A look back at History: Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi

A look back at History: Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi

By Hiba Ishaq

The Mughal Dynasty ruled the Indian subcontinent for the entire medieval period, and the greatest ruler was the third Mughal ruler, Akbar. Akbar (the Great), unlike his predecessors (and also successors), conquered a vast territory of South Asia and Central Asia with excellent policies and strategies. He had incorporated a vast stretch of land from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent that included people from different cultures, ethnicities and races into his empire. The consolidation of various regions with different people was not as difficult a task as was management. The management of a heterogeneous empire, like that of Akbar’s, required socio-cultural as well as religious reforms that would bring the vast regions into one single empire. These reforms were carefully formulated by the scholars and intellectuals working with the ruler at that time. Amongst many such reforms, the introduction of ‘Din-i-Ilahi’ or Divine Faith, was a policy formulated and worked upon extensively by Akbar himself.

To look at Din-i-Ilahi as a religious reform, it is important to understand Akbar’s teachings, influence and interaction with various religious figures like Ulemas, priests, Pandits, Monks, etc. To begin with, Akbar belonged to a Sunni Muslim family who laid their belief in God and the Messenger of God. Secondly, Akbar was taught by Iranian scholars and tutors who belonged to the Shi’a sect of Islam. So, from his childhood, he was influenced by Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. But when Akbar placed his empire in – what is now- Agra, India, he realized that in order to connect with the majority of the people, he needs to know about the religion they practice, this way, he was exposed to Jainism, the Bhakti movement, and Hinduism. With the establishment of missionaries and the interconnection with the western world, he came in close contact with the Christians, monks and priests.

Akbar was known to challenge the orthodoxy of religious traditions, especially Islam. In this respect, he first married the Hindu princess belonging to the Rajput dynasty as a way to adhere to the people around him. Secondly, he also removed the tax on the Hindus that was mandated on them through the Sharia law (Islamic jurisprudence). Other than these various reforms and policies, he also believed in a more liberal idea of practising religion for which he was constantly criticized by the Ulemas and Orthodox priests. With his interaction and influence by various religious figures, he borrowed the best from all religion, making it an eclectic mix which he called Din-i-Ilahi or the Divine Faith. Din-i-Ilahi was a synthesis of religions more directed towards a liberal idea where the connection with God could be achieved by an individual without any intermediation; by practising celibacy (as in Catholicism), abstaining from sins like lust, sensuality, and encouraging purity to reach God (as in Sufi Islam), the prohibition of slaughter of animals (Jainism), and use light (sun and fire) as an object for rituals and divine worship (borrowed from Zoroastrianism).

Akbar was against the imposition of religious doctrines and traditions on his subjects and people, and for this reason, he did not propagate his religious reform of Din-i-Ilahi as a monarch would have. For this reason, the assimilation of various religions was not adopted or even practised by many. It remained in the upper level, in the palace of the monarch, and could not seep down to the locals. But, this does not stop us from looking at it in the contemporary world. Even though Akbar’s socio-economic reforms are well known all over, we also need to give attention to the lesser-known religious policy- Din-i-Ilahi, in the present time. Din-i-Ilahi, that borrowed the best from all religions, stands today as an example of interfaith co-existence. The assimilation and integration of various religious ideals and traditions into one is not only a work of art but also a hope for interreligious co-existence. Apart from this, the main idea behind the formulation of this policy was universal tolerance, ultimate truth and harmony as ways to peacefully connect with everyone.

Revisiting history to look at various means and ways that were adopted by many rulers, monarchs, and empires in a way to peacefully co-exist in harmony and tolerance, is an important activity that we should take as peacebuilders. History not only captures important dates of conquests and wars but also has some important lessons for the future. Din-i-Ilahi is one such lesson that we can take from the past and use it in the present as well as the future. Today, the world is not only divided into haves and have not’s, but also between various religious groups, one trying to prove its supremacy over the other. Here, a medieval times religious policy, Din-i-Ilahi, becomes a means to look at what measures were taken back then for tolerance and peace, how they can be helpful now, and what is the lesson that we should take from them, moving forward. It is not to say whether a policy like this one is possible today or not, but rather how interfaith co-existence can transpire. After all, we all are working towards a peaceful world where there would be harmony and tolerance!

Kutluturk, Cemil. 2016. A Critical Analysis of Akbar’s Religious Policy: Din-i-Ilahi. Columbia University, New York

Nur, Anwarsyah. 2017. The contribution of Din-i-Ilahi towards the Life and Culture of Indian People. 4th International Conference the Community Development in ASEAN.

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

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