Contemporary and Near Contemporary Sources for Akbar’s Reign

The study of the sources of Akbar’s reign is a topic which has to be tackled in three parts, viz.

• A general Survey of the sources: the broad categories

• Abul Fazl’s approach to the study of history; his world out-look with special reference to Ain-i Akbari

• Basic structure of Badauni and his Muntakhab ut Tawarikh; his world out-look and also the general bias that we find in his historical writings.

General Survey:

The sources are mainly written in Persian language and their total number is very large for this period. It is possible to place the sources we have for the Akbar’s reign under different categories, keeping in mind the world out-look and political loyalties of the authors, their cultural predilections, their social status and also keeping in mind the themes with which their work is primarily concerned.

If we try to work out the characterization of our sources, both primary and some later sources giving primary information of this period, we may get the following seven categories:

1. Official Histories

2. Semi-Official Histories

3. Histories written by theologians (ulema)

4. Insha collections

5. Regional histories

6. Biographical Dictionaries

7. Later sources and histories

There were other sources also – for example the Jesuit Portuguese Fathers writing letters and reports to their superiors in Goa and Lisbon – comprising very interesting sources of information. We also have Traveller’s Accounts, for example that of Finch, who came during the reign of Akbar, or the Ottomon traveller Sidi Ali Reis, whose ship wrecked and he came to Delhi on the eve of Akbar’s accession. The accounts which he left behind for just before and after Akbar’s accession are the only accounts of these political and eventful days.

We also have a very large number of inscriptions and coins of Akbar’s time. Then we have quite a considerable number of original documents of Akbar’s reign which add much to our knowledge on the period under consideration.

Let us start with the Official Histories.

Amongst the official histories we have Akbarnama compiled between 1593-94 – 1597: The last portion of the volume III was completed sometime in 1597. Another important source of this category is the Tarikh-i Alfi compiled in 1582 and completed in 1588.

Then we have the Takmila-i Akbarnama. It is in a way a continuation of the Akbarnama after 1597. But it is an account which is in a different style and a different approach. This was written as a concluding part after the assassination of Abul Fazl in 1602 by Faizi Sirhindi. It covers a period from 1602 to 1604.

Official histories are important as they project the official version of the contemporary events as well as of past developments which naturally tend to be in conformity with the cultural predilections or leanings of the monarch under whose perusal such works are produced. They are actually in the nature of justification of many of the measures taken by a particular ruler.

Therefore it is indeed very useful that in Akbar’s reign we have two official histories written at different times – one is from an early stage during his reign and the other was completed at the end of his reign when he had adopted his policies for which his reign is distinguished. A comparison of the interpretations of the same events in the two works enables us to ascertain as to what the main stages were through which his main outlook was passing through and how they were being perceived. For some events and policies we have one interpretation in the Tarikh-i Alfi, while another is given in the Akbarnama which was completed 10 – 15 years after the former.

Tarikh-i Alfi and Tarikh-i Khandan-i Taimuria:

Tarikh-i Alfi, as its name indicates, was conceived by Akbar as a comprehensive history of the first millennium of the Islamic era. It was undertaken towards the close of the millennium and the idea was that in this book the account which began from the dawn of Islam would be brought till the end of 1000 years. The task of compiling this work was entrusted to a team of historians consisting of Mulla Ahmad Thattavi, Asaf Khan and Abdul Qadir Badauni.

The book was planned as the history of the world in which the political developments in the then known world were to be put under individual chapters. But the era used here is not exactly the ‘Islamic’ era. In fact Akbar altered the Islamic era by calculating it not from the hijrat i.e., 622 AD but by calculating it from the date of Rihlat, i.e., Prophet’s demise in 632 AD. The justification that Akbar gave for this change was that, as Abul Fazl says, it is not proper to start the Islamic era from an episode which actually represented the temporary success of forces of evil. Its better to start it from the date of the Prophet’s demise which is a more momentous date. Therefore the years under which individual chapters were organized were rihlat years and not hijrat years.

The chapter would open with developments at the Mughal court of a particular year; it would then abruptly switch to an account of events on the Ottoman empire of the same year before recounting the events that took place in the Safavid court, the Uzbeks and then back to the Deccan for the same year. This was quite an arbitrary approach which squeezed in varied information in one single chapter. Thus this is a narrative of dis-connected events and happenings in different parts of the world.

In fact we do have at our disposal one interesting work providing an insight in the manner in which this book was compiled. This is a work preserved in the Khuda Bakhsh Library at Patna known as Tarikh-i Khandan-i Taimuria. The only copy of this work that has survived contains paintings in large numbers by some of the well-known painters of Akbar’s court which is testimony to the fact that it is a manuscript which was completed at Akbar’s court. Like Tarikh-i Alfi in this book also the account is divided into chapters that commence with rihlat years. But this is only an account of the political history of the Timurids from the time of Timur to that of Akbar in 1576. If one compares the account of the history in this book with the passages on Timurid history in the yearly account in the Tarikh-i Alfi, one will find that this account is exactly the same as given there. This goes to indicate that perhaps Tarikh-i Alfi was initially compiled by its team of authors as separate histories each of which was divided on an yearly basis. And then these accounts were put together to create and constitute a large account represented by Alfi.

Badauni tells us that the Timurid account was compiled mainly by Ghiyasuddin Asaf Khan. Thus we can say that the Khuda Bakhsh manuscript was authored by Ghiyasuddin Asaf Khan.

So far as the nature of this source is concerned, this source included some facts omitted in the Akbarnama. In this official history written in 1582, some information later suppressed in official history is re-produced without any inhibition. This would naturally indicate that by this time Akbar had not yet arrived at a state of mind to suppress some developments of the earlier period that did not present some people close to him in a favourable light.

For example, in Tarikh-i Alfi it is mentioned that at the time of Tardi Beg’s execution in October-November 1556 Bairam Khan had succeeded in securing the co-operation of Akbar’s favourite wet-nurse Maham Anaga through bribery. This fact is missing in the Akbarnama. According to Akbarnama she was against Bairam Khan from the very beginning and organized Bairam’s downfall in 1560.

This indicates the manner in which a tailored history was prepared by Akbar; and which facts Akbar was subsequently trying to hide.

Another similar discrepancy between the two accounts regards the capture of Hemu. In the Akbarnama Abul Fazl devotes a long passage to the famous episode of Hemu’s capture at the Battlefield and his execution at the hands of Bairam Khan after Panipat. Abul Fazl says that when Hemu was brought before Akbar in a wounded state, Akbar refused to raise his own hand towards him and attributes a full speech to the effect that it is not right to attack a man injured. This was to shift the blame on Bairam Khan. Abul Fazl was trying to build a particular image of Akbar which shows him generaus and farsighted.

But in the Tarikh-i Alfi the episode is narrated in total frankness: the speech attributed to Akbar is not quoted here. It is possible that Akbar invented it to Abul Fazl who incorporated it. But what is important to note is that till 1582, Akbar did not had it included and that it is not reproduced in the account written in 1582.

Thus a reading of both the accounts helps us understand how the political image of Akbar and his history was being tailored.

Similarly in the Akbarnama Abul Fazl makes an explicit statement that Akbar had abolished jizya and the Pilgrimage tax in 1562-64. Abul Fazl goes out of his way to explain the significance of this on Akbar’s Rajput Policy. Jizya was not justified and Abul Fazl denounces earlier rulers for imposing it. Now, he says, relief was provided to the non-Muslims.

But then, these two measures are not mentioned in the 1582 text! It is not to suggest that Abul Fazl invented them; perhaps these orders were there but were not enforced in a regular manner and even Akbar did not give much importance to them. He did not regard them as great achievement. But in the subsequent history, attempt was made to give an impression that they were the starting point of Akbar’s religious policy. When subsequently the principles of sulh-i kul were evolved, they were mentioned with great fanfare!

Apart from all this, certain sections of Tarikh-i Alfi relating to Babur and Humayun are important as they were copied by later Mughal histories of Babur and Humayun’s reign.

Semi-Official Histories:

So far as the semi-official histories are concerned, they are histories written by persons in imperial service or one of those who was a noble at Akbar’s court at the time when he wrote his account. These accounts were written by these persons in their individual capacity and not on the order of the king. They were generally written on their own initiative. But at the same time as they identified themselves with the Mughal state and were involved in its working, they tended to give an imperial bias which does not reflect changing situations and policies at the court. Their information tends to justify the role of the authors or that of their immediate superiors and employers.

In this connection one can list the following:

a) Nafais-ul Ma’asir, Alaud Daulah Qazwini (c. 1575)

b) Tarikh-i Akbari, Haji ‘Arif Qandhari (1580’s)

c) Tazkira-i Humayun wa Akbar, Bayazid Bayat (1590)

d) Tabaqat-i Akbari, Nizamuddin Ahmad Bakhshi (1594)

e) Risala-i Asad Beg, Asad Beg (1604)

One thing that is common to all of them is that the authors of these histories were in the service of the Mughal state in one or the other capacity. Some were minor or important nobles. Nizamuddin Ahmad was an imperial bakhshi of the central government. Similarly Alauddaulah Qazwini was the son of a distinguished Persian scholar Khwaja Abdul Latif Qazwini who came in 1555 and had acted as Akbar’s ataliq during the last one year of Humayun’s reign.

But then, Bayazid Bayat was a petty officer who could reach to the position of 200 sawars towards the end of his career as a mansabdar. However, he was close to the royal family and had access to them as a close servant. At the time of writing his account, he was not a regular noble.

Same was the condition of Arif Qandhari who was in the service of Bairam Khan. Later he served Muzaffar Khan. At the time of writing he was still in the service of the same noble.

So far as the Nafais ul Ma’asir is concerned, it comprised two sections, one is the political history of the Mughal rule in Hindustan from the time of Babur’s conquest in 1526 to 1575 – the conquest of Bengal.

The second part comprises of biographical notices of poets etc which are not found anywhere else. Much information contained in the III volume of Badauni on the biographies the contemporaries is drawn from Nafais-ul Ma’asir.

Tazkira-i Humayun wa Akbar is mor a memoir than a regular history. A great significance of this account is that Bayazid’s account of Akbar is focussed mainly on developments taking place in different provinces where Bayazid was staying and posted at different points of time.

In fact Bayazid joined the service of Munim Khan Khan-i Khanan in 1555 and stayed with him at Kabul down to 1560. For this crucial period, Bayazid’s account helps us to understand how the Mughal nobles placed at a long distance to the court were reacting to the tussle that was going on at the court between the regent Bairam Khan and his opponents.

Subsequently Bayazid was made the in-charge of Munim Khan Khan-i Khanan’s jagir at Hisar Firuza where he remained between 1560 and 1567. Again during this period his account is the only account helping us to understand what repercussions’ were created in a provincial town due to the events taking place at the court. For example, when in 1562 Mirza Sharafuddin revolted against Akbar he escaped towards Hisar Firuza and much fighting took place between him and the royal officers in the vicinity of this town where Bayazid was stationed. So there is an account of the manner in which military operations against Sharafuddin were organized.

Subsequently Bayazid stayed with Munim Khan at Jaunpur from 1567 to 1573. Again we find the developments and repercussions at Jaunpur to the eventsat the court as well as preparations at Jaunpur for further expansion towards Bihar & Bengal known to us only as a result of Bayazid’s account at this provincial headquarters.

Bayazid’s account is presented from the Imperial point of view: thus it is a tailored account.

Same is true for Risala-i Asad Beg as it covers a period for which no other history is present. He served Abul Fazl for a number of years and was in his party when Abul Fazl was assassinated. After that in 1602 he was sent by Akbar as his envoy to the Deccan from where he returned sometime before 1604. His Risala contains a detailed account of his activity in the Deccan and the journey to Agra and the presents he brought with him to the court. First mention of tobacco in medieval sources occurs in his Risala and he displayed how it was smoked.

Histories Written by Theologians (Ulema):

General Nature: These histories represent the reactions and assessments of the Muslim religious elite, the social category which was known in the medieval period as ashraf living on madad-i ma’ash or suyurghal grants (revenue free grants for charitable purposes). It is therefore understandable that in these histories the authors seem to be particularly sensitive about Akbar’s measures relating to the management of suyurghal grants and also Akbar’s policies which in any other manner effected the position of the orthodox people. For this reason these sources represent a very important evidence that relates to the religious policy of the Mughal state under Akbar.

The second important feature of these accounts is that all of them suffer from a religious bias and an attempt is made by these authors to interpret political history on doctrinal lines – i.e. their own understanding of the shariat. But at the same time it is also true that in spite of this doctrinal approach, individual interpretations of different authors of this category are at variance with each other as a rule. Therefore it is of great interest for a student of political history that how a particular measure of Akbar is variously assessed by historians and chroniclers, all of whom are writing from an Islamic orthodox point of view.

For example, on the one hand we have Mulla Abdul Qadir Badauni. He in his Muntakhab ut Tawārīkh denounces Akbar as well as most of his close associates as heretics. He also denounces policies and measures of Akbar as aimed at destroying Islamic religion as such.

But on the other hand we have persons like Shaikh Abdul Haq Muhaddith in Tarikh-i Haqqi or his son Nurul Haq Dehlavi in Zubdat ul Tawarikh, wherein we find in spite of an attempt (of ulema) to long for an Islamic age, they have no such harsh assessment as is made by Badauni.

There are a number of important works in this category to be remembered, viz.

Muntakhab ut Tawarikh by Abdul Qadir Badauni completed by him sometime in 1595

Akbarnama compiled by Ilahadad Faizi Sirhindi in 1601

Tarikh-i Haqqi by Abdul Haq in 1605

Zubdat ut Tawarikh by Nurul Haq in 1605

All these are the works compiled by the ulema of Akbar’s period.

Insha Collections:

So far as insha collections are concerned, their number is very large. Here we will mention only the important collections.

Insha Collections are works in which specimen copies of different kinds of documents, including letters written by people belonging to different categories are collected together. These collections were compiled with the aim of presenting collections of the model documents that could serve as instructions to people who sought training as administrators and munshis. Actually when people would write these ‘manuals’, they would take out original letters and copy. So documents which survived, were original documents selected as model documents.

They provide a variety of evidence on political and social history: And are as valuable as information coming from any other contemporary sources.

Insha-i Abul Fazl is available in a number of editions. Abul Fazl’s writings were regarded for long as models of prose writing. They were used in Persian madrasas for purposes of instruction of students. So a number of editions of Abul Fazl’s writings under different titles are available. In these are included letters written on Akbar’s behalf to contemporary rulers of the Deccan, Abdullah Khan Uzbek and the rulers of the Safavid Empire. Some of the letters are written by Abul Fazl on behalf of Akbar and addressed to individual nobles.

Ruqqat-i Abul Fath Gilani published from Lahore is important as it dates back to 1580-81. It is one of the earliest collections left behind by one of Akbar’s noble.

In this collection are included a large number of letters written by Abul Fath Gilani to his contemporaries in which he has made references to the current developments particularly developments taking place in Bihar and Bengal where a revolt by some nobles was going on in 1580-81.

Then we have the Maktubat-i Imam Rabbani – a collection of letters written by the famous Naqshbandi sufi, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, who is also sometimes remembered as the Mujaddid-i Alf-i Sāni – the Lawgiver of the Second Millenium. His Radd-i Rawafiz indicates him as a man of intolerant views of Sunni Muslims, especially the Isna ‘Ashari Shias. Naturally he was greatly provoked by the liberal religious policy followed by Akbar.

In this collection, compiled during the reign of Jahangir, there are available a number of letters that were written by him to some of the leading nobles of Akbar’s court: i.e., Shaikh Farid, Abdur Rahim Khan-i Khanan, Mirza Aziz Koka etc, in which he had pleaded with them that they should use their influence to have Akbar’s policy of separating religion from state be reversed. Shaikh Ahmad wanted this because according to him, it caused, and was causing, great harm to Islam in India.

This collection is very important for the study of Akbar’s Religious Policy that Akbar pursued towards the close of his reign and more particularly for the reaction of the Sunni orthodoxy against Akbar’s policies during this time.

Then we have Munsha’āt-i Namakīn by Abul Qasim Namakin, who was a noble in Akbar’s service and who was stationed for a considerable period in Sind and the Salt Range area of the Punjab. It was during his tenure as the jagirdar in the Salt Range area that he gave a present to Akbar made of salty rock, and as a reward for this, Akbar gave him the title ‘Namakin’, i.e., ‘salty’.

This work was completed sometime between 1595-99. It is in fact a very large collection of official letters and documents which were collected by Abul Qasim during his long tenure as a mansabdar. In this we have separate sets of documents relating to different units of administration: revenue administration, the department of sadarat, fathnamas, etc. In fact the information supplied by these documents is so overwhelming that when it was edited by Prof. I.A. Zilli, it became apparent that unless the administrative history of Akbar’s reign is re-written in the light of these documents, the study would remain incomplete. These documents give a new dimension on the administrative history of Akbar’s reign. They also furnish information on the political aspects of the reign as well.

There is given in this collection a document known as Fathnama-i Chittor, a copy of declaration that Akbar had issued after his victory over the Sisodias at Chittor in 1568. Thus it lays down his policy towards the Rajputs and the drastic measures that he had taken against the Rajputs on this occasion. It talks about establishing Islam in the territories inhabited by non-Muslims. Akbar says that since the beginning of his reign till now, he has waged warfare against kafirs. He takes pride in the fact that he was responsible for the destruction of a large number of townships inhabited by the kafirs. He massacred a lot of kafirs and converted quite a few of them. This is in sharp contrast to Akbar’s policy projected by Abul Fazl in 1597. Akbarnama describes Akbar’s victory in Chittor, but all the religious bias in this original document is missing. Thus this document helps us to understand Akbar’s attitude at this time towards the Rajputs and his role at Chittor in 1568 itself, and how it is different from his own image he is seeking to project in the official history written subsequently. Thus we can say that definite change has taken place in his personal religious approach as well as his attitude towards the Hindus and the Rajputs.

Regional Histories:

They are available mainly for the history of Gujarat, Sind, Deccan and Kashmir. These histories, as it is seen, are histories focussed on political and administrative developments taking place in different regions from the time these regions were controlled by independent kingdoms down to the end of Akbar’s reign when these regions were integrated into a new imperial system which evolved under Akbar. Therefore, these sources are very important in so far as they highlight the circumstances that led to the annexation of the individual regions to the Mughal Empire and also highlight the settlements that were made in these regions after the conquest which accounted for the diverse administrative forms that are sometimes discernible in the different Mughal subahs.

The important histories of this category are as follows:

1. Tarikh-i Gujarat compiled by Abu Turab Wali sometime before 1597 and which covers the history of the Gujarat region from 1526, i.e., from the coming of Bahadur Shah to the throne, down to the final suppression of the revolt of the Gujarat nobles against Akbar in 1584. So this book covers a very important period of the history of the struggle between the Mughal Imperial Authority and the local ruling dynasty of Gujarat which finally culminated in the absorption of Gujarat in the Mughal Empire.

2. Tarikh-i Ma’sumi or Tarikh-i Sindh written by Masum Bhakkari in 1606-07. This is a local history of Sindh giving account of the Arghun ruling dynasty of Sindh from very early time down to the time of annexation of Sindh to the Mughal Empire under Akbar. Masum Bhakkari at the time of writing was serving as a minor mansabdar of the Mughal Empire who belonged to an old family of Sindh nobility.

3. Tarikh-i Firishta. This is important from the point of view that it is a general history which is a near contemporary source for us. We are concerned here only with that part of it in which histories of various regional kingdoms including those of Gujarat, Malwa, Sindh, Kashmir, Bengal and Bahmani kingdoms are given from beginning of the 15th Century down to the annexation of some of these to the Mughal Empire under Akbar. It was only the Bahmani kingdom which stayed out of the Mughal Empire.

4. Then we have Mirat-i Sikandari by Sikandar bin Manjhu, compiled in 1611;

5. The Baharistan-i Shahi of Kashmir compiled in 1614;

6. The Mirat-i Ahmadi, another history of Gujarat compiled by Ali Muhammad Khan in 1761.

All these are later works but focus on the period when these territories were annexed.


They are biographical notices of the Ulema and the Mashaikh, and occasionally, of poets. Then we have a number of instances of tazkiras covering the biographies of the people in the fighting profession or holding positions as nobles. For example, the second part of Nafais ul Ma’asir compiled by Ala ud Daulah Qazwini in 1575, which is a tazkira of the nobles under the garb of the tazkira of poets.

Amongst the tazkiras of ulema and mashaikh which also contain biographical notices of nobles may be included:

1. Muzakkar-i Ahbab (1562) containing biographical notices on a number of persons serving in the Mughal Empire under Akbar, compiled at Samarqand. Incidentally it contains biographies of some of those who migrated to Hindustan in 1562 or after, and a number of poets, scholars and other persons and groups of intelligentsia who are not known otherwise.

2. Akhbar ul Akhyar compiled by Abdul Haq Muhaddis Dehlavi contains biographical notices of ulema and mashaikh.

3. Another such tazkira is ‘Arafat ul ‘Ashiqin written by Taqi Auhadi.

4. Then we have the Zakhirat al Khawanin written by Shaikh Farid Bhakkari in 1652-53. It is important as it is entirely a biography of nobles who were serving Akbar. We get access to detailed information about Akbar’s nobility which we get nowhere else. It was however written much later.

5. Ma’asir ul Umara was compiled in 1742-47 by Shahnawaz Khan. This also contains original information. However, it had a particular bias – its author was a staunch Shia, while Farid Bhakkari was a staunch Sunni. Thus both these works had their own particular bias. However, Shahnawaz Khan borrowed extensively from the earlier work.

6. Tazkirat ul Umara was compiled in 1728 by Kewal Ram. This is important because, even for the earlier period, information about the non-Muslim nobles is quite detailed which is not found in other tazkiras.

Other Later Sources:

Source like Tarikh-i Firishta was compiled in the Deccan in 1606-07. It provides information not only about the Mughal Empire, but also about the Delhi Sultans of earlier centuries as well, which is not found in earlier sources. Its introduction quotes a large number of sources not available now to us. So, much information is derived from authentic contemporary sources to which we now have no access. Lastly, Firishta is the first account where an attempt is made to interpret early history of the 16th Century and Mughal Empire, in terms of the controversies, for example, the Shia-Sunni controversy, and the differences being the basic reason for the rise of factional struggle during the regency.

Ma’asir-i Rahimi was written by ‘Abdul Baqi Nahawandi sometime in 1614-16. This deals with Abdur Rahim Khan-i Khanan – it is a sort of an apology for the role played by Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim himself earlier. So it is in bias, and favour of, two nobles who served Akbar in high positions.

Iqbalnama-i Jahangiri compiled in 1620 is very important because it is an attempt made in the reign of Jahangir to elaborate the political history in such a way that it can be used as auseful guide and help to interpret the verbose statements made by Abul Fazl in the Akbarnama. It also adds information in addition to that of Abul Fazl.

Even the Tuzuk-i Jahangiri when referring about the last few years of Akbar’s reign, provides us information. It also contains an assessment of Akbar’s policies and measures.

Lastly we have the Dabistan-i Mazahib compiled sometimes towards the mid-17th Century by an anonymous author, most probably a Zoroastrian (Parsi). This book is conceived as an encyclopaedia of different religions practiced in Hindustan and for the study of the political and institutional history of Akbar’s reign: It covers what is described by the author as the so-called Din-i Ilahi, the concept of religious tolerance introduced by Akbar. It also gives a detailed summary of discussions which had taken place in the Ibadatkhana in 1575. Resume of discussions reproduce mainly relate to those acrimonious exchanges which took place between Sunni Ulema and the Jesuits, between Shi’i and Sunni ulema and also with the Hindus. It seems that this section is based on some authentic record of discussions. This is borne out by the great resemblance between it and that of the summary of the discussions given by Badauni in volume II of his Muntakhab.

For details on Badauni click here Muntakhab

Copyright: Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi