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Of Divine Absence

In sixteenth century India, the Mughal Emperor Jalal al-Din Akbar (1542-1605) formulated a religious movement known as ‘Divine Religion’ (din-i ilahi). This movement consolidated different elements of the religions practiced in his empire. In this blog, I revisit the novel The Enchantress of Florence (2008) by Salman Rushdie, the renowned novelist and Booker prize winner, in the context of India’s Divine Religion. I am interested in the way Rushdie reanimated Akbar and his reign in Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s capital and the center of his unconventional religious experimentations, to paint an alternative picture of the early modern era.

Comic portrayal

The following is an example of Rushdie’s comic portrayal of Akbar’s revolutionary projects and unorthodox ideas that culminated in Divine Religion.

“He discouraged the eating of cow meat, onions, and garlic, but recommended that people eat tiger to gain courage from its flesh. He declared that religious observance was to be free of persecution irrespective of the religion being observed, temples could be built and lingams washed, but he was less tolerant of beards, because beards drew their nourishment from the testicles, which was why eunuchs didn’t have them. He forbade child marriages and disapproved of widow-burning and slavery.” (323)

Divine Religion was conceived in the context of a series of important historical events. For instance, jizyah (a tax for non-Muslims) was abolished (1564) and ʿIbadat-khana (house of worship) was initiated (1575). Ibadat-khana housed discussions devoted to free theological inquiries. It brought about an opportunity for enabling a dialogue between different religions. Akbar was the first Indian Muslim emperor who propagated equal respect for all religions. He designed an ethical belief system that signaled progressive ideas revolving around tolerance and ‘Universal Peace’ (Şulḥ-i kull).


The nature of Divine Religion is a controversial question in the scholarship. Was Divine Religion an autonomous religion separate from Islam? Was it a sect of reactionary nonconformists dissatisfied with the established religion? Was it a cult of the leader that was a consequence of the divinization of Akbar? Or was it a code of belief, a spiritual order and a manifestation of Akbar’s faith? These questions are open for debate. In this vein, The Enchantress of Florence (2008) offers its own view on the topic of Divine Religion.

Rushdie’s thoroughly researched book blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, within the traditions of magic realism. As such, it opens a new window into the dynamics of the early modern period from a fresh and non-ethnocentric perspective. Traveling back in time to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Rushdie seeks to grasp the sensibilities of the period. He paints a realistic picture of the East and West with the use of magical elements of literature.

Cacophony of characters

The structure of the narrative is filled with the cacophony of characters often borrowed from historical and literary sources as well as from folklore traditions. Reanimated, they embody Rushdie’s questions about his own contemporary moment. What did the question of religious belief and unbelief contain in the construction of Divine Religion? Was it a pragmatic societal scaffolding, aiming to facilitate all people to live peacefully together regardless of their differences? What is the benefit of revisiting this specific historical moment in the context of the ‘resurgence of religious fundamentalisms’? Rushdie transgresses Akbar’s historical persona and reworks him as a fictional character. By doing so, he investigates questions revolving around the constraints of religious faith and the possibility of imagining living an ethical life without religion.


The following is an example of Akbar’s inner dialogue, reflecting Rushdie’s understanding of Akbar’s view on the question of religious faith.

He did not wish to be divine. If there had never been a God, the emperor thought, it might have been easier to work out what goodness was. This business of worship, of the abnegation of self in the face of the Almighty, was a distraction, a false trail. Wherever goodness lay, it did not lie in ritual, unthinking obeisance before a deity but rather, perhaps, in the slow, clumsy, error-strewn working out of an individual or collective path.” (303) 

Akbar was an inquisitor, seeking to find the universal structure that could form an ideal dominion and sustain the hierarchical status of the ruler. Dissatisfied with the status quo, Akbar actively searched for a comprehensive framework that grants a decent life in this material existence beyond the limits of any religion. In Rushdie’s understanding, Akbar opted to construct a man-made religious structure as opposed to a divine one, albeit under the name of Divine Religion. Rushdie masterfully dramatizes an intermezzo in India’s history where important questions about the separation of religion and politics were dominant.

Fatemeh Naghshvarian is a PhD candidate in the department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University, specialized in Persian mystical poetry.