Akbar Mohur: Alif Coinage

map of moghul india

Moghul Empire

Babur 'the tiger', who descended from Timur on his father's side and Genghis Khan on his mother's, completed his long conquest of northern India in 1526, defeating the Delhi Sultan Ibrahim Shah Lodi at the battle of Panipat. Babur's death four years later brought his much less competent son to power, and Humayun indeed lost the throne for 15 years to the Pashtun ruler Sher Shah Suri. A short year after regaining rule with Persian help, the luckless Humayun died from a fall down stairs, leaving a 13-year-old Mohammad Akbar as ruler of northern India.

Against the odds, the young man went on to defeat the Pashtuns, bring more Hindu regions under his control, and gradually gain ascendency over the Rajput through diplomacy and marriage alliances. The emperor was illiterate, but nonetheless an enthusiastic patron of literature, poetry, architecture, science and painting. His religious tolerance, and habit of seeking wisdom from men of many faiths and disciplines healed many of the dangerous rifts between Muslims and Hindus.

akbar mohur coin obverse

His son, Jahangir, ruled in relative peace from 1605 to 1627, and was succeeded in turn by his son, Shah Jahan, who inherited a vast and prosperous empire. Yet Shah Jehan lost his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal four years later, and went into deep mourning for a year before commissioning the Taj Mahal in her memory. The throne was in turn seized by his third son, Aurangzeb, who executed his brothers and kept his father a close prisoner at Agra till the old emperor died in 1666.

The ruthless and authoritarian Aurangzeb brought Muslim rule to all but the southern tip of India, but his uncompromising brand of Islam lost Hindu support and initiated a three-year-long revolt by the Pashtun. With Aurangzeb's death in 1707, the Mughal empire began slowly to disintegrate.

Akbar (1556-1605 AD), Gold Square Mohur, 10.81g. Urdu Zafar Qarin Mint, Alf (AH 1000), KM 112.4. Obverse: Kalima and invocations to the four caliphs in corners, i.e. lā illā Allah Mohammad rasūl Allah:bi-sudq Abī Bekr . bi-'adl 'Umat . bi-hayā 'Uthmān. bi'-ilm 'Alī

Peasant revolts and sectarian violence threatened the fabric of the state, and succeeding emperors fell under the influence of various nobles and warlords. As Mughal power waned, the British East India Company became more active, defeating the Nawab of Bengal and French interests at the Battle of Plassey and gradually assuming political control.

The later Mughal rulers held on to their throne and titles, but after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Burma, and the subcontinent came under direct British rule. {1-5}

akbar mohur coin reverse


Character of Akbar

More than any other ruler, Akbar (1542-1605)  strengthened the empire by a combination of military assertion and political conciliation.  {6-7} Afghanistan, Sindh, Bengal and further parts of India were brought into Moghul control, often with heavy bloodshed, but Akbar not only married princesses of conquered Hindu kings (which was traditional, and seen as a further humiliation) but elevated their fathers to court officials, giving them the same status as other Muslim relations. He did not require conversion to Islam, moreover and indeed abolished the poll tax on non-Muslims. In 1574,  he centralised the tax system, separating tax collection from military services and instituting proper checks and balances. {6-7}

Reverse: khallad Allah te'ālā mulkahu / Mohammad Akbar alif badshah/ Jalā ed-dīn ghāzī / zarb Urdu Zafar Qarin (May Allah on high perpetuate his kingdom / Mohammed Akbar AH 1000 Emperor / Glory of the faith, warrior against the infidels / Struck at Urdu Zafar Qarin) {9-10}

Akbar was an enthusistic patron of the arts, and brought musicians, poets, artists, philosophers and engineers into his court. Under his eclectic tastes there developed the distinctive style of Moghul architecture, with its mixture of Islamic, Hindu and Persian elements. Coinage also became distinctive: round or square coins with a firm but simplified calligraphy that is ornamented by dotted borders, floral motifs, quatrefoil and other devices. {6-7}

Akbar  was made a shrewd judgement of character by dealing with the many officials, experts and religious leaders he needed to consult. Open discussion he welcomed, and that interest extended to religious affairs. In 1578 a mazhar or declaration granted Akbar the authority to legislate on religious matters, superseding the role of the mullahs. His goal was a multi-cultural and inter-religious state, but this 'decree of infallibility' was naturally resented by Muslims, and has been condemned ever since. Worse came in 1582, when he instituted a new cult, the 'divine faith' (Din-i-llahi), which incorporated elements from Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrian around his own person as prophet or spiritual leader. {6-7}

Akbar died in 1605, from dysentery or poisoning. His successor, Jehangir, was favoured by the harem over Akbar's eldest son, and though he became somewhat addicted to women, opium and alcohol, proved a competent ruler, adding to his father's economic and cultural achievements and steering the empire through its numerous and sometimes murderous court intrigues. {8}

Names, Laqabs and Persian Couplets

Islamic coins make full use of their inscriptions, which carry echoes important to the community of the faithful. Individual Muslim names generally derive from one of three sources: from the names of the prophets and patriarchs mentioned in the Qur'an, from some relationship to God, e.g. Abdullah, the servant of God, or from the names of the  Prophet himself, his family and companions. Additionally, each Muslim has a 'kunyat', which denotes a relationship: e.g. bin Ayyūb, son of Ayyub.  Some rulers used a complex or 'artificial' kunyut: e.g. ābu-el muzaffar, father of the victorious one. Most rulers also delighted in laqabs: titles of honour, often of a religious nature. Thus the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty took the laqab salā ed-dīn, 'moral goodness of the faith', which the west corrupted into Saladin.

Persian was the literary language of the later Islamic courts, and the rulers of Iran, Afghanistan and India went further with their titles and laqabs, placing scraps of Persian verse, or rhyming couplets, on their coins. {11} Thus, for example, appears 'sikkah zad dar shehr Agra Khusrū gītiī panā / Shāh Nūr ed-dīn Jehāngīr ibn Akbar bādshāh' on a coin of Jehangir's — i.e. 'Money he struck in the city of Agra, did the Conqueror, the Refuge of the World, Shah, Light of the Faith, Jehangir, son of Akbar, Emperor'. {12-13}

The Millenium and Din-i-Llahi 

Muslim rulers awaited the approaching millenium with mixed feelings. Perhaps the true faith would be tested by upheavals, or rejuvenated by another messager or near-prophet. Akbar had more reason than most to feel optimistic: he ruled over an extended kingdom where his policies of religious toleration had brought widespread peace and prosperity. Always eclectic in his views, and open to new ideas, he had encouraged debates between the various religions in India, concluding after acrimonious exchanges that perhaps no one religion held all the answers. He was also drawn to the Nuqtawi philosophy, a Sufi sect that was monotheistic, spiritual and impatient with dogma, believing that human qualities could be transmitted across the generations, perhaps culminating in the birth of a unique person of Allah-like divinity. In 1578, Akbar proposed the Din-i-Llahi, or Religion of God, which as the ruler of a powerful empire made prosperous by his policies of toleration, he was supremely qualified to lead. The elements of the new religion were laudable enough.  Din-i-Ilahi prohibited lust, sensuality, slander and pride. Piety, prudence, abstinence and kindness were promoted. The soul was encouraged to purify itself through a yearning for God. Celibacy was to be respected, moreover, and the slaughter of animals forbidden. No  sacred scriptures or a priestly hierarchy were needed.  But there was the strong suspicion that Akbar saw himself  as the unique person, which was wholly against the Muslim tradition of drawing truth from the careful study of Mohammad's teachings. Nor, of course, were the Hindus, Jainists, Jews or Christians any more welcoming to a religion based on the teachings of an obscure Sufi sect, and unsupported by ritual or an officiating  priesthood.  {14-15}

Coinage was one way in which medieval rulers promoted their authority, and Akbar accordingly announced  the new millenium by replacing the usual hijiri date with the millenium of a thousand years, not shown as yak hazar but as 'alif' (the first letter of the alphabet, i.e the beginning).  Moreover, as court accounts document, Akbar introduced the millenium in 990 hijiri, ten years early, in line with Nuqtawi thinkers who saw the 10 year long astrological conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as heralding a new age of 960 solar years. That, of course, would suppose Islam began in 612 CE and not with the flight to Medina, but Akbar was undeterred. Four years later, in 1582 CE, he introduced a new calendar, and renamed some of his mints as Urdu Zafar Qarin (camp associated with victory).   However well intended — Akbar may have been experimenting with the pantheism of Ibn i Arabi, and attempting a social contract with his people based on the doctrine of absolute peace — these views were anathema to Moslem commentators, and though the empire remained at peace, the Religion of God won few adherents. {10, 14-15}

Nature of Religion

Before going further, we need to understand the intrinsic nature of religion. Western societies have largely separated church and state, allowing religious freedom, i.e. have consigned religion to matters of personal preference. Medieval states, east and west, were not so lackadaisical, however, and saw doctrine as critically important. Faith, doctrine and good works determined our fate in the world to come, and even men of outstanding liberal conscience accepted the need to save souls from hell fires, by whatever means possible. If we truly believe in the afterworld — and millions still do, most certainly, even today in the 'sophisticated' west — how can we not prevent our fellow human beings from treading the wrong path to perdition? Do we not have an ethical responsibility to think deeply on such matters, and do the necessary?

Conversion is rarely effected by argument alone. God for adherents is an experienced reality, whether mediated by doctrine (Christianity and Islam) or more by prayer, ritual and practice (Greek, Roman and Hindu religions).  Commitment to a religion involves the whole personality, of course, and change is not easily effected. Differences are no doubt to be expected if we accept that God reveals himself through men of different cultural practices and intellectual casts of thought, and most adherents follow faithfully in the faith of their parents and community. Of those who change allegiance, not all undergo sudden conversation, many being persuaded by example and reflection. There comes a time when the 'truth becomes apparent', and  the awakened believe they see realities that were previously hidden or existing merely as reports or faith.  The recipients may be a consciousness of nothing, of an undifferentiated unity, or of an immediate and loving awareness of God. They may also be pantheistic: within and without seem as one; the world has a marvellous and extraordinary beauty; space and time are transcended. Though contradictory if put into words, common to all these is an experience of the world as alive and filled with joy and blessedness. {16-18, 23-35}

Religion is not therefore reducible to social function, though many seek faith because ultimately men are failures. We do not deduce evil from standards, but as a violation of the taboos which make possible our cultural and social life. Religion becomes meaningful in acts: ritual, prayer, mystical encounters. In short, religion is the sacralization of identity. Whereas identity in animals is rank or territory, in humans it is more often symbolic: in terms of class, sex, attitudes to money, beauty, equality. Sacralization is an emotionally welding of an identity which, sudden or not, consolidates and stabilizes that identity: certain patterns of symbolic systems acquire a taken-for-granted, eternal quality. {16-18, 23-35}

The Hindu and Moslem religions are different in many respects. Hindu deities are lovingly portrayed in Indian temples, but depictions of Allah or His Prophet do not appear in mosques, only the suras or texts from the Quran, often displayed in  beautifully-tiled caligraphy. Both religions permeate everday life, however, and Indian Muslims in particular would have drawn strength and consolation from inscriptions on coins they handled every day. But Akbar's titles on this coin — May Allah on high perpetuate his kingdom.  Glory of the faith. Warrior against the infidels — would have been seriously compromised by the ominous 'alif' or new millennium. Where was this new millennium, and why India? The country was prosperous, but the Mughals were only one of many splendid Islamic states, and there was still a caliph in Egypt, albeit enjoying only a shadow of his former authority. Nor was it the role of Islamic rulers to interpret the Prophet's teachings: that  prerogative belonged to the mullahs. Akbar's new religion was deeply perplexing to the Muslim community.

Language and Reality

Words in medieval societies had a pervading status and authority difficult for us to conceive in our age of cultural diversity. Words in religious texts were literally true, and indeed are still held so in orthodox Muslim societies and fundamentalist Christian sects today, open to interpretation but not denial. Moreover, just as money carries a shadowy claim on our social responsibilities, so did language in Moghul India. Indeed, not only in medieval times, but even today, language and its meanings, explicit or implied, has become an important component of literary theory, highly technical but illuminating. {19}

Even what we understand as the meaning of a text, or the reality of its author, has a long and fascinating history. Plato, for example, preferred the new written procedures (castigating poets of the old oral tradition in 'The Republic') but also worried that the very process of writing and learning from texts imprisoned speculation in authoritative interpretations. Meditation was needed to bring the past into the presence, and this may also explain Plato's desire for eternal forms, things that were eternally true, beyond our shifting sense impressions and limited understanding. Classical rhetoricians developed mnemonic devices, but it was the north European scholastics that made memory a record of doings that could be examined under confession. In twelfth-thirteenth century Europe the validity of an oath (given word, symbolically the Word of God) is transferred to documents that have legal force. {20}

Speech and writing are essential to expression, but also frame the dialogue, stipulating what can be expressed, and in what way. Translation was not an issue in the classical world — the literate spoke several languages and could interpret (i.e. recast) from one to another — but the Christian Church became monolingual to incorporate Greek and Hebrew into the culture of late Antiquity. Later, for long centuries, the vernacular spoken by all classes in Europe was a romance language pronounced differently in different places: none of the pronunciations was close to classical Latin. It was never written down, and only in ninth century Germany was an attempt made to create a 'German grammar'. Charlemagne accepted a uniform pronunciation of official Latin, but this was incomprehensible to his subjects and was therefore repealed. Depositions were taken from the vernacular and written in Latin, and Latin creeds were rendered and remembered in the vernacular. Elio Anonio de Nebrija attempted in 1492 to create a Spanish that was not spoken but served to record speech, his grammar and argument for a standardized Castellano being intended to curb the publication of literature inimical to the crown. {20}

Until comparatively recently — continue Illich and Sanders {20} — there was no self as such, but only an "I" that glowed into life as it recounted its adventures or told its autobiography. Chaucer claimed a fantastic memory to avoid the Church's injunction against invention, employing also a complex syntax so that listeners were compelled to imagine the page. The first novel to "make up facts" was Defoe's 'Journal of the Plague Year', which undercut the dependence on written testimony to which the work alluded. The work was fiction dressed up as fact, just as Huckleberry Finn asks the reader to believe in 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by an illiterate Tom. But his misspellings and incorrect expressions do all the same evoke the great openness and freedom of the meandering Mississippi River, which implies that we are imprisoned or conditioned by our own mannered language. Coming to modern times, we note that Orwell's 'Newspeak' served as a mechanical substitute for thought, and was therefore a parody of the "Basic English" promulgated in the thirties. And today of course we have the impersonal language of science and business.

To understand what the epigraphy {21} meant to the Mughal users of coinage means entering another mind set.  It is one that still largely prevails in Muslim countries, and that belief in the literal truth of the holy book is paralleled by devout communities in the USA today, and of course by Catholics, who will quote chapter and verse as authority for their judgements. To shift matters beyond the shouting matches that Akbar encountered when he promoted discussions between the faiths, it may be helpful to look at the claims religion makes on us through the agnostic approach of depth psychology, i.e. on a more emotionally neutral ground.

This approach sees the soul as: {22}

1. As a perspective rather than a substance, a perspective mediating and reflecting on the events we are immersed in all the time.
2. Forming a self-sustaining and imagining substrate to our lives.
3. Deepening events into experiences, making meaning possible, communicating with love and religious concern.
4. Deriving significance from its association with death and psychoses.
5. Including dream, image and fantasy in its operation, recognizing that all realities are primarily symbolic and metaphorical.

At this point I should apologize to the religious who will see depth psychology as a poor substitute for faith, {23-35} and to coin collectors who will be wondering where this digression is headed. I hope they will bear with me  for another few paragraphs in this attempt to understand our religious makeup.

Depth psychology is neither a religion, nor a humanism, but a non-agnostic psychology. In religion Gods are taken literally, and approached with ritual, prayer, sacrifice and worship. In humanism man is the measure of all things and Gods do not exist. In depth psychology the Gods are real but exist only as myths. Such myths are potent, though. Recall that it was Mersenne (1588-1648) who led the campaign against paganism (as against demonism, astrology, alchemy, allegorical painting and poetry) which the Enlightenment continued in Christianity's monotheism of consciousness. Multiple personalities were seen as possession, nowadays schizophrenia. Equally suspect today is eloquence, especially words whose power over us cannot be curtailed by philosophy and semantics. Yet in many ways the individual, the person who acts rationally and individually, is himself a mythical creation. The accompanying self-determination or free will, the central preoccupation of western theology, is likewise a product of the monotheist viewpoint. Though the later Greeks offered prayers to many gods (while imagining monotheistically the One), the moral codes of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are literalizations of the hero image, the ego, the subdivision into light and dark, producing a moralizing that infects psychology even now.

By denying the gods, depth psychology asserts, we commit many crimes. By thinking we are gods ourselves, we become prey to ideologies and commit atrocities in their name. We look to other people for our salvation, and are continually disappointed. Depth pychologizing cannot be brought to rest in science or philosophy. It is satisfied only by its own movement of seeing through, during which it a) interiorizes, moving from data to personification, b) justifies itself, even hinting at a deeper hidden god, c) provides a narrative, told in metaphors, d) uses ideas as eyes of the soul. Literalism or monotheism of meaning is the greatest enemy today, and we should remember that definitions outside science, mathematics and logic are elusive things. Enigma provokes understanding. Myths make concrete particulars into universals. Vico remarked that metaphors 'give sense and passion to insensate things'. Archetypes are semantically metaphors and have a double existence, being a) full of internal opposites, b) unknowable and yet known through images, c) congenital but not inherited, d) instinctive and spiritual, e) purely formal structures and contents, f) psychic and extra-psychic. Every statement concerning an archetype is to be taken metaphorically, prefixed with 'as if'. Most importantly, therefore, to answer the question we posed above, men cannot be converted to the 'true path' by force or bribery: conversion has to be genuine and whole-hearted.

Baffling as they may seem, we need to arm ourselves with these concepts when we return to numismatics and Akbar. Whatever their religious affiliations, Akbar's subjects lived in a quieter and more faith-saturated world than ours. There were no newspapers, political propaganda or marketing hype to distract their everyday thoughts. As in the Christian west, {36} all but the extremely learned believed in the literal truth of religious documents, also in  the Evil One, prophecies and astrological predictions. And as I have tried to suggest above, these are not childish superstitions, or matters of faith where rational concepts cannot apply, but part of our human make-up, still with us today, though expressed differently.  Indeed there are many such notions survivng to the present. The scientific concept of force, i.e. action at a distance, derives from invisible astrological forces. {37} Mathematics, often regarded as the most abstract and certain of disciplines, may boil down to the innate dispositions of bodily functions, i.e. simply how we see and respond to things.  {38} Even the fair, rational and self-righting mechanism of the market, the deity of the business press, is an act of faith: the concept is notoriously over-simple and mathematically flawed.{39}

But all serve their purposes in giving order, continuity and authority to the status quo, to a mainstream view of a needed social fabric. Kingship in all medieval societies came with powers and obligations  A key concept in Islam is the just ruler, {40} and Akbar went further than the expected balance of piety, justice and service to the community by remembering the beliefs of his Mongol forebears, who saw themselves responsible to the peoples they had conquered.{41} The coins therefore set imperishably in precious metal (base metal coins occur infrequently) just what Akbar's status was. By associating his name with titles of legitimacy, Akbar coins represent in miniature the larger world of court and governance. Indeed the two are intermingled, and while there are styles that characterise periods of coin issue, and plain practicalities that limit what coins can display, we see laid out before us in a callligraphic narrative the claims of the Mughal rulers projected into a millenium to come — one over-optimistic, of course, and heretical to the faithful, but nonetheless looking forward to an era of universal peace and justice.

References and Further Reading

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