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Monday, April 6, 2015

Emperor Akbar : Did He Inherit the Eclectism of His Ancestors?

I have been wondering for a long time just what it was that propelled a young, illiterate boy to all-time greatness. Was it him, his associates, his family background, or destiny that made Akbar truly great? It was perhaps a happy admixture of all these. This article looks at one of these factors - the family background of Akbar right from the time when his ancestors ruled the steppes of Central Asia. 

Let me start with a brief note. I am aware that when we consider the Mongol ancestors of Akbar, we are filled with repulsion and aversion for the trail of genocide and devastation some of them left behind, when they visited Hindustan and indeed many other parts of Central Asia. This article in no way aims to portray them as anything other than what they were NOR is it a COMPLETE study of them. It does NOT seek to justify those actions or gloss over the crimes against humanity.

It ONLY looks at ONE aspect of their personality. Their religious proclivity. This post is an attempt to look at their 'other side' which is not known to many of us.

They were, almost all of them, free-thinking. They switched their religious beliefs to suit their political goals. They  sought the company of learned men. They visited shrines and discussed the doctrines of various faiths with religious authorities. It appears ironic that these were the same people who had utter disregard for human life.     

Akbar incredibly reflects many of these traits, which is what intrigued me in the first place and led me to study his background. This article SIMPLY points out the traits that are common to Akbar and his ancestors. 

Mughal Emperor Babur, Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir - Portrait

The Family Background

Chengiz Khan

Chengiz Khan was a Shaman in religious belief. (A Shaman can mean a monk or a priest.) He believed in God but not in dogma, respected all religions and was often present at all the religious ceremonies of his subjects, for, from the state point of view, he found it useful that the people under his authority should give evidence of their faith in God. After the conquest of Iran, Chengiz brought some learned men to his court, and asked them for information on the doctrine of Islam.

This spirit of free-thinking and eclecticism was a common trait in the Mughals of Central Asia. They took part equally in Christian (of the Nestorian form), Muhammadan and Buddhist services. 

They didn't mind employing Christian generals and mercenaries. Though they carried the message of death and destruction in whichever direction they turned their eyes, still they carried to and brought from those lands, all the knowledge they could command. A spirit of inquiry was a native instinct. As transmitters of knowledge and method, if not originative, their influence upon history has been enormous.

{Akbar too gathered knowledge from all over his dominion and was ever filled with a child-like spirit of inquiry.}

Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan, grandson of Chengiz, sent to the Pope, in 1269, a mission asking for one hundred men of learning and ability to be sent to his court to establish an understanding. (Here was an opportunity for the Pope to fulfill their ambition of converting the great Mughals to their faith. But the two friars sent were unequal to the task.)

Inspired by the great Chinese sage, Chu-Tsi, Kublai Khan, the Mongol, accepted a Chinese name, for he was an Emperor of China. He tweaked the Shamanic cult in his own style. "He began to respect the religion and culture of the conquered and did not believe in the cultural superiority of the victors. He was kind to the learned, to the artists and poets, and gave them shelter, irrespective of their religion and tradition. He completely identified himself with the interest of his subjects. The efforts of Kublai to revive Chinese agriculture, his great struggle against famine, his financial laws (he ordered the printing of bank-notes) and his works of charity deserve admiration of all generations.”

{When I read these words in quotes, I instantly felt these words could have been written for Akbar, more or less.}

If Kublai was great as a ruler of Chinese soil, he was greater still as a ruler of Chinese soul. To decide what was the best among the religions of the people, he called a council of the wise men of all beliefs. Thus came the Muslim divines, Buddhist Shamans, Christian theologians to the Imperial Court and a very fascinating record of their discussions can be found in the writings of Rubrukis, the ambassador of Saint Louis, King of France.

The Christian Gospels were asked to be translated. Mati-Dhwaja, the great Lama, was at his court and was afterwards honoured with the seat of the Tibetan Dalai Lama. A great Lama, named Shakya Pandit from Tibet (probably of Indian origin) went over to his court and is said to have delivered three lectures on Buddhism; he ultimately convinced Kublai of the greatness of the teachings of Buddha and was accepted as the “ Phagspa” (or preceptor). He is credited with having invented a new alphabet for the use of Kublai's empire, combining the script of the Chinese, Mongols and Zoroastrians.

This spirit of enquiry, free thinking and absence of a steady religious background are mainly responsible for the changes of beliefs in the Mughal tribes in different parts of Asia.  

In China, Kublai had a precedent in Tai-Sing who called a similar council to decide the merits of Neostiian Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Laotzeism. Beginning from Emperor Ashoka Maurya of BharatVarshareligious conferences followed one upon the other at the court of the Asian rulers in search of a means of reconciling the different doctrinesThis is so similar to the religious discussions Akbar held in the Ibadat Khana

The Mughals in China adopted Buddhism; in South Russia and Western Turkistan, they embraced Islam ; in Kipchak, though Muslim by profession, they still retain most of their earlier traces of Shamanism. The Mughals of Ukraine reverted to Christianity, forming the Cossacks nomad half-civilised tribes in Russia and Poland. The pliability of the Mughals to some extent continued even when they reached India after two hundred years of their stay in Islamic environments.

The same spirit characterises the paternal line of Akbar. The early Turks who accepted
Islam, made it a condition precedent that, even when Muslims, they would not part with wine and would not kill cows. By no means was their profession of Islam orthodox. 

{In his autobiography, Babur mentions that cow slaughter shall NOT be acceptable to him. It was not so much a personal sentiment as the understanding that he would not be able to win over the people of Hindustan if he allowed this custom. As for drinking wine, this is evident in the lifestyles of most Mughals. 

Timur Lang

Timur-Lang is depicted in most diverse ways according to the authors. 
He is claimed as :
-> an orthodox Sunni, and still no less a Shia;
-> some credit him to be a Ghazi (slayer of infidels); 
-> others shun him as a Schismatic;
-> he is hated in Europe and India as a scourge of God and men. 
-> He is cursed by others as a pagan too. 

And there is more or less truth in every one of the epithets applied to him..!!!!

His conquest extended from the Mediterranean to the Ganges and from Peking to Moscow. The Sunni Muslims, whom he practically destroyed in Baghdad and Allepo, never accepted him as an orthodox Muslim and he was looked down upon by the Khalifas and Ullema as a pagan. {In simple terms, pagan means "nature worshipper".}

In his communications, he styled himself as "I, Timur, a servant of God.” He never changed his hereditary name Amir Taimur Gurgan. He had the Khutba read in his name and assumed the title of Khalifat-ul-lillah to pose as the greatest commander of the faithful, vindicating the superiority of Timurid arms to those of Abbassids Caliphs of Egypt. He gladly employed Christians as his envoys to different contemporary courts.

An Amir wears a commander's crest which is hereditary in his family. Gurgan means a son-in-law and it refers to Timur's ancestor Nuyun Karachar's marriage with a daughter of the family of Chengiz Khan.

Fariduddin Bey, in his famous work, Mustahat-i-Sultanat, states the occasion of his declaration of the Sunni creed. Yusuf of Khaput, flying from the wrath of Timur, sought shelter at the court of Bayezid of Turkey. Timur demanded the surrender of Yusuf from the Turkish ruler but Bayezid gave an evasive reply by introducing irrelevant reflections on Timur's faith and orthodoxy. This step drew from Timur a great profession of Sunni orthodoxy against the faith of Bayezid. The altercation ended in the famous and a highly destructive battle of Angora in 1402 in which Bayezid died.  The Ottoman Turks had to forcibly acknowledge his supremacy and accord to him the title of Khalifat-ul-lillah. 

We saw that a few hundred years later, his descendant, Akbar, also had the khutba read in his name and adopted the same title, but with diplomacy at work. Post Link: Jodha Akbar Shah-i-Iran Track Historical Update - The "Infallible" Daring Diplomatic MasterStroke of Akbar & Sheikh Mubarak | Part-2 }

Everyone, irrespective of faith, who dared challenge his supremacy, was to be put to the sword, devoid of any mercy. The speeches which Timur delivered on the eve of his expeditions were always more political than religiousThe peculiarity is that all his wars were fought against the Islamic countries except against Georgia and India. Professions of orthodoxy suited him as a conqueror. To us, it seems strange that he believed himself to be an agent of God on earth and that it was the commission of God on him to conquer the world. He believed that opposing him was akin to going against the command of God.

It was ironical that the man who did not hesitate to build "twenty towers of heads of believers in Allepo and Damascus" could pose as the champion of true Faith and to attempt at the conversion of the land of non-believers. To Timur, attaining his end was the ultimate ambition, for that he did not hesitate to shed rivers of blood. But, this insatiable thirst for blood was NOT dictated by religious fanaticismIt was more about conquering as much land as he could and establish himself as the lord of the world. This can be seen in the fact that when he attacked Hindustan in 1398 and plundered the city of Delhi, the victims were BOTH Hindus and Muslims. The people put to death did not belong to any particular religion. The actions taken by him were NOT communal in nature.

Yet wherever he found a shrine, Timur was prone to pray at it, asking protection from the dead saint who might be buried there. In the midst of the destruction he unleashed, he ordered saving colleges and hospitals. Every evening after the turmoils of the war were over, he called the group of pious and learned men and had discussions with them, which he prized muchTimur spent most of his hours in talk with holy men who had visited the Shrines of Islam and gained sanctity thereby. He used to have books read to him every evening.

{Akbar too, we know, visited shrines of Sufi saints and enjoyed the company of scholars and religious folk with whom he engaged in long discussions.}

Timur tells us, "Every kingdom which I reduced, I gave back the government of that kingdom to the prince thereof, and I bound him in chains of kindness and generosity; I drew them into obedience and submission. The refractory I overcome by their own devices, and I appoint over them a vigorous, sagacious and upright governor." This version exactly fits in with the spirit of Timur. To the refractory, he was a veritable instrument of ruthless destruction; to the submissive he was all bountiful. 

Before a conquest, he planted himself outside the city, raised a white flag as a sign of peace inviting submission ; if submission was not tendered, a red flag was hoisted, intimating the death of the nobles; if yet submission was not tendered, a black flag would fly as a signal for the burial of the city, which meant complete destruction.

{Akbar is also known to have used all means of submission before embarking on war against any kingdom. To those who submitted to his will, he was generosity personified. But to those who opposed him, he could be extremely ruthless. Case in point is the Massacre at Chittor in Mewar.}

One can only wonder how this conqueror, in the midst of his universal pillage, plunder and destruction, could "care to take with him the learned, even in his campaigns".

To him, the Sheikhs were as much a necessity as the soldiers. In war, the place of the learned was assigned at the farthest and safest corners. In the destruction of the city of Baghdad, he spared the learned men. This peculiar personality of "Timur the Terrible" and "Timur the Mystic" is indeed an interesting studyA mystic regard for Saints and an admiration for the learned went hand in hand with the cold-blooded disregard of human life.

It is a significant coincidence that Mars was present in the 5th House of Timur's horoscope too, just as it was in Akbar’s. The presence of Mars in the horoscopes of princes is highly desired and powerful. Akbar's horoscope is said to excel even that of Timur. It indicates glory and greatness, lofty rank, victory and dominion.

Now we look at some of the lesser known ancestors of Akbar and how he shared a passion for learning with them and patronized masters of art, literature and science.

Mirza Shah Rukh

Shah Rukh (1304-47), Timur’s son, was interesting, though in another way. "He desired not to extend but to repair the ravages committed by his father." This prince encouraged men of science and learning at his court, just like Akbar did. The empire founded by Timur was refined by the efforts of Mirza Shah Rukh. It is an extraordinary fact that the son of one so hard-hearted should be so kindly, amiable, gracious and friendly to learning, showing favour and courtesy to all, especially to scholars and men of parts.

On Friday and Monday evenings, he would assemble those who knew the Quran by heart and made them recite the entire scripture in his presence.

Mirza Shah Rukh’s Children

Bysundar , son of Shah Rukh, was a great patron of learning and the founder of the most elegant style of book production in Persia. Poets, artists, scholars and painters found a lord bountiful in him. They came from Iraq, Pars, Azerbaijan and from all parts of Asia. 

Ulagh Beg, another son of Shah Rukh and an excellent mathematician and astronomer, built at Samarkand his famous observatory and compiled the famous astronomical tables known as Zich-i-Ulagh Beg.

There’s a crater on the moon named Ulugh Beg. It was named after him by German astronomer Johann Heinrich von Madler in 1830. There’s also an asteroid named after him, 2439 Ulugbek. It was discovered by N. Chernykh in 1977. Ulugh Beg seems to be quite a well-known name among astronomers.

The Timurids, it seems, were refined men, scholars, loving art for the sake of art alone. In the intervals between their battles, they enjoyed thinking of their libraries, and writing poetry, many of them having composed poetry that far excels that of their poets.

Umar Shaikh

Umar Shaikh, father of Babur, "had a great liking for the poets and could recite poetry. He had a poetical temperament but was not solicitous of writing verses, spent most of his time in reading books, historical and poeticalThe Shahnama was often recited before him." He had a great respect for Darweshes and Saints and often would sit at their feet for wisdom.


Umar Shaikh's son, Babur, combined in him the blood of the two houses of Chengiz Khan and Timur-Lang.

He had to defend his homeland of Farghana against enemies who included his own uncle. It really passes the imagination of an ordinary man how, in the midst of the vicissitudes and turmoils of his life, he could maintain an equanimity of spirit, sufficient for composing couplets or for reciting them. In him the intrepid spirit of a Mongol was softened by the mystic element of a Turk; he was as much an orthodox Muslim as an apostate. Babur had, in his religious beliefs, many elements to which an orthodox Muslim would seriously object.

{When I read the words in italic, I instinctively thought of Akbar who too often faced the displeasure of the orthodox.}

The political necessity which drew from Timur his profession of orthodox Sunnism (in answer to Bayezid's reproach), was equally responsible for making Babur profess the Shia doctrine of Shah Ismail. As a mark of his respect to his orthodox Shia suzerain, Babur had to accept the Shia-i-Taj (a customary cap worn by a Shia). He struck coins bearing the Shia texts immediately on his arrival in India. Later however he struck coins bearing the names of the first 4 khalifas

This implies he started professing Sunni faith now! Yet Babur hardly followed the Sunni orthodox social system either which is a part of the Islamic creed; he enjoyed the prerogative of social freedom. He enjoyed wine as much as any other member of his family, an enjoyment strictly prohibited.

Religion seems to have had anything but a powerful influence upon him, as regards submission to the will of God and belief in the efficacy of prayer.


Humayun in point of religion was no better and no worse than his father, Babur. Though he was under the influence of a saint, he accepted the Shia-i-Taj, and wore the khelat (robe of honour) offered by the Shia King of Persia. He went so far as to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of a Shia saint in north-western Persia near the Caspian Sea. His change of the title of Sultanate of Hindustan to 'Musnad-e-Emarat’ implies a complete surrender to Persian influence.

If his father had steeped himself in wine, Humayun fumed himself with the smoke of opium. Love of books, association with the learned men, and visits to tombs and saints --- the characteristics of his line were all present in him, {as in his son Akbar too}.

Dynastic group portrait of Emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir with the poet Sa'di on the left and an attendant on the right. Hashim


In short, a spirit of cultural eclecticism, almost unfettered by the limitations of Islam, though they had accepted it 150 years before, existed in these two houses of Central Asia from which the Chagtai family of Hindustan traced their descent. They continued their old social system, with love of Shamanic customs, their love for literature and literary men, with their drinking bouts and with their cruel propensities and disregard of human lives. The Torah of Chengiz Khan was still quoted, and when necessary, put into practice. The kettledrum and horse tails were still the signs of the dignity of a Chagtai.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, so far as India was concerned, a tendency towards a fusion and rapprochement between Hindu and Muslim cultures, was already in evidence. The Sufi teachers were then in possession of the field, the Hindu saints had prepared the soil, and seeds of eclecticism, partly conscious and partly unconscious, had been sown. 

The time was ripe for the advent of a MAN and a great ruler who would co-ordinate the jarring elements of the two. He appeared in 1542 in the desert of Amarkot in Sind, that cradle of Sufis wherefrom had sprung for the last 400 years myriads of saints. He was born of a mother who had behind her a great legacy of the culture of Central Asia. He was born in the house of a Rajput Raja of Amarkot who, out of pity, had given shelter to Humayun. It was no mere accident but a phenomenon, associated with a love for the subjects which this Emperor manifested.

Uncannily, Akbar showed much of the traits of his ancestors, so far removed from him in time and place, as we have seen.  The mystic in Akbar would often compel him “to seek loneliness where he would chant for the whole night the praises of God”. By nature, Akbar was contemplative. Badayuni writes of “the Emperor sitting on a stone, lost in meditation.” From his inherited leanings to the formulation of the Din-i-ilahi was a slow but natural process.  

This article has been posted under the Mughals(Akbar) and Miscellaneous section of history_geek's blog.

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  1. Brilliant !! . Excellent post Radhika. :)
    There is always an "other" side to a person. And this post is a proof of the same. Especially, i liked the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan.
    A job very nicely done with complete honesty, in order to bring about the similarities which Mughal Emperor Akbar with his ancestors. :)

  2. Outstanding article describing facts about Akbar's ancestors hitherto unknown to me. I have studied about Timur Lang, Babur and Humayun in history texts, but not in detail. Thank you Radhika. :)

    You have neatly highlighted both the positive and negative influences that the political and religious tactics of his forefathers, had on Jalaluddin Mohammad. These influences combined with his own thirst for learning, his ability to incorporate the knowledge gained in aiding the progress and welfare of his subjects, his innate thirst for spirituality that allowed him to adopt the learnings of other faiths and imbibe them, is what made him one of the most progressive leaders of Hindustan. This why he was "Akbar".

  3. Kembang TanjoengApril 6, 2015 at 7:44 PM

    Thank you so much for the article Radhika. On a personal level I can connect to Akbar way of thinking. I have a much similar view about religion. Eclectism. In my country It is compulsory to fill in the religion box in your ID card. Thus I had no choice but to put in something. I also tend to agree with Sam Harris about "organized religion" as he puts it in in his book "The end of Faith". Sam is an
    American neuro scientist and a true atheist. As for me, I do still believe in a Supreme Being or whatever name you might want to call God.

  4. Thank you friends for your generous comments :)

    Kembang, I can understand how you feel about filling in personal details on forms. We have to fill in even more details sometimes and it can get under your skin sometimes. Truly, Akbar was way ahead of his times in daring to oppose the orthodoxy and trying to be a rationalist who gave equal value to all.

    Charu, well said about Akbar! Can't add anything more to your words. :) In world history, we find that people who normally rise above the ordinary and achieve greatness feel a connect with some divine power and usually have a spiritual side to them.

    Abhay, I also found admirable qualities in Kublai Khan. If I am not mistaken, he may be the same person who inspired Samuel Coleridge to write the poem Kubla Khan. When I was reading about these people, I thought it is so wonderful that genes, destiny and people / circumstances all came together to create the right space for Akbar to fill with the light of his greatness. He was, to all intent, Destiny's favored child. I don't mean to say he was lucky but rather he was pre-destined to serve the purpose of trying to bring people of various faiths together in an era of intolerance. :)

  5. Iqra, thank you so much! :)

    Kublai Khan had his empire in China.

  6. Very interesting comparison of this clan ... How incredible that such spirit can be a legacy thru genetics too👍

  7. Completely right Viji. This post made me think too, the connection Akbar had with his ancestors. :)

  8. waahh.! radhika. gr8 post..loved reading it. so clearly u wrote every person has faults in him. lovedd readind 'tis flawless piece. i hv a doubt.. i read abt kublai khan in some book. he created new dynasty in china. i forgot whr it was..some account of a foreigner i think.