XI. The Age of Akbar

*Writers and Scholars*

        [[143]] ONLY Ashoka, who had ruled eighteen centuries before, vies with Akbar for the title of the greatest of Indian kings, and if weight is given to initial difficulties encountered and overcome, the claim must surely go to Akbar. The great Mauryan had received intact a great heritage from his predecessor; what Akbar had received from his father was little more than a disputed title as emperor of Hindustan. Akbar, who had been born in 1542 while his father was in flight from the victorious Surs, was only thirteen when he was proclaimed emperor in 1556. In the eight months he had spent in India before his death Humayun had succeeded in regaining control of the Punjab, Delhi, and Agra, but even in these areas his hold was precarious, and when the leaders of the Sur family recovered Agra and Delhi, the fate of the boy king seemed certain.

        Akbar had a great asset in the regent, Bairam Khan, who had been Humayun's faithful friend in his days of adversity. One of the ablest soldiers of the time, he was the real ruler of the Mughal inheritance for the first four years of Akbar's reign. His first great triumph came at Panipat on November 5, 1556, when he defeated the Sur armies under the command of their Hindu general, Himu. He led a vigorous pursuit of the enemy, and recaptured Delhi and Agra, the key fortresses of the north; then he moved on to extend control over the rest of Hindustan. Having reduced the great fortress of Gwalior and annexed the rich province of Jaunpur, he was planning the conquest of Malwa when he suddenly fell from power.

        While the young king spent his time hunting and watching elephant fights, Bairam Khan had extended his authority in the kingdom. In so doing, he had antagonized many of the nobles, and when he appointed a member of the Shia sect as sadr-ul-sadur, the chief religious post in the government, he became even more obnoxious to them. Furthermore, the young emperor, at the age of eighteen, wanted to take a more active part in managing affairs. Urged on by his foster mother, [[144]] Maham Anaga, and his relatives, Akbar decided to dispense with the services of the great minister. He sent a suitably worded message to Bairam and fixed a jagir for him, but Bairam Khan, after a halfhearted show of defiance, left for Mecca and was murdered on the way by a man who bore him a private grudge. Akbar married his widow, and his son, Abdul Rahim eventually became one of the chief nobles.

        During the next few years, Akbar's foster mother and her family were supreme. This tutelage came to an end, however, in 1562, when Akbar, enraged at the repeated excesses and cruelty of Maham Anaga's son, Adham Khan, had him thrown from the palace terrace. Maham Anaga did not long survive her son's death, and henceforth the emperor was master of his affairs.

        Meanwhile some of the features for which Akbar's reign was famous were becoming manifest. The policy of vigorous conquest started under Bairam Khan was maintained. In 1560 Malwa was annexed, and four years later Akbar conquered Gondwana. Even more important than these victories was his policy toward his Hindu subjects, which was adopted practically from the beginning of his active assumption of kingship. The first of his marriages to Rajput princesses (one of the landmarks in the development of his religious policy) took place early in 1562. There is nothing to show that the Rajput princesses had to renounce Hinduism; presumably, as in the case of a Muslim marrying a Christian or a Jew, these marriages were considered valid without change of religion. These alliances were only one aspect of broadening religious horizons, for far-reaching administrative changes accompanied them. One of these was that the relatives of the Rajput wives, like Raja Bhagwan Das and Raja Man Singh, were appointed to high posts and became partners of the Mughals in the administration of the country. Then in 1564 Akbar abolished the pilgrim tax, earning the gratitude of the large number of Hindus who flocked to various places of pilgrimage. The following year he took a more important step—the abolition of the jizya. These measures enabled Akbar to gain the active collaboration of the fighting classes of Hindu India and the goodwill of the Hindu population.

        Akbar now turned his attention to the conquest of Rajputana. In 1567 he reduced the fortress of Chitor, and this was soon followed [[145]] by the surrender of Ranthambhor. Gujarat was annexed in 1573. Akbar now was free to turn his attention to Bengal, which since the days of Sher Shah had been the happy hunting ground of Afghan adventurers driven out of northern India. Although Tanda, then the capital of Bengal, was occupied early in 1574, and the Afghan ruler of Bengal was decisively defeated in March, the Mughal conquest of the area was not complete for several years.

        Akbar's expansionist policy from this time on could be carried out by his commanders under his general direction, and he was able to indulge his personal interests nearer the seat of his government, including the building of his new capital. His children had died in infancy, and he approached Shaikh Salim, a saint who lived at Sikri, near Agra, to pray for a male child and his long life. Early in 1561 he sent his pregnant wife to the monastery of Shaikh Salim, and it was here that his successor to the throne was born, and was named Salim after the saint. Akbar was so grateful to the saint that in 1571 he started building a capital at Sikri, known as Fathpur, or "Victory City." In 1575 he erected the famous House of Worship near the tomb of Shaikh Salim, who had died in the meanwhile. It was in this building that Akbar spent his time in religious pursuits. He remained preoccupied with these controversies for many years, and did not leave the capital on a military campaign until 1581, when the Punjab was invaded by his brother, Mirza Hakim, to whom the territories centering on Kabul had passed at their father's death. Akbar pursued Mirza Hakim to Kabul, but left him in control of the area until his death in 1585.

        This expedition was the beginning of a long period of concern over the northern marches of the empire. For thirteen years Akbar had to remain in the north, with Lahore as his virtual capital, dealing with a threat from beyond the mountains. This came from the Uzbegs, the tribe that had driven Babur out of his home in Central Asia. They had been organized under Abdullah Khan, a capable leader, and were a danger to the northwestern frontiers of Akbar's empire. The tribes on the border were also restless, partly on account of the hostility of the Yusufzais of Bajaur and Swat, and partly owing to the activity of a new religious leader, the founder of the Raushaniya sect, [[146]] who preached that plundering the property of those who did not believe in his doctrines was lawful. Mughal forces sent against the Yusufzais met with disaster in February, 1586, when the inept commander, Raja Birbal, lost his life. It took two years to pacify the area.

        Akbar was not able to leave Lahore until the death of Abdullah Khan in 1598 removed the Uzbeg danger, but the long stay had been fruitful. Kashmir was added to the Mughal empire in 1586; Sind followed in 1593. There Mirza Jani Beg, the ruler of Thatta, after his defeat at the hands of Abdul Rahim, became a Mughal mansabdar and was appointed governor of his old territory. In 1594 Baluchistan, with the coastal region of Makran, was added to the empire, and in the following year Qandahar was surrendered by its Persian governor.

        These conquests, by bringing the whole of the northwest under Mughal rule, greatly reduced the danger of invasion from Central Asia. Akbar was free, therefore, to extend his empire to the Deccan. The opposition to Mughal expansion came from the Muslim rulers of the regional kingdoms established in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Akbar sent envoys to them in 1591, asking them to recognize his suzerainty; and when they refused, the imperial troops marched upon Ahmadnagar, the capital of one of the important sultanates. For some time the heroic leadership of a princess, Chand Bibi, saved the city, but in 1599 Akbar appeared in person and Ahmadnagar fell. In January, 1601, after the key fortress of Asirgarh had capitulated, the conquered territories of Ahmadnagar and Khandesh were organized as a province of the Mughal empire.

        Akbar returned to Agra in May, 1601, his career of conquest over. His last years were troubled by unhappy relations with his son, Prince Salim, who had the royal favorite, Abul Fazl, assassinated by the robber chief, Bir Singh Bundhela, in 1602. Akbar fell ill in August, 1605, and the physicians were not able to diagnose the disease properly. There was a strong suspicion that his illness was due to a secret irritant poison, possibly diamond dust. He died on January 7, 1606.

        Akbar was the real builder of the Mughal empire, and he laid down the principles and policies which, but for occasional modifications and minor adjustments, remained the basis of the Mughal administrative system. This will be dealt with in a separate chapter, but a few [[147]]


[[148]] of the policies particularly associated with Akbar may be mentioned here.

        Foremost among these was his treatment of the Hindu population. For understanding the significance of his policy of toleration, it is important, however, to see his actions against the background of previous movements in the same direction, and not as a complete innovation. Hindus had long been employed in positions of responsibility—even Mahmud of Ghazni, the great "destroyer of idols," had a contingent of Indian troops under Indian officers—and no Muslim ruler had succeeded in dispensing with the services of Hindu officials on the level of local administration. There were, however, great difficulties to be overcome before general participation was possible. From the side of the early Turkish rulers, there had been prejudice not only against Hindus, but even against Indian converts to Islam. Under the Khaljis a change took place, and henceforth converts found employment in high office. This change led to a more general employment of Hindus, and during Sher Shah's reign (1538–1545) a number of Hindus held important military posts. But this exclusion of Hindus had not been entirely the result of Islamic attitudes: many Hindus had strong objection to service under a Muslim ruler. Furthermore, until Hindus were willing to learn Persian, the court language, their widespread employment in government was not possible. By the fifteenth century, when it was apparent that the Muslim rule was permanent, many Brahmans had begun to learn Persian, and their movement into government service began.

        Thus by Akbar's time many of the traditional difficulties had been removed, and he was able to take full advantage of the changes in outlook on both sides. One example of this was his enunciation of the principle of sulah-i kul, or universal tolerance, by which he accepted responsibility for all sections of the population, irrespective of their religion. Through his marriages with leading Rajput families, Hindus became members of the ruling dynasty, and Hindu women practiced their faith within the palace confines. The abolition of jizya was a more widespread indication of his policy, making the common people aware of the changing climate of opinion. That two of his most famous officials, Man Singh, viceroy of Kabul and Bengal, and Todar [[149]] Mal, his revenue minister, were Hindus, was an indication not of his desire to show his tolerance but his freedom to choose able associates wherever they might be found. Beyond these administrative acts, Akbar showed his sympathies with Hindu culture by patronizing the classical Indian arts, providing scope once more for painters, musicians, and dancers of the old tradition. Perhaps the most striking of his activities in this area is the creation of the post of kavi rai, or poet laureate, for Hindi poets. The adaption of Hindu elements in architecture is demonstrated in many of Akbar's buildings, notably at Fathpur Sikri. There and elsewhere he showed regard to Hindu religious leaders.

        The detailed measures which Akbar took to build up an efficient system of administration are no less indicative of a great constructive genius. He adopted what was vital in Sher Shah's administrative system and greatly increased its effectiveness. He insisted on maintaining a high level of administration, and for this purpose drew on talent from all available sources—the Mughals, the Uzbegs, the Rajputs, and other Hindus like Raja Todar Mal, and, of course, the Turanis and the Persians. By a judicious selection of personnel, their training in different fields, and by providing suitable opportunities to them, he was able to build up an efficient officers' cadre. Satisfactory arrangements for assessment and recovery of land revenue, and their integration in the general administrative system set the pattern for revenue administration which has been followed ever since. Akbar also preferred payment of cash salaries to the grant of jagirs. These measures, coupled with the general improvement in education and a brilliant spurt of expansion and conquest, enabled him to build up an efficient administrative machinery, centralize administration, and unify the country to an extent which had not been possible hitherto for any length of time.

        In an earlier chapter we have outlined the basis of Indo-Muslim polity as laid down by Iltutmish, and its transformation at the hands of Balban, who introduced elements of the ancient Iranian concept of monarchy and centralized system of government. The pattern adopted by Balban became the norm for Muslim India (with only minor changes of policy), and was adopted by subsequent rulers.

        [[150]] The Mughal theory of kingship as it emerged under Akbar, while rooted in the basic pattern laid down by Balban, has important features of its own. In the Mughal system the king remained all-powerful, but he was not an autocrat of Balban's type. The most authoritative exposition of the Mughal theory of rulership is that provided by Abul Fazl, Akbar's closest companion, in his introduction to Ain-i-Akbari. The first two paragraphs dealing with the need for a king to maintain order and suppress crime and injustice echo Balban's views on the subject. Then Abul Fazl emphasizes the divine elements in kingship:

Royalty is a light emanating from God, and a ray from the sun, the illuminator of the universe, the argument of the book of perfection, and the receptacle of all virtues. Modern language calls it farr-i-izidi (the divine light), and the tongue of antiquity called it kiyan-i-khura (the sublime halo). It is communicated by God to kings without the intermediate assistance of anyone, and men, in the presence of it, bend the forehead of praise toward the ground of submission./1/
He lists these further requisite elements of Mughal kingship:
A paternal love toward the subjects. Thousands find rest in the love of the king and sectarian differences do not raise the dust of strife. In his wisdom, the king will understand the spirit of the age and shape his plans accordingly.

A large heart. The sight of anything disagreeable does not unsettle him nor is want of discrimination for him a source of disappointment. His courage steps in. His divine firmness gives him the power of requittal, nor does the high position of an offender interfere with it. …

A daily increasing trust in God. …

Prayer and devotion.

        There is much that is rhetorical in the analysis of the court historian, but the course of the Mughal history and pronouncements of various rulers show that during Mughal rule an attempt was made to approximate to this ideal, with the concept of paternal government constantly emphasized by Akbar and his successors. This concept of kingship was similar to the old indigenous notion of the ruler being the Mai Bap (Mother and Father) of the people, and it is not impossible [[151]] that Akbar and Abul Fazl were influenced by Indian political ideas. Akbar's views were also supported and strengthened by references in Muslim philosophical and mystical writings to the ruler as "the shadow of God," and Abul Fazl makes repeated use of these sources. But whatever the origin of their inspiration, by softening the autocracy of the absolute monarch, Akbar and Abul Fazl transformed its very nature. The Mughal badshah (emperor) was not an autocratic sultan, or even a traditional Commander of the Faithful; in theory at least he was a father of his people and a trustee of their welfare. The ideal was obviously not always achieved, and Aurangzeb's reign was marked by far-reaching deviations, but by and large the Mai Bap concept was accepted by the rulers and the ruled.

Writers and Scholars

        While Akbar's own great abilities go far in explaining his success as a ruler, he was fortunate in the very high quality of the men who surrounded him. Among these were such notable administrators as Amir Fathullah Shirazi, Man Singh, Todar Mal, Khwaja Mansur, and scholars like Nizam-ud-din Bakhshi and the historian Badauni. The persons who most vividly represent the caliber of his servants, however, were Abul Fazl (1551–1602) and his elder brother, Faizi (1545–1595). They were members of a distinguished family of scholars, and were held in high esteem by Akbar because of their intellectual gifts, their loyalty to him, and the similarity of their views on religion. Abul Fazl was the court chronicler, the drafter of the emperor's correspondence, and his personal confidant. The animosity of the other courtiers because of his favored position was given a religious coloring when he became the spokesman for Akbar's unorthodox religious policy, and in his last years they succeeded in keeping him away from the capital.

        Both brothers were writers of distinction, but Abul Fazl clothed his ideas in an ornate and verbose style. It is Faizi's writings that give us more indication of the intensity of the conflict which tore the hearts and minds of the intellectuals of the age. He was introduced at the court in September, 1567, when he was a young man of twenty. He gave [[152]] expression to his feelings in the first Qasida which he wrote in praise of Akbar:

How shall I write of the time when the barge of my heart
Was tossing on the billows of the tempest?
A quickening spring visited my word-garden,
A youthful morning came to my spirit's tulip,
While I was disturbed, thinking by what argument
I could remove doubts about absolute verities.
Why is this diversity practiced in Islam?
Wherefore ambiguities in the words of the Quran?
Why did false witness shoot out the tongue in the tribunal
Of pride and hypocrisy, and claim belief?
If such be the religion of Islam in this world,
Scoffers can have a thousand smiles at the Musulman faith.
His inner conflicts form a recurrent theme in Faizi's poetry. In a later quatrain he says:
O God! What can I do, except lament on your path.
One particle did not receive illumination, what can I do?
I long to move towards the heights
But You Yourself have given me a feeble might, what can I do!
And again,
O God, through Your grace, grant me hope untainted by fear.
Teach me that knowledge, in which lies your pleasure.
The darkness of intellect keeps me in conflict;
Give me the light of resignation from the lamp of raza [resignation].

        His other common theme was exultation in the joy of living and in the new possibilities opening before men. Here he was mirroring the hopes and ambitions of a great age. In one of his ghazals he cries:

Glad tidings for the world that a new day has dawned!
And one who shines brighter than the sun has been born.
The luckless ones of the night of separation have awakened
As an auspicious dawn beautified the world.
You who want a glimpse of the sun of good fortune,
Open your eyes and see, a new sun has arisen.
The wanderers of the path of taqlid [tradition] were perplexed;
Thank God that a guide has appeared for this caravan! [[153]]
Faizi! How long can there be the distant gloom of the night of separation?
Wake up, glimpses of the auspicious dawn are visible.

        In these verses the purport of the poet is unmistakable but his language is vague. Elsewhere he is more direct. In a poem he rejects the literal acceptance of the Quranic verses relating to heaven and hell and endorses the Mutazila viewpoint treating them as metaphorical. The idea that there is need for a new spiritual approach finds expression in such verses as these:

Come, so that we may turn our faces toward the arch of light,
We lay the foundation of a new Kaba with the stones from Sinai.

        It is not surprising that some of Faizi's contemporaries accused him of heresy. Yet if as a restless intellectual, aware of the new currents moving within Indian Islam, he expressed dissatisfaction with the rigidities of orthodoxy, in his prose commentary on the Quran he is completely orthodox.

        Literary gifts have secured a high place for Abul Fazl and Faizi in the cultural history of Islamic India, but the greatest scholar of the age was Amir Fathullah Shirazi. Badauni called him "the most learned man of his times," and Abul Fazl declared: "If the books of antiquity should be lost, the Amir would restore them." Only Abul Fazl, Faizi, and Birbal had a higher place in Akbar's esteem.

        Shah Fathullah was born and educated in Shiraz at a time when it was witnessing a revival of learning after the effect of the Mongol holocaust and Timur's invasion had spent itself. His teachers included Amir Ghiyas-ud-din Mansoor Shirazi, the well-known philosopher, and Jamal-ud-din Mahmud, a pupil of the celebrated Jalal-ud-din Dawwani./2/ Hearing of Fathullah's reputation as a sage and an intellectual, the ruler of Bijapur invited him to come to his capital, and from there in due course Akbar took him to Fathpur Sikri. Among [[154]] other assignments, he collaborated with Todar Mal in the creation of a system of revenue administration. He eventually became the head of the department for religious affairs, with responsibility for making grants to religious schools and seminaries.

        According to Badauni, Fathullah was "thoroughly versed in all those sciences which demand the exercise of the reasoning faculty, such as philosophy, astronomy, geometry, astrology, geomancy, arithmetic, the preparation of talismans, incantations, and mechanics, and in this department of learning he was such an adept that he was able to draw up an astronomical table as soon as the emperor demanded one from him. He was equally learned in Arabic traditions, interpretation of the Quran, and rhetoric, and was the author of some excellent works."/3/ He completed Dawwani's commentary on the important work of logic, Tahzib-ul-Mantaq, and wrote an exegesis of the Quran. His lasting contribution, however, was as an educator. He brought about extensive changes in the curriculum of the schools by introducing the works of recent Iranian scholars, including Dawwani, Sadr-ud-din, Ghias-ud-din Mansur, and Mirza Jan. Some works of the later Iranian philosophers and scholars had been introduced earlier in the days of Sikandar Lodi, but they did not gain general currency. Now the fruits of the new philosophical era of Iran were sponsored by someone who had studied them under the Iranian masters and who was in charge of the department dispensing state patronage to educational institutions. This dual advantage played an important part in the success of the new education.

        There were, however, other factors which facilitated the new trends in education. In Akbar's time there was a general emphasis on reason, intellect, and philosophy, and works connected with these subjects were encouraged. Furthermore, there were a number of other scholars besides Fathullah who had migrated from Persia. Among these was Hakim Abul Fath Gilana, Akbar's court physician, who wrote a commentary on Avicenna. Scholars from Samarqand and Bukhara also encouraged the study of logic. The efforts of these scolars and Akbar's own preferences combined to give an impetus to the spread of [[155]] education which placed learning on a new footing in Islamic India. Maqulat, or mental sciences, became so important in the Mughal empire that a century later, when the educational curriculum was standardized, these traditional studies, and not the Islamic subjects such as tafsir and hadith, occupied the place of honor in the syllabus. These new disciplines were formal in nature, but their study in the Mughal period stimulated intellectual interest, facilitated mental discipline of the pupils, and provided the intellectual basis for the splendid Mughal cultural life.


/1/ Abul Fazl, Ain-i-Akbari, trans. by H. Blockmann et al. (Calcutta, 1927–1941), I, 3.
/2/ Dawwani (1427–1501) occupies an important place in the intellectual history of the subcontinent. His pupils included Abul Fazl Gazruni, under whom Shaikh Mubarik, the father of Abul Fazl and Faizi, studied at Ahmadabad, as well as Fathullah Shirazi's teacher. Many of his religious works became textbooks and the subject of commentaries during the Mughal period. His most famous work is Akhlaq-i-Jalali, which is still prescribed as a textbook for certain examinations in India and Pakistan. It has been translated into English by W. F. Thompson under the title, The Practical Philosophy of the Muslim People. It contains considerable elements of Greek thought and ethics.
/3/ Abdul Qadir Badauni, Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh, trans. by G. S. A. Ranking, W. H. Lowe, and Sir Wolseley Haig (Calcutta, 1884–1925), III, 216.

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