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Religious Toleration in Mughal India


The Mughal Empire

During the 16th and 17th centuries, India was not only united but brought to the apex of political power and culture (Duiker and Spielvogel, 434). The empire responsible for this feat was the Mughals found in northern India. The founders of this massive empire were the descendants of the great Turkic conquer, Timur (otherwise known as Tamerlane) (Esposito, 405). Timur and his progeny hailed from the mountains north of the Ganges River (Duiker and Spielvogel, 434).

The Mughal court and empire was a blending of Persian, Islamic, and Indian cultures (Farooqu, 284). The civilization was very fond of arts (Duiker and Spielvogel, 442), grand architecture (BBC, “Mughal Empire (1500s, 1600s)”), and poetry (Duiker and Spielvogel, 444). However, the thing the Mughals are most well known for is their religious tolerance; especially that of the emperor, Akbar. In this paper, the most well-known of the Mughal rulers and their varying degrees of religious tolerance will be discussed. Furthermore, Akbar and his religious policies will then be compared to the others; as to demonstrate that he was the most religiously tolerant.


The founder and first ruler of the dynasty was Babur (Armstrong, 124). He was a descendant of both Timur and Ghengis Khan (Kimball, A Concise History of India). He founded his new empire on religious freedoms (BBC, “Mughal Empire"). Even though he created the empire, he took a very hands-off approach. Since he was more of a soldier than a politician, he allowed ministers to completely rule most of his empire for him (Manas: History and Politics, “Babar”).

Even if he was not hands-on in the running of his empire, it was still founded on his policy of religious toleration. Babur was a Sunni Muslim (Manas: History and Politics, “Babar”), but he was very lax in Muslim religious observance and practice (Farooqui, 285) and practiced open-minded, tolerant Islam (BBC, “Mughal Empire"). He did not persecute other religions’ followers and even prized learned men’s religious discussion (Farooqui, 284). Babur died in 1530 and passed the torch to his son, Humayun (Duiker and Spielvogel, 434).


Due to the fact that his father died not long after he established the Mughal dynasty when Humayun ascended the throne, the empire was unstable and threatened. It took him about twenty years to secure the Mughal throne. He spent the majority of the time he was emperor embroiled in a war with either surrounding enemies or his three brothers (Kimball, A Concise History of India); both parties trying to usurp him. Humayun ended up being overthrown and exiled to Persia in 1540 (Duiker and Spielvogel, 435).

Humayun followed in the religious footsteps of his father (Farooqui, 284). He was just as tolerant as Babur was. The only difference between the first and second ruler is that Humayun associated himself with the Shiite sect of Islam while his father associated himself with the Sunni sect (Farooqui, 284).


Humayun died when Akbar was 13, making the fearless warrior, Akbar the new emperor (Kimball, A Concise History of India). Due to his age though, his empire was ruled by regents until he came of age (Armstrong, 124). However, when Akbar became of age, he became one of the most religiously tolerant rulers out of all of the Mughal emperors. His tolerance really added to making his Mughal Empire an overall time of peace and prosperity (Duiker and Spielvogel, 436).

When it came to religion, Akbar declared “No man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him” (Dalrymple, The Meeting of Minds). True to what he said, his words or actions never condemned any religion and all his actions promoted tolerance and harmony (Farooqui, 285). He never once oppressed, forced Muslim conversion, or persecuted people for different religious beliefs (Armstrong, 124). During the entirety of his reign, he never did force religion or its stipulations on his subjects. Although he was a Muslim ruler, he did not force Sharia law on the non-Muslims of his empire (BBC, "Mughal Empire"). He allowed his conquered people to apply the laws of their own religion to their area (Duiker and Spielvogel, 436). Throughout his whole reign, as well as his whole life, he was respectful of all faiths and even gave up hunting (a sport he loved) out of respect for his Hindu subjects (Armstrong, 125).

One of his greatest achievements was his policy of trying to bridge the gap between Hindus and non-Muslims (Farooqui, 285). He did this in order to bring them together. There are several different ways he tried to achieve this goal. Even though he was illiterate (Kimball, A Concise History of India), Akbar was really a smart man. In order to establish a support base with Hindus, he would have to pass some legislation that would benefit them. The most beneficial thing he could have ever done was to abolish the jizyah, the non-Muslim poll tax, engaged by the Sharia law (Armstrong, 125). He also ended the other taxes, such as the Pilgrimage tax (Farooqui,285) that had been placed on Hindus by his predecessors. He also abolished certain restrictions (Duiker and Spielvogel, 435), such as building restrictions on the building of worship places (Farooqui, 285) and ones barring them from participation in government. Akbar allowed subjects, even Hindus, in power positions within the government (BBC, “Mughal Empire"). The only bad thing about passing these decrees is he offended his fellow Muslims (Armstrong, 127). However, considering that Hindus were the majority subjugated population, it was a worthwhile investment.

The Emperor was raised as an orthodox Muslim, but he was exposed to other religions in his childhood, (Duiker and Spielvogel, 435) making religion was an area of great interest for Akbar. The exposure also makes him a naturally open-minded person (Farooqui, 285). It was one of his favorite intellectual pursuits (Kimball, A Concise History of India). As a result of his interest, he invited different religions to come and discuss their beliefs (Kimball, A Concise History of India) as early as the 1590s (Darlrymple, The Meeting of Minds). Akbar even went as far as to finance houses of worship so the proponents of the different religions would have a place to go to discuss their varying theologies (Armstrong, 125). As time went by, his toleration of other religions grew stronger while his pursuit of making India an all-Muslim state weaker (Kimball, A Concise History of India). He used his toleration to attack and fight religious bigotry (Farooqui, 284).

At the end of his life, Akbar became hostile toward Islam (Duiker and Spielvogel, 435) and eventually denounced Islam in favor of a newly created religion called Godism. Akbar combined elements of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism (BBC, “Mughal Empire"). After he created this new religion, he made it the state religion.


When Akbar died in 1605, his son Jahangir succeeded him (Kimball, A Concise History of India). When Jahangir came to the throne, one of the first things he decreed was to change the state religion back to Islam from his father’s Godism (BBC, “Mughal Empire"). He expanded his father’s empire and strengthened the central control over the empire (Kimball, A Concise History of India). He was a bad ruler who was addicted to drugs. Had it not been for his administrators’ and generals’ upkeep, his kingdom would have ceased to prosper (Kimball, A Concise History of India).

As far as religious tolerance was concerned, Jahangir was somewhat tolerant like his father (Kimball, A Concise History of India). He was tolerant toward all religions but Sikhism (Manas: History and Politics, “Jehangir”). The Fifth Sikh Guru was executed under Emperor Jahangir (Manas: History and Politics, “Jehangir”). At his death in 1627, his son Shah Jahan took over.

Shah Jahan

When Shah Jahan first came to the throne, he had all his political rivals assassinated (Duiker and Spielvogel, 437). During his reign, the military became excessively costly (Armstrong, 128) and agriculture was neglected (Armstrong, 128). However, on the bright side, the peak of Mughal architectural achievements (BBC, “Mughal Empire") was during the reign of Shah Jahan; including the construction of the Taj Mahal (Armstrong,127).

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As far as religious tolerance goes, he continued Akbar’s religious tolerance policies (Armstrong, 127). Shah Jahan was unprejudiced toward almost any Muslim sect (Alam, The Debate Within), with the exception of Sufis, to which he was more hostile (Armstrong, 127). In the event of other religious followers, he was not oppressive, but did not allow new Hindu temples to be built (Kimball, A Concise History of India). However, he did have the Portuguese executed for not embracing Islam (Kimball, A Concise History of India).


Shah Jahan chose his son Dara to succeed him upon his death. However, his son Aurangzeb fought Dara and his other brothers, eventually killing Dara (Kimball, A Concise History of India). Aurangzeb then proceeded to imprison his father until his death in 1616 (Kimball, A Concise History of India).

Aurangzeb inherited a kingdom that was in upheaval. There was an imminent economic crisis as a result of abandoned agriculture during his father’s reign; (Armstrong, 128) not to mention the situation resulting from restrictive implementations of Aurangzeb. As a strict Sunni (Manas: History and Politics, “Aurangzeb: Religious Policies”) he reversed the religious tolerance policy (Kimball, A Concise History of India). Since he hated heretical Muslims as well as other religious practitioners (Armstrong, 128), he began making their lives a living nightmare. Aurengzebe was against everyone who did not follow the Sunni sect of Islam (Farooqui, 288). He was just as cruel and restrictive on Shiites as he was non-Muslims. One of the first things he did was to reinstate the non-Muslim poll tax (Manas: History and Politics, “Aurangzeb, Akbar, and the Communalization of History”). The Emperor also imposed Sharia law on everyone in the kingdom, regardless if they were Muslim or not ( BBC, “Mughal Empire"). Not only did Aurangzeb start destroying Hindu temples (Armstrong, 128), but he also began enslaving the Hindus (BBC, “Mughal Empire"). To add insult to injury, Aurangzeb then began building mosques on the sites of demolished Hindu temples (Kimball, A Concise History of India). For any temples not torn down, Hindus were banned from repairing them (Manas: History and Politics, “Aurangzeb: Religious Policies”).

It was not just the Hindus that were the targets of Aurangzeb’s religious fervor. Shiite Muslims were also targeted. Since Shiites are also Muslims, there were not as many ways for him to terrorize them, but there were some things that he still could do to make their lives miserable. Shiite celebrations honoring Husain were restricted (Armstrong,128). He arrested, tried, and executed Muslims who abandoned Islam (Kimball, A Concise History of India). In dealings with Shiites, Aurangzeb treated them just as he would a non-Muslim (Manas: History and Politics, “Aurangzeb: Religious Policies”).

A Comparison of the Mughal Rulers

Although all of the Mughal leaders were related and shared a lot of similarities, there are also many differences between them and the way in which they ruled. With the exception of Aurangzeb, all of the Mogul rulers practiced some degree of religious toleration. Be that as it may, Akbar was still the most religiously tolerant for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is because he was the only one to abolish the non-Muslim Tax on the Hindus. A second reason Akbar was the most tolerant is that out of all the Mughal leaders, he was the only one who allowed Hindus to part take in government activities. Even though each ruler associated with different sects of Islam, the first five rulers were still somewhat accepting of other religions.

Without a doubt, Akbar was the most accepting of other religions wholeheartedly. As for the other leaders, they were as accepting of other religions; but only to a certain extent. For example, Akbar would fund the buildings of Hindu temples, whereas the other rulers would not. Akbar would also invite people with different religions to Hindustan just to be able to have a discussion about their religion with them. That was unheard of during the reigns of the other monarchs.

In conclusion, Akbar’s belief that a ruler’s duty was to treat all believers the same and to tolerate all religions just as equally (BBC, "Mughal Empire") was one that has made him renowned for five centuries. Many of the things he implemented within his Indian kingdom are things that modern people consider important if not fundamental, even today. Ideas such as humane rulers (Duiker and Spielvogel, 435) or the founding of a secular state that is also religiously neutral (separation of church and state) (Dalrymple, The Meeting of Minds), are very much alive and in practice today. These ideas that we take for granted today were revolutionary in his time. With that being said, only a revolutionary leader, such as Akbar the Great could have laid the foundation and implemented them with as much success as he did.


Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Alam, Muzaffar. "The Debate Within: A Sufi Critique of Religious Law,Tasawwuf and Politics in Mughal India." South Asian History & Culture 2 (2011): 138-59. Humanities International Complete. Web. 18 July 2012. <>.

"Aurangzeb, Akbar, and the Communalization of History." Manas: History and Politics, Aurangzeb. University of California Los Angeles, n.d. Web. 19 July 2012. <>.

"Aurangzeb: Religious Policies." Manas: History and Politics, Aurangzeb. University of California Los Angeles, n.d. Web. 19 July 2012. <>.

"Babar." Manas: History and Politics, Babar. University of California Los Angeles, n.d. Web. 19 July 2012. <>.

Dalrymple, William. "The Meeting of Minds." Academic Search Premier. EBSCO, 03 July 2005. Web. 18 July 2012. <>.

Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. "The Muslim Empires." World History. 5th ed. Vol. 1. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2007. 434-44. Print.

Esposito, John L., ed. The Oxford History of Islam. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Farooqui, Salma Ahmed. A Comprehensive History of Medieval India:From the Twelfth to Mid-Eighteenth Century. New Delhi, India: Dorling Kindersley, 2011. Print.

"Jehangir." Manas: History and Politics, Jehangir. University of California Los Angeles, n.d. Web. 19 July 2012. <>.

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© 2014 Beverly Hollinhead


someone living in the world on January 18, 2019:

i think that is very nice but could be better with summarized info foe example my teacher told me to write one paragraph but i cant find info that will fit in a paragraph

hi on November 27, 2018:

I am looking for a 2 sentence answer could not find an answer

Mahendraditya on October 04, 2018:

False eulogisation of a foreign tribe, who came like hungry dogs to Indian subcontinent , lured by its wealth just like the turks of Delhi sultanate came in 1200s . Some ignorant people say that Mughals united India , not knowing the fact that entire India or most parts of it were united many times in ancient period , by rulers of dynasties like Maurya , Gupta , Nanda etc . The modern India as we know it , was united by the British in 19th century . After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the empire quickly crumbled due to inefficient rulers , Marathas raided Delhi in 1737 & made Mughal ruler pay them tributes & ultimately captured it in 1757 . Sikhs in Punjab established there own principalities . Other regions like Bengal & Hyderabad started to be ruled by ambitious nobles. By 1857 , the mughal 'ruler' was basically a mayor of Shahjahanabad , an area in the old part of Delhi . Another often recited myth is the religious 'tolerance' of Mughals . If mughals were really as tolerant as it is claimed , their empire would have survived . Akbar forged Rajput- Mughal alliances through marraiges , but those alliances were only political in nature & had no effect on the day to day treatment of their non muslim subjects by mughals . Furthur , all the efforts to maintain the stability of empire by Akbar were undone by his great grandson Aurangzeb , who was a fanatical sunni . He tortured Sikh gurus to death , killed their family members in the cruelest ways, causing Sikhs to revolt . He demolished Hindu temples , erected mosques in their places & placing their idols on the footsteps of mosques . Furthur more , he killed the son of Maratha cheftain Shivaji , whch caused all the Maratha vassals to revolt , To suppress revolts all across the empire , he killed 4.3 milion people during his reign . All his actions destroyed the stability of empire & the communal relations between Hindus & Muslims . He was the absolute worst of the mughals & the worst thing to happen to India in late medieval period .Though mughals were consequential in Indian history, but not in a positive way .Their actions were directly responsible for the British getting foothold in India . Ignorant novices say " but they built Taj mahal " . Mughals did not build these forts , graveyards for common people but for themselves . During their reign , a commoner would not be allowed to stand 1 mile away from these very monuments . Even the Brtish built India gate for the honor of Indian soldiers , but we don't eulogise them , So why this false glorification of mughals ? Mughals were central asian timurids with no ethnic , no linguistic or no religious commonalities with Indians . They were as foreign as British were . Simply put , they were the colonisers who settled in India rather than ruling it from central asia .

loh on August 16, 2018:

false info.the mogul atrocities should be read from the hindu prespective not muslim

Abby on April 09, 2018:

Nice information and very helpful but no offence , I think that it should be a little shorter with main points only.

Thank you!!!

Dan on October 10, 2017:

MUGHULS were the best thing happened to India as they United different sects of Hindus and taught them for the betterment of the society as Hindus were distributed among sects and caste and culture and language among thousands parts of India but Mughuls joined them together.

Adam on July 24, 2017:

You need to read the book by Audrey Truschke who has mention how Aurunghzeb was actually one of the best Mughal rulers. Not only did he expand the empire to the greatest extent but it was also one of the richest in its time. Aurangzheb also had far more Hindus and people of other religion in very high position in comparison to Akbar. Aurangzheb also commission many Hindu and sickh temples to be built and protected for more then you claim that he destroyed. The temples which were attacked and destroyed was due to the fact that those temples were stoking anti government feelings and usually a place where they planned terrorist attacks towards civilian population that didn't rise up to rebel against the ruling government. When those temples were attack Aurangzheb often used Hindu soldiers which he employed in the thousands to attack and subdue the terrorist hindus stoking unrest in the empire. Most of the information you have, has been proven false since it was more often then not written by the British who's main objection was to prove how cruel to Mughals were to legitimise their own rule. There are countless sources showing how Aurangzheb commissioned the building and maintaining many Hindu temples and given state treasury to protect them. Aurangzheb also never spent state money on himself and earned a living by writing copies of the Quran and knitting Muslim prayer hats and mats. To show how modest Aurangzheb was his grave is the most simplest compared to all the other Mughal leaders.

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