The recent murder of the Governor of Punjab in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, and the increasing escalation of visible religious extremism in that country brings to mind a notable historical precedent, involving a major figure in South Asian history who was also the governor of Punjab for a time. There are some serious implications for both Pakistan and the rest of the world if history is allowed to repeat itself.
The painting at the top of this article, commissioned circa 1650, depicts the builder of the Taj Mahal, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, meeting the crown prince Muhammad Dara Shukoh (sometimes also spelt “Shikoh” or “Shikuh”). Dara Shukoh is the figure standing on the right.
Dara Shukoh, born in 1615, was Shah Jahan’s favourite son and nominated heir. Like most of the major Mughals during their reign in India, Dara was a liberal patron of music, dancing and arts (an example of an album of pictures he personally painted as a gift for his wife Nadira Banu can be viewed via the British Library); Dara was also closely affiliated with the Qadiri Sufi order, especially the Muslim saint Mian Mir, who had been invited by one of the Sikh Gurus to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The land for the temple complex and the city of Amritsar itself had been granted to the Sikhs by Dara’s great-grandfather, the Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, justifiably known as Akbar the Great.
Dara Shukoh himself was similarly heavily involved in promoting religious moderation, friendship and understanding between people of different faiths; with the assistance of some Hindu Brahmin priests, his activities included translating more than 50 of the most important ancient Hindu scriptures (especially the Upanishads) from Sanskrit into Persian so that Muslims could understand them better, with the intention that this would prevent unwarranted prejudice based on ignorance. Dara’s translations later proved invaluable in helping colonial-era Europeans understand the Hindu texts concerned, as they were originally more familiar with Persian than Sanskrit.
“The Great Secret” and “The Mingling of the Two Oceans”
Dara Shukoh’s motives were not just humanitarian; he also had specifically religious reasons for his actions. Dara firmly believed that the Quranic statements about God having sent different messengers and religious scriptures to people all over the world meant that divine truth was not exclusive to Islam – indeed, Dara also knew that Hindu holy texts such as the Bhagavad Gita similarly stated that divine messengers come to mankind in times of turmoil – with the resulting implications for universal human rights, the core divine origin of multiple faiths, and the level of respect that other religions and their followers deserved. In fact, Dara even personally believed that the remarks within the Quran about “concealed scriptures” referred directly to some of the ancient Hindu texts he had translated, so he gave his collection of translations the title “The Great Secret”.
Furthermore, Dara Shukoh also wrote a famous treatise called Majma ul-Bahrain, “The Mingling of the Two Oceans”, detailing what he believed to be the fundamental similarities between mainstream Sufi Islam and the more mystical forms of Hinduism, including the monotheism at the core of both. Dara explained his rationale in the introductory section of the treatise:
“I discussed and talked openly with certain Hindu learned men, but saving a few differences in verbal usage, I found no difference between them as for their way of understanding and knowing God. Based on these exchanges, I set out to compare the tenets of the two faiths [Islam and Hinduism] and to bring them back together, reunite those among them whose knowledge is of value and absolutely necessary to aspirants to the truth. Finally, I made an essay of that collection of truths and esoteric sciences belonging to both communities, and I called it ‘The Mingling of the Two Oceans’.”
Dara Shukoh did not regard his religious views as contradicting Islam or his own identity as a Muslim. In fact, he believed that this was actually the true interpretation of Islam itself.
The “Renaissance prince”
Like most of the major members of his dynasty, Dara Shukoh’s vision for the Indian subcontinent was a cosmopolitan, inclusive, progressive and religiously & ethnically pluralistic society; by this time, the meritocratic, non-discriminatory political and religious policies initiated by Akbar and continued by his descendents had resulted in Hindus (especially the Rajputs) being heavily integrated at all levels of the Mughal government and military, including senior leadership positions. In fact, although the Mughals were originally Persianised Turks from Uzbekistan, since Akbar’s time they had been involved in such a high degree of intermarriage with the Hindu Rajput aristocracy in particular that – for example — Shah Jahan’s own ancestry was technically ¾ Rajput. This pluralistic ethos is even reflected in the architecture of the Taj Mahal itself, the famous mausoleum of Shah Jahan’s Persian wife, as it is a hybrid of Mughal, Rajput and Persian styles.
As discussed in Pickled Politics’ recent Christmas article and as detailed further in the New Statesman, a number of the major Mughals were also particularly open-minded about Christianity, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, Christian artefacts and Christians in general. Dara Shukoh himself was well-acquainted with the Old Testament and the Gospels. Jews were involved in numerous amicable activities with the Mughal court too.
Dara Shukoh was extremely popular amongst Indians of all religious backgrounds, including Muslims and especially the mass of the common people. So, by the late 1650s, with the blessing of his father and with enormous support from the Indian population, Dara Shukoh, the open-minded, all-embracing, intellectual Muslim “Renaissance prince” who believed in the intrinsic equality and unity of mankind, was on the way towards becoming the leader of what was at the time the wealthiest civilisation in the world, the most liberal Muslim-ruled superpower in that era and the region with the largest number of Muslim inhabitants. The possibilities for the future were endless.
The “bigot and prayer-monger”
Unfortunately, Dara Shukoh also had a younger brother called Aurangzeb, who believed in the most ultraconservative, puritanical interpretation of Islam. Aurangzeb was extremely hostile to the liberal culture which had become the norm since the time of Akbar and which had greatly influenced the dominant interpretation of Islam amongst the majority of Indian Muslims. Dara derisively regarded his brother as a “bigot and a prayer-monger”, and at one stage had to personally intervene to prevent Aurangzeb from seizing control of land belonging to a Jain temple in Gujarat. For his part, Aurangzeb viewed Dara as an “infidel” and an “apostate”; Aurangzeb had also levelled bizarre, paranoid accusations at him, claiming that Dara was secretly plotting to kill him.
Aurangzeb’s intense jealousy of what he perceived to be his father Shah Jahan’s greater affection towards Dara, along with his own religious fanaticism and his vehement hostility towards his brother in general, would set in motion a Shakespearean tragedy which would have global consequences and change the course of human history.
Part 2 of this article will discuss the escalating sequence of events along with their ramifications for modern-day Pakistan, and will be published tomorrow.
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Filed in: History,India,Muslim,Pakistan,Religion