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Akbar, Eclectic Religion and a "New Order"

Muhammad Akbar's inheritance stretched from Kabul to Delhi, 600 miles southeast of Kabul, and his rule stretched about one hundred miles north and south of Delhi. And carrying on the family tradition of conquering, he aimed at expanding his rule across the whole of India.

Akbar's military machine was a combination of artillery, mounted archers, and infantry with muskets – replacing the elephant system of warfare. Rival powers in India could not afford the cost of artillery and had difficulty in obtaining mounted archers. Rather than his opponents meeting him on the field of battle, many preferred to remain behind their city walls. For Akbar, besieging these cities took much time and the lives of many of his warriors, but in fourteen years of incessant warfare Akbar conquered across much of northern India: southwest to Gujarat, south into Malwa and as far eastward as Bengal. One of Akbar's titles was "Slayer of Infidels," and, like Timur, in places he slaughtered and erected a monument of the heads of the vanquished. He is reported to have killed more than 30,000 unarmed Hindu peasants after he conquered Chitod in February, 1568.

As was traditional among conquerors, Akbar kept as subordinates some local rulers, who were allowed to keep their own armies, but he demanded loyalty from the troops of these local rulers. And he kept his own military units in command of captured fortresses as a deterrent to revolt. Like other empires, Akbar's empire remained essentially united by force rather than agreement. And, like other conquerors, Akbar tied his rule to the heavens. At Akbar's court, kingship was described as a special emanation from God that had reached complete fruition in Akbar.

Akbar began his day with prayer, and at dawn he stepped out onto his balcony and showed himself to his subjects who had gathered below – subjects awed by Akbar's success and power. Akbar went along with the notion as old as civilization that elevated the conqueror as the most significant doer – above the farmer. And like some others Akbar believed that he was beginning a new age. He saw himself as the creator of peace (sulh-i kul) and of a new and perfect political system. He foresaw his descendants extending his rule for a thousand more years, so he created a new calendar. It was a solar calendar, reflecting his belief that the fire of the sun was "the torch of God's sovereignty."

Drawing from Sufi philosophy (such as the philosopher Muhiyy al-Din, who lived around the year 1200), Akbar was said to have the attributes of a perfect or universal man, the perfect man being a microcosm of the universe. Akbar was described as father to his subjects, with paternal love for all his children. Akbar's influential minister, Abu Fazl, wrote the Book of Akbar, in Persian, in which he described the different roles of people. Soldiers, he wrote, had the nature of fire and might have to burn "the rubbish of rebellion." Fazl described artisans and merchants as the breeze that nourished the tree of life. The learned, he wrote, were water, irrigating the world with their knowledge. Husbandmen and laborers he described as the earth nourishing the grain of life. Everyone, he claimed, had his proper place – an order maintained by the king.

As father to all his subjects, Akbar chose to eliminate the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims that had characterized Islamic societies before him. He recognized the benefits of integration. Integration increased loyalty to his rule. He recruited Hindus into his military. He abolished the taxes on Hindu pilgrimages and other taxes that Islamic rulers had imposed on non-Muslims. Akbar married a Hindu princess, Padmini, whom he permitted to conduct Hindu rites in his harem.

Akbar was concerned with economic well-being of his subjects, and he decreed that farmers would be taxed no more than a third of what they produced. He is credited with innovations in textile manufacturing. Under Akbar, coins high in metal purity were maintained. Revenues exceeded expenditures. And during Akbar's reign of fifty years the imperial treasury grew in gems, precious metals and currency.

But power and success did not assure happiness. Akbar is reported to have suffered from bouts of melancholy and from what might have been epileptic fits, which he saw as spiritual experiences.

Akbar was illiterate, but he loved learning and disputation. He subsidized scholars, and he invited clerics of various religions to argue in support of their faith. He built a House of Worship where men discussed theological problems. Jesuit missionaries accepted his invitation to discuss with him their beliefs, and they tried to convert him to Christianity. But Akbar could not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, nor did he want to give up his hundreds of wives or the pleasures of the harem.

Akbar combined Muslim, Hindu and Parsee (Zoroastrian) festivals. Seventeen nobles converted to his blend of religions. But he ran into objection from traditional Muslim scholars and jurists – the Ulama – who refused to recognize his claim to authority on matters of religion. So Akbar dissolved their status, crushing their independence, forcing them to subscribe to his infallibility.

None of Akbar's children adopted his religion. A son rebelled against him, claiming to be a defender of the Islamic faith. The rebellion failed, but Akbar moved toward accommodation with Islam.

Akbar lived to 1605, his conquests having extended to Kashmir, Sind, Baluchistan, Kandahar, parts of Orissa, and Kandesh, Berar and parts of Ahmadnagar. But rather than Akbar having created a new order, the old problems of succession remained.


Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.