Muslim kings implemented enlightened Sharia

When we review the record of the six hundred year-long Muslim era in India, and especially that of the three hundred and fifty year-long Moghul empire, we see that they implemented enlightened and nuanced (not dogmatic) Sharia laws in the Indian Subcontinent. We find that most Muslim rulers asked the state officials to be non-sectarian and to ensure justice and harmony for their non-Muslim as well as Muslim subjects.

The Moghul kings took special pride in the fact that the followers of various religions lived peacefully and thrived in their empire.  Shaikh Abd al-Rahman, a Islamic scholar in the period of emperor Jahangir, commenting on this trend wrote in his memoirs, “The Moghuls ensured the supremacy of Din by their exaggerated concern for social harmony.  In Moghul India in that period, the followers of all religions generally lived in peace and performed their religious rites and social practices freely.  And yet the Moghuls acted in accordance with their faith.”

Emperor Jahangir, in keeping with the traditions of his father emperor Akbar, commissioned a translation into Persian of celebrated Arab scholar Ibn Miskawaih’s treatise Al-Hikmah al-Khalidah, and he asked all senior officials of his state to use it as a guide in carrying out their various functions.  This book contains the maxims of Greeks, Persians, Arabs and Indians.   The four core ethical norms for the rulers for the management of state which this treatise lists are: 1. Hard work and independent and intelligent application of mind by the ruler to evaluate the incumbents for different type of functions in the state. 2. Insistence on prioritizing issues and policies and quick follow-up for their execution.  3. Constant vigilance so that no official dare neglect his duties or be oppressive and unkind to the populace.  4. Adequate reward for efficiency and excellence, and punishment for the evil-doers. 

Akhlaq-e-Jahangir, another treatise on managing the affairs of the state by Nur ‘Alauddin Qazi, which Jhangir commissioned and used for managing the Moghul empire emphasizes the independent goodness of justice instead of religious dogma.  In the chapter on justice, this book reiterates that justice occupies principal place in matters of governance, and that a non-Muslim but just ruler serves society better than an unjust and brutal Muslim.  Justice, he adds, on account of its inherent strength and goodness, sustained power in ancient Persia for five thousand years in the dynasty of Nausherwan-e-Adil, even though all the rulers of the dynasty were infidels who worshipped fire.

This book quotes Prophet Mohammad saying that Allah revealed to Prophet David that he should instruct his people to “not abuse and speak evil of the kings of other nations, for they filled the world with justice so that my slaves may live in safety”.

The Moghul rulers and officials generally believed in and practiced religious tolerance.  Abdul Qadir Badayuni, the unofficial historian of Akbar’s time, wrote the following in one of his commentaries: "Hindustan is a wide place where there is an open field for all manner of lifestyles, and no one interferes in another’s business so that everyone can do as he pleases.”

Other relevant observations are those of the French traveler Francois Bernier who visited India in 1690 during the period of emperor Aurangzeb.  After commenting disapprovingly on Hindu beliefs and rituals regarding solar and lunar eclipses, he wrote in his travelogue, “The Great Moghul though a devout Mohammedan permits these ancient and superstitious practices; not wishing or not daring to disturb the gentiles in their free exercise of their religion.  It is part of their policy to leave alone the idolatrous population which is so much more numerous than their own, in the free exercise of their religion.”

Nur ‘Alauddin Qazi has also recorded anecdotes about the earlier period of Sultan ‘Alauddin Khilji.  In that period, a Muslim governor of Panipat by the name Dalur had imprisoned a Hindu on some pretext and released him only upon payment of a large sum of money, and then made more demands for more payment.  The victim sought refuge and relief from Shaikh Sharaf ‘Alauddin, a local Sufi saint.  The sufi saint conveyed the complaint to the Sultan who immediately replaced the said Muslim governor with his own son and pledged to the saint that if his son does not behave with fairness towards the local Hindu populace he will replace him too. This does not mean that Mughals were not concerned with Islam. Moghul historian Najim-e-San says in his  Munazirah-e-Jahangir  that consolidation of the bases of their glorious community and reinforcement of the injunction of the illustrious Shari’ah have been equally among the more significant achievements of Jahangir’s reign.

It is clear that enlightened and flexible interpretation of Shari’ah guided the Muslim and Moghul pattern of governance in India, in a world where it became possible to use the term Shari’ah not merely in its legalistic sense.  The Muslims of these domains found a way out after the supposed closure of the door of Ijtihad. In the regime of this enlightened Shari’ah, non-Muslims, like Muslims, could build their own places of worship, could practice all of their religious traditions and customs and had plenty of freedom.  Shaikh Ahmad Sirhandi, the famous Naqshbandi theologian of the early 17th century, wrote that “On the day of Ekadashi when the Hindus abstain from eating and drinking, they see to it that no Muslim bakes or sells bread or other food in the bazaar.  On the other hand, in the month of Ramadan they cook and sell food.”

Yet in the same era, Moghuls prided in calling themselves the Light of the Faith, e.g., Jalaluddin Akbar, Nuruddin Jahangir.  The Qazi and Sadar of Mughal times, as in all other Islamic states, occupied high positions and Muslim divines, among others, had land or cash grants to maintain lofty symbols of Islam through the length and breadth of the empire.  The periodic dispatch of rich donations to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, with the official delegates of pilgrims were a common practice throughout the long Moghul period.

Mir Muhammad Nauman, an important scholar in the early 17th century, saw the reigning ruler Jahangir not only as a man of piety and justice but also as someone who ensured compliance with the ordinances of the Shari’ah.  To Moguls, Shari’ah came to be synonymous with divine law (namus-e-ilahi) which meant absolutely no humiliation of or injustice to the non-Muslims.  The most important task was to ensure a balance in conflicting interests, of harmony between diverse groups and communities, and non-interference in their beliefs and practices.

The writer is a community activist in Washington DC.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 September 2011 on page no. 2

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