Din-E-Ilahi is such a religion that this post is inevitably going to be more about history than religion and as you read along, you’ll understand why.
The most interesting question about Din-e-Ilahi is if it was out of King Akbar’s ego or out of his genuine attempt at uniting a kingdom fundamentally divided along religious lines.
There’s enough evidence supporting either claim (which is why it’s still a question, hah!)
But first the basics:
Din-e-Ilahi literally means ‘Religion of God’. It was a syncretic religion started by the Mughal king Akbar in the year 1582 AD in India.
It is assumed that he started this religion to make one religion out of the two main religions followed by his subjects – Hinduism and Islam – and thus, caused a well-defined difference among his people.
If you read Mughal history (which is super fascinating, so I recommend you should give it a try), you will understand what a refined politician King Akbar really was. Among other smart things he did, he married the daughter of a major Hindu king under his kingdom to cement the political ties and he gave important positions in his kingdom to Muslims and Hindus in an almost equal proportion – a smart move to keep both the sides of his kingdom happy.
To really understand what Din-E-Ilahi was and why it started, we only have written historical sources of Akbar’s time and frustratingly (and hilariously), out of these, one was written by his friend and the others by sources that were hostile to him. So we really don’t know which one to believe.
However, what we can do is construct a picture –however flaky, from the sources, and this picture has already been constructed by my great historian friends whom I don’t personally know but still think of as friends, even though I don’t remember their names.
Religion at the Beginning of Akbar’s Reign
In the beginning of his life and well into his kingship, Akbar was a dedicated orthodox Muslim, following the customs like an example king should.
His deep reverence for the religious teachers of his time – Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti, Shaikh Abdul Nabi, Makhdum-ul-Mulk – is very evident from the documented events, like the pilgrimage Akbar took each year, walking on foot from Agra to Ajmer to meet Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti. And many more.
He was very interested in religious matters – or let’s say, matters concerning finding the “answer”. There is reference of him engaging in philosophical discussions and listening to religious priests.
As Akbar and his reign matured, we see him getting more and more involved into these discussions, until he set up the Ibadat Khana in 1575 AD. Ibadat Khana means “House of Worship” and was set up as a meeting place for religious leaders to congregate for religious and philosophical discussions after every Friday prayers.
Something that Akbar did not foresee was how such a platform could soon turn into a ground for egotistical battles and political debate among the well-read but also politically powerful and ambitious scholars. And this is what soon happened. The scholars soon fell into fights over seniority, intelligence and power among themselves. Debates soon turned into spats.
This is said to have had an impact on Akbar. He became less orthodox Muslim from around this point. These Ibadat Khana discussions also included the two great scholars Akbar revered – Makhdum-ul-Mulk and Shaikh Abdul Nabi, and this drove him away from them both.
Soon these meetings started seeing more and more secular presence – Jain priests, Hindu priests, Parsi scholars and even Jesuits from Goa started attending them and debates broadened…and lowered!
If you have seen as much life as I have, you can already guess that Akbar never found his “answers”. He just got more and more disillusioned and these meetings had an effect on the politics of the time – naturally, religion and politics!
As soon as the Jesuits from Goa started attending these meetings, they hit a new low when the Jesuits challenged the Islamic scholars by questioning Islam and shutting out diplomacy in their detest for it.
These events caused great dissatisfaction among the major religious groups of the day, and the Muslims particularly were disappointed in Akbar, who they expected as a Muslim leader would have upheld Islam finally in all these discussions, which he didn’t do.
From this point on, we notice different historians and recorders giving us different accounts. Hindu recorders of the time maintain that Akbar was a tolerant king but himself remained a Muslim. Some Muslim recorders of his time record the same while others wrote that he abandoned Islam. Of course, these records are not unaffected by the person emotions of the writers.
What Exactly did Din-E-Ilahi Look Like:
There were no texts written to dogmatize Din-e-Ilahi and neither did Akbar put it forth as something free people could choose to follow. He supposedly selected a handful of his people as disciples into this order.
Din-E-Ilahi, at best, put together the main beliefs and ideas of his people – largely, probably an attempt to bring them all to agree on the main ways of living to live harmoniously together.
It prohibited the general things that were considered bad – lust, pride, slander etc – and upheld virtues like piety, peace, kindness etc. Din-e-Ilahi borrowed from Hinduism, Islam, Zoroastrianism as well, and Jainism. Sun and fire became worshippable under it. Elements of Sufism are also present in it. He encouraged every man to have one wife, government officers to allow people to worship as they liked, discouraged the Hindu practise of sati, etc.
Akbar as God or Politician?
Many believe that Akbar started Din-e-Ilahi because he wanted to be worshipped as God. Having been born almost exactly a 1000 years after Prophet Mohammad, many believe he wanted to claim divine powers. But we are not sure. The greeting “Allahu Akbar” which started around that time means “God is Great” but many wonder if the inclusion of his own name in this greeting to God was meant to suggest he is God – “God is Akbar”.
Could be – these royal kids are very egoistic, you know.
Just look at the image below which depicts how Akbar (like many royals of his time) played board games with real people as pieces:
While understandably Muslims were disappointed that under Akbar’s nearly-secular rule, Islam was not as privileged as they expected, Akbar’s policies left the Hindus confused too. Many Hindus in his court too reacted the same, namely Raja Man Singh, among others.
Interesting thing is, that while Din-e-Ilahi does not exist as a religion anymore, many sources during Akbar’s time also do not mention it as a religion! They mention it, yes, but not as a new religion Akbar was trying to found but as a spiritual order. So that “religion” thing is just confused populist baloney.
Looking at it a bit more rationally, we can say Akbar was simply borrowing from other cultures in order to maintain a multi-cultural kingdom.
To maintain such a religiously defined and divisive kingdom, Akbar, like the damn-good politician that he was, was probably just trying to get his people together peacefully under his reign. Religion did definitely affect his administrative policies and he was probably just trying to manage it in his way.
So while Din-e-Ilahi is referred to as a religion started by Akbar, in popular literature, it probably wasn’t one at all.