What Might We Learn from the Example of Akbar the Great?

Akbar the Great
The Philosopher and Tolerant King

He was born on 15, October 1542 in Umarkot, India and he came to sit on the throne at the mere age of 14.  Akbar was to rule over the Mughal Empire which he would expand.  Akbar was unlike any Muslim kings before or since as his reign was distinctly marked by religious tolerance and inclusive leadership.  He single handedly ushered in an era of religious tolerance and of appreciation for the arts.  He would die in 1605 and after his reign tyranny would once again take hold.

Akbar the Great, Mughal Emperor

Akbar the Great, Mughal Emperor

Akbar was a direct descendent of the great Ghengis Khan.  His grandfather was Babur who was the first emperor of the Mughal Empire and dynasty.  His father was Humayun who was deprived of the Mughal throne by Sher Shah Suri.  When Akbar was born his father and family were impoverished in exile although Humyun was to regain power in 1555.  He ruled only a few months before he died.  Akbar was left to succeed him at only 14 years old.  In that time the Mughal Empire was little more than a collection of fiefdoms.  A regent was named until Akbar became older.  That regent was named Bairam Khan.  The regent Khan conquered Northern India taking it from the Afghans and he led an arm against the Hindu King Hemu successfully.  When Akbar came of age in March of 1560 (age 18) he dismissed the regent and took full control of the Empire and Imperial government of the Mughals.

Akbar turned out to be a great and wise military leader expanding the empire throughout his reign.  When he died he Mughal Empire extended from Afghanistan to Sindh to Bengal to the Godavari River.  He had a unique ability for earning the loyalty of his conquered people.  He allied himself with the Rajput rulers and did not demand a tribute tax.  He designed a system for governing the vastly new empire by creating a system of central government and integrated conquered lands and rulers into his imperial administration.  He became well known for rewarding talent, loyalty, and intelligence.  And he rewarded these things in people despite of their ethnic background or religion.

He appealed to the people he ruled over by marking his reign with a spirit of tolerance and cooperation.  He refused to force India’s majority Hindu population to convert to Islam.  Instead he accomodaed them and abolished the poll tax on all non-Muslims.  He translated Hindu literature and even himself took part in Hindu festivals.  He married a Hindu princess named Jodha Bai who was the oldest daughter of the House of Jaipur.  He also married two more pincesses and their fathers and brothers became members of his Imperial court.  They were elevated to the same status as Muslims were even though such a practice had been viewed as a humiliation.  Akbar, thus, removed that stigma except for the most orthodox Hindu sects.

He revised the tax system in 1574 by separating tax collection from the military.  Instead each provincial governor (Subah) was given the duty of maintaining order in their province while independent tax collectors collected property taxes and sent the revenues to the imperial capital.  Akbar had created a system of checks and balances similar to the American system of checks and balances long before America ever existed.  The tax collectors had no troops and the troops had no money so, thusly, they were all dependent on the central government who then handed out salaries to both for their work and according to their ranks.

Perhaps Akbar is best known for his religious curosity and tolerance.  He was naturally curious when it came to matters of religion and spirituality.  He commonly took part in the festivals of other faiths even though he was a Muslim.  He was educated by Persian tutors as a boy and in 1575 he built a walled city designed in the Persian style named Fatehpur Sikri.  In that Persian style city he built a temple, the Ibadat Khana, where he hosted scholars and theologians from various faiths including Hindus, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims of other sects that his own Sunni sect.  he allowed Jesuit Christian priests to build a church at Agra and he discouraged the slaughter of cattle out of respect for his Hindu subjects.  He obviously valued multiculturalism but not without a price.  Not everyone shared his values and some people marked him as a heretic and infidel.

A declaration called a “Mazhar” was issued in 1579 giving Akbar the power to interpret religious law and the authority to override the Mullahs.  This declaration is known as the “Infallibility Decree.”  He gave him more power to further an interreligious and multicultural state.  Akbar went on after this to establish his own religion which he called Din-i-Ilahi (the Divine Faith or Religion of God).  This new religion combined elements of many religions including Zorastrianism, Islam, and Hinduism.  Under this new faith Akbar was hailed as a Prophet and as a Spiritual Leader.  However, Akbar’s new religion never caught on and never did gain many converts and it died with the emperor himself.

Akbar appreciated the arts, cultural, and civil intellectual discourse.  He cultivated these things all over his empire.  He ushered in the Mughal style of architecture that combined elements of Muslim architecture along with elements of Persian and Hindu design.  He sponsored some of the best and most intelligent minds of the times including poets, musicians, artists, philosphers, and engineers in his imperial court at Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri.  He hosted the Navaratna (nine gems) whose purpose it was to entertain and advise the emperor himself.  Among these was a man named Abul Fazl who would become Akbar’s biographer.  This man chronicled Akbar’s reign in three large volumes known as the “Akbarnama.”

When Akbar died in 1605 the Mughal Empire was far larger and more civilized than it was when he assumed the imerpial throne at age 14.  The official cause of his death was dysentery but many believed he was poisoned because of his beliefs in religious tolerance and multiculturalism which gained him several lethal enemies.  Some believe it was his own son, Jahangir, who poisoned him!  Others thought he was poisoned by Jahangir’s eldest son named Khusrau who succeeded the throne after his father Jahangir.  Khusarau had plans to succeed Akbar himself but those plans were foiled when his father, Jahangir, forcibly took the imperial throne after Akbar died.

Akbar detested bigotry and went out of his way to make non-Muslims feel safe and at peace throughout the Mughal Empire.  He forbad violence and discrimination against other faiths.  As mentioned earlier when Akbar began his rule he took moves to make his empire inclusive rather than exclusive.  He included non-Muslims in everything including the imperial government.  His religious tolerance was based on the Islamic Sufi  concept of “peace to all” (Sulh-e-kul).  In terms of his support of the arts it is ironic to note that Akbar himself never learned to read nor write yet he had a very sharp mind.  A mind that constantly wanted for knowledge.  He amassed a giant library that contained over 24,000 books and manuscripts from every religion and philosphy.

Akbar believed that all relgions had many commonalities.  He borrowed ideas from Sufism primarily from the Sufi scholar Ibn Arabi.  He broke away from the notion of Islams superiority to all other faiths and he liberated the Mughal Empire from the domination of the Clerics.  Akbar was proud to mingle with men from other faiths and he even boasted of this in a letter to Spain’s King Philip II in 1582.  He believed that too many people never investigate their religions and instead blindly follow it because they were born into it and never questioned it.  He believed this to be a big mistake because people failed to ascertain Truth.  He believed Truth to be the ultimate aim of the human mind and heart and he actively challenged people to open their minds to knowledge from outside their own faiths.  He believed that no one religion had a monopoly on God’s Truth, not even his own faith, Islam.

One of Akbar’s greatest concerns was making sure all subjects of his empire enjoyed equality.  He abolished the non-Muslim tax known as the “Jizya.”  He allowed for people to convert to or leave Islam.  He believed one did not have to be a Muslim to be treated justly and fairly in his empire.  He made Persian the official language of his imperial court as well.  The emperor had a high regard for Christianity and it is reflected in a large gated structure he had built in the city of Fatehpu Sikri known as the Buland Darwaze.  On that structure he ordered an inscription from the Qur’an to be enscripted.  That inscription reads like this:

“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.”

Akbar even had his son Murad instructed in the New Testament from the Bible.

So what can we learn from the example of Akbar the Great?  Akbar is quoted as saying this at one time:

“I love my own religion, but others also love their religion.  If they want to spend money on their religion, what right do I have to prevent them.  Do they not have the right to love the thing that is their very own?”

We live in a world today that, sadly, is often marked by intolerance, prejudice, hatred, and violence beyond the horrific.  The fact is more human beings have been slaughtered over the centuries in the name of our religions than in all human wars in human history combined!  That is a very sad statement about every one of our religions today!  From the example of Akbar we can learn tolerance.  We can learn appreciation for those who are different from our own selves and for those who have beliefs different from our own.  Akbar was effectively one of the earliest supporters of the Interfaith movement and dialogue.  He believe no matter what our religion we can and should all learn from each other while at the same time respecting each other in our differences AND in our commonalities.  Finally, from Akbar we might learn the road to real world peace if only we put his beliefs into practice in our modern times.  Think….POSSIBLE!

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