History 298 Proposal
For nearly two centuries (1526-1707) the Indian Subcontinent was under the iron rule of the world-famous Mughal Dynasty. Though perhaps best-known for the architectural wonder the Taj Mahal, the effects of Mughal rule continue to be profoundly felt by the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.68 billion inhabitants (a figure which exceeds Africa’s entire population) as well as the various European and other Asian powers which encountered the Mughal Empire.
The aim of the proposed project is to investigate the crucial and controversial questions concerning Mughal politics which continue to carry heavy consequences to this day. It seeks to unravel what is undoubtedly one of the most pressing issues in South Asian historiography, the evolution of religious policies under the Mughal regime. Specifically, the goal will be to interpret the religious policies of the four Mughal emperors during the empire’s greatest territorial extent—Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, whose reigns date from 1556-1707. Religious policies in the Mughal context refers to the implementation of the jizya tax, application of sharia, religious toleration, building and destruction of temples, religious motivations in warfare, and clashes between religious leaders, among other things. In order to follow through on the project’s goal, there will be a review of both classic and recent scholarship on the reign of Akbar and his motivations in addition to the primary sources, and continuing through the reigns of the subsequent two emperors, finishing with a thorough analysis of Aurangzeb. As Akbar and Aurangzeb are the most frequently contrasted in the literature, these two will merit the most study. Since the Mughal Empire was a foreign Islamic dynasty ruling a majority-Hindu realm, religion played a very direct and prominent role in the political system which governed tens of millions of people. The religious policies of the emperors varied widely to the extent that some historians go as far as to blame changes in religious policy for the fall of the empire. The most pressing issue in this area is the contrast between Akbar and his great-grandson Aurangzeb, with Akbar being traditionally cast as an enlightened, tolerant reformer and Aurangzeb as a tyrannical, intolerant bigot. Within the past decade or so this standard narrative has come under fire, to the point where attacking it has become nearly a new cliché, yet a more objective truth about the reigns of these two men has yet to surface beneath the weight of extreme positions on either end.
The need for such a project has arisen in light of the need to better understand and synthesize the exceptionally controversial historiography on this topic, which is deeply polarized and rooted in contemporary South Asian political concerns. With an increasingly globalized world, it is particularly necessary in the west to gain a much wider consciousness of the importance of Mughal religious policies, as this completely informs the complex contemporary relationship between politics and religion. Though scholarship in this area has historically been abundant, it has been muddied by bias, polemics and politics, the majority of which is rooted in colonialism and nationalism. More recent takes, often pitted in reaction to more classic arguments, are also in need of study and nuancing.
The ability to undertake this project is possible thanks to the wide variety of primary sources, which have the important advantage of blending the voices of both insiders and outsiders, with the official court historians of Abu’l Fazl and Abd al-Qadir offering perspectives which balance with those of European travelers such as the letters of Jesuits from the Mughal Court. The writings of the Mughal emperors themselves as well as rival rulers such as the Hindu Marathi king Shivaji also offer key insights into the inner world of Mughal religious politics. Different religious perspectives are also offered thanks to insights from Sufi writers, Sikh gurus and Hindu authorities. Finally, another vital primary source is Mughal artwork which underwent substantial changes over this period due in part to the politics of religion. In addition to the primary sources, scholarly insights and the scope of the debates on this issue will also be necessary to fully understand in the undertaking of this project, both from prominent western and South Asian scholars.
The importance, controversy and abundance of sources in this area offer an exciting research opportunity, with serious implications which relate directly to contemporary politics in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and beyond. The goal of this project will be to reconcile the widely varying perspectives of older and newer scholarship as well as that of different religious demographics into a synthesis which best represents all of the facts. A more nuanced understanding of the issues at stake will certainly be useful in a world which continues to be troubled daily by faith-related political issues, both in South Asia and around the world.
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