Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar ruled the Mughal Empire in India from 1556 to 1605. Known more popularly as Akbar the Great he is considered to be the greatest of the Mughal rulers. He expanded the Empire with key military victories against threatening neighbors. He also established greater internal stability through his long steady reign. Akbar was a great patron of the arts, encouraging a flowering of Indian art and music.
Religious diversity and tolerance were hallmarks for Akbar’s rule. With a Hindu majority in India ruled by a Muslim elite, religious difference could have been very explosive, and had been in the past. Akbar sponsored religious debates between Muslim scholars and Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Catholic Jesuits, and even atheists. He built the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship) as a place for religious debates. He abolished the pilgrim tax upon Jain holy places and the jizya tax on most non-Muslims (Hindu Brahmins and some Buddhists had been exempt). His predecessors did not allow freedom of worship for Hindus and other religious groups, but Akbar reversed that policy. He preserved Hindu temples and established a positive relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. He brought people of non-Muslim religions into his government.
In an age when royal multiple marriages were of great political import, Akbar married a Hindu woman, who became mother of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. He married other Hindu princesses, perhaps primarily for political reasons, but still having an impact on the issue of religious toleration. Akbar also married a Christian woman, and at least three grandsons were baptized as Catholics. His marital politics and relationship-building with the Hindu Rajputs brought peace to an area that had been in turmoil under earlier Muslim rulers.
Akbar explored the reconciliation of the teachings of the various religions into a new faith he called Din-i-Ilahi (Faith of the Divine) which drew from the traditions, beliefs and symbols of all the religions in India at that time. Only 18 people became official adherents of Din-i-Ilahi, and the experiment fizzled out after Akbar’s death. However, learning from the teachings of others was important to Akbar. He became a vegetarian through the influence of Jain teachers. Akbar also encouraged diversity of expression from the various traditions of Islam. Some accused him of being blasphemous, and a half-brother issued a fatwa calling upon all Muslims to revolt. But Akbar was able to withstand these challenges and maintain his policies of toleration for all religions.