Christianity and Islam in Mughal India: Part 2


by Jai
21st December, 2009 at 2:53 pm    

This concludes the article begun yesterday; the first part can be read here. The extracts quoted below are from an article by the British historian William Dalrymple.

“[Emperor Akbar] issued an edict of sulh-i kul, or universal toleration, forbade the forcible conversion of prisoners to Islam and married a succession of Hindu wives…..He promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration: indeed, he even entrusted his army to a Hindu – his former enemy Raja Man Singh of Jaipur, whom he had defeated in battle – and filled his court with artists and intellectuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. He also ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, and ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics [like the Mahabharata and Ramayana] into Persian.”

The latter was a course of action duplicated by Akbar’s great-grandson Prince Dara Shukoh, the son and chosen heir of Emperor Shah Jahan of “Taj Mahal” fame (Dara’s ultraorthodox brother Aurangzeb, who overthrew their father and seized power, murdered him during the war of succession); Dara Shukoh translated the ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads into Persian in order to increase their accessibility to Muslims, and he also wrote a treatise called The Mingling of the Two Oceans, highlighting what he believed to be numerous areas of commonality between Sufi Islam and Hinduism.

Furthermore, Akbar himself not only granted Sikhs the land upon which the Golden Temple and the city of Amritsar were built, but he also visited one of the Sikh Gurus in a gesture of friendship and sat on the floor alongside large numbers of ordinary people in order to eat the free simple food which is still cooked by Sikh volunteers in gurdwaras. The latter was an astonishing gesture of humility and broadmindedness on Akbar’s part when you consider that he was one of the most powerful men in the world at the time.

Religious pluralism and a rejection of fanaticism

Dalrymple continues:

”Indeed, at the same time as most of Catholic Europe – and Portuguese Goa – was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burned for heresy in the Campo dei Fiori, in Fatehpur Sikri Akbar was declaring that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him”. [This has ramifications for the claims of anti-Muslim extremists that “executions for apostasy” have been intrinsic to Muslim-ruled territories].

…..as well as being a centre of trade, Fatehpur Sikri soon became a philosophical laboratory for Akbar’s spiritual inquiries. Holy men from all India’s different religions were invited to the city to make the case for their particular understanding of the metaphysical…..In this way, Akbar set up the earliest known multi-religious discussion group, where representatives of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jains, Jews and Zoroastrian Parsees came together to discuss where and why they differed and how they could live together. There was also a party of atheists represented in the discussion: the sceptical Charvaka school, dating back to the 6th century BC, which denied the existence of any transcendental deity.

…..Akbar’s thesis was that “the pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on the marshy land of tradition” was the proper way to address religious disputes. Attacked by traditionalists, Akbar told his trusted lieutenant Abu’l Fazl: “The pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders [and not come with new messages]”.

No clash of civilisations

As mentioned in previous articles I have written, during Akbar’s reign, India and China jointly accounted for about 50% of the world’s entire GDP. Akbar’s tolerance, his enlightened attitudes and the fact that he was the ruler of an economic and military superpower was something that his contemporary Queen Elizabeth I of England was also fully aware of, and there are records of friendly diplomatic correspondence between the two monarchs where the queen explicitly mentions this.

Akbar was the most syncretistic and unorthodox of the “Great Mughal” emperors, but his inclusive, enlightened policies were broadly continued by his successors until Aurangzeb seized the throne, covering an extensive period of Mughal imperial power at its height; the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II was a similarly liberal monarch, an attitude which was actively promoted by the Delhi elite. It was also common for them to celebrate non-Muslim festivals, such as Diwali and Holi. And although Akbar had attempted to create a new theological philosophy – the Din-i-Ilahi — primarily focused on ethical conduct and based on what he regarded as the best ideals in multiple religions, in an effort to further unite people from different backgrounds, it’s worth remembering that Akbar himself never formally renounced Islam or ceased self-identifying as a Muslim. Neither did any of his successors.

As an example of an extremely successful and diverse multicultural, multireligious and multiethnic society, in a part of the world which still has more Muslims than anywhere else, this aspect of Indian history has a powerful message for those who wish to reduce the interaction of Muslims with Christians (and indeed non-Muslims in general) to a polarised, adversarial “clash of civilisations” caricature.

And that’s before we even address the sheer numbers of British expats who dived into Indian Muslim society pre-1857 and embraced its culture (and sometimes even religion); or the fact that the East India Company viewed this as an inevitable consequence of the more attractive lifestyle and noticeably greater tolerance prevalent in Indian Muslim cultures compared to their British counterparts at the time; or the fact that, when Delhi was formally taken over by the British after the “Indian Uprising” of 1857, the British authorities didn’t know what to do about the surprising number of English men and women they found living in the city who had freely converted to Islam during their time in India. But that is a discussion for another day.


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  1. avius — on 21st December, 2009 at 7:07 am  

    a well researched peice Jai. So often the story told about Old India is that of partition and violence, and the Raj. Even during the Mughal era wars were fought, however on the whole a balanced, co-existing, multicultural society existed. If was only after the end of the Raj, when the natural levels of power had shifted, classical power brokers no longer existed, did the environment of anger, suspicion etc begin that led to partition.

    It all depends on leadership. Look even at the middle east. For centuries Muslims, jews and Christians lived side by side, until certain people started crusading. Never been the same since.

    Of course there is always the flipside of it. Wherever leaders have been unjust or neglegent, whenever rebellion has occured, societies have fought within themselves. However whenever leadership has been successful, even the most complex of societies has been harmonious.

  2. Dalbir_S — on 21st December, 2009 at 9:10 am  

    I'm not sure if you could technically call Akhbar a Muslim, I always thought he was pushing his own faith?

    In any case, I think we are in danger of swinging from viewing Islam as an (exaggerated) evil monster to the polar opposite position of seeing absolutely nothing wrong ever going on. That is naive and false in my opinion.

    Coincidently, yesterday I picked up a book on Maharajah Ranjit Singh written by a direct descendent of the Fakir brothers, who were highly ranked Muslim advisors to Singh. Some of us may be surprised to hear that sharia courts existed under Sikh rule to deal with the Muslim population. The author used family oral tradition and extant papers from that era to write the work. Well worth a look. I believe Ranjit Singh and Akhbar were the greatest leaders India had. Today's leaders could learn a lot from them.

  3. cooliehawk — on 21st December, 2009 at 1:13 pm  

    Akbar set up the earliest known multi-religious discussion group

    Sorry to burst everyone's bubble, but Akbar's cousins in the Mongol court beat him to the punch by about 300 years.

  4. cooliehawk — on 21st December, 2009 at 1:13 pm  

    Akbar set up the earliest known multi-religious discussion group

    Sorry to burst everyone's bubble, but Akbar's cousins in the Mongol court beat him to the punch by about 300 years.

  5. Justpassingby — on 21st December, 2009 at 10:46 pm  

    In a recent report by the Pew Research Centre, the highly respected US think-tank, India came second only after Iraq on the index for social hostilities out of 198 countries worldwide. After India came Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

    Some interesting findings:

    Among all regions, the Middle East-North Africa has the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least restrictive region on both measures. Among the world’s 25 most populous countries, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and India stand out as having the most restrictions when both measures are taken into account, while Brazil, Japan, the United States, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom have the least.

    Several of the more populous Asian and Pacific countries have high levels of government restrictions. Indeed, the nearly 20 countries in the region with very high or high government restrictions on religion – including Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and India – account for more than half of the world’s population. On the other hand, some of the least restrictive governments are also found in the Asia-Pacific region; these include Japan, Taiwan and Australia.

    An analysis of the data shows that government restrictions on religion are high or very high in 43 countries, about one-in-five. But because many of these are populous countries (including China, India and Pakistan), more than half (57%) of the world’s population lives with high or very high government restrictions on religion. A much larger number of countries – 119 – have low levels of government restrictions. But many fewer people, about one-in-four (26%), live in these countries.

    I tend to believe research conducted by a reputed independent centre for religious freedom than look at history through rose-tinted eyes. I also like to live in the here and now. So unlike what the author of this piece is trying to suggest, India is far from being a bastion of religious freedom.

    You can read the report here: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1443/global-restrictions-on-religion

  6. Desi Expat — on 22nd December, 2009 at 12:53 pm  

    The thing with the history of Islamic rule in the subcontinent is that you could also find enough examples to justify a narrative of conflict and persecution.. as easily as the one of tolerance and pluralism that you outline. In that regard I'm not sure if looking back at Indian history is really that useful in the current debate.

  7. Dalbir_S — on 22nd December, 2009 at 1:52 pm  

    I still maintain that the experience in Panjab under Ranjit Singh gives an excellent exempler of how a leader can apply a metaphoric balm on the wounds of communities that have had long standing hostilities and antipathy between themselves. To reach that position so quickly after the bloodshed of the 1700s is no mean achievement. This translation of an extant order of Maharajah Ranjit Singh bearing the royal seal (preserved with Fakir Syed Waheeduddin) gives us a possible insight into why he was so popular with all his subjects regardless of faith:

    It is hereby decreed by His Highness with the utmost emphasis that no person should practice highhandedness and oppression on the people. Indeed, if even His Highness himself should issue an inappropriate order against any resident of Lahore, it should clearly be brought to the notice of His Highness so it may be amended. Protector of Bravery Malwa Singh should always be advised to dispense justice in accordance with legitimate right and without the slightest oppression and furthermore, he should be advised to pass orders in consultation with the shastras and Quran, as pertinent to the faith of the parties; for such is our pleasure. And should any person fail to act to act in accordance with your advice or instructions, you should send him a formal letter so that it may serve as a proof on the strength of which His Highness may punish him for disobedience……….

    For repairs to the old ditch an expenditure of two thousand rupees is hereby sanctioned.

    Despatched from the court of his highness.

    I have heard some ignorant Pakistani Muslims claim that the Maharajah sanctioned the use of a particular mosque as a stable for horses. Having just read the above I think I can safely consign their theory to the trash can.

  8. Jai — on 23rd December, 2009 at 6:11 am  

    a well researched peice Jai. So often the story told about Old India is that of partition and violence, and the Raj. Even during the Mughal era wars were fought, however on the whole a balanced, co-existing, multicultural society existed.

    Very true, Avius. With the exception of Aurangzeb, most major military conflicts in the subcontinent during the “Great Mughal” era were due to territorial and political reasons, not religion.

    It all depends on leadership…..Of course there is always the flipside of it. Wherever leaders have been unjust or neglegent, whenever rebellion has occured, societies have fought within themselves. However whenever leadership has been successful, even the most complex of societies has been harmonious.

    Well said and absolutely correct. It really does all come down to effective and enlightened leadership.

  9. Jai — on 23rd December, 2009 at 6:18 am  

    I'm not sure if you could technically call Akhbar a Muslim, I always thought he was pushing his own faith?

    No. As mentioned in the main article, Akbar never formally renounced Islam or stopped self-identifying as a Muslim. What he did do was try to create a multifaith brotherhood based on common positive ideals and an associated code of ethical conduct.

    In any case, I think we are in danger of swinging from viewing Islam as an (exaggerated) evil monster to the polar opposite position of seeing absolutely nothing wrong ever going on.

    On the contrary, the previous two articles (URL links provided at the start of Part 1) about Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Hargobind respectively are very far indeed from suggesting the notion that “absolutely nothing wrong ever went on”.

    Today's leaders could learn a lot from them.

    Spot on.

  10. Sunil — on 3rd January, 2010 at 5:30 am  

    No one likes to be ruled by foreigners or oppressors. This all sounds great but look at the Islamic legacy, it’s partition and continuation of war and terrorism. Islam does not encourage tolerance of non-Muslims.

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