Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Mughal emporer Akbar has been treated with disdain by quite a few ‘official’ historians in Pakistan. Yet another great Mughal king, Aurangzeb is seen as an exemplary prototype Pakistani sovereign. Akbar is scorned at for bringing Islam into disrepute by adopting an overtly pluralistic disposition. Some of his detractors also go as far as accusing him of being a heretic.

However Aurangzeb the last major Mughal monarch of India is praised for dismantling the ‘deviances’ introduced by his great-grandfather Akbar. But was Akbar really a heretic? Or Aurangzeb, a radiant symbol of piety?

Dr. Mubarak Ali believes that Muslim monarchs in India — who were ruling over a region which had a Hindu majority — were always more pragmatic than pious. But nationalist historian I.H. Qureshi went to great lengths to explain why (in the context of Pakistan) Akbar could never be praised in the same breath as Aurangzeb.

In a 1962 book of his, Qureshi wrote that Akbar’s inclusive policies were detrimental to the process of early Muslim nationalism. Qureshi suggested that even though Aurungzeb somewhat corrected the course of evolution of early Muslim nationhood, it was too late. The empire collapsed after the arrival of the British and due to the gradual strengthening of the Hindus, a process which Qureshi believes began during Akbar’s reign.


People project their own contemporary obsession on historical figures


No concrete evidence has ever surfaced which can substantiate that, indeed, an idea of Muslim nationhood was evolving in India between the 13th and 18th centuries. On the contrary, Muslim rulers explained themselves according to their ethnic lineages and languages and also recruited men from among their own regional and linguistic communities.

One group of invaders was distrustful of the other on the basis of differing ethnic backgrounds and origins. Dynasties were established when one set of Muslim conquerors overwhelmed and overthrew another group of imperial Muslims.

Even during Akbar’s reign, Persian-speaking Muslim migrants and high-bred Hindu Rajputs were preferred over local Muslim converts.

Claiming that some prototype version of Muslim nationhood was developing during the height of Muslim rule in India is nothing more than a fanciful historical concoction.

There was little or no concept of Muslim nationhood in India before the 19th century. Muslims were a diverse lot divided by race, class and ethnicity. In fact these divisions were actively encouraged by the Muslim rulers for various racial and political reasons.

Islam only appeared as a battle cry during Muslim invasions but after the invaders had settled down to rule this region, they did so through sheer pragmatism.

Aurangzeb’s inclination to lean on faith was more of a reaction. In his bid to come into power and replace his ailing father Shah Jehan, Aurangzeb’s chief opponent was his elder brother Dara Shikoh.

Dara was deeply impressed by the policies and spiritual disposition of his great-grandfather Akbar. More of a scholar than a warrior, Dara studied Muslim and Hindu scriptures and was an ardent follower of Sufism.

Dara had managed to gather support and popularity from common Muslims and Hindus in and around the seat of power in Delhi. So when he was defeated by Aurangzeb, and captured, he was immediately executed after a group of clerics declared Dara an apostate.

An interesting latter-day manifestation of the whole conflict between Aurangzeb and Dara has been the manner in which it has become part of the on-going debate on what constitutes Pakistani nationhood.

For example, till this day Dara is championed by those who see Pakistani nationalism as something whose original intent was pluralistic. A 2014 play called Dara, authored by a leading Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem, suggested that the conflict between the two brothers bore the hallmarks of the same sectarian and sub-sectarian conflicts found in Pakistan today.

Aurangzeb on the other end is hailed as a hero by those who claim that Pakistani nationalism is a by-product of Muslim nationhood which began to develop in South Asia after the 8th century invasion of Muhammad Bin Qasim.

They believe that this nationhood’s roots are more prominent in the lands and cultures of the Muslims who galloped in from Arabia and Central Asia.

Though Aurangzeb ruled for almost 50 years, after his death in 1707 the once powerful Mughal Empire began to crumble, suffering from the social and political inertia which had begun to develop during his regime.

However today in Pakistan, the pro-Aurangzeb narrative seems to be somewhat floundering. During the fourth year of Gen Zia’s dictatorship in 1981, I was a 9th grade student at a school in Karachi. The mentioned narrative was starting to peak, fully sanctioned by the dictatorship.

One of the annual plays at my school that year was to be about Mughal rule in India. Though none of my more talented classmates had managed to bag roles of Mughal kings up to Aurangzeb, the producers of the play were still struggling to find boys for the roles of Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh and for another one of Shah Jehan’s sons Murad.

Almost all the interested boys from my class auditioned for Aurangzeb’s role. No one was interested in playing Dara. The boy who managed to get the role of Aurangzeb was the proudest fellow on that day.

Thirty-three years later in 2014, the same guy, who had retained his interest in acting, appeared in front of the producers of Shahid Nadeem’s play Dara. No, not to play Aurangzeb, but Dara Shikoh. When he failed to win the role, he was advised to try for some other role in the play, maybe even that of Aurangzeb.

He refused. He told the producers: ‘I am best suited to play Dara, because I personally identify with him …’

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 18th, 2016

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