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Akbar vs. Aurangzeb - Part 2 of 6: The Influence of the Orthodox Ulema vs. the Syncretistic Sufis

After succeeding Humayun, Akbar had come into an India very different from the one he would leave. He followed the examples of both Babur and the Delhi Sultanate by placing himself as a tribal warrior fighting for the cause of Islam, and did this by maintaining an Ulemic presence early in his reign. He assigned them to positions such as tutors, diplomats, advisors, and administrative assistants to himself. This unireligious approach to empire rule, particularly in a foreign land ruling over a majority non-Muslim population, would not work. During his reign, the Indian Muslim community was very much divided. Sufi orders existed that were taking Islam into vastly different directions than many people could even imagine, including fusing Hindu traditions and theology with Islamic ones. There were other Sufi orders that were very much geared towards the veneration of Sufi shrines and various methods of dhikr and tariqa. On the other side of the Islamic spectrum was the ultraconservative, strict, Sharia-minded, orthodox Ulema. They were much more fractioned than the Sufi orders, because, even though Sufi orders did not see eye-to-eye with each other, they generally respected each other; this was not the case with the Ulema. The Ulema, during the time of Akbars accession, were quarreling over miniscule details of jurisprudence, and prudent in defining what was Islamic and what was not. Gail Minault Graham gives the example that Islamic jurists in India were even debating whether going for the hajj by sea was still Islamically acceptable because ships would have to pass through the Portugeuse-controlled Indian Ocean; and the Portuguese, being Christians, were considered infidels. These staunch divisions among the Indian Muslim community, particularly among the Orthodoxy, were not taken too well by Akbar and he decided it was time for a change.

Under Akbar, the Ulema stressed the importance of Sharia. Since they held positions like the qadi’l-qudat and sadr al-sudur they were highly influential in decreements and reform policy-making. Their influence over the Sultans court was furthered because the base support for the Mughals was the Muslim population (a population that has never increased beyond 20-25% of the total Indian population). This gave the Ulema an advantage when pursuing their own goals through the Sultan. Akbar did not agree with some of the policies and principles that the Ulema stood for, and did not take kindly to their inability to agree with each other over minute details of jurisprudence. One can see, as Akbars reign progressed, that he took numerable measures to undermine the very influence of the Orthodoxy. Their power, however, could not be diminished to the point of political obscurity, as they regained influence as time passed and once again dictated many monarchal decisions in the courts of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

The Ulema’s interpretation of Sharia was also dissatisfying to Akbar. The Ulema were non-oppressive when issuing Sharia-based legal decrees against non-Muslims, but when it came to their own community, particularly the heterodoxic Sufis, they made it a point to be severe in punishing them as ‘infidels’ and ‘traitors’. Their intolerance and factionalism was very evident, both in the presence of, and away from Akbar’s court. On several occasions, they even argued amongst each other in the Sultans presence, and famously did so at Akbars Ibadat Khana.

The level the degeneration of the Ulema and the growing factionalism among them had reached new heights under Akbar. For example, once Chief Qadi, Makhdum al-Mulk, accused the Chief Sadr, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Nabi, of being an infidel over a difference of opinion in front of Akbar (a strong and bold move in front of the Sultan).

The degeneration under Akbar would not last for too long though, as the Ulema would start to rise again during the latter years of his reign, and regain heavy influence under the courts of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Under Akbar though, their quarrels destroyed their integrity. He also became increasingly unappreciative of their intolerance, considering Akbar’s openness to new ideas, and his favouratism for reformation of both government and religion.

The Sharia-minded Ulema were heavily against the monist ideas of the syncretistic Sufis that had gained favour with Akbar. Various movements and coalitions between Sharia-minded Sufi orders, like the Naqshbandi and the orthodox Ulema could not combine to stop Akbars continuation along this path. It was not until after the death of Abu’l-Fazl that they would regain some control over the court. However, during Abu’l-Fazl’s lifetime they were losing more power, and Akbar was moving further towards syncretism. His culmination of this spiritual direction peaked at his establishment of the Din-ilahi movement.

Akbar’s rule saw the steady decline of the Ulemic influence on the Mughal elite. Ira Lapidus, in her book, A History of Islamic Societies, points out that the Ulema ‘who represented the universalistic Islamic ideal were often critical of the Mughal state for its cosmopolitan and imperial culture, its Hindu elite, and its patrimonial loyalties.’ She also notes that the Sufi religious leaders ‘tended to be accomodationist and to accept state support and legitimacy of the regime, or they withdrew altogether from political concepts.’ An analysis that can directly be applied to Akbar himself. His essential undermining of all things orthodox, including his own convictions and religious decrees, even in the smallest capacity, was no coincidence. His strong convictions towards Sufi Islam and syncretistic Sufi concepts created a tension in the court and among scholarly and non-scholarly Mughal elites. Akbar played to these divisions and continued to make rulings that were against the ideals of the Ulema in favor of his own judgments on what he believed were Islamic.

Syncretistic Sufism would not enjoy the prosperity Akbar believed it would have. Conversions progressively slowed down and the flux towards monism began to decrease. This may have been partly because of the critical notion common to the Sufis and orthodoxy that Sharia Law was, besides a codified religious ‘injunction’, also a system for the allocation of Islam as a political force and a guideline for implementing justice concurrent with Quranic Law. As these notions developed among Muslims in Indian society, they began to influence the common Muslim population away from Sufism during the time of Aurangzeb’s accession towards a more ‘Sharia-oriented Islam’. Mohammad Ishaq Khan claims that while these syncretistic Sufi movements ‘clung to social customs and beliefs obnoxious to Islam, their succeeding generations were eventually drawn towards the Shariah-oriented Islam’. Reasons for this upsurge towards Sharia-mindedness could have been caused by anything. Possibilities include the less liberal ideas of Jahangir, to the steady economic decline that would coincide with the resurgence of the orthodoxy under Aurangzeb. There are many reasons for a decline in syncretistic Sufism after the reign of Akbar. It could also have been a result of an increased number of orthodox Muslim advisors to Jahangir, thus creating policy that would be more in tune to the facets of a Dar-al-Islam.

Ibrahim W. Ata attributes the decline of Sufism in India to the general attempt by Sufi theologians to maintain the status quo since they were accepted into the mainstream and there was no longer an enthusiasm to continue adapting to the times (something Sufism is notorious for). This can be thought of as an institutionalization of Sufism as a whole, since innovation was no longer of grave concern now that they reached mainstream appeal. The more traditional and institutional orthodox Muslims then paved the way for change by remaining stagnant in their convictions. This won fervour among Muslims and filled a void for change in Indian society and signaled progression.

It is safe to say that whatever the reason for Sufism’s decline in Mughal India, had there been just one, it would have been an addition to many other issues that plagued the movements after the decline of the Delhi Sultanate. It may be fair to assume that Akbar’s push towards unification of different cultural elements using the concepts and ideals of the extreme left Sufi movements was more of a reaction to the resurgence of the Ulema, then a push of the Sufi ideals to new heights. One must also look at the fact that being undermined so much by Akbar led to a unification of the community in some respects, which, logically, would have led to a reorganization of elite-thinking and a joint effort by factionalised jurists to put aside their differences for the common good of Islam.

One can see how having flaws as obvious and as humiliating as factionalism among the Islamic elite, in a nation where they were the minority, and having the Sultan point it out, and then shift preference to the opposing schools of thought would cause a natural transformation of overall outlook and create a rival movement that begins to regain past glory.

The main benefactor of the resurgence of the orthodoxy after the death of Akbar was Aurangzeb. The more the Sufis assimilated Islam with Hinduism and blurred the lines between the two religions the more Aurangzeb, a man of orthodox convictions, was championed by the Ulema as the one to lead their cause for the restoration of Islamic Law. They had also taken the side of Aurangzeb in his power struggle against his brother, Dara Shikoh.

Dara was a man like Akbar, very syncretistic and very mystical in his Islamic convictions, whereas Aurangzeb’s fear of the afterlife and meeting his Creator propelled him in the direction of institutionalized orthodox Islam. By being associated with the Ulema, Aurangzeb did not fear being led astray. One can assume that this led him to be tolerant of the bickering that the Ulema were generally engaged in.

The Orthodoxy’s resurgence, particularly under Aurangzeb, was the cause of many different factors. It mainly started with the reign of Shah Jahan, who employed a high number of orthodox advisors and undertook several measures to give the Ulema their privileges back at the expense of syncretistic Islam. Also, various Sufi orders, namely the Naqshbandiyya, who were advocates of following Sharia law and against the monism and syncretism that had become a rival to mainstream Islam, politically and religiously began siding with the Ulema in hopes of restoring Islamic Law over the non-Muslim population of India.

The accession of Aurangzeb was more a product of the resurgence of the orthodoxy and their ability to capitalize on the skepticism of Dara Shikoh’s heterodoxic convictions, than it was the charisma of Aurangzeb and his devotion to the Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, the Ulemas influence was great on Aurangzeb. The most difficult decision personally made by Aurangzeb was to have his brother killed. Bamber Gascoigne reports that even though Aurangzeb branded Dara Shikoh ‘Chief of the Athiests’ and that Dara Shikoh ‘had “not even the resemblance of a Musulman”’, upon capturing him he still did not advocate execution. Gascoigne reports that Aurangzeb was in favor of exiling Dara out of India, but that the decision to have him executed was forced on him. This was most likely the Ulemas doing, since they had the greatest authority over Aurangzeb at the time. However, opinions become misconstrued when Gascoigne also reports that upon seeing the head of Dara, Aurangzeb said “As I did not look at this infidels face during his lifetime, I have no wish to do so now.” It still does not negate the fact that Aurangzeb had preferred to exile his eldest brother instead of having him killed.

Under Aurangzeb the Ulema reverted to their old ways once they regained political control, and once again, there was a mutual understanding of the roles the Orthodoxy and Sufi’s would play in the proselytization of Islam. Each provided a basic need for the Islamic community. The Orthodoxy provided a solid foundation for the understanding of, and regulation, of laws in accordance to the Sunna of the Prophet and the Quran. The Sufis, no longer popular for their syncretism, now provided the spiritual basis for which one would make religion a personal matter and perform dhikr without venturing out of the realm of acceptable Islamic tradition. The Orthodox also reverted to their more severe ways of persecuting the monists and heterodoxy’s that still remained from Akbar’s reign. Indeed, under Aurangzeb, this partnership was successful, since there were more conversions under Aurangzeb than under any other previous Mughal Ruler. Under his leadership, the Ulema also reverted to their old ways of persecution for difference in religious opinion, and once again were punishing monists and syncretists. This time their policies were also pushing for more legislation that would, in comparison to Akbar’s policies, appear to be anti-Hindu. Though it is arguable Aurangzeb was of the ilk, there were many controversial decisions made under his regime that can be viewed as anti-Hindu.

The influence of the Ulema on Aurangzeb’s rule is unquestionably a historical sore-point for Hindus today. The most anti-Hindu policy accorded by the Ulema under the auspices of the Sharia, that did not exist during Akbar’s reign was the ban on the construction of any new place of worship by dhimmis.

In 1679 Aurangzeb also reinstated the jizyah tax after Akbar had removed it in 1579.
The general policy towards dhimmis in India can be seen as a reflection of the Ulemas influence on Aurangzeb to run India as Dar al-Islam, when it was actually not a nation of majority Muslims. Aurangzeb’s dhimmi policies were reflective of the influence of the Ulema, rather than his own doings, because of two reasons; Aurangzeb’s being forced to kill his brother, who was considered by him to be an atheist and who’s convictions were reminiscent of Akbar in his heterodox and syncretism, and also because of Aurangzeb is quoted as saying, “What connection have earthly affairs with religion? And what right have administrative works to meddle with bigotry? For you is your religion and for me is mine”. A clear indication of his personal belief of India to be governed not as a Dar-al-Islam, but as a secular nation with Hinduism and Islam existing side by side in a mutually exclusive relationship. The quote is also reflective of his ties to the Naqshbandiyya order.

*Dhikr is the central Sufi spiritual discipline involving the “remembrance” of God through chanting a Quranic aya or one of Gods names repeatedly.
*Tariqa is the Sufi method of spiritual disciple involving specific techniques of meditation.
*Dar al-Islam are the territories of the umma that are under Muslim control.

Part | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |

1. Graham, G.M. “Akbar & Aurangzeb – Syncretism and Separatism in Mughal India. A Re-Examination.” Muslim World. Vol. 59 (1989): 106-126
2. Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1988. 443 – 466
3. Khan, Mohammed Ishaq. “Studying Conversions to Islam in Indian History – A Case Study.” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs. Vol. 12 (1991). 149-157
4. Ata, Ibrahim W. “The Spread and Influence of Sufism in India – Historical Development”. Islamic Culture. Vol. 54 (1980): 39-45
5. Holt, P.M. The Cambridge History of Islam Vol. 02: The Further Islamic Lands, Islamic Society and Civilization. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1970. 52-75
6. Gascoigne, Bamber. A Brief History of the Great Mughals: India’s Most Flamboyant Rulers.
7. Khan, M. Ifzal-ur Rahman. “Awrangzib and the Hindu’s.” Islamic Culture. Vol. 64 (1990): 103-119 London. Constable & Robinson Ltd. 2002.

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