views updated Jun 08 2018


AKBAR (15421605), emperor of India in the Timurid, or Mughal, dynasty. He was born on October 15, 1542, in Umarkot, Sind, where his father, Humayun, had fled after being driven from Delhi, his capital, by his Afghan rivals. Akbar was proclaimed emperor in 1556 under the tutelage of his father's military commander, Bairam Khan, but by 1560 had succeeded in asserting his own power. His reign is one of the most memorable periods of Indian history not only because of his creation of a powerful empire but also because of his apotheosis as the ideal Indian ruler. This image of Akbar owes much to the literary genius of Abū al-Fal ʿAllami, his trusted friend, administrator, and biographer, as well as to the admiration of the nineteenth-century British rulers, who viewed him as their own precursor as the unifier of India. Later, Indian nationalists saw him as the great exemplar of social and religious toleration, which they believed necessary for a democratic, independent India.

Akbar was a ruler of intelligence, ambition, and restless curiosity, who exhibited great skill in selecting and controlling his officials. Very early he seems to have determined to build a strong, centralized administration, while pursuing an aggressive policy of territorial expansion. His famous definition of a king, as "a light emanating from God, a ray from the world-illuminating sun," indicates his conception of his role.

Throughout his reign, Akbar was engaged in warfare with neighboring kingdoms. As soon as the central territories around Delhi and Agra were secured, he moved south and east. In 1568, he captured Chitor, a famous stronghold of the Rajput chiefs, champions of Hinduism in North India. In subsequent battles other Rajput princes submitted to him. After defeating the Rajputs, Akbar took them into his service as generals and administrators and took many of their daughters into his royal harem. His marriage alliances with these Hindu princesses have often been interpreted as signs of his religious toleration, but they were more likely acknowledgments of the submission of the Rajputs.

After the Rajput conquest, Akbar defeated the wealthy Muslim kingdom of Gujarat in 1573, and in 1575 the Muslim ruler of Bengal submitted. In all areas, frequent uprisings by military leaders against Akbar were a reminder that Mughal power was dependent on continued assertion of central authority.

It was this need for centralized control that led Akbar to reorganize the bureaucratic structure of his empire and to reform the revenue system. He built upon the work of his predecessors, particularly Sher Shah (r. 15381545), in carrying out new land assessments and in bringing as much territory as possible under the direct control of imperial authority.

Akbar's religious policies have been the subject of much controversy, leading to his being regarded as an apostate to Islam, a near convert to Christianity, the inventor of a new religion, and a liberal exponent of toleration. The truth seems to be that in his genuine curiosity about religion he encouraged all varieties of religious practitioners, including Hindu yogin s and Muslim fakīrs as well as European Jesuits who visited his court. On the other hand, it was probably a concern for the unity of his empire that led him to abolish jizyah, the discriminatory tax on non-Muslims. Badāʿūnī, a contemporary historian, while he denounced Akbar as an apostate, says that he spent whole nights in praise of God and would be found "many a morning alone in prayer and meditation in a lonely spot."

Discussions of Akbar's attitude toward orthodox Islam have centered mainly on two incidents. One was his acceptance, in 1579, of a declaration by some major Islamic theologians stating that he, as a just ruler, could, in the case of disputes between mujtāhid s (interpreters of Islamic law), decide which was the correct interpretation. Although orthodox Islamic theologians denounced his action, it was not a denial of Islamic practice, but rather an assertion of his sovereignty and his near equality with the caliph of the Ottoman empire.

The other incident was Akbar's promulgation in 1582 of the Dīn-i-ilāhī (The divine faith), a syncretic statement that owed much to the ūfī tradition of Islam as well as to Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. Emphasizing the union of the soul with the divine, it insisted on such ethical precepts as almsgiving, chastity, vegetarianism, and kindness to all. Elsewhere, Akbar indicated that he believed in the transmigration of souls.

For orthodox Muslims, the Dīn-i-ilāhī made clear that Akbar intended to replace Islam with his own heresy, but in fact there is no evidence that it had any followers outside his immediate entourage. It is possible, however, that he dreamed of the "divine faith" becoming the possession of all men, thus ending "the diversity of sects and creeds" that, he once complained, was the source of strife in his kingdom.

Akbar died at Agra on October 3, 1605. His court, one of the most magnificent in the world, was a center of culture and the arts. The great Mughal achievements in painting and architecture had their beginning in his time, and music, poetry, and calligraphy were encouraged. The measure of his importance in Indian history is that the cultural achievements of his age along with his administrative structures continued to characterize the Mughal dynasty for over two centuries, even in its long period of decline in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and remained a model for later rulers.


The most important sources of information on Akbar's reign are the writings of Abū al-Fal ʿAllami, especially his Akbar-nama and his ʿī n-i-Akbarī. The former has been translated by Henry Beveridge in three volumes (19071939; reprint, Delhi, 1977); the latter, an account of Akbar's administrative system, was translated by H. Blochmann and H. S. Jarrett in three volumes (18731894) and has since been revised by D. C. Phillott and Jadu Nath Sarkar (Calcutta, 19391949). S. R. Sharma's The Religious Policy of the Mughal Emperors (New York, 1972) has a good section on Akbar, and Vincent A. Smith's Akbar, the Great Mogul, 15421605 (1919; 2d ed., Delhi, 1966) is, although dated, still useful for biographical details.

Three volumes in The New Cambridge History of India are important for an understanding of Akbar's cultural and religious influence: John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge, UK, 1993), Catherine B. Asher, Architecture of Mughal India (Cambridge, 1992), and Milo Beach, Mughal and Rajput Painting (Cambridge, 1992). Douglas E. Streusand's The Formation of the Mughal Empire (Delhi, 1999) has interesting material on the relation of Akbar's religion to the state.

Ainslie T. Embree (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 11 2018


AKBAR (1542–1605), "the Great" Mughal emperor (1556–1605) Born Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad in 1542, Akbar became the most powerful and the most tolerant of the Mughal emperors. For Muslims he is a controversial figure because of his unorthodox religious eclecticism. He was crowned Mughal padishah (emperor) at the age of fourteen in the Punjab on the sudden death of his father, Humayun. The Mughal position was so precarious, however, that all but Bairam Khan, a seasoned soldier who had also loyally served his father, advised Akbar to leave India for Kabul. India was dominated by the Afghan amir Mohammad Shah Abdali of Bengal, Sikandar Sur, and the Rajput princes. A number of states were independent. Akbar was thus initially ruler in name only. Through military conquests, marriage alliances with Hindus, and tolerant religious and social policies, however, Akbar created one of the greatest empires of the age—one that was supported by Indians, not merely a ruling foreign minority.

During the first years of young Akbar's reign, Bairam Khan, now Vakil-i-Mutlaq (prime minister), was de facto emperor. Then, Hemu, Shah Abdali's prime minister, captured Agra and marched into Delhi, proclaiming himself "King Vikramjit." At the second Battle of Panipat in November 1556, Hemu's giant force was defeated by the Mughal army, and Hemu was captured and executed. In 1557 Sikander Sur surrendered, and Muhammad Shah Abdali was killed in Bengal. Bairam Khan then conquered Gwalior and Jaunpur in 1559. In 1560, however, Bairam Khan fell from grace and was murdered; the "Petticoat Government," led by Akbar's foster mother, Maham Anga, exercised veiled authority until Akbar put himself at the head of Delhi's civil and military administration.

In 1561 Akbar assumed control of the empire and his court and began allying himself with the Hindu Rajputs, making them partners in the empire. He married Jodh Bai, the eldest daughter of the mighty Hindu Rajput house of Jaipur. By 1570 all but a few Rajputs swore allegiance to him, and that year he also married princesses of Bikaner and Jaisalmer; in 1584 he married his son Jahangir to a Rajput princess as well. Rajputs were also taken into his administrative service. Akbar also married a Christian and a Muslim. He endeared himself to Hindus by abolishing the pilgrim tax in 1563 and the hated jizya (poll tax) in 1579, ending discriminatory taxation against Hindus. He put an end to the enslaving of war prisoners and forcible conversions to Islam. He welcomed Hindus at his court, sought their advice, appointed a court poet for Hindi, and patronized Hindu artists. He employed Hindus in the revenue service and taxes were lower than in previous eras. Hindu laws were applied in disputes involving Hindus, and in times of poor harvests Akbar ordered the remittance of taxes. Raja Birbal, a Hindu courtier, became one of his confidants, and Raja Todar Mal of the writer caste (Kayasth) was responsible for all revenue settlements in North India.

As an annexationist, resolving to recapture the empire of Babur, his grandfather, Akbar proved to be an audacious general noted for his swift marches and intrepid assaults. He quashed an Uzbeg rebellion and captured Gondwana. In 1561 Malwa, in the heart of India, was captured, and in 1568 he began his onslaught against the fortesses of Chittor and Ranthambor. Only Mewar defied him. In 1569 the central Indian fortress of Kalinjar fell. The rich province of Gujarat, with its port of Surat, the main outlet for trade with the West, fell in 1573. Akbar then marched east against Bengal, conquering it in 1576. A few years later he renewed his campaigns, annexing most of Afghanistan in 1585, and Kashmir in 1586. Kashmir's Srinagar became the summer home of the Mughals. Between 1592 and 1595 Sind and Baluchistan were added to Akbar's empire; in 1592 Orissa was joined to Bengal. Two years earlier, in 1590, Akbar had begun his conquests of the south, adding Berar and Khandesh and part of Ahmednagar. The Deccan, however, proved to be much more difficult because of the terrain and because of determined Maratha resistance. On his death, Akbar bequeathed an empire of fifteen provinces (subahs), stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the River Godaveri in the south.

The third distinguishing feature of Akbar's rule was his administrative reforms of 1574. He inherited a feudal system depending on personal loyalty and created a bureaucracy built upon regulations and a service of imperial officers arranged in thirty-three grades with fixed salaries that were initially paid in cash. These officers, called mansabdars, were ranked by the number of cavalry each was obliged to raise when the emperor called, ranging from a few hundred to thirty thousand. Revenue from lands assigned to each rank was used to support both soldiers and their horses. The mansabdars performed both civil and military duties. This created the opportunity for men to achieve honor, fame, and prosperity through service to the state, and it enabled the state to exercise its will in every corner of the empire. The empire was organized in districts (sarkars) that were grouped into provinces (subahs), each ruled by a governor (subadar) who, with his body of troops, was responsible for law and order. A revenue collector (diwan) collected land taxes, remitting them to Delhi, and disbursed money from the center to pay the troops in the province. In this manner the subadar had no money and the diwan no troops, allowing the central government to maintain control. Provincial officers were rotated, and few stayed in one place more than four years. The last of Akbar's administrative reforms was his land revenue settlement, in which Todar Mal's bandobast (arrangement) practically remeasured and more fairly graded all of North India. Land was taxed according to productivity. The system was later adopted by the British, thus lasting for three hundred years.

Akbar was desperate for a son. When his wife gave birth to Jahangir in Sikri in 1569, Akbar was so pleased that he moved the capital there from Agra, renaming it Fatehpur (Victory) Sikri. Either for strategic reasons, or because it lacked sufficient water, he moved the capital to Lahore in 1585. Fatehpur Sikri remains a magnificent ghost town.

The most controversial aspect of Akbar's rule was his religious policy. In 1575 he built a house of worship (ibadat-khana) at Fatehpur Sikri in which representatives of different Muslim sects, Jesuits, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and yogis gathered to discuss religion with Akbar. In 1579 a declaration (mazhar) gave Akbar the authority to interpret Islamic dogma. After 1582 he created a new syncretic faith composed of ideas and observances of Sufism and Zoroastrianism, with himself as the spiritual leader of the "divine faith" (Din-i-Illahi). In art and architecture Akbar gave the Mughal empire a distinctive Persian style.

Roger D. Long

See alsoAurangzeb ; Babur ; Jahangir


Fazl, Abu al-. Ain-i Akbari. Translated by H. Blochmann. Lahore: Qausain, 1975.

——. Akbar Nama. 3 vols. Translated by H. Beveridge. Delhi: Ess Ess Publications, 1977.

Habib, Irfan. The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556–1707. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1963.

Qureshi, I. H. The Administration of the Mughal Empire. Karachi: University of Karachi Press, 1966.

Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Rizvi, S. A. A. Religious and Intellectual History of the Muslims in Akbar's Reign. New Delhi: Manoharlal, 1975.