Asfar Moin. 2017.
The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam
Delhi: Primus Books
The Millennial Sovereignty is a truly amazing study of sacred kingship that demonstrates the richness and complexity in which multiple traditions, theologies, and practices were drawn together to construct a sacred royal identity. The book traces a particular lineage of this phenomenon from Timur (i.e. Tamerlane, r. 1370–1405) to the founders of the Safavid dynasty in Iran (Shah Isma’il I, r. 1487–1524) and the Mughals in India (Timurid Mirza Babur, 1483–1530) and finally through the subsequent Mughal rulers Humayan (r. 1530–1556), Akbar (r. 1556–1605), and Jahangir (r. 1605–1627). In all, the book presents a novel new approach to thinking about Islamicate kingship and Mughal kingship by complicating our received historical narratives that understand Muslim kings through orthodox Islamic doctrine and jurisprudence (those located in ‘prescriptive text’, p. 14). Instead, Asfar Moin effectively argues that popular beliefs and practices – astrology, messianism, alchemy, etc. – were central in the construction of sacred kingship in sixteenth century Indo-Iranian courtly culture.
The Millennial Sovereign was originally released as part of the much-acclaimed series South Asia Across the Disciplines and published by Columbia University Press in 2012. The edition under review here is the South Asian edition published by Primus Books. While the dustjackets of the two editions are different, the contents, including pagination, of both the US and South Asian editions remains the same. Additionally, as Primus Books continues to emerge as a new leader in Indian academic publishing it should come as no surprise that the material quality of South Asian edition of The Millennial Sovereign matches that of the original, with the perhaps even higher quality paper.
Sacrality and kingship
One of the theoretical forces that drives Moin’s work is the concept of ‘sacred kingship’. Building off of Emile Durkheim’s notion of the social nature of the sacred and working with definitions by Michael Taussig and Maurice Godelier, the author locates the ‘public secret’ that is the sacred ‘embedded in a complex social process that shapes worldviews and ethos, informs concepts of time and space, provides categories of thought, defines taboos, channels desires, and reproduces social and economic structures in way that cannot be encapsulated by or derived from a set of normative texts and institutions’ (p. 15). He juxtaposes this understanding with the more common understanding of sacred which is rooted in religious traditions. The author, therefore, argues that instead of looking at prescriptive texts that talk about kingship he examines the social processes through which sacred kingship is produced. Indeed, a few pages later, he glosses ‘becoming sacred’ as ‘dramatically changing one’s social position’ (p. 17). Through this theoretical lens the book takes shape leading the reader through generations of kings and how the process of creating sacred kings develops over time in Iran and in India. While this theoretical position makes sense of the broader goals of the book, over the course of the book (especially in the case of Akbar and Jahangir) it seemed like this sophisticated use of sacred fades as sacrality is subsumed into the language of talismans and occult practices. Or, to put it another way, the author seems to locate the constitution of the sacrality of the king exclusively through non-orthodox and/or popular practice and belief. While the author is still demonstrating the process of constituting the royal persona, at times it seems like he is falling back on the common use of the term in which the ‘sacred’ is attached to religious traditions, just substituting popular traditions for the more typical orthodox/prescriptive traditions. This critique is admittedly a minor drawback of an overall outstanding work.
Rethinking methodology in the study of royal histories
The final chapter, Chapter 6, provides a remarkable reading of Jahangir’s reign that highlights the methodology of the entire work. Whereas the first five chapters largely focus on textual materials, in this chapter Moin critiques the historical narrative that Jahangir radically departed from the millennial saint-king persona of his father Akbar. The author argues that the cause of this erroneous conclusion is the result of reading different narrative genres as if they were the same thing. The author explains that the comparisons of the miracles of the Akbarnama and the dearth of panegyric language of Jahangir in the Jahangirnama are misleading because they are written in radically different styles: Akbarnama was a courtly chronicle and Jahangirnama was something more akin to a memoir. Thus, Moin suggests that we look beyond literary narratives in order to more fully understand the construction of the saint-king identity. What follows is a lucid reading of visual motifs and symbols within paintings that ‘present a highly sacred image of Jahangir’s imperial self’ (p. 189) and that shows the continuity between Jahangir and his father, a continuity that the entire book shows had its foundations in the product of Timur’s reign. Here, because the shift in archive is so great, Moin’s overall goal of examining the social processes whereby a king becomes sacred is most explicit. Indeed, this has caused me to rethink my approach to examining royal histories, and I’ve recently been incorporating this methodology into my own research.
Having read Millennial Sovereign several times, I cannot recommend it highly enough. For anyone interested in South Asian history, Islamic Studies, Mughal Studies, Religious Studies, and related fields, you should read this book.