On Tipu Sultan’s tomb in Seringapatam, it is recorded in phrases which commemorate by the Abjad system the date of his death. The words are ‘ Nur Islam wa din z’ dunya raft ‘ i.e. ‘The light of Islam and the faith left the world’. Another phrase there is ‘Tipu ba wajah din Muhammad shahid shud’ i.e. ‘Tipu on account of the faith of Muhammad was a martyr’. These phrases are supposed to represent the year 1213 Hijri, corresponding with A.D. 1799. The inscription was composed by Mir Husein Ali, and was written by Abd-ul-Kadir.
The muslims of the subcontinent and especially of the Deccan term Tipu Sultan as a Hazrath as well as Shaheed. The title ‘Shaheed’ or Martyr is understandable as Tipu died fighting on the battlefield. However the title ‘Hazrath’ or ‘ Respectful one’ has through history been reserved for only the most important as well as pious Muslim personalities. Prominent among the Hazraths are the early Caliphs of Islam as well as the great Sufi saints of India.
Walk into any Muslim gathering of laymen in say Bangalore or Hyderabad and when asked about Tipu, the answers that strike you are not of his martial or administrative prowess, not even of his foreign policy and scientific bent of mind, but rather statements like here was one who did not miss even one Namaz in his lifetime or here was one who ran a perfect and model Islamic state that should be the ideal of Muslims from India to the hills of the Pyrenees.
I am often asked by my Muslim brothers, usually from India and Pakistan, if Tipu was a Sunni or a Shia. Some even associate him with even stricter forms of Islam like Wahabism. So, the purpose of this post is to throw light upon Tipu’s personal faith and his practise of Islam. I will only discuss Tipu here with respect to his Islamic belief and will not dwell upon his very cordial relationship with non-muslim religions and communities as that is another topic by itself.
But before this let us understand the peculiar socio-religious culture of 18th century India. This was a time when Islam in Southern India had developed a regional character absorbing elements of local belief and practise. Though the community subscribed to the fundamental Islamic precepts, there was no united definition of what was truly Islamic or orthodox. The dargahs or shrines of Sufi saints were revered by Muslims and Hindus alike.
Tipu Sultan’s earliest recorded ancestor as per Kirmani’s ‘History of Tipu Sultan’ was Shaikh Wali Muhammad who was supposed to have come to Gulbarga from Delhi along with his son Muhammad Ali during the reign of Muhammad Adil Shah (1626-56) of Bijapur. He was a religious man, and attached himself to the shrine of Sadruddin Husaini, commonly known as Gesudaraz Bande Nawaz, and was given a monthly allowance for subsistence. Gesudaraz Bande Nawaz was among the most prominent Sufi saints of the Deccan. Tipu’s ancestors, being Sunni Muslims themselves had even at that time decided to adopt the path of the Sufis.
Another anonymous version of Tipu’s ancestry is preserved in Karnama-i-Haidari where the origin of the family is traced to one Hasan b. Yahya, a Quraish of the same clan as Prophet Muhammad. Hasan b. yahya was the Sharif of Mecca. However it is possible that this pedigree may have been manufactured to bolster up the dynastic source of Haidar and Tipu. The manuscript mentions one Hasan b. Ibrahim, who sixth in descent from Yahya, emigrated to India after losing in business and began to live in Ajmer with the caretaker of the shrine of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti and married his daughter. Nonetheless, both these sources bolster the fact that Tipu’s family origins were Sunni. And what strikes us here is that both sources attach the family members to 2 prominent Sufi mystics of India – Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti of Delhi and later Khwaja Bandanawaz Gesudaraz of Gulbarga.
Tipu’s father Haidar Ali himself relied upon a Sufi called Khaki Shah Wali who was a ‘Soldier saint’ in the army of Haidar Ali. Khaki Shah was killed in 1770, during the 1st Anglo-Mysore war and his dargah in Kolar was apparently constructed by both Haidar and Tipu. Tipu also maintained close contact with Muslim holy men all over the South.One whom Tipu frequently kept in touch with was ‘Boodhun Shah Kadiry’. Sufi saints like Khwaja Gesudaraz also featured prominently in Tipu’s dreams. Dreams 6, 8, 15, 30 and 31 in Tipu’s book of Dreams relate to Sufi saints.
Tipu Sultan’s fascination with Sufism is also evident from the number and choice of books in his library. Charles Stewart in ‘A descriptive catalogue of the oriental library of the late Tippoo Sultan ‘ lists 115 books on Sufism in Tipu Sultan’s library, preceded only by 190 books on poetry and 118 books on history. Relative to this, books on the Koran and Hadith number only 90.
Tipu also had respect for the Shia adherents of Islam. Muharram, the Shiite festival of mourning was celebrated in Seringapatam and was a noisy, boisterous affair. Peixote has left us an account of it’s celebrations in 1771: ‘figures …walking in the street in fantastic postures, and dancing about grotesquely in long paper caps, painted in various ways; whilst others were bedaubed with ashes and other filth, and resembled monsters from the infernal regions’. Clearly Muharram celebrations in Seringapatam was not the average European’s cup of tea. Haidar had requested that the celebrations be less boisterous but on the fourth day the mourners could no longer restrain themselves and broke out. Amused, Haidar ordered alms to be given.
Following the spirit of his father, Tipu also observed the festival of Muharram. In a letter to Mohammad Baig Khan Hamdani in October 1786 following the capture of Adoni, Tipu writes of his decision to chastise the army of the Peshwa and the Nizam after celebrating the festival of Muharram. The Shias were well represented across all levels in his administration and army. The author of Tipu’s manual on military conduct, Fath ul-Mujahidin was Zein ul Abid ul Deen, a Shia Muslim.
Tipu held great veneration for Ali – the son-in-law of the prophet and the fourth Caliph. Ali was regarded by the Shiites as being the true successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Invocations to Ali were inscribed upon Tipu’s weapons as well as the epithet ‘asad-allah-ul-ghalib’ used for Ali was extensively used by Tipu to portray his state and it’s departments. A battalion of his crack troops – the Asad-ilahis was named in honor of Ali. Tipu’s embassy to Constantinople in 1786 was given as one of it’s tasks soliciting permission from the Ottoman Sultan to arrange for the building of a canal, with funds provided by Mysore, from the Euphrates to Najaf, primarily for the benefit of pilgrims, predominantly Shia, visiting Ali’s burial place. Tipu also sent a mission to Shia Iran in 1798 with presents for Fath Ali Khan, the Shah of Iran. The mission was well received and the Shah proposed a return mission to Seringapatam. Unfortunately, the mission only reached Seringapatam after the death of Tipu.
However, the most important clue to the question if Tipu Sultan was Shia or Sunni was given by himself through his coinage. The coins of Tipu Sultan, a topic of discussion by itself were the most impressive in calligraphy, method of manufacture as well as precious metal content among all the contemporary Indian rulers of the time, including the Mughal monarch at Delhi.
The Gold and silver coins of Tipu are called after the Muslim saints, Khalifas in the former coins and Imams in the latter, while copper coins, with the single exception of the first name for the double paisa, which is that of a Khalifa, bear the Arabic or Persian names of stars.
The coins and their names are as follows:
1. Ahmadi: Equivalent to 4 pagodas which was the standard gold coin weighing about 3.4 grams , this gold coin is named after ‘Ahmad’, the ‘most praised’; one of the names of the Prophet Mohammad himself.
2. Sadiqi or Siddiqi: Equivalent to 2 pagodas, named after Abu Bakr ‘Saidiq’ – ‘the just’, who was the first Khalifa.
3. Faruqi: The pagoda named after Omar ‘Faruq’ – ‘the Timid’, the name of the second Khalifa.
4. Haidari: The double rupee, silver coin named after Haidar, ‘a lion’, the designation of Ali who was both the fourth Khalifa and the first Imam.
5. Imami: The rupee, silver coin whose name is derived from the word ‘Imam’, ‘leader’, no doubt intended to stand for the twelve Imams.
6. Abidi: The half rupee, silver coin with name derived from Ali Zain al Abidin, the fourth of the twelve Imams.
7. Baqiri: The quarter rupee, a silver coin with the name taken from Muhammad al Baqir, Muhammad the Great, the fifth Imam.
8. Jafari: The one-eighths rupee, silver coin with name derived from Jafar al Sadiq, Jafar the Just, the sixth Imam.
9. Kazimi: The one-sixteenth rupee, silver coin named after Musa al Kazimi, Musa the Silent, the seventh Imam.
10. Othmani: The double paisa, a large copper coin, commemorates Othman the third Khalifa.
The nomenclature of these coins is very important and this provides us a glimpse into Tipu Sultan’s religious leanings. But again, for this we should know something about the Khalifas, Imams and their importance to the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam.
According to Sunni teaching, Muhammad left the process of determining who would succeed him to the Muslim community to decide by consensus. The community chose the Prophet’s close companion Abu Bakr, a man known for his devotion and discernment. The next three caliphs were also former companions of the Prophet. Because of their direct connection to Muhammad and his teaching, Sunni Muslims call his first successors the “rightly guided” caliphs. After the passing of the fourth caliph, Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, the caliphate’s authority became more political than religious.
But Shiite belief disputes the validity of the first three Khalifas, Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman and the lines of authority diverge after the passing of the fourth, Ali. This stance is what gives this branch of Islam its name, from “Shiat Ali,” the faction or partisans of Ali. According to Shiite teaching, the proper line of succession went through Muhammad’s family, not community consensus. In this view, the first legitimate successor was Ali, whom they regard as the first in the line of infallible and sinless successors referred to as imams.
On Tipu’s coinage, starting from the name of the Prophet Mohammad, we see the appearance of the names of all the Khalifas as well as many among the twelve Imams. No Shia ruler would place the names of the first three Khalifas on his coins. This would amount to blasphemy. The fact that the names of Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman appear prominently on Tipu’s coinage gives credence to the fact that Tipu Sultan was definitely not a Shia Muslim. The next question that springs to our mind is, if Tipu was Sunni, why are the names of the Imams prominent on his coins. The answer for this lies in the fact that Sunni theology, while not giving the same prominence to the Imams do not discount or disrespect them either. So Tipu Sultan was very much within his sectarian boundary and belief when he figured the names of the Imams on his coinage.
And in this act of his, his tolerance for the Shia sect of Islam is apparent. Mysore contained a good number of Shia Muslims and Tipu included their Imams on his coins to let them know that they were an important part of his subjects as well in the same way as Tipu’s depiction of the elephant on all his copper coins in spite of Islam strictly prohibiting the depiction of images was a signal to his Hindu subjects that the ancient traditions of Mysore would be respected and carried on.
Yes, Tipu was certainly an observant Muslim and would spend time every day reading the Koran and was particular with all the ritual and obligations expected of a Muslim. He was always sober and reserved when it came to participation in gala dinners unlike his father. That being said he was no prude as is sometimes made of him. While Kirmani mentions ‘ His (Tipu) main aim and object was, however, the encouragement and protection of the Muhammaddan religion, and the religious rules of the Sunni sect,and he not only abstained from all forbidden practices, but he strictly prohibited his servants from their commission’, he also mentions that ‘For the sake of recreation (tafnan), as is the custom of men of high rank, he sometimes witnessed dancing.’ Making and consuming arrack was prohibited in Tipu’s Mysore, however he allowed the French to consume liquor, even in the capital city of Seringapatam. Tipu life long remained steadfast in his belief on astrology and was particular on wearing holy talismans like rings set with jewels varying every day in colour according to the course of the seven stars as well as wearing turbans with holy Islamic quartrains embroidered on them and dipped in the waters of the holy ‘Zam Zam’ stream in Mecca.
He did not tolerate Muslims who he felt were becoming a danger to Mysore’s religious plurality on account of their excess zeal to religion. Here we shall study Tipu’s reaction to two overtly-expressive groups among the muslims – the Mahdavis and the Wahabis. Initially, Tipu granted complete freedom of worship and belief to the Mahdavis, but the Mahdavis grew more assertive and this started to create fissures in the Muslim society in Mysore. The Mahdavis were in the habit of praying very loudly and Tipu knew that this would disturb other muslims engaged in prayer, leading to trouble. He organised tents and other facilities to the Mahdavis at a distance away from the city where they could assemble for prayer. However the Mahdavis refused this and one night, 3000 of them began to celebrate their rites. Tipu was greatly incensed at this act of indiscipline and exiled the whole community out of Mysore. This did prove costly to Tipu later as the Mahdavis enmasse, joined the Nizam and accompanied him while invading Mysore on the eve of the forth Anglo-Mysore war.
As for the Wahabis, Tipu did not tolerate them at all and in his letter to the Ottoman Sultan who ruled over the Middle East, dated 10 February, 1799 he writes-‘Accordingly, having lately been informed of the excessive commotions excited by the son of Abdool Wahaub, in the neighbourhood of Mecca the holy, I immediately addressed letters to the supreme minister Yoosuf Vizier, to the sharif of Mecca, and the servants of the holy receptacle (the Holy Kaaba) purporting, that it was my intention to send a considerable force under the command of one of my approved sons..’ So, the venom being spread by the Wahabis then (and today by the followers of this ideology the world over from the Saudi ruling dynasty to Osama bin laden to the military despots ruling Sudan and the terrorists in Chechnya and Afghanistan) was countered by Tipu with an offer to send against them an army of his troops led by his son himself.
All in all, Tipu was a Sunni muslim and a follower of the Sufi path. He was very considerate to the Shias and did not spare the intolerant Wahabis. He followed an Islamic belief that was Middle Eastern in doctrine but very South Indian in practise.
It was my good friend, Adnan Rashid , Head of the Hittin Institute, London who pointed me in the direction of firmly establishing Tipu Sultan’s Sunni belief from his coinage. Though I have been a student of Mysore numismatics for over fifteen years now, the message of Shia-Sunni unity that Tipu wished to convey through his coinage had escaped me. I had certainly missed the forest for the trees.
Tipu Sultan’s search for legitimacy, Kate Brittlebank
A review of the origin, progress and result of the decisive war with the late Tippoo Sultaun, James Salmond
History of Tipu Sultan, M.H.A. Khan Kirmani
History of Tipu Sultan, Mohibbul Hasan
A Descriptive catalogue of the oriental library of the late Tippoo Sultan, Charles Stewart
The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, Mahmud Husain (Trans.)
The coins of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, J.R. Henderson