20 Influential Medieval/Early Modern Muslim Women

This is the second part of a previous post on the subject (https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/15-important-muslim-women-in-history/), which sought to highlight the important role of women in the influencing the political, social, intellectual and military developments in the Islamic world during the medieval and early modern era. This post, like the previous one, is an attempt to introduce readers to the names of a few women who made their mark in Islamic (and world) history while providing a few sources for those interested in learning more about each.  Continue reading

Ahmad Sirhindī, Akbari Universalism and Islamic Orthodoxy in 16th/17th c. Mughal India

The historical experience of Islam and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent spans nearly fourteen centuries. Throughout its long existence, Islam in India was shaped by various Arab, Persian, Turkic, Mongol, and indigenous dynasties, all of which inevitably influenced the religion as practiced and understood by its adherents in the Indian environment. Although dynastic military power and political dominance certainly played a significant role in the consolidation of Islam in India and provided the context in which the institutions, literature, and architecture of Islam in South Asia developed, any attempt to identify a distinctly Indian Islam must take into consideration the social context and the role of Islamic scholars and mystics in the medieval and early modern period. Although each phase of Islamic history in South Asia is important in its own right, it is the Mughal period (1526–1858) that witnessed the maturation of the social, political, and religious institutions of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. As a non-specialist in the history of Islam in South Asia, this piece is an attempt to think about trends occurring during the Mughal period, specifically during the years 1570–1620, within the broader context of early modern Islamic history.

Specifically, this post seeks to highlight the role of Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1624), popularly known as Mujaddid-i Alf-i Thānī, the Renewer of the Second Millennium, as an oppositional ‘ālim (religious scholar) during the reigns of the Mughal emperors Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and Nūr al-Dīn Muḥammad Jahāngīr (r. 1605–1627). I argue that the environment of religious universalism in Mughal India, a concept rooted in the relativity of religious truth and the sulḥ-i kul (universal peace), nurtured by Akbār, prompted Sirhindī (and other ‘ulamā’) to aggressively undertake a program of radical reform to reverse these trends. For Sirhindī, a universalist environment, in which un-Islamic beliefs and practices were tolerated beyond the boundaries laid down by the sharī‘ah (Islamic law), and a situation in which the status of Muslims as a dominant community was diluted by laws which challenged the supremacy of Islam, was unacceptable and posed a direct threat to the sanctity of Islam and the preservation of the Muslim community in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to actively opposing Akbar’s universalist policies and the public manifestation of Hinduism (as well as the spread of Sikhism), Sirhindī was also deeply concerned with the rising power and influence of Shī‘ī Muslims and Shī‘ism in general within the Mughal court. For Sirhindī, the decline of the sharī‘ah’s dominance and the prominence of heresy and unbelief were closely linked, and represented the dire predicament in which Islamic “orthodoxy” found itself in Mughal India. “Orthodoxy,” an extremely loaded and problematic term to be sure, refers here to Sunni orthodoxy, defined as the legal-theological notion that the beliefs, practices and institutions of Sunni Islam provided the only legitimate basis for the social, religious, and political order and needed to be upheld by those in positions of authority. It is utilized here in order to refer specifically to those Sunni ‘ulamā’, such as Sirhindī, who believed that adherence to the sharī‘ah constituted the basic pillar of social and political legitimacy. In this context, it is important to remember that all schools of Islamic thought understood themselves, in some sense, as being the most Islamically authentic and orthodox form of the faith. This post is thus an exploration of this process of the definition, construction and defense of orthodoxy on the part of one Sunni scholar in late 16th and 17th-century Mughal India who viewed the integrity of the sharī‘ah (the very cornerstone of the legitimate order as far as he was concerned) being seriously threatened by the universalist atmosphere in the Mughal realm.

It is worth exploring this broader environment of universalism during the reigns of Akbar and Jahāngīr by highlighting the role of Shī‘ī Muslims in Mughal political, religious, and social life and by assessing Sirhindī’s reaction to this phenomenon. As such, I will be interpreting Sirhindīs stance vis-à-vis Shī‘ism within the larger context of his critique of the general religious atmosphere in late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century Mughal India. I argue that Sirhindī’s anti- Shī‘ī writings should not be understood as a mere reproduction of Sunnī polemics against Shī‘ism from the Nile to Oxus region, in the same vein as Ibn Taymiyyah’s Minhāj al-Sunnah or Ibn Ḥajar al-Haythamī’s al-Ṣawā‘iq al-Muḥriqah, but rather as one manifestation of his broader program of opposition to Akbarī universalism and an affirmation of (Sunni) orthodoxy within a distinctly Mughal Indian universalist environment.[1] In this post, I will not include an in-depth analysis or translation of the text itself, but rather will seek to explore the broader contextual framework within which I think Sirhindī’s Radd-i Rawāfiẓ (‘The Epistle on the Refutation of the Rejectionists/Shī‘a’) can best be understood.[2]
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Nader Shah Afshar (r. 1736-1747): A Short Overview of the Career of an 18th-Century Iranian Conqueror

Perhaps one of the most significant rulers of Iran in the post-Safavid period was Nāder Shah Afshar (r. 1736-1747). Although most students of Islamic history are somewhat familiar with the Safavid rulers (1501-1722) or the later Qajar sovereigns (1785-1925), Nāder Shah and the Afsharid dynasty that he founded are usually less well known. In this short piece, I want to provide a very short outline of Nāder Shah’s career. I also wanted to shed some light on his coinage, which I personally find to be one of the most interesting aspects of his rule since it emphasizes the concept of universal sovereignty while excluding any explicitly sectarian (Sunni or Shi’ite) identification. In a future post, I will look in a bit more depth at his religious policies–which have remained largely misunderstood–and connect them with this concept of universal sovereignty.

Nāder Shāh, an Afsharid Turcoman, attempted to realize a grandiose imperial vision, modeled upon that of Tīmūr (r. 1370–1405), of a Turkic empire extending across the Iranian plateau. As part of his attempts to realize this broader objective he adopted a strategy of engaging with various modes of legitimacy—Sunni, Shi’i, Turkic, and Iranian—in conjunction with major military expansion. However, despite some important military and political successes, by the end of his reign his strained relations with the Iranian populace—as a result of his harsh fiscal policies and violent repression of dissent—erupted into major rebellions across his empire, which he attempted to quell with increasing brutality before he was assassinated in 1747.

Nāder Afshar, born around 1688, was born into the Qirqlū clan of the Afshār Turcoman tribe, which was one of the original Kizilbāsh oymāqs (tribal groupings) that had helped bring the Safavids to power in the early sixteenth century. Following the devolution of the Safavid polity, which culminated in the Afghan invasions and the occupation of Isfahan in 1722, Nāder became involved in the power struggles that took place around Mashhad in northeastern Iran.


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