Akbar the Great (Oct. 15, 1542-Oct. 27, 1605) was a 16th-century Mughal (Indian) emperor famed for his religious tolerance, empire-building, and patronage of the arts.
Fast Facts: Akbar the Great
- Known For: Mughal ruler famed for his religious tolerance, empire-building, and patronage of the arts
- Also Known As: Abu'l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, Akbar I
- Born: Oct. 15, 1542 in Umerkot, Rajputana (present-day Sindh, Pakistan)
- Parents: Humayun, Hamida Banu Begum
- Died: Oct. 27, 1605 in Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Mughal Empire (present-day Uttar Pradesh, India)
- Spouse(s): Salima Sultan Begum, Mariam-uz-Zamani, Qasima Banu Begum, Bibi Daulat Shad, Bhakkari Begu, Gauhar-un-Nissa Begum
- Notable Quote: "As most men are fettered by bonds of tradition, and by imitating ways followed by their fathers… everyone continues, without investigating their 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."
Akbar was born to the second Mughal Emperor Humayun and his teenaged bride Hamida Banu Begum on Oct. 14, 1542, in Sindh, now part of Pakistan. Although his ancestors included both Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane), the family was on the run after losing Babur's newly-established empire. Humayan would not regain northern India until 1555.
With his parents in exile in Persia, little Akbar was raised by an uncle in Afghanistan, with help from a series of nursemaids. He practiced key skills like hunting but never learned to read (possibly due to a learning disability). Nonetheless, throughout his life, Akbar had texts on philosophy, history, religion, science, and other topics read to him, and he could recite long passages of what he heard from memory.
Akbar Takes Power
In 1555, Humayan died just months after retaking Delhi. Akbar ascended the Mughal throne at the age of 13 and became Shahanshah ("King of Kings"). His regent was Bayram Khan, his childhood guardian and an outstanding warrior/statesman.
The young emperor almost immediately lost Delhi once more to the Hindu leader Hemu. However, in November 1556, Generals Bayram Khan and Khan Zaman I defeated Hemu's much larger army at the Second Battle of Panipat. Hemu himself was shot through the eye as he rode into battle atop an elephant; the Mughal army captured and executed him.
When he came of age at 18, Akbar dismissed the increasingly overbearing Bayram Khan and took direct control of the empire and army. Bayram was ordered to make the hajj-or pilgrimage-to Mecca, but he instead started a rebellion against Akbar. The young emperor's forces defeated Bayram's rebels at Jalandhar, in Punjab. Rather than executing the rebel leader, Akbar mercifully allowed his former regent another chance to go to Mecca. This time, Bayram Khan went.
Intrigue and Further Expansion
Although he was out from under Bayram Khan's control, Akbar still faced challenges to his authority from within the palace. The son of his nursemaid, a man called Adham Khan, killed another adviser in the palace after the victim discovered that Adham was embezzling tax funds. Enraged both by the murder and by the betrayal of his trust, Akbar had Adham Khan thrown from the parapets of the castle. From that point forward, Akbar was in control of his court and country, rather than being a tool of palace intrigues.
The young emperor set out on an aggressive policy of military expansion, both for geo-strategic reasons and as a way to get troublesome warrior/advisers away from the capital. In the following years, the Mughal army would conquer much of northern India (including what is now Pakistan) and Afghanistan.
In order to control his vast empire, Akbar instituted a highly efficient bureaucracy. He appointed mansabars, or military governors, over the various regions; these governors answered directly to him. As a result, he was able to fuse the individual fiefdoms of India into a unified empire that would survive until 1868.
Akbar was personally courageous, willing to lead the charge in battle. He also enjoyed taming cheetahs and elephants. This courage and self-confidence allowed Akbar to initiate novel policies in government and stand by them over objections from more conservative advisers and courtiers.
Matters of Faith and Marriage
From an early age, Akbar was raised in a tolerant milieu. Although his family was Sunni, two of his childhood tutors were Persian Shias. As an emperor, Akbar made the Sufi concept of Sulh-e-Kuhl, or "peace to all," a founding principle of his law.
Akbar displayed remarkable respect for his Hindu subjects and their faith. His first marriage in 1562 was to Jodha Bai, or Harkha Bai, a Rajput princess from Amber. As did the families of his later Hindu wives, her father and brothers joined Akbar's court as advisers, equal in rank to his Muslim courtiers. In total, Akbar had 36 wives of various ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Probably even more important to his ordinary subjects, Akbar in 1563 repealed a special tax placed on Hindu pilgrims who visited sacred sites, and in 1564 he completely repealed the jizya, or yearly tax on non-Muslims. What he lost in revenue by these acts, he more than regained in good-will from the Hindu majority of his subjects.
Even beyond the practical realities of ruling an enormous, predominantly Hindu empire with just a small band Muslim elite, however, Akbar himself had an open and curious mind on questions of religion. As he mentioned to Philip II of Spain in his letter, he loved to meet with learned men and women of all faiths to discuss theology and philosophy. From the female Jain guru Champa to Portuguese Jesuit priests, Akbar wanted to hear from them all.
As Akbar solidified his rule over northern India and began to extend his power south and west to the coast, he became aware of the new Portuguese presence there. Although the initial Portuguese approach to India had been "all guns blazing," they soon realized that they were no match militarily for the Mughal Empire on land. The two powers made treaties, under which the Portuguese were allowed to maintain their coastal forts, in exchange for promises not to harass Mughal ships that set out from the west coast carrying pilgrims to Arabia for the hajj.
Interestingly, Akbar even formed an alliance with the Catholic Portuguese to punish the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Arabian Peninsula at that time. The Ottomans were concerned that the huge numbers of pilgrims flooding into Mecca and Medina each year from the Mughal Empire were overwhelming the resources of the holy cities, so the Ottoman sultan rather firmly requested that Akbar quit sending people on the hajj.
Outraged, Akbar asked his Portuguese allies to attack the Ottoman navy, which was blockading the Arabian Peninsula. Unfortunately for him, the Portuguese fleet was completely routed off of Yemen. This signaled the end of the Mughal/Portuguese alliance.
Akbar maintained more enduring relations with other empires, however. Despite the Mughal capture of Kandahar from the Persian Safavid Empire in 1595, for example, those two dynasties had cordial diplomatic ties throughout Akbar's rule. The Mughal Empire was such a rich and important potential trading partner that various European monarchs sent emissaries to Akbar as well, including Elizabeth I of England and Henry IV of France.
In October 1605, the 63-year-old Emperor Akbar suffered a serious bout of dysentery. After a three-week illness, he passed away at the end of that month. The emperor was buried in a beautiful mausoleum in the royal city of Agra.
Akbar's legacy of religious toleration, firm but fair central control, and liberal tax policies that gave commoners a chance to prosper established a precedent in India that can be traced forward in the thinking of later figures such as Mohandas Gandhi. His love of art led to the fusion of Indian and Central Asian/Persian styles that came to symbolize the height of Mughal achievement, in forms as varied as miniature painting and grandiose architecture. This fusion would reach its absolute apex under Akbar's grandson Shah Jahan, who designed and had built the world-famous Taj Mahal.
Perhaps most of all, Akbar the Great showed the rulers of all nations everywhere that tolerance is not a weakness, and open-mindedness is not the same as indecisiveness. As a result, he is honored more than four centuries after his death as one of the greatest rulers in human history.
- Alam, Muzaffar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. "The Deccan Frontier and Mughal Expansion, ca. 1600: Contemporary Perspectives," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 47, No. 3 (2004).
- Habib, Irfan. "Akbar and Technology," Social Scientist, Vol. 20, No. 9/10 (Sept.-Oct. 1992).
- Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1996).
- Smith, Vincent A. Akbar the Great Mogul, 1542-1605, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1919).