Delaney Meyers: Akbar the Great: Pluralism, Stability, Power

Diana Eck—Harvard Professor, interfaith advocate, and creator of The Pluralism Project— defines pluralism as “not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity”. She says pluralism goes beyond passive tolerance, requiring “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference” (What is Pluralism?). Akbar ruled over an emperor with immense diversity, and he embodied tolerance for non-Muslims under his rule. However he also possessed a desire for “energetic engagement” with the diversity within his empire and actively sought to understand those of different backgrounds and beliefs. His intellectual curiosity and desire for truth made him a great example of religious pluralism in government; creating one of the most stable, prosperous (both culturally and militarily), and popular reigns in the history of the Mughal Empire. 

When Akbar was just 14 years old, he was put into position of Emperor after his father suffered a fatal fall down a flight of stairs in their palace. He was born October 15th, 1542 and died October 27th, 1605. He was ruler of the Mughal dynasty from 1556 until his death in 1605. Given that he was very young at the time he assumed the role of the monarch, older advisors from his father’s reign had a heavy influence over the workings of the empire. After heeding the advice of older, more experienced advisors for some time, however, Akbar began proving his authority by making some successful military decisions and preceding to follow his own agenda (“The reign of Akbar the Great”). He would ultimately go on to greatly increase the geographical scope of the Mughal empire.

One of the early, and most notable, of his efforts was the elimination of a poll tax against non-Muslims under Mughal rule. This tax was known as the jizyah and was abolished in 1564. He also abolished pilgrimage taxes against Hindus the previous year (“The reign of Akbar the Great”). Akbar’s architectural developments were also evidence of his religious open-mindedness. One of his many wives was Christian, and he built a temple for her to worship in in one of his palaces (“Finding Tolerance in Akbar, the Philosopher King”). He also ordered the building of the Buland Darwaze, a famously high gateway with an inscription from the Quran that shows personal admiration for prophetic figures other than Muhammed: “…Isa [Jesus], son of Mary, said: This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but build no houses on it. He who hopes for an hour may hope for eternity. The world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.” (“Finding Tolerance in Akbar, the Philosopher King”).

Akbar was not the first Muslim ruler to be a supporter of religious tolerance. Rather, he is the final point along a line of interfaith relations in Islamic Empires that extends back to their conception. When Muhammed founded Islam and began rising to power around 609 C.E., his quick conquest lead his young group of followers to believe that their actions and successes were part of Divine plan, and therefore that they were justified in “the religious imperative of implementing God’s plan in this world” (Brown 47). They believed expansion was their duty, and this is were the term Jihad comes from. However this idea did not intrinsically mean annihilating all who were not followers of or converts to Islam. An early example of interfaith relations is the writing and signing of what is known as the Medina Constitution in the year 627 (Watt 5).

The Medina constitution was the first inter-Muslim contract that dealt mainly with matters of community (umma) and communal responsibilities. While the document mandates that “members of the community are to show complete solidarity against the unbelievers in peace and war”, it also considers “Jews of various groups [to] belong to the community” and allows them “to retain their own religion” (Medina Constitution in Watt, 5). This mentality likely contributed to the fact that, in the 7th and 8th century, the majority of Christians were living under Islamic rule.    

Akbar’s reign was similar to the initial conquest of Muhammed in that both began with a relatively small empire (Muhammed from nothing, Akbar from unrest and disputed lands) and proceeded to conquer many new lands in a relatively short amount of time. Additionally, those conquered were assimilating into something offering protection and often both rulers partook in making agreements with tribes/cultures already in place. For example in the early 7th century, Mohammed entered into agreements with Medina tribes to strengthen his presence in “hostilities with the pagan Meccans” (Watt, 4). Akbar married a Hindu Rajput Princess, thereby strengthening an alliance between the Mughals and the Rajputs (“The Reign of Akbar the Great”).

However Akbar is unique in his intense personal curiosity for and relationship with religion and his intellectual intrigue for finding truth. Over the course of his life, Akbar experimented so whole-heartedly with certain religions that certain people believed him to have actually converted to their various religions (Smith, 165).

In a letter to King Phillip II of Spain in 1582, Akbar writes that too many people ”follow the religion in which [they] were born and educated, thus excluding [themselves] from the possibility of ascertaining the truth, which is the noblest aim of the human intellect.” (“Finding Tolerance in Akbar, the Philosopher King”). This desire led him to create a build a space for discussion of religious and philosophical ideals he called the Ibadat Khana, meaning “house of worship”.  The initial incarnation of the debates existed only amongst Muslims. However once Ulama began to call each other’s truth heresy and vice versa, Akbar began to think that the debates should be broadened “outside the range of their bickering” (Smith, 162).

The next version of the Ibadat Khana consisted of scholars among Hindu, Jain, Christian, and Zoroastrian faiths. The parties present would partake in religious discussion and sometimes in heated debate. Through these discussion, Akbar become familiar with and was inspired to learn more about the different religions. Akbar was very sympathetic to Jainism, even going so far as to temporarily stop eating meat himself (Truschke, 44). It is also important that Jains allow for multiple interpretations of religious texts, and this was likely attractive to Akbar (Truschke, 45). Smith also notes that certain Jain authors actually credit one Jain guru in particular, Hiravijaya Suri, with having converted Akbar to Jainism. Abu-l Fazl, Akbar’s advisor and author of his Akbarnama and himself a highly skilled writer, placed Akbar along with several Jains in a group of 21 people he considered to be “among the select few who ‘understand the mysteries of both worlds’” (Smith, 166).

The Emperors relationship with Zoroastrianism was strong, so much so that he is also required to have become a convert to this religion as well. He wore the the sacred clothing and gave a portion of land to his main Zoroastrian advisor and teacher, whom he met during a siege of new lands (Surat) in 1573 (Smith, 162-164). 

Akbar intentionally sought more interaction with Christianity and the “Gospels”. in 1578 he sent a letter to Goa asking them to send learned men with information about the gospels, writing, “because I truly and earnestly desire to understand their perfection” (Smith, 168-169). His eagerness to communicate and learn across difference without the necessity of conversion shows strength.

Akbar, no matter how many religions believed him to be a true convert to their truth, never ascribed whole-heartedly to any one religion. He sought a universal distillation of the truth he found amongst multiple traditions, leading him to create his own religious doctrine he called the Din-i Ilahi, meaning “Religion of God”. The Din-i-Ilahi has ties to Sufism in that it was created with thoughts of commonality between religions and seeking truth (Smith, 216). It borrows heavily from Zoroastrianism as well as Hinduism, Catholicism, and Jainism. Some scholars consider the Din-i Ilahi to be more of a code of ethical conduct rather than a religion, and it’s adherents never numbered more than 19. However the fact that the concept alone existed in the imperial court of an Islamic empire, let alone as the brain child of the Emperor himself, is of great importance in it’s implications for religious pluralism, tolerance, and acceptance in the political arena.

Tolerant and pluralistic though he was, Akbar still made sure to assert himself as the supreme authority and source of power. He was, after all, a divine figure in his own religious doctrine. One way he did this was through “appointing many Hindus to high-ranking administrative positions within his government” (“Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture”). He allowed Hindu Rajput warriors and leaders to retain control over small portions of land and over their ancestral holdings. They also received high rank and pay. In exchange for this, the Rajput leaders were expected to publicly profess allegiance to Akbar, pay dues, and comply with calls to military service when asked (“The reign of Akbar the Great”).

This is a politically savvy means of control as well as an expression of tolerance, as allowing cultural and/or religious groups to retain their ancestral heritage and practices helps ensure that no one group can become particularly powerful. Organizing around resistance is a powerful tool, and if you remove at least some of the incentive for people to be unhappy with policies and methods of governance, then you secure centrality of power.

Akbar was a savvy strategist in many ways, and he was not always met with like-mindedness for the Islamic community at the time. He was in touch with popular opinion as well as with the needs/goals of his political operation of an entire empire “where the majority of the population did not have the same religious views as the ruling class”, as exemplified by his placement of Rajput and other members of Hindu nobility in governmental positions (“Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture”). However this skill in relating with other peoples and cultures of different religions went beyond the realm of governmental action and interpersonal debate and delved quite far into the realm of art and culture. It is true that the separation of “culture” and “religion” is far from clear or even accurate in such a dichotomous form. However the distinction I am trying to make here is rather between three arenas of religious pluralism: government action (i.e. abolishing of the jizyah, Rajput/Hindu leaders), personal exploration (i.e. Ibadat Khana), and cultural/artistic exchange of literature. Akbar’s involvement with and work in translation provides an interesting view into the third.

Badā’ūnī was Akbar’s main translator and translated many texts from Sanskrit into Persian. Akbar’s interested in translating Indian epic poems stemmed from his desire to further understand the Hindu religious tradition. He asked Badā’ūnī to translate the Rāmāyaṇa, an epic poem about Hindu gods. This created conflict between Akbar and the Ulama as they viewed this as committing an act of heresy by going against strict monotheism and honoring and potentially providing respect to Gods other than Allah (Truschke, 286-287). Badā’ūnī resented having to translate the Rāmāyaṇa for this reason, and furthermore he was suspicious of Akbar’s intentions in doing so. This was not unfounded, as Truschke writes that part of Akbar’s motives for investing so heavily in translation work were to “wrestle power away from the ulama and invest it in himself by establishing a new intellectual era that highlighted the contributions of Sanskrit knowledge”, thereby potentially moving away from more conservative views of truth discounting “non-Islamic knowledge” (Truschke 288, 290).  Additionally, the consultation of Sanskrit intellectuals provided the Emperor with more personal knowledge of cultural briefs and practices which provided another avenue for informing the way he governed and continued expanding the empire (Truschke 41).

Akbar was, by all counts, an eccentric human being with tendencies towards spiritual mysticism (Smith, 161). His policies were seen as fair and his mind was open and curious. He could potentially be a very helpful force in resolving many of our political disputes today. However to say that his policies of pluralism were created and sustained purely for morally altruistic reasons would be overstepping, given the obedience he demanded in return for certain practices and the hunger he harbored for power and adoration. The question of the morality of using potentially constructed popular opinion as a means to secure one’s power and thereby ensure peacefulness in a given politic is, however, a topic for another discussion. The topic of using pluralism for such purposes, on the other hand, is relevant to this discussion. 

If pluralism is motivated by an intent to control and remain supremely powerful, is it still a good thing worthy of praise and intentional continuation? Of course, it is impossible to know Akbar’s true intentions almost 500 years later; however given that he was an Emperor and taking into account the information that does exist one can assume a hunger for power and prominence was at least a small factor, if not a significant one. Is one religion created as a conglomerate of other religions just if it seeks moral high ground and potential elimination of it’s constituent religious parts? According to Diana Eck, it is hard to define this aspect of Akbar’s life and reign as pluralistic.

Though of course not perfect, Akbar’s reign was an example of how successful a government can be when it’s leadership has strong moral views and genuinely cares about the well-being and worth of other people. I would argue that it was due to Akbar’s proclivity towards curiosity about truth, active inquiry into religions other than Islam, and continued hunger for securing his power that led to the unique sustenance of peace and prosperity during his reign.

Our society today is more pluralistic, diverse, and globally connected than ever before. Still, communication across difference continues to prove itself as one of humanity’s greatest struggles. Perhaps, if we could all be inspired by some of Akbar’s genuine curiosity for understanding one another’s truth, we might fare better at having a peacefully pluralistic society. In the words of Akbar himself: “My son, I love my own religion… [but] the Hindu [m]inister also loves his religion. If he wants to spend money on his religion, what right do I have to prevent him… Does he not have the right to love the thing that is his very own?” (“Finding Tolerance in Akbar, the Philosopher King”).

Works Cited

Brow, David. Religion and State. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Considine, Craig. “Finding Tolerance in Akbar, the Philosopher King.” Huffington Post, November 4th, 2013.

Sarafan, Greg. “Musli Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture.” Sensible Reason, November 6th, 2011.

Smith, Vincent A. Akbar the Great Mogul. Oxford University Press, 1917.

The Pluralism Project. “What is Pluralism?” President and Fellows of Harvard College and Diana Eck.

T.G. Percival Spear, R. Champakalakshmi, “The reign of Akbar the Great”, Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. Published June 22nd, 2016. Last accessed January 3rd, 2017.

Truschke, Audrey Angeline, 2012, Cosmopolitan Encounters: Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal Court, Columbia University Academic Commons, 12951.

Watts, William Montgomery. “The Islamic State Under Muhammed, Muhammed as Head of State, The Early Caliphate,” in Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh University Press, 1998.