Mughal India and Central Asia

By Foltz, Richard C. | Harvard International Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Mughal India and Central Asia


Foltz, Richard C., Harvard International Review


A world that is accustomed to multidirectional flows of information through the means of capacious strands of fiber optics and satellites might not realize the intricacy and complexity of the networks of communications between Central Asia and Mughal India in the 16th and 17th centuries, based as they were on human relations, patronage, familial ties, and so on. This pioneering study by Richard Foltz fulfills a long-felt need to focus attention on these two important regions of the Islamic world and to draw attention to the interaction between them. As Foltz points out, this interaction was little-studied until recently due to several factors, chief among which was the limited access that scholars had to extant Central Asian works in the former Soviet Union. Having had the opportunity to look at these works as well as other important primary and secondary works from Iran and South Asia, Foltz astutely characterizes the regions of Central Asia and South Asia, at least among their elites, as constituting one world. This "one world" was, by and large, created when educated Muslims from Central Asia were drawn to Mughal India for economic and religious reasons.

Foltz begins with a historical survey of the Perso-Islamic society, the three components of which were the Mughals of South Asia, the Safavids of Iran, and the Uzbeks of Central Asia. The Mughals, having inherited an already hybrid Perso-Indian culture, partook in a symbiotic relationship with the other two components. Although the Mughals nostalgically looked back at their former Central Asian homeland, the Persian culture always held a privileged position for them. Persian immigrants and their descendants comprised the elite cultural repertoires and military units of Mughal India.

As far as Central Asia was concerned, Babur, the first Mughal emperor and a fifth-generation descendant of Tamerlane, often reminisced about his family's glory days in Central Asia. This generation gap was narrowed, in part, through the Mughal patronage of miniature art which showed that the Mughal right to rule the subcontinent was conferred upon them by the great Tamerlane himself. Art such as this fed the Mughal desire to legitimize their supremacy over their lost homeland. They thought of the Central Asians as their family members and not as foreigners. The Central Asians, impressed with India's wealth, held similar perceptions about the Mughals.

The Mughals, however, were also quite shrewd when it came to diplomacy. Their perceived familial ties with Central Asia did not mean that they would blindly concede to the latter's wishes. When a Central Asian leader suggested to the Mughal emperor that a Sunni joint attack against the Shi'i Safavid state would be desirable, the Mughal emperor rebuked him. In spite of being of the Sunni persuasion, the Mughals had accumulated great favors from the Shi'i Safavids and thus wanted to act as bridge-builders between the two main divisions of Islam.

One of the most fascinating chapters in this book deals with `Cultural Interchange' within this one world. …

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