My recent articles about Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Hargobind highlighted the notion that Sikhs are inherently â€œimplacable mortal enemiesâ€ 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 â€œall Muslims are Islamistsâ€ 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 itâ€™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 â€“ regardless of the claims of both the Islamist extremists and their fanatically anti-Muslim counterparts â€“ 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 Iâ€™m going to provide some extracts:
â€œThere is a 16th-century manuscript in the British Museum which contains a painting of what – at first – looks like a traditional Nativity sceneâ€¦..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.
â€¦..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 palaceâ€¦..[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.
â€¦..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 caravanseraisâ€¦..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 courtâ€¦..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 chamberâ€¦..He also owned a “carved image of our saviour on the crossâ€
Akbar was particularly closely affiliated with the influential Chishti Sufi Order, and built Fatehpur Sikri (for a time, the Mughal Empireâ€™s capital city) near the settlement of the Sufi Salim Chishti, whose blessing he had sought; Akbarâ€™s eldest son and eventual heir was subsequently born, and he was named Salim â€“ later Emperor Jahangir â€“ in honour of Salim Chishti.
Jahangir himself wrote fondly of Akbarâ€™s reign, when â€œSunnis and Shias met in one mosque, and Franks and Jews in one church, and observed their own forms of worship.â€ Thrown by the religious tolerance of Akbar and Jahangirâ€™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 â€œBritish Muslims wanting to ban Christmasâ€ or irrelevant references to the lack of â€œchurches in Saudi Arabiaâ€.
The proverb by Christ on a Mughal mosqueâ€™s gateway
â€I first came across the Mughals’ surprising veneration of Jesus and his mother [in 1984]. I remember climbingâ€¦the great flight of steps leading to the Friday Mosque at Fatehpur Sikri in northern India.â€¦..But when I reached the top of the steps that rose to the Buland Darwaza [pictured beneath this articleâ€™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.
â€¦..The phrase emblazoned over the gateway wasâ€¦..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.
â€¦..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.â€
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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Filed in: History,Muslim,South Asia