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What Indians And Pakistanis Can Learn From Mughal History


While history is a convenient tool to absolve one from sin and inculpate another in the imagination of people, recently the Mughal history of India has been widely recounted in both scholarly and non-scholarly circles to prove and disprove certain ideological notions.

The British colonial overlords were the first to misrepresent Mughal history in order to support their imperialist goals in the Indian Subcontinent. Many works were written by British historians to portray the Mughals as dictatorial and tyrannical rulers. For example, Elliot’s History of India, published in 1848, is a collection of texts that attack the Mughal reign while justifying British domination. Since then, numerous orientalist accounts and interpretations of Mughal history have painted the Subcontinent’s diverse communities as foes.

We need a contextual grasp of Mughal history to acquire a true picture of it. While nationalist intellectuals in the post-partition era stressed both Muslims and Hindus as arch-rivals from the start, an in-depth historical analysis shows that this is not the case.

Although many wars were fought between Mughals and various Hindu rulers, the bone of contention was not religion. Instead, imperial ambitions and economic interests of various monarchs drove both conflicts and alliances between Mughals and Hindu rulers.

From Babur to Aurangzeb, Mughal emperors enlisted the best talent from all religious communities to serve in their courts. In fact, troops and generals from both Muslim and Hindu groups served in the armies of all Mughal emperors, as well as their rival Hindu rulers.

Consider Akbar, one of the mightiest of the Mughal emperors. Several of Akbar’s campaigns were waged against Muslim adversaries. Meanwhile, Akbar had gone to great lengths to obscure his subjects’ religious differences. While Akbar’s pluralistic approach to religion was unique, he was not alone in relying heavily on Hindu talent. Even the most intolerant and observant Muslim kings wanted less than their citizens’ religious conversion. Many Muslim rulers demanded political subordination as their top priority.

More intriguingly, historians have pondered how a Hindustan having inhabitants like Man Singh (Akbar’s trusted military leader), Todar Mal (Akbar’s suave financial minister) and Raja Birbal (Akbar’s capable counsel) was so readily overtaken in the first place by a group of Muslims from a place far from Hindustan!

Reading Mughal history enlightens us not only on inter-communal coexistence and concord, but also on the governing class’s familial interactions. In general, rulers’ main critics have been their closest family members throughout human history, but this was especially true in the case of the Mughals. The history of the Mughal monarchs is dominated by family betrayal, conspiracy and deception. The emperors were most affected by the enmity of their closest family and friends, rather than rival rulers’ enmity. The treachery of Humayun’s brothers, for example, and Humayun’s constant pardoning of them, is a significant story to be told. Kamran had arranged for his brother to be extradited in exchange for Kandahar with the Safavid ruler, Shah Tahmasp (from whom Humayun had sought assistance and asylum). The Shah turned down the invitation.

Diwali was celebrated equally by Hindus and Muslims during the Mughal dynasty as a show of Hindu-Muslim unity. Mughals used to fund and participate in rites and festivals that we now connect exclusively with Hindus, Zorastrians and other faiths.

Sulh-e-Kull, or peace with all, was Akbar’s political theory, which he drew and implemented broadly. The following explains why Mughals were so tolerant to their subjects of all religions, sects, and ethnicity: after residing in India for a long time, the Mughals had been Indianised, embracing Indian culture and norms. They had formed marital pacts with a large number of Hindu Rajputs and other castes.

Despite the fact that the first Mughal emperor Zahiruddin Babur was fascinated and sentimental about his hometown Fergana, his grandson Akbar felt at home in India two generations later, with little regard for his ancestral home beyond the Oxus. Shah Jahan, Akbar’s grandson, was three-quarters Rajput. The later Mughals regarded India as their homeland, and its people as their own, with nothing that resembles modern discrimination. For the Mughals and certain previous Muslim kings, religious differences with Hindus had never been a political hindrance. The Hindus were never considered a political competitor by the Mughals because of their religion. Surprisingly, the Mughal era was marked by a long-standing fascination with Indian knowledge and practices. As such, the Mughals shared their political power with Hindus and other ethnic groups.

Audrey Truschke and Rajeev Kinra’s recent studies have conclusively demonstrated that Sanskrit knowledge and Brahmin administrators were extremely important in the Mughal court. Instead of religion being the fundamental source of conflict between Rajputs and Aurangzeb, it was politics and power concentration that caused a schism. Aurangzeb desired to replace the Rajput nobles with a local nobility in order to bolster his own power.

In his 2012 book The Princes of the Mughal Empire 1504-1719, Munis D. Faruqui claims that the Mughal princes’ fight for the throne hinged on the building of local alliances and collaboration through marriage relationships.

Furthermore, much recent historiography on medieval India has effectively challenged the widely held belief that the conquests of India were intended to exterminate the infidels. For example, far from wiping out the ‘unbelievers’ in Sindh, Muhammad bin Qasim’s conquest of India resulted in the integration of two distinct cultures and people. When we look at Islam in today’s South Asia, we can see that it has taken on many distinct forms and orientations as it has interacted with a diverse range of local beliefs and values. During the Mughal era, there was a lot of inter-religious and inter-sectarian interaction. Akbar, the Mughal Empire’s most powerful ruler, was fascinated by other religions and was eager to learn more about them. But he was not the only Mughal ruler to have an interest in cross-faith encounters.

The Mughals are renowned for their military prowess and 200-year rule. They were particularly interested in administrative problems, from power distribution to creating favourable conditions for economic growth and wealth. The empire was divided into ‘Subas,’ which were divided further into ‘Sarkar,’ ‘Pargana,’ and ‘Gram.’ The administration at the grass roots level was quite effective. There had been 15 provinces during Akbar’s reign, which later went up to 20 provinces during the rule of Aurangzeb.

The Mansabdari system, which Akbar introduced, is widely regarded as effective. Under the astute finance minister of Akbar, Todar Mal, tax collection proved to be the most effective mechanism for replenishing the empire’s diminishing exchequer. Prior to Abkbar, empires struggled with two dissolving inclinations that were distinctive of pre-modern states: first, imperial armies were divided into private and mercenary forces of opportunistic individual commanders, who only came to the aid of emperors where their own vested interests were secured. The second was the province governorship, which had become hereditary strongholds for local rulers. Only in times of extreme need could the emperors motivate them by highly rewarding them and consenting to their own terms and conditions.

Akbar, on the other hand, was a foresighted leader who strove to counteract these trends by instituting new administrative changes. He introduced two major reforms: first, all individual officers were appointed and promoted by the emperor himself, rather than their immediate superiors, at least in theory. Second, he abolished the division between civil and military administrative grades that had previously existed.

Civil bureaucrats were given military ranks, and their functioning became reliant on the emperor. These levels were then systemically categorized, ranging from commanders of ten men to commanders of 5,000. The Mughal princes were given the highest positions. Officers were paid in cash from the imperial exchequer or, less frequently, by land assignments in which they had to gather revenue, pay their salary and transfer the remainder to the emperor’s treasury. To prevent corruption, land assignments were often seized from one officer and given to another.

As might be expected, things did not always go as planned. Although it appeared to be an efficient preventative technique, it actually encouraged corruption. Given the limited time available, the officers were under pressure to collect as much revenue as possible from the peasantry while also setting away a percentage of the proceeds for themselves.

As such, the history of the Mughals is first and foremost a tale of “Majma-al-Bahrain,” – the confluence of two oceans, as Shah Jahan’s eldest son Dara Shikoh is said to have described Islam’s encounter with ancient Hindu civilization. The artistic and architectural achievements spawned by this meeting of two oceans are numerous and magnificent. The Taj Mahal, a white marble mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz, is a wonder and source of inspiration for the entire globe.

The spectacular Indo-Persian art and architecture of the Mughals has left an indelible mark on human culture.

Mughal emperors of the early period were avid readers. Poetry and religious studies were two of their main interests. The Baburnama is Babur’s autobiography. He was a connoisseur of verse. By contrast, Humayun was a superstitious man who was fascinated by astrology – reflected in the number of astrologers at his court. Before each military campaign he used to arrange for astrological readings to ascertain his fate. Perhaps, devoid of strategy, such ideas resulted in many of his military defeats.

As for Akbar, on first coming into contact with him, it would be hard to immediately know that this intellectual and rational emperor was unacquainted with rudimentary reading and writing. Yet despite his formal illiteracy, Akbar maintained an unwavering desire to learn and listen to intellectual debates and discussions. All of the successful Mughal monarchs appear to have been excellent students and listeners. Religion and philosophy had been Akbar’s favourite interests since infancy. He would resort to it whenever he had time off from his hectic state-occupied routine. “Discussions on philosophy have such a charm for me,” Akabar is believed to have confessed in public. “I have to force myself not to listen to them, lest I forget my responsibilities!”

In 1575, Akbar ordered the construction of the Ibadatkhana (house of worship) which was to be a sacred space completely dedicated to the study of God, where the most learned scholars from across India and beyond would be invited to join him in contemplating the heavenly mysteries. At first, only Muslims of various sects were invited to the Ibadatkhana to discuss their theological difficulties and iron out sectarian disputes. However, the emperor was quickly dismayed by their bitter feuds over sectarian concerns. By the end of 1578, Akbar’s Ibadatkhana had evolved into a true religious parliament, with not just Muslims but also Jains and Zoroastrians gathering to discuss their respective faiths. Akbar also dispatched an agent to Goa, where the Portuguese had established a base, to invite a delegation of Christian priests to Fatehpur Sikri to preach their religion’s doctrines. The priests brought a portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary with them, which the emperor took in both hands. It is reported that the emperor was profoundly transformed by the arguments and discussions in the Ibadatkhana. There, his religious viewpoint took shape.

In Islamic terms, he became more tolerant, free-thinking, and eclectic, occasionally bordering on what the hardline orthodoxy might see as heresy. Later, he delivered his famed and controversial “Infallibility Decree”. The decision gave him the authority to issue rules without the permission of ulema, as long as they followed Quranic injunctions.

With Indian history spanning millennia, vast swathes of the country have only been ruled by a single empire on a few occasions. One of these uncommon occurrences is India’s Mughal Empire. No mere plunderer has ever been able to rule for such a long time. After all, since 1011 AD, countless invaders had ravaged and plundered Hindustan. Against popular belief, the Mughal rulers made India their home and gave it love and respected its people as their own. No doubt there have been fluctuations in Mughal policy under certain rulers towards the native people of India – but for the most part they ruled India as any Indian ruler would have.

We may learn a lot from Mughal history, from Babur’s Baburnama to Humayun’s concern with astrology, superstition and magic, to Akbar’s Sulh-e-Kull policy, Jahanger’s establishment of the “Golden Chain of Justice,” and Emperor Shah Jahan’s creation of the Taj Mahal.

Perhaps the next time when some in Pakistan celebrate the deaths of Indian Hindus by Coronavirus or try to prevent the construction of a Hindu temple in Pakistan; or when Muslims in India are insulted, lynched for cow slaughtering, and temples are built on burned mosque sites – we can turn to Mughal history as an alternative model for Muslim-Hindu relations.


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