Wednesday, July 20, 2011


One often hears crude—because grandiose and stereotypical—generalizations about Islam and civilization, Islam and women, Muslims and politics, Muslims and violence, Islam and other religions, Islam and democracy or Islam and secularization. Such generalizations are common but counterfeit currency in the public realm, often circulated and cashed in by professors, pundits, and public intellectuals who should know better. As stated, these generalizations are typically false, betraying a disturbingly facile if not unhistorical understanding of Muslims and the Islamic world. By way of a very modest contribution to combating such nonsense, I thought I’d provide a bare bones introduction to the most impressive of the “talented line of Great Mughal rulers.”

Jalāl-ud-dīn Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605) was a remarkable ruler of the Mughal Empire on the Indian subcontinent from 1556-1605. Akbar is clearly deserving of the honorific appellation, “Great Mughal,” his reign exemplifying the general qualities of good government and governance in a manner far ahead of his time and place. Indeed, along with the Buddhist emperor Aśoka (ca. 304–232 BCE), Akbar “is remembered as the greatest ruler India has seen.” Stanley Wolpert provides us with a succinct summary of his reign:

“Akbar’s unique achievement was based on his recognition of the pluralistic character of Indian society and his acceptance of the imperative of winning Hindu cooperation if he hoped to rule this elephantine empire for any length of time. [….] [In 1562], Akbar showed his capacity for wise as well as generous rule by abolishing the practice of enslaving prisoners of war and their families, no longer even forcibly converting them to Islam. The following year (1563), he abolished the tax that from time immemorial had been exacted by kings from Hindu pilgrims traveling to worship at sacred spots throughout India. [….] In 1564 he remitted the hated jizya (non-Muslim poll tax), which was not reimposed for more than a century, and with that single stroke of royal generosity won more support from the majority of India’s population than all other Mughal emperors combined managed to muster by their conquests. [….] By pacifying Afghanistan for the remaining quarter century of his rule, Akbar managed to achieve more than that of either the Mauryas or the British, and after conquering those regions he established stable administration within them, creating a pattern followed by his Mughal descendants as well as by early British administrators. [….] [His] efficient administrative system help stimulate and expand India’s economic development and trade, foreign as well as domestic. [….] [Finally], the average inhabitant of Akbar’s India was economically better off than his peasant heirs have subsequently been.” (Wolpert 1977: 127-131)

Akbar held a variety of other historically progressive views: on the treatment of women, he opposed the long entrenched custom of child marriage, arguing that “the object that is intended” in such a marriage “is still remote, and there is immediate possibility of injury.” In fact, Akbar disapproved of slavery, sati and polygamy. His vigorous support of religious pluralism and toleration did not preclude a critical and comparative assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of various worldviews: “in a religion [Hinduism] that forbids the remarriage of the widow, the hardship is much greater.” With regard to the division of property, however, however, he lamented the fact that “in the Muslim religion, a smaller share of inheritance is allowed to the daughter,” proposing instead that, “owing to her weakness, she deserves to be given a larger share” (Sen 2005: 290-291). With regard to religious pluralism and toleration, Amartya Sen writes of the Great Mughal’s

“sponsorship and support for dialogues between adherents of different faiths, nearly two thousand years [after the Buddhist ruler Aśoka’s championing of same]. Akbar’s overarching thesis that ‘the pursuit of reason’ rather than ‘reliance on tradition’ is the way to address difficult problems of social harmony included a robust celebration of reasoned dialogues. [….] Akbar not only made unequivocal pronouncements on the priority of tolerance, but also laid the formal foundations of a secular legal structure and of religious neutrality of the state, which included the duty to ensure that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.’ [….] While the historical background of Indian secularism can be traced to the trend of thinking that had begun to take root well before Akbar, the politics of secularism received a tremendous boost from Akbar’s championing of pluralist ideals, along with his insistence that the state should be completely impartial between different religions.” (Sen 2005: 16-19)

Finally, patronage of all the arts was, but in particular painting and architecture, flourished as well during his reign, made possible by the vast reserves of treasure held by a fiscally sound state (the imperial finances said to be ‘managed by brilliant administrators’). Sen notes that Akbar’s “political decisions also reflected his pluralist commitments, well exemplified even by his insistence on filling his court with non-Muslim intellectuals and artists (including the great Hindu musician Tansen) in addition to Muslim ones, and, rather remarkably, by his trusting a Hindu former king (Raja Man Singh), who had been defeated earlier by Akbar, to serve as the general commander of his armed forces.”

References & Further Reading:
· Habib, Irfan, ed. Akbar and His India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
· Moosvi, Shireen. Episodes in the Life of Akbar: Contemporary Records and Reminiscences. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1994.
· Robinson, Francis. The Mughal Emperors and the Islamic Dynasties of India, Iran, and Central Asia. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.
· Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
· Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.


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