Mughal Series|Utopian Visions in Mughal Painting [A]

A Discussion of Space


The hallmarks of the Mughal Empire were the cultural diffusion and religious tolerance. The Mughal emperors, except Aurangzeb believed in harmonious co-existence of Hindu and Muslim. The inclusive religious and political views of the Mughals have shaped the Indian cultural landscape for hundreds of years yet the source of these views is little researched, or they are given full attribution to the forwarding thinking Emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605). Many books have been devoted to the study of his status as a divinely illumined ruler in Akbarnama and Ain-i Akbari, the annual recounting of events of his period. Akbar’s personality and his ideology were carefully examined. He has been identified as the real founder of the Mughal Empire who brought the ideas of religious tolerance and inclusive style of rulership to the vast empire. With a similar emphasis, art historians have drawn attention to Akbar’s intellectual role in the emerging Mughal artistic style and his great influence on the composite culture of the Empire.[1]

However, the relevance of some post-Mongol akhlaq digests for the discussion of medieval Indian politics and rulership cannot be denied. Akhlaq is the most commonly used Islamic term for morality. As the “signs” of God the creator, the akhlaq digests with discourses on ethical virtue provided moral guidance on codes of behavior.[2] One widely read akhlaq circulated in Mughal India was the Nasirean Ethics (Akhlaq-i Nasiri) written by celebrated Muslim philosopher and scientist Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-1274). The book was one of the most highly esteemed on ethics, economics and politics in the medieval Persianate world. It provided a synthesis of the Greek philosophical tradition and the Islamic view of man and society. Also the book presented an idealistic vision on kingship and civil state. After it was introduced in Mughal India, its social and political norms shaped the structure of Mughal empire building.

By examining Tusi’s idea of creating an ideal Muslim community, this paper will argue for the possibility of a Mughal utopia in medieval India. Historian Monica Juneja explored a number of aspects of the utopian thinking within the space of Mughal visual representation in her article “On the margins of Utopia – One more look at Mughal Painting”.[3] She traced various utopian visions in literature, and attributed the harmonious concord of the Mughal Empire to the European influence and Quranic notions of Paradise.[4] Taking Juneja’s study as a starting point, this paper will use the utopian thinking in Western civilization since Thomas More’s Utopia to explore the impact of Nasirean norms of governance and ideal society on the Mughal conception of utopia. Moreover, the paper aims to discover the Mughal vision of utopian ideal within the space of painting from imperial illustrated manuscript. Distinguished from the utopian notion of an imagined future, this study will point out that Mughal painted realm is a space where the concrete appearance of Nasirean ideals occurred.

Political and social norms in Nasirean Ethics

The Nasirean Ethics appeared initially around the year 633 AH/1235 when Tusi was in the service of the Ismaili ruler Nasir al-din Mansur of Quhistan. It represented a movement of religious dissent that rejected to understand shari’a or Islamic codes in its narrow juridical sense. In Muslim world, the juristic shari’a provided clear rulings on the fundamentals of Islam including the moral values, and the practical duties such as prayers, fasting, legal alms, and the Hajj pilgrimage.[5] In the conventional juristic shari’a, though a measure of flexibility was present due to the diversity of schools of jurisprudence,[6] a non-shari’a act or secular state legislation was still regarded as an offense and should be excluded. Even in some early Islamic non-juridical writings, the term shari’a was still understood in this narrow juridical sense. During the period of Delhi Sultanate, the intellectuals of Indo-Islamic politics Fakhr-i Mudabbir and Zia-al-Din Barani tried to provide a philosophical and political solution to the problems that Muslim rulers encountered in Indian subcontinent. Their theory was just an extension of the orthodox tradition, because there was no different meaning given to shari’a. They argued the Indian environment such as the countryside, the hills, and the forests were the domain of infidel and hostile with the exception of the fortified cities and towns occupied by the Muslims.[7] Also they articulated that the Delhi Sultans were first and foremost Islamic rulers, whose major concern was to protect and promote the rights of the Muslims.[8] The Muslim rulers should also overthrow infidelity and slaughter their leaders, the Brahmans, and establish the supremacy of Islam.[9] In short, both Mudabbir and Barani adhered to Sunni orthodox traditions and advocated the absolute shari’a. Though their theory was barely adopted by the Muslim rulers, it represented a tendency of social exclusion which continuously influenced religious and cultural environment in the subcontinent.

Drew on Aristotelian, Platonic and Isma’ili ideas, Tusi instead developed alternative norms and principles on man, society, and power structure. He did not consider shari’a to be as absolute as Sunni orthodox did. Central to his akhlaq was that the religion did not occupy a significant place, and ethical construct could not adhere to Islamic law codes.[10] He provided an alternative approach to use the term shari’a to support the universal human ideals.[11] He proposed an inclusive political model based on rationality and harmony in which individuals were guided by the principle of justice, helped by the moral king, and united towards one uniform and goal, which was to achieve the perfection of man.

He first explained his view on the qualities of man. Tusi considered rationality was the only quality set man apart from other species.[12] If a human being was able to be rational, the actions of the man were good and blissful. Then he argued the ability of applying the faculty of reason was required when the man was directed towards good actions.[13] Thus, reason and rationality laid the foundation of his discourse on human species. On human society, Tusi demonstrated that human nature was grounded on the great diversity in humans. He thought men were social beings and needed other men. Solitary life was condemned by Tusi as selfish, taking but not giving.[14] For him, the association between the people naturally exists, and offers the foundation of the civilized life. He defined the civilized place is one of combination for individuals as they carry on the cooperation. To live a civilized life, men had to cooperate because “human is naturally in need of combination”.[15] In the chapter of household and family management, he emphasized that the notion of household was not referring to the dwelling, but “the combination of inhabitants in a particular way”.[16] When encountering religion, Tusi suggested that in the civilized society, different religious communities were the result of accidental causes, should be tolerated since the differences in community and doctrine are “comparable to differences in foods and clothes”.[17] In short, Tusi considered man by nature needed mutual assistance, and the society with good virtue was depended on some people taking from others and giving others some.[18] A balance needs to be found both inside the body, and outside in the social and political world.[19]

Therefore, some type of management is required to preserve the equilibrium and cooperation, which was called government by Tusi. He differentiated ethical government from deficient government by pointing out that the purpose of the former was to perfect the men and hold fast to justice.[20] Justice, a factor in Tusi’s explanation of political society was seen as all virtue, and as harmony within diversity. Being one of the four virtues of human species, justice was considered more perfect than the other three: wisdom, courage, and liberality.[21] Plus, justice was the one that could keep all the other faculties in accord with each other.[22] The head of the government was the supreme king whose duty was to maintain equilibrium between groups and preserve equality in wealth between groups. The king held an elevated status in the human society because he was the one who gained the complete wisdom and intellection. The king also should possess strong mental powers to direct others towards the perfection, and physical power to protect his subjects. In need of persuasion and protection, the king should set himself as the exemplary model like a sympathetic father for the subjects to follow.[23] Tusi emphasized the importance of good descent to be a king, because common people would be likely to respect him and follow him if he was a noble descent.

To summarize, he proposed that we moved towards a harmonious community of the human species rather than considering non-Muslims as infidels; he saw love played a central role in organizing diverse people in the virtuous city rather than marking a foreign land as hostile and infidel; he suggested the possibility of a society composed of men of different religious groups rather than the necessity to remove heretics. In short, Tusi provided a philosophical, nonsectarian, and humanistic solution which was idealistic in character for throwing indirectly light on actual circumstances.[24]

Nasirean norms in Mughal India

The Mughal emperor who first encountered Tusi’s theory was the founder of the empire, Babur. When he occupied the throne in Kabul, a member of the Timurid ulama (Muslim scholars), Ikhtiya al-Husaini visited his court accompanied by other religious scholars. Babur impressed him and his companies for his active interest in scientific and philosophical discourses.[25] Babur had long discussions with the ulama on sciences, laws and norms of government. Then Husaini formally presented a simplified interpretation of Tusi’s philosophy to Babur,[26] which was later named after Babur’s favorite son, Humayun, the Akhlaq-i Humayuni. As Husaini desired, Babur ruled the foreign land with Nasirean norms when he searched for territory stability. Kabul welcomed travelers and merchants from India and Central Asia. Then it was became an important trading center. Babur was amazed at the various people from different ethical groups he saw in towns and villages, and the many different languages he heard in Kabul.[27]

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1. Manuscript Atelier, Akhlaq-I Nasiri, ca. 1590-95

Babur’s descendants in India were loyal to Nasirean ethics, and preferred the earliest and original version. During the reign of Akbar, Tusi’s Akhlaq was not only among the five most important books that Abul Fazl wanted to have read regularly to the emperor, but also among the favorite readings of the political elites (fig. 1).[28] It shaped in very large measure the religious and political views of Abul Fazl, who was not simply Akbar’s venerating biographer writing Akarbanama and Ain-i Akbari, also the main engineer of the Mughal political and social policy at the time.  In Abul Fazl’s chronicles that speak of the emperor himself, his household, and then of his court, the emperor appeared at the absolute center of the empire as a perfect man,[29] organized the discipline, and dispensed the justice. The emperor operated the government successfully, and fulfilled the wishes of the subjects. Thus, the empire Abul Fazl envisioned starts with the emperor, and extends outwards to the household, and then on to the entire political landscape of the state, which was apparently derived from Tusi’s akhlaq.[30]

Besides the practice of empire building, Tusi’s philosophy also heavily influenced the nonsectarian ideology of Akbar and Abul Fazl. Akbar expanded his empire through military force, and eventually through cultural acceptance and the harmonious interaction between people from different religious groups.[31] He built a new capital, Fatehpur Sikri, to experiment the composite culture which integrated Muslim, Hindu, Persian, Christian, and other religious and cultural traditions. During the fifteen years of Akbar’s residence (1570-1585) in the city, the greatest example of his experiment is the ibadat-khana, the discussion room in Fatehpur Sikri (fig. 2), where Akbar joined the religious debates on Thursday evenings. The objective was to discover religious truth through debate, and resolve the differences among the various religious sects. In short, Akbar established a respect for scholarly inquiry by applying reason and rationality to the deliberations. His curiosity about different religions facilitated his subjects to appreciate each other’s tradition.[32] The ultimate goal of his experiment was the universal concord or sulh-i kull,[33] which could be realized through intellectual interaction, cultural diversity, and religious tolerance. The most important aspect in this experiment is it was led and safeguarded by the powerful emperor, who made the dynamism and social harmony possible.

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2. Akbar Presiding Over a Religious Debate in the Ibadat-khana with the Jesuit Fathers Rudolph Aquaviva and Francis Henriquez in the City of Fatehpur Sikri in 1578, Nar Singh, ca. 1578-9

Mughal Utopia

Thomas More published his Utopia in 1516; since then, the utopian imagination has embodied in a huge literary works in western civilization. Through the early and modern periods, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Charles Fourier’s Harmony, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto have offered different views regarding a perfect society and fantastic future. Utopia, according to More’s book, refers to an island of good social order in contrast with the reality of Thomas More’s day. Utopia is described as a carefully planned society and managed by a brave commander. More tells the philosophical truth while presenting a work of fiction. With its invention, in the Western civilization, utopia evokes a “no place” in the imagination,[34] and provides a dream that cannot be fulfilled.

In Mughal India, though the notion of utopia was never introduced, the themes and concepts it explored were not alien to the Mughals. First, many philosophical ideas Tusi had raised can be found in the studies of utopian thinking. Tusi emphasized the moral king should possess the ability of imagination for a broad political landscape. The virtue and wisdom are potentiality of man that needs to be unlocked.[35] His writing was not trapped in revealing and truth telling, but gave space and some freedom to man’s actions.[36] Second, for Mughal rulers, the Nasirean ethics served as a political alternative in the Muslim world. Tusi’s philosophy was read and used to separate Mughals’ rule from what preceded and from what was happening in the centers of religious piety.[37] They did not consolidate their power by demonizing non-Muslims as heretics, but harmonized the heterogeneous population by pursuing a policy of conciliation among Muslim groups and among Muslims and Hindus.[38] Thus, it is possible to use the term utopia to describe the political ideals and inclusive style of rulership inherited by the Mughals from Nasirean ethics.

Based on Tusi’s philosophical ideals and the composite culture Mughals pursued, the Mughal utopian vision could refer to a harmonious Muslim empire ruling over a heterogeneous population, which was crafted by the perfect king and the virtuous government he led. On the map of the Mughal utopia, the emperor occupied the center of the realm as a moral exemplar, a protector, and a dispenser of justice to preserve the balance. The centrality of the emperor was represented through his appearance in all kinds of places. Once the emperor was perfected, it was necessary to move outward to the household management. The aristocrats and other subjects were organized based on a clear social hierarchy intertwined with complex family relationships.[39] Then the largest domain, the empire should be disciplined. To keep the equilibrium, the empire encompassed various races of varying origin, and the mutual assistance between men was required. Therefore, the Mughal utopia is an ideal of the empire building infused with the Persian legacy.

[1]There is a substantial of existing scholarship on this point of view. On the influence of emperor Akbar on Mughal artistic style, see Beach, Milo Cleveland. Early Mughal Painting. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1987.

[2]Juan Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam (New York: Facts On File, 2009), 214-216.

[3]Monica Juneja, “On the Margins of Utopia – One more look at Mughal Painting,” The Medieval History Journal 4, (2001): 204.

[4]Ibid., 206.

[5]Vincent J Cornell, Voices of Islam (Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers, 2007), 150.

[6]David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence, Beyond Turk and Hindu Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000), 216.

[7]Peter Jackson, The Delhi Sultanate: A Political and Military History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 126.

[8]Ibid., 278.

[9]Mohammad Habib et al., The Political Theory of the Delhi Sultanate (Including a Translation of Ziauddin Barani’s Fatawa-I Jahandari, Circa, 1358-9 A.D.) (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1961), 46.

[10]Muzaffar Alam et al., The Making of Indo-Persian Culture: Indian and French Studies (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 2000), 73.

[11]Ibid., 72.

[12]Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī and G. M. Wickens, The Nasirean Ethics (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964), 49.

[13]Ibid., 50.

[14]Antony Black, History Of Islamic Political Thought: From The Prophet To The Present ([S.l.]: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 148.

[15]Tusi, The Nasirean Ethics, 190.

[16]Ibid., 190.

[17]Blake, History Of Islamic Political Thought: From The Prophet To The Present, 152.

[18]Tusi, The Nasirean Ethics, 97.

[19]Ruby Lal, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 151.

[20]Tusi, The Nasirean Ethics, 227.

[21]Ibid., 95.

[22]Ibid., 81.

[23]Tusi, The Nasirean Ethics, 203.

[24]Nasir al-Din Tusi, Encyclopedia Iranica, Last modified July 29, 2011,

[25]Gilmartin, Beyond Turk and Hindu Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia, 230.

[26]Lisa Balabanlilar, Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 146.

[27]Babur and W. M. Thackston, The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, 1996), 155-156.

[28]Muzaffar Alam, The Languages of Political Islam: India, 1200-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 50-51.

[29]Rosalind O’Hanlon, “Kingdom, Household and Body History, Gender and Imperial Service under Akbar,” Modern Asian Studies 41, no. 5 (2007): 890.

[30]Lal, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, 152.

[31]Jamal Malik, Islam in South Asia A Short History (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 163.

[32]Alam, The Languages of Political Islam: India, 1200-180, 65.

[33]Anne Murphy, Time, History and the Religious Imaginary in South Asia (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011), 12.

[34]Frank Edward Manuel and Fritzie Prigohzy Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1979), 12.

[35]On the relationship of potentiality and utopia, see José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 21-22.

[36]On truth and the notion of utopia, see Duncombe, Stephen. Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New York: New Press, 2007.

[37]Alam, The Languages of Political Islam: India, 1200-180, 69. Mughals were proud to contrast their peace and harmony with the intolerance employed by Uzbeks and Safavids.

[38]John L Esposito, The Oxford History of Islam (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1999), 377.

[39]Schimmel, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art, and Culture, 17.

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