Dive into a timeline covering the subjects of Clear and Present Danger. The timeline will expand as we travel through the history of free speech.

Free speech history

The Mughal Empire

Episode XIV: ‘Universal Peace’ – Religious tolerance in the Mughal empire

Episode XIV: ‘Universal Peace’ – Religious tolerance in the Mughal empire

Episode 14 leaves the West and heads to 16th and 17th Century India and the Mughal empire. In particular, the rule of Akbar the Great.


A century before John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” Akbar developed a policy of “Universal Peace” repudiating religious compulsion and embracing ecumenical debate. We’ll also discover why the history of the Mughal empire still tests the limits of free speech and tolerance in modern India. Among the questions tackled are:

  • Why, how, and to what extent did Akbar abandon orthodox Islam for religious tolerance?
  • How did religious tolerance in the Mughal empire compare to contemporary Europe?
  • How did English travelers get away with openly blaspheming Muhammad, the Quran, and Allah?
  • Was the emperor Aurangzeb really the uniquely intolerant villain that history has portrayed him as?
  • Why do India’s current laws against religious insults hamper modern historians’ efforts at documenting events during the Mughal empire?

1526: Rise of the Mughals

The Mughal Empire is formed in 1526, when Babur – a Turco-Mongol warlord – conquers the last sultan of Delhi.


The Mughal Empire grows to become one of the biggest in world history, covering Afghanistan and most of the Indian subcontinent. By 1600, the Mughal padshahs rule over 100-150 million people.

1556-1605: Akbar the Great

1556-1605: Akbar the Great

Akbar receives two Jesuit priests at his court, miniature c. 1605 (Public Domain)


Akbar the Great (r. 1556-1605) is famous for  his religious tolerance. He abolishes the Jizya tax on non-Muslim subjects and allows forced converts to re-convert. He invites priests from a host of different religions to discuss their believes, creates his own ecclectic religion and evolves a concept of Sulh-i-Kul or ‘Universal Peace’.


“Formerly I persecuted men into conformity with my faith and deemed it to be Islam. As I grew in knowledge, I was overwhelmed with shame. Not being a Muslim myself, it was unbecoming for me to force others to become such. What constancy is to be expected from proselytes by Compulsion?” – Akbar the Great


He even lectures other world leaders like the Persian Shah ‘Abbas and the Spanish king Philip II about the value of religious tolerance.


But Akbar also has a darker side. He is a ruthless conqueror with civilian blood on his hands and state prisons for dissident muslims.

1658-1707: Aurangzeb

1658-1707: Aurangzeb

Portrait of Aurangzeb, presumably by the court painter Bichitr (Public Domain)


Akbar’s great-grandson, Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), is equally famous for his intolerance. An orthodox Muslim hardliner, he reimposes the Jizya tax on non-Muslims, fire Hindu officials and orders Hindu temples destroyed.


Some even think Aurangzeb’s intolerance helped bring about the downfall of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century.


However, some modern historians think his misdeeds may have been blown a little out of proportion: The number of destroyed temples may be closer to 10 than 1,000, and he never banned music from the empire.