Friday, August 19, 2005

Akbar "The Great"

If ever there was an influential Muslim ruler who was remembered for his great works rather than his military conquests, that Muslim ruler was Akbar "The Great," who lived from 1542 - 1605 and ruled India. In Akbar is a template for what a tolerant Muslim ruler would be like. provides a brief synopsis of Akbar The Great's life.
Akbar came to throne in 1556, after the death of his father, Humayun. At that time, Akbar was only 13 years old. Akbar was the only Mughal king to ascend to the throne without the customary war of succession; as his brother Muhammad Hakim was too feeble to offer any resistance. (
This was an anomaly, to be sure. It is also telling that warfare was customary in the matter of succession. It appears that in Muslim society "might makes right" is a virtue. Nonetheless, Akbar's patronage of culture, advocacy of tolerance of non-Muslims, and his military conquests made him indisputably great.
It may come as a surprise for many that a great ruler like Akbar actually could not read or write! And yet, he had a tremendous love for learning. During his lifetime, Akbar collected thousands of beautifully written and illustrated manuscripts. He also surrounded himself with writers, scholars, musicians, painters, and translators. His court had the fabled Nine Gems - nine famous personalities from different walks of life. These included music maestro Tansen and intelligent statesman Birbal.

The reign of Akbar was a period of renaissance of Persian literature. The Ain-i-Akbari gives the names of 59 great Persian poets of Akbar's court. History was the most important branch of Persian prose literature. Abul Fazl's Akbarnama and Ain-i-Akbari were complementary works. Akbar and his successors, Jehangir and Shah Jehan greatly contributed to the development of Indian music. Tansen was the most accomplished musician of the age. Ain-i-Akbari gives the names of 36 first-rate musicians of Akbar's court where Hindu and Muslim style of music mingled freely. The Mughal architectural style began as a definite movement under his rule. Akbar's most ambitious and magnificent architectural undertaking was the new capital city that he built on the ridge at Sikri near Agra. The city was named as Fatehpur to commemorate Akbar's conquest of Gujrat in 1572. The most impressive creation of this new capital is the grand Jamia Masjid. The southern entrance to the Jamia Masjid is an impressive gateway known as Buland Darwaza. (
There seems to be a connection between tolerance and an appreciation of culture, art, poetry, scholarship, architecture, etc. Once when I was in India, I attended a concert given by Zakir Hussain, the world renowned tabla player. At these concerts, people often dress in clothes they might wear to a temple and decorate themselves with religious markings on their faces. This was the case at this concert. However, up in front several concert attendees were lying on their backs. During the concert Zakir Hussain noticed this and announced that everyone should sit up, but they did not respond. Zakir Hussain (himself a Muslim) then stopped the concert and admonished them, saying, "This is the venue of Goddess Sarasvati, please sit up and show respect." (Sarasvati is the Hindu goddess of learning.) After everyone complied, the concert went on.

So, the other thing that made Akbar great were his military conquests and his tolerance of Hindus.
During his reign, Akbar managed to subdue almost all of India, with the remaining areas becoming tributary states. Along with his military conquests, he introduced a series of reforms to consolidate his power. Akbar practiced tolerance aimed at Hindu-Muslim unification through the introduction of a new religion known as Din-i-Ilahi. He won over the Hindus by naming them to important military and civil positions, by conferring honors upon them, and by marrying a Hindu princess.

He appointed nobles and mansabdars without any religious prejudice. Akbar's religious innovations and policies, and deviation from Islamic dogma, have been a source of debate and controversy. Akbar was a great patron of literary works and scholars. His court had numerous scholars of the day who are well known as "Nauratan".
It appears that Akbar's tolerance was correlated with distancing himself from Islam. His tolerance was not through a revitalization of faith in Islam. We could surmise from this that a future wave of tolerance within the body politic of Islam might be similar to this, where the people in general distance themselves from Islam.

It also seems to be true that Akbar could for a time get away with his public brand of tolerant religion because back then military power could be possessed only by those wealthy and strong enough to possess them. I'm sure that many, many imams back then thought ill of Akbar (and from what I hear they still think ill of him), but without the proliferation of small arms and heavy hand-held weapons like RPGs as is the situation today, what could they have done?

Now because of the proliferation of technology, even if we were to bomb all the factories that produce all the weapons used in the Middle East, the knowledge and technical means for reproducing them are still available. Nonetheless, producing these weapons requires significant industrial resources, and significant industrial resources require significant capital. So reigning in radical Islam might require not only enlightened leaders like Akbar but the destruction of the Islamic economy so that the wealth needed to arm insurgents becomes significantly more difficult.

So, the creation of an Akbar appears to require a distancing from Islam itself. And to protect those who might preside over Islamic society but distance themselves from Islam, as did Akbar, the means of warfare, if at all possible, has to again become an expensive proposition out of reach of most people. The latter requirement, however, appears quite far fetched. Is it achievable? If it is, I don't see how.

Works Cited "Akbar - The Great" 19 Aug 2005. 19 Aug 2005. <>


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