In the early 1630’s, right around the time the Puritans were beginning to build Boston, Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth. In those days, tragically, many women died in similar circumstances. But Mahal was a queen. Her husband was ruler of what may have been the wealthiest empire in the world. His power and riches were immense.
But he could not save the love of his life.
In one night, the legends went, all the emperor’s hair turned grey. Grief-stricken and inconsolable, the man whose very name meant “King of the World” ordered her to be entombed. Shah Jahan, the fifth of the sixth great Mughal rulers, commissioned an immense white marble mausoleum, to be set upon a pedestal and surrounded by gardens that echoed the Muslim conception of paradise.
If Shah Jahan wanted the world to remember her as he did, then certainly he accomplished his aim. Rabindranath Tagore called it “a teardrop on the face of time.” UNESCO calls it a World Heritage Site. Most men know it to mean their every romantic gesture will never be enough. You can buy her roses after all, but can you build her a Taj Mahal?
But I propose we see it as a vision of what Islam used to be, and what Islam could be, a building dedicated to love, and to love across boundaries that seem more like vast chasms today. Shah Jahan was a Sunni ruler from a Sunni dynasty. His beloved wife, however, was Shiite. Far from being doomed to fight, they fell in love. They married. They produced the next emperor. And they are now buried peacefully beside one another.
The First Time As Tragedy
It might strike you as surprising that one of the most famous buildings in the Muslim tradition is a monument to love. What’s the first word you think of when you hear “Islam”? Go ahead, be honest. Probably, you didn’t think of “love.” It might be the last thing on your mind. Probably, the first words that you reflexively associate with Islam are the opposite. But there was a time, a very long time, when love, for friends, for intimates, and for God, was the central theme of the Muslim faith, and in the way some Muslims today say “Islam is a religion of peace,” they’d have said “Islam is a religion of love.”
Struggling to make sense of God’s demand that we worship Him exclusively, early Muslims quickly seized upon an analogy to love, a passionate and consuming love that left no room for the other; so powerful was the image and universal the sentiment it declared, that the next great debate seemed to be about whether the lover merged himself into God, and forgot his own personality and reality or instead remained besotted by God, but still a complete and whole person. Does the moth, as the poets would have said, merely revere the candle, or perish inside it?
Muhammad, who Muslims believe modeled the love of God for humanity, was called (and is called) ‘the beloved of God’; the funerals of Sufi saints were called ‘weddings,’ because after a lifetime of preparation for meeting God, the moment was at hand.
But, of course, for a theme of religion as love to make sense, people had to be comfortable with love in all its manifestations.
These days we think of autobiography as a quintessentially modern genre, a product of our more advanced interior lives, our greater awareness of ourselves as compared to people in previous eras, who maybe just weren’t as introspective. But St. Augustine’s “Confession” was just such a work, and given that we have a blindspot when it comes to well over a thousand years of Muslim history, we should know that a medieval Central Asian prince nicknamed Babur ended up producing one as well. He called it the Babur-Namah, or, simply, “the book of Babur,” a quixotic, surprisingly honest, and even endearing account of his attempt to live up to his ancestors.
Descended on one side from the great, rampaging Genghis Khan, and on the other from the brutal, powerful Tamerlane, Babur was convinced he should be king, but his trajectory rather more resembled Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills. Time and again, Babur nearly reached the throne, only to lose it. On some counts, he captured the great cities of Central Asia six times, and lost them seven times. Well aware of the definition of insanity, and keen perhaps not to historically embody it, Babur eventually and reluctantly headed south, to Kabul. A problem the blue-blooded have: If I cannot have the empire I want, I must settle for the empire I can have.
Though he was outnumbered ten-to-one, the young prince’s troops prevailed. (Babur brought gunpowder to a swordfight.) The Mughals, as they’d come to be called (it’s just Persian for “Mongol”), quickly became the wealthiest empire in the Muslim world, ruling over more people than even their contemporaries, the Ottomans. They went to battle with cannon and elephants. They dressed in rubies and pearls. They produced the Koh-i-noor diamond. They were, in a word, filthy rich. They built majestic mosques, fantabulous palaces, and unbelievable gardens. Their very title, “Mughal,” has entered our language as “business mogul.”
But they were part of a much bigger world than indicated by their borders. Another Turkic dynasty, of Ismaili Shia Muslim origin, had taken over Iran: they were the Safavids. The Ottomans, who held the Caliphate, were also of Turkic, but Sunni, origin. Though these three empires fought, and often ruthlessly and terribly, they were also bound by a common culture. Persian was the language of distinction, poetry was practically an obligation, and music, arts, aesthetics, all of these were shared, exchanged, and transmitted across borders.
It’s not so different from how although many medieval European dynasties were constantly at war with each other, they nevertheless intermarried, esteemed French, and consumed and produced a common culture, even across Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox differences. Maybe, in the case of the medieval Muslim world, sectarian differences mattered even less. In that world of trade and exchange, of conflict and collaboration, it was unremarkable that a Sunni dynast should marry a woman of Shiite origin, or that their sons should vie for the throne, or that a man might fall in love with a woman and build her an ethereal monument, or that this relationship might be the closest template we have to understanding God.
The Mughals are of course long gone now, and so is their world. It’s been done in by colonialism, sectarianism, a rush to modernization, and the great cultural distance that has opened up over centuries. But perhaps it’s worth revisiting, even a little bit.
I’m not rosy-eyed about that past. I certainly don’t think medieval monarchy is a model for the modern Muslim world, or any part of the world. These were kings and queens, who came to power through force. But that doesn’t mean they can’t speak to us.
The Mughals and Ottomans were more tolerant than many of their contemporary rivals. They were progressive for their time, and I don’t just mean compared to Muslims. These certainly weren’t secular democracies with any concept of human rights, but they also didn’t force their subjects to change religions.
They also cultivated a culture, rich and dynamic, that easily crossed boundaries, and that left us with world heritage. Instead of destroying the world’s heritage. And at the center of that philosophy was love. It was love that animated Rumi’s poetry; far from being some outlier in the Muslim world, he was a traditionally trained Sunni Muslim scholar, who communicated in unforgettable verse a worldview that most Muslims would have shared.
How else, after all, would you make sense of a God you cannot see, and a relationship that must be exclusive, except through love, which is, like God, invisible but nigh omnipotent, capable of moving men and mountains—no enemy ever unseated Shah Jahan’s empire in his time, but the loss of his love nearly broke the man. That idea of love was enough to animate a Muslim world that was tolerant enough to see Sunni and Shiite married, not mired in enmity.
There’s a reason South Asian Islam is so incredibly diverse and pluralistic—and that openness ran from everyday villagers who mingled across sect and religion all the way up to an emperor and empress, so deeply in love that their romance remains etched upon the face of the world. The interior of the building is adorned with Koranic verses, not only in a fervent wish to see the queen, and the husband who so honored her, sped by God to paradise.
But because love of one’s wife and love of one’s God were not just seen as complementary, but of the same kind; the former was the model for the latter. The Taj Mahal is of course many things to many people. For my beloved wife, it’s an unfair marker to hold a husband to. (I swear I would if I could.) It should also be a monument to Sunni and Shiite harmony, a reminder of a time when the core of the Muslim faith was love: Love of a person for himself, for his family, for his neighbors, for his Prophet, for his God. A time that shall come again. When Islam can be progressive for its time, when we will make the world beautiful, when we can be unapologetically Muslim and shamelessly besotted, because God is beautiful, as Muhammad said, and loves beauty.
Haroon Moghul is President of Avenue Meem (a new media company), a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and hard at work on his memoir, “How to be a Muslim” (Beacon 2017).