A Ghazi turned Kafir: the Case of Akbar’s U-Turn – 5

by Sarvesh K Tiwari

continues from Part-1, Part-2 , Part-3, Part-4

While we have sufficient data about Akbar’s U-turn from the onwards of year 1576-77, that is generally coinciding with the time from which the Shiites got engaged, and the process stands fairly coherent after the year of 1580-81 when Akbar was done with the religion of the Prophet, our knowledge is woefully challenged by the insufficiency as well as lack of satisfactory clarity of data available about the happenings in the neighborhood of 1575-76. We are left only with badAyUnI narrating for us the events from this initial stage of the process, without the benefit of corroboration either from the IsAists or the informants of the dabistAn’s author.

We have already seen that down to this time Akbar was under major influence of the sUfI-s, originally of the naqshabandiyA variety but for many years now of their chishtI cousins. A couple of disconnected anecdotes narrated by badAyUnI reinforce our information on how deeply was pAdishAh biased towards chishtiA. One of these days when blessed with a son, badAyUnI approached him for choosing a name for the newborn as per the custom, and the name Akbar proposed, ‘abdal hAdI’, indirectly reveals his bend at the time: ‘hAdI’ being a common address to the sUfI masters. [1]

Another anecdote about name-giving confirms the same. After fulfilling his pious desire of participating in jehAd against Hindus at haldIghATI, badAyUnI returned to sIkarI in the end of 1576 with an accidentally captured elephant of mahArANA, dispatched for Akbar by Man Singh. When Akbar was told that mahArANA called it ‘rAma-prasAda’, he rechristened the war-elephant as ‘pIra-prasAda’, the ‘Grace of pIra’, referring by pIra the chishtI of ajmer. [2] (If name-giving could be any indicator of Akbar’s religious bend at any given time, then it is very interesting to note that during his later life the names Akbar gave to the newborns, for instance to the son of abul-fazl, or to his own grandsons, were all non- or pre-Islamic.)

At another instance, Akbar scoffed at a sUfI divine for having reportedly criticized the chishtI master, by saying: ‘Hazrat Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti is my preceptor… Anyone who says that he was misguided (gumarAha) is a kAfir, and I shall slay that person with my own hands.’[3] Indeed, by this time, he was a committed follower of chishtiA, not only regularly visiting the dargAhs of the chishtI sheikhs but actually practicing their peculiar exercises.  badAyUnI reports that sometime around 1576, Akbar went so far as to learn and attempt the performance of chillA-i-makus, sort of a penance in which one suspends one’s head downwards in a well for forty days while continuously meditating. [4]

His strong bias towards the sUfI-s must certainly have been playing an important role at ibAdat-khAnAh in this crucial initial phase, and to understand the likely dynamics better, we are forced to take an unavoidable digression into the position of sUfI-s within the scheme of Islam. In the infancy of Islam there was hardly any need for either philosophy or mysticism. Its spirit was not concerned with these trivialities as it erupted forth from Arabia, the basic and the only demand it placed before the convert was the absolute acceptance and obedience to the revealed command of Allah, rather than explaining, understanding or putting it to reason, which was not only unnecessary but also implicitly impossible. Within this worldview, as the ultimate scope of human knowledge was limited to knowing Allah and His Law as revealed by the Prophet, it permitted the intellectual and spiritual pursuits only as far as they develop a deeper piety and belief in the revelation. However, by the mid of the next century even as the sword of Islam defeated and subjugated vast domains of the non-Islamic societies, it had to be confronted with the sophisticated ancient religions not on the battlefields anymore but now on the turfs of philosophy and theology, and had to soon recognize the crisis of its own poverty in these fields.

The realization necessitated the Moslems to systematize and develop somewhat more rational explanations of their theology, by desperately though reluctantly employing, like their Christian cousins had done before them, service of the Greek logic and system of rational disputation, while of course scornfully distilling out all the heathen thought that came with it. By unscrupulously utilizing the heathen system of ration for template and Qoran and the life of the Prophet as data, Islam began filling the void that was there in it concerning the finer points of theology like the nature and attributes of Allah, scope of revelation, free-will versus the pre-destination etc., thus the proper founding of Islamic orthodoxy and rise of the famous lines of jurists: abU hanIfA (d 767), mAlik ibn-anas (d 795), ash-shafi-I (d 820), and ahmed ibn-hanbAl (d 855). The new faculty inaugurated the careers for the custodians of Islamic orthodoxy and guardians of the new theology, who would systematize every fine point about theology, government, law and society of Islam.

While on one hand Islam was pressurized to develop the system of its orthodoxy, in the east it was staring at another and more profound crisis. Its newly conquered territories in east – the north-eastern IrAq and interior Persia, Turkey and Caucasus – were homes to several of the immensely rich and ancient Indo-Iranian-Greek mystic and monastic traditions, answer to which the invader did not know besides trying to wipe out the kufr and jAhiliyyA by brute force as it had done back home. Unlike what it encountered in west however, where the ground was already prepared for it by the very compatible Christian creeds, here Islam had to grapple with a whole different reality. Even after simply eliminating the monks and the mobeds, demolishing the monasteries and the fire-altars, the pious invader could only succeed in converting these people in letter but not so much in spirit. The new convert continued to apply counter-pressure and bring with him his ancient mystic spirit and traditions, to the new religion forced upon him. The reaction from the guardians of the purity in Islam was on the predictable lines: suppression of heresy through persecutions, which applied selective pressures on the native traditions and their followers, culminating in survival of those traditions which managed to learn how to adjust themselves and survive within the limits permissible in Islam, and these are who would later give birth to the sUfIs. It is no surprise to observe that the earliest illustrious sUfI-s were the children of the jaruthastrian converts to Islam, like bAyazId bastAmI (d 874) and mansUr al-hillAj (publicly executed 922) etc., although western sUfIlogists and apologists of Islam carefully conceal this fact.

Thus the making of the sUfI, which started in the ninth century but did not complete until the twelfth, the process involving gory persecution at the hands of ulemA and khalIfA, and resulting over time in circumspection and internalization of Islam by these mystics, causing them to make inventions of historically-impossible vaMshAvalI-s in order to link themselves to the Prophet and his companions (sometimes explaining these linkages using supernatural travels, spiritual visions, or appearances in dreams), liberal applications of hagiography to absorb the historical Moslem figures as saints of their own traditions, interpreting Qoranic verses and Prophetic traditions to seek approvals for their practices, adopting Arabic terminology to express their spiritual ideas (until a limited later revival of local vernaculars), and above all, forcefully de-linking themselves from their true origins. Then there was also an element of the pre-Islamic mysticism of Arabia finding a renewed channel to express itself once again too.

 Our present scope would prevent us from delving much deeper into this process, and the matter need not detain us further than saying that Islam dealt with the crisis of its mystic poverty by ruefully allowing some liberty to the mysticism of the converts, as long as they did not clash with the core of Islam, as Sita Ram Goel writes: “…the sufi spirit was irrepressible like all other sterling expressions of the human spirit. But theology and theocracy were equally uncompromising. After a lot of terror inspired by theologians and theocrats, a compromise was made between the two… The sufis could sing and dance and indulge in other ‘frivolities’ provided they swore by the Muhammad, conformed to the Sunnah in their outer conduct, and served the sultans in the extension of Islamic imperialism.”[5]

Their islamization was to however complete soon, and whatever the origins of their real traditions, the later sUfI-s came down to become zealous missionaries of Islam, often displaying no lesser bigotry than the orthodox ulemA. Their role now started to come handy for both before and after the march of jehAd into undefeated dAr-ul-harb: before, as one writer perceptively states, as “the sappers and miners of the invading Muslim armies”, and after, as “a balm to the insulted, humiliated and the plundered” kAfirs[6].  They now played no small role in both converting the defeated kAfir as well as in preventing the neo-converts from falling back to their original faiths. Proverbially, the sword of sultan took the horse up to the water and sUfI-s made him drink it, whereas eventually the ulemA would take over and indoctrinate the coming generations of the neo-convert into Islam-proper.

The ulemA, the sultAn and the sUfI, now acted as if three columns of the vanguard of Islam, but like the three generals, while they acted in unison at war, internally they wrestled for supremacy over the other; the sUfI claiming to be the spiritual heir of the Prophet and his living model in this world, ulemA concerned with the preservation of the purity of the true faith as revealed, and the sultAn of course being the champion of Islam and its Rightly Guided khalIfA. The tussle between them can be noticed throughout the history of Islam, and is evident even before Akbar, during the tug of war between alA-ud-dIn khaljI, his contemporary orthodoxy, and nizAm-ud-dIn the chishtI awliyA of dillI. This process can also be noticed in the eighteenth century Arabia where the sa’Ud sultan and abdal wahhAb the ulemA would forge an alliance to subjugate the sUfI and ‘reform’ the Islamic faith. But despite the internal tussle, whenever the three resonated together in concordance, they imploded into the Islamic Revolution, as can be witnessed from the times of the Caliphs to the times of awrangzib the naqshbandiyA sUfI, down even to the revolution of AyAtollAh khomeinI or of the tAlibAn the pious deobandists.

In any case, what we are witnessing at the present moment in Akbar’s decision to hold theological discussions is, in our opinion, springing from this inherent schism between the sUfI-s and the Islam. Akbar was compelled to pay attention to it, he himself being inclined to the sUfI-s at heart but towards orthodox Islam in mind, as we can understand from this statement of badAyUnI: “pAdishAh has thus leisure to come into nearer contact with ascetics and the disciples of his reverence, muin, and passed much of his time in discussing QorAn and hadIs. Questions of Sufism, scientific discussion, enquiries into Philosophy and Law, were the order of the day. His Majesty spent whole nights in praising Allah; he continually occupied himself in pronouncing yA-huwA, and yA-hAdI, in which he was well-versed.” [7]

It would appear natural for such a pious follower of sUfI tarIqA to try and arbitrage a truce between sUfI-s and orthodoxy, maybe help develop a synthesis as had happened earlier outside India, for right at the moment orthodoxy was once again inspiring much terror into the sUfI-s and as we have seen the persecutions of heretics was the order of the day.


1. Muntakhab ut-tawArikh, Vol. II, p229 (Incidentally, not unusual for the then prevailing infant mortality, the child was soon consumed by some fatal sickness, but in retrospect badAyUnI accuses himself, lamenting why he succumbed to the heretical ways of pAdishAh rather than bringing home his orthodox colleagues to recite QorAn to seek blessings for the newborn.)

2. Muntakhab ut-tawArikh, Vol. II, p243

3. Majalis, Maktaba Ibrahimia, #1367 p. 58. Quoted from IQTIDAR ALAM KHAN,”Akbar’s Personality Traits and World Outlook: A Critical Reappraisal”, Aligarh Muslim University – Center of Advanced Study in History

4. Muntakhab ut-tawArikh, Vol. II, p. 201 and vol. III p. 110. Akbar learnt it from a dervish Shaikh Chaya Laddha but did not perform it.

5. Sita Ram Goel, “Starting Point of Universal Spirituality”, Defence of Hindu Soceity, Voice of India

6. Ram Autar Singh, Time for Stock Taking, Voice of India, 1996

7. Muntakhab ut-tawArikh, Vol. II, p. 203


3 Responses to “A Ghazi turned Kafir: the Case of Akbar’s U-Turn – 5”

  1. Sarvesh ji,

    couldnt find part 6 of this, did you complete this series or still in the workshop.

    Thanks for the great analysis so far.

  2. Praveen Ji, yet to complete … let us when I can take it up again


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