O Hindus,

On 6 December, you the Hindus, the only true people of this holy land, the only legitimate children of your Mother, will get another chance to prove your manhood, and reclaim that which was taken away forcibly by the barbarians, who came here centuries ago and defiled the purity of your motherland, plundered and raped her with a cruelty your history had never witnessed before. There are now only eighteen days left for the brave sons of the land to assemble in the town of Ayodhya and remove the last vestige of slavery, obliterate the symbol of your humiliation, and raze to the ground the mosque whose domes have mocked you for centuries.

We lack the cunning of those storytellers. We do not believe in whitewashing aspects of history inconvenient to us. Do you wish to have proof of our honesty? Then hear what we say: Mughal emperor Akbar was not as vile as the rest of his dynasty. To him we do not bestow the honorific great. About him, we assert he was just about tolerable to your ancestors. Instead of Akbar the Great, call him Akbar the Tolerable – and we promise we will not object.

You are shocked, you demand proof for our claims. Know it then, it was Akbar who abolished the imposition of jizya on your ancestors. Yes, you are right, jizya was the tax imposed on your ancestors because they did not convert to Islam. It was the money every adult Hindu paid to live under the protection of a Muslim ruler. Wicked were the Muslim jurists, they said those who neither paid jizya nor embraced Islam had no choice but to face death.

In the eighth year of Akbar’s reign an order was issued abolishing jizya. In 1562, the detested pilgrim tax had been already abolished. Yes, it was the money Hindus were required to pay for visiting their holy places. For the first time in over three centuries of Islamic rule, the state did not seem to discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. Fair was Akbar, he appointed Hindus to coveted posts in the imperial service. Tolerant was Akbar, he openly celebrated non-Islamic festivals in his capital. Honourable was Akbar, he forbade the slaughter of the cow because he realized Hindus worship the animal. Such changes were not cosmetic. Stringently were the royal decrees implemented. Thus, for instance, was exiled a well-known Muslim divine who had been found guilty of cow-slaughter.

You are not impressed, you ask the question: was not Akbar’s motive aimed at co-opting the Hindus and blunting their opposition? What you say is tenable. A foreign ruler, however noble and wise, can never become indigenous. To us, such a ruler is always a reminder of our enslavement. O wise sons, yet we must add, it is better to grant religious freedom to win over a people than terrorize them into submission. You smile and say: so there is at least one ruler about whose qualities the storytellers and the author of Secret History are in agreement. You smile and add, call him great, call him tolerable, yet both formulations show Akbar had gained acceptance across the religious divide.

Let us tell you: wrong are those who feel Akbar is dear to Muslims. Misguided are those who believe Muslims consider him as their greatest emperor. O wise sons, we know Muslims well. Simple are the yardsticks by which they judge a ruler. For them it always comes down to a few questions: did the ruler under scrutiny create conditions conducive for spreading Islam? Did the community of the faithful swell in numbers under his command? For Muslims, only those rulers are worthy who either slay non-believers or convert them to Islam.

Among themselves they say Akbar was no slayer of Hindus. Should you press them further, they will declare, Akbar was no Muslim, Akbar did not believe in Allah. You are stunned. You ask, why should they not consider the most successful emperor of medieval India Muslim? O wise sons, in Islam there is no room for independent inquiry. Surely you have heard about Akbar’s experiments with Truth. In 1575, Akbar constructed Ibadat Khana, or the House of Worship, in Fatehpur Sikri. To it were first invited learned men of different Muslim sects to discuss matters of religion. Each argued his point, each fought for his own Truth. Disappointed was Akbar as Muslim theologians called each other names.

Horrified at the disagreement among Muslim holy men, Akbar invited others to introduce their religion to him. Purushottama and Devi represented the Hindus, Hari Vijaya Suri and Bhanuchandra Upadhyay came from the side of Jains; also invited to Ibadat Khana were the priests from Parsi and Christian communities. Each illuminated the emperor on the metaphysical aspects of his religion. Each placed before the emperor the tenets of his religion. Gradually, it dawned upon the emperor that Truth was not the monopoly of Islam.

Impressed by the religion of Zarathustra, Akbar ordered a sacred fire to blaze perpetually in his palace. Never was the fire to extinguish, Akbar declared, for he saw in it a Divine symbol. For Muslims, this was an act as terrible as idol worship. Then Prince Murad was asked to take instructions in Christianity, Abu Fazal was ordered to translate the Gospel into Persian. Akbar began to worship the Sun, undertake yogic exercise, and patronize a philosopher who openly declared, ‘The greatest injury comprehended in a prophetic mission is the obligation to submit to one like us of the human species.’

In 1582, Akbar etched out the contours of what historians think was a new religion. Called Din-i-Illahi, or the Divine Faith, it was Sufi in conception and Zoroastrian in its rituals. It was a combination of practical and rational principles culled from all religions. Strictly monotheistic as it was, the Divine Faith of Akbar owed more to Islam than Hinduism. In Din-i-Illahi we see an attempt of the Mughal emperor to win the allegiance of Hindu nobles. Through Din-i-Illahi, Akbar sought to place himself above religious affiliations. His religion was not preached to the masses, it won just about seventeen followers in his lifetime. It is for you to ask: why didn’t Akbar preach the religion to his people? Why didn’t he popularize the so-called religion he had himself established? Akbar was neither vain nor foolish. For him, Din- i-Illahi had only political symbolism, for him the Divine Faith was an instrument to blur the civilizational divide between the Hindus and Muslims of his court.

Yet this simple fact is beyond the comprehension of Muslims. In their fury they ask: what kind of believer was Akbar who did not slay the philosopher who slandered the Prophet? What kind of Muslim was he who turned his face to the Sun and paid obeisance to the Fire? What kind of Muslim emperor was Akbar who did not exert in the path of Allah?

In the eyes of Muslims, Akbar is a terrible example to their children. To praise the emperor who questioned the Quran is to encourage the children to emulate him. To hail the emperor who did not punish the slanderer of the Prophet is to sow the seeds of heresy in the community. In the story of Akbar, as narrated by those storytellers, Muslims read a subtle message: only those among them will be praised in modern India who turn away from their religion. This is the reason why Muslims deride Akbar the Tolerable, this is the reason why they tell their children, Akbar was no Muslim, Akbar did not believe in Allah.

O wise sons, compare yourself to the Muslims. They disown their greatest emperor because they love their Prophet more; you adhere to non-violence even though Lord Ram is homeless. They kill the man who derides the Prophet, you cannot lift the sword against those who evicted Lord Ram from his birthplace. Overcome your weaknesses, hear your voice, and follow what is right. Come to Ayodhya on 6 December, rise and raise your arms, rise and say, Lord Ram.

Excerpted with permission from The Hour Before Dawn, by Ajaz Ashraf, Harper-Collins India.