THE CONCEPT OF MAHDI IN TWELVER SHIʿISM


[Extract from Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. XIV, Fasc. 2, pp. 136-143 (2012)]

Mahdism in Twelver Shiʿism inherited many of its elements from previous religious trends. Without necessarily going back to Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Judaism, and Christianity, to which generally eschatology, messianism, and the apocalyptic in Islam owe many of their doctrines and elements (Darmesteter, introduction; Margoliouth, pp. 125-28), one can think of numerous Shiʿite and non-Shiʿite sects that existed prior to the definitive transition from earlier Imamism to Twelver Shiʿism in the first half of the 10th century (Kohlberg 1976, passim). In the study that follows, a descriptive introduction to the doctrines will be accompanied by an overview of the contribution of these borrowed elements in order to better appreciate the historical development and evolution of the articles of faith.

Hesitation and progressive development of Mahdism.

According to the traditional date most often retained, Imam Ḥasan ʿAskari (q.v.), the eleventh Imam, died in 874. His death, like that of previous Imams, gave rise to a period of turbulence among the faithful, but this time the crisis seemed even more serious and the Imamis did not themselves hesitate to call the decades that were to follow “the period of perplexity” or “confusion” (ḥayra; Modarressi, introduction). The mysterious fate of the presumed son of the eleventh Imam led to several schisms with notable doctrinal variances. Some groups claimed that his son died at a very young age, others that he had lived until a certain age and then died, and still others simply denied his very existence, believing that Ḥasan ʿAskari never had a son. Only a small minority supported the idea that the son of the eleventh imam was alive, that he was in “occultation,” and that he was to reappear as mahdi (Ar. “the Guided One”) at “the end of time” (āḵer al-zamān). This idea was gradually adopted by all Imamis, who thus became known as “Twelvers” (Nowbaḵti, pp. 90 ff.; Ašʿari Qomi, pp. 102 ff.: Kohlberg, 1976, passim; Sachedina 1981, pp. 42-55; Hussain, pp. 56-67).

Sources from this period, reflect, in their particular manner, the hesitation and crisis believers experienced. A close study of these sources indeed seems to show that profound uncertainties and serious lacunae existed regarding a substantial number of important doctrinal elements that became articles of faith. First, the definitive number of Imams and even the notion of “occultation” (ḡayba, q.v.): Abu Jaʿfar Barqi (d. 887 or 893), in his Ketāb al-maḥāsen, contributes no information regarding these two points. In the first chapter, dedicated to different interpretations of numbers, he takes into account the numbers 3 to 10, but says nothing about the number 12 (Barqi, I, pp. 3-13). A few decades later, Ebn Bābuya (Ebn Bābawayh, q.v.; 923-91), known as Shaikh Ṣaduq, in his Ketāb al-ḵeṣāl, reported many traditions regarding the number 12, some among them about twelve Imams (Ebn Bābuya, 1950, II, pp. 264-329). Barqi’s contemporary, Ṣaffār Qomi (d. 902-3) in his Baṣāʾer al-darajāt (pp. 280, 319-20, 372) mentions only five traditions from a total of almost 2,000 regarding the notion that the Imams were to be twelve in number, and he reports nothing about the occultation. The oldest text of certain authenticity that we have, in which a complete list of the twelve Imams is found, seems to be the Tafsir by ʿAli b. Ebrāhim Qomi (d. ca. 919; Qomi, II, p. 44), a work written some years after what would finally be termed the “Minor Occultation” (see below).

It is only from Kolayni’s (d. 940-41) hadith collection onwards that traditions regarding the definitive number of Imams, and the occultation of the twelfth Imam became more frequent. Even so, a study of chains of transmission (esnād) of these traditions, not only in Kolayni, but also in the two voluminous monographs by his famous successors, namely Ketāb al-ḡayba by Ebn Abi Zaynab Noʿmāni (d. ca. 956 or 971), and Kamāl al-din by Ebn Bābuya (see bibliography), reveal that elements of older books on the ḡayba belonging to other Shiʿite trends had been appropriated in the service of the cause, and were adapted to Twelver Shiʿite doctrines (Hussain, pp. 2-6; Amir-Moezzi, 1996, esp. pp. 115 ff.). As examples, one can cite the following names of transmitters: Ebrāhim b. Ṣāleḥ Anmāṭi, disciple of the fifth Imam, Moḥammad Bāqer, authored a book on the occultation and considered the latter as the hidden Mahdi (Najāši, pp. 12, 19; Ṭusi, 1972, p. 14). Among the Wāqefis of the seventh Imam Musā Kāẓem (i.e., those who ended the lineage of the Imams at the latter and considered him as the Mahdi), were ʿAli b. Ḥasan Ṭāṭari Ṭāʿi and Ḥasan b. Moḥammad b. Somāʿa, both authors of works on the ḡayba (Najāši, pp. 193 and 39 respectively; Ṭusi 1972, pp. 216-17 on the first mentioned author). Another “Sevener” transmitter (Wāqefi or Ismaʿili?), Moḥammad b. Moṯannā Ḥażrami (fl. 9th cent.), author of a Ketāb that is part of the “400 original texts” (al-oṣul al-arbaʿomeʾa) of the Imamis, reports a tradition by Jaʿfar Ṣādeq according to which the number of Imams is limited to seven, with the final one to be the Mahdi (al-oṣul al-arbaʿomeʾa, fol. 53b; regarding this collection see Kohlberg, 1987). Ḥasan b. ʿAli Baṭāʾeni Kufi, like his father, served as Wāqefi of the eighth Imam ʿAli al-Reżā (q.v.). He was the author of a work bearing the title Ketāb al-Ḡayba (Ṭehrāni, XVI, p. 76, no. 382). Abu Saʿid ʿOṣfuri (d. 864), a contemporary of the tenth and eleventh Imams is the author of another Ketāb from the “400 original texts” in which he speaks of eleven Imams (though avoiding naming them), with the last to be the Mahdi (al-oṣul al-arbaʿomeʾa, fol. 10a ff.; also Ketāb Abu Saʿid al-ʿOṣfuri, p. 34). The book, already mentioned by the Imami Ṣaffār Qomi, even contains two traditions that seem to indicate that the Imams will be seven in number (Ṣaffār, pp. 146, 150).

One also encounters signs of hesitation and grasping for ideas concerning the nature and modalities of the occultation. Different theories appear to have co-existed in the decades following the death of the eleventh Imam. One discerns a trace of this in reports regarding a character as influential as Abu Sahl Nowbaḵti (d. 923), who would have played a determining role in the establishment of a definitive form of the theology of occultation (Eqbāl, s.v.; Arjomand 1996a and 1996b). Indeed, the sources attribute two different conceptions of the occultation to him. According to the first, cited by Ebn Bābuya, based on Ketāb al-tanbih wa’l-emāma, a work by Abu Sahl now apparently lost, the Hidden Imam “exists in the world by his spiritual substance thanks to a subsisting essence” (mawjud al-ʿayn fi’l-ʿālam wa ṯābet al-ḏāt: Ebn Bābuya 1985, I, pp. 90 ff.). According to a second theory reported by Ebn Nadim (d. 990; see also AL-FEHREST), Abu Sahl is said to have maintained that the twelfth Imam died, but secretly left behind a son as a successor to him; the lineage of Imams would thus be perpetuated in occultation from father to son until the final Imam manifests himself publicly as the Mahdi (Ebn al-Nadim, p. 225). Eventually, none of the theories were sustained, but here one recognizes tentative efforts (undoubtedly among the oldest) to rationalize the concept of occultation. During the same period, Abu Jaʿfar Ebn Qebba (d. before 931) wrote some texts with the same objective, such as his Masʾala fi’l-emāma and al-Naqż ʿalā Abi’l-Ḥasan ʿAli b. Aḥmad b. Baššār fi’l-ḡayba(both edited in Modarressi, 1993). The rationalizing theorization of the concept of occultation continued in full force with Shaikh Mofid (d. 1022) and his disciples, Šarif Mortażā (d. 1044), Mo-ḥammad b. ʿAli Karājaki (d. 1057), and Shaikh Abu Jaʿfar Ṭusi, known as Šayḵ al-Ṭāʾefa (d. 1067), thinkers who explicitly had recourse to dialectical demonstration drawing notably from some older Muʿtazilite principles (Sachedina 1981, pp. 108 ff.; see bibliography).

Other uncertainties and contradictions concern the notion of the “double occultations” and belief in the “delegation” (niāba, sefāra, wekāla) and the “four delegates or deputies” (nowwāb / sofarāʾ arbaʿa) of the Hidden Imam. We shall consider them further on.

All this tends to show that during this period the Imami community underwent what one might consider a serious identity crisis. This “time of confusion” is one of groping in the dark, of research, development, and the more or less painful establishment of doctrines related to the authority and legitimacy of the twelfth Imam. These doctrines were faced with, and overcame, much resistance before eventually standing as articles of faith. The transition from Imami Shiʿism to Twelver Shiʿism was certainly not achieved seamlessly (Kohlberg, 1976). In the introduction of his Ketāb al-Ḡayba, Ebn Abi Zaynab Noʿmāni laments the fact that a large majority of his co-religionists still did not know the identity of the Hidden Imam, or even go so far as to contest his existence (Noʿmāni, pp. 18-32). Ebn Bābuya makes a similar observation when he says that he was inundated by questions from the Shiʿites of Khorasan regarding the identity of the Hidden Imam and this, in fact, was what prompted him to write his Kamāl al-din (Ebn Bābuya 1985, I, pp. 2 ff.). In this confused atmosphere in which schisms were growing in number (Sachedina, 1981, pp. 42 ff.) and adversarial movements, particularly the Ismaʿilis, justifiably benefited from the situation, propaganda intensified and as a consequence the Twelver Shiʿite trend saw a large number of its faithful, including some notable personalities, abandon its ranks (Halm, 1981, passim). The main preoccupation of Twelver Shiʿite thinkers at this time was to demonstrate the actual existence of the son of Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskari, and to establish his legitimate authority as the Hidden Imam. This objective was attained thanks to the sustained efforts of a certain number of thinkers and transmitters of traditions, some of whom have already been cited: Nowbaḵti, Abu Jaʿfar Ebn Qebba, Kolayni, Noʿmāni, and especially Ebn Bābuya and his masterly Kamāl al-din, the principal architect of the canonization of elements relating to the Hidden Imam, his occultation, and status as eschatological Savior (Amir-Moezzi, 1996, pp. 122 ff.). Still, one can list some authors and their works that were decisive in the definitive establishment of doctrines regarding the Mahdi of the Twelvers: the father of Ṣaduq, ʿAli b. Ḥosayn Ebn Bābuya (d. 940) and his book, al-Emāma wa’l-tabṣera men al-ḥayra; Ebn Quluya (Ebn Qulawayh, q.v., d. 979) and his Kāmel al-ziārāt; Ḵazzāz Rāzi (2nd half of 10th cent.) and his Kefāyat al-aṯar; and Ebn ʿAyyāš Jawhari (d. 1011) and his Moqtażab al-aṯar (see bibliography). Consequently, when Shaikh Ṭusi (d. 1067) wrote his Ketāb al-Ḡayba, a substantial monograph on the subject, articles of faith regarding the Mahdi of the Twelver Imamis appeared already well established: that the son of the eleventh Imam is indeed the twelfth and final Imam; that he had two occultations: during the first and much shorter one, he communicated with believers through the intermediary of four delegates. During the second, which is to last until the end of time, he remains providentially living in his physical body in order to return to save the world as Mahdi. We shall now examine these points in greater detail.

Birth and occultation of the Mahdi.

What precisely do traditional accounts of the Mahdi relate? Versions that would eventually be considered “orthodox” began to emerge in the first half of the 10th century and only attained their definitive form in the following century. For what follows, we base our information mainly on the works of authors such as Noʿmāni, Ebn Bābuya (1985), and Shaikh Ṭusi (1965), to cite only the most important monographs on the subject.

The eschatological Savior of Imamism is presented as Abu’l-Qāsem Moḥammad b. Ḥasan al-ʿAskari, twelfth and last among the Imams. He therefore bears the same name and konya as the Prophet, thus fulfilling the hadith that probably goes back to ʿĀṣem b. Bahdala (d. 744-45) from Kufa. It undoubtedly owes its origin to Moḵtār’s rebellion in favor of Moḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiya, son of ʿAli, who, once when he was described as Mahdi, declared that his privilege consisted in bearing the same name and konya as the Prophet (Ebn Saʿd, V, p. 68; Madelung, “al-Mahdī,” p. 1223a). However, it was inadvisable to call the Mahdi by his name, according to a ban attributed to many among the imams (al-nahy ʿan al-esm/al-manʿ ʿan al-tasmiya), the aim of which was to protect the Savior (commissioned to put an end to injustice) from the threat posed by the ʿAbbasid court (Kolayni, n.d., II, pp. 126 ff.; Noʿmāni, chap. 16; Ebn Bābuya, 1985, I, pp. 333 ff., 370; II, p. 648; Amir-Moezzi, 1992, pp. 257-59). This also reflected uncertainties that weighed upon the identity of the Mahdi. The latter is thus called by any one of his surnames: mahdi (the Guided One), montaẓar (the Awaited One), ṣāḥeb al-zamān (Lord of the Time), al-ḡāʾeb (the Occulted/Hidden One), ḥojjat Allāh (Proof of God), ṣāḥeb al-amr (Lord of the Cause), baqiyat Allāh (Remainder of God) and, most often, qāʾem (a complex term meaning among other things: the standing, one who stands up, one who rises, the resurrector). The latter title, which among the Imamis gradually replaced that of Mahdi, was employed in Shiʿite circles to designate the Imam who “stood up” to fight against unjust and illegitimate power. In this sense, it contrasted with qāʿed, literally “the seated one,” a term designating previous imams who did not participate in rebellious movements against Umayyad and ʿAbbasid rule (Nowbaḵti, pp. 90 ff.; Aš-ʿari Qomi, pp. 102 ff.; Sachedina, 1981, s.v.; Madelung, “Ḳāʾim Āl Muḥammad”).

According to some accounts, his mother, to whom various names are given (Narjis, Rayḥāna, Sawsan, Maryam), was a black slave of Nubian origin (the first three names, being those of flowers and plants, and often given to female slaves, seems to confirm this version); according to other accounts, undoubtedly legendary and hagiographic, she was the grand-daughter of the Byzantine emperor, himself a disciple of the Apostle Simon. According to this version, the Byzantine princess was captured by Muslim troops and sold as a slave in Baghdad to a man belonging to the entourage of the tenth Imam, ʿAli al-Naqi (see ʿALI AL-HĀDI) who then came to Sāmarrāʾ and offered the girl to Ḥakima, the latter’s sister. Even before her captivity, the princess had a dream vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, as well as of Fāṭema (q.v.), daughter of the Prophet Moḥammad, both of whom had asked her to convert to Islam and let herself be captured by the Muslim armies as she was destined for a glorious life. In Sāmarrāʾ, the tenth Imam, having by clairvoyance recognized in her the future mother of the Mahdi, gave her in marriage to his son Ḥasan, the future eleventh Imam. Signs of the mother’s pregnancy as well as the birth of the child were miraculously concealed, since the ʿAbbasids sought to eliminate an expected child whom persistent rumors described as a Savior. The date most often cited for his birth is 15 Šaʿbān 256/18th July 870 (one of the most important Imami festivals). The father showed the newborn to some forty intimate disciples, and then the child was hidden. According to many accounts, the eleventh imam is said to have adopted a two-fold tactic to guarantee the child’s security. First, apart from his intimate circle, the Imam kept the birth of the child secret, going so far as to designate his mother, Ḥodayṯ, as his sole heir. Now, it is known that according to Imami law, under some conditions the inheritance belongs to the mother of the deceased when the latter does not leave behind a child. Secondly, Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskari had recourse to a ruse to cloud the issue and distract attention. Some time before his death in 874, he allowed a rumor to spread that his servant Ṣaqil was pregnant with his child. Informants of the caliph al-Moʿtamed (r. 870-92) closely observed the activities of the Imam, who was kept under surveillance in the military camp at Sāmarrāʾ. When, following a serious illness, the Imam’s death seemed inevitable, the caliph dispatched his trusted men to the site. After the eleventh Imam died, his servant was arrested for observation. During the year that followed, she showed no signs of pregnancy and was released and promptly forgotten. The caliph and his entourage were then convinced that the deceased eleventh Imam left behind no descendants. According to Imami authors, divine providence had been accomplished. The twelfth Imam, the awaited Savior, was thus saved and grew up in hiding (for these accounts and a critical analysis of them, see Amir-Moezzi, 1992, pt. IV-1 and IV-2). This “gilded legend” meets the obvious hagiographic requirements, but at the same time it reflects the uncertainties that continued to be felt in Imami circles regarding the very existence of a child of Imam Ḥasan al-ʿAskari. This led, as we have seen, to a number of schisms. It is certainly no accident that the sources present “the concealed birth” as one of the distinctive signs of the Savior (Noʿmāni, chap. 10, no. 7, p. 244; Ebn Bābuya, 1985, I, chap. 32, no. 2, p. 325).

Not unlike previous imams, the Mahdi had a birth and childhood bathed in the miraculous. Supernatural signs, divine lights, and celestial messengers accompanied him from his very birth. From his early childhood on, he demonstrated initiatory knowledge and manifested supernormal powers. Our sources regularly relate that even while in hiding, the young twelfth Imam was visited by initiated adepts of his father, and the latter never missed an occasion to reveal to his followers that his son was indeed the qāʾem. Upon the death of his father in 260/874, the twelfth Imam entered his first occultation while still a child, later termed the Minor Occultation (al-ḡaybat al-ṣoḡrā), which lasted 70 lunar years, i.e., until 329/940. During this period, the Hidden Imam is said to have communicated with his believers through four intermediary delegates or representatives: (1) Abu ʿAmr ʿOṯmān b. Saʿid ʿAmri/ʿOmari; (2) Abu Jaʿfar Moḥammad ʿAmri/ʿOmari, son of the above; (3) Abul-Qāsem Ḥosayn b. Ruḥ, from the influential family of the Banu Nowbaḵt; and (4) Abul-Ḥasan ʿAli b. Moḥammad Semmari (regarding these representatives and the sources see Ali, pp. 197 ff.; Hussain, chap. IV-VII; on the vocalization of the fourth name, usually erroneously pronounced Samarri, see Halm, 1988, chap. 4, s.v.).

The most important activities of these “representatives” would have included ensuring that canonical precepts were respected by the believers, the collection and distribution of taxes, delivering questions of a religious nature to the Hidden Imam, making his responses known in public and, finally, performing miracles to convince those believers who were prey to perplexity and confusion. Ebn Bābuya dedicates several pages of his Kamāl al-din to enumerating and describing the supernatural powers of the representatives, perceived by the faithful to be the result of direct initiation by the Hidden Imam (Ebn Bābuya, 1985, II, pp. 486-520; Amir-Moezzi, 1992, pp. 272-75).

According to official tradition, in 329/940, the fourth and last delegate received a final letter signed by the Hidden Imam in which he declared that henceforth and “until the end of time,” no one will see him or be his representative, and that whosoever declares otherwise is no less than an imposter. This important document, apparently reported for the first time by Ebn Bābuya in his Kamāl al-din (II, chap. 45, no. 44, p. 516), heralds the second, or Major Occultation (al-ḡaybat al-kobrā), which according to Twelver Shiʿite doctrine still continues and will last until the eschatological return of the Mahdi (regarding this letter, reports concerning it in ancient sources, and translations of it into Western languages, see Amir-Moezzi 1996, pp. 122-23 and n. 51). Thus, for more than a thousand years the Imamis have lived in a period of Major Occultation of the Hidden Imam. Imami tradition cites four principal reasons to prove the necessity of the occultation: safeguarding the life of the Hidden Imam; independence with regard to temporal powers which, according to some traditions, will all be unjust until the return of the Mahdi; testing believers in order to measure the degree of their faith; and finally, a secret reason not to be revealed until the end of time (Kolayni, n.d., II, pp. 127-45; Noʿmāni, chap. 10; Ebn Bābuya, 1985, chap. 44; idem, 1966, chap. 179; Ebn ʿAyyāš, pp. 34-36; Ṭusi 1965, pp. 73 ff. pp. 109-11, 214-15). It must be emphasized that the concept of two occultations, the first shorter than the second, originated in the beliefs of the Wāqefis of the seventh Imam Musā al-Kāẓem. For them, these two occultations constituted a distinctive sign of the Mahdi, obviously here alluding to the two periods of imprisonment of the seventh Imam, the first of a shorter period under the caliphate of the ʿAbbasid caliph al-Mahdi (r. 775-85), and the second, lasting until the death of the Imam, ordered by Hārun al-Rašid (r. 786-809; Madelung, “al-Mahdī,” p. 1226b). This Wāqefi origin also seems at issue in a hadith, preserved by the Twelver Shiʿite corpus, that mentions the imprisonment of the Savior (Noʿmāni, p. 288; Ebn Bābuya, 1985, II, p. 548; Ṭusi, 1965, p. 181). As a corollary to the preceding concept, belief in the delegation of four official representatives of the Hidden Imam during the first occultation seems to have started to take form long after the proclamation of major occultation, most likely in the second half of the 10th century. As we have seen, Barqi and Ṣaffār do not even deal with the theme of occultation. With two authors from the end of the 9th century, namely Nowbaḵti in his Feraq al-šiʿa, and Ašʿari Qomi in his Maqālāt, there is still no mention of any representative. The same is true of Noʿmāni, who wrote in the first half of the next century. During the same period, Kolayni in his Kāfi, and Kašši in his Rejāl, provide names of several “representatives” (for example the two ʿAmri/ʿOmari, Ebrāhim b. Mahziyār, Marzbāni Ḥāreṯi, Ḥājez b. Yazid, etc.), but never speak of an official list of four individuals (Kolayni, n.d., II, pp. 449 ff.; Kašši, s.v.). In her well-documented study, V. Klemm convincingly demonstrates that Ḥosayn b. Ruḥ Nowbaḵti (d. 938), the “third” nāʾeb, would have been the first to claim to be the only representative of the Hidden Imam, and as a consequence, the supreme leader of the community in the absence of the latter. According to Klemm, the dogma of delegation to the Hidden Imam by a sole representative seems to have been invented and spread by the powerful Nowbaḵti family in Baghdad. The two previous claimants, the two ʿAmri/ʿOmaris, were no doubt elevated to the status of sole representative posthumously to prove to believers the continuity of this institution since the presumed beginning of the occultation (Klemm, passim). This conception of the niāba was far from being accepted without hesitation or resistance, and one has to wait almost half a century until the Kamāl al-din by Ebn Bābuya has it take its more or less definitive canonical form for the first time. “More or less,” indeed, since even Ebn Bābuya, who provides the list of “four representatives,” speaks of other trusted men of the Hidden Imam in different cities (Ebn Bābuya, 1985, II, pp. 432, 442).

Let us end this section by recalling an interesting phenomenon at the time of the occultation that increases devotion to the Hidden Imam and strengthens faith in his invisible presence: accounts of meetings with the Mahdi. Hagiographic literature dedicated to the twelfth Imam has always accorded a special place to accounts of meetings with the Mahdi. It covers a period of almost one thousand years, ranging from some decades after the occultation with, for example, Kolayni, until the contemporary period with monographs by Mirzā Ḥosayn Ṭabarsi/Ṭabresi Nuri (d. 1902), which are veritable encyclopedias of this genre, and Beḥār al-anwār by ʿAllāma Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesi (d. 1699-1700: see bibliography). Regarding encounters during the Major Occultation, henceforth a question arises to which some Imami thinkers have responded: how to consider accounts of meetings during the Major Occultation authentic when in his final letter to his last representative the Imam declares any encounter to be impossible until the end of time? It is important to note that Ebn Bābuya, who reports this letter in his Kamāl al-din, does not hesitate to relate in the same work some accounts of meetings with the Hidden Imam after his Major Occultation. From the very beginning, ocular vision of the imam, to which the letter refers, seems to have been understood not in a general sense, but as a condition of the Hidden Imam’s representative. Thus, what is declared impossible during the major occultation (thus until the end of time) is not an encounter with the Hidden Imam as such, but laying claim to the niāba of the latter by citing a meeting with the Hidden Imam as grounds. A believer may be granted the privilege of meeting the Imam, but if following this he declares himself to be the “representative” of the Imam due to the encounter, he is considered (according to terms of the letter) no less than a liar and impostor (Šarif Mortażā, n.d., pp. 233 ff.; Ebn Ṭāwus, 1931, pp. 34, 48, 73-75; Majlesi, LII, p. 151; Ṭabarsi/Ṭabresi Nuri, 1991, chap. 8, pp. 559 ff.).

These encounters may occur anywhere, but certain sites seem to be more propitious: Mecca; beside the Imams’ mausoleums; the Cave (sardāb) in Sāmarrāʾ where the Hidden Imam is said to have begun his occultation; the mosque of Sahla in Najaf, and the sanctuary of Jamkarān, not far from Qom (Amir-Moezzi, 1997, first part). Typologically, one can distinguish three categories of narratives of encounters, based on the principal dimension promoted: a humanitarian dimension in which the great generosity of the Hidden Imam towards his believers and his concern for their well-being are emphasized; an initiatory dimension in which the Imam teaches his believers prayers, transmits spiritual knowledge, and bears secrets etc.; and finally, an eschatological dimension, presented mainly by late mystical sources, in which the encounter prompts a believer’s individual spiritual resurrection (Amir-Moezzi, 1996, passim, esp. pp. 127-35; see also Corbin, 1963-64, pp. 67 ff., and idem, 1972, book VII, esp. pp. 346-67).

The end of time and rising of the Mahdi.

These subjects have been discussed at length in the article dedicated to Twelver Shiʿite eschatology (Amir-Moezzi, 1998). Here we mostly summarize this work, contributing additional information where necessary. The “end of time” or, in other words, the date of the final advent of the Hidden Imam, is unknown and believers are urged to await deliverance (faraj) patiently and piously. The future coming of the Savior is the most frequently cited subject in predictions made by the Prophet, Fāṭema, and the Imams: entire lengthy chapters are dedicated to the topic in the sources. This coming is heralded by a number of signs (ʿalāmāt). The universal signs are the widespread invasion of the earth by Evil, the overcoming of knowledge by ignorance, and the loss of a sense of the sacred and all that links man to God and his neighbors. These, in some measure, require the manifestation (ẓohur) and the rising (ḵoruj, qiām) of the Qāʾem, or else humanity will be overwhelmed by darkness. Furthermore, there are certain specific signs among which five recur more regularly and are hence justifiably called the “five signs”: (1) the coming of Sofyāni, the enemy of the Qāʾem, who will command an army in battle against the latter (Madelung, 1986, passim, and 2000); (2) the advent of Yamāni, who appears in the Yemen to preach support for the Qāʾem; (3) the Cry/Scream (ṣayḥa, nedāʾ ) of supernatural origin, coming from the sky and calling man to defend the Imam’s cause; (4) the swallowing (ḵasf) of an army composed of the Imam’s enemies in a desert often located between Mecca and Medina, according to a hadith most likely propagated by ʿAbd-Allāh b. Zobayr during his war propaganda against the Umayyad caliph Yazid (r. 680-83), during the latter’s campaign against Mecca and Medina, popularized by the traditionist of Basra, Qatāda (d. 773-74; see Madelung, 1981, pp. 293-95); and (5) the assassination by the Meccans of the messenger to the Qāʾem, often called Nafs or al-Nafs al-Zakiya (echoing the messianic rebellion and death in 762 of the Hasanid Moḥammad b. ʿAbd-Allāh, surnamed al-Nafs al-Zakiya).

The Mahdi thus becomes manifest, all the while having miraculously maintained his youth. He fights and definitively uproots Evil and pervasive ignorance, re-establishing the world to its original pure state (Amir-Moezzi, 2000, passim). For this to occur, he must first avenge the assassination of Imam Ḥosayn in order that the majority of Muslims be purged of the most villainous crime that it ever committed. Moreover, according to the eschatological doctrine of rajʿa (q.v.), a certain number of past saints, victims of their community’s injustice, and their persecutors come back to life in order that the good may take revenge on the evil ones. The Savior will thus not only re-establish Islam, but all religions, to their purity and original integrity, making “submission to God” (Ar. eslām) the universal religion. He will also bring wisdom to mankind by revealing the esoteric secrets of sacred Scriptures (Amir-Moezzi, 1992, pt. IV-3).

In this final battle against the forces of Evil, the Qāʾem is obviously not alone. First, he will be accompanied by certain important characters from the sacred history of humanity; thus, according to different hadiths one finds various prophets of the past such as Jesus and the Prophet Moḥammad, and various Imams, most often ʿAli and/or Ḥosayn. In this war, the Mahdi commands an army in which, apart from the masses of oppressed who enlist depending on the progress of his victories, three kinds of “warriors” are present: (1) angels, especially the 313 angels that accompanied the 313 fighters from Badr, the site of a battle of the Prophet against the Meccans; (2) a terrifying celestial entity named Fear (roʿb; see ESCHATOLOGY iii. IMAMI SHIʿISM) who marches at the head of the Mahdi’s army and terrifies his enemies; and (3) most importantly, 313 Companions of the Qāʾem forming his militia (jayš), a term whose letters also add up to the value of 313. These are specially initiated disciples bearing secret knowledge and possessing miraculous powers. The Savior will no doubt triumph, and the entire world will be brought to submission. Forces of injustice and ignorance will once and for all be exterminated, the earth embellished with justice and wisdom, and humanity revived by knowledge. The Mahdi thus prepares the world for the ultimate trial of the final resurrection of the Last Judgment. According to some traditions, he will reign upon the earth for some time (7, 9, 19 . . . years), after which occurs the death of all humanity just prior to the Judgment. Other traditions report that after the death of the Qāʾem, the government of the world will remain in the hands of the initiated for a certain period before the Day of Resurrection.

Influence and consequences.

Unlike in Sunnism, where belief in the Mahdi, although present, never became an essential article of faith, in Shiʿism in general, and Twelver Imamism in particular, it is made a constitutive dogma of its religious doctrine, its dualist vision of the world and more specifically, its conception of maʿād, “place of return” or the hereafter (see SHIʿITE DOCTRINE). During the course of time, Imami panegyric as well as hagiographic literature dedicated to the Hidden Imam tried hard to demonstrate that the figure of the Mahdi, present in Sunni hadith, referred to the twelfth Imam (Madelung, “al-Mahdī”). Imami arguments gained momentum during the 13th century when some great Sunni scholars contributed their support to the Imami dogma of identifying the Mahdi with the twelfth Imam: the two Syrian Shafiʿite scholars Moḥammad b. Yusof Ganji in his Bayān fi aḵbār ṣāḥeb al-zamān, composed in 1250-51, and Kamāl-al-Din Moḥammad ʿAdawi Naṣibini in his Maṭāleb al-soʾul, completed in 1252, and the renowned Sebṭ Ebn al-Jawzi (d. 1256) in his Taḏkerat al-ḵawāṣṣ (see bibliography). Given the dates of these authors and their works, coinciding with the arrival of the Mongols, the end of Sunni caliphal power and the increasing political influence of the Imamis, one wonders if this doctrinal reversal was not dictated by a certain opportunism. One might note in this respect that Moḥammad b. Yusof Ganji was assassinated in Damascus in 1260 for having collaborated with the Mongol conquerors. In any case, it is from this period onward that one notices, from time to time, some learned Sunnis rallying to Imami Mahdism. The phenomenon is also noticeable among Sunni mystics. Already in the 11th century, Abu Bakr Bayhaqi had denounced the consent of some Sufis concerning the identification of the Mahdi with the last Imam of the Twelvers (Madelung, “al-Mahdī”). Setting aside the influence of Imamism upon the eschatological hagiology of Ebn al-ʿArabi (q.v.; Elmore, pp. 111-40), one can cite the disciple of the latter, Saʿd-al-Din Ḥammuya in his Farāʾed al-semṭayn, the Egyptian ʿAbd-al-Wahhāb Šaʿrāni in al-Yawāqit wa’l-jawāher(1551) or, more recently, the Naqšbandi master from Balkh, Solaymān Qonduzi (d. 1877) in his Yanābiʾ al-mawadda (see bibliography). Finally, let us note that some doctrinal issues regarding the person of the twelfth Imam, his occultation, his final advent, his companions, and accounts of encounters with him have been interpreted in terms of spiritual and esoteric hermeneutics (taʾwil) in the Imami mystical schools and texts, particularly among the Šayḵis and Neʿmat-Allāhis (Amir-Moezzi 2001, 2003).

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(Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi)

Professor Arjun Dev (12 Nov 1938 – 29 March 2020

Statement of Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology [ASHA] On the Demise of Professor Arjun Dev

A man of vast knowledge and myriad of interests, Professor Arjun Dev would always be remembered most for his singular and remarkable two volume textbook on Story of Civilisation which he once wrote for the NCERT. Not only the students of Class XI and XII consulted them, but it was a must for all those who thought of preparing for the Civil Services. “Read Arjun Dev” was the sane advise given to anyone appearing for the public services! He along with Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra, RS Sharma and Romila Thapar was a sure way to success. Even now, when the NCERT have withdrawn the books of these stalwarts, they are still read by any one preparing for the competition.

Prof. Arjun spent much of his life with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and wrote a number of extremely popular textbooks for the NCERT on Modern and Contemporary India and the World. One of the books, Story of Civilisation (in two parts) which was discontinued by the NCERT under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime in 2002 was republished by Orient Blackswan as History of the World: From the Late 19th to the Early 20th Century and has remained a very widely read text.

After his retirement from the NCERT, Prof. Dev took up the work of the multi-volume Towards Freedom Project of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR, New Delhi). It was a project conceived as a rejoinder to the British government-inspired Transfer of Power Volumes which documented the history of the last ten years of colonial rule in India in a manner that did scant justice to our great national liberation struggle. Started under the General Editorship of Prof. Sarvepalli Gopal, the first two volumes came out in 1997 and were published by the Oxford University Press. With the coming to power of the Vajpayee government, two volumes in the press were withdrawn and the project stalled. The project could be restarted only in 2005, and Prof. Arjun was the indefatigable coordinator of the project with Sabyasachi Bhattacharya as the General Editor.

As a person, Dev was a jovial and easy going man. When I first met him, I had expected a straight faced and sober Marxist scholar. What I discovered was a man of wit with a scientific temperament who was soft spoken and full of humour and wit. I can never forget his countenance with a cigarette dangling either from his lips or clutched between well smoked fingers and a cloth jhola tossed casually around his shoulder. His softness however would disappear if it was a question of ideology! He was a person who did not budge from his ideals and was thus a beacon of hope for the present lost generation.

Our heartfelt condolences to all the students of History and the bereaved family. May he rest in peace.

Professor Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

Professor Syed Jabir Raza

Professor Farhat Hasan

Professor Manvendra Kumar Pundhir

Dr Shivangini Tandon

Dr Amita Paliwal

Dr Syed Ali Kazim

Dr Enayatullah Khan

Ms Lubna Irfan

Arjun Dev 1938-2020

Professor Arjun Dev (12 Nov 1938 – 29 March 2020

Statement of Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology [ASHA] On the Demise of Professor Arjun Dev

A man of vast knowledge and myriad of interests, Professor Arjun Dev would always be remembered most for his singular and remarkable two volume textbook on Story of Civilisation which he once wrote for the NCERT. Not only the students of Class XI and XII consulted them, but it was a must for all those who thought of preparing for the Civil Services. “Read Arjun Dev” was the sane advise given to anyone appearing for the public services! He along with Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra, RS Sharma and Romila Thapar was a sure way to success. Even now, when the NCERT have withdrawn the books of these stalwarts, they are still read by any one preparing for the competition.

Prof. Arjun spent much of his life with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and wrote a number of extremely popular textbooks for the NCERT on Modern and Contemporary India and the World. One of the books, Story of Civilisation (in two parts) which was discontinued by the NCERT under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime in 2002 was republished by Orient Blackswan as History of the World: From the Late 19th to the Early 20th Century and has remained a very widely read text.

After his retirement from the NCERT, Prof. Dev took up the work of the multi-volume Towards Freedom Project of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR, New Delhi). It was a project conceived as a rejoinder to the British government-inspired Transfer of Power Volumes which documented the history of the last ten years of colonial rule in India in a manner that did scant justice to our great national liberation struggle. Started under the General Editorship of Prof. Sarvepalli Gopal, the first two volumes came out in 1997 and were published by the Oxford University Press. With the coming to power of the Vajpayee government, two volumes in the press were withdrawn and the project stalled. The project could be restarted only in 2005, and Prof. Arjun was the indefatigable coordinator of the project with Sabyasachi Bhattacharya as the General Editor.

As a person, Dev was a jovial and easy going man. When I first met him, I had expected a straight faced and sober Marxist scholar. What I discovered was a man of wit with a scientific temperament who was soft spoken and full of humour and wit. I can never forget his countenance with a cigarette dangling either from his lips or clutched between well smoked fingers and a cloth jhola tossed casually around his shoulder. His softness however would disappear if it was a question of ideology! He was a person who did not budge from his ideals and was thus a beacon of hope for the present lost generation.

Our heartfelt condolences to all the students of History and the bereaved family. May he rest in peace.

Professor Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

Professor Syed Jabir Raza

Professor Farhat Hasan

Professor Manvendra Kumar Pundhir

Dr Shivangini Tandon

Dr Amita Paliwal

Dr Syed Ali Kazim

Dr Enayatullah Khan

Ms Lubna Irfan

Remembering Sir Syed the Natury

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

Today as we commemorate the 122nd death anniversary of the Great Syed, the founder of what is now Aligarh Muslim University, I am going to repeat what I had once before reiterated, (and been severely reprimanded for writing the same by some ignorant “Old Boys” and so-called “Alumni”): The founder of MAO College died a disillusioned and forsaken man in a rented room situated behind Panwali Kothi (near Nishat Kothi, where now Aligarh Public School is located) on 27th March 1898. Most of his friends (some who succeeded him, and all who benefited from him) had abandoned him and were even critical to him. When he died a lonely death in a rented room away from his own college and bungalow, and his demise was announced, his janaza (funeral) was attended by very few. He was however laid to rest within the Jami’ Mosque which he had erected.

27th March is a reminder that we at Aligarh are actually Ibnul Waqt – and side only for ascending stars, and quickly forget all those who help create us or help us stand in this world!

We are good at paying lip-service and believe in self-serving aggrandisement!

The man who died today 122 years ago was an aristocrat who through education turned into a Civil Servant. All through his life he fought against ignorance and the social rot in his community. He was a Munsif of the British who witnessed the Revolt and saw the decline of his community. He did not look the other way but decided to work for the upliftment of his Community. On the one hand he wrote Asbab-i Baghawat-i Hind (Causes for the Revolt) to make the English realise that it was the Muslims who alone were responsible for the Revolt! To the Community he had another message: don’t boycott the English and their language. Also along with being religious, use logic, be scientific! He was not only a theoretician! Apart from his Asar us Sanadīd (Remnants of the Past) which was his way to tell the British and his own countrymen, the past greatness, he endeavoured to open the Mahomeddan Angl-Oriental College where the Muslims and others would gain modern education. His endeavour was to create an institution which would supply administrators to the rulers. MAO College was envisioned on the lines of Cambridge and Oxford! He went door to door from Punjab to Bengal with a begging bowl for funds and students for his College. The first student was a Hindu, donors were Hindus, Shias and Sunnis. He envisaged a mosque where all would pray together with no difference of Sunnis or Shias. He encouraged Shaikh Abdullah to work for a school for girls.

What did he get in return? The theologians declared him a Kafir, an Apostate, he was derisively called a “Natury“, a follower of Darwin, his cartoons were made (some preserved in Maulana Azad Library) and he was condemned and derided!

It was only much later that the community started recognising him: but then they appropriated him in a manner that now he is taken to be the chief of the orthodox Muslims of the subcontinent! He died much before the idea of partition was even jokingly thought about, but some (who actually belong to the strand which had ever opposed him in his lifetime) tried to thrust upon him the idea of Pakistan!

Sir Syed was an unorthodox modern thinker who opposed religious extremism and stood for a re-interpretation of Islam as it was understood then! He was an innovator of his time and a real scholar to boot. He was the most practical Muslim of the 19th Century North India 🇮🇳

Today as we remember him, let us once again resolve to fight the evils in our society: the ignorance, inequities and the resultant backwardness. Let us become what Sir Syed wanted us to: enlightened citizens of India who have both the science and the piety as our weapons! Let us drive out the blind orthodoxy and embrace enlightened thoughts and attitudes. Let us imbibe and invoke Sir Syed in our practical life, resurrect him and help in achieving his dreams to the full and utmost: that will be the greatest tribute to him!

Mi’rāj and Mi’rājnāmahs

In fact Mi’rāj is one of the most celebrated event of the prophet’s life in the Quran and is referred to in a number of verses. I quote one:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَىٰ بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلًا مِنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الْأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْبَصِيرُ

“Glorified be He who carried His servant from Masjid al‑Haram to Masjid al‑Aqsa, the precincts of which We have blessed, so that We may show him of Our Signs. Verily He is the All‑Hearing, the All‑Seeing. “

Quran, Sura Israel 17:1

Shab-i Mi’rāj [Night of Ascension] has just gone by. It’s a much celebrated incident in the life of the Prophet of Islam and much has been written on it by the Muslim scholars. It is also one of the few incidents which has been much illustrated in courts of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals who created illustrated Mi’rājnāmahs to commemorate the incident. Some of these miniatures also reveal the face of the Prophet.

During the Ascension, God facilitated the Prophet’s journey to His Presence in the Heavens. Gabriel [Jibril] the chief arch-Angel was assigned the duty to accompany the Prophet who was made to sit on a heavenly horse ‘Burāq’ for his flight to heaven.

However there is much controversy amongst the Muslims (as it is on almost all things major or trivial) as to what was the nature of this journey: Physical or Spiritual?

Most ask: how could it be possible for a mortal to visit heaven and be back in the flash of a moment? Surely it was a spiritual experience! Others contest that as per God’s command anything is possible and God did take his ‘slave’, abd, to the heavens!

The concept of ‘Yadullah‘, Hand of God, is also associated with this incident. When the Prophet was with God, and God beckoned him further, the hand which appeared was the same in its physical manifestation as the hand of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. Henceforth after Prophet’s return ‘Ali was also entitled as Yadullah!

From the turn of the 14th century onward, depictions of the Prophet Moḥammad’s night journey (esrāʾ) and heavenly ascent (meʿrāj) were integrated into illustrated world histories and biographies, and also began to appear in animal fables like Kalila wa Dimna, compendia of poetical extracts, Persian romances, heroic tales, and divination books. Fully independent and lavishly illustrated Meʿrāj-nāmas (Books of Ascension) were produced from the time of Il-khanid rule (ca. 1260-1335) until the Qajar period (1794-1925) as well. As growing evidence indicates, it seems that these latter kinds of works were utilized for Sunni or Shiʿite missionary activities (see Gruber, 2005, 2008, 2009).

The earliest surviving image of the Prophet’s ascension appears in a section on the meʿrāj as included in an illustrated manuscript of Rashid-al-Din’s Jāmeʿ al-Tawārikh (Compendium of Chronicles), begun in Tabriz in 706/1306-7 under the patronage of Solṭān Ḡhāzān (r. 1295-1304) and completed under his successor Öljeitü (Uljāytu, r. 1304-16). In this painting, the Prophet strides his human-headed flying steed al-Burāq, who holds a closed book in its hands while its tail appears to transform into an angel wielding a shield and a sword. On the right, two angels, one of whom holds a gold cup on a platter, approach the Prophet from a set of doors that seem affixed to sky. Judging from the elements in the painting and their relationship to Rashid-al-Din’s text, this image presents a moment in which the Prophet must chose between evil (the angel of death or a demon) and good (the Qurʾān), which sets him on an initiatory, correct path (al-feṭra) from the earth into the heavens. His proper course is echoed by his selection of the cup of milk and his rejection of other cups containing water, honey, and wine.

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.