Relevance of Akbar

Print edition : April 10, 2020

A still from the movie “Jodhaa Akbar”. There have been only two noteworthy period films with Akbar as the protagonist, “Mughal-e-Azam” and “Jodhaa Akbar”.

The author chooses events in history to give a lesson about the present times that will find favour with people who believe in peaceful coexistence.

SHORTLY after the former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam passed away in July 2015, the Government of India honoured him by promptly naming a road in Lutyens’ Delhi after him. The choice of the road was interesting. Aurangzeb Road was renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road. Aurangzeb the bigot giving way to Kalam, widely respected in pluralist circles for his intellect and wisdom. It proved to be a conclusion in haste.

Days after the renaming, there was a demand from within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to rename Akbar Road after a Rajput prince.

It spoke of a nation keen to erase its pluralist ethos and soon paved the way for more outrageous claims; that the Taj Mahal was a Siva temple and Akbar was a foreigner. That the government of the day was respectful of such demands became apparent when the Uttar Pradesh government, in 2017, included nondescript Hindu and Buddhist temples in its list of must-visit places in the State and excluded the Taj Mahal from it.

The attempt to wipe out the memory of Akbar, the Mughal emperor who was hitherto seen as one of the greatest Indian rulers, and the Taj was part of an elaborate exercise to erase all Muslim contributions to the nation.

Manimugdha S. Shar-ma says in his perceptive and cogently argued book, Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India: “The overarching narrative though is this: Muslim rulers were bad for India and Indians [read Hindus]. And because of this, Akbar who was already not quite visible, has been almost buried…. And that’s quite a spectacularly unfair fate of the man who in his lifetime and even afterwards was considered to be an avatar of Vishnu by the Hindus, the Jains and the Buddhists.”

“Unfair fate” is a mild description for the emperor who gave the nation one of its early philosophies of tolerance, even appreciation of differences. His Sulh-i-Kul, in many ways, can be seen as a preceptor to the modern Indian nation where the Constitution, not necessarily the government, gives every Indian the right to equality and the freedom to practice and propagate any religion. Back in the 16th century when the faith of the ruler usually decided the faith of the empire, Akbar talked in terms of uniting people across the barriers of dogma. He not only gave them freedom of religion, he respected the divergent views of scholars of different faiths.

In the chapter titled “Conquering India’s Heart and Mind, and Uniting its Spirit”, Sharma comes across as a nuanced raconteur. Rather than stating the obvious with respect to the amalgamation of adhesive principles of various faiths in Sulh-i-Kul, he narrates the fascinating tale of the origin of the Ibadat Khana.

“When Akbar returned to Fatehpur Sikri in 1575 from the conquest of Bengal, he carried with him a favourable impression of something that the late Sultan Sulaiman Kararani of Bengal used to do. That, coupled with his own inner churning, was manifested in a building that housed the first nursery of what is today called secularism in India. It was the Ibadat Khana.… The Ibadat Khana became a very unique experiment in improving the theological discourse. It was a bid to end conflicts among rival religions by creating a middle ground. To what extent it managed to achieve that objective is subject to debate, but it certainly had an impact on the Mughal state system and distanced it further and further from the church. This separation of the state from the church was a stellar achievement of Akbar’s empire.”

It is a lesson today’s India would do well to imbibe at a time when the idea of a Hindu Rashtra is raising a din, and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, is emphasising the idea of every Indian being a Hindu. Sharma tells us that the Ibadat Khana “was constructed around what was once the room of Shaikh Abdullah Niyazi Sirhindi, a disciple of Shaikh Salim Chishti who later became a devotee of Lord Shiva. That this whole journey of the Ibadat Khana began from the room of a Sufi who became a follower of Shiva makes it a very interesting beginning.” The place soon became a meeting point for not only Islamic scholars but also Brahmins, Christians, Jains, Zoroastrians, Jews and scholars of other religious denominations for a free and frank exchange of views.

Here Sharma weaves in a story about Abd al-Qadri Badauni, historian of the Mughal era and a man given to intolerance. A Shia scholar named Mullah Mohammed Yazidi, who had come from Persia, allegedly spoke in an unflattering manner about the companions of the Prophet. Badauni, who thought the scholar wished to turn the emperor into a Shia, responded with words that showed him in poor light.

“Badauni’s frustration is that of every bigot’s when surrounded by liberals and progressives,” Sharma writes. Incidentally, Akbar had asked the ulema of his time to write commentaries of the Quran. As each scholar had his own interpretation, it often led to fierce debates with even Hindus joining in. Once a Hindu Raja, Deb Chand Rajah Manjholah, claimed that Allah had great respect for the cow as the animal was mentioned in the first chapter of the Quran. He was not banished for stating his views. It showed the empire as a place where free exchange of views was favoured. Coming to modern India, the Mughal period has been reduced to a 300-year rule. While both Babur and his son Humayun are treated in a cursory manner, some justice is sought to be done to Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. There, too, stereotypes flourish, preventing a nuanced approach to each emperor and his times. It has been no different since India attained Independence. Films made in the 1950s and the early 1960s, which often talked of the country’s shared past and Nehruvian socialism, similarly failed to do justice to the Mughals.

Mughals in films

Sharma devotes a chapter to the media’s depiction of Akbar. Beginning with Hindi cinema, he writes: “Despite having ruled India for 300 years, leaving behind a tall and robust sociocultural legacy, the representation of the Mughals in mass media has been less than satisfactory. In the 70 years since Independence, there have been only two noteworthy period films with Akbar as the protagonist—K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008)…. Jodhaa Akbar was a largely fictionalised take on Akbar and the legendary Jodha Bai, his queen consort.” To his credit, Gowariker consulted historians for the movie. They told him Akbar did not have a wife named Jodha Bai. But Gowariker went ahead with the project and came up with a film replete with bloomers all the way through. Lopsided as the film’s depiction of the Mughal emperor was, it was still yards ahead of a television serial on Maharana Pratap, the man who was defeated by Akbar in the Battle of Chittor, and who, in these days of revisionist history, is hailed as the winner of that battle. The TV serial reduced Akbar to a caricature, a villainous extra in the life of a brave Rajput prince.

Allahu Akbar is not a typical history book, even the title is far from the usual. Its back-and-forth style of narration defies the stereotypes of recounting the past. The author picks and chooses events in history to give the reader a lesson about the times.

The book may not please those looking for a profound understanding of the emperor or expecting a well-rounded depiction of the man who was both a warrior and a philosopher. It will rankle those given to bigotry but will surely find favour with people who believe in peaceful coexistence and understand that everybody in this land is an immigrant. All that matters is how far back in time you go. Allahu Akbar could well nudge a few fence-sitters.

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