Akbar And The Era of Multi-Religious Empire

Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Akbar laid the foundation of the first lasting Muslim dynasty in Hindustan, the Mughal Empire, he ascended the throne in 1556, after the death of his father, Humayun.

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At that time, Akbar was only 13 years old. Akbar was the only Mughal king to ascend to the throne without the customary war of succession; as his brother Muhammad Hakim was to feeble to offer any resistance. During the first five years Akbar ruled under the influence of his nurse Maham Anaga. After 1562, Akbar freed himself from external influences and ruled supreme.


Apart from his conquests in the battlefield, Akbar’s major achievements were his outstanding administrative reforms, which laid the foundation for 150 years of a multi-religious empire under Mughal rule. Always more interested in physical performance than formal education he remained illiterate throughout his life but took an active interest in all matters of intellect. His son Jahangir wrote of him that he was “Always associated with the learned of every creed and religion,…and so much became clear to him through constant intercourse with the learned and the wise… that no one knew him to be illiterate, and he was so well acquainted with the niceties of verse and prose composition that this deficiency was not thought of.”

Syncretistic-Latitudinarian Administrative Policies : Beginning of a new epoch

Akbar sough to bring prosperity to Hindustan. Akbar knew that he must first legitimize his rule and establish Mughal military superiority in his subjects’ eyes, including the majority of Hindu population, if his dynasty were to survive long. He restored court practices, revised the land revenue system, and introduced a variety of administrative reforms in order to legalize the new Mughal sovereign. Akbar’s action ultimately provided the Indian subcontinent with a more efficient from of government than it had endured under earlier Muslim dynasties.

Before the rise of Mughals, Muslim rules had striven tooth and nail for more than three centuries to impose their authority over the majority of Hindu population. Not surprisingly, these regimes faced a host of rebellions and constant resistance. Consequently, not a single Muslim ruling dynasty could last over five decades. Akbar understood the inefficiency of his Muslim predecessors and realized that, in order to create a lasting empire in Hindustan, he would nee the consent of the majority of his subjects as well as support from the Muslim ruling-class minority. As the historian Christopher P. Holland aptly observes in his famous book ‘Akbar and the Mughal State: The Quest for Legitimization of Hindustan’, He was a Muslim ruler in a land of Hindus who had been treated as inferiors. These people were unwilling to accept foreign Muslim rule and were prepared to fight for their autonomy. Akbar thus prepared to embark on a monumental task gaining the consent of the long-oppressed Hindu majority.


New Theory of Kingship and Paternalistic Despotism

To begin with, Akbar first freed himself from existing methods of kingship. He chose to adopt a style which maintained Muslim beliefs while uniting Muslim and Hindu systems of governance. This sort and syncretic approach had been adopted in other lands by his Mongol forefathers to great effect. To separate himself from the filed past standards of Muslim rule, Akbar waged war against the mullahs (experts in Muslim religious matters) for control over social and political policy in his empire. In the past, orthodox mullah governments had imposed their version of orthodox Islamic polity, and their personal opinions, onto all of the subjects. Akbar’s drive to establish his full control over the mullahs demonstrates clearly his goal of a multi-cultural state which would incorporate Hindus into all levels of government. His efforts include the function and rewards given out to tax collectors in a manner which won the support from the Hindu masses while reassuring the Mughal elite of Akbar’s good will by assuring them stability.

To achieve his new vision for the rule of Hindustan, Akbar had to leave existing standards of rule behind. He first had to break from some of the traditional responsibilities and privileges of a Muslim ruler. Islamic law gives the monarch the right to preserve order for all people on that land regardless of religion, to conquer in the name of Islam, to protect Islamic standards, and to rule according to the Shari’ah (Islamic law) as interpreted by the mullahs and based on fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).

One action, which disregarded traditional Muslim law, was the abolition of the jizya, the capitation tax paid by non-Muslims as protected people of the Mughal state. This law established Muslims as the ruling people and Hindus as second class subjects through taxation. The abolition of the jizya did away with the hierarchical society based on religious divisions and created a common class of subjects. Other changes made to the existing law helped to break down the social divide including the abolition of the pilgrimage tax, which solely applied to Hindus because it was part of their faith to go on set pilgrimages in their lifetime. Akbar also allowed all forms of public prayer/worship to take place, allowed non-Muslim temples and churches to be built or repaired, banned the slave trade, and allowed for open conversion to or from Islam, although he did outlaw forced conversions of slaves to Islam. He also prohibited the slaughter of animals on certain days out of respect for Hindu practices.


Practice of Sulh-i-kul and Separation of State and Religion

Akbar ruled with a social and religious toleration that was relative, not absolute, and was based on his concept of sulh-i-kul (for the general good of all people) which built on his liberal views of religion. Akbar took the Sufi mystic notion of sulh-i-kul and transformed it to become a principle denoting amity-within a culturally pluralistic India. Muhammad Abdul Baki, in his history of Akbar’s reign, states: “Akbar extended toleration to all religions and creed, and would recognize no difference between them, his object being to unite all men in a common bond of peace. “Sulh-i-kul was to become his method of judging what was legally right or wrong within his empire and was created because Akbar understood that he was trying to build political institutions for predominately non-Muslim society. Thus, in his empire, the beliefs and opinions of the orthodox mullahs were not to be the critical test for his rule because he wanted all of his subjects to be judged equally before the law.

Akbar established separation of state and religion and opened government positions to members of all religions. he abolished the jizya on non-Muslims and the forced conversion of prisoners of war to Islam. He converted the meetings of Muslim clerics into open discussions between Islam, Hindu, Parsi and Christian scholars and in 1579 issued an edict that made him the highest authority in religious matters. In the civil courts Akbar abolished laws that discriminated against non-Muslims. He raised the Hindu court system to official status side by side with Muslim law and reformed the legislation with the aim to maximize common laws for Muslim and Hindu citizens.

Mahzar of “Infallibility Decree”

In 1579, the seventeenth year of his rule, Akbar reached the culmination of his legal policy, the mahzar, or “Infallibility Decree”. This decree drew heavy fire from orthodox mullahs in court because Akbar proclaimed himself, not the mullahs, to be the interpreter and designer of law. Through his conflict with the mullahs he freed himself from the confines of traditional Muslim rule that was dictated by Shari’ah as interpreted by the mullahs, leading historians like Prof R.S. Sharma to conclude: “Akbar’s greatest achievement lay in liberating the state from its domination by the mullahs”. This rule free from mullah control meant that everyone in the empire, from the sultan to the subjects, had a social freedom never experienced before under Muslim rule in Hindustan. Literally, the mahzar designated Akbar as “one capable of individual legal reasoning, a just ruler, the ruler of Islam, command of the faithful, and the shadow of God over the two worlds.”

The muhzar is commonly misinterpreted as Akbar’s proclamation of his own infallibility. Thus, the decree has commonly been mislabeled as the “Infallibility Decree”. However, the mahzar was not solely a despotic move to obtain ultimate power, but heavily drew open Akbar’s liberal religious views, which in turn, affected his views on social leadership. By issuing the muhzar Akbar was not claiming to be infallible, but was claiming that when the religious divines disagreed he would become the judge and not the mullahs. The orthodox mullah historian Badayuni states: “The object of this declaration was to establish the complete superiority of the Iman-i adil (just leader) over the Mujtahid (chief lawyer); and to make his judgment and choice on diverse questions, so that no one could reject (his) command in either religious or political matters.” In this way Akbar was proclaiming himself to be the Mujtahid of Hindustan in order for his vision of shlh-i-kul as a social policy may prosper. In effect, the decree only took away the right of orthodox mullahs to persecute others for their opinions. This meant that he no longer relied on the Muslim population in his empire for support; the indigenous Hindus now began to be recognized as part of the population and not just a source of revenue or exploitation. Prof. R.S. Sharma refers to Akbar’s rules as “a despotism that left a wide margin to its citizens’ choice.”

This decree proclaiming Akbar as the ruler of Islam, and not the current Khalifah over the Islamic world, upset many orthodox mullahs in his court. Still, it was no unique in the thought or actions of his Mughal lineage. Since the defeat of the Ottoman Sultan in Baghad in 1258, a puppet Khalifah had been established in Egypt, and subsequently in the subcontinent, the khuba had been read in the same puppet Khalifah’s name ever since. Although not much importance was given to it, reading the khutha in the name of the same Khalifah did establish legitimacy to the rest of the Islamic world of the Indian Sultanate’s rule because they were conquering in his name. This included the two Mughal rulers prior to Akbar, Babur and Humayun, who did not attach any importance to the khutba being read in their courts giving reverence to the Ottoman Sultan. By Akbar’s move away from this 300-year-old tradition, he was proclaiming a new era of dynastic rule in the subcontinent. Because the khutba proclaims the political allegiance of the region in which it is read, this action meant that Akbar was establishing the Mughal Empire’s legitimacy to the rest of the Islamic world as the just rulers of the Indian subcontinent.

Impacts of the Mongol Legacy

Many of Akbar’s actions were influenced by his Mongol heritage. From his ancestor Genghis Khan (1206-1227), he inherited a theory of kingship whereby the king possessed a divine mandate to rule and answered to no other superior. A Mongol sovereign ruled by centralizing power rather than distributing it. The Mongol indifference to their subjects’ religion is also reflected in Akbar’s action. he continued the Mongol method of rule which allowed for all faiths to be worshipped in the Empire. The subordination of subjects, not the dictation of social policy, such as religion, was a Mongol ruler’s primary goal. The culturally pluralistic Turk, Timur Gurgan of Smarkand (1370-1405), added Islam to the Mongol theory of kingship, but religion did not come to dictate how he should rule. He successfully explained the sultan’s supreme status within the confines of Islam by stating “since God is one and hath no partner, therefore, the vice-regent (sultan) over the land of the Lord must be one,” Timur believed that both religious law and kingship came directly from God and as such the sultan was only accountable to God. Timur’s concepts on kingship meant that since the right to rule came from God then all actions, whether done in the name of Islam or not, were justified by the sultan’s divine judgment.

Babur (1526-1530) continued the theory of the Timurid doctrine by invading the Indian subcontinent and establishing the Indian subcontinent and establishing the Mughal Empire in 1526. Babur believed strongly in both the Mongol tradition of divine mandate to rule and in the Muslim methods for rule. When he invaded Hindustan, he was surprised to discover the Bengali custom whereby any person who could kill the ruler and usurp the throne would receive homage from officials and the subjects. Babur, just as Timur and Genghis Khan, did not accept division of authority within the empire. This belief in centralized authority also influenced Akbar’s kingship. Humayun’s other-worldly pursuits led him to make a mystical addition to the Timurid doctrine: “He believed that just as the sun was the centre of the material world, similarly the sultan, whose destiny was closely associated with the great luminary, was the centre of the human world.

Akbar’s new Mughal doctrine of kingship was further developed through the combination of Akbar’s actions that influenced Abdul Fazl’s writings of his reign. Akbar’s Mughal doctrine maintained belief in the divine mandate to rule, but changed the Timurid doctrinal stance on conforming to Islamic standards. Akbar furthered the existing Muslim theory that the sultan was the shadow of God on Earth. He claimed that mandate was from God to rule, and also that he had a sovereign nature that emanated from God. This tow-fold doctrine of kingship elevated Akbar above all people and legitimized the Mughal lineage as eternally sovereign by making the Mughal sultan recognizable to all in the empire.

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