By Dalrymple, William
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 134, No. 4771
There is a 16th-century manuscript in the British Museum which contains a painting of what--at first--looks like a traditional Nativity scene. In the middle is Mary holding the Christ child, whose arms are wrapped lovingly around his mother's neck. In the foreground, hovering nervously, are the Three Wise Men, ready to offer their gifts. So far, so conventional.
But look a little closer and you begin to notice just how strange the picture is. For the wise men are dressed as Jesuits, Mary is leaning back against the bolster of a musnud, a low Indian throne, and she is attended by Mughal serving girls wearing saris and dupattas. Moreover, the Christ child and his mother are sitting under a tree outside a wooden garden pavilion--all strictly in keeping with the convention of Islamic lore, which maintains that Jesus was born not in a stable, but in an oasis beneath a palm tree, whose branches bent down so that the Virgin could pluck fruit during her labour.
In this Koranic version of the Nativity, the Christ child, still in his swaddling clothes, sits up and addresses Mary's family with the words: "I am the servant of God. He has given me the Gospel and ordained me a prophet. His blessing is upon me wherever I go, and he has commanded me to be steadfast in prayer and to give alms to the poor as long as I shall live."
The miniature illustrating this Nativity scene was one of a great number commissioned by the Mughal court under the emperors Akbar and Jehangir. It is one of the many moments in the history of Islamo-Christian relations that defies the simplistic strictures of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilisations" theory, for both Akbar (1542-1605) and his son Jehangir (1569-1627) were enthusiastic devotees of Jesus and his mother Mary, something they did not see as being in the least at variance with their Muslim faith or with ruling one of the most powerful Islamic empires ever to exist. Indeed, scholars are only now beginning to realise the extent to which the Mughal emperors adopted what most would assume to be outrightly Christian devotions.
In 1580, Akbar began this process by inviting to his court near Agra a party of Portuguese Jesuit priests from Goa, and allowing them to set up a chapel in his palace. There they exhibited two paintings of the Madonna and Child before a large and excited crowd. To the astonishment of the Jesuits, Akbar promptly prostrated himself before the images of Jesus, and later showed a particular pleasure in the Jesuits' Christmas festival, when a crib was set up in the palace, adorned with satin and velvet and sculptures of the Christ child, and accompanied by placards proclaiming "Gloria in Excelsis Deo", in Persian.
Akbar took a particular interest in Jesus's function as Messiah and questioned the Jesuits closely about the Last Judgement and whether Christ would be the judge. In addition, Akbar showed his appreciation of his Jesuit guests by going as far, on one occasion, as donning Portuguese garb and listening to madrigals.
Subsequent Portuguese clerics found that the gospel books brought by their predecessors had led to murals of Christ, his mother and the Christian saints being painted on the walls not only of the palace but also on Mughal tombs and caravanserais: "[The emperor] has painted images of Christ our Lord and our Lady in various places in the palace," wrote one Jesuit father, "and there are so many saints that ... you would say it was more like the palace of a Christian king than a Moorish one." By the end of Akbar's reign, a mural of the Nativity filled a wall of the imperial khwabgah, or sleeping chamber, and Christian devotional images had become a major part of the Mughal scriptorium's output. A copy of an image of the Virgin of Loreto was said to be a particular favourite of Akbar's.
Such enthusiasm for Catholic devotional images naturally irritated both the more orthodox members of Akbar's ulema (scholars) and the English Protestant envoys to the court, notably the East India Company's factor Thomas Kerridge, who wrote with irritation about the popularity of "those prattling juggling Jesuits". …