The first liberal imperialist

The great Mughal emperor Akbar believed in religious tolerance and reason. But his quest to achieve

Soon after the hijackers of 11 September were revealed as Muslim fundamentalists, the question which had been debated endlessly by European colonialists in the 19th century re-emerged in the western press: was Islam compatible with the modern world? Even the most liberal commentators in the 21st century could not resist wondering if it wasn't time for Islam to have a Reformation. When it was pointed out that Islam, which has never had a pope, a church or a similarly important ecclesiastical authority, perhaps did not need a Reformation, or at least not quite in the same way, the solemn proposal then was that perhaps Islam could have an Enlightenment.

There was enough presumption in the idea that the diverse peoples that go under the name of Islam should reheat and swallow a whole historical experience simply because it has been prescribed for them by an elite of politicians, journalists and strategic experts in the west. A greater conceit seemed to rest in the supposition that most of the world's population had first to replicate the historical accidents once undergone by a tiny minority in western Europe before it could claim to be part of what George Bush and Tony Blair have consistently defined as the civilised world.

Only rarely did you hear that the fundamentalists, far from being pre-Reformation or pre-Enlightenment, were a product of the modernity claimed as the west's unique achievement. In the Marvel Comics version of history that appears to have prevailed after 9/11, secular rationalism forever battles medieval fanaticism. This version may yet be challenged as two inspired Christians hector the secular and rational west into a war that they believe could end all other wars. In the meantime, it might be instructive to look at the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605), who, as Amartya Sen once pointed out, was speaking of reason and religious tolerance when the European Inquisitions were still in place and Giordano Bruno was being publicly burnt for heresy in Rome.

Akbar even tried to educate his benighted European peers. In a letter in 1582 to Philip II of Spain, who was then busy advancing the Counter-Reformation, he wrote:

"As most men are fettered by bonds of tradition, and by imitating the ways followed by their fathers, ancestors, relatives and acquaintances, everyone continues, without investigating the arguments and reasons, to follow the religion in which he was born and educated, thus excluding himself from the possibility of ascertaining the truth, which is the noblest aim of the human intellect. Therefore we associate at convenient seasons with learned men of all religions, thus deriving profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations."

Akbar didn't start out tolerant and rational, although he had a promising pedigree in the form of his grandfather Babur, whose great autobiography, The Baburnama (recently published by Modern Library, with an introduction by Salman Rushdie), reveals the sceptical and melancholy temperament that the first Mughal emperor brought to the things of the spirit and to the physical world. There is some evidence that as a young emperor, Akbar was in thrall to orthodox Sunni Muslims. Religious belief may have at least partly fed his fascination with Hamza, a Persian legend based partly on the historical figure of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle, who led the armies of Islam in battle against assorted infidels. When in 1558, less than two years after his accession to the Mughal throne, Akbar commissioned his imperial workshop of painters to depict the adventures of Hamza - a selection of which are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum - he was indulging a childhood preference for fantasy that Babur, who found the stories of Hamza "contrary to good taste and sound reason", would have disapproved.

It is possible to grow too defensive about Islam and figures like Akbar, and to embrace, in the process, the faulty assumptions of their detractors. Writing in the Guardian, William Dalrymple asserted that "the Hamzanama, with its mixed Hindu and Muslim styles and its fusion of different worlds, is a reminder of the cultural greatness and brilliance of an Islam of which George Bush seems wholly ignorant". Perhaps. But whatever little there is of Islam in the Hamzanama - violent jihad against infidels - is also likely to confirm simple-minded ideas about the faith.

The evidence both for and against Islam is infinite, and is, finally, beside the point. It may be more useful to historicise such casually employed but loaded concepts as "Islam", or "Hindus" and "Muslims", and to see how much of our knowledge, and the language in which it comes to us, is contaminated with the prejudices and ignorance of previous generations and epochs. European imperialists faced with unyielding Muslim natives in Asia and Africa helped popularise the notion of a unitary "fanatical" Islam. These 19th-century Europeans were in turn educated in Islam by the obviously coloured perceptions of the Crusaders. As the art historian Ebba Koch argues in her elegant essay in the exhibition catalogue, the words "Hindu" and "Muslim" need to be used carefully when discussing events in the 16th century: they refer not so much to how people then saw each other as to the ethnic, moral and aesthetic categories used by British colonialists to divide and rule India in the 19th century.

Certainly, to showcase Akbar as an example of a cultured, cosmopolitan Islam would reveal little of his complex humanity or times: the historical irony, for instance, that his distaste for orthodox Islam and his dabbling in other Indian faiths provoked a backlash among an insecure Muslim elite, and helped, in the long term, the rise to power of Akbar's great-grandson, the zealous Awrangzeb. Akbar's religious dilettantism would not explain, among other things, how this distant descendant of Tamerlane was a ruthless conqueror for most of his 49-year-long reign.

The Indian empire that Akbar eventually built extended from Kabul to Bengal and from Kashmir to Hyderabad. He designed his tomb and named it after Alexander the Great, who also fascinated, for equally vulgar reasons, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler. In the early part of his reign, Akbar sought religious sanction for his rule from influential Muslim mystics in northern India. His overtures to non-Muslim kings and chieftains, his marriages to Rajput princesses, his multi-ethnic court, were also part of his sophisticated realpolitik, designed to defuse regional challenges to minority Mughal rule over India.

Roughly midway through Akbar's reign, when he held absolute power over a fast-expanding empire, something unusual seemed to have happened to him: a spiri-tual crisis, perhaps, or an inflated sense of his destiny. The revelation, most recently granted to George W Bush, that he was the instrument of a divine will, appointed to bring sulh-i-kul, or universal peace.

Whatever the nature of his delusions, Akbar aimed to bring about perpetual peace not through perpetual war, but through incarnating in his own person the non-sectarian, universal values of reason and tolerance. His dream failed, in the inevitable way of all such millenarian projects. It could be said that he was not nearly as bold or generous as Ashoka, another great Indian empire-builder who renounced conquest and embraced Buddhism. But he went far in his rejection of the conventional pieties of his time.

Unlike other ambitious conquerors or emperors of Europe and Asia, Akbar founded his claims to universal rule not on one faith, but on precisely his ecumenical approach to human diversity. He scolded the Shah of Persia for his religious intolerance and said that since he inclined to "pay [no] attention to differences of religion and variety of manners and to regard the tribes of mankind as the servants of God, we have endeavoured to regulate man-kind in general". He claimed a high moral ground for his policies of religious neutrality and multiculturalism. At the same time, he did not give up his wish to regulate mankind. It seems an oddly familiar combination: self-righteousness and a strong will to power. And perhaps what's most remarkable about Akbar is that in the 16th century, he embodied with more elegance and subtlety the traits we recognise in the presently commonplace western figure of the liberal imperialist.

Pankaj Mishra is writing a book on the Buddha

"The Adventures of Hamza" is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) until 8 June