This post looks at Mongol China and Mughal India: the reigns of Khubilai Khan (1260-94) and Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar (1556-1605). These figures were conscious innovators in the old worlds of China and of India. Khubilai introduced a universal script, Akbar a universal religion; neither invention is thought to have outlived its sponsor, but even so, these remain great experiments in change. I want to focus on a tradition of cross-faith conferences staged at Mongol courts, transported into Khubilai’s China, and culminating in Akbar’s House of Worship: it seems to me that this might well be an inheritance, where Akbar built his house on foundations from his steppe ancestors.
Khubilai and Akbar have commonalities. They were the main establishers of post-nomad states in the great cultural worlds of China and of India. Akbar was more distanced from his Mongol background, but a few scholars have directed attention to Central Asian influences in the Mughal state. Self-consciously, the two were unifiers: although Khubilai was frustrated in his claim to the world-kingship of the Mongols, he returned the north and south of China to unity, which Chinese dynasties had tried and failed to do since Tang; while Akbar united large areas of India that had not been one before. Religious pluralism was important to their politics, and this they had in common with other Inner Asians in custody of settled territory – not only the Qaraqorum Mongols before Khubilai, but the Qara Qitai before them, in Central Asia. Akbar introduced diversity into his government by employment of Rajputs and other Hindus; Khubilai staffed a poly-ethnic government, in resistance to pressures to become fully Confucian.
Iqtidar Alam Khan traces a general Mughal tolerance, as against the persecutory Islam seen in the Delhi Sultanate before them, back through Timurid traditions to the yasa (legal code) of Chinggis Khan, from whom Babur descended on his mother’s side. The thirteenth-century Persian historian Juvaini, employed by the government of Mongol Iran, gives in ideal terms Chinggis’ edict on the coexistence of religions. Even after the Mongols took on world religions in Iran and China, their policy of religious pluralism was never altogether abandoned, although it became inconsistent – Mirza Haydar Dughlat relates bloody conversion tales among the Mughals’ cousins in Moghulistan, with a prince executing his unconverted entourage.
The objective of religious pluralism in the Mongol world is often misunderstood. It had a history in Inner Asia, and was practiced similarly by the shamanist and Buddhist Qara Qitai in their poly-religious khanship just prior to the Mongols in Central Asia. To see this policy as merely state pragmatism – or worse, a crudity of mind – is to neglect the indigenous religiosity. Of help here is a book on Mughal religiosity: A. Azfar Moin explains Akbar’s ‘participatory acts’ in a way that sheds light on the Mongols’ participation in the rituals and the gestures of religions they did not profess, as orthodox adherents understood profession. Akbar’s sense of religion was ‘embodied’, ‘local’, centred on holy persons rather than on doctrine. Shamanist peoples, Mongols and others, had a preference for Sufis, and this, along with the disruption of the Mongol invasions, aided a shift in religious weight and sentiment from the ulama to Sufis. In Devin DeWeese’s study of the transition to Islam in the Golden Horde, the closeness, even the conflation, of shaman and Sufi, can be seen in depth. Jesuits felt themselves led on by Akbar, and experienced disillusionment when they realised he wasn’t serious: this happens again and again at Mongol courts, and the Jesuit complaint is uncannily alike to the revolving feelings recorded by the missionary friar William of Rubruck, in the account I look at next.Neither Akbar nor the potential converts Rubruck meets were cynical or exploitative, nor did they have simply state concerns in mind. Religious pluralism, as a policy, was certainly pragmatic for the Mongols, but it also made religious sense to them. Both these motives are evident in the religious debate at Grand Khan Mongke’s court in (or near – they were nomads) Qaraqorum.
This debate is a precursor to Khubilai’s debates, and is a cultural heritage behind Akbar’s House of Worship (‘Ibadat Khana). Our witness is Friar William of Rubruck, who gives us our closest view of a court-led interfaith discussion among the Mongols. Its purposes can be ascertained, in spite of Rubruck’s misconstructions. The debate was announced a few days after an incident of hostilities between Christians and Muslims in front of the khan’s brother Arigh Boke, who intervened to stop the exchange of insults. Arigh Boke had met the Christian group, of whom Rubruck was one, with a sign of the cross: here is a ‘participatory act’, that led to rumours he was Christian. Later, the quarrel became physical, with a monk answering Muslim taunts with his whip; Rubruck’s party was reprimanded by being told to make camp not beside the khan’s tent as hitherto, but with the other foreign envoys. Clearly, the debate, an opportunity to air conflicting views, with orders from the khan for no ‘provocative or insulting remarks’, no ‘commotion that might obstruct these proceedings,’ is a response to these unseemly incidents.
It is also clear that the other participants in the debate understood the khan’s purposes better than did Rubruck. First, a ‘tuin’ – probably a Buddhist – attempts to tell him that instead of there being one God, there are evidently gods for regions of the world just as these regions have their kings. This is to phrase another way what Mongke himself says to Rubruck in an audience the day after the debate: ‘God has given ways and religions to man as there are different fingers on one hand.’ Thus the khan draws his lesson to the visiting friar. Rubruck and his party have been the most volatile contenders at the debate; the opposition ceases to dispute him, but quietly hears him out. Rubruck believes he has reduced them to silence by his arguments, but it is more likely that they are acquainted with Mongke and behave in a manner that might meet with his approval. They do not clash. They allow Rubruck to air his views, and next day, Mongke expresses to Rubruck what he hoped to achieve: not a win by one religion or another, but coexistence. Mongke’s sentence has the feel of an old saying, although unattested (in this largely oral culture): it is a neat formulation of an Inner Asian religious outlook.
Mongke’s debate was held in 1254. Four years on, in 1258, he assigned his brother Khubilai to adjudicate between Buddhists and Taoists in north China, again for conflict resolution – this time serious disorders. It is frequently said that Khubilai was predisposed to the Buddhist side and did not judge objectively. However, these unprecedented conflicts were caused by his grandfather Chinggis Khan, and he presumably felt a duty to undo the damage. Chinggis had evinced a personal respect for Qui Chuji, head of the Taoist Quanzhen sect, and from the distance of Central Asia granted him a general ‘superintendency’ of religions in north China. As a result Taoism enjoyed a short-lived heyday; a contemporary said that a fifth of the population joined the sect in Mongol favour. By the time of Khubilai’s interfaith court case, Taoists had severely encroached on Buddhist rights and property, and the situation in north China had devolved into violence against religious precincts and personnel. Khubilai redressed the imbalance.
There were further Buddhist-Taoist hearings and debates, but Khubilai, when khan in China, did not pursue the idea of the wide interfaith conference, in spite of the several faiths in his officialdom. Khans in Iran held debates on a reduced scale, often, seemingly, to indulge the curiosity of the prince himself; there is no sense in Mongol Iran that cross-religious discussions were staged for the harmony of the realm – in fact scholars tend to talk of them as a sports-like entertainment. Mongke’s debate had public ends and he himself did not attend, although well-informed by his ‘umpires’, three secretaries of different faiths. Participants had included Catholic and Nestorian Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, shamanists and quite possibly others that Rubruck cannot identify. Nothing like that range is seen until Akbar’s House of Worship, where there gathered ‘Sufi, philosopher, orator, jurist, Sunni, Shia, Brahman, Jati, Siura (Jains), Carbak (the Charvaka school), Nazarene, Jew, Sabi (Sabians – a Gnostic tradition), Zoroastrian, and others.’
Still, Khubilai, frustrated in his claims to universal khanship, increasingly a khan of China, kept a diversity of ethnic make-up in his government. The one thing he did not accede to from Confucian-minded advisors was to reinstate the examinations for civil service entry: he was determined to draw on a wider range of talents than those shaped by study of the Confucian classics. In the China he took over, even diplomats were not thought to need another language; hence his reliance on a ‘steppe intelligentsia’ with language facility, Uighurs, Khitan, Tanguts, Central Asians, employed as interpreters and translators.Linguistic skills were critical for Khubilai; while Akbar attempted to amalgamate religions, Khubilai, instead, tried to introduce a universal script. As outsiders, they were innovators, across cultures. Chinese officials had been previously dismayed by Khubilai’s insistence on colloquial Chinese, for ease of access; there was much hostility towards the universal script, in spite of its effectiveness. Here we see innovations, attempted changes, that were defeated by traditional ways. It is worthwhile to ponder for a moment what might have come had a universal script been successfully introduced for government affairs. Change consists of failed experiments too, not only in the official halls of China; abandoned innovations testify to new ideas. Khubilai’s bold stroke of a universal script in which to write every language was a possibility open to an outsider, a result of the meeting of cultures. It should not be lost to view because it failed. Recent discoveries have proved that the script – named Phagspa after its Tibetan creator – was far more widely and persistently used than has been assumed: this is a caution not to let the master narrative erase changes, as if they never took place. Chinese official histories cannot be expected to pay attention to the Phagspa script. The compiler of the Yuan history (Yuan shi), indeed, was staunchly a Chinese classicist in an essay he wrote on art – no friend to Mongol-era deviation.
For Akbar, the master narrative has been the intellectual tradition – doctrinal, legal; political philosophy and ethical tract – by light of which we write our histories of statecraft and government in Islam: this is the argument of A. Azfar Moin, who writes instead an ethnographic history with eyes on the acts and practices of kings, not the prescriptive literature. Akbar’s religious experimentation then falls into place with Safavid Iran and Timurid Central Asia in an age when kings and messiahs fused. Religious curiosity on Akbar’s part, even his personal quest, cannot be cleanly separated from an ideal wish to resolve or harmonise ‘the confusion of religions and creeds.’ His House of Worship was on a grander scale than any conference held by a Mongol prince, but these are a possible transmission line. The House was interrupted by a rebellion, after which Akbar only resumed religious inquiry in his private quarters. By the accounts of both Abul Fazl and Bada’uni, discussion at the House of Worship caused acrimony, uproar, wrangles and hostilities; Akbar’s subsequent Religion of God or Divine Religion (Din-i Ilahi) took a different approach towards universalism. He sought to unify religiosity in a discipleship to himself: this transcended, rather than amalgamated teachings.
As an example of continuity with ways of religion on the steppe, there is the Jesuit ordeal at Akbar’s court. It was Akbar himself, Moin persuasively argues, who urged a display or spectacle of a fiery trial by ordeal between Jesuits and Muslim ascetics. He need not have heard of the judicial ordeal in Europe, as was the Jesuit explanation, or if he did, he might well have recognised a consonance: in the Golden Horde, Sufis and shamans competed against one another in just such physical ordeals, wherein they were to conquer fire. It was a language both sides understood. The Jesuits did not feel themselves such wonder-working saints and declined the contest, with difficulty.
Akbar, in the spirit of the age, transcended dogma in a saintly discipleship centred on his person – not an option open to Khubilai in China. Both Akbar and Khubilai were invaders, and brought potential for change, with themes of unity and universality, of diversity and pluralism, running through their governments. They faced different fates in the cultural worlds of China and of India, but we see the persistence of a shared heritage. The interfaith debate, used to specific purpose in Khubilai’s China, went into decline as Mongols entered the spheres of world religions; but Akbar, for a few years, made an institution of it.
Image Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Martyrdom of the Franciscans (1342), from the Commons. This intriguing Italian painting deserves a post to itself. But in short, the scene is set at an unidentified Central Asian court under Mongol rule, and this time tolerance has broken down; the visiting friars are killed. Roxann Prazniak has explored this artist’s Mongol contacts; she points to the disbelief or dismay in the reactions of the court, who are presented as poly-ethnic. Lorenzetti is commenting on religious coexistence, both at home in Siena and in the Mongol world he knew. For more, see: Prazniak, Roxann, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, vol. 21, iss. 2, 2010, pp. 177-217.
Footnotes Books on this theme include Lisa Balabanlilar, Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia, London and New York, 2012. However, she treats strictly the Timurid legacy, without attention to any memory of the Chinggisid Mongols. Another is Richard C. Foltz, Mughal India and Central Asia, Oxford, 1999, which I have not been able to consult.  Iqtidar Alam Khan ‘Akbar’s Personality Traits and World Outlook: A Critical Reappraisal’, Social Scientist, vol. 20, iss. 9/10, 1992, pp. 17-18; Juvaini, Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror, trans. J.A. Boyle, Manchester, 1958, p. 26.  Dughlat, A History of the Khans of Mogulistan, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, London, 2012, p. 21.  Michal Biran, The Empire of the Qara Khitay in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 171-201.  A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, New York, 2012, p. 151. Ibid., pp. 130-69.  Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Philadelphia, 2010, p. 201.  Devin DeWeese, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde: Baba Tukles and Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition, Pennsylvania, 1994.  For Jesuits, see Moin, The Millennial Sovereign, pp. 146-52; Rubruck, The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Mongke, trans. Peter Jackson, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1990; see p. 224 onwards. Ibid., p. 236. In order to bring out the sententious quality I alter the translation, that has been through Rubruck’s Latin too.  For example, Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, Berkeley, 1988/2009, p. 41; George Lane, ‘Khubilai (Qubilai) Khan’, entry in Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, 3 vols, Great Barrington, MA, 2014, ii, pp. 827-8.  F. W. Mote, Imperial China, Cambridge, MA and London, 1999, p. 500.  Yao Tao-chung, ‘Buddhism and Taoism under the Chin’ in China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History, eds. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, New York, 1995, p. 154.  Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, p. 36.  George Lane, ‘Chingiz Khan: Maker of the Islamic world’, Journal of Qur’anic Studies, vol. 16, iss. 1, 2014, p. 143.  Abul Fazl, The Akbarnama, 3 vols, trans. H. Beveridge, Calcutta, 1897-1939, iii, chapter 95.  Morris Rossabi, ‘The reign of Khubilai Khan’ in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, eds. Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett, Cambridge, 1994, p. 416, 418, 427. Ibid., p. 416; for Chinese diplomats, see the Introduction by the editors, p. 20; ‘steppe intelligentsia’ is from Igor de Rachewiltz, Hok-lam Chan, Hsaio Ch’i-ch’ing and Peter W. Geier, eds, In the Service of the Khan: Eminent Personalities of the Early Mongol-Yuan Period, Wiesbaden, 1993, pp. xiv-xv.  Rossabi, ‘The reign of Khubilai Khan’, pp. 466-7.  Shane McCausland, The Mongol Century: Visual Cultures of Yuan China, London, 2014, pp. 231-2. Ibid., pp. 238-9.  Moin, The Millennial Sovereign.  Abul Fazl, The Akbarnama, iii, chapter 100. Ibid., iii, chapter 95; Bada’uni, Selections from Histories, 3 vols, trans. George S.A. Ranking, Sir Wolseley Haig and W.H. Lowe, Calcutta, 1884-1925, ii, chapter 69.  Moin, The Millennial Sovereign, pp. 138-46. Ibid., pp. 148-9.  DeWeese, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde, pp. 167, 243-56.