Short essay on religious policies under Aurangzeb in the Mughal Empire

As an orthodox Sunni Muslim, Aurangzeb felt that his empire should be a land of pure Islam, admin­istered according to the restrictive rules and regu­lations laid down by the early Khalifas. He was astute and shrewd enough not to be unaware of the administrative and political fall-outs of his zealous and in a sense bigoted following of the precepts of Islam.

Some historians are of the view that Aurangzeb's conscience goaded him into taking a stance of uncompromising hostility towards unbelievers and that he was willing to incur any political danger or loss of revenue in order to follow his ideals.

They are of the opinion that it is not correct to accuse Aurangzeb of sanctimonious hypocrisy and of feign­ing religious sentiments which he did not feel in his heart. Explaining this point, V.A. Smith writes: "Although his religion did not hinder him from committing actions in the field of statecraft which are repugnant to the moral sense of mankind, his creed, as a creed, was held in all sincerity, and he did his best to live upto it. He resembled most other autocrats in assuming that rules of morality do not apply to matters of state.

There is no reason to suppose that he felt any remorse for his treatment of his father, and it is certain that his conscience was perfectly easy concerning the penalties which he inflicted on his brothers, sons and other relatives. The safety of the state, as identified with the maintenance of his personal authority, was sufficient justification in his eyes for acts which we are disposed to call unfeeling crimes. Those acts in no way conflicted with his religions sentiments" (The Oxford History of India).

Two events apparently set Aurangzeb on his path of bitter opposition and violence against the Hindu religion. The first is the death of Raja Jai Singh in Deccan in 1667, presumably due to poi­soning by his son, Kirat Singh, who did so at the behest of Aurangzeb. As the leading Hindu officer of the realm, Raja Jai Singh had some restraining influence on the anti-Hindu policies of Aurangzeb.

On 18 April 1669, the emperor was informed that in the provinces of Thatta, Multan and Benaras, but more noticeably, in the last, brahmans were bold enough to give public lectures on their holy books and scriptures to which even Muslim students from distant places were attracted. The emperor regarded such open propaganda of Hindu idolatory as nothing but scandalous.

Then and there commands were issued "to all the governors of provinces to destroy with a willing hand the schools and the temples of the infidels; and they were strictly enjoined to put an entire stop to the teaching and practice of idolatrous forms of worship."

After Raja Jai Singh's death in the Deccan, Raja Jaswant Singh of Marwar (Jodhpur) was deputed to his place. As, however, there was no improvement in the situation, he was sent in disgrace to the west of the Indus, a region where the Hindus preferred not to go. He was appointed commandant of a small post at Jamrud, at the mouth of the Khyber, where he died towards the end of 1678.

Aurangzeb thought that the death of the Raja had provided him with a further opportunity to advance in his policy of humiliating the Rajas and the Hindus in general. He reimposed the jiziya, the hated poll-tax on non- Muslims, which the wise and compassionate Akbar had abolished early in his region. The historian, Khafi Khan defined the objectives of Aurangzeb as the curbing of the infidels and the demonstration of the difference between a land of Islam (Darul-Islam) and a land of the unbelievers (Dar-ul-harb).

It was the orthodox reform movement in Indian Islam started by Mujaddid Alf-i-Sani Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1563-1624) which, probably, had a great influence on the life and activities of Aurangzeb.

The aims of this reform movement were regeneration and rejuvenation of Islam in strict accord with the shariyat and the "establishment of a true Islamic State conforming to Islamic ideas and practices in all its activities..." Aurangzeb came into contact with Khwaja Muhammad Masum, son of Mujaddid Ahmad Sirhindi, while he was a prince.

Aurangzeb was very respectful to Masum and asked for his advice on important matters of Muslim theology. On ascending the throne, Aurangzeb continued to be in touch with the Khwaja as also his son Muhammad Saifuddin.

Aurangzeb claimed the throne against his lib­eral-minded, elder brother Dara because he consid­ered Dara to be a heretic. As a die-hard sunni Muslim he believed in the Islamic theory of kingship and wanted to follow its precepts. The essential feature of this theory is that the ruler should strictly enforce the Quranic law in the administration of his empire.

In 1659, he took the first step in this direction by issuing a number of ordinances to restore the Muslim law of conduct as per the teaching of the Quran. The practice of inscribing the Kalima (the Muslim confession of faith) on the coins were discontinued to prevent defilement in the hands of the infidels.

The celebration of Nauroz, the Zoro- astrian New Year's day, was stopped, thus discon­tinuing a custom followed by his predecessors in imitation of the Persian kings. Bhang or cannabis Indica was no more to be cultivated because of its addictive harmful properties. Muhtasibs or the moral police were placed in all big cities to check on and curb the practice of un-Islamic habits such as drinking, gambling and illict traffic of women.

They also had the power to punish the Muslims for heresy, blasphemy, failure to say the prayers (namaz) and to observe the fast of the Ramzan. The Sufis and Shias were not spared. The Ismailia or Bohra community of Gujarat suffered serious persecutions for heresy among the Muslim communities.

Music was banned in the court in 1668 and the musicians were told to go away. They were, however, given pensions. An exception was made for the royal band and it continued. Tuladan or the ceremony of weighing the emperor on his two birthdays (accord­ing to the solar and lunar calendars) was discontin­ued as it was un-Islamic.

Likewise, Jharokadarshan, a custom according to which the Mughal emperors used to appear at the outer balcony of their palaces in the morning to receive felicitations from their subjects, was also stopped. The rejoicings and merry­making on the anniversary of coronation as also on birthdays were prohibited by the emperor.

Drinking and gambling were so widespread that it was almost impossible for the moral police to stamp them out. Likewise, the dictate ordering courtesans and dancing girls to abandon their vo­cation and to get married was observed more in breach than in compliance. The eminently sensible order prohibiting sati was also not obeyed because of the strong opposition of the Hindus.

Aurangzeb declared in a farman granted to a priest of Benaras in 1659, that his religion forbade him to allow construction of new temples, but there was no bar on the destruction of old ones. The repair works of old temples were prohibited in 1664 and on 9 April 1669 came the order (mentioned earlier) to destroy all schools where brahmans were lecturing on the Hindu scriptures in public. The widespread destructions of temples all over the country followed this order.

The re-imposition of jizya on the Hindus came on 2 April 1679 with the avowed objective of spreading Islam and overthrowing idolatrous prac­tices. By reimposing this hateful tax, Aurangzeb went against the courageous and compassionate decision of his illustrious great grandfather, Akbar abolishing it. Commenting on the nature of the tax, Dr J.N. Chaudhuri states:

"It was a commutation tax, i.e., the price of indulgence, and had to be paid by an assessee with marks of humility. For its assessment and collection, the non-Muslim population was roughly divided into three grades: the first grade having an income above 10,000 dirhams had to pay 48 dirhams; the second, whose income was 200 to 1000 dirhams paid 24 dirhams, and the third with incomes below 200 dirhams, 12 dirhams, a dirham being equivalent to a quarter of a rupee.

It appears that the jizya hit the poor-non-Muslim population most, as the rate of taxation in their case was heavy in proportion to their income. Women, children below fourteen, beggars and paupers were exempted from their tax. Of the monks, the heads of wealthy monasteries only had to pay; government officials were, however, exempted from paying this tax" [The Mughal Empire).

By an order in 1671 all Hindu head-clerks and accountants were removed from their posts so as to fill those vacancies with Muslims. As, however, not many experienced and qualified Muslims were available to fill in, the order was modified allowing 50 per cent of such posts to be retained by the Hindus. Then, in 1668 there was a blanket ban on all Hindu fairs, and in March 1695 an order prohibited all Hindus (excepting the Rajputs) to ride in palanquins, elephants and pedigree horses. They were also forbidden to carry arms.

The consequence of all these discriminatory, demeaning and humiliating measures of Aurangzeb was far-reaching and ultimately disastrous for the stability of the empire.

Narrating all the anti-Hindu acts of Aurangzeb (as reviewed earlier), Dr Mira Singh strikes a different note by stating: "It would be...irrational to term Aurangzeb as a fanatic purely on the basis of (above) statements just as it would be ridiculous to interpret all his acts as religion-oriented solely.

(Moreover) all discussions, on the spread of Islam in India must be preceded by the contention that while the establishment of a theocratic state contin­ued to remain the ideal of the Islamic state, in reality its interpretation varied from state to state according to the existing political exigencies. Hence, in a predominant Hindu India, no ruler but an imbecile could hope to debar Hindus from the state service, civil and military, leave alone attempt their total annihilation.

In fact, in India, since Mahmud Ghaznavi's time, the Muslim rulers had realized the essential difference between the ideal Din Panahi and the functional Din Dari and had perforce preferred to enforce the latter in the country. The diligent utilization of the Hindu potential to the maximum advantage of the Muslim ruler may have differed from ruler to ruler, but the impossibility of bringing about a total extermination of Hinduism was uni­versally recognized by all.

Against such background, as also keeping in view Aurangzeb's brilliant political record under Shah Jahan, it seems inconceivable and entirely irrational that Aurangzeb, when a sultan, threw all political caution to wind and attempted to establish a fanatic rule" [Medieval History of India].

Dr Singh, therefore, argues that it is necessary to make a logical interpretation of Aurangzeb's motives and policies which she believes were based upon:

(a) the personal religious views of the emperor;

(b) his policy towards the ulemas and theolo­gians who consistently endeavoured towards the creation of an Islamic state; and

(c) his policy towards the non-Muslim subjects and the handling of those issues which were prima­rily political in nature but involved certain religious elements too.

Dr Singh observes that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Muslim ruling class in the country could be categorized as belonging to three main religious streams.

The progressives among them were, like Akbar and Dara Shikoh, believers in the universality of religion, regarded religions as different paths for the attainment of the same goal and recommended (and practised) mutual tolerance among all faiths. Next were the liberals who more or less followed the Islamic path, but ruled according to the political exigencies of the state.

Usually, they kept the state separate from religion as Jahangir did during his rule. Shah Jahan adhered to the essentials of a liberal rule, but compared to Jahangir he was more inclined to orthodoxy. And finally there were the orthodox bigots like Ahmad Sirhindi, Aurangzeb's mentor, who were against associating Hindus in any manner with the Islamic state and demanded their persecution.

Thus Aurangzeb, by nature and association, was inclined towards orthodoxy from his youth and the debate to chose between orthodoxy and liberalism as state policy was apparently always in his mind. Inheriting a more or less liberal administration from his father Shah Jahan, he continued to keep it going. During this time, he tried to solve various problems according to their political weightage and made efforts to keep the state above religion.

However, as political and economic problems drew the country more and more to a deepening political crisis, his frustrations became more and more acute and apparently he turned towards religion believing it to be the cause as also the resolution of all problems. Once he had crossed the thin line between ortho­doxy and fanaticism, Aurangzeb lost the innate sense of keeping the state separate from politics.

A spate of anti-Hindu measures were enacted, but Dr Singh argues that they were spread over a long period of time and that it would be a grave mistake to regard these as examples of Aurangzeb's fanaticism. She says that there were an equal number of instances to prove Aurangzeb's initial tolerance. Khafi Khan refers to the abolition of some eighty cesses and taxes.

It seems Aurangzeb was quite aware of the political importance of the Rajputs and his attempts to win over Raja Raj Singh of Mewar show clearly his intent.

With regard to the blanket order dismiss­ing all Hindus in the revenue department and replacing them by Muslims, the Akham-i-Alamgiri refers to the emperor's reprimand of Amir Khan in 1669 for suggesting the sack of one of the two Hindu bakhshis and replacing him by a Muslim instead.

Moreover, there are farmans, dated after the infa­mous order for the destruction of schools and temples, sanctioning grants for the maintenance of such Hindu religious institutions.

Writing during the closing years of Aurangzebi reign, Bhimsen provides an interesting account of numerous temples which were constructed in the Deccan during those years. Likewise, Ishwardas in his Futuhat-i-Alamgiri has given an account of the various temples which existed during Aurangzeb's reign as well as the Sikh Gurudwara in Dehradun for which the emperor provided a gate.

Also, Athar Ali has shown by his research that contrary to popular belief the numbers of Hindu/ Rajput nobles did not go down during the reign of Aurangzeb. It would appear the percentages of such nobles went down marginally from 22.9 per cent (in 1628-58) to 20.6 per cent (1658-78) and then rose to 27.8 per cent (1679-1701).