Piety and Politics:
The Power System of the Mughal and Ottoman Harems
When prompted to recount the great power struggle between politics and religion around the time period of the sixteenth century, many would respond with narratives describing the conflict of the Protestant Reformation faced by European monarchies. In spite of its ubiquity, this view fails to recognize the integration of Islamic faith within the Mughal and Ottoman Empires. The rulers of these two societies acted not only as political figures but as religious leaders as well. Therefore, the application of the ruler’s spiritual understanding is reflected throughout the customs of his court and society. This parallel is observed most distinctively in regards to the authority of women in the royal courts and more specifically, the harems. In both the Mughal and Ottoman Empires, women generally enjoyed very similar boundaries of freedom and influence. However, though women of power in the Mughal and Ottoman harems also possessed equivalent political capacities, the social status by which these women gained their power greatly contrasted. Wives were held above concubines within the Mughal Empire whereas the Ottoman Empire granted greater opportunity for political clout to concubines over wives. This reveals a significant disparity between the two societies’ interpretations of religious piety.
Both the Mughal and Ottoman Empire allowed women access to land and property ownership and education. Within her text, extensively detailing the lives of members of the Mughal society, Annemarie Schimmel describes one of the princesses as being “a great landowner, who bestowed a number of fiefs and cared for orphaned girls” and “also engag[ing] in trade, with her brother Asaf Khan acting as the chief agent in the administration of her ships, which she used to transport indigo and other goods from Bayana to international ports on India’s west coast”. The fact that the princess not only possessed property but participated in trading activity indicates that women of this empire had the opportunity to gain economic influence as well as political. Likewise in the Ottoman Empire, “royal women were richly provided with properties and as did royal women in an earlier era, generously funded endowments for educational and charitable purposes—endowments that gave them a network of social and political contacts in the wider society”. Unlike many civilizations of the time, women’s interaction within society was not severely restricted to only home endeavors and childbirth. While both of these activities remained important duties of the women of the Mughal and Ottoman Empires, women held the potential for additional means of thriving. As mentioned above, women associated with the court maintained such surplus that they were able to establish and engage in charitable pursuits.
Women also gained some political power through the arranging of their children’s marriages. As Schimmel writes, “matrimonial politics in the Mughal era were largely based on power struggles.” When a woman, who had previously been an active member of the harem, had a child aged to the point of marital availability, her foremost mission would become to arrange the most politically beneficial marriage possible. Through this achievement, the woman would not only secure a better future for her child, but also potentially secure herself a means by which she could indirectly influence the political culture. Leslie Pierce focuses on this subject within the realm of the Ottoman Empire when she writes, “the most important links with centers of power outside the palace were forged by harem women through the marriages of their daughters, the princesses of the dynasty, to leading statesmen.” Because the “[root] in Islam [is] to honour one’s mother above all other people,” the newly wedded and politically powerful couple would look to their mothers for advice and guidance. Through this, the mothers could then advance their own, personal, political agendas.
Mothers acquired the most substantive political power through ensuring the succession of their sons as the next sultan. Considered by many to be the most successful of the Mughal emperors, Jalal Ud-Din Akbar was no exception to this matronly influence. Schimmel writes that, “Akbar’s mother remained in Kabul… exerting a considerable influence on her son and grandson until her death”. This woman was so respected and well-versed in the political knowledge of the time that she advised not only her son but her grandson as well. Another Mughal emperor’s mother, that of Jahangir, is mentioned as being “One of the most influential women” in addition to being “honoured with the title Maryan-i zamani [and having] founded the Begum Shahi Mosque”. Lapidus directly parallels the mode of political power held by the mother of the Sultan when she mentions that, “older women—especially mothers—exerted strong influence over their sons”. The Ottoman mothers held identical influence over their own politically involved sons as did the Mughal mothers. Pierce explicates this system held by the two empires when she writes, “the governing class of the Ottoman empire in this period operated not so much on the basis of institutionally or functionally ascribed authority as through a complex of personal bonds and family and household connections.” The political structure of the Ottoman Empire, like that of the Mughals, relied upon familial relations rather than a network of professionals. Ruler’s mothers, though they held significant power over the political ideologies of their sons, were just one example of a ‘familial governing connection.’
Though the Mughal and Ottoman Empires held many of the same general conceptions of the influence of women within the political domain, they greatly differed in the methods by which women came to realize their power. Mughal emperors tended to be very pious and dedicated to a strict and conservative expression of the Islamic faith. This element of piety is considerably reflected in the conventions of women in the public realm and the private realm of the harem. Rosalind O’Hanlon writes on this subject within the Mughal culture stating that “any young woman found in the bazaars and streets not properly veiled, or wives who behaved badly and quarreled with their husbands were banished to the prostitutes quarter” Women are pressure to engage in this act of veiling to denote their own dedication to piety of the Islamic faith. Were a woman to not do so, she would be considered to be of a vile or profane status. This introduces the concept of concubines or prostitutes as being below established wives within the societies social hierarchy. ‘Bad’ wives would be sent to the prostitutes’ quarter suggesting this was a sort of punishment and that prostitutes were practically the lowest status a woman could acquire. On the contrary, veiling possessed a beneficial and almost enjoyable connotation within the culture of the Ottoman Empire. This is perceived when Lapidus writes that “although many women wore veils in public spaces, veiling provided a certain anonymity that could be liberating” When veiled, women in the public spaces entertained an emotion of freedom at not being tied to their normal identity. Rather than being forced out of an oppressive sense of communal piety, the Ottoman women veiled out of a genuine desire. This difference in custom regarding veiling exposes the opposing views on application of the Islamic faith within the two societies. Whereas the Mughal emperors’ conservative views resulted in women’s oppression through veiling, the Ottoman emperors’ lack of intense, conservative views led to an expression of freedom within the customs of the women.
Within the Mughal Empire, wives held political power whereas concubines did not. O’Hanlon writes that “sexual pleasure for Akbar was legitimate within the higher moral framework of marriage, and that too only with women who were fertile: where homes could be made splendid by progeny, the fountain of mankind made to flow on, and social cohesion promoted” thus suggesting that to Akbar, “sexual activity for women should be strictly for the purposes of creation.” This restriction of proper sexual activity to reproductive purposes thus implies that concubines, who represented sexual activity for purposes other than the noble cause of procreation, were constant symbols of the rejection of right Islamic modes of action. They existed as a physical representation of the deviations from consecrated actions. Schimmel further exemplifies this distinction between the status of wives and concubines when she writes, “the chronicles contain a wealth of documentation on women in the imperial household, who were often as powerful as their husband; acting as patron of architecture, art and science; [and] sometimes playing a role in government”. The women who have access to this great opportunity of power and influence are mentioned as being counterparts to their husband, which would make them wives rather than prostitutes who held no titles within the Mughal Empire.
In direct contrast to this, the most powerful woman in the Ottoman harem, the Valide Sultan originated as concubine to the sultan before she become the mother of the reigning sultan. Pierce describes this process saying, “the haseki, or favorite concubine, enjoyed the greatest status in the imperial harem after the valide sultan… her elevated royal status derived from the fact that she was the mother of a potential future sultan”. To demonstrate the status of concubines over that of wives in the Ottoman Empire, Lapidus writes that “to increase family and political stability, the Ottomans determined first that only the oldest son was entitled to succession and then that Ottoman sultans would restrict sexual relations to concubines—wives were henceforth celibate—and limit each concubine to a single male child. This gave great political power to concubines, who accompanied their sons when they were appointed as provincial governors”. Not only were the two most powerful figures in the harem concubines, but the wives were only procured for the purpose of political negotiations. Restriction of sexual activity between the Sultan and his wives meant that no wife had the opportunity to rise to the level of power held by the Valide Sultan. Mughal emperors, with their intense dedications to pursing a pious life, cast aside sexuality as being an unclean act whereas the Ottoman emperors, lacking the same intensity of religious dedication, fully embraced its presence within the society.
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Lapidus, Ira M., and Lena Salaymeh. "Women and Family in the Ottoman Era (1400-1800)." In Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century: A Global History, 462-467. Cambridge [U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
O'Hanlon, Rosalind. "Kingdom, Household And Body History, Gender And Imperial Service Under Akbar." Modern Asian Studies, 2007, 889-923.
Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 113-149.
Schimmel, Annemarie. "Women at Court." In The Empire of the Great Mughals, 143-166. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2004.
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 O'Hanlon, Rosalind. "Kingdom, Household And Body History, Gender And Imperial Service Under Akbar." 922.
 O'Hanlon, Rosalind. "Kingdom, Household And Body History, Gender And Imperial Service Under Akbar." 917.
 Schimmel, Annemarie. “Women at Court.” 143.
 Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. 127.
 Lapidus, Ira M., and Lena Salaymeh. "Women and Family in the Ottoman Era (1400-1800)." 463.