Religion of Akbar

Was the Great Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605) heretic in the eyes of Islam? Did he become an apostate prophet of a new religion? Or did he show to the world the real Islamic principles of peace, justice, respect and toleration? 

Religion of Akbar
Akbar was a staunch Sunni Muslim ‘who sometimes spent whole nights in praising God.’ He observed the dogmas of his faith and never deviated an inch from the path of Shariat. He paid due respect to the Ulema (whatever it means) and ‘did homage to the pious and holy. He believed in pirs and fakirs (saints) and visited their shrines. He continued his life as an orthodox Muslim till 1578, when a great change came over his mind.

Influence of Hereditary
To trace the history of Akbar’s religion, an outline of the environments and circumstances is necessary. His father and grandfather were never orthodox and his mother, the daughter of a Persian scholar, sowed seeds of tolerance in his mind. His tutor Abdul Latif, who was a man of moderate views and whose guiding principle of life was Sulh-i-Kul (universal toleration) must have imparted to his young pupil this principle and also impressed upon the influence of his tutor molded the catholicity of his temperament and ideals.

Impact of Contemporary Religious Movements
The sixteenth century was the age of religious revival in the history of the world. India experienced this revival and found in Kabir, Nanak and Chaitanya great reformers who lived and taught one great cult – the cult of love and truth and brotherhood of man. The teachings of these reformers also made deep impression on the mind of Akbar.

The Bhakti and Mahadavi movements had taken a strong hold in the popular mind. The Mahadavi movement was based in the belief that at close of millennium of Messiah or redeemer of the sins of mankind would come upon the earth. In the sub-continent this movement was started by Sayyid Muhammad of Jaunpur who proclaimed himself to be the promised Mahdi. Similarly in Afghanistan, there was the Rashni movement whose followers believed in coming of the Messiah. The two movements, at the head of each was a prophet, might have tremendous influence on Akbar’s mind and have suggested to him that neither of them was the prophet of God. But if they could pass for prophets, he also could pass for one and make a new religion and thus become the head of the State and Church. He waned to make a religion to suit his political needs and therefore to be acceptable to his subjects professing various creeds. In his anxiety to substitute one creed for the many, he was led to adopt an eclecticism that found expression in the Din-i-Illahi.
Influence of His Rajput Wives
Akbar had married many Rajput ladies and it was natural that they brought a profound change in his life. Under their influence he went away from orthodoxy and became very liberal in religious matters. Some of the social practices were the result of his marriages with the Hindu princesses.

Association with the Sufis
Akbar’s association with the Sufi brothers Faizi and Abul Fazal and their father Sheikh Mubarak must have had a considerable contribution to the religious development of Akbar. Thus, intelligent to an uncommon degree, he was best fitted by birth, upbringing and association to feel most keenly those hankerings and that spiritual unrest which distinguished the century in which he lived.

Ibadat Khana
Akbar observed the external form of the Sunni faith until 1575, when his association with the Sufi brothers produced a change in his religious views. He then ordered to construct a building, known as Ibadat khana (House of prayers) at Fatehpur Sikri, with a view to discussing philosophical and theological questions. He first invited the learned divines of Islam to his Ibadat Khana. But they often quarreled among themselves on the fundamentals of Islam and their discussions took shape of vulgar rancor, morbid orthodoxy and personal attacks. The discussions of the Ulema who were (mis)guided by pride and prejudice could not satisfy the inquisitive soul of Akbar. He was then inclined to invite leaders and scholars of various religions to the Ibadat Khana. In response to the invitation of the Emperor, the Portuguese authorities sent on several occasions learned theologians to his court. In 1580, a Jesuit Mission consisting of Father Rudolf Aquaviva and Antonio Monserrate was cordially received at his court. He admired Christianity but he did not confine his attention to Christian faith only. He wanted to learn the essentials of Zoroastrianism and Jainism. He invited Dasteur Meherje Rana, the religious head of Parsis and the Jains to his court. The influence of the former on the Emperor was soon felt to an amazing extent. Akbar also called a learned Pandit to talk to him Hindu philosophy and religion.

Curbing the Authority of Religious Scholars
Thus Akbar listened attentively to the arguments of the exponents of each faith but he did ot convert into any of these religions. Thus, his contact with different religion through discourses and debates eventually resulted in his eclecticism. But the dispute between Makhdum-ul-Mulk and Sheikh Abdunnabi shocked his soul and led him to conclude that they were no good as the heads of religion. He wanted to break their power.

The Emperor took a very bold step in June, 1579. He displaced the chief Imam of Jama-i-Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri and himself read the Kutba from the pulpit. This was the first blow at the authority of the Ulema.

The second blow came in September, 1579 when Akbar issued a decree known as Infallibility Decree. It was meant to make the Emperor the supreme judge or mujtahid or imam-i-adal. This decree which was drafted by Sheikh Mubarak and signed by the leaders of Muslim orthodox like Mukhdum-ul-Mulk and Sheikh Abdunnabi made Akbar supreme arbiter in the case there were any differences regarding the interpretation of Muslim law. Hence, Akbar assumed religious authority (over his subjects) which, frankly speaking, was delegated to him by the Ulema of the country. Some of the European historians like V. Smith and W. Haig have said that Akbar became the Pope and the King in one and have, therefore, called the document as the ‘Infallibility Decree’. This is however, a very wrong and malicious view. According to S.R. Sharma and Professor Habib, this decree did not make Akbar the Pope and the King in one. He could thereafter not issue orders which could not be challenged. Anybody could challenge them if they were contrary to the injunctions of the Glorious Quran. Only when the Muslim jurists differed among themselves as to the interpretation of any religious question, the decision of the Emperor was final. But if any one in the State challenged that his decision was in contradiction with the Holy Quran, his decision had not the force of the law. Thus, Akbar did not claim to define the religious belief of his subjects and force his definition on them as the Tudor despots were claiming to do.  

The final stage in the evolution of Akbar’s religious views came in 1562 when he promulgated the famous Din-i-Illahi. The Din-i-Illahi has been characterized by Abdul Qadir Badayuni (Muntakhab-ul-Twarikh) as Tauhid-i-Illahi or Divine monotheism. According to Dr. Iswari Prasad, “it was an electic pantheism containing good points of all the religions”.

 Akbar was convinced that all religions were alike in their fundamental principles. They differed only in their outer forms. So Akbar made an attempt to bring about a synthesis of various creeds and named it Din-i-Illahi. It was a socio-religious order, a brotherhood designed to cement diverse communities in the land. Professor S.R. Sharma says that it is a gross exaggeration to give Din-i-Illahi “the rank of religion”. It had no book, no priesthood and practically no novel religious beliefs. 

Much misconception arose about Din-i-Illahi owing to the misunderstanding of the mind and personal practices of Akbar. His motive in founding the Din-i-Illahi was political rather than religious. He was a politician rather than a religious propoganist. He did not propogate his new order in the spirit of a missionary nor did he claim to be a prophet of a religion. He was the apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity and so his was the message of peace with all i.e. Sulh-iKul.

Abu'l-Fazl in his Ain No. 77 (of Ain-i-Akbari) has given a detailed account of the principles and practices of Din-i-Illahi. The following are some of the practices and principles which the members of Din-i-Illahi were to follow:
  1. The members were to follow a new mode of greeting each other. One member while meeting the other was to greet him with Allahu Akbar and the other was to respond with Jaila Jalalahu.
  2. The members were to celebrate their birthday and invite their co-religionists to a feast.
  3. As far as possible the members of Din-i-Illahi were to abstain from meat-eating but they were not to hate the meat eaters. In the month of their birth, they were no to take meat at all.
  4. The members were to giver dinner during their life time instead of the dinner usually given after the death.
  5. The members were to regard fire as very sacred and they were to respect all the religions. 
There were four grades of the followers of Din-i-Illahi. These grades were based on four sacrifices which each member was required to make vi., sacrifice of property, of life, of honor and of religion. Those who were willing to sacrifice their property formed one class. The second class consisted of those who were ready to sacrifice their life and property both for the sake of the Emperor. Those who were ready to sacrifice their life, property and honor belonged to the third class. The fourth class was of those who were prepared to sacrifice their life, property, honor and religion for the Emperor.

The promulgation of the Din-i-Illahi was followed by a number of ordinances which are alleged to have been issued by the emperor with a view to destroy Islam. Badayuni, his foloowers and the Jesuit writers are of opinion that Akbar persecuted Islam. Dr. Smith says, “Akbar showed bitter hostility to the faith of his ancestors and his own youth and actually perpetrated a persecuted Islam”. Some of the accusations laid down against Akbar the Great by Badayuni in Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh are as follow:

  • The turning of prayer rooms into stables
  • The prohibition of Islamic prayer,
  • The stoppage of pilgrimage to Mecca
  • The offering of Sijdah (to bow down in respect) to the King.
  • The discontinuation of the Azan (call for Islamic prayer) and the study of Quran and Hadith
  • The shaving of beard
  • Keeping swine and dogs in the Imperial palace etc.
This view of the orthodox writer who had a personal grudge against the Emperor and whose statements are mostly based upon hearsay cannot be accepted without a pinch of salt.Mosques which were constructed in the Hindu area as a mark of victory remained useless and were used for other purposes at the order of the Emperor. But he never touched the mosques where regular prayers were offered. Many mosques of his time are still found standing in the capital city. 

The pilgrimage to Mecca was not stopped. When the Third Jesuit Mission came to Gujrat in 1595, they found many men and women going for pilgrimage to Mecca.

Sijdah or prostration was allowed to Emperor not as an article of faith but as an act of solution in order to please the Hindu subjects who were too delighted to show respect to the Emperor by prostration. It had been popular mode of greeting at the Persian court and Abbasid Khalifas had adopted it. A large number of Mullahs and Shaikhs whose activities proved detrimental to the Sulh-iKul (universal toleration) were expelled from the Empire. Naturally they were enraged and fabricate4d all sorts of anti-Muslim practices against Akbar. In this way if the charges are examined one after another it will be clear to the readers that these are mostly false and fabricated. He religious cannons and dogmas of Akbar were not at all hostile to the fundamental principles of Islam.

Number of Members
Many were not attracted to Din-i-Illahi because the Muslims thought it to be anti-Islamic and the Hindus considered it as a modified form of Islam. According to Blochman, only 18 prominent members joined this new order and out of these there was only one Hindu named Raja Birbal. The number of ordinary members did not exceed a few thousand.

Causes of the Failure of Din-i-Illahi
The Din-i-Illahi failed due to several factors. First, Akbar was the originator of this new order but he did not propagate it in the spirit of a missionary nor did he compel anyone to become its member. He was tolerant and his spirit of religious toleration would not allow persecution even against those who differed with his religious policy. Secondly, the general people could not understand the mind of AKbar and hence failed to appreciate his new order. Lastly, Akbar’s son Jahangir was quite indifferent to the religious views of his father and so after the death of Akbar Din-i-Illahi died a natural death.

Was Din-i-Illahi a Monument of Akbar’s Folly?
Many a historian failed to understand the true significance of Din-i-Illahi. Relying on the evidence of Badayuni, a hostile critic of Akbar and an orthodox Muslim, with whom the omission of a single ceremony of Islam amounted to apostasy and on the writings of Jesuits who must have been displeased with the Emperor for their failure to convert Akbar to their faith.

Dr. Smith says, “The whole system was the outcome of unrestrained autocracy … The Divine Faith (Din-i-Illahi) was a monument of Akbar’s folly, not of his wisdom.” This view of the biased historian is not accepted by most of the modern historians and especially the Pakistani and Indian historians. Akbar had not founded this religion, a new order to satisfy his vanity or to play the role of the prophet and pope. If he had been guided by those motives, he would have employed the whole state machinery for propagating his faith. The very fact that his close associates like Bhagwan Das and Man Singh did not join the fold of Din-i-Illahi and continued to enjoy the old favors is a clear proof that his experiment of a new order was not the outcome of his ridiculous vanity for the monstrous growth of unrestrained autocracy. Akbar’s motive in organizing the new order was political. Von Noar a German historian says, “The Din-i-Illahi was an order at once political, philosophical and religious.” According to S.R. Sharma, the Din-i-Illahi “was the crowning expression of the Emperor’s national idealism.” Just as the Emperor had conquered the whole of Indo-Pakistan he also wanted to put the chief principles of various religions together and create a new social order to build a common nation. Thus according to Lane Poole and Dr. Holden, “The Dini-i-Illahi was the outcome of a political necessity”. It was not the monument of Akbar’s folly, it was a monument of his wisdom. As a political institution the Din-i-Illahi entirely fulfilled Akbar’s hopes and expectations. As long as he was alive, he enjoyed unmixed loyalty of his subjects.

Did Akbar Renounce Islam?
The Din-i-Illahi could not satisfy the orthodox Muslims rather it incurred their displeasure for some of its ordinances. Akbar might have ignored the sentiments of the staunch Muslims, but it must not be considered that he ceased to be a Muslim after the promulgation of his new order. Dr. Smith holds that Akbar was not a Muslim since 1582. Modern historians like Prof. S.R. Sharma, Mr. Yusuf Ali and Dr. M. Ray Chaudhary have made a very analytical study of the subject and have come to the conclusion that the criticism of Dr. Smith’s opinion is mainly based upon the anti-Muslim ordinances and the adoption of certain Hindu practices. The former might have been the result of the hostility of the bigoted Muslims and the latter were the outcome of his political motives. Dr. Smith admits that on occasions he performed acts of conformity from the motives of policy. If it is possible that the emperor after 1582 conformed to the faith of his forefathers from motives of policy, then there is every reason to believe that the same motive might have influenced him to accept the practices of other religions.

Concluding Lines
Dr. Smith again says, “Akbar, whatever may have been the extent of his falling in practice, was sincerely a religious man, constitutionally devout.” His son Jahangir says that his father ‘never for one moment forgot God.’ He used to perform his prayers five times a day. The Ain-i-Akbari and the Akbar-Nama which were written under his order by Abul Fazal and the Tuzki-i-Jahangriri, written by Jahangir, fully confirm the fact that Akbar remained a Muslim throughout his life. This view was supported by many historians among whom the names of Father Anthony Botelho and Sir Thomas Roe may specially be mentioned here. In 1586, Akbar wrote a letter to Abdullah Khan Uzbeg in which he described himself as devout Muslim. Thus it can be concluded that Akbar was born as a Muslim, Lived as a Muslim and died as a Muslim. So the statement of Dr. Smith, which by the way is endorsed by many willful ignorants in Pakistan that ‘he passed away without the benefit of the prayers of any church or sect’, is absolutely false and it is a gross misrepresentation of facts.  

It is true that politics based on religion loses its universal acceptability. This was proved by the bigoted reign of Aurengzeb Alamgir which considerably contributed to the downfall of Mughals and Muslim Rule in India. Whereas, liberalism and toleration shown to the Hindus by secular Akbar the Great in order to fulfill his political desire may be praiseworthy from the humanitarian point of view but it certainly created misunderstanding about Islam amongst the general public. Had the emperor simultaneously tried to follow the tenets of Islam with his intentional religious toleration towards the Hindus, there would have been no scope for misunderstanding amongst the illiterate people and biased historians. Akbar’s policy of Sulh-i-Kul faded with Akbar's death but it got a new lease of life by The Great Prince Dara Shikoh. Perhaps Aurengzeb Alamgir, the blood thirsty and power hungry wolf, used Akbar’s misunderstood secular policy as a case against Dara Shikoh and killed, on charges of apostasy, the rightful and worthy heir to Shah Jahan’s peacock throne.