Mehmet Hasan Bulut
ISTANBUL: Born from the twisted ideology of Indian Sultan Akbar Shah and the cunning manipulations of Jesuits, Din-i Ilahi or Divine Religion was an intriguing if dangerous late entry into India’s crowded religious space
Batinis – those who belong to Batiniyya, a group that stresses the esoteric elements of religion – believe that wisdom is timeless and not exclusive to one faith. According to them, the Truth, which can be reached through spiritual evolution, was revealed to man in prehistoric times so that he could understand himself and the universe. However, as a result of distortion, the Truth was lost and all religions, whether polytheistic or monotheistic, have cast a veil over it. Even if religions have changed, the Truth has not. The name given to this Truth was Philosophia Perennis – or Perennial or Ancient Philosophy.
According to Harry Oldmeadow, an Ancient Philosopher and author, Philosophia Perennis has had many names throughout history: Lex Aeterna (Eternal Law), Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), Din-ul-Haq, Akalika Dhamma (Timeless Dhamma) and Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Dharma) were some of the most well-known of these. Theosophists call it “Ancient Wisdom,” but Europeans first heard of Ancient Philosophy as “Ancient Theology” (Prisca Theologia).
In Europe, Philosophia Perennis became popular in Italy, where the philosophy of Neoplatonism was resurgent. The expression Prisca Theologia was first used by a Catholic scholar in 1540 to describe the faith of Priest Marsilio Ficino, head of the Platonic Academy of Florence. Ficino saw Jesus and Plato as the same authority; He believed that all religions were rooted in a single ancient religion, which over time took various forms such as Zoroastrianism, Pharaohism, Platonism and Christianity.
Thanks to this belief, Italy experienced the Renaissance, which translates to “rebirth” or “resurrection” and moved away from a Christian worldview through Ancient Theology. The Jesuit order based in Italy was one of the pioneers of this belief. Jesuit priests not only introduced Ancient Philosophy to Christian Europe but also carried it to all parts of the world through interreligious dialogue.
The aim of the Jesuits – uniting people of different religions under Ancient Philosophy – was possible through a method they discovered themselves. They acted through inculturation, which is a method of introducing foreign beliefs into a culture using the local terminology of that culture. Twentieth century British historian Arnold J. Toynbee explains the Jesuits’ method in his book titled “The World and The West.”
“Instead of trying, as we have been trying since their day, to disengage a secular version of the Western civilization from Christianity, the Jesuits tried to disengage Christianity from the non-Christian ingredients in the Western civilization and to present Christianity to the Hindus and to the Chinese, not as the local religion of the West, but as a universal religion with a message for all mankind. The Jesuits stripped Christianity of its accidental and irrelevant Western accessories, and offered the essence of it to China in a Chinese, and to India in a Hindu, intellectual and literary dress in which there was no incongruous Western embroidery to jar on Asian sensibilities.”
The Jesuits were sent to India in the 16th century by the King of Portugal to spread Christianity. Akbar I – also known as Akbar Shah – the Sultan of India of the time, was a man who approached all religions with tolerance except Sunni Muslims. However, he believed that the fact that his subjects belonged to different religions made administration difficult. He took the daughter of the Raja Bharmal of Jaipur and introduced Hinduism to the palace and made a Shiite his vizier, although most of his people were Sunni. He also abolished the jizya, a tax on non-Muslims.
In 1578, a Portuguese Jesuit was able to meet with Akbar Shah, who was already familiar with Ancient Philosophy. Akbar Shah, who liked the priest’s ideas, had him debate with Muslim scholars. The next year, on the advice of this Jesuit, he wrote to the Jesuits in Goa, on the West Coast of India, requesting that two priests be sent to him.
Akber Shah kissed the Bible brought by the sent Jesuits and put it up to his head, and he and his son Salim Jahangir became friends with these priests. They showed respect by hosting them in the palace for two years. For Akbar Shah and his son, the priests translated Catholic literature, which contained neoplatonic philosophy, as well as works describing the foundations of their sect, into Persian. Among the translated books were Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica” and “Summa contra Gentiles,” which were highly valued by the Jesuits and influenced Dante.
Under the influence of the priests, Akbar Shah entrusted his other son to the Jesuits to be raised according to the Christian faith and to learn Portuguese. Jahangir, on the other hand, started to cover the walls of his palace with frescoes of Christian saints. This custom quickly spread among the notables of India. The Muslims reacted strongly to this, and riots broke out in places.
Finally, in 1582, Akbar Shah declared that he had established a new religion, which he called “Din-i Ilahi” (Divine Religion), in order to unite his subjects belonging to different religions and make them brothers. The Divine Religion took something from all religions, especially Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Shah was the messiah of this religion.
Book of Christ
In later years, new Jesuits also came to the palace. Akber Shah and Jahangir read the books translated into Persian brought by the priests and learned about Europe. These Jesuits also published new works. One of these was a work called “Mesihname” (Book of Jesus), which presented sections from the life of Hadrat Isa, also known as Jesus Christ. The book, written in 1602, showed similarities between Islam, Sufism and Hinduism rather than Christian propaganda. Yet another work was “Hamratü’l-Falasife” (The Fruit of Philosophy), which explained Greek and Roman thought. It was written on the order of Akbar Shah in 1603 by a Muslim named Abdulsattar with the help of Jeronimo Xavier, a relative of Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits.
In the library of the palace there was also a book called “Ayine-yi Haknüma” (Mirror That Shows the Truth) written by Xavier in 1609. The book compared Islam and Christianity. In one part, he described the debates between Muslims and Christians in the presence of Akbar Shah and Jahangir, and in another part it told of Aristotle’s “internal (subjective, inner) feelings.”
Fate of the new religion
Based on Ancient Philosophy, this new religion found popularity in the ruling class of India but it could not spread to the people much from the Mughal palace. As a matter of fact, it disappeared completely after Akbar Shah’s death in 1605.
Ahmad al-Faruqi al-Sirhindi, known as Imam Rabbani, who descended from Caliph Hadrat Omar – the father-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad – was this religion’s staunchest opponent. A great Sufi scholar, he emphasized the necessity of following the Prophet with the letters he wrote to the administrators and the students he taught. After Akbar Shah’s death, he became close to Jahangir and helped strengthen the position of Sunni Islam in India.
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