Akbar’s Dream

Abi-Ru Shirzan

Like many who preceded and many more who followed him, Alfred Lord Tennyson lauded the conquest of India, only to be by degrees conquered by the conquered. Born in 1809, Tennyson was one of the brightest stars in a constellation of early Victorian poets, many of whom were unabashedly influenced by the Orientalism later decried by Edward Said. Edward Fitzgerald, translator of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (as well as Attar’s The Conference of the Birds and Jami’s Salaman o Absal) was an almost-exact contemporary; Sir Richard Francis Burton, translator of One Thousand Nights and a Night (as well as the Kama Sutra) was only a dozen years younger.

During the decades in which Tennyson was England’s Poet Laureate following the death of William Wordsworth in 1850, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, Robert Browning, and George MacDonald all published works that confronted the crisis of faith occasioned by Victorian materialism, progressivism and dedication to scientific rationality.

Despite a jarring jingoism about the British Raj in many of his works, Tennyson turned more and more to the East for inspiration as he grew older. His fascination with legendary heroes was most famously exemplified by “Ulysses,” a poem about the hero of the Odyssey, by “The Lady of Shalott,” based on the Arthurian cycle, and by “The Idylls of the King,” a long work inspired by the same material. These two interests came together in “Akbar’s Dream,” published in Tennyson’s last volume a few months before his death in 1892.

Tennyson inserts a suspiciously pro-British theme into the verse when Akbar, having foreseen the destruction wrought by his descendents, notes with relief that after the apparent ruination of his work,

 . . . from out the sunset pour'd an alien race,
who fitted stone to stone again, and Truth,
  Peace, Love and Justice came and dwelt therein.

Despite this brief bow to imperialistic paternalism (Tennyson was, after all, appointed to his official post and granted a baronetcy by Queen Victoria herself), “Akbar’s Dream” is nevertheless a tribute to the enlightened rule, humanism, and mysticism of the Moghul emperor Akbar the Great (1542-1605).

Akbar was illiterate. (Scholars disagree about whether he suffered from dyslexia or [whether he] was deliberately kept unlettered for other reasons.) Yet the scope of his learning would be remarkable even in today’s universities, and the breadth of his vision would be difficult to match in any time or place. A devoted student of the Sufi Shaykh Salim Chisti, Akbar assembled groups of learned men of all faiths to discuss, debate and deliberate about scriptures of various religions and philosophies of various traditions.

As Tennyson reminds us, the emperor “let men worship as they will,” lifting restrictions on non-Muslims, issuing (and enforcing) edicts enjoining tolerance and faith-blind justice, and openly paying respect to Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism in addition to obeying the teachings of the Islamic faith in which he had been raised. After a mystical experience in mid-life, Akbar assembled a group often misunderstood—in his own time and subsequently—to be his attempt to found a new religion. Called Din-i-Ilahi or, sometimes, Tawhid-i-Ilahi—the “Faith of God”, or “the Unity of the One”—this set of beliefs was characterized by sulh-i kul. This term is often translated as “universal tolerance,” but it is closer in meaning to “embracingness,” a fellow feeling beyond the mere “putting up with” often mistaken for true tolerance.

Of course, Akbar’s heterodox beliefs and behavior infuriated fanatics of all sectarian and secular creeds. Upon his death, his son Salim (“Peaceful,” named in honor of Salim Chisti), inherited the throne, changing his name to Jehangir (“World-Seizer.”) He immediately set about reversing most of his father’s liberal policies, re-instituting the special tax on non-Muslims, pulling down Hindu temples, and disenfranchising the Hindu peoples who comprised the majority of his subjects. The trend toward fundamentalist narrow-mindedness and pietistic injustice and cruelty reached its peak in Jehangir’s grandson Aurangzeb. Knowing that his elder brother, Dara Shikoh, was destined to rule and determined to return the Mughul kingdom to suhl-i kul, Aurangzeb executed him and sent his severed head to their dying father. This is the bloody future Akbar foresees in Tennyson’s poem.

Abu’l Fazl, the confidant mentioned in the poem, was Akbar’s scribe, general, chief minister, close friend and kindred spirit. The letters and other documents he wrote for his illiterate sovereign are still admired as models of Persian prose, and his exhaustive and meticulous account of Akbar’s court (and Akbar’s India), the Akbarnama, still captivates and intrigues today. Not surprisingly, Akbar’s son Salim (Jehangir) resented Salim’s influence over the emperor. The vizir was waylaid and murdered at the command of the prince.

Tennyson was acquainted with these facts. Knowing this tragic history, he yet speaks through Akbar to affirm a faith unlimited by petty disputes, man-made exclusions, and artificially imposed boundaries and differences. “All praise to Allah,” Akbar concludes, “by whatever hands my mission be accomplish'd!" Awakening from a nocturnal vision that has embraced both nightmare and fulfilled dream, Akbar concludes his intimate conversation by drawing his friend’s attention to swelling music and to the rising sun that the hymn salutes. As Tennyson’s own illustrious and celebrated life drew to a close, he seems to have found a resonance in the life of Akbar, “a torch in the darkness.” The well-known lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” might have served as well for the Moghul emperor who, powerful and far-seeing as he was, could not ensure that the harmony for which he yearned would survive him. The longing for the ideal, the poet suggests, is in itself a fulfillment.

As though to breathe were life!

. . . .And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
. . . Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


An Inscription by Abul Fazl For A Temple in Kashmir (Blochmann xxxiI)

O GOD in every temple I see people that see thee,

and in every language I hear spoken, people praise thee.

Polytheism and Islam feel after thee. 
Each religion says, 'Thou art one, without equal.'
If it be a mosque people murmur the holy prayer, and if it be a Christian Church,

people ring the bell from love to Thee.
Sometimes I frequent the Christian cloister, and sometimes the mosque. 
But it is thou whom I search from temple to temple.
Thy elect have no dealings with either heresy or orthodoxy;

for neither of them stands behind the screen of thy truth.
Heresy to the heretic, and religion to the orthodox, 
but the dust of the rose-petal belongs to the heart of the perfume seller.

AKBAR and ABUL FAZL before the palace at Fatehpur Sikri at night.

'LIGHT of the nations,' ask'd his Chronicler
of Akbar 'what has darken'd thee to-night?'
Then, after one quick glance upon the stars,
and turning slowly toward him, Akbar said,
'The shadow of a dream—an idle one
it may be. Still I raised my heart to heaven, 
I pray'd against the dream. To pray, to do—
to pray, to do according to the prayer,
are, both, to worship Allah, but the prayers,
That have no successor in deed, are faint
and pale in Allah’s eyes, fair mothers they
dying in childbirth of dead sons. I vow'd
whate'er my dreams, I still would do the right
thro' all the vast dominion which a sword,
that only conquers men to conquer peace,
has won me. Allah be my guide!

But come,
my noble friend, my faithful counselor,
sit by my side. While thou art one with me,
I seem no longer like a lonely man
in the king's garden, gathering here and there
from each fair plant the blossom choicest-grown
to wreathe a crown not only for the king
but in due time for every Mussulman,
Brahmin, and Buddhist, Christian, and Parsee,
thro' all the warring world of Hindustan.

Well spake thy brother in his hymn to heaven
"Thy glory baffles wisdom. All the tracks
of science making toward Thy Perfectness
are blinding desert sand; we scarce can spell
the Alif of Thine Alphabet of Love."

He knows Himself, men nor themselves nor Him,
for every splinter'd fraction of a sect
will clamor "I am on the Perfect Way,
all else is to perdition."

Shall the rose
cry to the lotus "No flower thou"?  the palm
Call to the cypress "I alone am fair"?
The mango spurn the melon at his foot?
"Mine is the one fruit Allah made for man."

Look how the living pulse of Allah beats
thro' all His world. If every single star
should shriek its claim "I only am in heaven"
why that were such sphere-music as the Greek
had hardly dream'd of. There is light in all,
and light, with more or less of shade, in all
man-modes of worship; but our Ulama, 
who "sitting on green sofas contemplate 
the torment of the damn'd" already, these 
are like wild brutes new-caged—the narrower 
the cage, the more their fury. Me they front 
with sullen brows. What wonder! I decreed 
that even the dog was clean, that men may taste 
swine-flesh, drink wine; they know too that whene'er
in our free Hall, where each philosophy
and mood of faith may hold its own, they blurt
their furious formalisms, I but hear
the clash of tides that meet in narrow seas,—
not the Great Voice, not the true Deep.

To drive
a people from their ancient fold of Faith,
and wall them up perforce in mine—unwise,
unkinglike;—and the morning of my reign
was redden'd by that cloud of shame when I . . .

I hate the rancor of their castes and creeds,
I let men worship as they will, I reap
no revenue from the field of unbelief.
I cull from every faith and race the best
and bravest soul for counselor and friend.
I loathe the very name of infidel.
I stagger at the Koran and the sword.
I shudder at the Christian and the stake;
yet "Allah," says their sacred book, "is Love,"
and when the Goan Padre quoting Him,
Issa Ben Mariam, his own prophet, cried
"Love one another little ones" and "bless"
whom? Even "your persecutors"! There, methought
the cloud was rifted by a purer gleam
than glances from the sun of our Islam.

And thou rememberest what a fury shook
those pillars of a moulder'd faith, when he,
that other, prophet of their fall, proclaimed
his Master as "the Sun of Righteousness,"
yea, Allah here on earth, who caught and held
His people by the bridle-rein of Truth.

What art thou saying? " And was not Allah call'd,
in old Iran, the Sun of Love? and Love
the net of Truth?"

A voice from old Iran!
Nay, but I know it—his, the hoary Sheik,
on whom the women, shrieking "Atheist!" flung
filth from the roof, the mystic melodist
who all but lost himself in Allah, him
Abu Sa'id —

—a sun but dimly seen
here, till the mortal morning mists of earth
fade in the noon of heaven, when creed and race
shall bear false witness, each of each, no more,
but find their limits by that larger light,
and overstep them, moving easily
thro' after-ages in the love of Truth,
The truth of Love.

The sun, the sun! they rail
at me, the Zoroastrian. Let the Sun,
who heats our earth to yield us grain and fruit,
and laughs upon thy field as well as mine,
and warms the blood of Shiah and Sunnee,
symbol the Eternal! Yea and may not kings
express Him also by their warmth of love
for all they rule—by equal law for all?
By deeds a light to men?

But no such light
glanced from our Presence on the face of one,
who breaking in upon us yestermorn,
with all the Hells a-glare in either eye,
yell'd "hast thou brought us down a new Koran
from Heaven? Art thou the Prophet? Canst thou work
miracles?" and the wild horse, anger, plunged
to fling me, and fail'd. Miracles! no, not I,
nor he, nor any. I can but lift the torch
of Reason in the dusky cave of Life,
and gaze on this great miracle, the World,
adoring That Who made, and makes, and is,
and is not, what I gaze on—all else form,
ritual, varying with the tribes of men.

Ay but, my friend, thou knowest I hold that forms
are needful: only let the hand that rules,
with politic care, with utter gentleness,
Mould them for all his people.

And what are forms?
Fair garments, plain or rich, and fitting close
or flying looselier, warm'd but by the heart
within them, moved but by the living limb,
and cast aside, when old, for newer,—Forms!
The Spiritual in Nature's market-place—
the silent Alphabet-of-Heaven-in-man
made vocal—banners blazoning a Power
that is not seen and rules from far away—
a silken cord let down from Paradise,
when fine Philosophies would fail, to draw
the crowd from wallowing in the mire of earth,
and all the more, when these behold their Lord,
Who shaped the forms, obey them, and Himself
here on this bank in some way live the life
beyond the bridge, and serve that Infinite
within us, as without, that All-in-all,
and over all, the never-changing One
and ever-changing Many, in praise of Whom
the Christian bell, the cry from off the mosque,
and vaguer voices of Polytheism
make but one music, harmonizing, "Pray."

There westward—under yon slow-falling star,
the Christians own a Spiritual Head;
and following thy true counsel, by thine aid,
myself am such in our Islam, for no
mirage of glory, but for power to fuse
my myriads into union under one;
to hunt the tiger of oppression out
from office; and to spread the Divine Faith
like calming oil on all their stormy creeds,
and fill the hollows between wave and wave;
to nurse my children on the milk of Truth,
and alchemize old hates into the gold
of Love, and make it current; and beat back
the menacing poison of intolerant priests,
those cobras ever setting up their hoods—
One Allah! one Khalifa!

Still—at times
a doubt, a fear,—and yester afternoon
I dream'd,—thou knowest how deep a well of love
my heart is for my son, Saleem, mine heir,—
and yet so wild and wayward that my dream--
He glares askance at thee as one of those
who mix the wines of heresy in the cup
of counsel—so—I pray thee —

Well, I dream'd
that stone by stone I rear'd a sacred fane,
a temple, neither Pagod, Mosque, nor Church,
but loftier, simpler, always open-door'd
to every breath from heaven, and Truth and Peace
and Love and Justice came and dwelt therein;
but while we stood rejoicing, I and thou,
I heard a mocking laugh "the new Koran!"
and on the sudden, and with a cry "Saleem!"
Thou, thou—I saw thee fall before me, and then
me too the black-wing'd Azrael overcame,
but Death had ears and eyes; I watch'd my son,
and those that follow'd, loosen, stone from stone,
all my fair work; and from the ruin arose
the shriek and curse of trampled millions, even
as in the time before; but while I groan'd,
from out the sunset pour'd an alien race,
who fitted stone to stone again, and Truth,
Peace, Love and Justice came and dwelt therein,
nor in the field without were seen or heard
fires of Suttee, nor wail of baby-wife,
or Indian widow; and in sleep I said,
"All praise to Allah, by whatever hands
My mission be accomplish'd!" But we hear
music: our palace is awake, and morn
has lifted the dark eyelash of the Night
from off the rosy cheek of waking Day.
our hymn to the sun. They sing it. Let us go.'



Once again thou flamest heavenward; once again we see thee rise.
Every morning is thy birthday gladdening human hearts and eyes.
Every morning here we greet it, bowing lowly down before thee,
Thee the God1ike, thee the changeless in thine ever-changing skies.


Shadow-maker, shadow-slayer, arrowing light from clime to clime,
Hear thy myriad laureates hail thee monarch in their woodland rhyme.
Warble bird, and open flower, and, men below the dome of azure
Kneel adoring Him the Timeless in the flame that measures Time!

Tennyson’s Own Notes to “Akbar’s Dream”

The great Mogul Emperor Akbar was born October 14, 1542, and died 1605. At 13 he succeeded his father Humayun; at 18 he himself assumed the sole charge of government. He subdued and ruled over fifteen large provinces; his empire included all India north of the Vindhya Mountains—in the south of India he was not so successful. His tolerance of religions and his abhorrence of religious persecution put our Tudors to shame. He invented a new eclectic religion by which he hoped to unite all creeds, castes and peoples: and his legislation was remarkable for vigour, justice and humanity.

'Thy glory baffles wisdom'  The Emperor quotes from a hymn to the Deity by Faizi, brother of Abul Fazl, Akbar's chief friend and minister, who wrote the Ain i Akbari (Annals of Akbar). His influence on his age was immense. It may be that he and his brother Faizi led Akbar's mind away from Islam and the Prophet—this charge is brought against him by every Muhammadan writer; but Abul Fazl also led his sovereign to a true appreciation of his duties, and from the moment that he entered Court, the problem of successfully ruling over mixed races, which Islam in few other countries had to solve, was carefully considered, and the policy of toleration was the result (Blochmann xxix.)

Abul Fazl thus gives an account of himself. 'The advice of my Father with difficulty kept me back from acts of folly; my mind had no rest and my heart felt itself drawn to the sages of Mongolia or to the hermits on Lebanon. I longed for interviews with the Llamas of Tibet or with the padres of Portugal, and I would gladly sit with the priests of the Parsis and the learned of the Zendavesta. I was sick of the learned of my own land.'

He became the intimate friend and adviser of Akbar, and helped him in his tolerant system of government. Professor Blochmann writes 'Impressed with a favourable idea of the value of his Hindu subjects, he (Akbar) had resolved when pensively sitting ill the evenings on the solitary stone at Fatehpur-Sikri to rule with an even hand all men in his dominions; but as the extreme views of the learned and the lawyers continually urged him to persecute instead of to heal, he instituted discussions, because, believing himself to be in error, he thought it his duty as ruler to inquire.' 'These discussions took place every Thursday night in the  ibadat-khana, a building at Fatehpur-Sikri, erected for the purpose' (Malleson).

In these discussions Abul Fazl became a great power, and he induced the chief of the disputants to draw up a document defining the 'divine Faith' as it was called, and assigning to Akbar the rank of a Mujahid, or supreme Khalifa, the vicegerent of the one true God.

Abul Fazl was finally murdered at the instigation of Akbar's son Saleem, who in his Memoirs declares that it was Abul Fazl who had perverted his father's mind so that he denied the divine mission of Mahomet, and turned away his love from his son.

Faizi  When Akbar conquered the North-West Provinces of India, Faizi, then 20, began his life as a poet, and earned his living as a physician. He is reported to have been very generous and to have treated the poor for nothing. His fame reached Akbar's ears who commanded him to come to the camp at Chitor. Akbar was delighted with his varied knowledge and scholarship and made the poet teacher to his sons. Faizi at 33 was appointed Chief Poet (1588). He collected a fine library of 4300 M.SS. and died at the age of 40 (1595) when Akbar incorporated his collection of rare books in the Imperial Library.

The Warring World of Hindustan  Akbar's rapid conquests and the good government of his fifteen provinces with their complete military, civil and political systems make him conspicuous among the great kings of history.

The Goan Padre  Abul Fazl relates that 'one night the ibadat-khana was heightened by the presence of Padre Rodolpho, who for intelligence and wisdom was unrivalled among Christian doctors. Several carping and bigoted men attacked him and this afforded an opportunity for the display of the calm judgment and justice of the assembly. These men brought forward the old received assertions, and did not attempt to arrive at truth by reasoning. Their statements were torn to pieces, and they were nearly put to shame, when they began to attack the contradictions of the Gospel, but they could not prove their assertions. With perfect calmness, and earnest conviction of the truth, he replied to their arguments.'

Abu Sa'id  'Love is the net of Truth, Love is the noose of God' is a quotation from the great Sufi poet Abu Sa'id—born A.D. 968, died at the age of 83. He is a mystical poet, and some of his expressions have been compared to our George Herbert. Of Shaikh Abu Sa'id it is recorded that he said, 'when my affairs had reached a certain pitch I buried under the dust my books and opened a shop on my own account (i.e. began to teach with authority), and verily men represented me as that which I was not, until it came to this, that they went to the Qadi and testified against me of unbelieverhood; and women got upon the roofs and cast unclean things upon me.' (Vide reprint from article in National Review, March, 1891, by C. J. Pickering.)

Aziz  I am not aware that there is any record of such intrusion upon the king's privacy, but the expressions in the text occur in a letter sent by Akbar's foster-brother Aziz, who refused to come to court when summoned and threw up his government, and 'after writing an insolent and reproachful letter to Akbar in which he asked him if he had received a book from heaven, or if he could work miracles like Mahomet that he presumed to introduce a new religion, warned him that he was on the way to eternal perdition, and concluded with a prayer to God to bring him back into the path of salvation' (Elphinstone).

'The Koran, the Old and New Testament, and the Psalms of David are called books by way of excellence, and their followers "people of the Book"' (Elphinstone).

Akbar, according to Abdel Kadir,  had his son Murad instructed in the Gospel, and used to make him begin his lessons 'In the name of Christ' instead of in the usual way 'In the name of God.'

To drive / A people from their ancient path of Truth  Malleson says 'This must have happened because Akbar states it, but of the forced conversions I have found no record. This must have taken place whilst he was still a minor, and whilst the chief authority Was wielded by Bairam.'

'I reap no revenue from the field of unbelief.'  The Hindus are fond of pilgrimages, and Akbar removed a remunerative tax raised by his predecessors on pilgrimages. He also abolished the jezza or capitation tax on those who differed from the Mahomedan faith. He discouraged all excessive prayers, fasts and pilgrimages.

Suttee  Akbar decreed that every widow who showed the least desire not to be burnt on her husband's funeral pyre, should be let go free and unharmed.

Baby-wife  He forbade marriage before the age of puberty.

Indian widow  Akbar ordained that remarriage was lawful.

Music  'About a watch before daybreak,' says Abul Fazl, the musicians played to the king in the palace. 'His Majesty had such a knowledge of the science of music as trained musicians do not possess.'

'The Divine Faith’  The Divine Faith slowly passed away under the immediate successors of Akbar. An idea of what the Divine Faith was may be gathered from the inscription at the head of the poem. The document referred to, Abul Fazl says, 'brought about excellent results: (1) the Court became a gathering place of the sages and learned of all creeds; the good doctrines of all religious systems were recognized, and their defects were not allowed to obscure their good features; (2) perfect toleration or peace with all was established; and (3) the perverse and evil-minded were covered with shame on seeing the disinterested motives of His Majesty, and these stood in the pillory of disgrace.' Dated September 1579—Ragab 987 (Blochmann xiv.)

Text source for both poem and notes: The Death of Oenone, Akbar's Dream, and Other Poems, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1892), pp. 25-46.

Abi-Ru Shirzan, Revelation Editor for sevenpillarshouse.org, has spent many years as a college instructor of literature, writing, and English as a Second Language. She writes articles, fiction, poetry, and a weekly spiritual newsletter. In addition, Abi-Ru has served as editor for physicians and other health care professionals, engineers, and computer scientists. She was Editorial Manager of Health Programs in the standardized testing organization ACT and Director of Testing and Editorial Manager for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy as well as heading up her editorial business, Ghosh Writer Ink. Abi-Ru facilitates a study circle focused on the work of the poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi, and serves on several nonprofit boards and interfaith councils as she continues her university teaching. revelation@sevenpillarshouse.org

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9 June 2009

Tagged Under
India, Revelation, Poetry,
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