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Polemics and Persecution at the Mughal Court: a Shii Debate at the Time of Akbar

Sajjad Rizvi
University of Exeter
Aligarh Historians Society Workshop at Indian History Congress 2015

Much of the literature on the time of Akbar is characterized by praise for his latitudinarian
approach to different religious confessions: let a thousand flowers bloom in the gardens of
Hindustan so to speak! In particular, this religious policy has been linked to the notion of
sul-i kull or universal peace (or perhaps peace towards all confessions), that an earlier
generation argued was the ethical instrumentalisation of the Sufi doctrine of monism
(wadat al-wujd) as adopted by the Chisht order;1 however, more recently Azfar Moin
has countered that the notion began with Akbar and was central to his self-realisation as a
millennial sovereign, underpinned by the ideological formulation of Abu-l-Fal in the
Akbarnma.2 Besides, certain acts of persecution of Shia notables and divines in this
period do seem to raise questions about the efficacy of sul-i kull.3 Broadly speaking this
policy, of placing the Mughal Emperor about the petty confessionalism of elements of the
court, was then further developed under Jahngr. One of the main arguments seems to be
that the plurality of confessions at court (including prominent Iranian notables who were
Shii) required a policy of tolerance of religions.4 But the question then arises: how can we
understand the role of Shiism at court in this period? How do we make sense of the
execution of the Iranian theologian Sayyid Nrullh Shshtar in 1610 on the orders of
Jahngr? Was India immune to the sectarian turn of the early modern period as
exemplified in the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, an imperial conflagration that replaced the
earlier Timurid tendency of confessional ambiguity or even tashayyu-yi asan?5

M. Athar Ali, Mughal India: Studies in Polity, Ideas, Society, and Culture, New Delhi: Oxford University Press,
2006, 15872, who also denies, contra Rizvi, any Shii influence on Akbar on this issue. What can be deduced
is Akbars attempt to place himself above the confessional differences of his nobility. Another recent work
argues that the Mughal emperors fostered an atmosphere of confessional harmony which included an
assumption that Shii notables would not be too public about their beliefs see Afzal Husain, Section II:
Medieval India . Sectional Presidents Address. Accommodation and Integration: Shias in the Mughal
nobility, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 69th session, 2008, 21124.
Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship & Sainthood in Islam, New York: Columbia University
Press, 2012, 14159. He would argue that attempts to locate the concept in Sufism or even in Bhakhti
devotionalism such as Savitri Chandra, Akbars concept of sulh-i kul, Tulsis concept of Maryada and
Dadus concept of Nipakh: A comparative study, Social Scientist, 20 (October 1992), 3137 are misguided.
For example, Sayyid Amad Thaav, a prominent Shii thinker who was the first redactor of the Trkh-i
Alf, was murdered by Mrz Fawld Barlas in 1585 in Lahore and later his tomb was desecrated see Ab-l-
Fal, Akbarnma, ed. Maulav Abd al-Ram, Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1877, III, 527, tr. Beveridge,
Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1939, III, 804; Husain, Shias in the Mughal nobility, 216; Saiyid Athar Abbas
Rizvi, Religious and Intellectual History of the Muslims in Akbars Reign, Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1975,
25657, 269.
See Afzal Husain, The Nobility under Akbar and Jahangir, New Delhi: Manohar, 1999.
On confessional ambiguity or philo-imamism or good Shiism, see Mohammad Masad, The Medieval
Islamic Apocalyptic Tradition: Divination, Prophecy, and the End of Time in the 13th Century Eastern
Mediterranean, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington University, 2008, esp. 156166; Evrim Binba,
Sharaf al-Dn Al Yazd (ca. 770s-858/ca. 1370s-1454): Prophecy, Politics, and Historiography in Late Medieval


In order to address these questions, I shall examine one debate between two Iranian
migr thinkers at the Mughal court in Agra, contextualizing it within the intellectual
history of polemical literature in the Persianate world as well as the attempts to discern
the distinctions between Safavid Iran and Mughal India. I will then conclude with some
comments on its implications for our understanding of Mughal religious policy and return
to the particular question of the execution of Shshtar.

While it is certainly evident that religious difference does not necessitate violence nor do
contemporary phenomena of sectarian violence provide evidence for the political
manifestation of age-old hatreds, it is also clear that sectarian bias, discrimination and at
times violence, both objective and subjective were not inventions of the colonial state.6
Perhaps the fundamental question was if the Mughal polity was open to religious
pluralism did it mean that confessions could openly profess their beliefs without any fear
of reprisal: more specifically in the case of the Shia, did it mean that the time for
dissimulation (taqya), of hiding ones true beliefs for fear of persecution, was over? This
was at the heart of the debate between Sayyid Nrullh Shshtar and Mr Ysuf
Astarbd in Agra.7 Sayyid Nrullh himself argued that because Akbar was a just ruler,
there was no need for taqya.8 Of course, those critical of Akbar such as Badyun actually
did allege a streak of anti-Sunnism if not philo-Shiism in the policy of Akbar led astray by
the likes of Ab-l-Fal.9 Even the latter mentions this accusation in the Akbarnma,

Islamic History, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 2009, 76174; Matt Melvin-Koushki,
The Quest for a Universal Science: The Occult Philosophy of in al-Dn Turka Ifahn (1369-1432) and
Intellectual Millenarianism in Early Timurid Iran, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 2012, esp.
6977; Adam Jacobs, Sunn and Sh Perceptions, Boundaries, and Affiliations in Late Timurid and Early
afawid Persia: An Examination of Historical and Quasi-historical Narratives, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1999; Cornell Fleischer, Shadow of Shadows: Prophecy in
Politics in 1530s stanbul, in B. Tezcan and K. K. Barbir (eds), Identity and Identity Formation in the Ottoman
World: A Volume of Essays in Honor of Norman Itzkowitz, Madison: Center for Turkish Studies at the
University of Wisconsin, 2007, 5162; Ihsan Fazlolu , lk Dnem Osmanl lim ve Kltr Hayatnda
hvanus-Saf ve Abdurrahman Bistm, in Dvn lm Aratrmalar Dergisi, Istanbul, 1996, 2/229-40,
available at publication/articles/1.php?id=114; idem, Forcing the
Boundaries in Religion, Politics and Philosophy: Science in the Fifteenth Century, In an earlier generation, a number of
authors wrote about syncretic beliefs centred on spiritual attachment to the Imams: Marijan Mol, Le
Kubrawiya entre Sunnisme et Shiisme aux huitime et neuvime sicles de lhgire, Revue des tudes
islamiques 29 (1961), 61142; Henry Corbin, En Islam iranien, Paris: Gallimard, 1971, I, 138. There is also a
forthcoming volume on Confessional Ambiguity, ed. Judith Pfeiffer, Leiden: Brill, 2017.
Cf. the classic essay by the late Christopher Bayly, The pre-history of communalism? Religious conflict in
India, 1700-1860, Modern Asian Studies, 19 (1985), 177203.
I am certainly not the first to discuss this correspondence. Mr Hshim Urmav does so in the introduction
to his edition of al-awrim al-muhriqa of Sayyid Nrullh as does Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History, I, 357
62. I am merely taking advantage of a recent critical edition of the text: Asila-yi Ysufya: jidl-i andshag-yi
tafakkur-i sha-yi ul b akhbr. Muktibt-i Mr Ysuf Al Astarbd va shahd Q Nrullh Shshtar,
ed. Rasl Jafaryn, Tehran: Kitbkhna, mza va markaz-i asnd-i Majlis-i Shur-yi Islm, 1388Sh/2009.
Bay of Inyat Khn Rsikh, MS Aligarh Habib Ganj Collection 50/335 (Frs), fol. 94r95r, cited in
Husain, Shias in the Mughal nobility, 217.
Badyn, Muntakhab al-tavrkh, ed. Maulav Amad Al, Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1869, III, 137.


alongside Akbars pleasure with those who eschewed confessional bigotry.10 Badyn
even decried the short-lived experiment of debates in the Ibdatkhna as attacks on the
very basis of the faith.11

Sayyid Nrullh was a significant figure, who featured prominently in many biographical
dictionaries both Iranian and Indian.12 One of the earliest accounts of his life is by his son
Sayyid Al al-Mulk who found patronage in Bengal with Prince Shuj (and which may
account for his silence on how his father died).13 He came from the southern borderlands
of the Ottoman-Safavid conflict in Tustar/Shshtar, from a bilingual social context, where
he was born in 956/1549. His father Sayyid Sharf al-Dn had been a student of Shaykh
Ibrhm al-Qaf, the independent minded jurist originally from Eastern Arabia active at
the Safavid court.14 He himself studied with Abd al-Wad Shshtar who was linked to the
philosophers of Shiraz. He moved to Mashhad to continue his studies arriving in 1572;
however, the turmoil following the death of Shah ahmsb in 1576 led to his decision to
move to India. He was already an accomplished scholar before he left for India in 993/1585.
He gained the patronage of Akbar and was appointed a judge in Lahore according to the
Sunni legal rites Rizvi is adamant that the evidence suggests that Akbar knew he was
Shii.15 This might have been partly because after the campaigns in Punjab, engaging with
Kabul and the pacification of Sind, Akbar had sent the ulam of Lahore into these regions
and there was a need to replenish personnel in this major city; he may also have needed
more compliant and loyal ulam following the revolt of the Shii q of Jaunpur Mull
Muammad Yazd and who better to fill that role than another foreigner.16 So recipient of

Ab-l-Fal, Akbarnma [The History of Akbar], ed./tr. Wheeler Thackston, The Murty Library, Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2016, vol. 2, 47.
Badyn, Muntakhab al-tavrkh, II, 255; Rizvi, Akbar, 12426.
Modern studies include: Muqaddima, to Shshtar, Maib al-nawib f-l-radd al Nawqi al-rawfi,
ed. Qays al-Ar, Qum: Dall-i m, 1426 H/2005, I, 1228; Sayyid Sib al-asan Hansv, Takira-yi majd:
Shahd-i slis, Karachi: Dr al-thaqfa al-islmya, 1962; Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History
of the Isnashar Shs in India, Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1986, I, 34288; Wayne Husted, Shahd-i Slis:
Q Nrullh Shshtar: An Historical Figure in Shite Piety, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of
Wisconsin-Madison, 1992; Sayyid amr Akhtar Naqv, Shahd-i slis Allma Q Nrullh Shstar [sic!],
Karachi: n.p., n.d. Classical sources include: Mrz Abdullh Afand, Riy al-ulam wa-iy al-fual, ed.
Sayyid Amad al-usayn al-Ashkiwar, Qum: Maktabat yatullh al-Marash, 1981, V, 265; al-urr al-mil,
Amal al-mil, ed. Sayyid diq la Bar al-ulm, Najaf: al-Mabaa al-aydarya, 1966, I, 226; Sayyid Al al-
Mulk usayn Shshtar (son of Sayyid Nrullh), Firdaws dar trkh-i Shshtar, ed. Mr Jall al-Dn Urmav,
Tehran: Anjuman-i sr u mafkhir-i farhang, 1378 Sh/1999, 1646; Mrz Muammad asan usayn
Zunz (d. 1228/1808), Riy al-janna, ed. Al adr Kh, Qum: Kitbkhna-yi yatullh Marash Najaf,
1390 Sh/2011, V, 2058.
Al al-Mulk Shshtar, Firdaws; Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History, II, 3. Mrz Muammad diq Ifahn
(d. 1651) in his ub-i iq draws heavily upon the work of Shshtar and on his friendship with Al al-
Mulk on the biography of Sayyid Nrullh. There are numerous manuscripts of this latter work of which I
have consulted MS British Library Or. 1728, a 19th century copy.
An ijza dated 944/1537 authorising the teaching of the legal manual Irshd al-adhhn of Allma al-ill is
reproduced in Muammad Bqir Majlis, Bir al-anwr, Beirut: Dr Iy al-turth al-arab, 1990, CV, 116
Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History of the Isnashar Shs in India, Delhi: Munshiram
Manoharlal, 1986, 349; see also Hansv, Takira-yi majd, 3738.
See Douglas Streusand, The Formation of the Mughal Empire, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989, 155;
cf. Ab-l-Fal, Akbarnma, tr. H. Beveridge, rpt., Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 2000, III: 41522; Badyn,


imperial favour was certainly Sayyid Nrullhs lot. In a letter than must have been
penned probably in the 1590s to Shaykh Bah al-Dn al-mil (d. 1621), the Shaykh al-
Islm of Isfahan and a friend of his fathers, he wrote:

After traversing long distances and undergoing considerable pains and agony, I
reached the Indian capital. There luck favoured me and I obtained an opportunity to
benefit from the luminous sun and found repose under the shadow of the great
Sultan, Akbar
Through divine grace and blessings, I obtained a lofty position and the honour of the
companionship of the emperor[whose] patronage and favours increase daily. In
fact my success is due to divine munificence and the benevolence of the Prophet and
the friend of God, Al ibn Ab lib. The high position and nearness to the Emperor
did not, however, make me forgetful of myself. I was always conscious of the
hereafter and of the ultimate end of mortal beings. In refuting the arguments and the
rationale of the Nawib [anti-Shii Sunnis], I was guided by the holy traditions of my
ancestors. In these circumstances, I came to the conclusion that in India, taqiyya was
a great calamity. It would expel out children from the Immya faith and make them
embrace the false Ashar or Mtrdi faiths. Reinforced by the kindness and the
bounty of the Sultan, I threw away the scarf of taqiyya from my shoulders and, taking
with me an army of arguments, I plunged myself into jihd against the Sunni ulam
of this country. I was convinced that active religious polemics and discussions
against the Sunni ulam was the jihd which would make the best provision for the
world hereafter. First of all I wrote Maib al-nawib which refutes the Nawqi al-
rawfi. My arguments in that book smeared the beard of the author of the Nawqi
with filth. Then I wrote al-awrim al-muhriqa. Because of my book the bitter attacks
by the author of the Sawiq on the Shs rebounded upon him and reduced the
Sawiq, which claimed to be lightening to ashes. God also gave me the strength to
perform other deeds.17

In such a correspondence with a major figure of the Safavid court a space that was rife
with polemics and in which the Shia need not worry about the consequence of
enunciating their version of sacred history and theology it would be perhaps self-serving
for Sayyid Nrullh to claim such a courageous position of defending the faith. And it also
assumes that the court would have a strong religious hue (as one assumed it did in Iran
and at the Ottoman and Uzbek courts). One also sees how his own portrayal of his life as a
heroic figure is fashioning himself as a major scholar and a leading divine of his age
furthering the Safavid Shii cause despite being in India.

Sayyid Nrullh was known for the polemics that he wrote, most of which were penned in
India. It is odd that some biographers refer to Majlis al-muminn as a polemical work it
was more a vindication of Shii Islam through an appropriation of previous Sufis and a
whole range of cultural, religious and intellectual figures as Shii. The text was an attempt
to demonstrate the primordiality and contribution of the Shia to Islamic history and

Muntakhab al-tavrkh, ed. Maulv Amad Al, rpt., Tehran: Anjuman-i sr u mafkhir-i farhang, 1380
Sh/2001, II: 26676.
Bayz of Inyat Khn Rsikh, MS Aligarh Habib Ganj Collection 50/335 (Frs), fol. 94r95r, translated by
Rizvi in A Socio-Intellectual History, I, 35758.


civilization, and is only indirectly polemical. It was completed in Lahore in Dh-l-Qada

1010/May 1602. Yet according to the sources, it was its discovery that led to much
consternation among the Sunni ulam at Jahngrs court. One needs to locate the
polemics within a wider context of Shii responses to Sunni accusations.18 These took the
form of (at least) four cycles of texts. The first was the Risla Uthmnya of al-Ji (d.
255/869), which was written around the year 240/854, to which a number of classical
authors penned responses such as the Refutation (Naq) of the famous theologian al-
asan b. Ms al-Nawbakht (d. c. 310/922) and especially Bin al-maqla al-Fimya of
Sayyid Jaml al-Dn Ibn ws (d. 673/1274).19 The second cycle of texts began with Minhj
al-karma of Allma al-ill (d. 725/1325), written probably in 710/1311 for the Il-Khan
Uljaytu, which was refuted by the Minhj al-sunna of Ibn Taymya (d. 728/1328) a few years
later, not the only anti-Shii polemic he wrote.20 The third cycle, and a little known one,
started with al-Risla al-muria f-l-radd al l-rawfi (Refutation of the Rejectors) of
Ysuf b. Makhzm al-Awar al-Wsi in the 9th/15th century which led to a refutation in al-
illa in 839/1435 by Najm al-Dn Khir al-abalrd entitled al-Taw al-anwr bi-l-ujaj
al-wrida li-daf shubhat al-Awar (The Clarifying Lights through scriptural proofs warding
off the objections of the One-Eyed).21 The fourth, which is crucial for Sayyid Nrullh,
began with Ibl nahj al-bil (Invalidity of the path of falsehood) written around 909/1503
by Falallh b. Ruzbihn al-Khunj (d. 927/1521), a prominent Timurid historian and
theologian in refutation of Nahj al-aqq wa-kashf al-idq of Allma al-ill.22 It was this
text to which Nrullh responded with Iqq al-aqq completed in Lahore in 1605.23

There is still a dearth of serious academic literature on polemics. These are good starting points that are
relevant for this study: Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, Shh Abd al-Azz: Puritanism, Sectarian Polemics and Jihd,
Canberra: Marifat Publishing House, 1982, and Rasl Jafaryn, Siysat u farhang-i rzgr-i afav, Tehran:
Nashr-i ilm, 1388Sh/2009, I, 11124.
Al-asan al-Nawbakht was a member of a famous family of theologians and court officials on whom see
Abbs Iqbl shtiyn, Khndn-i Nawbakht, Tehran: Kitbkhna-yi hr, 1345Sh/1966. He was the author
of a famous work on heresiography Firaq al-sha (ed. Helmut Ritter, Istanbul, 1931, tr. A. Kdhim, London:
ICAS Press, 2007) and also a commentary on Aristotles De generatione et corruptione, ed./tr. Marwan
Rashed, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015; but the authorship of this latter text has been disputed see asan
Anr, y Talkh al-kawn wa-l-fasd talf az asan ibn Ms al-Nawbakht ast? Barras-h-yi trkh,
available at accessed 18 April 2016. The original text of the later author
is Ibn ws, Bin al-maqla al-Fimya, ed. Sayyid Adnn al-Ghurayf, Qum: Muassasat l al-Bayt li-iy
al-turth, 1991, and the classic study is Asma Afsaruddin, A Shii Polemic against al-Ji: the Bin al-maqla
al-Fimiyya of Amad Ibn ws, unpublished PhD dissertation, 1995.
For a discussion, see Tariq al-Jamil, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Muahhar al-ill, in S. Ahmed & Y.
Rappaport (eds), Ibn Taymiyya and His Times, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010, 22946; but see also
the polemical Yahya Michot, Ibn Taymiyyas Critique of Sh Imamology, Muslim World, 104 (2014), 10949.
On this cycle and attestations of some manuscripts in Najaf and Mashhad, see Sayyid Abd al-Azz
abab, Mawqif al-sha min hujm al-khum, Turthun, 6 (1407/1986), 3296. This is generally a very
scholarly consideration of the manuscripts in polemics and considers much that fed into the Abaqt al-
anwr of Mr mid usayn Msaw Kintr (d. 1880).
The most recent Shii work in this cycle is Dalil al-idq of Muammad asan al-Muaffar (d. 1375/1955)
which was first published in 1953 and more recently re-issued in an excellent six volume edition by the
shrine in Najaf in 2011.
Another possible cycle worth mentioning was initiated by Ibn ajar al-Haytham (d. 973/1565) and his al-
awiq al-muriqa to which Sayyid Nrullh responded with al-awrim al-muhriqa.


The Ottoman-Safavid conflict was a critical backdrop with its literary production
excoriating the other as well as the fatwas produced in the Ottoman realms against the
Shia.24 Apart from fatwas, Jafaryn cites around nine Ottoman texts in the early Safavid
period that anathemised the Shia in a number of ways, either directly attacking Shii
beliefs and practices or focusing on the Qizilbash and their supposed allies in Ottoman
controlled Anatolia or the recounting of the Ab-Muslim-nmas that were popular in
Khursn.25 A further work of central importance for South Asia was the fatwa of the
ulam of Central Asia in response to the question posed from Mashhad after the Safavid
takeover. During the siege of Mashhad by Abdullh Khn Uzbek, the Shii ulam of
Mashhad requested a fatwa to protect their lives and properties in the event of an Uzbek
takeover. The response of the Central Asian Sunni anaf jurists was not exactly
comforting; while they accepted that the lives and properties of all those who profess to
believe in God and the Prophet were sacrosanct at the same time they warned that if those
people also violated the norms of behaviour towards the way of the Sunnis and excoriated
them then the original freedom was curtailed. This influenced the polemics of Shaykh
Amad Sirhind and demonstrated that the polemics in India were affected not just by the
Ottoman-Safavid conflict but also by developments in Central Asia (and arguably the
Uzbek-Safavid conflict which to an extent became the Turn-rn division at the Mughal

While he is credited with more than a hundred works, it was his three voluminous
polemics that became famous. The first was Maib al-nawib written in India in Rajab
995/1587 in seventeen days in response to the Sunni Iranian exile at the Ottoman court
Mr Makhdm Sharf (d. 995/1587).27 Sharf, a descendent of the famous theologian Mr
Al Jurjn (d. 1414) had dedicated his work in 987/1580 to Sultan Murd III. The second
was al-awrim al-muhriqa in response to Ibn ajar al-Haythams scriptural refutation of
Shii Islam entitled al-awriq al-muriqa; like the other polemics it was popular in India
and written after Maib and Majlis.28 And the third completed late in 1605 in Lahore
which was certainly the cause of much grumbling at court Iqq al-aqq. His works were
well known but the Iqq al-aqq and Majlis al-muminn were not so and it was the
latter that came to the attention of the Sunni ulam and led to them bringing a case
before Jahngr.

What changed later in the reign of Akbar for Sayyid Nrullh was the loss of the support of
his influential friends dying one by one: Fatullh Shrz in 1589, the Gilns, and Ab-l-

Jafaryn, Siysat u farhang-i rzgr, I, 4451.
Jafaryn, Siysat u farhang-i rzgr, I, 7377.
Jafaryn, Siysat u farhang-i rzgr, I, 5372.
Sayyid Nrullh Shshtar, Maib al-nawib f-l-radd al Nawqi al-rawfi, ed. Qays al-Ar, Qum:
Dall-i m, 1426/2005, II, 275. For a detailed discussion, see Jafaryn, Siysat u farhang-i rzgr, I, 8599. On
Sharf, see Rosemary Stanfield Johnston, Sunni survival in Safavid Iran, Iranian Studies, 27 (1994), 12333;
Shohreh Golsorkhi, Ismail II and Mirza Makhdum Sharifi, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 26
(1994), 47788.
The text was edited by Sayyid Hshim Urmav and published in the 1950s a recent printing is Tehran:
Intishrt-i Mashar, 1385 Sh/2006.


Fal in 1602.29 From a position of prominence at court and as chief judge of Lahore, a
major Mughal city for sure, he seemed to be slowly sidelined.30 By the time he completed
Iqq al-aqq in 1605, he was already complaining of the loss of patronage. Two years
before that he had lamented to Shaykh Bah al-Dn al-mil again:

For some time luck has deprived me of its favours. The mean and wretched India has
caused me unbearable pain and shock. Not only has the Sultan ended his patronage
and benevolence towards me, but he has closed the doors of my departure to
Khursn and Iraq. When the tyranny and oppressions against me began to mount
and the sufferings and anguish stepped up I began to imagine India (Hind) was the
same Hind (bint Utba) who ate the liver of my great uncle amza (ibn Mualib).31

Sayyid Nrullhs final supporter at court by this time of Jahngr akm Al Gln
died in 1018/1609.32 The context had turn against him, and the time was not so favourable
for a courageous polemicist.

So let us turn to the correspondence before returning to the death of Sayyid Nrullh.
What do we know of his interlocutor? The editor based on some extant works and the
meager mention in the biographical record says that Mr Ysuf Al was a sayyid of
Astarbd (a prominent city in Khurasan whose sayyids played a major cultural and
intellectual role from the time of Shah ahmsb onwards).33 He moved to Mashhad in
969/156162 and then onto India in around 971/156364 (because in one of his autographs
dated 1011/16023 he mentions having spent forty years in India). He was clearly somewhat
homesick as suggested in his works but he probably moved to India in search of
patronage as many others did. He may well have been related to Mr Fakhr al-Dn
Sammk, Mr Ab-l-Qsim Findirisk and Mr Mumin Astarbad (all of the same sayyid
family) who had strong links to India. The other main work he seems to have penned is a
hagiography of the Shii Imams entitled Fawat al-quds.34 q Buzurg in his
bibliographical work al-Dhara il tanf al-sha cites him as an Akhbr who
corresponded with Sayyid Nrullh in 1019/1610, the year of his death.35 This ideological
difference is significant but I think misleading. There is nothing as such in the
correspondence that would indicate such a leaning and it would be too early historically

On the Glns in India, see Sayyid Abbs zmda, Glnyn dar dayr-i Hind, Rasht: Intishrt-i Bilr,
1394 Sh/2015.
One cannot be too prescriptive about the Mughal courts presence in a capital city but Lahore throughout
the 16th and early 17th century was probably as much of the capital as was Agra and Fatehpur Sikri see John
F. Richards, The New Cambridge History of India I.5: The Mughal Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1993, 4952.
Bayz of Inyat Khn Rsikh, MS Aligarh Habib Ganj Collection 50/335 (Frs), fol. 97r97r, translated by
Rizvi in A Socio-Intellectual History, I, 370.
Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History, I, 377.
On the intellectual importance of the sayyids of Astarbd, see Rula Abisaab, Peasant uprisings in
Astarabad: the Siyh Pshn, the Sayyids, and the Safavid state, Iranian Studies, 49 (2016), 47782; Rasl
Jafaryn, Trkh-i tashayyu dar Jurjn va Astarbd, Mashhad: Bunyd-i pazhhish-h-yi Islm, stn-i
quds-i Riav, 1383 Sh/2004.
Afand, Riy al-ulam, V, 401.
q Buzurg ihrn, al-Dhara il tanf al-sha, Najaf: al-Mabaa al-aydarya, 1938, I, 94.


speaking; besides we have yet to delve deeply into the question of what actually
constituted (and constitutes now) Akhbrism in India.36

The text itself is primarily about the nature of the knowledge of the Prophet and the
Imams in which Mr Ysuf takes a maximalist position (later known as one of walya
takwnya, of the cosmic authority of the Imams as perfect manifestations of the divine
names including knowledge).37 As such it could be considered within the context of
debates on religious exaggeration (ghulw) in this period. Sayyid Nrullh in his response
and I remain unconvinced that Mr Ysuf was an Akhbr since it is somewhat early in
the history of the movement adopts a common strategy of questioning the validity of the
sources upon which Astarbdi relies such as the (in)famous khubat al-bayn attributed
to Al.38 If anything both seem to be taken with Sufi figures and concepts and with forms
of reasoning through law and theology. There is no real evidence for a difference of
opinion in matters of legal method, which begs the question of why the editor placed that
at the heart of the title.

There are twelve epistles and eleven responses (since the final epistle is somewhat
formulaic praise perhaps it did not require an answer). Some of the more interesting
debates include the sixth on whether the text of the Quran was corrupted and the true
revelation remains with the Imams alone. The text is extensive and gives us an insight into
the debates in Persianate Shii Islam of the time; it reveals the significance of the genre of
the scholarly question and answer in epistle form as a means for gauging intellectual

Nevertheless the key epistle is the tenth on the question of taqya.39 Not surprisingly it is
one of the longest responses that Sayyid Nrullh gives. Mr Ysufs question begins with
his unhappiness at the response to the ninth epistle in which Sayyid Nrullh expressed
some impatience with the circuitous and careful nature of the correspondence no doubt
inspired by the fear of someone intercepting the epistles. One has to be careful with what
one professes:

I am careful not to write what causes harm either to myself or to one who reads it.
Your writings have caused harm to yourself and to those who have read themIf one
forsakes taqya, one may come to harm. You must, of course, know that taqya is

The question of what Akhbrism might have meant at this time is difficult to discern.
On this notion, see Sajjad Rizvi, Seeking the Face of God: the Safawid ikmat traditions conceptualization
of walya takwnya, in F. Daftary & G. Miskinzoda (eds), The Study of Shii Islam, London: Tauris, 2014, 391
Although a adth-centred approach in Shii thought before the Safavid period was not unusual, it is safer
to say that the Akhbr movement began with Muammad Amn Astarbad (d. 1626) and his circles from
Shiraz into the Deccan and Eastern Arabia on which I concur with my friend and colleague Robert Gleave,
Scripturalist Islam: the History and Doctrines of the Akhbri Sh School, Leiden: Brill, 2007. On the text and
the controversy over the khubat al-bayn, see Mohammed Ali Amir-Moezzi, The Spirituality of Shii Islam,
London: Tauris, 2011, 10332, inter alia.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 12045.


obligatory, and forsaking what is obligatory is a sin. You must also know that all the
Infallibles performed taqya, and even the Prophet performed taqya.40

He then gave an example from Imam Ri who was asked about whether the Prophet did
and how he stopped doing taqya after the revelation of Q. 5:67 God will protect you
from the people. He then goes onto attack Sayyid Nrullh for endangering people in

Someone wrote a work that caused harm, that one sees clearly in Kashmir. You sent
your work to one of the Shia there and Amad Bg the governor of Kashmir found
out and sought to harm him, however some people intervened and by taking a false
oath saved him. Thus is it more important that such a work come to the attention of
ones friends and foes or that one is safeguarded from death? The truth, which is
apparent, is that sending a copy of such a work to someone unaware is blameworthy.
Have you forgotten what happened to Mull Amad of Thatta and came to pass?
And what happened to many other elders before who wrote such works? No
opponent comes to the truth this way; the writing of such works [polemics] is

He then makes it clear that he means Maib al-nawib, which was unnecessary:

Even if your intention was to refute the words of Makhdm [Sharf], this was
unnecessary because the truth of the matter is apparent to the Shia and in no terms
should it have come to the attention of the others.42

Sayyid Nrullh prefaces his response by making it clear that Mr Ysuf will not appreciate
it. Sometimes one needs to respond to polemics and disputation, not only because it is
impolite not to respond (which suggests that the opponent is unworthy of response) and
also because it reflects an arrogance and stubbornness and can further support the
obstinacy of the opponent.43 He then cites some of the great Shii scholars of the past who
engaged in polemics such as Khwja Nar al-Din s (d. 1274). Sometimes one has to
point out what is irrational. Sometimes the best response is to write a refutation or engage
in a disputation and it was the standard practice of the Shii ulam. Similarly it cannot be
devoid of wisdom because even the Imams sometimes forsook taqya.44

As for what you have said about no one being able to speak in a way that is
acceptable to everyone, then this is not established since there is much by way of
prose and poetry that is widely accepted, whether they are in accord with a sound
nature and mind or not.45

Asila-yi Ysufya, 123.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 12324.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 124.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 125.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 127.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 13536.


It is impossible to write something that all will accept just as the Shia would never
accept the Nawqi and the Sunnis consider the Tajrd of s to be inauspicious!46
Sayyid Nrullh then addresses the personal nature of the critique:

As for what you have written about my works being the cause of harm, then its
response is that I only write for the pleasure of God and do not identify myself to the
opponents but I say that it is the writing of a student of the ulam of Iraq and Iran.
So what harm can come to me from that? And whether someone may read it and it
causes them harm, how can that be specific to me?47

This is a somewhat odd claim since his works are signed. He goes on to mention polemics
that are very harsh and known in India and yet they do not harm anyone.

You are incorrect in your belief that taqya is obligatory in all times and the Imm ulam
should not have written polemical works As far as taqya is concerned, I believe that, as
there is a just ruler in India, there is no justification for performing taqya. In any case it is not
obligatory for men like me who believe that being killed supporting the true religion glorifies
the faith. God (ib-i shar) has allowed such persons not to perform taqya. Only those who
are not steadfast in their faith, do not care to strengthen it, and are not strong in intelligent
discourse should have recourse to itTaqya is obligatory at some times and for some

He then explains the Kashmir incident where he sent the rough draft of Maib to Mull
Muammad Amn who was desperate for it given the polemical context under the
governorship of Amad Bg Kbul. It was solicited under duress (apparently he was told
if you dont send it, then tomorrow at Judgment, I will complain to your ancestor) and he
responded and there was no intention to bring anyone into harm.49

Polemics do have a place. Sayyid Nrullh refutes the point about the futility of polemics:

If what you say were acceptable, then for the last thousand years each work of the
Shii ulam written in refutation of the opponents would be pointless since the truth
is always apparent to the people who uphold truth. Then surely there would be no
need for works such as Kashf al-aqq of Jaml al-Dn [Ibn] al-Muahhar [al-ill] and
his work al-Alfayn and Nahj al-karma or al-arif of Ibn ws and their like, which
are innumerable.50 Similarly there is no doubt that there is a God who is the
Necessary being which is more evident than any other issue in theology and yet
theologians always write epistles and works to establish that. Surely according to
your claim all these works are pointless? It is also not sufficient to refute Mr
Makhdm alone but all the claims in that as well as the [Sunni] commentaries on al-
Mawqif, al-Maqid and al-Tajrd.51

Asila-yi Ysufya, 139.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 136.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 13738; Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History, I, 360. Cf. Hansv, Takira-yi majd, 4755 on
Sayyid Nrullh forgoing taqya.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 13839.
Being some of the famous classical Shii polemics on the imamate.
Referring to the famous Sunni commentaries on theological compendia of the middle period.


On interesting point is his response that he is not overly concerned with matters of the
occult and prognostications. Before that he puts in a dig at India and indirectly at Mr
Ysuf for protecting his patronage:

In India, melons are sour. Whenever one comes to India, one sees the fresh melon
before him even though it has no taste, praying would that it were pleasurable. But
when one puts it in ones mouth, one curses it.52

He ends with conciliatory words that his response is not to accuse but to offer friendly
advice. Believers should think good of each other and not be like the follower of Imam
asan who accused him of betrayal when he made a truce with Muwiya. He ends with a
hemistisch: We are who we were and love is everlasting.53 Sayyid Nrullh is constant
and steadfast in walya.

In the course of the letter the real issue is Sayyid Nrullhs denial that the Imams know
the states of all people at all times he cites the famous suspicion of infidelity against
isha the wife of the Prophet as he also rejects the evidence of the khubat al-bayn
which is not even a adth.54 There is a clear theological gap between the two thinkers
that extends to how one might express the difference in the public sphere. What emerges
from this exchange is a self-fashioning of Sayyid Nrullh as a combative and assertive
scholar who will not comprise on matters of faith either for the lure of patronage or to
avoid the gallows. That makes some of the standard accounts of his death all the more

One instructive biographical account that insists on his taqya was penned by the modern
Indian scholar of Nadwat al-ulam Sayyid Abd al-ayy al-asan (d. 1922) entitled
Nrullh al-Tustar.55 He claims that Sayyid Nrullh remained in taqya and claimed to
judge according to the four Sunni schools. Al-asan accuses him of secretly writing
against the Ashariyya in Iqq and Majlis (the latter is a strange addition here). Some
ulam got hold of the latter and showed to Jahngr. He got angry at the taqya and had
him flogged to death. Al-asan then cites Sayyid Nrullhs own affirmation of his Shiism
at the end of Iqq to betray his hypocrisy as well as his attack on India condemning Agra
as a place of infidelity, ignorance and deceit. Thus for this biographer he stands
condemned in his own words.

One account that has recently come to light is Abd al-Sattr Lhawrs Majlis-i
Jahngr.56 7 Jumda II 1019/28 August 1610 on Saturday eve majlis 31: Nrullh was
arrested on account of his own work [because he hid his faith] as the common people are
bigoted and pure Sunnis (sunn-yi mutaaib u ghal).

Asila-yi Ysufya, 14243.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 14445.
Asila-yi Ysufya, 133.
Sayyid Abd al-ayy al-asan, Nuzhat al-khawir wa-bahjat al-masmi wa-l-manir, Rai Bareilly: Dr
araft, 1992, V: 45962.
Abd al-Sattr Lhawr, Majlis-i Jahngr, ed. rif Nawshh, Tehran: Mrs-i maktb, 1385 Sh/2006, 78.


May God preserve all from the illness of bigotry. Because we the absolute
manifestation of the divine (mahar-i kull) reflect the mercy of God upon all, we
forgo looking at the confession of people (qaa-yi naar az mahab u millat) and
have compassion and mercy to all. However, everyones acts and their recompense is
upon us such that we will not allow anyone to fall outside of the circle of justice and
equity (har kas r amal u jaz bar m-st kih az dira-yi adlat u inf kas r qadam
brn nihdan nagurm).57

This account is immediately following by one of Muammad Amn Kashmr who was
Shii and now Sunni and about the problem of the bigotry of the Iranis who supported
him before, suggesting that he was unconcerned about whether a subject was Sunni or
Shii. What is most striking is the apologetic nature of the event. There is a recognition that
something bad has happened but the victim is to blame because the royal and sacred
prerogative of the emperor cannot be mistaken. It certainly reveals that the question of
Jahngrs religious policy is indeed quite complex; it also suggests that Moins reading of
the status of the Mughal Emperor as standing above petty religious affiliations has much
to commend it.

Another early source, Taq Awad-yi Balyn, who visited Agra in 161112, also mentions
that Sayyid Nrullh was flogged to death for pretending to be Shfi (i.e. practicing
taqya) when questioned by Jahngr.58 He reports that Nrullh was well known for his
Shiism, and in response to a question from Jahngr who had made peace between Sunni
and Shii and held them both in their own place, said that he was Shfi. Jahngr became
angry and had him severely flogged during which he died. It is not clear to me why
Jahngr ought to have become angry on this point to justify such a major punishment.
Balyn seems to cast doubt upon this reason by saying, but in truth, he was a man whose
speech and actions were on the whole in conformity and he spoke the truth, except when
he was composing satirical verse. Another early account is by Mrz Muammad diq
Ifahn who was a rapporteur/intelligence scribe (wqia-navs) under Shhjahn and
whose ub-i diq and Shhid-i diq owes much to the Majlis al-muminn.59 He also
opts for a subdued taqya narrative. The nineteenth century account of the Sunni Sufi
Ramn Al in his Takira-yi ulam-yi Hind only praises him as an author of excellent
works such as Majlis al-muminn.60 It mentions his favour with Akbar but just says that
he died in 1610 and not why.

It seems odd for Jahngr to have acted in such a way. Much has been written about his
openness to the Shia and to the faction of his wife Nrjahn; perhaps Sayyid Nrullh was

Cf. Husain, Shias in the Mughal nobility, 219.
Awad-yi Balyn, Takira-yi Araft al-shiqn wa-arat al-rifn, ed. Musin Narbd, Tehran:
Intishrt-i Ar, 1388Sh/2009, VI, 4006; cf. S.A.A. Rizvi, Muslim Revivalist Movements, Agra, 1965, 317????
See Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History of the Isnashar Shs in India, Delhi: Munshiram
Manoharlal, 1986, II, 4.
Ramn Al, Takira-yi ulam-yi Hind, ed. Ysuf Bg Bbpr, Qum: Majma-yi akhir-i islm, 1391
Sh/2012, 304.


an isolated case.61 In the Tuzuk-i Jahngr, the Emperor lamented the bigotry in Safavid
Iran and praised his own compassion:

The professors of various faiths had room in the broad expanse of his incomparable
sway. This was difference from the practice in other realms, for in Persia there is
room for Shias only and in Turkey, India and Turan there is room for Sunnis only.
As in the wide expanse of the divine compassion there is room for all classes and the
followers of all creeds so on the principle that the shadow must have the same
properties as the light, in his dominions, which on all sides were limited only by the
salt sea, there was room for the professors of opposite religions and for beliefs good
and bad and the road to altercation was closed. Sunni and Shia met in one mosque,
and Franks and Jews in one church and observed their own forms of worship.62

While the Tuzuk does not mention the punishment of Sayyid Nrullh, the wording of the
beginning of this second paragraph cited above mirrors closely the justification in the
Majlis-i Jhngr and suggests perhaps an indirect reflection.

Despite the absence of any mention in the works of Shaykh Amad Sirhind, later
Naqshband sources such as Rawt al-qayymya of Kaml al-Dn Muammad Isn (d.
1149/1736) claimed that it was only after the release of Sirhind from prison a year before
Sayyid Nrullhs death and his hearing from his disciples of the influence of the latter
through the vizier af Khn (not mentioned as a patron or protector of Sayyid Nrullh
in any other source) that Sirhind agitated for action.63 Thus the execution is presented as
a defence of Sunni Islam. It seems so many of the sources including modern secondary
ones (such as the entry in the Encylopaedia of Islam) suggest that taqya was at the heart of
the issue. Hansv and Rizvi present it as a case of the bigotry of Jahngr the former
quotes a contemporary Shaykh Fard Bhakkar who in his akrat al-khawnn mentions
that it was the taqya that angered Jahngr and hence he had Sayyid Nrullh flogged to
death (dar ghaab-i Jahngr kushta shud).64 The most unusual suggestion which
somewhat follows Bhakkar in its line of thought is Husted who imagines that Jahangirs
failed adventures in alcoholism got the better of him.65 Misled by miscreants, in an
alcoholic rage, he had Sayyid Nrullh condemned. Of course, there is no textual evidence
for this speculation.

If one takes the correspondence with Mr Ysuf Astarbdi along with a consideration of
the polemics that Sayyid Nrullh penned himself and the deteriorating context in which
he found himself and was cognizant, then it seems most likely that he did not perform
taqya in front of Jahngr. It may well be as he indicated in the response to Mr Ysuf that

Husain, Shias in the Mughal nobility, 22021; Sajida Alvi, Religion and state during the reign of Nr al-Dn
Jahngr, in Perspectives on Mughal India. Rulers, Historians, Ulam and Sufis, Karachi: Oxford University
Press, 2012, 197218; Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History, II, 610 on the Nrjahn circle.
Tuzuk-i Jahngr or the Memoirs of Jahangir, trs. Alexander Rogers and Henry Beveridge, London: The
Asiatic Society, 1914, I, 3738.
Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History, I, 38182 citing the manuscript in the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
Hansv, Takira-yi majd, 60; Rizvi, A Socio-Intellectual History, I, 37686.
Husted, Shahd-i slis, 5664.


people like him ought to embrace martyrdom. What is clear is that some complaint was
made at court that could not be deflected by any interests (since the faction of Nrjahn
and af Khn had yet to achieve their ascendency), and probably had no role for the
Naqshbands either. Jahngr found himself in an awkward position where he was
probably pressured to condemn him his religious policy was still probably raw. But the
Absolute Divine Manifestation must be above whim or bigotry and so it must have been
the bigotry of the accused himself that led to the execution. In a classic trope of sectarian
literature, the Shii scholar stood accused, condemned, and punished by his own words
and actions. In the political theology of the time, only the Emperor could be responsible
for the condemnation of political and religious dissent but also consistent with the aura
of the sovereign put forward since at least Akbar, he could not be seen to be complicit in
the petty squabbles of subjects. As such therefore Jahngrs actions demonstrate the
fallibility of the model of Mughal infallible and messianic kingship.