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'Tolerant' Akbar the Exception That Proves the Rule

Brent Anderson has unfortunately linked to a post by one Johan Norberg in which the tolerance of the Great Mughal Akbar, whose career is described fairly enough in this article, is played up for all it is worth. Mr. Anderson gave his post the rather silly title, "Akbar taught tolerance to an intolerant Europe." He did no such thing--he was the heir of a dynasty of conquest who chose not to antagonise the religious sentiments of those whom his grandfather had conquered. That was a better fate for the conquered than they would have had if Timur had gotten ahold of them, but let's not forget that we are talking about one religious group enjoying privileged status over another. We should have no illusions about the Mughal Empire simply because it was one of the less oppressive and more culturally creative Islamic states in history. Whatever we may think of him (and as an individual I find Aurangzeb somewhat sympathetic), Aurangzeb is far more representative of Islamic traditions of rulership. If the Mughal Empire fell apart because of either his excessive warfare or his zeal for imposing Islamic law or both, his is the reign that will better show us what a self-consciously Islamic ruler of largely non-Muslim peoples will accomplish.

Akbar's "tolerance," had it not been for his own religious sentiments, could be put down to so much pragmatism: he needed the Rajputs to maintain control of northern India and saw no gain in insulting their traditions. I would not be so cynical as to deny that Akbar genuinely believed in his rather amorphous universalism, but it is quite another thing to attribute his eccentricities to a tradition for which he had little use.

Had Philip II had the insurmountable problem of being part of a ruling religious minority in a fractious country he might have taken a more pragmatic approach to religious dissidence (but if he was a conscientious Catholic ruler, as indeed he was, he could not have seriously ignored the problem of heresy, not least since it touched upon his authority). Two other things should be kept in mind when comparing post-reconquista Spain and Mughal India: the Spanish were still busily reclaiming and reordering a country that had been violently invaded on several occasions by Muslim armies, and the entire Muslim presence in India, including that of the Mughals, was the result of violent invasions from the conquest of Sind to Mahmud Ghazni to Babur. There is a pattern here that tells us something about Islam and the sorts of people that Islam attracts, and it does not help claims of Islamic "tolerance," much less peace.

Mr. Norberg cited this quote from Akbar:

As most men are fettered by bonds of tradition, and by imitating the ways followed by their fathers, ancestors, relatives and acquaintances, everyone continues, without investigating the arguments and reasons, to follow the religion in which he was born and educated, thus excluding himself from the possibility of ascertaining the truth, which is the noblest aim of the human intellect. Therefore we associate at convenient seasons with learned men of all religions, thus deriving profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations.

Now try telling the average Sunni Muslim that he cannot ascertain truth, and that the Sunnah is preventing him from this. I doubt he will respond with an exquisite discourse. As the article makes clear, Akbar possessed his 'liberal' virtues by being a very poor Muslim by any standard of Islamic orthodoxy you'd care to name. It would be like citing Frederick the Great as an exemplar of what it is to be Christian and what it means to have a Christian as a ruler--meaningless. Akbar's syncretism and desire for the sulh-i-kul, the universal peace, were idiosyncratic departures of one man from the broad sweep of Islamic tradition.

One can look through Islamic history and cherry-pick other notable individuals, such as Ibn al-Arabi, whose potentially pantheistic and exceedingly ecumenist spiritual tradition of wahdat al-wujud (oneness of Being) had some influence on Indian Sufism and through it, perhaps, on some aspect of the Islamic culture to which Akbar was exposed in India. Wahdat al-wujud could theoretically provide the basis for a very tolerant (and tremendously vacuous) kind of Islam--except for the fact that it is a mystical deviation from the major foundational teachings of the religion. Now, how did this influence come about? Well, ibn al-Arabi had to flee to Iran (he was originally from the then not-so-tolerant Murcia under Almohad rule) to escape persecution for what were manifestly heretical and pantheistic beliefs, and from there these doctrines filtered into some of the Sufi orders of India. Far more influential on Indian Islam and later Sufism as a whole was the contrary tradition of wahdat al-shuhud, which gained expression and prominence in the life and work of the more orthodox Naqshbandi Sufi and supposed Mujaddid, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, a contemporary of Akbar's son, Jahangir. The point is simply this: Akbar's brief experiment with syncretism and "tolerance" was possible because he was an idiosyncratic absolute ruler whose fancies were 'tolerated' by his subjects because they could not stop him, but the vast majority of actual believers, Hindu and Muslim alike, ultimately wanted nothing to do with this abrogation of tradition.

Apocryphal stories of a similar kind have been told about Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Sicily, who has sometimes been painted by his more enthusiastic biographers (I think quite wrongly and anachronistically) as a precociously modern skeptic. What few people seem to understand today is that these stories were told about Frederick II for the same reasons that he was cast as Antichist by the Popes--to discredit him and undermine his authority. What modern scholars find endearing or precocious about the occasional oddball king were usually those things the king's enemies either invented or used to attack him. In other words, they are not usually something to be proud of.

Akbar was unusual for any time for being a man who not only believed tradition to be a burden, but who was not afraid to be known as someone who believed this. That is the privilege of the autocrat. Everyone else must work within the confines of reality. Muslims, as Muslims, are not free to follow Akbar's path, which makes his example worse than useless in discussing Islam and religious tolerance. His example is at best the exception that proves the rule that Islam is not a religion of religious "tolerance."

Daniel Larison | November 30, 2005



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