The Decline of Mughal Empire: The Theories of M. Athar Ali and Iqitidar Alam Khan


Other theories for the decline of the Mughal Empire which also emanated from the Aligarh school are the theories developed and put forward by such historians as M. Athar Ali and Iqitidar Alam Khan.

Athar Ali (“The Passing of Empire: The Mughal Case”, Modern Asian Studies, 9,3, 1975) lists “cultural and ideological failure” as the root cause underlying the inability of the Islamic political formations to modernize or revolutionize their armies and productive capacities. No new innovations were made in the field of technology. Emphasis was still on compiling works like Majmu al Bahrain and proving the universality of Vedanta. Although cultural dynamism is undoubtedly important for the grasp of new ideas and for developing or absorbing higher levels of technological and productive capacities, arguing that there was a sudden arrest and subsequent stagnation of the entire Muslim cosmological universe is too sweeping a claim. More so, given that these states had long showed tremendous ability for adopting and inventing new technologies for warfare, assembling early modern forms of governance (especially rational bureaucracies) and possessed trading networks that displayed a great deal of social flexibility and porosity.

To advance cultural “stalemate” or “failure” as a primary cause for decline would, therefore, require one to explain not only how Islamic society suddenly lost its dynamism and resilience, but why it did so after a period of incredible efflorescence.

Iqtidar Alam Khan put forward his view that listed a failure to develop a technology superior to what was common: and this became the cause of the decline of the Mughal Empire. According to him the art of manufacturing and use of gunpowder in the later 16th and 17th Century and the percolation of the handguns even amongst the peasants and zamindars made the local elements confront the imperial authorities. His evidence suggests that the Mughals from the very beginning used handguns in North India: in 1528 Babur reduced the assignments of his nobles by 1/3rd for the manufacture of fire-arms and payment to the tufangchis. It is also clear that the nobles were not expected to maintain the tufangchis: they were maintained only by the central authority. Then in Munsha’at-i Namakin an order is given appointing a faujdar. It is stated that the tufangchis under the command of this faujdar would assist the jagirdars of the area only when they pay one dam per bigha (to the central government). Subsequently in the ain-i kotwal, the kotwal is asked to restrict the blacksmiths: this was again a very deliberate policy dictated by an anxiety on the part of the Mughal authorities that if handguns were available to the peasants (piyadas etc) then they would disdain the Mughal cavalry. The total number of piyadas was thirty nine lakhs sixty thousand seven hundred and ninety six (39,60,796) under the local authorities. The cost of handgun varied from 8 anas to Rs. 9/- (Ain). The cost of bow varied from 4 anas to Rs. 18/- . In Kitāb-i Chishtiyya wa Bahishtiyya of Alauddin Barnavi, compiled in 1055-56 AH and dealing with Bahauddin Barnavi, a Chishti saint of Jahangir’s period, says that the saint learnt the art of shooting game with handgun and then days that during this period the gunwārs were coward and stupid but now they have become clever, wherever they go they carry guns and shoot with it.

By 17th century the guns were used freely. Rafiuddin Ibrahim Shirazi, in his Tazkirat ul Muluk says that the nobles were also killed in gunfights near Jagdishpur. Manucci mentions ordinary peasants with guns. In Zakhirat ul Khawanin we have the evidence that peasants ploughing their field had their gun stuck in the ground. And thus it is not at all surprising the the peasants could now rise to face the Mughal authority: It was they who were leading the peasant revolts!

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A history buff interested to unravel the past as it was!

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