The shared past of Pakistan and India cannot be easily separated
Pakistan has a rather long or a rather short history, depending on how you look at things. Pakistan is part of the history of India, in the older, pre-nation state sense of the term “India,” one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Modern Pakistan even contains within its borders Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, some of the key sites from the Indus Valley Civilization, a vibrant center of the ancient world that flourished more than 4,000 years ago. But, as a modern nation, Pakistan is perilously new to the world. The state, a result of the bloody Partition of British India, is just over 70 years old. Even the idea of Pakistan as a homeland for Indian Muslims does not stretch back more than a few decades before its violent creation. Such youth, measurable in decades rather than centuries or millennia, makes some in modern Pakistan uneasy.
The majority of Indian history is devoid of Muslims, and that fact potentially severs the link between ancient India and modern Pakistan. Muslims have only had a substantial presence on the subcontinent for a millennium, and even then, they were, so far as we know, generally a minority. In comparison, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains claim roots that stretch back thousands of years in India. Can a nation created for Muslims see a non-Muslim history as its own? Such a question contains significant implications for modern identity within the self-proclaimed Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Within the religiously diverse landscape of pre-modern India, the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) has struck many within and outside of Pakistan as a promising candidate to be given a place of pride in the country’s history. The Mughals were Muslims. They were also powerful emperors, controlling vast areas of land, ruling over a population of as many as 150 million, and possessing more wealth than any of their contemporaries. As such, as first blush, the Mughals are both religiously appropriate and politically desirable predecessors for many Pakistanis.
But Mughal history throws up several problems in this formulation, chief of which is that many Mughal kings and princes were arguably not very good Muslims by conventional modern standards. Jahangir, the fourth Mughal king, was addicted to wine and opium. His father, Emperor Akbar, established his own discipleship program, the Din-i-Ilahi (Divine Religion), that many modern Muslims would view as a faith separate from Islam. Several Mughal figures, especially Emperor Akbar and Prince Dara Shukoh, engaged in deep exchanges with Hindu traditions, which fits uncomfortably with a desire—championed by Muslim nationalists—to separate Indian Muslims that was foundational to the creation of Pakistan.
Within this line-up of lax and cross-culturally inclined Muslim rulers, Aurangzeb Alamgir has emerged, in the eyes of many, as an exception. Common opinion in South Asia says that Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal king, who ruled for nearly 50 years from 1658 until 1707, was the lone orthodox Muslim Mughal emperor. Some hold-up Aurangzeb’s alleged piety as a virtue (especially in Pakistan), whereas others condemn him for it (especially in India). But there is general popular agreement that Aurangzeb was the most religious of the major Mughal kings.
There is some historical backing for the image of Aurangzeb as pious. As I discuss in my recent biography of the king, Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth, Aurangzeb appears to have prayed more regularly than prior Mughal rulers. He abstained from alcohol. He became a hafiz by memorizing the Quran during his first decade on the throne. His greatest architectural contribution to the Indian subcontinent was the Badshahi Masjid, a large and still active mosque in Lahore.
But the modern-day view of Aurangzeb the Orthodox is based on a selective reading of a past that was, in reality, notably multifarious. Aurangzeb’s Islam was talismanic. For instance, he once wrote Quranic verses on pieces of paper and cast them into a flood to make the waters subside. Aurangzeb had deep ties with Sufi teachers and was buried at a Chishti shrine in Central India. Aurangzeb sought advice from Hindus throughout his life and loved more than one Hindu woman. He also compromised his professed religious principles repeatedly in pursuit of raw power, such as when he overthrew his father against the widely understood dictates of sharia. He acted against advice from the ulema of his day when it suited his political interests. For example, Aurangzeb refused a delegation of ulema who begged for mercy during the brutal siege of the Muslim-led kingdom of Bijapur, and instead continued the siege until the Adil Shahis fell.
Aurangzeb’s Islam was complicated and sometimes compromised. The Mughal king’s piety was strikingly different from how many modern Pakistanis conceptualize their faith and proper piety today. Islam also was not the single—or even the major—driving force behind Aurangzeb’s actions as emperor, and so it holds limited promise for understanding him as a political figure. For that enterprise, we need to grasp Mughal kingship, an obsession with justice and, above all, a hunger for political power as key motivators in the life of Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir.
If we consider Mughal kings, including Aurangzeb, in all of their complexity, there are consequences in the present day. My historical arguments about Aurangzeb may well challenge aspects of contemporary Pakistani identity. That is not a bad thing. After all, one of the points of studying history is precisely to query who we are and who we might become. Understanding the past in all its nuance allows us to grasp other ways of being in the world. Such an exercise hardly provides a template for the future, but it helps us frame key questions about our identities, our operating categories, and our values. For such an endeavor in contemporary Pakistan, the Mughal Empire is a promising and still underutilized sliver of history.
Truschke is Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She is the author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (Penguin, 2016) and Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth (Oxford University Press, 2017)
From our March 10 – 17, 2018, issue