Literacy and Islamization
Although the growth of Islam in Bengal witnessed no neat or uniform progression from inclusion to identification to displacement, one does see, at least in the eastern delta, a general drive toward the eventual displacement of local divinities. In part, one can explain this in terms of Bengal’s integration, since the late sixteenth century, into a pan-Indian, and indeed, a global civilization. Akbar’s 1574 conquest of the northwestern delta established a pattern by which the whole delta would be politically and economically integrated with North India. What was unique about the east, however, was that prior to the late sixteenth century, its hinterland had remained relatively undeveloped and isolated as compared with the west; hence the expansion of Mughal power there was accompanied by the establishment of new agrarian communities and not simply the integration of old ones. Composed partly of outsiders—emigrants from West Bengal or even North India—and partly of newly peasantized indigenous communities of former fishermen or shifting cultivators, these communities typically coalesced around the many rural mosques, shrines, or Qur’an schools built by enterprising pioneers who had contracted with the government to transform tracts of virgin jungle into fields of cultivated paddy.
It was mainly in the east, moreover, that political incorporation was accompanied by the intrusion and eventual primacy of Islamic superhuman agencies in local cosmologies. Contributing to this was the very nature of Islamic religious authority, which does not flow from priests, magicians, or other mortal agents, but from a medium that is ultimately immortal and unchallengeable—written scripture. The connection between literacy and divine power in Islam is perfectly explicit. Moreover, well before their rise to prominence in Bengal, Muslims had already constructed a great world civilization around the Qur’an and the vast corpus of literature making up Islamic Law. It is therefore not coincidental that Muslims have described theirs as the “religion of the Book.”
It is true, of course, that the Hindu tradition is also scripturally based. As living repositories of Vedic learning, or at least of traditions that derive legitimacy from that learning, Brahmans “represent” scriptural authority in a way roughly analogous to the way Muslim men of piety mediate, and thus “represent,” the Qur’an. By the time of the Turkish conquest, a scripturally based religious culture under Brahman leadership had already become well entrenched in the dense and socially stratified society of the western delta. In this context, the intrusion of another scripturally defined religious culture, Islam, failed to have a significant impact. But the coherence of the Brahmanic socioreligious order progressively diminished as one moved from west to east across the delta, rendering the preliterate masses of the east without an authority structure sufficient to withstand that of Islam. Among these peoples the rustic shrines, mosques, and Qur’an schools that we have been examining introduced a type of religious authority that was fundamentally new and of greater power relative to what had been there previously. “In non-literate societies,” writes J. D.Y. Peel, a scholar of religious change in modern West Africa,
the past is perceived as entirely servant of the needs of the present, things are forgotten and myth is constructed to justify contemporary arrangements; there are no dictionary definitions of words.…In religion there is no sense of impersonal or universal orthodoxy of doctrine; legitimate belief is as a particular priest or elder expounds it. But where the essence of religion is the Word of God, where all arguments are resolved by an appeal to an unchangeable written authority, where those who formulate new beliefs at a time of crisis commit themselves by writing and publishing pamphlets…religion acquires a rigid basis. “Structural amnesia” is hardly possible; what was thought in the past commits men to particular courses of action in the present; religion comes to be thought of as a system of rules, emanating from an absolute and universal God, which are quite external to the thinker, and to which he must conform and bend himself, if he would be saved.
In eastern Bengal, where Brahmans were thinly scattered, the analog to Peel’s “particular priest or elder” was typically a local ritualist who was neither literate nor a Brahman. True, the mosque builders, rural mullās, or charismatic pīrs who fanned out over the eastern plains may also have been illiterate; moreover, the basis of their authority, like that of indigenous non-Muslim ritualists, was often charismatic in nature. But what is important is that these same men patronized Qur’an readers and “readers of fātiḥa,” who, even if themselves only semi-literate in Arabic, were seen as representing the authority of the written word as opposed to the ad hoc, localized, and transient authority of indigenous ritualists. Therefore, with the introduction of Qur’an readers, Qur’an schools, and “readers of fātiḥa” into the delta, the relatively fluid and expansive cosmology of pre-Muslim eastern Bengal began to resolve into one favoring the primacy of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. As Peel puts it, religion began to acquire “a rigid basis.”
Further facilitating the growth of this “religion of the Book” in Bengal was the diffusion of paper and of papermaking technology. Introduced from Central Asia into North India in the thirteenth century by Persianized Turks, by the fifteenth century the technology of paper production had found its way into Bengal, where it eventually replaced the palm leaf. Already in 1432, the Chinese visitor Ma Huan remarked that the Bengalis’ “paper is white; it is made out of the bark of a tree, and is as smooth and glossy as deer’s skin.” And by the close of the sixteenth century the poet Mukundaram noted the presence of whole communities of Muslim papermakers (kāgajī) in Bengali cities. The revolutionary impact that the technology of literacy made on premodern Bengali society is suggested in the ordinary Bengali words for paper (kāgaj) and pen (kalam), both of which are corrupted loan words from Perso-Arabic. It is also significant that on Bengal’s expanding agrarian frontier, the introduction of papermaking technology coincided with the rise of a Muslim religious gentry whose authority structure was ultimately based on the written word—scripture. While it would be the crudest technological determinism to say that the diffusion of paper production simply caused the growth of Islam in Bengal or elsewhere, it is certainly true that this more efficient technology of knowledge led to more books, which in turn promoted a greater familiarity with at least the idea of literacy, and that this greater familiarity led, in turn, to the association of the written word with religious authority.
Serving to check the growth of the “religion of the Book,” however, was the fact that the book in question, the Qur’an, was written in a language unknown to the masses of Bengali society. Moreover, since the Qur’an had been revealed in Arabic, in Bengal as elsewhere fear of tampering with the word of God inhibited its outright translation. As we have seen, Bengali Muslims were extremely reluctant to translate even Islamic popular lore into Bengali. Of course, they could have done what many other non-Arab Muslims did—that is, retain their own language for written discourse but render it in the Arabic script, as happened in Iran (modern Persian) and North India (Urdu). The transliteration of any language into Arabic script not only facilitates the assimilation of Arabic vocabulary but fosters a psychological bond between non-Arab and Arab Muslims. In the seventeenth century, in fact, attempts were made to do the same for Bengali. The Dhaka Museum has a manuscript work composed in 1645 entitled Maqtul Husain—a tract treating the death of Husain at Karbala—written in Bengali but using the Arabic, and not the Bengali, script. Although subsequent writers made similar such literary attempts, it is significant that the effort never took hold, with the result that Bengali Muslims remain today the world’s largest body of Muslims who, despite Islamization, have retained both their language and their script.
Since Islamic scripture was neither translated nor transliterated in premodern Bengal, it not surprisingly first entered mass culture in a magical, as opposed to liturgical, context. In Ksemananda’s Manasā-Maṅgala, a work composed in the mid seventeenth century, we hear that in the house of one of the poem’s Hindu figures (Laksmindhara, son of Chand), a copy of the Qur’an was kept along with other charms for the purpose of warding off evil influence. From the remarks of Vijaya Gupta, a poet of East Bengal’s Barisal region, who wrote in 1494, we find an even earlier reference to the same use of Muslim scripture. In this instance, the written word appeared not in a Hindu household but in the hands of a mullā. A group of seven weavers, evidently Muslims, since they resided in “Husainhati,” were bitten by snakes unleashed by the goddess Manasa and went to the court of the qāẓī seeking help. Wrote the poet:
Here we see a Muslim ritualist mediating on the people’s behalf with a class of ubiquitous spirits, bhūt, that pervaded (and still pervades) the folk Bengali cosmology. Moreover, the mullā clearly used the scripture in a magical and not a liturgical context, for it was not by reading the holy book that he dealt with evil spirits but by having his clients wear written extracts from it around their necks—a usage that enjoyed the endorsement of the state-appointed Muslim judge, or qāẓī. In modern times, too, one finds ritualists employing the magical power of the Qur’an for healing purposes in precisely the manner that mullās had done three centuries earlier. In 1898 an ojhā, a local shamanlike ritualist, was observed in a village in Sylhet District using Qur’anic passages in his treatment of persons possessed by bhūts. And in recent years ojhās among the non-Muslim Chakma tribesmen of the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been integrating Muslim scripture and Islamic superhuman agencies into their healing rituals, indicating the continued penetration of Islamic religious culture beyond the delta and into the adjacent mountains.
There was a teacher of the Qāḍī named Khālās…who always engaged himself in the study of the Qur’an and other religious books.…He said, if you ask me, I say, why are you afraid of demons [bhūt], when you have got the religious books. Write (extracts) from the book and hang it down the neck. If then also the demons (implying snakes) bite, I shall be held responsible. The Qāḍī accepted what the Mullā said and all present took amulet[s] from him (the Mullā).
On the other hand, European observers noted that Bengali mullās also used the Qur’an in purely liturgical, as opposed to magical, contexts. In 1833 Francis Buchanan observed that in rural Dinajpur, mullās “read, or repeat prayers or passages of the Koran at marriages, funerals, circumcisions, and sacrifices, for no Muslim will eat meat or fowl, over which prayers have not been repeated, before it has been killed.…According to the Kazis, many of these Mollas cannot read, and these only look at the book, while they repeat the passages.” Although the mullās observed by Buchanan were themselves unable to read, they were nonetheless understood by their village clients to be tapping into a transcendent source of power, the written word, fundamentally greater and more permanent than those known to local ritualists. In the same way, it was reported in 1898 that Muslim villagers in Sylhet “employ Mullahs to read Koran Shariff and allow the merit thereof to be credited to the forefathers”—an apparent reference to the same kind of fātiḥa rituals that sanads of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had authorized for rural mosques and shrines.
All of this points to a progressive expansion in the countryside of the culture of literacy—that is, a tendency to confer authority on written religious texts and on persons associated with them (whether or not they could read those texts). This expanding culture of literacy naturally facilitated the growth of the cult of those superhuman agencies with which that culture was most clearly identified. In short, as the idea of “the book-as-authority” grew among ever-widening circles of East Bengal’s rural society—a development clearly traceable from the sixteenth century—so too did the “religion of the Book,” with its emphasis on the cosmological supremacy of Allah.