. Mehmet purged the administration of incompetent personnel, fostered discipline in the army, eliminated extortion, punished greedy tax collectors, and ruthlessly put down any rebellion. He reorganized the navy and ordered it to lift the blockade of Istanbul that the Venetians had imposed. One by one, the islands of the Aegean that had been lost to Venice were won back, and Venice was forced to sue for peace. Mehmet Pasha died in 1661 and was succeeded as Grand Vizier by his son Fazil Ahmed Pasha. Fazil, a cultivated, urbane man, continued the reforms of his father. He is known in history for his encouragement of art and literature and his policy of tolerance towards Christians, Jews and other minorities. The combined period of the two Kurpulus, Mehmet Pasha and Fazil Ahmed (1655-1676), is known as the golden age for Turkish arts. Under the two Kurpulus, the old Ottoman institutions regained their former vitality, and the empire regained its former military muscle.

It was about this time that the struggle between the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs for control of Central Europe heated up again, and was to climax with the siege of Vienna in 1683. The Grand Vizier demanded that the Hapsburgs cease their intervention in Hungary, demolish the fortresses they had built while the Ottomans had been preoccupied with internal turmoil, and resume the payment of annual tribute to the Sultan. When the demands were refused, Fazil Ahmed advanced from Buda-Pest towards Vienna (1663), and captured several key forts. The demonstration of renewed Turkish strength alarmed the Europeans. The Hapsburgs of Austria were Catholic, and they appealed to the Vatican for help. Pope Alexander VII formed a “Holy League” against the Ottomans. Venice, Genoa and the German principalities signed on. Louis XIV of France sent a contingent. Additional troops were dispatched from as far away as Portugal and Spain. The two armies met at the Battle of St. Gotthard (1664). The contest was a draw, and it ended with the Treaty of Vasvar, which reconfirmed Ottoman control of Hungary. But it also demonstrated to the Europeans that the Turks could be held at bay. To the north, Turkish armies advanced deep into the Ukraine and Poland (1672), and forced the Poles to pay tribute. Thus, for a while in the 17th century, the principal powers of eastern and central Europe, including Austria, and Poland paid tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul or to his vassals.

The battle for Hungary started again when the Treaty of Vasvar expired in 1682. Ahmed Pasha passed away in 1676, and Kara Mustafa Pasha was appointed the Grand Vizier. Capable, determined, and ambitious, he saw the manifest destiny of the Ottomans as the principal power dominating Christian Europe. The Hungarians preferred Ottoman rule to the Hapsburgs because the Protestants as well as the Orthodox Christians of Hungary enjoyed greater freedom under the Muslim Turks than they did under the Catholic Austrians. So, when Austria made a move into Hungary, Thokoly, King of Hungary, appealed to the Ottomans for help. A contingent of Turkish troops arrived, and with their help, Thokoly managed to extend his realm in western Hungary. Trying to avoid renewed war, the Hapsburgs sent an envoy to Istanbul to negotiate an extension of the treaty of Vasvar. Mustafa Pasha demanded the surrender of Gyor, a strong Austrian fortress located between Buda-Pest and Vienna. War became inevitable when the Austrians refused, and Mustafa Pasha advanced towards Hungary with a powerful army of over a hundred thousand, backed by a corps of artillery units. This formidable army was joined by 30,000 troops from the Crimean Tatars. The year was 1683.

Ottoman historians have debated to this day whether Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha had Vienna as the target of this mission or whether he moved in that direction to exploit a military opportunity. They are also divided as to whether Sultan Mehmet IV knew in advance of the march on Vienna. There is general agreement only that the approved target was the great fortress of Gyor. Against the advice of some of his generals, and of his Tatar allies, Mustafa bypassed the fort of Gyor and advanced towards Vienna. He arrived at the Hapsburg capital on July 14, 1683.

Much had changed since Sulaiman the Magnificent stood at the gates of Vienna in September 1526. At that time, the Turks enjoyed overwhelming superiority in field guns and in tactics. Their cavalry was the fiercest in the world. By 1683, the Europeans had caught up with the Ottomans in metallurgy and ballistics, and their field guns were a match for the Ottomans. In tactics and discipline too, the Hapsburgs and the Germans could successfully challenge the Turks. Sultan Sulaiman had withdrawn at the early onset of winter in Central Europe after forcing the Hapsburgs to pay tribute. Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha was determined to succeed where Sulaiman the Magnificent had failed, and to make a name for himself in history. He had arrived at the capital in mid-summer, allowing himself plenty of time for a successful siege.

The Hapsburgs were ill prepared for this invasion, believing that the Ottomans would confine their campaigns to western Hungary and retreat. Vienna was defended by only 15,000 troops. Once it became obvious that Mustafa was headed for their capital, Leopold I of Austria appealed to the European powers for help. Pope Innocent XI sent a large amount of cash, and organized a Catholic alliance. Louis XIV of France stayed aloof, but the Dukes of Bavaria and Saxony in Germany sent troops. King Sobiesky of Poland formed an alliance with the Hapsburgs and marched forth with 40,000 troops. Portugal and Spain sent contingents. The Venetians offered help as well.

What followed were a series of missteps and miscalculations on the part of the Turks, and a confluence of circumstances favorable to the Europeans. The Ottoman army arrived at the gates of Vienna in July 1683 and laid siege to it. The Crimean Tatars, together with some Turkish contingents, continued their westward advance and raided territories deep into Austria and Central Germany. Mustafa Pasha was in such a great hurry to reach the capital that he had left behind the heavy guns in the Ottoman arsenal, believing that mining would accomplish a breach of the fort. This proved to be a serious miscalculation. The walls of Vienna were too well constructed to yield to light cannon, and mining was a time consuming process. Meanwhile, King Sobiesky of Poland arrived with his troops and was joined by German contingents from Bavaria, Saxony, as well as a contingent from Lorraine. Together, this host of over 70,000 marched towards Vienna. The situation in the capital was desperate. The Ottomans had succeeded in mining the walls, and their light artillery had demolished sections of the fort. The city might have fallen to a determined assault. At this critical juncture the Ottomans made a grave tactical error in permitting the Catholic armies to cross the River Danube towards the fort. Turkish historians maintain that Mustafa Pasha had asked the Tatar Khan to guard the river, but the latter had stood by as the European troops crossed because of his personal animosity towards the Grand Vizier. Even so, Mustafa made another tactical error in trying to stem the advance of the enemy using his cavalry. The European armies were well disciplined, well led, used cannon effectively, and were fighting a holy war to defend a capital city. The battle was fought on September 12, 1683. When it was over, more than 10,000 Turkish soldiers had perished against half that number for the Christians. The Ottomans retreated, having lost their tents, their treasures, and their field guns.

This was the first major defeat suffered by the Ottoman armies at the hands of the Europeans. It proved to be as much of a disaster to the Ottomans as was the defeat at Las Novas de Tolosa (1212) for the Al Muhaddith in Spain. The Austrians followed up on their victory, advanced deep into Hungary, and pushed the Ottoman armies south of the River Danube. Sultan Mehmet IV who had idled away his time in hunting, blamed the defeat on Kara Mustafa, and had him strangled at Belgrade (1683). There was deep dissatisfaction in the court and among the general population with Mehmet IV, and his preoccupation with hunting, in the face of the grave crisis facing the empire. Even the Shaykh ul Islam, Mufti Ali Effendi of Istanbul joined in the demand that the Emperor put his house in order (1684). When there was no response, the army marched into Istanbul, deposed and imprisoned Mehmet (1687), and installed his brother Sulaiman II on the throne.

The second siege of Vienna marks the high point of Muslim expansion in Europe. Its failure highlights the incipient weakness of Muslim armies in technology, tactics and discipline in comparison to those of the Europeans. The Ottoman retreat began about the same time as the Moghul reverses at the hands of the Marathas in India, and the Safavid losses in northern Persia to the Russians. After Vienna, the Ottomans ceased to be a threat to Europe, although the resilient Turks made recurrent efforts to reform and revitalize their institutions. A sustained counter thrust from Europe began, which was aimed initially at the Balkans and the Caucasus, but expanded over the years to North Africa and Egypt, and resulted ultimately in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the Great War of 1914-1918. Muslim power had passed its zenith. The hour of Europe had arrived.

Lepanto, the Battle of

Lepanto, the Battle of

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

In the last third of the 16th century, three critical events had a decisive impact on the course of Islamic history. One was the Battle of Lepanto (1571) fought off the coast of Greece in which the combined navies of the Vatican, Venice and Spain managed to stop the Ottoman navy, slowing the Ottoman advance to the west and denying them access to the Atlantic Ocean and the Americas. The second was the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir (1578) in which the Moroccan army crushed Portuguese invaders in North Africa, shattering Christian ambitions to conquer and colonize the Maghrib. The third was the Moroccan invasion of the Songhay Empire (1592), which destroyed Timbaktu and other major trade centers along the Niger River, contributed to the political disintegration of West Africa, and facilitated increased slave trade to America.

The key to understanding these events lies, once again, in the social and political disintegration of Muslim North Africa after the dissolution of the Al Muhaddith Empire. Muslim Spain was not the only object of Christian Iberian Crusades. Sensing a political vacuum in the Maghrib, and taking advantage of the mutual warfare among the local emirs of Morocco (the Merinides), Algeria (the Zayyanids), and Tunisia (the Hafsids), both Portugal and Castile moved to occupy important strategic posts along the coast of Africa. In this effort, they were helped by the naval power of Venice and Genoa. Not that the Christians were contemplating a conquest of the Maghrib at this time. As yet, they did not possess the superiority in organization and arms necessary for an outright conquest. Moreover, there were internal rivalries among the Christians themselves, in particular between Portugal and Castile, precluding a sustained onslaught on North Africa.

In 1355, Tripoli was attacked and briefly occupied by Genoa. In 1390, a combined French and Genoese force invaded the ancient city of Mahdiya. In 1399, Castile occupied Tetuan in Morocco. In 1415, the strategic harbor of Ceuta on the Straits of Gibraltar fell to the Portuguese who continued their advance along the Atlantic coast occupying the strategic port of Al Qasr al Kabir in 1458. By 1470, Tangiers was under Portuguese control. Trade routes between North Africa and southern Europe were now firmly in Christian hands.

The union of Castile and Aragon under Ferdinand and Isabella, and the conquest of Granada (1492), removed the last hurdle in the way of Spanish expansion. Flush from their victory, and expulsion of the Jews (1492) and Muslims (1502) alike, the Spaniards expanded their possessions in the Mediterranean. The discovery of America (1492), and the subsequent loot from the Aztec, Mayan and Inca empires, made Spain a world power. The Popes acted as powerbrokers in medieval Europe, and they brought about a reconciliation between Spain and Portugal. In 1494, Pope Alexander VI drew an arbitrary line around the globe, dividing up the world between Spain and Portugal, for each to conquer and bring under the fold of Christianity.

The military machine of the Iberian Christians had been perfected during their protracted struggle with the Muslims. Now it was let loose on the rest of the world. There followed a general thrust of the western Crusades aimed at the total conquest of the Maghrib. In 1505, Mars al Kabir (Algeria) fell to the Spanish. Oran (Algeria) fell in 1509. Bogie (Tunisia) was captured in 1510. Tripoli (Libya) was destroyed in 1511. Tlemcen became a Spanish protectorate in 1512. Meanwhile, the Portuguese moved along the western coast of Morocco. Agadir was occupied in 1505. Converted into a strong fortress named Santa Cruz, it became a powerful base for further expansion. In 1507, Safi was occupied. In 1513, Azemour fell. By 1515, the Portuguese controlled the entire coastline of West Africa, from Morocco to the Horn. The bases along this coast served as an anchor point for their further expansion around the coast of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. They also served as shipping centers for the Atlantic slave trade, which now began to gather momentum.

The global tide of Portuguese and Spanish expansion took place precisely at a time when the Islamic world was in convulsion. This was the period during which the great dynasties of the Safavids (1501) and the Moghuls (1526) were founded and the Ottomans were consolidating their power. The Battle of Chaldiran between the Safavids and the Ottomans was fought in 1514, and 1517 was the year when the Ottomans captured Egypt from the Mamlukes. It was not until 1526 that the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Moghuls finally settled down and started the process of global resistance to Portuguese and Spanish aggression.

By 1530 the Spaniards had conquered most of the trading outposts on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Tripoli (Libya) and Malta fell to the Spaniards who handed them over to the Knights of St. John to garrison and hold. The Spanish were not alone in their thrust into Muslim territories. Venice, Genoa and the Vatican were equally active. At stake were not only the trade routes of the Mediterranean but also the very soul of North Africa. In 1532, the Genoese captured Coron in the Adriatic. Sulaiman the Magnificent (1520-1565), the Ottoman Sultan, could not disregard this challenge. As the Caliph, he was duty bound to protect Muslims no matter where they lived.

Sulaiman ordered Ibrahim Pasha, grand vizier of the Caliphate, to upgrade the Ottoman fleet. Ibrahim was in Egypt, reorganizing the administration of that province. He was a man of extraordinary abilities whose legacy sustained the Ottoman administrative machinery until the 19th century. The Ottoman navy was already a force to be reckoned with, thanks to the initiatives taken by Sultan Selim I. Ibrahim Pasha proceeded to build on that foundation. Timber for shipbuilding was plentiful in Lebanon. There were first-rate harbors in Turkey, Egypt and Syria. What was needed was leadership and trained manpower for the sea. This he found on the coast of North Africa.

As the Christian powers of Spain, Venice and Genoa monopolized the Mediterranean trade (1500-1530), the North Africans increasingly turned to piracy. Rich bounty was available from Genoese ships in the Mediterranean as well as Spanish ships in the Atlantic carrying the loot from the Americas to Spain. The North Africans-as well as the English-attacked these ships for their booty. The skills and the art of the seas were perfected in the process.

Ibrahim Pasha convinced Sulaiman the Magnificent to invite these captains of the sea to Istanbul and press them into the service of the Caliphate. One of these captains was Khairuddin of Algiers, who was amongst the ablest admirals of the age. Khairuddin was made the admiral of the empire. Within a span of five years, he changed the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1534, he recaptured Tunis from the Spanish.

There began an historic struggle between Spain and the Ottomans for control of North Africa. The question was whether the Maghrib would remain Muslim or be ceded, as Spain had been, to the Christians. The shaykhs in Tunisia and the emirs of the old Hafsid dynasty resisted Ottoman rule because it meant a loss of their privileged position. They preferred the Christian Spaniards to the Muslim Turks. With the connivance of the shaykhs and the emirs, the Spanish took Tunis in 1535, reinstalling the old Hafsid ruler, Hassan. In retaliation, Khairuddin raided the coast of Valencia (1536) in Spain. In 1537, he captured the Venetian island of Corfu and Otranto in southern Italy where he established an Ottoman base. Morea and the islands in the Adriatic Sea followed. With the Turks at the doorsteps of Rome, panic set in. Pope Paul III organized a combined armada of the principal Christian sea powers to resist the Ottomans. In 1538, at the Battle of Prevesa, the Turks destroyed this armada, consisting of the navies of Venice and the Vatican. The issue was settled for the time being. For thirty-two years thereafter, from 1538 to 1570, Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean was supreme.

The focus now shifted to the western Mediterranean. Charles V, Emperor of Spain struck at Algeria in 1541, wreaking havoc on the coastal cities. In turn, Khairuddin took Otranto in Italy in 1541, forcing Venice to sue for peace. Khairuddin died in 1546, leaving behind a large cadre of trained admirals including the celebrated Piri Rais. Piri Rais was a consummate seaman who combined in his person outstanding organizational abilities with a superb understanding of sea power. A map of the Atlantic produced by Piri Rais in 1561, shows the coasts of West Africa, Europe and Brazil in such detail and such accuracy that it would meet the requirements of modern day cartography.

Tripoli in Libya, and the island of Malta, were keys to the trade routes in the Mediterranean. Since 1530, Spain had occupied Malta and had delegated the task of defending it to the Knights of St. John. These Knights acted as pirates, wreaking havoc on Muslim ships and pilgrims on their way to hajj. In 1551, one of Piri Rais’s admirals, Torgud Rais, reclaimed Tripoli, throwing out the knights of St. John. In Spain, meanwhile, Phillip II had succeeded Charles V. The Spaniards mustered a powerful fleet and moved against the Ottomans. Admiral Piyali Pasha routed and destroyed this fleet at Djerba in 1561. Piri Rais followed up with a siege of Malta in 1565, but the effort was not successful. Sultan Sulaiman the Magnificent passed away the following year (1565). He had made Ottoman power the dominant land power in Europe and almost realized his goal to make the Ottoman navy the dominant navy in the world.

The struggle between the Ottoman Caliphate and the Christian powers of Spain and Portugal had now become global. Moroccan, French and English ships routinely intercepted Spanish ships carrying the loot from the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilizations of America. In the Mediterranean, the Ottomans faced the combined naval power of Spain, Italy and the Vatican. In the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Ottoman navy took on the Portuguese. Battles were fought as far west as Algiers(Algeria) and as far east as Diu (India). After Sulaiman, Selim II (1566-1574) continued to challenge the naval power of Spain, Portugal and Venice. In 1571 Cyprus was captured from Venice. The Ottomans proceeded to lay siege to the island of Malta. But the defending garrison withstood the assault. The successful resistance encouraged the European powers. Urged by Pope Pius V, the combined navies of Spain, Venice and the Vatican joined battle. On October 7, 1571, the Christian navies squared off against the powerful Ottoman navy at Lepanto, off the coast of Greece. Losses were heavy on both sides but the Christian navies had the upper hand. The remnant of the Ottoman navy was forced to withdraw to Istanbul.

The Battle of Lepanto was a benchmark in world affairs. It broke the naval initiative of the Ottomans. Combined with the unfolding events in Morocco where the Sa’adids successfully spurned the Ottoman advances, it confined Turkish naval power to the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottomans would no longer be a credible threat in the western Mediterranean or the Atlantic. In time, the Dutch and the British would displace the Iberian powers. Before the Battle of Lepanto, the odds were even for a Muslim penetration of the Atlantic. After Lepanto, these odds disappeared. The road to America was controlled by Spain and Portugal. American history would henceforth be determined by the interaction of Europe with the New World.

The Ottomans did make a supreme effort to rebuild their navy. Within a year, the Turkish navy was back in action. In 1572, the Turkish admiral Uluj Pasha held off a combined assault by the European navies. Meanwhile, taking advantage of a respite from Turkish pressure, Spain occupied Tunis (1571). But the Ottomans retook it for good the following year. Thereafter, Tunisia was to remain in the Muslim camp until the colonial period of the 19th century. In 1573 Venice sued for peace and agreed to cede Cyprus and make a large payment as war indemnities. By 1585, the entire coast of North Africa from Tunisia to western Algeria was firmly in Turkish hands.

Thus ended the Spanish attempt in the 16th century to conquer and colonize North Africa. It had started as a spillover of the conquest of Granada under Isabella and Ferdinand. It ended in failure because the Ottoman navy proved to be just strong enough to frustrate their designs. However, the Battle of Lepanto ensured that Ottoman naval power would be contained within the eastern Mediterranean. The Atlantic Ocean, and America, would belong to the West Europeans.

 

Akbar, the Great Moghul

Akbar, the Great Moghul

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Jalaluddin Muhammed Akbar Padashah Ghazi, as his celebrated biographer Abul Fazal refers to him, was one of the greatest rulers produced by Hindustan. Muslim historians are ambiguous about his rule. Some consider him to be one of the greatest among Muslim rulers, while others look at him as a renegade. In the entire span of fourteen hundred years of Islamic history, no Muslim emperor stretched the social and religious envelope as an Islamic sovereign, as did Akbar, while remaining within the fold of Islam. And no one tackled the complex issues of Muslim interactions with a largely non-Muslim world with the sincerity, zeal, passion, originality, common sense, and commitment demonstrated by this complex, enigmatic, gifted, energetic, purposeful monarch.

The orthodox thought he had become a Hindu. The Hindus were convinced he died a Muslim. Others said he was pro-Shi’a, while some Shi’as said he persecuted them. The Jesuits sent from Goa thought he was a sure candidate for conversion to Catholic Christianity. The Jains and Parsis felt at home in his presence and considered him one of their own. He befriended the Sikhs, and protected mosques and temples alike. Akbar was a universal man; he was more than any single group thought of him. He was the purest representation of that folk Islam that grew up in Asia after the destruction wrought by the Mongols (1219-1252).

Jalaluddin Akbar was born to a Sunni father, Emperor Humayun, and Hamida Banu, daughter of a learned Shi’a Shaykh Ali Akbar, at the Rajasthan-Sindh outpost of Amarkot (1542), while Humayun was wandering in the Great Indian Desert after his defeat by Sher Shah Suri (1540-1555). Sher Shah is remembered in Indian history for his efficient administration and his extensive construction of roads and canals. Akbar’s grandfather Zahiruddin Babur, himself a deeply spiritual Timurid prince from Samarqand, had taken Hindustan in 1526, and had consolidated his hold on the Indo-Gangetic plains. The hapless Humayun inherited the kingdom but was unable to fight off the Afghan challenge led by Sher Shah Suri. So poor was Humayun when Akbar was born that he had no gifts to give his entourage on the birth of an heir. It is said that the proud father took out a small bottle of rose perfume, and anointed each one of his courtiers, proclaiming that the fame of the newborn would spread like the sweet scent of the rose in that perfume. History would prove him right.

Humayun’s misfortunes had a direct bearing on the early childhood of Akbar. In Afghanistan, Humayun tried to reclaim Kabul from his brother, Kamran, but lost the skirmish. His retreat from Afghanistan was so hasty that the infant Akbar fell into the hands of Askari, another of Humayun’s brothers, who was allied with Kamran. It was an unwritten covenant among the Timurid princes that while they scrambled for the throne upon the death of the king, the children were safe from the ensuing fratricide. Askari and his wife treated the infant with the utmost love. Akbar had no time for formal education but the keen intellect of the prodigious child absorbed the wisdom of the ancient people of the Hindu Kush, and their values of valor and courage.

When he had lost all hope of prevailing over Kamran, Humayun proceeded to Persia where the Safavid Tahmasp warmly received him. The Persian Emperor saw a golden opportunity to turn Hindustan into another bastion of Ithna Ashari Fiqh and offered to help Humayun if he would embrace Shi’a views. Humayun accepted the military help but he was ambivalent about his religious commitments. With Persian help, he first captured Kabul, and when the successors of Sher Shah Suri fell into arguments and squabbles, Humayun marched triumphantly back to Agra, the first Moghul capital. Hamida Banu and Akbar returned to Hindustan.

Humayun was always a prince of misfortune. Even his end was full of pathos. He was an avid patron of literature and had built a library, which housed more than 150,000 precious manuscripts. Even in his flight, when the Emperor literally had nothing, he carried the literary treasure with him, loaded on camels. Late one afternoon, in 1556, as he was in his study on the upper floor of the library, Humayun heard the call to prayer. The Emperor hastened to descend a steep stone staircase to join the congregational prayer. He slipped, his head hit a stone, and the following day died from head injuries.

Akbar was only thirteen when he ascended the throne. A key decision made by Humayun played a crucial role in the early life of Akbar. He had appointed Bairam Khan, a loyal and trusted friend, as Akbar’s mentor andwali (protector). When Humayun recaptured Agra, Bairam Khan rose rapidly through the ranks and became Khan Khanan (prime minister). The capable and loyal Bairam Khan meticulously carried out the initial consolidation of the empire, defeating a determined challenge from the Afghans led by an Indian general Hemu, and successively captured Agra, Gwalior and Jaunpur. Bairam fell victim to court intrigue. Akbar retired him, gave him a generous pension, and sent him off to Mecca for Hajj (1560). The following two years marked a brief period of ascendancy for Adham Khan, a foster brother of Akbar, but when Adham became tyrannical, Akbar had him eliminated, and assumed direct control of the affairs of the Empire.

A vigorous consolidation of the empire began and continued into the last years of Akbar’s reign. Malwa (1560), Chitoor (1567), Rathambur (1567), Gujrat (1573), and Bengal (1574) were added to the empire. In 1581, when his brother Mirza Hakim occupied Lahore, Akbar moved his headquarters to that city and stayed there for fifteen years to contain Mirza and ward off a threat of invasion from the powerful Uzbeks of Samarqand. Lahore was an ideal base from which to conduct operations to the northwest. From the Punjab, Akbar moved to capture Kashmir (1593), Sindh (1593), Baluchistan (1594) and Makran (1594). In 1595, he took Qandahar, a key trading post between Persia and India, from the Safavids. For a hundred years thereafter, this city in southern Afghanistan was contested between the Moghuls and the Safavids.

In 1591, Akbar invited the Bahmani Sultans of Ahmednagar, Bidar, Golkunda and Bijapur to submit to the Moghuls. But the Sultans of the Deccan, flush from their recent victory over the kingdom of Vijayanagar (1565), refused. International politics played a part in this refusal. Many of the Deccan Sultans followed the Ithna Ashari Fiqh, and some toyed with the idea of accepting the Safavids as their protectors. Until the advent of Akbar, and the subsequent consolidation of the empire, India was a border state in the great tapestry of Muslim states extending from Morocco to the China Sea. The religious convulsions of Central and West Asia invariably had an impact on the Indian subcontinent. The triumph of the Safavids in Persia, and their rivalry with the Sunni Uzbeks to the north and the Ottomans to the west, brought this rivalry to India also. The Safavids were avid promoters of the Ithna Ashari Fiqh just as the Ottomans were champions of the Sunni School of Fiqh. So, when the Bahmani Sultans of Deccan toyed with the idea of joining the Safavid camp, Akbar would not tolerate it.

Outside interference on the soil of Hindustan was unacceptable to the Great Moghul. Indeed, at no time in Indian history, has a strong central government in the north tolerated splinter kingdoms either in Bengal or in the south. Akbar’s move into the Deccan was precipitated by the geopolitical rivalry between India and Persia and was not a reflection of the Shi’a-Sunni split. In 1596, Akbar moved on Ahmednagar, which fell after a determined resistance by its Queen Chand Bibi. When he returned to Agra in 1601, the empire extended over all of north and central India, Pakistan, Baluchistan, Bengal and Afghanistan. It was the richest and most prosperous kingdom in the world, and had a population of eighty million, about the same as the entire population of Europe.

To augment the standing army, and to reward his cohorts, Akbar instituted a system of mansabs and jagirs. Jagirs were land grants given to courtiers for meritorious service. Mansabs were lands allocated to nobles in proportion to the number of mounted cavalry that the mansabdar would supply in times of war. The number of mounted horsemen requisitioned in time of war ranged from ten for a mansabdar to ten thousand for a prince or an Emir ul Omara. The Mansabs served the empire well during the period of its expansion. But once decay set in, they also compounded the process of decay. The larger mansabdars acted as feudal lords over their peasants. When the central power of the empire weakened (1707-1740), tax collection could not be enforced, and the Emperor’s treasury was drained, further weakening his authority.

Thus India entered the age of feudalism just as England was working its way out of it. The mansabs and jagirs stayed on during the British era. They were abolished in independent India through successive land reforms. In Pakistan, they have continued to this day, and exercise a large influence on the politics of the country.

Akbar was one of the foremost reformers in India’s long history. He divided his vast empire into subas (provinces), each one governed by a trusted emir or a prince. The governors were rotated to minimize corruption and were made responsible for their decisions. The subas were subdivided into sarkars (districts), the sarkars into parganas (sub-districts). Each city had a kotwal (mayor), and the surrounding countryside was administered by a foujdar. Tax collection and fiscal affairs were rationalized. Akbar abolished child marriages, forbade sati (the burning of a widow with her husband’s funeral pyre which was practiced in some Hindu circles), built roads, reduced taxes on farmland to one-third of the yield, and made justice for all his subjects a cornerstone of his realm. Farmers were encouraged to bring more land under cultivation, guilds had official blessing, and both internal and international trade prospered. He treated the Hindus as people of the Book, abolished the jizya, bestowed on them religious autonomy, and allowed their own law, the dharma-shastra to be used in internal disputes. To the newly emerging community of Sikhs, he gave the area of Amritsar as a land grant, and promoted peaceful coexistence. His philosophy of sulah e kul (peace between all communities) embraced all of his subjects with himself as a father figure.

Akbar, the empire builder, was aware of the geopolitics of the age. With the Ottomans, who were the dominant land power in Eurasia, his relations were close and cordial. Akbar acknowledged the Caliphate in Istanbul as one “in the tradition of the four rightly guided Caliphs”, while maintaining the independence of Hindustan. Relations with the Safavids of Persia were strained because of warfare over the control of the important trading center of Qandahar in southern Afghanistan. Qandahar was captured by Akbar but was lost to the Persians during the reign of Jehangir. Akbar had a working relationship with the Portuguese who saw in him a possible convert to their faith. The Portuguese dominated the Indian Ocean, and their goodwill was required to guarantee safe passage for pilgrims to Mecca.

Akbar’s method of managing geopolitics was through matrimonial politics. Of Akbar’s wives, one was a Rajput; one was a Turk, and one aPortuguese.In 1562, at the age of 20, Emperor Akbar married Princess Jodha Bai, daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber, Rajasthan. This was a benchmark not only in the administration of the Great Moghul, but also in the larger global history of the Muslim people. Jodha Bai was the mother of Emperor Jehangir and was the Queen Mother of Hindustan during the reign of the Great Moghul.

From a political perspective, the issue before the Delhi Sultanate since its inception in 1205 was its relationship with the people of Hindustan who were predominantly Hindu. The first invasions had brought but a few Turkomans and Mamlukes into the subcontinent. Their presence was a thin veneer, which masked the gigantic edifice of India. There was little participation in the imperial administration from people of Indian origin, either Hindu or Muslim. Alauddin Khilji (d. 1316), who was perhaps the most far-sighted Sultan in pre-Moghul India, opened the doors of employment to Indians. However, the empire still suffered from a basic flaw in that it was rule by coercion rather than by consensus. The Khilji Empire, which embraced the entire subcontinent, lasted only a generation (1290-1320), followed by the Tughlaq Empire, which had a similar brief tenure. During the rule of Muhammed bin Tughlaq (d.1351), the empire disintegrated, with independent kingdoms emerging in Bengal, Gujrat, Vijayanagar and the Deccan. Subsequent Sultanates of Delhi, such as the Lodhis (1451-1526), were mere shadows of the great empire of Alauddin Khilji and were limited to Delhi and its surrounding regions.

Akbar was cognizant of this terminal defect and sought to redress it. Sher Shah Suri (1540-1545) had provided a good example, and Akbar sought to build on it. The highest posts of the government were opened to all of his subjects, whether they were Hindu or Muslim, or came from Afghan, Persian or Indian backgrounds. His empire was a meritocracy and he promoted men of talent wherever he found them. While the two brothers Faizi (1545-1595) and Abul Fazal (1551-1602) were prominent courtiers, so were Raja Todarmal and Raja Man Singh. Todarmal’s organization of the fiscal affairs of the empire lasted well into the 19th century, until the British replaced it. Man Singh served as the commander of the armies during several missions, and also as governor of the predominantly Muslim provinces of Kabul and Bengal.

Akbar, a product of folk Islam, had no difficulty with classical Indian arts, and became an avid promoter of Hindustani music, classical dances and Hindustani literature. The celebrated Tan Sen, perhaps the greatest of Indian musicians, lived at Akbar’s court. Hindustani music styles, classical dances, the Urdu and Hindi languages, went through a profound transformation in Akbar’s court.

The Emperor’s reach to his subjects transcended the mere affairs of state. Through his marriages to a Rajput Hindu princess, a Turkish Muslim noblewoman, and a Portuguese Christian lady, he sought not just to lay the foundation of an Indian empire, but also to transform the very essence of Muslim interaction with non-Muslims. Not until the Turkomans entered India (1191 onwards), did Muslims face the gut-wrenching issue that millions of Muslims face today: What does it mean to be a Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim world? During its classical age, Islam had come into contact with the Jews and the Christians. But interactions with these two faiths were relatively easy; they were accepted as people of the book. Interactions with Persia were also comparatively easy, because most Persians accepted Islam early in Islamic history, and were absorbed into the mainstream. In India, they met up with the ancient Vedic civilization, and the answers were not that easy. During the zenith of classical Islamic civilizations, in the courts of Harun (d. 809) and Mamun (d. 833), Hindu scholars had arrived with their books of astronomy and mathematics, and had participated in the translation of these books into Arabic. But these interactions were academic and limited to the learned men of science and culture.

When the Turkoman territories extended to Delhi, the question of interaction with the Hindus was not merely academic; it became the central political issue. The difficulties of accommodating the ancient, non-Semitic religions of Hindustan were compounded by the disaster of Mongol invasions. Genghiz Khan’s invasions produced a sharp discontinuity in Islamic history. The great centers of learning, which had housed scholars of repute, were no longer available to provide answers to pressing issues. Cultivation of the sciences of Fiqh had essentially come to a halt some time after the death of Imam Hanbal (780-855). Indian Islam thus grew up and matured in the post-Mongol era, guided not by the great fuqaha who had dominated the Abbasid era, but by the Sufis who preserved the spiritual dimension of faith.

The initial response of the Turkomans to the Indian question was one of rejection. Indians were treated as non-believers, accorded the status of protected people (Arabic word: dhimmi or zimmi), made to pay the jizya, and in return were exempt from military conscription. The issue of whether or not they were at one time “people of the book” was not raised nor was it answered. The arrangement served the Delhi Sultans well because in their perennial warfare, they needed cash and jizya provided a source of ready cash. This also explains why the Sultans made little attempt to propagate Islam, since that would reduce their tax revenues. The attempts made by Emperor Alauddin to bring Indians into the realm were purely administrative; the fundamental issues of religious compatibility were not addressed.

Akbar was the first Muslim emperor to extend to the Hindus the same status as that accorded to the Christians and the Jews from the beginning of the Islamic period. This was a bold move, one that met resistance from the more conservative ulema. Akbar married a Rajput princess, and allowed her to practice her faith within his palace, just as earlier Turkish Sultans had married Byzantine Christian princesses and allowed them to practice Christianity within their quarters. Hindus were treated on par with the People of the Book, the jizya was abolished, and Hindus became generals and commanders in the army as well as governors and divans in the empire. By his personal example, the Emperor sought to build families with the Hindus, thus extending the reach of Islam to the Vedic civilization. The fourth Great Moghul, Jehangir, was a product of Rajput-Moghul intermarriage. Akbar’s legacy stayed with the empire well into its years of decline. Some of the princes became scholars of Sanskrit as well as Persian and Arabic. Prince Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Shah Jehan, translated the Indian classic, Mahabharata, into Persian.

Akbar’s eclectic mind was always searching for spiritual answers. In the splendid city of Fatehpur Sikri, which he founded, he built a house of worship called Ibadat Khana. Here, he invited scholars and listened to their discourse on matters of religion and ethics. Initial sittings with Muslim scholars broke up in disputes and arguments. On one occasion, two of his most prominent courtiers, Shaykh Abdul Nabi and Shaykh Maqdum ul Mulk went after each other with such vehemence that the Emperor had to intervene. Disillusioned, Akbar opened up the discourse to men of other faiths. Hindu priests expounded the philosophy of karma; Jains presented the doctrine of ahimsa; Parsis joined in to discuss the tenets of their ancient faith. In 1580, he sent word to the Portuguese governor of Goa that he would like to hear from Christian priests. The governor, sensing an historic opportunity to convert the Great Moghul, and win over Asia to his faith, promptly dispatched three Jesuit priests, Antony Monserrate, a Spaniard; Rudolf Aquaviva, an Italian; and Francis Enrique, a Persian. The three brought with them paintings of Jesus and Mary which the Emperor himself helped carry to the quarters of the priests. Akbar listened to the Christians, as he had listened to Muslims-Shi’a and Sunni alike-Hindus, Jains and Parsis, benefiting from the many insights offered by the learned men of all religions. But at no point during these years did the Emperor renounce his faith in Islam or embrace another faith. He remained a Muslim throughout his life and set an example of open-mindedness, which has seldom been matched among monarchs of any faith. The disappointed Jesuits returned to Goa in 1582.

The house of Timur, from which the Great Moghuls claimed their descent, was deeply spiritual. Timur himself, despite his cruel and destructive conquests, was a religious man who honored Sufi shaykhs, living and dead. Babur’s spiritual disposition showed up in the manner in which he died. Humayun himself made it a point to visit the tombs of Sufi shaykhs during his wanderings in Persia. This characteristic showed up in Akbar also.

The history of the Chishti order of Ajmer is closely interwoven with the history of the Delhi Sultanate. Emperor Alauddin (d. 1316) treated the Chishti shaykhs with respect and had prospered. Emperor Muhammed bin Tughlaq treated them harshly and had paid a heavy political price. Akbar was a devoted follower of Shaykh Moeenuddin Chishti (1142-1236) of Ajmer, whose tomb he visited on foot every year. When his wife Jodha Bai was pregnant with Jehangir, he sent her under a Rajput escort, to live in the zawiyah of Shaykh Salim Chishti, who was the living scion of the Chishtiya order. It was at the hermitage of the shaykh that Prince Jehangir was born, and the emperor named him Salim in honor of the shaykh. It was also in honor of the shaykh that Akbar raised the majestic city of Fatehpur Sikri near his hermitage. Both Akbar and Jehangir held the shaykh and his memory in the highest esteem and his name was taken in court circles with the greatest respect.

India belonged to the Sufis, and the emperor was no exception. Islam in the subcontinent of the 16th century was the Islam of the Sufis, and Akbar was its finest product. He did not claim divinity as had the Fatimid Caliph al Hakim (d.1021), nor did he claim Divine attributes as had Shah Ismail (d.1524), founder of the Safavid dynasty. Akbar did not even claim that he was a saint. But he was the king-emperor of Hindustan, an unlettered prince with the intellect of a giant, a deeply spiritual man with an unending search for transcendence in religion.

Akbar was the first, and perhaps the only Muslim Emperor to reach out as far as he did to embrace peoples of non-Semitic religions. Previous contacts with Christians and Jews were on the basis of co-existence. In the Abbasid as well as Ottoman realms, Christians and Jews were accepted as people of the Book and were given autonomy to govern their own internal affairs. Akbar went one step beyond co-existence; he tried co-union with the Hindus. This was the first and only such attempt by a Muslim monarch of any significance. This single fact accords Akbar a pre-eminent position among the great monarchs of the world.

Deen-e-Ilahi, a compendium of ethical standards, which Akbar had extracted from the religious discourses he attended, and based largely upon Nasiruddin al Tusi’s exposition of aqhlaqh, was misunderstood as a new religion. These standards are to be found in Ain-e-Akbari, a collection of court edicts compiled by Abul Fazal. Some of the misunderstandings arose as a result of poor translations from Persian, and some from a lack of understanding of tasawwuf and of the doctrinal basis of aqhlaqh. For instance, Akbar considered his relations with his followers as that of a pir-murid (Sufi shaykh and his disciple), not that of a prophet-follower. The emperor did not seek converts and there is every indication that he discouraged people from becoming his murids and tolerated open dissent with his practices. Even Raja Man Singh had dubious feelings about the emperor wearing a holy mantle. To those who did accept him as their pir, the emperor gave a medallion on which was inscribed “Allah u Akbar” (God is Greater). When a courtier reminded him that the emblem could be misunderstood to mean that Akbar had claimed divinity, the emperor replied that shirk (association of partners with God) had not even entered his thoughts. Indeed, the emperor continued to perform congregational prayers whenever he was on military campaigns. On his return from Kabul in 1580, he is known to have performed Juma’a prayers in Peshawar. On occasions, he insisted on giving the khutba, a practice in keeping with the example of the early Companions of the Prophet, but long since taken over by professional kadis. While it is true that he patronized the construction of four large Chaitanya temples at Mathura (1573), it is also true that the emperor himself built great mosques. The magnificent mosque in the courtyard of Shaykh Salim Chishti (1572) in Fatehpur Sikri is a monument to Akbar’s dedication to Islam.

On the exoteric plane, Akbar’s experimentation with ethics comes across as religious innovation. But at the esoteric plane, his initiatives are in consonance with the spirituality of the age. By the 16th century, the Chishtiya Sufi order had found a welcome home on Indian soil. Vaishnava Hinduism of Mathura was attracting more devotees among Hindus. Guru Nanak (1468-1539) had just founded a new religion, Sikhism, to bring Islam and Hinduism closer together. Each group pushed its point of view aggressively. Akbar, as the Emperor, was aware of these movements. His discussions in theIbadat Khana, with leading exponents of various religions, had given him an insight into each one.

As a devotee of the Chishti order, Akbar was in tune with Sufi practices, which were animated by the philosophy of Wahdat al Wajud (unity of existence). Although this philosophy was in existence since the earliest days of Islam, it appears in the writings of Sadruddin Konawi, a student of Ibn al Arabi (d. 1240). Born in Spain during the waning years of Al Muhaddith rule, Ibn al Arabi traveled through North Africa to Syria and Arabia. He learned the tasawwuf of Divine Love from the Sufi (lady) masters of the era, Nurah Fatima binte Al Muthanna of Cordova, Shams Yasminah Um ul-Fakhr al Marhena az-Zaytun of Cordova, and Ain as Shams, of Mecca. His standing in Sufi circles is so great that he is referred to as al Shaykh al Akbar (the greatest of the Shaykhs). A powerful speaker and a prolific writer, he influenced the evolution of tasawwuf in lands as diverse as Morocco and Indonesia. His masterpiece works include Ruh al Quds, Tarjamanul Ishwaq and Futuhat al Makkiyah. He passed away in Damascus.

According to Wahdat al Wajud (unity of existence), all creation is illusion; the only Reality is God. The more He reveals Himself, the more he conceals Himself. Humankind is prevented from realizing Divine Unity because of the ego, which considers it self-sufficient and does not submit to the Divine. The doctrine of fana (annihilation) is a logical consequence of this philosophy. When the individual ego gets close to the Divine, there can be no two egos; the individual ego is annihilated and only the Divine exists. It is like a candle getting close to the sun. The candle no longer exists; only the light of the sun remains. Man can transcend his ego through belief and effort. The path to realizing unity of existence is through love (muhabbah) rather than through knowledge (maarifah). Thus love of God, and love of fellow man, becomes a key element in Sufi practice. Sufi masters know the path to Divine Knowledge, called a tareeqah, and a novice learns the secrets of the path by becoming a murid (one who desires knowledge, disciple) of the master. The presence of Sufi masters is animated by baraka (blessing), which has been transmitted to them by a silsilah (chain of transmission) going back to the Prophet. Through the centuries, this doctrine has been a centerpiece of Sufi belief. Besides Ibn al Arabi, the other leading exponents of this school were the Persian al Bistami (d. 874) and the Egyptian Ibn Ataullah (d.1309).

Emperor Akbar found an echo of the doctrine of fana in the Advaita Vedanta of the Hindus. Akbar’s son Jehangir is known to have studied the Advaita under a leading Hindu master. The Great Moghul saw in the correspondence between Sufi thought and the Vedantas the possibility of opening up the embrace of Islam to Hindus by accepting them as people of the Book. Their books were “lost” but the inner kernel of spirituality had remained. This was a masterstroke by a consummate statesman who hoped by this move to at once consolidate the empire and give it a solid foundation by establishing the legitimacy of his rule with all the peoples of his vast realm. He achieved this through his marriage to Rajput princesses, who became mothers and grandmothers of successive emperors. The Rajputs responded by showing their loyalty to the Moghuls until the waning years of the empire. Indeed, it may justifiably be argued that Akbar’s Empire was a Moghul-Rajput confederacy. His son Jehangir introduced Persian elements into it through his marriage to Noor Jehan, while his grandson, Emperor Shah Jehan, achieved a total synthesis of the art, architecture and culture of India with that of Persia and Central Asia.

Akbar was a product of Sufic Islam that dominated Asia until recent years. The Sufis, while accepting the Shariah to be the fundamental platform of religion, consider the obligations of Fiqh to be an outer kernel, which has to be penetrated to reach the inward spirituality of religion. Without the Shariah, there is no religion. But without its spiritual dimension, religion itself becomes a litany of do’s and don’ts. In India and Pakistan, the great Sufis of the Chishti order found a sympathetic chord among the Hindus by adopting a musical rendering for their sessions of dhikr (recitation of the Name of God) and presenting Sufi doctrines in a manner that the Hindu mind could at once identify with. It was this spiritual thrust of Islam that converted many millions of Hindus in the subcontinent. The conversion cut across all classes and castes, the Brahmans as well as the warriors, the peasants as well as the untouchables. Conversion was not, as some western writers assume, confined to the lower castes among Hindus. Families often split, with one brother accepting Islam through the Barakaof a Sufi master, while the other remained a Hindu. In slow measures, over the centuries, Islam became a major religion of Hindustan, and it remains so today.

The historical process through which the people of Hindustan accepted Islam was different from the way the Persians and the Egyptians (for instance) became Muslim. The initial conversion of the Arabs was through exposure to the pristine religion of the Prophet and his Companions. The faith was diffused through Persia and Egypt early in the Umayyad period and had a heavy linguistic, legal and cultural content from Arabia. Islam entered the subcontinent five hundred years after it entered Persia and Egypt. Its content was primarily spiritual. The legal content entered later. In the interaction between Islam and Hinduism, the cultures of Central Asia and Persia fused with those of India. It gave birth to new languages, and shaped a composite culture, much as happened in the Sahel of East Africa where a rich Swahili culture emerged from a fusion of African, Arab and Persian elements.

The great Sufis were fully alert to the risks in the idea of Wahdat al Wajud. The doctrine of fana carries with it the possibility of shirk (association of partners with God), by proposing that the Creator and the created are on the same plane. This is totally unacceptable in Islam in which the Absolute Unity and Transcendence of the Creator is inviolate. To overcome these objections, clarifications of tasawwuf were developed in the classic age of Islamic history. As early as the 10th century, Al Junayad (d. 910) of Baghdad formulated the doctrine of Wahdat as Shahada (Unity of Witness). In the self-sustained eloquence of the Qur’an, Shahada is a powerful term. It means at once “to witness”, “to recognize”, “to see”, “to find”, “to be conscious”, “to acknowledge through speech”, and “to sacrifice”. When a person accepts Islam, he takes the Shahada. When a person becomes a martyr in the path of God, it is said that he has tasted the Shahada. It is only the beauty and power of Qur’anic language that makes possible the immediate synchronization of thought and deed. Shahada has two parts to it: “There is no deity but Allah, and Muhammed is the Messenger of Allah”. The first part at once frees human consciousness from bondage to any deity, and tethers it solidly to God. The second part makes the consciousness of God accessible through revelation brought by Prophet Muhammed (p).

The doctrine of Wahdat as Shahada states that humankind is conscious of the Unity of the Divine. The apparent diversity in creation is deceptive; there is the invisible power of the Creator in every creation. Humans can gain cognizance of this Unity through doctrine and through training. This apparent difference between cognition and union is crucial to maintaining the transcendence of God. The Creator and the created are not on the same plane. While the doctrine of Wahdat al Wajud can throw a person into the vast ocean of Divine Love, in which he/she may drown, the doctrine of Wahdat as Shahada throws a life raft so that even the uninitiated can swim. The doctrine of Wahdat as Shahada remained dormant for centuries. It was the doctrine of Wahdat al Wajud that was accepted and practiced by the Sufis. This was so at the time of Emperor Akbar.

Akbar’s religious initiatives produced whirlpools of intellectual activity in India. The orthodox were convinced that the purity of faith was in peril. Some of the practices that the ulema found objectionable included the emperor offering his darshan (Hindustani, to appear, to show oneself) to his subjects from a balcony at sunrise (a practice borrowed from the Persians), inscription of “Allah u Akbar” on medallions that were offered to his murids (those who sought spiritual guidance from him), and even his marriages to Hindu ladies. They considered these practices to be inconsistent with their view of Islam.

The response of the orthodox ulema and their interactions with the emperors determined the shape of Indian history, and ultimately that of global Islamic history. Ironically, the most determined resistance came from a Sufi order, the Naqshbandi that grew roots in Hindustan during the reign of Akbar. Khwaja Baqi Billah, one of the Naqshbandi shaykhs, was born in Kabul in 1563, from where he migrated first to Lahore and then to Delhi. Dissatisfied with some of the practices introduced in the court, he interacted with court elements that sought to replace Akbar. It was at the instigation of these dissidents that Akbar’s brother Mirza Hakim invaded Lahore (1581), an event that brought the Great Moghul to Lahore and resulted in his conquest of Kashmir, Sindh, Baluchistan and southern Afghanistan. Khwaja Baqi Billah passed away in 1603. It was his disciple, Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (1564-1624), who had a profound impact on Islamic thought, not just in India-Pakistan, but also in the entire Islamic world.

Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi was born into a family of Hanafi scholars, and was initiated into the Naqshbandi order at Delhi in 1599. Through his lectures, his writings, and his contacts with Emperor Jehangir (1605-1627), he deeply influenced social and political developments in India. Shaykh Ahmed was opposed to any form of innovation in religion and taught that religion should follow the simplicity and rigor of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. He was anguished at disrespect shown to Prophet Muhammed (p) as had happened when the Jesuit priests from Goa presented their religion at the imperial court in Fatehpur Sikri. He was distraught at the aggressiveness with which non-Muslims propagated their faiths, while the orthodox Muslims were constrained in implementing their practices. He wrote to the leading Moghul courtiers, as well as to the leading ulema of the age in India and in the Ottoman Empire, expounding his views on orthodoxy. These writings,Maktubat-I-Iman-I-Rabbani, have been translated into Turkish, Farsi, and Urdu, and have influenced Muslims the world over. Later historians termed his movement Mujaddidiya. Shaykh Ahmed elaborated and consolidated the principles of Wahdat as Shahada as a counterpoint to extreme interpretations of Wahdat al Wajud. So pre-eminent is the position of Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi among the ulema that he is referred to as Mujaddid al Alf e Thani (Renewer of the Second Millennium).

Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi was the first of three great Muslim thinkers of the subcontinent. The other two were Shah Waliullah (d. 1762) of Delhi, and Muhammed Iqbal of Lahore (d. 1938). Both Shaykh Ahmed and Shah Waliullah came from Sufi backgrounds and both are universally recognized as mujaddids (first rank scholars of Shariah, Fiqh and Sunnah who are qualified to reform religious practices). The eloquent poetry of Muhammed Iqbal of Lahore (1873-1938) echoes the legacy of tasawwuf left by Shaykh Ahmed and Shah Waliullah, although Iqbal went further than any of his predecessors in asserting the free will of man and its responsibility for noble action. In this respect, Iqbal stands at the confluence of the Asharite and the Mu’tazilite Schools, where the doctrines of qida (predestination) andqadr (free will) meet. The profound religious thoughts of these reformers require a separate volume. Here, we are concerned more with their social and political thoughts, and their impact on the history of the subcontinent.

There is a common thread in their approach to Muslim interactions with the largely non-Muslim populations of South Asia. Shaykh Ahmed took exception to Akbar’s initiatives for co-union with the Hindus. Perhaps it was a reaction to the Vaishanava Hindu revival in northern India at the time, or perhaps it was the deeply felt conviction of the shaykh that the future of Islam lay in strict adherence to the Sunni tradition. Some of his views were implemented during the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707) with disastrous consequences for the Moghul Empire. Aurangzeb befriended Shaykh Muhammed Maasum, son and successor to Shaykh Ahmed, while Shaykh Saifuddin, his grandson, lived at the court of Aurangzeb in Delhi.

Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi’s political leanings can also be seen in Shah Waliullah, one of the most eminent of Islamic scholars produced by India. In 1761, as the Marathas advanced towards the Punjab, and briefly occupied Lahore (1760), it was the forceful plea of Shah Waliullah, which invited Ahmed Shah Abdali of Kabul to intervene. The bitterly fought Battle of Panipat (1761), destroyed Maratha power in the north, and confined it to central India. More than a hundred and fifty years later, another profound thinker, Muhammed Iqbal, reflected on the apparent diversity of Hindu-Muslim ways of life, and advanced the idea of a separate state for Muslims-Pakistan.

The history of the subcontinent shows that Akbar’s attempts did not succeed. Muslim India remained ambivalent about his initiatives. Sunni Islam embraced the orthodoxy of Aurangzeb. The Shi’as maintained their exclusiveness. The Hindus and the Muslims both took aggressive positions. The Sikhs, who started out bridging the gap between Muslims and Hindus, ended up fighting them both. The partition of the subcontinent in 1947, and its gory aftermath in which Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs indulged in sustained orgies of mutual slaughter, was a political and social acknowledgement of this failure.

It is instructive to compare the achievements of Emperor Akbar with those of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The two were contemporaries. Akbar ruled from 1556 to 1605, while Elizabeth I ruled from 1559 to 1603. Both had inherited kingdoms that were weak and divided. When Akbar ascended the throne, his control hardly extended beyond Delhi and Agra. When he died in 1603, the empire embraced more than a million square miles and had become one of the most powerful empires in the world. When Elizabeth ascended the English throne, England was a marginal state in Europe and the object of intrigues by Spain and France. Scotland was at war with England. Elizabeth consolidated the United Kingdom, defeated the Spanish Armada and took England out of the orbit of Rome. When she died in 1603, England was the most powerful state in Western Europe. Akbar’s dominions were far more extensive than those of Elizabeth, and had a population ten times that of England. But Akbar was a king-Emperor on the mighty landmass of South Asia. He made no attempt to build a strong navy. The material for building ships was available in Bengal as well as in Gujrat. The technology was available to them from the Ottoman Turks and from the Chinese. But as strong as they were on land, they surrendered the Indian Ocean to the Europeans. During the height of Akbar’s power, pilgrims to Mecca and traders to East Africa had to have their papers stamped by the Portuguese for safe conduct. In the year 1600, even while Akbar was consolidating his empire and Hindustan was headed towards a period of dazzling prosperity, the East India Company was granted a charter by Elizabeth I. Two hundred years later, when history hurled England and India into a fateful embrace, it was the lapse of the Great Moghuls to build a navy and control the Indian Ocean that made the difference, and the Company triumphed over the Rajas and Nawabs who had inherited the Empire.

The system of mansabs instituted by Akbar, while it served the empire during its period of expansion, proved to be a drag on the treasury when decay set in. In the 20th century, it proved to be an impediment to modernization in both India and Pakistan. Third, the empire lagged behind Europe in the diffusion of knowledge and technology. The printing press, which was introduced into Europe in 1415, made possible the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The printing press was not introduced into the Moghul territories until the 18th century. Technology and innovation suffered, while wealth and power became the focus of court life. India did not produce a Newton or Galileo or Kepler. Fourth, the Moghuls (and the Ottomans and the Safavids) knew far less about the Europeans than the Europeans knew about them. Indian explorers did not travel through Europe to learn about the “Firangis” who were increasingly active on their shores. Indian exclusiveness, Hindu and Muslim alike, acted as a barrier to correct information and knowledge about these traders from far-away lands. So, when the decisive confrontation came, faulty intelligence did the Indians in, while the Europeans took full advantage of the knowledge they had about Indian court intrigues and societal fissures.

Akbar’s greatest contribution to Islamic history was his extension of the framework for interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims. Until his reign, Sultans and ulema alike had divided the world into two neat little compartments, Dar ul Islam and Dar ul Harab. Dar ul Islam was where the Sultans reigned, and the non-Muslims paid jizya in return for military protection as Dhimmis (protected minorities). Dar ul Harab was where the non-Muslims ruled, and conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims were unavoidable. Religious obligations that were binding on all believers in Dar ul Islam, were not necessarily binding in Dar ul Harab. Akbar, the Great Moghul, added a third dimension to this bi-polar world. This was the dimension of co-union, in which the definition of People of the Book received the maximum latitude, the meaning of Islam as Deen ul Fitra (pristine and natural faith of all humans) was implemented, and Islam extended its loving hand to all mankind. Few grasped the vision of the Great Moghul. They were looking at the rainbow through a prism that allowed a single wavelength of light; the colors of the rainbow were lost to them. Akbar’s social, political and religious activism fell by the wayside, and history lost track of the lofty horizons shown by the Great Moghul. It chose instead narrow and sinuous alleys.

Babur in Delhi

Babur in Delhi

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur (1483-1530), founder of the Moghul dynasty in the subcontinent, was a descendant of Timur from his father’s side and of Genghiz Khan from his mother’s side. Since Timur himself was a Tatar and married into a Birlas Turkish family, it may also be claimed that Babur was a Turk. The word Moghul is a Farsi corruption for Mongol, and it stayed with Babur’s dynasty, even though the house of Babur preferred an association with the name of his great great grandfather, Timur, and called themselves Timurids.

In the year 1500, the India-Pakistan subcontinent was a border state in the larger Islamic world. It was somewhat insulated from Central Asia due to its geography-the high Hindu Kush Mountains and the difficult passes on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But it was a prize that no would-be conqueror could disregard. The rich Indo-Gangetic plains and the southern highlands of the Deccan were net exporters of goods up until the 18thcentury. Since ancient times, the spices, ivory, iron and manufactured goods of the subcontinent were valued all over the world. Traders from the Roman Empire, and later from the Islamic Empire based in Baghdad, carried on a brisk trade with the western coast of India. To the northwest, the Silk Road to China and the land route to Tabriz brimmed with commercial activity. The traders paid for the spices in gold and silver, and so the subcontinent had a net surplus inflow of precious metals. Much of the wealth found its way to the rulers, and the principal cities such as Delhi, Lahore, Multan, Surat and Dacca. These cities became rich prizes for a potential conqueror. It was for this reason that India was plundered time and again by invaders in search of loot. Often, the conquerors liked the easy life of Hindustan, settled down and founded new dynasties. Sometimes, as it happened with Timur (1400) and Nadir Shah (1739), they just took the loot and departed. Others, like the British, took the loot and stayed as long as they could to continuously exploit the land.

The collapse of the Timurid Empire threw Central and West Asia into turmoil. Out of this turmoil new empires were born. Shah Ismail I, the head of the Safaviyya brotherhood, successfully consolidated his power in Persia and founded the Safavid dynasty. Zahiruddin Babur, a Timurid prince, was a contemporary of Shah Ismail. He was the son of Omar Shaykh, a Timurid prince who had inherited the bountiful valley of Ferghana, including Timur’s capital city of Samarqand. Omar Shaykh, who ruled Farghana from the town of Andijan, died in 1494 when Babur was a boy of eleven. In the usual Timurid tradition, there was a scramble among Omar Shaykh’s brothers and sons to grab the throne. Babur’s uncle Sultan Ahmed was the first to make his move. But Ahmed’s sudden death, and the incapability of his sons, left Babur in possession of Farghana and Samarqand. The infighting continued with Babur and his brother Jehangir jostling for advantage. Meanwhile, to the east of Farghana, a powerful Uzbek kingdom had arisen, headed by Muhammed Shaibani Khan (1451-1510). The Uzbeks expanded to the north at the expense of the Mongols, and to the west at the expense of the Timurids. Taking advantage of the infighting in the House of Timur, Shaibani invaded Farghana in 1501, defeated Babur at the of Sar-e-Pul, and occupied Samarqand. Babur fled and for three years wandered around the hills of Afghanistan and the plains of Khorasan. He made several attempts to recapture Samarqand but each time suffered defeat at the hands of Shaibani. Babur, and his descendants the Great Moghuls of Delhi, never gave up their claims on Samarqand. As late as 1630, Emperor Shah Jehan, great-grandson of Babur, launched an unsuccessful expedition from Agra to recapture Samarqand.

In the political turmoil of the times, there were always opportunities for an enterprising prince. Babur found a home in Kabul, which he took in 1504. Meanwhile, the Uzbek advance continued southward. In 1505, Shaibani invaded the territories of Hussain Baiqara, another Timurid prince, who ruled from the city of Herat. In response to a request for help from Baiqara, Babur advanced towards Herat but withdrew because Baiqara died (1506) before Babur could reach there. The Uzbeks continued their advance in Khorasan, taking Merv and Nishapur as they went. The Uzbek capture of Khorasan brought Shah Ismail himself into the fray. In 1510, Ismail advanced into Khorasan at the head of a large army. During this period Babur fought on the side of the Safavid troops against Shaibani Khan. Notwithstanding the alliance between the Safavid Shah Ismail I and Babur, Shaibani was victorious. Turning south, the Uzbeks occupied Qandahar and threatened the home base of Babur in Kabul both from the north and the south. Fortunately for Babur, Shaibani withdrew from Qandahar after accepting a tribute from the local inhabitants and was killed the same year in a skirmish with the Turkomans.

After the death of Shaibani, the Persians successfully reclaimed Khorasan. In return for the help he had received, Shah Ismail permitted Babur to keep any territory in Afghanistan and Farghana that he would wrest from the Uzbeks. Ismail withdrew from Khorasan leaving his general Yar Ahmed Khuzani as the Governor. The independent spirit of Babur found it unacceptable to live with the overlordship of the Safavids. Babur was appalled by the heavy-handedness with which Khuzani forced Ithna Ashari tenets on the predominantly Sunni population of Herat, and the brutality with which he killed the inhabitants of conquered cities. In 1512, at the Battle of Ghuzduvan, Babur withheld his support of the Safavids. The Uzbeks were victorious and Khuzani was killed in the battle.

Disappointed with his attempts to recapture Samarqand, and with the military-political turmoil in Central Asia, Babur turned his attention east towards Hindustan. He considered the throne of Delhi to be his by virtue of his legacy from Timur. Delhi was at this time ruled by Ibrahim Lodhi (1517-1526), the last of a dynasty, which had ruled India since 1450. Ibrahim, unlike his father Sikandar Lodhi, was a political dwarf who could not manage the intrigues in the Delhi court. India was rife with instability. Bengal and Punjab were in revolt. The Rajputs under Rana Sangha were up in arms.

Babur made several incursions into India through the Khyber Pass and found the military climate favorable. An opportunity to cross the Indus arose when Daulat Khan, governor of Punjab, sought Babur’s help against Ibrahim Lodhi. The year 1525 saw Babur’s armies in Lahore. The following year, he advanced towards Delhi at the head of 18,000 cavalrymen, well armed with muskets and supported by a phalanx of Turkish cannon. Ibrahim Lodhi met him on the plains of Panipat in April 1526 with his huge army of over 100,000, backed by war elephants. The Moghul advantage in firearms carried the day. As Babur’s artillery fell on the elephants, they turned around and trampled the Indian infantry. Ibrahim Lodhi died on the battlefield. Babur was in Delhi and the Moghul Empire was born.

Babur advanced along the Gangetic plains, captured Agra (1526), and moved into Kanauj. The following year (1527), in a pitched battle at Khanua, he overcame the combined resistance of the Rajputs under Rana Sangha of Mewar, and of some of the local Muslim chieftains. Ibrahim Lodhi’s brother Mahmud Lodhi escaped from Panipat and raised an army in Bengal. In 1529, this resistance was crushed and Babur became the undisputed Emperor of Hindustan.

The Battle of Panipat in 1526 is a turning point in global history. With Babur’s victory, the Delhi Sultanate, which had been established in 1192 by Muhammed Ghori, came to an end. Its place was taken by the Great Moghul Empire which consolidated the territories of South Asia and left as its legacy the culture, art, architecture, administration, music, language, cuisine and customs of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

It was the Moghul period that witnessed the first commercial contacts with European powers, which in due course changed the history of Europe and Asia alike. Babur was not only a tireless soldier and a consummate leader, but a great writer as well. His memoirs collected under Babur Nama, are considered one of the greatest testaments of a ruler, and occupy a place in world historiography alongside the memoirs of Caesar. His poignant death brings out not only the sensitivity of his soul, but also the predominant Sufic bent of his times. In 1530, his son Humayun fell ill. The best that medical science had to offer did not cure him and all hope was lost. Babur raised his hands in prayer to the Almighty, and beseeching Him to spare the life of his son, begged to take his life instead. It is related that after the prayer, Babur went around his dying son’s bed seven times, each time repeating his supplication. He died soon thereafter, while his son recovered and became the next Emperor of Hindustan.

The Caliphate moves to Istanbul

The Caliphate moves to Istanbul

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The Battle of Chaldiran (1514) changed the balance of power in West Asia in favor of the Ottomans. Thereafter, the Safavids were contained within Persia, while the Ottomans held sway in the eastern Mediterranean. Selim I did not press his advantage after the battle and pursue Shah Ismail. The harsh winter in Azerbaijan and the mountains of eastern Anatolia presented serious problems and there was unrest in his army. After briefly camping in Tabriz, Selim I withdrew. Soon thereafter, Shah Ismail returned to the city and re-occupied it.

The territories of West Asia lay where the mutual interests of three powerful dynasties-the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Mamlukes converged. The mutual interactions among these three empires determined the course of further developments in Islamic history. The Mamlukes, a Turkish people who had settled in the Nile Delta, came to power around the year 1250, displacing the Ayyubids. Izzaddin Aybek, a Turkish general, was the first of the Mamluke rulers. We have come across his name in connection with his marriage to Shajarat al Durr, the first and only Muslim queen of Egypt (1249-1250).

The Mamlukes were European and Central Asian slaves who were captured by Viking raiders in north and eastern Europe and sold to Muslim merchants in the bazaars around the Caspian Sea. Brought to Muslim courts, they were trained in the military academies, given instruction in Islam, and inducted into the armed services. They proved to be the bravest and the most loyal of soldiers in the service of the Sultans. Since the army was the vehicle for advancement, many of the Mamlukes rose to be general officers, married princesses of the courts, and went on to establish their own dynasties.

Soon after the Mamlukes came to power in Egypt, Baghdad was captured and destroyed by Hulagu Khan (1258), and the Abbasid Caliphate came to an end. The Mongols trampled most of the Abbasid princes to death, but one of them escaped to Cairo. There he was welcomed as the last scion of the Abbasids and installed as the Caliph (1261). The Caliphate was the vortex of Islamic social, political and religious life. Only the caliphs could bestow legitimacy on a Sultan. And the caliphs were the theoretical custodians of the shrines in Mecca and Madina. The presence of the Caliphate in Cairo after 1261 bestowed enormous prestige on that city and on the Mamlukes who ruled from there.

A second element in the prestige of the Mamlukes was the resistance they offered the Mongols. It was the Mamlukes of Egypt under Sultan Baybars who brought a halt to the westward advance of the Mongols. Their victory over a combined Mongol-Crusader force at Ayn Jalut (1261) confirmed their pre-eminent position as the protectors of Mecca and Madina. Similarly, it was the Mamlukes of Delhi, who stopped the advance of the Mongols at the River Indus, in a series of campaigns lasting fifty years (1220-1270).

By the year 1515, the Mamlukes had been in power in Cairo for over 250 years. Court intrigues and political infighting had sapped their energies, although their political control still extended over all of Egypt, the Sudan, Eritrea, eastern Libya, Arabia, Yemen, and Syria. It was in the northern reaches of the Syrian frontier that the mutual interests of the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Mamlukes overlapped-and collided. After the Battle of Chaldiran, Sultan Selim proceeded to consolidate his hold on Kurdish territories. The district of Mosul fell to the Ottomans in 1516. The Ottomans reorganized these territories bestowing a large degree of autonomy on each district. This was most welcome to the Kurds who had chafed under the autocratic rule of the Aq Quyunlus. It was about this time that Ottoman conflicts with the Mamlukes began.

During his march to Persia, Sultan Selim had requested Alauddaulah, Mamluke Governor in northern Syria to refrain from giving aid to the Qazilbash who were harassing the advancing Ottoman contingents. Alauddaulah gave a polite reply but continued to provide covert aid to the Safavid Qazilbash. The Mamluke Sultan Kansuah al Ghauri had hoped that the Safavids would triumph over the Ottomans at the Battle of Chaldiran and had instructed Alauddaulah to assist the Persians. Unfortunately, for the Mamlukes, the outcome was the opposite. After his decisive victory at Chaldiran, Salim turned his attention to northern Syria. Alauddaulah was captured and slain. Even at this late stage, neither the Ottomans nor the Mamlukes wanted a final showdown. Envoys were exchanged and messages sent. Political maneuvers and military posturing continued. Kansuah hoped that a show of force on the frontier would deter any further Ottoman advance, since Salim was still concerned about a Safavid attack to the rear. He ordered his forces to begin a campaign on the frontier, and he himself advanced towards Syria in April 1516.

The Mamlukes were in a difficult economic and political position. The Portuguese, who sailed around the coast of Africa in 1496, had by the year 1515 devastated the Muslim trading centers in East Africa, occupied Goa (India), Hormuz (Persia) and the Straits of Malacca (Malaysia). The profitable spice trade, which had previously flowed through Cairo, was now in the hands of the Portuguese. With the loss of their eastern trade, revenues decreased and Egypt was in dire financial straits. To contain the Portuguese, the Mamlukes had commenced naval activity in the Red Sea and further out into the Arabian Sea, which caused a further drain on the treasury. When Kansuah advanced towards Syria, so concerned was he about the remaining state treasury that he took it with him and had it buried in Aleppo. The financial condition of Egypt was not unknown to Sultan Salim, who was undeterred by the Mamluke military posturing.

The two dynasties now moved towards a military collision. More envoys were exchanged seeking to avoid a confrontation but it was too late. Selim moved through Konya, reinforced his troops with contingents from Kurdistan, Rumilia and Trebizond. The two armies met at Marj Dabik on the outskirts of Aleppo in August 1516. Each side had about sixty thousand men under arms. The battle was joined in the classical pattern with the center, left flanks and right flanks facing each other. Two important factors gave the advantage to the Ottomans. First, they had total superiority in cannons and artillery. The Mamlukes, locked up as they were with the technology of the past, considered it unmanly to fight with a gun rather than a sword. Second, the Governor of Aleppo, Khair Beg, was in secret collusion with the Ottomans. In the thick of battle, he spread the rumor that Kansuah had been slain. The Mamluke lines broke, and the battle ended in total victory for the Ottomans.

Sultan Selim now pressed his advantage. Advancing deeper into Syria he occupied Damascus and Palestine. Word was sent to Tuman Bey, son of Kansuah, who had ascended the throne of Egypt, to submit to the rule of Istanbul. When the answer was negative, the Ottomans advanced towards the Mamluke capital. The Battle of Cairo was joined towards the end of January 1517. Tuman Bey and the Mamlukes fought desperately but were finally overcome. Tuman Bey himself was captured and was executed in Cairo the following April.

The conquest of Egypt meant that the Ottoman Empire now included Syria, Egypt, the Sudan and Arabia, in addition of all of Anatolia and southeastern Europe. It had become the pre-eminent land power in Eurasia. Most important, the Ottomans controlled the cities of Mecca and Madina, and were considered the custodians of the two cities throughout the Islamic world. To sanctify this newfound position, Sultan Selim had the last of the Abbasid caliphs brought to Istanbul where he was made to abdicate the title of caliph in favor of Salim. Thus, in the year 1517, the Caliphate, that singular pole around which much of Islamic history revolves, moved from Cairo to Istanbul. The Turkish Sultan was now the temporal as well as the religious leader of all Sunni Muslims and was duty bound to assist and protect Muslims around the globe. The Ottoman Sultans discharged this responsibility for 400 years until modern times, with exceptional devotion, zeal and dedication, often at a great sacrifice to the Turks themselves.

The Battle of Chaldiran

The Battle of Chaldiran

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The Turkish kingdoms of the Kara Kuyunlu and Aq Kuyunlu did not last. One of the reasons for this transience was that their rulers did not establish enduring political and administrative structures to sustain their empires. The Safavids were successful while the Kuyunlus failed because they built a legacy of lasting political and administrative structures. Their imprint on the political, social, cultural, administrative and religious life of Persia was so profound that it lasts to this day. Indeed, the Safavids had a major impact on the history and culture of Central and West Asia as well as India and Pakistan.

By any measure, Shah Ismail I (1487-1524) was a brilliant man. He was also a ruthless man. Ascending the throne of Tabriz in 1501 at the young age of fourteen, he set out to consolidate the former empire of the Aq Kuyunlu under his flag. In the uncertain times following the collapse of the Kuyunlu kingdoms, people needed a new sponsor for protection. Constant warfare had exhausted the population and some believed in the coming of the Mahdi or the resurrection of the hidden Imam. Ismail built on the groundwork laid by his grandfather, Shaykh Junaid. Junaid had traveled throughout Turkey, Persia and Syria, attracting followers, and converting the Turks to his religious order. Through his tireless struggle, the Safaviyya became a major political religious movement in West Asia. As news of Ismail’s military successes spread, many of the Turkish tribes gravitated to him. Followers of the Safaviyya movement flocked to Tabriz to join his forces. A rapid expansion of his territories followed.

It is impossible to discuss the achievements of Ismail without at the same time considering his religious leanings because they determine to a large extent the subsequent relations between the emerging Safavid Empire and the Ottomans. Shah Ismail was an ardent champion of the Ithna AshariFiqh. The core of his guards wore a red cap with twelve perforations in it signifying their allegiance to the twelve Imams. These were called the Qazilbash. Ismail was at once the temporal and spiritual leader of the Safaviyya movement, combining in his person the dual roles of the qutub (pole), sadr (religious head) and Sultan. His word was the law, and his followers venerated him as an invincible Shaykh in the lineage of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r). Ismail was also heir to the legacy of his maternal grandfather, Sultan Uzun Hassan; he therefore considered the vast Aq Kuyunlu Empire that was once ruled by Uzun Hassan rightfully his by birth.

As soon as he entered Tabriz, Ismail declared the Ithna Ashari to be the official Fiqh. At the time, most inhabitants of Tabriz followed the Shafi’i Fiqh. Ismail was ruthless in forcing his religious views on the population. Many of the Shafi’i ulema were punished, banished or worse. Such forceful introduction of Shi’a views was repeated in later years when Shah Ismail captured, Herat and Khorasan. Whether this was done because of the youthful zeal of the king or because the Shi’a tenets provided him a distinctive political religious umbrella, it is impossible to tell. Some of the views held by Ismail were extreme, and contrary to Ithna Ashari beliefs as well. For instance, in his earlier years, Ismail I, as evidenced by the poetry he wrote, considered himself the shadow of God on earth, invincible in war. He even placed the name of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) before the name of the Prophet. Muslims who follow the Ithna Ashari Fiqh do not accept such views.

The Turks played a crucial role in the early history of the Safavids. Most of Ismail’s army was from the Turkish ranks. Prominent Turkish tribes who joined Ismail’s armies included the Turkmen, the Qajar, the Afshar, the Shamblu and the Ustajlu. When Ismail captured Tabriz from the Aq Kuyunlu, he appointed a Turk, Shamsuddin Kukunji, as his vizier. Kukunji had served in a similar capacity with the Aq Kuyunlus. The political and administrative structure of the Aq Kuyunlus was taken over and consolidated under the Safavids, thus providing a measure of continuity in the government. To provide the Persians a stake in the empire, they were given a dominant share of civilian posts.

It was Ismail’s genius that in his person the Turkish and Persian elements were fused to give birth to the unique Safavid culture. Following the capture of Tabriz, Ismail moved quickly to consolidate his hold on the territories once ruled by Uzun Hassan. Advancing westward towards Anatolia, he captured Diyarbakr. He then turned his attention to Iraq, capturing Baghdad in the year 1508. Meanwhile, a strong foe had emerged in Uzbekistan in the person of Muhammed Shaibani Khan. Shaibani had captured Herat and had extended his conquests to Khorasan, which was considered by the Safavids to be theirs.

Conflict between the expanding empires of the Safavids and the Uzbeks was inevitable. The two armies met at the Battle of Merv in 1510. Shaibani Khan fell on the battlefield. The Uzbeks were defeated, not vanquished. They regrouped under Ubaidullah Khan and continued their struggle. The victorious Shah Ismail added Herat to his empire and appointed his governor to that province.

It is in this melee, involving the Uzbeks and the Safavids that we first hear of an enterprising young man, Zaheeruddin Babur, the founder of the Moghul dynasty in India. Shaibani’s death did not contain the resilient Uzbeks. His successor Ubaidullah returned with a fury to re-occupy Khorasan in 1512. Babur, who was at the time a young prince of thirty-two, had his own claims to the territories of Farghana which had been taken from his father by Shaibani Khan. In the Battle of Khuzduvan in 1512 between the Safavids and the Uzbeks over the control of Khorasan, Babur fought on the side of the Safavids against Ubaidullah. Nonetheless, Ubaidullah won this battle.

Shah Ismail was not reconciled to the loss of Khorasan. The following year, when the Uzbeks got embroiled in a civil war, the Safavids reclaimed the province without a fight. Khorasan remained a Safavid province thereafter. Thus, in the course of twelve years, between 1500 and 1512, Ismail had conquered all the lands extending from Khorasan to the Euphrates and from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. He was no doubt aided in this effort by the unquestioned loyalty of his followers, and the fervent religious zeal of the Safaviyya order. His personal assets included a dynamic personality and he was fearless in combat.

Shah Ismail’s legacy was to give Persia social, political and administrative stability, and to bestow upon a land ravaged by centuries of Mongol and Tatar invasions, an enduring religious cohesion and a distinct national consciousness. The present boundaries of Iran roughly correspond to those ruled by Shah Ismail, minus the territories of Iraq and eastern Anatolia which were lost to the Ottomans, and parts of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia which were lost to Russia in later centuries. Southern Afghanistan was contested between the Safavids and the Moghuls but became a part of an independent Afghanistan in the 19th century.

The large migration of Safaviyya followers from Anatolia to Tabriz caused an alarm in Istanbul. The Ottomans, initially well disposed towards the Sufis, became suspicious of them after an attempt on the life of Sultan Bayazid II by a wandering dervish in 1492. When Ismail captured Tabriz in 1501 and made it his capital, the migration of Turkish followers of the Safaviyya order accelerated. The movement was so widespread that entire border districts were depopulated. In 1502, the Ottomans cracked down. Anyone suspected of being a sympathizer of the Safaviyya order or a Qazilbash was apprehended and deported to Thrace in northern Greece. Ismail’s incursions into the Ottoman province worsened the situation. But the real confrontation between the Safavids and the Ottomans started in 1511 when Sultan Bayazid II fell ill and rumors spread that he was close to his death. The Qazilbash in western Anatolia, who had felt persecuted by the Ottomans, sensed an opportunity to get even, and rebelled. Under their leader Shah Quli, who had declared himself to be the Mahdi, they went on a rampage, indulging in widespread killings and looting.

In Islamic history, as we have seen in the Murabitun revolution in the Maghrib, social disaffections have often been expressed in religious terms. The uprising of Shah Quli was not a religious war, much less a Shi’a-Sunni confrontation. Rather, it was an expression of the festering disaffection of some Turkoman tribes due to lack of opportunity in the Ottoman Empire, which had now become a political establishment. By contrast, the rapid expansion of the Safavids was a call to ambitious young men, and restless tribes, to try their luck at adventure and advancement. So potent and organized was this rebellion that the governor of the province fled before the rebels. An initial detachment of Ottoman troops under Prince Qorqud was defeated. Bayazid II finally sent his grand vizier Khadim Ali Pasha to crush the rebellion. In a pitched battle at Sivas in 1511, the rebels were routed. Both Shah Quli and Khadim Ali Pasha fell on the battlefield. However, many of the Qazilbash escaped across the Ottoman-Safavid border. Some were apprehended by Shah Ismail and punished for their excesses, but most of them found a home in the Safavid armies.

The porous border between Anatolia and Azerbaijan brought the first military confrontation between the Ottomans and the Safavids. Faced with an uprising in the east, the Ottoman Porte in Istanbul forced Sultan Bayazid II to abdicate in favor of his son Salim (1512). This young monarch had witnessed first hand the zeal of the Qazilbash while he was governor of Trebizond, a district adjoining Azerbaijan. Salim knew that a military clash with the Safavids could not be postponed. He advanced towards Azerbaijan at the head of the disciplined janissars. Shah Ismail and Sultan Salim I met at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. The Ottomans enjoyed a distinct advantage in artillery and guns and the contest was a disaster for the Safavids. So complete was the rout, that in their haste to retreat, Shah Ismail’s favorite wife was left behind in the battlefield and fell into Ottoman hands.

The Battle of Chaldiran was a defining moment in Islamic history and a benchmark for relations between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. It was the only time that the Safavids fought the Ottoman armies head-on, and it ensured that eastern Anatolia-and for a while parts of Azerbaijan-would be ruled from Istanbul. The city of Tabriz was exposed to Ottoman conquests, and the Safavids thought it prudent to shift their capital east to Isfahan. During subsequent incursions by the Ottomans, the Safavids chose to retreat, allowing the handicaps of distance, geography and terrain to arrest Ottoman advances. The Battle of Chaldiran shattered Shah Ismail’s spirit. Gone was his conviction that he was invincible in battle. He did not take part in any further military engagements, delegating the fighting to his generals.

Shah Ismail, the leader of a Sufi order, rose to become the father of one of the most important dynasties in Islamic history, and the founder of a brilliant Islamic culture, which at its zenith combined the best traditions of Persia with those of the Turks, the Uzbeks and the Afghans. Shah Ismail died in 1525.