Like the strata of a geologic fossil record, place names covering the surface of a map silently testify to past historical processes. In Bengal they betray a major theme of the delta’s history—the advance of agrarian civilization over the forest. Names of villages and cities alike speak of clearing marsh or forest, establishing markets, and founding urban centers. Suffixes meaning “city” (Beng., -nagar, -pur) refer to an endpoint in this process, as in Krishnanagar or Faridpur. Suffixes meaning “market” (Beng., -hāṭ; Pers., -bāzār) or “storehouse” (Pers., -ganj) indicate the monetized and commercial basis of the movement, as in Bagerhat, Cossimbazar, or Bakarganj. Suffixes meaning “cultivated area” (Pers., -ābād) point to earlier stages in the process (i.e., Murshidabad), while suffixes meaning “clearing” echo its very earliest phase. Such is the case with -kāṭi, cognate with the English “cut,” found in numerous settlements in the eastern delta—for example, Swarupkati or Jhalakati in Barisal District.
The other great theme of the premodern period was the establishment and evolution of Islamic society and culture in Bengal. It would be wrong, however, to view Islam as some impersonal agency that simply “expanded” across space, time, and social class, in the process assimilating great numbers of people into a single framework of piety. Rather, the religion was itself continuously reinterpreted as different social classes in different periods became its dominant carriers. Thus, in the thirteenth century, Islam had been associated with the ruling ethos of the delta’s Turkish conquerors, and in the cities, at least, such an association persisted for several centuries, sustained especially by Sufi shaikhs of the Chishti order. Somewhat later, the Mughal conquest permitted an influx of a new elite class of ashrāf Muslims—immigrants from points west of the delta, or their descendants—who were typically administrators, soldiers, mystics, scholars, or long-distance merchants. For them, a rich tradition of Persian art and literature served to mediate and inform Islamic piety, which most of them subordinated to the secular ethos of Mughal imperialism. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the dominant carriers of Islamic civilization in Bengal were not the urban ashrāf, but peasant cultivators of the eastern frontier, who in extraordinary ways assimilated Islam to their agrarian worldview.
These two interrelated themes of Bengal’s premodern period—agrarian growth and Islamization—were products of various forces. Certainly, the cultural accommodation achieved during the two and a half centuries between 1342 and 1599 contributed to the ultimate Islamization of the delta. This period opened with Sultan Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah’s founding of Bengal’s first independent Muslim dynasty and closed with the death of ‘Isa Khan, the delta’s last effective independent ruler prior to the Mughal age. Cut off from North India and deprived of fresh military or administrative recruits from points west, Bengal’s rulers in this period found their political moorings in local society and culture, especially after the Raja Ganesh revolution of 1410–15. It was at this time, too, that the delta was drawn into an Indian Ocean commercial network permeated by an Islamic ethos. This was a “world system” not just in Immanuel Wallerstein’s narrowly economic sense of the phrase but in the wider sense of an arena for the circulation of shared texts and values sustained by Sufis, pilgrims, merchants, adventurers, scholars, and soldiers. Both the nature of that system and Bengal’s inclusion in it are seen in Ibn Battuta’s 1345 visit to Sylhet: the famous world traveler had gone there not to engage in trade but to gain the spiritual blessings of a renowned holy man, Shah Jalal.
Yet the political accommodations that characterized the sultanate period and the delta’s inclusion in the Indian Ocean culture system were not, of themselves, sufficient to bring about the emergence of Islam as a mass religion. This outcome occurred in the context of other historical forces, among them the shift of the epicenter of agrarian civilization from the western delta to the eastern hinterland. This in turn was a function of a long-term eastward movement of the great river systems that bore the silt and fresh water necessary for wet rice agriculture—a chronologically deep ecological process corresponding to Fernand Braudel’s understanding of structure or longue durée. A decisive moment was reached in the late sixteenth century when the Ganges River linked up with the Padma, as a consequence of which the Ganges’s main discharge flowed directly into the heart of the eastern delta. By momentous coincidence, this happened about the time that Akbar launched efforts to incorporate the entire delta into the Mughal Empire, thereby ending Bengal’s two and a half centuries of political isolation from North India. As a result, the Ganges carried the Mughal conquerors straight into what had been for the Bengal sultans a distant, forested hinterland. There the new rulers planted their provincial headquarters.
To be sure, Dhaka was selected as the Mughals’ provincial capital for strategic reasons: Raja Man Singh and Islam Khan needed a staging site for subduing independent-minded chieftains who had taken refuge in the eastern hinterland. However, the choice of Dhaka had far-reaching implications, since it concentrated the Mughals’ political energies on the part of the delta that, having just become its most active sector ecologically, was ripest for agrarian expansion. Once recalcitrant chieftains had submitted to imperial authority, Mughal officers in Dhaka endeavored to deepen the roots of that authority at more local levels. In the western delta, where a functioning agrarian order had long been in place, the Mughals simply overwhelmed or coopted existing elites (zamīndārs) much as they had already done with those of the upper Gangetic Plain. But the eastern hinterland—virtually the whole delta east of the Karatoya and south of the Padma—was, in the early seventeenth century, still largely undeveloped, a region covered by marsh or forest. Here the problem was not so much winning over the local gentry as creating one, and at the same time creating an agrarian base.
In the east, then, agrarian and political frontiers collapsed into one. From Sylhet through Chittagong the government fused the political goal of deepening its authority among dependent clients rooted on the land, with the economic goal of expanding the arable land area. A principal instrument for achieving these goals was the land grant that aimed at the agricultural development of the forested hinterland. Data for the entire delta are not available, but those for the modern-day districts of Dhaka, Bakarganj, Sylhet, and Chittagong suggest the general movement. Although Vaishnava temples, śaiva temples, and individual Brahmans received numerous forest grants, the bulk of these went to members of Islam’s religious gentry—petty mullās, pilgrims returned from Mecca, preachers, and holy men (pīrs)—men who had overseen, or had undertaken to oversee, the clearing of forest and the construction of mosques or shrines. Although humble in physical appearance, these institutions became the nuclei of new communities, attracting local or distant labor for clearing the forest and working the rice fields included in the grants. These institutions also possessed considerable cultural influence, becoming the nuclei for the diffusion of Islamic ideals along the eastern frontier. In this way Islam gradually became associated with economic development and agricultural productivity.
In short, Bengal’s eastern zone was not only an agrarian and political frontier, but also a cultural one, as Islam became locally understood as a civilization-building ideology, a religion of the plow. According to the Nabī-Baṃśa, Saiyid Sultan’s epic poem composed in the late sixteenth century, the father of the human race, Adam, had made his earthly appearance on Sondwip Island, off Bengal’s southeastern coast. There the angel Gabriel instructed him to go to Arabia, where at Mecca he would construct the original Ka‘aba. When this was accomplished, Gabriel gave Adam a plow, a yoke, two bulls, and seed, addressing him with the words, “Niraṇjan [God] has commanded that agriculture will be your destiny (bhāl).” Adam then planted the seeds, harvested the crop, ground the grain, and made bread. Present-day Muslim cultivators attach a similar significance to Adam’s career. Cultivators of Pabna District identify the earth’s soil, from which Adam was made, as the source of Adam’s power and of his ability to cultivate the earth. In their view, farming the earth successfully is the fundamental task of all mankind, not only because they themselves have also come from (i.e., were nurtured by the fruit of) the soil, but because it was God’s command to Adam that he reduce the earth to the plow. It was by farming the earth that Adam obeyed God, thereby articulating his identity as the first man and as the first Muslim. Hence all men descended from Adam, in this view, can most fully demonstrate their obedience to God—and indeed, their humanity—by cultivating the earth.
Similar ideas are found in Saiyid Sultan’s treatment of Abraham, the supreme patriarch of Judeo-Christian-Islamic civilization. Born and raised in a forest, Abraham traveled to Palestine, where he attracted tribes from nearby lands, mobilized local labor to cut down the forest, and built a holy place, Jerusalem’s Temple, where prayers could be offered to Niraṇjan. It is obvious that the main themes of Abraham’s life as recorded by Saiyid Sultan—his sylvan origins, his recruitment of nearby tribesmen, his leadership in clearing the forest, and his building a house of prayer—precisely mirrored the careers of the hundreds of pioneering pīrs and petty ‘ulamā who, during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, mobilized local clients in the Bengali countryside for just such activities.
The religious authority possessed by the hundreds of tiny mosques and shrines that sprang up along the eastern frontier was enhanced by, among other things, the simultaneous diffusion of papermaking technology. Traceable to the fifteenth century and unmistakably identified with Islamic civilization—the Bengali for “paper” and “pen” are both Perso-Arabic loan words—the new technology fostered attitudes that endowed the written word with an authority qualitatively different from oral authority. With the proliferation of books and the religious gentry in the countryside, a “culture of literacy” began to spread far beyond the state’s bureaucratic sector or the delta’s urban centers. Contemporary government sources confirm that Qur’an readers were attached to rural mosques and shrines as part of their endowments, while Bengali sources dating from the fifteenth century refer to the magical power popularly attributed to the Qur’an. In particular, the culture of literacy endowed the cult of Allah with a kind of authority—that of the unchangeable written word—that preliterate forest cults had lacked. For, apart from those areas along the older river valleys where Hindu civilization had already made inroads among indigenous peoples, most of the eastern hinterland was populated by communities lightly touched, if touched at all, by Hindu culture. In the east, then, Islam came to be understood as the religion, not only of the ax and the plow, but also of the book.
Moreover, the frontier folk of the eastern delta do not appear to have perceived Islam as alien, or as a closed, exclusive system to be accepted or rejected as a whole. Today one habitually thinks of world religions as self-contained “culture-boxes” with well-defined borders respecting belief and practice. But such a static or fixed understanding of religion does not apply to the premodern Bengal frontier, a fluid context in which Islamic superhuman agencies, typically identified with local superhuman agencies, gradually seeped into local cosmologies that were themselves dynamic. This “seepage” occurred over such a long period of time that one can at no point identify a specific moment of “conversion,” or any single moment when peoples saw themselves as having made a dramatic break with the past. To a greater degree than elsewhere in India, Islam in Bengal absorbed so much local culture and became so profoundly identified with Bengal’s long-term process of agrarian expansion, that in its formative years the cultivating classes never seem to have regarded it as “foreign”—even though some Muslim and Hindu literati and foreign observers did. As late as the early twentieth century, Muslim cultivators retained indigenous names like Chand, Pal, and Dutt. In the context of premodern Bengal, then, it would seem inappropriate to speak of the “conversion” of “Hindus” to Islam. What one finds, rather, is an expanding agrarian civilization, whose cultural counterpart was the growth of the cult of Allah. This larger movement was composed of several interwoven processes: the eastward movement and settlement of colonizers from points west, the incorporation of frontier tribal peoples into the expanding agrarian civilization, and the natural population growth that accompanied the diffusion or the intensification of wet rice agriculture and the production of surplus food grains.
Because this growth process combined natural, political, economic, and cultural forces, we find in eastern Bengal a remarkable congruence between a socioeconomic system geared to the production of wet rice and a religious ideology that conferred special meaning on agrarian life. It is thus hardly surprising that in the twentieth century, Bengali Muslim villagers have been found to refuse, whenever possible, to engage in non-cultivating occupations. A 1913 village survey in Dhaka District noted that the Muslims “entirely fall upon agriculture as their only source of income, and unless driven to the last stage of starvation they never hire themselves for any kind of service, which is looked upon with contempt on their part.” In 1908 the gazetteer for Khulna District noted that the Muslim masses “are descendants of semi-Hinduized aborigines, principally Chandals and Pods” who “do not, however, know or admit that they are the descendants of converts to Islam; according to them they are the tillers of the soil.”
Such attitudes, however, were not and are not shared by the ashrāf, the small but influential class of mainly urban Muslims who perpetuated the Mughals’ ruling-class mentality, cultivated Urdu and Persian, and typically claimed ancestral origins west of the delta. If the rural masses saw themselves as good Muslims because they cultivated the soil, the ashrāf disdained the plow and refused to touch it. Members of this social class typically viewed their ancestors as men who had come to India to administer a vast empire, and not to join indigenous peasants as fellow cultivators. Herein lay the basis of a social cleavage between rural Muslims and non-cultivating ashrāf that would further widen in the context of the political and religious movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The findings summarized above refute stereotypes found in both Indian historiography and Islamic studies. One of these is the tendency to see the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century as hopelessly mired in decline, disorder, chaos, and collapse. In part, this view grew out of a British imperial historiographical tradition serving to legitimize the European conquest and occupation of India by contrasting the alleged dynamism of “modern” (i.e., British imperial) India with the alleged chaos or stagnation of “traditional” (i.e., pre-British) India. In part, too, the view of the eighteenth century as one of endemic decline and disorder grew out of a centrist bias common to both British imperial and Mughal schools of historiography. Viewed from the parapets of the imperial Red Fort in Delhi, things did indeed look bad throughout most of the eighteenth century: revenue failed to arrive from the provinces, rebellions sprang up everywhere, and governors acted independently of central authority. Written by courtiers steeped in a “Red Fort view” of India, contemporary court chronicles naturally reflected a centrist perspective, as did subsequent histories based on such materials.
Original sources for the history of premodern Bengal reveal a very different picture, however. In place of a stagnant or decadent society, one sees one characterized by physical expansion and religious integration, a picture of both Mughal and Islamic ascendancy. Here, however, one must distinguish between the empire as centralized imperial power—the ability of officials in Delhi to elicit obedience on the political periphery—and the empire as a bureaucratic and ideological framework, as a cultural system. It is the latter vision of the Mughal empire that this study has emphasized. For, even while central power in Delhi declined, rendering Bengal effectively independent from the second decade of the eighteenth century on, the ideological and bureaucratic structure of Mughal imperialism continued to expand in the Bengal delta. Beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing right up to the advent of British power in 1760, including the period from around 1712 when central imperial authority visibly disintegrated, eastern Bengal experienced unparalleled growth, as vast stretches of forest were cut and its land cleared for cultivation. Settlers moving into these areas gave religious and political direction to newly established agrarian communities, into which local peoples were absorbed, while provincial officials carved new revenue units around these agrarian settlements, thereby integrating them into the Mughal bureaucratic and ideological framework. Thus the local history of Bengal, like those of eighteenth-century Awadh and Punjab as studied by Muzaffar Alam, or of Maharashtra as studied by André Wink, demonstrates the degree of provincial growth that took place under the banner of Mughal imperialism even while the imperial center experienced visible decline.
Secondly, European colonialists have long stereotyped the Muslim clergy, or ‘ulamā, as a conservative class of men obstinately hostile to “change.” Aware that North Africa, India, and Indonesia had all been ruled by Muslims prior to the rise of European imperialism, French, British, and Dutch colonial officials anxiously suspected Muslim resentment of their rule in those regions. In 1871 W. W. Hunter published an influential book that portrayed India’s ‘ulamā as stagnant, unprogressive, disenfranchised, and potentially seditious—a stereotype that lingered long after the close of the colonial era. Evidence presented in this study, however, has pointed to the dynamic role played by Bengal’s religious gentry in advancing the frontiers of both the Mughal political-ideological system and the Islamic world.
A stereotype common among Islamicists is the understanding of Islam as an essentially “urban” religion: a religion of shopkeepers and artisans focused on the city or town bazaar, or of administrators and scholars focused on madrasas, mosques, and courts of law. All these were natural orientations of members of the ashrāf who cultivated administration and education, wrote books, and claimed to speak on behalf of Bengali Muslims generally. Men like Khondkar Fuzli Rubbee and Abu A. Ghuznavi, discussed in Chapter 5, illustrate both the perspective and the intellectual influence of this social class. But the association of Islam with urban culture, assumed by ashrāf Muslims, has led scholars to ignore the overwhelmingly rural nature of Islam in the Bengal delta. This study has sought to correct this by drawing attention to the agrarian basis of the ethnogenesis of the vast majority of Bengali Muslims.
Finally, from a world history perspective, the Bengali experience with religious growth was perhaps not at all unique. There is at least one other case—western Java—in which Islam grew in tandem with deforestation, agrarian expansion, and the establishment of small mosques on lands granted by the state. A better-known parallel is found in the history of Christianity in northern Europe. From the sixth century and especially between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries (“l’âge des grands défrichements,” according to French writers), monastic orders like the Benedictines and the Cistercians actively planted monasteries in wooded regions, where they took the lead in clearing forests, converting unbelievers, and extending agriculture. Especially noteworthy are the religious aspects of this process: the desacralization of the forest, the Christianization of native peoples, and the sanctification of pioneering monks. “As they pushed into the woodlands and felled the trees,” writes Richard Koebner, monks “helped to dispel that religious awe which the Germans had to overcome before they would attack thick forest. The attraction of the Church’s miraculous powers was transferred to the holy men in the woods, and brought the laity to settle near them.” Although the early movement’s austere pioneers were succeeded by rich landlords who managed wealthy estates, we should not ignore the civilization-building role that monastic establishments had earlier played in the forests of northern Europe.
Viewed historically, religious systems are created, cultural artifacts, and not timeless structures lying beyond human societies. As such they are continuously reinterpreted and readapted to particular sociocultural environments. Yet even while this happens, religious traditions transform those environments in creative ways. Herein lies, perhaps, the secret of the successful world religions, for when they are not flexible or adaptable, they tend to ossify into hollow shells, and survive only in museums or forgotten texts. Christianity would never have flourished—and perhaps not even have survived—had it not absorbed a great part of both the imperial culture and the Germanic popular culture of the late Roman Empire.
This is no less true of Islam and the Bengal frontier. In the “success stories” of world religions, and the story of Islam in Bengal is among these, the norms of religion and the realities of local sociocultural systems ultimately accommodate one another. Although theorists, theologians, or reformers may resist this point, it seems nonetheless to be intuitively grasped by common folk. A famous proverb, known throughout Bengal and northern India and uttered usually with a smile, implicitly links social status with Islamically legitimated titles:
What made Islam in Bengal not only historically successful but a continuing vital social reality has been its capacity to adapt to the land and the culture of its people, even while transforming both.
The first year I was a Shaikh, the second year a Khan;
This year if the price of grain is low I’ll become a Saiyid.
1. H. Beveridge, The District of Bakarganj: Its History and Statistics (London: Trubner, 1876), 223. [BACK]
2. See Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974). [BACK]
3. See Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (Paris: A. Colin, 1949). Translated by Sian Reynolds as The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (New York: Harper & Row, 1972). [BACK]
4. Saiyid Sultan, Nabī-Baṃśa, 1: 88, 98, 103. [BACK]
5. Ibid., 107–9. To Adam’s wife Eve, meanwhile, Gabriel gave fire, with which she mastered the art of cooking. Boiling some milk, Eve made sandeś—a famous Bengali sweet that, the poet observes, has no equal. Ibid., 110. [BACK]
6. John P. Thorp, “Masters of Earth: Conceptions of ‘Power’ among Muslims of Rural Bangladesh” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1978), 40–54. Although Adam’s career as a tiller of the soil is also found in the Book of Genesis (3:23), such an association is not made in the Qur’an. In the Muslim world, the perception of Adam as the first cultivator, and of his taking up cultivation at the command of God, may be a uniquely Bengali variant. On the other hand, the notion that God fashioned Adam from clay is common to both Genesis (2:7) and the Qur’an (15:26). [BACK]
7. Saiyid Sultan, Nabī-Baṃśa, 1: 348, 420–21. [BACK]
8. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, British imperialists and both Hindu and Muslim reformers stressed Islam’s “foreignness,” each for their own reasons. But this should not blind us to the situation before the advent of British colonial rule. [BACK]
9. Webster, Eastern Bengal and Assam District Gazetteers: Noakhali, 39. [BACK]
10. Dhaka District Collectorate Record Room, “Mauza Notes,” Rupganj Thana, Mauza Agla, No. 1063. [BACK]
11. O’Malley, Eastern Bengal District Gazetteers, Khulna, 65. [BACK]
12. As a 1901 survey of Muslims of Nadia District reported, the ashrāf “will not adopt cultivation for their living. They consider cultivation to be a degraded occupation and they shun it for that reason.” Risley Collection, “Reports on the Religious and Social Divisions,” 88. [BACK]
13. See Rafiuddin Ahmed, Bengal Muslims. [BACK]
14. A good summary of the historiography of Mughal decline, and a fresh view of it from the perspective of two provinces, Punjab and Awadh, is found in Muzaffar Alam, The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab, 1707–48 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986). [BACK]
15. The decline of central power is usually dated from the death of Aurangzeb (1707), although it was after the death of Shah ‘Alam (1712) that the disintegration of central power is most dramatically seen, as in palace revolutions and in the emergence of independent provincial dynasties in places like Hyderabad and Lucknow. Bengal’s own de facto independence from centralized Mughal authority dated from the governorship of Murshid Quli Khan (1713–27). See Jadunath Sarkar, ed., History of Bengal, 405–13. [BACK]
16. See Alam, Crisis of Empire. [BACK]
17. See Wink, Land and Sovereignty in India. [BACK]
18. William Wilson Hunter, The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel against the Queen? (London: Trubner, 1871). [BACK]
19. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, ḥājīs backed with tax-free, state-supported land grants pioneered new rice-cultivating agrarian communities in formerly forested regions of the sultanate of Banten, on the western tip of Java. Sartono Kartodirdjo, The Peasants’ Revolt of Banten in 1888: Its Conditions, Course and Sequel (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966), 34–61. [BACK]
20. A dramatic example of this is seen in the activities of Wilfred Boniface, an eighth-century saint who preached in the forests of what is now Germany. In the presence of a great crowd of pagans, Boniface personally chopped down a sacred and exceptionally large oak tree known to the German peoples as the “Oak of Jupiter.” On witnessing this, the crowd formally accepted the Christian cult, while Boniface built an oratory from the felled timber and dedicated it to St. Peter. Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), 45–46. [BACK]
21. Richard Koebner, “The Settlement and Colonization of Europe,” in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vol. 1, The Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages, ed. M. M. Postan, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 45. A description of twelfth-century Cistercian activities in northern Germany runs as follows: “The abbot was with the workers when they started to fell the trees for making the arable. In one hand he had a wooden cross, in the other a vessel of holy water. When he arrived in the center of the woods, he planted the cross in the earth, took possession of this untouched piece of earth in the name of Jesus Christ, sprinkled holy water around the area, and finally grasped an axe to cut away some shrubs. The small clearing made by the abbot was the starting point for the monks’ work. One work group (incisores) cut down the trees, a second (exstirpatores) took out the trunks, a third (incensores) burnt up the roots, boughs, and the undergrowth.” Cited in Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 309. Glacken writes of the “exaltation in changing nature” found throughout the Middle Ages, citing a phrase repeatedly encountered in Carolingian texts, “horridae quondam solitudines ferarum, nunc amoenissima diversoria hominum”—that is, what formerly were frightful wastelands suited only for beasts have now become most pleasant abodes for man. Ibid., 312. [BACK]
22. See Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), esp. pt. 1, 19–127; Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Knopf, 1987). [BACK]
23. The proverb’s Persian form is: Ghalla gar arzān shavad, imsāl Saiyid mīshavam. Census of India, 1931, 5, pt. 1, “Bengal and Sikkim” (Calcutta, 1933), 422 [BACK]