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  • The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship & Sainthood in Islam by A. Afzar Moin
  • Richard M. Eaton
The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship & Sainthood in Islam. By A. Afzar Moin (New York, Columbia University Press, 2012) pp. $55.00 cloth $39.99 ebook

In this striking and innovative study, Moin explores the central ideas that informed the articulation of royal power across Central Asia, Iran, and north India between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The author argues that claims to royal power involved a fusion of two institutionalized ideas—sacred kingship and charismatic sainthood. Importantly, these ideas were not imposed from above. Rather, rulers fashioned their [End Page 289] imperial identity to conform to expectations that were already deeply embedded in the popular culture of the Persianate world.

The book employs a variety of disciplinary approaches to investigating these self-fashionings. First, it focuses less on textual traditions and more on social processes, especially “the ritual process by which ordinary humans become sacred sovereigns” (17). Second, when the author does use texts, he reads them “against the grain,” with a view to teasing out rumors, slurs, or innuendo about behavior that contemporary observers might have found transgressive. Third, the author rejects the conventions of modern area-studies disciplines that sharply separate the Iranian plateau from South Asia. Arguing that Mughal claims to power had incubated in lands beyond the Khyber Pass, Moin gives nearly as much attention to Safavid Iran and Timurid Central Asia as he does to his main story, Mughal India.

The study’s first chapter examines the ruling ideology of Timur (d. 1405), or “Tamerlane,” the great Central Asian warlord and empire builder who briefly brought nearly the entire eastern Muslim world under his sovereign rule. Moin shows that, although Timur himself never acknowledged the title, common people construed the warlord as the “Lord of Conjunction” (sahib qirani), so-called because astrologers of the day used the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter to order historical events and predict the future. In popular culture, such a figure denoted a millennial savior figure thought to have come to cleanse the world of injustice and corruption. Fifteenth-century Iran was alive with such figures, especially those who were descended from, or associated with, ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad.

A century after Timur, this same sociocultural milieu—one that teemed with millennial expectation; charismatic Sufism; and all sorts of magic, astrology, and claims of direct, active intercession with the divine—produced Shah Isma‘il, the charismatic leader of the Safavi Sufi order and founder of Iran’s Safavid dynasty. Embodying both hereditary sainthood and millennial sovereignty, Isma‘il, like Timur, was also perceived as the Lord of Conjunction, and he acted the part. Between 1501, when he seized Tabriz in Iran’s northwest, and 1510 when he conquered Herat in Afghanistan, Isma‘il seemed invincible, if not divinely guided, or even divine.

The heart of Moin’s study is devoted to showing how thoroughly the first five Mughal dynasts, like Iran’s early Safavid rulers, were steeped in the potent ideological brew of millennial sovereignty. Yet they all manifested this sort of sovereignty in different ways. As a descendant of Timur, Babur, the dynasty’s founder, had inherited his forebear’s charismatic authority, augmented by a personal devotion to Sufi orders in both Central Asia and India. By contrast, his son Humayun aligned his courtly schedule, and even his daily attire, to whichever planet dominated a given day of the week, while in other respects imitating the Safavids’ model of millennial sovereignty. In 1579, Akbar, the third Mughal, usurped juristic authority by declaring himself the imam and [End Page 290] mujtahid of the age. Three years later, there was an actual conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, and since this event occurred ten lunar years before the dawning of Islam’s second millennium, Akbar began issuing coins stamped with the word alfi (“thousand”). He also commissioned the writing of a millennial history (Tarikh-i Alfi), in which he was identified as the “Renewer of the Second Millennium.”

The fourth Mughal emperor, Jahangir, is often said to have fashioned his court after a stricter understanding of Islamic Law, but the...


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pp. 289-291
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