Turco-Mongol Theories of Sovereignty and the Mughal Polity

When we talk of Timurid state, we talk of all those principalities of Central Asia and Khurasan from 1407, i.e., after the death of Timur down to Babur’s coming to Hindustan. After his death, Timur’s Empire had split into splinters. When Babur comes on the scene, there were three main Timurid states:

The principality of Farghana, ruled by Babur’s father Umar Shaikh Mirza.

The Principality of Samarqand ruled by Babur’s uncle. It was ruled by Miranshahi dynasty. Miran being the eldest son of Timur. It was in the region of Mawra un Nahr (Trans Oxiana). In the Persian tradition it was known as Turan.

The most powerful Timurid state was the territory of Khurasan (Herat) ruled by Mirza Husain Baiqara, the successor of Mirza Shahrukh, Timur’s second son. Khurasan was situated south of river Oxus. Oxus was the boundary of the Turkish & Persian speaking areas.

All these states have to be kept in mind when one talks of the Timurid State.

What was the Timurid Theory of kingship is one of the problems which have drawn the attention of the modern historians.

Rushbrooke Williams in his analysis has tried to explain Babur’s success over the Afghans in terms of the theory of kingship which he brought with him and which to Williams was “the very embodiment of Absolutism”. According to Williams this theory of Kingship was fortified greatly and conducive to the development and establishment of a highly centralized political structure which was so essential for holding together far-flung regions which the Mughals controlled in Hindustan. The Afghan theory, on the other hand, he says, tended to lead to fragmentation. And thus it was overcome.

R. P. Tripathi in his Some Aspects of Muslim Administration also wrote a separate chapter on the Turko-Mongol Theory of Kingship in which he fully endorsed the characterization of Rushbrooke Williams.

These two views give rise to a view that the position of the king was quite strong under Timurids due to the fact that both the Turkish & Mongol notions of kingship were present. King was strong vis-à-vis the nobles.

Let us examine this sweeping generalization by these two historians. A critique to these views is given by Iqtidar Alam Khan.

First of all let us examine the evidence. Within the Timurid theory, different traditions have a pull. And these pulls were often leading to contradictions within the theory and tension in the polity.

We know that in spite of claims of Mongol background, the Turkish Theory & tradition of kingship was heavily influencing the Timurid polity. In fact what we have in mind is actually a combination of Pre-Islamic Turkish notion of governance of state along with Islamic Sharia and a number of notions of governance of state that were developed in the various Turkish Sultanates that were established following the dis-integration of the Abbaside Caliphate. Some of these well-known Sultanates in West Asia & N. India were the Ghaznavides & the Ghurid empires in Ghazni & then in Hindustan; the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia; the Seljuq Empire in Palestine, Syria & N.Anatolia. In these empires the Turkish notions of Kingship as enforced by Islamic Shariat gradually developed. These traditions have been recorded in Treatises compiled in these states. We know about the Siyasatnama of Nizamul Mulk Tusi. There are a number of other similar works compiled anonymously in the Ottoman Empire which was entitled as Kanun Namelev. We also have Fatawa-i Jahandari of Barani. There were other minor works as well. The Siyasatnama was written in the Seljuq Empire. Kanun Namelev represented the experience of governance in the Ottoman Empire. The Fatawa rendered the experience of the Delhi Sultanate and the Gaznavide Empire if Zia Barani is to be believed.

If one examines the different rules & regulations prescribed in these texts, we find the concept of Kingship is that of Universal Sovereignty & the Divine sanction behind it – ‘farr-i izadi’ as Abu’l Fazl puts it. Kingship would rest with one person with no sharing of power.

Then we find the relationship between the King and the nobles defined by the concept of bandagan-i dargah (slave of the Threshold). In the Ottoman Turkish, the equivalent word for this was Kapu kulu Slaves of the Gate).

This concept is well defined in Tusi’s Siyasatnama as well: What is this concept?

It is that the relationship, legally speaking, between the ruler and the nobles would be that of the slave and the slave-master. This would mean that strictly in the legal sense, the nobles would have no right to property. They would hold it only with the permission of the Sultan – Even their title and position would be at the pleasure of the Sultan. Corollary of this was that the Sultan was the legal heir of any property of that the noble left behind. There was thus the escheat of property of the nobles in the Mughal Empire. Thus there was no hereditary nobility.

In fact this particular feature in W.Asia accentuated in a much more rigid form: there was a practice through which the Sultan used to realize his kharaj from the subject non-Muslim people in Anatolia partly through recruiting their children in the service of the state as slaves. Every year thousands of children made slaves were brought to colleges & then were made to rise to the position of high nobles in the state. 95 % of the nobility in Anatolia was thus originally Christian.

Let us now come to the evidence which indicates that the Turkish theory of kingship exercised its influence on the Timurid theory.

From the very beginning, Timur himself started assuming, quite occasionally, titles that were peculiar to Turkish rulers. He was not a direct descendant of Chingiz Khan and thus thought not prudent to assume the Mongol title of Khaqan. Babur states that Timur entitled himself as a ‘Mirza’ only as he rose from a low born. He didn’t have scruples, however, to use such Turkish titles as ‘Shah’ which he frequently used – ‘Shah-i Sahib Qiran’.

He also emphasised in his sayings and his court histories that his kingship was a Universal Kingship, i.e., the king should be accepted as a ruler of the entire universe. Thus in Yazdi’s Zafarnama it is written that “Since God is one, therefore the vice-regent of God on earth should be one.” That is, the Sultan is the shadow of God on earth (zillallah): all others must be under his thumb.

Then we have Babur’s statements which censor those Timurid rulers who practiced division of Empire and were sharing power and sovereignty with many persons. Thus Babur criticises Mirza Husain Baiqara for making an agreement with one of his powerful nobles: Muzaffar Barlas, that after he had succeeded in conquering a certain territory that he would divide it in a ratio of 6:2 – 6 going to Baiqara himself and 2 parts to Muzaffar Barlas. Babur says: ‘How could it be right to make even a faithful servant a co-partner in rule! Not even a younger brother or a son obtains such a pact; how should then a Beg?”

Later part of this statement goes against the Mongol tradition where sovereignty lies in all the family. It was due to this division of the Empire among Princes after the death of a khaqan. But in the Turkish tradition it was unacceptable. Babur is talking in the framework of the Turkish Tradition.

Then there is another piece of evidence which shows a similar tendency: In the account of 1508, Babur in Kabul says:

“Up to that date people had styled Timur Beg’s descendants, a Mirza, even when they were ruling, now I order that people should style me Padshah!”.

This passage has two implications:

1) That down to Babur’s time, because of the great pull of Mongol tradition, Timurids felt shy of using the sovereign title. Sovereignty belonged to the direct descendant of Chingiz Khan.

2) That Turkish tradition was being used and accepted increasingly within their own system.

Then we also have a number of evidences that Babur sanctions to give his image out as a Turk. He would go to the extent of denouncing Mongols as uncouth and despised.

In 1519, while leading an expedition at Ghiva he recorded that because these territories he is marching on were held by Turks, thus no plunder was to be made. They were his own.

In 1526 at Agra, he sent a message to the Afghan governor of Bayana in the form of a couplet which he himself had composed:

Ba turk sateza na kun, Chālaki-o mardangi-i turk ayān ast.

“Don’t fight against the Turks for The manliness of the Turks is well known!”

He thus distinguished his officers as Turks. All this indicates that the influence of the Turkish theory was increasingly on the Timurid state.


(i.e.) The impact of Mongol tradition as refined by the Shariat:


Firstly Where the Mongol tradition was not at clash with shariat, it was to be followed.

Secondly In the Timurid polity, the influence of the Mongol tradition was modified further by a situation where the state was controlled not by a person of direct descent from Chingiz. In Mongol tradition the sovereignty lay in the direct descendant of Chingiz Khan.

Let us briefly examine the Mongol tradition.

Like the Turkish theory, there was the concept of Universal Sovereignty, but with one difference: It was divisible.

This principle of division was derived from the Mongol myth that Chingiz Khan was born of an ancestor who in turn was the off-spring of the Sun-god. There is a story that a certain lady in ancient Mongolia, named Alanqua, wife of a chief named Dobun, became pregnant after a long time after his death. She gave birth to three sons: Buku Khatagi, Bukhatu Salji & Boduanchar. She claimed they were the sons of the sun-god. The divine-light had penetrated her and had impregnated her. It was a divine – immaculate conception. She had conceived through the agency of god & not through a man!

Thus, being conceived such; her sons had the natural right to rule over the entire universe – Chingiz was the direct descendant of Baduanchar & thus put his claim that his ancestor was the son of god himself. All those persons having their genealogy from the other two sons also had claim to Universal Kingship.

By the time of Chingiz, number of such persons had increased to a very large number. Any one of them could be elected to kingship. But according to the rules formulated by Chingiz Khan, known as tura-i Chaghtai [or tura-i chingizi / yasa-i chingizi], the claim lay in his family. After the death of the king, the entire empire was to be divided in his sons. The division of the empire after each one of the khaqan resulted in the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire. But it continued in the successor states, particularly the Timurids.

When Timur died in 1407, the empire was divided between his sons Miran Shah & Shahrukh Mirza. After Miran, it was divided between his sons. Babur inherited a very small territory in Ferghana. This principle continued even after the establishment of the Timurid rule for some time.

When Babur died, in practice, the territory was divided between Humayun and Mirza Kamran who had Kabul and Punjab territory. The only thing is that one them was supposed to be considered the overlord.

Even after Humayun, down to 1585, till Mirza Abdul Hakim was alive, he controlled Kabul as an autonomous ruler as Hindustan was controlled by Akbar.

In Turkish polity, this type of division was quite un-conceivable. Practice of putting to death all claimants by the succeeding monarch had become the rule. In some Qanun Namas under the Ottomans, it was a duty of the Sultan to put to death brothers & other royal members who could be claimants to the throne.

Then again, we find that in a typically Mongol polity, the position of the noble’s vis-à-vis the monarch was considerably strong as compared to the Turkish polity:

First, a Mongol noble was a free-born person and was fully entitled to possess property: In Turkish system he was just a slave.

Second, according to the Mongol Tradition, at the death of the khaqan, the Mongol overlord, the selection of a new sovereign would be made at an assembly of the nobles drawn from all over the empire (known as qureltai).

This selection was made from this large group who claimed direct descent from Chingiz Khan. Thus the say of the nobles would be greater in this tradition than that of the nobles in the Turkish tradition who had no choice or voice.

Amongst the nobles, there were numerous groups who had different claims to privileges, positions and office in the state, which were enshrined in the tura:

One would be the claim of descendants from one of the three sons of the sun-god.

Then there were certain nobles who were the descendants of some of Chingiz Khan’s followers and officers whom Chingiz had by his decrees assured a number of privileges, which as per the tura could not be disturbed: A noble could be put to death but he could not be deprived of his rights laid down in the tura-i chaghtai.

Thus the Mongol polity would be much stronger as compared to the nobility in the Turkish polity.

What kind of influence did the Mongol traditions exercise on Timur’s state?

Although Timur was a very despotic ruler and built his power on his own and did not owe it to anyone or any group, yet the very fact that the area in which he originally established his empire was a region of Mughal chiefs, made him very conscious of the fact that he should not give them any provocation but secure their loyalty and co-operation.

He very wisely decided not to assume the sovereign title at any time – Even if he used it, it was at a very low key.

Formally he installed at Samarqand a person, Sayurghatimish Khan, as the formal Khaqan, as he claimed to be a direct descendant of Chaghtai Khan S/Chingiz Khan.

Throughout Timur’s reign, all formal declarations and letters were addressed by him, and were written in the name & seal of Sayurghatimish.

Now let us come to the sources through which we get information of the Mongol traditions.

Regarding the early Mongol institutions, we have only one source: an anonymous history written by a person apparently in the service of Chingiz Khan. This was originally written in the Mongol dialect. It is now extinct. Now it is known to us through a Chinese version which was discovered during the 19th C. Since then, a number of English translations have been attempted; one of them was in this university by a Chinese scholar, Ku Kwer Sun, Secret History of the Mongol Dynasty.

Thus we come to know, that, after assuming power, Timur installed at Samarqand a person who claimed to be a descendant of Chingiz as Khaqan; and the orders which would be issued were in his name:

“By the order of Siyurghatimish, Amir Timur gurgan decrees…”

Gurgan means son-in-law.

Again under Timur, a myth was created or invented that Timur’s ancestor, Qachar Niyon – a mythical figure and ancestor of the entire Barlas tribe of Timur – was a brother of Chingiz Khan’s grandfather and that Chingiz Khan’s grandfather had made a compact with Qachar Niyon that while his own progeny would rule over Mongolia, the Central Asia would be ruled under Qachar Niyon’s progeny.

The thrust of this tradition is that the entire Barlas tribe was a descendant of at least one of the mythical sons of the sun-god. And thus Timur would also claim royalty to a certain extent. This was legitimising him by the tura-i chingizi while putting a direct descendant to the position of a khaqan!

It was an account of this polity that throughout 15th C, the Timurid Empire was regarded as darul harb, i.e., controlled by non-Muslims: In fact, Abdur Razzaq who was at Mirza Shahrukh’s court at Khurasan, says that Timur’s adversary Husain Sufi, the ruler of Khwarizm regarded Timur’s rule as  darul harb.

That is why we find that throughout Timurid History, down to Babur’s time, we come across evidences suggesting a state of tension within the Timurid polity on account of the contradictory pulls exercised by the Mongol & Turkish traditions. As the process of Islamization grew & progressed, there were simultaneous attempts of rejecting and then owning the Mongolian traditions.

In Timur’s own time, a copy of Tura-i Chaghtai was kept in the state treasury and used for reference.

If we are to believe the testimony of Muhammad Khan, the author of Tarikh-i Muhammadi, in 842 AH, i.e., first half of the 15th C, Mirza Shahrukh, Timur’s successor in Khurasan, had the only copy of the Tura in the treasury destroyed because he regarded it as an evil influence. He wanted to emancipate from the pagan tradition.

But then we find that Shahrukh’s successor, Ulugh Mirza, once again tried to revive the tura as a regulating code in the Timurid state. This evidence is borne out by Mirza Haidar Dughlat’s testimony in Tarikh-i Rashidi.

Dughlat says that Ulugh Mirza approached his grandfather, Amir Khudadad, with a request that he should help him to re-write the provisions of the Tura-i Chaghtai, the text of which had been destroyed. Amir Khudadad did not like this idea perhaps and thought it to be a pagan tradition. Ulugh Mirza then asked some old Mongols to re-write the text.

His successor, Abu Saeed Mirza, the grandfather of Babur, again retraced back. He expelled the so-called Khaqan. He told him explicitly that they were no longer to imagine themselves as the overlords of the Timurids.

Dughlat writes for Abu Saeed:

“Old order of things has been changed. You must now lay aside all your pretentions.”

That is to say, the mandates will be issued in the name of the dynasty of Timur because I am Padshah in my own right!

All this shows a constant state of tension caused by the Turkish & Mongol traditions. But it is significant that despite attempts made by the Timurids to abolish and reject the tura, it continued to exercise strong pull within the Timurid state down to Babur’s time.

Babur writes at one place, describing the proceedings of a meeting at Heart:

“Our forefathers through a long pace of time have respected the Chingizi tura, doing nothing opposed to it whether in assembly or court, in sittings down or risings up. Though it has no divine authority, so that a man obeys it of necessity, still a good rule of conduct must be obeyed by whomsoever there are left; just in the same way that, if a forefather have done ill, his ill must be changed for good.”

This shows that (a) the tura is a regulating code; & (b) Babur is slightly apologetic in accepting it saying it has no divine sanction. The tension is manifesting in Babur’s own mind: He accepts the tura because he considers it a good code.

We find a few puzzling passages in the Baburnama where Mongols are described as treacherous & uncouth. He demarcates himself as a Turk. At other places Babur goes out of his way on emphasising his link with Chingiz.

Babur’s mother was a sister of Yunus Khan, a descendant of Sayurghatimish Khan. He is displeased when not much respect & hospitality is shown to him at Kashgar saying ‘Am I not a grandson of the Khan of Kashgar?’

Another very significant piece of evidence is that when Babur is talking of Turks & Mongols, he is not having in mind a racial category. Those people, whom he calls Turk, are also Mughals. What he means is that these are the people who have adopted Turkish traditions as against those Mughals who are still aloof from Shariat.

At one place of the early account, he says that “Andijanis are all Turks, not a man or town or bazaar speaks but Turkish”.

At another place he identifies Qasim Beg Quchin as one of “ancient army begs of Andijan”. Quchins are thus shown as Turks.

But according to Mirza Haider Dughlat, Quchins were one of the 3 main sections or classes of the Mongol society:

1. The Quchins: who were of fighting profession

2. The Aimaqs: agriculturists & land holders

3. The Jusrists: the people who studied law & practiced it.

Thus Qasim Beg Quchin was a Mughal migrant to Andijan speaking Turkish language. Thus different from those speaking Mongol dialects.

Thus the distinction is not racial but cultural.

Let us now come to some other evidences:

On the eve of the Battle of Ushtargram in 1551, there were negotiations between Humayun and Kamran. One proposal was that Akbar, hardly 9 – 8 yrs old, should be married to one of Kamran’s daughters & both be made joint Kings – as Mirza Baiqara’s sons in Khurasan – and be put up at Kabul. Humayun & Kamran then proceeded on to Hindustan. Thus Kingship could be shared by two persons. This shows the influence of  tura-i Chaghtai.

Again, Abdu’l Qadir Badauni says that in 1575, on the occasion of Mirza Sulaiman’s [Mughal ruler of Badakhshan] visit to Akbar’s court, Akbar had made an attempt to revise the court practices & ettiquittes prescribed in tura-i chaghtai. But this was not successful.

Author of Risala-i Asad Beg informs us that when there was going on a controversy among Akbar’s nobles in 1605 over the question of who should succeed to the throne – Salim or his son Khusrau – the whole debate was pinched by Saeed Khan Chaghta who referred to the tura & said that it was not permissible for a person to come to the throne in the presence of his father. It would be against the tura-i chaghtai.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi