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Akbar vs. Aurangzeb - Part 4 of 6: Akbar's Din-ilahi

Throughout his life, Akbar was very much devoted to intellectualism and learning. Though he had little formal education and was illiterate, it did not stop him from trying to educate himself. His strongest interest laid in religion, though. His love for vocal exchanges of ideas was undeniable, and when he had the opportunity, in 1575, in Fatehpur Sikri, he built himself an ‘Ibadat Khana. This was built out of an abandoned Hermits cell, and used for discussion and debate by theologians, imams, and Sunni men of religion on Islam, every Thursday evening. It was initially designed to accommodate in each corner, a shaykh, a sayyid, an Ulema, and an emir, however, as discussions would go on, the Ulema were unable to agree on their collective opinions, and displeased Akbar. One example given by numerous sources is that Akbar decided he had had enough of the Ulema when they ruled that ‘no Muslim may marry more than four wives, and that concubines and temporary (mut’a) marriages were unlawful, especially since he maintained many wives and concubines.’

The disagreements over marriage and as well as other issues of jurisprudence gave Akbar the opportunity to assert his power and distinguish himself as Sultan. He took three steps to make sure the Ulema could not assert a great amount of influence over his court anymore. He extended invitations for Shiites, Hindu yogis, Jain Monks, Parsi mobeds and Portuguese Christian missionaries to the ‘Ibadat Khana. He removed some Ulema from various positions, citing corruption, and he issued a decree in 1579, the Decree of Infallibility, where he announced himself Caliph of India, similar to the Caliph position assumed by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. This last decree, the Decree of Infallibility, made the Sultan the supreme mujtahid, and lessoned the power of the Ulema over stately manners, as stated in the decree as follows:

We have agreed and do decree that the rank of Sultan-i-adil (just ruler) is higher in the eyes of God than the rank of mujtahid (jurist). Further we declare that the Sultan of Islam, the refuge of mankind, the leader of the faithful, the shadow of God in the world – Abu-l Fath Jalalu-d din Muhammad Akbar Padshah-i Ghazi (whose kingdom God perpetuate!) – is a most just, wise and God-fearing king. Therefore, if there be a variance of opinion among the mujtahids upon questions of religion, and His majesty, in his penetrating understanding and unerring judgement, should incline to one opinion and give his decree for the benefit of mankind and for the due regulation of the world, we do hereby agree that such a decree is binding on us and on the whole nation.

Akbar had essentially put himself in a position where he was a divine representative of God on earth and he was above the Islamic laws. This was an issue of importance to the Ulema, especially because of his establishment of the Din-ilahi. It was also a reminder of the level of influence the Persians and Shi’ites had on Akbar personally, since much of the decree was similar to rights held by the Shi’ite Caliphs in Iran.

His attraction to Shi’ism should come as no surprise, since Babur had embraced Shi’ism when he briefly stayed in Persia in 1510, and Humayun was a brief convert to Shi’ism during his 15 year exile to Persia at the hands of Sher Shah Suri (1540-1555). Many of Akbar’s closest advisors were also Shiite, so it was no wonder he embraced many aspects of Shi’ism during his lifetime.

The Shi’ites were very particular about the role of their head Imam. Shiite Head Imams were given the distinction of being divine and infallible. This played an important role in the establishment of the Din-ilahi, as Akbar, after this time, began to fall into the influence of the Nuqtavi Sufis, who preached syncretism and a very different view of Islam than most other Muslim groups. The Nuqtavi’s belief that Islam’s relevance was only limited to only one millennium aided in Akbar’s new found belief that he was the Mahdi who would reform the Islamic world and bring about a new system that would be more inclusive and out of the hands of the orthodox Ulema, whom he believed were still practicing a dated version of Islam and Islamic Law.

Akbar’s Din-ilahi had a relatively small following. Some reports estimate the following to be as low as 18 members of his court. All sources, however, provide ample evidence to suggest that the Din-ilahi was never preached outside the elite. It was a movement started by Akbar after his Decree of Infallibility to further the movement of syncretism between Sufi Islam and the other religions of India. Some historians claim it to be a cult, though one can easily make the argument that it was a new Sufi order within the bounds of Islam. It remained monotheist and still acknowledged the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as the founder of Islam. However, difficulty in categorization arises when discussing the inclusion of religious practices and the controversy over whether Akbar had placed himself as a God-head to this new movement, when he developed coins with the term “Allahu Akbar” on one side and his face on the other, which might have implied “God is Akbar” or “Akbar is God” instead of the usual connotation of “God is Great”.

The Din-ilahi syncretism included virtues like the worship of fire and light performed by Zoroastrianists. It also included aspects similar to the Nuqtavi’s, that influenced ideas like liberality, abstinence, freedom from the bonds of worldly existence, total attachment to God and a union with God, among others. The movement was actually quite similar in its syncretism to the Rishi Movements in the Kashmir Valley in the 10th and 11th centuries, started by Yogi Lal Ded and Shaykh Sayyid Ali Hamadani.

In the Akbarnamah, Abu’l-Fazl describes Akbar as the ‘perfect man’, and after 1581, stops mentioning the Prophet of Islam next to Gods name and praises only Akbar after he praises God. Iqtidar Husain Siddiqui describes it as Abu’l-Fazl’s ‘motive to portray Akbar as the substitute for the Prophet of Islam in the second millennium.’

Whether or not the Din-ilahi was Islamically acceptable, it is clear that Akbar tried to legitimize this movement when he forced the leading theologians of his court to sign the Decree of Infallibility in 1579, including Mulla Abdunnabi and Makhdoom-ul-Mulk, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Shaykh Mubarak. There were varying claims of apostasy on Akbar’s part by some of his critics, including Bada’uni, who claimed that the removal of the Prophet Muhammad’s name from decree’s after 1581 was a clear sign of hostility he attributed Akbar for having towards the Prophet. Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, a man who claimed to be the mujtahid of the second millennium as well, and a critic of Akbar for his suppression of the Ulema never claimed Akbar to be an apostate. In fact, he claims that while Akbar was against the Ulema, it was not a reflection of him being against Islam in anyway, even though he was fully aware of the Din-ilahi and their practices. This may suggest that because of Akbar’s preference for Sufi tariqa’s and traditions, that the Din-ilahi may have been a new, very syncretistic Sufi order, instead of a cult. Whatever it was, it is clear that the effects of the Din-ilahi were not limited to the life of Akbar, but, stretched through to the reigns of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb and is a direct reason for the eventual resurgence of the Ulema in the court and the conservative policies implemented 100 years later under Aurangzeb.

Akbar’s Decree of Infallibility and syncretism movement, the Din-ilahi, were two very important steps in the resurgence of the Ulema. Had Akbar not taken the Empire to such extremes in religious policy, the Ulema would not have had the opportunity to pitch support among some of the elite and the general population.

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

1. 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
2. Nizami, Khaliq Ahmad. “The Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire: Genesis and Salient Features.” Islamic Culture Vol. 55 (1981): 169-196.
3. Graham, G.M. “Akbar & Aurangzeb – Syncretism and Separatism in Mughal India. A Re-Examination.” Muslim World. Vol. 59 (1989): 106-126
4. Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire: Genesis and Salient Features.” Islamic Culture Vol. 55 (1981): 169-196.
5. 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
6. Gascoigne, Bamber. A Brief History of the Great Mughals: India’s Most Flamboyant Rulers. London. Constable & Robinson Ltd. 2002.
Troll, Christian W. Muslim Shrines in India. New Delhi. Oxford University Press, 1989: 1-11, 48-59, 232-235, 288-291, 296-297
8. Faruqi, Khwaja Ahmad. “The First Jesuit Mission to the Court of Akbar”. Islamic Culture. Vol. 55 (1981). 155-160

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