In the year 1582, a letter arrived for King Philip II (1527 – 1598) of Spain. Part of the letter read as follows:
“As most men are fettered by bonds of tradition, and by imitating ways followed by their fathers, ancestors, relatives and acquaintances, everyone continues, without investigating their arguments and reasons, to follow the religion in which he was born and educated, thus excluding himself from the possibility of ascertaining the truth, which is the noblest aim of the human intellect. Therefore we associate at convenient seasons with learned men of all religions, thus deriving profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations.”
It was amidst raging anti-Protestant movements in Spain and beyond, in a setting where monarchial edicts legalized killings and wars against Protestant Christians in Spanish territory, when this renowned letter made its way into the hands of King Philip II. That a letter worded in such a manner should come from a Muslim ruler in Asia and be intended for the readership of a medieval European Catholic audience came as a surprise not only for the Spanish king himself, but also for many historians and lay people of today. Insofar as religious tolerance in the history of mankind is concerned, this letter is perhaps one of the greatest to ever have been written by human hands, and its writer perhaps one of the greatest ruler ever to have walked the surface of the earth.
That the writer of the above letter, a Muslim ruler in a land coloured by centuries-long Hindu resentment towards Islam (and vice versa), should command even the respect and adoration of Hindus up to today, is indeed a feat worthy of admiration.
And who exactly is this great man I am talking about? He is none other than Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar I (Urdu: اَبُو الفَتح جَلالُ الدِّین مُحَمَّد اَکبَر), Shahanshah Akbar-e-Azam, or more commonly known as Emperor Akbar the Great (1542 – 1605).
Emperor Akbar (1542 - 1605) of Moghul India
Before I delve further into the story of this great man, let me first give you an overview of the Moghul Dynasty of India. The Moghul Dynasty, also known as the Mughal Dynasty, was one of the greatest dynasties in history to have ruled a substantial portion of the Indian subcontinent. Being an Islamic dynasty governed by Muslim emperors, it ruled much of Hindu-majority India, particularly in the north, from 1526 to 1857. At its zenith, the empire covered almost all of what is today India and Pakistan, and substantial portions of Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan and Iran. Despite being a Muslim dynasty, its subjects comprised followers of various religions, with the majority of them being Hindus. And it was also during the rule of the Moghul Dynasty that many well-known landmarks in India and Pakistan, such as the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (mosque) of Delhi and the Lahore Fort, were built.
Extent of the Moghul Empire of India at its zenith of power
The Taj Mahal, one of India's most well known hotspots, built during the Moghul Dynasty
The circumstances under which Emperor Akbar was born gave no indication whatsoever of his future destiny as ruler of Moghul India. Despite being the grandson of Emperor Babur (1483 – 1530), the founder of the Moghul Dynasty of India, and a descendant of the valiant conqueror Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227), Akbar was born under impoverished circumstances on 14 October 1542 in Umerkot (Urdu: عُمركوٹ), located in present-day Sindh (Urdu: سندھ), Pakistan. At that time, his father, Emperor Humayun (1508 – 1556), was removed from the throne and driven into exile by his former subordinate and governor of Bihar, Sher Shah Suri (Pashto: فريد خان شير شاہ سوري) (1486 – 1545). When his parents went in exile to Persia, Akbar was left in the hands of an uncle in present-day Afghanistan to be raised. He thus spent most of his youth away from the luxuries of royal indulgences, learning to hunt and fight and developing skills that would make him a fearsome warrior in the future. Although he never learned to read or write, he had a tremendous love for knowledge, and it was said that he would always have someone read a book out aloud to him every evening.
Upon the death of Sher Shah Suri in 1545, the dynasty that he established lost a capable and visionary leader, and his growing empire started disintegrating. Succession rivalries further weakened the empire, and Emperor Humayun took this as an opportunity to recapture Delhi and reestablish the Moghul Dynasty, which he finally did in 1555. Emperor Humayun thus reascended the throne, only to die several months later following an unfortunate fall from the stairs. Akbar subsequently succeeded the throne at a young age of 13, in which his influential military commander, Bairam Khan (Persian: بيرام خان) (died 1561), ruled as regent until his coming-of-age in 1560.
Court of Emperor Akbar
The reign of Emperor Akbar brought about a golden era for the Moghul Dynasty in India. As a valiant warrior and brilliant strategist, he commanded a great army and led them into a decisive series of victorious battles that resulted in the subjugation and annexation of much of north India, including the strategic province of Gujarat (Gujarati: ગુજરાત), a crucial gateway to trade with the outside world. After consolidating his empire, Emperor Akbar constructed the city of Fatehpur Sikri (Hindi: फ़तेहपुर सीकरी) near Agra (Hindi: आगरा) and established it as the new capital of his empire from 1571 to 1585.
City of Fatehpur Sikri constructed by Emperor Akbar
Emperor Akbar’s policy of central governance proved to be highly effective in controlling the vast domains of the Moghul empire. One notable feature regarding his governance was the separation of the taxation system from military administration. While many rulers throughout India’s imperial history implemented systems that empowered local governors in matters of both tax collection and military administration, Akbar felt that such a system could potentially enable local governors to amass military might and wealth, consequently leading to rebellion. To the local governors, Akbar entrusted the task of maintaining peace and order, while he appointed separate tax collectors to take charge of collecting revenue from the masses. Revenue collected was to be sent directly to the central government, and local governors were also required to report directly to Akbar. In that way, both the governors and tax collectors were dependent on the central government, as neither had control of both wealth and military power. The central government would then be responsible for distributing salaries to military and civilian personnel, and allotting predetermined sums to each governor for use in their respective regions. Additionally, Akbar himself would personally take time to make regular checks on his empire’s accounts and treasuries, ensuring that no money was lost to corruption or wastage.
Emperor Akbar’s love for the arts and aesthetics brought Moghul artistry to its pinnacle. He was a keen patron of the arts, and he would frequently employ the finest poets, artists, musicians and architects into the service of his courts. Moghul architecture experienced an era of renaissance under his patronage, with the construction of striking buildings that fused elements of Islamic, Hindu and Persian designs. Poetry and literature also flourished in his courts following great contributions from renowned poets, biographers and scholars such as Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak (Persian: ابو الفضل) (1551 – 1602), Abu al-Faiz ibn Mubarak (1547 - 1595) (Persian: ابوالفیض بن مبارک) and Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana (1556 - 1627) (Hindi: अब्दुल रहीम ख़ान-ए-ख़ाना), who were part of Emperor Akbar’s Navaratna (Hindi: नवरत्न) or Nine Gems, a term used to collectively refer to the nine extraordinary courtiers in his court. Besides, Emperor Akbar was known for his immense love of knowledge and intellectual pursuit, despite the fact that he was illiterate. He maintained a library full of the finest collections of his empire, and had an official read a book out aloud to him every evening in his court.
Artist's impression of royal musicians entertaining Emperor Akbar in his court
Moghul India under Emperor Akbar grew to become a highly prosperous and powerful empire in South Asia politically, economically and militarily. Indeed, the fame of the Moghul Dynasty was not only limited to the shores of the Indian Subcontinent – it even extended to as far as the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) and the various medieval kingdoms of Europe. Besides King Philip II of Spain, as mentioned above, other European monarchs also sent emissaries to the court of Akbar in efforts to promote diplomatic ties and economic alliances, most notably from King Henry IV (1553 – 1610) of France and Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) of England. The Portuguese, who had a significant presence in Goa and were extending their influence further into Gujarat, also sought political alliances and economic goodwill with Akbar’s government, realizing that despite all their artillery and military superiority, they were nowhere more superior than Akbar’s military prowess on land.
Artwork illustrating Emperor Akbar leading his army to victory in the Siege of Chittorgarh in 1568
In spite of Emperor Akbar’s visionary policies, just governance and military might that prospered Moghul India as a whole, one thing about him stood out more than the rest – his policy of religious tolerance.
Emperor Akbar was well aware that although his government was essentially Muslim in nature, his subjects comprised people of all faiths, with Hindus forming the largest proportion. He knew that in order to ensure the stability and prosperity of his empire, he could not afford to ignore the needs and sensitivities of all his subjects, irrespective of religion. Akbar was aware that non-Muslim, particularly Hindu, resentment towards Muslim rule had existed since the time when Muslim conquerors first stepped foot on Indian soil in the 1200s, as a result of impartial and sometimes oppressive policies against non-Muslims. Despite being a Sunni Muslim and later on a follower of the Sufi or tasawwuf branch of Islam, the latter half of his rule prospered with a degree of religious tolerance and harmony probably unheard of in most Islamic governments throughout history.
From the early years of his reign, Emperor Akbar had sought to foster close ties with his Hindu subjects, in an effort to reduce tensions between Hindus and Muslims in his empire. In 1562, he married Rajkumari Hira Kunwari (Hindi: राजकुमारी हिराकुँवारी) (1542 – 1623), also known as Harkha Bai (Hindi: हरखाबाई) and later Mariam uz-Zamani Begum Sahiba (Persian: مریم الزمانی بیگم صاحبہ) after her conversion to Islam. Harkha Bai was a Rajput princess from Amber (Hindi: आमेर) or present-day Jaipur (Hindi: जयपुर). Emperor Akbar also married other Hindu princesses, and matrimonial alliances between his family and other royal families from the Rajput clans and surrounding Hindu kingdoms were fairly common. Even after marriage, Hindu members of these royal families were generally allowed to freely practice their faith without being forced to convert to Islam. Muslims and Hindus in Akbar’s household were treated with total equality, and these inter-religious matrimonial alliances brought about strengthening of ties and intercultural understanding between the Muslim Moghuls and Hindu Rajputs. The influential Hindu rulers of the various Rajput clans throughout northern India thus threw their full support behind Akbar in his reign and military expansion.
Rajkumari Hira Kunwari (1542 - 1623)
Besides, Emperor Akbar appointed many Hindus in his administration, even promoting some of them into high official positions in his court. Most notable of them were three of the Nine Gems or Navaratna of his court, namely Raja Todar Mal, Raja Man Singh I and Raja Birbal. Raja Todar Mal (Hindi: राजा टोडरमल) (died 1586) rose to become one of the most capable finance ministers in the history of Moghul India, introducing many new and improved measures in matters of revenue collection and land settlement. Raja Man Singh I (Hindi: राजामान सिंह) (1550 – 1614) was a trusted general in Akbar’s army, and was also appointed as the governor of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Raja Birbal (Hindi: राजा बीरबल) (1528 – 1586) was appointed as the Wazir-e-Azamor Grand Vizier in Akbar’s court, advising the emperor on many important matters and was highly revered in the court for his wisdom and humour. Akbar ensured that employment and promotion in the imperial administration was done not on the basis of faith or creed, but rather on the basis of meritocracy only.
(From left) Raja Todar Mal (d. 1586), Raja Man Singh I (1550 - 1614) and Raja Birbal (1528 - 1586)
Nonetheless, most importantly to Emperor Akbar’s non-Muslim subjects as a whole was his policy of repealing extra levies placed on them by his predecessors. In 1563, Akbar abolished a special tax placed on Hindus who made pilgrimages to sacred sites, and in 1564 he repealed the jizya tax that was levied annually on non-Muslims. These taxes were perceived as a form of discrimination against non-Muslims and a subtle attempt to forcibly convert them into Islam, and their abolishment was much welcomed by non-Muslims throughout Moghul India, thus further strengthening their support for his rule. Furthermore, under Akbar’s rule, much land and money were granted not only for the construction of mosques, but also for Hindu temples throughout northern and central India, and churches in Goa. The renowned Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Hindi: काशी विश्वनाथ मंदिर) in Varanasi (Hindi: वाराणसी), for instance, enjoyed much allocation from Akbar himself, and its reconstruction was organized by Raja Todar Mal in 1585.
Artist's impression of Emperor Akbar paying homage to Guru Amar Das (1479 - 1574), the third Guru of Sikhism, in the Goindwal Sahib
Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi
Akbar’s tolerance and acceptance of India’s multi-religious existence did not just stop there. He was always interested in learning more about other religions besides Islam, and was an assiduous advocate of interfaith understanding. In 1575, he set out to build a hall called the Ibadat Khana (lit. “House of Worship”) in the Moghul capital of Fatehpur Sikri for this very purpose. To it he would invite theologians, mystics and wise courtiers of all faiths to discuss matters of spirituality. Indeed, these interfaith dialogues, which were held almost weekly, included not only Muslim ulamas of various denominations and Hindu holy men, but also Portuguese Christian missionaries, Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians.
It was said that these interfaith dialogues failed to achieve Akbar’s original intention of promoting better interfaith understanding, as representatives of each religion showed little respect for other religions and attempted to exert the superiority of their respective religions on each other. As a result, these interfaith dialogues became more hostile by the day, leading to increasing bitterness among the participants. Akbar finally discontinued them in 1582, but the results of the various discussions held led him to believe that there was good in every religion, subsequently prompting him to establish a new ethical system called the Din-I Ilahi (Persian: دین الهی) or Divine Faith.
Artwork illustrating Father Rodolfo Acquaviva (1550 - 1583), Jesuit missionary to India, being granted an audience with Emperor Akbar in his court
The Din-I Ilahi attempted to merge the best elements of all religions in Moghul India, especially Islam and Hinduism. It prohibited lust, pride, sensuality and slander, and promoted piety, prudence, abstinence and kindness. Particularly in line with Jainist beliefs, Din-I Ilahi also forbids the slaughter of animals. Contrary to popular misconception, Din-I Ilahi was not a new religion, but rather an ethical system that brought together the best of all religions. It had no written scriptures or hierarchical order, but was more of an informal code of living. Nonetheless, its core adherents comprised only of Akbar’s courtiers, and numbered no more than 20 people.
Interfaith dialogues in the Ibadat Khana, being participated by holy men and authoritative figures of all major religions in the Moghul Empire
No doubt, Emperor Akbar’s policies of religious toleration drew flak from not few conservative Islamic scholars of his era. Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564 - 1624) (Urdu: شیخ احمد سرہندی), a prominent Islamic scholar from Punjab, criticized Akbar for what he perceived as overly liberal and anti-Islamic policies introduced by the emperor. Nonetheless, the Qadis, or Muslim judges, of Bengal went as far as declaring Akbar’s policies to be blasphemous, subsequently issuing fatwas against him, declaring him a heretic and sparking a rebellion against the Moghul government. Akbar succeeded in suppressing the rebellion and subsequently meted out severe punishments to the Qadis. In the aftermath of this, he issued a proclamation signed by all major ulamas that declared him the Caliph of the age, empowering him in matters of Islamic law. Under this new proclamation, Akbar held absolute power in selecting any one opinion above the others in the event of conflicting opinions between scholars of Islamic law. This further consolidated his position and supremacy as Caliph and leader of the Muslims.
Abu'l Fazl ibn Mubarak, one of the Navaratnas, presenting the Akbarnama (Annals of Emperor Akbar) to the emperor himself
Akbar’s supremacy in matters of Islamic law, coupled with his concept of Din-I Ilahi and his ongoing policies of religious toleration, still did not go down well with several influential Islamic scholars of his era. He would famously refer to himself as:
“Emperor of Islam, Emir of the Faithful, Shadow of God on earth (Zillullah fil-Alam), Abul Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar Badshah Gadzi (whose empire Allah perpetuate), is a most just, most wise and a most God-fearing ruler”
and in every mosque congregation that he attended, the following proclamation would be made:
“The Lord to me the Kingdom gave, He made me wise, strong and brave, He guides me through right and ruth, filling my mind with the love of truth. No praise of man could sum his state, Allahu-akbar, God is great.”
While many saw these as legitimate titles and proclamations for a great Muslim emperor and caliph, there were also not few of those who scoffed at him for exalting himself with such titles and at the same time “attempting to curry favour” with non-Muslims. Some Islamic scholars asserted that Akbar had failed to protect the sanctity of Islam in his empire by allowing regular interfaith discussions (as mentioned above), thus providing others a platform to debate and question Islamic teachings. His Din-I Ilahi concept was ultimately perceived as a move to replace Islam with a new fusion religion that centred on Akbar as God. The Arabic phrase “Allahu-akbar”, which means “God is great”, was also scoffed by some to mean “Akbar is God” instead.
Indeed, Emperor Akbar’s policies of toleration and mutual understanding in a religiously plural society such as Moghul India earned him much trust from the majority of his subjects and brought stability to the vast empire as a whole. Nonetheless, his liberal policies in matters of religion and interfaith relations frequently drew controversies from different segments of Moghul society, especially from Islamic scholars of conservative persuasions. Ultimately, whether Emperor Akbar was a genuine and true Muslim who wanted nothing but to promote mutual respect for different religions in his empire, in accordance with proper Quranic teachings, or a heretic who was bent on weakening Islamic influence in his empire so as to exalt himself as a deity, I leave the choice up to you.
Jodhaa Akbar, a Hindi-Urdu film based on the lives of Emperor Akbar and Princess Harkha Bai (Jodha Bai), starring Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai