Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1


by Jai
20th December, 2009 at 9:25 am    

My recent articles about Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Hargobind highlighted the notion that Sikhs are inherently “implacable mortal enemies” of Muslims as being baseless where the Sikh Gurus were concerned. However, there are further lessons from history for vehemently anti-Muslim organisations such as the BNP and the SIOE which claim that “all Muslims are Islamists” and promote the historically false notion that Muslim-governed regions have always been extremely hostile to Christians.

And no, I am not going to discuss Andalucia or the Middle East; the majority of Muslims in Britain have ancestral roots in the Indian subcontinent, so it’s the history of that part of the world which is of immediate relevance. Even more so when you remember that the subcontinent contains the greatest concentration of Muslims on the planet, and that – regardless of the claims of both the Islamist extremists and their fanatically anti-Muslim counterparts – neither Islam as a religion nor Muslims as a religious group are homogeneous. The history of India itself during the past thousand years hammers this point home.

Reactions to Christianity at the height of the Mughal Empire

William Dalrymple wrote an excellent article about this a few years ago, so I’m going to provide some extracts:

“There is a 16th-century manuscript in the British Museum which contains a painting of what – at first – looks like a traditional Nativity scene…..The miniature illustrating this Nativity scene was one of a great number commissioned by the Mughal court under the emperors Akbar and Jehangir. It is one of the many moments in the history of Islamo-Christian relations that defies the simplistic strictures of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” theory, for both Akbar (1542-1605) and his son Jehangir (1569-1627) were enthusiastic devotees of Jesus and his mother Mary, something they did not see as being in the least at variance with their Muslim faith or with ruling one of the most powerful Islamic empires ever to exist.

…..In 1580, Akbar began this process by inviting to his court near Agra a party of Portuguese Jesuit priests from Goa, and allowing them to set up a chapel in his palace…..[Akbar] later showed a particular pleasure in the Jesuits’ Christmas festival, when a crib was set up in the palace, adorned with satin and velvet and sculptures of the Christ child, and accompanied by placards proclaiming “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”, in Persian.

…..Subsequent Portuguese clerics found that the gospel books brought by their predecessors had led to murals of Christ, his mother and the Christian saints being painted on the walls not only of the palace but also on Mughal tombs and caravanserais…..By the end of Akbar’s reign, a mural of the Nativity filled a wall of the imperial khwabgah, or sleeping chamber. Such enthusiasm for Catholic devotional images naturally irritated both the more orthodox members of Akbar’s ulema (Islamic clergy) and the English Protestant envoys to the court…..Akbar’s son Jehangir, however, continued the tradition, competing with his father to collect Christian images, and also keeping large-framed pictures of Jesus and the Madonna in his sleeping chamber…..He also owned a “carved image of our saviour on the cross”

Akbar was particularly closely affiliated with the influential Chishti Sufi Order, and built Fatehpur Sikri (for a time, the Mughal Empire’s capital city) near the settlement of the Sufi Salim Chishti, whose blessing he had sought; Akbar’s eldest son and eventual heir was subsequently born, and he was named Salim – later Emperor Jahangir – in honour of Salim Chishti.

Jahangir himself wrote fondly of Akbar’s reign, when “Sunnis and Shias met in one mosque, and Franks and Jews in one church, and observed their own forms of worship.” Thrown by the religious tolerance of Akbar and Jahangir’s rule, Jesuit missionaries had long thought that they were on the verge of conversion to Christianity, and mistakenly believed this about Jahangir right until the very end. Jesuits were allowed to open churches in Ahmedabad and Hooghly; Christians were also free to openly celebrate festivals such as Christmas and Easter. So much for modern-day paranoia about “British Muslims wanting to ban Christmas” or irrelevant references to the lack of “churches in Saudi Arabia”.

The proverb by Christ on a Mughal mosque’s gateway

Dalrymple continues:

”I first came across the Mughals’ surprising veneration of Jesus and his mother [in 1984]. I remember climbing…the great flight of steps leading to the Friday Mosque at Fatehpur Sikri in northern India.…..But when I reached the top of the steps that rose to the Buland Darwaza [pictured beneath this article’s main title] – the arched victory gateway leading into the principal mosque – I saw something that startled me. Here was one of the greatest pieces of Muslim architecture, but the Naskh calligraphy that lined the inside of the arch leading to the mosque read as follows: “Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.

…..The phrase emblazoned over the gateway was…..one of several hundred sayings and stories of Jesus that fill Arabic and Islamic literature. Some of these derive from the four canonical Gospels, others from now rejected early Christian texts such as the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, others again from the wider oral Christian [traditions] of the Near East.

…..Love of God and one’s brethren, [Akbar] believed, were more important than narrow religious affiliation. Guided by this enlightened philosophy, Akbar’s rule succeeded as much through conciliation as by war.”

A range of the specific actions and policies which were set in motion by the emperor justifiably known as Akbar the Great and continued by a number of his Mughal successors will be discussed in detail in Part 2 tomorrow. The impact was far-reaching, affected hundreds of millions of people for centuries, and has considerable resonance for our modern world.


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  1. pickles

    Blog post:: Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1 http://bit.ly/6TW6aF


  2. Gerald Johnson

    Pickled Politics » Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1: Jahangir himself wrote fondly of Akbar's reign,… http://bit.ly/4qowad


  3. Pickled Politics » Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1 » myevent.in

    [...] the rest here: Pickled Politics » Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1 adminNo Comments Uncategorized akbar, court, his-court, his-palace, jesuits, later-showed, [...]


  4. Dil Nawaz

    RT @pickledpolitics: Blog post:: Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1 http://bit.ly/6TW6aF


  5. Pickled Politics » Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1 | Desi Blog

    [...] this link: Pickled Politics » Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1 Posted in News Tags: andalucia, andalucia-or-the, have-ancestral, History, immediate-relevance-, [...]


  6. Beth Misenhimer

    Pickled Politics » Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 1 http://bit.ly/4qowad




  1. takhalus — on 20th December, 2009 at 5:48 am  

    well yes Mughal interest in christianity was significant..

  2. limpia — on 20th December, 2009 at 6:20 am  

    Thank u for this interesting material. Of course, Islam will differ depending where one finds it- the surrounding and root culture of the area in which it takes root. Certainly, islam in Indonesia or Mexico (amongst the mayan, i just read) will not be what it is in the gulf. Also, things can change rapidly, say if saudi oil money decides it wants to influence the ideas of a group of people.

  3. halima — on 20th December, 2009 at 9:11 am  

    Jai, thanks for putting up this post, really interesting read. I was traveling with some friends in Malaysia this week and we went to visit the Museum of Islamic Art which exhibits a range of monumental Islamic buildings from the past – the Taj being one of them. My friends were surprised to learn that it was in fact inspired and built by a Muslim ruler, whereas I thought this was quite well known – though perhaps not. As the comment above mentions, Islam in Indonesia, or Mexico ( Mexico?) will be different, and I was surprised to see the types of buildings in the Stan/Central Asian countries which were truly mind-blowing. The buildings in Southern Spain, too, will have an interesting legacy.

    You learn something new everyday. One of the more interesting buildings was the Kabaa itself in Saudi Arabia – which was according to the museum information built by Prophet Ibrahim in the form of a house of god and the story is told in the Old Testament. Today of course, the Kabba ( the black box seen in the middle of the pilgrimage pictures) is the most recognizable Islamic symbol across the world – the direction to which Muslims prey.

  4. Rumbold — on 20th December, 2009 at 9:33 am  

    Anyone visiting Agra would also be advised to see the tomb of Nur Jahan's father, who served as a senior minister in Jahangir's government (his name/title, Itmad-ud-Daulah, translates as 'pillar of the state'). It is sometimes referred to as the 'Little Taj' and was a design forerunner of the Taj Mahal:

    http://gallery.photo.net/photo/7781753-md.jpg

  5. jaspinder — on 20th December, 2009 at 11:00 am  

    If one reads some Books on Sikh History one realizes how it is filled with great acts of courage .

  6. Dalbir — on 20th December, 2009 at 11:39 am  

    A bit random wasn't that Jaspinder?
    —————————–

    Jai, also lets not go overboard and try and paint everyone getting along like they were in a hippy commune in Moghul India!

    I appreciate what you are doing but don't go too far. Sikh history/tradition provides a ground level accouunt of living under the Moghuls and it wasn't always something we can characterise as positive and harmonious.

    That being said, this information shouldn't be something used by evil scaremongering white supremacists or any other people who shite themselves in the face of Islam.

  7. Jai — on 21st December, 2009 at 3:18 am  

    Thank you everyone for your responses so far. Part 2 of the article should hopefully be of interest too.

    Sikh history/tradition provides a ground level accouunt of living under the Moghuls and it wasn't always something we can characterise as positive and harmonious.

    Correct. My previous two articles about Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Hargobind respectively did discuss some of that in detail.

    That being said, this information shouldn't be something used by evil scaremongering white supremacists or any other people who shite themselves in the face of Islam.

    Exactly.

  8. bkurien — on 25th December, 2009 at 5:40 am  

    Akbar was the only tolerant Mughal emperor as he was especially influenced by his brother in law Gaj Singh. Even Akbar knew full well his empire ran on taxes like jiziya collected from non Muslims and non Muslim religious places. Akbar was NOT a practising Muslim and would have been called blasphemous as he started and followed his own religion. Most Muslim emperors had Rajput mothers who remained Hindu. By the way there is almost no record of building the Taj in a time when most Mughals kept detailed court records. The land belonged to the Raja of Amber. FWIW!

    Sikhs today can remener that after the horrific 84 event, it was the Delhi Hindu citizenry which helped them, startd camops for them. Blame some officers in the Congress govt for killing Sikhs after one of them had killed the Prime Minister but neverf balme the hIndus. They had nothing to do with it. Tired of seeing Gurudwaras all over the world which blame the Hindus.

  9. bkurien — on 25th December, 2009 at 5:42 am  

    Sorry about the spelling errors. It got posted by mistake.

  10. bkurien — on 25th December, 2009 at 5:49 am  

    Sorry about the spelling errors. It got posted too quickly.

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