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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



Discussion of the legitimacy of regimes is a relatively recent development in historical studies. In the context of the Mughal state, although speculative statements on the theme can be found scattered in historiography, the problematic has not been fully addressed [ Mukhia, Harbabs: 2004; Kulke,H: 1989; Richards, JF: 1978; Streusand, Douglas E: 1989 ]. The legitimacy of the Mughals survived long after the state had crumbled in the first half of the 18th century. As late as the 19th century, the concept of Mughal imperial authority, embodied in the emperor, continued. Symbols such as Mughal courtly rituals and terminology were well recognized. Imperial aesthetic standards in syncretic architecture and fine arts still provided a cultural reference point. Imperial techniques for the control of military elites continued to hold influence. The reason for this phenomenon was that the Mughals were able to create a pervasive network of authority and mobilize the active energies of existing Hindu elite groups like the Rajputs. Preceding Indo-Muslim dynasties had failed in precisely such areas.

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The credit for bringing about the crucial transformations belongs to Mughal emperor Akbar  [1556-1605]. After surviving two rebellions in 1567 and 1579, he fashioned new links with the military-administrative elite. This was done by a careful balance between new and old ethnic and religious blocs. During the first two decades of his mature reign, Akbar, by a series of symbolic acts, underscored the fact that no group or faction, neither Chaghatai nor Afghan, could challenge or limit his authority and autonomy. After 1580, with the entrance of Abul Fazl to the select group of the emperor’s closest advisers, Akbar’s approach and vision expanded and shifted to a verbally expressed ideology.


As Akbar’s official historian, courtier, fierce supporter and friend, Abul Fazl built up an image or metaphor of the emperor’s person as an embodiment of the Mughal empire. In furthering the metaphor, a degree of paramount spiritual authority for the emperor was established, which was unprecedented. A clear expression was given by Abul Fazl to an ideology which explicitly projected Akbar’s infallible authority and religious tolerance.


Abul Fazl and his brother, the poet Faizi, were capable and versatile men. They entered the small coterie of Akbar’s chosen advisers and select cluster of ‘companions’. Abul Fazl’s powers of political analysis, and trained understanding of philosophy, mysticism, and the other disciplines of Islam, made him an outstanding ideologue and propagandist for Akbar [ Richards, John F: 1998 ]. Abul Fazl erected an intellectual scaffolding on which he built the Akbari ideology. An edifice was needed which would establish a new legitimacy for not only Akbar but also his descendants. It would counteract the challenges posed by critical and disgruntled Ulama and nobles. Akbar’s need for broad political support, and a mystical sense of his own mission, both found a direct response in the mind of Abul Fazl. The latter brought this into expression through a number of modes: discussions at court, eulogistic writing, and a continuing and wide ranging official and private correspondence [ Rizvi, S. A. A., 1975: 300-322 ]. Abul Fazl’s systematic exposition of the new ideology is set out in the best known Mughal history, the voluminous Akbar Nama, an annual recounting of events for 47 regnal years along with its equally bulky appendix: the three volumes of the Ain-I-Akbari, an imperial manual and gazetteer. After years of effort, Abul Fazl presented the magnificently bound and calligraphed first volume of the finished manuscript to Akbar at a well attended court audience in 1595. To enhance the effect and impact of the work, several hundred miniature paintings illustrated the most dramatic events described therein. Several manuscript versions of the history were widely circulated in the royal and noble circles of Mughal India, similarly illustrated by imperial artists.


The Akbar Nama and Ain-I-Akbari, completed in the waning years of the 16th century, together forms a definitive work. It marks a decisive and schematic departure from the predominant historiographical format, as it does in several other aspects of the construction of an alternative world view. The Akbar Nama traces Akbar’s lineage from Adam as his fifty third generation descendant. Very deliberately it dislocates the historiographical axis from the groove of Islam and seeks to construct an alternative teleology of universal history , in which Akbar, the author’s patron and idol, was not contained within the frame of a sect of humanity i.e. Islam; he was the heir of Adam and thus the ruler of all humanity. There were other existing notions of the ruler of the universe, such as the Shah-in Shah (King of the Kings) in pre-Islamic(Iran and the Chakravartin (King of the four cardinal directions) in Hindu religio-political ambience, but their vision of universality coincided with territoriality; for Abul Fazl, the coincidence was with humanity instead [Mukhia, 2004: 17]


Outwardly, the Akbar Nama is only another example in an extensive genre of Indo-Islamic court eulogies, perhaps more ambitious than most. Being written in Persian, it lends itself to ornate and elaborate expression. It also tends to lean towards hagiography, a fault which can be corrected by contemporary antithetical works, such as the Munkhab-ut-Twarikh of Abdul Qadir Badauni. Undoubtedly, the Akbar Nama is a product of serious historical scholarship. Abul Fazl based his detailed narrative on official records, no longer extant, and on eyewitness interviews. At the core of the work, permeating almost every passage, is an ideology of authority and legitimacy. The aim of Abul Fazl’s panegyric is to demonstrate either overtly or covertly his royal patron’s superiority to ordinary men [Richards, 1998 : 140]


The Din-I Ilahi or Divine Faith has been a subject of controversy for historians. Blochmann, the late 19th century translator of the bulk of the Akbar Nama, compiled a list of only 18 nobles who could be identified as adherents or ‘disciples’ of the new Divine Faith. Based on this enumeration, it has been generally held that the new order had the following of only a few sycophants. However, S.A.A.Rizvi’s analysis of the data shows that the Divine Faith was a major effort at mobilizing a loyal and reliable cadre of nobles, working in close contact with the emperor [Rizvi, 1975 : 401]. The number and true nature of adherents was not publicised by Abul Fazl.The nobility and informed observers from the secondary and tertiary ranks of the imperial elite must have fully comprehended the true significance of ‘discipleship’ to the Divine Faith.


Careful reading of Abul Fazl’s work can fecilitate an understanding of Akbar’s Din-I-Ilahi or Divine Faith, and his predilection for sun worship. Since the 19th century, generations of historians have untiringly attempted to determine the influences on Akbar’s rituals and beliefs – whether Sufi, Zoroastrian, Nath Yogia, Brahmanical or other. The Divine Faith has been even treated as a bizarre concoction of Akbar’s fertile intellect. By 1583 Akbar had apparently rejected public prayer and other formal aspects of Islam. He began to worship the sun publicly four times a day, reciting its 1,001 Sanskrit names, facing east before a sacrificial fire. To mark the advent of a new age, Akbar promulgated a new solar calendar, the Ilahi era.


In imaging Akbar as the personification and symbol of divinity, Abul Fazl was treading a well beaten path, for the conception of divine sovereignty has traces in several early and medieval polities, including Islam [Aziz Al-Azmeh: 1997]. In India’s medieval centuries, the history of the rulers’ claim to divinity is rather sporadic. Sultan Balban [1266-86] had claimed the title of Zil Allah, Shadow of God, to veil his origins in the slave dynasty. Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq also had engraved the title on his coins, but with no other emphasis. It was to be revived by Akbar three centuries later. However, in delineating Akbar’s divinity, Abul Fazl was not merely repeating an old idiom. In focusing on the divine origin of Akbar, he was in pursuit of the dichotomy between universal religiosity and denominational religions. The metaphor of light dominates his conceptualization of divinity, and the sun in turn dominates the metaphor of light. Divine light permeates Akbar’s very being. Nur Parwarda-I Izdi (Divine Light) is Abul Fazl’s preferred phrase for Akbar. It is hard to excel Abul Fazl’s mastery in creating ambiguous verbal images as the backdrop for the emergence of one solid icon: that of Akbar’s universal divinity. Abul Fazl’s conception of Akbar as the complete and mature manifestation of the light of sovereignty placed the emperor on a different level from that of his predecessors, even Chengiz Khan and Timur. Akbar began a new dispensation, receiving afresh the divine mandate to rule.


Akbar’s divinity also manifested itself in the association of miraculous powers with his person, such as the widely held belief that his breath or touch could cure ailments. Even European observers, like Jerome Xavier, recorded the association of miracles with Akbar. Popular understanding of Akbar’s divinely sanctioned ancestry, illumined wisdom and spirituality clearly permeated among the populace of the court and camp and other major urban centers. Ultimately this understanding became so pervasive that a continuing memory of Akbar’s powers was even absorbed into the folk culture of rural society within the various regions of the Mughal empire [Richards, 1998: 153]. For instance, R.V. Russell’s work [1916, II: 29]  refers to the custom of the Kunbis of Maharashtra using an Akbari silver coin as a talisman well into the 20th century.


Abul Fazl envisioned the emperor essentially as paterfamilias, even as power was envisaged as absolute. Mansabs (military rank and assignment for Nobles) and other privileges bestowed by the ruler were as a favour, not as a matter of right. At the same time, Abul Fazl bound the emperor with paternal responsibility. His favourite metaphors for Akbar are ‘shepherd’,’gardener’ and ’physician’. Abul Fazl insisted that the ‘true’ king must understand the ‘spirit of the age’ or Mizaj-I Zamana. The emphasis was on harmony, tranquility and peace through the practice of non-discrimination. It was not the Din-I Ilahi but Sulh-I Kul or General Peace which indicated the principle of universal toleration. Abul Fazl clearly recognised the importance of ending the collection of Jeziah (religious tax) levied on Hindus). Perhaps, the most frequently used pair of terms in Mughal historical literature is ‘soldiers and peasantry’, whose care benefitted the state. Abul Fazl also gives due significance to this as a bulwark of good governance.


Akbar from the outset was an intriguing individual. His personal traits evolved coterminusly with his strategic and administrative policies.Two mystic episodes were publicly reported and also clearly narrated by Abul Fazl. In early adulthood, Akbar went into a trance-like state during solitude in the desert [Abul Fazl, II: 522]. The second reported incident took place in 1678 during a hunt or Qamargha. In Abul Fazl’s terms, the emperor experienced the ‘sublime joy’ of the ‘attraction  ( Jazaba) of the cognition of God’ [Abul Fazl, II: 26]. A critic like Badauni described Akbar’s condition as ‘a strange state and strong frenzy’ [Badauni, I: 140] .Whatever be the interpretation of the event, on a practical level, Akbar soon banned animal slaughter on certain days.


Not only did Akbar establish the strong Mughal empire from the fragile conquests inherited from his father Humayun and grandfather Babar, he was also an aesthete, a philosopher and had sincere belief in religious toleration. His rule was a success as much through tact and conciliation as by war. He arrived at his modus vivendi from religious conviction as well as realpolitik. He was successful in his objective of making Mughal rule acceptable to the empire’s overwhelmingly non-Muslim population.


Akbar issued an edict of universal toleration, and forbade forcible conversion to Islam. He ordered the translation of Sanskrit classics into Persian, and promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration. A significant act, indicating utmost trust, was giving the highest command of the Mughal army to the Jaipur ruler Raja Man Singh.


Amartya Sen, in The Argumentative Indian [2005] credits Akbar with laying a major part of the foundations of modern Indian secularism. Sen has questioned the well established view that the West is the ultimate origin of the ideology of religious freedom and democracy. History has shown that India had its own traditions of ideological discussion and religious tolerance. At a time when most of Europe was engaged in the activities of the Inquisition and philosophers like the Italian Giordano Bruno were being burned in Rome for heresy, Akbar had made the well considered declaration that no person should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone was to be permitted to convert to a religion of his preference.


Akbar’s public image was also confirmed in Fatehpur Sikri. The new capital, near Agra, contained both a great congregational mosque and the tomb or Dargah of Shaikh Salim Chisti, a widely revered and still worshipped Sufi saint--the binary institutions of legal and mystic Indian Islam. Akbar strengthened his ties with the Sufi Chistiya order, and since 1562 regularly visited the sacred tomb of Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti in Ajmer [Abul Fazl, II: 243] . His actions stemmed from genuine religious concerns, as well as strategic motives in the ongoing ideological struggle with the orthodox Ulema (clerics).


Fatehpur Sikri translated Akbari ideology into concrete symbolism. The emperor consciously combined Hindu and Muslim elements in a syncretic fusion style of architecture. Many of the buildings were designed in such a way so as to become in a sense ‘laboratories’ for philosophical and spiritual inquiry. Akbar was well cognizant of the already existing currents of the Bhakti movement. Men of religion, ranging from Hindu ascetics to Portuguese Jesuit priests were invited to present and share their ideas and convictions. Akbar set up one of the earliest known multi-religious groups, whose representatives were enabled to discuss their differences and commonalities, sitting in the Diwan-I-Khas (special hall of audience). Men of letters from different parts of the country and the world converged to his capital, to engage in the dialectics of the time.


The Akbari religious ‘compromise’ reflected the emperor’s political maturity. The Mughal Badshah  (Emperor) deviated from the traditional pattern of Islamic kingship by abolishing the Jeziah, the sign of the subordinate status of non-Muslims in society. He introduced the Din-I-Ilahi and Sulh-I-Kul (universal peace) as alternative frameworks, which would help to level ethnic and religious animosities and also draw loyalty from the different aristocratic groups. Rituals like Jharoka Darshan  (giving audience from the balcony ) and the weighing ceremony fitted Hindu patterns enough to make Mughal sovereignty recognizable to the greater part of the population.


Within five decades, Akbar and his advisers were able to make major transformations. A single ruler dominated the entire socio-cultural structure. The components of the state apparatus included Iranis, Turanis, Afghans, Indian Muslims and Rajputs. The ruling class of the new Mughal polity formed a single hierarchy, its heterogeneity not destroyed but subordinated to allegiance to Akbar. Satish Chandra correctly emphasizes the importance of Akbar’s personality and military achievements in winning the loyalty of a diverse group of nobles [1979: xvii]. Akbar succeeded in making his sovereignty acceptable to Hindus as well as Muslims but did not alienate most Muslims in doing so.


Mughal rituals and texts articulated kingship of a higher order than that of earlier Muslim rulers in thesubcontinent [ Streusand: 138 ].The rituals of the Darbar  (court ) reinforced the ties of loyalty between the individual nobles and the ruler.The prestige of the dynasty, focused by Abul Fazl’s presentation of Akbar’s reign as a central moment in world history, supplanted the standard justification of Muslim rulers as supporters of the Shariah (Religious Law in Islam) .


Akbar’s context belonged to the 16th century, yet his ideas and efforts hold relevance to the contemporary situation. Akbar and Abul Fazl, both exceptional men with inventive minds, formed a brilliant partnership. A vigorous and victorious emperor created a sense of drama in virtually all his actions. This was put into words by Abul Fazl. As a rhetorical and propaganda device, the Akbarnamah and Ain-I-Akbari provided a rationale and technique for the recognition and legitimization of Akbari transformations.


Abul Fazl, Akbar Nama, tr. H.Beveridge, 3 vols., reprint, Delhi, 1977. II, p.522.

Aziz Al-Azmeh, Muslim Kingship. Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian and Pagan Polities, New York, 1997.


Badauni, Muntakhab ut Twarikh, 3 vols.,tr.Ranking, Lowe and Haig, reprint, Patna, 1973, I,p.140.

Penguin, 2005.

Douglas E. Streusand, The Formation of the Mughal Empire, New Delhi, 1989.

 Harbans Mukhia, The Mughals of India, Oxford, 2004.

H.Kulke, The State in India 1000-1700, New Delhi,1989.

J.F.Richards, ed., Kingship and Authority in South Asia, Madison, 1978


John F. Richards, ‘The Formulation of Imperial Authority under Akbar and

Jahangir’, in The Mughal State, 1526-1707, eds. Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam , Oxford University Press, 1998.

Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court, 1707-1740, 3rd edition, New Delhi, 1979,p.xvii.


S.A.A.Rizvi, Religious and Intellectual History of the Muslims in Akbar’s Reign, with Special Reference to Abul Fazl, Delhi, 1975. See pp.300-322 for discussion of Abul Fazl’s extant letter book


Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, 4 vols, London, 1916,II,p.29.