His name has been heatedly tossed around Indian media debates. Aurangzeb Alamgir was a Muslim Mughal ruler of India and is the most misunderstood personality of the Indian subcontinent.

In this episode of Muslim Atlas, we are going to take a deep dive into the life and reign of this emperor and find out if he is truly tyrannical or benevolent.

If you live in the great Indian Subcontinent, chances are you already know Aurangzeb Alamgir, especially recently. But, if you live outside of India then you probably have never heard of him. So who is he? Well, lets see…

Muhi al-Din Muhammad

Aurangzeb Holding A Flywhisk

Muhi al-Din Muhammad, or commonly known as Aurangzeb, was born third oldest to the fifth Emperor of the Mughal Empire Shah Jahan in 1618. His mother was Mumtaz Mahal who was so deeply beloved to Shah Jahan that when she passed away, he built this tomb for her…

Yes, that’s the Taj Mahal.

Young Aurangzeb

Growing up as a young Mughal prince came with specific perks but also responsibilities and expectations. Right from the get go, Aurangzeb was educated in Jurisprudence, Quran, Hadith and other religious texts in both Arabic and Persian language. He was brought up by the likes of Saifudin Ibn Muhammad, the great grandson of Ahmad Sirhindi.

He also excelled in horsemanship and chivalry oftentimes showing bravery in the face of danger. Like when his father Shah Jahan called for an elephant fight, a favourite royal pastime. Shah Jahan and his sons were spectating on horseback when one of the elephants fell into a rage and charged at Aurangzeb. Instead of dodging the charge, Aurangzeb speared it right into its head, further enraging it. The elephant then knocked Aurangzeb off from his horse and onto the ground. Thankfully the elephant became distracted by its opponent and left Aurangzeb alone. His spectating father was amazed with his son’s brave performance to say the least.

That’s why, at the age of 16, Shah Jahan sent Aurangzeb to help run the empire and fight wars in Balkh, Bundelkhand, and Qandahar and administer Gujarat, Multan and Deccan for 22 long years. He proved to be adept at administering and his military achievements were numerous. However, Aurangzeb was constantly frustrated by decisions made from Delhi that were seemingly designed to undermine his success. Right at the moment of victory, Aurangzeb was arm-twisted into withdrawing his troops in Deccan. This was an order from his father made at the behest of his brother Dharashukoh.

Sibling Rivalries

You see, while Aurangzeb was battling in Deccan, his older brother enjoyed leisures of the court in Delhi. This was because Darashukoh held a higher position in the Mughal ranking system. But why would Darashukoh set his eyes on destroying Aurangzeb? His younger brother, well that’s because the Mughal empires line of successional hierarchy was a little different to your regular 17th century empire. Let me explain, So when a Mughal sultan passes away, he doesn’t just get to choose one of his sons to replace him, NO. You see, in Mughal India, All sons have equal right to the throne. ‘Ya takht ya tabut’ – ‘Either the throne or the grave’ this is the mantra of Mughal kingship and this is why Darashukoh was sabotaging his brother and his biggest opponent to the throne.

Aurangzeb with two of his siblings Shuja (left) and Murad Baksh (right)

So when Shah Jahan became sick, the news spread all across the empire. Although their father wasn’t dead yet, it was already too late. Aurangzeb and his brothers began to mobilise their armies and prepare for battle, ‘The battle of succession’. Unfortunately, this chapter in Aurangzeb’s life is dark to say the least. What’s even more tragic is that battles of succession are common in Mughal history and often resulted in thousands of lives lost. Why? Because Ya takht ya tabut – ‘Either the throne or the grave’.

Aurangzeb Ascends the Throne

When the dust had settled, Aurangzeb had emerged victorious. In typical Mughal fashion, he had sentenced his brother Darashukoh to death. Although harsh to modern tastes, his brothers would have no less acted the same. Niccolao Manucci, an Italian traveller, reported that on the day of his death, Aurangzeb asked Darashukoh what he would do if the roles were flipped. Seeing the writing on the wall, Dhar sneered at Aurangzeb and said that he would have Aurangzeb’s body split and displayed on the four main gates. Now Aurangzeb didn’t go to the same extent as his brother but instead buried him in a tomb in Delhi. 

So on July 31, 1658, Aurangzeb held a coronation ceremony and adopted the title ‘Alamgir’ meaning, ‘Caesar of the world’. He welcomed his brother’s troops and chief advisors into his armies, pardoning them fully.

As for his father, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb had him imprisoned in his room and left his sister to take care of him until his final days. Aurangzeb never came to terms with his handling of his father and will haunt him for the rest of his life and even helped shape his piety. This manifested itself truly in the second decade of his reign where he withdrew imperial patronage from certain practices such as dismissing musicians from many public court rituals. He found it hard to fund anything within his court that wasn’t theological text and thus opted to focus on esoteric rather than external things. However it is important to note that many things remained in continuity with Mughal culture including royal court rituals and patronage.

Aurangzeb’s Reign

The 1670s saw large scale imperial projects with imprints of Aurangzeb’s own interest. The most impressive of those was the massive intellectual project Fatawa- Alamgiri, a synthesis of Hanafi legal judgements, in 1675 after eight years of labour. This reflects two things, the king’s piety and his preoccupation with justice which inspired him to provide a clear legal code. Also, he built Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, the world’s largest mosque at the time. He even supported a vast imperial library and spent one million rupees to preserve his manuscript collection. 

Aurangzeb took pride in himself for upholding justice, like for instance he held court daily and sometimes even twice a day. One Hindu member of his administration humorously points out that when Aurangzeb held court once a day, there weren’t that many complaints but after holding court twice a day, the complaints grew greater. His persistent pursuit of justice made him obsessively involved with many administrative details, personally. He truly wanted to know what was under every rock that laid in his empire. This is due to his deep concern with basic security across Mughal territory, although to limited success. He repeatedly wrote to his sons and important nobles about ensuring the safety of the roads and scolded them for failing to prevent theft and other crimes against ordinary subjects.

One son even dared to respond that it wasn’t his responsibility. Aurangzeb reduced his rank and noted: ‘If it had been an officer other than the prince, this order would have been issued after an inquiry. For a prince the punishment is the absence of investigation.’ However impressive all these admirable achievements are, that didn’t stop Aurangzeb from being the most ambitious expansionist sultan in the history of Mughal India. 

The Mughal Emperors Dilemma

Aurangzeb used diplomacy to extend, solidify and consolidate Mughal power. However, he didn’t hesitate to resort to force to enlarge Mughal domains. You see, for Aurangzeb, violence was not only permissible but necessary and even just insofar as it encouraged stability and cooperation within the Mughal kingdom. He crushed rebellions, waged wars of expansion and personally oversaw sieges. One of the most famous and quite controversial was when dealing with the ninth Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur. Aurangzeb executed the guru in 1675 for causing unrest in Punjab. Even his own son rebelled against him in 1681 and was chased through Deccan and escaped to Iran where he died in 1704. When it came to rebellions, disobedience and the ultimate good of the Mughal state, Aurangzeb had no mercy.

Often times Aurangzeb went against his own ideals regarding ethics and justice, such as overthrowing his father and even waged wars against Muslim kingdoms. This would trouble Aurangzeb throughout his reign and would later remember these events with regret. Remember that Italian foreign traveller? He said that Aurangzeb ‘was of a melancholy temperament, always busy at something or another, wishing to execute justice and arrive at appropriate decisions.’ Now I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking: ‘That’s pretty contradictory and confusing’ Well that’s because it is. Aurangzeb was an enigmatic, complex and oftentimes contradictory figure. This incidentally lands Aurangzeb in hot waters when brought up in contemporary issues. Which is why people get so heated when talking about the sultan today.

Aurangzeb’s Crimes, A Caricature or Admissible?

Today, Aurangzeb is accused of crimes including: 

  • Unjustly killing the ninth Sikh Guru because he peacefully protested.
  • The persecution of Hindus within the Mughal state by means of mass force conversion campaigns and desecration of thousands of Hindu temples.

So, then we must ask: ‘Is this true?’ Did Aurangzeb commit these crimes? Well… No. Not at all actually, and in order to be convinced we must look at Aurangzeb’s policies and general attitudes towards non-Muslims, specifically the Hindu majority. But first we have to clear up some misconceptions. Which is that Hindus of the day did not even label themselves as such and referred to themselves to sectarian labels from the caste system like Brahmin, Rajput, Maratha, etc. In fact, scholars have pointed out that the word ‘Hindu’ is Persian, not Sanskrit. This became common use self referentially under British colonialism.       

The Killing of Tegh Bahadur – Overlooked or Exagerated?

First, ‘Unjustly killing the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur’. This historical account is often exaggerated through conflicting reports that are from a later period and vary considerably. Modern day textbooks say that Bahadur peacefully protested against the forced conversion of Kashmiri Brahmins. This isn’t even elaborated on in the earliest sources on the execution. In fact, Persian and Sikh sources state that Aurangzeb saw Tegh Bahadur militarily opposing Mughal state interests which caused civil unrest and so in Aurangzeb’s eyes, he was a legitimate target. Aurangzeb did not look at the Gurus’ religious stature as a motivation for punishment. The reality is, Aurangzeb didn’t show mercy to anyone who would dare rebel against the state. 

Did Aurangzeb’s Policies Target Hindus?

Second, ‘The persecution of Hindus’. In reality, Aurangzeb in his entire reign, never oversaw any such forced conversion campaigns. In fact, Aurangzeb pursued a practical strategy by incorporating Hindus into the Mughal bureaucracy just to win over the hearts, minds and territory in the Deccan. So if anything, Aurangzeb selected his officials based on administrative skills and not religious identity. Even before becoming Sultan during the war of succession, Hindu members of Mughal court pretty much split evenly between him and his brother Darashukoh. After becoming sultan, little has changed about Hindu share in Mughal administration. In fact, in the later half of his reign, the number of Hindu participation increased by 50%. This was a strategy used by Aurangzeb to expand sovereignty across the Deccan.

To top it all off, Hindu and Jain temples were entitled to Mughal state protection and Aurangzeb generally ensured their well-being. However, that goodwill could be revoked when specific temples or their associates acted against imperial interests. So if that’s the case, then where did the idea that Aurangzeb had a vendetta against Hindus come from?

British Colonialism

Well… that came from British Colonialism. British colonial scholars created a narrative of Hindu-Muslim animosity as apart of their good old divide and conquer strategy.

In actuality, Aurangzeb included thousands of Hindu temples within his kingdom and at most destroyed a few dozen. So historically speaking, he protected more temples than he did destroyed. This was due to his Islamic ethics in granting protections to non-Muslim religious leaders and often times went beyond religious law in his conduct toward Hindu and Jain communities. In his princely order to a Rajput Hindu ruler of Mewar in 1654, he said: ‘Kings represent God on Earth and are thus obliged to ensure peace among religious communities.‘ he continued to condemn any king ‘who resorted to bigotry (ta’asub)’ as guilty of ‘razing God’s prosperous creations and destroying divine foundations.’ So If he destroyed temples, it was because he believed it to be an act of justice for the entire Mughal empire.               

What is the Reality?

Today, modern interpretations that suggest that Hindus like the Marathas, resist Mughal rule,  thought themselves as ‘Hindus’ defying ‘Muslim’ tyranny are just that: modern. Whereas in reality both parties fought each other for political power. But with all this said, why is it that Aurangzeb is heavily criticised and demonised? Out of all the Muslim Mughal rulers that had come and gone, why Aurangzeb?

Well, for one Aurangzeb was much more pious than his imperial predecessors. He prayed all his prayers in the Masjid and abstained from alcohol and opium which killed several members of the Mughal royal family. He also memorised the entire Quran after becoming the Sultan. Even sewing handmade prayer caps and writing copies of the Quran by hand. Aurangzeb drew on Islamic ideals of justice and morality in projecting himself as a moral leader. He would ban certain vices like alcohol, opium, prostitution, gambling and inflamatory theological wrtiings. He would always seek approval from religious authorities but was hardly the puritanical leader, often consulting with Hindu religious leaders throughout his life, as had earlier Mughal emperors.

Aurangzeb – The Complex Figure

Aurangzeb Alamgir was an enigmatic, complex and oftentimes contradictory emperor. He wasn’t a perfect Muslim, but he wasn’t a man without morals. His reputation had suffered from politically fueled narratives of the Mughal past. There are two sides to Aurangzeb’s story in the public: Aurangzeb the bigot and Aurangzeb the pious. The image that is oftentimes misleading and destructive is the former image. Politicians and media use that image to stir up anti Muslim sentiment and brand Indian Muslims as dangerous traitors. They frame Islam fundamentally at odds with Hinduism and so for India, these ideas mean that Muslims cannot be fully Indian.

So how do we move forward? Well we need to discard these images and ideas of Aurangzeb. Only then can we move away from the notion that Islam is not compatible with being Indian and thus fix the issues that plague todays India’s relationship with Muslims. Aurangzeb was a man of his times, not ours. He acted according to his ideals of justice and ethical conduct which sometimes was against Islamic law. He was fixated on dispensing his own brand of justice, upholding Mughal traditions, and expanding his grip across the subcontinent.

Aurangzeb in a Majlis

In the end he died in the year 1707 and chose to be buried in an unmarked grave and having expanded the Mughal empire to its greatest extent in history. May Allah have mercy on Aurangzeb and help those Muslims suffering in India. Ameen.