William Dalrymple’s latest book, The Last Mughal , awarded the prestigious 2007 Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography, is a significant contribution to understanding the roots of the current war in Iraq, and the clash between Western countries, particularly the United States, and al Qaeda and the Taliban. Dalrymple says that the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously intertwined. The quick narrative pace of this well-researched book of nearly 500 pages makes it less dry history and more of a vivid human story.

Dalrymple portrays a narrow slice of Indian history, the 1857 Indian uprising against the British. By 1857, the British had conquered almost the entire subcontinent, not with armies but by annexing territories and legal chicanery. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, was left with nothing but his palace in Delhi and the hollow title of Badshah (emperor).

He was a king who felt weighed down by the trappings of his office. Like his illustrious ancestor Akbar, Zafar was more interested in encouraging the arts and building gardens, but he lacked the political acumen of dealing with the political reality of a dynasty in decline. Ghalib and Zauq, celebrated poets, adorned Zafar’s court. Zafar himself was a mystic, poet, writer on Sufism, calligrapher, and architect. He was also a very tolerant king. It was during this surreal coexistence of Zafar’s life of aesthetic pleasure and the expansion and consolidation of the British empire, that 300 armed Indian sepoys and cavalrymen (sawars) employed by the British army suddenly rode into Delhi after killing their British superiors in Meerut where an uprising had broken out on May 10, 1857. The soldiers repudiated British authority and declared Zafar to be their leader, a position he reluctantly accepted.

The Indian soldiers’ grievance was that they had been forced to bite the cartridges of the newly introduced Enfield rifles. The cartridges were smeared with cow and pig fat, which offended their religious sensibilities.

But the uprising had deeper causes. May 10, 1857 is recorded in history books as the day of the infamous Sepoy Mutiny, a British view of the incident. Dalrymple, however, gives us another perspective. After researching 20,000 virtually unused Persian and Urdu documents relating to Delhi, known as the “Mutiny Papers,” Dalrymple and his colleagues, Mahmood Farooqui and Bruce Wannelly, found for the first time, what Dalrymple calls seeing the events of 1857 in Delhi “from a properly Indian perspective, and not just from the British sources through which to date it has usually been viewed.” Dalrymple also found in these documents descriptions of life in Delhi in those troubled times seen through the eyes of ordinary people. What Dalrymple discovered were “two parallel streams of historiography “which used completely different sources.” He found in the Punjab Archive, hidden in the tomb of Anarkali, emperor Jehangir’s favorite dancer, correspondence between the British Resident and his superiors in Calcutta plotting the total extinction of the Mughal court, an ominous prelude to gradually gaining total control over Delhi.

When the British came to India as officers of the East India Company, their initial interest was trade, and for this they adopted amicable relations with local rulers. They even mingled with Indians, some of them marrying Indian women and having children by them. They became interested in the native cultures of India and studied Persian and Arabic diligently. Some of them were attracted to the courtly Muslim culture of Delhi, giving rise to “a sort of Anglo-Mughal Islamo-Christian culture” which served as a buffer between the Mughal world and the British Company’s Residency. While this fusion of civilizations was going on, there was also an intense movement by Evangelical missionaries like Rev. Midgeley Jennings to convert Muslims and Hindus, and worse, to demolish mosques to construct roads and churches.

The East India Company was morphing into an empire: Siraj ud-Daula had been defeated in Bengal in 1757, the French in 1761, Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, the Marathas in 1803 and 1819, and the Sikhs in 1849. This expansion bred what Dalrymple calls “an imperial arrogance.” Thomas Babington Macaulay famously articulated this superiority complex by declaring that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Macaulay’s brother-in-law, Charles Trevelyan, spearheaded a movement to remodel native madarasas, once centers of Islamic learning, open also to Hindus, into the Delhi College, to impart English education. By 1852, British imperialism was becoming patently manifest, and the rift grew between Indians and the British. Evangelical proselytization also gave rise to radical Islamism led by Shah Waliullah who advocated strict adherence to Koranic law and vowed to wage jihad against Christians. The jihadists also admonished the less strict, pleasure-loving Sufis, among who were Zafar and Ghalib.

The British policy, born of technological, economic, and political superiority, displaced an entire culture and disrupted the Hindu as well as Muslim way of life. The insurgency by the sepoys spread beyond the ranks of the army, and was widely supported by the people. With the breakdown of law and order, criminals took over Delhi. Zafar was horrified by the violence on both sides, but was helpless to prevent it. After much carnage on both sides, the British gained the upper hand and the Indian sepoys either fled from Delhi or died of starvation. Though legally the Company was still a vassal of Zafar, the emperor was tried in a kangaroo court, found “guilty” of an international Muslim conspiracy to overthrow the British Empire, and was sentenced to live in exile in Rangoon. He died in 1862 and was buried in an anonymous grave behind a prison enclosure there.

Moderate Muslim voices were muted. Dalrymple traces the roots of the al-Qaeda and Taliban to the radical Islamism that emerged from the 1857 Uprising from an orthodox madarasa founded in Deoband, in the Doab. Quoting Edmund Burke, Dalrymple issues a closing warning to those who fail to learn from history. The “aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East,” says Dalrymple, radicalizes the ordinary Muslim, “and feeds the power of extremists.”

After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at raj_oza@hotmail.com