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Akbar: Evolution of religious and social outlook, theory of Sulh-i-kul and religious policy: Part I

Akbar: Evolution of religious and social outlook, theory of Sulh-i-kul and religious policy: Part I
  • Following factors determined Akbar’s state religious policy and his own personal beliefs:
    • Turko-Mughal traditions:
      • Chingiz, according to his biographer, Juwaini, eschewed bigotry and preference of one faith to another.
      • Timur also followed this policy and in his dominions, there was no persecution of Shias, and even Christians found a place in his government and in his armed forces. selfstudyhistory.com
      • This eclectic policy was fully reflected in the policies of Babur and Humayun.
        • Babur did not hesitate to wear the Shiite kula (cap) at Samarqand when it suited him.
        • Humayun sought shelter at the court of Shah Tahmasp, and there were many Shiites in his nobility.
        • Abdul Latif, a shia, was chosen by Humayun as one of the tutors of young Akbar.
    • Bhaki and Sufism:
      • The movement of Hindu-Muslim rapprochement, spearheaded by the bhakti saints and liberal sufis.
      • Bhakti saints opened their doors to all, irrespective of their faiths, rejecting differences based on scriptural authority and traditions.
      • Many 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.
    • Akbar had deeply inquisitive mind and abiding interest in sufism.
    • Akbar’s childhood tutors:
      • Akbar’s childhood tutors were largely above sectarian prejudices, and made a significant contribution to Akbar’s later inclination towards religious tolerance.

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

  • Although Akbar was under the influence of the orthodox ulama at the time. just after assuming charge of the government, Akbar demonstrated his broadmindedness:
    • Abolished the pilgrimage tax:
      • In 1563 he remitted pilgrim-tax which amounted to crores on the Hindus at Mathura and other sacred places.
    • Prohibited the conversion of prisoners of war to Islam
    • Matrimonial relations with the Rajputs:
      • Married Rajput princesses without first converting them to Islam, and even allowed them to continue their own religious worship within the palaces.
    • Birbal who had joined Akbar soon after his accession was not prevented from carrying with him and worshipping idols while he accompanied Akbar.
    • Abolished jiziya.
      • In 1564, steps were taken by Akbar to abolish jizyah.
        • Abul Fazl says that steps was taken despite opposition from the ulema.
          • He justifies it on the ground that the Hindus were equally loyal.
        • Abul Fazl says 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.
      • Some historians 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 the absence of any reliable Muslim support Akbar had little alternative but to seek alliance with the Rajputs and Indian Muslims.
    • These measures were infact concessions given to the non-Muslims to win their support.
  • After 1565, there is “a marked retrogression in his attitude in matters pertaining to religion”.
    • A document signed by his wakil Munim Khan (1566) refers to the order regarding the collection of jiziya in the vicinity of Agra.
    • In 1568, Akbar issued the famous Fathnama of Chittor (preserved in the Munshat-i Namkin) which is full of terms and idioms that can be compared with any other prejudiced and bigoted declaration.
      • He declares his war against the Rajputs as jihad, takes pride in destroying temples and in killing the kafirs.
    • Then we have Sharaif-i Usmani which tells that the Emperor ordered Qazi Abdul Samad of Bilgram to check the Hindus from practicing idol-worship there.
    • To crown all this, in 1575, according to Badauni, Akbar reimposed jiziya though it did not work.
  • In his private conduct, during this period Akbar behaved like an orthodox Muslim.
    • He scrupulously observed daily prayers.
    • He sent delegations to haj, and money were sent for distribution among the needy and the poor in Hijaz.
    • The works like Gulzar-i Abrar and Nafais-ul Maasir, suggest that the emperor showed deep respect to the ulema and bestowed upon this group abundant favours.
      • Encouraged by emperor’s bounty some of them persecuted even the non-Sunni sects of the Muslims and suppressive measures were taken against the Mahdavis and the Shias.
      • Akbar was deeply devoted to Abdullah Sultanpuri and Shaikh Abdun Nabi, both were orthodox.
        • Abdullah Sultanpuri was a bigot who had received the title of Shaikh-ul-Islam from Sher Shah.
        • Akbar made him sadr.
        • Akbar used to listen to his lectures on hadis (Traditions of the Prophet).
        • Abdun Nabi:
          • He was given full freedom to give revenue free grants to his favourites.
          • According to Badayuni, Abdun Nabi also used his position to persecute dissentors, shiites, Mahdawism etc.
  • It is interesting that despite “an atmosphere of religious intolerance” most of the Rajput chieftains joined his service during the years 1566-79.
    • Religion, thus, was not the main concern of the Mughal Emperor. Religion was used only as a tool to attain political goals (i.e to subdue the local chieftains). When this strategy did not yield substantial gains, Akbar dropped 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 phase (1581-1605).
  • Strengthened belief:
    • 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 developed a taste for the masnavis of the liberal sufi thinkers, Maulana Rum, and Hafiz.
    • As a ruler, he visited tombs of many other famous sufi saints including the tomb of Muinuddin Chishti.
  • This was the background to the building of the Ibadat Khana, or the Hall of Prayers at Fatehpur Sikri in 1575.

The Ibadat Khana Debates:

  • It was established with the aim to have free discussion on various aspects of Islamic theology.
    • In the beginning only the Sunnis were permitted to take part in the discussions.
  • Ibadat Khana 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 near the Imperial Palace so that Akbar could come and go as he pleased.
    • It was also near the Anup Talao.
    • Anup Talao
  • 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.
    • Akbar moved from group to group, but the most lively discussion was in the group of theologians.
  • 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 ulema had other objectives.
    • They wanted to establish their superiority over the others, and tried to browbeat their opponents into submission.
    • Emperor got disillusioned the way Muslim jurists used to quarrel over questions of jurisprudence
  • After a mystical experience at September 1578, Akbar opened the doors of Ibadat Khana debate to sufi, shi’as, Brahmins, Jains, Christians, Jews, Parsis, etc. 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 in 1582.
  • Objectives of the debate:
    • If the purpose was to pursuade the leaders of different faiths to abjure their differences, and to arrive at commonly accepted truths, it was not likely to be fulfilled because these were the very sections which had a vested interest in preserving the differences.
      • 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 during Ibadat Khana debates and after its closure.
    • 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.
  • Positive consequences of Ibadat Khana debates:
    • The discussions at Ibadat Khana proved to be a turning point as they convinced Akbar that the essence of faith lay in “internal conviction” based on ‘reason‘.
    • They convinced Akbar that all religions had elements of truth, and that all of them led to the same Supreme Reality.
      • This led to the evolution of the concept of sulh-i-kul or peace between all religions.
    • The debates publicly demonstrated the narrowness of view and arrogance of the ulamas, and led to a breach between them and Akbar.
    • Thus, the Ibadat Khana debates played a crucial role in the emergence of a new tolerant state.

The Mahzar:

  • The Mahzar or attested statement signed by seven ulamas, including Shaikh Abdun Nabi, Abdullah Sultanpuri, and Shaikh Mubarak (father of Abul Fazl) was issued in 1579.
    • Badayuni says that some signed it willingly, and some, like Abdun Nabi and Abdullah Sultanpuri unwillingly.
  • Features of the Mahzar:
    • It permitted Akbar to interpret laws.
      • 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.
    • It was argued, citing Quran and some Hadis, 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.
    • Akbar was declared as Imam-Adil, to claim the right to interpret all legal questions on which there existed a difference of opinion among the ulema.
      • If a religious question arise 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.”
    • 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.”
  • Earlier rulers like Balban and Alauddin Khalji had also claimed the right to enforce such laws as they considered desirable and necessary, whether they were in conformity of the sharia or not.
  • Significance of Mahzar:
    • 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 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.
      • 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….as a result a large number of people having left the countries of Arab and Ajam (Iraq and Iran) have turned towards this land and occupied it as their home….
    • Akbar reminded the ulama through the Document that the state machinery was meant for the welfare of the people.

Breach with the Orthodox Ulama:

  • 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.
  • 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 ulema 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 sentenced to death. 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.
  • Hearing of the rebellion against Akbar, Abdullah Sultanpuri and Abdun Nabi returned to India in 1582, to find that the rebellion had been crushed.
    • Abdullah Sultanpuri died at Ahmadabad. Several boxes of gold were discovered and were confiscated.
    • Abdun Nabi 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 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 milkmadadd-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 non-Muslims were, to some extent, met by the Hindu rajas.
  • At the outset, Akbar left the distribution of madadd-i-maash lands in the hands of the sadr.
  • In 1565, Shaikh Abdun Nabi became the sadr. Significant developments during his tenure:
    • 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 step added to the income of the crown-lands.
    • 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-i-maash and 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.
    • 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 like grants of land being given to the temples of Vrindavan, and the jogis of jakhbar.
  • As per Badayuni, after 1575, at the instance of Akbar, grants were made to “the mean, the rebel and even to Hindus.”
  • After 1580, the number of non-Muslim grantees steadily increased and rent-free grants were granted to Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Jesuits.
  • 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.
  • 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. selfstudyhistory.com

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