Akbar is seen as one of the greatest ruler of the Mughal dynasty in India and was celebrated for his liberal ideas and religious policies based on mutual understanding. However, a close analysis of his religious policies and ideology shows it clearly that it was not the case always. Akbar, during former years of his reign was a staunch follower of Islam and was closely associated with the ulama who dominated the court at that time. It’s only over the years, that we find certain significant changes befell in the perception of the emperor towards the matters of religion in his empire.
Akbar’s religious policies
Before examining Akbar’s religious policies, one should also pay heed to the religious challenges posed to the emperor during his reign. We find that that conflicts were both inter-religious and intra-religious. One of the major intra-religious conflict was between the Shia and Sunni sects. Mughal state clearly had close association with the Sunnis , but it followed a policy of tolerance and unlike its contemporary Islamic states it had not made any public proclamation of ist affliation to one particular sect. Meanwhile, a large number of Shia migration from the Safavid state took place , which followed a very orthodox policy. Despite the lucrative salaries of the Mughal court and open-policy of the state, the conflict between these two sects intensified.
In the initial years Akbar was also inclined towards the sect of Mahadawis. The followers of this sect believed that the advent of a Mahdi or a messiah was forecasted and did not agree with the fact that the Prophet Mohammad was the last prophet. In Akbar’s early years, this easily identifiable class was not well inclined to Mughal rule and could be easily be accused of disloyalty as well as of unorthodoxy. The Orthodoxy saw them as heretics, but the Mughal state did not persecute them for a very long time. Thus, Akbar’s religious policies were implemented in the background of such religious challenges posed to him, of which the most crucial one was the changes in the relationship and the constant struggle between the Crown and the ulama.
Scholars have understood Akbar’s religious policies in diverse manners. Scholars like S. Rizvi and Athar Ali see it as representing a much wider change in Akbar’s perspective on religion and the development of his religious ideas. Others like I.A. Khan links the changes that were introduced in the organisation of the Mughal government and religious policy tot he structure, composition and changes under Akbar. Some other scholars like K.A. Nizami sees the change as nothing more than a changing attitude towards the ulama. He also divides Akbar’s reign in the context of his religious ideas into 3 phases.
In the first phase (1556-1574), Akbar seems to be in agreement with the Islamic orthodoxy. There is also a tentativeness in the manner in which he dealt with different groups. In the first 20 years of his reign, he made serious departures from the traditional Sunni system of government. In 1562, the pilgrimage tax on Hindus was abolished. Abu Faz’l informs us about the abolishment of jiziya in the year 1564, and also the abolishment in the practice of enslaving the prisoners of war and their families. All of this had great political implications. Scholar I.A. Khan explain it in the context of the political challenges faced by Akbar from the side of his Turani nobility. Thus, Akbar had to search for new support groups and he turned to Rajputs as possible allies. Jiziya, a tax on non-Muslims, was thus abolished to win them over. However, even after adopting liberal policies like these, not all Rajput groups joined him. Thus, in 1567, Akbar changed stance and took some aggressive measures against the rajputs. In 1567, Chittor was attacked, and in a Fathenama issued by him after the vistory, identified it as a jihad , subjugation of the infidels. Around the same time, in 1569, a farman was issued to the Muhtasib of Bilgram, to stamp out all kinds of infidel worship (idol worship) in his pargana. However, scholars have tried to explain such vigorous attitude as an attempt to appease the Muslim orthodoxy and to win their support.
Despite these measures in favour of the Hindus, in the early phase of his reign Akbar remained largely Islamic. The nobility in this part was also dominated by Muslims. His inclination towards the leading orthodox Sunni personalities prevented any overt break with the ulama and he gave them full and independent control over the religious affairs. In his period, dominant scholars included Makhdumul Mulk Sultanpuri and Shaikh Abdul Nabi, both were highly conservative Sunni Mullahs. This phase kept Akbar quite busy because of his several military conquests, and reforms implemented in revenue, military and other sectors. Thus, ulama had full control over affairs and were never satisfied with Akbar’s concessions. Under these elements, the non-conformists groups like the mahadawis were also persecuted.
The second phase ( 1574-1580) started with a visible change in Akbar’s religious beliefs. From his early childhood Akbar had held a special interest in the spiritual matters and had felt that the orthodox view of Islam was not giving him the needed answers. Hence, this was a phase of intense discussions and introspection on the part of Akbar which led to radical change in his religious views which deeply affected his future policies. Akbar’s growing awareness of repercussions of the traditional orthodox Sunni dominance over his administration compelled him to an active search for new solutions. He therefore, encouraged the emergence of a new elite group.
This period is also characterized by the discussions held at the Ibadat Khana, established by Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri in 1575, after the Gujarat campaign. The term was wrongly translated by scholar Vincent Smith as the House of Worship. The main aim of Ibadat khana was to resolve disputes within groups through discussions. Initially, it was open only fort he Muslim sects, but later it was opened to the representatives of other religions and faiths also. Akbar had a keen interest in the religious and intellectual debates and disccusions, and thus took part in them in the hope that he would educate himself in spite of the fact that he never got a chance to formally edcuate himself. These deliberations were not conducted only for the sake of inquiry and search but most of the participants hoped for a way to obatain favours and promotions from the court.
Contemporary historians like Badayuni often criticize the concept of Ibadat Khana and calls it a place of worthless discussions. However, Abu Fazl, gives us an opposite picture and finds these discussions very useful, which according to him guided the people away from the darkness and enlightened them. As far as the composition of the intellectuals is concerned, Ibadat khana included scholars from across the religions. Special efforts were made to associate distinguished Sufis with the activities of Ibadat Khana. The debates were open to the Shias as well, Hindus were also being favoured as the new alliance was budding between the crown and the Rajputs. Akbar also invited Zoroastrian priests, Jesuit missionaries and Jain priests to widen the scope of discussions. However, later we find that the confluence of different ideas led to confusion and led the debate to no conclusion. Thus, as professor R.P Tripathi says, ” Instead of bringing credit, the Ibadat Khana brought growing discredit. Thus, Akbar himself became convinced of the futility of these debates, and finally closed the Ibadat Khana.
Akbar’s break from the orthodoxy is also symbolized with the propagation of the Mahazarnama in 1579. This document, like a petition, was presented by the ulama gave the Crown the right to accept any position in case there is conflict among the orthodoxy, and that option will then be the final decision on the matter. This made it clear that Akbar’s position was higher than that of the mujtahid, the interpretor of the holy laws. Many historians have provided different opinions on the meaning and its consequence. Scholars like Vincen Smith perceives it as an infallibility decree, influenced by papcy, stating that Akbar was influenced by the Jesuit propagators. I.A. Khan opines that Mahzar can only be understood if we look at Akbar’s general attitude of promoting and befriending the Indian Muslims. He wanted to show that he would not accpet any orthodox, sharia law which lacked aql or a logical reason. S.R. Sharma argues that Mahzar was introduced to replace the sharia laws. Scholar Nurul Hasan has discussed Mahzar at different levels- at international level, which can be seen in the fact that Akbar never sided with any one Islamic sect and made the Mughal state all inclusive, unlike the Ottomans who sided with the Sunnis or the Persians who favoured the Shia sect. At political level, Mahzar made it possible for the king to deal with the ulama and , keep the nobility under his influence and also placing himself above the sharia law interpretations. Thus, as S.A.A. Rizvi said, the real significance of Mahzar, it seems, was that it was the first effective declaration of the principles of sulh-i kul which Akbar had decided to implement firmly. Hence, we can see a final breakup between Akbar and the ulama orthodoxy.
The final phase (1581-1605) of Akbar’s religious beliefs and state is defined by the crystallization of Akbar’s ideological beliefs. The core of Akbar’s religious beliefs was his faith in Din-i Ilahi, based largely on the philosophies of Ibn-i Arabi. Abu Fazl links Din-i ilahi with the concept of Akbar being a spiritual guide of the people. He opines that the intention of Din-i Ilahi was to find a common ground between the din or the religion and the duniya or the materialistic or non-spiritual affairs.
Nizami suggests that Akbar wanted to use religion for his political advantage. As the empire expanded, it now included people of different faiths. Thus, Akbar thought it necessary to broaden the base of the empire. To achieve this, he tried to establish a composite governing class which would not be discrinimated on the grounds of religion. This can be clearly seen in the case of assimilating the Rajputs into the nobility. The Kachhwahas were the first Rajput clan to join Akbar and also helped in the war against the other Rajput clans as seen in the Chittor campaign. Also, we find that the historians like Badayuni and others accused Akabar of completely abandoning Islam and created his own religion of which he was the leader. However, one cannot see the Din-i Ilahi concept as being developed into a new religion, as it had no formal rituals, beliefs or the holy books like the other religions. It can be seen as Akbar’s personal faith, which he welcomed people to join in. Thus, the biases of contemporary accounts, calling Akbar a heretic has no basis. This proves that he did not abandon Islam, and can be seen, as Athar Ali suggests, the accusations were all from the bitter ulama, who were complaining against the curbs put on their revenue grants and political ambitions and couldn’t digest the fact that Akbar had moved away from their influence of an orthodox form of religion.
Soon after Din-i Ilahi, Akbar introduced Sulh-i kul as the official policy of the empire. Sulh- i kul was the product of the synthetic effect of the Bhakti and Sufism of the age. It was a liberal philosophy, which translated as the universal peace. As Irfan Habib states that it meant to inform everyone about the main spiritual truth. This can only be done by a sovereign who is a representative of god( this link was also being advocated in his practice of din-i ilahi). Abu Fazl’s Ain-i Akbari, put forward the theory of Rawa-i- Rozi or the social contract between the king and his subjects. It states that like god, a king should not discriminate, in giving his rewards amongst his subjects , on the basis of religion they follow. The sovereign, thus, had to follow the idea of a Insaan-i kamil or the perfect man who adopts and favours the idea of tolerance. Therefore, we find that the king, even if he did not agree with the ideas and prcatices of other religions, he should still uphold the theory of sulh-i kul and treat everyone equally. Evidence of this practice comes from the fact that Akbar disliked and thought poorly of his mintier, Todar Mal as he was a devoted image worshiper and Akbar himself believed that the god was besurat (limitless or formless). Regardless of this, Akbar gave large grants of land to temples. Hence, the theory of Sulh-i kul propagated by Akbar denied the temporal practices of the Din and wanted to replace it with the declaration of reason, rationale and also the rejection of superstition. Sulh i-kul was an idea which was a result of Akbar’s experiences in while he quenched his thirst of gaining spiritual knowledge over the years, by different media like being close with the ulamas, instituting Ibadat Khana, Mahazarnama, the heavy influence of Sufi Chisti silsilas and many others.
Therefore, we find that though Akbar had a dominating spiritual side to him, which were clearly reflected in his religious policies, one cannot deny the fact that not always all his policies were made with only this contemplation. The policies were largely propelled politically, which by the last phase is clearly expressed in the theory of Sulh-i kul, – the theory of absolute peace, where the subjects were not allowed to quarrel with each other and were to follow their spiritual sovereign who’ll guide them to the ultimate truth.