Religion Under The Mughals
Updated: Mar 22
We the people of India refer India as to Hindustan. The name Hindustan can be traced from two major instances, the first being when the Mahmud of Ghazni was attacking the northern portion of India and they were resisted by the Pal Clan of the Hindushahis who lived between the Indus and the Jhelum river, and the secondly, when Abul Fazl, the court chronicler of Akbar, in the Ain-i-Akbari mentioned the Mughal empire as Hindustan which was closest name to the official name of the empire, also naming Kabul and Qandahar as the twin gates of Hindustan. With the rise of the right-wing government in India in 2014, the Mughal empire has undergone character defamation, as Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal was removed from the tourism list of the Uttar Pradesh government and the Mughals have been accused of being an anti-Hindu empire as they imposed the jizya tax, while it was imposed under the Delhi sultanate. This is a time to understand and gauge the history of the Mughals and their predecessors, on how religious jurisprudence was shaped and came into existence along with a motley social structure.
The Mughal empire is one of the most grandiose empires in the history of India, and their lineage can be traced from the Mongols of the Timurid Dynasty of Turco-Mongol origin from central Asia. The founder of the Mughal empire, Babur, was a direct descendant of Timur who was affiliated with Genghis Khan through Timur’s marriage to a Genghisid princess. Babur initiated his stronghold on the Indian peninsula by defeating Ibrahim Lodi in the first battle of Panipat in 1526, where Babur established his control over Delhi, Lahore, and Multan and conquered the upper lands of India, which resulted in shifting of power from the Lodhis of Delhi Sultanate who was of Afghan origin to the Mughals who were predominantly Turkic. To understand religion as a subject under the Mughals, we have to trace religion from the Delhi Sultanate to the Mughals and study it under two broad heads: Conversions and Secularism.
As scholars have written, conversions started to take place in the 13th century and carried on till the 19th century when many of the Rajput and Jat tribes converted to Islam. In the north-western frontier, conversions took place from all faiths, from localized faiths to even agnosticism. Although there is little information on whether these conversions were forced or voluntary scholars have reported that the Sufis such as Bu Ali Qalandar of Panipat were the ones primarily responsible for conversions and the majority of them were real and voluntary. This was also the time when Sufism was gaining attraction and followers and the people started stressing God’s love and mercy rather than his wrath also during this period, the continent saw the growth of Punjabi literature in the Gurumukhi script with regional variations in the language, as Lahori and Multani also developed. However, all the conversions that took place cannot be attributed to the Sufis. Conversions were also propelled by the Sultans as prisoners of war had to accept Islam to escape death, while many others converted to escape the jizya, which was a tax imposed on the non-Muslims for their protection under the Sultanate. Other explanations offered towards religious conversions are that, the groups of nomadic tribes converted to Islam before the Hindu Caste system absorbed them and that the ‘untouchables’ of the Hindu society were attracted by the Islamic value of equality.
While we study religion as a subject under the Mughals in the pre-British era, the people didn’t recognize themselves based on their religion, rather they mentioned their zaat and village before speaking of their religion. The transition of power from the Sultanate to the Mughals was a tumultuous one, although there was co-existence amongst the Sufis as they espoused their doctrine of Unity (Wajud) which was cognate to the Hindu concept of Advaita which was non-duality which was a mature state of consciousness, while some Muslim scholars emerged on common ground as they believed that Advaita signified monotheism, while some other scholars dismissed it as idolatrous. Muslims were also angered by the fact that Hindus avoided the touch of Muslims during these tumultuous times.
To move from conversions to secularism, we have to move to Akbar’s Punjab, as Punjab was the cosmopolitan city of Akbar. Akbar’s Punjab comprised three regions, Lahore, Multan, and Sirhind (eastern tracts). Akbar enjoyed a special relationship with Punjab even though the battles he waged there had hurt the region. Akbar’s secularism is not only rudimentary to abolishing the jizya and his ideal of Suhl-i-Kul (peaceful co-existence) but it can also be understood with Akbar’s thirst to expand and consolidate the empire, which can be seen in the diversity of Mansabdars, Jagirdars, Subadars, and Nazims. To expand the frontiers of the Mughal empire, Akbar sent expeditions and appointed Mansabdar Man Singh and Raja Todar Mal for the duty who was also Akbar’s finance minister. Akbar’s secular credentials and paradigms can also be traced by Akbar’s connection to Jesuit missionaries sent from present-day Portugal.
During Akbar’s reign, Father Antonio Monserrate visited the Mughal empire, which was inspired by Ibn Battuta and his travels under the Delhi Sultanate, as Monserrate tended to write along the same lines as Battuta did. Akbar’s reign saw peaceful co-existence and to promote inter-faith dialogue, Akbar established a building called Khairpura in Lahore and subsequently established Dharampura where Pandits discoursed on Hinduism. European Jesuits also conversed with Akbar in Lahore and Akbar approved the publication of Dastan-i-Masih, which was about the life of Jesus and jointly written by a Jesuit and a Muslim scholar. Post Akbar’s death, he was criticized by Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind who questioned his morality as a follower of Islam and the freedom Akbar’s regime gave to Hindus, Christians, Zoroastrians, and other non-Muslim faiths. These scholars criticized Akbar’s consortium with non-Muslims. But Akbar’s approach was approved by the public, which can be noted by the comments of various Jesuits and officials under Akbar. The emperor’s most interesting intervention in Punjab came across when Akbar made a land grant to the followers of Guru Nanak on which the Golden Temple was established. Also, when an eminent marriage was taking place between the Sikh gurus, Akbar gifted the Bari Doab which came to be known as the city of Amritsar in the vicinity of Lahore.
The Mughal empire lasts before and beyond Akbar, but what Akbar delineates has to come across as mere history and the assassinations we see in the current times are the products of poor and petty politics played by the forces of Semitism, jingoism, corporativism, and strong regimentation who mold and romp history to achieve private benefits and create favorable extraneous variables. This brings testimony to the fact that to mold current politics, people often falsely shape history to be favorable to their own case, hence whatever we read and listen to needs to be juxtaposed.
“He was a prince beloved of all, firm with the great, kind to those of low estate, and just to all men, high and low, neighbor or stranger, Christian, Saracen or Gentile; so that every man believed that the king was on his side.” – Father Antonio Monserrate