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The Mughal Empire
Book Review
Asif Iftikhar

Author: John F. Richards
Year: 1995
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

As part of the new Cambridge history of India, Richards’ work as a single-volume, coherent narrative history of the Mughal empire (covering the period from 1526 to 1720) focuses on how the collapse of the centralized formal apparatus of the Mughal empire impacted its decline in the later years.

Richards begins his history from Bābar’s victory at Panipat in 1526 and ends it with the period around Muhammad Shāh’s accession in Delhi in 1720. According to Richards, the basic structure of this centralized empire had badly disintegrated in the bitter war of succession between 1707 and 1720. The administrative structure of skilled technical staff lost its efficiency and effectiveness. In these circumstances, two central institutions – the revenue zabt (system) and the assignment of jāgirs1 – were badly affected as a consequence with jāgirs rapidly becoming local fiefs.  However, Richards presents a different view from that of Irfan Habib in response to the question whether this rapid collapse could have been the result of a “jāgir crisis” in the widening gap between the financial demands of the mansabdārs2 and revenue-yielding lands to meet those needs. Habib argues that, since the jāgīrdār3 did not hold his land for more than three or four years before transfer, he did not maintain any long-term interest in the peasantry. Hence, a jāgīrdār’s short-term needs inclined him to “sanction any act of oppression that conferred an immediate benefit upon him, even if it ruined the peasantry and so destroyed the revenue-paying capacity of that area for all time.”4 The zamīndārs5 squeezed between the peasantry and the jāgirdārs entered into armed revolt and rebellions (as those of the Jāts and the Sikhs, and, then as those in the form of the Mahratta resistance in the Deccan). Richards, on the other hand, shows that checks against abuse built into the system as early as during Akbar’s time continued up to Awrangzēb’s period (who, for example, retained many productive tracts in Golconda and Bijapur under his own control). Richards also refers to other critics who have pointed out difficulties in identifying the links in the oppression of jāgirdārs, agrarian resistance, and imperial decline. He agrees with other critics that transfers of jāgīrs for large holders may not have been as frequent as previously thought and many nobles may have held on to the lands for 10 years or more.6 In Richards’ opinion therefore the jāgīr crisis, while certainly serious, was not the central reason for imperial decline. In fact, the shortage of productive jāgīr lands, according to Richards, can be traced to official policy and the devastation and dislocation wrought by the Deccan wars. Richards believes that, in the wake of these wars, the system of non-hereditary salary assignments and the regulation of land tax system weakened. In part, the reasons for the revolts in northern India could also be traced to the inattentive administration in the years that Awrangzēb was involved in the Deccan.

Richards has emphasized centralized Mughal authority, particularly as it was instituted during Akbar’s time and projected in the persona of an ideal king in Abū al-Fadl’s Akbar Nāmah and Ā’īn-i Akbarī as the foundation of the empire. Two linkages were essential for this centralized authority: the ties of emotion and interest that bound the nobility to the throne and the contractual ties of self-interest that linked the rural aristocracies to the empire. The administrative structure and its ethos aimed at converting both linkages into dependable imperial servants. Both linkages came under great strain between 1689 and 1720. Shrinking frontiers, confusion, and loss of confidence halted the process that had steadily transformed each of the two groups into foundations for sustaining the centralized Mughal authority.

Awrangzēb failed to repair his relationship with the Rajputs or to incorporate the Mahrattas or the Telugus as participants in the governance of the empire. As a consequence of Akbar’s reforms, most zamīndārs and peasants were prospering in about 1580s to 1700. Richards argues that the very success of the Mughal agrarian system brought about important changes in rural society. These changes required but did not receive attention and adjustment by the later regime.  War, Richards points out, was after all the principal enterprise of the Mughal emperors, who allocated a great deal of their resources to the military, and the later Timurid regime did not succeed in converting armed zamīndars into less-powerful but useful, quasi-officials who would reliably carry out imperial policy.

Since Richards’ thesis revolves around the strength of the centralized administrative authority in a devolutionary set up and the strength of the military machinery, he devotes a substantive portion of his book to the description of Akbar’s personality, policies, and approach.7 The reader cannot also but notice contrasts later in an equally substantive portion devoted to a description of the same elements in Awrangzēb.8 Richards gives many details to explain how Akbar organized a complex administrative set-up and land-revenue system in which the ranking system of the mansabdārs ensured meritocracy and what Alvi terms as a professional  ‘asabiyyah that transcended ethnic or religious bounds on the one hand and sustained and augmented an ethos of loyalty and fidelity to the king.9 Abū al-Fadl’s portrayal of the Perfect Pādeshāh,10 even as super-hyperbolic amalgam of Persian illuminationist, Islamic khilāfat,11 Sufi pīr (master), Prophetic Mahdī,12 and shar‘ī mujtahid-imām13 themes, is reflective of the expectancies of utmost devotion to the Mughal sovereign where the ultimate service is in the form of complete discipleship. Although, true to his spirit of tolerance in religion, Akbar did not force his nobility as such to accept his Dīn-i Illāhī,14 yet it reflected the kind of devotion and loyalty that was expected in a system where the decision of placement within Akbar’s ranking system finally depended on the emperor’s favour. Akbar’s disenchantment with strict interpretations of religion had begun early and many of his measures (as abolition of heavy taxation from Hindu pilgrims in 1563, permission of apostasy to forcibly converted non-Muslims, and the end of jizyah in 1579) would strongly impact the sensibilities of the subjects he ruled. 15 Furthermore, his administrative genius also lay in not allowing any group, including the ‘ulamā, to be too powerful in its own right. Yet, it was not just force, organization, or military brilliance, but also a profound mix of political compromises (including marriage into the Rajputs and accepting them into nobility) and realpolitik that marked his enormous success. In contrast, even though Awrangzēb had many more Hindu mansabdārs in his court, there are striking differences in his approach towards the ‘ulamā,16 the sharī‘ah,17 arts, jizyah, and his own persona (where the concept of khānahzād18 gains preponderance over discipleship as epitomizing devotion to the emperor), et cetera. A deeper analysis of these factors is certainly required, which this book does not offer in contrast with the in-depth analysis of the aftermath of the Deccan campaigns and the changes in the administrative and military effectiveness.

The author’s allusions to many other aspects of Mughal rule successfully generate interest – as he intended – but, since he does not delve into these aspects as such, they leave room for further study to look into many questions of import. Inter alia, these questions include: a further study of succession wars,19 the role of religion and religious ideas and developments,20 and, in comparison with Europe, the slow development of military apparatus and technology.21>

Although the book serves its basic purpose of providing a coherent, narrative history that reads like a novel, generates great interest, and presents an important thesis cogently, yet, with focus on critique of the Marxist Aligarh school, there is not sufficient referencing for a more serious reader or a fruitful explanation of the sources and the historiographical approaches used in presenting other ideas of import.22 For example, in referring to ideological developments, the original, religious sources do not usually find any mention or analysis.23 Although formal transliteration has not been used, yet more attention could have been given to spelling and consistency.24

Despite some of these lacunae, the book serves as a useful primer that needs to be supplemented with other readings to look into the many interesting questions it raises about the Mughal history in India – a history that has become increasingly pertinent to the understanding of intellectual, social and political traditions of contemporary Indian-subcontinent.25   



1. Jāgīr (plural: jāgirs): Temporary right to collect land tax from specified tracts.

2. Mansabdār: Mughal officer with a specified numeral rank and title.

3. Jāgīrdār: Holder of jāgīr.

4. Irfan Habib, The Agrarian System of Mughal India (London: Asia Publishing House, 1963), 320. See also Amiya Kumar Bagchi, “Writing Indian History in the Marxist Mode in a Post-Soviet World,” Social Scientist, Issues 272-74 (Jan-March 1996): 89-109.

5. Zamīndār: Landlord/Landholder with direct control over the peasantry.

6. For example, Satish Chandra, Mediaeval India (Delhi: Orient Longmans, 1982), 73.

7. John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (1993; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 12-93.

8. Ibid., 165-252.

9. A term for group cohesiveness she borrows from Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406) in the introduction to her annotated translation of Maw‘izah-i Jahāngīrī of Muhammad Bāqir Najm-i Thānī; see Sajida Alvi, Advice on the Art of Governance: Maw‘izah-i Jahāngīrī of Muhammad Bāqir Najm-i Sanī – An Indo-Islamic Mirror for Princes (Albany, State University of New York, 1989), 9.

10. Pādeshāh: Persian ruler.

11. Khilāfat: Caliph rule.

12. Mahdī : A kind of reincarnation of Prophet Muhammad.

13. Shar‘ī mujtahid-imām: Independent legal/religious thinker and Muslim political leader (whose position is sanctified by Divine-law).

14. In which the superlative in the formulaic greeting of Allah Akbar, I suspect, implied Akbar’s person.

15. To quote Richards: “This [jizyah] was an annual tax imposed on the property of individual non-Muslims, who were illegally classified as dhimmis or client groups tolerated and protected by Muslim rulers. State officers, usually ulema, collected sums based on the wealth or possessions of the individual rate-payer…The regressive scale placed a real burden on the poorest taxpayers who paid an annual sum equivalent to a month’s wages for an unskilled urban laborer.

The symbolic value of this measure was very great. The jizyah defined the status and public obligations of non-Muslims protected by the Islamic community.” The Mughal Empire, 39. Note: Richards cites Nizami in refuting 1564 as the time reported by Abū al-Fadl for the abolition, K. A. Nizami, Akbar and Religion (Delhi: Idārah-i Adabiyyāt-i Dilli, 1989), 107-108, quoted ibid.

16. Cliques of religious scholars granted (by the ruler or by their own institution) or claiming religious authority, particularly in interpretation of Islamic law.

17. (Lit. “the path”). Divine law which the Muslims believe is contained in sources Divinely revealed to Prophet Muhammad; sometimes used synonymously with fiqh (Lit. “understanding;” Islamic law), which actually refers to human understanding and constructs of interpretation.

18. (Lit. “Son of the House”). An officer claiming hereditary family service to the Mughal emperor; Richards, Mughal Empire, 300.

19. For example, in comparison with the relatively irenic resolution of this issue in the Ottoman rule.

20. Richards makes frequent references to the complexity of religious issues in socio-political context, for example, in explaining Turānī-Irānī and Sunni-Shiite divides and conflicts, but does not go deeper into discourse analysis. A  few important examples with more references would have been useful, especially in employing a variety of translation materials as suggested by Finbarr B. Flood, Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1-14. From official chronicles (for example, Abū al-Fadl’s Akbar Nāmah and Ā’īn-i Akbarī) and unofficial chronicles and annals (for example ‘Abd al-Qādir Bada’ūnī’s Muntakhab al-Tawārīkh) and Maw‘izah (advice to rulers) literature (as Muhammad Bāqir Najm-i Thānī’s Maw‘izah-i Jahāngīrī) to ādāb (comportment and etiquette) and akhlāq (ethics) literature (as Ikhtiyār al-Dīn al-Husaynī’s Akhlāq-i Hamāyūnī) and religious literature as Sufi and mujaddidī (regeneration) maktūbāt (epistles), malfūzāt (recorded oral discourse), and other works and legal and juridical writings (as Fatāwa-i Ālamgīrī for example), one gets a strong sense of the impact of religious views and weltanschauungs in the Indian context. It is not the historian’s task to judge which view in a particular context is “religiously correct,” but it is most certainly within the ambit of his/her work to look into the socio-political context in which texts and discourses emerged and how related constructs and praxes developed in history. Just one out of the many possible examples would suffice here. In a frequently found theme in these sources of the “Just Sultan” borrowed from hadīth literature (…. innamā al-sultān zill Allāh ‘alā al-ard …. [verily the Sultan is the Shadow of God on Earth]; found in Tirmidhī etc -- going back to Ibn ‘Umar (al-Manīnī, al-Fath al-Wahbī, S̲h̲arh  al-Yamīnī vol.1 [Cairo 1286], 21), one could look into various hadīth asnād (chains) to evaluate the degree of its authenticity (a cursory look at this aspect reveals a number of weaknesses) and also look at it from an etic perspective to see how the linguistic usage of the term sultan was constructed from interpretations of hadīth sources and how later constructs were projected back.

21. Richards raises many questions regarding the indifference of the Mughal indifference to improved weaponry in Europe from the early years of 18th century onwards (for example, in field artillery; see for example Richards, Mughal Empire, 288-289). To examine these questions, the reader will need to study the theses of many other historians ranging from Marshall Hodgson, who analyses “the Gunpowder Empires” pointing out how the infantry with handguns became a vital force in Europe but, in the Islamic world, siege and field artillery caused major political changes (Marshall Hodgson, Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in World Civilization, 3 vols. [Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1974], 3:17-18) and McNeill (William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982]) to Duffy, Irfan Habib and many others (for example, Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare [London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1979)].

22. For example, as done by Alvi in her analysis of Naqshbandī-Mujaddidī discourses in an (unpublished) book-chapter, “Renewal of Faith and Islamic Practices in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Northern India: Discourses of the Naqshbandī-Mujaddidīs.” Alvi gives an introduction to the sources used, analyses their epistemic veracity, and brings out their socio-political context to present her views on the subject. It could be argued that one cannot expect this detail in a primer of general, narrative history, but a few examples of this kind related to issues of high import would have been useful. Also, see the next footnote.  

23. For example as done by Marcia K. Hermansen in her translation of Shā Walī Allāh’s magnum opus, Conclusive Argument from God: Shā Walī Allāh of Delhi’s Hujjat Allāh al-Bāligha (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996). Hermansen traces back each source to the original version(s); for example, in hadīth, the Qur’ān, and fiqh literature referred to by Walī Allāh. Similarly, Hodgson in his Venture of Islam provides sufficient references and contexts without compromising on the general narrative of his history. Compare that for example with Richards’ mention of the Prophetic tradition instrumental in the Mahdawī movement during the 15th century. An interested reader has to trace the reference himself. These details could have been easily added without detriment to the general nature of the book.

24. For example, sijda [sic; read sajda or sajdah], Richards, Mughal Empire, 48.

25. See for example comments on this aspect in the editorial introduction by Richard M. Eaton in India’s Islamic Traditions 711-1750 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1-9. See also, Carl W. Ernst’s reading of Vogelin’s historiomachies in Indian history; Eternal Garden: Mysticism, History and Politics at a South Asian Sufi Center (Albany: State University of New York, 1992), 19-20.

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