Simple Habits of Greatness

Do Indian Muslims recognise Aurangzeb as a symbol of their identity? Do they adhere to his political legacy as the last powerful Mughal? Is he really seen as an uncontested Islamic figure? These simple questions are always ignored to reproduce two conflicting images of Aurangzeb: An Islamic tyrant who demolished Hindu places of worship and imposed Sharia; and a devout, lenient Muslim who donated land for Hindu temples.
But nothing ever made Aurangzeb a Muslim hero. Muslim intellectuals, political elites and the masses have always found it difficult to embrace him as an Islamic icon. He is regarded as a ‘problematic figure’ — an intolerant ruler, untrustworthy son and brother, and an enemy of the universal message of Islam. In fact, Aurangzeb could never become a reliable symbol for Muslim politics in India.
Public discourse, on the other hand, relies on a strong assumption that India’s Muslims admire Aurangzeb as a respectable Islamic figure and that any attempt to defame him would upset them. The demand to demolish Aurangzeb’s grave “so that no separatist will come to bow on it” is a convincing manifestation of this belief.
The secular reception of Aurangzeb is equally one-sided. A section of self-claimed secularists wants to destroy the communal “myths” so as to discover a ‘tolerant and secular Aurangzeb’. There is an Aurangzeb ‘industry’ that claims to produce a “fact-based scientifically correct history” of 17th century India to show the richness of the Mughal era.
I find at least four Muslim positions that engage with the legacy of Aurangzeb and, in a way, take us beyond the Hindutva-secularism binary.
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The first position is sociological. The so-called ‘Muslim rule’ of Aurangzeb did not have any direct impact on the lives of Muslims. Although we lack any reliable statistical information about the socio-economic status of Muslims in the 17th century, various historical studies show that the common Muslims, especially the Pasmandas, were poor, marginalised and socially backwards. It is now natural for these subaltern Muslims to give little importance to Aurangzeb’s legacy, especially to his political moves and imperial policies.
There is also a religious argument. We must remember that the decline of the Mughal empire after Aurangzeb’s death was not seen entirely in political terms. The ulama of the 18th century gave a powerful religious interpretation to explain the gradual deterioration of Muslim power. It was argued that the status and prestige of Muslims in India (and elsewhere) were weakened because Muslims had given up the ‘true path of Islam’. Aurangzeb did not find any place in this quest for Islamic revival.
The second position on Aurangzeb is purely political. The All-India Muslim League did not find Aurangzeb a suitable figure for its politics of representation in colonial India. At its Amritsar session in 1908, Syed Ali Imam made a very powerful argument on Indian Muslim history in his presidential address.
He said: “The verdict of history is that in holding India under subjugation for centuries, the Mohammedan held only her body and not her soul…The keen-sighted statesmanship of the great Akbar saw this and aimed at unification by conciliation, compromise and concession in religious, social and political directions. A long and tolerant reign of about 50 years proved the failure of this experiment…Aurangzeb…the adopted, desperate and hazardous method of religious intolerance and forcible conversion. The experiment failed again. Prejudices and practices of both the communities sanctioned by the observance of ages defied cohesion. Persuasion and persecution equally proved futile.” (Foundations of Pakistan: All India Muslim League Documents: 1906-1947, Vol 1 pp 44)
Muhammad Iqbal, the Urdu-Persian poet regarded as the philosophical founder of Pakistan, did not deviate from this official version of the Muslim League. He praised Aurangzeb for his attempt to ‘Islamise’ the subcontinent, but also found his political method ‘very rough’ and counter-productive.
Also read: Aurangabad or Sambhajinagar? Far from Kashi, communal politics simmers in Aurangzeb’s capital
During India’s freedom struggle, nationalist Muslims too had problems with the figure of Aurangzeb. Maulana Azad’s essay Sarmad Shahid (1910) offers us an interesting criticism in this regard. Sarmad was a Sufi who advocated religious openness and opposed Aurangzeb for imposing a rigid version of Islam.
Azad gave a graphic account of Sarmad’s assassination. Criticising the misuse of religion by Aurangzeb, he wrote: “During any given period of Islamic history, there are examples of kings who made equal use of both the pain of the qazi and the sword of the general in bleeding to death whosoever threatened their supremacy. Blood games were not only restricted to the Sufis and patriots, whoever dared to come close to the ‘mysteries of reality’ and managed to read the intricacies of the Divine Sign was pounced upon by custodians of Fiqh. Sarmad was executed by the same sword…The myriad colours of Sarmad’s blood seeped into Aurangzeb’s life, and never again did he experience a single peaceful day. His dying days were spent in desolation away from home. But historians of the era were incapable of recording these facts.” (Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sarmad Shaheed in Sayeda Saiyidain Hameed, The Rubaiyat of Sarmad, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi pp.34-42)
Finally, there is a positive position on the Mughal emperor. There is significant literature on Aurangzeb (mainly in Urdu, written by Muslim authors) that glamourises his personality and political vision. Sadiq Hussain Sardhanvi’s Alamgir is a good example.
The novel relies heavily on an imaginary narrative of Hindu atrocities on Muslims during the reign of Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb’s predecessor. Aurangzeb, the pious Muslim and committed prince, we are told, had to take extreme measures to protect Muslim identity in the Indian subcontinent. One finds an unconvincing plea in these texts that the political and personal failures of Aurangzeb must be forgiven in the name of Islam.
These four Muslim positions offer very different interpretations of Aurangzeb’s rule. Interestingly, they seem to agree that his personality does not have any symbolic capacity to create an everlasting impression.
That might be one of the reasons why a majority of Muslim parents in India do not want to name their children ‘Aurangzeb’.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. He tweets @Ahmed1Hilal. Views are personal.
This article is a part of a series called Politics of Memories. You can read all the articles here.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)
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Simple Habits of Greatness

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