Iranian Émigrés in Mughal India: Contestation, Acculturation, and Nostalgia

The politics, arts and sciences of Mughal India were shaped in part by individuals who had traveled from Iran and the Persophone West to the Indian subcontinent. The reasons for these emigrations, their extent and routes, and the impact that they made have long been debated and analyzed. Each of the papers on our panel offers a specific case study informed by this problematic and casting a new light upon it. The first paper looks at the role of Iranian émigrés in early Mughal state formation and how sixteenth-century historians articulated the struggles of the nascent polity with its constituent members. The second paper reflects on the process of acculturation for Iranian émigrés who had migrated to India and the subsequent debates on literary purity, locality, and temporality. Finally, the third paper, compares the histories of two Iranian émigrés writing in the eighteenth century and considers how their experiences informed their differing accounts of events taking place in their homeland. Taken together these papers shed new light on the process of contestation, acculturation, and nostalgia that accompanied the lived experience of Iranian Émigrés in Mughal India.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Usman Hamid
Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto


Sunil Sharma


Pasha M. Khan
Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University


by Usman Hamid / Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilization, University of Toronto

This paper explores how early Mughal historiography papered over the mid-sixteenth-century political contestation between Iranian and Central Asian émigrés on the one hand, who advocated for decentralized confederate rule, and the ruling Timurid-Mughal family on the other, which attempted to centralize its administration and exert absolute political authority. In order to do so, this paper looks at how contemporary Mughal historians recorded and reframed episodes from the tumultuous career of the amīr ‘Alī Qulī Khān Uzbek, whose early political success was soon marred by a scandal concerning his alleged sexual transgressions, resulting in one of the many military actions initiated against him and members of his extended kinship network. As such, this paper offers new insights not only on the political realities of the nascent Mughal polity, but also on the rhetorical and figurative strategies employed by Mughal historians in narrating the rise of the dynasty to power. Finally, this paper will also offer a corrective to existing scholarship on ‘Alī Qulī Khān Uzbek, which has tended to study his life in a piecemeal fashion.

by Arthur Dudney / University of Oxford

This paper will introduce and historically contextualize two categories of Iranian poets resident in India: Firstly, we consider those like Qizilbāsh Khān Ummīd, who not only wrote in Hindī (that is, in a form of what we would call Urdu) but was reputedly so aware of its subtleties that he corrected the usage of native Indians. Secondly, we consider poets who used a large amount of Indic vocabulary in their Persian poetry. In particular, we will study the works of Mullā Tughrā of Mashhad (d. 1078/1667) and trace the way that Indo-Persianists of the eighteenth-century used his work to support their claims about the nature of proper Persian. By considering these outliers—and observing that they were not viewed as outliers in their own time—we can historicize questions of Persian literature in contact with other languages, and the language ideology inherent in those contacts. Our understanding of Persian “linguistic purity” (and native speakers’ concerns with it) is filtered through the nationalism that begins at the end of the eighteenth century, and does not accurately reflect pre-modern views on the subject, such as the idea most clearly stated by Khān-i Ārzū (d. 1756) that Indic words present no difficulty in Persian poetry but should only be employed for the first time by a master-poet with sound aesthetic judgment.

by Sajjad Nejatie / University of Toronto - Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations

This paper will offer a comparative analysis of two eighteenth century histories composed by Iranian émigrés - one by Muhammad Khalīl Mar‘ashī at Bengal and another by Mahmūd al-Husaynī at Qandahar - as a way to understand the complex political history of what may be referred to as Indo-Khurāsān following the collapse of Safavid and Mughal power in the region. Particular emphasis will be placed on the divergent accounts in these texts of the brief and tumultuous reign of the Safavid pretender Shāh Sulaymān II in Mashhad in 1750 - a noteworthy event that deepened instability in the region and had a direct bearing on the emigration of both authors from Iran. This paper will also consider how these two competing narratives of this event were shaped by the underlying ideological positions of each author. Specifically, it will assess the extent to which the status of Muhammad Khalīl, on the one hand, who was a descendent of Shāh Sulaymān II, and that of Mahmūd al-Husaynī, on the other, who was a courtier of Shāh Sulaymān II's political rival Shāhrukh Shāh Afshār, influenced their respective narratives of the event. This paper will conclude by examining the broader implications of this event, including the way in which it facilitated the rise of the Durrānī-Afghan dynasty in early-modern Indo-Khurāsān.

by Sholeh Quinn / University of California Merced

Persian historical writing in the early modern period is characterized by a number of practices. These include drawing on earlier Timurid models of history, expanding and modifying conventional elements in such models, or producing something completely unique. This paper seeks to examine Persian chroniclers writing for the Safavids who later migrated to Mughal India as a way of understanding whether or not, and to what extent, we may talk of a Persian cultural “whole.” Whereas political differences and boundaries divided the early modern empires, one sees a different picture upon examining literary traditions. The migrating chroniclers wrote in Persian, whether for the Safavids or the Mughals. Modern scholarship on these early modern empires, until very recently, has tended to study them separately, as if each existed in a cultural vacuum. By examining how the chroniclers, sometimes several members of one particular family, wrote under different political patrons, and understanding the connections between them, we have a better understanding of how history writing operated within a wider Persianate sphere. The chroniclers and in some instances the families of the chroniclers to be discussed in this paper include Khvand Amir, author of Habib al-siyar, Mir Yahya Qazvini, who wrote the Lubb al-tavarikh, and Fazli Isfahani, author of Afzal al-tavarikh.