Every time a Muslim political figure from subcontinental history is brought into the spotlight by academia or Bollywood, the debate on the character of the Muslim ruler gets new life in Indian society.
The right wing starts its venomous propaganda about the ‘barbaric’ nature of Muslim rulers based on myths and legends. Then they are often followed by the liberals who want to portray Muslim rulers either as un-Islamic and civilised or Islamic and regressive.
The less ‘Islamic’ a ruler is, the more he can be celebrated by the liberals. Currently, Alauddin Khilji, one of the most successful commanders in subcontinental history, is under the spotlight because of ‘Padmaavat’, a movie based on a later legend.
Khilji’s depiction in this movie conforms to the Hindu right-wing model of a barbaric Muslim monarch, despite the fact that it has ostensibly hurt Hindu sentiments on other fronts, besides offending feminists as well.
This right-wing assault has mobilised historians to once again write on Muslim monarchs, and refute the popular narratives against them. Harbans Mukhia, in an article titled ‘Alauddin Khalji, a Sultan Who Did Not Care About Prophet Muhammad and Shariat’, discusses Khilji’s attitude towards Islam.
Refuting the ‘Padmavati’ thesis, Mukhia says: “While we know a great deal of Alauddin’s personality and life, chasing women was not one of his passions”.
He presents Khilji as a ‘civilised/non-religious’ man rather than Bhansali’s ‘Muslim/barbarian’. However, in his enthusiasm to portray Khilji as a ‘secular’ leader, Mukhia has done precisely what Bhansali is doing: Reducing the man to a caricature, and reducing his understanding of Islam to one unsubstantiated legend.
Normally, such an article should not bother a student of history. There are many publications writing fantastic theories about Muslims, and it is beyond our capacity to counter every such piece. However, Mukhia is a respected historian, hence the ‘good’ Muslim narrative from his side is sophisticated and requires critical reading.
Why Mukhia Said What He Did
In this article, there are two evidences that are presented in reference to Khilji’s attitude towards Islam. Firstly the issue of Shariat:
...once Alauddin called his theologian to his presence and told him what he had been doing and each time asked him whether this was in accordance with the shariat and each time, the brave Qazi said: “No Your Majesty, what you are doing is completely violative of the shariat’s injunctions.” Irritated, the Sultan declared he did what he thought was in the best interest of the state and was not bothered whether his acts conformed to or defied the shariat.
The second is a legend in which Khilji asks the kotwal of Delhi:
...whether he could also found a new religion just like Muhammad had done; for, in his view Muhammad had founded Islam with the help of his four trusted companions and had become immortal in history; he too after having created a vast empire and with not much left to do felt like launching a new religion, for he too was blessed with four very trusted companions.
Not Enough Evidence
The evidence above fails to support Mukhia’s thesis.
Firstly, most Muslim monarchs have undermined the various codifications of Sharia, despite opposition from clergy.
Jehangir is famous for being a heavy drunkard, for having imprisoned Sheikh Sihrindi who called prostration in front of emperor un-Islamic, etc. Yet the heading ‘Jehangir did not care about the Prophet’ is not appropriate for an article about Jehangir’s liberal understanding of Islam.
For not only did he famously reinstate Islam as the state religion, his memoirs also refer repeatedly to God’s support in his favour and his royal library gathered commentaries on the Quran as well as biographies of the Prophet.
Hence, a title like Mukhia’s would reflect the ideological moorings of the writer rather than any real understanding of the emperor’s mind. Besides, such narratives simplify the complex nature of Islamic jurisprudence, and the competing theorisation of law which people generalise in the name of Shariah.
Deconstructing the Second Evidence
The second evidence is also highly dubious. It is quoted from Ziauddin Barani’s account, written almost half a century later, and has been repeated by many chroniclers.
Scholars have questioned its veracity, as Banarsi Prasad Saksena does in his essay on Khilji. He terms it as a rumour, which was ‘carelessly copied from’ Barani by medieval and modern historians. Saxena argues that Khilji intended to get rid of Zafar Khan, one of the four friends mentioned in the legend, not found a new religion with his help.
He also argues that although Khilji did not frequent Friday congregations and took ‘no interest in the ulama or their opponents’, he declared himself “a Muslim and a born Muslim” and believed in the sanctity of his contemporary Nizamuddin Aulia. Saxena further reminds us:
Barani is never tired of telling us, “Alauddin never associated with Muslim ulama, and his faith in Islam was firm like the faith of the illiterate and the ignorant.” How could such a man think of establishing a new creed?... Barani is our only authority for this baseless gossip.
Hence, this legend attempts to represent Khilji as an ignorant individual who dares to reduce the Prophet’s project to the mere existence of four companions.
This legend appears to be a propaganda piece against Khilji from the clerical side, who were unhappy about his violations of Shariah. It intends to mock Khilji for his grandiose plans.
We can compare this to Jehangir’s case, as Sihrindi’s arrest is dramatised in legends and much is made of his rejection and clever manoeuvres to avoid prostrating when brought in front of Jehangir. As is clear from the nuanced narrative in Jehangir’s memoirs, taking these legends literally or at face value is an ideological stand, and methodologically unsound. There are contrasting narratives from Khilji’s time also – for instance, chronicler Wassaf attributes many of Sultan’s campaigns to his ‘Islamic’ zeal. If we consider this to be an exaggeration, there can be no basis to believe the other legend.
Khilji’s reign is 20 years long, and his attitude towards Islam has been reduced to one legend by Mukhia. In addition, a provocative title has been added, that Khilji “did not care about the Prophet”.
Such a charge would be difficult to maintain even against Akbar, who arguably started a new religion. Akbar sought to understand the various faiths, and emulated Muhammad in Din i Ilahi. It cannot be said that he “didn’t care about the Prophet”, unless one has solid evidence. The reading of sources in the article does not hold up to critical scrutiny, and in addition, the dubious reading doesn’t warrant the title by any stretch of the imagination.
Skewed Narratives and Misplaced Identities
But this narrative is not new – it has been the style of reading into Muslim history for some time now. It was pioneered by nationalist historians of the Congress era, who have been aided by many mainstream historians as well. Like the glorification of Akbar, individuals who had apparently rejected Islam are presented as heroes in textbooks.
The clearer the rejection, the more progressive they are in the eyes of these historians. Akbar is the primary example of this style, which has resulted in a skewed understanding of Mughal history and the figure of a villainous Aurangzeb. This preference for an ideological understanding of history has led many scholars to equate anti-religion as progressive, and celebrate any hint of protest against ‘Islam’, ignoring the internal debates among those who called themselves Muslims.
For all practical purposes, a Muslim is a believer as long as he or she identifies as one, and there is no undisputable evidence that either Khilji or Akbar stopped identifying as Muslims. The narrative of ‘progress’ against religion, and this superimposition of modern ‘secularism’ onto the pre-modern has been around for decades.
It is ubiquitous in mainstream leftist narratives, however it has taken more sinister shape in the liberal and nationalist discourses. In the current context, it helps in denigrating religious and political figures of the minority, and lauding those who rejected Islam in favour of ‘secularism’. Congress’ representation of itself and India as ‘secular’ is also reaffirmed by such crooked readings.
(The author is a Computer Science graduate from IIT Bombay. He is currently pursuing PhD at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)