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The Real History of Hindu-Muslim Relations Under Akbar

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Asia Life

The Real History of Hindu-Muslim Relations Under Akbar

Contrary to the dominant narrative, Hindus and Muslims in India have not always been at each other’s throats.

The Real History of Hindu-Muslim Relations Under Akbar
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In October this year, Sangeet Som, a member of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) legislative assembly from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shocked the country by calling the Taj Mahal a blot on Indian culture. Built by the Mughal king Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj, situated in Agra in Western UP has for centuries been synonymous with India and Indian culture.

I was born Agra and spent 18 years there. For as long as I can remember, this incredible monument has been a source of pride for a city that – thanks to rampant corruption, malfeasance, and public apathy –has little else to be proud of. Yet, on my latest visit, which happened to be a few days after Som’s remarks, I sensed a change. While not many were ready to disown the Taj as readily as the BJP’s Som, they agreed with the spirit of his argument.

“Mughals were obviously traitors,” said my grandfather. “Don’t call it that!” admonished my aunt when a neighbor’s kid compared the marble on our courtyard floor to the Taj Mahal. “The BJP has put the Muslim in his place,” my childhood friend rejoiced. I was a foreigner in my own city.

In hindsight, though, I should not have been surprised. Som’s statements are symptomatic of the communal malaise that has gripped India for centuries now. Since coming into power at the center and in various states the BJP has tapped into it and exacerbated it – but the blame for the malaise’s origin cannot be placed at its feet. Nor is the BJP original in using communalism as a political weapon. The Hindu-Muslim divide was fostered by the British to maintain the Raj, used by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to garner support for the creation of Pakistan, and then exploited by the Congress Party in India for the next 60 years to keep its hold on the reins of power.

Centuries of Hindus and Muslims being pitted against each other does not make for a convivial relationship. Indeed, in his Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington identified the Hindu-Muslim divide as one of the great civilizational fault-lines. To any reasonable observer then, it would appear that the Hindu and the Muslim are constituted in direct opposition to the other, destined to share a relationship characterized by intolerance and conflict. The observer would be wrong. The (admittedly distant) past sheds a very different light on relations between the two communities.

Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Akbar, ruled almost all of India from 1556 to 1605. During this period, there did exist various areas of contestation between the two religions, but it was largely characterized by a syncretism that has few parallels in modern-day India. Akbar’s era represented the zenith of Islamic power in India and the zeitgeist was a reflection of the man himself – curious, open-minded, and pragmatic. He is quite possibly one of the first regents in the world to lend his support to regular state-sponsored inter-faith public dialogue, which brought together learned men from across the religious spectrum – Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Parsees, Jains, and even atheists from across the realm were invited to participate in what must surely have a unique event at the time.

At the famed Ibadatkhana (House of Worship), which was completed in 1576, Akbar is said to have proclaimed that his sole aim was to lay bare the facts of any religion, “whether Hindu or Muslim.” Thanks partly to these dialogues, and partly to personal interactions with Hindu Brahmins, he acquired ever deepening knowledge of the various schools of Hindu thought. Thus, of the transmigration of the soul and divine reincarnation, he is believed to have said: “In India (Hind’) no one set forth a claim to Prophethood: this is because the claim to divinity has had precedence.”

Upon consideration, this is a remarkable statement. For a Muslim ruler to even brook the idea of reincarnation, let alone to take to its logical conclusion — i.e. the inadmissibility of a Prophet — shows a startling level of open-mindedness. At the same time, he did not shy away from criticizing those sages who advocated that Hindus should do good deeds in order to reap the rewards in their next life: “To me it seems that in the pursuit of virtue, the idea of death should not be thought of, so that without any hope or fear, one should practice virtue simply because it is good.”

By engaging, interrogating and occasionally criticizing Hindu priests and beliefs, Akbar legitimized and deepened his court’s links with Hinduism. The Emperor’s grand vizier, spokesman, and official historiographer, Abu’l Fazal, followed his patron’s example and perhaps went even further — attempting to find grounds on which to justify the Hindus’ idol-worship and dismissing conservative Muslims who criticized the Hindus for not believing in the unity of God.

By focusing on two of its most important personalities, Akbar and Abu’l Fazl, one can gauge the ideas, praxis, and conversations that dominated the Mughal court. Naturally, these elements were not restricted to matters of theology; they seeped into political and cultural climate of the time, bringing about even more intense interaction between Islam and Hinduism.

This interaction is most evident in the stunning amount of literary and translation activity that occurred during Akbar’s rule, in his maktabkhanah (writing bureau). The king’s first interaction with the Sanskrit literati occurred early in his reign and the latter, consisting of Hindu Brahmans and Jains, continued to be a regular presence at the Mughal court until the final few years of Shah Jahan’s rule in the mid-16th century. Mahapatra Krsnadasa, a musician and poet from the Indian state of Orissa, was the first Sanskrit intellectual to appear at the Mughal court in the 1560s – paving the way for innumerable others from across the empire to undertake similar journeys. By the 1580s, Akbar’s empire-building project was largely complete, thus freeing him up for more intellectual pursuits. Of particular relevance were his attempts to get the Atharva Veda, one of the oldest Hindu scriptures, translated into Persian. These attempts failed, but gave impetus to a translation effort that would soon result in Persian versions of the two Hindu epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The Mahabharata is especially significant because, according to Audrey Truschke, professor of History at Rutgers University and author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, it was a vital part of the Mughals’ attempt to bring Sanskrit traditions into the Indo-Persian cultural framework. In his preface, Abu’l Fazl outlined numerous rationales behind the translation: lessening Hindu-Muslim tensions by exposing dubious Hindu practices while opening a wider religious vista for the Muslims than was previously available to them through the Quran, and eroding the authority of the religious elite over the masses. The process of translation, which required close interaction between Brahmin and Persianate scholars, and the resultant text, the Razmnamah, was the centerpiece in Akbar’s project of sulh-i kull (universal peace) which called for religious harmony not only through mere toleration of other beliefs and practices but through honest introspection of one’s own as well. In modern day India, Sangeet Soms proliferate – Abu’l Fazals and Akbars are rare.

Akbar’s attempts at Hindu-Muslim syncretism were not restricted to the theological and literary realms. Politically, his entourage was a mix of Muslim and Hindu elites. Among the legendary Navratnas (Nine Jewels) of his court were four Hindus – the musician Tansen, the finance minister Raja Todar Mal, the army general Raja Man Singh, and the advisor Raja Birbal – alongside five Muslims that included Abu’l Fazl. The presence of a select group of elite Hindus and Muslims alone cannot be offered as proof of a wider tolerance and understanding between the two communities, just as a Muslim prime minister would not suffice as evidence of Hindu-Muslim harmony in today’s India. Nonetheless, it forms an important part of the multi-religious mosaic that emerges from that era.

Ironically, Akbar’s court, and the beating heart of his syncretic project, was in Agra.

An inevitable gap in most pre-modern histories is the dearth of material that delves into the lives of ordinary people. Thus, while it is extremely difficult to bring clarity to Hindu-Muslim dynamics in Mughal India outside of courtly circles, what can be said with near-certainty is that religious affiliation was not as important a marker of identity in medieval India as it is today.

Hindus did have many commonalities with fellow Hindus, as did Muslims with other Muslims, but territorial and class ties were equally and sometimes even more important. This made for religious fluidity, which allowed for both traditions to borrow from the other. Myths, legends, sagas, and anecdotes as well as ideas and gods transcended religious boundaries (such as they were) via nomadic preachers who crisscrossed the Indian landscape. As scholar James Laine put it: “Folk religion is all-inclusive, and at this level of religious culture we find many examples of Hindus adopting Muslim practices and vice versa. In such a world, one is Hindu or Muslim ascriptively as a matter of birth. One may nonetheless revere the saints of the other tradition, fear its gods or spirits, or quite comfortably participate in its practices.”

In fact, the widest and deepest fault-lines, to borrow Huntington’s phrase, seem to have been internal rather than external. Muslim clergy seem to have been exercised by the Shia-Sunni conflict while their Hindu counterparts obsessed over disagreements between various Hindu sects. Neither held the other as an especially significant threat.

It would be misleading to suggest that there was no communal friction in Akbar’s India. This would be well-nigh impossible in an empire as large and as diverse as the one he commanded. One of the most prominent voices of was Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi – a religious leader with influence over several Muslim courtiers.

Sirhindi and his followers were deeply troubled by Hinduism (and other religions) encroaching on what they felt was Islamic territory and blamed Akbar for how impure Islam had become. Sirhindi also was in favor of state-mandated Sharia law across the empire and considered it incumbent on any Muslim ruler and the ulama to “restore the glory of Islam.” Sirhindi’s approach to non-Muslims (kafirs) was unequivocal – they were not to be interacted with at all and not given any positions of power. However, there is no evidence to suggest his ideas found any traction with Akbar or in wider society.

That is not to suggest that India of the time was a haven of peace and harmony. On the contrary, it was an extremely violent place, but modern scholarship suggests the violence was largely politically motivated with Akbar (and all the other early Mughals) pitiless toward those he perceived as challenging his hegemony, irrespective of their religion.

The other caveat to remember is that Akbar may not always have been inspired by noble impulses. There is no doubt that his liberal, secular credentials have been embellished down the centuries – his interest in the Sanskritic literary traditions may have partially stemmed from the idea that this would help him in enlisting the support of the political elite who were key to expanding as well as maintaining his empire. The same political instinct may have convinced him to appoint Hindu Brahmans to key positions in his administration.

Akbar remains a contested figure. Yet, there is little doubt that his 50-year reign saw Hindus and Muslims draw closer together culturally and theologically, giving the lie to the notion that the two have never and can never exist in peace. Today’s India is far removed from the society Akbar ruled nearly half a millennium ago – but there is still much to learn from it. A good start would be for us, the people, to not be duped by the political elite into believing coexistence is impossible. But perhaps it’s already too late for that.

Abhishek Mehrotra is a journalist who holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.