Michael H. Fisher
The history of the Mughal Empire (1526–1858) reveals much of the diversity among Muslims and the complexity of Islam as variously envisioned and as practiced in India. The empire’s ruling Timurid dynasty was patrilineally Sunni; many of its original core supporters were also Sunni immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Central Asia, especially Turks and Mongols. But Mughal emperors married women from families who were Shiʿites or who either converted to Islam in India or remained Hindus; similarly, the imperial army and administration also broadened its composition to include such families. Each individual emperor developed his own religious ideology, including Sunni, Sufistic, strongly influenced by Shiʿism, and eclectically drawing upon diverse Islamic and non-Islamic Indic traditions (i.e., Hindu devotional bhakti, Zoroastrianism, Jainism). Roughly a quarter of the Mughal dynasty’s subjects were Muslim, but these also followed an array of diverse Islamic ideologies and social and religious practices (many functioning much like “castes”). Conversely, many non-Muslim officials and subjects of the dynasty adapted its Persianate patterns of culture and belief. Over the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mughal dynasty conquered most of the Indian subcontinent (except the southern tip of the peninsula), but then its empire fragmented over the 18th and early 19th centuries. Evidence for the variety of Islamic expressions within the Mughal Empire comes from many types of sources. Imperial officials, accountants, and scribes compiled Persian-language records in detail, extent, and preservation that exceeded previous states in India. Emperors, courtiers, and authors whom they patronized created sophisticated works of history and literature that described events, rituals, and values, using Persian and also Sanskrit and regional Indian languages. Additionally, various types of material evidence have survived—including architecture, paintings, coins, weapons, and clothing—that display the dynasty’s religious expressions, values, and technologies. Muslim and Christian visitors from Central and Western Asia and Europe also wrote down their observations and assessments while traveling to the imperial court or through the Empire’s provinces. The relationships between Islamic beliefs and practices and the Mughal Empire that travelers, commentators, and historians noted and evaluated varied over time.
The Safavids (1501–1722) controlled a land-based empire that comprised the modern-day nation of Iran, with extensions into Iraq, the Caucasus, and Afghanistan. The family of the Safavids originated as Sufi mystical sheikhs based in the region of Azerbaijan but were later imperialized thanks to the dynastic founder, Shah Ismaʿil (r. 1501–1524). The transition from Sufi tariqa to imperial polity was not smooth, and Ismaʿil faced external threats from the Ottoman Empire to the west, as well as internal pressure from his popular base, the Qizilbash tribal Turks who revered their shah as both a Sufi sheikh as well as a manifestation of the millenarian figure Mahdi who was popularly understood as the Muslim agent of the Apocalypse. The success of the Safavids was partly based on their ability to distance their family from such decentralized, tribal elements and seek out those constituencies that could help with regard to establishing and building legitimacy: orthodox Twelver Shiʿite jurists and scholars as well as urban Persian administrators and bureaucrats. It was Ismaʿil and his successor, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576), who proclaimed and enforced Twelver Shiʿism as the new state doctrine, thus contributing to a stark Sunni-Shiʿite division between themselves and their neighboring rival empires of the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. The apogee of the Safavid Empire took place during the reign of Shah ʿAbbas (r. 1589–1629) who, among other things, transformed Isfahan into a city of international stature with fantastic architectural patronage while at the same time enticing European merchants and traders to trade in textiles, silk, and other manufactured goods. Following the reign of Shah ʿAbbas, the Safavid Empire became less stable and more susceptible to outside elements, namely those Caucasian nobles and landed gentry who had been previously incorporated into the Safavid state as court officials, provincial governors, and ranking military officers. Concurrently, there was a rise in conservative orthodoxy among the Shiʿite religious scholars, and the previous era of open trade and strong international relations began to wane as Christians, Jews, and other minorities became increasingly targeted and persecuted. By the end of the 17th century, the Safavid court was politically isolated from the other provinces, so much so that the imperial capital was easily besieged and conquered in 1722 by an invading conglomerate of Afghan tribes.