Navaratnas or ‘The Nine Gems’ was a term applied to a group of nine extraordinary people in an emperor’s court in India. Like the previous keepers of this title, Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak was one of the fabled gems in Akbar’s royal court. An advisor, confidante and close friend, Abul Fazl was one of the most influential people in Akbar’s court and life. However, like an Achilles heel, it was his strong ties with the all-powerful emperor that brought his end.
Coming from Yemeni origins, Abul Fazl was born to Shaikh Mubarak in Agra. Considered a prodigy of his time, Fazl could read and write by the age of five.
Despite his talents, Fazl could not get used to the conventional teaching methods of and soon fell into a depression. It was through the help of a friend that he overcame this difficult time and changed his outlook towards his life and academics. Signs of Fazl’s genius came at a very young age when he discovered an ant eaten dictionary by Ishafani.
After discarding most of the book and its ruined pages, Fazl added new pages to the dictionary and completed the words without reference. When another copy of the dictionary was found in the future, it was seen that almost all the words and meanings had matched his word by word. There were only two or three differences and even they were synonymous
Abul Fazl joined Akbar’s court in 1575. His secular beliefs, progressive mentality and his witty personality instantly impressed the emperor, and Fazl soon found himself entering Akbar’s court service. In his twenty-five years at Akbar’s service, Abul Fazl played a catalytic role in implementing his eclectic approach to religion. Fazl acted as an ideological support for Akbar against the scrutiny of the religious conservatives his pursuits had inherited.
Together, they paved a way for people to have a right to religion without any religious bias and implemented a form of governance which highlighted the emperor as more of a father for his people rather than a monarch of his servants. With time the vizier became his chief confidant, minister, and most importantly, his closest friend, as he found solace in Fazl’s similar and unique personality.
While Akbar’s friendship with Abul Fazl deepened with time, the growing adversity between him and his son Prince Salim only worsened. Akbar’s expectations from Salim as an heir and in turn the prince’s outlook towards life was complete irreconcilable. Salim was an alcoholic and an opium addict, with no sense of composure or military leadership. As Akbar’s health started deteriorating, he started losing faith in Salim’s competence to succeed him as the ruler of his mighty empire.
Akbar started seeing an heir in Salim’s son Khusrau. Unlike his father, Khusrau was a sober and level headed individual and a born military commander. He was a court favourite, loved by both the common people and Akbar’s nobles. Most importantly, he was endorsed by Abul Fazl to transcend Salim as Akbar’s future successor. Abu Fazl’s support for his son only intensified Salim’s preexisting resentment towards the vizier.
In 1591 when Akbar had severely fallen ill, his favorite chronicler Fazl had suggested that it was Salim who was responsible for his state and that maybe the prince had tried to poison him in a plot to seize power. He knew that Fazl was extremely impressionable on his father, and believed that Fazl was plotting against him to put Khusrau on the throne. The royal court had already broken into two factions, one in support of Khusrau, and the other in opposition of the unprecedented succession of a grandchild before his father in Timurid traditions. Akbar’s whisperer had to be taken care of.
In 1599 Prince Salim rebelled against his father while the emperor was occupied with revolts in the Deccan. Fazl was soon deputised to the Deccan as an emissary to take charge of affairs between the Mughals and the Nizam Shahis of Ahmednagar.
But after a short period of successfully being in charge, Fazl was recalled from the Deccan to Agra to assist Akbar in dealing with his contentious son. Salim had other plans for Fazl. He knew this was the perfect time to get rid of his adversary. The man tasked with the job was Vir Singh Deo Bundela. Singh was a great warrior and a close friend of Jahangir’s. Singh and his men attacked Abu Fazl’s convoy near Narwar, around 63kms from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh.
Despite putting up a fight, Fazl’s men were both outnumbered and overpowered. In a swift attack, Fazl was beheaded and killed, and his head later sent to Salim as a trophy for his endeavors.
Abul Fazl was one of the most liberal men of his time and the most precious of all of Akbar’s nine gems. He represented the tides of change in a time of religious politics and fanatics. His unprejudiced and open-minded thinking was a breath of fresh air from old fashioned policies and beliefs which had been coming down for generations. But Abul Fazl’s work didn’t just contribute to the Mughal empire. His notarized historical account The Akbarnama and Ain-e-Akbari provided us with an accurate report of Bengal and its historical background and ties.
In a time where written records were scarce to begin with, Fazl authored work not only on the rulers of Bengal, but how history shaped the region’s bureaucracy, politics, literature, art, geography and religion as we know it. In essence, Abul Fazl was not only a chronicler of Akbar’s court, but of a country which came into existence hundreds of years later