Emperor Akbar & Religion

How, if at all, was religion important in Mughal India?

     From 1206-1526, Northern India was under the control of the Delhi Sultanates.  Ruling from Delhi, the Delhi sultans began a six hundred year tradition of Muslim rule in India.  The Delhi Sultans’ long tradition of rule in India ended abruptly with the Battle of Panipat.  On 21 April, 1526, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, with his army of 12,000 warriors, defeated the much larger army of Delhi Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, and officially established Mughal reign in India.  Babur (r. 1526-1530) and his son Humayun (r. 1530-1540 & 1555-1556) continued the Delhi sultanates policies of semi-religious tolerance, but it was Ab al-Fat Jall al-Dn Muhammad Akbar (Akbar), Babur’s grandson, who crossed the religion boundary, incorporating non-Muslims into all facets of Mughal life.

      Of all the great Mughal emperors, Akbar (r. 1556-1606) is arguably the greatest of them all.  Although his successful campaigns against tribal rulers succeeded establishing his dominance over large parts of India, his true greatness resided in his ability to subdue hostilities, created by a multi-religious India.  All throughout the Mughal reign, Muslims had a large presence in India, but were nowhere near the majority religion.  Early on, Akbar was aware of the potential dangers of a Muslim ruler ruling in a Hindu dominated country.  “They were aware,” according to historian Francis Robinson, “that their rule rested on an alliance between them [Muslims] and the warrior nobles of India, most of whom were Hindus”[1].    Accordingly, he proceeded to create an empire that was based on the inclusion of all religions, while retaining Muslim control. 

      During Akbar’s reign, the Mughal Empire went through a series of dramatic changes.  In contrast to his father and grandfather’s continuation of the Delhi Sultanates policies toward non-Muslims, “…Akbar abolished the Muslim right to make slaves of prisoners captured in war, repealed a tax levied on Hindu pilgrims and later abolished the jizya[2][3].   Although Muslim leaders had traditionally relied on tax revenue from the jizya, Akbar determined the loss of revenue was worth the good will afforded him through this act. 

      Akbar’s decision to terminate the jizya, while revolutionary, was only a fragment of the changes to the government.  Upon inheriting the throne at age 13, he found himself wholly lacking in education.  While his father was a very well educated man, Akbar received little education from him, and documents from his time as emperor, led historians to believe he was illiterate.   It was Akbar’s lack of education that made his court memorable.  Akbar had a propensity for learning well beyond his formal learning, which led him to surround himself with scholars of all religions.  One of the most striking aspects of Akbar’s reign, in comparison to his predecessors, was the debates he hosted for the multi religious intellectuals at Fatehpur Sikri[4].   It was there where Akbar encouraged open discussion with the purpose of building cohesion between the different Indian religions.  Above the Mosques’ entrance is Christian scripture, demonstrating the diversity that resided within its walls.  The inscription reads, “Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it.  He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour.  Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen”[5]

       In addition to their involvements in the Mughal government, Akbar encouraged non-Muslims to be involved in Indian culture.  In the four hundred years since his death, there has been much debate over the motivations behind Akbar’s policies.   One convincing argument is that Akbar believed that in order for the empire to flourish, understanding language was vital.   Proof of this can be witnessed in the many Sanskrit writings Akbar had translated into Persian.  One such translation was the Mahabharata, which many scholars have compared to the Christian bible. Found within the covers of this significant work of literature are stories and myths fundamental to the Hindu faith.  Akbar demonstrated his religious curiosity through the translations of key texts, consequently creating a diverse Indian culture.

     In addition to literature, religiously diverse art work was appreciated during the first hundred years of Mughal rule.  Great works of art were displayed throughout the palace and government buildings, and artists, of all religions, were held in high esteem during this time period.  “ [The emperor] has painted images of Christ our Lord and our Lady in various places in the palace,’ wrote one Jesuit father, ‘and there are so many saints that…you would say it was more like the palace of a Christian king than a Moorish one.”[6].   Akbar could be found prostrating himself before religious idols, establishing a tradition of religious fusion.

     Although the Mughals implemented policies that benefited all religions, it is important to remember that India was a Muslim country, and Akbar was known to assert his religious views.  In regards to those that crossed him, “He carried a box with three compartments – one for betel; another for digestive pills; a third for poisoned pills”[7]. No one could refuse the offering from the emperor, and thus they had to suffer the consequences of their behavior.  This one example shows that, while religiously tolerant, there was little question as to who was in charge.

      India during the Mughal rule was home to many different religions, including Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and many smaller groups.  Even though the Mughals were not the first Islamic rulers of India, Akbar’s reign set precedence that would, if not destroy, weaken some of the traditional walls dividing the Muslims from the non-Muslims.  In addition to the taxes that were historically paid by non-Muslim inhabitants, Akbar established a tradition of a diverse government and culture.  Many theories have been promoted as to the motivations behind his policies in the time since his death, but regardless of the motivations, the first hundred years of Mughal shaped religion in India.



[1] Dalrymple, William. 2005. “‘Scholars are only now beginning to realise the extent to which the Mughal emperors adopted what most would assume to be outrightly Christian devotions’.” New Statesman 134, no. 4771-4773: 42.  (Accessed September 13, 2013) http://web.ebscohost.com.library.aurora.edu/ehost/detail?vid=7&sid=3066e09f-6f17-4e77-a885- 01f560dfc5b8%40sessionmgr104&hid=118&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLHVybCx1aWQmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZl#db=f5h&AN=19179814 

[2] Jizya – a head or pole tax levied against non-Muslims.

[3] Robinson, Francis. 2007. “THE MUGHAL DYNASTIES.” History Today 57, no. 6: 22-29. (Accessed September 15, 2013).  http://web.ebscohost.com.library.aurora.edu/ehost/detail?vid=9&sid=3066e09f-6f17-4e77-a885- 01f560dfc5b8%40sessionmgr104&hid=118&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLHVybCx1aWQmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZl#db=a9h&AN=25356216  

[4] Fatehpur Sikri was built by Emperor Akbar in 1569 under his close supervision.  It would serve as the capital of the Mughal Empire until 1585 when it was abandoned.

[5] William Dalyrmple, “Scholars are only now beginning to realise the extent to which the Mughal emperors adopted what most would assume to be outrightly Christian devotions’.”, 44.

[6] Ibid. 42.

[7]Wheeler, J. Talboys. “Akbar Establishes the Mughal Empire in India”, World History Center. Retrieved on 13 September, 2013. http://history-world.org/mongolakbar.htm


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