Mughal Theory of Sovereignty

Mughal Theory of Sovereignty


The Indian political thought as well as the Persian and Turco-Mongol traditions have attached much importance to the institution of sovereignty for preserving order and stability of society and for eradicating anarchy and lawlessness. Monarchy was considered to be the keystone of the medieval polity. Thus according to Abul Fazl: “If royalty did not exist, the storm of strife would never subside, nor selfish ambition disappear. Mankind being under the burden of lawlessness and lust would sink into the pit of destruction …

The nature of the state and complexion of administrative structure of an Empire were determined largely by the theory of sovereignty and the policies propounded and pursued by the king himself. A study of the Central Asian theory of state and its various aspects is, therefore, essential for correct understanding of Mughal polity.


The Mughal rulers of India were not new to the art of governance: they possessed an experience of almost two centuries of dynastic rule in Central Asia. They brought with them a well-tried and established principles of administration. The need to adapt in a new land had made them flexible enough to absorb the tradition of their surroundings.

The general administrative structure and the policies of the Mughals in India, therefore, appear to be a conglomeration of Indo-Islamic trends. The rich Central Asian heritage and Turco-Mongol legacy in the form of practices, institutions, loan words and terms do appear occasionally. The remnants of the Chingizi and Timuri polity are often noticed in the Mughal structure in India.

Babur took pride in calling himself a ‘Turk’ though he was a Turco-Mongol. Babur was related to Chingiz (on mother’s side) and Timur (on father’s side). Notwithstanding Babur’s occasional outbursts against the Mongols, he held Chingiz Khan and his family in high esteem. Akbar’s attitude towards his “ancestors” is appropriately reflected in the comments of Abul Fazl who called Chingiz a “great man”. By thus elevating and glorifying the Mongols, the Mughals in India were adding prestige to their own dynasty. Extending their hereditary claims over the Indian territories by virtue of having the blood of Chingiz and Timur in their veins was, therefore, logical and expedient.

Babur’s dynasty in India was variously called ‘Chaghatai’, ‘Mughal’ and ‘Qarawanah’, disregarding the genealogical differences and their relationship to Chingiz through females. The significance of this relationship was not only fully realized but was equally utilized and emphasized by the Mughal rulers and their court chronicles in biographies, historical accounts, royal letters and other documents. This emphasis on kinship between the families of Chingiz and Timur brings to the surface the undercurrents of Mughal anxiety to claim a close relationship and quality with the ruling family of Chingiz Khan on the basis of their genealogy, whether real or fictitious. To a great extent they preserved their rich legacy even while ruling over in India – an alien and somewhat, different region. There are a number of terms and institutions which are similar in nomenclature though different in connotation. A thorough adaptation of Central Asian terms and institutions in accordance with the needs or circumstances and the surroundings is also noticed. .


The Central Asian polity was adopted by the Mughals in many ways, bearing Turkish and Mongol traits. But controversy exists about the magnitude of Turkish and Mongol influences. Some scholars hold that Mongol traditions were predominant, while others suggest that Turkish influence was so strong that the Mongol system had really been converted into what can only be designated as Turco-Mongol.

When Chingiz came to Central Asia, his army mainly comprised Turks, albeit with only a nucleus of Mongol. It is supported by several sources that the prescribed norms and Mughal customs and practices were often being followed “in the fashion of Chingiz Khan”. The Empire of Timur was also a “unique combination of Turco-Mongolian political and military system”. The Barlas tribe to which Timur himself belonged was actually a Turco-Mongol tribe.

1) Influence of Turah

Besides having Turkish traditions, the Central Asian administration was considerably influenced by the turah, that is the laws formulated by Chingiz after his ascendancy (other terms were yasa, yusun, yasaq). The turah did not contain any religious element and dealt mainly with political principles and the organisation of government and civil and military administration. The turah was considered to be an immutable code.

Akbar was proud of Central Asian connections and traditions. A fine blend of Central Asian and Indian traditions with a veneer of Perso-Islamic principles is, therefore, noticed in various spheres of Mughal politics and administration under Akbar. The turah figures in Jahangir’s autobiography and flickers through some of his measures.

The references to turah, however, start fading and dwindle gradually in the reign of shah Jahan and is finally engulfed by the “religious revivalism” during he reign of Aurangzcb.

Nevertheless, the principles of turah and the Chaghatai traditions had limited utility in Indian context. A survey of the Mughal sources shows that the emphasis on turah was motivated by a real politik of the Mughal Emperors who wanted to highlight their links with the two former conquerors of India and to the great Empire builders namely Chingiz and Timur.

It may, however, be pointed out that the turah was preserved and at best its traditions continued to linger in the Mughal Empire mainly in the sphere of the laws of ceremonies and etiquette. Nevertheless, the occasional references to the ‘Chaghatai traditions’ found in early Mughal sources are conspicuously missing in the later period.

2) Turco-Mongol Concept of Sovereignty

Although it is said that Chingiz had borrowed his divine theory of sovereignty from the Uighlurs, the Mongols themselves seem to believe in absolute power of the Khan which is evident from the following words of a Mongol Khan: “In the sky there can only be one sun or one moon; how can there be two masters on earth“.

Nonetheless, division of the Empire among the ruler’s sons for facilitating administration with all its rigours and satiating the desires of governance among princes was the cardinal principle of Mongol concept of sovereignty.

But Timur followed the concept of absolute sovereignty who pronounced that “the whole expanse of the inhabited part of the world is not worthy of two kings: since God is one, therefore, the vicegerent of God on earth should also be one.” Babur also confirms that “partnership in rule is a thing unheard of’.

Despite these assertions, a controversy has existed among the historians about the tradition of absolute monarchy entertained by Timur who had accepted the nominal overlordship of a descendant of Chingiz Khan. Timur himself never used any title higher than amir. Though Timur’s successor Shahrukh assumed the title Padshah and Sultan-ul Azam, the idea of the nominal overlordship of the Khan remained alive down to the time of Abu Saeed Mina. However, the existence of puppet Khans was a political necessity for Timur. Timur did not belong to the royal family of Chingiz and in the given situation “only men of the tribe of Chingiz could claim the title Khan”. Thus, Timur’s right to accession was likely to be challenged by the Mongols.

These Khans were kept confined to a particular locality and the only royal prerogative enjoyed by them was the manshurs (orders) and certain coins of Timur carried the names of these “prisoners”. Nevertheless, Timur continued to maintain his supremacy over the Khans. No sooner had he acquired necessary power and secured enough support from the Chaghatai nobles than he proclaimed himself sovereign in 1370 with the title of sahib-i qiran (a title given to a ruler who had ruled for forty years). The coronation ceremony was held with all royal grandeur for Timur alone. Timur never “rendered honours to the Khans in the presence of the troops and in solemn surroundings. Honours due to the monarch were always personally received by Timur”.

Being a firm believer in absolutism, Timur never attached undue importance to the consultative assembly (qurultai). Besides, he considered himself to be the temporal as well as spiritual leader. Concept of sovereignty was stretched by him to its logical end. He announced that he “received direct revelations from the Almighty”, thus giving divine sanctions to his enterprise. Thus, the practice of installing puppet Khans was ‘merely a political game which had been played by Timur and his successors to mobilize the support of Mongol forces and to use them finally to establish their own power and to legitimize their rule over a territory which was actually usurped by them from the Mongols. At any rate, after the death of Mahmud in A.D. 1402, Timur did not care to appoint any other Khan.

3) Nature of Political Structure

Was the political structure of the Timuri rulers of Central Asia oriented towards centralisation? Some scholars hold that there were trends towards greater centralisation. But this view has been contended by others. The latter argue that the tribal character of the Mongol polity did not permit the rise of an absolutism comparable to Turkish monarchy. Chingiz Khan’s Empire belonged not to the ruler but to the ruling family. But others point out that even when the Timuri state declined and disintegrated, the traditions of despotic and absolute monarchy continued. It is fair to conclude, then, that Timuri polity was one of absolutism and that minor deviations or exceptions cannot fundamentally modify this basic fact.

4) Custom of Succession

While Chingiz Khan had nominated his own successor, he had, however, emphasized that anyone from amongst the sons and grandsons of the kings could succeed him provided that such a person was worthy of this office. This system of nomination by the Khan on the basis of merit seems to have continued upto the Timuris. The nomination of the Khan was not always respected, but the worth of a person always enabled him to contrive his own enthronement. As ‘worth’ happened to be the main criterion for accession, aspirations of many energetic and enterprising princes were excited. Consequently, civil wars, fratricide and rebellions became a regular phenomenon in Central Asia and in Mughal India as well.

In accordance with the Old Turco-Mongol tradition, Kingship was not reserved for the sons of the king only. With the extension of this opportunity to the grandsons and uncles of the king (Khan), the number of aspirants became very large. Either worth or even popular support could decide the issue of succession.

In all three situations (i.e. nomination, contrivance and selection), the question of succession had to be formally ratified by a qurultai (assembly of princes and nobles) which symbolized an assurance of submission by all the notables.

5) Centre-State Relationship

The king was the pivot of administration. The kbutba was read and the coins were struck in ‘the name of the king throughout the Empire. The provincial rulers were appointed by the king. They were required to act in accordance with the regulations and orders of the king and owed their status to the sweet will of the ruler.

The provincial rulership and the land grants served as sources of income to the members of the royal family. Nevertheless, the final authority rested with the king. The provincial rulers were not permitted to interfere in the collection of the king’s share of revenue. For these and for other administrative purposes, special deputies were appointed by the Khan in each khanate. The failure of a provincial ruler (Sultan) to comply with the orders of the Khan or to fulfill his military or financial obligation at a certain time would have disastrous consequences for him. While they were allowed to have diplomatic relations with external powers, certain major decisions like the waging of war or the signing of treaty were taken by the king personally. The king was authorised to intervene in interstate feuds and even to transfer or depose an unruly Sultan.

Thus, it seems that division was necessary to facilitate the administration of a vast Empire and also to satisfy the ambitions of rulership amongst the princes. From all this, it can hardly be deduced that the king in the Chingizi or Timuri Empire was simply one from amongst the other Sultans.

6) The Nobility

The nobility being the creation of the king himself was supposed to be the main source of his strength. At the time of the accession of a new Khan, the nobility had to take an oath-for remaining loyal and subservient to the king. The examples of a number of vicious and unscrupulous nobles of the later Timuris (in the last quarter of the Timuri rule in Central Asia) present a somewhat shocking picture of the Timuri nobles. These should not lead one to conclude that there were certain inherent weaknesses in the system itself which encouraged this attitude amongst the nobles and ultimately hampered the development of Central authority. The Turco-Mongol political structure had been built in such a way that nobles remained subsensient to the Khan, notwithstanding their conditional privileges.

Nevertheless, some scholars are of the view that the prevalence of hereditary privileges among a large section of the nobility discouraged the growth of absolutism in the Mongol Empire. Although it cannot be denied that many rulers of Transoxiana from time to time assigned special status to their favourite amirs, and some of these privileges were even hereditary, it is also a fact that such privileges were being enjoyed by the nobles only on a reciprocal basis. In case of any defiance, these privileges could always be withdrawn. Each new king could renew or withhold all kinds of privileges granted by his predecessors. The very fact that Chingiz had prescribed a clause in his code whereby the nobles enjoying special status could be forgiven only for nine offences itself shows that the king could exercise his absolute power over the nobles. There are number of examples where the nobles had a high standing and were enjoying hereditary privileges also but were dismissed, executed, punished. fined or banished.


In the present section we will be dealing with the development of the Mughal concept of sovereignty under Babur and Humayun and how later under Akbar it reached at its climax.

1) Babur and Humayun

Some historians argue that the Timuri polity was influenced by the Turco-Mongol polity and it was absolutist in nature and essentially oriented towards highly centralised state structure. They consider it superior to the structure of the Afghan power which had reduced the Sultanate to a confederacy of tribes holdings different regions. But for others, it was only in the beginning that the Mongol influence was great; later, the
Mongol polity started losing its centralizing and absolutist character.

Now let us examine the nature of Mughal polity. We have seen that Timuri polity was influenced by both Turki and Mongol structure. Let us-see what legacy Babur had inherited when he came to India.

As for absolutist nature of Mughal polity, it is argued that the Timuri rulers down to Babur despite pressing circumstances did not think it appropriate to assume the title of khaqaan suggests that they conceded special status to the Khans. But it seems an oversimplification of a complicated problem. As stated above, division of the Empire among the sons of the ruler was the cardinal principle of Mongol theory of kingship. But Babur never approved this concept: when after the death of Husain Mirza, his two sons shared sovereign powers, he showed his surprise. Similarly he also rejected any idea of sharing sovereignty with his begs (nobles).

But the Mughals at early stages do not seem to have totally alienated themselves from Mongol influences. The Mongol principle of the division of the Empire was put to test soon after the death of Babur. Humayun divided his Empire among his brothers but failed. In 1556 at the battle of Ushtargram, Akbar and one of the daughters of Kamran were put on the throne, but it was a short lived emergency measure. Nonetheless, Babur assumed the title of ‘Padshah’ -a Turkish title. Humayun’s decision to shift sovereignty to a watercarrier for a day, who had saved his life, shows that the Mughals considered sovereignty as personal property of the ‘Padshah’. Even the so-called hereditary privileges of the nobles got the sanction of the ruler. Such privileges had to be renewed by the new ruler.

Therefore, it is not quite correct to infer that the prevalence of hereditary privileges among a large section of nobility discouraged the growth of absolutism in the early Turco-Mongol polity. Later, both Babur and Humayun are known to have respected the Chaghatai code of laws (turah) which was allergic to the concept of more than one ruler at one time.

2) Akbar

Abul Fazl says: “No dignity is higher in the eyes of God than royalty. Royalty is a remedy for the spirit of rebellion ….” Even the meaning of the word Padshah shows this for pad signifies stability and possession and shah means origin, Lord. A king is therefore the “origin of stability and possession”.

Abul Fazl adds: “Royalty is a light emanating from God, and a ray from the sun ….” Modern language calls this light farri izidi (the divine light) and the tongue of antiquity called it kiyan khwarah (the sublime halo). It is communicated by God to kings without the intermediate assistance of anyone. Again many excellent qualities flow from the possession of this light, e.g., a paternal love towards the subjects, a large heart, trust in God, prayer and devotion, etc. At another place, Abul Fazl repeats that “The shamsa of the arch of royalty is a divine light, which God directly transfers to kings, without the assistance of men ….

The king was therefore deemed to be divinely appointed, divinely guided and divinely protected. The theory of sovereignty propounded by Abul Fazl on behalf of Akbar and reflected in his mahzar and “Ai’n-i rahnamuni” seems to be as close to the Central Asian and Perso-Islamic concepts as to the Chingizi traditions of sovereignty. It is significant that the absolute traditions of sovereignty and conjunction of spiritual and temporal rulership was developed at many courts as a defence mechanism against undue encroachment upon king’s authority by lesser mortals. The philosophy and the spirit of the concepts of farri izidi, kiyan khwarah, etc. were the same, that is, the intention was to guard against any direct or indirect share in king’s authority. Alauddin Khalji had tried to abide by the “law of expediency”. Akbar went ahead of him. By the mahzar (drafted by Shaikh Mubarak and his two sons), the Emperor was certified to be a just ruler (Imam Adil) and was as such assigned the rank of mujtahid, i.e. an “infallible authority”. The position of Imam Adil was declared superior to that of a mujtahid. The “intellect of the just king” thus became the valuable source of legislation.

Abul Fazl elucidates that “when the time of reflection comes, and men shake off the prejudices of their education, the thread of the web of religious blindness break and the eye sees the glory of harmoniousness … although some are enlightened many would observe silence from fear of fanatics who lust for blood, but look like men …. The people will naturally look to their king and expect him to be their spiritual leader as well, for a king possesses, independent of men, the ray of Divine wisdom, which banishes from his heart everything that is conflicting. A king will, therefore, sometimes observe the element of harmony in a multitude of things. … Now this is the case with the monarch of the present age. He now is the spiritual guide of the nation.

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