The Question of Sufis and Frontier Warfare
Bengal’s earliest sustained contact with Islamic civilization occurred in the context of the geopolitical convulsions that had driven large numbers of Turkish-speaking groups from Central Asia into the Iranian plateau and India. Whether as military slaves, as adventurers, or as refugees fleeing before the Mongol advance, Turks gravitated not only to the older centers of the Islamic world—Baghdad, Cairo, Samarkand—but also to its fringes, including Bengal. Immigrant groups were often led by a man called alp or alp-eren, identified as “the heroic figure of old Turkic saga, the warrior-adventurer whose exploits alone justified his way of life.” Migrating Turks also grouped themselves into Islamic mystical fraternities typically organized around Sufi leaders who combined the characteristics of the “heroic figure of old Turkic saga,” the alp, and the pre-Islamic Turkish shaman—that is, a charismatic holy man believed to possess magical powers and to have intimate contact with the unseen world. It happened, moreover, that the strict authority structure that had evolved for transmitting Islamic mystical knowledge from master (murshid) to disciple (murīd) proved remarkably well suited for binding retainers to charismatic leaders. This, too, lent force to the Turkish drive to the Bengal frontier.
The earliest-known Muslim inscription in Bengal concerns a group of such immigrant Sufis. Written on a stone tablet found in Birbhum District and dated July 29, 1221, just seventeen years after Muhammad Bakhtiyar’s conquest, the inscription records the construction of a Sufi lodge (khānaqāh) by a man described as a faqīr—that is, a Sufi—and the son of a native of Maragha in northwestern Iran. The building was not meant for this faqīr alone, but for a group of Sufis (ahl-i ṣuffa) “who all the while abide in the presence of the Exalted Allah and occupy themselves in the remembrance of the Exalted Allah.” The tablet appears to have been part of a pre-Islamic edifice before it was put to use for the khānaqāh, for on its reverse side is a Sanskrit inscription mentioning the victorious conquests made in this part of the delta by a subordinate of Nayapala, Pala king from ca. A.D. 1035 to 1050. The inscription refers to a large number of Hindu temples in this region, and, despite the Buddhist orientation of the Pala kings, it identifies this subordinate ruler as a devotee of Brahmanic gods. Thus the two sides of the same tablet speak suggestively of the complex cultural history of this part of the delta: Brahmanism had flourished and was even patronized by a state whose official cult was Buddhism; on the other hand, the earliest-known representatives of Islam in this area appear to us in the context of the demolished ruins of Bengal’s pre-Muslim past.
But were these men themselves temple-destroying iconoclasts? Can we think of them as ghāzīs—that is, men who waged religious war against non-Muslims? Such, indeed, is the perspective of much Orientalist scholarship. In the 1930s the German Orientalist Paul Wittek propounded the thesis that the Turkish drive westward across Anatolia at the expense of Byzantine Greek civilization had been propelled by an ethos of Islamic holy war, or jihād, against infidels. Although this thesis subsequently became established in Middle Eastern historiography, recent scholarship has shown that it suffers from lack of contemporary evidence. Instead, as Rudi Lindner has argued, the association of a holy war ethic with the early rise of Ottoman power was the work of ideologues writing several centuries after the events they described. What they wrote, according to Lindner, amounted to an “ex post facto purification of early Ottoman deeds, [speaking] more of later propaganda than of early history.”
A similar historiographical pattern is found in Bengal. While it is true that Persian biographies often depict early Sufi holy men of Bengal as pious warriors waging war against the infidel, such biographies were not contemporary with those Sufis. Take, for example, the case of Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi (d. 1244–45), one of the earliest-known Sufis of Bengal. The earliest notice of him appears in the Siyar al-‘ārifīn, a compendium of Sufi biographies compiled around 1530–36, three centuries after the shaikh’s lifetime. According to this account, after initially studying Sufism in his native Tabriz (in northwestern Iran), Jalal al-Din Tabrizi left around 1228 for Baghdad, where he studied for seven years with the renowned mystic Shaikh Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi. When the latter died in 1235, Jalal al-Din Tabrizi traveled to India and, not finding a warm welcome in the court of Delhi, eventually moved on to Lakhnauti, then the remote provincial capital of Bengal. There he remained until his death ten years later. “When he went to Bengal,” the account records,
Since no contemporary evidence shows that he or any other Sufi in Bengal actually indulged in the destruction of temples, it is probable that as with Turkish Sufis in contemporary Anatolia, later biographers reworked Jalal al-Din Tabrizi’s career for the purpose of expressing their own vision of how the past ought to have happened. For such biographers, the shaikh’s alleged destruction of a Hindu temple, his conversion of the local population, and his raising a Sufi hospice on the temple site all defined for later generations his imagined role as one who had made a decisive break between Bengal’s Hindu past and its Muslim future.
all the population there came to him and became his disciples. There he built a hospice and a public kitchen, and bought several gardens and lands as an endowment for the kitchen. These increased. There was also there a (river) port called Deva Mahal, where an infidel had built a temple at great cost. The shaikh destroyed that temple and in its place constructed a (Sufi) rest-house [takya]. There, he made many infidels into Muslims. Today [i.e., 1530–36], his holy tomb is located at the very site of that temple, and half the income of that port is dedicated to the upkeep of the public kitchen there.
Much the same hagiographical reconstruction was given the career of Shah Jalal Mujarrad (d. 1346), Bengal’s best-known Muslim saint. His biography was first recorded in the mid sixteenth century by a certain Shaikh ‘Ali (d. ca. 1562), a descendant of one of Shah Jalal’s companions. Once again we note a gap of several centuries between the life of the saint and that of his earliest biographer. According to this account, Shah Jalal had been born in Turkestan, where he became a spiritual disciple of Saiyid Ahmad Yasawi, one of the founders of the Central Asian Sufi tradition. The account then casts the shaikh’s expedition to India in the framework of holy war, mentioning both his (lesser) war against the infidel and his (greater) war against the lower self. “One day,” the biographer recorded, Shah Jalal
It is true that the notion of two “strivings” (jihād)—one against the unbeliever and the other against one’s lower soul—had been current in the Perso-Islamic world for several centuries before Shah Jalal’s lifetime. But a fuller reading of the text suggests other motives for the shaikh’s journey to Bengal. After reaching the Indian subcontinent, he and his band of followers are said to have drifted to Sylhet, on the easternmost edge of the Bengal delta. “In these far-flung campaigns,” the narrative continued, “they had no means of subsistence, except the booty, but they lived in splendour. Whenever any valley or cattle were acquired, they were charged with the responsibility of propagation and teaching of Islam. In short, [Shah Jalal] reached Sirhat (Sylhet), one of the areas of the province of Bengal, with 313 persons. [After defeating the ruler of the area] all the region fell into the hands of the conquerors of the spiritual and the material worlds. Shaikh [Jalal] Mujarrad, making a portion for everybody, made it their allowance and permitted them to get married.”
represented to his bright-souled pīr [i.e., Ahmad Yasawi] that his ambition was that just as with the guidance of the master he had achieved a certain amount of success in the Higher (spiritual) jihād, similarly with the help of his object-fulfilling courage he should achieve the desire of his heart in the Lesser (material) jihād, and wherever there may be a Dār-ul-ḥarb [i.e., Land of non-Islam], in attempting its conquest he may attain the rank of a ghāzī or a shahīd [martyr]. The revered pīr accepted his request and sent 700 of his senior fortunate disciples…along with him. Wherever they had a fight with the enemies, they unfurled the banner of victory.
Written so long after the events it describes, this account has a certain paradigmatic quality. Like Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi, Shah Jalal is presented as having brought about a break between Bengal’s Hindu past and its Muslim future, and to this end a parallel is drawn between the career of the saint and that of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. The number of companions said to have accompanied Shah Jalal to Bengal, 313, corresponds precisely to the number of companions who are thought to have accompanied the Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Badr in A.D. 624, the first major battle in Muhammad’s career and a crucial event in launching Islam as a world religion. The story thus has an obvious ideological drive to it.
But other aspects of the narrative are more suggestive of Bengal’s social atmosphere at the time of the conquest. References to “far-flung campaigns” where Shah Jalal’s warrior-disciples “had no means of subsistence, except the booty” suggest the truly nomadic base of these Turkish freebooters, and, incidentally, refute the claim (made in the same narrative) that Shah Jalal’s principal motive for coming to Bengal was religious in nature. In fact, reference to his having made “a portion for everybody” suggests the sort of behavior befitting a tribal chieftain vis-à-vis his pastoral retainers, while the reference to his permitting them to marry suggests a process by which mobile bands of unmarried nomads—Shah Jalal’s own title mujarrad means “bachelor”—settled down as propertied groups rooted in local society. Moreover, the Persian text records that Shah Jalal had ordered his followers to become kadkhudā, a word that can mean either “householder” or “landlord.” Not having brought wives and families with them, his companions evidently married local women and, settling on the land, gradually became integrated with local society. All of this paralleled the early Ottoman experience. At the same time that Shah Jalal’s nomadic followers were settling down in eastern Bengal, companions of Osman (d. 1326), the founder of the Ottoman dynasty, were also passing from a pastoral to a sedentary life in northwestern Anatolia.
Fortunately, we are in a position to compare the later, hagiographic account of Shah Jalal’s career with two independent non-hagiographic sources. The first is an inscription from Sylhet town, dated 1512–13, from which we learn that it was a certain Sikandar Khan Ghazi, and not the shaikh, who had actually conquered the town, and that this occurred in the year 1303–4. The second is a contemporary account from the pen of the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta (d. 1377), who personally met Shah Jalal in 1345. The shaikh was quite an old man by then and sufficiently renowned throughout the Muslim world that the great world traveler made a considerable detour—he had been sailing from South India to China—in order to visit him. Traveling by boat up the Meghna and Surma rivers, Ibn Battuta spent three days as Shah Jalal’s guest in his mountain cave near Sylhet town. As the Moroccan later recalled,
One would like to know more about the religious culture of these people prior to their conversion to Islam. The fragmentary evidence of Ibn Battuta’s account suggests that they were indigenous peoples who had had little formal contact with literate representatives of Brahmanism or Buddhism, for the Moroccan visitor elsewhere describes the inhabitants of the East Bengal hills as “noted for their devotion to and practice of magic and witchcraft.” The remark seems to distinguish these people from the agrarian society of the Surma plains below the hills of Sylhet, a society Ibn Battuta unambiguously identifies as Hindu. It is thus possible that in Shah Jalal these hill people had their first intense exposure to a formal, literate religious tradition.
This shaikh was one of the great saints and one of the unique personalities. He had to his credit miracles (karāmat) well known to the public as well as great deeds, and he was a man of hoary age.…The inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.
In sum, the more contemporary evidence of Sufis on Bengal’s political frontier portrays men who had entered the delta not as holy warriors but as pious mystics or freebooting settlers operating under the authority of charismatic leaders. No contemporary source endows them with the ideology of holy war; nor is there contemporary evidence that they slew non-Muslims or destroyed non-Muslim monuments. No Sufi of Bengal—and for that matter no Bengali sultan, whether in inscriptions or on coins—is known to have styled himself ghāzī. Such ideas only appear in hagiographical accounts written several centuries after the conquest. In particular, it seems that biographers and hagiographers of the sixteenth century consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) projected backward in time an ideology of conquest and conversion that had become prevalent in their own day. As part of that process, they refashioned the careers of holy men of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries so as to fit within the framework of that ideology.