A Visit to the Mughal India Exhibition at the British Library

Yesterday’s edition of the Guardian noted that a new exhibition about Mughal India has just opened at the British Library. So, this morning, I went along to take a look.

Back in 1997 when I was editing the Muslim youth magazine, Trends, we ran a cover story about Mughal India and called it When We Were Kings. Leon Gast’s splendid 1996 movie of the same name had recently been in the cinema and I was only too happy to nick his title.

I recall being most intrigued at the time by the enigmatic figure of Aurangzeb – the last of the Great Mughals. The British Library’s exhibition – which costs ten pounds (or nine if you don’t include Gift Aid) – notes that there were fifteen Mughal Emperors of whom the first six are now regarded as deserving the epithet ‘Great’.

At the start of the exhibition, there is a nice rolling graphical representation of the Mughal empire (1526 – 1858CE). The empire’s history begins with Babur’s victory at Panipat (outside Delhi) in 1526 and reaches its geographically greatest extent under Aurangzeb (who ruled between 1658 and 1707) when it encompassed modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and almost all of India except for the very southern tip.

Whereas the earlier Mughals – particularly Akbar – had been renowned for their policy of religious tolerance, Aurangzeb followed a more hardline interpretation of Islam. So although he was militarily successful, he faced constant rebellions from his majority Hindu subjects which put a lot of strain on the imperial treasury.

Aurangzeb assumed power in 1658 after first imprisoning his father, Shah Jahan (ruled 1626 – 1656) and then outmaneuvering and defeating two of his brothers who were rivals for the succession. He had his brother Dara Shikoh beheaded and then sent his head disguised as a gift to his imprisoned father. Nice.

This fratricide sounds disgusting by today’s standards – and is, but it was by no means uncommon in other dynasties around the world at the time, including the Uthmaniyyah Khilafah. Killing ones own brothers was seen as a way of preventing bigger strife and division later on.

But what interested me then and now – was the other side of Aurangzeb. There was this fine miniature portrait in the exhibition of an elderly Aurangzeb holding what is thought to be a Qur’an .

The note below the portrait said that Aurangzeb was a hafiz of the Qur’an and that he had personally copied two entire Qur’an’s by his own hand. In contrast to the earlier Mughals, he was very critical of court pomposity and extravagance. He led an austere lifestyle and did not drink alcohol or smoke opium. He made cloth caps and sold them along with the produce of his farm and examples of his own calligraphy to his courtiers. With the proceeds he bought his own clothes and food.

As he approached his end days, Aurangzeb is said to have become very remorseful and worried about how he would be judged by God. At the end of the exhibition, I bought a wonderfully illustrated book “The Lives of the Mughal Emperors” which contained this quotation from Aurangzeb:

“This weak old man, this shrunken, helpless creature, is afflicted with a hundred maladies besides anxiety, but he has made patience his habit. I do not know who I am, where I am, where I am to go and what will happen to a sinful person like me. Many like me have passed away wasting their lives. Allah was in my heart but my blind eyes failed to see him. I do not know how I will be received in Allah’s court. I do not have any hope for my future, I have committed many sins and do not know what punishments will be awarded to me in return.”

In his will, Aurangzeb insisted that he should not have a tomb, but should instead be buried uncovered in the forest. I don’t know about you, but I find him to be a fascinating person. And I really hope that he will be forgiven his sins. For if Aurangzeb – with his admittedly dreadful sins – can be permitted forgiveness, then there is surely hope for the rest of us yet.

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