Reading Babur's Dreams: Religiosity and Kingship in Tenth/Sixteenth Century Central and South Asia

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Henry Brill, Kenyon College
A descendant of both Genghis Khan and Amir Timür, the Muslim ruler Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur—who founded the Timurid-Mughal Empire in the early tenth/sixteenth century—was born in 888/1483 in Andijan, a city in Timurid Central Asia. The Central Asia of Babur’s youth was politically divided, with Chinggisid-Uzbek, Chaghatayid-Moghul, and Timurid princes all striving for political supremacy. Babur’s largely autobiographical memoir—which is entitled Vaqāy’i’ or “Events,” but is often referred to as the Baburnama—is a particularly rich and unique historical source due to, at least in part, the complex politics of the milieu in which it was composed. In his memoir, Babur depicts himself as an ambitious prince and poet tasked with navigating the tensions between his own Turko-Mongol, Muslim customs and those of the land that he ruled—which lies in northern India—for his intended audience, members of the Central Asian ruling élite.

Although Babur was a Muslim ruler who established an empire in which Islam was a minority religion, there is relatively little direct discussion of religion in his memoir. Accordingly, expressions of religiosity have remained a relatively understudied aspect of this important text. While Babur scarcely refers directly to Islam in his memoir, his Islamic religiosity is very much evident in his dream narratives, which describe his oneiric encounters with Sufī awliyā, or saints. Viewing the Baburnama as a reflection of the political and religious milieu in which Babur lived, I analyze one of the two principal dream narratives included in his memoir as an articulation of Timurid religiosity and kingship. When properly contextualized, this particular dream narrative emerges as a textual space in which understandings of walāya, or saintly authority, and Turko-Mongol kingship are negotiated. Analysis of this particular dream narrative suggests that in Babur’s milieu, walāya and royal sovereignty were two closely connected forms of authority—with royals competing for the support of politically-involved Sufī shaykhs and, conversely, with members of Sufī groups vying for the loyalty of various royals. Ultimately, my analysis attempts to provide new perspectives on the role of Islam in Timurid-Mughal conceptions of political legitimacy and kingship.

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