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Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daula, from landside, 1622-28, Agra, India

Political Piety and the Nonvisible Presence: How Hürrem Sultan and Nur Jahan Built Waqf, Reputations, and Legacies in the Islamic World

Hürrem Sultan (1505-1558), wife of Sultan Suleyman of the Ottoman Empire and Nur Jahan (1577-1645), wife of Emperor Jahangir of the Mughal Empire revolutionized the built environment of the cities in their respective empires through their strategic and innovative use of the Islamic institution of“waqf,” or pious donation. Waqf indicates a large endowment like a mosque, school, or hospital made in perpetuity for the common good. Through the institution of waqf, Hürrem Sultan and Nur Jahan, whose bodies were not seen by the public, were able to make substantial physical and material public presences in their cities that change the ways one walks around these cities today. Through the medium of public buildings, Hürrem Sultan's and Nur Jahan’s legacies became encoded in maps and history, allowed these women to peripherally interact with the un-familial men, and carved out their own official roles in empires that did not have official government roles for women. Hürrem and Nur Jahan did not just have architectural legacies, but also textual legacies through their inscriptions which created a new public lexicon for directions, streets, neighborhoods, and cities. Long thought of as subjugated for their pious seclusion, in my thesis I argue the exact opposite: that these two women’s power came directly from their piety, specifically their political use of piety. My argument is based in challenging the common belief among scholars that the buildings and complexes Hürrem and Nur commissioned were evidence of their “maternal” and “womanly” nature. I argue that we should see these buildings not as passive endeavors stemming from the caring nature of women, but rather as strategic and political choices that both conformed and challenged existing models of contemporaneous building and set the stage for generations of imperial women builders to come.