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Religious Toleration in Mughal India

Updated on July 18, 2014

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 descendents 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 descendent of both Timur and Ghengis Khan (Kimball, “A Concise History of India”). He founded his new empire on religious freedoms (BBC, “Mughal Empire (1500s, 1600s)). 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 (1500s, 1600s)). 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 Mogul 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 (1500s,1600s). 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 goals. 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 (1500s,1600s)). 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 make 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 (1500s,1600s)). 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 (1500s,1600s)). 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 to protect his throne (Duiker and Spielvogel, 437). During his reign, the military became excessively costly (Armstrong, 128) and the agriculture was neglected (Armstrong, 128). However, on the bright side, the peak of Mughal architectural achievements (BBC, “Mughal Empire (1500s,1600s)) was during the reign of Shah Jahan; including the construction of the Taj Mahal(Armstrong,127).

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; which he was more hostile to (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”).

Aurengzebe 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 Aurengzebe. 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, “Mughul Empire (1500s,1600s)). Not only did Aurangzeb start destroying Hindu temples (Armstrong, 128), but he also began enslaving the Hindus (BBC, “Mughal Empire (1500s,1600s)). 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 targets. Since Shiites are also Muslims, there was 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 and Conclusion

Although all of the Mughal leaders were related and share 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 because 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 other religions.

Without a doubt, Akbar was the most accepting of other religions whole-heartedly. 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 (1500s,1600s)) was one that has made him renown through 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.

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© 2014 Beverly Hollinhead


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