History: Akbar

Akbar and Tolerance
Michael Wood… BBC History Magazine
In India, the emperor Akbar (1556-1605) was one of the greatest figures in world
history. Ruler, administrator, war leader, person of culture, he has close
comparisons with Elizabeth I, and he initiated one of the most fascinating experiments
in the history of civilization.
Confronted by India’s many religions, with their claims to absolute truth, Akbar
came to see that no religion can have superiority.
Akbar began to hold weekly conferences with wise men (not women, so far as
we know) from all faiths to talk through these questions, and to apply that knowledge
to ruling the state. Eventually, he took over spiritual leadership. He even got the
Muslim clergy to pronounce a fatwa (judgement) that he could judge in any dispute
between religious authorities – so he could even overrule the Qur’an, if necessary in
the public interest.
This led to claims among his opponents that he had actually rejected Islam and
“became a Kaffir.” But maybe we should say he tried to develop a new concept of faith.
As a great ruler, he wanted to establish a universal principle of tolerance, which he
called sulh-I kul: ‘Absolute Peace’ or ‘Peace for All.’
There are two practical sides to this. One was to establish freedom of worship
in public, abolishing the hated tax levied on the Hindu majority – the Jizya, “the
contribution for not being put to death.” So Mughal India was to be a unified state in
which non-Muslims could claim the same rights as Muslims.
The second concerned the private faith of the elite. He called this the Din i-Ilahi
or ‘Worship of God.’ One of his most extraordinary ideas. At its core were 10 cardinal
virtues or rules of conduct, the essence of which was to promote mutual tolerance.
What he was trying to do was to combine aspects of different faiths – conducts, ethics
and rituals – borrowing bits from all religions to make an ethical code for his inner
Some have thought him far ahead of his time, but he has also been accused of
devising a pick and mix religion. At the time, a Christian critic said: “it ended up being
nothing.” Later historians in the British Raj (India under British Control) emphasised
differences between Hindu and Muslim as part of their divide and rule policy, dubbed it
“ridiculous.” Looking at it now, in the 21st Century, maybe you could say that Akbar’s
intuitive intelligence was smarter than their perspectives. His legacy was rolled back
by less-enlightened successors, but it left its mark on Nehru and Gandhi and the
independence struggle that, in 1947, gave birth to a secular India. Today, in an India
ruled by Hindu nationalists, these are still massive issues – ones that also, I dare say,
affect all of us in the wider world, too.
Review questions
1. Who did Akbar have regular meetings with?
Wise men
2. What was the fatwa that he got the Muslim clergy (religious leaders) to
That he can rules over the religions if necessary
3. Why did Akbar want ‘Absolute Peace’ or ‘Peace for All’?
To allow freedom to everyone
4. What was the Jizya?
So that non muslims could not claim the same rights as muslims
The ‘Jizya’ was a tax levied against non-muslims, who had to pay if they
practiced any other religion.
5. How many cardinal virtues did Akbar create and what did they try and promote?
He created 10 and was trying to promote tolerance to all religions
6. What was the British Raj?
The british being under control of india
7. What are the two main religions of India?
Muslim, Hindu
8. What was the British Raj’s policy towards the two main religions in India?
To be equal
9. Who was inspired by Akbar’s religious tolerance in their independence struggle
against the British in 1947?
10. Who is India ruled by today?
Hindu nationalists

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