Medieval State during the 17th Century: Various Interpretations

The Great Mughals: Akbar, Jahangir & Shahjahan

Copyright: Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

Mughal Empire, 1526 – 1707

The nature of the state in medieval India has been the subject of discussion since the writing of Ziya Barani’s Fatawa-i Jahandari, c. 1357, in the Indo-Persian tradition, and since Francois Bernier’s Travels in the 1660’s. These have led from the nineteenth century to debates about whether the State belonged to the category of Oriental Despotism (since James Mill’s depiction of it as the rent-contracting state) or to that of feudalism, the latter often in a Marxist framework. Within the last decades the thesis of the Segmentary State, originally put forward by Burton Stein has also gained currency, the emphasis being laid here on the limitations to the exercise of sovereign power by the pre-colonial state.

While debates around these issues have proceeded the information about the actual functioning of the states in question has grown remarkably at least for the Mughal Empire, where we have now at our disposal a wealth of primary documents, Village-level inscriptions from Vijayanagara Empire, now published in a series of volumes by the ICHR, similarly provide us with rich data by which different perceptions of the state put forward by scholars can be tested.

Let us first try to understand what the contemporaries looked at the Medieval Indian State. It has been argued that it was the state which took what in European equivalence is known as the ‘rent’. In the first important Persian dictionary compiled in India by Munshi Tek Chand Bahar, māl and kharāj are considered equivalent. He says that this is so as the king owns the mālikiyat of the soil. Similarly Qazi Muhammad Ala also tells us that though the zamindars claimed to be the owner of the soil, they were not, as they did not get rent. The rent goes to the state, the Sultan. But the actual owner was not even the king, but the bait ul mal, and thus the scholars had the first claim. And if rent was being collected, the state was quite centralized.

The debate of medieval Indian state had in fact been started in 1357 by Ziya Barani in his Tarikh-i Firuzshahi and Fatwa-i Jahandari. There had been no concept of state of sovereignty in Islam. So he looked towards the Iranians and the Byzantines, where there were dynastic principles based on law of primogeniture. In Islam the principle was violence. The prophet’s family had been set aside and the Umayyid state formed. He also differentiated between men of high and low birth. A religious person should be the ruler. Finally in India, there being a majority of non-muslims, Shariat would not suffice. Zawabit were needed.

After the establishment of the Mughal Empire by Akbar, Abul Fazl rejected the ideas of Barani in entirety. In Ain, Abul Fazl points out that a religious person should not be a ruler. If a ruler is religious, or falls in the hand of religious, the result is intolerance and wise men are denounced as ‘infidels’, while mischievious are groomed and nurtured. The entire notion that religion could lead to a civilized polity is rejected. Instead, there is the ‘Social Contract’ and thus the sovereign is responsible to all subjects. The element of ‘divine connection’ is provided by the mystic Ishraqi (Illuminationist) philosophy which goes back to the 11th Century. Thus the king is not zillallah but farr-i izadi, light emanating from God. Noor ila noor, the divine light, the light of lights. There should further be sulh-i kul, absolute peace.

Further the influences of tura/ yasa and the Turkish traditions. Bandigi

Modern Theories:

In the past two or three decades also a number of interpretations have been offered as to the nature of the Mughal Empire. There is considerable disagreement among historians concerning the strength and competence of the Mughal state, with some describing it as a huge leviathan, others a paper tiger. These interpretations have been based principally on the mansabdari system which was introduced during the reign of Akbar. For a proper understanding they can be divided into two distinct groups.

The first group of interpretations, propounded by historians like M.Athar Ali and John F.Richards, is based on a detailed study of the administrative system of the Mughals as gleaned from the contemporary sources. (M.Athar Ali, Presidential Address, Medieval India Section, Proceeding of the Indian History Congress, Muzaffarpur Session, 1972, and its slightly revised version, “Towards an Interpretation of the Mughal Empire”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1978, no.1, pp.38-49; J.F.Richards, The Mughal Empire, The New Cambridge History of India Series, 1993. See also Richards, Mughal Administration in Golcunda, Oxford, 1975.)

 According to Athar Ali, Akbar’s attempt to make the entire administrative structure of one suba into the exact replica of the other, “with a chain of officers at various levels ultimately controlled by the ministers at the centre, gave identity to Mughal administrative institutions, irrespective of the regions where they functioned.” Further, according to him the mansab system was “a unique and unrivalled device for specialists”. This system, however, according to Richards, fell short of “a centrally recruited and paid, bureaucratic, standing army”.

Thus according to this group of historians (including Athar Ali, Richards, Irfan Habib) the Mughal administrative structure waqs highly centralized. And this centralization is manifested in the efficient working of land revenue system, mansab, jagir, uniform coinage etc.

The second group of interpretations of the Mughal Empire is more esoteric in nature and hark back the theory of Oriental Despotism of the colonial era. This group of interpretation bases itself on the assumption of a distinct inferiority of the ‘Asian’ as compared to the ‘European’. This group is represented amongst others, by scholars like Stephen Blake and Christopher A. Bayly. (Stephen Blake, “The Patrimonial-Bureaucratic Empire of the Mughals”, Journal of Asian Studies, vol.XXXIX, no.1, November, 1979, pp.77-94; idem, Shahjahan the Sovereign City in Mughal India, 1639-1739, Cambridge, 1996, pp.17-25; C.A.Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870, Cambridge, 1983).

In his book Bayly argued that the Mughal rule was more like a grid of imperial towns, roads and markets which pressed heavily on society and modified it, though only at certain points. The system depended on the ability of the Mughal state to appropriate in cash as much as 40 % of the value of the total agricultural product (S. Moosvi). He further argued that the military power was the ultimate sanction, but like the medieval canon, the Mughal main force was a cumbersome and hazardous weapon to point at an adversary. It failed as, “the problem was that in the longer term it did not secure the obligation of its subjects and so lacked the resources to carry on its course of military expansion”. The empire could only survive if it penetrated further beneath the level of the pargana administration, and into tight clan-like brotherhood of peasant farmers in the lands away from the great roads and the country towns – penetration required an ideology which justified appropriation of growing quantity of revenues. He however acceded that the Mughals could appropriate as much as 40 % of the value of total produce. He further argued that the Mughal power rested on local ‘corporate groups’.

Frank Perlin (“State Formation Reconsidered,Part Two”, Modern Asian Studies, xix,3, 1985) identified the locality (vatan) as the basic unit of political power in India. Andre Wink, in 1986 (Land and Sovereignty in India) followed Bayly and treated fitna (sedition, rebellion) as a process by which adjustments were made. Thus as it already existed on the basis of compromise and adjustment, its decline was not really a decline.

Then we have MN Pearson (“Shivaji and the Decline of the Mughal Empire”, Journal of Asian Studies, 35, ii, 1976), according to whom the medieval states were organized as oligarchies on patron-client basis and no social commitment, loyalty or legitimacy. He suggests all this when he tries to argue that the only tie between the king and the 8,000 mansabdars “was the tie of a patronage and loyalty” which depended upon ‘continued military success’ and “neither religion nor racial origin provided any reason for loyalty”. He further suggests that the Mughal rule was was ‘indirect’: the subjects of the state constituted themselves into ‘one or more groups’ and each group had a head of some sort who according to Pearson, ‘was the intermediary with the Mughal administration on rare occasions when the group or member needed to be connected to this administration’. The 8000 mansabdars in an empire of ‘sixty or seventy million people’ was the maximum core of the empire: others were connected through them by their own patron-client ties. He then further goes on to reduce this number to 1000 men. His thesis is in fact such as to destroy the basic frame-work of the empire.

Butun Stein in his Peasant, State and Society of Medieval South India published in 1980 argued that the Medieval Indian state was in fact Segmentary. Argueing for South India, specially the Vijayanagara Empire, he said that there were limitations to soverieng power, and that one can speak of a sovereignty composed of segments. Thus it was a “nominal” state. In one of his paperes (Eighteenth C in India: Another View, first pub. 1989, reprinted in PJ Marshall ed 18th C book in 2003) he not only extended his views to the Mughal Empire, but condemned the Aligarh interpretations.

Then we have scholars like Marshall G.S. Hodgson (The Venture of Islam, Chicago, 1974) and William H. McNeill (The Pursuit of Power, Chicago, 1982), accepting the idea of bureaucratic dominance, assert that the diffusion of firearms, especially siege artillery, explains the increase in central power which brought the Mughal Empire into being. Their thesis had been nomenclated as the ‘gunpowder hypotheses’.

The agenda is set by Stephen Blake when he criticized M.Athar Ali and his predecessors (like P.Saran, A.L.Srivastava, Ibn Hasan) for having misunderstood the Mughal government “as a kind of undeveloped fore-runner of the rational, highly systematized military, administrative, and legal framework of British Imperial India”. Blake disapproves of the fact that Athar Ali puts forward the notion that Mughal Empire was ancestor to the “British Raj”, which instead of being a colonial period, was “late Imperial India”. Blake further comments that the views of the above mentioned scholars (especially of Athar Ali) were “a set of unexamined assumptions” which were “non- compensated by assigned ‘prebends or benefices’ and served “at the pleasure of the ruler and often performed tasks unrelated to their appointments.” This system of assigning ‘benefices or prebends’ (the mansab and the jagir), led to a loosening of the emperor’s control over his officials. To retain his personal grip, the ruler undertook frequent travels to different parts of his empire. These face-to-face encounters renewed the personal bond between the master and the subject. The power of the officials was also sought to be kept under check through frequent transfers, a strong intelligence network and deliberate overlapping of powers and responsibilities between provincial and district offices. Blake goes on to cite Abul Fazl’s  A’in-i Akbari as the major proof for his Weberian thesis.

We know that Abul Fazl divides his description of Akbar’s empire under three heads, viz. the manzil abadi (Imperial Administration), sipah abadi (the Army Administration) and mulk abadi (the Empire) and then sets out to deal with their respective regulations (a’in).  Like Blochmann (Abul Fazl, A’in-i Akbari, trans.H.Blochmann and H.S.Jarrett, annotated by Jadunath Sarkar, New Delhi, 1965, vol.I, p.9), Blake translates manzil as ‘house hold’ and holds this division by Abul Fazl as evidence for the Mughal Empire being a patrimonial-bureaucratic empire. Interestingly, Blake counts the various karkhanas (like the stables of elephant, horse, cow, camel and mules), matbakh (the Kitchen Establishment), khushbu khana (the Perfumery) and the Building establishment (imarat), mentioned in the first section (manzil abadi) of the A’in-i Akbari as ‘purely domestic’. Their mention along with the mint, the arsenal, the treasury, etc., convinces him of the ‘mixing of household and state’. Secondly, he found it significant that the Book Two of  A’in-i Akbari, which deals with the army organization, contains regulations dealing with charitable contributions, feasts, ‘fancy bazar’, marriage and education. In this scheme Blake found an attempt of the emperor to influence order and shape the lives of his subordinates, which according to him was typical for a patrimonial-bureaucratic ruler.

While analyzing the third section of the A’in-i Akbari, which deals with mulk abadi (the Empire), Blake finds the Mughal policy of dividing the realm into khalisa and jagirs “the household lands and the assignable lands” as a means to control a large part of the state revenues personally, which is typical of a patrimonial-bureaucratic ruler. He concludes from his interpretation of the third section of the A’in that the Mughal method of governance had no clear-cut lines of authority, no separate departments at successive levels of administration and no tables of organization. On the contrary, there were groups of men in the Imperial household, who, on the behalf of the emperor, oversaw the provincial and sub-provincial officials. Thus the Mughal Empire, Blake concluded, was not a prototype of the ‘British Indian Empire’ but was simply an example of the patrimonial-bureaucratic empire. One finds a weak echo of this thesis in even J.F.Richards, who briefly and hesitatingly states this concept in the context of the grandees of the empire. (J.F.Richards, The Mughal Empire, op.cit., p.59)

On the other hand, Christopher Bayly goes a step further than Blake and indirectly denies the very concept of the Empire in the context of the Mughals. According to him:

“Outwardly, Mughal rule was a huge system of house-hold government reinforced by an overwhelming but unwieldy military power. One can easily over-estimate its control, especially in the outlying areas. But the empire was more than a mere umbrella raised over virtually autonomous local groups. It was more like a grid of imperial towns, roads and markets which pressed heavily on society and modified it, though only at certain points.  The  system  depended  on  the  ability  of  the  Mughal  state  to appropriate in cash as much as 40 per cent of the value of the total agricultural product.”

The question of the core and the periphery was further stressed by Douglas Streusand (Formation of the Mughal Empire) and Chetan Singh. For Streusand, despite being centralized, the Mughal structure was less centralized at its periphery. Chetan Singh supports this view ( “Centre and Periphery in the Mughal State: The case of Seventeenth Century Punjab”, Modern Asian Studies, XXII, no.2, 1988).  According to him it was not correct to argue that due to the frequent transfers the Mughal bureaucracy was unable to develop regional moorings. On the contrary he held that the officials (governors) who were appointed in the peripheral areas (Punjab) in fact “belonged to areas lying within it”. In other words, the periphery was developing into regional entities at the expense of the centre under the Mughals. Further according to him the jagir transfers were not as frequent as they appear, and the local elements at the periphery were quite successful in influencing the policies at the centre.

Then we have Farhat Hasan (State and Locality in Mughal India, 2006) according to whom the state does not only extort revenues but also redistributes them. Correspondingly, the state not only uses force but also manufactures consent to ensure obedience. He also sees the state from the perspective of localities and asserts that the Mughal state was buttressing the local system of power in the localities and was concomitantly opening up negotiated space for the assimilation of forces resisting them in the political system.

If we sum up the above mentioned theories, what emerges is that the Mughal Empire was a state where (a) there was an official class which was somewhat bureaucratic in nature; (b) this bureaucracy was totally ‘subordinate’ in nature and closer to a patrimonial ideal; (c) the writ of this ‘patrimonial-bureaucratic’ empire ran only in major towns and on highways; and (d) due to these limitations, the core was shrinking in the face of the regional pressures.

As has been noted earlier, all these assertions are based on a study and analysis of the Mughal ruling elite, the mansabdars. The views of Christopher Bayly, Andre Wink, Muzaffar Alam and Chetan Singh, have been exhaustively dealt with by M.Athar Ali and Irfan Habib in the light of the empirical data and need no further comment.

There is no denying the fact that the Mughal Empire was an absolutist state which was presided over by a despotic ruler who held his sway over the ruling elite which was organized on the basis of the innovative institution of the mansabdari system. It was this system which generated the centripetal tendencies in linking the remote areas with the heart of the empire, the king. For the sake of administration, the entire land of the empire was divided into two administrative categories, the khalisa and the jagirs. The ‘khalisa sharifa’ was the land which was kept aside for the imperial use and establishment. [1] The size of this imperial khalisa, according to Irfan Habib, was not constant. During the later years of Akbar’s reign, the khalisa accounted for a quarter of the total jama’ (assessed revenue) in at least three provinces. It shrank to only one-twentieth of the jama’ of the whole empire under Jahangir, but slowly rose to one-seventh during the reign of Shahjahan, and ultimately to one-fifth of the total jama’ in the 10th R.Y. of Aurangzeb. The revenues from the khalisa were not meant only for the ‘personal’ use of the emperor and his household. The ‘personal’ in Mughal jargon was connoted by the term khasa (khasa sharifa in the case of the emperor). The income from the khalisa was collected by the officials for the Imperial treasury (khizana-i ‘amira) and was spent to maintain the ‘Imperial establishment’ which comprised a large number of officers, bureaucrats, troopers and artillery-men, apart from a number of retainers and servants, which in no way can be termed as belonging to the ‘household’. The large number of karkhanas (workshops), including the stables for various kinds of animals, were also maintained out of this income. The first section of the A’in-Akbari, which Abul Fazl labels as ‘regulations’ (a’in) for manzil abadi, deals with the institutions and heads concerned with such establishments. Except for the matbakh , which might be termed as khasa, the other departments mentioned in this section are purely related to the state and have nothing to do with ‘purely domestic matters’, as alleged by Blake. Horses were the mainstay for any pre-modern and pre-industrial army and society. The invention and diffusion of stirrup in the preceding centuries had enabled the horse and rider to be ‘effectively welded into a lethal fighting unit capable of unprecedented violence’. [2] Warfare under the Mughals relied heavily on heavy cavalry for attack and fire power for skirmishes. This assertion becomes apparent from the fact that in 1647, the Mughal army consisted of a total of 200,000 stipendiary cavalrymen: 8000 mounted mansabdars, 185,000 cavalrymen under the charge of the Princes, grandees and other mansabdars and 7000 imperial cavalry. In addition almost another 300,000 cavalry were employed by zamindars of various ranks. This was in contrast to just 40,000 artillery and 40,000 infantrymen. [3] Further, transportation of army equipment and material in a pre-modern society depended solely on the strength of the bullocks, carts and mules. Their availability and maintenance would ensure the health of the state more than that of an individual. Their inclusion in the Imperial establishment, whether Western or Asiatic, along with the mint, the state arsenal and the treasury was thus not symbolic of a ‘patrimonial’ nature of the empire.

Blake also finds proof of a patrimonial nature in this section when Abul Fazl lauds Akbar as an ‘insan-i kamil’ (Perfect Man) and his defining the relationship between the emperor and his subject in the A’in-i Rahnamuni (The Regulations on Guidance). We have seen this was based on the thesis of Mahmud Pasikhwani, the early 15th Century originator of Wahidiya or Nuqtawiya sect, who believed that the great spiritual souls are born at particular periods. This would then suggest that the thesis of the ‘Perfect Man’ who is born once in a while is more suggestive for the person of Akbar, rather a theory of state developed for the Mughal Emperors. Interestingly this status was neither claimed nor attributed to any of the other Great Mughals. It however cannot be denied that the Mughal State was an absolute monarchy where the emperor tried to shape the lives of his subjects. The Mughal emperor tried to regulate not only the marriages of his nobility but also their educational curriculum. As rightly pointed out by Blake, Akbar tried to include rational sciences like arithmetic, agriculture, household management, rules of governance, medicine, etc., in the educational curriculum. Along with it there was a stress on reason (‘aql) which was to be given precedence over traditionalism (taqlid). This stress on rationalism and reason was something which was unique.

 Recent researches have shown that there indeed was a bureaucracy in the Mughal Empire which was far better organized and systematic than Blake could imagine. Inspite of his known belief in social hierarchy Abul Fazl very specifically states that the emperor ‘knows the value of talent, honours people of various classes with appointments in the ranks of the army, and raises them from position of a common soldier to the dignity of a grandee’. Abul Fazl in this regard further quotes Akbar’s advice to Daniyal in 1597-98:

“Judge nobility of caste and high birth from the personality (of the individual), and not goodness from the ancestors, or greatness from (the nobility) of the seed”.

Members of this class were neither solely at the ‘mercy’ of their employer nor were they remunerated only through the assignment of ‘prebends and benifices’. Even those belonging to the Mughal elite, the mansabdars, who, according to Bayly had ‘some features of the classic bureaucracy’ and enjoyed prebends and benifices’ depended on the service of the members of this class. By the early seventeenth century a skilled and efficient professional corps of “lower and middle-status officials” had emerged as a viable group under the Mughals. [4]

A large number of these officers were khanazads (lit.’house-born’, or those whose ancestors had also served the empire), although fresh recruitments to this category also took place. This latter group was drawn from kayasthas, khatris, petty merchants and groups of ‘Indian Muslims’. It was this group which “possessed and refined demanding skills in book-keeping, auditing, minting, correspondence, procurement and supply, record-keeping, information retrieval, and office, stores, and industrial management.”

Studies on Mughal administrative system have further shown that the administrative system at the centre was duplicated and replicated at the suba and pargana levels. At the central level the administrative posts were held exclusively by the ruling elite, the mansabdars, while those at the provincial level were shared between the elite mansabdars and the petty officers who could be generally assigned mansabs of not more than 500 zat.

It appears that the financial administration was managed and controlled by this group of proficient officers and clerks. By the 16th Century this class of bureaucrats became indispensable to the state. Although not formally trained in the job of administration in the modern sense , they were trained by their family in official Persian terminology, accounting, and reporting methods. It is also important to note that none of the Mughal bureaucrat had a zamindari or landed origin, neither did they invest their wealth in it. A perusal of the sources, on the other hand, hints at their being regarded as the potential enemies of the ruling classes. Kabir in one of his verses, in fact compares ‘amils’ attitude in settling the accounts with God’s taking account of deeds after death. Surat Singh mentions the harsh treatment meted out to petty bureaucrats by the state.

To conclude, we can say that there was a class of officials, apart from the mansabdars, who closely resemble the modern concept of bureaucracy, which was not exactly ‘subordinate’ in nature and was far removed from a patrimonial ideal of Weber and Blake. They were a trained, salaried, non-combative administrative class which was extremely loyal to the Mughal ‘constitution’ and helped in extending its authority beyond the narrow confines of major cities and highways. This meant that the Mughal administrative structure was highly ‘centralized and bureaucratic’ in nature. It was a state if not exactly modern, but on the verge of the modern age.

The Extent of the Mughal Empire spanned of present day nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan

[1] M.Athar Ali, The Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb, Bombay, 1970 (first pub.1968), p.74; Irfan Habib, “Agrarian Relations and Land Revenue”, in Tapan Raychaudhuri & Irfan Habib (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of India, vol.I, c.1200- c.1750, OUP, 1982, pp.240-41.

[2] Cf.Rohan D’souza, “Crisis before the fall: some speculations on the decline of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals, Social Scientist, vol.30, nos.9-10, Sept-Oct. 2002, pp.3-30;  For the diifusion of stirrups and horses see, Lyn White, “The Crusader and the Technological thrust of the West”, in V.J.Parry and M.E.Yapp, War, Technology and Society in the Middle East, OUP, London, 1975, see also idem,Medieval Technology and Social Change , OUP, New York, 1970.

[3] Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib (ed.), The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol.I, 1982, p.179; see also Andrea Hintz, The Mughal Empire and its Decline: An Interpretation of the sources of Social power, Brookfield USA, 1997, p.58.

[4] See for example, J.F.Richards, “Norms of Comprtment among Imperial Mughal Officials”, in Moral Conduct and Authority: The place of Adab in South Asian Islam, (ed.) Barbara Daly Metcalf, Univ.of California Press, 1984, pp.255-89. Subsequently reprinted in J.F.Richards, Power, Administration and Finance in Mughal India, Great Britain, 1993, pp.255-89.