This article follows on directly from Part 1, which detailed the Mughal crown prince Dara Shukoh, his philosophy and his interpretation of Islam. Readers are therefore strongly advised to read that part first before continuing below.
Shah Jahan temporarily fell ill during the late 1650s. False rumours spread, claiming that he had died and that Dara Shukoh was now the Mughal emperor. Aurangzeb exploited this as an opportunity to grab power by mobilising his own military forces, ignoring his sister’s urgent correspondence confirming that their father was indeed still alive and that Aurangzeb was therefore committing an action of treason, and eventually imprisoned Shah Jahan opposite the Taj Mahal. During the resulting war of succession, Dara Shukoh was given some military assistance by the 7th Sikh Guru during one of the battles, but the prince was ultimately defeated later in the conflict, as Aurangzeb had greater experience as a military commander and was a far more ruthless individual. Dara’s weakened wife had already died while the family had been attempting to reach the safe haven of Persia, and Dara sent her body with an armed escort to Mian Mir’s shrine in Lahore for burial nearby.
The 44-year-old Dara Shukoh and his 15-year-old son Sipihr Shukoh were captured after being betrayed by an Afghan “ally” they’d sought refuge with (ironically, Dara had previously saved the Afghan from being executed by Shah Jahan). A few days later, Dara was humiliatingly paraded through the Mughal capital of Delhi, resulting in a huge outcry from the city’s inhabitants due to his immense popularity. He wouldn’t even survive for a single day afterwards, because Aurangzeb could see that Dara’s popularity amongst the mass population posed a severe risk of a huge uprising against the fanatical regime attempting to engineer a political coup, and Dara was also a clear final barrier to his own desire for the imperial throne.
Aurangzeb had access to some ultraconservative mullahs sympathetic to him, and rapidly had his brother impeached, declared an “apostate”, and sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of “heresy”. On the night of 30th August 1659, Dara Shukoh was unceremoniously beheaded in his prison cell, in front of his young son Sipihr, although Dara had put up a fight to try to physically defend himself. Dara’s older son Suleiman Shukoh was also eventually captured; as per Aurangzeb’s instructions, over an extended period of time the incarcerated Suleiman was gradually poisoned by being fed large quantities of opium extracts which, after effectively lobotomising him, ultimately killed him.
Aurangzeb ordered that Dara Shukoh’s headless torso should paraded around Delhi in order to show people that he was dead. When Dara’s head had been presented to Aurangzeb, he had dismissively declared that, since he had no wish to see the “apostate’s” face while Dara was alive, he had no wish to do so now. According to some accounts, Dara’s head was also sent to the imprisoned Shah Jahan, causing him to collapse in shock. Dara’s body is buried in a grave at the “Humayun’s Tomb” complex in Delhi which US President Barack Obama visited during his recent visit to India, and which can be seen in the photo at the top of this article (apparently the President was very curious about Dara in particular).
The downfall begins
Aurangzeb had successfully managed to overthrow the legitimate Mughal government and hijack the Mughal Empire. He utterly rejected the liberal Muslim culture and moderate interpretation of Islam which had become the norm during the Mughal era. During the next 49 years of his tyrannical, hardline Islamist reign, Aurangzeb’s deliberate reversal of generations of moderate, non-discriminatory Mughal policies and his systematic persecution of liberal Muslims as well as Sikhs and Hindus eventually resulted in civil war breaking out on all sides, in a empire which was already overstretched.
Aurangzeb finally stopped his fanatical campaign shortly before his death of natural causes at the age of 88, and spent his last days a broken man, filled with regret about his wasted life and terrified about what was going to happen to him after he died. In a letter to one of his sons, dated 1707, Aurangzeb wrote “I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am, nor what I have been doing. I have sinned terribly, and I do not know what punishment awaits me.”
Decades earlier, when the 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh was just 9 years old, his father Guru Tegh Bahadur had been tortured and publicly beheaded upon Aurangzeb’s orders after intervening to stop the emperor’s harassment of Kashmiri Hindus; Guru Gobind Singh continued to suffer immense personal tragedies at Aurangzeb’s hands and put up fierce military & ideological resistance against the emperor’s regime. However, after Aurangzeb’s death, Guru Gobind Singh gave pivotal military support to one of Aurangzeb’s more liberal sons during the war of succession, for which the victorious new Mughal emperor – Bahadur Shah I – later publicly gave the Guru the formal title “Pir-i-Hind”, meaning “Saint of India”.
The long-term impact and the lost opportunity
Aurangzeb’s fundamentalist attitudes were very much the exception rather than the rule where most of his dynasty was concerned; however, the Mughal Empire never recovered from the long-term political impact of Aurangzeb’s usurpation of the throne from Dara Shukoh. After a series of devastating invasions by Persians and Afghans in the 18th century which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Muslim and non-Muslim Indians alike, the severely weakened Mughal Empire’s fate was sealed, especially with the expansionist East India Company now on the scene. After the conflict of 1857, the British overthrew the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the most liberal monarch of his dynasty since Akbar, and the British Government formally asserted direct imperial control over India.
There has been considerable speculation about the alternative trajectory of both Indian and global history if Dara Shukoh had become the Mughal emperor instead of Aurangzeb, as their father had intended and as supported by the majority of Indians of all religious backgrounds at the time. As the archetypal “Philosopher-King” who was extraordinarily open-minded and had already written extensive philosophical texts promoting unity & equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, Dara would have been in a prime position to define policy from the top-down and put his ideas into action.
Bear in mind the scale of the resources which would have been available to him: Dara Shukoh would have inherited an empire which was not only the world’s wealthiest region (estimated as contributing to approximately a quarter of the entire global GDP in that era), and far richer than either the Turkish Ottoman Empire or the Persian Safavid Empire, but which was also the most heavily populated, liberal, and actively inclusive Muslim-ruled superpower in the world. As discussed in Part 1, Dara regarded his religious views as completely compatible with Islam along with his own identity as a Muslim; indeed, he believed it was the correct interpretation of Islam in such matters.
The lessons of history and the implications for Pakistan
It is a sign of how much things have changed for the worse that, whereas Dara Shukoh’s overthrow by Aurangzeb presented a huge security risk from outraged South Asian Muslims at the time, and more recently the funeral of the great Pakistani Sufi Muslim singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who also sang Hindu hymns along with performing in Sikh temples) in 1997 was attended by thousands of members of the Pakistani public, we are now witnessing the despicable sight of Salman Taseer’s murderer being garlanded with flowers in modern-day Pakistan, and fatwas & death threats being aimed at multiple senior Pakistani ministers and anyone else unilaterally deemed to be guilty of “blasphemy”.
It makes you wonder where this will lead, given the direct historical precedent – and considering that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, the escalating extremism in that country means that the stakes are even higher in 2011.
One can hope that the lessons of history will have been learnt by enough Pakistanis in a position to make a positive difference and with the strength to oppose determined, ruthless religious fanatics whose actions risk destroying Pakistan, just as Aurangzeb’s actions ultimately destroyed the Mughal Empire. Perhaps this can be summarised best by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great’s own eloquent words; incidentally, Akbar, whose own reign lasted 49 years, was still buried as a Muslim, with full Islamic rites and with little objection from the Islamic clergy at the time:
“Now it has become clear to me that in our troubled world, so full of contradictions, it cannot be wisdom to assert the unique truth of one faith over another. The wise person makes justice his guide and learns from all. Perhaps in this way the door may be opened again, whose key has been lost.”
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Filed in: History,India,Muslim,Pakistan,Religion