In the early 1630’s, right around the time the Puritans were beginning to build Boston, Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth. In those days, tragically, many women died in similar circumstances. But Mahal was a queen. Her husband was ruler of what may have been the wealthiest empire in the world. His power and riches were immense.
But he could not save the love of his life.
In one night, the legends went, all the emperor’s hair turned grey. Grief-stricken and inconsolable, the man whose very name meant “King of the World” ordered her to be entombed. Shah Jahan, the fifth of the sixth great Mughal rulers, commissioned an immense white marble mausoleum, to be set upon a pedestal and surrounded by gardens that echoed the Muslim conception of paradise.
If Shah Jahan wanted the world to remember her as he did, then certainly he accomplished his aim. Rabindranath Tagore called it “a teardrop on the face of time.” UNESCO calls it a World Heritage Site. Most men know it to mean their every romantic gesture will never be enough. You can buy her roses after all, but can you build her a Taj Mahal?
But I propose we see it as a vision of what Islam used to be, and what Islam could be, a building dedicated to love, and to love across boundaries that seem more like vast chasms today. Shah Jahan was a Sunni ruler from a Sunni dynasty. His beloved wife, however, was Shiite. Far from being doomed to fight, they fell in love. They married. They produced the next emperor. And they are now buried peacefully beside one another.