Akbar, the Great Moghul

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Jalaluddin Muhammed Akbar Padashah Ghazi, as his celebrated biographer Abul Fazal refers to him, was one of the greatest rulers produced by Hindustan. Muslim historians are ambiguous about his rule. Some consider him to be one of the greatest among Muslim rulers, while others look at him as a renegade. In the entire span of fourteen hundred years of Islamic history, no Muslim emperor stretched the social and religious envelope as an Islamic sovereign, as did Akbar, while remaining within the fold of Islam. And no one tackled the complex issues of Muslim interactions with a largely non-Muslim world with the sincerity, zeal, passion, originality, common sense, and commitment demonstrated by this complex, enigmatic, gifted, energetic, purposeful monarch.

The orthodox thought he had become a Hindu. The Hindus were convinced he died a Muslim. Others said he was pro-Shi’a, while some Shi’as said he persecuted them. The Jesuits sent from Goa thought he was a sure candidate for conversion to Catholic Christianity. The Jains and Parsis felt at home in his presence and considered him one of their own. He befriended the Sikhs, and protected mosques and temples alike. Akbar was a universal man; he was more than any single group thought of him. He was the purest representation of that folk Islam that grew up in Asia after the destruction wrought by the Mongols (1219-1252).

Jalaluddin Akbar was born to a Sunni father, Emperor Humayun, and Hamida Banu, daughter of a learned Shi’a Shaykh Ali Akbar, at the Rajasthan-Sindh outpost of Amarkot (1542), while Humayun was wandering in the Great Indian Desert after his defeat by Sher Shah Suri (1540-1555). Sher Shah is remembered in Indian history for his efficient administration and his extensive construction of roads and canals. Akbar’s grandfather Zahiruddin Babur, himself a deeply spiritual Timurid prince from Samarqand, had taken Hindustan in 1526, and had consolidated his hold on the Indo-Gangetic plains. The hapless Humayun inherited the kingdom but was unable to fight off the Afghan challenge led by Sher Shah Suri. So poor was Humayun when Akbar was born that he had no gifts to give his entourage on the birth of an heir. It is said that the proud father took out a small bottle of rose perfume, and anointed each one of his courtiers, proclaiming that the fame of the newborn would spread like the sweet scent of the rose in that perfume. History would prove him right.

Humayun’s misfortunes had a direct bearing on the early childhood of Akbar. In Afghanistan, Humayun tried to reclaim Kabul from his brother, Kamran, but lost the skirmish. His retreat from Afghanistan was so hasty that the infant Akbar fell into the hands of Askari, another of Humayun’s brothers, who was allied with Kamran. It was an unwritten covenant among the Timurid princes that while they scrambled for the throne upon the death of the king, the children were safe from the ensuing fratricide. Askari and his wife treated the infant with the utmost love. Akbar had no time for formal education but the keen intellect of the prodigious child absorbed the wisdom of the ancient people of the Hindu Kush, and their values of valor and courage.

When he had lost all hope of prevailing over Kamran, Humayun proceeded to Persia where the Safavid Tahmasp warmly received him. The Persian Emperor saw a golden opportunity to turn Hindustan into another bastion of Ithna Ashari Fiqh and offered to help Humayun if he would embrace Shi’a views. Humayun accepted the military help but he was ambivalent about his religious commitments. With Persian help, he first captured Kabul, and when the successors of Sher Shah Suri fell into arguments and squabbles, Humayun marched triumphantly back to Agra, the first Moghul capital. Hamida Banu and Akbar returned to Hindustan.

Humayun was always a prince of misfortune. Even his end was full of pathos. He was an avid patron of literature and had built a library, which housed more than 150,000 precious manuscripts. Even in his flight, when the Emperor literally had nothing, he carried the literary treasure with him, loaded on camels. Late one afternoon, in 1556, as he was in his study on the upper floor of the library, Humayun heard the call to prayer. The Emperor hastened to descend a steep stone staircase to join the congregational prayer. He slipped, his head hit a stone, and the following day died from head injuries.

Akbar was only thirteen when he ascended the throne. A key decision made by Humayun played a crucial role in the early life of Akbar. He had appointed Bairam Khan, a loyal and trusted friend, as Akbar’s mentor and wali (protector). When Humayun recaptured Agra, Bairam Khan rose rapidly through the ranks and became Khan Khanan (prime minister). The capable and loyal Bairam Khan meticulously carried out the initial consolidation of the empire, defeating a determined challenge from the Afghans led by an Indian general Hemu, and successively captured Agra, Gwalior and Jaunpur. Bairam fell victim to court intrigue. Akbar retired him, gave him a generous pension, and sent him off to Mecca for Hajj (1560). The following two years marked a brief period of ascendancy for Adham Khan, a foster brother of Akbar, but when Adham became tyrannical, Akbar had him eliminated, and assumed direct control of the affairs of the Empire.

A vigorous consolidation of the empire began and continued into the last years of Akbar’s reign. Malwa (1560), Chitoor (1567), Rathambur (1567), Gujrat (1573), and Bengal (1574) were added to the empire. In 1581, when his brother Mirza Hakim occupied Lahore, Akbar moved his headquarters to that city and stayed there for fifteen years to contain Mirza and ward off a threat of invasion from the powerful Uzbeks of Samarqand. Lahore was an ideal base from which to conduct operations to the northwest. From the Punjab, Akbar moved to capture Kashmir (1593), Sindh (1593), Baluchistan (1594) and Makran (1594). In 1595, he took Qandahar, a key trading post between Persia and India, from the Safavids. For a hundred years thereafter, this city in southern Afghanistan was contested between the Moghuls and the Safavids.

In 1591, Akbar invited the Bahmani Sultans of Ahmednagar, Bidar, Golkunda and Bijapur to submit to the Moghuls. But the Sultans of the Deccan, flush from their recent victory over the kingdom of Vijayanagar (1565), refused. International politics played a part in this refusal. Many of the Deccan Sultans followed the Ithna Ashari Fiqh, and some toyed with the idea of accepting the Safavids as their protectors. Until the advent of Akbar, and the subsequent consolidation of the empire, India was a border state in the great tapestry of Muslim states extending from Morocco to the China Sea. The religious convulsions of Central and West Asia invariably had an impact on the Indian subcontinent. The triumph of the Safavids in Persia, and their rivalry with the Sunni Uzbeks to the north and the Ottomans to the west, brought this rivalry to India also. The Safavids were avid promoters of the Ithna Ashari Fiqh just as the Ottomans were champions of the Sunni School of Fiqh. So, when the Bahmani Sultans of Deccan toyed with the idea of joining the Safavid camp, Akbar would not tolerate it.

Outside interference on the soil of Hindustan was unacceptable to the Great Moghul. Indeed, at no time in Indian history, has a strong central government in the north tolerated splinter kingdoms either in Bengal or in the south. Akbar’s move into the Deccan was precipitated by the geopolitical rivalry between India and Persia and was not a reflection of the Shi’a-Sunni split. In 1596, Akbar moved on Ahmednagar, which fell after a determined resistance by its Queen Chand Bibi. When he returned to Agra in 1601, the empire extended over all of north and central India, Pakistan, Baluchistan, Bengal and Afghanistan. It was the richest and most prosperous kingdom in the world, and had a population of eighty million, about the same as the entire population of Europe.

To augment the standing army, and to reward his cohorts, Akbar instituted a system of mansabs and jagirs. Jagirs were land grants given to courtiers for meritorious service. Mansabs were lands allocated to nobles in proportion to the number of mounted cavalry that the mansabdar would supply in times of war. The number of mounted horsemen requisitioned in time of war ranged from ten for a mansabdar to ten thousand for a prince or an Emir ul Omara. The Mansabs served the empire well during the period of its expansion. But once decay set in, they also compounded the process of decay. The larger mansabdars acted as feudal lords over their peasants. When the central power of the empire weakened (1707-1740), tax collection could not be enforced, and the Emperor’s treasury was drained, further weakening his authority.

Thus India entered the age of feudalism just as England was working its way out of it. The mansabs and jagirs stayed on during the British era. They were abolished in independent India through successive land reforms. In Pakistan, they have continued to this day, and exercise a large influence on the politics of the country.

Akbar was one of the foremost reformers in India’s long history. He divided his vast empire into subas (provinces), each one governed by a trusted emir or a prince. The governors were rotated to minimize corruption and were made responsible for their decisions. The subas were subdivided into sarkars (districts), the sarkars into parganas (sub-districts). Each city had a kotwal (mayor), and the surrounding countryside was administered by a foujdar. Tax collection and fiscal affairs were rationalized. Akbar abolished child marriages, forbade sati (the burning of a widow with her husband’s funeral pyre which was practiced in some Hindu circles), built roads, reduced taxes on farmland to one-third of the yield, and made justice for all his subjects a cornerstone of his realm. Farmers were encouraged to bring more land under cultivation, guilds had official blessing, and both internal and international trade prospered. He treated the Hindus as people of the Book, abolished the jizya, bestowed on them religious autonomy, and allowed their own law, the dharma-shastra to be used in internal disputes. To the newly emerging community of Sikhs, he gave the area of Amritsar as a land grant, and promoted peaceful coexistence. His philosophy of sulah e kul (peace between all communities) embraced all of his subjects with himself as a father figure.

Akbar, the empire builder, was aware of the geopolitics of the age. With the Ottomans, who were the dominant land power in Eurasia, his relations were close and cordial. Akbar acknowledged the Caliphate in Istanbul as one “in the tradition of the four rightly guided Caliphs”, while maintaining the independence of Hindustan. Relations with the Safavids of Persia were strained because of warfare over the control of the important trading center of Qandahar in southern Afghanistan. Qandahar was captured by Akbar but was lost to the Persians during the reign of Jehangir. Akbar had a working relationship with the Portuguese who saw in him a possible convert to their faith. The Portuguese dominated the Indian Ocean, and their goodwill was required to guarantee safe passage for pilgrims to Mecca.

Akbar’s method of managing geopolitics was through matrimonial politics. Of Akbar’s wives, one was a Rajput; one was a Turk, and one a Portuguese.In 1562, at the age of 20, Emperor Akbar married Princess Jodha Bai, daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber, Rajasthan. This was a benchmark not only in the administration of the Great Moghul, but also in the larger global history of the Muslim people. Jodha Bai was the mother of Emperor Jehangir and was the Queen Mother of Hindustan during the reign of the Great Moghul.

From a political perspective, the issue before the Delhi Sultanate since its inception in 1205 was its relationship with the people of Hindustan who were predominantly Hindu. The first invasions had brought but a few Turkomans and Mamlukes into the subcontinent. Their presence was a thin veneer, which masked the gigantic edifice of India. There was little participation in the imperial administration from people of Indian origin, either Hindu or Muslim. Alauddin Khilji (d. 1316), who was perhaps the most far-sighted Sultan in pre-Moghul India, opened the doors of employment to Indians. However, the empire still suffered from a basic flaw in that it was rule by coercion rather than by consensus. The Khilji Empire, which embraced the entire subcontinent, lasted only a generation (1290-1320), followed by the Tughlaq Empire, which had a similar brief tenure. During the rule of Muhammed bin Tughlaq (d.1351), the empire disintegrated, with independent kingdoms emerging in Bengal, Gujrat, Vijayanagar and the Deccan. Subsequent Sultanates of Delhi, such as the Lodhis (1451-1526), were mere shadows of the great empire of Alauddin Khilji and were limited to Delhi and its surrounding regions.

Akbar was cognizant of this terminal defect and sought to redress it. Sher Shah Suri (1540-1545) had provided a good example, and Akbar sought to build on it. The highest posts of the government were opened to all of his subjects, whether they were Hindu or Muslim, or came from Afghan, Persian or Indian backgrounds. His empire was a meritocracy and he promoted men of talent wherever he found them. While the two brothers Faizi (1545-1595) and Abul Fazal (1551-1602) were prominent courtiers, so were Raja Todarmal and Raja Man Singh. Todarmal’s organization of the fiscal affairs of the empire lasted well into the 19th century, until the British replaced it. Man Singh served as the commander of the armies during several missions, and also as governor of the predominantly Muslim provinces of Kabul and Bengal.

Akbar, a product of folk Islam, had no difficulty with classical Indian arts, and became an avid promoter of Hindustani music, classical dances and Hindustani literature. The celebrated Tan Sen, perhaps the greatest of Indian musicians, lived at Akbar’s court. Hindustani music styles, classical dances, the Urdu and Hindi languages, went through a profound transformation in Akbar’s court.

The Emperor’s reach to his subjects transcended the mere affairs of state. Through his marriages to a Rajput Hindu princess, a Turkish Muslim noblewoman, and a Portuguese Christian lady, he sought not just to lay the foundation of an Indian empire, but also to transform the very essence of Muslim interaction with non-Muslims. Not until the Turkomans entered India (1191 onwards), did Muslims face the gut-wrenching issue that millions of Muslims face today: What does it mean to be a Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim world? During its classical age, Islam had come into contact with the Jews and the Christians. But interactions with these two faiths were relatively easy; they were accepted as people of the book. Interactions with Persia were also comparatively easy, because most Persians accepted Islam early in Islamic history, and were absorbed into the mainstream. In India, they met up with the ancient Vedic civilization, and the answers were not that easy. During the zenith of classical Islamic civilizations, in the courts of Harun (d. 809) and Mamun (d. 833), Hindu scholars had arrived with their books of astronomy and mathematics, and had participated in the translation of these books into Arabic. But these interactions were academic and limited to the learned men of science and culture.

When the Turkoman territories extended to Delhi, the question of interaction with the Hindus was not merely academic; it became the central political issue. The difficulties of accommodating the ancient, non-Semitic religions of Hindustan were compounded by the disaster of Mongol invasions. Genghiz Khan’s invasions produced a sharp discontinuity in Islamic history. The great centers of learning, which had housed scholars of repute, were no longer available to provide answers to pressing issues. Cultivation of the sciences of Fiqh had essentially come to a halt some time after the death of Imam Hanbal (780-855). Indian Islam thus grew up and matured in the post-Mongol era, guided not by the great fuqaha who had dominated the Abbasid era, but by the Sufis who preserved the spiritual dimension of faith.

The initial response of the Turkomans to the Indian question was one of rejection. Indians were treated as non-believers, accorded the status of protected people (Arabic word: dhimmi or zimmi), made to pay the jizya, and in return were exempt from military conscription. The issue of whether or not they were at one time “people of the book” was not raised nor was it answered. The arrangement served the Delhi Sultans well because in their perennial warfare, they needed cash and jizya provided a source of ready cash. This also explains why the Sultans made little attempt to propagate Islam, since that would reduce their tax revenues. The attempts made by Emperor Alauddin to bring Indians into the realm were purely administrative; the fundamental issues of religious compatibility were not addressed.

Akbar was the first Muslim emperor to extend to the Hindus the same status as that accorded to the Christians and the Jews from the beginning of the Islamic period. This was a bold move, one that met resistance from the more conservative ulema. Akbar married a Rajput princess, and allowed her to practice her faith within his palace, just as earlier Turkish Sultans had married Byzantine Christian princesses and allowed them to practice Christianity within their quarters. Hindus were treated on par with the People of the Book, the jizya was abolished, and Hindus became generals and commanders in the army as well as governors and divans in the empire. By his personal example, the Emperor sought to build families with the Hindus, thus extending the reach of Islam to the Vedic civilization. The fourth Great Moghul, Jehangir, was a product of Rajput-Moghul intermarriage. Akbar’s legacy stayed with the empire well into its years of decline. Some of the princes became scholars of Sanskrit as well as Persian and Arabic. Prince Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Shah Jehan, translated the Indian classic, Mahabharata, into Persian.

Akbar’s eclectic mind was always searching for spiritual answers. In the splendid city of Fatehpur Sikri, which he founded, he built a house of worship called Ibadat Khana. Here, he invited scholars and listened to their discourse on matters of religion and ethics. Initial sittings with Muslim scholars broke up in disputes and arguments. On one occasion, two of his most prominent courtiers, Shaykh Abdul Nabi and Shaykh Maqdum ul Mulk went after each other with such vehemence that the Emperor had to intervene. Disillusioned, Akbar opened up the discourse to men of other faiths. Hindu priests expounded the philosophy of karma; Jains presented the doctrine of ahimsa; Parsis joined in to discuss the tenets of their ancient faith. In 1580, he sent word to the Portuguese governor of Goa that he would like to hear from Christian priests. The governor, sensing an historic opportunity to convert the Great Moghul, and win over Asia to his faith, promptly dispatched three Jesuit priests, Antony Monserrate, a Spaniard; Rudolf Aquaviva, an Italian; and Francis Enrique, a Persian. The three brought with them paintings of Jesus and Mary which the Emperor himself helped carry to the quarters of the priests. Akbar listened to the Christians, as he had listened to Muslims-Shi’a and Sunni alike-Hindus, Jains and Parsis, benefiting from the many insights offered by the learned men of all religions. But at no point during these years did the Emperor renounce his faith in Islam or embrace another faith. He remained a Muslim throughout his life and set an example of open-mindedness, which has seldom been matched among monarchs of any faith. The disappointed Jesuits returned to Goa in 1582.

The house of Timur, from which the Great Moghuls claimed their descent, was deeply spiritual. Timur himself, despite his cruel and destructive conquests, was a religious man who honored Sufi shaykhs, living and dead. Babur’s spiritual disposition showed up in the manner in which he died. Humayun himself made it a point to visit the tombs of Sufi shaykhs during his wanderings in Persia. This characteristic showed up in Akbar also.

The history of the Chishti order of Ajmer is closely interwoven with the history of the Delhi Sultanate. Emperor Alauddin (d. 1316) treated the Chishti shaykhs with respect and had prospered. Emperor Muhammed bin Tughlaq treated them harshly and had paid a heavy political price. Akbar was a devoted follower of Shaykh Moeenuddin Chishti (1142-1236) of Ajmer, whose tomb he visited on foot every year. When his wife Jodha Bai was pregnant with Jehangir, he sent her under a Rajput escort, to live in the zawiyah of Shaykh Salim Chishti, who was the living scion of the Chishtiya order. It was at the hermitage of the shaykh that Prince Jehangir was born, and the emperor named him Salim in honor of the shaykh. It was also in honor of the shaykh that Akbar raised the majestic city of Fatehpur Sikri near his hermitage. Both Akbar and Jehangir held the shaykh and his memory in the highest esteem and his name was taken in court circles with the greatest respect.

India belonged to the Sufis, and the emperor was no exception. Islam in the subcontinent of the 16th century was the Islam of the Sufis, and Akbar was its finest product. He did not claim divinity as had the Fatimid Caliph al Hakim (d.1021), nor did he claim Divine attributes as had Shah Ismail (d.1524), founder of the Safavid dynasty. Akbar did not even claim that he was a saint. But he was the king-emperor of Hindustan, an unlettered prince with the intellect of a giant, a deeply spiritual man with an unending search for transcendence in religion.

Akbar was the first, and perhaps the only Muslim Emperor to reach out as far as he did to embrace peoples of non-Semitic religions. Previous contacts with Christians and Jews were on the basis of co-existence. In the Abbasid as well as Ottoman realms, Christians and Jews were accepted as people of the Book and were given autonomy to govern their own internal affairs. Akbar went one step beyond co-existence; he tried co-union with the Hindus. This was the first and only such attempt by a Muslim monarch of any significance. This single fact accords Akbar a pre-eminent position among the great monarchs of the world.

Deen-e-Ilahi, a compendium of ethical standards, which Akbar had extracted from the religious discourses he attended, and based largely upon Nasiruddin al Tusi’s exposition of aqhlaqh, was misunderstood as a new religion. These standards are to be found in Ain-e-Akbari, a collection of court edicts compiled by Abul Fazal. Some of the misunderstandings arose as a result of poor translations from Persian, and some from a lack of understanding of tasawwuf and of the doctrinal basis of aqhlaqh. For instance, Akbar considered his relations with his followers as that of a pir-murid (Sufi shaykh and his disciple), not that of a prophet-follower. The emperor did not seek converts and there is every indication that he discouraged people from becoming his murids and tolerated open dissent with his practices. Even Raja Man Singh had dubious feelings about the emperor wearing a holy mantle. To those who did accept him as their pir, the emperor gave a medallion on which was inscribed “Allah u Akbar” (God is Greater). When a courtier reminded him that the emblem could be misunderstood to mean that Akbar had claimed divinity, the emperor replied that shirk (association of partners with God) had not even entered his thoughts. Indeed, the emperor continued to perform congregational prayers whenever he was on military campaigns. On his return from Kabul in 1580, he is known to have performed Juma’a prayers in Peshawar. On occasions, he insisted on giving the khutba, a practice in keeping with the example of the early Companions of the Prophet, but long since taken over by professional kadis. While it is true that he patronized the construction of four large Chaitanya temples at Mathura (1573), it is also true that the emperor himself built great mosques. The magnificent mosque in the courtyard of Shaykh Salim Chishti (1572) in Fatehpur Sikri is a monument to Akbar’s dedication to Islam.

On the exoteric plane, Akbar’s experimentation with ethics comes across as religious innovation. But at the esoteric plane, his initiatives are in consonance with the spirituality of the age. By the 16th century, the Chishtiya Sufi order had found a welcome home on Indian soil. Vaishnava Hinduism of Mathura was attracting more devotees among Hindus. Guru Nanak (1468-1539) had just founded a new religion, Sikhism, to bring Islam and Hinduism closer together. Each group pushed its point of view aggressively. Akbar, as the Emperor, was aware of these movements. His discussions in theIbadat Khana, with leading exponents of various religions, had given him an insight into each one.

As a devotee of the Chishti order, Akbar was in tune with Sufi practices, which were animated by the philosophy of Wahdat al Wajud (unity of existence). Although this philosophy was in existence since the earliest days of Islam, it appears in the writings of Sadruddin Konawi, a student of Ibn al Arabi (d. 1240). Born in Spain during the waning years of Al Muhaddith rule, Ibn al Arabi traveled through North Africa to Syria and Arabia. He learned the tasawwuf of Divine Love from the Sufi (lady) masters of the era, Nurah Fatima binte Al Muthanna of Cordova, Shams Yasminah Um ul-Fakhr al Marhena az-Zaytun of Cordova, and Ain as Shams, of Mecca. His standing in Sufi circles is so great that he is referred to as al Shaykh al Akbar (the greatest of the Shaykhs). A powerful speaker and a prolific writer, he influenced the evolution of tasawwuf in lands as diverse as Morocco and Indonesia. His masterpiece works include Ruh al Quds, Tarjamanul Ishwaq and Futuhat al Makkiyah. He passed away in Damascus.

According to Wahdat al Wajud (unity of existence), all creation is illusion; the only Reality is God. The more He reveals Himself, the more he conceals Himself. Humankind is prevented from realizing Divine Unity because of the ego, which considers it self-sufficient and does not submit to the Divine. The doctrine of fana (annihilation) is a logical consequence of this philosophy. When the individual ego gets close to the Divine, there can be no two egos; the individual ego is annihilated and only the Divine exists. It is like a candle getting close to the sun. The candle no longer exists; only the light of the sun remains. Man can transcend his ego through belief and effort. The path to realizing unity of existence is through love (muhabbah) rather than through knowledge (maarifah). Thus love of God, and love of fellow man, becomes a key element in Sufi practice. Sufi masters know the path to Divine Knowledge, called a tareeqah, and a novice learns the secrets of the path by becoming a murid (one who desires knowledge, disciple) of the master. The presence of Sufi masters is animated by baraka (blessing), which has been transmitted to them by a silsilah (chain of transmission) going back to the Prophet. Through the centuries, this doctrine has been a centerpiece of Sufi belief. Besides Ibn al Arabi, the other leading exponents of this school were the Persian al Bistami (d. 874) and the Egyptian Ibn Ataullah (d.1309).

Emperor Akbar found an echo of the doctrine of fana in the Advaita Vedanta of the Hindus. Akbar’s son Jehangir is known to have studied the Advaita under a leading Hindu master. The Great Moghul saw in the correspondence between Sufi thought and the Vedantas the possibility of opening up the embrace of Islam to Hindus by accepting them as people of the Book. Their books were “lost” but the inner kernel of spirituality had remained. This was a masterstroke by a consummate statesman who hoped by this move to at once consolidate the empire and give it a solid foundation by establishing the legitimacy of his rule with all the peoples of his vast realm. He achieved this through his marriage to Rajput princesses, who became mothers and grandmothers of successive emperors. The Rajputs responded by showing their loyalty to the Moghuls until the waning years of the empire. Indeed, it may justifiably be argued that Akbar’s Empire was a Moghul-Rajput confederacy. His son Jehangir introduced Persian elements into it through his marriage to Noor Jehan, while his grandson, Emperor Shah Jehan, achieved a total synthesis of the art, architecture and culture of India with that of Persia and Central Asia.

Akbar was a product of Sufic Islam that dominated Asia until recent years. The Sufis, while accepting the Shariah to be the fundamental platform of religion, consider the obligations of Fiqh to be an outer kernel, which has to be penetrated to reach the inward spirituality of religion. Without the Shariah, there is no religion. But without its spiritual dimension, religion itself becomes a litany of do’s and don’ts. In India and Pakistan, the great Sufis of the Chishti order found a sympathetic chord among the Hindus by adopting a musical rendering for their sessions of dhikr (recitation of the Name of God) and presenting Sufi doctrines in a manner that the Hindu mind could at once identify with. It was this spiritual thrust of Islam that converted many millions of Hindus in the subcontinent. The conversion cut across all classes and castes, the Brahmans as well as the warriors, the peasants as well as the untouchables. Conversion was not, as some western writers assume, confined to the lower castes among Hindus. Families often split, with one brother accepting Islam through the Baraka of a Sufi master, while the other remained a Hindu. In slow measures, over the centuries, Islam became a major religion of Hindustan, and it remains so today.

The historical process through which the people of Hindustan accepted Islam was different from the way the Persians and the Egyptians (for instance) became Muslim. The initial conversion of the Arabs was through exposure to the pristine religion of the Prophet and his Companions. The faith was diffused through Persia and Egypt early in the Umayyad period and had a heavy linguistic, legal and cultural content from Arabia. Islam entered the subcontinent five hundred years after it entered Persia and Egypt. Its content was primarily spiritual. The legal content entered later. In the interaction between Islam and Hinduism, the cultures of Central Asia and Persia fused with those of India. It gave birth to new languages, and shaped a composite culture, much as happened in the Sahel of East Africa where a rich Swahili culture emerged from a fusion of African, Arab and Persian elements.

The great Sufis were fully alert to the risks in the idea of Wahdat al Wajud. The doctrine of fana carries with it the possibility of shirk (association of partners with God), by proposing that the Creator and the created are on the same plane. This is totally unacceptable in Islam in which the Absolute Unity and Transcendence of the Creator is inviolate. To overcome these objections, clarifications of tasawwuf were developed in the classic age of Islamic history. As early as the 10th century, Al Junayad (d. 910) of Baghdad formulated the doctrine of Wahdat as Shahada (Unity of Witness). In the self-sustained eloquence of the Qur’an, Shahada is a powerful term. It means at once “to witness”, “to recognize”, “to see”, “to find”, “to be conscious”, “to acknowledge through speech”, and “to sacrifice”. When a person accepts Islam, he takes the Shahada. When a person becomes a martyr in the path of God, it is said that he has tasted the Shahada. It is only the beauty and power of Qur’anic language that makes possible the immediate synchronization of thought and deed. Shahada has two parts to it: “There is no deity but Allah, and Muhammed is the Messenger of Allah”. The first part at once frees human consciousness from bondage to any deity, and tethers it solidly to God. The second part makes the consciousness of God accessible through revelation brought by Prophet Muhammed (p).

The doctrine of Wahdat as Shahada states that humankind is conscious of the Unity of the Divine. The apparent diversity in creation is deceptive; there is the invisible power of the Creator in every creation. Humans can gain cognizance of this Unity through doctrine and through training. This apparent difference between cognition and union is crucial to maintaining the transcendence of God. The Creator and the created are not on the same plane. While the doctrine of Wahdat al Wajud can throw a person into the vast ocean of Divine Love, in which he/she may drown, the doctrine of Wahdat as Shahada throws a life raft so that even the uninitiated can swim. The doctrine of Wahdat as Shahada remained dormant for centuries. It was the doctrine of Wahdat al Wajud that was accepted and practiced by the Sufis. This was so at the time of Emperor Akbar.

Akbar’s religious initiatives produced whirlpools of intellectual activity in India. The orthodox were convinced that the purity of faith was in peril. Some of the practices that the ulema found objectionable included the emperor offering his darshan (Hindustani, to appear, to show oneself) to his subjects from a balcony at sunrise (a practice borrowed from the Persians), inscription of “Allah u Akbar” on medallions that were offered to his murids (those who sought spiritual guidance from him), and even his marriages to Hindu ladies. They considered these practices to be inconsistent with their view of Islam.

The response of the orthodox ulema and their interactions with the emperors determined the shape of Indian history, and ultimately that of global Islamic history. Ironically, the most determined resistance came from a Sufi order, the Naqshbandi that grew roots in Hindustan during the reign of Akbar. Khwaja Baqi Billah, one of the Naqshbandi shaykhs, was born in Kabul in 1563, from where he migrated first to Lahore and then to Delhi. Dissatisfied with some of the practices introduced in the court, he interacted with court elements that sought to replace Akbar. It was at the instigation of these dissidents that Akbar’s brother Mirza Hakim invaded Lahore (1581), an event that brought the Great Moghul to Lahore and resulted in his conquest of Kashmir, Sindh, Baluchistan and southern Afghanistan. Khwaja Baqi Billah passed away in 1603. It was his disciple, Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (1564-1624), who had a profound impact on Islamic thought, not just in India-Pakistan, but also in the entire Islamic world.

Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi was born into a family of Hanafi scholars, and was initiated into the Naqshbandi order at Delhi in 1599. Through his lectures, his writings, and his contacts with Emperor Jehangir (1605-1627), he deeply influenced social and political developments in India. Shaykh Ahmed was opposed to any form of innovation in religion and taught that religion should follow the simplicity and rigor of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. He was anguished at disrespect shown to Prophet Muhammed (p) as had happened when the Jesuit priests from Goa presented their religion at the imperial court in Fatehpur Sikri. He was distraught at the aggressiveness with which non-Muslims propagated their faiths, while the orthodox Muslims were constrained in implementing their practices. He wrote to the leading Moghul courtiers, as well as to the leading ulema of the age in India and in the Ottoman Empire, expounding his views on orthodoxy. These writings, Maktubat-I-Iman-I-Rabbani, have been translated into Turkish, Farsi, and Urdu, and have influenced Muslims the world over. Later historians termed his movement Mujaddidiya. Shaykh Ahmed elaborated and consolidated the principles of Wahdat as Shahada as a counterpoint to extreme interpretations of Wahdat al Wajud. So pre-eminent is the position of Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi among the ulema that he is referred to as Mujaddid al Alf e Thani (Renewer of the Second Millennium).

Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi was the first of three great Muslim thinkers of the subcontinent. The other two were Shah Waliullah (d. 1762) of Delhi, and Muhammed Iqbal of Lahore (d. 1938). Both Shaykh Ahmed and Shah Waliullah came from Sufi backgrounds and both are universally recognized as mujaddids (first rank scholars of Shariah, Fiqh and Sunnah who are qualified to reform religious practices). The eloquent poetry of Muhammed Iqbal of Lahore (1873-1938) echoes the legacy of tasawwuf left by Shaykh Ahmed and Shah Waliullah, although Iqbal went further than any of his predecessors in asserting the free will of man and its responsibility for noble action. In this respect, Iqbal stands at the confluence of the Asharite and the Mu’tazilite Schools, where the doctrines of qida (predestination) and qadr (free will) meet. The profound religious thoughts of these reformers require a separate volume. Here, we are concerned more with their social and political thoughts, and their impact on the history of the subcontinent.

There is a common thread in their approach to Muslim interactions with the largely non-Muslim populations of South Asia. Shaykh Ahmed took exception to Akbar’s initiatives for co-union with the Hindus. Perhaps it was a reaction to the Vaishanava Hindu revival in northern India at the time, or perhaps it was the deeply felt conviction of the shaykh that the future of Islam lay in strict adherence to the Sunni tradition. Some of his views were implemented during the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707) with disastrous consequences for the Moghul Empire. Aurangzeb befriended Shaykh Muhammed Maasum, son and successor to Shaykh Ahmed, while Shaykh Saifuddin, his grandson, lived at the court of Aurangzeb in Delhi.

Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi’s political leanings can also be seen in Shah Waliullah, one of the most eminent of Islamic scholars produced by India. In 1761, as the Marathas advanced towards the Punjab, and briefly occupied Lahore (1760), it was the forceful plea of Shah Waliullah, which invited Ahmed Shah Abdali of Kabul to intervene. The bitterly fought Battle of Panipat (1761), destroyed Maratha power in the north, and confined it to central India. More than a hundred and fifty years later, another profound thinker, Muhammed Iqbal, reflected on the apparent diversity of Hindu-Muslim ways of life, and advanced the idea of a separate state for Muslims-Pakistan.

The history of the subcontinent shows that Akbar’s attempts did not succeed. Muslim India remained ambivalent about his initiatives. Sunni Islam embraced the orthodoxy of Aurangzeb. The Shi’as maintained their exclusiveness. The Hindus and the Muslims both took aggressive positions. The Sikhs, who started out bridging the gap between Muslims and Hindus, ended up fighting them both. The partition of the subcontinent in 1947, and its gory aftermath in which Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs indulged in sustained orgies of mutual slaughter, was a political and social acknowledgement of this failure.

It is instructive to compare the achievements of Emperor Akbar with those of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The two were contemporaries. Akbar ruled from 1556 to 1605, while Elizabeth I ruled from 1559 to 1603. Both had inherited kingdoms that were weak and divided. When Akbar ascended the throne, his control hardly extended beyond Delhi and Agra. When he died in 1603, the empire embraced more than a million square miles and had become one of the most powerful empires in the world. When Elizabeth ascended the English throne, England was a marginal state in Europe and the object of intrigues by Spain and France. Scotland was at war with England. Elizabeth consolidated the United Kingdom, defeated the Spanish Armada and took England out of the orbit of Rome. When she died in 1603, England was the most powerful state in Western Europe. Akbar’s dominions were far more extensive than those of Elizabeth, and had a population ten times that of England. But Akbar was a king-Emperor on the mighty landmass of South Asia. He made no attempt to build a strong navy. The material for building ships was available in Bengal as well as in Gujrat. The technology was available to them from the Ottoman Turks and from the Chinese. But as strong as they were on land, they surrendered the Indian Ocean to the Europeans. During the height of Akbar’s power, pilgrims to Mecca and traders to East Africa had to have their papers stamped by the Portuguese for safe conduct. In the year 1600, even while Akbar was consolidating his empire and Hindustan was headed towards a period of dazzling prosperity, the East India Company was granted a charter by Elizabeth I. Two hundred years later, when history hurled England and India into a fateful embrace, it was the lapse of the Great Moghuls to build a navy and control the Indian Ocean that made the difference, and the Company triumphed over the Rajas and Nawabs who had inherited the Empire.

The system of mansabs instituted by Akbar, while it served the empire during its period of expansion, proved to be a drag on the treasury when decay set in. In the 20th century, it proved to be an impediment to modernization in both India and Pakistan. Third, the empire lagged behind Europe in the diffusion of knowledge and technology. The printing press, which was introduced into Europe in 1415, made possible the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The printing press was not introduced into the Moghul territories until the 18th century. Technology and innovation suffered, while wealth and power became the focus of court life. India did not produce a Newton or Galileo or Kepler. Fourth, the Moghuls (and the Ottomans and the Safavids) knew far less about the Europeans than the Europeans knew about them. Indian explorers did not travel through Europe to learn about the “Firangis” who were increasingly active on their shores. Indian exclusiveness, Hindu and Muslim alike, acted as a barrier to correct information and knowledge about these traders from far-away lands. So, when the decisive confrontation came, faulty intelligence did the Indians in, while the Europeans took full advantage of the knowledge they had about Indian court intrigues and societal fissures.

Akbar’s greatest contribution to Islamic history was his extension of the framework for interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims. Until his reign, Sultans and ulema alike had divided the world into two neat little compartments, Dar ul Islam and Dar ul Harab. Dar ul Islam was where the Sultans reigned, and the non-Muslims paid jizya in return for military protection as Dhimmis (protected minorities). Dar ul Harab was where the non-Muslims ruled, and conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims were unavoidable. Religious obligations that were binding on all believers in Dar ul Islam, were not necessarily binding in Dar ul Harab. Akbar, the Great Moghul, added a third dimension to this bi-polar world. This was the dimension of co-union, in which the definition of People of the Book received the maximum latitude, the meaning of Islam as Deen ul Fitra (pristine and natural faith of all humans) was implemented, and Islam extended its loving hand to all mankind. Few grasped the vision of the Great Moghul. They were looking at the rainbow through a prism that allowed a single wavelength of light; the colors of the rainbow were lost to them. Akbar’s social, political and religious activism fell by the wayside, and history lost track of the lofty horizons shown by the Great Moghul. It chose instead narrow and sinuous alleys.