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Past present: Understanding Aurangzeb

May 24, 2015

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Being a repository of past events, history preserves the record of those individuals who played an important role in shaping the history of their time and are resurrected and used from time to time by politicians to accomplish their interests. In the subcontinent, Akbar and Aurangzeb contributed significantly in creating social and political orders, although both were antithetical to each other.

Akbar was a believer of Sulh-i-kul (peace with all), tolerant to followers of all religions. He made attempts to cut off cultural relations with Central Asia and Indianise the Mughal court by adopting Indian customs, traditions and festivals. On the other hand, Aurangzeb tried to subvert this policy and Islamise the Mughal State by introducing Islamic provisions.

The role of these two emperors was analysed critically during the colonial period and in the process of the freedom struggle. When in the 1920s Indian history was communalised, Aurangzeb was considered as an orthodox Muslim ruler of India who alienated his Hindu subjects through his religious policies. As a result, he became a hero for the Muslim community of India, admired for being the man who restored the prestige of Islam, defending it against opposing forces. This process picked up pace when the two-nation theory became a cornerstone of the Pakistan movement.

After the Partition in 1947, Pakistani historians supporting state ideology in the two-nation theory reconstructed the historical narrative by critically examining Akbar and Aurangzeb. I.H. Qureshi condemned Akbar and his religious policy as being against the interest of the Muslims of India. He accused Akbar of being the major cause of the downfall of the Mughal empire as he had granted concessions to the Hindus thereby alienating the support of the Muslims. To promote the image of Aurangzeb and to popularise his policies, ‘Alamgir Day’ was observed on May 3, 1965 under the patronage of Dairah-i-Muin-al-Marif.

In his lecture on Aurangzeb, Moinul Haq, Secretary Pakistan Historical Society, stated that “the Indian and Western historians had tried to create a wrong impression by wrong interpretation of the benign policies of Aurangzeb Alamgir, which he had initiated for the welfare of the people and the progress of his empire … it was not true that Jizyah was a poll tax or that its incidence was heavy. This twist was given by the so-called impartial Indian and Western historians to taint the reputation of Aurangzeb who was also a worker for restoring the Islamic ideal of life.”


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Pakistani historians tried to make Aurangzeb a model for Pakistani politicians. There are several instances where Aurangzeb shrewdly twisted religion for his own political interests. For example, Dara Shikoh was not executed for being a political rival but as an apostate, based on a fatwa which was issued by the ulema to suit the interests of the emperor.

Once some Hindu and Muslims prisoners were brought before the qazi of the court, who issued a fatwa that the Hindus would be released if they were converted to Islam, while the Muslim prisoners would be kept imprisoned. When Aurangzeb found out about it, he reprimanded the qazi for issuing a fatwa based on Hanafi jurisprudence, while there were other schools of thought which he could have consulted. When the qazi realised that the emperor wanted to execute the prisoners, he researched a valid reason for execution by studying other schools of religious jurisprudence and re-issued the fatwa ordering the execution of the prisoners.

On the one hand Aurangzeb demolished temples, while on the other he granted financial aid to the Hindus, Sikhs and Jain for their temples. Whether to favour other religions or to oppose them depended on the prevailing political conditions. For example, in order to ensure the support of his Hindu subjects in South India where he stayed 17 years, he did not impose Jizya.

When the ulema raised objections on the employment of Shias and Hindus in important offices of the state, Aurangzeb asserted that politics and religion were two separate entities. He ignored the ulema’s disapproval on not marrying his daughters according to the Islamic tradition, his attack on the Muslim state of Deccan and execution of Dara on religious grounds; however, he banned music, ‘un-Islamic’ celebrations and reduced court expenses to demonstrate his piousness, despite which he failed to reform the Mughal society that was entrenched in corruption and debauchery.

It seems that Pakistani politicians have been following the policy of Aurangzeb by politicising religion and exploiting people in its name. From Liaquat Ali Khan to the present leaders, religion has been used to promote the self-interest of politicians and to hide their crimes.

Through his policy of Islamisation, Ziaul-Haq changed the whole fabric of Pakistani society but like Aurangzeb, the Islamisation failed to reform the society. When a nation adopts a culture that does not suit the relevant times, it leads the whole nation into disorder and chaos.

Adopting Aurangzeb as a model is hardly a good policy as it blocks the process of enlightenment and progress. Our society needs a policy of tolerance and pluralism, not a culture of intolerance and extremism. Nations make mistakes when they do not study history in its true perspective.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 24th, 2015

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