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Democracy, Pluralism and Minority Rights –Part 3 (Final)

By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History."  He can be reached by E-mail:   )

Democracy comes in different packages. As a slogan it provides a sharp cutting edge for imperial ambitions. As a functioning process it empowers the masses. In this final article we survey briefly the historical experience of Muslims in building pluralistic societies, providing guarantees for minority rights and coming to terms with participatory democracy. The legacies of Akbar the Great Mogul, Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi and Allama Mohammed Iqbal are highlighted.

Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar Padashah Ghazi (d 1605), as his celebrated biographer Abul Fazal refers to him, was one of the greatest rulers produced by Hindustan. Muslim historians are ambiguous about his rule. Some consider him to be one of the greatest among Muslim rulers, while others look at him as a renegade. In the entire span of fourteen hundred years of Islamic history, no Muslim emperor stretched the social and religious envelope as an Islamic sovereign, as did Akbar, while remaining within the fold of Islam. And no one tackled the complex issues of Muslim interactions with a largely non-Muslim world with the sincerity, zeal, passion, originality, common sense and commitment demonstrated by this complex, enigmatic, gifted, energetic and purposeful monarch.

The orthodox thought he had become a Hindu. The Hindus were convinced he died a Muslim. The Jesuits in Goa believed he was a sure candidate for conversion to Christianity. The Jains and Parsis felt at home in his presence and considered him one of their own. He befriended the Sikhs, and protected mosques and temples alike. Akbar was a universal man; he was more than any single group thought of him. He was the purest representation of Sufic Islam that grew up in Asia after the destruction wrought by the Mongols (1219-1258).

Akbar was the first Muslim emperor to extend to the Hindus the same status as that accorded to the Christians and the Jews from the beginning of the Islamic period. This was a bold move, one that met resistance from the more conservative ulema. Akbar married a Rajput princess, and allowed her to practice her faith within his palace just as earlier Turkish sultans had married Byzantine Christian princesses and allowed them to practice Christianity within their quarters. Hindus were treated as people of the Book, the jizya was abolished, and Hindus became generals and commanders in the army as well as governors and divans in the empire. By his personal example, the Emperor sought to build family relationships with the Hindus, thus extending the reach of Islam to the Vedic civilization. The fourth Great Mogul, Jehangir, was a product of Rajput-Mogul intermarriage. Akbar’s legacy stayed with the empire well into waning years of the empire. Some Mogul princes became scholars of Sanskrit as well as Persian and Arabic. Dara Shikoah, eldest son of Shah Jehan, translated the Indian classic, Mahabharata into Persian.

The basis for governance in Akbar’s domains was Akhlaq. As we have pointed out in earlier articles, the classic work of Nasiruddin al Tusi (d 1273), Akhaq e Nasiri, was required reading in Mogul schools. Following the example of al Tusi, many ulema of Hindustan also wrote books on Akhlaq which were used as texts in local schools. Akbar’s genius was to construct an egalitarian society based on the fruit of religious experience, namely good character, rather than sectarian interpretations of religious rites, customs and interpretations. Schools of fiqh were not abandoned but were used to build character in an integrative spiritual Sufi matrix.

Akbar succeeded in creating a pluralistic society in which minority rights were guaranteed by the openness of the system. Through his philosophy of suleh e kul, and through royal edicts, he ensured that all of his riyaya (subjects) received equal treatment from the state and had equal access to the royal machinery. Indeed, some suspect that his goal was to build a Hindustani nation, transcending allegiance to myriad faiths in the land.

The political pendulum had swung far to one side and reaction set in. It is an irony of Islamic history that the challenge to a Sufic emperor came from the wombs of Sufism. The Naqshbandi Sufi order, with deep roots in Central Asia, was a principal player in this development. Alarmed at the integrative thrust of Akbar’s reforms, Shaikh Baqi Billah who was the spiritual head of the Naqshabandi silsilah, and who lived in Kabul at the time, invited Akbar’s brother Mirza Hakim to dethrone Akbar. Mirza Hakim marched into the Punjab at the head of an Afghan-Uzbek army and occupied Lahore in 1581. This brought the Great Mogul to Lahore the same year. Akbar camped in Lahore for almost fifteen years and it was from this base that he conquered Sindh, Baluchistan, the NW frontier, Afghanistan and Kashmir. The threat from the Afghan-Uzbek quarters was eliminated.

It was however, Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi, the next in line in the Naqshbandi silsilah who had a critical impact on the Mogul empire. Indeed, Sirhindi, known as Mujaddid alf e Thani, was a pivotal figure in world history, who changed the direction of Islamic civilization from a Sufic orientation to a jurisprudence orientation. Through his letters (the maktubat) to Mogul and Ottoman courtiers he asserted the supremacy of the law over innovation. It was a salafi response from a Sufi quarter. Shaikh Ahmed, at least in the initial stages of his writings, held that the Hindus be treated as dhimmis and the experiment of Hindu-Muslim cooption be stopped. After he passed away in 1624, his son and grandson continued to influence the Mogul courts. The battle lines were now drawn. When Shah Jehan fell ill and the armies of Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoah met on the banks of the Jamuna in 1657 over succession rights to the Peacock throne, it was more than a battle between two princes. It was a contest of wills between Sufic Islam represented by Dara Shikoah and salafi Islam championed by Aurangzeb. In this contest, the salafis won and Muslim India charged off in the direction of exclusive pluralism and a rigid application of fiqh.

It was the power of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi’s work that changed the direction of Islam in India and paved the way for Emperor Aurangzeb. Indeed, so powerful was the draft from Shaikh Ahmed’s legacy, that one witnesses a simultaneous increase in rigid religious zeal in the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia in the early part of the eighteenth century. India, in particular, witnessed a strict application of fiqh in the reign of Aurangzeb, but in the process it imploded. The Hindus, Muslims and the Sikhs went their separate ways. India was the first great non-Western civilization to fall to the West. Its implosion and subsequent subjugation by the British shifted the locus of world history from Asia to Europe.

No survey of pluralistic experiments in Islamic history is complete without a mention of the works of Allama Mohammed Iqbal. Iqbal conceived of democracy as a spiritual democracy of believers. Summarily, his work shows four discrete steps in the evolution of his thought. First, he asserts the supremacy of the spirit over the physical and holds that the fulfillment of man’s destiny on earth lies in his spiritual attainment. His poetry is suffused with spirituality and it is impossible to know him without knowing Tasawwuf.

Secondly, he asserts that the moving principle of Islamic history is Ijtihad. In placing the science of fiqh and its application through Ijtihad at the vortex of Muslim thought, he falls in the tradition of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi and takes Muslim thought away from the orthodoxy of Tasawwuf. Third, in line with the thinking of the Turkish poet Zia, he proposes that the process of Ijtihad be open to the layman and not be the exclusive privilege of individual muftis. An elected legislative body, not just an individual mujtahid, would be best guarantee that Ijtihad maintains its dynamism. And fourth, he asserts that only a Muslim legislature can engage in Ijtihad. In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam he wrote: “What then is the principle of movement in the nature of Islam? This is known as Ijtihad……… The transfer of the power of Ijtihad from individual representatives of schools to a Muslim legislative assembly which, in view of the growth of opposing sects, is the only possible form Ijma can take in modern times, will secure contributions to legal discussion from laymen who happen to possess a keen insight into affairs. In this way alone we can stir into activity the dormant spirit of life in our legal system, and give it an evolutionary outlook. In India, however, difficulties are likely to arise; for it is doubtful whether a non-Muslim legislative assembly can exercise the power of Ijtihad.” Democracy, pluralism and minority rights, according to Iqbal, must stay within the traditional framework of fiqh as it evolves through an elected Muslim legislature. One can easily see how this line of thinking led Iqbal in the direction of Pakistan and away from accommodation with the other religious traditions in India.



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