BETWEEN TERRITORY AND EARTH

An Environmental History Magazine

Drinking from the Wood of the Vine:
When the Homeland Speaks

Leni Charbonneau, 2022


Introduction

In 1626, Mutribi-i Samarqandi, an Uzbek poet-scholar visited Lahore on an extended sojourn in the courts of Mughal Emperor  Jahāngīr [r.1605-1627]. During a particular court proceeding, Mutribi recited for the emperor a poem in the style of another Central Asian poet, Yadgar Qurchi:

How penitently I take my lip from the cup
Yet I prostrate myself before the face of my idol beneath the wood of the vine. 

 

Emperor  Jahāngīr was pleased, and he requested that one of his imperial courtiers, Maktub Khan, also evoke the poetry of Qurchi into the room. Khan nervously obliged with the following response: 

 

Since my lips have repented from the cup 
Yet, I’ll fashion my old man’s walking stick from the wood of the vine. 

 

 Jahāngīr was less impressed with Maktub Khan’s rendition and suspected that his courtier was not familiar with the work of the celebrated poet. Mutribi intercepted the antagonism and assured the emperor that the Khan was indeed a superb scholar in his own right. To diffuse the tension, Mutribi recited Yadgar Qurchi’s original poem:

 

When I take my lips from the cup in repentance
The wine drunk, I fashion excuses from the wood of the vine. 

 

°°°°

The above scene, captured in Mutribi-i Samarqandi’s unique volume Khatirat-i Mutribi Samarqandi, illustrates principles underlying the tradition of Sufi court poetry–a staple element of imperial courts of the Timurid world. Herein, the merits of a poet are derived from his or her aptitude in performing innovative and creative renditions of an existent poem whilst honoring the spirit of the original. While stylistic and thematic forms of imitation might on one level be considered an expression of flattery for a known poet, the tradition also implies a sense of multi-generational co-authorship. This understanding of Sufi poetic form enhances Mutribi’s depiction of the Mughal court. Mutribi is able to impress Emperor  Jahāngīr with his invocation of Qurchi through his novel twists of phrase, though Jahāngīr’s regard for his visitor is elevated when Mutribi provides an assumed original citation. 

 

Indeed, Mutribi’s very visit to the Mughal court is likewise an articulation of the relationship between an assumed original and an innovative elaboration. Broadly speaking, Mutribi’s visit can be used to peer into the geopolitics of the 17th century Timurid cosmopolis. Mutribi was both a symbolic representation and a living conduit of an “original” place for the Mughal rulers of India – the lands of Turania or present-day Central Asia. As the fourth Mughal Emperor,  Jahāngīr himself was the elaboration of a line of Timurid-Chinggisid rulers who elevated the trope of their Central Asian homeland in their discursive statecraft. Despite the centrality of Central Asia to Mughal identity, these ancestral lands remained distant to the rulers of India. In fact, no Mughal Emperor had ever traveled to their Turanian homeland since the dynast’s founding patriarch Babur had led a series of failed military campaigns and was ultimately expelled from the region by the Uzbek Khanate. Babur retreated southwards and his descendants would establish rule on the Indian subcontinent; from this moment on, the Mughals would depend on knowledge about their homeland primarily through such cultural brokers as Mutribi. 

 

In what follows, I use extracts from the Khatirat-i Mutribi to amend what is inherently bilateral about the diasporic homeland; in other words, to consider how the homeland might be imagined and strategically employed by an agent who willingly comes to represent it. In so doing, I resituate the historiography to search for “the homeland” not over the shoulder of the imperial seat, but as a particular cultural product which was artfully manufactured and packaged for an audience much wider than the elite Mughals – even as their perspective of the homeland have come to resonate most strongly in the historical record. Such a re-situating of the homeland furthermore mirrors what Whitehead (1998) identifies as a key problematic for the field of Historical Ecology: the reproduction of given landscape categories within historiography. 

 

The Turanian “homeland” was simultaneously a cultural-political imaginary and the backdrop against which real, material relations between people and place were carried out. If a cultural landscape holds a “role in mediating social and cultural reproduction [and] works through its ability to stand for something: norms, values, fears… then listening to Mutribi’s own cultural-political context is an exercise in opening an explorative cultural geography of the “homeland.”

 

Certainly, the Khatirat-i Mutribi Samarqandi is valuable as a primary-source record of 17thcentury court affairs.  However, it must also be read as a record of Mutribi’s savvy politics– one which creatively spins this imagined landscape. The homeland is woven when fact and fabulation are spun together. From another angle, we might apply Donna Haraway’s qualitative SF research paradigm to interpret Mutribi’s narratively (re)produced homeland as both Sincerely Figurative and a Savvy Fabulation. A base ethic is central to this paradigm: “it matters what stories we tell other stories with a sentiment clearly resonant with the citation politics strung through Sufi court poetry. Acknowledging and listening to the enlivened political craft embedded in Mutribi’s narrative allows us to expand the sense of multi-generational co-authorship towards a critical approach to the constructed “homeland.” Through this entanglement, Khatirat-i Mutribi Samarqandi is not only an invaluable primary source of the 17th century Timurid world, but also a timeless commentary on the politics of socio-political production. 

 

Setting the Scene: Mutribi and the Mughal Marketplace

To understand the forces guiding Mutribi to  Jahāngīr’s court in Lahore, some things should be said about the state of the Mughal world he was to enter.  Jahāngīr inherited the Mughal throne in 1605 and would reign until his death in 1627 – one year after Mutribi’s visit. From his forefathers, Jahāngīr inherited the status as Timur’s heir and, as with precursory rulers, this endowment necessitated fine-tuned legitimation in a land which did not share the same Timurid legacy. Beginning with Babur, Mughal rulers established a tradition of creating officiated imperial histories which were autobiographical in form. Following the likes of the Baburnama and his father’s own Akbarnāma,  Jahāngīr published the Jahāngīrnama, which traced the first seventeen years of his rule. 

 

However,  Jahāngīr had notable deviations in rulership from his predecessors and the literary sector was no exception. In addition to being the first Mughal king born of a Rajput mother,  Jahāngīr subsumed an altogether different cosmological status than his forebearers. Corinne Lefèvre (2012) has argued that since the time of Babur the Mughal rulers had tried to sanctify their reign under Islamic cosmological precepts and that by the ascent of  Jahāngīr they had managed to achieve a “fully functioning system of sacred kingship.” As a righteous moral authority, Jahāngīr saw it as his mandate to write in the Aklaqi literary tradition, a genre structured around Islamic ethical and moral codes.  Jahāngīr published more biographical accounts which, Lefevre (2012) argues, increasingly fused the Islamic literary traditions of munazara (disputation) and malfuzat (the teachings of a Sufi master). One such imperial literary innovation was the Majlis-i  Jahāngīr-i which recorded  Jahāngīr’s court proceedings and reflected his self-image as a pir, or a Sufi spiritual master. As the Mughal “saint-king,”  Jahāngīr bore his judgments in the scientific and cultural realms, taking a keen interest in collecting geological and botanical samples as well as paintings, poems, and other relics of the Timurid and Persianate worlds. These intrigues influenced  Jahāngīr’s text-bound legitimation, such as an anthology of Persian poets his court published in 1625. Perhaps the strongest gesture of legitimation of  Jahāngīr-the-pir for his adherents and allies was the generous patronage enacted for the arts and sciences under his rule.

 

Mutribi was certainly well-aware of these factors and was positioned to seek out  Jahāngīr’s patronage as well as exploit the emperor’s agenda, which would have him consecrated in the sacred geography of the Timurid cosmopolis – a point elaborated further on. For his part, Mutribi was born in Samarqand in 1559, though as an adult moved to Bukhara where he would study poetry and music within the Naqshbandi Sufi order. He cultivated an esteemed reputation across elite circles in the Bukharan Khanate and would ultimately obtain the patronage of the ruling Wali Muhammad Khan. However, his patron died in 1611, and despite his revered status, Mutribi could not secure adequate financial support for his family. As Richard Foltz (1998a) has laid bare, the declining economic situation of the Central Asian khanates in this era foregrounded trends in migration towards the wealth of Mughal lands. Under  Jahāngīr, the upward economic prospects were particularly promising for men like Mutribi who represented the Naqshbandi order – of which the Mughals were devotees and around which  Jahāngīr constructed his own spiritual authority. Mutribi thus traveled south, although he took a couple of years before reaching Lahore. In this time, he thoroughly researched the interests of  Jahāngīr as made apparent in Mughal court publications, and compiled his own anthology of Central Asian poets, presumably in the style of  Jahāngīr’s 1624 edition. He likewise collected cultural and scientific observations from his southward travel and compiled them into a volume titled The Beautiful Book of Jahangir, which he duly presented to the king at his court. Once in Lahore, Mutribi quickly won  Jahāngīr’s favour and the emperor requested that he stay in Lahore or at least return swiftly in the future. In the end, Mutribi would return to Samarqand after a month in India and  Jahāngīrwould die the following year. Scholars have suggested that Mutribi never intended to return to Lahore anyhow, and he was successful in his primary mission of obtaining funds from the Mughal crown.



Crafting a Multivocal Literary History

The Khatirat-i Mutribi is filled with evidence of Mutribi’s two-fold strategy to both broker his mythological homeland and to maintain relevance and interest to a wider Central Asian audience. Drawing on excerpts from his text, two key components of his strategy are apparent. The first is that Mutribi cleverly embeds  Jahāngīr in a landscape that is simultaneously mythologized from the vantage point of the Mughal court and peppered with contemporaneous socio-political references of an enlivened Turan. Second, the question of who animates this landscape allows Mutribi to maintain narrative relevance to an audience beyond the Mughal sphere. This strategy ultimately is undertaken in the service of diffusing the text with political commentary which ultimately de-centers the elite protagonists, despite immediate appearances. 

 

In his second meeting with the Emperor, Mutribi is asked about the state of Timur’s tomb, located in Samarqand. Mutribi, ever the salesmen, replies that he fully details the condition of the site in his book, The Beautiful Book of Jahangir [22]. The Emperor, holding a shiny black stone, then asks Mutribi if the tomb is made of a similar material. Mutribi replies that the stone of Timur’s resting place is indeed a black stone, although much brighter and shinier to the point that “you can see your face in it” [23]. Mutribi amends his remark somewhat to say that the stone of Timur’s tomb is actually “black gold” and offers an anecdote for how he knows this. In an incident which occurred in 1036 (1617) in Samarqand, a son of a nobleman born to a household assistant was thrown off the roof of the Uluhg Beg madrasa in punishment for stealing an “eight-part black stone from another notable shrine in Samarkand – that of Prince Qusam ibn Abbas. The man was driven to this act after reading an inscription on the stone which read: 

 

‘O you, who in this place find your heart’s desire
Recite the Fatiha for the craftsman ‘Ali of Tabriz [23] 

 

The ruling Baqi Muhammad Khan was made aware of the theft and sentenced the man, who was called Mirak, to his fatal freefall. When the stone was recovered, Baqi Khan had it studied and his scientists determined the stone was indeed made of black gold, corroborating the possibility that Timur’s tomb could also be made of such a fantastic material. 

 

This anecdote can be read of Mutribi neatly fitting  Jahāngīr into a mythological landscape, while also making appeals to the Emperor’s interest. He directly mentions that  Jahāngīr can “see himself” in his ancestor’s tomb, emplacing him in his reportage of Samarqand. Yet  Jahāngīr is situated in this landscape in the midst of notable company by way of Mutribi’s copious references to other historical and contemporaneous figures. 

 

Throughout his sojourn in Lahore, Mutribi promotes something of a two-tier hierarchy of Timurid power. Undoubtedly Timur occupies the highest tier, and Mutribi continuously stokes the implication that all other rulers sit in horizontal relation on the next level. In so doing, he flatters noble relations to Timur, while leaving enough ambiguous space as  not to make firm allegiances to any single Timurid ruler. If he has any allegiances, perhaps they are to Islam, which might be a testament to the decision to include the tomb of Qusam ibn Abbas, who is credited with bringing Islam to the Uzbeks. The inscription which inspired the theft by Mirak mentions ‘Ali of Tabriz, who was the celebrated Timurid calligrapher who innovated the fusion of two dominant scripts: the Arabic naskhi and the Persian tal’iq; his resultant Nas-Taliq form is widely revered as the most elegant and beautiful Persian script. It is significant that ‘Ali of Tabriz is mentioned on the stone’s inscription, following something of a caution: “’O you who in this place find your heart’s desire…” According to Mutribi’s tale, the thief Mirak interpreted this inscription to mean that anyone who takes this stone could fulfill their own wishes. What is implied is that Mirak failed to see that the beauty of the shrine is derived from plurality and not singular ownership: the coming together of different traditions under the supreme singularity of Islam. We might take this as a parable administered by Mutribi to both  Jahāngīr and a wider audience, as to not get steered away by false singularities in the pluralistic terrain set by foundational figures– whether it be the patriarch Timur or the precepts of Islam. 

 

The emphasis on secondary transmission of knowledge – whether it be to scientific matter or the notion of the Timurid “homeland” in the abstract – is a motif powdered throughout the literary narratives Khatirat-i Mutribi. Though scholars have celebrated the text as a primary-source documentation, they fail to mention the many sections in which Mutribi acts  explicitly as a third-person narrator rather than a historian-documentarian. In one such instance, Mutribi spends many pages relaying the tale of Shaykh Nur al-Din–a well-known Bukharan theologian – and his narrative position makes it unclear whether he iterated this in person at the court [58]. 

 

Nur al-Din, who was known with great reverence as “the Seer,” was born blind. Not least indicated by the pages devoted to Nur al-Din, Mutribi ardently relays his reverence for the Shaykh. Allegorically, Mutribi states that it was his condition of blindness – one shared by Mutribi’s own grandfather –  gave him exceptional wisdom. He shares a brief tale of the man when, at one instance, someone tried to test Nur al-Din by tossing a needle on the ground and pretending to look for it [59]. The man asked for the assistance of Nur al-Din. With ease, the blind Shaykh was able to place his cane on the needle. In addition to the Shaykh’s clairvoyance, Mutribi highlights how he was remarkably embedded in the pedestrian life of Samarqand – specifically funding and partaking in activities of the Sufi lodges and emphasizing the importance of invocating the divine through silent zikr. The relationship between blindness, authenticity, and knowledge were key motifs for Nur al-Din, as they were for Mutribi’s account. Mutribi concludes the vignette into the life of the Shaykh by quoting one of his quatrains: 

 

O heart! You have not obeyed God for an instant
And you didn’t repent of your sin
You became a sufi, a market controller, and a scholar
You became all of this; but not a Muslim [62]. 

 

Jahāngīr and the Mughal context are all but absent in the lengthy chronicle of Nur al-Din. If this was directed at  Jahāngīr, it could be read as nothing more than unwarranted moralizing. However, this tangential inclusion immediately makes more sense if Mutribi saw his own text as something more than a record of imperial conversations and intended it to circulate to a wider audience. Moralizing, in this rendering, can be seen as contributing to the overarching narrative theme of Mutribi’s own unique literary genre and is employed to reflect on the intersection of Timurid interstate-politics with Islamic cosmology. This is a narrative commenting on the ways of knowing the world through spiritual invocation, palpation through blindness, and, one may infer, a subtle critique of political legitimacy enacted through secondary claims to historical leaders. 

 

The contemporaneous figures of the Mughal court, which he chooses to highlight in the Khatirat-i Mutribi, also testify to these themes. In one conversation,  Jahāngīr shares with Mutribi a poetry competition initiated by the former to evoke a well-known poem by his great-grandfather Babur: 

We have wasted our life following our lower self
Before God’s devotees we’re ashamed of our ways 
Cast a glance our way, for we with turning heads 
Have lacked mastery and are slaves of the Master [73]. 

 

Jahāngīr ultimately selected the esteemed scholar, Doctor Masih al-Zaman, as having produced the best responding poem: 

 

Even if we have royal business before us
We remember the former dervishes every second
When an ascetic is pleased with us
We count it as our royal harvest [74]. 

 

The Doctor’s poem can certainly be read in line with  Jahāngīr’s imperial protocol to obtain divine legitimation. In this rendering, royal bounty is derived from approval from a spiritual actor like an ascetic. Taken another way, though, the poem can also be read critically in that the toils and sacrifices undertaken by the ascetic are ultimately appropriated by royal authority. If critique was present, however, this would have surely been lost on  Jahāngīr. Mutribi’s decision to include this in his text would at least hint at his larger, moralizing narrative themes, like the flimsiness of authority based on secondary transmission or claims to ancestral homeland through symbolic representation. 

 

However, it is in this sweet spot of secondary transmission wherein Mutribi can accomplish the dual objective of appealing to political authority (thus securing patronage) and skillfully embedding political critique. In fact, holding “second place” is not a matter of insult to  Jahāngīr if it is contextualized by Timur’s uncontested “first-place.” This is made apparent in Khatirat-i Mutribi through the court actor who receives the most biographical attention in the text. Maktub Khan– Jahāngīr’s courtier and imperial librarian who featured in the opening of the present text– is depicted as a favored member of the royal cabinet and often indulges  Jahāngīr as a “second Timur.” What is important is that this bestowal is not inherently exclusive and casts Jahāngīr as one of potentially many second Timurs. Whether or not this was Maktub Khan’s actual depiction or a liberty taken by Mutribi is not of consequence here, because Mutribi’s decision to shape it in this way is indicative of his anticipated audience– namely, the Timurid world beyond Mughal lands. 

 

In this light, Maktub Khan, like the Shaykh Nur al-Din, is at once a historical actor animating the political world of his time and something of a fictionalized character who supports Mutribi’s literary themes of the universal plurality inherent in the Islamic-Timurid culture. Mutribi takes care to make it known to his audience that Maktub Khan is a man with remarkable skill with words. As the court librarian, Maktub Khan has an intimate relationship with texts and their lifelines– whether it be their transmission, diffusion, or safekeeping. As a poet himself, Maktub Khan is equally aware of the futility of words when taken as illusory primary accounts. Speaking highly of the courtier and his sensibilities, Mutribi shares this quatrain from Maktub Khan: 

 

From weakness I fall from the shirt’s thread 
And from head to toe, the wind of speech blows me down 
Once my shadow fell from me to earth 
Now from my shadow I fall to earth [31]. 

 

Conclusion

There is only one instance in the Khatirat-i Mutribi when Emperor Jahāngīr inquires into the life of then-Uzbek king, ‘Abd al-Mu’min Khan. He asks our author if the Khan has composed any poetry of his own. Mutribi recites a simple poem of the Khan, which another Mughal court attendee remarks as being “a stupid couplet” [77].  Jahāngīr, outraged, does not tolerate the disrespect, even of his political rival. He asserts that “the most kingly words are the words of kings” [77]. Mutribi furnishes the text with his own rendition of his sovereign’s poem: 

 

When they strike the sword at life
They are really striking the tongue. 

 

Once again taking a narrative guise, he follows this by explicitly informing his readership that  “this is why tongue (zaban) rhymes with loss (ziyan)” [78]. 

 

The Khatirat-i Mutribi has been celebrated as a historical document glimpsing into the protocols of Mughal court life, as relayed by a representative of the Empire’s mythical homeland. However, to regard Mutribi’s account as a documentative record would be far too narrow. Instead, the Khatirat-i Mutribi must be seen as the literary innovation that it is – a story unfolding on an expansive geography speckled with parable, moral injunction, and epistemological speculation. Considering the aesthetic movements (some may say “fictive”) dimensions of this text does not negate its historical merit. Instead, doing so allows for a number of important interventions in the historiography which can continue to be developed. For one, we can understand how ancestral mythologies were stoked by representatives of diasporic homelands, like Mutribi himself. With a sense of multi-generational discourse, we can see Mutribi contributing to discussions in the processual becoming of landscapes which animate discussions in Historical Ecology today. For example, the simultaneously symbolic and material space of the Turian “homeland” can be complexified through the set of critical landscape questions proffered by Wylie (2007, 191):

 

At the most basic level, what is remembered and why? Who decides what monuments and other commemorative objects are erected in the landscape? How do such memorial landscapes then function as markers of particular identities and particular historical narratives– as markers of who owns and controls the landscape? Conversely, whose memory is erased from the landscape? 


By re-centering our analysis of such narratives on to their primary producers themselves (i.e., to Mutribi and away from imperial historiographies), we may better disclose the mechanics behind the production of state-sponsored mythmaking and the creation of cultural-political geographies. Contextualizing Mutribi’s life and influences – from his affiliated philosophies to his economic situation – we can historicize the economy of storytelling. In so doing, we see Mutribi and those like him as enlivened and multifarious actors. Mutribi, as I have tried to develop throughout, was at once an austere Naqshbandi disciple, a freelancing poet and musician, a man responsible for feeding and clothing his 20 family members. He was an adventurer and a migrant worker – willing to travel for renewed patronage. He was a scholar of international relations and highly adept diplomat, and simultaneously, a playful critic of the power struggles between those of a common descendent culture. And perhaps, Mutribi also sought out the same type of historical intervention I have attempted here. Through his own text he enlivened the characters of his land and those he met at the Mughal court and aligned them with the virtues thematically promoted in his text. The officiators of history – the likes of  Jahāngīr – cannot be ignored in Mutribi’s story. However, he wily introduces a new cast of historical protagonists. It is the men who hold an intimate relationship to the word – Maktub Khan, Doctor al-Zaman, Shaykh Nur al-Din – whom Mutribi employs to enact his own literary history. The original might be graspable at some point in time, and citation does matter. Ultimately, though, Mutribi’s artful commentary invites us to consider the art of transmission and recitation which informed the historical productions of his own time.

 

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