Who Was Akbar the Great? Liberal or Heretic
During Akbar's reign, India became “an abode of peace”, but his rule was not without controversy.
Modern-day history has varied representations of the Mughal emperor Akbar. While some categorize him as secular and liberal, others label him as a heretic, an apostate, and an enemy of Islam. Both of these representations are rooted in real events and policies that occurred during his reign. However, it is crucial to be mindful about the cultural and intellectual context of any historical character before making assumptions about them. So when one studies the cultural context of 16th century Hindustan then both these prevalent categorizations about Akar seem misleading and untrue.
Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar was born in Umerkot, an area of modern-day Pakistan, in 1542. A descendant of Timur (Tamerlane) and grandson of Babur (founder of the Mughal dynasty), Akbar occupied the throne at the young age of 14. He was the third Mughal emperor, who ruled for 49 years. He is called “Akbar the Great” for his remarkable military and cultural contributions to Mughal India. While much is known about Akbar’s personality as a military leader; little is known about how he was as a person. Looking at his personality traits certainly brings light to why he is remembered as a great leader.
Akbar had a deep interest in various forms of art. This trait set him apart from successive Mughal rulers. He directed significant resources towards learning and development, where scholars, poets, architects, and theologians from distant lands were invited to his court so that they could participate in scholarly conversations and make the best use of their skills. So much so that scholars from other areas like Iran preferred to come to Mughal India, as it guaranteed them freedom of speech and monetary appreciation.
He was a micromanager and a workaholic. He had a deep investment in even the most trivial administrative tasks of his empire. However, administrative work never stopped him from participating in simpler pleasures. He had a great fondness for animals and unsurprisingly these animals were kept in marvelously constructed Mughal gardens. Possessing a prodigious memory, Akbar remembered the names of all his hundreds of elephants, birds, and horses.
Along with all this, one of the things that Akbar is remembered for the most is his peaceful and progressive reign. Diverse ethnic and religious groups residing in the Mughal lands coexisted harmoniously and productively, with little conflict amongst them. In his time, India was known as a Dar-ul-Aman, which means “an abode of peace”. Akbar had a policy known as “Sulh-i-kull”, which means “universal peace”.This directed an idea of equality for all diverse groups residing in Mughal territories irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, and caste.
From removing the tax on non-muslims to promoting Shias and Hindus to high administrative ranks, Akbar did not really believe in religious supremacy. He was involved in many activities like coming up with a unique religious philosophy known as the Divine Religion and hosting late-night scholarly discussions at his House of Worship that tell us about his way of viewing the world. These activities can be seen as attempts at fostering a peaceful and stable environment among the varied groups of people living under Mughal rule. Unfortunately, this was not the case at the time, and these actions were subjected to severe criticism during his reign and even to this day.
Due to his peaceful reign, Western historiography recalls him as a secular and liberal emperor. However, he is infamous for tainting Islamic beliefs by coming up with his own form of religion known as “Din- i-illahi” (Divine Religion). Even during his reign, he faced severe backlash from religious authorities on account of starting his own cult. Despite this criticism his rule flourished in India and he laid the foundations of a form of imperial discipleship.
Din-i-Ilahi was an embodiment of Akbar’s personal religious philosophy. It was not meant to be a religion that was supposed to be followed by all people nor did it have a centered doctrine or theology. Rather, it was more of a tool to somehow unite the diverse groups of people in India by making them agree to a single philosophy that Akbar was the spiritual saint of their time. It was a form of imperial discipleship, where individuals from all castes, creeds, and professions could become Akbar’s devotees or disciples. By understanding Din-i-Ilahi in the context of the 16th century, we can say that it was not an oddity for the sovereign to declare himself as a spiritual saint. At that time wordly power and legitimacy were closely tied to religious authority.
Thus, Akbar’s declaration of calling himself a saint can be seen as politically motivated. In an effort to become a spiritual guide for his people, he brought legitimacy to his reign. Additionally, it is also plausible that Akbar came up with such a philosophy in hopes of bringing together the diverse groups of people living under his rule. However, modern interpretations have distorted what Din-i-ilahi meant and represented. So while Western historiography labels him as secular and liberal, he is still viewed as a heretic by many South Asian scholars.
Other than Din-i-ilahi, one of the other things that Akbar did was to construct a House of Worship in his palace. He had a natural curiosity for engaging in debates about controversial topics with diverse groups. House of Worship, also known as “Ibadat Khana” was a place for late-night conversations, where learned men from different traditions—Islam, Christianity, Brahmanism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism- gathered together to have scholarly discussions.
Since Akbar could not read or write himself, this was also a place where people read to him. Many times these discussions turned into heated fights and debates with all the men trying their best to defend their beliefs. The act of calling scholars of other religions, who challenged and refuted many Islamic beliefs in Akbar’s presence, was certainly not normal for that time. The reason behind this is that Mughal sovereigns before Akbar used to gain their legitimacy by being the protectors and maintainers of Islam.
Akbar’s enemies even tried to rally hatred towards him by deeming these discussions as heretical. He faced severe public backlash, where religious edicts were issued against him. However, this did not prevent the conversations from taking place inside the House of Worship, as for Akbar the purpose of these conversations was never to adopt a different religion or turn against Islam.
One particular event explains Akbar’s motivation to build a house of worship. Anthony Monserrate, a Jesuit missionary, and two of his fellow priests were invited to Akbar’s House of Worship in 1580. Jesuit accounts tell us that Akbar treated them with kindness and respect. He showed a deep interest in learning about Christianity, where he read the bible, visited their chapel, and prayed in their way. It’s interesting to note here that Akbar’s interest in learning was not limited to verbal discussions only, rather he also had a physical involvement with the things he was curious about. So in addition to praying with the Jesuit priests, he also practiced the rites of fire worship in the Brahmanical and Zoroastrian style.
Akbar even tasked one of the priests to tutor his son. These actions made the Jesuits think that Akbar was naturally inclined towards their religion and would now renounce Islam and convert to Christianity. However, to the displeasure of the priests, that day never came. After some years Monserrate wrote, “It may be suspected that Jalal-ud-din Akbar was moved to summon the Christian priests, not by any divine inspiration, but by a certain curiosity, and excessive eagerness to hear some new thing”.
This tells us that Akbar was just an open-minded individual, who liked learning about new ideas and concepts. He certainly did not think that having conversations could in any way harm the institution of Islam, which was the dominant religion of the Mughal empire. This thought process is reflected in his policies and actions throughout his reign, where he was never compelled to assert Muslim dominance by bringing down any other religious or ethnic community. Rather, by creating a space like the house of worship he wanted to support a healthy dialogue between diverse communities.
The diverse groups living in Mughal territories spoke a variety of languages including Turkish and Hindavi. Turkish was the dominant court language during the time of Babur and Humayun, Akbar’s predecessors. However, Akbar moved away from Turkish and gave preference to Persian. Persian has been known as the language of the Muslim elite in central and west Asia before the Mughals. Akbar built upon its status and greatly contributed to the development and refinement of this language by declaring it an administrative language.
He invited notable Persian poets and authors to India and even awarded them fancy positions making them the heads of Madrassahs — institutions of higher learning akin to modern-day universities. Akbar initiated the practice of teaching Persian and commissioned Persian translations of many important literary works like the Baburnama. One of the reasons for adopting Persian as the official language was to ensure smooth administrative processes and bring some homogeneity in the Mughal territories by having an overarching formal language. Since many regional languages were being spoken around the empire, it was important to have a single unifying language that everyone knew.
Akbar is a misunderstood figure in history. When we examine his personality, it appears that he was a leader who wanted to bring an aspect of unity among the diverse groups of people inhabiting his empire. Even though he faced severe criticism for his actions, his imperial power and legitimacy were unmatched and he died as a beloved king.