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Abū’l-Fazl

Born: 14 January 1551, South Asia
Died: 22 August 1602, South Asia
  • A. Azfar MoinEmail author
Living reference work entry

Latest version View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_5-2

Abstract

Abu’l-Fażl ‘Allāmī (14 January 1551 to 22 August 1602) was the most important courtier, advisor, spiritual devotee, and close friend of the powerful Mughal (also called Timurid) emperor Jalāl al-Dīn Muhammad Akbar (r. 1556–1605). He played a central role in the emperor’s articulation of a cosmopolitan and religiously inclusive vision of empire that endured for nearly two centuries in South Asia.

Alternate Names

Biography

Abu’l-Fażl ‘Allāmī (14 January 1551 to 22 August 1602) was the most important courtier, advisor, spiritual devotee, and close friend of the powerful Mughal (also called Timurid) emperor Jalāl al-Dīn Muhammad Akbar (r. 1556–1605). He played a central role in the emperor’s articulation of a cosmopolitan and religiously inclusive vision of empire that endured for nearly two centuries in South Asia.

Born into an influential scholarly family that traced its origins over six generations to Sind and Yemen, Abu’l-Fażl joined Mughal imperial service in 1574 at the age of 23. His accomplished father, Shaykh Mubārak, and older brother, Abu’l Faiż Faiżī, already held key appointments at court as religious advisor and poet laureate respectively.

Abu’l-Fażl’s intellectual pursuits and religiopolitical outlook were shaped by his father who was known for his vast learning, spiritual eclecticism, and innovative interpretations of Islamic law. Early in Akbar’s reign, Shaykh Mubārak’s enemies had accused him of heresy and sedition because of his links with a millenarian Sufi movement called the Mahdawīyya (lit. messianists) that had swept northern India in the first half of the sixteenth century. To escape persecution, Shaykh Mubārak and his sons had to go into hiding. Yet by the time Abu’l-Fażl was presented at the Mughal court, the family’s honor and influence stood restored. This change in fortune occurred because their free-thinking views on religion and their experiments with various Muslim and non-Muslim spiritual, philosophical, and occult systems of thought had come into alignment with the inclusive principles on which Akbar desired to consolidate his empire in India.

When, two decades later, he composed the grand chronicle of Akbar’s reign, Abu’l-Fażl wrote into the imperial text his own biography. There he stated that even before he met Akbar, he was beginning to see the vanity of dogmatic scholastic pursuits and the chauvinism of depending on only one philosophical or religious point of view. Instead, he wanted to explore the sacred traditions of the entire world. When he met Akbar, he realized that to serve the emperor would allow him to pursue these desires. In his own words, Abu’l-Fażl described how Akbar became for him a spiritual guide:

[As a young scholar] I almost became selfish and conceited, and resolved to tread the path of proud retirement. The number of pupils that I had gathered around me, served but to increase my pedantry. In fact, the pride of learning had made my brain drunk with the idea of seclusion. Happily for myself, when I passed the nights in lonely spots with true seekers after truth, and enjoyed the society of such as are empty-handed, but rich in mind and heart, my eyes were opened and I saw the selfishness and covetousness of the so-called learned. The advice of my father with difficulty kept me back from outbreaks of folly; my mind had no rest, and my heart felt itself drawn to the sages of Mongolia or to the hermits of Lebanon; I longed for interviews with the lamas of Tibet or with the padris (lit. fathers, refers to Catholic priests) of Portugal, and I would gladly sit with the priests of the Parsis and the learned of the Zendavesta. I was sick of the learned of my own land. My brother and other relatives then advised me to attend the Court, hoping that I would find in the emperor a leader to the sublime world of thought. In vain did I at first resist their admonitions. Happy, indeed, am I now that I have found in my sovereign a guide to the world of action and a comforter in lonely retirement; in him meet my longing after faith and my desire to do my appointed work in the world; he is the orient where the light of form and ideal dawns; and it is he who has taught me that the work of the world, multifarious as it is, may yet harmonize with the spiritual unity of truth. I was thus presented at Court. As I had no worldly treasures to lay at the feet of his Majesty, I wrote a commentary to the A’yat al-Kursi, (Quran 2:256) and presented it when the emperor was at Agrah. I was favourably received, and his Majesty graciously accepted my offering. (Abu’l-Fażl paraphrased in Blochmann 2003, 33)

Impact and Legacy

In his long years of service, Abu’l-Fażl’s crowning achievement was the rationalization and enunciation of Akbar’s grand imperial vision. While Akbar’s grandfather, Babur (d. 1530), and father, Humayun (d. 1556), had moved to South Asia from ancestral Central Asia and founded a conquest state, it was under Akbar that a stable administrative imperial structure took shape. After he had achieved military dominance, Akbar created a successful system of imperial recruitment that incented warrior groups and their leaders in India, Iran, and Central Asia to join his growing empire. In doing so, he did not discriminate based on religious identity but made loyalty to the emperor the key criterion for imperial service. It was this new style of sovereignty that Abu’l-Fażl articulated in the massive Book of Akbar (Akbarnāmā).

The Book of Akbar was a chronicle of chronicles written in a highly stylized form of court of Persian, the third volume of which was called the “Institutes of Akbar” (Ā‘īn-i Akbarī), a detailed gazetteer and manual for running the empire. These texts, illustrated by the leading painters of India and Iran, had no precedent in content or form in India or elsewhere in Muslim Asia. Through them, Abu’l-Fażl monumentalized a major feat of state-building in the early modern world.

However, Abu’l-Fażl’s success and his close alliance with the emperor came at a price. Like his father, Shaykh Mubārak, he too was accused of straying from Islam when he lent his support to a religious scheme initiated by Akbar that resembled, among other things, the messianism of the Mahdawīyya. There is much to indicate that to build an imperial polity on universal principles, Akbar had decided to move beyond the legal tenets of Islam (Moin 2012, 130–169). Instead, he turned to a cosmology of sacred kingship that drew upon the saintly customs of Sufi Islam and forms of cabbalistic and Hermetic knowledge. Driven by such forms of custom and knowledge, Akbar chose the end of the first Islamic millennium, which coincided with his reign, to style himself as a universal saint and sovereign, a messianic being above the distinctions of all religion. Members of the court and all others who wanted to devote themselves to the emperor were invited to accept him as a spiritual guide. Although this millennial scheme was merely called discipleship (murīdī) in Akbar’s official chronicle, it was later remembered as an attempt at a new religion, the so-called Dīn-i Ilahī or Tawhīd-i Ilahī (Divine Religion or Divine Monotheism). Abu’l-Fażl, his brother, and his father were instrumental in giving Akbar’s spiritual program coherent cosmological and ritual shape. Indeed, Abu’l-Fażl can be considered the chief ritual specialist of the Mughal imperial cult.

Soon after Abu’l-Fażl’s appointment at court in 1574, the emperor had begun to hold debates among scholars of religion in a hall constructed especially for the purpose, the House of Worship (‘Ibādat Khāna). Abu’l-Fażl participated in these discussions and apparently embarrassed Muslim scholars much senior to him. He also described some of these discussions which involved not only Muslims of various sectarian and Sufi persuasions but also Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians, and Jesuit missionaries invited from the coastal region of Goa for this express purpose. According to Abu’l-Fażl, Akbar took a particularly keen interest in the religious learning and painted icons of the Jesuits. The emperor also invited them to challenge their Muslim rivals by undergoing an ordeal by fire. Notably, Abu’l-Fażl described the Christian priests in a positive light by stating that it was his Muslim coreligionists who were too cowardly to take up the challenge.

By 1579, under the combined onslaught of the emperor and his savant, the conservative old guard of Muslim intellectuals lost its status and influence at court. The emperor declared himself better qualified than any scholar of Islamic scripture to interpret the law. A decree (maḥżar) to this effect was drafted by Abu’l-Fażl’s father and signed by other senior Muslim scholars, affirming Akbar as the chief jurisconsult or mujtahid of the age, a supreme authority capable of using reason in matters of scriptural law. That the emperor was not even literate was considered no obstacle in this case for, as Abu’l-Fażl explained, he was the most spiritually accomplished being of the world and as such enjoyed a status far above the “paper-worshipping scholiasts” of his land (quoted in Moin 2012, 139).

Abu’l-Fażl justified Akbar’s status as chief jurist of Islam by placing the position itself lower in a spiritual hierarchy at the apex of which stood the saint of the world. The emperor, he explained, had simply kept his true spiritual status hidden behind a veil and unveiled it only gradually, first as prime thinker and judge, and then as the foremost saint. In the court chronicle, Abu’l-Fażl depicted Akbar as the saintlike messianic being and traced his genealogy to an ancient fatherless birth involving a divine light:
…which took shape, without human instrumentality or a father’s loins, in the pure womb of her Majesty Alanquva, after having, in order to arrive at perfection, occupied during several ages the holy bodily wrappings of other holy manifestations, is manifesting itself at the present day, in the pure entity of this unique God-knower and God-worshipper (Akbar).
  • How many ages have passed away!

  • How many planetary conjunctions occurred,

  • That this happy star might come forth from heaven!

  • (Abu’l-Fażl ibn Mubārak and Beveridge 2005, 1–2: 45)

Such descriptions were not mere panegyric. They were part of a pragmatic program in which the emperor ended discrimination based on religious and sectarian affiliation and opened the doors of imperial service based on ability and loyalty. This program was enshrined and articulated in the principle of “universal peace” (ṣulḥ-i kull), which Abu’l-Fażl outlined in the imperial chronicle. Under this principle, the state protected the religious beliefs and customs of all Muslim sects and non-Muslim religions. This could only be done, in Akbar and Abu’l-Fażl’s opinion, by raising the body of the emperor above the constraints of any one scriptural tradition, including Islam. By this time, the emperor had already forged marriage alliances with Rajput warrior houses in which Hindu princesses became power Mughal queens without converting to Islam. He had also broken from Islamic custom by abolishing the poll tax on non-Muslims (jizya) as well as the tax on Hindu pilgrims. These steps were resisted by certain factions of his Muslim nobility, a resentment that his half brother in Kabul, Mirzā Hakīm, and other rebels tried to capitalize on. However, the emperor subdued his opponents and successfully institutionalized his imperial vision. Since Abu’l-Fażl was the key intellectual force behind Akbar’s millennial scheme, he too had to face the brunt of controversy that followed in which Akbar was accused of trying to replace Islam with his own religion.

During and after the inauguration of Akbar’s millennial imperial program, Abu’l-Fażl served as his chief secretary. It is from Abu’l-Fażl’s pen that the most important imperial correspondence and edicts were issued. We have thus echoes of his thought and deeds preserved in the writings to and by Portuguese Jesuit priests, Safavid Iranian chronicles, and works composed in Uzbek Central Asia.

The connection with Safavid Iran is the most noteworthy, for it is in competition with the Safavid dynasty, which was of Sufi origins and had conquered Iran in the sixteenth century that the Mughals of India shaped their vision of empire. The Safavids knew of Akbar’s innovative religiopolitical program and that it was being led by Abu’l-Fażl. When a group of cabbalistic Sufis called the Nuqtavīs (pointillists), who also espoused a millennial worldview, escaped persecution in Iran to find refuge and favor at Akbar’s court in India, a Safavid court historian blamed Abu’l-Fażl for making the Mughal emperor a “libertine” (wasī‘al-mashrab) in matters of religion (Iskandar Beg Munshī quoted in Islam 1979, 1: 124).

Abu’l-Fażl served his final years as a senior military commander, leading the Mughal campaigns in the south. By this time, he had made enemies with the rebellious heir-apparent, the future emperor Jahangīr. When Akbar recalled Abu’l-Fażl to help him deal with his troublesome heir, Jahangīr had him waylaid and murdered. That he was assassinated by the crown prince in the struggle for the throne showed the heights to which this court scholar had risen in power and influence.

References

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Religious StudiesThe University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA