Archive for April, 2009

April 22, 2009

A Ghazi turned Kafir: the Case of Akbar’s U-Turn – 4

by Sarvesh K Tiwari

continues from Part-1, Part-2 , Part-3

The year is 1574 from where we have to pick up the threads of this phase of our story.

Akbar is by now in control over a vast portion of North India, his writ reigning unchallenged from sindhudesha in west up to major parts of va~Nga in east, and from the foothills of himAchala in north up to the boundaries of marahaTTA country in south. The momentum of his imperialist campaign for expansion is now such that the next few years would see him delete the sovereignty of most prevailing kingdoms of India, some with physical military subjugation while others simply bullied into suzerainty, barring remote regions of coastal dakShiNApatha and prAgjyotiSha.

The only exception to this is mewADa, right in the heart of Akbar’s conquered domains, where a saffron banner continues to defiantly kiss the sky, decorated with its golden emblem of the sun and the moon looking over a cow feeding her calf. Pratap Singh Sisodiya the mahArANA neither budges to diplomacy nor is Moghal army able to overpower him militarily. In frustrating every advance of Akbar, he is more than matching imperialist resourcefulness with his single-minded grit and valiance of his dedicated followers. His insignia now includes a nAgarI line in brajabhAShA that more than defines the tumultuous struggle of mewADa: “jo dR^iDha rAkhahin dharama kau tAhi rakhahi kartAr” (Those who are stiff in protecting dharma, are looked after by the Creator). mahArANA remains the chief focus of Akbar’s hostility, the hallmark of which, the bloodbath of haldIghATI is a couple of years out in the future (1576).

Within dAr-ul-islAm Akbar is now considered one of the most powerful monarchs, if not the most, and his name is well known in Mecca, where he sends rich gifts with every contingent of hAjI-s from India. (There is an interesting account that gulbadan has left in her diary, of how when one of these days a fleet of Indian hAjI-s reached Mecca, of which she was a part, it caused a minor riot of sorts among Arabs who had gathered there to receive the presents sent by Akbar.) Arabian world is controlled from Constantinople by the Sultanate of the osmAnI turuShka-s, who are now fast receding in strength, thanks to the continuing push from the Christian west and to some extent the Shi’aite east. The then khalIfA, Murad the third, can measure up to Akbar only on one account, that is, the population of the harem.

Another major bloc in the Moslem world, the usbec-tAjiks of bukhArA are while no match to Akbar’s power, they are kept in good humour by him with diplomacy, since their co-ethnics still form a significant column of his military, and he needs to temporarily maintain peace at North-West to consolidate his conquered inner domains, otherwise his desire of rooting out the very seed of usbecs from the soil of India is well-known. For Akbar the real competition for dominance in islAmosphere is from the safAvI-s of Persia, whose great ruler shah tahmAsp is now in his advanced years, at whose court once humAyUn was sheltered as a political refugee at the time when Akbar was entering this world. shAh is destined to depart in a couple of years (1576), and is imitated by Akbar in many respects including the language policy, army regimentation, administrative structure, even in the numismatic designs. This is also largely because Akbar is continuously importing from Persia a majority share of his employees.

Indeed moslems are now flocking to Akbar’s capital from every known quarter of dAr-ul-islAm, mostly the nobles and mercenaries, scholars and artists, in lure of the blooming career opportunities. There is an interesting account in A’in that informs us of how Akbar conducted job interviews of these prospects, checked their references and fixed their compensations. One of the side-effects that this in-migration has resulted in, of importance to our topic, is that under Akbar are accumulated moslems of a variety of sects loathing each other as heretics and living in sectarian animosity.

There are Hindus too in his service, although their numbers making for a small minority. Some Hindus have reached quite higher up in his civil administration, like Todarmal, as well in military, like Man Singh Kachhwaha, besides some having gained his personal friendship, like Birbal. Such Hindus are joked about by mullAh-s, as kAfIrs spreading the reach of Islam. badAyUnI proudly reports in 1576: “Through the generalship of Man Singh the true meaning of this line of mullA shIrI became known, ‘A Hindu wields the Sword of Islam’ ” [4.1]

The imperial capital has been relocated to sIkarI, a few miles interior from Agra, and renamed as fatehpur the ‘City of Victory’. The selection of new capital is a decision driven largely by reverence to the sunnI sUfI sheikh salIm the chisht, who used to have his khAnakAh here, which is now flourishing under royal patronage while the sUfI himself has departed for Allah’s abode a couple of years back (d1572).

Although there are plenty of political matters that need considerable attention of Akbar at the moment – putting down this rebel here and attending to some other feud there – but things are a lot more stable while the empire is already consolidating, and Akbar can more or less remotely manage these affairs from his new capital.

Earlier concerns related to being childless are not bothering Akbar anymore, who now has two daughters and three princes, while another child is on the way. Salim born from the rAjapUtAnI wife is now five, whereas Murad and Daniyal born from two concubines are toddlers of four and two.

Having found some respite from politics and being relatively trouble-free, he now has the opportunity of turning to other priorities.

Year 1574 therefore, the thirty-third year of his life, marks the inauguration of the study of Islam by the Great turuShka.

badAyUnI’s take for 1574: “In the course of the last few years, pAdishAh has gained many great and remarkable victories, and his domain has grown in extent from day to day, so that not an enemy is left in the world; he now takes a liking for the society of ascetics and the disciple of the celebrated Mu’iniyyah (i.e. the cult of chisht), and spends time in discussing the Word of God (i.e. Qoran) and the sayings of the Prophet.” [4.2]

To make his enterprise of studying his religion as grand as any other, Akbar commissioned building of a complex dedicated to this sole purpose and named it ibAdat-khAnAh, the ‘House of Prayer’, along with a large lake in its annex which he named as anUpa tAlAba the ‘Lake without a Simile’. This construction would be ready for inauguration by fall in next year.

Let us note in the passing that while all other monuments mentioned in the histories of Akbar can be seen to this day at sIkarI, there is not one sign of ibAdat-khAnAh nor of anUpa-tAlAba, which are otherwise so well described not only in several independent chronicles but also depicted on portraits by contemporary painters. The entire complex has simply vanished, as if evaporated from the surface without leaving any trace. While there is no record of what happened to it, we have very little difficulty in suggesting that its disappearance has to do with the revenge of the believers, and it is more than likely that jehAngIr himself might have ordered its demolition to erase out the physical memorabilia of where his father shed from himself the religion of the Prophet. Little else explains the complete disappearance of ibAdat-khAnAh from sIkarI.

We may call it an act of fate or just a coincidence, but at the same time when ibAdat-khAnAH is under construction, an important agent makes its entry in the process. Sheikh abul-fazl allAmI, the author of A’in-i-akbarI joins in 1574 the clerical staff of Akbar’s secretariat, and little does Akbar know that abul-fazl is to eventually become a guide and a fellow traveler of the journey that has begun, and finally its martyr. abul-fazl’s efficiency would soon see him rise from being a technical-writer to first head the federal secretariat and finally as vizIr of the empire. Being a son of a renowned philosopher-scholar of the age, sheikh mubArak nAgaurI, condemned by orthodox moslems as a heretic but pardoned by Akbar due to some recommendations, abul fazl has thoroughly studied not only the doctrines of different sects within Islam, is trained in critical thought, but has also gained some knowledge about religions and philosophies that Islam has wiped out and is sympathetic towards those. Although only a youth in his early twenties, he would soon be discovered by Akbar as a budding scholar of Islam whom seasoned mawlAnA-s find hard to match both in eloquence as well as in knowledge.

What could be a more bizarre stroke of good fate than this that this year also coincides the beginning of our chief informant getting deployed at the scene, mullAh abdul qAdir badAyUnI. badAyUni, a pious young mullAh, is appointed in the summer of 1574 at the post of assistant shAhI imam of the royal mosque, and he does this crucial assistance to us by recording the events we are interested in, through this hobby of his of maintaining a private diary-like journal. This would eventually become the copious muntakhabut-tawArIkh, which is a very rich repository of data for us to learn about this process, especially because to a fundamentalist musalmAn like badAyUnI it would come intuitively to focus closely on the process of pAdishAh turning an apostate. Not only did badAyUnI have considerable access to Akbar’s religious life during this phase, and was privy to his words & deeds from up close, but what is even more important is that he wrote this chronicle as a private work not intended for others eyes in his lifetime. This way, we can take him to be free from considerations of flattery and other influences. Indeed he does not hesitate in openly cursing, condemning, even using expletives for what his moslem heart can not approve of. tawArIkh reaches us because Akbar remained unaware that under his nose badAyUnI was secretly writing it, and it came to light only during jehAngIr’s reign, who then attempted to purge its very existence by confiscating and destroying its every copy. Thankfully, tawArIkh had been copied and circulated more widely and unlike ibAdat-khAnAh it survives today to bear witness to Akbar’s U-turn.

In addition to tawArIkh, also of assistance to us are the reports and dispatches left behind by the Portuguese Jesuits, who had gleefully arrived for converting the ‘Great Mogor’, from Goa where right at the moment their co-religionists were busy in one of the bloodiest heathen-wipeouts outside of kraunchadvIpa.

But the most useful source for the proceedings of ibAdat-khAnAh, including a bit dramatized transcripts of some debates, comes to us preserved by the pArasIka refugees who being persecuted at the hands of Moslems in their homeland had fled from Persia to settle down in gujarAta province which has just joined the list of Akbar’s conquests. We know that a learned pArasIka scholar and community leader dastUr meherjI rANA had arrived at Akbar’s court from gujarAta a little later from now, and had left Akbar bedazzled both with his wisdom and arguments as well as by the history he had narrated of how Islam had subjugated the glorious Persia and persecuted his ancestors.

A younger contemporary of learned dastUr rANA was kai-khusaru esfandiyAr, who was the son of dastUr’s master the jaruthastrian high priest of Fars, named Azar-kayvAn. esfandiyAr later undertook to study all the sects prevailing in India, with help of his brAhmaNa friends and by visiting monasteries from kashmIra to Andhra. The output was a significant Persian work on comparative study of religions, titled dabistAn-i-mazahab, compiled between 1630 and 1657 that is roughly during shAhjahAn’s time. This work is significant to our subject, because it not only dedicates a complete chapter to the cult of Akbar, but under it also provides a separate section to record the transcripts of ibAdat-khAnAH sessions, from the oral traditions of some ilAhIans, pArsIka-s and Shiites.

Generally our historians shrug this data aside as hearsay or hagiography since it was compiled at least four decades after the event. But we are of the opinion that even if allowing that some dramatizations or exaggerations have been utilized by the author in presenting the transcripts, what stands absolutely certain is that the chronologically relative flow of themes of debates as well as the main points under them, are extremely close to actual happenings. This is because there is near-absolute conformity of it with other independent chronicles: that of badAyUnI and of the Christists. Indeed it is comforting to observe that the descriptions of some of the debates are so close with the accounts by Christists – and dabistAn’s author had no access to the Jesuit reports dispatched to Goa and thence to Europe – that we can safely consider the data in dabistAn being closer to reality and can use it here with some care and due diligence.

The most disappointing to us is the response of the Hindus to this event.

Having commented that Hindus produce great philosophers but horrible historians, Max Muller remains a hated figure among large sections of Hindus of our time. But how do we escape from agreeing with Muller’s observation in context of our subject when we are faced with complete silence from Hindus on the subject of Akbar’s U-Turn? There is no records kept by Hindus who watched the event from close, aside from some glorifications in jaina chronicles like vijaya-prashasti or in the vulgar poetries of the bhATs of rAjasthAn.

We do know that brAhmaNa-s had not only participated in the debates but had the foresight of collaborating well among like-minded, the shvetAmbara-s and the nAtha-yogI-s, and had indeed fared very well in the debates. Their performance evokes much disappointment from badAyUnI who is forced to admit that Hindus are superior philosophers and disputers than his own co-religionists: “Hindu ascetics and Barhmans… suppress all other learned men in their treatises on morals and on physical and religious sciences, and since they attain a high degree of knowledge of the future and of spiritual power and human perfection, they managed to bring proofs based on reason and testimony for the truth of their own religion and falsity of other faiths, and inculcated their doctrines so firmly that no man, by expressing his doubts, could raise a doubt in pAdishAh, even though the mountains should crumble to dust or the heavens be torn asunder.”[4.3]

Why did then Hindus not take care to record any of these happenings? Why did they fail to recognize and record the watershed event taking place before their eyes which had the potential of changing the course of history, indeed as it actually might have? What stopped the Hindu scholars from making critical assessment of the doctrines of invading religions, until dayAnand saraswatI did so in the nineteenth century?

But we digress, and must return to 1574-5 where stage is set and Akbar has now accumulated the best known sunnI scholars of his time. He is now spending with them at least a couple of evenings in each week to hear them discuss among themselves and with him the tenets of Islam, discussions moderated by none other than himself.

continues… part 5

April 8, 2009

A Ghazi turned Kafir: the Case of Akbar’s U-Turn – 3

by Sarvesh K Tiwari

continues from Part-2 and Part-1

To better understand Akbar’s case of renouncing Islam it is necessary that we first draw a sketch of his personality profile, and highlight his attitude, tendencies and other aspects of his psychology, which is what we hope to do presently.

We know from many independent testimonies that he was a rather courageous individual, to the point of being reckless. He often comes across as someone who enjoyed taking risky bets in life, and deriving fun out of living on the edge. Many examples demonstrate this, like his knack for riding insane or intoxicated elephants; or going to invasions particularly during the rainy months prohibited in war manuals; or in defiance to the advice of the hakIm-s daring to smoke unknown variety of tobacco gifted by someone, and so on.

It also seems that Akbar had preference to rationale and logic, which became amplified with passage of time. On this account, the irritation of the Jesuit Fathers is very telling, whom he continued to persistently grill on the rationality of the Christian theology: “We see in this prince the common fault of the Atheist, who refuses to make reason subservient to faith, and, accepting nothing as true which his feeble mind is unable to fathom, is content to submit to his own imperfect judgment matters transcending the highest limits of human understanding.”[85] We can also notice that as soon as Akbar was introduced to the patterns of reasoning and logic especially of Greek variety, he immediately took strong liking to it. [86] His tendency of reasoning is likewise reflected in one of his letters to his younger son, in which Akbar expressed his admiration for the philosophy of karma and reincarnation of soul, saying these concepts had completely convinced his mind of their truth due to their irrefutable rationality [87] (on this last subject sheikh ahmed sarhindI, the contemporary naqshbandiyA sUfI was to later have much heartburn. [88])

Akbar had an experimenting attitude. For example, his famous ‘nursery test’ of bringing up a set of infants for a few years in absolute silence to validate the claim of Arabic being the ‘natural’ language for Allah to have sent Qoran only in that tongue. At another point he demanded mawlAnA-s and Padres to give a proof of their faith in front of him by entering a fire invoking their respective God and trusting God’s protection if their religions were truthful. [88.2] (Behind this hilarious idea we suspect some role of Birbal, who might have informed Akbar about fire-tests, the agni-parIkShA, which had been an old Hindu method among disputers.)

Akbar also comes across as someone who cared little for the norm, and having ability to generate fresh ideas and adopt new methods. This is demonstrated by his various impossible-looking initiatives of policy including his establishing one-way matrimonial ties with rAjapUta houses. Although no doubt implemented by means of cunning guile and brute force, this new policy nevertheless tied down rAjapUta-s in such strong fetters that became impossible for them to break.

There are a couple of more aspects of Akbar’s psychological profile that need our attention. From anecdotal data provided by different chronicles, we suspect that Akbar also suffered from a couple of neurological conditions.

First, although none of the historians suggest it, we dare to propose that he could have been a case of Dyslexia, i.e. learning handicap hampering ability in reading and writing. We suspect this because almost all chroniclers including his official historian abul fazl inform us, although apologetically and in a veiled way, that Akbar could never learn the letters and remained illiterate despite all the education he received. Our belief is further strengthened by another apparently disconnected fact recorded by Jesuits that Akbar used to have a tendency to quickly lose his concentration in conversations, a known symptom of the condition, and that he used to jump abruptly from one topic to the other, like a child, confusing the Jesuits who thought it was due to his impatience with them. Besides, there is another fact recorded by some of his biographers which suggest that Akbar had a rather visual mind with liking for arts of various kinds, another strong Dyslexic trait. Akbar was not only fond of drawings and paintings but also reasonably good at it himself. He patronized many Hindu and Persian artists in his royal studio, which he used to visit once a week, and used to particularly love doing calligraphy himself, having learnt the art from khwAjA abdus-samad, his Persian court artist (and in footsteps of Akbar, one of the earliest denouncers of Islam at the court).

Akbar although illiterate was not un-intelligent. The Jesuit observes: “Echebar… was interested in, and curious to learn about many things, and possessed an intimate knowledge not only of military and political matters, but also of many of the mechanical arts…, could discourse on the laws of many sects, a subject of which he made a special study. Although he could neither read nor write, he enjoyed entering into debates with learned doctors. He always entertained at his court, dozen or so (learned men)… To their discussions, now on one subject now on another…he was a willing listener, believing that by this means he could overcome the disadvantage of his illiteracy.” [89]

Being neither a neurologist nor a historiographer, whereas the subject demands one to be both, we can be wrong in diagnosing him as Dyslexic, but certainly when Oak calls Akbar an illiterate stupid, he is being uncharitable, and when A L Srivastava says that being “a truant child he did not sit down to read and write”, [90] he too is ignoring the fact that even in his adulthood Akbar unsuccessfully attempted to learn the letters and failed, while at the same time he was able to learn many other things and must have been intelligent enough to have created a vast and stable empire for himself and rule over it for over half a century.

Akbar might have also suffered from still another neurological condition which used to cause in him sudden and recurrent fits of seizures. While flattering biographers have described these fits as mystic spiritual experience like those of the Prophet, to modern eyes it appears that he suffered from some kind of Epilepsy. What is more, we think it could have been a result of a thorough mental depression due to his deep religious anxiety, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Consider this report of the Jesuits from 1578 when Akbar was still a practicing Moslem although now in doubts about his faith and deeply disappointed with it: “His Seldan of Mecquae (Mecca), the chief of all his Mullas and Caziques (kAzI-s)… said, ‘Your Majesty follows a Good Law, and has no reason to doubt it, or to seek another.’ On hearing this, the King rose to his feet and exclaimed, ‘May God Help Us! May God Help Us!’, repeating these words, as if to imply that he was far from satisfied with the law that he followed…”

Our belief that his Epilepsy was a result of his deep anxiety with faith he practiced is strengthened by a couple of other data points. First, he is said to have reported having some spiritual visions during these fits, suggesting his inner demand for spiritual satisfaction might be at the root of the phenomenon. Second, as per the chroniclers the last of these fits is reported from the year 1579-80, which mysteriously coincides with his official departure from Islam, making it very safe for us to believe that it was no coincidence at all and abandoning Islam might have liberated him of the anxiety he suffered from, and rid him of these fits.

Few more attributes are important to remember. Akbar was fiercely independent since his childhood, having grown up without the oversight of either parents as well as having lost his father before entering the teens. He shows his independence quite early on when he defied the mutallIkI, the legal guardianship, of his uncle byram khAn, as well as culled the petticoat government of harem quite early on when he was very young. Akbar is also recorded as short tempered, impatient, and highly ambitious. Unlike other Moghuls after him, he was also known to be extremely hardworking, and very hands-on in all affairs of government, diplomacy, military and public administration.

Since we are looking at the psychological profile of Akbar, I wish we could have had some insights about his libido and sexual life, but none have left anything substantial on the subject except for Jesuits who say that he was very indulgent in his harem, which of course was very large with hundreds of wives and concubines from different countries, and we know a bit about his feats of mInAbAzAr. While the account of gulbadan, the aunt of Akbar and sister of humAyun, gives us some insights into the harem, and we have gone through the translation of her annals, but it does not add to our information about making up our mind on Akbar’s sexual life. At one place we can read a comment attributed to Akbar comparing his own attitude towards women in earlier and later phases of his life: “Had I formerly possessed the knowledge that I now have, I would have never chosen a wife for myself; for upon older women I now look as mothers, on women of my age as sisters, and on girls as daughters.” [90.1]

Ironically, a crucial factor behind Akbar’s exit from Islam might actually be his deep inclination towards religion, which is beyond doubt and confirmed by all testimonies of his life. We have seen that up until mid 1570s, that is till about Akbar reached mid-thirties of his life (b 1542), he remained not only a genuinely pious believer but in fact a zealous jehAdI, competing with mahmUd and shihAb-ud-dIn, bakhtiyAr and alA-ud-dIn, and other such earlier ghAzI-s, simply as an outward expression of following his religion. When he was a Moslem, he was following his faith as completely and religiously as is possible, but unlike others he demanded more out it than reciting Qoran in an alien tongue could afford, or visiting dargAh-s and hearing sermons of mawlAnA-s would supply. He had some higher expectations from his faith, probably some yearning for inner spiritual satisfaction which was not forthcoming resulting in anxiety as we have noted earlier. He might have genuinely believed that he could overcome this by going deeper in his faith and probably that by learning about its doctrine more closely and following it, he might reach closer to this gratification. It is more with this intention than any other that he decided to devote time and attention to thoroughly learning about his faith, and being relatively relieved of continuous battles and having etched for himself a sizeable empire, he could now afford time and attention for a sustained effort in this enterprise.

For a Moslem to renounce Islam voluntarily and be willingly declared an apostate, it must take an enormous amount of courage as well as a strong motivation. If courage is a prerequisite for the process, rational thought its germinator and deep quest for truth its nourishment, then we believe Akbar was a fit candidate for it.

Having now a general idea of the mind of the protagonist of our story, we can now turn to more happening part of the tale, the U-Turn.

continues to Part 4

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