Book Review: Allahu Akbar – Revisiting the Great Mughal in Contemporary Times

Author: Manimugdha Sharma

Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India, (New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2019) pp. 305   Hardcover  ₹ 397.00

Review by Parvin Sultana        17 July 2020

Much has been written about the third Mughal Emperor of India, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar. Starting from the commissioned works of court historians like Akbarnama and Ain-i-Akbari by Abul Fazl, later books like Akbar, the Great Mughal (1542-1605) by Vincent Arthur Smith, Akbar and the Rise of the Mughal Empire by George Bruce Malleson to recent books like Akbar-the Great Mughal by Ira Mukhoty, An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal by Parvati Sharma, etc. Manimugdha Sharma’s Allahu Akbar is a valuable addition to this body of work. While the author clarifies in the very introduction that it is not a definitive biography of Akbar, it chronicles the important events of the Great Mughal emperor’s life and helps the reader understand why this historical figure continues to be relevant in today’s time.

Akbar is the first Mughal Emperor born in Indian soil. Being made the Emperor at the tender age of 13, his regime was marked by political pragmatism and inclusive political culture. Often accommodative of different communities of India, he reached out to Rajputs and established marital alliances and gave a good position to Hindu officials in his courts. Envisaged as an epitome of religious tolerance, he is often juxtaposed to his successor Aurangzeb known for his rigid religiosity. Akbar on the other hand is a constant in Indian imaginary and is portrayed as an epitome of Indian syncretism and plurality.

While his Din-i-Ilahi, a religion that aimed at merging elements from different religions and Sulh i Kul which means finding peace amidst all and is a homage to a pluralistic India, has been largely celebrated, of late there is the emergence of a discourse that portrays Akbar also as an invader at par with Aurangzeb. Demands were raised by supporters of the right-wing party in power that roads named after Akbar should be changed. Certain narratives emerged where he was shown as an intolerant invader who imposed an alien administrative system and religion on the people of the subcontinent. All this created a fertile ground and an academic need to revisit the Emperor in an objective way.

Manimugdha Sharma’s book starts with situating Akbar in the proper historical context. The book begins with a letter written by Mr. Adi K Munshi to a popular daily in 1941. While the Indian subcontinent was in throes of religious polarisation, the person wrote that India needed a leader like Emperor Akbar who was an epitome of religious harmony. This was an interesting statement. The author took up two of the most cited works on Akbar – Abul Fazl’s Akbarnama which was written when Akbar was at the heights of his regime and Mullah Abdul Qadir Badaoni’s Muntakhab ut Tawarikh, and focussed on how important events of Akbar’s rule have been described in these two texts. Commissioned works are often hagiographic in nature and a student of history must bring objectivity to such studies.

At the time of Akbar’s birth, his father Humayun was a deposed king. He was defeated by the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri in the battle of Chausa and had to flee India. His brother Mirza Kamran and Mirza Askari aimed at the throne of India’s Emperor and plotted against him. However, Humayun’s fortune took a positive turn with the birth of Akbar. He found support in the Persian Monarch who headed the Safavid Empire and succeeded in taking back his country. However, the imperial tussle between Afghans and Mughals was anything but over. Hemu, who was a minister under Adil Shah Suri later came back after Akbar in the Second Battle of Panipat in 1556. He was defeated and captured.

Akbar was initially under the tutelage of his Minister Bairam Khan. But with time, he emerged as a politically pragmatic and ambitious ruler. Akbar was enthroned as the ruler of a fragmented land where consolidating loyalty was a challenge. Unlike hagiographic accounts, Akbar’s regime was also marked by frequent dissenters. When he defeated Hemu, he decided to make a spectacle of Hemu’s death to send across a message. Hemu’s decapitated head was put on a show and his octogenarian father was executed.

Akbar also put forth an image of a just ruler. When the situation demanded he took tough decisions to ensure that there was no opposition to his supremacy. He stripped Bairam Khan of his power when Khan bypassed Akbar and took a number of important policy decisions. Bairam Khan dismissed officials favoured by Emperor Akbar. Later he was deposed to Mecca but was killed on the way. Humayun faced a challenge from his own brothers. Akbar ensured that no such challenger emerged. He got his foster-brother Adham Khan executed after Adham Khan killed Akbar’s Prime Minister Ataga Khan wrongly. Akbar even got a tomb constructed for Ataga Khan.

Akbar was known for organising elaborate hunts and indulge in dangerous sports of riding elephants. In one such hunt to Mathura, Akbar realised that Hindus were made to pay pilgrimage tax for visiting their temples. In 1563, he banned this pilgrimage tax. This caused a big loss to the Mughal exchequer. Later Akbar also discontinued jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims in exchange for their protection by the state. While they might be termed populist, through these steps Akbar reached out to the non-Muslim citizens of the state.

Along with putting in place a strong regime, many policies of Akbar would make one believe that he thrived for some kind of social cohesion. Not every fight is won by arms. Akbar reached out to the Rajputs of Amber and married Raja Bharmal’s daughter Jodha Bai. The marital relation was further strengthened when Jodha Bai’s cousin Man Singh was given a prestigious place in Akbar’s court. He later reached greater heights in Akbar’s court and became Saat Hazaari Mansabdaar or an officer leading 7000 ranks. In fact, he was the first Mughal noble to rise to such height. He was recognised as a farzand or son of the Emperor and through Man Singh’s elevation, Akbar won the fierce loyalty of Kachwahas.

The Mughal Emperors usually did not intervene in the socio-religious activities of the Indian communities. Akbar also followed the same rule. But he banned involuntary Sati. This was a practice in which the widow was burned along with her husband’s dead body. Akbar decided to stop the practice of any involuntary Sati. While a woman could still voluntarily choose to kill herself with her dead husband, the stringent new rules drastically brought down the number of this practice.

Sharma’s book does the crucial job of situating a historical figure in the proper context. Akbar is evaluated as an Emperor of a pluralistic society not through the modern prism of secularism but on the basis of the social markers of the 16th century. And in this evaluation, at times Akbar emerges as a ruthless emperor and at other times as a benevolent ruler.

The book also does something interesting. Along with contextualising Akbar, it also shows his relevance in contemporary times. Sharma highlights instances that show Akbar as a farsighted ruler. Hindus like Man Singh, Todar Mal found an important place in his court and rose to great heights. Not only this, but he also raised eunuchs to great positions of power. Here one can mention Itimad Khan who was appointed a minister to enforce fiscal discipline. This was interestingly not specific to Akbar and unlike the present time, the eunuchs and transgenders enjoyed better socio-political mobility during the rule of these emperors.

Other takeaways from the book and the lucid narrative are the description of the role of Mughal women. Akbar’s mother Begum Hamida Bano, Babur’s sister Khazada Begum emerge as a powerful woman who influenced the workings of the Mughal court. Through the life of Hemu or Hemchandra Vikramaditya, the social mobility of someone from a lower caste of the society is shown. He rose from the position of Chief Minister of Adil Shah Suri to a king who challenged the supremacy of Akbar. This is important because Indian society continues to be rigidly stratified along caste lines.

The book is also a tribute to the inclusive political culture that the Emperor practiced and which ensured unity in diversity in India – an ideology that Indians still believe in. Ordained as Zill-i-Subhani or Shadow of God, he preached ideas like Sulh-i-Kul which beliefs in respecting differences and finding peace and harmony amidst such differences. However, in the zeal to prove the relevance of Akbar at present times, the author has moved constantly back and forth. So much so that parallels with later historical events or present Indian government have run into pages compromising linearity and historical objectivity at times. A student of History and Political Science will see a lack of intellectual and academic rigour in looking for justifications of the current situation in the past or vice versa.

Nevertheless, the book is one of the rare addition to history books written for a larger readership. Written in a flowing easy to follow the narrative, the book will reiterate the crucial message for students of social science, policymakers, and politicians as well to learn from the past to preserve India’s culture of syncretism and tolerance.

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