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Akbar vs. Aurangzeb - Part 3 of 6: The Influence of the Naqshbandiyya and Nuqtavi Sufi Orders

When examining the influences on the court of the Mughal Sultans, one cannot ignore the amount of influence exerted by the Sufis, both syncretistic and not. Among the most influential throughout the Mughal period, especially during the resurgence of the Ulema, was the Naqshbandiyya. The Naqshbandiyya, like all Sufi orders, had their mystical devotions and tariqa. They differed from the syncretistic movements of the time in their advocacy for returning to Sharia law and to move away from heterodoxy.

When Akbar began his reforms and his Din-ilahi movement, which will be explained later, it was the Naqshbandiyya, led by Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, who stood up to him and tried to bring about a change in the Mughal Court.

The Naqshbandiyya rise to prominence in Indian society was correlated with their initial association with the Ulema and their resurgence movements. Joining forces with the Ulema during their entry to India would have helped them gain a sense of legitimacy among the general population, giving them a foundation upon which they could then proselytize their tariqa. Both were able to simultaeneously gain prominence through their advocation for a restoration of Sharia as the only law dictating all facets of government. The Ulema were most likely in favour of such an alliance with the Naqshbandiyya because of the promotion of a spiritual outlook that included total reliance on the Quran and Sunna as well as real world practicality, and a rejection of the isolative practices syncretistic movements were popular for. What was a particular focal point for the Naqshbandiyya, through the teachings of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, was the restoration of the mutual exclusiveness of Hinduism and Islam. Under the guidance of Shaykh Sirhindi, Naqshbandiyya Sufism gained prominence outside of India and spread to places as far as Turkey and Indonesia. Without his guidance, Sufism, and Indian Islam as a whole, would have continued along the path of heterodoxy. It was mainly through his efforts that Sufism in India went from being syncretistic to one comprised of more orthodox elements.

The greatest factor in the restoration of the Sharia by the Naqshbandiyya and orthodoxy was the Mughal association with the Naqshbandiyya. From Timur through to Aurangzeb, all the Timurid Mughals had been disciples. This gave substantial sway by the Naqshbandiyya over the Mughals, particularly towards the end of Akbars reign, when they made their entry into India. The denunciation of monist philosophy coupled with their heavy Sharia-minded ideals and influence on the courts of Jahangir and Shah Jahan paved the way for their support of Aurangzeb during his attempts to take the throne. The basis of their standing in Aurangzeb’s court was the concept of asabiyya, where they formed kinship ties based on their social grouping. Their backing of Aurangzeb gave him just enough support to overtake Dara Shikoh and become Sultan.

The Naqshbandiyya did not have as much sway over Akbar, during his reign, but their ability to gain support among the masses and ally their ideals and stately goals with the Ulema was a direct reactionary measure to the policies of syncretism promoted and pushed forward by Akbar.

Had Akbar not been so adament on fusing many aspects of Hinduism with Islam for more social and political stability in his empire, and had he not seen it his duty as the possible Mahdi of the new Islamic millenium, as will be discussed later, the Naqshbandiyya would not have been able to build as large a base of support basis of stopping such notion from continuing. They also have not been able to pursue their reformist goals under Aurangzeb.

The Nuqtavi order was another Sufi movement that was heavily influential on the Mughal courts, particularly early in the dynasty, during Akbar’s reign. Founded by Mahmud Pasikhwani (d.1428) in the late 14th or early 15th century in Iran, it did not attain any notoriety until the 16th century, when the Safavids, under Shah Tahmasp I, began a campaign of persecution against the movement. The influence of the Nuqtavi did not peak until Sharif Amuli was given amnesty under Akbar in 1576-77. Sixteen years later in Iran, there would be a massacre of Nuqtavi followers.[iv]

The Nuqtavi’s subsided in a quest for tajdid (religious renewal) and were against the notion of taqlid (simple adherence to Islamic tradition). Pasikhwani’s followers were also under the impression that prophethood had not come to an end and that Islamic traditions as practiced during his time were outdated and in need of reformation.[v] Many of the teachings of his order were comparable to the other syncretistic movements that had been propping up around India during his time and were heavily influential on the Din-ilahi movement of Akbar.

The Nuqtavi’s promoted ideas of reincarnation, with man being the highest form of life. Their ideology also included the concept of heaven and hell to be earthly concepts of prosperity and adversity, and that if one were to attain the highest level of spirituality, they were gifted with prophethood and given the capability to form a new religion.[vi]

The Nuqtavi’s, particularly Sharif Amuli, had considerable influence over Akbar. Abd-al Qadir Bada’uni, a Persian Historian at the court of Akbar claimed that Amuli was the only member of the court who could speak in private to the Sultan and according to Iqtidar Hussain Siddiqui, ‘whatever he said to the Sultan, he called it ‘the reality and root of the fundamentals of religion.’’ And indeed, there seems to have been a large influence on the theosophical beliefs of Akbar, especially as it pertains to his establishment of the Din-ilahi. They were also responsible for the later uprising of Aurangzeb and the support given by the Orthodoxy towards strict adherence to the Sharia. Their influence had crept into the thinking of Akbar and his rationale, and together, they shared many common beliefs, though it is likely that the convictions of Akbar were more likely that of the Nuqtavi than his own independent assertions. For example, both the Nuqtavi scholars and Akbar shared the common belief that the Sharia was not obsolete, that Islam’s life span was a thousand years and the system brought by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was in need of substitution by another system. They also shared many common beliefs, and in accordance with those beliefs, Akbar outlawed first cousin marriage and granted the opportunity for converts to Islam to return to their old traditions with no consequence. [vii]

The influence of the Nuqtavi on Akbar’s court and his policies could not be denied. His acceptance of their suggestions to suppress the Ulema was carried out as well and along with his other newly found convictions, was seen by many as an apostate. On the other hand, Akbar saw himself as the new Mahdi, and used this opportunity to establish the Din-ilahi. This did not mean that Akbar denounced Islam. He probably saw himself as a reformer of the age, and even acknowledged this when he said, according to Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi, ‘If imitation (taqlid) were commendable, the prophets would have followed their predecessors.’ According to Iqtidar Husain Siddiqui, after 1581 Akbar became apprehensive of the fatwas the Ulema were putting out in his and Abu’l-Fazl’s names and began practicing in dissimulation. [viii]

For all the differences that existed between Akbar and Aurangzeb, whether it be the court influence of syncretistic Sufis over the orthodox Ulema, or the preference for tajdid over taqlid, or any of the other policies they implemented in sync with the religious influences of the time, one can see that there were many similarities between the two Sultans, but exhibited throughout their reigns in very opposing manners.

Both Akbar and Aurangzeb were deeply entrenched in the personal struggle over what was the best method to become closer to God. Akbar believed that he was the Mahdi of the new millenium and begun reformations to make the sharia obsolete and transform India into a pluralistic society. Aurangzeb believed that the old system of the Sharia was still applicable and sought to implement it and create a Dar-al-Islam state in accordance with that. Both Aurangzeb and Akbar were heavily influenced by Sufism, having grown up under the tariqa of the Naqshbandiyya. Though Akbar swayed from the teachings of the Naqshbandiyya and shifted his allegiance towards the syncretistic Sufis, Aurangzeb maintained a staunch loyalty to the Naqshbandiyya, mainly for policital purposes, and continued to impose laws in accordance with Naqshbandi teachings.[ix]

There were also things that both Aurangzeb and Akbar had in common, like visiting the shrine of Shaykh Khwaja Mu’innudin Chishti, who passed away in Ajmer in 1235.[x]

After the Battle of Chittor in 1567, Akbar visited the shrine of Mu’innudin Chishti by foot after hearing pilgrims singing praise of the saint. In 1569, at the age of 27 and without an heir, Akbar travelled there again and prayed for a son at the Shrine. He is said to have been blessed with the birth of Prince Salim. Akbar built mosques and khanaqah’s in appraisal for the shrine and continued to travel to Ajmer every year after that, from 1570 to 1580. It may be presumed that he stopped visiting the site because of the increased presence of the orthodox Ulema in his court and his policy of dissimulation. However, this tradition continued during the reigns of Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb.[xi]

None of Akbars successors placed as much importance on visiting the shrine of Ajmer, nor did they visit on as many occasions, though other mosques and gardens were erected in Shaykh Chishti’s honor by them. Aurangzeb visited the shrine too, in 1659 and 1679, and, just like Akbar, made Ajmer his base of operations for campaigns against Mewar and Udaipur, and gave thanks to the Shaykh Chishti by visiting the shrine after victories.[xii]

Akbar and Aurangzeb were similar in their goals to keep India prosperous and have as much control as possible without upsetting their main base of support, it was the differences in their methods of achieving this goal, and the conflictions with their religious convictions that made maintaining peace among their support lines difficult.

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. 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
3. Siddiqui, Iqtidar Husain. “Nuqtavi Thinkers at the Mughal Court: A Study of their Impact on Akbar’s Religious and Political Ideas”. Islamic Culture Vol. 72, iii (1998): 65-82
4. Troll, Christian W. Muslim Shrines in India. New Delhi. Oxford University Press, 1989: 1-11, 48-59, 232-235, 288-291, 296-297

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