I was enjoying Professor Deresiewicz's review of the new novel by Salman Rushdie until I came across a stark factual error that shakes the main thrust of his criticism.
Akbar did, in fact, question the existence of God. He surrounded himself from learned men of all faiths and sects, including atheists, who would debate in a great hall at the Royal palace. But it seems unlikely that Rushdie is even interested in the historical Akbar. "Akbar the Great" has been mythologized to an incredible extent in the modern period and is central to the narrative of history, national identity formation and the secular cultural discourse of modern India. Just as Rushdie used Mohammad in The Satanic Verses--i.e., the idea of Mohammad, not the historical person himself--he is using the idea of Akbar, the character one familiar with the discourse would immediately recognize as a humanist. This Akbar would actually fit well in Renaissance Italy and pre-Newtonian liberal English intellectual circuits.
There has been an inability to grasp the extent and influence of the Indian Renaissance (the Sufi and Bhakti movements, among others) and its symmetry with the one in Europe.
Rushdie is not arguing that Renaissance Italy and Mughal India were substantially the same. But that is trivial. Rushdie is not imposing artificial homogeneity; he is exposing a connecting thread which has so far been missed, due to lingering orientalism in Western thought.
Hamilton, Pembroke, Bermuda
Sep 1 2008 - 4:20am