Analytically distinct from merely including Islamic with local superhuman beings in an expanding, accordionlike cosmology was the process of identifying superhuman beings with one another. A classic example of this is seen in a bilingual Arabic and Sanskrit inscription from a thirteenth-century mosque in the coastal town of Veraval in Gujarat. Dated 1264, the inscription records that an Iranian merchant from Hormuz named Nur al-Din Firuz sponsored the construction of a mosque there. The Arabic text refers to the deity worshiped in the mosque as Allah, and describes Nur al-Din as “the king (sulṭān) of sea-men, the king of the kings of traders,” and “the sun of Islam and the Muslims.” By contrast, the Sanskrit text of the same inscription addresses the supreme god by the names Viśvanātha (“lord of the universe”), śunyarūpa (“one whose form is of the void”), and Viśvarūpa (“having various forms”). Moreover, it records that the mosque was built in the year “662 of the Rasūla Mahammada, the preceptor (bōdhaka) of the sailors (nau-jana) devoted to Viśvanātha.” The Sanskrit version thus identifies the deity worshiped in the mosque as Viśvanātha, and the prophet of Islam as a bōdhaka—that is, “preceptor,” “elder,” or “wise man.” Similarly, it styles the mosque’s builder, Nur al-Din Firuz, as adharma-bhāndaya, or “supporter of dharma”—that is, cosmic/social order as understood in classical Indian thought. So, while the Arabic text presents the worldview of the Muslim patron, the Sanskrit text reflects that of the proximate Indian population, which simply identified Islam’s God with Viśvanātha, Islam’s prophet with an Indian bōdhaka, and the Muslim patron of this particular mosque with a “supporter of dharma.” In short, the local Gujarati population, while looking at a monument its patrons dedicated to Allah, saw one dedicated to Viśvanātha.
In Bengali literature dating from the sixteenth century—romances, epics, narratives, and devotional poems—we find identifications of a similar type. The sixteenth-century poet Haji Muhammad identified the Arabic Allah with Gosāī (Skt., “Master”), Saiyid Murtaza identified the Prophet’s daughter Fatima with Jagat-jananī (Skt., “Mother of the world”), and Saiyid Sultan identified the God of Adam, Abraham, and Moses with Prabhu (Skt., “Lord”) or, more frequently, Niraṇjan (Skt., “One without color,” i.e., without qualities). Later, the eighteenth-century poet ‘Ali Raja identified Allah with Niraṇjan, Iśvar (Skt., “God”), Jagat Iśvar (Skt., “God of the universe”), and Kartār (Skt., “Creator”). Even while forest pioneers on the eastern frontier were planting the institutional foundations of Islamic rituals, then, Bengali poets deepened the semantic meaning of these rituals by identifying the lore and even the superhuman agencies of an originally foreign creed with those of the local culture.
More than just translating Perso-Islamic romantic literature into the Bengali language, these poets attempted to adapt the whole range of Perso-Islamic civilization to the Bengali cultural universe. This included Perso-Islamic aesthetic and literary sensibilities, as well as conceptions of divinity and superhuman agency. Thus the Nile river was identified with the Ganges, and a story set in biblical Egypt alludes to dark forests filled with tigers and elephants. The countryside in such stories abounds with banana and mango trees, peacocks and chirping parrots; people eat fish, curried rice, ghee, and sweet yogurt, and chew betel; women adorn themselves with sandal paste and glitter in silk saris and glass and gold bangles. Everywhere one smells the sweet aroma of fresh rice plants.
The reasons poets employed this mode of literary transmission are not hard to find. Already exposed somewhat to Brahmanic ideas of the proper social order and its supporting ideological framework, the rural masses of the eastern delta’s expanding rice frontier were familiar with the Hindu epics. One sixteenth-century poet wrote that “Muslims as well as Hindus in every home” would read the Mahābhārata, the great religious epic of classical India. Another poet of that century wrote of Muslims being moved to tears on hearing of Rama’s loss of his beloved Sita in the epic Rāmāyaṇa. In addition to such Vaishnava sympathies, the people of this period were also saturated with the maṅgala-kāvya literature that celebrated the exploits, power, and grace of specifically Bengali folk deities like Manasa and Chandi. It is hardly surprising, then, that romantic tales from the Islamic tradition drew on this rich indigenous substratum of religious culture. For example, an eighteenth-century Bengali version of the popular Iranian story of Joseph and Zulaikha employs imagery clearly recalling Radha’s passionate love for Krishna, the central motif of the Bengali Vaishnava devotional movement. “Your face is as bright as the full moon,” runs a description of the biblical Joseph,
Similarly, the Sufi Saiyid Sultan, the epic poet of the late sixteenth-century Chittagong region, spares no detail in endowing Eve with the attributes of a Bengali beauty. She uses sandal powder and wraps her hair in a bun adorned with a string of pearls and flowers. She wears black eye paste, and a pearl necklace is draped around her neck. Adam was struck by the beauty of the spot (sindur) on her forehead “because it reminded him of the sun in the sky.”
and your eyes are black as if bees are buzzing round them. Your eyebrows are like the bow of Kama [the Indian god of love] and your ears like lotuses which grow on shore. Your waist is as slim as that of a prowling tigress. Your step is as light as a bird’s and when they see it even sages forget all else. Your body is as perfect as a well-made string of pearls. A maid, therefore, cannot control herself and longs for your embrace.
The authors of this literature, Bengali Muslims, consciously presented Islamic imagery and ideas in terms readily familiar to a rural population of nominal Muslims saturated with folk Bengali and Hindu religious ideas. Yet in doing so they felt a degree of anguish. Although certain that Arabic was the appropriate literary vehicle for the transmission of Islamic ideas, they could not use a language with which their Bengali audience was unfamiliar. Referring to this dilemma, the seventeenth-century poet ‘Abd al-Nabi wrote, “I am afraid in my heart lest God should be annoyed with me for having rendered Islamic scriptures in Bengali. But I put aside my fear and firmly resolve to write for the good of common people.” Similar feelings were voiced by Saiyid Sultan, who lamented,
Such expressions of tension between Bengali culture and the perceived “foreignness” of Islam were typical among those who were outsiders to the rural experience—whether they were members of Bengal’s premodern Muslim literati, European travelers in Bengal, or modern-day observers.
Nobody remembers God and the Prophet; The consciousness of many ages has passed. Nobody has transmitted this knowledge in the local language. From sorrow, I determined To talk more and more about the Prophet. It is my misfortune that I was born a Bengali. None of the Bengalis understand Arabic, And so not one has understood any of the discourse of his own religion.
But the rural masses do not appear to have been troubled by such tensions, or even to have noticed them. For them, an easy identification of the exogenous with the indigenous—that is, the “Arabic” with the “Bengali”—had resulted from prolonged cultural contact, in the course of which Allah and the various superhuman agencies associated with him gradually seeped into local cosmologies. What the anthropologist Jack Goody has written of modern West Africa applies equally to premodern Bengal: “I know of no society in West Africa which does not make an automatic identification of their own High God with the Allah of the Muslims and the Jehovah of the Christians. The process is not a matter of conversion but of identification. Nevertheless, it prepares the ground for change, here as elsewhere.” An excellent illustration of this is found in the earliest preaching of Christianity among the pagan Greeks. Addressing the council of Athens in the first Christian century, the apostle Paul declared:
Instead of demanding outright rejection of the Athenian pantheon, Paul not only complimented the Greeks on their religious scruples but identified the Christian deity with an indigenous one, thereby making a transition from the “old” to the “new” both possible and acceptable.
Men of Athens, I have seen for myself how extremely scrupulous you are in all religious matters, because I noticed, as I strolled round admiring your sacred monuments, that you had an altar inscribed: To an Unknown God. Well, the God whom I proclaim is in fact the one whom you already worship without knowing it.
We see an instance of identification in premodern Bengal in the history of the cult of the legendary holy man Satya Pir. Over a hundred manuscript works concerning this cult have been identified, most of them dating from the eighteenth century, with the earliest of them dating to the sixteenth century. The emergence of the cult thus coincided chronologically with the growth of agrarian communities focused on the tiny thatched mosques and shrines that proliferated throughout rural East Bengal in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The early literature written in praise of Satya Pir portrays a folk society innocent of hardened communal boundaries, and one that freely assimilated a variety of beliefs and practices that were “in the air” in Bengal’s premodern religious environment. A text devoted to the cult composed by the poet Sankaracharya in 1664 identifies Satya Pir as the son of one of Sultan ‘Ala al-Din Husain Shah’s daughters, and hence a Muslim. Another version, composed by Krishnahari Das, begins with invocations to Allah and stories of the Prophet. Yet the same text portrays Satya Pir as born of the goddess Chandbibi and as having come into the world to redress all human ills in the Kali Yuga, the last and lowest Hindu epoch preceding a period of restored justice and harmony. Other texts explicitly identify this Satya Pir with the divinity Satya Narayan, understood as a form of the Brahmanic god Vishnu.
Some scholars have understood the Satya Pir cult, and indeed Bengali folk religion generally, in terms of a synthesis of Islam and Hinduism. But such thinking simply projects back into the premodern period notions of religion that became widespread in the colonial nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that postulated the more or less timeless existence of two separate and self-contained communities in Bengal, adhering to two separate and self-contained religious systems, “Hinduism” and “Islam.” Reinforcing this understanding was the objective polarization of colonial Bengali society into politically conscious groups drawn along communal lines. Thus it was at this time that Muslims ceased worshiping Satya Pir, while Satya Narayan became identified as an exclusively Hindu deity worshiped only by Hindus. In reality, though, such polarized religious communities had evolved out of a time when religious identities at the folk level were far less self-conscious and religious systems were far more open-ended than in modern times.
It is not only during or since colonial times, however, that people have held to a polarized image of premodern Bengali religious culture. Even contemporary Europeans saw Bengali society through binary lenses. “Mahometans as well as Gentiles,” wrote the French traveler François Pyrard in early 1607, “deem the water [of the Ganges River] to be blessed, and to wash away all offences, just as we regard confession.” Here the author’s reference point is not twentieth-century Bengal, riven by its communal loyalties, but seventeenth-century Catholic Europe, riven by its communal loyalties. Considering France’s long history of confrontational relations with nearby Arab Islam, Pyrard doubtless presumed a clear understanding of what constituted a “Mahometan,” and respect for the sanctity of the Ganges River would certainly not have been included in that understanding. Imagining deltaic society to have been sharply divided into two mutually exclusive socioreligious communities, the Frenchman was naturally struck by the spectacle of “Muslims” participating in a “Hindu” rite.
To understand premodern Bengali society on its own terms requires suspending the binary categories typical of modern observers such as D. C. Sen, of contemporary outsiders such as François Pyrard, and of members of the contemporary Muslim elite such as Saiyid Sultan, all of whom were informed by normative understandings of Islam. Instead of visualizing two separate and self-contained social groups, Hindus and Muslims, participating in rites in which each stepped beyond its “natural” communal boundaries, one may see instead a single undifferentiated mass of Bengali villagers who, in their ongoing struggle with life’s usual tribulations, unsystematically picked and chose from an array of reputed instruments—a holy man here, a holy river there—in order to tap superhuman power. What Dusan Zbavitel has written of the ballads of premodern Mymensingh—that they were “neither products of Hindu or Muslim culture, but of a single Bengali folk-culture”—may be justly said of premodern Bengali folk religion generally.