Is the Mughal Empire to blame for the schism created between Hindus and Muslims?

Published: March 30, 2016

Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies on 8 March 1628. Painted by Bichitr, c. 1630-5. Royal Collection. Wikimedia Commons PHOTO:

When we think of the Mughals, we immediately conjure images of artistic splendour, architectural grandeur, and military might. There is much to support the argument that the Mughal rule was the envy of the world at its peak with its efficient institutions, its system of Mansabdari, its large military, and its achievements in artistic and architectural design. The Taj Mahal, the Badshahi Mosque, Bibi ka Maqbara, Shalimar Gardens, the Deccan expeditions, the Rajput subjugation, the Maratha skirmishes – the list of accomplishments is as long as their tortuous and sometimes torturous reign.

However, what classroom history often conveniently forgets is how different each Mughal sultan was from the next, how their wars of succession often lay waste to the ideological ideals of the predecessor and the financial fortitude of the royal treasury, and most important of all: that they are not merely relics of a bygone era, and that there are valuable lessons we can still draw from our glorious past which, if you listen to the present day “experts”, was magnificent as long as religious values were adhered to and became obsolete and decadent when they were discarded.

It is not so black and white, of course; historical truth has a habit of being more complex and context-dependent than what our socio-political and ethnic leanings permit us to believe. The Mughal Empire has to be judged with the impartiality that history not only deserves but demands. The question thus arises that if the Mughal rule extended (at one time) from the Sulaiman Mountains to the Bay of Bengal and from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea, how did they fall so spectacularly from grace and within a few decades were ousted from their once glorious sultanate first by the Marathas in Western India and eventually by the East India Company?

There are myriad ways to answer this question but the most ubiquitously cited is the one where the Mughal sultans lost their way in hedonistic pursuits. The accomplishments of their ancestors, it is said, had given them a life of pleasure and ease, and their profligate lifestyles had blinded them to what seems in hindsight to be an obviously insidious threat of the growing European presence on their shores. It was a textbook case of the fourth stage of decline of Al-Asabiyyah as Ibn Khaldun had once put it so eloquently in his book Muqaddimah. This explanation seems straightforward enough but to accept it without questioning it would be to let one’s socio-political proclivities shape the truth.

Historians argue over what combination and permutation of popularly cited reasons are the most and least important in explaining the downfall of the Mughals but they’re in unanimous agreement that most of the reasons have a direct causal relationship to the policies of the last great Mughal King, Aurangzeb Alamgir (r. 1658-1707). An orthodox Sunni Muslim, he rose to the throne in a bloody war of succession that historians have since labelled a war between two ideologies; the liberalist, inclusive ideology of Dara Shikoh (Aurangzeb’s brother) and the Sunni Muslim orthodox views of Aurangzeb. His reign was marked by years of wars of expansion into previously uncharted territories but it was also marred by a series of rebellions of his majority non-Muslim and Shi’ite subjects borne out by the emperor’s policies of faith-based persecution and wantonly antagonising the erstwhile allies of the Mughals because of religious differences.

In Europe, meanwhile, this was the era of Enlightenment; John Locke, Voltaire, and Diderot were, to varying degrees, championing the cause of the separation of the church and state, presenting treatises against inequality and propounding progress through dialogue. It was these progressive ideas which laid the foundations for the Constitution of the United States of America and the French Revolution – with its motto of liberté, égalité, fraternite (liberty, equality, and brotherhood) – almost a century later. They had learned their lessons; religious persecution was going out of style (Louis XIV being the notable exception), the hegemony of the Catholic Church had already shrunk with the Reformation a century earlier but with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and the subsequent rise of the nation state and nationalism, people started valuing their nationalistic similarities more than they did their religious differences.

It may be a coincidence that these Europeans of the Age of Enlightenment became the de facto rulers of India exactly fifty years (Battle of Plassey, 1757) after Aurangzeb Alamgir’s death when the real backlash of his policies was felt by his predecessors, but there can be no doubt that his iron fist rule and intolerant reign over a multi-ethnic India not only laid the foundations for the downfall of the empire but created a schism between Hindus and Muslims that the intervening centuries have found difficult to heal.

Thus in summary, the grandeur of the Mughal Empire was not lost because religion and religious values were discarded; it suffered its downfall because religion started to play too central a role in policy making. These events are now more pertinent then ever; the past, as William Faulkner reminds us, is not dead and buried; in fact, it isn’t even past.

Do you think the Mughal Empire is responsible for the schism created between Hindus and Muslims?

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Maajid Bashir

Maajid Bashir

The author is an MBA from LUMS, and a history aficionado.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Gurion

    Sensible write up.
    But when exactly did Muslims gel with any civilization or culture?Recommend

  • Milind A

    The Hindu-Muslim schism happened, when the barbaric hordes from the middle east / Afghanistan (Bin Qasim, Ghazni , Ghori) invaded India and laid waste a self-sufficient and prosperous country, plundered temples, butchered Hindus or took their women slaves… The Mughals (baring a Dara Shikoh) ruled on similar lines oppressing Hindus…Recommend

  • Historian

    This is an outdated view of the decline of the Mughal Empire, rooted in the writings of 19th century British Orientalists eager to justify their rule of South Asia. It is a great shame that in the 21st century, Pakistani authors continue to repeat it uncritically. For the current view, see works such C.A.Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire. As Bayly argues, it is not religion, but the structural changes overtaking the region that account for the decline. These not only explain Aurangzeb’s policies, but also the fact that many Sunnis (not just Hindus and Shias) rose against the state. Please read more updated works, rather than repeating this ideologically driven thesis.Recommend

  • mimi sur

    Yes, Perhaps Islamic Mughals were the last ones to hit the nail . Before that many invaders came and go . An Islamic barbarian from Afghanistan attacked Hindu religious sites multiple times. Mean time, opportunist Islamic rulers in India massacred non-Muslims at their will . We only remember very important incidents of history. They came to a non-muslim country and imposed taxes on non-muslims . Recommend

  • babu

    grace ! be ready to leave this forum gracefullyRecommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    True, The basic tenet of Hinduism is that a person is born in it and cannot be converted in its fold. Thats why there is no concept of Hindus /Sindhus / Indians invading any country to ‘spread’ its religion .Since there is no missionary zeal inherent , theres no legitimate reason to breach any borders / enslave any one ….Recommend

  • BlackHat

    Mughal empire, starting with Akbar (with the exception of Aurangzeb), evolved into a highly syncretic culture. Indian concept of “king of Kings” – Rajadhiraja/Chakravartin was adopted, as was the idea of “God King” – Deva Raja giving “Darshan” to his subjects. Indian royal rituals were also adopted. One example being Tulabharam, where all sorts of items (including grain and gold) were weighed against the Emperor to be distributed to the needy. Indian festivals like Holi and Diwali were also celebrated. Mughal royal family only drank water of the Ganges, which had to transported to wherever they stayed, and food cooked with same. The Mughal court had imbibed a lot of Rajput culture. There was intellectual and artistic ferment that impacted every field of knowledge and the arts. The idea of religious “tolerance” also became one of the social characteristic.

    It was for this reason that the Indian people rallied behind the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar against the British in 1857.

    A country of India’s diversity, can only be ruled by an inclusive system. Aurangzeb initiated the decline of the Mughals when he broke with the implicit understanding.Recommend

  • Rajiv

    you can beat J.K. Rowling in writing fiction.Recommend

  • Rajiv

    Nobody rallied behind Zafar, Indian kings were against him,mostly from Punjab.
    that’s why he lost.Recommend

  • Jatt Sher

    The link that you have given is of a non-existent wikipedia article. Language families do not make sense? Linguistics are a very well established branch of study, languages just did not pop out of thin air. You seem to have a very primitive view of the world. Your claim is hilarious and you are just embarassing yourself here. Why dont you take one step further and call genealogy and genetics ‘dubious’ and a British lie. You know you want to, and it would agree with your Hindootva ideology.

    The link I gave to you was that of a large scale genealogical study by a reputed American institute, however since you do not seem to pleased with it here is another, this study is a Harvard genealogical study and pretty much has the same results, with major admixture happening between two distinct gene groups in about 4000-500 BC. One, (ANI) is related to Europeans, Central Asian and Iranians while the other (ASI) is not related to any outside the sub-continent. The ANI peaks in Pakistan and the North-Western parts of India, while ASI is found mostly in North, Center and South India (peaking in the south). All this is in line with the Indo-European or Aryan invasion. The detailed breakdowns you can see in Kamrul Miah’s comment above.

  • Jatt Sher

    I am not sure why the British would ‘cook up’ the story to show their dominance. That does not even make sense. Also, coming back to
    your comment about linguistics indeed it was first hypothesised by a British scholar after finding vast lexicial and grammatical similarities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, upto finding the exact same words in them. This sort of similarity is not found in say Sanskrit or Arabic or Sanskrit or Chinese despite Arabia and China being much closer to India than Greece or Rome. You can compare the near identical words in Indo-European languages here

    Secondly, Hinduism in it’s early form and in its present form as well is extremely similar to Greek, Roman, Norse and especially Persian mytholgy. Indra and Mithra are gods worshipped both by the Persians and Hindus. The earliest text of Hinduism, the Rig Veda was formed in Punjab circa 1500 BC and had many references to Persian mythology however no references to the caste system but later as the Indo-Europeans or Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain the major text become formed there such as Mahabaratha and Ramayana. All this is in line with the Aryan invasion and caste references began in these texts. From the two genealogical studies I have posted all the lower castes have more South Indian Dravidian genes while upper castes have more Iranic North Indian genes.Recommend

  • abhi

    So here is the catch. While Greek, Roman and Indian mythology and languages have many things in common it is really difficult to prove that it all really started from one single point. While most of the europeans now follow the arabic mythology, doesn’t mean that all european are descendend of arabs. you can always question while most of the europeans are christians and very small amount of christians can be found around jerusalam, does it mean that Christ was born somewhere nea Rome?Recommend

  • abhi

    i don’t know why the link did not work earlier. trying it again

  • Avantika Prabhu

    This is an interesting topic to write on. I am sure many would be looking for these special insights about the history of Mughals!Recommend

  • Avantika Prabhu

    Wow, these are some unknown facts about Mughal history. Thanks a lot for sharing. I was reading about Mughal coinage on websites like mintage world and found your article very useful!Recommend