Ashrāf and Non-Ashrāf Society
Bengal’s Muslim society from the thirteenth century through the sixteenth was overwhelmingly urban, concentrated in the sultanate’s successive capital cities—Lakhnauti from 1204, Pandua from about 1342, and Gaur from about 1432—and in the provincial towns of Satgaon, Sonargaon, and Chittagong. Although new garrison towns regularly sprang up in the interior, as the numismatic and epigraphic evidence shows (see map 2), the preeminence of the capital cities was assured, since members of the provincial nobility, regardless of where their land assignments were located, had to maintain residences there. Gaur, especially, was by all accounts a splendid city (see figs. 14 and 15). “One of the best that I had hitherto seen,” wrote Ludovico di Varthema in the early sixteenth century, when it had attained a population of forty thousand. In 1521 a visiting Portuguese described the city as
very big, stretching for four leagues along the river and, it is said, extending so far inland that houses are still found beyond six leagues.…The town is situated on a large plain which is flat like the whole of the surrounding area. The streets and lanes are paved with brick like the Lisbon New Street. The market is everywhere and everything—food and other goods alike—is in plentiful supply and very cheap. The streets and cross-lanes are so full of people that [it] is impossible to move and it has reached the point where the high noblemen have taken to being preceded along the road to the palace by men carrying bamboo sticks to push people out of the way.
Foreigners were much impressed by the wealth of long-distance merchants residing in the sultanate’s capitals. In 1415 a Chinese envoy wrote of men in Pandua who “wear a white cotton turban and a long white cotton shirt. On their feet they wear low sheep-skin shoes with gold thread. The smarter ones think it the correct thing to have designs on them. Everyone of them is engaged in business, the value of which may be ten thousand pieces of gold.” Around 1508, Varthema found in Gaur “the richest merchants I have ever met with.” Ten years later, Duarte Barbosa also described wealthy Arabs, Iranians, Abyssinians, and “Indians” of Gaur. “The respectable Moors,” he wrote,
Fig. 14. Dakhil Darwaza from within the citadel of Gaur (ca. 1433–59)
Fig. 15. Riuned ramparts of the citadel of Gaur, looking east from the top of the Dakhil Darwaza.
The nobles and merchants described above formed part of the Muslim elite, or ashrāf, which also included urban Sufis, religious officials (‘ulamā), and foreign-born soldiers and administrators. In fact, foreign origin, even if only of one’s ancestors, formed an important, if not defining, element of ashrāf identity. Writing around 1495, the poet Vipra Das referred to the Muslim preachers (mullās) and judges (qāẓīs) of Satgaon as “Saiyids,” “Mughals,” and “Pathans”—that is, men claiming an Arab, Central Asian, or Afghan origin. About a century later the poet Mukundaram (fl. 1590), like Vipra Das a native of the southwestern delta, described urban Muslims as men who had immigrated from points west of Bengal. Religious sentiment also inclined ashrāf Muslims to look westward. In 1505 the patron of a mosque in Sonargaon proudly counted himself as one “who has made a pilgrimage to Macca and Madina, and has visited the two foot-prints of the Prophet.” Similarly, a 1567 inscription on the congregational mosque in Old Malda compared it with the holy shrine in Mecca, referring to Malda’s house of worship as the “second Ka‘aba” (thānī ka‘aba). For the devout, phrases such as these served to mitigate the great distance separating Bengal from Islam’s holiest shrines in Arabia, tenuously linked to the delta by a long and dangerous sea voyage.
walk about clad in white cotton smocks, very thin, which come down to their ankles, and beneath these they have girdles of cloth, and over them silk scarves; they carry in their girdles daggers garnished with silver and gold, according to the rank of the person who carries them.…They are luxurious, eat well and spend freely, and have many other extravagancies as well. They bathe often in great tanks which they have in their houses. Every one has three or four wives or as many as he can maintain.
Prominent among the ashrāf were judges, or qāẓīs, who possessed sufficient expertise in Islamic Law to arbitrate disputes involving fellow Muslims. Below them in status were the mullās, the ubiquitous ordinary preachers and the least-educated members of the Muslim establishment. An inscription on the congregational mosque at Satgaon, dated 1529, hints at how these two members of the ashrāf interrelated:
This suggests that the court relied on the qāẓīs, together with governors, to curb what it considered the mullās’ fraudulent ways—in this case, a tendency to defraud public endowments. Qāẓīs were also the most visible representatives of royal authority vis-à-vis non-Muslims, since they were charged with maintaining public order generally. In the early sixteenth century, for example, when the devotees of a Hindu cult caused a public disturbance with their ecstatic singing in the West Bengal town of Nadia, local Muslims complained to the town’s qāẓī. Although the judge excused that particular violation of public order, he warned that he would punish future infractions by confiscating the property of violators.
Because the body of mullās and landholders (arbāb) will be cursed by God if they defraud public endowments, it is binding and necessary that governors and qāẓīs prevent such frauds, so that on the Day of Judgment they will not be seized for their oppressions.
Socially distinct from the ashrāf were Muslim urban artisans who formed part of Bengal’s growing industrial proletariat. Their organization into separate, endogamous communities (jāti) with distinctive occupations paralleled the organization of Hindu society in the southwestern delta, and suggests their origins in that society. Mukundaram mentions fifteen Muslim jātis in a list of communities inhabiting an idealized Bengali city of his day—weavers (jolā), livestock herders (mukeri), cake sellers (piṭhāri), fishmongers (kābāṛi), converts from the local population (garasāl), loom makers (sānākār), circumcisers (hājām), bow makers (tirakar), papermakers (kāgajī), wandering holy men (kalandar), tailors (darji), weavers of thick cord (benaṭā), dyers (rangrej), users of hoes (hālān), and beef sellers (kasāi). So thoroughly were these groups integrated with Bengali society that by the late sixteenth century, when Mukundaram was writing, it was impossible to conceive of a city that did not have, alongside a long list of Hindu jātis, a full complement of Muslim artisan groups.
Moreover, these groups constituted the earliest-known class of Bengali Muslims. Fully five of them—the weavers, loom makers, tailors, weavers of thick ribbon, and dyers—were linked to the growing textile industry, and were probably recruited from amongst existing Hindu castes already engaged in these trades, or from amongst former agriculturalists or unskilled laborers responding to labor demands created by the expanding industry. Government demand appears to have brought into existence still other groups of Muslim artisans. The bow makers, for example, provided weaponry for the kingdom’s armed forces, while papermakers would have met both the bureaucracy’s appetite for files and the Muslim religious elite’s demand for books. In fact, nearly half of the Muslim jātis listed by Mukundaram bore Perso-Arabic names, suggesting that they had come into being only after the Turkish conquest.