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Finding Tolerance in Akbar, the Philosopher-King

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Akbar the Great, ruler of most of South Asia in the 16th and early 17th century, rejected bigotry and made unprecedented moves to help non-Muslims feel at peace in his Mughal empire. In reflecting more closely upon his character and conduct, we can see how Akbar's actions are antithetical to current discrimination and violence against vulnerable religious communities around the world today, especially in Pakistan, a land he once ruled.

Born in Umarkot, India in 1542, Akbar the Great took over as ruler of the Mughal empire when he was just 14 years old. Although Akbar was born into a Sunni Muslim family, he received an education by two Persian scholars on religious matters, which likely had an impact on his tolerant vision for Mughal society. After several triumphant military conquests, which expanded his empire as far north as modern-day Afghanistan and as far east as Bengal, Akbar began to implement an inclusive approach toward non-Muslims, ushering in an era of religious tolerance based on the Sufi concept of Sulh-e-kul, or "peace to all."

Despite never learning how to read or write, Akbar the Great was a curious thinker who constantly yearned for knowledge. His son Salim, who would later take the name of Emperor Jahangir, stated that Akbar was "[a]lways associated with the learned of every creed and religion" and always in "intercourse with the learned and the wise." Throughout his rule, Akbar invited theologians, poets, scholars and philosophers of Christian, Hindu, Jain and Zoroastrian faiths to his court to carry out a dialogue about religion. As his interest in other religions expanded, Akbar amassed a library that consisted of more than 24,000 volumes of Hindi, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri texts.

Akbar was so convinced of the commonalities among religions that he even attempted to unite them in creating his very own religion, known as the Din-e-Ilahi, or "the religion of God." In borrowing ideas from Sufism, most notably from the scholar Ibn Arabi, Akbar looked at how major religions could be synthesized in their shared belief in the almighty. In creating the Din-e-Ilahi and breaking away from the notion of Islam's superiority over all other religions, Akbar achieved his single greatest feat: "liberating the [Mughal] state from its domination by the [clerics]," as suggested by leading historian R.S. Sharma.

Akbar the Great's departure from orthodoxy also appears in a letter from 1582 to King Philip II of Spain. Rather than learning only from Muslim scholars in his court, Akbar stated that he mingled with "learned men of all religions, thus depriving profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations." Akbar added that too many people do not investigate their religious arguments and instead blindly "follow the religion in which [they] were born and educated, thus excluding [themselves] from the possibility of ascertaining the truth, which is the noblest aim of the human intellect." In challenging people to open their minds to knowledge outside of their own religious traditions, Akbar insinuated that no single religion has a monopoly on the truth.

Akbar also went to great lengths to integrate non-Muslims into the Mughal empire. After conquering the area of Rajput, he did not forcefully convert Hindus to Islam, but accommodated their religious demands by securing their freedom of public prayer, and allowing Hindus to build and repair their temples. Granting Hindus the ability to freely worship baffled many critics, including his own son Salim, who once asked his father why he had allowed Hindu ministers to spend money on building a temple. Akbar responded to Salim: "My son, I love my own religion... [but] the Hindu [m]inister also loves his religion. If he wants to spend money on his religion, what right do I have to prevent him... Does he not have the right to love the thing that is his very own?"

Ensuring equality for all his subjects was one of Akbar's paramount concerns. In abolishing the jizya, or poll tax on non-Muslims, and allowing for conversions to and from Islam, Akbar set an example: one did not have to be Muslim to be treated fairly in the Mughal empire. Akbar was especially concerned with the state of Hindus, so he made sure to participate in Hindu religious festivals and order translations of Hindu literature into Persian, the official language of the Mughal state. Akbar's respect for Hindus is also recorded in his visit to hear the songs of Mirabai, the wife of his rival Prince Bhoka Raj of Chittar. Fearing being identified by Prince Bhoka, Akbar and his court musician Tansen disguised themselves when they entered the temple in which Mirabai was singing. Deeply inspired by Mirabai's soulful music about God, Akbar went to place a diamond necklace at the feet of Mirabai's statue of Lord Krishna, a Hindu God, as a sign of respect. Akbar's tribute to Mirabai is a symbol of his willingness to be open to cross-cultural interaction as a means of building bridges across religious barriers.

Akbar the Great's tolerance of other religions is also noticeable in his marriages to women of various faiths, most noteably Jodha Bai, a Hindu daughter of the House of Jaipur. Akbar also took a Christian wife, Maria Zamani Begum, who had her own chapel in one of Akbar's palaces. Akbar's regard for Christianity is also visible in the Buland Darwaze, a large gate-structure at the city of Fatehpur Sikri, on which he had transcribed the Quranic inscription: "Isa [Jesus], son of Mary, said: This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but build no houses on it. He who hopes for an hour may hope for eternity. The world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen." In addition, Akbar had his son Murad instructed in the New Testament. According to Akbar's court companion Abdel Kadir, Murad started his New Testament lesson by stating "In the name of Christ" instead of the usual Islamic gesture "In the name of God."

One of Akbar's greatest legacies is the Ibidat Khana, or "House of Worship." Built in 1575 in the city of Fatehpur Sikri, the Khana originally served as a forum for open debate among Sunni Muslims. Following several petty debates which turned Sunni men against each other, Akbar changed the Khana into an edifice where people of all religions could gather to participate in interfaith dialogue. In the Khana and elsewhere, Akbar "would recognize no difference between [religions], his object being to unite all men in a common bond of peace," as noted by historian Muhammad Abdul Baki.

Despite his efforts in building an empire based in tolerance, Akbar's pluralist vision for Mughal society was short-lived. His great-grandson, Aurangzeb, who also reigned as a Mughal emperor, would end religious tolerance altogether by taking measures to reimpose the jizya and demolish Hindu temples. Not long after Aurangzeb's rule, the Mughals were invaded by the British, who swiftly conquered the divided Indian subcontinent and imposed their traditions and values upon the Mughal population. Ultimately, Akbar the Great's life shows us that when tolerance reigns, societies flourish, and when tolerance ceases to exist, so do empires.