World History; Mughal Akbar; What kind of Man?
Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (جلال الدین محمد اکبر Jalāl ud-Dīn Muhammad Akbar), also known as Shahanshah Akbar-e-Azam or Akbar the Great (15 October 1542 – 27 October 1605), was the third Mughal Emperor. He was of Timurid descent; the son of Humayun, and the grandson of Babur, the ruler who founded the Mughal dynasty in India.
I chose Akbar as my subject because of previous reading about him prior to this class. My first impression of him was like that of a Muslim Jimmy Carter. He seemed like such a benevolent, wise, tolerant man. I read about his sincere search for truth between religions and his four wives, 2 Muslim, 1 Hindu and 1 Christian. However, due to my research for this paper I have learned two very important lessons; first is about the study of history, I need to dig deeper than the first perspective. And second is about the nature of historical figures, our man Akbar was not one dimensional, he was multi dimensional with mixed motives. As we take a deeper look into the administration of Akbar I think you will agree.
In seeking multiple perspectives on Akbar I sought the input of some current Indian friends, Sanjay and Kivini. They concurred that Akbar is considered a great ruler but not in the way an American might think of George Washington or Abe Lincoln. Akbar is still considered a foreign invader, just not as evil as the others. Our Upshur text makes the statement about the benefits of Moghul rule that it unified India, sure in the same way that Hitler tried to unify Europe. When we think of Akbar keep in mind that he inherited a small struggling empire but he was a devout conqueror and by his death in 1605 he left an empire that covered all but southern India.
Many sources heap praises upon the man; “Akbar was the greatest among all the Mughal emperors, one of the great rulers of India and also one among the most reputed and powerful rulers of the world. He possessed many humane virtues because of which he accepted the welfare of his subjects as one of his primary responsibilities and was most generous towards the poor and weaker sections of the society.” “Thus the character and personality of Akbar was that of a grand monarch. He was successful both as an individual and an emperor. His life and ideals were inspiring to others as a ruler, conqueror, administrator, statesman and a monarch. That is why Akbar alone has been regarded as `the great` among the Mughal emperors.” (indianetzone.com/5/akbar)
He is also cited as being a fearless warrior personally leading battles.
However an article by hindunet.org brings up another perspective. After inheriting the empire in 1556 Akbar’s first threat was from Hindu king Hemu who after the 2nd battle of Panipat was wounded and unconscious, then slain by Akbar (or an assistant) and Akbar claimed the Islamic title Ghazi, slayer of infidel. Then a large number of prisoners were slaughtered and pillars erected with their skulls. Another war at Rajasthan when the fortress Chitod fell 30,000 peasants were slaughtered.
The Wikipedia telling of this story of Chitod is, “The Mughal army surrounded the fortress in October 1567 and it fell in February 1568 after a siege of six months. The fort was then stormed by the Mughal forces, and a fierce resistance was offered by members of the garrison stationed inside, as well as local peasants who came to their assistance. The women committed jauhar while over 30000 men were massacred by the Mughal army. It was for the first and last time that Akbar indulged in carnage of this magnitude.”
I had first read that Akbar had four wives, (Rhoads 174) the maximum allowable for Muslim men, however most other sources say that he had about 300 wives and many concubines, maybe a thousand WSU says 5,000. The concubine issue is inconclusive because of a vague definition of concubine. The female guards over the wives may also be considered concubines by some authors. Never the less political marriages between royalty was not unusual at all so Akbar had many wives from the Hindu high caste noble Rajput.
The policies of Akbar are considered very humane in contrast with many rulers of his era and especially more humane than his ancestors; Babur, Tamerlane, and Genghis Kahn. First he continued the traditional land tax but radically different from other administrations he taxed all members of the empire equally, nobles and peasants. He removed two taxes inflicted upon Hindus; the jizya a tax on all non Muslim and the tax on Hindu pilgrimage. (Note that poor Muslims could get government aid for their pilgrimage to Mecca). This taxation policy was consistent with an overall policy of religious tolerance with no forced conversions to Islam.
His method of administration was also notable. He was considered the absolute authority, the padshah ruler but he also appointed military governors or mansabars in each region. This bureaucracy created relative autonomy and each mansabar was responsible for abuses and mistreatment of the poor within his realm, with severe punishments. This bureaucracy became one of the most efficient in the world and is seen as modeled after the Ottoman Empire. My sources give two different perspectives on one aspect of his government. First it is said that most officials were non Hindu imports (Upshur Pg 412) and another says that Akbar included Hindus and by the end of his career a large part of his bureaucracy were Hindu.
There is some credit to the point made in Upshur that Akbar unified India. He provided a common coin currency and used the official language Persian. India to this day has problems with too many languages. Hindi is the official language but in addition every region has its own language. A story from Indian tradition says that “If you could teach all the birds to sing one song then you could teach all the people of India to speak one language. We must note that history shows that on each continent of the world where the tribes were not united they were easy prey for outside conquerors “united we stand divided we fall”. If India had been able to unite they may have withstood the persistent invaders from the north. Akbar’s efforts at unification were probably very prudent in that context. Many of his military battles were with Afghanistan continually trying to reassert their rule. It is worth considering that if the Moghuls had not invaded India others would have.
Public works projects were focused on palaces and roads. The two great famines of 1594 and 1630, only the first under Akbar, were apparently unaddressed by government aid, while China several centuries earlier had learned to build canals and irrigation systems for droughts. Akbar compiled an effective detailed land registry for the collection of taxes but it remains hidden to me how effective he was in caring for the poor, “After paying for the military and bureaucracy, the remaining funds were spent of building imposing buildings, entertainment, and luxurious living by the rulers” (Upshur Pg 413). Akbar built a second capital in addition to Agra at a village named Sikri but he neglected the issue of adequate water supply so after his death the village was abandoned, “Akbar set about building what he theorized as the “perfect city,” one that would represent the power of his empire, the meaning of God’s message to humanity, and would ensure perfect harmony. Above all, the city would represent Islam. He completed his new city, Fatehpur Sikri, in 1578. The city contains a mosque, a palace, a lavish and huge garden, a worship hall for Din-i Ilahi , and, finally, a tomb for Shaykh Salim Chishti in the great mosque itself. The city served for a while as Akbar’s capital and lavish court. It was, however, placed far from source of water and the “perfect city” and “perfect symbol of Islam” was abandoned forever shortly after Akbar’s death.” (WSU.edu)
We can only speculate on the sources of influence that formed the man Akbar and his model empire. His ancestors being vicious conquerors were not inclined to efficient administration. Tamerlane had conquered India before and left with nothing in place but the joy of bloodshed. Akbar’s moderate religion obviously had a huge affect on his administration. His youth spent wandering in his father’s crumbling kingdom could have contributed to humility towards others (Upshur Pg 410). However an important element is likely his Persian mother and his childhood tutor Persian Bairam Khan with whom most authors attribute Akbar’s early success. Upshur Pg 412 says, “Much of the imperial service was borrowed from Persia, including the ranking system of 32 grades”.
Akbar’s religion is what first impressed me. He was Muslim but took a very moderate approach even starting a new religion Din-I Ilahi, which never took off, synthesizing the best of what he saw in the others. In his court he had endless discussions on religion entertaining views from all the major religions. The Sikh religion had started in the generation before him and may have been an influence upon him. Because of his tolerance or universalism he was highly suspected as deviant among Muslims but admired by others. He had the Christian gospels translated into Persian. In most Muslim administrations Islamic law or Sharia was enforced over all subjects. But Akbar allowed a large degree of local autonomy allowing Hindus to remain under their own laws.
In summary we must remember that history is always presented from perspectives and then interpreted again by through another perspective. As we take a survey of the life and rule of Akbar from a very long distance away we should note that he was indeed a Mongol/Moghal conqueror but he was possibly the most exceptional of all. As we look at other historical figures during this course should we look at the context of the era in which they lived before we pass judgment upon them? Does Akbar look like a one dimensional man to you?
Author: Mark Anderson 2011
http://www.hindunet.org/hindu_history/modern/akbar_vs.html The real Akbar;
Upshur, Terry, Holoka, Goff, Cassar: World History 4th Edition. Wadsworth Group 2002
Rhoads Murphy: A History of Asia. Longman Publishers 2000
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