The 16th-century Mughal King adopted the policy of religious syncretism, perceiving people from all religions as equals, an emancipatory idea which the world emulated many centuries later.
Abul Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, also known as Akbar the Great, was the third emperor of the Mughal Empire who earned a reputation for being a just ruler of 16th-century India.
At a time when India is battling the rise of Hindu nationalism under the patronage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Akbar's legacy has also come under attack as many states led by the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have removed his name and story from school textbooks in the past few years.
Although for most of post-colonial India, Akbar has been remembered for upholding an inclusive vision for India, where people from all religions were equal and treated with respect, Modi's India hasn't been kind enough to the celebrated Mughal ruler.
Most Hindu nationalist groups despise the Mughal Empire. They perceive it as an invading force that 'occupied' a cluster of princely states, now known as India, for several centuries. The ruling BJP has almost always milked that distorted narrative for political gains
But Akbar's legacy is untarnishable, as large number of chroniclers, be it locals or foreigners, have cast him in a good light.
Akbar is defined as the man who espoused liberal values, a champion of religious tolerance, who also appreciated art, music and poetry.
He ruled most of the northern, central and western India, carefully navigating India's various religions, castes, ethnicities and tribal affinities. Akbar's inclusive politics helped him win the support of many Hindu leaders. He famously married a Hindu princess, nuptials that many saw in light of Akbar's politics, fortifying his position by embracing Hindus, an overwhelming majority across his realm. Akbar was polygamous in nature with multiple partners. Many historians argue that Akbar married most of his wives for political reasons.
He named the culture of religious syncretism as Din-e Illahi, or the religion of divine. It was a jumble of Islamic, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist teachings with himself as the top deity.
Born in 1542 in Umerkot, which is in today's Pakistan, some sources say that Akbar was 14 when he took the throne, while others say he was 15. His military skills were as good as his diplomatic finesse. He recaptured almost all the territories his father Humayun had lost and also expanded into western and eastern parts of Hindustan, today's India.
Akbar’s grandfather Babur founded the Mughal Empire. He was the descendent of Ghengis Khan. Babur's son and Akbar's father Humayun was removed from the throne by a Pashtun ruler Sher Shah Suri. Humayun was living in exile when Akbar was born. Although Humayun managed to regain power in 1555, he could only rule over his domains for a few months until his death. He was quickly succeeded by Akbar.
Akbar was in power under the regency of Bairam Khan and achieved relative stability as Khan was able to take control of Northern India from the Afghans, managing the army successfully at the Second Battle of Panipat against the Hindu king Hemu. Despite Khan’s loyal service, Akbar dismissed Bairam Khan in 1560 by taking full control of the government.
Akbar was known for rewarding talent, intellect and loyalty without considering ethnic background or religion. His success in expanding and creating his empire lied on his ability to appease people as well as rule the lands he conquered.
For instance, he made an alliance with Rajput rulers who were defeated by him. He did not demand high taxes, which were the norm, allowing them to rule their territories autonomously by creating central governance system.
His practice had brought stability not only for his dynasty but also for the entire region, which had witnessed bloody battles between ambitious kings and princes for over a thousand years.
Akbar has earned accolades for never forcing India’s Hindu majority population to convert to Islam and instead providing lands for them and abolishing the poll tax on non-Muslims. In addition, he translated Hindi literature and also participated in Hindu festivals in Fatehpur Sikri which was designed by Akbar in the Persian style where he built a temple and hosted scholars from various religions frequently including Hindus, Christians, Zoroastrians as well as Muslims. Additionally, Akbar allowed the Jesuits to build a church in Agra.
On many occasions Akbar faced harsh criticism from conservative Muslim leaders of the time. For his secular values, he was sometimes called a heretic.
Many chroniclers have described Akbar as illiterate and yet he cultivated the arts, culture and appreciated all intellectual efforts, sponsoring poets, musicians, artists and engineers in his courts at Delhi.
The most famous ones were Abul Fazl, who authored Akbarnama, Raja Birbal, a singer and musician, and Fagir Aziao-Din and Mullah Do Piaza, the poets who became his advisors.
Akbar's worldview was largely informed by Din-e-Ilahi. Forbidding sins like lustfulness, slander and conceit, it was based on equality amongst all kinds of believers. It seemed like a cult centered around Akbar. Some historians believed it was a part of Akbar’s attempt to absorb other religions into Islam, while others perceived Akbar's religion as a result of his "advisors’ manipulation," as Akbar's thinking was criticized by several Islamic scholars.
In 1605, Akbar struggled with dysentery. Some believed that it was a possible poisoning. A handful of historians who followed Akbar's life claim that the Sultan abandoned Din-e-Illahi and returned to the orignial teachings of Islam.
But his days were numbered. Before going into a coma, he designated his son Jahangir as his successor. Jihangir forcefully ascended the throne after Akbar’s death.
The place where his tomb was buried was chosen by him in Agra and later built by Jahangir. Akbar took a keen interest in the design of his tomb, many historians say. He died on October 27, 1605 He was buried in Fetahpur Sikri, a small town in India's Uttar Pradesh state.