Muslim Hindu Religious Interactions in the Mughal Empire: The Birth and Death of a Cohesive Culture

The Indian Subcontinent has experienced many religions over the centuries and is one of the oldest cradles of human civilization on earth. The river valleys of India are a petri dish of religion and cultural diversity in practices and beliefs. India has seen times of peace and hegemony, while also experiencing war and conflict with millions perishing in ethno-religious conflicts. Islam and Hinduism have been the two most prominent religions in India. Throughout its history the region has seen both times of cohesion and times of strife and conflict. The Mughal Empire was a time period of peaceful religious and cultural flourishing between the Hindus and Muslims of India, culminating in a golden age of Islamic-Hindu cross cultural pollination.

The last Mughal Emperor’s policy of intolerance towards the religious plurality is what led to the fragmentation of this cohesive system, which continued to deteriorate for centuries. Central Asian tribes invaded India some time around 1500 B.C.E. The Central Asian invaders conquered India and created what is referred to as Classical Indian culture; putting and end to the Golden Age of the Mughal Empire.

The Subcontinent was transformed though a successive rulers and mighty empires, before the arrival of Muslims in the 8th Century. The first Muslim contact with India and the attempted conquest was not a assimilative effort on the part of the Muslim generals coming out of the Central Asian dynasties. Unlike the rapid Arab conquest of large portions of the Middle East and Northern Africa, the conquest of India was slow and fragmented, perpetrated over many years by many different people. Many advances and inroads were made into Indian territory, by the Pashtun armies of Central Asia, but footholds were not easily gained.

The establishment of Muslim empires in India was a tedious process. The establishment of a Muslim dominated realm in the area stretching from the Western borders of the old Persian Empire to the area around Delhi was attempted by many Muslim generals. Various campaigns, beginning in 712 C.E. sought the establishment of Muslim rule.  Finally in 1192 C.E.  Muslim rulers from Afghanistan and the Punjab  established joint control  of northern India through various alliances with Hindu princes from the southern plateau.

Around this time there was also the development Islamic Sultanate in Eastern India centered around  what is today’s modern Bangladeshi region of the subcontinent. The sultanate was a break-away province of an older Muslim Empire in the Punjab and Afghanistan border regions of India. This Persian linage can be seen clearly, the sultanate incorporating, many Persian and Central Asian traditions, into Muslim and Hindu cultures that were already present. The northern and eastern sultanates provided the first experiments with the fusion of the two cultures and religions into one, allowing for future development of the successor state the Mughal Empire.

Later in the history of the subcontinent, the establishment of large Muslim populations on two sides of a large Hindu majority became a problem in the future when the British partitioned India along religious lines, creating Western Pakistan and Eastern Pakistan, as a single nation, which quickly experienced civil war and eventfully split itself in two.

Out of this Hindu dominated center, rose the Delhi Sultanate, a Muslim ruled Sultanate that at one time expanded from the Bay of Bangle to the Arabian Sea. It was a general from the Delhi Sultanate that defeated the Mongol invaders and drove them from Delhi preventing prolonged Mongol hording and domination of India. As the Mughal Empire emerged in the surrounding areas it eventually absorbed the Sultanate in 1526 C.E. This establishment of a patchwork of majority religions led to large scale interaction between both the pedestrian higher echelons of society.

These interactions and cohabitation between the two communities predominated social interactions for centuries. Cultural diffusion and acceptance became the hallmark of the Mughal Empire, creating a diverse population with many similar and compatibilizing traditions. Prior to the establishment of the Mughal Empire –from around the 8th to the 14th century- was a period of continuous warfare between Muslim and Hindus –as well as between Hindus and Hindus. There were times of cooperation and cohesiveness within and amongst these fleeting sultanates and principalities.

The Muslim rulers of Kabul and the princes from the southern Decca Plateau, successfully governed huge swaths of territory in Northern India with diverse populations for many years. At times even sharing responsibility for the regions general defense. During periods  of violence and before the creation and hegemony of the Mughal Empire, it is estimated by some that anywhere from 20 to 80 million Hindus were killed by Muslim armies, in attempts to subdue the local population. It appears, however, that Muslims and Hindus fought over most things except for religion. Territory and wealth seem to be the dominant motivators for the Muslim conquest

of India. Many people attribute religious dimensions to the violence based on the fact that the opposing groups in the conflict merely had different religions. This is not to say that faith was never a motivating factor or a cause of conflict but seem to have not been a primary motivator for it. I find this to be true in almost every case in India during this period. Once the Muslims took control of the territory’s wealth and resources, the Muslim rulers put forward very limited efforts to convert the Hindus to Islam, or limit their religious practices and freedoms. This is different from most other expansions in Islamic history. The migration of Uthman was the first expansion of Islam, but it was undertaken in order to preserve the religion. However, in most of the conquests under the first four CalifsAbu Bakar, Umar, Uthman and Ali-  were undertaken in the name of Allah, in order to spread the word of the Koran.

The Mogul Empire, for its time in the history of Islam, was a huge exception to president regarding religious diversity and tolerance. The Mughal Empire ruled areas where the majority of the population was non-Muslim, which was quite and unusual thing for contemporary standards. After the Muslim conquest, else where –with the exception of Spain– the inhabitance of the conquered land where almost entirely converted to Islam.

This exceptional diversity can be explained by the well-established pre-existing cultures in India. An exceptionally large population of Hindus made it a daunting task to try to convert, the many millions of what would be presumably, unwilling participants. Compared to Muslims in the Middle East, Northern Africa, or even Spain; the Mughal Empire at the time was on the periphery of the Muslim world. There was a vast geographical distance, from Baghdad, Cairo, Mecca and Medina, the centers of religious thought and piety. This does not mean that the Muslims of India were any less pious then their Arab brethren but they did make many exceptions and interpret many precedents of Islam to fit their specific situation. They infused many Hindu traditions and ideas into the empire, creating a unique subculture to the civilization of the Arab world.

Babur was the founder of the Mughal Empire, and subsequently its first ruler. He invaded India from Central Asia with only twelve thousand men, and defeated many larger armies eventually forming the Mughal Empire. Babur was a Turkic-Persian military commander from Central Asia who is credited in advancing the Persian influx of ideas and culture into India. His descendants continued and expanded this tradition, eventfully creating a unique cultural period in India, known for its art, architecture, literature, philosophy and mathematics.

Humayun, Bubur’s son, lost control of his empire soon after taking the throne. With the help of his half brother, the ruler of Kabul and Punjab, and Persian advisors Humayun regained his empire and even expanded to the South and East. It is important to note here the Persian influence, the help of Persian and Central Asian advisors straightened what was to be a long lasting cultural impact from the subcontinents western neighbors. Later during his reign the presence of Persian advisors was a constant feature of his court. Both Humayun and Bubur introduced Persian and central Asian styles architecture to India creating a fusion style, notable for its domes and intricate decoration.

The Emperor Akbur the Great, who ruled the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1605, was one of the most important Mughal rulers for fostering religious cohesion amongst Muslims and Hindus. His trusted friend and advisor Abul Fazl wrote a book, the Akbarnama, describing the rule of the emperor Akbur including Akbur’s religious views and policies toward Hindus. Abul Fazl wrote a lot about the interactions and policies that the Muslim government established in response to the Hindu majority. This is important to note, it shows the tolerance of the Muslim leadership toward another religion in order to keep power peacefully. The text even speaks of the similarities in the religions. The tolerance and acceptance shown to the Hindus by the Muslim rulers of the time was, put simply, a politically savvy move. Ruling an empire where the majority of the population did not have the same religious views as the ruling class, presented many obstacles, and required the Mughal rulers to practice religious sensitivity, in order to maintain power. This repeal of policies would play a key role in the demise of the Empire.

Abul Fazl’s literary work the Akbarnama, a book about the life of the emperor, Akbar the Great, it remains one of the most important surviving documents from the Mughal Empire. In the text, Fazl tackles many of the issues in regards to the Hindus that the Muslim elite may have a problem with, including but not limited to Hindu: polytheism, idol worship, and caste system. On the charge of polytheism, Abul Fazl maintains that all of the different G-d’s are different manifestations of one Hindu G-d in different forms. This is not very different from how many Muslims view the Christen Trinity of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. He also maintains that Hindus do not practice idol worship, saying:

“Since according to their belief, the Supreme Deity can assume an
elemental form without defiling the skirt of the robe of omnipotence,
they first make various idols of gold and other substances to represent
this ideal and gradually withdrawing the mind from this material
worship, they become meditatively absorbed in the ocean of his
mysterious being…They believe that the Supreme Being in the
wisdom of his council, assumes an elemental from of a special
character or the good of creation, many of the wisest Hindus accept
this doctrine… “

It is here, in the Akbranama that Fazl argues that devout Hindus who fully understand their religion do not in fact pray to the idols made of the earthly elements. Instead they are praying to the Supreme Being who has transformed into the element of which the idol is made of, and they are directly praying to the Supreme Being and not the idol itself. This is very important to the argument of Abul Fazl. Idol worship is a extremely taboo thing in the Muslim religion, Fazl felt that he has justified and exonerated the Hindus from this charge of idol worship.

In order to fully understand Fazl’s defense of the Hindu caste system to Muslims, the idea and socio-religious implications of it first must be comprehended. In the Akbranama, Fazl explains the caste system in a way that would not be disagreeable to many Muslims. He does leave the way that people are categorized within it perhaps on purpose. There are two main factors in the defining caste, which are birth and the color of one’s skin. When the caste system was established the separate groups were defined by their skin color, with the lightest fairest skinned people on top of the social order. As well birth becomes a deciding factor in your place in society, socio-economically. This would have large weight on its acceptability to other Muslims as a way to define status within the community, as it would go against one of the principles of Islam, one is not judged by race, color, or socioeconomic status, only on one’s piety.

The first man in Mecca to call to prayer after the prophet Muhammad captured the city was a black African Muslim not an Arab. Akbar took the cohesion a step further by creating his own religion, called Din-i-Ilahi, or Faith of G-d. This was Akbar’s attempt in making a grand unifying religion for his empire. The religion never gained many followers, but it was an important indicator in understanding the true level of cohesion amongst the religions in the Mughal Empire. Akbur took his ideas for the religion from Hinduism and Islam, but Christianity, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism also played a contributing roles.
Akbar’s religion was not an accepted fact, by the entire Muslim community in India. This idea of a new religion based on Islam clashed with the ulama, escalates until his own half brother issued a fatawa against him, instructing Muslims to rise up, against what he considered to be religious heresy. Akbar crushed this revolt using his Hindu lieutenants. Akbar many have created the new religion to stifle orthodox critiques and opponents about his lax policy about letting non-Muslims gain high ranking positions in government. Akbar promoted a cohesive culture through many other policies and actions, appointing many Hindus to high-ranking administrative positions within his government in conjunction with other policies. At times, these Hindus rose to the governorships of major provinces. These provinces were ruled by Muslim military commanders and it was the job of the Hindu governor to report abuses to the Emperor. This showed the trust that Akbar had in the Hindus he put into power. Giving the religious majority a check on the religious minority.

Akbar’s religious intrigue led him further into exploring other religions than most orthodox Muslims would have found acceptable. It is said that he even had the Portuguese march all the way from Geo to perform a Christian ceremony in latin for him. Akbar close to the end of his reign abolished the taxes on non-Muslims, which was a major source of contention between the religious groups. Akbar himself settled disputes with regions of unhappy non-placated Hindus by marrying the daughters of many, of the more, powerful Hindu families. By the time of his death Akbar may have had over 4,000 wives of varying religions.

In Abul Fazl’s writings a Muslim, adviser to the ruler of a great empire gives reasons why Hindus and Muslims should both be treated with respect. I feel though that it must be taken into account that Abul Fazl was trying with this text to maintain support from the Muslim elite of the empire, still the text still showed genuine good feelings and tolerance toward the Hindus. Akbar and Fazl’s feelings were portrayed in Akbar’s actions and actual polices as emperor. Abul Fazl was assassinated in 1579, allegedly on the orders of Jahangir, Akbar’s son. It is thought this order was given because of Fazl’s voiced opposition to Jahangir’s ascension to the throne.

Akbar the Great, as he was known, truly deserves of his name; in terms of running a successful government, operated by both Hindus and Muslims. Akbar created a complex system of government and bureaucracy in his empire. Akbur gave Hindus power to check the abuse of the military and placed many Hindus high in government in order to gain input from a larger portion of the population. He divided the empire into separately run independent municipalities, and he successfully ruled over 140 million people as an adherent of the minority religion. Akbur created a long period of regional stability and power, and was at the pinnacle of Mughal religious, military and cultural dominance in India. His development of a new religion showed how devoted he was to the fusion of the two religions and the creation of a Mughal population, combining Muslims and Hindus. Seeking the best of both religions, Akbur tried to fuse two faiths.

Jahangir, the son of Akbar, was born in 1569, of his Muslim father and Hindu mother. He ascended to the throne in 1605, and reigned until his death in 1627. He was educated in science, history, arithmetic and geography in his childhood. Jahangir’s marriage was to his first cousin on his mother’s side, a Hindu woman, though she did convert to Islam according to Islamic Law, Sharia. Before the emperors addiction to alcohol and opium, he was a very effective leader that followed many of the same policies as his father, he extended Muslim rule throughout large portions of Hindu India.

Jahangir, like his father, contributed to the empires literary heritage with his autobiographical memoirs, with subjects ranging from poetry about his greatness to his policies toward Hindus. In his memoirs he also, like Abul Fazl, caters to the contemporary Muslim elite that would read it, legitimizing his claim to the throne. He makes comparisons to himself to the former kings of Persia, a culture from whom earlier Muslim sultanates and earlier Mughal Emperors also borrowed. Here, Janangir gives examples of his greatness, linking himself to the ancient kings of Persia, legitimizing his power in Muslim thought. In his memoirs Jahangir describes his official decrees, showing that Hindus and Muslims within the empire in many respects were treated equally, “when a person shall die and leave children, whether infidel or Muslim, no man was to interfere a pin point in his property”. With this Jahangir sought to protect his subjects regardless of religious affiliation. When Jahangir was unsure how to handle Hindus building a temple of solid gold, and jewel encrusted idols, he refers back to advice that his father gave him:

“I find myself a powerful monarch, the shadow of G-d on earth. I have seen that he bestows the blessings of his gracious providence upon all his creatures without distinction…. With all of the human race, with all of G-ds creatures I am at peace: why then should I permit myself to be the cause of molestation or aggression to any one? “

His father goes onto tell him that the only other alternative is to put them all to death, and that the wisest decision is to leave them alone. Akbar goes on to tell his son that it is not wise either to completely ignore “these people”, stating that many of them “are engaged, either in the pursuits of science or the arts, or in the improvements for the benefit of mankind”. I believe that this shows Akbar’s true feelings about the Hindus, that regardless of their religion they are good people, who have legitimate and valuable contributions to the Mughal Empire. This is why he implements the policies that he does.

Shah Jahan, Akbur’s grandson, also displayed his pretense for religious cohesion within the empire. Shah Jahan is responsible for arguably what can be considered India’s most recognizable architectural wonder, the Taj Mahal. Throughout Shah Jahan’s rule he was known to have over 300 wives, but only three where his favorite. His three favorite wives consisted of a Christian, Muslim, and a Hindu wife. He did not favor his Muslim wife and instead favored his Christian wife Arjumarid Bano Begum, or Mumtaz Mahal, the daughter of his father’s prime minister. Upon her death Shan Jahan designed himself and built the Taj Mahal in an Indo-Central Asian style of architecture. Shah Jahan is not showing preferential treatment to any one the many religions in his empire; he favored his Christian wife due to her merits, “what ever” they may be. Though this does not directly show policy initiatives toward the Hindus in the empire, it does show genuine tolerance and acceptance of the other religions by a Muslim emperor. The policies of his grandfather proved successful for Shah Jahan as well as flourishing in the religiously tolerant atmosphere of the empire.

Aurangzeb was the last great Mughal Emperor, but he is generally credited with causing the empires downfall, as he controlled the empire until its general decline after and around his death. Aurangzeb, unlike his forefathers, was not tolerant of the religious pluralism that existed within the empire. Leaning more towards a fundamental interpretation of Islam, he enforced Islamic law throughout his empire. He alienated his Hindu allies and created religious rifts between his subjects.

The demise of the empire and extinction of this cohesive Mughal thought was because of Aurangzeb’s influence. Aurangzeb’s enforcement of Sharia law and the enactment of polices that interfered with Hindu worship practices and holidays, causing religious tension and animosity. Aurangzeb forbid many religious gatherings, destroyed important Hindu temples and started a campaign of general discrimination of the Hindu population of his empire. Even music and dancing was outlawed under Aurangzeb. These laws of religious discrimination caused countless rebellions and acts of religious violence during his reign. He even executed the Pontiff of the Sikh sect for refusing to convert to Islam. This was not just religious discrimination on his part, but many of his polices ended in violence.

Aurangzeb’s biggest policy failure though was the one policy that made the Mughal Empire different from the rest of the Islamic world at the time, which was the policy of forced conversions of populations under Muslim hegemony. None of his predecessors chose to peruse this policy, and this was a wise course of action on their parts. With the huge population differences between Muslims and Hindus on the subcontinent, there was not a large enough power base amongst the Muslims to perpetrate this policy.

Along with his policies that seemed anti-Hindu, Aurangzeb was said to have favored Muslims over non-Muslims, when it came to economics and general welfare. It is easy to see how the harmonious nation that existed only one hundred years earlier could end in religious violence. Aurangzeb not only practiced a campaign of marginalization of Hindus but the subjugation and domination of them. Instead of the inclusion and fusion of his predecessors, he transformed religious lines to lines of hatred amongst Indians. I believe that Aurangzeb single handedly picked apart all of the advancements made by his own kin.

After the Mughal Empire’s decline and demise, what was left of the religious cohesion that was once celebrated by the Mughal Empire soon disappeared. The arrival of Europeans led to re-fragmentation of India under the hegemony of the British. At first British contacts were simply trading ties, but by 1773 British India was created and Great Britain colonized India and inter-religious violence only was exacerbated. The British ruled British India as one large colony, which becoming the most valuable part of the British Empire. There were times that both Hindus and Muslims worked together, and this was against the British.

Both Hindus and Muslims fought the British together during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. It was the radicalization of Hindu nationalism that prompted many Muslim leaders to form the Indian Muslim League in 1906 C.E. After WWII all of India was to be given independence as one large all-inclusive country. The Indian Muslim League feared that a Hindu dominated state would not be able to appropriately tend to the Muslim population. The Muslim league was the main driving force behind the partition plan of India creating India and East and West Pakistan. I believe this was the largest and most divisive action in the fracturing of what was left of a semi-harmonious muli-religious India. The partition sparked unprecedented civil unrest and inter-religious violence in India, forcing one of the largest land migrations in history, of people trying to cross the border. The result of the partition left Pakistan as two parts and then as two countries, as well. There were two successive wars fought over the disputed territory of Kashmir, creating the largest militarized border in the world, and undeclared nuclear weapons pointing at major population centers of both India and Pakistan.

India’s government structure today is a major source of inter-religious controversy. India’s federal democracy leaves a lot of room for diversity amongst hugely diverse states with large populations. This is a major source of tension because it allows local extremists to incite ethno-religious violence. India today has well over one billion, one hundred thirty million people, with over eighty of the population being Hindu and around thirteen and a half percent being Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other sects make up the rest of the population. This hugely diverse population base, even amongst Hindus, is a far cry from the cohesion of the Mughal Empire. Instead of combining religions or creating cohesion, many Indian politicians use the differences to stir emotion and create divisiveness to incite their followers.

The real source of tension in the pluralistic country of India today is the constitution. It is a secular constitution that does not favor any one religious group. Hindus, though contest that over eighty percent of the country is Hindu and that the government bends over backwards to accommodate to Muslims and other minorities. Muslims, on the other hand, maintain that the government as well as the constitution plays to the Hindus favor. Tensions have further deteriorated with the radicalization of both sides. The formation of groups, such as IBP or Indian Peoples Party, who’s goal is to “Hinduize” India, have complicated matters and alarmed many Muslims.

The Mughal Empire was the pinnacle of cohesion and fusion amongst the Islamic and Hindu faiths. The Mughal rulers, with the exception of Aurangzeb, all were enlightened rulers in their religious stances. Writing literature and designing architecture providing proof of their true feelings. They tried to create a harmonious religiously pluralistic society under Muslim hegemony, something that had never before been seen in the Muslim world. With one exception, Aurangzeb, Mughal rulers were kind and benevolent to their subjects of every religion. In its final days it was religious intolerance that weakened the empire causing its eventual collapse.

For more of Sensible Reason’s articles about the Mughals click here.

Greg Sarafan

Greg Sarafan founded Greg Sarafan’s Sensible Reason in 2007. He started blogging for HeadCount in January 2011. Soon after he organized and ran a small but successful charity festival called Binghamtronica to benefit HeadCount and OxFam America. He is a Team Leader in NYC as well as Artist Relations representative for HeadCount. Greg has BAs in political science and art history from Binghamton University. Greg has a J.D. as well as a Certificate in Intelectual Property, Media and Privacy from Brooklyn Law School . Greg also volunteers for OxFam America as a Concert Outreach Coordinator. In 2009 Greg presented his theory of Artistic Stylistic Transmission in the Royal Mughal Atelier at an art history symposium at Ohio State University.

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