No aspect of Akbar’s character and history has been of so much interest and controversy as his faith and religious policy. Akbar proved to be the most liberal exponent of universal tolerance or Sulh-i-kul among all the Muslim rulers. Early in his life, shrewd Akbar understood that tolerance of the Hindus by itself was inadequate as at the most they would accept him only passively. But he would not gain their trust and active cooperation which were necessary for the consolidation of his empire.
Akbar found truth in all religions and realized that it was not the monopoly of Islam. He recommended human reason as the only basis of religion and extended complete tolerance to all the religions existing in his empire. The turmoil of schisms and the narrow-mindedness of the religious fanatics troubled him and he sincerely attempted to find a way to solve the problem.
The final stage in Akbar’s religious policy was reached in 1582 CE when he promulgated the Tauhid-i-Ilahi alias Din-i-Ilahi or the Divine Faith. It was not a religion but a socio-religious order or a brotherhood conceived and designed to cement diverse communities in the land under one faith. It was the logical result of the declaration of Khutba in 1579 CE.
According to Dr.K.S Lal, “Since now the Emperor was supreme in religious matters also, he must give spiritual guidance to his people”. He further writes, “His (Akbar’s) problem was how he could bring together into one fold people who believed in his philosophy of Sulh-i-kul (peace with all), and his answer was Din-i-Ilahi.”
According to Badaoni, after returning from his Kabul campaign in 1582 CE Akbar convened a council of his important courtiers and officers to formally promulgate the Din-i-Ilahi. It was an order of Sufistic type. Those who were willing to join and those whom Akbar approved, became its members. Abul Fazl became the chief priest of this organization. The man who desired to become a member of this organization approached Abul Fazl for the purpose. The applicant was presented to Akbar with turban in his hands on Sunday, which was fixed as the day for initiation. The applicant performed sijdah (prostration) by placing his head at the feet of Akbar. The latter blessed him by raising him up by the touch of his shoulders, placed the turban back on his head, and gave him the shast (his own portrait) on which was engraved Akbar’s favorite phrase Allah-hu-Akbar. He was thus accepted as a member of the order by emperor himself.
The rules of conduct to be observed by the members of Din-i-Ilahi were as under:
The Ilahias, as the members of the Din-i-Ilahi were called, greeted each other with the words Allah-hu-Akbar and Jalle-Jalal-e-hu.
They celebrated their birth anniversary by throwing a feast to their associates. They also gave dinner in their lifetime as against the old practice of giving dinner after one’s death.
The members of the Din-i-Ilahi abstained from eating meat as far as possible, did not dine with or use the utensils of the butchers, fisherman and bird catchers.
They did not marry old women or minor girls, and practiced charity.
They were expected to try for salvation by leaving worldly desires, and observing good conduct and purity.
There were four grades of devotion to Akbar as the spiritual guide of the Ilahias; these were in the ascending order of importance-property, life, honor and religion. The sacrifice of these things determined the grade of a member within the order. Whosoever sacrificed all four of them belonged to the first grade; who sacrificed three of them belonged to the second grade; who sacrificed two of them was of the third grade, and who sacrificed only one of them belonged to the fourth or last grade. Obviously, religion was the last and the most valuable thing, the surrender of which was not mandatory for enrolment as a member of the organization.
Criticism of Akbar’s Din-i-Ilahi
Akbar has been criticized severely for the introduction of sijdah at the initiation ceremony for joining the Din-i-Ilahi. As per Muslim law introduction of sijdah could be claimed by God alone. However, this was not the case with the Hindu law and practice.
Akbar had introduced also called the zamínbos at the imperial court in 1577-78 CE, long before the promulgation of Din-i-Ilahi. Akbar was an absolute monarch who claimed himself to be the ‘Shadow of God on Earth’ on the basis of the ‘Theory of Divine Rights of Kingship’.
It is evident that he had introduced sijdah as a custom in his capacity as the Zill-i-llahi,and not as ‘a religious command’ as founder of the Din-i-Ilahi. In fact, everyone who presented himself before Akbar had to practice sijdah.
On Badaoni’s criticism of Din-i-Ilahi, M.L Roychoudhury writes that if zaminbos was so obnoxious and anti-Islamic, why should Badaoni submit to that formality? Even as early as 1577 CE and as late as 1593 CE, Badaoni practiced zaminbos to the emperor in the open court. Bartoli described it as the result of “Akbar’s Astute and Knavish Policy.”
Vincent Arthur Smith commented: “The Divine Faith was a monument of Akbar’s folly, not of his wisdom.”
Mohsin Fani in his Dastan-i-Mazahib provides ten virtues or commandments of the Din-i-Ilahi which were liberal-mindedness and kindness, forgiveness of the evil doers and repulsion of anger with mildness, abstinence from worldly desires, non-attachment to the materialistic world, careful thought on the positives and negatives of the proposed actions, performance of noble deeds with courage, softness of voice and gentle speech, good treatment with the fellow-brethren, total break with the bad characters and evil-minded persons and the deduction of soul in the love of God. This was Akbar’s creed.
The Din-i-Ilahi emphasized on the purity of individual life and devotion to God in the true spirit of the Bhakti and Sufi saints of the age. The scrutiny of its principles and virtues as provided by Abul Fazi and Mohsin Fani indicates that Din-i-Ilahi could not be called a new religion or Din in the literal sense of the term which might contain some previously unknown religious philosophy, dogma, beliefs, or rituals. Perhaps, the use of the term Din with reference to a spiritual organization or Sufi sect of sorts was most unfortunate because it gave rise to all kinds of doubts in the hearts of the orthodox Muslims who charged Akbar of apostasy from Islam. He was called as a heretic and an enemy of Islam who had disrespected the Prophet Muhammad by assuming the role of a prophet himself.
According to Badaoni, Akbar had renounced Islam in the later years of his life adopted a number of anti-Islamic practices and even persecuted the Muslims on account of their religious views. Likewise, some Christian missionaries, who had failed to convert Akbar to Christianity, also criticized him of apostasy and hypocrisy.
However, unbiased researchers have found no substance in such accusations leveled against Akbar. The hostile and rather spiteful attitude of Badaoni towards Akbar, and the prejudiced accounts of the Christian missionaries have been too comprehensively exposed by modern historiographers to need any more explanation in this study.
Similarly, Vincent Arthur Smith’s bitter condemnation, which was based on the above-mentioned sources, has also been rejected as it has been found to be unfair, and rather harsh. Undoubtedly, Din-i-Ilahi was not a new religion, it did not have even the basic necessity of a religion, viz., a prophet, a place of worship, a religious text or a priestly class. Akbar did not propagate the Din-i-Ilahi in the spirit of a missionary; he never forced anybody to adopt the new creed although it would not have been difficult for him to do so. Akbar never attempted to increase its membership.
On the contrary, according to Abul Fazl, he was hesitant to accept new members within the order. Ain-i-Akbari mentions only 18 names of the persons who had adopted the Din-i-Ilahi. They comprised only one Hindu, Raja Birbal. The total number of the Ilahias of all grades was a few thousand.
Badaoni further mentions that Raja Bhagwan Dass and Man Singh refused to accept the membership of Din-i-Ilahi, and Akbar is never known to have expressed his annoyance with them on this account. When the prominent Hindu officers of the Mughal court who had rendered vital services to the state and who were known for their persistent loyalty to the person of Akbar, refused to oblige him by accepting the membership of the Din-i-Ilahi, its importance as a vehicle for the promotion of Hindu-Muslim unity or national integration was also lost immediately.
The Din-i-Ilahi as an organization of a few of the liberal-minded and God-fearing intellectuals and saints established the model before the people on the basis of which they could generate the forces of national integration by overcoming their respective religious pride and prejudices and other separatist or divisive tendencies.
Akbar not only provided political but also moral and spiritual leadership to the Indians of his day; he deserves a place of honor and pride in the annals of Indian history for all times to come.