Mughal and Roman comparisons

Conrad is famous in my comments section for erudite, deeply detailed long posts that simply belie summary. In the recent post about religious tolerance, I had asserted that the Mughal empire was a good example of a tolerant entity towards non-Muslims. Obviously a simplistic view - but Conrad responded with a fantastic mini-essay on the nuances, invoking the Romans as an analogy. I simply have to share it:

I would use the Roman imperial analogy as well with one important distinction - one should look at the policy of the non-Christian Emperors rather than the Christian ones. Almost all invaders who came to Indian did so for one purpose - loot and territorial expansion. Religion was incidental; there is little that suggests the behaviour of Mongol or turkic invaders would have been different in this sense even if they were non-Muslim. It was a bloody time and state expansion was a violent process, Tamurlame, Mahmoud Ghazni etc. were not noted for their good treatment of defeated Muslim peoples - why should anyone imagine that it would be different for non-Muslims who were unfortunate enough to face them? Yet to legitimise and expand a state, the politics of legitimacy necessitated certain concessions to domestic indigenous groups which included respecting their religious practises and not indulging in mass scale persecutions. The Mughals and their Muslim predecessors were not the first invaders to face this, as the examples of the Sakas, Kushans, Huns, before them shows and they were not the last. Similarly, the Romans before becoming heavily Christianised were tolerant of pagan cults and eastern religions, as long as the Roman civil religion was accorded primacy within the empire. Over time of course many of the barbarians took Roman culture and practises as the standard and imitated them; as long as Roman leaders themselves did not seem to succumb to non-Roman religious practises and outwardly showed their respect for the civil religion, nobody cared much for how real this adherence was. When some were too open about the influence of non-Roman elements like Mark Anthony, the result was different. Only religions, which refused to accord primacy to Roman civil religions, like for example Imperial Divinity (which few took seriously but all ritually sanctioned) that repression occurred, hence the early moves against the Christians. Some groups like the Jews could effectively guarantee internal autonomy in return for political loyalty and convincing the Roman authorities that they were more than happy with Roman hegemony (though revolts were put down harshly and without regard for religious sensibilities when they did occur as the destruction of the Second Temple shows) and some religions put themselves beyond the pale by rites which were deemed horrific by the Romans such as human sacrifice - hence the eliminations of those Druidic groups that practised them.

The problem in the later Empire occurred when this civil religion itself had fallen into dis-repair and a number of other competitors such as Mithraism, paganism etc had emerged jostling with each other for space. I these circumstances it is unsurprising that any religion that had a chance for dominance grabbed it and suppressed its rivals; though Christianity like the other Semitic religion was more intolerant than most under such conditions.

The problem with extending this analogy to Mughal India is that the socio-political context is quite different. Given the more cellular structure of Indic society at the time, it would have been very time-consuming to impose religion 'from above' as it were and quite dangerous. No serious political leader would jeopardise his empire for this, especially as the main motives for expansion were secular rather than religious in nature. Religious transformation needed to occur from below if a serious transformation of the religious landscape was to be achieved; it is no accident that the deepest demographic impact of Islam was in the mixed regions of Bengal and Punjab, both formerly Buddhist, rather than Hindu centres of power and where Brahminnic and Vedic Hinduism had always been rather weak. Popular Sufi cults and saint, like Baba Farid were far more influential in this regard than any state policy. Many groups at this time would not have seen themselves as either Hindu or Muslim; and for mobile martial landless groups and pastoralists, as well as tribal clans in the forested and mountainous zones which provided an important source of military manpower; patronage was a much more important form of linkage than religion. Neither Hindu nor Muslim rulers would get very far by pushing an ossified and rigid form of their religion on an potential subjects, in this situation; hence such a policy was followed not because of any great love of tolerance (though some individual rulers were so inclined, and other not so; most were largely indifferent) but because it was good politics.

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