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.
â€œ[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 wivesâ€¦..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.â€
The latter was a course of action duplicated by Akbarâ€™s great-grandson Prince Dara Shukoh, the son and chosen heir of Emperor Shah Jahan of â€œTaj Mahalâ€ fame (Daraâ€™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 Akbarâ€™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
â€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 â€œexecutions for apostasyâ€ have been intrinsic to Muslim-ruled territories].
â€¦..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 metaphysicalâ€¦..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.
â€¦..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]â€.
No clash of civilisations
As mentioned in previous articles I have written, during Akbarâ€™s reign, India and China jointly accounted for about 50% of the worldâ€™s entire GDP. Akbarâ€™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 â€œGreat Mughalâ€ 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 â€“ 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, itâ€™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 â€œclash of civilisationsâ€ caricature.
And thatâ€™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 â€œIndian Uprisingâ€ of 1857, the British authorities didnâ€™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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