Akbar the Great

From New World Encyclopedia
Jalauddin Akbar
Birth name: Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbár
Title: Emperor of Moghul Empire
Birth: October 15, 1542
Place of birth: Umarkot, Sindh
Death: October 27, 1605
Succeeded by: Jahangir
  • Jahangir, son

Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbár, (alternative spellings include Jellaladin, Celalettin) also known as Akbar the Great (Akbar-e-Azam) (October 15, 1542 – October 27, 1605) was the ruler of the Moghul Empire from the time of his accession in 1556 until 1605. He is considered the greatest of the Moghul emperors in terms of his military conquests. He engaged in military campaigns that caused the deaths of thousands, but within his empire he tried to rule justly and bridge cultural and religious barriers between its different peoples. He was a patron of learning and of the arts.

Akbar is best known for his vision of empire as an interfaith community—a view quite exceptional for his time. Although a pious Muslim, he believed that truth underlies all religions and pioneered inter-religious collaboration through his discussions with religious scholars, his promotion of the unity of religious truth, and through his own inter-cultural marriages. Although his policies clearly had pragmatic benefits in attracting the loyalty of non-Muslims, Akbar's personal commitment to unity appears to have been genuine.

Unfortunately, his enlightened policies were short-lived, to be reversed by his successor Aurangzeb. Nevertheless they merit him the title "the Great."

Political career

Akbar was born at Umarkot in Sind on October 15, 1542. His father, Humayun (ruled 1530–1540 and 1555–1556), was driven from the throne of India in a series of decisive battles by the Afghan, Sher Shah Suri. After more than 12 years of exile, Humayun regained his sovereignty, though he held it for only a few months before his death in 1556. Akbar succeeded his father the same year under the regency of Bairam Khan, a Turkoman noble whose zeal in repelling pretenders to the throne and severity in maintaining the discipline of the army helped greatly in the consolidation of the newly recovered empire. When order was somewhat restored, Akbar took the reins of government into his own hands with a proclamation issued in March 1560.

It is speculated by historians that Bairam Khan attempted to dethrone or murder Akbar when he came of age, or led an army against his loyalists. It is also suggested that Akbar, suspicious of Khan's ambitions and loyalties, encouraged him to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, and there had him killed by an agent. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica (11th ed.) surmises rather that Bairam had been despotic and cruel as regent but that following his rebellion, Akbar forgave him and offered him either a “high post in the army or a suitable escort” to Mecca (Vol 1-2:454).

On November 5, 1556, 50 miles north of Delhi, a Moghul army defeated Hindu forces of General Hemu at the Second Battle of Panipat, granting the throne of India to Akbar.

When Akbar ascended the throne, only a small portion of what had formerly comprised the Moghul Empire was still under his control, and he devoted himself to the recovery of the remaining provinces. He expanded the Moghul Empire to include Malwa (1562), Gujarat (1572), Bengal (1574), Kabul (1581), Kashmir (1586), and Kandesh (1601), among others. Akbar installed a governor over each of the conquered provinces, under his authority. Some point to the slaughter of captives that took place after many of the battles he fought, or to his beheading Sher Shar's Hindu chief minister, Hemu, after the Second Battle of Panipat (which earned him the title of Ghazi, Muslim soldier, warrior), or the self-immolation of thousands of Hindu women at the siege of Chitor, Rajasthan (1568) as evidence of his moral failings (some sources claim he slaughtered 30,000 Hindu captives after the Fall of Chitod). Others claim that he kept a huge harem of concubines, or temporary wives (allowed under Shi'a law), which makes his life less than morally ideal. It was his conquest of Bengal that gave him control of the whole of northern India, which qualifies him according to some scholars as the real founder of the Moghul Empire.

Parallels to Elizabeth I of England

A contemporary of Elizabeth I of England, some have compared their roles. Akbar ruled over a much larger territory, but Elizabeth, like Akbar, laid the foundation of her country's imperial expansion. Elizabeth lost England's last European colony but defeated Spain, turned her attention to the American colonies, and sponsored the voyages of Sir Francis Drake and others that eventually resulted in the acquisition of her overseas possessions. Qureshi assesses Akbar's legacy thus, “By all standards, Akbar was personally brave, a good general and excellent administrator. He was responsible for converting a small kingdom into a resplendent and mighty empire” (44). It was Elizabeth I, too, who in 1600 granted a Royal Charter to the British East India Company], which would eventually bring about the downfall of the Moghuls; and it was Akbar's son, Jehangir, who first gave the company permission to trade in India (1617).


Akbar did not want to have his court tied too closely to the city of Delhi and built a new capital for himself at Fetehpur Sikri, near Agra. Unfortunately, the new palace, although architecturally splendid, did not prove habitable—possibly because of an inadequate water supply—so he set up a roaming camp that let him keep a close eye on what was happening throughout the empire. He tried to develop and encourage commerce, and had the land accurately surveyed for the purpose of correctly evaluating taxation and he gave strict instructions to prevent extortion on the part of the tax gatherers. The agricultural tax system he used has been described as “scientific and benevolent” (Qureshi, 56) since it levied only an average of what was judged to be a medium yield of crop. Believing that the wazir, or wazir al-saltana had traditionally wielded too much power, Akbar restricted this function. Instead, his diwan exercised mainly fiscal authority. He divided the empire into provinces (subas), which were subdivided into districts (sarkars), which in turn were subdivided into parganas. This remained the pattern throughout British rule and is more or less maintained today in Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as India. His provincial governors were given short tenures to prevent their acquiring too much power or wealth. Akbar's diwan, Todar Mall, is credited with unifying the imperial administration (see Qureshi, 56).

Akbar gained a reputation for justice and for interest in the welfare of ordinary people (Gibb and Kramers, 27). He encouraged “purity and plainness of living.” Introducing reforms, he abolished many practices that had been “insulting and oppressive” of Hindus. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia describes him as “such a wise and tolerant administrator of his vast realm that he was called ‘Guardian of Mankind’” (Universal Jewish Encyclopedia 1969, 143). Akbar's concern to treat Hindus fairly was of course pragmatic, but there is little doubt that he sincerely wanted to be a just ruler, hence his motto, “Peace with all” (Gibb and Kramers, 27). His reforms, abolishing the jizya tax (the tax paid by non-Muslims in return for protection and religious liberty—with some restrictions) in 1564, and other anti-Hindu laws, resulted in many non-Muslims becoming “faithful servants” of the empire. Legal cases concerning disputes between individuals were dealt with in the Qadi courts. Matters concerning disputes between subjects and government or complaints about government officials were dealt with in the mazalim courts, of which the sultan was president.


At the time of Akbar's rule, the Moghul Empire included both Hindus and Muslims. Profound differences separate the Islamic and Hindu faith; Muslims are allowed to eat beef, while for those of the Hindu religion it is forbidden to harm cows because they are worshiped as sacred. Hindus are allowed to drink alcoholic beverages (such as wine), a practice which is forbidden by Islam. Nonetheless, Hindus were regarded as “people of the book” since they possessed scriptures and, while worship of the many deities could be regarded as both idolatry and polytheism, they were given the benefit of the doubt on both accounts. That is, on the issue of idolatry they were said to venerate not the representation, or image, but the deity that it represented while the many deities were taken to be different names for the same, single reality. In fact, some Hindu mystical teachers attracted Muslim devotees while such Muslim Sufi saints as Chisti and Kabir were popular with Hindus. Sufis taught unity of all beings (wahdat-al-wujud), and Akbar was a disciple of Chisti, who prophesied the birth of his first son. Akbar incorporated Chisti's shrine into Fatehpur Sikri (1670).

Did you know?
Akbar the Great, leader of the Moghul Empire, fostered pluralism and tolerance for all religions

During the period of the Moghul Empire, the majority of the Indian population was Hindu, but the rulers of the empire were almost exclusively Muslim. It was in this polarized religious arena that Akbar commenced his rule. Akbar himself fostered tolerance for all religions, which was known as his policy of sulh-i-kull (universal tolerance) (Davies, 317). Clearly interested in religious issues, he started to invite scholars to court to discuss theological topics. Initially, only Muslims took part, but later Akbar invited Jews, Parsees (Zoroastrians), Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians, including Jesuits from Goa. At his new capital, he built the 'ibadat-khana (house of worship) to accommodate scholarly exchanges.

Akbar was “genuinely interested in the study of Comparative Religion,” according to Davies, as he became convinced of “good in all religions.” Some assume that Akbar's interest was mainly political, to retain the loyalty of non-Muslim subjects. Thus, his cross-cultural marriages to several Hindu princesses have been dismissed as politically motivated, rather than a genuine attempt at religious reconciliation. On the other hand, he also married Christians and at the time no Christian power was strong enough to justify a strategic alliance. Therefore, he appears to have seen his marriages as a way of cementing interreligious friendship.

Akbar tried to reconcile the differences of both religions by creating a new faith called the Din-i-Ilahi, or tawhid-i-Ilahi, which incorporated both Islam and Hinduism. This stressed unity (tawhid) of all beings and a pure theism that in his view represented the “common element of all the creeds he sought into” (Gibb and Kramers, 27). Some believe that, in any formal sense, few people subscribed to this religion.

However, it was his successors' “departure from the main principles of his rule that led to the decline of the Moghul empire” (Davies: 317). In reaction, harsh measures were enacted against Muslims (and also Sikhs). His immediate successors, Jehangir (1569 – 1627) and Shah Jahan (1627 – 1658) (builder of the Taj Mahal) more or less continued his policy of toleration but Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707; emperor from 1658 until 1707), influenced by traditional or conservative Muslim scholars, pursued an iconoclastic policy of destroying Hindu images, banning music, closing non-Muslim schools, and even destroying temples. The jizya was re-introduced. He also disapproved of Sufi Islam. Much of this anticipated the type of Islam that Shah Waliullah (1702 – 1767) would advocate.

Akbar and Orthodox Islam

Akbar's policies were also aimed at attracting the support of non-Sunni Muslims. He is said to have been disgusted with the internal disagreement between different Muslims. He appears to have disliked the immense authority exercised by the traditional Muslim scholars, the ulama, and wanted to curb this. Advocating something similar to King Charles I of England's doctrine of the “divine right of kings,” he believed that the monarch exercises authority under God, which contravened the orthodox Muslim understanding that the shariah (divine law) is above the caliph, or sultan. Technically, when Akbar became emperor it was the chief qadi (judge) who legalized his accession by reading a proclamation during Friday prayer. This official exercised “extraordinary powers” (Davies, 316). In 1579, Akbar issued a decree, known as the “Infallibility Decree,” that required the ulama to recognize him as the supreme authority in religious matters. They also had to declare that he was a just ruler, imam-i-'adil (Qureshi, 62). However, in practice Akbar was not qualified to act as an Islamic judge, since this involves adjudicating between the opinions of different scholars, so as a matter of fact (although the subject of considerable controversy) the decree was never implemented. Instead, Akbar “relied upon the political device of appointing to high religious and legal offices his own nominees” (Davies, 62).

His successors saw him as an apostate and infidel who compromised Islam but “the charge that he denounced Islam and ceased consciously to be a Muslim is not proved,” concluded Qureshi (63). According to Shaikh Nur al-Hakk, Akbar “tried to take the good from all differing opinions” with the “sole object” of “ascertaining [the] truth” (Gibb and Kramers, 27). This represents a classic struggle between the two spheres of authority in Islam, that of siyasah, or politics, and of fiqh, or jurisprudence. As sultan, Akbar wanted to control both and to recruit support for his interpretation of Islam. The tactic of appointing nominees to high office who are sympathetic to one’s views is almost universally used by heads of state and of government. Akbar clearly wanted to curb the power of the traditional ulama, whose version of Islam he considered narrow and intolerant. Following the “Infallability Decree,” Akbar's half-brother, Hakim (governor of Kabul) tried to ferment a revolt with the aid of a fatwa in support of his cause. Aided by his loyal Hindu soldiers, Akbar took Kabul in 1581, defeating Hakim.

Patron of the Arts

Although Akbar was illiterate, surprising because his family had a reputation for learning and two of the most important women in his life, his wife Salima Sultan and his aunt, Gulbadan, were “accomplished in letters,” he had a great love for knowledge (Gibb and Kramers: 27). He was a patron to many men of literary talent, among whom may be mentioned the brothers Feizi and Abul Fazl. The former was commissioned by Akbar to translate a number of Sanskrit scientific works into Persian; and the latter produced the Akbar-Nameh, an enduring record of the emperor's reign. It is also said that Akbar employed Jerome Xavier, a Jesuit missionary, to translate the four Gospels of the New Testament into Persian. He also built schools for Muslims and for Hindus.

Nine Famous Courtiers Of Akbar

As a great administrator and patron of the arts, Akbar attracted the many of the best contemporary minds to his court. Nine such extraordinary talents, who shone brightly in their respective fields, were known as Akbar’s nau-rathan, or nine gems. They were:

  • Abul Fazl (1551 – 1602), the chronicler of Akbar’s rule. He authored the biographical Akbarnama, which was the result of seven years of painstaking work. He documented the history meticulously, giving a full and accurate picture of the prosperous life during the monarch’s reign. His account also shed light on the brilliant administrative capacity of the emperor.
  • Faizi (1547 – 1595), Abul Fazl’s brother. He was a poet who composed verse in the Persian language. Akbar had enormous respect for this genius and appointed him as a tutor for his son. His most famous work is a translation into Farsi of a twelfth-century treatise on mathematics called “Lilavati.”
  • Tansen (often "Miyan Tansen"), a classical singer of unparalleled fame. He was born a Hindu in 1520 near Gwalior to Mukund Mishra, who was a poet himself. He was instructed in music by Swami Haridas and later from Hazrat Mohammad Ghaus. He was a court musician with the prince of Mewar and later recruited by Akbar as his court musician. The prince of Mewar was said to have been heartbroken to part with him. Tansen became a legendary name in India and was the composer of many classical ragas. His raga “Deepak” and raga “Megh Malhar” are famous. When he sang these ragas, Tansen was said to have lit the lamp and caused rain showers. He is also credited with creating the raga “Darbari Kanada” and originating the Drupad style of singing. Even today the classical gharanas try to align themselves with the work of Miyan Tansen. He was buried in Gwaliar, where a tomb was constructed for him. There is a tamarind tree next to the tomb, which is reputed to be as old as the tomb itself. It is believed that one who chews a leaf from this tree in earnest faith will be bestowed with musical talents. It is unclear if Tansen converted to Islam. Akbar, who was very fond of him, gave him the title Miyan. Tansen’s son, Bilas Khan, composed the raga “Bilaskhani Todi” and his daughter, Saraswati Devi, was a well-known Drupad singer.
  • Birbal (1528 – 1583) was a poor Brahmin who was appointed to the court of Akbar for his wit as well as wisdom. Born by the name Maheshdas, he was conferred the name Raja Birbal by the emperor. A man of tireless wit and charm, he enjoyed the emperor’s favor in administration as his trusted minister, and for his entertainment as his court jester. There are many witty stories of exchanges and interactions between the monarch and his minister that are popular even today. The stories are thought-provoking and intelligent, as well as educational. Birbal was also a poet and his collections under the pen name “Brahma” are preserved in the Bharatpur Museum. Raja Birbal died in battle, attempting to quell unrest amongst the Afghani tribes in northwestern India. Akbar is said to have mourned for a long time on hearing the news of Birbal's death.
  • Raja Todar Mal was Akbar’s finance minister, or diwan, who was instructed by Sher Shah. From 1560 onwards, he overhauled the revenue system in the kingdom. He introduced standard weights and measures, revenue districts, and officers. His systematic approach to revenue collection became a model for the future Moghuls as well as the British Raj. Raja Todar Mal was also a warrior who assisted Akbar in controlling the Afghan rebels in Bengal. In 1582, Akbar bestowed on the raja the title Diwan-I-Ashraf.
  • Raja Man Singh, the rajput raja of Amber. This trusted lieutenant of Akbar was the grandson of Akbar’s father-in-law. His family had been inducted into the Moghul hierarchy as emirs (nobles). Raja Man Singh assisted Akbar on many fronts, including holding off the advance of Hakim (Akbar’s half-brother, a governor of Kabul) in Lahore. He also led campaigns in Orissa.
  • Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khan, a poet, was the son of Akbar’s trusted protector and caretaker when he was a teenager, Bairam Khan.
  • Fagir Aziao Din and Mullan Do Piaza were two advisors belonging to Akbar’s inner circle.

Other names are also mentioned as gems of Akbar’s court. Daswant, the painter, and Abud us-Samad, a brilliant calligrapher, have also been named by some sources. Mir Fathullah Shiraz, who was a financier, philosopher, astrologer, and an astute physician, has also been mentioned. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Akbar’s court was filled with brilliant minds in the fields of art, administration, and warfare.

Final years

The closing years of Akbar's reign were troubled by the misconduct of his sons. Two of them died in their youth, the victims of intemperance; and the third, Salim, who succeeded him as Emperor Jahangir (ruled 1605 until 1627), was frequently in rebellion against his father. Asirgarh, a fort in the Deccan proved to be the last conquest of Akbar, taken in 1599 as he proceeded north to face his son's rebellion. Reportedly, Akbar keenly felt these calamities, and they may even have affected his health and hastened his death, which occurred in Agra on October 27, 1605. His body was deposited in a magnificent mausoleum at Sikandra, near Agra.

Akbar in Media

  • Akbar was portrayed in the 1960 Hindi film Moghul-e-Azam, in which Akbar was played by Prithviraj Kapoor.
  • Akbar and Birbal were portrayed in the Hindi series “Akbar-Birbal” aired on Doordarshan in the late 1990s.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Davies, C. Colin. “Akbar” in The Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. 1. Leiden: E. J. Brill, new ed. 1960.
  • Gibb, H. A. R., and J. H. Kramers. Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974. ISBN 0614088712
  • Qureshi, I. H. “India Under the Moghuls,” 35–66, in The Cambridge History of Islam, edited by P. M Holt, Ann K. S. Lampton, and Bernard Lewis. Cambridge University Press, 1977. ISBN 0521291356
  • The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Ktav Publishing House, 1969. ASIN B0015YGWV6

External links

All links retrieved June 16, 2023.


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