Home > Lounge > Features > A Muslim royal’s Christian faith

One of the leading techniques by which kings in the early modern world neutralized their rivals was by depriving them of their eyes. Blinding, after all, not only prevented such opponents from leading troops in battle, but also rendered them incapable of effective government. In 1607, for example, the Mughal emperor Jahangir blinded his son after the latter tried to seize the throne, while in the previous century a sovereign of Vijayanagar, it is believed, asked his minister (albeit without success) to blind his brother, the famous Krishnadeva Raya. In the Deccan, the house of the Bahmani sultans saw even a nine-year-old dealt with in this fashion, while Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur sweetly invited a perfidious regent back to court, only to inflict this immutable punishment on the unsuspecting man.

It was to escape such a fate—or worse—that one of Ibrahim’s great-uncles had left court in the early 1540s, never to return. At that time, it was another Ibrahim who sat on the throne, and this part Maratha, part Persian prince suspected the ambitions of his father’s brother, Miyan Ali. The sultan was believed to be of dubious legitimacy, so Miyan Ali, with his purer claim, threatened to emerge as an alternate power centre. No novice in these games, the uncle tried to pre-empt blinding or plain old-fashioned poisoning by making himself scarce—he proposed to go to Mecca on pilgrimage, physically removing himself from his nephew’s way and putting himself out of reach of all conspirators who might want to topple the Adil Shah in his name. It was a win-win for both: The Adil Shah could keep his throne, and Miyan Ali, his existence.

Sadly for both, the plans went awry. Miyan Ali did sail for Arabia, only to be robbed on the way and wash up in Gujarat. For two years, the man stayed there—away from the reach of his grumbling nephew—before moving to Goa, and into the fickle embrace of the Portuguese. Shia rebels from Bijapur who did not like their Sunni ruler had gravitated towards this enclave, and Miyan Ali became the face of their intrigues. Of course, the Portuguese also believed him to be a useful pawn in their own strategic games. When the Adil Shah tried to buy custody of Miyan Ali from these Europeans, they gladly accepted 50,000 gold pieces and territory, only to renege. And in the process, the royal uncle became to Goan authorities what historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam calls “a Muslim fly in the ointment".

Miyan Ali was never going to be king but the hope of such an eventuality lingered for decades. For many summers, he vegetated in Goa, subject to the vagaries of his hosts: Once, for instance, they shipped him all the way to Malabar and back, and it was only in 1555 that a real effort was made to help him take on his nephew in Bijapur. The enterprise was a debacle, and before he knew it, Miyan Ali was back in the familiar territory of frustration. As a Jesuit wrote soon after, “it is to him…that by rights the kingdom of the (Adil Shah) …in fact belongs." But he lacked the strength to enforce his claim. The old man then tried another method—he began to seek alliances for his daughter, sending out proposals not only to the sultan of Ahmednagar (who had his own axe to grind against Bijapur) but also to the emperor of Vijayanagar.

But if Miyan Ali’s ambitions were thwarted by poor luck and unsuccessful strategy, he was to receive a final blow from his child. While he was “a great follower of Muhammad and well-versed" in Islamic scripture, the princess seemed to be developing slightly different religious leanings. She had cultivated, it turned out, the acquaintance of a local Christian woman called Maria Toscana, with whom she began to communicate a great deal. Without her father’s knowledge, she expressed, in due course, a desire for the teachings of the Bible. Or, as we learn from the Jesuit, “Maria Toscana…was so zealous for the good of (the princess’) soul" and “persuaded her with such vehemence to become Christian" that after a year’s work, the girl agreed. Soon, a clandestine plot took shape to extract the woman from her father’s house and take her to church.

One Sunday morning, then, the Portuguese governor and his retinue arrived at Miyan Ali’s house unexpectedly. While a startled father spoke to his guest, women in the group made their way into the ladies’ quarters to take possession of the man’s daughter. The consequence was that “both the girl’s mother and the other female relatives", with “great outcries and shouts", held on firmly to the princess, while the “Portuguese women grabbed hold of (her) from the other side". This bizarre tug of war “assumed such proportions that all their hair came undone", but in the end Miyan Ali’s daughter was successfully seized—she left home in the governor’s palanquin, converting soon afterwards to Christianity and marrying Maria Toscana’s brother. Her Muslim mother shaved her head in grief, while Miyan Ali watched in despair.

It was the end of his quest to assert any right over the throne of Bijapur. While Miyan Ali remained staunchly Muslim till the end of his days in 1567, the heirs of his surviving son did follow in their aunt’s footsteps and convert to Christianity. In only a few decades thereafter, a number of his descendants would fully transform themselves, bearing, as Subrahmanyam shows, such names as Dom Joao Meale and Dom Fernando Meale. There was, to them at any rate, little irony in the fact that their new Portuguese surname was merely a corruption of the name of their tragic ancestor, the ill-fated Miyan Ali—an exiled Adil Shahi prince of Shia faith whose daughter and grandsons chose to become Christians.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015)and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @unampillai

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