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Akbar's religious world: the two reconstructions in Mobad's Dabistān

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 July 2023

Irfan Habib*
Professor Emeritus, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India


In the early 1650s in Mughal India ‘Mobad’ (Kaikhusrau Isfandyār) wrote a remarkable work, titled Dabistān, devoted to a description of the world's major religions. He adopted an avowedly objective approach that he strives to maintain throughout. An account of the religious tendencies under Akbar is offered in a long concluding chapter, dedicated to Islam. The account is given in two nearly totally different versions. In Version A, Akbar is credited with supernatural powers, with many anecdotes offered of their exercise. In Version B, all such anecdotes have been deleted and replaced by an extensive account of inter-religious debates held under Akbar, in which Christian (and Jewish) objections to Islamic traditions figure prominently. This version also seems to have been the major source of the belief current in later times that Akbar established a sect of his own under the designation of dīn-i ilāhī. In both versions the section on Akbar closes with the insightful observation that Akbar's policy of forming a nobility composed of diverse racial and religious elements was designed to protect the monarchy from any possibility of a unified aristocratic opposition.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Royal Asiatic Society

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1 See, for an appraisal of the work, Ali, M. Athar, ‘Pursuing an elusive seeker of universal truth’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 9.3 (1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; reprinted in Ali, M. Athar, Mughal India: Studies in Polity, Ideas, Society and Culture (New Delhi, 2006), pp. 216218Google Scholar. The author gave his work the title Dabistān (‘School’), but it has become universally known as Dabistān-i Mazāhib (‘School of Religions’), the title carried by all the printed Persian texts of the work.

2 Shea, D. and Troyer, A., Dabistan, or School of Manners (London, 1843), 3 volsGoogle Scholar.

3 Malik, Rahim Rizazada (ed.), Dabistān-i Mazāhib (Tehran, 1983), 2 volsGoogle Scholar.

4 See the article by H. Corbin, ‘Āzar Kaywān’, Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. III, pp. 183–187.

5 See Irfan Habib, ‘A fragmentary exploration of an Indian text on religions and sects: notes on the earlier version of the Dabistān-i Mazāhib’, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress (PIHC), Kolkata session, 2001, pp. 474–491.

6 Barzegar, Karim Najafi (ed.), Dabestān-e Mazāheb (New Delhi, 2010)Google Scholar. Version A survives in two recensions, one seemingly shorter than the other; this edition contains the shorter recension.

7 Chitr-rūp is called Jadrup (= Chitr-rūp) in Jahangir's memoirs. For this relationship and the seer's identity, see Shireen Moosvi, ‘The Mughal encounter with Vedanta: recovering the biography of “Jadrup”’, PIHC, Kolkata session, 2001, pp. 441–452.

8 Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, f. 235a–b. Jahangir had, in fact, used the occasion of his grandmother's death to make his submission to Akbar. See Muhammad Hadi, ‘Introduction’, Tuzuk-i Jahāngīrī (litho., Lucknow, 1909), dībācha, p. 15. Both Dabistān and Muhammad Hadi recall Hamida Banu by her later title ‘Maryam Makani’.

9 Dabistān-i Mazāhib (litho., Kanpur, 1904), pp. 311–312 (henceforth cited as Dabistān, Kanpur edn). This edition, like the lithographed text published in Bombay in 1875, follows the text of Nazar Ashraf's edition. It is cited here because of its wider availability. It may be noted that Malik's Tehran edition merely follows the texts of the Indian lithographed editions without necessarily being more accurate.

10 For the use of Badauni's history by the author of Dabistān, see Irfan Habib, ‘Abdul Qadir Badauni—a life’, Introduction to reprint of the Bib. Ind. edn of Muntakhabut Tawārīkh (Aligarh, 2018), vol. II, p. 16. The facts derived by the author of Dabistān from Badauni can be more precisely traced, as we shall see below, than my words suggest in this introduction.

11 See Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, ff. 247b–252b (text of dastūrulamal) and f. 252b (extract from a letter to Shah ‘Abbas). For the full texts of these documents, see ‘Abdu's Samad (comp.), Mukātabāt-iAllāmī (Lucknow/Kanpur, 1864), pp. 57–64 (text of the dastūrulamal) and pp. 26–33 (letter to Shah ‘Abbas, where the passage quoted in Dabistān occurs on p. 31). It is surely singular that the author of Dabistān should have picked up the reference to ṣulḥ-i kul (‘absolute peace’) from the long epistle to Shah ‘Abbas, though the words of praise for the principle (‘ever-flowering garden’) are not his but Akbar's, or rather of the draughtsman, Abu'l Fazl.

12 Indeed, Version A of Dabistān itself also uses the term Dīn-i Ilāhī for Akbar's set of beliefs, and even speaks of a conversion to Dīn-i Ilāhī (Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, f. 231a).

13 Ibid., f. 234b.

14 The passages in Badauni, Muntakhabu’t Tawārīkh (Calcutta, 1864–1869), vol. II, p. 260, in respect of Abu'l Fazl's rendering of a Christian text and Birbal's justification of sun worship are obviously drawn on by Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, f. 238a, which contains practically the same words in a shorter passage. Earlier still, the account of Shaikh Bhawan, a brahmin convert of Islam, with his interpretation of a passage in the Atharvaveda and an immediately following passage on Sharif Amuli (f. 137a–b), are again derived from Badauni. See Badauni, Muntakhabut Tawārīkh, vol. II, pp. 212–213 in respect of Shaikh Bhawan, and pp. 245–248 in regard to Sharif Amuli.

15 Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, f. 239a–b. The corresponding passage is to be found in Badauni, Muntakhabut Tawārīkh, vol. II, pp. 262–263.

16 Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, ff. 221b–225b. Curiously enough, here in Version A, the author traces his record of the Sunni–Shi‘a debate to an aged informant, Ratan Nath, a native of Qandahar, who reported further that the debate took place soon after the overthrow of Hemu in 1556!

17 Ibid., f. 234b. This statement does not occur in Version B, at least not in this section of the work.

18 Dabistān, Kanpur edn, pp. 311–312. The story is earlier told in Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, ff. 220b–221a.

19 Dabistān, Kanpur edn, pp. 312–316. Cf. Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, ff. 221b–225b.

20 Dabistān, Kanpur edn, pp. 316–325.

21 Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, ff. 171b, 179b.

22 Even more remarkable is the restraint shown by Muslim transcribers of the Dabistān over such matters as the Prophet's miracle of shaqq al-qamar (splitting of the moon) which is called into question in the debate, especially in Version B of the Dabistān, Kanpur edn, p. 316.

23 The statement occurs in Versions A as well as B: see Barzegar (ed.), Dabestān, f. 253a–b; also Dabistān, Kanpur edn, pp. 340–341.

24 According to the list of mansab-holders of 200 and above, furnished in the Ā’īn-i Akbarī, circa 1595, out of a total of 283 top mansab-holders, 93 were Turanis (mainly Sunnis), 75 Iranis (mainly Shi‘as), 36 Indian Muslims (mainly Sunnis), and 47 Hindus (of whom 40 were Rajputs). See tables in Ali, M. Athar, The Apparatus of Empire: Awards of Ranks, Offices and Titles to the Mughal Nobility, 1574–1658 (Delhi, 1985), p. xxGoogle Scholar.