Zahir ad-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) was a figure of utmost importance within the cultural and political landscape of 16th century central Asia and northern India. As the founder of the Indo-Afghan state, the basis of the later Mogul Empire, he also wrote, fortuitously, one of the most important autobiographical testimonies of his time, characterized by an impressive range of personal and political details, the Baburnama. To portray this fascinating and multifaceted life, to classify it historically and to present it to a broader audience has now finally been undertaken by Stephen Dale, one of the world’s leading specialists on Babur and his times. And, to anticipate it already at this point, Stephen Dale has composed yet another masterpiece. The author has dealt extensively with Babur’s writings in the past. The current study comes as a much shorter and more accessible biography, written especially for the reading public in Southeast Asia.
After Babur had entered the legacy of his father in the Fergana Valley, he conquered Samarkand twice, but he had to flee from his homeland again in 1504 from the strengthening Uzbeks under Schaibani Khan. He returned to Kabul, which he ruled from then on as his kingdom. From here, he undertook several reconnaissance trains to northwest India, seeking to recover Samarkand, which he again failed to hold for any length of time. This constant failure to keep Samarkand seemed to allow the final decision to turn to India, especially since Babur, thanks to his ancestor Timur, could claim the possessions of the Delhi Sultan, who, not surprisingly, refused to submit to Babur.
In preparation for his Indian campaign, Babur introduced cannon and rifles according to the Ottoman model, which, until then, had never been used in a battlefield in northern India. In 1522, Babur successfully siezed Kandahar and by the beginning of 1526 he had extended his rule far into the Punjab. There, in the famous battle of Panipat on April 20 the same year, he initiated the decisive clash with the numerically superior army of Sultan Ibrahim II (1517-1526) and won a superior victory over the last Delhi Sultan. Dale underscores Babur’s high military skills and his ability to innovate when it comes to using new and previously unknown tactics. He does so through gripping descriptions that resemble an exciting novel but without losing the historical accuracy at any point:
At Panipat, Babur adopted an Ottoman Turkish model, as advised by Ustad ‘Ali Quli, an Iranian who may have been present at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, when Ottoman forces destroyed an Iranian army led by Shah Isma‘il Safavi just west of Tabriz. He ordered carts and had them tied together in the Rum dasturı , ‘the Roman or Ottoman manner’, every 20 or 25 feet with foot soldiers perhaps Badakhshanis or Afghans, who fought on foot-holding shields in between. Standing behind them were the vulnerable matchlock men, who would have needed their protection and time to reload. At intervals of an arrow shot, perhaps 100 to 150 yards, there were spaces that allowed cavalry to ride through to join the battle.
After the occupation of Delhi and Agra, which had been developed only two decades earlier as the Lodi dynasty’s new capital, Babur proclaimed himself Emperor of Hindustan and, by doing so, he founded the Mughal Empire. Finally, with the victory over the Rajput Confederation on March 17th in 1527 at the Battle of Khanua, his rule in Hindustan was reasonably assured.
That said, why is this significant historical ruler of the first half of the 16th century important to a 21st century readership? Following the studies of Stephen Dale, it becomes clear how much he endeavours to bring this highly complex personality to an audience that seems to live proverbially in other worlds, now 500 years later. However, Babur, in his writings, did not want to present himself as a perfect and ultimately monotonous ruler, but rather sought to convince the reader of his biography with his intelligent, engaging but often complex personality and how he successfully made his own way in a chaotic and unpredictable political environment.
Through Dale’s exemplary translations, his great empathy and decades of research dedicated to his protagonist, Babur appears to us as a truly multi-layered and thoroughly ‘modern’ individual.
This is of as great importance as the epoch of the Renaissance, that is precisely the time of Babur’s life and rule, gets repeatedly used for (neo-)Eurocentric reasoning, within science and public debates alike, namely as the cradle of the rational thinking and critical European individual. Dale strongly rejects this pattern of argumentation, which is why his study is so important. And so, as a true Renaissance man of Central Asia, Babur possesses personality traits so popular in the narrative of the rise of the West, namely a tremendous intellectual curiosity, unjust selfishness and political ruthlessness:
He emerges in his own telling as a Timurid renaissance man, displaying an enviable and balanced cache of military, social, religious, literary and artistic virtues. He does so not only by recounting his own life but also when he identifies the conspicuous faults of his Timurid and Mongol contemporaries. It is a common human trait for individuals implicitly to praise themselves by criticizing others. It is natural to believe that Babur thought himself to be modest, when he criticized others for their pretension, that he believed he drank companionably, when he lambasted some begs as uncouth drunkards, that he thought himself to be an informed art critic, when he writes that the great miniaturist Bihzad painted beardless chins badly. Most of all it is natural to assume Babur saw himself as an accomplished poet and scholar of prosody, when he criticizes his Mongol uncle’s Turki verse and critiques the poetry of virtually every other writer he mentions, including Sultan Husain Baiqara and even Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’I. (p. 216)
But Babur was no exception with these Renaissance-like attributes, as Dale repeatedly emphasizes in the description of his protagonist’s social environment:
They were men, like his father, this seemingly-perfect Timurid man, who combined ‘beg-like’ military skills with social polish and cultural sophistication. These were men who fought well, but who also had pleasant tempers, the ability to drink companionably, converse amiably and, perhaps most of all, men who possessed the ability to practice the cultured arts: writing verse in various metres, playing instruments and even composing music. Separately, he praised talented and influential poets, effective administrators, accomplished religious scholars and talented artists and musicians. All these men—clerics, bureaucrats, begs, poets, artists and musicians—comprised the complex population of this most sophisticated Turco-Mongol, Perso-Islamic sedentary society, lived among splendid buildings and delightful gardens. This was Babur’s preferred world, the cultural world of great cities, the civilised world (p.82).
At some point, the reviewer may have wished for a more detailed discussion of the genre issue in regard to Babur’s writings. This debate has experienced quite a boom in recent years, in particular when it comes to the analysis of (primarily European) early modern autobiographies, which, however, does not get fully reflected in Dale’s study. At least the important works and initiatives of the ENTPB (European Network on Theory and Practice of Biography) could have been mentioned , among other important studies on this topic, which are also missing in the bibliography.
It is also striking that the German-speaking research on Babur and the Mughals receives no attention at all. This is particularly notable as recent scholarship has produced some important studies, such as the analysis of the often diverse and highly skilled narrative strategies of Mughal chronicles, as well as a specifically comparative approach between Babur and his European contemporaries. Kristina Rzehak, for example, has just recently published pioneering studies on Babur that should not be missed in a recent study on the latter.
Apart from these marginal remarks on the secondary literature, the reviewer’s classic and rather lousy job, I raise my hat to Stepehn Dale and thank him sincerely for his years of intellectual endeavour on Babur, his culture and times. The gap between studies dealing with pre-modern European ergo documents and extra-European, in this case Islamic, autobiographies is still enormous. It is precisely in this context that Stephen Dale has undoubtedly succeeded in completing another pioneering study that is highly recommended for reading.
Tilman Kulke is Assistant Professor, Islamic and Global History, School of Arts and Sciences, Ilia State University, Tbilisi , Georgia.