Some thoughts on Ain-i Akbari

I have been going through the Ain-i Akbari recently, the name traditionally given to the third volume of the Akbarnama, commissioned by the Emperor Akbar of the Moghal dynasty and written by his Grand Vizier, Abu’l Fadl Allami by around ~1600 CE. The third volume is by far the most personal account of India, its geography, culture and people by Abu’l Fadl – himself born and brought up in Agra in an immigrant family of Yemeni Arab origin.

There are two extracts from the Ain that I wanted to write about. One related to linguistics, esp. the interesting reaction of an erudite aristocrat of Yemeni Arab extraction when he first encounters saMskRta. And the second description of the movement of the cArvAka-s[*], the free-thinking atheistic strand of Indic culture that was ridiculed and suppressed even as similar movements arose in the West (esp Britain) just under a century later.

Abu’l Fadl pwnage is quite obvious from the above extract, and in fact it is the mark of a truly great man to acknowledge it for posterity. Fadl clearly admits the effort to grasp the complexity of Sanskrit phonetics, morphology, syntax and grammar. However, what’s interesting is that while his account of his intellectual labours is in first-person, he switches to the third when concluding that his prior view of Arabic grammar being peerless is now under question. It is almost as if he stopped short of personally admitting to the pwnage – a little bit of hurt pride maybe – and yet couldn’t stop himself from remarking on the sheer formalism of what he’d just been introduced to. Of course, anyone who knows anything about linguistics would readily admit that pANini‘s Classical Sanskrit grammar, which Fadl describes a mere sliver of above, remained the tour de force in Linguistics from around ~500 BCE to the late 19th century until Saussure.

This brings me to the second extract from the Ain in question, namely the description of the cArvAka-s or nAstika school. To me this passage more than anything else contains the germ of the eventual Moghal ruin. It is amazing and ironic how a fairly erudite gentleman, maybe one of the best educated of his times, could dismiss some of the core ideals of what became known as the European Enlightenment as “unenlightened”. Of course, as it turned out, Isaac Newton, born a mere 50 years after this was written, published the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in the same decade as the English Bill of Rights was passed by the Parliament. A process directly leading to three centuries of unprecedented economic and political growth of Western Europe and to the utter humiliation of the descendants of these same Moghal aristocrats at their hands.

Edit: Since sarpamaugdheya (as “snake charmer” will be known by me henceforth) below questioned whether the original Farsi by Abu’l Fadl speaks of his update of priors in third person, I looked into the original text. And here it is in all its majesty, where the underscored portion states:

پیشتر از آنکه بدین زبان لخت آشنا شود چنان می دانست که ضابطه لغت عرب بیهمتا باشد

Note the third-person verb in “midânest keh zabt-e lughat-e arabi bihamta bâshid”, i.e. he knew/considered the system of grammar of arabic as peerless.

[*] The word literally means sweet (cAri) talker (vAka, cf. Latin vocem).


20 Replies to “Some thoughts on Ain-i Akbari”

  1. “However, what’s interesting is that while his account of his intellectual labours is in first-person, he switches to the third when concluding that his prior view of Arabic grammar being peerless is now under question.”

    You are quoting from an English translation of Ain-e-Akbari. How do you know that he employed the same grammatical constructs (first person vs third person) in original Persian? May be you are reading too much into it.

    1. That thought occurred to me as well. However, there is no reason for the English translation to switch to 3rd person here. Besides, the literal content, i.e. the author admission of his priors (about Arabic’s peerlessness) changing as a result of new information is what it plainly is.

      Textual analysis always requires some reading between the lines. Could be wrong (or overdone) of course. But this just leapt out at me.

  2. Excellent post.

    Akbar’s time was perhaps the only time when the Turko-Mongol Mughals approached India with genuine intellectual curiosity. Perhaps because Akbar himself looked upon such endeavors favorably. The flame briefly flickered and died out with Akbar death.

    The above text could easily have come from someone like William Jones.

  3. “A process directly leading to three centuries of unprecedented economic and political growth of Western Europe and to the utter humiliation of the descendants of these same Moghal aristocrats at their hands.”

    Is it necessarily so simple ? The Mughals were bitten to a pulp by other Indian / Persian etc forces who were not necessarily more “enlightened” in that sense. Don’t rmrber the British / French even had to fight the Mughals in any substantial way.

    When the Mughals/sultanates conquered India they were more “tribalistic” than then the Indian groups, just like the Marathas were when they overwhelmed the latter more “refined” Mughals.

    1. “The Mughals were bitten to a pulp by other Indian / Persian etc forces.”

      Very true. I know this is a digression, but allow me anyway. One of the fallacy of the history taught in Indian schools is that Mughal empire was conquered by British, and as a corollary, somehow British owed it to Muslims to hand over the empire back to them when the time for their departure came. This is the argument the Muslim league was peddling in the days leading up to Independence. In fact, nothing can be further from truth. When British appeared on the scene, India had long been reconquered back by native Indian forces. Marathas rules large swathes of India, which can justifiably be called an empire. Other native people like Sikhs, Gorkhas and Jats ruled vast tracts themselves. Mughal sovereignty did not even prevail within the boundary walls of red fort. (Maratha armies of Scindhia controlled Delhi, and it is from Scindhia that British took Delhi).

      The reason we don’t hear about first Anglo-Mughal war or second Anglo-Mughal war, is because there was none! OTOH, we get to hear 3 Anglo-Maratha wars, 2 Anglo-Sikh wars, and a Anglo-Gorkha war. It was the victory in these wars that gave the empire of India to British.

      It is this Indian reconquista which is regularly brushed under the carpet.

      In fact Punjabi Muslims won something of a lottery after the British departure. Never in history Punjabi Muslims ever ruled any independent kingdom. They have been ruled by everyone from Afghans, Mughals, Sikhs to British except themselves. Before the Britsh took over they were under the solid thumb of Sikhs. When the Sikhs got defeated, they used pax-britannica to breed furiously, and when British departed, they used the weight of their numbers to grab a state for themselves, and dominate other ethnicity of Pakistan.

  4. Was atheism and a staunch repudiation of the idea of a God really such a core ideal of the enlightenment ?

    I ask this because Newton himself was a devout Christian and did a considerable amount of work in what would today be called theological or religious studies. And this intersection of intense religious faith and prolific scientific output continued all the way to Ramanujan.

    I think the ultimate dominance of the scientific method had much to do with the establishment of rule of law, and the increasingly litigious nature of society. With rule of law, principles and evidence became the basis for settling and adjudicating conflicts, rather than authority and experience. People accepted the supremacy of the scientific method in practice, even as the retained outward religiosity well into the 20th century.

    In his own time, Newton was most famous for solving the illegal counterfeiting problem in England, which he solved using scientific techniques. And to this day, Anglo countries continue to develop the most sophisticated patent and property rights laws, undoubtedly a key reason why Google, Facebook, Amazon all arose in the Anglo world, rather than other developed areas. We are seeing the latest iteration of this in the development of data protection and privacy laws in the US.

    1. You misunderstand. The point is not about atheism but the principle of “just administration and benevolent government” and the definition of “Paradise” as a “state in which man lives as he chooses” which were European Enlightenment principles too.

  5. . It is amazing and ironic how a fairly erudite gentleman,……………..

    ???. Given his “proper” Arabic Muslim background, it would be surprising if Fadl had been sympathetic to the cArvakAs. Atheism is a bigger crime in Islamic rule book than believing in false religions.

    1. Yeah.
      Just that using an Arabic script for Urdu sucks.
      Using an Indic script for Urdu makes so much more sense. But if we do that it will become … “Hindi”.

        1. Reading hand written Urdu in Arabic script is a pain in the backside.

          The Nastaliq style of Arabic letters used to write Urdu has letters flow into and twist back unpredictability upon each other confounds even the most determined learner. Furthermore, when writing Nastaliq, short vowels are frequently excluded leading to immense confusion.

          1. I see what you mean, but it is just about practice. When I was introduced to Nastaliq as a kid (Urdu class – taught by a Sardar teacher) it was hard to learn. To practise all those nuqtey and zeyr, zabar-s and pesh-s. And to top it, being a non-native speaker we had a “weird” Urdu enunciation of alphabet.

            But once you get used to it, reading it becomes easy. Words start making sense without vowels just by the context and syntax. Though I still have trouble reading it on the mobile phone sometimes (miss crucial nuqta-s) or when written in overly cursive/ornate hand.

            In that respect usage of Nastaliq in Farsi is so much better than in Urdu. It’s typically written in much more block-letter style. I think since it is the main medium of communication in Iran, even in electronic form (unlike Urdu-speaking regions where English/Roman script is the elite standard) their books, print media etc probably had to standardize much more.

            So I find written Farsi to be more easily readable than written Urdu.

    2. Not sure how any of those languages “coincide” in Urdu … just because Urdu has Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian words in it?

      Besides, why must Urdu’s importance being contingent on the languages it borrowed words from? Surely creativity is in how you use a word (whatever its origins)…

      1. Slapstick, I think you are confusing the meaning of Nastaliq. It is not a script, it is a font. Urdu script is simply an extended Farsi script, which itself is an extended Arabic script.

        Farsi added 4 new symbols for Farsi phonemes not found in Arabic (Ch, G, P, Zh). Urdu extended it further by adding symbols for all the aspirated phonemes native to Indian languages. However, technically the script of both Farsi and Urdu will still be called Arabic.

        The block style you are referring to is called “Naskh” font, which was originally confined to Arabic language. However, with the advent of computers, this font is becoming increasingly popular, at the expense of Nastaliq. Somehow its rendering is easier for computers.

        That beings said, I agree with you that the script is a pain in the butt to read. It is just too dotty and cluttered. All those superscript and subscript dots play havoc with the brain, and does not make reading Urdu a pleasant experience. On top of that the strange convention of marking shot vowels just “optional”, makes it very difficult to accurately and phonetically represent the spoken word.


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