Babur – the Remarkable Emperor Who Happened to Be a Muslim

Stephen Dale's biography of the Timurid prince and Mughal emperor brings alive both the day-to-day traumas and triumphs, some victories and many defeats of a remarkable life as well as the core of the man – his persona. 

Among several other records, Babur could probably be credited with having inspired the largest number of biographies among the long list of emperors of India. Babur: Timurid Prince and Mughal Emperor by Stephen Frederic Dale is one more, one which is brief, crisp and easy on the mind’s eye. This, by an old hand at the study of “Islamic” empires and societies in West and Central Asia, Iran and India. Giving us a biography of Babur is for him not a new enterprise.

Indeed, his entire quest, combined with an unapologetic age-old style narration of events of his subject, reinforces the impression that while one can look for a good summary of the existing knowledge relating to Babur, one would be hard put to find any new perspectives or new lights. The question with which he begins, “Did Babur always tell the truth?” and the observation that his account is “not absolutely truthful” (pages 5-6), lets you in on his quest, seeking out the absolute truth in history, a la Leopold von Ranke.

His suggestion that Babur “always interpreted events” (page 6) comes forth almost as an allegation. That the Rankean search for history “as it really happened” has repeatedly been revisited by several alternate perspectives at the hands of distinguished historians as well as well-established schools over the 20th century, and that positivist certitudes have yielded space to plurality of inferences seems to Dale not worth engaging with. Voila, that’s his choice; so be it.

Stephen Frederic Dale
Babur: Timurid Prince and Mughal Emperor, 1483-1530
Cambridge University Press,  2018

In the introduction, Dale is largely concerned with the problem of legitimacy of ruling dynasties and their empires. He first dwells on how the Delhi Sultanate lacked the legitimacy that Babur gave his empire, with the argument that frequent change of dynasties during the Sultanate deprived it of legitimacy derived from the longevity of one dynasty, such as the Mughals; besides Babur imparted “a sophisticated Perso-Islamic cultural identity” as a source of legitimacy (pages 10-11).

This is a problematic articulation of legitimacy on several counts: First, conquest of territory was often its own legitimacy in the medieval world. Second, conquest combined with the deployment of Islam by the Sultans gave them 320 years of rule before being displaced by the Mughals.

Thus, if dynasties changed, the state effectively lasted longer than the Mughal empire. Indeed, Dale does concede Islam as a source of Sultans’s legitimacy after denying them any. Third, and most important, it is risky to treat legitimacy as a given; it is always varied and constantly varying. Similarly, “cultural florescence” is first denied to the Sultanate by Dale (pages 10-12), then ungrudgingly conceded (pages 15-16).

Dale does, however, bring alive both the day-to-day traumas and triumphs, some victories and many defeats of a remarkable life as well as the core of the man, his persona. Enthroned at the age of 13, he had to fight his kin, friends and foes through most of his teens down to his 30s, at times left with a miserable couple of hundred soldiers, in the end Babur left behind the medieval world’s most celebrated empire, also among the most durable. This was also an empire with a different ideological architecture than the one it displaced. If the Sultanate’s guiding principle was a combination of repression and Islam, the Mughals combined Islam with paternalism, the latter being the weightier. Starting with Babur, its full blooming had to wait until Akbar’s defining reign.

In a biography of Babur published in 2018, it would be hard to escape discussion of the Babri Masjid. Dales does take it head on, though all-too briefly (pages 192-195) under the interesting heading: ‘The Babri Masjid and Timurid Ideology’. Like other historians, he does not find much evidence to support the assumption of Babur’s construction or commanding Mir Baqi to construct a masjid in Ayodhya at the site of an old Ram Janmabhoomi. The ‘Timurid ideology’ personified in Babur is summed up by Dale as “Babur’s conquest represents Timurid dynastic imperialism of a conqueror who happens to be a Muslim” (page 195). Here Dale does engage in an “interpretation” of evidence instead of merely narrating it and this for me is not an allegation but an appreciation.

Curiously, with his mastery of Persian and Turki, among several languages, Dale chooses to utilise Abu’l Fazl’s Akbar Namah and ‘Ain-i Akbari not in the original Persian but in their English translation by H. Beveridge and H. Blochmann (pages 6-7, 39). No one should be more aware of the shortcomings of often defective translations than Dale.

I found it charming to note that deeply immersed as Dale is in the history of medieval India, he has also imbibed some of our very own Indian English usages: “publically” (page 30); “returned back” (page 38).

Harbans Mukhia taught medieval history at JNU and is the author of The Mughals of India.