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Justice is the central feature of political ethics in Islamicate contexts. Nearly all of the sultans of India made justice the cornerstone of their political ethics. Justice was highlighted in nearly all forms of courtly literary production. Where did the ethical norms of justice come from? This chapter treats how the example of the pre-Islamic Persian kings served as a principal model of the just king.
Many of the customs of kingship used by Muslim rulers were inspired by practices found outside of Islamic traditions. These came most directly from the Sasanian Empire and in the development of intellectual traditions that were inspired by Persian ideas of kingship. The rule of Jamshīd, Farīdūn, Khusraw I, and the “Persian” Alexander served as a model for many Muslim rulers who sustained dynastic successes in very different political and social contexts. What made the Persian ideal of kingship thrive, even after the defeat of the Sasanian Empire, and how was Persian imagery of rule mobilized by Muslim rulers to create imperial polities in South Asia? These are two of the central questions addressed in this chapter.
Kingship in India, as elsewhere, was often tied to a specific set of religious beliefs and a carefully defined religious community. However, Persian kingship, as it was performed in the Islamic world, had no religious identity. It functioned on a set of ethical principles and qualities of leadership considered essential for legitimate rule. This chapter seeks to understand the processes at work that permitted the transmission of Persianate norms of governance from Central to South Asia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and how to overcome significant areas of neglect in our historical knowledge of this process.
The image of the Persian king is of a leader who rules the known world with justice and safe-keeping. The warrior aspect of the Persian king is the quality of the ruler to emerge victorious in battle with honor. A large part of a warrior-king’s duty was to subdue the presence of evil in the world. Persian kings and heroes of legend were tested through their conflict with the forces of chaos and savagery. In conquest, the hero demonstrated his courage and bravery by defeating monsters, devils, and ferocious beasts. Muslim intellectuals writing about the conquest of India embellished their histories with the ornamentation of Persianate heroic lore that civilized the untamed forces of nature and the demonic realm.
In September of 1857, Bahādur Shāh II (r. 1253–1274/1837–1857), the last Mughal king of Delhi, had taken asylum in the tomb of his ancestor Humāyūn outside the walls of his beloved city. The “mutiny” of Indian soldiers serving under the British crown was in its fourth month. As fighting was reaching its peak, British soldiers were preparing their siege of the symbolic heart of Islamic political and cultural hegemony in India. The king had resigned himself to defeat and on the 21st of September, William Hodgson, a cavalry commander, surrounded the tomb and negotiated Bahādur Shāh’s surrender. The rebellion would continue for another year, but the hope of restoring the Mughal dynasty had been crushed forever. Just one year earlier, in 1856, Awadh had been annexed by the British, removing Wājid ʿAlī Shāh as nawab. The vestiges of the old regime still exercised influence and those nobles that remained held on tenaciously to the remnants of their authority. Sharaf al-Dawla, who had been vizier to Wājid ʿAlī Shāh now declared his fidelity to the king in Delhi on the 13th of September, sending him valuable gifts of horses, elephants, jewels, and gold along with his offer of the allegiance of Awadh. This was not to be and Mīrzā Asad Allāh Khān Ghālib (1797–1869), the last Mughal poet laureate and tutor to the king, lamented the tragedy of Sharaf al-Dawla’s fleeting political gesture noting, “All of this grandeur was like a flickering lamp, as if the evil eye was watching the short-lived splendour; for, after the arrival of these rare gifts from the kingdom of Awadh, this fable of pomp and splendour, which equalled that of Alexander and the fabulous mirror, and Jamshīd and the wonderful cup, came to an end.”
Working alongside sultans were great numbers of men who were highly skilled in administrative and military matters who aided the ruler in the imperial project. Running an empire demanded trustworthy individuals who could implement the king’s political agenda. This was made possible by the administrative system with all its various offices and distribution of responsibilities. The highest office belonged to the vizier or chief minister whose portfolio included a vast array of duties. But the vizier was not simply one of the “men of the pen” or an intellectual mouthpiece. The office of vizier existed since Abbasid times and saw various changes over the course of Islamic history. This chapter demonstrates how those individuals had a major impact on the history of Islamicate South Asia.
For a period of nearly eight hundred years, Perso-Islamic kingship was the source for the dominant social and cultural paradigms organising Indian political life. In the medieval world of South Asia, Persian kingship took the form of a hybridized and adaptive political expression. The Persian king embodied the values of justice, military heroics, and honor, ideals valorized historically and transculturally, yet the influence of the pre-Islamic Persian past and Persian forms of kingship has not yet been fully recognised. In this book, Blain Auer demonstrates how Persian kingship was a transcultural phenomenon. Describing the contributions made by kings, poets, historians, political and moral philosophers, he reveals how and why the image of the Persian king played such a prominent role in the political history of Islamicate societies, in general, and in India, in particular. By tracing the historical thread of this influence from Samanid, Ghaznavid, and Ghurid empires, Auer demonstrates how that legacy had an impact on the establishment of Delhi as a capital of Muslim rulers who made claims to a broad symbolic and ideological inheritance from the Persian kings of legend.
Kings should know that the meaning of siyāsa is making right the affairs of the world.
– Ḍiyāɔ al-Dīn Baraī
Historians of the Delhi Sultanate, during the 7th/13th and 8th/14th centuries, interwove themes of justice (cadl) and punishment (siyāsa) to legitimate Muslim political authority. Justice was portrayed as a key component of kingship and the foundation on which conceptions of Muslim rule were built. Punishment was equally central to representations of Muslim authority established in the Indian subcontinent under the imperial rubric of the sultans of Delhi. In the historiography of the period, justice and punishment were depicted as flowing from two distinct and ideally complementary structures of political power. One structure drew its legitimacy from ideas of pre-Islamic Persian kingship formalized in a set of rules, known as ḍavābiṭ. These rules afforded the sultan a wide range of discretion in executing the prerogatives of his high office. A second structure was built upon Islamic constructions of authority defined by sharīca, and codified in a restricted body of legal principles monitored by the culamāɔ, who were viewed as its ultimate arbitrators. These dichotomous sources of political legitimacy that perpetuated distinct legal categories blurred the dividing line between perfect justice and excessive punishment.
To address this issue, historians of the Delhi Sultanate devoted particular attention to questions of political legitimacy on the occasions of punishment, particularly in the fashion of the most absolute form of punishment, the death penalty.
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