Monday, May 19, 2014

Akbar’s Vizier Abul Fazl

Featuring James Talboys Wheeler

Previously on Akbar Establishes the Mogul Empire In India.

Time: 1556
Place: Lahore, India

Akbar, like his father and grandfather, professed to be a Muslem. His mother was a Persian; he was a Persian in his thoughts and ways. He was imbued with the old Mogul instinct of toleration. He was lax and indifferent, without the semblance of zeal. He consulted soothsayers who divined with burned rams' bones. He celebrated the Persian festival of the Nau-roz, or new year, which had no connection with Islam. He reverenced the seven heavenly bodies by wearing a dress of different color every day in the week. He joined in the Brahmanical worship and sacrifices of his Rajput queens. Still he was outwardly a Muslem. He had no sons; he vowed that if a son was born to him he would walk to the tomb of a Muslem saint at Ajmir; it was more than two hundred miles from Fathipur. In 1570 his eldest son Seli was born; Akbar walked to Ajmir; he offered up his prayers at the tomb.

Meantime the Ulama were growing troublesome at Agra. The Ulama comprised the collective body of Muslem doctors and lawyers who resided at the capital. The Ulama have always possessed great weight in a Muslem state. Judges, magistrates, and law officers in general are chosen from their number. Consequently the opinion of the collective body was generally received as the final authority. The Ulama at Agra were bigoted Sunnis. They hated and persecuted the Shiahs. Especially they persecuted the teachers of the Sufi heresy, which had grown up in Persia and was spreading in India. They had grown in power under the Afghan sultans. They had been quiet in the days of Humayun and Bairam Khan; both were confessedly Shiahs; the Ulama were too courtly to offend the power which appointed the law officers. When, however, Akbar threw over Bairam Khan and asserted his own sovereignty, the Ulama became more active. They were anxious to keep the young Padishah in the right way.

Akbar and his vizier Abul Fazl were certainly men of genius. They are still the bright lights of Indian history. They were the foremost men of their time. But each had a characteristic weakness. Akbar was a born Mogul. With all his good qualities he was proud, ignorant, inquisitive, and self-sufficient. Abul Fazl was a born courtier. With all his good qualities he was a flatterer, a time-server, and a eulogist; he made Akbar his idol; he bowed down and worshipped him. They became close friends; they were indeed necessary to each other. Akbar looked to his minister for praise; Abul Fazl looked to his master for advancement. It is difficult to admire the genius of Akbar without seeing that he has been worked upon by Abul Fazl. It is equally difficult to admire the genius of Abul Fazl without seeing that he is pandering to the vanity of Akbar.

When Akbar made the acquaintance of Abul Fazl he was in sore perplexity. He was determined to rule men of all creeds with even hand. The Ulama were thwarting him. The chief justice at Agra had sentenced men to death for being Shiahs and heretics. The Ulama were urging the Padishah to do the same. He was reluctant to quarrel with them; he was still more reluctant to sanction their high-handed proceedings toward men who worshipped the same God, but after a different fashion.

How far Akbar opened his soul to Abul Fazl is unknown. No doubt Abul Fazl read his thoughts. Indeed, he had his own wrongs to avenge. The Ulama had persecuted his father and driven him into exile. The Ulama were ignorant, bigoted, and puffed up with pride and orthodoxy. Their learning was confined to Arabic and the Koran. They ignored what they did not know and could not understand. Abul Fazl must have hated and despised them. He was far too courtly, too astute, to express his real sentiments. The Ulama were at variance with the Padishah; they were also at variance among themselves. Possibly he foresaw that if they disputed before Akbar they might excite his contempt. How far he worked upon Akbar can never be ascertained. In the end Akbar ordered that the Ulama should discuss all questions in his presence; he would then decide who was right and who was wrong.

There is no evidence that Abul Fazl suggested this course. It was, however, the kind of incense that a courtier would offer to a sovereign like Akbar. The learned men were to lay their opinions before the Padishah; he was to sit and judge. If he needed help, Abul Fazl would be at his side. Indeed, Abul Fazl would ask questions and invite opinions. He, the Padishah, would only hear and decide. Accordingly, preparations were made for the coming debates.

The discussions were held on Thursday evenings. They were carried on in a large pavilion; it was built for the purpose in the royal garden at Fathpur Sikri. All the learned men at Agra were invited to attend. The Padishah and all the grandees of the empire were present. Abul Fazl acted as a kind of director. He started questions; he expounded his master's policy of toleration. Akbar preserved his dignity as padishah. He listened with majestic gravity to all that was said. Occasionally he bestowed praises and presents upon the best speakers.

For many evenings the proceedings were conducted with due decorum. As, however, the speakers grew accustomed to the presence of the Padishah, the spirit of dissension began to work. One evening it led to an uproar; learned men reviled each other before the Padishah. No doubt Abul Fazl did his best to make the Ulama uncomfortable. He shifted the discussion from one point to another. He started dangerous subjects. He placed them in dilemmas. If they sought to please the Padishah they sinned against the Koran; if they stuck to the Koran they offended the Padishah. A question was started as to Akbar's marriages. One orthodox magistrate was too conscientious to hold his tongue; he was removed from his post. The courtiers saw that the Padishah delighted in the discomfiture of the Ulama with inconsistency, trickery, and cheating. The law officers were unable to defend themselves. Their authority and orthodoxy was set at naught. They were fast drifting into disgrace and ruin. They had cursed one another in their speech; probably in their hearts they were all agreed in cursing Abul Fazl.

Continued on May 21, 2014

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