XII. Religion at Akbar's Court

        [[156]] OF ALL the aspects of Akbar's life and reign, few have excited more interest than his attitude toward religion. There is every indication that he began his rule as a devout, orthodox Muslim. He said all the five prayers in the congregation, often recited the call for prayers, and occasionally swept out the palace mosque himself. He showed great respect for the two leading religious leaders at the court, Makhdum-ul-Mulk and Shaikh Abdul Nabi. Makhdum-ul-Mulk, who had been an important figure during the reign of the Surs, became even more powerful in the early days of Akbar. Shaikh Abdul Nabi, who was appointed sadr-ul-sadur in 1565, was given authority which no other holder of the office (the highest religious position in the realm) had ever enjoyed. Akbar would go to his house to hear him expound the sayings of the Prophet, and he placed his heir, Prince Salim, under his tutorship. "For some time the Emperor had so great faith in him as a religious leader that he would bring him his shoes and place them before his feet."/1/

        Further indication of Akbar's orthodoxy and of his religious zeal was shown in his devotion to Khwaja Muin-ud-din, the great Chishti saint whose tomb at Ajmer was an object of veneration. He made his first pilgrimage to the tomb in 1565, and thereafter he went almost every year. If there was a perplexing problem or a particularly difficult expedition to undertake, he would make a special journey to pray at the tomb for guidance. He always entered Ajmer on foot, and in 1568 and 1570, in fulfillment of vows, walked the entire way from Agra to Ajmer.

        It was probably devotion to Khwaja Muin-ud-din that was responsible for Akbar's interest in Shaikh Salim Chishti, a contemporary saint who lived at the site of what was to become Akbar's capital at Fathpur Sikri. It was there that he built the Ibadat Khana, the House [[157]] of Worship, which he set apart for religious discussions. Every Friday after the congregational prayers, scholars, dervishes, theologians, and courtiers interested in religious affairs would assemble in the Ibadat Khana and discuss religious subjects in the royal presence.

        The assemblies in the Ibadat Khana had been arranged by Akbar out of sincere religious zeal, but ultimately they were to drive him away from orthodoxy. This was partly the fault of those who attended the gatherings. At the very first session there were disputes on the question of precedence, and when these were resolved, a battle of wits started among the participants. Each tried to display his own scholarship and reveal the ignorance of the others. Questions were asked to belittle rivals, and soon the gatherings degenerated into religious squabbles. The two great theologians of the court, Makhdum-ul-Mulk and Shaikh Abdul Nabi, arrayed on opposite sides, attacked each other so mercilessly that Akbar lost confidence in both of them. His disillusionment extended to the orthodoxy they represented.

        Of the two, Makhdum-ul-Mulk was a powerful jurist and had received the title of Shaikh-ul-Islam from Sher Shah Suri. He used his position for two main purposes: to persecute the unorthodox and to accumulate fabulous wealth. Badauni says that when he died, thirty million rupees in cash were found in his house, and several boxes containing gold blocks were buried in a false tomb.

        Shaikh Abdul Nabi, although not personally accused of graft, is said to have had corrupt subordinates. He was a strict puritan, and his hostility toward music was one of the grounds on which his rival attacked him in the discussions in the House of Worship. The petty recriminations of the ulama disgusted the emperor, but probably a deeper cause for his break with them was an issue that is comparable in some ways to the conflict between the church and the state in medieval Europe. The interpretation and application of Islamic law, which was the law of the state, was the responsibility of the ulama. Over against this, and certain to come in conflict with it, was Akbar's concentration of all ultimate authority in himself. Furthermore, with Akbar's organization of the empire on new lines, problems were arising which the old theologians were unable to comprehend, much less settle in a way acceptable to the emperor.

        [[158]] One such problem brought matters to a climax in 1577. A complaint was lodged before the emperor by the qazi of Mathura that a rich Brahman in his vicinity had forcibly taken possession of building material collected for the construction of a mosque and had used it for building a temple. "When the qazi had attempted to prevent him, he had, in presence of witnesses, opened his foul mouth to curse the Prophet, … and had shown his contempt for Muslims in various other ways."/2/ The question of suitable punishment for the Brahman was discussed before the emperor, but, perplexed by conflicting considerations, he gave no decision. The Brahman languished in prison for a long time. Ultimately Akbar left the matter to Shaikh Abdul Nabi, who had the offender executed. This led to an outcry, with many courtiers like Abul Fazl expressing the view that although an offense had been committed, the extreme penalty of execution was not necessary. They based their opinion on a decree of the founder of the Hanafi school of Islamic law. Abdul Nabi's action was also severely criticized by the Hindu courtiers and by Akbar's Rajput wives./3/

        Akbar was troubled not only by this incident but by the general legal position which gave so much power to the ulama that he was at their mercy on such vital issues. He explained his difficulties to Shaikh Mubarik, the father of Faizi and Abul Fazl, who had come to the court on business. The shaikh, who was liberal minded and independent in his views, had suffered at the hands of Makhdum-ul-Mulk. He stated that according to Islamic law, if there was a difference of opinion between the jurists, the Muslim ruler had the authority and the right to choose any one view, his choice being decisive. He drew up a brief but important document, the arguments of which were supported by quotations from the Holy Quran and traditions of the Prophet. It read as follows:

Whereas Hindustan has now become the center of security and peace, and the land of justice and beneficence, a large number of people, especially learned men and lawyers, have immigrated and chosen this country for their home. Now we, the principal ulama, who are not only well versed in the several departments of the law and in the principles of [[159]] jurisprudence, and well acquainted with the edicts which rest on reason or testimony, but are also known for our piety and honest intentions, have duly considered the deep meaning, first, of the verse of the Quran: "Obey God and obey the Prophet, and those who have authority among you"; and secondly, of the genuine tradition: "Surely, the man who is dearest to God on the day of judgment is the imam-i-adil; whosoever obeys the Amir obeys Thee; and whoever rebels against him rebels against Thee" ; and thirdly, of several other proofs based on reasoning or testimony; and we have agreed that the rank of a sultan-i-adil is higher in the eyes of God than the rank of a mujtahid. Further, we declare that the King of Islam, Amir of the Faithful, Shadow of God in the world, Abul Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar Padshah Ghazi (whose kingdom God perpetuate), is a most just, most wise, and a most God-fearing king. Should, therefore, in the future, a religious question come up, regarding which the opinions of the mujtahids are at variance, and His Majesty, in his penetrating understanding and clear wisdom, be inclined to adopt, for the benefit of the nation, and as a political expedient, any of the conflicting opinions, which exist on that point, and issue a decree to that effect, we do hereby agree that such a decree shall be binding on us and on the whole nation.

Further, we declare that should His Majesty think it fit to issue a new order, we and the nation shall likewise be bound by it, provided always that such order be not only in accordance with some verse of the Quran, but also of real benefit to the nation; and further, that any opposition on the part of his subjects to such an order passed by His Majesty shall involve damnation in the world to come, and loss of property and religious privileges in this life.

This document has been written with honest intentions, for the glory of God and the propagation of Islam, and is signed by us, the principal ulama and lawyers, in the month of Rajab of the year nine hundred and eight-seven./4/

        The document has been referred to as the "Infallibility Decree of 1579," with the implication that it gave to Akbar unlimited powers in both the spiritual and temporal spheres. This is an erroneous reading, for the king's authority was confined to measures which were "in accordance with some verse of the Quran" and were of "real benefit for the nation." The modern Islamic scholar Abul Kalam Azad has argued that the central thesis of the document was in line with traditional Islamic political theory. "The khalifa of the day and those in [[160]] charge of affairs, and their advisers have the right of ijtihad (independent judgment) at all times and in all ages, and its denial has been responsible for all the misfortunes of Islam."/5/

        But the limitations laid down in the declaration of 1579 were not observed by Akbar, and in practice it became an excuse for the exercise of unrestrained autocracy. Soon the gatherings of the Ibadat Khana were exposed to new and more hostile influences. Before long, in addition to the Muslim scholars, Hindu pandits, Parsi mobeds and Jain sadhus began to attend the gatherings. They expressed their own points of view, and the emperor, ever open to new ideas, was attracted by some of their practices. A more serious complication arose when the emperor invited Jesuits from Goa to the discussions. They did not confine themselves to the exposition of their own beliefs, but reviled Islam and the Prophet in unrestrained language.

        When the news of these discussions and the new decrees promulgated by the emperor became known, there was serious disaffection among the Muslims. The first to criticize the new developments was Mullah Muhammad Yazdi, the Shia qazi of Jaunpur, who declared in 1580 that the emperor had ceased to be a Muslim and the people should rise against him. Even some courtiers like Qutb-ud-din Khan Koka and Shahbaz Khan Kamboh criticized the emperor in the court. Akbar sent for Mullah Muhammad Yazdi and Muiz-ul-Mulk, the chief qazi of Bengal, and had them put to death by drowning. His punitive action against others did not prevent open rebellion from breaking out in 1581. Akbar's enemies did not confine themselves to sporadic outbursts and regional risings, but made a serious attempt to dethrone him and place his brother Mirza Muhammad Hakim, ruler of Kabul, on the throne. Akbar's brilliant diwan, Khawaja Shah Mansur, was executed for alleged conspiracy with Mirza Hakim, who got as far as Lahore, but being no match for Akbar, was driven back to Kabul.

        The historian Vincent Smith, in his biographical study of Akbar, declares that the emperor, after he had returned from his successful expedition against the rebels, called a formal council to promulgate [[161]] his new religion the Din-i-Ilahi./6/ This reading of the evidence is, however, almost certainly erroneous. The Jesuits apparently had not heard of any such proclamation. In fact, Father Monserrate, who accompanied Akbar to Kabul and back, thought that the emperor had grown more cautious in the expression of his views. On the return journey Akbar performed prayers in the customary Muslim manner in a mosque near Khyber, was reluctant to have religious discussions with the Jesuits, and during one debate in which Muslim spokesmen appeared likely to lose, Akbar took their side and brought his own knowledge into play./7/ Not only Smith, but most European historians, have assumed that Akbar abandoned Islam. Hindu writers, on the other hand, have generally held that although he followed a tolerant policy, he lived and died a Muslim. Muslim historians are about equally divided on the question. These conflicting judgments partly reflect the inevitable differences that result from assessing a complex personality, but they are due also to conflicting contemporary accounts and, in no small degree, to erroneous translations of the relevant Persian texts.

        The foundation for the misunderstanding of Akbar's religious history was laid by Blochmann in the introduction to his translation of Abul Fazl's Ain-i-Akbari; here he set the pattern for relying on Badauni, Akbar's enemy, rather than Abul Fazl, his friend, for studying Akbar's religious history. The crucial question about Akbar's religious activity is whether he established a new religion or a new spiritual order. Badauni's account is clearly intended to give the impression that Akbar no longer respected Islam and, indeed, actively persecuted it./8/ The expressions used by both Abul Fazl and Badauni in this connection, however, are iradat or muridi (discipleship) but Blochmann habitually translates these expressions as "divine faith," thus converting a religious order (or even a bond of loyalty) into a [[162]] new religion. He translated the expression ain-i-iradat gazinan, which correctly means "rules for the (royal) disciples," as the "principles of divine faith," and gives the subsection the heading, "ordinances of the divine faith," although there is no such heading in the original text./9/

        The sharp difference between the viewpoints of Abul Fazl and Badauni is obvious, but our study of the subject has revealed a surprisingly large area of common ground between them, and if the present divergence of opinion about Akbar's religion is to be resolved, more attention will have to be given to what is common ground between these two principal sources of our information. It appears that modern historians, fascinated by the wit and sarcasm of Badauni, have paid scant attention to Abul Fazl's informative sections on Akbar's religion contained in his Akbar-Nama and Ain-i-Akbari. Akbar's regulations which were not of an ephemeral or tentative character have been preserved in the voluminous Ain-i-Akbari, and it would be illogical to suppose that important royal orders, which were to be given general currency in the empire, would have been omitted. Since the Ain's accounts of Akbar's religious innovations and of the practices of the royal disciples contain much that would shock an orthodox Muslim, there is no reason to suppose that regulations for the Din-i-Ilahi would not have been included. Judging by its contents and the public nature of the information which is sought, the Ain appears to be the most dependable source of information regarding Akbar's religious regulations and spiritual practices.

        According to Ain-i-Akbari the emperor discouraged people from becoming his disciples, but the person whom he accepted for initiation approached him with his turban in his hand and put his head on the emperor's feet. This was to express that the novice had "cast aside conceit, selfishness—the root of so many evils." The emperor then stretched out his hand, raised up the disciple and replaced the turban on his head. … The novice was given a token containing the ruler's symbolic motto Allah-u-Akbar (God is Great). When the disciples met each other, one would say, "Allah-u-Akbar" and the [[163]] other responded, "Jall-u-Jallaluhu." "The motives of His Majesty in allowing this mode of salutation," Abul Fazl wrote, "is to remind men to think of the origin of their existence and to keep the Deity in their fresh, lively and grateful remembrance."/10/ The disciples were to endeavor to abstain from flesh and not to make use of the same vessels as butchers, fishermen, and bird catchers. Each disciple was to give a party on the anniversary of his birthday and to bestow alms. The dinners customarily given after a man's death were to be given by a disciple during his lifetime.

        For students of history, general orders intended for compliance by all are more important than the regulations framed for the royal disciples. According to Abul Fazl, the kotwals were asked to ensure that no ox or bufalo or horse or camel was slaughtered, and the killing of all animals was prohibited on many days of the year—including the whole month of Aban—except for feeding the animals used in hunting and for the sick.

        Akbar interested himself in the reform of marriage customs. He abhorred marriages before the age of puberty, and also considered marriages between near relations highly improper. He disapproved of large dowries, but admitted that they acted as a preventative to rash divorces. "Nor does His Majesty approve of everyone marrying more than one wife; for this ruins the man's health, and disturbs the peace of the home." Circumcision before the age of twelve was forbidden. The kotwals were to "forbid the restriction of personal liberty and the selling of slaves," and a woman was not to be burned on her husband's funeral pyre without giving her consent. Government officers were not to consider homage paid to the sun as worshiping fire. A governor was expected to accustom himself to night vigils and to partake of sleep and food in moderation. He was to pass the dawn and evening in meditation and pray at noon and midnight. Nauroz, the Parsi New Year, was to be celebrated officially, with the kotwal keeping a vigil on that night.

        It was true that Akbar adopted and prescribed for his disciples and even others many practices which were borrowed from alien creeds, but precedents for this may be found in the lives of many Sufi [[164]] saints who continue to be considered Muslims in spite of wide departures from traditional Islam. For all of his innovations, Islamic texts or precedents, genuine or spurious, were cited by his courtiers. But while Akbar did not claim to be a prophet or to establish a new religion, Islam lost its privileged position and many of his practices and regulations differed widely from the normal Muslim practices. It is not surprising that by many Muslims he was—and is—regarded as having gone outside the pale of Islam. Writing of the proclamation of 1579, Abul Fazl very ably summed up the popular misconceptions concerning Akbar, noting that he was accused by the "ill-informed and the unfair" of claiming divinity, or at least prophethood, of being anti-Muslim, a Shia, and partial to Hinduism./11/ While Abul Fazl answered these criticisms, he admitted that Akbar's policy and some of his regulations facilitated the task of his enemies. Possibly Akbar sincerely believed that the powers conferred on him by the ulama in 1579 authorized him to initiate his regulations, and the court flatterers pandered to this belief by citing precedents in Islamic history. That they caused serious misgivings and resentment among orthodox Sunni Muslims was to be expected.

        In any assessment of Akbar's religious policy, it is important to see that it had two quite distinct aspects. On the one hand were the political and administrative measures which he took to broaden the basis of his government and secure the goodwill of all his subjects. For this policy of religious tolerance and of giving an adequate share in the administration to all classes there can be nothing but praise, and it became a part of the Mughal political code. In themselves, these measures involved nothing more than what Muhammad ibn Qasim, the Arab conqueror of Sind, had adopted eight centuries before with full concurrence of the ulama of Damascus. Zain-ul-Abidin introduced similar measures in Kashmir without a murmur on the part of Muslims. They were adopted by Akbar in the very beginning of his reign—mainly between 1662 and 1665—at a time when the ulama were dominant at the court, without offending Muslim opinion.

        An aspect of Akbar's religious policy that began several years after [[165]] the acrimonious debates of the House of Worship was on a different footing. His attempt to set himself up as a jagat guru, the spiritual leader of the people, was a political mistake. Akbar's Hindu well-wishers like Raja Bhagwan Das and Raja Man Singh left him in no doubt about their dislike of his religious innovations. The only prominent Hindu who became his disciple was Birbal, regarded by succeeding generations as the court jester. Muslims were greatly offended and a reaction began against Akbar's policy which was to destroy much that he had created.

        Akbar's failure was also due to forces operating outside the court. At this time a great Hindu religious revival was sweeping the country. It commenced in Bengal, but under Chaitanya's successors, Mathura in northern India became the great center of resurgent Hinduism. It was there that the great crisis had arisen over the wealthy Brahman who had taken building material collected for the construction of a mosque, and used it for building a Hindu temple. It is possible that this particular incident occurred in connection with the large-scale Vaishnava temple-building operations which were going on at Mathura at this time. Among the temple-builders was Raja Man Singh, Akbar's great Hindu general. The defiant spirit which had been inculcated by the new movement can be seen in the Brahman's action.

        With such developments in the country, possibly with the support of his Hindu officers, Akbar's efforts at religious syncretion were doomed to failure. In fact, as we shall see, the new aggressive attitude of the Hindu revivalists and the offense which the emperor's religious innovations gave to the Muslims led to a reaction which was to destroy even the existing basis of harmony.


/1/ Abdul Qadir Baudauni, Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh, trans. by G. S. A. Ranking, W. H. Lowe, and Sir Wolseley Haig (Calcutta, 1884–1925), III, 127.
/2/ Badauni, III, 128.
/3/ Badauni, III, 129.
/4/ Badauni, II, 279–80.
/5/ Abul Kalam Azad, Tazkirah (Calcutta, 1919), p. 20.
/6/ Vincent Smith, Akbar the Great Mogul (London, 1917), p. 213.
/7/ Sir Edward Maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Mogul (London, 1932), p. 35; The Commentary of Father Monserrate, S.J., trans. by J. S. Hoyland (London, 1922), pp. 154–60, 180; and C. H. Payne, Akbar and the Jesuits (London, 1925), pp. 32–34.
/8/ Badauni, II, 200–1, 255–61.
/9/ Abul Fazl, Ain-i-Akbari, trans. by H. Blockmann et al. (Calcutta, 1927–1941), I, 175.
/10/ Abul Fazl, I, 175.
/11/ Abul Fazl, The Akbar-Nama, trans. by H. Beveridge (London, 1909), III, 390–400.

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