Socrates and Plato may have been the first advocates of the concept of the philosopher-king, but few civilizations, empires or nations can lay claim to a series of rulers with as much passion for learning as the Mughals, a powerful Turkic Muslim dynasty that ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 16th-19th centuries. They were definitely not the first philosopher-kings of unique of Islamic civilization, for they were merely carrying a torch kept alive for centuries by rulers such as ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb, Abū Ja‘far Abd Allāh al-Ma’mūn, Salah ad-Dīn al-Ayyūbi, and Mehmed al-Fātih, not to mention countless others. Nevertheless, the passion for knowledge and learning that permeated the Mughal courts at Agra and Lahore deserves attention, particularly because it reveals that knowledge and power may have had a symbiotic relationship in the Mughals’ powerful empire.
The founder of the Mughal dynasty, Zahīr ad-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (1483-1530), was a scholar of Arabic, Persian, and an unspecific Turkish language, possibly Uzbek. He is also described as a literary critic and was also an accomplished poet, having written a short treatise on Islamic law of which at least certain passages were written entirely in poetry. His greatest literary work was the Baburnama, a personal memoir, which the modern scholar Stanley Lane-Poole described as “one of those priceless records which are for all time, and is fit to rank with the confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, and the memoirs of Gibbon and Newton.” Babur also seems to have appreciated art, and is credited for coming up with his own style of calligraphy, called the Khat-e-Baburi (“Babur’s Hand”), in which he personally transcribed a Qur’an and had it sent to Makkah. Babur was also a patronized scholars and established many madrassahs (Islamic seminaries), each with a library attached to it.
Babur’s daughter Gulbadan Begum (1523-1603) also had a passion for writing. She was an admired poetess who composed in both Persian and Turkic/Uzbek. Having lived through the reigns of both her father and her brother Humayun, she was later commissioned by Humayun’s son, her nephew Akbar, to write a biography of his father. The result was the Humayun Nama, which gave a very valuable account of not only Humayun’s life but also the social and political developments occurring in India at the time. She was also an avid book collector, and is said to have had a personal library. 
Babur’s son and successor, Nasīr ad-Dīn Muhammad Humayun (1508-1556), inherited his father’s passion for learning. As a young man he had once lost some of his books and had said, when they were later found, “Thank God, the treasure which can’t be regained [once it is lost] is safe; other things are easy to replace.” He loved books and read them regularly, to the point that he even took some books and a librarian to take care of them when he went on military expeditions. He was very interested in mathematics, geography and astronomy. Like his father, he was also a poet, composing both ghazals and masnawis, and poets travelled from far to recite their poetry to him, for which they were often generously rewarded. Humayun built a library and schools in Agra, and also converted a significant portion of Sher Shah Suri’s Old Fort in Delhi into a library. It was here the Humayun met his death after falling down the stairs while carrying books in his arms. He was buried in Delhi, and part of his mausoleum was used as a school for a long time after his death.
It was during the reign of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605), Humayun’s son and successor, that we see a Mughal emperor really show passion for learning (even though, from an Islamic perspective, it led him astray). Ironically, Akbar was illiterate, though, as his own son Jahangir later explained: “My father always associated with the learned of every creed and religion especially with pundits and the learned of India, and although he was illiterate, so much became clear to him through constant intercourse with the learned and wise, in his conversations with them, that no one knew him to be illiterate, and he was so acquainted with the niceties of verse and prose compositions that his deficiency was not thought of.”
Abu’l Fazl, an official at Akbar’s court, recorded a part of Akbar’s daily routine: “Experienced people would bring their [books] daily and read them before His Majesty, who hears every book from the beginning to the end. At whatever page the readers stop every day, His Majesty makes with his own pen a sign; according to the number of the pages, and rewards the readers with presents of cash either in gold or silver, according to the number of leaves (i.e. pages) read out by them. Among books of renown, there are few that are not read in his Majesty’s assembly hall; and there are no historical facts of the past ages, or curiosities of science, or interesting points of philosophy with which his Majesty, a leader of impartial sages, is unacquainted. He does not get tired of hearing a book over again, but listens to the reading of it with more interest.”
Akbar was very fond of the nastaʿlīq form of Persian calligraphy and patronized those who excelled in it, particularly a man named Muhammad Husayn of Kashmir. Perhaps this has played a role in the lasting popularly of this form, especially in Pakistan. He was also very interested in ancient Sanskrit/Hindu literature and had the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the two most influential Hindu epics, translated from Sanskrit into Persian. According to some sources, he even translated part of the Mahabharata himself. Like his father and grandfather before him, Akbar commissioned his chief vizier Abu’l Fazl to write his biography, the Akbarnama.
Akbar also patronized the establishment and maintenance of libraries. He deliberated and implement reforms in the management, classification and storage of books. He also added a great deal to the royal library: at his death in 1605 it had over 24,000 volumes, with a total estimated value of over ₤500,000 at the time. He also added to the library qualitatively, making it one “which probably no parallel then existed or even has existed in the world,” according to one commentator at the time. During Akbar’s reign, libraries were managed by trained librarians, scribes, binders and translators. Perhaps inspired by their leader, upper class Muslims at this time also produced impressive private libraries: Abd al-Rahim Khan had a library managed by ninety-five staff, and Shaykh Faizi’s library had a collection which contained 4,600 manuscripts, all of which were written either in his own handwriting or written in the span of his lifetime.
Akbar also invested in educational institutions, and particularly focused on the education of women – at least those of his own family. They were taught at home by female teachers, and studied Persian, Arabic, Islamic theology and history. They were also taught to recite the Qur’an. As we’ve already seen, he commissioned his aunt Gulbadan Begum to write a biography of his father, Humayun. Akbar’s wet nurse Maham Anga (d. 1562), who had raised him from a very young age, built a masjid–madrassah in Delhi in 1561. She died shortly afterwards and was buried nearby.
Of all of the Mughal emperors, it is Akbar’s son Nūr ad-Dīn Muhammad Salīm Jahangir (1569-1627) whose specific interests strayed the most from those of his ancestors: whereas they had been fond of literature and poetry, he was more interested in religion, painting, geography and observing plants and animals. Learned men of all backgrounds were welcome at his court to discuss these and other topics, be they Sunni, Shi’a, Hindu, Christian (such as the English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe), or otherwise, and he would pay careful attention to their theological and philosophical discussions.
Jahangir was well-educated from very early on, and later in life wrote Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri, his autobiography. The nineteenth-century British scholar Henry Beveridge, who translated this text into English, once remarked that “the royal authors of the East had more blood in them than those kings whose works have been catalogued by Horace Walpole. To find a parallel to them we must go back to Julius Caesar, and even then the advantage is not upon the side of Europe. After all, the commentaries of the famous Roman are a little disappointing, and certainly the Memoirs of Babur and Jahangir are far more human and fuller of matter than the story of the Gallic wars.”
Paintings created under Jahangir’s reign, mostly done in the traditional Central Asian and Indian styles but some also influenced by the newly-introduced European styles, were carefully catalogued, dated and signed. Jahangir even painted a few masterpieces himself. Near the end of his life he commissioned Muhammad Sālih Tahtawi, a Sindhi metallurgist and astronomer, to create the first seamless celestial globe using a secret wax casting method. The globe was then inscribed with geographical information in both Arabic and Persian. The emperor also spent long periods of time silently and carefully observing plants and animals. One of his personal achievements in this field was the estimation of the gestation period of elephants, which was confirmed to be surprisingly accurate almost two hundred years later.
More in the vein of his predecessors, Jahangir was fond of calligraphy and improving the royal library. Even when he went on military expeditions, he would take some books from his library with him, and some of these he would gift to the learned men he met on the way. He was a very regulatory ruler, and would keep track of the wealthy men who had died heirless – confiscating their wealth, he would use it to build and repair madrassahs and libraries. His famous wife, Nūr Jahan (“light of the world”), was very educated as well and yet another gifted Mughal poetess. She also took part in the administration of the Mughal Empire, and even had coins bearing her name and an official seal by which she issued her orders.
Jahangir’s son Shahāb ad-Dīn Muhammad Shah Jahan (1592-1666) inherited both his father’s throne and his passion for learning, but he did not enjoy the same subjects. Seemingly a more practicing and pious Muslim than his father or grandfather had been, he focused his attention on more traditional Islamic learning and arts, including calligraphy, literature, theology and the construction of mosques, forts and mausoleums. In part due to his own efforts, Indo-Persian literature flourished during his reign and Delhi, Lahore, Ahmedabad, Jaunpur and Kashmir all became established centres of learning. Of the time he had to himself, he dedicated some of it to reading on a daily basis. Among his favourite texts to read were the memoirs of his distant ancestors, Tamerlane and Babur.
Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631) and their eldest daughter Jahanara (1614-1681) were both very educated. His wife patronized poets, including the Sanskrit poet Vanisadhara Misra, and he often consulted with her about both public and private issues. Their daughter seems to have been more pious and possibly even inclined towards mysticism, for she often wrote about mysticism in her published pamphlets. She was also a poet, composing in Persian, and wrote a verse which became her own epitaph: “Let not any person cover my tomb with anything other than earth and grass, for they are best fitted for the grave of the poor.”
Shah Jahan’s lasting legacy, however, was in architecture: across modern-day India and Pakistan one can find incredibly beautiful buildings that he commissioned. These include the Red Fort and Jama Masjid (both in Delhi); the Agra Fort; the Shah Jahan Mosque (in Sindh); as well as the Wazir Khan Masjid, Shalimar Gardens, Moti Masjid, parts of the Lahore Fort, and the Tomb of Jahangir (all in Lahore). On many of these buildings he had the passages of the Qur’an inscribed. These achievements were crowned by the Taj Mahal in Agra, the tomb of his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Shah Jahan’s son Muhiy ad-Dīn Muhammad Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was possibly the most powerful Mughal emperor, presiding over a 49-year reign at the peak of the empire’s dominance in the Indian subcontinent. Much of his reign was spent in conquest and suppression rebellions, so that he did not have as much of an opportunity as his ancestors to indulge in his passion for learning and the arts. He was a brilliant man and a relatively strict Muslim. He avidly read texts on Islamic law, and brought together the best Muslim jurists from across the subcontinent to a compendium of Islamic law known as Fatwa-e-Alamgiri. He also collected and read tafsīrs of the Qur’an and commentaries on the ahadīth, adding these to the royal library. Aurangzeb was a great writer, and regularly wrote copies of the Qur’an which he then sold to cover a portion of his personal expenses.
Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter Zeb an-Nisā (1638-1702) was educated and an accomplished poetess, writing under the pen name Makhfi (“Hidden One”). At a young age she was taught by Hafiza Maryam, who Aurangzeb had appointed as her teacher. Zeb an-Nisā started memorizing the Qur’an at the age of four and had memorized it by the age of seven. She then went on to study under Muhammad Sa’īd Ashraf Mazandarani, an eminent scholar of the time, with who she studied philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and literature, as well as Arabic, Persian and Urdu. By the age of 14, she was composing and reciting poetry in Persian. Later in her life she was known for her calligraphy in both the nastaʿlīq and naksh forms, and for commissioning scholars to produce texts on the subjects she was interested in for very large salaries.
There are two very noticeable features in the Mughal Empire that remained between Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and the final collapse of the empire in 1857. The first feature is that the empire started to decline as a regional superpower. The second feature is that the Mughal royal family – descendants of the people mentioned above – who ruled over the declining empire are not known to have kept up with their ancestors’ love for learning. Was there possibly a relationship between these simultaneous trends? I would argue that yes, there was. I’m not trying to be deterministic – of course, a wide variety of factors must have contributed to the development of both trends.
With that in mind, it’s also important to recognize that knowledge truly is power, in the sense that knowledge increases that chances that one will be able to more effectively make the decisions that preserve and increase power. Once a leader recognizes this, he or she will naturally pursue knowledge with even more passion, and so the cycle of knowledge and power may continue – until someone decides to let go of it. When that happens, it shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence that at that point even great empires start to decay.