Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Review: Azfar Moin's "The Millennial Sovereign"

For those of us who think it would be utterly impossible for any Muslim ruler, king, emperor, etc. to claim that he is the messiah or that his rule/kingship is otherwise divine, this book called The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam by Azfar Moin is a really eye-opening read. And for those Muslims among us who are constantly told that  astrology is haraam (forbidden, unacceptable, a sinful practice) or even belief in astrological signs is haraam, this might be a useful read as well. Not saying it makes it any less or more haraam than what the haraam police constantly tells us, but it just makes you think a little before you make claims.

I liked this book :) It was a fun and informative read.

           The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam
Azfar Moin. New York: Columbia UP, 2012.
Azfar Moin’s The Millennial Sovereign is an original effort that contextualizes claims of sacred sovereignty, particularly the Mughal emperor Akbar Shah’s (r. 1556-1605) messianic claims. Because such an effort requires looking into the origins of these claim, Moin offers new insight into Timur’s (r. 1370-1405) kingship that disputes the modern view of Timur as a vicious and greedy conqueror who is popularly known as Timurlane, or Timur the Lame. Perhaps because Timur was idolized for centuries as a messianic figure and appreciated widely both during his lifetime and for centuries afterwards, it is worth re-viewing and possibly challenging existing scholarship that appears to offer a simplistic portrayal of a Muslim ruler whose claims to messianic kingship inspired many others after him. The book thus demonstrates that imperial claims to sacred sovereignty did not emerge in a vacuum but were a legacy of a past in which it was believed that successful sovereigns became "saints, world conquerors, and messiahs” (p. 24). 

Moin first reviews the origins of Timur’s messianic image so as to situate the ruler in a historical and religious framework, even though the origins of his claims were not entirely or solely Islamic. Moin notes that Timur himself claimed to be a descendent of Chingghis Khan (r. 1206-1227), the non-Muslim Mongol ruler whose descendents did not embrace Islam until almost a century after his invasion of Muslim lands. Yet, Timur denied his status as a king despite having conquered much of Asia. In this way, Timur’s origins were non-Islamic, as was his assumption of the title “Lord of Conjunction”: the title, while having no necessary basis in Islamic tradition, holds significant meaning in astrology and “served as a deeply sacred category of sovereignty for Muslims and non-Muslims alike” (26). Other “Lords of Conjunction” were the Islamic figures Humza (the Prophet’s uncle) and Ali as well as historical figures Alexander and Chinggis” (90). It must be noted that during this period, Ali was starting to be revered highly as the first saint (wali) of Islam. The title derived from astrology in that the king’s messianic and saintly sovereignty was supported through astrological calculations; in fact, the term “millennial” in Moin’s title refers to the idea that the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter are used to predict that "prophetic and imperial dispensations last no longer than a thousand years and that they are destined to be overthrown or renewed at some regular interval of time--a predictable fraction or multiple of the millennium” (30). Profound importance was thus given to astrology, understood as “political” a science as history and as important as any other discipline, such as genealogy. Indeed, “Sufis and their mystical competitors also made recourse to astrology to prove their sanctity and mark their place in the spiritual hierarchy of the cosmos” (12).

This is not to argue, however, that there was no nexus between Timur’s sovereignty and Islam. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the Arab historian, judge, and intellectual, narrated to Timur his prophesy of the conqueror’s rise and referred to him, most probably out of flattery, as the Lord of Injunction (28). In chronicles about Timur, he is given strong Islamic credentials, stronger, in fact, that Chingghis's son Shahrukh, who declared the Shari'a superior to the Mongol Yasa (the law of Chingghis Khan) and abolished several Mongolian practices in favor of Islam; yet, Timur, who surpassed the violent tactics of even Chingghis Khan, is “given stronger credentials” in revised chronicles than he was in original ones (35). Moreover, while during Timur’s lifetime, his relation to Chingghis Khan was highly accentuated, after his death, his closeness to Ali was emphasized more widely (37). We see this particularly on the inscription on his grave, which uses portions of the Qur’anic narrative of Maryam, mother of Jesus, that are reconfigured to tell the story of the miraculous birth of Timur’s ancestor, Buzunchar, son of the princess Alanquva: Alanquva bore him miraculously (i.e., without any human intervention, as in Maryam's case), and it was said that the father of Buzunchar is a son (descendent) of Ali (38). This points to the Islamic—indeed, divine—origin of Timur’s birth that designate him a divinely-inspired leader, thus legitimating his sacred position as a messiah. As Moin points out, what is important to note regarding the inscription is that it was not written by any ordinary or “lay” people but by well-educated scholars of Islam; this can be deduced from the language of the inscription, which is Arabic, a language that was not spoken by any of the locals but was studied by religious scholars (38).

Notions of sacred kingship remained even a century after Timur. His descendents still enjoyed social and political prestige even as their political power began to break down into a set of scattered kingdoms. In particular, the memory of Timur as a saintly king inspired a similar sense of kingship in the founders of the Safavid and Mughal empires—including the Safavid Shah Ismail I (1487-1524) and the Mughal Mirza Babur (1483-1530), Babur’s  son Hamayun (r. 1530-1540), and Jahangir (1605-1627). In fact, Hamayun and Shah Ismail enjoyed the same sort of sacred prestige in their followers’ eyes (95). Moin thus argues that these two empires do not belong to “separate strands of the past—Safavid Iran and Mughal India,” as has been understood by existing scholarship, but “to the same historical milieu” (57). Although Babur was never granted the same sanctity as Timur, he did possess "a spark of saintliness, a sacred link with the divine, which gave him the ability to perform miracles with succor from Ali” (59). Yet, Babur himself neither referred to Timur as the Lord of Conjunction nor claimed to be one himself, leading Moin to ask whether by this time, the age of messianic kingship had passed. The emperor who did mimic him almost wholly was Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658), who called himself the Second Lord of Conjunction—in reference to Timur (22).

The book eloquently demonstrates the point that what is "Islamic" and "sacred" in pre-modern era cannot be confined exclusively to notions of Shari'a (Islamic law) and jihad (commonly defined as "holy war," although it literally means "struggle" (to become a better Muslim)). Islam is undoubtedly more than the Shari'a and the jihad. The meanings of these terms change according to the political, social, and other milieus both spatially and temporally. For example, in medieval times, astrology was held in high esteem by scholars and kings, as discussed above. As Moin writes, in 1527 during a weak hold of his empire, "the way Babur acted 'Islamically,’ forsaking wine, demonstrates how astrology and Islam were linked together in practice. It was astrological knowledge of possible defeat and loss of sovereignty ... that led to the invocation of an Islamic ritual of atonement, the giving up of wine” (68). Today, Muslims commonly believe that belief in astrology or relying on astrological signs for future events is akin to kufr, disbelief.[1] In a fascinating way, Moin’s claim also supports the ideas of “vernacular Islam” and “syncretism”: both of these terms refer to the way humans—“lay” people—understand, practice, and live their religions rather than being told how to do so, and their practices and beliefs may or may not be completely in sync with the ideals of their religions; the terms illustrate the difference between theory and praxis and prove that all practitioners of the same faith do not understand and practice their religion the same way but that instead, their practices are informed by their localities, the surroundings, circumstances, and contexts in which they live. Hence, what is “Islamic” to one Muslim society or time may or may not “Islamic” to another, whether geographically near or distant. The “Islam” that has been privileged in modern scholarship is not so much the Islam that Muslims practice but that which is considered to be the ideal, the Islam that all Muslims strive to live up to. This is an important point that Moin raises that deserves acknowledgment and scholarly attention, since erroneously confining Islam to simply the Shari’a denies the complexity of Muslimness and Islamicness.

Moin’s work is a significant contribution to history and historiography in several ways. Perhaps foremost, it revisits ideas of sainthood and kingship and offers new insight into what it meant to be a king in the medieval and pre-modern times. As Moin often notes, much of what is today understood as “irrational” was deemed legitimately rational not so much by “lay” people but particularly by their kings. The kings’ claims to divine rule should not, Moin suggests, be interpreted necessarily as a quest for political power, since such claims had spiritual, historical, and astrological bases at the time. The work also contextualizes the messianic claims of Emperor Akbar Shah by showing that they were more rooted in history than is acknowledged; even Akbar Shah’s critics during his time, Moin writes, accused him of mimicking "the messianic success of the founder of the Safavid Empire in Iran, Shah Ismail” (4). Lastly, Moin provides an image of Timur that has been marginalized in existing scholarship: that of his messianic position, one that he himself publicly denied but that was attached to him for centuries. This portrayal does not, however, necessarily challenge the popular image of Timur in scholarship; neither does it complement it. Instead, it provides a more complete depiction of Timur that is necessary to understanding both the overall message of the text and the context in which Timur’s image as a messiah emerged. Importantly, the sources that Moin appeals to are mostly primary sources, such as chronicles, epics, paintings, imperial autobiographies, and notions of sainthood and kingship. There thus is no one telling manuscript illustration that advances Moin’s case, but each complements the others, each providing more information that strengthens the discussion. Nonetheless, Ismail Shah’s Shahnama-i Ismail and Babur’s Baburnama are among the most critical sources, written by the emperors themselves.

Despite the book’s compelling and well-supported thesis, what is unclear throughout the text is how and why Timur earned the wrathful portrayal of modern scholars who, as Moin critically points out, have dismissed him as little more than a brutal conqueror. What, for example, happened that caused the shift from Timur’s reverence to the disdain we see in modern scholarship? Moin discusses the negative way Babur (r. 1526-1530), Akbar’s grandfather, viewed Ismail Shah’s claim to sacred sovereignty, and it appears as though this may have been the starting point of the issue, but it is not explored. Moreover, is this disdain exclusive to Western scholarship or also in non-Western scholarship as well?

One question I wanted to ask the author:

You show that modern scholarship views Timur in a negative light, perhaps because he violently conquered much of Asia and died on his way to subjugate China (23). But he is not the only conqueror in history to have done this. Alexander the Great, for instance, was hardly any different and is even despised by the Zoroastrian faith, which execrates him as a devil and requires that he be cursed during prayer (See, for example, Mary Boyce's Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices p.78.). Yet, he has the title “the Great” attached to his name. How exactly does this work, and why do you think Timur was never able to attain a similar level of respect in (Western) scholarship? Rather, is it even fair to compare the two? 

[1] See, for example, “Is Astrology Allowed in Islam?” Accessed November 10, 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dare to opine :)

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...