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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Famous Historical Muslims of Hellenic/Greek Origin

Islamic civilization currently encompasses every major culture, ethnicity, race, and language on the planet. The pages of Islamic history are filled with the emergence of many different ethno-linguistic groups, from regions as far apart as West Africa and Central Asia, as important political and cultural forces, which greatly impacted the direction of Islamic civilization. Unfortunately, despite this reality, Muslim history has often been presented as a series of accomplishments revolving around Arabs, Persians, and Turks, to the exclusion of all other groups. The rich histories of hundreds of Muslim ethnic, racial, and linguistic groups have too often been overlooked or overshadowed by this mistaken approach towards Muslim history which has identified Muslim history with a very specific cultural and geographic context.

One particular group of Muslims that has played an important role within Islamic civilization as scholars, administrators and warriors have been Hellenes/Greeks. While the many contributions of Greek Christians to medieval and early modern Islamic/Islamicate/Middle Eastern civilization have been highlighted, especially in the context of intellectual exchange and the transmission of philosophical/medical knowledge, the history of Greek Muslims is all but unknown to most people. Greek, in the context of this post, is not meant in any ethno-nationalistic sense, but is intended to signify individuals or groups who belonged to lands and cultures where Hellenic languages and civilization predominated, whether 9th-century Sicily, 13th-century Anatolia, or the 19th-century Aegean. A variety of processes—ranging from enslavement and conquest to voluntary conversion and political opportunism—contributed to the integration of many Greeks into Islamic civilization from the seventh century to the present.

The following are only a handful of some of the most famous names of countless Greek Muslims who played an important role throughout Islamic history. As one will notice, a large number of the names come from the Ottoman period. This is largely due to the fact that there are far more historically-documented cases of Muslims of Greek descent during the period of Ottoman rule in western Anatolia and south-eastern Europe (areas where Greek speakers were concentrated most heavily) than there are for earlier periods of Islamic history. Significantly, many of the Greek Muslim men and women listed below who played an important role within this empire were a product of the devşirme system, which was one of the key aspects of the Ottoman imperial system during the pre-modern period. From the fifteenth century onwards, there was a major effort on the part of the Ottomans to lessen their reliance upon traditional military and political elites and concentrate power instead in the hands of those who had passed through the devşirme system. At a later date, I plan on providing some more concrete thoughts on the devşirme system, slavery and society in the pre-modern Islamic world. For now, however, I have attached a list of further reading below (feel free to recommend additional works) for those serious about learning more about the interrelationship between slavery, social mobility and socio-political developments in Islamic history. Continue reading

Intermarriage between Muslim and Christian Dynasties in Early Medieval Iberia (711-1100)

The following is my own summary translation of pp. 33 to 38 of Dr. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Sālim’s book al-Jawānib al-Ijābiyah wal Silbīyah fī al-Zawāj al-Mukhtalaṭ fī al-Andalus (Rabat, 1994). Although it is heavily dependent upon the perspective of (later) Arabic primary sources and contains some errors, this is a particularly interesting passage that sheds light on the extent of the intermarriage between Muslim and Christian dynasties in early medieval Iberia,. The main primary sources relied upon by the author include the anonymous Akhbār Majmū‘ah, Ibn al-Qūṭīya’s Tā’rīkh Iftitāḥ al-Andalus, Ibn al-Khaṭīb’s A‘māl al-A‘lām, Ibn Idhārī’s Bayān al-Mughrib, al-Maqqarī’s Nafḥ al-Ṭīb, and Ibn Khaldūn’s Kitāb al-‘Ibar.
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Majrit/Mayrit: The Andalusi Muslim Heritage of Medieval Madrid

Although the area has been inhabited since ancient times, the foundation of the city now known as Madrid owes its origins to a small Roman settlement built on the banks of the Manzanares River called Matrice. It seems that by the late Visigothic period (7th century) this settlement was largely abandoned and only a small village remained. It was only in the ninth century, during the Umayyad period in al-Andalus, that Madrid became an important town in central Iberia (although still not as significant as Toledo).



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Last Will and Testament of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661)

The 21st of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar marks the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib (r. 656–661), the fourth rightly-guided caliph in the Sunni tradition and the first divinely-guided Imam of the Age and Successor of the Prophet in the Shi’i tradition. Like the two preceding caliphs, ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 634–644) and ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān (r. 644–656), Imam ‘Alī was killed by an assassin’s blade. In this case, the assassin, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn Muljam (d. 661), was a member of the Kharijite sect whose grievances against ‘Alī were colored by his own theology as well as the fact that his father, brothers and fellow Kharijites had been killed at the Battle of Nahrawan (658) by the caliph’s army. As a result, Ibn Muljam took it upon himself to assassinate the caliph, which he did by striking Imam ‘Alī with a poisoned blade to the back of the head while he was leading dawn prayers in the Great Mosque of Kufa. The caliph died of his injuries two days later. The following is his last will and testament (addressed to his two eldest sons, al-Ḥasan and al-Ḥusayn) as preserved in Nahj al-Balāghah, Imam ‘Alī’s collection of letters, sermons and decrees that was compiled by al-Sharīf al-Raḍī (d. 1015) in the 10th century.

https://walayah110.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/94816.jpg(Great Mosque of Kufa)


I advise you to fear God, and not to pursue this vicious world even though it may try to entice you. Do not seek it though it may seek you and do not grieve over and long for things which this world refuses you. Always speak the truth, and work constantly for the eternal reward and blessings of God. Be an enemy of tyrants and oppressors and be a friend and support of those who are oppressed. To you, to my other children, to my relatives and to all who receive these words of mine, I advise to fear God and to be pious, to have fair and honest dealings with one another and improve mutual relations because I have heard your grandfather, the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his family) often say: “To remove mutual enmity, ill-feeling and hatred among people is better than all the prayers and fasting of many years.”

Fear God when the question of helpless orphans arises. You should not let them be full some time and hungry some other times. So long as you are there to guard and protect them, they should not be ruined or lost. Fear God with respect to your neighbors, for your prophet constantly enjoined us to be good to the neighbor, so much so that we thought that he may even decree that they had the right to inherit from us. Fear God in respect of the Holy Qur’an, lest others should excel and surpass you in following its tenets and in acting according to its orders. Fear God so far as prayers are concerned because prayers are the pillars of your religion.

Fear God in the matter of His House (Ka’bah). Let it not be deserted because if it is deserted, you (the Muslims) will be troubled with chastisement. Fear God in the matter of struggle in the path of God with your properties, lives, and tongues. Develop mutual liking, friendship and love and help one another. Take care that you do not spurn and treat one another badly and unsympathetically. Exhort people to do good and abstain them from evil, otherwise the vicious and the wicked will be your overlord and if you willingly allow such persons to be your rulers then your prayers will not be heard by God. O sons of ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib: Let there be no retaliation for the act of my murder, except against the individual who committed the act. Do not seek vengeance against the community of Muslims under the slogan “The Commander of the Faithful has been murdered” nor inflict any harm on anyone, save my murderer. If I should die because of his strike against me, then strike him with a sword a single time, as he did to me. Do not mutilate or torture the man, for I have heard the Prophet of God (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his family) say: “Never mutilate or torture any living being, even if it be a vicious dog.”

[“Letter 47,” Nahj al-Balāghah (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2009), pp. 361–362]



The Royal Edict of Expulsion (1609) and the Last Andalusi Muslims (“Moriscos”) of Spain

Historical Background

Following the forcible conversion of the Andalusī Muslims of Granada in 1501 (which I have described elsewhere https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/castilian-reconquista-ottoman-expansion-and-the-christianization-of-al-andalus/ ), similar edicts of conversion were promulgated that forced the Muslims populations of Castile (1502), Navarre (1515) and the Crown of Aragón (1526) to convert to Christianity, thereby criminalizing Islam as a public religion in the Iberian peninsula for the first time in 800 years. The new population of New Christians, as they were called, were referred to (derogatorily) as Moriscos. The Spanish government as well as the Church and Inquisition threatened any who continued to adhere to Islam—in any shape or form—with the death penalty, which usually meant being burned at the stake.

Image(Panels showing the Conversion of the Muslims of Granada in 1501, Altar, Royal Chapel, Granada) Continue reading

An Andalusi Muslim in Early Modern Europe: Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Hajari’s Description of the 17th-Century Netherlands

Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Qāsim al-Ḥajarī al-Andalusī was an Andalusī Muslim born around 1570 in the village of al-Ḥajar, in the vicinity of Granada. He lived for most of his youth as a Morisco (crypto-Muslim) in Spain before escaping to Morocco around 1598, residing in Marrakech, where he remained until 1636 or so. While in Spain, he learned Spanish and Portuguese in addition to his native Arabic. As a result of his knowledge of the latter, he was enlisted in deciphering the so-called “Lead Books of Sacromonte” around 1588. During his time in Morocco, he entered the service of the Sa’adian Sultan Muley Zaydān (r. 1603–1627) as a translator and secretary. While in the service of the Sa’adian dynasty he also embarked on major journey to Europe, traveling to France and the Netherlands between 1609 and 1611. Around 1636, he departed to the Central Islamic Lands in order to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. Following his performance of the latter, he resided in Egypt for a time before departing for Tunis. Due to the absence of sources, it is unclear how he spent the remainder of his life. It is certain that al-Ḥajarī died sometime after 1638/1639, because he has a work (on gunpowder technology and cannons) that can be dated to these years. He was a erudite scholar, traveler and translator and the few of his works that have survived remain an important source of information for the Islamic West during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The purpose of his trip to Europe in 1609–1611 was diplomatic (on behalf of the Sa’adians) and was aimed at securing the properties and wealth that was confiscated from the Moriscos during their expulsion from Spain. The work in which this journey is recorded is given the heavily polemical title Nāṣir al-Dīn ‘ala al-Qawm al-Kāfirīn (“Making the Faith Victorious against the Disbelievers”).* His travelogue is interspersed with all the interesting details, fascinating personal exchanges and curious observations that can be expected from an Andalusī Muslim traveling in Early Modern Europe during the seventeenth century. However, the bulk of the work centers on the author describing (and likely exaggerating) his various theological and polemical exchanges with different Christian and Jewish scholars that he met in France and the Netherlands. The section translated below is excerpted from his description of the Netherlands and his meeting with the ruler/stadtholder of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands, Maurice of Nassau (r. 1585–1625).

**(It has just been brought to my attention that this book has been translated into English and published in Madrid in 1997 as “Kitāb Nāṣir al-Dīn ʻalā ʼl-qawm al-kāfirīn = (The supporter of religion against the infidels)” by P.S. van Koningsveld, Gerald Wiegers and Q. al-Samarra’i. However, since I only have access to the 2003 Beirut edition of the Arabic text, the translation below is my own. Update II: I now have access to the 1997 Madrid edition, of which scans are included below but have left my translation, based on Beirut 2003 edition, unchanged) Continue reading

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and the Question of Takfir (“Excommunication”)

Taqī al-Dīn Abūl ‘Abbās Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), the famous Damascene theologian and Ḥanbalī jurist, is perhaps one of the most controversial intellectual figures in Islamic history.The following is a short excerpt from his fatwa that can be found in the compendium Majmu’ al-Fatawa (Majmu’ al-Fatawa, 3: 282-288) as well as other collections of his epistles. The actual section is far more comprehensive, but the sections I translated below provide an idea about his ruling with regard to the issue of takfir as reflected in his later teachings. Takfir refers to the declaration by one individual or group of Muslims that another individual or group of Muslims are no longer believers, but apostates from the faith. It differs from the concept of excommunication or anathematization in a medieval Christian context only in the sense that Islam (arguably) recognizes no official ecclesiastical hierarchy or body that can enforce such a declaration, although in some cases the political authorities took this role upon themselves.

Although there are numerous indications in Ibn Taymiyya’s earlier writings that he did engage in and promote a discourse of takfir, this particular epistle makes it abundantly clear that towards the end of his career he strongly sought to disassociate himself from such sentiments. It is not entirely clear why he did so. Perhaps he came to perceive such a discourse as a major threat to the social, religious and political fabric of the Islamic world. Alternatively, it could be that as he came under increasing repression by the Mamluk authorities–facing strong accusations of heresy–he recognized the immense and dangerous implications of takfir as a tool of state oppression. His change of heart can also be seen as the result of his own intellectual and theological evolution. While the underlying reasons for this discernible shift in his writings remain obscure, it is nonetheless clear that Ibn Taymīyya was committed to a strongly anti-takfir position during the last few years of his life. As his student, Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi (d. 1348) reported: “Towards the end of his life, our teacher Ibn Taymiyya would state : ‘I do not deem anyone from among the Muslims to be an unbeliever.’” (Siyar A’lam al-Nubala’) Continue reading

Fraxinetum: An Islamic Frontier State in Tenth Century Provence

The following is an updated and revised summary of my journal article on Fraxinetum which appeared in the UCLA Journal Comitatus in 2010 (the full article and the footnotes can be accessed here: http://www.academia.edu/3537846/Fraxinetum_An_Islamic_Frontier_State_in_Tenth_Century_Provence)

Political History

According to Liutprand (d. 972), the bishop of Cremona, the history of Muslim Fraxinetum began around 887, when a small vessel carrying about twenty Andalusi sailors landed on the Provençal coast near the modern town of St. Tropez.[1] The Andalusis forcibly seized the neighboring settlement of Freinet, and on the mountain above the town proceeded to occupy the fort, which had been called Fraxinetum since Roman times.[2] The subsequent fortress-city which they established was highly defensible and practically impenetrable, protected on one side by the sea from where the Andalusis drew their reinforcements, and on the other by large forests of thorny trees.[3] Consequently, the fort could only be accessed through a single, narrow path leading up the mountain.[4] Contemporary Latin authors, namely Liutprand of Cremona and the anonymous author of the Life of Beuve of Noyers, emphasize the Iberian origin of the raiders, but differ in naming them; Liutprand calls them “saraceni,” whereas the author of the Life of Beuve refers to them as “hispanicolae.”[5] Tenth-century Arab geographers, especially Muhammad Ibn Ḥawqal in his Surat al-Arḍ (977) and al-Istakhri in his Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik (951), refer to the fortified port of Fraxinetum as Jabal al-Qilal (“Mount of Lumber/Timber”) and describe it as a vast mountainous region blessed with rivers/streams and fertile soil that takes two days to cross.[6] Ibn Ḥawqal, like Liutprand, emphasizes the virtual impenetrability of the fortress and specifies that it was only accessible through one route on the side of the mountain. He also adds that it was dependent on the Umayyads of Cordova, as implied by his cartographic representation of Fraxinetum as an island at the mouth of the Rhone River and located close to the Iberian Peninsula, similar to the Balearic Islands.[7]  Continue reading

Castilian “Reconquista,” Ottoman Expansion and the Christianization of al-Andalus

Since its initial conquest by Arab and Berber armies in 711–715, most of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) had been under Umayyad Muslim political control between 756 and 1031.[1] Following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba in 1031, however, al-Andalus, the Muslim-ruled portions of Iberia, had disintegrated into over two dozen emirates, known as taifas.[2]



This fragmentation and weakening of Muslim political authority facilitated the rise of the northern Christian powers of Portugal, Navarre, Castile, León, and Aragón. Attempts by local (Andalusi) and foreign (“Berber” Almoravid, Almohad and Marinid) dynasties to resist the southward expansion of these Christian kingdoms ultimately failed, and the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, ending in an overwhelming defeat for the Muslims at the hands of a Christian coalition, sealed the fate of most of al-Andalus.[3] Beginning in the eleventh century, Castile and Aragón in particular had capitalized on the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba and succeeded in conquering major Andalūsī cities such as Toledo in 1085, Zaragoza in 1118, Lisbon in 1147, Cuenca in 1177, Majorca and Badajoz in 1230, Cordoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Jaén in 1246, and Seville in 1248, Algeciras in 1344, Antequera in 1410 and Gibraltar in 1462.[4]


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