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Princes of the Mughal Empire

By Mehjabeen Zameer, Ed.M Candidate, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education; SAI Student Coordinator

On Tuesday, September 23, Munis Faruqui, Associate Professor, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley, shared his research on princes of the Mughal Empire at a SAI Muslim Societies in South Asia Seminar, moderated by Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Director, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program.

Furuqui posited that, contrary to the popular belief that court intrigues, political backbiting, rebellions and wars of succession caused the downfall of the Mughal Empire, they actually helped spread, deepen and mobilize Mughal power.

Professor Faruqui started his talk by presenting a brief background on the Mughal Empire. He stated that the Mughals were a Muslim, ethnically Turkish, Persian speaking dynasty that established itself in the Indian subcontinent and became one of the largest and most dynamic empires in the early-modern period ruling supreme in northern India for almost 200 years.

Many question how the Mughals were able to establish such a large empire, and Professor Faruqui presented the four responses to that question: individual brilliance of Mughal emperors, administrative structure of the Empire, military success and economic power. From there onwards, using the figure of the Mughal prince, he offered a new interpretive lens through which to comprehend Mughal state formation.

The Mughal Empire had an open-ended system of succession which was unlike ordered succession popular during those times. The purpose of this open system was to raise powerful men who would then go on to become the focus of all political energy in the Mughal system.

On reaching the age of 13 or 14, the Mughal prince was granted the status of an adult, which resulted in the prince receiving extraordinary wealth. With this new wealth, each prince started forming their own retinues which included thousands of people.

The princes would reach out to groups outside of the Empire to join their retinue and thus, played an important role in drawing people into the system. With adulthood also came the right to marry, which the princes used to make strategic alliances to further strengthen their entourage.

Lastly, the Mughal princes travelled to far off places for military assignments where they also recruited people into their household. Thus, Mughal power was reinforced through an empire-wide network of friends and allies.

As the princes reach their 20s and 30s, they began to challenge the authority of their father. This resulted in the emperors trying to curtail the powers of their sons, which led to rebellions. Professor Faruqui went on to state that ultimately, the war of succession was decided by the size of the retinue and works of the prince. The retinues of the defeated princes were normally spared execution and allowed to incorporate themselves into the new political order. As a result, the Mughal system reconstituted itself at the end of every war of succession resulting in a diverse nobility and meritocracy.

Professor Faruqui ended the lecture by stating that the Mughal dynasty collapsed due to circumstances which were unrelated to the lifestyle of the princes. As the Mughal imperial and princely successes were interlinked, when both experienced political stress in the late 1600s and early 1700s, they atrophied together with negative results for the empire.

The seminar was enlightening for the 40 participants and sparked a discussion about the role of Mughal princesses as mediators between princes and also contributing to Mughal state formation.

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