MEHRU JAFFER | 17 FEBRUARY, 2020
Understanding Akbar in Today’s India
Akbar, the third Mughal ruler of India is most deserving of the epithet great according to a latest book by Manimugdha Sharma.
Akbar is greater than any other emperor in the world because it is difficult to match up to the administrative, economic and social reforms introduced by him in the 16th century. Those who are aware of their history know this to be true better than all those being groomed today at the WhatsApp University.
Akbar is great because along with a handful of rulers like Ashoka he is remembered for his spiritual and social conquests as much as his military achievements.
In the book titled Allahu Akbar, the author praises the Mughal ruler who conquered India’s heart and mind and had united with its spirit. Despite being a medieval despot, Akbar appears to be more sensible than the rulers of today because he worked very hard towards uniting the people he had ruled. That made immense political sense as well as development and trade only flourishes in times of peace and unity in any society.
Akbar was naturally attracted to every idea that encouraged people to love and to respect each other. The Mughal was most impressed by something that he saw Sultan Sulaiman Kararani of Bengal practice. That, coupled with his own inner churning, were manifested in a building that housed the first nursery of what is today called secularism in India.
It was called the Ibadat Khana.
The Ibadat Khana was a unique experiment in improving theological discourse. It was a bid to end conflicts among rival religions by creating a middle ground. It is no coincidence that Akbar constructed the Ibadat Khana around the room of Shaikh Abdullah Niyazi Sirhindi, a disciple of Shaikh Salim Chishti who later became a devotee of Lord Shiva.
That the journey of the Ibadat Khana began from the room of a sufi mystic who became a follower of Shiva makes it a very interesting beginning. The building was completed in 1576 and initially the discussions were held every Thurday evening among Muslim theologians. A year later scholars from all faiths were invited to participate in the talks, including Sunnis, Shias, Brahmins, Jains, Charvakas, Christians, Jews, Sabians, Zoroastrians and others.
The discussions helped the state to withdraw its patronage of orthodoxy and attempts were made to separate the court from religion. Muslim scholars commenting on the Quran were joined by Hindus in the debate. Some members of the ulema fumed at the liberty gifted to non Muslims by Akbar. He was accused of undermining Islam by several Muslim clergymen.
However the freedom to express their opinion on Islam by non-Muslims in Akbar’s court continued to be valued and was a remarkable thing to have happened in the 16th century.
While there cannot be a direct comparison, but still, a 16th century monarch looking like the better man in stark contrast to a 21st century democratically elected leader is actually terrible news for the India of today. It just shows that the conversations that Akbar started was not carried forward.
Quoting Historian and Professor Harbans Mukhia, Sharma continues that Akbar was rational in an European way but his rationality was also different as it was deeply rooted in religiosity. Akbar’s was a different kind of rationality that was very indigenous, very Indian. It’s the rationality of giving everyone non discriminatory equal rights. Akbar was a rational man who was deeply spiritual and who believed in sharing his piety. Akbar advised his officers to guide people to follow the path of reason but not to force them into it. This is an attitude similar to Lord Krishna’s who shows the path in the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, adding that it was really up to Arjuna to make the final choice.
In Sharma’s book Akbar emerges as a ruler who aspired for peace and amity among his subjects more than anything else. He was a spiritual person and used his religiosity not to divide but to unite human beings. Akbar was a rare ruler who had listened to his heart and was unafraid to express magnanimity towards other human beings.
In the face of criticism from members of the Muslim clergy, Akbar had fearlessly stood his stand. He used reason and his heart to multiply his efforts to rise above the cruel politics of divide and rule. Akbar was engaged in a life long effort to try and unite his subjects following different religions.
Within himself he struggled to unite the spiritual and temporal spheres.
Orthodox groups were unhappy with Akbar for courting people of different faiths and for listening to diverse opnions. Because he was critical of certain tenets of Islam, he must be a Hindu, a kafir or infidel, concluded his critics.
Akbar had great respect for Jain monks in particular. He courted them, followed their advice and honored their requests. So strong was their influence on Akbar that Jain sources say that they even convinced him to ban the slaughter of animals.
Akbar’s orthodox opponents accussed him of kufr or infidelity to his faith by claiming that Akbar had shunned Islam and accepted Hinduism. But Akbar’s faith in himself and belief in sulh-e-kul the mystical idea within Islam of universal peace and peace with all was so firm that he continued to entertain and to respect different views of the world within his kingdom.
Akbar’s engagement with non-Muslim religious heads and preachers was not whimsical. It lasted till the very end of his life.
Once he became aware of Kabir’s idea of tauhid or monotheism, Akbar embraced it with love. Earlier tauhid was interpreted within the confines of Islam. In the 15th century Kabir re interpreted tauhid for Hinduism and Islam. Kabir had talked of a universal god, a single god with different names given to the power of the cosmos by the followers of different religions.
That idea of Kabir is fundamental to Akbar’s thinking and has stayed with us to this day.
For example when we sing Ishwar Allah tero naam, sabko sanmati de bhagwan we may not know it but what we are saying is that Ishwar and Allah are not rivals but they are one.
From a modern perspective what can be more modern than ordinary citizens going to bed every night with the thought that they are taken care of and respected by the state, and that they will continue to enjoy equal rights like in the 16th century.
This seems to be the joyous conclusion of this interesting book about one of the greatest rulers of the country.
Allahu Akbar: Understanding The Great Mughal in Today’s India by Manimugdha Sharma is published by Bloomsbury India, 2019.