Dara Shukoh and the struggle of liberal Islam

The battle between the liberals and hardliners within Islam, as symbolized by Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb respectively, still continues to this day.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the post-Arab Spring nation-building process evolves in the Middle East and North Africa, intense ideological struggles between “moderate,” or liberal Muslims, and orthodox hardliners like Salafists acutely manifest themselves. In the case of Salafists, violence, intolerance and destruction are routine tools to achieve their anti-Sufi and antiliberal agendas. Yet these struggles are nothing new.
A legendary power struggle in 17th-century Mughal India which is also a subject of my upcoming play poignantly illustrates this age-old clash of ideologies, which in this case pitted brother against brother. This is the true story of Dara Shukoh, meaning Darius the Magnificent, who was the eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, better known for building the splendid Taj Mahal.
Crown Prince Dara Shukoh embraced liberal, tolerant Islam and Sufism, while his younger brother Aurangzeb, who greedily sought succession to the throne, was an intolerant hardliner. Dara Shukoh was a patron of the arts, dance and music and was also a renowned poet. Dara Shukoh has the credit of completing the translation of 50 Hindu Holy Scriptures, called Upanishads, from the original Sanskrit into Persian, the official language of India in 1657, so that Muslim scholars could read them. His translation is often called Sirr-e-Akbar, the “Greatest Mystery,” in the introduction of which he boldly states his speculative hypothesis that the work referred to in the Koran as Kitab almaknun, or the hidden book, is none other than the Upanishads.
His most famous work, Majma-ul-Bahrain, “The Confluence of the Two Seas,” was also devoted to a revelation of the mystical and pluralistic affinities between Sufi and Hindu philosophy. In addition, he was a close friend of the fifth Sikh Guru Hari Rai of Sikh religion. On the contrary, Aurangzeb found music and poetry repulsive and condemned them as heresy. He had no tolerance toward Sufi Islam or other religions.
Power struggles between Mughal kings were not just restricted to Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb, but what makes the succession of Aurangzeb interesting is that it changed the course of history of the Indian subcontinent.
Most of the Mughal kings prior to and after Aurangzeb adhered to the principles of secularism. Of course, they did not hesitate to fight and defeat non-Muslim kingdoms, but it was mostly done for strategic and political ambitions rather than religious motivations, and they were equally ruthless toward their Muslim opponents when it came to political wars.
Aurangzeb’s victory over Dara Shukoh marked the triumph of a fiercely puritanical and fanatical brand of Islam against the more tolerant liberal interpretation of Islam. Prince Dara Shukoh, his father’s favorite son, was loved and respected by most Indians including the majority of Hindus. Dara Shukoh lost the war of succession and fell victim to treachery and was betrayed by a greedy noble. Dara Shukoh was in dragged in chains and humiliated in the streets of Delhi, as tearful citizens watched in horror. Many fainted upon witnessing the humiliation and agony of their favorite prince.
This outpouring of sympathy by the masses alarmed Aurangzeb, as he feared the potential for insurrection. As a result, he called a meeting of the Muslim clergy and instructed them to declare Dara Shukoh guilty of apostasy, referred to as takfir, that is, rendered a kafir or non-believer, and as a threat to Islam. Aurangzeb deployed assassins, and Dara Shukoh was put to death.
Aurangzeb justified the killing by claiming it was to save Islam in India. He went on to rule India for many years. Under his belligerent policies he commanded many wars and did not show any mercy towards the Shi’ite Muslim rulers of Deccan India as he occupied their kingdoms.
Today, Aurangzeb’s rule is remembered more for his persecution of Hindus. He is accused of destroying Hindu temples and imposing the jizya tax on Hindu subjects, which was never imposed by any other Muslim king. His reign also resulted in revolts by Hindus under the leadership of King Shivaji, who today is looked upon as a national hero in India. Effectively, Aurangzeb undid all the secular values practiced by other Muslim Kings.
Thus, the victory of Aurangzeb over Dara Shukoh symbolizes a victory of hard-line Islam against liberal Islam, and it resulted in long-term damage to the social fabric of Indian society as well as its communal harmony. The ideology of Aurangzeb was an antithesis to that of Dara Shukoh. Many historians and thinkers wonder how India’s destiny would have been different had Dara Shukoh prevailed over Aurangzeb.
What we see unfolding now in Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the Muslim world resembles this epic struggle between moderate liberals and hard-line extremists. For example, these days Salafists are literally bulldozing Sufi shrines, heritage sites and mosques in Libya, and militants in Mali are doing the same. Salafists in Tunisia have attacked art exhibitions and cinemas because they are viewed as “un-Islamic.”
The Taliban and al-Qaida routinely and conveniently invoke takfir to justify killing fellow Muslims. Pakistani Sunni militants routinely target Shi’ites on the basis of takfir. Gross intolerance and violence toward minority religious groups are evident and in some cases intensifying. In essence, not much has changed since the 17th century.
The battle between the liberals and hardliners within Islam, as symbolized by Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb respectively, still continues to this day, and today we need to make sure that the ideology of Dara Shukoh prevails for the sake of tolerance, security and peace.
The author is a freelance writer, playwright, and actor. He has published numerous articles about Indian politics and history. His latest play, called Imaan, is about moderate Muslim caught up in the Partition of India and Pakistan. He wrote and directed the play, which was performed in Pune, India, on September 7.