Aurangzeb (Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad)

The last of the great Mughal emperors of India, b. 3 November 1618 (Dhod, Malwa), d. 3 March 1707 (Agra, India).

Aurangzeb was the third son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan; his mother was Mumtaz Mahal, who is buried in the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb showed his ability in administrative and military matters in various appointments, which gradually caused him to envy his eldest brother Dara Shikoh, the designated successor to the throne.

In 1657 Shah Jahan became seriously ill, and the rivalry between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb turned into open confrontation. Shah Jahan recovered unexpectedly, but the struggle for succession continued. Aurangzeb placed his father under house arrest, drove one brother into death, had two other brothers executed and in 1658 declared himself emperor of the Mughal empire, assuming the name 'Alangir ("the World Seizer").

Aurangzeb did not share the interest of his ancestors and relatives in the arts, drink and the good life generally but was serious-minded and religious. He inherited an empire that had flourished for nearly a century under the wise administrative and economic procedures introduced by his great-grandfather Akbar the Great. The economic boom had led to the development of artisanal activity in all villages, and the municipalities had become economically much less dependent on the central power.

Aurangzeb tried to stem the growing independence of the different parts of his empire by returning to autocratic rule. He abandoned the policy of separation of religion and state and turned away from the policy of religious tolerance that during the previous three generations had kept Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others together in peace and common destiny. In 1675 he executed the Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur because of his refusal to convert to Islam. The Sikh rebellion that followed continued throughout Aurangzeb's reign; relations between Sikhs and Muslims have been strained ever since.

In 1679 Aurangzeb reintroduced the jizya, a poll tax for non-Muslims that had been abolished by Akbar the Great a century earlier. The result was a revolt of the Hindu Rajputs, supported by Aurangzeb's third son Akbar, in 1680 - 1681. In the south of the empire the Maratha kingdom was conquered and broken up and its ruler Sambhaji executed in 1689, which started a long and exhausting guerilla campaign by the Maratha Hindu population.

The ongoing struggles placed severe strain on the empire's finances, and increased taxation led to several peasant revolts, often but not always under the guise of religious movements.

At Aurangzeb's death the empire was larger than before but severely weakened. It survived for another 150 years but was in constant religious strife. What Akbar the Great had so splendidly begun collapsed 300 years later under the colonial onslaught, because the empire's economic progress did not lead to the political reform that would have allowed further development.