During his reign, Aurangzeb did increase the role of the ʿulamāʾ and promulgated laws that overtly conformed to the dictates of the sharīʿah. The Mughal historian Khāfi Khān notes, “the Emperor gave such extensive powers to the Qāḍis in the civil administration and general and detailed affairs of the state that it become a cause of jealousy and envy of the leading nobles of the Empire.” Prohibitions of the use of intoxicants, of extravagant pilgrimages to Hindu places of worship, and of music and dancing were decreed. The state systems of taxation were brought in line with the sharīʿah, and patronage of court astrologers ceased.18 As a result, subsequent generations of ʿulamāʾ as well as a number of modern scholars have declared Aurangzeb as a champion of orthodox Islam, arguing the triumph of the reforms of Sirhindī. Others have challenged that view, suggesting that the records indicate that Aurangzeb’s practice was more eclectic, especially later in his reign, and have argued that political considerations outweighed any commitment to religion.
While scholars continue to debate his motivations and how the legacy of Aurangzeb is to be portrayed, what is evident is that the ʿulamāʾ perceived his reign to enhance their influence in the imperial court.of court ulama under Aurangzeb.
From the time of his accession to the time when Shahjahan expired, Aurangzeb’s tenuous position as king was augmented by Qazi Abdul Wahhab. He provided the legal sanction to his disputed accession in 1658. Starting from the Shaikh ul-Islam and the chief imperial qazi in Delhi, this carried all the way down to the local level, including the vast chain of muhtasibs or censors of public morals. These ulema were, in effect, government employees, paid in cash as well as in the form of tax-free lands by the state. They manned the courts, acted as conduits for information to the Emperor and also served as an important source of legitimacy for the regime.
But was this elaborate hierarchy of religious specialists, trained in the shari’ah, truly able to function in the manner that is made out by pro-Aurangzeb propagandists? On the one hand we have the evidence that this apparent ascendancy of the theologians was resented by the general nobility. At a time when Shivaji had attacked the Mughal subahdar, Shaista Khan, who met with a humiliating defeat and was recalled, Aurangzeb tried to give the command to another noble, but the man retorted, “why appoint me or anyone else, ask the lashkar i dua to raise their hands in prayers!”
We also know that the system was riddled with corruption and inefficiency. Many qazis were indeed upright but many others were not, and some used their position to extort money from the public. One Qazi was caught drunk, another found in indulging in unethical acts. The muhtasibs were charged with enforcing Islamic laws and morality, but were often unable to do so, particularly when it came to local Muslim elites, many of who were given to a life of wanton luxury, including usury, drinking and music, which the “orthodox” Sunni ulema condemned. We have evidence that numerous Sufis protested against the harshness of the muhtasibs, particularly on the issue of banning music. Despite the ulemas’ insistence on the strict following of Islamic jurisprudence in matters related to revenue collection, the traditional revenue system remained intact. Likewise, local caste panchayats, even among local Muslim convert groups, continued to be allowed to function and decided disputes on lines that sometimes contravened the shari’ah as the court ulema understood it. Despite stern opposition from the “orthodox” ulema, partly for what these ulema saw as some of their unwarranted beliefs and practices but also because of jealousy owing to their mass support, popular Sufis, including those who preached the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud or the “unity of existence” and sought to stress the oneness of Hindus, Muslims and others, continued to flourish. Furthermore, the “orthodox” ulema, were unable to present a united front, were often at odds with each other and riddled with internal jealousies and rivalries.
Far from causing a radical break with the Mughal precedent, Aurangzeb’s religious policies, in particular his attitude towards the orthodox Sunni ulema, represent, in many senses, a continuation of it. As before, under Aurangzeb, sections of the ulema received generous royal support, and they, in turn, proved to be a major ideological pillar for the regime. Although Aurangzeb was certainly more generous with his patronage of the ulema than several of his predecessors, he did not allow them to dictate state policies. Though they were given prestige, the ulema remained, in the final analysis, subservient to the state and lacked an effective independent voice to enforce their views. While Aurangzeb sometimes sought their advice on matters of the shari’ah, he often dispensed with their views altogether, preferring his own opinions to theirs. As before, the shari’ah, in the sense of fiqh or historical Muslim jurisprudence, remained only one, although in some spheres major, source of law under Aurangzeb, and it was often supplemented, even supplanted, by imperial edicts and customary laws, some of which were directly in contravention of the shari’ah as the “orthodox” Sunni ulema viewed it.
Our sources provide many instances to substantiate this argument. Aurangzeb’s imprisonment of his own father and murder of his brothers, which brought him to power, were, of course, just two of these instances, but there were others as well. When the imperial qazi refused to read the khutba in his name, Aurangzeb had him summarily dis- missed, and, later, when the Shaikh ul-Islam refused to supply him with a fatwa legitimising his plans to invade the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan, he caused him to meet with the same fate.
Aurangzeb did take certain other steps that were calculated to win the approval of the “orthodox” ulema. One of his major achievements in this regard was to commission the compilation of a code of Hanafi law, named after him as the Fatawa-e Alamgiri, the collective work of several ulema. Bhatia opines that in itself this did not represent a major development in Islamic law as it was simply a digest of secondary sources by earlier ulema for the guidance of the qazis or judges, and, despite it, the qazis continued to hand out judgments according to their own understanding and interpretations of the shari’ah.
Aurangzeb’s religious policies, in particular his attitude towards the orthodox Sunni ulema, represent, in many senses, a continuation of it. As before, under Aurangzeb, sections of the ulema received generous royal support, and they, in turn, proved to be a major ideological pillar for the regime. Although Aurangzeb was certainly more generous with his patronage of the ulema than several of his predecessors, he did not allow them to dictate state policies. Though they were given prestige, the ulema remained, in the final analysis, subservient to the state and lacked an effective independent voice to enforce their views. While Aurangzeb sometimes sought their advice on matters of the shari’ah, he often dispensed with their views altogether, preferring his own opinions to theirs.
Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi