Muslim, Indian, and Western historians all see Akbar as the greatest ruler of Indian history. When his father, Humayun, died in 1556, Akbar became padshah ("ruler of the empire") at the age of thirteen. Under the guidance of Bairam Khan, who had been instrumental in Humayun's reconquests of Panipat, Dehli, and Agra, Akbar instantly began seizing more territory throughout Hindustan. Bairam Khan fell from power in 1560, but Akbar continued his conquest of India and Afghanistan. By the time he died in 1605 (his reign, 1556 to 1605, corresponds almost exactly to that of Elizabeth I of England), his Empire was greater than that of Babur and included almost all of northern India.

In order to govern this territory, Akbar developed a bureaucracy and a system of autonomy for the imperial provinces. Akbar's bureaucracy was among the most efficient in the world. He put military governors, or mansabars , in charge of each region. Each governor was responsible for the provincial military and, as in the Ottoman state, was directly responsible for all abuses. Abuses of power and mistreatment of the poor or weak resulted in severe punishments and death, just as in the Ottoman Empire. Each military governor was put in charge by the padshah himself, so he could be dismissed at will.

The most important part of the bureaucracy was tax collection. Akbar made several innovations. His tax, like all other states, was a land tax that amounted to one-third of the value of the crops produced on it each year. However, the tax was assessed equally on every member of the empire—a radical innovation considering that every other state in the sixteenth century rarely taxed the nobility. He also eliminated the tax assessed on non-Muslims. From the beginning of the Islamic expansion, a special tax was levied on non-believers. This special tax, called the jizya , was bitterly resented all during the history of Muslim rule in India. In addition, Muslim rulers in India charged a "pilgrimage" tax on unbelievers travelling to various Hindu pilgrimage sites. Akbar eliminated this tax in 1564.

A large part of Akbar's administrative efforts were winning over Hindu populations. The Rajput kingdoms had never fully accepted Islamic rule, but the revocation of the jizyat and the pilgrimage taxes helped to calm their restiveness. Akbar also included vast number of Hindus in the official bureaucracy; by his death, almost one-third of the imperial bureaucracy were Hindu. He cemented relations with the various kingdoms by marrying the daughters of the kings. By the end of this process he had over five thousand wives, almost all of whom he married for political reasons. His favorite wife, however, was a Hindu, and she gave birth to his successor, Jahangir.

His most successful administrative coup, however, was allowing Hindu territories to retain a large degree of autonomy. In all other Muslim kingdoms, non-Muslims came under the same law, the Shari'a , as all Muslims. Akbar, however, allowed the Hindus to remain under their own law, called the Dharmashastra , and to retain their own courts. This loose style of government, in which territories were under the control of the Emperor but still largely independent, became the model that the British would emulate as they slowly built the colonial model of government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Political Theory of Akbar's State

There was considerable disagreement all during the reigns of Babur, Humayun, and Akbar over the nature of monarchy and its place in Islamic society. Many Islamic scholars under Babur and Akbar believed that the Indian monarchies were fundamentally un-Islamic. At the heart of the problem was the fact that none of the invading monarchs were approved by the Caliph, but rather were acting solely on their own. The majority of Islamic scholars, however, concluded that the monarch was divinely appointed by God to serve humanity and that the Indian sultanate or the Mughal padshah was acting in the place of the Caliph.

The political theorists and Islamic scholars surrounding Akbar were deeply influenced by Shi'a Islam. In particular, they subscribed to the Shi'a notion that God had created a Divine Light that is passed down in an individual from generation to generation; this individual is known as the Imam. The central theorist of Akbar's reign was Abu'l Faz'l, who joined Akbar's court in 1574 and is considered one of the greatest political theorists in Islamic history. He believed that the Imamate existed in the world in the form of just rulers. The Imam, in the form of a just ruler, had secret knowledge of God, was free from sin, and was primarily responsible for the spiritual guidance of humanity. This, to a certain extent, made the padshah superior to the Shari'a , or Islamic law, and the Islamic scholars that interpreted it. Needless to say, orthodox Islamic scholars bitterly opposed this political theory, but instead advocated a close partnership between the ulama , or Islamic religious and legal scholars, and the Sultan or padshah .

Abu'l Fazl was also deeply influenced by Platonic philosophy as it had been handed down by Muslim philosophers. In particular, he argued for Plato's concept of the "philosopher-king," who, by virtue of his talent, wisdom, and learning, deserved to be obeyed by all others. He saw Akbar as the embodiment of the perfect philosopher-king.

From a religious standpoint, Akbar's state was built on the principle sulahkul , or "universal tolerance." All religons were to be equally tolerated in the administration of the state; hence the repeal of the jizya and the pilgrimage taxes. In Akbar's theory of government, the ruler's duty is to ensure justice ('adale ) for all the people in his care no matter what their religion.

Din-i Ilahi

Akbar took very seriously Abu'l Fazl's idea that he was a spiritual leader of his people and he devoted considerable amounts of time and resources to sorting out the common truth in the multiple religions he ruled over. From this concern he developed a new religion he called Din-i Ilahi , or "The Religion of God." Believing, as Muslims do, that every faith contained the essential truth that God is unified and one thing, he sought to find the unifying aspects of all religions. He originally began this project, long before he came up with Din-i Ilahi , by sponsoring a series of debates at his court between representatives of the various religions, which included Christianity (Catholic Jesuits), Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Jains. Eventually he included members of the ulama , but the debates did not go well because of the intolerant attitude and behaviors of the Jesuit participants who wanted to convert Akbar, not discuss the formation of a universal religion.

Akbar was a devout and, so he said, an orthodox Muslim; still, aspects of his belief were in part derived from Shi'a Islam. The Din-i Ilahi , the religion that would synthesize the world's religions into a single religion, that he established was predominantly based on Islam. Like Islam, it was rationalistic and was based on one overriding doctrine, the doctrine of tawhid : God is one thing and is singular and unified. Akbar also elevated the notion of wahdat-al wujud , or "unity of the real," to a central religious idea in his new religion. The world, as a creation of God, is a single and unified place that reflects the singularity and unity of its creator. Finally, Akbar fully subscribed to the Islamic idea of the Perfect Man represented by the life of the Prophet or by the Shi'ite Imamate. There is little question that Akbar accepted Abu'l Fazl's notion that he was the Divine Light and was a Perfect Man. He assumed the title, "Revealer of the Internal and Depictor of the Real," which defined his role as a disseminator of secret knowledge of God and his function of fashioning the world in the light of this knowledge.

In addition to Islam, however, the Din-i Ilahi also contained aspects of Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism. The Din-i Ilahi borrowed from Jainism a respect and care for all living things, and it derived from Zoroastrianism sun-worship and, especially, the idea of divine kingship. This latter innovation deeply disturbed the ulama ; they regarded it as outright heresy. The notion of divine kingship, however, would last throughout the history of the Mughal Empire.

Fatehpur Sikri

Akbar's closest and most beloved religious advisor was an Islamic Sufi mystic, Shayk Salim Chishti. After years of having no son and heir, the birth of Jahangir seemed to fulfill one of Salim Chishti's prophecies. In gratitude to his former religious advisor and to Allah, 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.

Akbar had put in place an efficient administration and a set of political relationships between the Mughal court and local Hindu kingdoms that ensured a peaceful empire for the remainder of his life. He was followed by three more great emperors, each with their own faults, who expanded Akbar's empire through conquest and built Mughal culture to its highest points. Strangely, the success of both of these projects—expansion of the empire and the development of more and more resplendent artifacts of Mughal culture—inevitably contributed to the later decline of the Empire. The expansion of the Empire, largely carried out by the last great Mughal conqueror, Aurangzeb, spread Mughal government and military administration too thin. The incredible expense of the Mughal court and building projects, particularly under Shah Jahan, impoverished the country and built up long-standing and volatile hostility towards the lavish emperors.


Akbar was succeeded by his favorite son, Jahangir, who ruled the empire from 1605 to 1628. Jahangir did not pursue military conquest as forcefully as his father, but he did manage to assert Mughal rule over the Bengal in eastern India. Akbar had claimed that any kingdom that was not expanding was in decline, but the later decades of Akbar's rule were in general peaceful and uneventful. Akbar spent most of his time concerned with administration, culture, the arts, and his new religion, Din-i Ilahi , rather than pursuing wars of conquest. Jahangir seems to have inherited the attitude of the older Akbar, for he lavishly patronized the arts: painting, architecture, philosophy, and literature, while ignoring military conquest. The period of Jahangir's tenure as Emperor is considered the richest period of Mughal culture; Indian, Muslim, and Western scholars have named this period, the age of Mughal splendor.

Shah Jahan

Jahangir's successor, Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-1658), inherited Akbar's obsession with the military and wars of conquest. Although Jahangir had ruled relatively peacefully, the Empire was starting to come apart at the accession of Shah Jahan. The new emperor threw himself into military pursuits: he put down a Muslim rebellion in Ahmadnagar, repulsed the Portugese in the Bengal, and conquered parts of the Deccan. By the end of his reign, the empire was again expanding and the Mughals seemed firmly in charge.

One of Shah Jahan's major innovations was moving the capital from Agra to Dehli, the traditional seat of Muslim power. Dehli was one of the largest cities in India and its status as capital increased its wealth and power. Through much of modern Indian history, Dehli was the most economically and politically important cities in India.

Shah Jahan began a series of incredible, resplendent, and monumental architectural projects in Dehli. The city itself was surrounded by sixty foot walls. In the middle of the city he built a magnificent palace for himself itself contained within the Red Fort (so called because it was made of red sandstone), which housed the palace as well as all the buildings associated with imperial administration. He built for himself an extravagant throne, the Peacock Throne, all in gold and covered in rare jewels. Western historians estimate that the throne was built at an expense of over five million dollars. In 1739, the Afghani conqueror of Persia, invaded Hindustan, burned down Shah Jahan's palace and seized the Peacock Throne for himself—it has remained in Iran ever since.

Shah Jahan's most famous building project, however, was the Taj Mahal in Agra. When his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal ("Ornament of the Palace"), died at the age of 39 while giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631, the grief-stricken emperor set about building for her the most lavish tomb he could manage. The Taj Mahal took over twenty years to build and demanded the labor of over twenty thousand men. Like all other Muslim tombs, the primary architectural design is based on building an equivalent of the Muslim paradise that the dead are certain to be in. Combining both Persian and Indian architectural styles, the tomb and the grounds are meant to bring into reality the Muslim idea of Paradise.

All these lavish building projects, however, broke the bank. With the treasury depleted by his lavish expenses and by military expeditions against Persia and Central Asia, Shah Jahan was forced to raise the land tax from 30% to 50% of the value of the crops produced on the land. While this did not create famine, it did bring about hardship on the poorest members of Hindu society and raised hostility against the Mughals.


Like the Ottomans, the Mughals had no clear set of rules regarded succession to the throne. They believed, as the Ottomans, that God would choose the most worthy successor. In reality, this produced serious conflicts as each emperor aged. The first real succession crisis occurred near the end of Shah Jahan's reign. The conflict between Shah Jahan's sons ended with the victory of Aurangzeb, who imprisoned his father in 1658 (he died in 1666) and executed his older brother.

Aurangzeb would rule an incredibly long time, from 1658 to 1707. Under his tenure, the Mughal Empire expanded to its greatest limits, largely driven by wars of conquest under Aurangzeb's leadership. In particular, he led Mughal forces in the conquest of the Deccan, seizing first the Golkunda and Bijapur Sultanates, and then attacking the Maratha chieftains. He annexed all the Maratha territories, but he never managed to conquer the Marathas who continued to fight using guerilla tactics. While Aurangzeb is the last great conqueror of Mughal history, both Muslim and Western historians agree that the Empire had grown too large for Mughal administration.

Aurangzeb was driven by an intense Muslim piety. He insisted that the Shari'a become the law of the land, and forbade all drinking and gambling. The Hindu majority, accustomed to living according to Hindu law, the Dharmashastra , now found themselves facing Islamic law courts. Aurangzeb outlawed the Hindu practice of suttee in which widows voluntarily killed themselves by throwing themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. More seriously, however, was Aurangzeb's repeal of all taxes that were not specifically authorized in Islamic law or tradition. This move depleted the Empire of much-needed revenue, so Aurangzeb reinstituted the jizya , or tax on non-believers, that was customary in every other Islamic state. Since the majority of Mughal subjects were Hindu, the jizya created unrest throughout the Empire.

The system began to fall apart throughout Aurangzeb's rule. Individual states rebelled against the new policies, but the most serious opposition came from two groups: the Marathas and the Sikhs. Together, these two, in their opposition to the Mughals and their establishment of independent kingdoms contained within the Empire, would form the basis of Mughal government in the eighteenth century and the nature of British colonialism.

The first major threat to Mughal imperial power came from a Hindu tribal confederacy known as the Marathas. Located in the mountainous regions of the Deccan, the Marathas were mainly drawn from the lowest caste of society, but they became a powerfully militant community under their ruler, King Sivaji, who died in 1680. Under his leadership, the Marathas managed to carve out their own kingdom in 1646. Aurangzeb, the last great conqueror of the Mughal rulers, defeated the Marathas and annexed their territories, but the Marathas never put down their arms. They could never be defeated by the Mughals because they adopted guerilla warfare tactics, hiding and living in the forests. They continued to rule over their territory, even though it was under the control of the Mughals, as a separate state within a state. By 1740, the Marathas controlled more territory than the Mughals.

In the later eighteenth century, the kingdom of Mysore and the Maratha confederacy were the major obstacles in the British attempt to control the economy of India. The East India Company, originally started as a trading company, had become an official arm of the British Empire. It's objective was to control the economy of India and, if necessary, control the administration of its territories. It turned to the Mughal Empire for its model of ruling India, but the Marathas were very resistant to British imperialism. The British, under General Wellesley, defeated the Maratha chieftains, Scindia and Holkar, but the Maratha chieftains continued to rebel all throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century.

The Sikhs are one of the most prosperous and politica ll y important religious minorities in India. The religion itself is of comparatively recent origi n—it dates from the time of Babur—but the history of its community, called Panth , or "Path," by the faithful, is a deeply rooted aspect of Sikh life. Since its inception, the Sikh community has been one of the major factors in Indian history. The Mughals understood that Sikhism was a separatist movement, and by the eighteenth century, the Sikhs had established a separate kingdom with its capital in Lahore. The Sikhs were a major force in the British Allied army as the British gradually annexed the whole of I ndia in the 1850's, and after Indian Independence, the Sikh community, half of which had to flee Muslim Pakistan after partition, became economically and politically the most significant and successful minority community in India. The Sikhs are unique as a religious movement. Founded in the deepest spirituality and mysticism, they are a radically egalitarian group rooted deeply in their sense of community, called "brotherhood" (khalsa ) , and history. The khalsa is unified by one aspect: all Sikhs are disciples of the founding Gurus of the religion—the word, "Sikh," means disciple. They are also, h owever, a highly militant religion and society; the community has to be protected with the highest martial vigilance and ability. Since the seventeenth century, Sikh fighters have been feared throughout India for their ability and sheer courage. The British, who employed them in their army in the nineteenth century, referred to them as the greatest of the "martial races." It's an odd mixture. On the one hand, Sikhism is one of the most deeply spiritual and profoundly mystical religions of the world, advocating a social harmony and egalitarianism unrivalled by any other major religion, with the possible exception of Buddhism. On the other hand, the Sikh community is a militant, warrior community, willing to fight, sacrifice, or assassinate to protect or further the community.

Their history begins with Guru Nanak (1469-1539) who f ounded the religion. Much of his life Western historians have found difficult to put together, but in Sikh history, his life is recorded in the janam sakhis which record in small storie s various events and sayings of Nanak's life. Western historians discount the janam sakhis as reliable historical evidence, but Sikh historians argue that the stories are both historically reliable and central to an understanding of Sikhism. Both Western and Sikh historians agree on a number events as central to Guru Nanak's life, vision, and mission.

Born in 1469, Nanak became an accountant to the Mus lim governor of Sultanpur. During this time, he had a vision of God and the presence of God in the human soul. His vision of God demanded that he teach people the true nature of God and the presence of God in humanity. Guru Nanak then began to journey about the country and teach people the nature of God; these journeys make up the whole of the janam-sakhis . Evenutally he established a village in the Punjab called Kartarpur for all his followers to live in. Throughout his life, he seems to have been deeply hostile to the Mughal administration. He referred to Babur the conqueror as "The Messenger of De ath," and was profoundly troubled by the number of deaths the Mughal conquest was built on.

Guru Nanak's teachings were written down in a series of verses. These verses make up the central teachings of the Sikh sacred scriptures, called t he Adi Granth. The core teaching of Sikhism is one truth: that God is one God and is behind and present in all of creation, particularly in each human soul. God can be directly apprehended by an individual by examining his or her soul; this examination is carried out by meditating on the name of God. There is no need of any intermediary function, such as rituals, priests, fasting, churches, mosques, or anything else. All other gods a re human particularizations of the one God, that is, they particularize one aspect of God. So all religions are both legitimate and illegitimate.

Perhaps the most radical of Guru Nanak's teachings wat the rejection of caste or class. Since all human beings contain God within themselves, social distinction and inequality are externalizations of humanity's sinfulness. The ideal community is one in which no social distinctions are in place at all. The early history o f Sikhism under Nanak and the first four Gurus is largely an attempt to build a class-free and caste-free society.

The core of Guru Nanak's teachings involve three fundamental doctrines.
  • Nam: The Name. A direct, unmediated experie nce of God can be attained by meditating on God's name (Nam); this name, according to Guru Nanak, is ek , or "One." Each human being can overcome their sinfulness and achieve a mystical union with God by meditating on this name.
  • Sabad: The Word. God is revealed through the spoken word (sabad ) . The spoken word reveals the nature and name of God as well as the methods by which one can meditate on the Name and achieve union with go d.
  • Guru: The Teacher. The Name and the Word are revealed through the Guru; knowledge of both only comes through the Guru. The Sikh concept of the Guru is different from the Hindu concept, for the Sikh Guru is synonymous with the Name and the Word. It is slightly inaccurate to say this, but it comes close to hitting the mark: in many ways, the Guru is the voice of God speaking to humanity.
The Guru is one of the foundational concepts of Sikhis m, and before his death, Guru Nanak appointed his successor. He was followed by nine more Gurus; the tenth and last declared the office to be discontinued and there has been no Guru since. While Guru Nanak established the central teachings of Sikhism, eac h Guru who followed added significantly to the religion (which was one aspect of the office of Guru). The figure of the Guru gave Sikhism a stable continuity from in its earliest and most volatile period; it also made it adaptable to changing situations. The figure of the Guru, who had the same authority as the founding Guru, allowed the religion to change and adapt to a growing community and growing hostility from the Mughal emperors.

The Gurus

The first four Gurus of Sikhism established many of the customs and rituals of Sikhism. The fourth Guru, Ram Das (1574-1581) founded the city of Amritsar as a place of Sikh pilgrimage. It is to this day the most important city in Sikh geography; the central temple of Sikhism, the Golden Temple, is located there.

The most important of the early Gurus, however, was Arjan, who led the Sikh community as Guru from 1581 to 1606. Arjan was the Guru who assembled the verses of Guru Nanak and the first four Gurus into the anthology, Adi Granth , which became the scriptures of the Sikh community. Arjan was the first Sikh Guru to fall afoul of the Mughal authorities, thus setting the tone for the remaining history of the Mughal Empire. When Prince Khusrau rebelled against his father, Jahangir, Arjan helped him. Jahangir, growing suspicious of the steady growth of the Sikh community and Arjan's increasing influence over the region, arrested him in 1606 and tortured him to death.

This event more than any other converted the Sikh community into a militant community. Arjan was succeeded by his son, Hargobind (1606-1644), who built the Sikh community into a military power. He elevated martyrdom to an ideal of the religion; this was not merely dying for the faith, but being killed while fighting for the Sikh community. At this point in history, the Sikh community begins to actively resist the Mughal Empire and several battles are fought between the two sides.

Gobind Singh

The most militant of the Gurus was the tenth and last, Gobind Singh. Under Aurangzeb, who fanatically tried to suppress non-Muslim practices, the Sikhs were persecuted viciously by the Mughal government. In response, Gobind Singh transformed the Sikh community into a military community. For the Mughals and for Muslim historians, Gobind Singh was no better than a warlord with no religious credentials. To an extent, this is accurate. He was a powerful military general with a profound vision of transforming Sikh society into a militaristic society—an absolute necessity for a community surrounded by a hostile and powerful empire. Gobind Singh established the fourth and last most important doctrine of Sikhism (the first three being the Name, the Word, and the Guru): this was the doctrine of Khalsa, or the "Brotherhood" of Sikhs. The khalsa gives the community a deep sense of unity founded on symbolic acts. The most important of these is an initiation rite very similar to Christian baptism. In this rite, the believer drinks sweetened water that has been stirred with a dagger (the dagger represents the initiate's willingness to fight for the faith and the community). After this ceremony, the initiate is given a name added on to his own name: Singh, or "lion." This common name identifies each person as part of the community, as part of the same family, and as willing to fight for the faith. Each Sikh male is required to wear symbolic clothing and accoutrements to make manifest his membership in the community: these include uncut hair and a steel dagger.

There is no question that the formation of the khalsa is the single most important event in the Sikh experience of history. It fully unified the community and made it a force to reckon with militarily. After the formation of the khalsa , the political and military power of the Sikhs grew tremendously. By the early 1800's, the Sikhs managed to carve out an independent kingdom in the Mughal Empire, which they retained until the British annexations in the 1850's. Still, the Sikh military brotherhood was the most powerful fighting force that the British used against the Mughal Empire in its closing days.

Gobind Singh declared the Guru to be officially ended at his death. From his death onwards, religious authority has rested in the scriptures, which were renamed Guru Granth Sahib , and in the Sikh community.

To this day, the Sikh community is economically and politically very powerful and is one of the most restive of India's minorities. It has demanded greater autonomy and has militantly defied the government. India's Prime Minister was assassinated by her Sikh guards, and Sikh militancy has led to military intervention, including the the invasion of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. To Akbar, the Sikhs were a religious community deserving imperial support. To Jahangir, they were a growing political force that potentially threatened the Empire. To Aurangzeb, the Sikhs were dangerous heretics to be stamped out at any cost. To the successors of Aurangzeb, the Sikhs were a major military and social force pulling the Empire apart. As a separate and militant community, the Sikhs still find themselves partly foreigners in their own country, suspicious of and suspected by the dominant government.


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