Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Writing the Mughal World

Book Cover

Book Title

Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012


Alam, Muzaffar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam


Writing the Mughal World brings together two leading historians of the Mughal empire, Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, each bringing complementary methodologies, perspectives and linguistic skills to the table. Alam, trained in Islamic studies, philology and theology, provides his expertise on the literary tradition of Urdu, Persian and Arabic materials upon which the book’s narrative draws heavily.  Subrahmanyam, an economic historian best known for his work on Indian Ocean commerce and the Portuguese in Asia, supplies knowledge of the social sciences, South Indian and Iberian languages as well as of English, French and Dutch sources.

Deliberately conceived to swim against the tide of historiographical orthodoxy, the book is a collection of ten jointly-authored essays, written between 1997 and 2009 and intertwining political, cultural and commercial themes in diplomacy, state formation, historiography, religious debates and political thought, which the authors have expanded, integrated and framed with a historiographical introduction on the comparative trends in Mughal scholarship.  Their approach lends itself to a focus on diplomatic history and literary analysis, drawn from and supported by a large body of translated correspondence and writings – though it is not a “view from the foot of the throne” of the grand Mughals, reflecting instead “the experiences and subjectivities of neither peasants nor aristocrats, but largely of middling groups with a talent for written expression”, a group that includes Gujarati sultans, Portuguese Jesuits, Persianised intellectuals, travellers and exiled Mughal princes and poets. The choice of these middle-level literary figures as the focus of the study allows for not only the employment of new or underutilised primary material, much of it autobiographical, but helps establish a cultural continuity across the reign of different emperors that is useful for examining the long duration of Mughal history.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The essays in the volume cover broadly the three centuries from 1500 to 1800, in a generally chronological (though not systematic) order. Certain topics, themes or actors addressed in earlier chapters are periodically returned to at intervals at a correspondingly later stage in history, to illustrate change, continuity or adaption to new circumstances. The most prominent examples of this are the two chapters Alam and Subrahmanyam have devoted to the training and subsequent careers of munshis, the Persianised class of professional scribes and administrators.  Read together, “The Making of a Munshi” and “Eighteenth-Century Historiography and the World of the Mughal Munshi” provide a glimpse into the formation of this literati culture, its changing fortunes in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and the roles it played as both active participants and chroniclers of change in the Mughal empire.

Another recurring subject is the Mughals’ interaction with and understanding of the world beyond their borders, whether in relation to neighbouring Indian states, Europeans, other Islamic empires or Southeast Asia. The first essay in the book, “Letter from a Sinking Sultan”, looks at the last years of the Gujarat sultanate in the early sixteenth century before conquest by the Mughals, in its efforts to build alliances with the Ottomans and Portuguese Estado da India. It is bookended by the eighth, “Trade and Politics in the Arcot Nizamat”, which documents the emergence of the autonomous ‘successor’ state of Arcot in Southern India as one of many regional rivals to the Mughals, though nominally still under their sovereignty, between 1700 and 1732.

Both chapters, along with others such as “The Deccan Frontier and Mughal Expansion, circa 1600”, provide an interesting parallel portrait of Mughal fortunes in growth and decline, as well as challenge notions of the Mughal state as traditionally landlocked and uninterested in maritime affairs, operating from the outset in a broad interstate and diplomatic context that included both Islamic and European expressions. In a similar vein, the second essay “The Mughals Look Beyond the Winds”, which seems to build on an earlier co-authored work, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400-1800, is aimed at countering the belief of a lack of cultural curiosity on the part of the Mughal elite towards Southeast Asia, instead situating the account of 17th century Persian traveller Tahir Mohammed in a larger tradition of reflection on the region by the Indo-Persian, if not Mughal, world.

Philosophy and religion occupy two chapters in Writing the Mughal World, and again contrast interior developments with external pressures. “Faizi’s Nal-Daman and Its Long Afterlife”, which is a literary deconstruction of the Urdu poet’s work, traces how the vernacular traditions of medieval India were translated into the Persian of the Mughal court as well as the politics of artistic patronage, while “Catholics and Muslims in the Court of Jahangir” focuses on the diplomatic and theological activities of the Society of Jesus in Mughal India, and the ensuing religious and philosophical debates that occurred in their (as in China, ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to proselytise the ruling class. Although its treatment in Writing the Mughal World is perhaps less than a topic of its importance deserve, Alam and Subrahmanyam have identified religion, along with gender, intellectual, art and architectural history, as potentially rich areas for further studies.

The book’s final chapter and epilogue tie into modern historiographical debate, as the Mughals began to examine, self-reflexively, the reasons behind their own decline. The final study looks at the political thought of an obscure Mughal prince in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,  who, after trying and failing to establish his own kingdom, sought from Babur’s biography the qualities that ought to be found in a true Mughal but were now lacking. The final short essay, “Mughals in Exile”, represents the final adjustment of the Mughals to new economic and political realities, through the writings of intellectuals leaving Delhi and settling in Lucknow, one of several regional centres coming into prominence with decentralisation. Here Alam and  Subrahmanyam show the tensions inherent in this process, and attempt to show the ‘Mughal decline’ of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in less simplistic terms.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Writing the Mughal World is an effort by its authors to reconcile the two dominant, countervailing trends in Mughal historiography: the traditional, crafted by British historians of the Indian Civil Service, which saw the Mughal state and its eighteenth-century decline in moralistic, structural, and largely static terms; and the more recent, Marxist revisionism of the ‘Aligarh School’, which asserted that the strength, centralisation and modernity of Mughal institutions (particularly in the extractive and exploitative sense) prefigured the later Raj.

In its place, Alam and Subrahmanyam have attempted to balance the nature and complexity of change in the Mughal world on the one hand – as gradual process, rather than of structure – against the temptation to read backwards in history and presume a continuity between the Mughals and the East India Company, or see their later history purely in terms of failure, stasis and decline. Although the epilogue, which was meant to address exactly the latter half of that problem, is too abrupt for the purpose – especially in comparison to the book’s otherwise excellent introduction – the other essays seem to do well enough building towards the former conclusion, if somewhat obliquely. Individually, each can stand in its own right as an illuminating and well-researched study of its respective subject, and several can be connected thematically. As a whole, it is slightly less cohesive. Writing the Mughal World brings in much new material in many previously inaccessible languages – some chapters even provide direct translations of several documents alongside the original texts – and introduces diverse theoretical and methodological approaches stemming from the interdisciplinary training and sensibilities of its authors; this, above others, appears to be both the strength and weakness of the book.

Annotated by Daniel Lee