"The Discussion in the Hall of Worship"

by Abd ul-Qadir Al-Badaoni [see *note below]




In the year 983 A.H. the buildings of the 'Ibadat khana were completed. The cause was this. For many years previously the emperor had gained in succession remarkable and decisive victories. The empire had grown in extent from day to day; everything turned out well, and no opponent was left in the whole world. His Majesty [Emperor Akbar] had thus leisure to come into nearer contact with ascetics and the disciples of his reverence [the late] Mu'in, and passed much of his time in discussing the Word of God and the word of the Prophet. Questions of Sufism, scientific discussions, inquiries into philosophy and law were the order of the day.

Crowds of learned men from all nations, and sages of various religions and sects came to the Court, and were honored with private conversations, which were their only business and occupation day and night, they would talk about profound points of science, the subtleties of revelation, the curiosities of history, and the wonders of tradition, subjects of which large volumes could give only an abstract and summary: and in accordance with the saying-"Three things are dangerous, avarice satisfied: desire indulged: and a man's being pleased with himself." Everything that pleased him, he picked and chose from anyone except a Moslem, and anything that was against his disposition, and ran counter to his wishes he thought fit to reject and cast aside. From childhood to manhood, and from manhood to his declining years the Emperor had combined in himself various phrases from various religions and opposite sectarian beliefs, and by a peculiar acquisitiveness and a talent for selection, by no means common, had made his own all that can be seen and read in books. Thus a faith of a materialistic character became painted on the mirror of his mind and the storehouse of his imagination, and from the general impression this conviction took form, like an engraving upon a stone, that there are wise men to be found and ready at hand in all religions, and men of asceticism, and recipients of revelation and workers of miracles among all nations and the Truth is an inhabitant of every place: and that consequently how could it be right to consider it as confined to one religion or creed, and that, one which only recently made its appearance and had not as yet endured a thousand years! And why assert one thing and deny another, and claim pre-eminence for that which is not essentially pre-eminent?

And later that day the emperor came to Fathpur. There he used to spend much time in the Hall of Worship in the company of learned men and shaikhs and especially on Friday nights, when he would sit up there the whole night continually occupied in discussing questions of religion, whether fundamental or collateral. The learned men used to draw the sword of the tongue on the battlefield of mutual contradiction and opposition, and the antagonism of the sects reached such a pitch that they would call one another fools and heretics. The controversies used to pass beyond the differences of Sunni, and Shi'a, of Hanafi and Shafi'i, of lawyer and divine, and they would attack the very bases of belief. And Makh dum-ul-Mulk wrote a treatise to the effect that Shaikh 'Abd-alNabl had unjustly killed Khizr Khan Sarwani, who had been suspected of blaspheming the Prophet [peace be upon him], and Mir Habsh, who had been suspected of being a Shia, and saying that it was not right to repeat the prayers after him because he was undutiful toward his father, and was himself afflicted with hemorrhoids. Shaikh 'Abd-al-Nabi replied to him that he was a fool and a heretic.

Then the mullahs [Muslim theologians] became divided into two parties, and one party took one side and one the other, and became very Jews and Egyptians for hatred of each other. And persons of novel and whimsical opinions, in accordance with their pernicious ideas and vain doubts, coming out of ambush, decked the false in the garb of the true, and wrong in the dress of right, and cast the emperor, who was possessed of an excellent disposition, and was an earnest searcher after truth, but very ignorant and a mere tyro, and used to the company of infidels and base persons, into perplexity, till doubt was heaped upon doubt, and he lost all definite aim, and the straight wall of the clear law and of firm religion was broken down, so that after five or six years not a trace of Islam was left in him: and everything was turned topsy-turvy....

And Samanas [Hindu or Buddhist ascetics] and Brahmans (who as far as the matter of private interviews is concerned gained the advantage over every one in attaining the honor of interviews with His Majesty, and in associating with him, and were in every way superior in reputation- to all learned and trained men for their treatises on morals, and on physical and religious sciences, and in religious ecstasies, and stages of spiritual-progress and human perfections) brought forward proofs, based on reason and traditional testimony, for the truth of their own, and the fallacy of our religion, and inculcated their doctrine with such firmness and assurance, that they affirmed mere imaginations as though they were self-evident facts, the truth of which the doubt of the skeptic could no more shake "Than the mountains crumble, and the heavens be cleft." And the Resurrection, and Judgment, and other details and traditions, of which the Prophet was the repository, he laid all aside. And he made his courtiers continually listen to those revilings and attacks against our pure and easy bright and holy faith....

Some time before this a Brahman, named Puruk'hotam, who had written a commentary on the Book, Increase of Wisdom, had had private interviews with him, and he had asked him to invent particular Sanskrit names for all things in existence. And at one time a Brahman, named Debi, who was one of the interpreters of the Mahabharata, was pulled up the wall of the castle sitting on a bedstead till he arrived near a balcony, which the emperor had made his bed-chamber. Whilst thus suspended he instructed His Majesty in the secrets and legends of Hinduism, in the manner of worshipping idols, the fire, the sun and stars, and of revering the chief gods of these unbelievers, such as Brahma, Mahadev [Shiva], Bishn [Vishnu], Kishn [Krishna], Ram, and Mahama (whose existence as sons of the human race is a supposition, but whose nonexistence is a certainty, though in their idle belief they look on some of them as gods, and some as angels). His Majesty, on hearing further how much the people of the country prized their institutions, began to look upon them with affection....

Sometimes again it was Shaikh Tajud-din whom he sent for. This shaikh was son of Shaikh Zakariya of Ajodhan.... He had been a pupil of Rashid Shaikh Zaman of Panipat, author of a commentary on the Paths (Lawa'ih), and of other excellent works, was most excellent in Sufism, and in the knowledge of theology second only to Shaikh Ibn 'Arabi and had written a comprehensive commentary on the Joy of the Souls (Nuzhat ul-arah). Like the preceding he was drawn up the wall of the castle in a blanket, and His Majesty listened the whole night to his Sufic obscenities and follies. The shaikh, since he did not in any great degree feel himself bound by the injunctions of the law, introduced arguments concerning the unity of existence, such as idle Sufis discuss, and which eventually lead to license and open heresy....

He became especially firmly convinced of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, and he much approved of the saying-"There is no religion in which the doctrine of Transmigration has not a firm hold." And insincere flatterers composed treatises in order to establish indisputable arguments in favor of this thesis. And having instituted research into doctrines of the sects of the Hindu unbelievers, of whom there are an endless and innumerable host, and who possess numbers of sacred books, and yet do not belong to the Ahl-i-Kitab, he took so much pleasure in such discussions, that not a day passed but a new fruit of this loathsome tree ripened into existence....

Learned monks also from Europe, who are called Padre, and have an infallible head, called Papa, who is able to change religious ordinances as he may deem advisable for the moment, and to whose authority kings must submit, brought the Gospel, and advanced proofs for the Trinity. His Majesty firmly believed in the truth of the Christian religion, and wishing to spread the doctrines of Jesus, ordered Prince Murad to take a few lessons in Christianity under good auspices, and charged Abu'l Fazl to translate the Gospel....

Fire worshipers also came from Nousari in Gujarat, proclaimed the religion of Zardusht [Zarathustra] as the true one, and declared reverence to fire to be superior to every other kind of worship. They also attracted the emperor's regard, and taught him the peculiar terms, the ordinances, the rites and ceremonies of the Kaianians [a pre-Muslim Persian dynasty]. At last he ordered that the sacred fire should be made over to the charge of Abu'l Fazl, and that after the manner of the kings of Persia, in whose temples blazed perpetual fires, he should take care it was never extinguished night or day, for that it is one of the signs of God, and one light from His lights....

His Majesty also called some of the yogis, and gave them at night private interviews, inquiring into abstract truths; their articles of faith; their occupation; the influence of pensiveness; their several practices and usages; the power of being absent from the body: or into alchemv, phvsiognomy, and the power of omnipresence of the soul.

Every precept which was enjoined by the doctors of other religions he treated as manifest and decisive, in contradistinction to this Religion of ours, all the doctrines of which he set down to be senseless, and of modern origin, and the founders of it as nothing but poor Arabs, a set of scoundrels and highway-robbers, and the people of Islam as accursed. But in the course of time the truth of this verse in its hidden meaning developed itself: "Fain would they put out the light of God with their mouths! but, though, the Infidels abhor it, God will perfect his light." By degrees the affair was carried to such a pitch that proofs were no longer considered necessary for abolishing the precepts of Islam....

I have made bold to chronicle these events, a course very far removed from that of prudence and circumspection. But God (He is glorious and honored!) is my witness, and sufficient is God as a witness, that my inducement to write this has been nothing but sorrow for the faith, and heart-burning for the deceased Religion of Islam.... And to God I look for refuge from reproach, and hatred, and envy, and religious persecution....

________

*Note: Al-Badaoni (1540-1615) was a historian and a devout member of the Sunni sect of Islam. He wrote an extended history of Akbar's family dynasty that attacked the policy of toleration as a breach of the faith. In a few scathing paragraphs, al-Badaoni attacked Akbar in particular for his tolerance of Hindus whose religious traditions he saw as essentially pagan. This source is from his account of religious discussions in the court of Akbar.

Background: The Mughal empire was founded by Babur, a central Asian ruler who conquered the Indus and Ganges river plains in the 1520s, thereby bringing much of India under his domain. Although he died in 1530 at age forty-eight, he was succeeded first by his son, Humayan, and then by his grandson, Akbar. It was Akbar who consolidated Mughal control throughout much of present-day India and Pakistan even though he was only thirteen years old when he became monarch. His many accomplishments included the creation of bureaucratic and military administrations that supported Mughal rule for three centuries. He was a patron of the arts and drew to his court numerous religious scholars from different faiths.

Akbar, apparently by deliberate, mature choice, could neither read nor write; it is possible, therefore, only dimly to perceive his religious attitudes through the testimony of witnesses violently prejudiced either in his favor, as was Abu'l Fazl, his friend and confidant; or against him, as was the historian 'Abd ul-Qadir Bada'um, his secret orthodox Sunni opponent, or partly through the testimony of the Jesuit fathers and of a Parsi student of religion, Muhsin-i-Fani, who wrote half a century after Akbar's death

As a boy in Kabul, Akbar had been open to Shia teachings and to the mysticism of the Persian poets. Although at the outset of his reign, however, his religious oracles--the sadr ("minister for religious endowments") and the qadis (religious judges)--were Sunni. Akbar himself visited Sufi retreats at Ajmir and Sikri. He seems to have been offended by the persecution of the Shia by his Sunni sadr and chief mufti (canon jurist) which grew violent about 1570. Meanwhile, in 1562, he had married a Hindu Rajput princess, Bihari Mal of Amber, and had admitted Rajput princes, e.g.., Raja Man Singh and Todar Mal,.to high political and administrative office. After 1574 he was influenced by Abu'l Fazl and his brother Faizi, sons of Shaikh Mubarak Nagori, and all students of Hinduism, indeed of "comparative religion."

From this time, they led the discussions in the Hall of Worship which Akbar had built at Fathpur Sikri. These discussions, over which Akbar presided, were attended by Sunni ulama, Sufi shaikhs, Hindu pundits, Parsees, Zoroastrians, Jains, and Catholic priests from Portuguese Goa. The mere fact of such discussions, in which apparently the Sunni ulama did not shine, is the measure of the bias against orthodoxy at court.

Akbar carefully cultivated the alliance of Hindu rulers, exchanging assistance for a pledge of suzerainty. The alternative to cooperation could be devastating. In 1568, Akbar besieged Chitor, a fortress in the state of Mewar, for failing to submit to his rule; after Chitor fell, Akbar ordered the massacre of its 30,000 defenders.

Akbar extended Muslim rule over much of India during his reign but followed a policy of religious toleration toward the Hindu majority. This brought criticism from Muslim scholars, although the fear of Akbar's wrath no doubt muted it.
 
 

[from The Global Experience, ed. by Stuart B. Schwartz, Linda R. Wimmer, Robert S. Wolff, Vol. 2 (New York, 1998), 57.]

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