Citation for Islamicate Civilization: The View from Asia

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Lawrence, Bruce B. . "Islamicate Civilization: The View from Asia." In Teaching Islam. Ed. Brannon M. Wheeler. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Nov 30, 2020. <>.


Lawrence, Bruce B. . "Islamicate Civilization: The View from Asia." In Teaching Islam. , edited by Brannon M. Wheeler. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Nov 30, 2020).

Islamicate Civilization: The View from Asia

Bruce B. Lawrence

IN FALL OF 1998, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics came to Duke University to address the notion of cultural complexity or multiculturalism. Amartya Sen was—and is—a Cambridge don. He is also Bengali. As a Bengali, he closely identifies with the cultural history of the Asian subcontinent, and so it was no surprise that in his talk at Duke, Amartya Sen gave a tip of his hat to an earlier Bengali Nobel laureate, the poet, Rabindranath Tagore. Yet Sen also noted two other figures, who projected multicultural and cosmopolitan thinking in South Asia. One was the eleventh-century Ghaznavid polymath, al-Biruni, the other the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor, Akbar.

While both al-Biruni and Akbar made major contributions to the expansive force of Islamicate civilization, neither would rank high in any estimate of Islam as a religious or juridical system.

The cases of al-Biruni and Akbar raise a pivotal but often ignored question: How does one recuperate Islamicate civilization without ignoring or misrepresenting Islam? It is a key question for all who reflect on the Muslim world and try to impart its lessons in the classroom. It is the key question that absorbed Marshall Hodgson in his landmark, three-volume analysis of Islamic or better “Islamicate” civilization. It is the question that will absorb me, as I try to chart the continued relevance of Hodgson’s work more than 25 years after its initial publication1 and more than three decades since Hodgson’s own premature demise: he died in 1968 at the age of 46.

Islamicate civilization defines the dominant cultural idioms within the most heavily trafficked central zones connecting Africa to Asia. For shorthand, Hodgson calls this large expanse of the Mediterranean or middle world, the Afro-Eurasian oikumene. The Afro-Eurasian oikumene is an interactive and cosmopolitan domain. It is a widely diverse, global complex of subtraditions and histories. Defined by cities and trade, it projects a vast network of commercial and military, political and religious urban nodes, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

Focus on Islamicate civilization requires a retelling of Islamic origins. While Islam originated in the seventh century from the Arabian Peninsula, it did not become a world civilization till it passed beyond the borders of Arabia to the major centers of the Afro-Eurasian oikumene. Encompassing Iran and South Asia, Egypt and North Africa, Islamicate civilization came to include Persians and Turks, Berbers and Circassians, as well as Arabs. By the twelfth century, Islamicate civilization had become a multitiered force, and it was not eclipsed till the period of European expansion and conquest in the eighteenth century.

Such a vibrant diversity defies inclusive cataloguing, whether one attends to languages or ethnic groups or regions. It also strains the limits of a functional undergraduate syllabus: How would one begin to enumerate all the regional and subregional foci that a genuinely comprehensive catalogue, or a fully defensible syllabus, of Islamicate civilization would have to provide? Not easily; and since I am concerned with undergraduate teaching in North American universities, I will restrict myself to analyzing frame issues. The first, inescapable frame issue is to make sense of Islam and Islamicate variables.

Islam and Islamicate variables?! Yes, because even more crucial than adequate coverage of geographical diversity and historical achievements is the need to confront age old problems of key terms. Is the key term of an undergraduate course Islam or Islamicate civilization? To announce the question is to invite a comparison, which is also a contrast, between the notions of Islam as a religion or faith system and Islam as a global force or civilization.

While Islamicate civilization derives from Islam, the two are neither synonymous nor interchangeable. Islamicate civilization relates to Islam but also exceeds it. Islamicate civilization is about the complex of social relations that comprise the vast historical canvas of Muslim peoples. While Islamicate civilization projects belief and ritual, doctrine and law, shaped by Islamic perspectives, it is not limited to them. It exceeds them especially in its concern for the often taken-for-granted ways that patterns of conduct emerge. Islamicate civilization is as much about implicit ethical norms [adab] as it is about explicit juridical codes [Shariʿah]. It is as much about difference between regions and traditions as it is about sameness, collapsing geographical and cultural difference within an umbrella concept such as the “ummah.” It is as much about discontinuity over time as it is continuity, whether between the seventh and the twenty-first century of the Common Era or between the first and the fifteenth century in the Hijri calendar.

The focus on historical forces and social relations embeds an even greater departure from Islam viewed as a universal religion with discrete beliefs, rituals, and laws. To teach Islamicate civilization is to recognize, explore, and celebrate an Asian dimension in the lived experience of Muslim peoples. For the Afro-Asian oikumene marked by Islam is predominantly Asian rather than Arab; it draws more on the experience of Mongols and Mughals than it does on the history of Maghribis and Middle Easterners.

To teach Islamicate civilization is to announce, then pursue a resilient and persistent Asian focus. Most Muslims are Asian, and Islamicate civilization, like Muslim demography, derives its central focus and determinative profile from Asia. The teaching of Islamicate civilization, therefore, fails to reflect its subject, unless one highlights the worldview of millions of Asians, from Central to South to Southeast Asia. To etch my project, which is itself a summary revisioning of Hodgson’s project, I am advocating that one begin teaching Islamicate civilization by invoking a comparison between West Asian or Middle Eastern notions of Islam across time and Central or South Asian notions of Islam as a world historical force. The comparison immediately involves a contrast between, on the one hand, Arabs as the dominant group, with Arabic as the preferred language and, on the other hand, Central Asians (Turks, Mongols, Circassians) or South Asians (Afghans, Punjabis, Bengalis) as the dominant group, with Persianate norms as the core worldview, projected through several languages but especially Persian.

The reverse proposition will raise eyebrows but has equal cogency: if Islam is both Persianate and Central or South Asian in its major premodern profile, then one cannot teach or write the history of Asia without a recurrent and nuanced Islamicate component. Indeed, if one excludes Islamicate civilization from Asian history, the result is to orientalize and etherealize one of the major elements in world history during the long millennium just ended.2

Of course, not all Asians, not even all scholars of Asia, are willing to acknowledge Islam as a major civilization in the Afro-Asian oikumene. Islam competes with two other preeminent Asian civilizations: the Indic in the South and the Chinese in the East. Can Asia have three major civilizational forces? Yes, as one of the oldest and most continuously trafficked continents, it has shaped, even as it has been shaped by, three equivalent, if competitive, worldviews: the Indic, the Chinese, and the Islamic. Of the three, Islamicate civilization stands out as a transregional social construct, crossing and combining discrete regions more fluidly than do its adjacent rivals. Consider that neither Indic nor Chinese norms span the breadth of Asia through its central and southern regions to the extent that Islamicate norms do. Especially compelling is the contribution that Islamicate civilization made during the long first half of the second millennium of the Common Era, from roughly 1000 C.E. to 1600 C.E.

How can one begin to give the Islamicate contribution a proportionate place in the teaching of Asian history as world history? One must begin by retelling Islamicate civilization as an Asian tale of premodern multiculturalism. It is a tale complicated by the ambivalence of its religious dimension. Islam does not cease to be an Arab religion when it becomes a civilization, yet one must account for how Islam was transformed from a tribal code, or Arab cult, to a civilizational force, pervading but also imbibing non-Arab cultural norms. These norms were both Asian and African, yet in the eastward expansion of Islam, they became predominantly Asian.

Others have argued for an Asia-specific focus to the representation of Islamicate civilization. Among the best is Richard M. Eaton, especially in his lucid essay, “Islamic History as Global History.”3 Like Eaton, I am calling for closer attention to the emergence of distinctly Asian social patterns that are also closely identified with Islamicate patterns of interaction between a variety of groups, but especially rulers and ruled. At the least, an Asian accent requires mention of the following three traits in any broad historical survey of Islamicate civilization:

• The preference for a militarized society, with a standing army which requires regular use, often to invade and conquer adjacent regions;

• The likelihood of autocratic rule by a military leader invested with instrumental power but often claiming divine authority and patronizing scholars to further that claim;

• The erection of monuments commemorating religious heroes, as well as rulers of the past, built by the military leaders to strike awe in the living.4

None of these three is limited to Asia in their historical expression, nor do they project an exclusive linguistic option, yet for much of Central and South Asia they are linked to a pattern of language preference and high cultural usage that is at once evident and persistent. The link has been, above all, to Persian. Persian becomes the bridge element, opening Islamicate civilization to new, powerful forces of transformation. While Islam as religion has been often identified with the Arabic language and Arab norms, Arabs were merely the initiating agents for the development of Islamicate civilization. It was Persians, and even more Persianate norms, that provided the major instrument in premodern Muslim learning. What Arabs began Persians continued and also modified.

It was no less a person than the Arab Prophet Muhammad who once observed: “If scholarship hung suspended in the highest parts of heaven, the Persians would attain it.” So evident was this tradition to the universal historian Ibn Khaldun that he quoted it in the late fourteenth century to support his own observation, to wit, that “only the Persians have engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works.”5

But already the terms “Arab” and “Persian” beg for qualification. Just as the Arabic language was not limited to Arabs, having been mastered and used by Berbers, Persians, and Turks, among others, so Persian was not a language only for inhabitants of the Iranian plateau. From Central to South to Southeast Asia, Persian was used as both a literary and cultural idiom for diverse groups. Its flexibility as well as its appeal are better etched in the related but not identical term “Persianate.”

Why does one have to distinguish “Persianate” from Persian? Persianate is a neologism, a new term first coined by the world historian Marshall Hodgson in his monumental three-volume work, The Venture of Islam, referred to earlier.6 Persianate depicts a cultural force linked both to the Persian language and to self-identified Persians. Yet Persianate is more than either a language or a people; it highlights elements that Persians share with other non-Persian Muslims. Persianate is allied with Islamicate, another neologism coined by Hodgson. Adab, or custom in the broadest sense, may illustrate their similarity while also underscoring their nonequivalence.7 In examining a range of sociocultural norms lumped together under the term “adab,” one might use the qualifier Persianate, if one wants to stress the importance of Persian as a linguistic component, or Islamicate, if one wants to acknowledge the way in which Islam itself is invoked even when the connection between cultural observance and religious loyalty proves to be very slim. Persian poetry written by Turks, Persian paintings produced by Indians, Persian monumental architecture built by Mongols—all have Islamicate dimensions, yet are not restricted to a specific religious audience or to a precise ritual usage. Even when Persianate and Islamicate seem to converge, they express complementary excesses: Persianate connotes more than linguistic usage, just as Islamicate connotes more than creedal commitment, ritual performance, or juridical loyalty.

I am the first to admit that communicating Persianate and Islamicate nuances to undergraduates is a challenge. One can duck it, but at the risk of oversimplification and reversion to stereotypes. One can take it up, but only with judicious use of sources that have appeared since Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam. One might best begin by assigning the Encylopaedia Britannica. Don’t go to the library, unless you crave the printed page, for you can now find Britannica Online at There you can access a masterful overview of Islamicate civilization written over a decade ago by an accomplished historian of premodern Afro-Asian Islam, Marilyn Waldman. Professor Waldman builds on the work of her own teacher, who was none other than Marshall Hodgson. Like the inventor of Islamicate and Persianate accents, Waldman tries to make sense of the actual stages of shift within Islamicate civilization.

Her prose not only mirrors Hodgson’s but also simplifies and streamlines some of his major theses. Waldman begins by noting that already by the middle of the first millennium, before the Common Era, there already existed four cultural core areas: Mediterranean, Nile-to-Oxus (not Middle Eastern!), Indic, and East Asian (or Chinese). Two rivers, the Nile to the south and Oxus to the north, are a better way of etching the core area of Islamic civilization than Middle Eastern or Near Eastern. It was these two rivers, the Nile and the Oxus, that framed major developments characterizing the early three phases of Islamicate civilization. They are, according to Waldman’s reckoning, best viewed in alliterative or assonant pairs:

Formation and Orientation (500–634) is Phase One; it ends with the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Conversion and Crystallization (634–870) is Phase Two: though Islamic rule comes to prevail, there are not yet Muslim majorities in all regions under Islamic rule.

Fragmentation and Florescence (970–1041) defines Phase Three, as Muslim polities splinter while Islam itself emerges as a major civilizational force for the first time.

Most students find it hard to grasp the notion that political disunity and cosmopolitan engagement occur during the same period of Islamic history. One can illustrate the paradox of this development through the life of Ahmad Raihan al-Biruni (d. ca. 1050). This is the same al-Biruni to whom Amartya Sen made reference in his 1998 address at Duke University. Al-Biruni is, as Sen correctly observed, a pivotal figure in the emergence of Asian-style Islamic cosmopolitanism.

The dynast who was his patron, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, was responsible for continuing the political disintegration of a centrally controlled Muslim empire. He was a Turkish military chieftain, committed to expanding his own territorial realm and dynastic power. Yet Sultan Mahmud was also wedded to Islamicate norms. He saw the Persian language, art, and architecture as the natural extension of his own authoritarian rule. He enlisted, supported, then controlled a coterie of talented intellectuals. Al-Biruni, like the poet Firdausi, author of-the epic Shahnameh, chafed under Sultan Mahmud’s edicts yet also benefited from his patronage.

How did al-Biruni become an exemplar of Islamicate civilization, an exponent of that Asian-based multiculturalism that was at once premodern and Persianate? His native tongue was a variant of present day Uzbek, yet he also spoke and wrote in Persian. He was familiar enough with three “classical” languages to write in one and to translate from the other two: Arabic, Greek, and Sanskrit. Yet he was not a literary scholar. Rather, he became an extraordinary scientist and is said to have produced some 138 books, treatises, and translations. Only 22 are known to have survived, most of them written in Arabic, though some also exist in Persian renditions.

One of al-Biruni’s less well-known translations concerned perhaps the most famous classical Sanksrit text on meditation or yoga. He translated the yogasutras of Patanjali from Sanskrit into Arabic. Titling it the Book of Patanjali (Kitab Batanjal), he showed how many, and varied, were the connections between Hindu and Muslim spiritual practices.8 The other, more famous, book dealing with Sanskrit texts was his wide-ranging examination of Indic scientific sources. It was supplemented by conversations with Hindu pandits, whom al-Biruni met while forced to accompany Sultan Mahmud on military campaigns in the Ganges region. Written in Arabic, its full title was The Book Confirming What Pertains to India whether Intellectually Acceptable or Abhorrent [kitāb taḥqīq ma lil-Hind min maqbuūlah lil-‘aql aw mardhuūlah], but it is often simply known as the India, since the most complete English rendition, made by C. E. Sachau, was entitled Alberuni’s India. First published in 1910, it has been often reprinted.9

While al-Biruni stands at the apex of pre-Mughal Islamic scholarship on non-Muslim religious traditions, he had few followers, ironically perhaps because his principal work was written in Arabic, not in Persian. During the following centuries leading up to the Mughal or Indo-Timuri period (1526–1857), both Islamicate and Persianate emphases expanded within Islamic civilization. Persian style as well as Persian language, customs, and arts were widely adopted throughout South Asia. Their impact was attested, above all, in the life and labor of Emperor Akbar (1555–1604).

Akbar embodied the three traits of Persianate society etched above. Each had developed during the twin periods that Waldman describes as the highwater mark of Islamicate civilization. Nor is it coincidence that these developments occurred after the time of al-Biruni and the Ghaznavids. Islamicate civilization witnessed the infusion of first Turkish, then Mongol elements into the Persianate spirit that had begun in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The two next phases are marked as:

Migration and Renewal (1041–1405). It ends with the death of Timur, or Tamurlane, who is himself a Chaghatai Turk but sympathetic to Mongol ideals. Above all, Timur embodied a form of Islamic absolutism that prevailed in the next phase.

Consolidation and Expansion (1405–1683). This period gave rise to three new forms of absolutist rule, each of them predicated on military dominance, bureaucratic centrism, and monumental art in the service of dynastic power. Indo-Timuris or Mughals shared center stage with Ottomans and Safavids. In terms of Persianate influence, all represented new levels of advance, but the Indo-Timuris were the only dynasty to flourish in an Asian environment that was not only non-Muslim but strongly Indic in its civilizational outlook.

It is undoubtedly due to the Indic element in Islamicate civilization as it evolved south of the Himalaya mountain range that one can see the influence of saints. Saints not only flourished and commanded popular devotion, but they also rivaled Persianate rulers, even the most powerful of dynasts, even the Emperor Akbar.

By the mid-sixteenth century, when a youthful Akbar ascended the throne vacated by his father, Humayun, saints had become the major custodians and transmitters of Turko-Persian Islamicate values. Akbar acknowledged the power of saintly figures, especially those identified with the Chishti order, but he subordinated them to his “superior” dynastic power, one that approached a quasi-divine status not unlike his famous ancestor, Timur or Tamerlane.

The Mughals were, in fact, not Mongols (as their name implies) but Indo-Timurids; they were the Indian legatees of Timur, the fourteenth-century military genius who, though not a Mongol, claimed Chingizid lineage. Timur, or Tamerlane, also projected Mongol military and ruling ideals. He combined in his person the notion of great military conqueror and supreme spiritual leader. His function was similar to that of the familiar Perso-Turkish kings, but his extensive conquests lent even more credibility to his claim of divine inspiration and support. Small wonder then that Akbar identified with Timur, at the same time that he raised the Indo-Timurid legacy to new heights as an emblem of Persianate cosmopolitanism.

Akbar began, as did all his most illustrious ancestors, with a stunning record of military success. Yet no one could have predicted that he would succeed to the extent that he did. At the outset of his rule, he faced major challenges. He ruled a circumscribed realm that hardly extended beyond the Indo-Gangetic plain of Northern Hindustan. His father Humayun, after succeeding Babur as the second Mughal dynast, had spent over 15 years in exile in Safavid Iran (1540–1555). He left the reconquest of India to Babur’s grandson, Akbar. Akbar spent almost all the early years of his reign engaged in military campaigning. Even though he combined military success with economic reform, even though he united the maritime, commercial province of Gujarat with the agricultural heartlands of the Punjab and Gangetic basins, making possible an enormous expansion of trade and production during his reign, it was Akbar’s ability to conquer militarily and then to assuage his former enemies diplomatically that earned him the largest place in Mughal annals.

Akbar also succeeded in attracting able men, both Hindu and Muslim, to serve him as courtiers. His chief tax officer was Todar Mal, a Hindu whom Akbar recruited over objections from Muslim notables. Through Todar Mal, Akbar constantly experimented with tax reforms until he evolved a system of administration and extraction that optimized his resources; it remained in place till modern times.

Akbar had more trouble achieving control and accountability in the religious establishment. He strove to establish Sufi Shaykhs as an alternate source of authority to the ‘ulama, guardians of everyday ritual and law in Islam, but he also tried to keep them subordinate to the Mughal court. Neither policy was fully successful.

Official Mughal accounts, our major source of data for the reign of Akbar and his Timurid relatives, do not explain the nature of the Sufi brotherhoods, nor do they expose the attitude of their legatees and devotees toward the emperor. We have to read between the lines, literally, in order to understand the social dynamics at work.

On the one hand, the Emperor Akbar was blessed by a Chishti master living near the capital city of Agra. The saint’s name was Shaykh Salim Chishti. At age 28, Akbar had produced only daughters, yet in a visit to Shaykh Salim, Akbar was told by the saint that his favorite wife would produce a male heir; not just one but three male heirs. Both predictions proved true, and in witness to the saint’s power, Akbar’s oldest son and future successor, the Emperor Jahangir, was named Prince Salim.

Nor did Akbar neglect to honor another saint, Shaykh Nizam al-Din Awliya (d. 1325). His was the dominant tomb complex of North India, located in the former capital city of Delhi. Akbar built a tomb honoring his father, Humayun, very near the tomb of Shaykh Nizam al-Din. Till today the tomb complex of Humayun remains a magnificent example of Akbar’s attention to memorials for the dead. Though its actual designer may have been Humayun’s widow, its patron and guiding force was the young emperor. Its central structure combines indigenous building traditions with familiar Persianate emphases. Just as white marble inlay in red sandstone lightens the octagonal formality of Humayun’s tomb, so does its setting in a four-cornered garden on a vast plane augur a new tradition of tomb gardens known as the Mughal style.

Yet the building of Humayun’s tomb near the tomb of Shaykh Nizam al-Din was an ambiguous gesture, for while his predecessors had favored Delhi, the young Akbar was suspicious of its past. In securing his own rule at Agra from 1556 to 1570, Akbar had to be aware of the tension between Agra and Delhi as rival imperial centers. It may have been, in part, due to their asymmetry (Delhi having the longer history, Agra the more immediate strategic advantage) that Akbar sought still another base from which to project his distinctive version of imperial authority. But one could not simply choose another site. The choice had to have symbolic and legitimating power such that others would be led to accept the rightness of the emperor’s decision. By linking Sikri to the saint who predicted the birth of his heirs and successors, Akbar made its selection as a new imperial center seem logical, even compelling.

There were also other advantages that appealed to the spiritual dimension of Akbar’s multifaceted personality. Having chosen Fatehpur Sikri, he was able to confirm and continue his affiliation with the tomb of Shaykh Mu‘in al-Din in Ajmer while also drawing on the power of a living saint, Shaykh Salim, and through him on the spiritual barakah that derived from his ascetic patron, Shaykh Farid al-Din Ganj-i Shakar (d. 1265) in the Punjab. Through a twofold, redoubled Chishti loyalty, Akbar could spiritually anchor his imperial legitimacy in provinces adjacent to Uttar Pradesh, the Punjab, and Rajasthan. Both regions were crucial to the political-military ambitions of his reign.

Akbar had begun to sponsor monumental art on a new and expansive scale, even before the foundation of Fatehpur Sikri, and he continued to do so after his brief residence in that lustrous red sandstone city outside Agra. As important as Akbar’s affiliation with Chishti saints was for the Fatehpur Sikri phase of his life, it became irrelevant during the final 20 years of his reign. His abrupt shift in loyalty had an impact on institutional Sufism that reverberated throughout the remainder of Mughal rule (till 1857 when the British assumed direct rule from Delhi). Just as neither Shaykh Salim nor Shaykh Mu‘in al-Din remained a constant focus of Akbar’s allegiance, so Fatehpur Sikri was sited as a temporary rather than a permanent capital city.

For Akbar, it was the emperor not a place nor a saint who was lauded as the apogee of authority—spiritual and temporal—in the Mughal polity. To the extent that his person became the metaphor for his realm, spiritual luminaries could only function by being linked to or subordinated within the aura of ultimate, imperial authority. The absolutist claims which were raised by Akbar, or by Abul-Fazl in Akbar’s name, forced a redefinition of both sainthood and dynastic succession.

In 1577, Abul-Fazl’s father, Shaykh Mubarak, drafted the decree [mahzar]. Its intention was to affirm the spiritual supremacy of the Emperor: he became officially superior to all religious functionaries and all religious institutions. By this time the Chishti silsilah had already lost whatever benefit its partisans—whether shrine custodians, living saints, or Hindu/Muslim devotees—may have gained by the favor that Akbar had showered upon them. Courtiers like ‘Abd al-Nabi and Shaykh Mubarak were removed from active advocacy of either their own Sufi legacy or the active mystical interests of others. Nor did the construction of Shaykh Salim’s tomb within the walled courtyard of the central mosque at Fatehpur Sikri promote the spiritual agenda of the Chishti lineage that he represented. Instead, the founding of Fatehpur Sikri affirmed Akbar—his brand of Islamic observance and his legitimate claim to rule as Timur’s offspring.

Akbar’s visit to saints’ tombs after 1577 reveals his changed mood. He only visits Delhi once and spends most of his time at Humayun’s tomb. When he does visit a couple of provincial saintly shrines, he uses these visits to draw attention to his own superior claims to spiritual favor. The Sufi exemplars, who shaped the first phase of his rule, were eclipsed, then gradually forgotten toward the final years of his life.

One of Akbar’s most solemn acts of remembrance concerned his own burial site. He opted to plan for his own tomb in advance of his actual death. The site, named Sikandara, suggested the link between Akbar and another legendary military genius, Alexander the Great. It was located on the outskirts of Agra in a sumptuous garden complex. The actual construction, and perhaps even elements of the design, were left to Akbar’s son and successor, Jahangir (1605–1627). The red sandstone forms the backdrop for intricate geometric patterns, including the reverse swastika, as well as delicate floral designs, all etched in black and white marble. Floating atop the entire edifice, almost suspended by their light surface, are four white marble minarets.

Its purpose was the same purpose as all Mughal art and architecture: to glorify the Emperor, imbuing his legacy with an aesthetic impress that no other human could rival or exceed. Except his own successors, of course, and it was the later Mughals—Jahangir with several monuments but especially I‘timad al-Dawla built for his father-in-law, Shah Jahan with the triumphant tribute to his wife known as the Taj Mahal, and even Awrangzeb, the last of the Great Mughals, with his limp lookalike to the Taj Mahal, the Bibi ka Maqbara, built for his own favorite wife after her decease. In short, the Great Mughal, whether Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, or Awrangzeb, had more concern with his own office and image than with loyalty to another authority—spiritual or temporal.

Beyond the Mughal court and its artistic legacy, Persianate concepts were reflected in regional courts and the self-conception of their ruling elites. Whether Kashmir or Gujarat, the Deccan or Bengal, one finds the traces of this same vibrant pattern of military control, spiritual dalliance, and monumental architecture. Bengal remains one of the showcases of Persianate culture in the premodern Muslim world. As Richard Eaton has argued in his brilliant monograph, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760,10 it is impossible to understand the most populous Muslim region of the subcontinent without resorting to Persianate concepts. Some conceal hierarchy by depicting all socioeconomic relationships as codependent, such as the famous Circle of Justice. Attributed to two prominent Persian adibs, Fakhr al-Din Razi (d. 1209) and Nasr al-Din Tusi (d. 1274), it was widely used by Turko-Persian elites in Bengal, as was the parallel but explicit theory of hierarchy, which placed certain spiritual masters or Sufi saints at the apex of collective wisdom, paralleling yet also rivaling the hierarchy of political rulers.

Whether in Bengal or elsewhere in Muslim South Asia, there emerged a distinctive Turko-Persian Islamicate culture. None of us like to use hyphenated multisyllabic neologisms when trying to communicate with cyberspaced undergraduates. The latter prefer a single click to a mouth-twisting phrase, yet it is Turko-Persian Islamicate culture, or Turko-Persianate Islamic culture, that best characterizes not only medieval Bengal but also other regions of Sultanate, then Mughal, and finally British India.

The major lesson may be about periodization. According to Waldman, in her synoptic overview of Hodgson cited above, there was no medieval period in Islamicate civilization. When the last of the major Persianate Empires, the Ottoman, was defeated at Vienna in 1683, there began the modern period that can be labeled: Reform, Dependency (on European colonial powers), and Recovery (following independence) (1683–present).

After the Classical Phase, which ended with al-Biruni in the mid-eleventh century or else with the death of Timur some 250 years later, there came the period of the Persianate Empires that built on classical features but also adapted to novel technologies, especially but not exclusively gunpowder. They were overshadowed, and also subordinated, to the ascendant European colonial powers, but without experiencing a medieval phase: the classical elided with the early modern which became the modern (and, some would argue, now the postmodern). What the emphasis on Turko-Persian Islamicate culture unfolds is a long prolegomenon to the advent of “modern” times, which also have tested the spirit and the resilience that were characteristic of Islamicate civilization in its earlier phases. Beyond the din of two World Wars, and beyond the technical/economic disparities that divide much of the modern Muslim world from Euro-American cybertopias, there remains the Persianate hope. It was etched by Marshall Hodgson when he wrote:

Islam as an identifiable institutional tradition may not last indefinitely [and the same may be said for Christianity and Judaism]-…but Persian poetry will not die so soon as the disquisitions of fiqh or kalam. And Persian poetry may eventually prove to be as potent everywhere as among those who use language touched by the Persianate spirit, and so by Islam.11

As the twenty-first century dawns, Hodgson’s project, cut short by his untimely death in 1968, remains the clarion cry or hope not only for Persian speakers but also for all who seek to identify the vitality and so the future resilience of Islamicate norms. One does not stop with Persian poetry but engages it in order to understand the further subtleties of cultural diffusion that continue to mark the persistence and the expansion of Islamic civilization. To move beyond Arabic and to include Persian as a foundational marker is merely to draw both together into a larger idiom, labeled by Hodgson the “Irano-Semitic.” The accent is neither on Arabic or Persian alone, but on both together, as an interactive, dynamic construct that implies the variability, and also the creativity, of Islamicate civilization, from its earliest historical chapters to the present. Beyond the cultural specifier of any language or culture looms the adaptable, permeable quality of Islamicate civilization. The necessary lesson for undergraduates and for those who teach them, therefore, is that Islamicate civilization need not “confront” multiculturalism or adapt to it, for it is, of its essence, multicultural.

Amartya Sen was right to quote both al-Biruni and the Emperor Akbar as premodern multiculturalists. They, like many of their co-religionists, were forerunners to a world that includes Asians as well as Arabs, non-Muslims as well as Muslims touched by the Persianate spirit. That is a lesson worth teaching from the annals of Muslim history as world history.


1. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974). A useful collection of some of Hodgson’s earlier essays has also been provided by Edmund Burke III. See Marshall G. S. Hodgson, Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam, and World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

2. If one were to tell the story of Islamicate civilization from the eighteenth century forward, then the key regional variable would be Southeast Asia rather than South Asia. I have provided a brief overview of the important Asian archipelago, which includes Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the Phillipines, within the arc of Islamdom in an earlier essay. See Bruce B. Lawrence, “The Eastward Journey of Muslim Kingship: Islam in South and Southeast Asia,” in The Oxford History of Islam, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), chapter 9: 394–431, but especially 420–431. Leonard Y. Andaya, The World of Maluku: Eastern Indonesia in the Early Period (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993) gives the most graphic account of how the extreme edge of the Asian or Malay archipelago became both a commercial frontier for Muslim traders and a cultural nexus of Islamicate with indigenous norms.

3. Richard M. Eaton, “Islamic History as Global History,” in Islamic and European Expansion: The Forging of a Global Order, ed. Michael Adas (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 1–36.

4. I have adapted this list from Robert L. Canfield, ed., Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

5. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967/1981), 430.

6. Especially in volume 3 of The Venture of Islam, Hodgson characterizes the entire sixteenth century and early seventeenth century as a period of Persianate flowering. Its Persianate stamp was as evident in the Ottoman Empire under Suleyman the Magnificent (1520–1566) and in the Mughal or Indo-Timuri Empire under Akbar (1556–1605), as it was in Safavid Iran under Shah Abbas (1587–1629). See The Venture of Islam 3:46–52.

7. For a thorough study of adab in the Asian subcontinent, see Barbara D. Metcalf, ed., Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of adab in South Asian Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

8. There have been many general studies of al-Biruni, but concerning his exploration of Hindu-Muslim themes in classical texts, see Bruce B. Lawrence, “The Use of Hindu Religious Texts in al-Biruni’s India with Special Reference to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras,” in The Scholar and the Saint: Studies in Commemoration of Abu’l-Rayhan al-Biruni and Jalal al-Din Rumi, ed. Peter J. Chelkowski (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 29–48.

9. The most accessible translation of al-Biruni’s classic is provided by Ainslee Embree in his abridgement of Sachau, Alberuni’s India; an account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India, about a.d. 1030 (New York: Norton, 1971).

10. Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

11. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 3:441.

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