• Two aspects of Akbar’s religious policy need to be distinguished— his state policies, and his own personal ideas and beliefs. While no water-tight distinction can be made between the two, it should be realized that personal ideas and beliefs did not always determine state policies.
  • Akbar’s state policy in the field of religion was in a large measure determined by the Turko-Mughal traditions. The movement of Hindu-Muslim rapprochement, spearheaded by the bhakti saints and liberal sufis, also influenced it, as also Akbar’s deeply inquisitive mind, and his abiding interest in sufism.
  • Chingiz, according to his biographer, Juwaini, “eschewed bigotry and preference of one faith to another, placing some over others.” Timur also followed this policy so that in his dominions, and in the dominion of his successors, there was no persecution of Shias, and even Christians and heathens found a place in his government and in his armed forces. This eclectic policy was fully reflected in the policies of Babur and Humayun. In fact, Humayun’s brother, Kamran, who was an orthodox Sunni, used to make fun of Humayun’s eclecticism. Babur did not hesitate to wear the Shi-ite kula (cap) at Samarqand when it suited him. Humayun sought shelter at the court of Shah Tahmasp, and there were many Shi-ites in his nobility. It was due to this broad tradition of liberalism that Abdul Latif who was considered a sunni in Iran and a shia in India, was chosen by Humayun as one of the tutors of young Akbar.
  • From the 15th century, a number of rulers in various parts of the country adopted a more liberal policy of religious tolerance, attempting to foster communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims.These sentiments were earlier encouraged by the teachings of popular saints like Guru Nanak, Kabir and Chaitanya,the verses of the Persian poet Hafez which advocated human sympathy and a liberal outlook.
  • Bhakti saints opened their doors to all, irrespective of their faiths, rejecting differences based on scriptural authority and traditions. Many of the sufis, specially the Chishtis of the doab and the Kubrawiyas of Bihar, made no difference between peoples based on faiths, their khanqahs being open to all, irrespective of religious beliefs. Abdul Qaddus Gangohi’s work, giving sufi allegorised meaning for such words as gopi, murli, Krishna, etc. shows that Hindi bhakti songs were used widely in the sama (musical gatherings) of some of the sufi saints.
  • Politically, in many of the provincial kingdoms, such as Gujarat, Malwa and Kashmir we find Hindus being given appointments not only at the local but at the central level. Under the Lodis, some Hindu rajas were raised to the position of amirs. The rise of Hemu to a premier position after the death of Islam Shah was a reflection of this process. Of course, examples of intolerance and breaking of temples are also found during this period.
  • Akbar’s childhood tutors, who included two Irani Shias, were largely above sectarian prejudices, and made a significant contribution to Akbar’s later inclination towards religious tolerance
  • All these factors were parts of Akbar’s cultural legacy, and influenced both his thinking and his state policies.

(1) The Early Phase (1556-73):

  • Almost immediately after assuming charge of the government, Akbar demonstrated his broadmindedness when in 1563 he remitted pilgrim-tax which amounted to crores on the Hindus at Mathura and other sacred places. Earlier, he had forbidden the enslavement of the wives and children of rebellious villagers. He also married Rajput princesses without first converting them to Islam, and even allowed them to continue their own religious worship within the palaces.
  • Likewise, Birbal who had joined Akbar soon after his accession, and enjoyed great favour with him, was not prevented from carrying with him and worshipping idols while he accompanied Akbar. Although Akbar was under the influence of the orthodox ulama at the time, his state policy not only reflected the liberal traditions of his predecessors, but was a clear recognition of the need to conciliate and win over the Hindus.It was this context that in 1564, steps were taken by Akbar to abolish jizyah. Abul Fazl makes it clear that this steps was taken despite “much chatter on the part of the ignorant”, i.e. the ulama.He justifies it on the ground that the Hindus were equally loyal, having “bound up the waist of devotion and service, and exert themselves for the advancement of the dominion”. Abul Fazl also makes it clear that the levying of jizyah was not only based on a desire for profit on the part of the ulama but contempt for and a wish to destroy their opponents, i.e. the Hindus.
  • In some modern works it has been suggested that in order to emphasize Akbar’s liberalism, Abul Fazl has deliberately pushed back the abolition of jizyah to 1564, whereas Badayuni places it in 1579. Badayuni says that in 1575-76, Akbar ordered Shaikh Abdun Nabi and Makhdum-ul-Mulk to examine the matter and decide the amounts of jizyah to be levied on Hindus. But attempts to undo the order of 1564 failed.
  • In his private conduct, during this period Akbar behaved like an orthodox Muslim. He scrupulously observed daily prayers. He also sent delegations to haj, and money were sent for distribution among the needy and the poor in Hijaz. During this period, Akbar was deeply devoted to Abdullah Sultanpuri and Shaikh Abdun Nabi.  Abdullah Sultanpuri was a bigot who had received the title of Shaikh-ul-Islam from Sher Shah. He was responsible for the persecution of the Mahdawis and execution of their leaders under Islam Shah. He had managed to regain his influence after the downfall of Bairam Khan, and received the tittle of Makhadum-ul-Mulk. Abdun Nabi came from a highly respected family and was held in high esteem as a scholar, though later it was found that his knowledge was shallow. Akbar made him sadr at the recommendations of his wazir, Muzaffar Khan. Akbar used to listen to his lectures on hadis (Traditions of the Prophet). Abdun Nabi was so orthodox that he had opposed his own father for advocating sama.
  • Thus, while Akbar pursued a broad, liberal religious state policy, this was a period when the orthodox ulama ruled the roost at the court. Abdun Nabi was given full freedom to give revenue free grants to his favourites with a free hand. According to Badayuni, Abdun Nabi also used his position to persecute dissentors. Thus, two prominent personages, Mirza Isfahani who had been Akbar’s Ambassador at Kashmir, and Mir Yaqub Kashmiri who was the Kashmiri Ambassador at the Mughal court were executed in 1569 for shiite beliefs and anti-sunni acts at Srinagar.Mahdawism was also persecuted, and even Shaikh Mubarak, the scholarly father of Abul Fazl, was hounded for his alleged Mahdawi beliefs till Akbar intervened to put a stop to it.

(2) The Second Phase (1573-80):

  • This was a phase of intense discussions and introspection on the part of Akbar which led to a radical change in his religious views, and deeply effected state politics in the third and final phase (1581-1605).
  • His successive victories against the Uzbek nobles, and his victories in Malwa, Rajasthan and Gujarat strengthened Akbar’s belief that he was the chosen instrument of God for unifying India under his command. According to Badayuni, “The empire had grown from day to day; everything turned out well, and no opponent was left in the whole world. His Majesty had thus leisure to come into nearer contact with ascetics and the disciples of the Muinniyyah sect, and passed much of his time in discussing the word of God (Quran), and the word of the Prophet (the hadis or traditions). Questions of sufism, scientific inquiries into philosophy and law, were the order of the day.”
  • Apart from an intensely enquiring mind, Akbar had, as a child, developed a taste for the masnavis of the liberal sufi thinkers, Maulana Rum, and Hafiz. As a ruler, he visited, apart from the tomb of Muinuddin Chishti, tombs of many other famous sufi saints.

The Ibadat Khana Debates:

  • This was the background to the building of the Ibadat Khana, or the Hall of Prayers at Fatehpur Sikri in 1575. This was a large rectangular building built around the cell of a sufi saint, Shaikh Abdullah Niyazi, who had migrated to Gujarat. On all sides there were built spacious galleries. It was not far from the Imperial Palace so that Akbar could come and go as he pleased. It was also near the Anup Talao which had been built recently.
  • The opening of the Ibadat Khana for religions debates was by no means a novelty. Like Jews, Christians and Hindus, the Muslims, too, indulged in public arguments, both to satisfy intellectual curiosity and to establish the superiority of their faith over others. Such discussions had taken place under the Umaiyyads and Abbasids, and continued under the Ilkhanid Mongols who had just embraced Islam. This tradition had continued under the Timurid, Sultan Husain Baiqara of Herat. Akbar had heard that Sulaiman Karrani, the ruler of Bengal, every night used to offer prayers in the company of some 150 renowned Shaikhs and ulamas, and used to remain in their society till the morning, listening to commentaries and exhortations.
  • At first, the Ibadat Khana debates were open only to Muslims. and after completing all the state business, each Thursday night Akbar would repair to the Ibadat Khana. When the number of participants was large, they gathered in the courtyard of the Anup Talao. For informal discussions, scholars were admitted by the Emperor to his bed-room where he listened to their discussions.
  • At first only sufi shaikhs, ulama, learned men and a few of the Emperor’s favourite companions and attendants were admitted. They were divided into four sections, and Akbar moved from group to group, but the most lively discussion was in the group of theologians.
  • One of the issues which came up for discussions was how many wives the ruler could marry legally. Different interpretations were given which upset Akbar. Although Akbar had exhorted the assembly that his sole object was “to ascertain the Truth and discover the reality,” it was soon clear that the ulama had other objectives. They wanted to establish their superiority over the others, and tried to browbeat their opponents into submission.
  • The discussions in the Ibadat Khana were not new or startling. However, after a mystical experience in 1578, Akbar opened the doors of debate to Hindus belonging to various sects, Jains, Christians and Zorastrians. This led to further confusion. Even questions on which the Muslims were united, such as finality of the Quranic revelation, the Prophethood of Muhammad,resurrection, the conception of the unity of God began to be raised, to the horror of the pious or orthodox sections. Instead of bringing credit, the Ibadat Khana brought growing discredit. Akbar himself became convinced of the futility of these debates, and closed the Ibadat Khana practically in 1581, but finally in 1582.
  • It is not clear what precisely Akbar had hoped to achieve from the debates in the Ibadat Khana. If the purpose was to pursuade the leaders of different sects and faiths to abjure their differences, and to arrive at commonly accepted truths, such an expectation was not likely to be fulfilled because these were the very sections which had a vested interest in preserving the differences. Also, each was convinced of the superiority of his views, and engaged in debate to defeat the others, and to win the Emperor to his side rather than to try to arrive at a common understanding.
  • If Akbar’s object was to himself arrive at an understanding of the fundamentals of all religion, he could have done so by means of private discussions, a method to which he resorted to even while the Ibadat Khana debates were taking place and even after the Ibadat Khana was closed.
  • Perhaps, Akbar had no clear idea of what he wanted from the Ibadat Khana debates. But once he had started the process, he was increasingly drawn into controversies of which he had little concept or desire to engage himself in. As he remarked, “I wish I had not heard such differences of opinion from teachers of traditional subjects, nor confounded by different interpretations of the Quranic verses and the traditions of the Prophet.”
  • However, it would be wrong to dismiss the Ibadat Khana debates as meaningless or harmful. They had two important consequences: first, they convinced Akbar that all religions had elements of truth, and that all of them led to the same Supreme Reality. This was an important phase in the development of Akbar’s own religious ideas, and led to the evolution of the concept of sulh-i-kul or peace between all religions. Secondly, the debates publicly demonstrated the narrowness of views, bigotry and arrogance of the court ulamas, and led to a breach between them and Akbar. Abul Fazl, and others belonging to his line of thinking, strove their utmost to expose the ulama in order to attain this end.
  • Thus, the Ibadat Khana debates played a crucial role in the emergence of a new liberal, tolerant state.

The Mahzar, and The Beginning of a New State Policy:

  • The Mahzar or attested statement signed by seven leading ulama, including Shaikh Abdun Nabi and Abdullah Sultanpuri, and including Shaikh Mubarak, father of Abul Fazl, issued in 1579, has led to a good deal of controversy. Was it like copying the examples of the Pope, Akbar had conferred upon himself “the attributes of infallibility.?Or was it meant to free Akbar from the allegiance of the Ottoman Khalifa, and the Shia rulers of Iran.? It permitted Akbar to interpret laws whereas he was hardly literate.
  • The document declared that Akbar was “the Sultan of Islam, the asylum of mankind, the commander of the faithful, the shadow of God over worlds.” These are the attributes of the khalifa of the age. There was no opposition in declaring Akbar as the khalifa of the age because the Timurids had never accepted any outside authority as khalifa. Hence, the question of countering Ottoman or Iranian claims hardly arises because such claims of allegiance over India were never made (except in the south in the case of the Shah of Iran).
  • Second, it was argued, citing Quran and some Hadis a few of them being spurious, that as a just and wise ruler Akbar not only had the right to claim the allegiance of everyone, but that his position was higher than a mujtahid (interpreter of holy laws) in the eyes of God;
  • third, should “a religious question arise in future, and the opinions of the mujtahids be at variance” the Emperor could adopt any one of them “for the welfare of mankind and proper functioning of the administrative affairs of the world.”
  • Lastly, it was argued that Akbar himself could issue any degree which did not go against the nas i.e. explicit decree of Quran, and the hadis and is “calculated to benefit humanity at large.”
  • The document was by no means a novelty. Earlier rulers in India, such as Balban and Alauddin Khalji, had claimed the right to enforce such laws as they considered desirable and necessary, whether they were in conformity of the sharia or not.
  • During the debates in the Ibadat Khana, Akbar had been made painfully conscious of the difference of opinion on almost every subject among the theologians.
  • A break between Akbar and the orthodox ulama came about when a controversy arose about the punishment to be awarded to a leading brahman of Mathura who was alleged to have snatched materials collected by the Qazi for the erection of a mosque, and used it for building a temple and was also accused of having abused the Prophet Muhammad, and criticised Islam.In a commission of enquiry which included Abul Fazl and Birbal, the guilt of the brahman was proved. A section of the ulama wanted the punishment of death while another section argued that since he was a zimmi or protected person, only a heavy fine and the disgrace of being paraded on an ass should be imposed as punishment. Akbar favoured a lenient interpretation, but left it to Abdun Nabi who had the brahman executed. This widened the gulf between Akbar and Abdun Nabi. It was pointed out that Abdun Nabi had also executed an Afghan and a shi-ite on a similar charge. It was in this context that Shaikh Mubarak, who was a noted scholar, told Akbar: “Your Majesty is the Imam of the age and a mujtahid. What need do you have of the assistance of these ulama in issuing your commands, whether religious or secular?”
  • The matter was discussed a number of times with the theologians, and the Mahzar was the outcome. Badayuni says that some signed it willingly, and some, like Abdun Nabi and Abdullah Sultanpuri unwillingly. However, the point to note is that in the document Akbar does not claim to be a mujtahid himself (though Abul Fazl calls him one), but one who as a ruler could choose between different interpretations, or between rulings given by earlier law givers, bearing in mind political existencies and needs of government. Thus, the charge of dishonesty falls to the ground. Also, the document makes it clear that any decision of the ruler would be for the purpose of public good and the administrative needs of the empire.
  • The real significance of the Mahzar, it seems, was that “it was the first effective declaration of the principles (of sulh kul) which he (Akbar) had decided to implement firmly”. This made a final breach between him and the orthodox ulama inevitable.
  • The Document also had international implications. Having brought north India upto Bengal under his effective control, Akbar was now prepared to put forward a claim of equality with powerful West Asian rulers, such as the Ottoman ruler of Turkey, and the Safavids of Iran. And for the purpose he wished to proclaim India as a land of sectarian peace, in contradiction to the Ottomans and the Safavids. Thus, the Document starts with the opening lines, “Hindustan has now become the centre of security and peace, and the land of adl (justice) and beneficence….” It goes on to say that as a result, “a large number of people, especially learned ulama and great lawyers having left the countries of Arab and Ajam (Iraq and Iran) have turned towards this land and occupied it as their home….”
  • Akbar also reminded the ulama through the Document that the state machinery was meant for the welfare of the people.

Breach with the Orthodox Ulama:

  • A final breach between Akbar and the orthodox ulama was not delayed for long, since it was clear that Akbar would chart his own course. It is wrong to think that the Mahzar was designed to divide the ulama. The ulama were themselves deeply divided, with the two leading figures, Abdullah Sultanpuri and Shaikh Abdun Nabi, being openly ranged against each other. Thus, the orthodox elements dug their own graves. Akbar was disgusted with their shallowness, bigotry and venality.
  • On an enquiry it was found that in order to escape paying zakat, Abdullah Sultanpuri would transfer all his property to his wife during the year, and have it retransferred before the end of the year—a practice which was practised by others as well.
  • It was also found that Abdun Nabi’s wakil used to take huge bribes before confirming the rent-free grants of the grantees.
  • In 1579, Akbar appointed Abdullah Sultanpuri and Abdun Nabi to lead the parties of haj pilgrims to Mecca, with orders not to return without permission. But their banishment did not prevent the growth of disaffection among the ulama. In 1580, when a section of nobles in Bengal and Bihar, disaffected by the strict enforcement of the branding system, rose in rebellion, and proclaimed Mirza Hakim as king, the ulama joined them. Mulla Muhammad Yazdi, the qazi of Jaunpur, issued a fatwa that rebellion against Akbar was lawful, while the qazi of Bengal held the rebellion to be a divine vengeance for depriving the ulama of their madadd-i-maash grants. After crushing the rebellion both of these were summoned to Agra, and were ordered to the drowned when crossing the Jamuna. Many others were imprisoned or dispersed. This severe action against the ulama and the sufis was dictated by administration necessity and did not emanate from hostility to Islam nor to orthodox Muslims.
  • Hearing of the rebellion against Akbar, Abdullah Sultanpuri and Abdun Nabi who had no left stone unturned to willify Akbar at Mecca, returned to India in 1582, to find that the rebellion had been crushed. Abdullah Sultanpuri died at Ahmadabad. Several boxes of gold ingots were discovered in his family graveyard, and were confiscated. Abdun Nabi was brought to Fatehpur. He was handed over to Todar Mal for checking the amounts given to him for disbursement at Mecca. A little later, a mob burst into his prison and strangled him.

Re-organisation of the Madadd-i-Maash Grants:

  • One of the traditional functioning of the state in and outside India had been to support scholars, men engaged in spiritual pursuits, indigents, widows and respectable men without any employment. In India, grants of land for the purpose were called shasan. In the Muslim states in India, they were called milk, madadd-i-massh or sayurghal, and were under the general supervision of the sadr.The beneficiaries of such grants were generally Muslims. The needs of the nonMuslims were, to some extent, met by the Hindu rajas who continued to control considerable tracts of land.
  • At the outset, Akbar left the distribution of madadd-i-maash lands in the hands of the sadr. Under the Lodis and the Surs, vast grants of such lands had been made to Afghan and to their supporters, the Indian Shaikhzadas. During Bairam Khan’s regency, Shaikh Gadai tried to transfer many of these grants,but with limited results.
  • In 1565, Shaikh Abdun Nabi became the sadr. During his tenure, two significant developments took and place. First, the madadd-i-maash grants enjoyed by the Afghans were resumed to the crown lands, and only those claims which were certified by Abdun Nabi were confirmed. This led to great distress and inconvenience. But this step added to the income of the crown-lands. Second, those who held grants in different places were ordered to combine them in one place of their own choice. This saved them hardships, and was easier to administer.
  • During this period, Akbar hardly interfered with Abdun Nabi who wielded full authority in making the grants. According to Badayuni, “he distributed enormous areas of land to the people as madadd-imaash, pensions and religious endowments,” on a scale which put to shade all previous grants… “never was there in the reign of any monarch, a sadr-us-sudur so powerful as Shaikh Abdun Nabi…” There were complaints against Abdun Nabi, and after an enquiry, Akbar decided to personally investigate into rent free-grants of those who held more than five hundred bighas of land. His general objective was to reduce such grants, and to force the grantees to engage themselves in productive trade and professions to supplement their income.
  • To further reduce the power of the sadr, in 1580, when subahs were formed, a sadr was appointed in each subah. To keep control over these sadrs, the empire was divided into six circles, and one supervisor was appointed over each. In 1589, a new rule was made that all rent-free lands should consist one-half of tilled lands and one-half of land capable of cultivation. If the whole was tilled land, one-fourth of the grant was to be resumed. Thus, the grantees of revenue-free land were also to be used to expand cultivation.
  • At first, revenue-free grants were held only by Muslims, though with some exceptions. Thus, we have seen grants of land being given to the temples of Vrindavan, and the jogis of jakhbar. After 1575, at the instance of Akbar, grants were made to “the mean, the rebel and even to Hindus.” (Badayuni) After 1580, the number of non-Muslim grantees steadily increased and rent-free grants were granted to Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Jesuits. Saints and ascetics who had no worldly desires also began to receive cash grants in increasing numbers. Akbar built two establishments outside Fatehpur Sikri to feed poor Hindus and Muslims. The one for the Hindus was called Dharmapura, and that for the Muslims Khairpura. Later, when jogis began to flock, a third one, called Jogipura, was established.
  • Thus, the end of the domination of the orthodox ulama opened the doors of the state for a more equitable distribution of its patronage to all sections irrespective of their faiths. The rules of grant were also tightened up further—all grants above 100 bighas of land were to be scrutinized and generally reduced, and a periodic review of grants to be made to weed out the underserving, and to bring in the new.

(3) The Third or Final Phase of Akbar’s Religious Beliefs and State Policy (1581-1605):

  • Akbar’s own religious ideas and beliefs crystallized slowly during the last phase. The crux of Akbar’s religious beliefs was his faith in uncompromising monotheism or Tauhid-i-Ilahi, based largely on the Islamic philosopher, Ibn-i-Arabi. 
  • Like many of the sufis, Akbar believed that communion with God was possible by turning oneself to Him through meditation. Likewise, he considered slavish imitation (taqlid) of traditional practices to be unnecessary for a true believer.
  • Akbar had deep faith in God, and believed that for every act, man was responsible to God. He also gave great respect to light (nur) which led to spiritual elevation on the one hand, and was reflected in the Sun and Fire.There has been a good deal of controversy as to the extent to which Akbar was influenced by Hindu, Jain, Zorastrian or Christian beliefs. Thus, Badayuni charges Akbar with adopting various Hindu practices, such as worshipping the sun and the fire,repeating one thousand and one name of the sun in Sanskrit, putting a tika on his head, adopting the custom of rakhi etc. Others trace respect of fire to the Zorastrians. Banning slaughter of animals on certain day is traced to Jain influence. He was attracted to the theory of transmigration, but rejected its Hindu form of going from one body to another.
  • Relation with Jains: Akbar regularly held discussions with Jain scholars and was also greatly impacted by some of their teachings. His first encounter with Jain rituals was when he saw a Jain shravika named Champa’s procession after a six-month long fast. Impressed by her power and devotion, he invited her guru or spiritual teacher Acharya Hiravijaya Suri to Fatehpur Sikri. Acharya accepted the invitation and began his march towards the Mughal capital from Gujarat.Akbar was impressed by the scholastic qualities and character of the Acharya. He held several debates and discussions on religion and philosophy in his courts. Arguing with Jains, Akbar remained sceptical of their views on God and creation, and yet became convinced by their philosophy of non-violence and vegetarianism and ended up deploring the eating of all flesh.Akbar also issued many imperial orders that were favorable for Jain interests, such as banning animal slaughter.Jain authors also wrote about their experience at the Mughal court in Sanskrit texts that are still largely unknown to Mughal historians
  • However, the point is not so much to try and trace from where an idea or concept might have come, because “ideas have no frontiers.” Thus, respect for light is to be found in the thinking of the 11th century philosopher-cum-sufi, Al Ghizali, and also in some Muslim sects such as the Ishraqis and Nuqtawis. The point is how in a certain given situation, old ideas and concepts were revived, or given a new meaning or significance
  • Akbar’s fundamental belief was that all religions had an element of truth, but it was obscured by blind devotion to slavish imitations (taqlid) and ceremonials. Hence, he was not prepared to identify himself with the dogmas and ceremonials of any one religion, though he was prepared to show respect to all religions. Thus, he forbade cow-slaughter, observed Dashera, as also Nauroz which was an old Central Asian tradition and also a day of celebration for the Parsis. His firm belief, as stated by Abul Fazl in the Ain, was:”It is my duty to be in good understanding with all men. If they walk in the way of God’s will (riza), interference with them would be itself reprehensible; and if otherwise, they are under the malady of ignorance and deserve my compassion.”
  • Akbar allowed Brahman priests to tie jeweled strings round his wrists by way of blessing and, following his lead, many of the nobles took to wearing rakhi (protection charms).He had renounced beef, and forbade the sale of all meats on certain days.Even his son Jahangir and grandson Shahjahan maintained many of Akbar’s concessions, such as the ban on cow slaughter, having only vegetarian dishes on certain days of the week, and drink only Ganges water.
  • Akbar’s eclecticism was denounced by orthodox mullahs as “bidat” (apostacy). Thus, Badayuni charges Akbar with “rejecting inspiration, prophet-hood, the miracles of the Prophet and of the saints, and even the whole law (sharia)”.
  • The Christian missionaries, led by Father Monserrate, make the same charge. Monserrate says: “…. one does not know what (religious) law he follows., though he is certainly not a Mahomedan as his actions show plainly enough….”
  • The Jesuits had convinced themselves that they would be able to convert Akbar to Christianity. They failed completely to follow the Ibadat Khana debates, hurling vile abuses at Islam, and mistaking Akbar’s kindness, and asking Salim to attend some of their discourses for something different.
  • Akbar did not ask his followers to abjure Islam as has been wrongly asserted by some historians, but he asked them to abjure the orthodox form of it. What Akbar wanted was an Islam that was flexible enough to take political exigenesis into account, and which could “appeal to man’s reason.” (Abul Fazl)
  • At any time, an attempt to reconcile reason with faith was a difficult task. It was made even more difficult where the theologians had for long been used to a position of superiority over other faiths. As Badayuni candidly says: “If some true knowledge was thus everywhere to be found, why should truth be confined to one religion, or to a creed like Islam which was comparatively new….” It was in this context that some element raised the slogan of “Islam in danger”. In the name of preserving the “identity of Islam,” these elements opposed all types of social reforms, and rejected many of the customs and practices which had, in course of time, helped in the process of mutual understanding and adjustment. In fact, what they were agitating against was not the loss of the identity of Islam but Islam’s primacy, and their own position of primacy in the state.


  • The Dīn-i Ilāhī was a syncretic religion propounded by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great in 1582 AD, intending to merge the best elements of the religions of his empire, and thereby reconcile the differences that divided his subjects.From the discussions he led at the Ibādat Khāna, Akbar concluded that no single religion could claim the monopoly of truth. This inspired him to create the Dīn-i Ilāhī in 1582. Various pious Muslims, among them the Qadi of Bengal and the seminal Sufi personality Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, responded by declaring this to be blasphemy to Islam.The purported Din-i-Ilahi was more of an ethical system and Din-i-Ilahi prohibits lust, sensuality, slander and pride, considering them sins. Piety, prudence, abstinence and kindness are the core virtues. The soul is encouraged to purify itself through yearning of God. Celibacy is respected and the slaughter of animals is forbidden. There are neither sacred scriptures nor a priestly hierarchy in this religion.To commemorate Din-e-Ilahi, he changed the name of Prayag to Allahabad (pronounced as ilahabad) in 1583.
  • the theory of Din-i-Ilahi being a new religion was a misconception which arose due to erroneous translations of Abul Fazl’s work by later British historians.However, it is also accepted that the policy of sulh-e-kul, which formed the essence of Din-i-Ilahi, was adopted by Akbar not merely for religious purposes, but as a part of general imperial administrative policy. This also formed the basis for Akbar’s policy of religious toleration.
  • The charge that Akbar had renounced Islam is buttressed by the Jesuit fathers at Akbar’s court, and by Badayuni, by arguing that Akbar had set up a new religion, called Din-i-Ilahi, which was compounded of many existing religions, Hinduism, Christianity, Zorastrianism etc., and that Akbar wanted to set himself up as its head.
  • According to Monserrate, “he (Akbar) has a strong desire to be looked upon, and esteemed as a God, or some great “Prophet”, and that he would have people believe that he performs miracles, healing the sick with the water with which he washes his feet.”
  • Modern research does not support the contention that Akbar wanted to establish a new religion. It has been pointed out that Din-i-Ilahi had no priesthood, no rituals or beliefs, no books. In fact, we do not even know when it was established.
  • According to Bartoli, a priest who had never visited India, Akbar had called a general council in 1582 for the promulgation of the new religion, and that he sent a great Shaikh to proclaim in all quarters that in a short time the (religious) law to be professed throughout the Mughal empire would be sent from the Court. No such orders have ever been found to have been issued.
  • The first mention of the new religion and its ten virtues are to be found in Muhsin Fani’s work, Dabistani-Mazahib, written during the latter part of Shah Jahan’s reign. The virtues mentioned are of a very general nature, such as liberality and beneficence, loathing of evil, overcoming worldly lusts, purification of the soul by yearning after God etc.
  • Abul Fazl does not use the word Din-i-Ilahi but Tauhid-i-Uahi or Divine monotheism, while Badayuni uses both the terms. Abul Fazl links it with the concept of Akbar being the spiritual guide of the people. This has been discussed in a section in the Ain which has been wrongly translated as “Ordinances of the Divine Faith.” Abul Fazl says there were two tendencies among men, one class of those who turn to religion (din), and other class to worldly thoughts (duniya). It was necessary to find a common ground between them by taking account the all— encompassing nature of God. However, it was necessary to keep under control “fanatics who lust for blood, but look like men.” Should anyone muster enough courage to openly proclaim his enlightened thoughts, these elements would “at once think of heresy and atheism, and go about with the intention of killing him.” In this situation, he says, “the people will naturally look to their king, on account of the high position he occupies, and expect him to be their spiritual leader as well.” According to Abul Fazl, Akbar was born to do so, but for some time he remained “behind the veil” till he was ready to take up the task.
  • The question is: was the spiritual leadership of Akbar to be of a general nature, or of a more specified nature? Abul Fazl quotes two of the sayings of Akbar: (1) “By guidance is meant indication of the road, not the gathering together of disciples…”(2) “To make a disciple is to instruct him in the service of God, not to make him a personal attendant.”
  • It seems that these two saying reflect more accurately the spirit of Akbar’s claim to spiritual leadership.
  • The four degrees of faith in His Majesty which are often confused with Din-i-Illahi are first mentioned by Badayuni in 1580. These degrees consisted in readiness to sacrifice to the Emperor property, life, honour and religion. Whoever had sacrificed these things possessed the four degrees, and whoever sacrifices one of these four possessed one degree.
  • There was nothing new in these degrees. Many sufis had also asked their disciples to make similar sacrifices. The sacrifice of religion was meant giving up traditional and imitative religion so that the principles of sulh-i-kul could be applied without any hindrance.
  • It seems that Akbar was very selective in choosing those who qualified for the four degrees of devotion. Thus, Blochmann who translated the Ain into English, has compiled a list of only 18 nobles who qualified for these degrees. Among these, Birbal was the only Hindu.
  • We are told that in a council called in 1582 for “evolving a new religion“, Akbar invited Man Singh to join. Man Singh replied that if by discipleship was meant willingness to sacrifice one’s life he had already carried his life in his hands. What need was there for further proof? He said, “If, however, the term has another meaning and refers to faith, I certainly am a Hindu. If you order me to do so, I will become a Muslim, but I know not of the existence of any other path (religion) than these two.”
  • We are told that at this point the matter stopped, and the Emperor did not question him any further. Man Singh’s reply indicates that in the minds of the people the four degrees of faith were thought to have some religious significance. But Akbar did not think so, the four degrees of devotion being meant for high dignitaries and for political purposes.
  • It seems that there was growing concern at the scarcity of high officers of integrity and uprightness who could effectively handle the political and military needs of the expanding empire and an efficient administration. The Four Degrees of Devotion provided the principle ideological force which sought to unify the new Mughal elite around the Mughal throne.
  • All the courtiers and thousands of loyal officials seem to have considered “the chain of discipleship” as the “noose of every felicity.” Sunday was fixed as the day of initiation, and that disciples were enrolled in batches of twelve. The novice, with the turban in his hand, placed his head at the feet of the Emperor which was symbolic and meant that the novice had cast aside conceit and selfishness. His Majesty raised him up, and gave him the shast on which was engraved the name of God, and with Akbar’s favourite motto: “Allah-o-Akbar” or God is Great. The members were to greet each other with the formula: Allah-o-Akbar and “Jall Jalalhu”, abstain from meat as far as possible during the month of their birth, and give a sumptuous feast and give alms on their birthday.
  • It is significant that Akbar lifted “the veil”, and started enrolling disciplies around 1580, the time when he was distracted by rebellions in the east which was supported by some of the orthodox ulama. His brother, Mirza Hakim, had also advanced into the Punjab. This was also the time when the Uzbek power in Central Asia had become menacing. In this situation, Akbar wanted absence of sectarian and religious strife in the country, and complete loyalty towards him on the part of the nobility.
  • Discipleship was an extremely effective means to assimilate a heterogeneous body of nobles and bind them to the throne. Princes and high dignitaries considered themselves to be murids (disciples) of their Emperors even under the successors of Akbar, and claimed to have obtained guidance from the Emperor’s angelic heart.
  • The Tauhid-i-Ilahi was not “a monument of Akbar’s folly. Although many flatterers and those aspiring for gain joined, Akbar created a tradition of implicit loyalty to the Mughal throne which he left as a legacy to his successors.
  • Thus, the Tauhid-i-Ilahi was basically a political devise. Akbar was trying to fashion a new state and nobility which neither the Christian Fathers, nor narrow orthodox mullahs such as Badayuni could understand or sympathies with. By projecting the Tauhid-i-Ilahi as a religious devise, and charging Akbar with apostasy, attention has been distracted from the painful emergence of a new polity passed on the principles of liberalism, justice and equal treatment to all faiths.
  • The question is: was it wise on Akbar’s part to use religio-spiritual forms and devices to fulfil his political purposes? By doing so Akbar not only created confusion, but set a precedent which harmed the secular polity later on. It was, therefore, wise on the part of Jahangir to have given up the practice of giving shast or enrolling disciplines, even though some nobles considered it an honour to mention themselves as murid or banda (slaves) of the Emperor.
  • In this effort to extract as much loyalty from the subjects as possible, Akbar also drew upon the credulity of the people. Thus, Abul Fazl says that Akbar breathened upon the cups of water which people brought before him everyday. By this means, “many sick people of broken hopes, whose diseases the not eminent physicians pronounced incurable, have been restored to health.” Thus, although Akbar was opposed to miracles, calling them “the product of mental enthusiasm”, he was prepared to exploit the credulity of the people when it suited him.

Social Reforms and Towards Integration

  • In addition to proclaiming a state based on universal peace and justice, Akbar took steps to create a better understanding of different religions among the subjects. Thus, he set up a translation bureau to translate works in Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, etc. into Persian. A panel of scholars which included pandits, was appointed for the purpose. The works taken up for translation were both works of fables and legends, such as Singhasana Battisi, or poetic drama such as Nal Daman (Nal Damayanti), or of advice and aphorism such as Panch Tantra, as also works of religion, such as the Atharva Veda, Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Gita.
  • A second object of Akbar in getting these works translated into Persian was, as Abul Fazl says in his preface to the Mahabharata, to see that “the pillars of blind following” were demolished, and a new era of enquiry and research into religious matters commenced. He thus established a tradition which grew during the seventeenth century.
  • Abul Fazl notes the ignorance among the religious leaders of the two main communities, Hindu and Muslim, of the standard works of the other community. His criticism was not confined to the Muslim ulama but extended to the leaders of the Hindus for their ignorance and lack of discrimination, and of blindly following their faith so that they were held back from the path of religious enquiry.
  • Apart from Hindu religious works, the Christian Gospels were translated into Persian, perhaps for the first time.
  • Apart from these, works on history, astronomy and mathematics were also taken up for translation,Thus, Kalhan’s history of Kashmir Rajtarangini, and Bhaskaracharya’s work on Mathematics Lilawati were translated into Persian.
  • A number of measures of Akbar which Badayuni denounces as “new and absurd” were really reforms of a moral, social and educational order. Thus, wine was allowed “if used for strengthening the body, as recommended by doctors,” prostitution was regulated, and immoral trafficking of women brought under control.
  • Akbar issued an ordnance that no one should have more than one wife, but could marry if one had no child from the first wife.
  • Widow remarriage was permitted, and the age of marriage was raised to sixteen for boys and fourteen for girls.
  • Marriage between cousins or near relations was also banned.
  • Marriages were to be entered into only on the basis of mutual consent of the parents.
  • He also set up a bureau for the registration of marriages.
  • Sati of Hindu women was prohibited, except with the women’s consent.
  • All these were progressive measures, but we do not know to what extent they were followed in practice.
  • Another measure of Akbar which is to be commended was to ban the sale and purchase of slaves. He also prohibited slavery, but its effects on the royal household, and the household of nobles seems to have been small.
  • Some of the regulations were based on Akbar’s belief in religious freedom to all, and against blind tradition not based on reason. Thus, if a Hindu had been forced to convert to Islam, and wanted to revert to his original religion, he was permitted to do so.
  • No restrictions were placed on the building of Hindu temples, Christian churches or Jewish synagogues. In this light, Badayuni’s charge that he converted mosques and prayers rooms into store houses, or banned azan (prayers) except the Friday prayers, and even forbade haj are largely dismissed by historians as reflecting an over-heated imagination. Badayuni says, “Playing with dice, and taking interest was allowed, and so in fact was everything admitted which was not allowed in Islam.” Among the things Badayuni objects to was Akbar’s shaving his beard, and even putting up a play-house.
  • Akbar banned circumcision of boys below the age of twelve without their consent, and even regulated the direction in which a body should be buried
  • Some of his regulations created a feeling of harassment, and were hardly capable of being implemented.
  • Akbar also revised the educational syllabus, laying more emphasis on moral education, and secular subjects such as mathematics, agriculture, geometry, astronomy, rules of government, logic, history etc. Badayuni denounces this step as discrimination against Arabic, and against teaching of religious subjects, such as exegesis of Quran, Hadis etc.
  • Akbar also gave encouragement to artists, poets, painters, musicians etc., making his court the standardbearer of arts and crafts.
  • However, while the state became essentially secular and liberal in matters of religion and state policy, and promoted cultural integration, it presided over a society which was hierarchical in nature and deeply traditional. These were problems which had to be faced and encountered by his successors.


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