Akbar the Great

April 24, 2014 by  


By Dr. Habib Akhter Zuberi

(Emeritus Professor of Economics)

akbar
Akbar the Great

Akbar was born on October 15, 1542 at Amar (Umar) koat, Sindh. Due to the tragic and untimely death of his father he became King of Hindustan at an early age of 13, with Bairam Khan as his regent. Although Bairam Khan was a shia, he appointed Mir Abdul Lateef as Akbar’s tutor. Mir Abdul Lateef was a Persian of Sunni background. While in Persia he had experienced discrimination and personal circumstances forced him to move to Hindustan. He understood what it means to be discriminated. Therefore, from the very beginning he emphasized the principle of universal tolerance. Whereas he failed to encourage the young king to become a scholar he did teach him the principle of Sulah-e-kul, universal peace and toleration.

At age 18, Akbar removed his regent and assumed full powers of the crown and began to run state affairs from 1561. At this time he was a devout Muslim. In January 1562, he decided to go to Ajmer. While he was on his way to Ajmer, Raja Bihari Mal of Ambar became the first Rajput Chief to come to his court. He offered his daughter in marriage to Akbar. The emperor accepted the offer and married Joda Bai. In 1563, he abolished Pilgrim tax and Jazia. Soon after that he came in contact with Sheikh Mubarak, a learned man and his two sons Abul Fazl and Faizi who became his close associates. They re-affirmed the principle of Sulah-e-kul, which Akbar had learned from Abdul Lateef.

One of the major problems the young King had to face was to develop a state policy that accommodates Muslims and Hindus, the two principal communities in India. Such a policy would make members of both communities to think that their interests are protected by their sovereign. Hence domestic peace can be achieved, so that the emperor may devote his time to other pressing issues that the state faces or might face. Badauni , an orthodox Sunni Muslim historian has stated that Akbar often spent the whole night thinking about this issue and  praying. Eventually, he realized that he was unable to find an answer to this question by himself, so he decided to have an input of leaders of different religions. To that end he built Ibadat Khana in 1573.
Akbar invited Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Jewish religious leaders to come there and state what is good in their religion and how that can help him develop a sound state policy. He told them that even though he was the master of a vast empire, and controlled all government institutions yet, he argued, the greatness consists in doing “the Will of God”, therefore, his mind was not at ease in the diversity of sects, creed and that he would like to know some principle that would restore peace among his subjects.  His objective was to ascertain the good principles of all religions. He asked them to speak the truth as conveyed in their religions so a synthesis could be made.

Sheikh Mubarak had taught Akbar that all religions aspired to achieve a fundamental unity. After all God has sent prophets in all parts of the world. Some are well known while others are less known or even un-known. Hence, there must be something common in messages that God conveyed through them. Therefore, he organized debates in Ibadat Khana. However, debates in Ibat Khana fizzled out as participants began shouting at each other. Akbar’s goal was to find the way by which religious differences, a major source of dissention between the nations of native population of India and the ruling classes could be bridged.

Unfortunately, during Akbar’s time toleration of religious differences was considered a weakness rather than a symbol of enlightenment. Although he had cancelled the debates he remained committed to his policy of universal peace and toleration. He continued to visit Muslim Saints, as well as Hindu Sadhus, welcomed Jesuit priests and Sikh Gurus. He was highly impressed by Sufism, Jainism and to some extent by Christianity.

The Emperor invited his nobles and the leaders of Hindu and Muslim Clergy for a dinner. There he stated the Principle of Universal Peace. “For an empire rules by one head it was bad thing to have members divided among themselves and at variance one with other…we ought, therefore, to bring them all into one, but in such a fashion that they should be both ‘one’ and ‘all’; with great advantage of not losing what is good in any one religion, while gaining whatever is better in any other. In that way honor will be rendered to God, peace will be given to people, and security to empire.”
Though Akbar concentrated his energies on other issues such as the consolidation and the expansion of his empire, as well as economic well being of his subjects, he continued to think about religious affairs. He adopted several Hindu customs several Hindu customs that were hitherto practiced only by Hindus, such as tilak on his forehead on Hindu religious ceremonies, or celebrating Deepawali etc. He also stopped eating meat, for which he was roundly criticized by some Muslims. Some of his critics even invited his half brother Hakim a drunkard and utterly incompetent ruler of Kabul, to come and take the Crown of Hindustan. His opponents did not succeed. Akbar was encouraged by Abul Fazal to assume both spiritual as well as temporal authority over his subjects. As a first step in that direction he recited a Khutba which was prepared by Faizi on June 26, 1579 on the birthday of Rasool Allah (PBH). Akbar delivered that Khutba:

“ In the name of Him who gives to us the Empire, who endowed us with a wise heart and a strong arm, who guided us in the path of equity and justice, putting away from our hear aught but equity—His attributes transcend man’s understanding. Exalted by His Majesty God is most great!”

Badauni says that Akbar stammered and trembled when he recited Khutba, others disagree. Yet, Akbar had Qanoon-e-Rehnumai prepared and people were invited to join and follow the rules laid down in this document. This came to be known as Din-e-Elahi. No one was forced to join it. When Akbar asked Raja Mansingh to join Din-e-Elahi, he declined the invitation. Similarly Shahbaz Khan Kamboh also declined the invitation. There were no reprisals for refusing to join this cult.

It is this policy which made people think that Akbar had abandoned Islam. This was not the case. He was simply not a bigot. He also learned from his grandfather Babur that to distinguish between Shias and Sunnis will weaken and not strengthen Islam and it was the duty of a ruler to protect the places of worship of all religions. He had learned that Muslims have the same faith but not the same culture or language and they must adjust to the society in which they live. Yet, according to Baduni, Akbar devoted more time about God as he advanced in life. A Jesuit priest Father Monserrate has left it on record that Akbar lived “in fear of God and never failed to pray four times a day.” (Note that this was likely an error made by the Jesuit who failed to understand that Muslims pray five rather than four times a day).  He also stated that ‘the Emperor was loved by his subjects of all faiths’ and was a kind hearted person. Akbar had issued a decree that if he sentences someone to death, the order should not be carried out unless this order is issued three times. Furthermore, he would forgive anyone if just ground could be found.

Bar Told, a Russian traveler and historian, wrote that Mughal emperors were “very rich and there was much greater toleration for other religions in their empire than in Europe.” No wonder at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria where portraits of the great rulers of the world are hung, at the top is the portrait of Akbar the Great.

By pursuing a policy of great toleration for followers of other religions and by modifying his own conduct to accommodate his subjects of diverse background Akbar indeed established an empire in which the ruler was admired and loved by most of his subjects. Even after death the empire he left behind lasted nearly two centuries .

In any multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious society as increasingly most societies are, pursuing a policy of Sulah-e-kul, other things being equal, would tend to result in domestic political stability and economic prosperity. Sir William Sleeman

Evaluating Akbar’s contribution to world civilization wrote, he “always appeared to me among sovereigns what Shakespeare was amongst poets.”

Let me conclude this brief paper with a quote, though somewhat out of place, from Saadi:

At this spring many like us who boasted, passed away in the twinkling of an eye. With valor and might we seized the world, and yet, we did not take it with us to the grave.

16-18

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