Re-revisiting Aurangzeb:

I am very happy to provide here the first, of hopefully many essays, provided by our Historian. It is an excellent article.

Enjoy … Please leave comments .. our historian thrives on complements .. no harsh words please, although, for what it is worth healthy criticism is useful, but negativity gets us nowhere .. right? Just kidding. Some of you may find the initial discussion on historiography not to their taste, I suggest if that be the case, start a few pages down at: Aurangzeb on Trial.

Re-revisiting Aurangzeb:

Liberating Mughal historiography from the shackles of ideology


Mughal historiography is quite peculiar in that no single paradigm has emerged as the dominant one; the divergent methodologies that have emerged since the disintegration of the Mughal Empire are still very much vying for dominance. The aim of this paper is to take a cursory glance at these historiographical trends (for limitations of space a detailed analysis would not be possible) and to make the argument that the main hurdle to untangling these threads of mughal history writing is the ideological inclination of their proponents. Having established that the next step would be to suggest an alternative approach; ideally one that is not as narrow in its focus that it ascribes to individuals absolute control of history nor so expansive in its outlook that individuals become mere specks of dust floating in the stream of destiny.


The orientalist framework within which most of the early research, and the highly limiting parameters of which, as this paper will propose, though identified have still not been satisfactorily transcended, was followed (though never superseded) by the stream of social history projects that gained a firm foothold in the latter part of the 20th century. This revisionist history, a welcome improvement as it may be over the political history approach, itself needs further revision if it to displace its predecessor.


Historians of every subject are forced to grapple more and more with these philosophical debates but the need to engage with them is all the more urgent for scholars of Mughal history if we consider how this history is being distorted to support nationalist/communalist ideologies both in India and in Pakistan; often with tragic consequences. The figure of Aurangzeb provides a focal point for the ideologues on both extremes of the spectrum and it is for this exact reason that he continues to beckon, to all those who may listen, to give him a fair trial, at the least to restore his humanness, and in the process provide a more rich, sophisticated and above all honest history.


Trends in Historiography

Perhaps the most enduring and insidiously influential trend in the historiography of South Asia has been the chronological categorization of history into the ancient (Hindu), medieval (Muslim) and Modern (British[1]) periods. The limitations these conceptual categories impose are now accepted even by their original vanguard, the Cambridge School[2].

Linked to this ‘orientalist triptych’[3] is the twin idea of oriental despotism as articulated by Europeans approaching the orient as the ‘other’[4]. Whereas the West had undergone an uninterrupted phase of progress the orient had been stagnant, the only change occurring at the top while conditions at the ground level remained the same. Looked at in this way these ideas were not quite as arbitrary as apologists would concede; they were very much couched in a discourse of power and control. Unfortunately this idea was uncritically internalized by many nationalist Indians, Gandhi providing a perfect example in his depiction of the village communities of India forming an unchanging core of Indian civilization[5].

This view of a static society precluded serious attempts to try and study the institutions of state, their development over time or the dialectical relationship they had with society, at least until the latter half of the twentieth century, when the shear thrust of global attitudes forced realignment in favor of a systemic view[6]. Unfortunately this systemic view suffered from the same sort of rigidity and narrowness that characterized the political, psychoanalytical approach it strove to displace; the idiosyncrasies of emperors as the glue that bound the narrative was replaced by a single-minded emphasis on the fiscal system as the only explanatory variable capable of lending coherence to the Marxist grand narrative.

Recently decolonized nations feel the need to create a new history, a new starting point, a year 0 if you will, while simultaneously establishing linkages to an ancient civilization[7]. This paradox of wanting to start afresh, while not being confident enough to shed the past, has unfortunate consequences for the writing of history within these nation states for not only is the past valorized, to a large extent it is constructed[8] to fit the national ideal. If we consider the concept of nationhood as just that, that is a mere concept, then the question arises as to how this concept can be turned into a sense of nationhood for a diverse ethnic/religious/linguistic populace.


Here a digression is perhaps necessary to take a brief survey of the actual process of formation of the independent states of India and Pakistan (which comprised present day Bangladesh). The bedrock of the demand for Pakistan was the postulation that Muslims of the subcontinent formed a community distinct from the other communities of the subcontinent[9]; more importantly they were conscious of this difference and determined to preserve their heritage. In this way they had every right to lay claims to being a nation and therefore were entitled to a separate homeland. The politics that guided this nationalist movement and the absurdity of portraying this demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims as a panacea for their abject condition (again this is a typical result of comparison with a glorified past that is more imaginary than real) has been adequately addressed elsewhere[10] and besides this paper is more concerned with the ideological currents that culminated in the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan and how since then these post-colonial states have invested heavily in propping up these ideologies. Not even the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 (when the more populated eastern wing of Pakistan broke away despite, or you could argue because of, the heavy-handed attempts of the state to form national unity) has forced a serious review of these ideologies, let alone a wholesale rejection of the same.


It is the opinion of the author that adherence to these ideologies, nationalist and Marxist (in defense of the historians however it should be mentioned here that to some extent it is a result of the state’s direct interference in setting the parameters of historical debate in public institutions of learning[11]) results in a distorted history. It is to a more detailed analysis of these ideologies, or rather the limitations they impose on a more nuanced understanding of history that we turn to, focusing specifically on Aurangzeb for this purpose.


Aurangzeb on trial

There is no dearth of writings on Aurangzeb; if anything Aurangzeb has had his share of the spotlight. The problem however lies in the ideological divide that separates this corpus of scholarship into the pro-Aurangzeb and the anti-Aurangzeb, casting him either as a hero or a villain. Such a binary is only possible through a perverse reductionism of what by all means appears to be an especially complex personality with several inherent contradictions. Charges of bigotry on Aurangzeb are completely unsustainable in the face of historical evidence and it is hoped that a refutation of such charges can help in exposing the superficiality of such a simplistic (mis)understanding of the role of religion as it concerned affairs of the state. Here it is worth mentioning that the author in no way attempts to downplay the role religious beliefs might have played in informing his theory of governance; the attempt is merely to locate them within a dense web of divergent influences that must have been attendant on a monarch of such a vast and heterogeneous empire.


The oft-cited claim that courtly culture assumed an ostensibly Islamic character begs the question whether such compartmentalization of culture into distinctly Islamic and un-Islamic spheres is even feasible. Similarly, wouldn’t contextualizing imperial culture within a high culture help in appreciating the parameters of its interaction with the popular culture of the masses? In a highly fractured religious group, where myriad conflicting opinions exist on things ranging from the most fundamental to the most trivial, which one is truly Islamic? Is this not a perverse oversimplification? Unfortunately these and similar questions concerning highly complex phenomena like religion and culture and their interaction are seldom addressed in any appraisal of Aurangzeb. How far can a scholarship based on such assumptions take us? Nevertheless a brief overview of some of the criticisms leveled against Aurangzeb might bring into sharper relief the intellectual depravity of the conventional approach of reading into Aurangzeb’s manifest religiosity a complete blue-print for all his actions, even those that can easily be explained as essentially political. For instance Aurangzeb’s destruction of temples makes more historical sense if seen as politically driven rather than a mindless quest towards eradication of idolatry.[12]


Even the more authoritative histories of the Mughal Empire have failed to provide a more sympathetic reappraisal of Aurangzeb. Such a reappraisal has important contemporary implications because accepting Aurangzeb as a devout Muslim means attributing his chauvinism to a religious tradition that has been extremely accommodating to outside influences, as borne out by the Chisti Sufi[13] movement and the Rishis[14] of Kashmir, to just cite a few examples from within India. The same sort of distorted understanding of Islamic history is shared by the Hindu religious zealots that have recently been fanning the flames of sectarian violence in India with increased vigor. Maybe historians have a responsibility to counter these extremist ideologies.


Surprisingly the most cogent historical reappraisal of Aurangzeb has come from a cultural historian cum ethnomusicologist; Katherine Butler Brown’s refutation of the ‘received view’[15] on Aurangzeb and his relationship to music, as she herself quite self-consciously points out, contains within it not only a most compelling argument for a reconsideration of Aurangzeb’s approach towards this established expression of courtly culture but rather has wider implications for the ‘historiography of his reign’. She quite rightly points out how this received view, unsubstantiated by evidence yet generally accepted by historians, has staved off attempts to analytically approach ‘the history of music or indeed any facet of high culture during Aurangzeb’s reign’.[16] This renders a rejection of the ‘received view’ necessary for scholarly progress in the historiography of Aurangzeb’s reign and this author can conceive of no better way to achieve that then through retracing the contours of her argument here.


Brown points out that the story of Aurangzeb’s ban on music is found in only two sources, namely Manucci and Khafi khan. The reliability of these accounts is shown to be highly dubious; Manucci’s version of the story is shown to be no more than ‘second-hand gossip written down at a distance of thirty years’[17] and Khafi khan’s testimony fares no better as permissible historical evidence. Brown locates the motivations for such historical misrepresentations in Manucci’s overarching ‘rhetorical need to portray Aurangzeb as an ancient enemy of Indian culture’.[18] Having thus discredited these sources on their own merits Brown goes on to compare and contrast them with the contemporary semi-official record to further substantiate her claim regarding their spuriousness. Brown blames the ‘inability to escape the received view’[19] for clinging to the belief, in the face of overwhelming primary evidence, that Aurangzeb did in fact enact and enforce a complete ban on music. Why these primary sources have uncritically been accepted in secondary accounts is a valid question she raises for all conscientious historians.


The more plausible explanation, one that Brown proposes, is to view the ban as mere ‘personal abstention’ that would have had ‘no negative impact outside the imperial darbar’.[20] By viewing the ban as such it is possible to reconcile the public and private, or as Brown phrases it ‘the two faces of Aurangzeb’.[21] Aurangzeb’s public displays of religiosity, including abstention from listening to music, can be viewed as a way of projecting and maintaining an image of himself as a devout orthodox muslim in order to maintain his hold on political power. However, as Brown points out this explanation does not automatically preclude the likelihood that Aurangzeb’s religious piety was not solely contingent on the political gains it entailed. This ‘entirely personal, voluntary renunciation’ most likely was ultimately based on his religious beliefs and ideals.


Brown argues that the enduring legacy of this ‘musical parable’[22] lies in its symbolism. Aurangzeb’s religious beliefs inasmuch as they are representative of an Islamic religious orthodoxy that is repressive of differing worldviews, anathema to cultural developments, and most significantly, irrational and thus not worthy of serious analysis, are inherited, essentially unchanged, by present day fundamentalist regimes like that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Such juxtaposition of vastly disparate phenomena reduces a highly dynamic Islamic tradition to a fixed set of rigid legal injunctions just waiting to be appropriated by radical groups like the Taliban. In discussion of the Taliban no mention is made of how they were able to bring some semblance of peace to Afghanistan or how the drug trade was almost completely curtailed or even how an effective legal system was created; all of these achievements are made invisible by their crimes against women and culture.


This mental block is precisely what occurred in the case of Aurangzeb as well, where it became unfashionable to say anything in his support because it could very easily be misconstrued as providing a justification for his alleged orthodoxy. Brown has built a compelling case for casting off these old moulds of thinking and provided much needed impetus for new scholarship on Aurangzeb and a reappraisal of his legacy.
Marxist Teleology and the future of Mughal Historiography

Having pointed out how caricaturing influential historical actors serves the purpose of making them more accessible to extremist ideologies it is now necessary to consider also the negative effects of completely subverting individual agency to the sweep of history. Marxist ideology, for all its rhetoric of liberation, it will be argued, has nonetheless straitjacketed mughal historiography by imposing a rigid teleology. By ascribing, explicitly or implicitly, a predetermined linearity to historical events Marxist historians of the mughal era tend towards over-generalization and their fixed frame of reference precludes the need for an appreciation of the particular. The eccentricities of Aurangzeb become immaterial because they could not conceivably alter the course of economic forces moving inexorably towards one specific conclusion. Such a framework imposes crippling parameters on deeper studies into distinct historical phenomena.


For more concrete examples of the limitations of Marxist inspired historiography on South Asia this paper relies principally on the work of Alam and Subrahmanyam.[23] They see in the work of Marxist inspired historians like Irfan Habib strong influences of W.H Moreland, whose ‘single-minded pursuit of fiscality and an obsession with the ‘system’’[24] was inherited by Habib with minor superficial alterations. Focusing on one particular aspect of the mughal fiscal system (the zabt system) Alam and Subrahmanyam show how tenuous the principles are on which it can be extrapolated to ‘infer conclusions on very broad categories like population, urbanization, external trade and Gross National Product’.[25] Besides pointing out the hazards of such an approach they question the basic paradigm within which ‘a complex political system is reduced to its agrarian fiscal aspects’.[26] The history of institutions should not present static snapshots but rather the emphasis should be on a more nuanced understanding of how these institutions interact with society at large.


From the Marxist viewpoint Aurangzeb’s reign draws attention primarily because it is believed it was during this period that the ‘steel frame’ of the mughal empire, i.e. the ‘mansabdari’ system, was weakened precipitating the long twilight of this elaborate state system.[27] Aurangzeb, however, is not demonized as he is in the personality-centered approach; he is merely presiding over the disintegration of an empire that cannot hold fort against the forces of commercialization. No doubt this approach is more effective in explaining grand historical events but unfortunately it leaves out a lot that is necessary for a more nuanced understanding of history. A purely materialist approach can simply not be enough; the cultural dimensions have to be taken into account for a deeper understanding of the Mughal Empire. A shift of emphasis from class to community, as it has occurred for labour history[28] of the subcontinent could provide a way forward in the field of mughal historiography as well.

And the twain did meet but alas…

As Alam and Subrahmaniyam point out “cross-fertilization”[29] between the personality-centered and the institutional approach has occurred on occasion but unfortunately it takes a convoluted route back to the “central theses of the older personality-oriented generation”[30] by arguing that it was in ‘the nature of institutions that they gave such arbitrary power to a few individuals, who became the fulcra of the system’[31]. Clearly the requirement is to integrate the two approaches in a manner where they complement each other rather than where one morphs into the other. Completely dispensing with the personality-oriented, psychoanalytical approach would hamper the understanding of events that can perhaps be best explained through its deployment, just as attributing all the upheavals of history to the whims and fancies of the elite would make for an extremely partial version of history. If the goal is a better understanding of history only then will such a fusion bear fruit; otherwise the same paradigms would get reinforced and the same received views would be reproduced endlessly.



This paper assumed an onerous task in trying to unravel the tangled threads of Mughal historiography through tracing them back to their origin. It was argued that ideological commitments presented the major obstacle to progress in this particular field of inquiry and an effort was made to bring them into sharper relief in the belief that recognizing them would be a logical step in liberating historiography from their shackles. The figure of Aurangzeb, around whom seemingly the various ideologies seemed to coalesce, was used to illustrate some of the arguments posited here. It is perhaps not surprising if a sense of closure is missing here but then again the aim of this paper was indeed to resurrect a field of scholarship that had prematurely been classified as dead.


The need for reinvigorating research in this history is not just scholarly in nature; the moral implications and the social ramifications of not producing, and more importantly, not disseminating a more impartial history are grave. Increasing communal violence and the surge in popularity for fascist political parties in India threatens its very integrity as a modern, secular state. The distorted representation of Aurangzeb provides just one example within a whole discourse aimed at pitting the Hindu and Muslim communities against each other. This whole edifice of lies will not be destroyed overnight but the figure of Aurangzeb provides a possible first step in the direction of a more impartial history.

[1] Here the break from referring to a particular epoch in terms of the religion of the ruling class is significant.

[2] “The last fifty years have seen a great deal of new research on India, and a striking feature of recent work has been to cast doubt on the validity of the quite arbitrary chronological and categorical way in which Indian history has been conventionally divided”. The New Cambridge History of India: The mughal Empire, (1993), pp. xiv.

[3] Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India, (2002).

[4] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (1995).

[5] David Ludden, Orientalist Empiricism: Transformations of Colonial Knowledge, (1993).

[6] “…the twenty years following the Second World War saw a sharp decline in political and religious history, in the use of ideas as an explanation of history, and a remarkable turn to socio-economic history…” Eric Hobsbawm, On History, (2007), pp.247.

[7] Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, (2006).

[8] For a discussion of how history as narrative is essentially always constructed see any of the several works of Hayden White on the subject.

[9] An analogy used quite often is that of two rivers flowing parallel to each other yet never meeting.

[10] Ayesha jalal, The sole spokesman : Jinnah, the Muslim League and the demand for Pakistan, 1985.Jalal argues that the demand for Pakistan was a bargain counter and that Jinnah never wanted a separate state for the Muslims; in fact he referred to the Pakistan that he got as “truncated…moth-eaten”.

[11] Here the author is drawing on his own experience of going through the educational system of Pakistan, from primary through high school. Subsequent conversations with academics and students have given him no reason to believe that things have much changed as far as instruction of history is concerned.

[12] Catherine Asher, Architecture of Mughal India, (1992), pp. 254.

[13] Carl Ernst Bruce B. Lawrence, Sufi martyrs of love : the Chishti order in South Asia and beyond, (2002).

[14] Mohammad I. Khan, Kashmir‘s transition to Islam : the role of Muslim rishis, fifteenth to eighteenth century, (1994).

[15] Katherine B. Brown, ‘Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of his Reign’, Modern Asian Studies 41, 1, (2007), pp. 91.

[16] Ibid., pp.91.

[17] Ibid., pp. 98.

[18] Ibid., pp. 87.

[19] Ibid., pp. 94.

[20] Ibid., pp. 102.

[21] Ibid., pp. 109.

[22] Ibid., pp. 113.

[23] Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Mughal State 1526-1750, (2005), pp. 1-71.

[24] Ibid., pp.14.

[25] Ibid., pp.16.

[26] Ibid., pp.16.

[27] Ibid., pp.19.

[28] For a pioneering and most influential work of this kind refer to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s, Rethinking working class history: Bengal 1890-1940, (1989).

[29] Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Mughal State 1526-1750, (2005), pp.56.

[30] Ibid., pp.57.

[31] Ibid., pp.56.

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One Response to Re-revisiting Aurangzeb:

  1. Farah says:

    This will require thorough reading. I usually tend to try and search for articles about Mughal history in Kashmir.

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