The Appearance of a Bengali Muslim Peasantry
What is striking about the historiography of Islamization in Bengal is that so few advocates of any of the theories discussed above—Immigration, Sword, Patronage, Social Liberation—grounded their theories on original evidence. Nor did they attempt to establish exactly when and where Islam first became a mass religion. Inasmuch as any coherent historical reconstruction must be based on established facts of geography and chronology, before we can explain mass conversion to Islam, we must first establish, in as precise terms as possible, exactly when and where the Bengali Muslim peasant community first emerged.
As to the direction from which Islamic influence first reached the delta, a glance at a map of the Indian Ocean might suggest a maritime connec- tion with the Middle East. It is true that Arab geographers such as Sulaiman Tajir (d. 851), Ibn Khurdadbhih (d. ca. 850), Mas‘udi (d. 956), and Idrisi (d. ca. 1150), were familiar with Bengal, and that one of these,Mas‘udi, actually mentions Muslims—evidently long-distance maritimemerchants—living there in the tenth century. The tradition of local coinage in southeastern Bengal during the Chandra dynasty (ca. 825–1035), and the discovery of Abbasid coins in the Lalmai region, further point to this region’s economic integration with the wider world of the Indian Ocean at a time when Arab Muslims dominated that ocean’s trade. However, study of the global distribution of the four legal traditions in Sunni Islam—Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki, and Hanbali—suggests that Islamization did not occur by way of the seas. In the Islamic world generally, converted populations have tended to adopt the school of law adhered to by the carriers of Islam in their region. From the tenth century on, the Shafi‘i school was dominant in southern and western Arabia, the region of the peninsula most firmly tied into Indian Ocean trade. In the succeeding centuries, coastal East Africa, India’s Malabar coast, and island Southeast Asia all underwent Islamization through commercial contact with Shafi‘i Arabs. And by 1500 all these regions adhered to the Shafi‘i legal tradition. Had Bengal, too, been Islamized by the predominantly Shafi‘i seafaring Arabs, or by other maritime Muslims in touch with such Arabs, one might expect the Muslims of Bengal also to have followed the Shafi‘i school. But by 1500 and thereafter, Bengali Muslims were mainly Hanafi, then as now the dominant legal tradition among inland Muslims living further up the Gangetic Plain and throughout Central Asia. This clearly points to a northwestern, overland origin of Bengal’s Islamization.
But when and how did this happen? Despite claims that the masses of Bengali Muslims originated in the very distant past, such a proposition finds no support in the primary source materials, not, at least, so far as concerns the peasantry, who comprise the great bulk of the population. With but one exception, pre-sixteenth-century foreign references to Muslims in Bengal mention only immigrant or urban Muslims—that is, ashrāf society. The exception is the account of Ibn Battuta, who traveled to Sylhet to meet the renowned saint Shah Jalal in 1345. The famed Arab traveler later recorded that “the inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his [Shah Jalal’s] hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.” But it is not at all clear that Ibn Battuta was referring here to a peasant population. It was, as he said, the inhabitants of the mountains, not those of the plains, that accepted Islam through the agency of Shah Jalal. These hill folk probably practiced shifting cultivation, for he seems to have distinguished this population from the peasants of the lowlands who practiced wet rice cultivation, whom he clearly identified as Hindus.
The next foreigner who noticed Muslims in Bengal was the Chinese official Ma Huan, who reached the delta in 1433, some ninety years after Ibn Battuta. At this time Raja Ganesh’s turbulent political intrusion had just subsided, and Sultan Jalal al-Din Muhammad had begun patronizing an Islamic culture heavily influenced by its Bengali environment. The Chinese traveler saw a dense and prosperous population during his travels from Chittagong to Sonargaon to Pandua. But his only comments as to the people’s ethnic or religious identity were written in the context of Pandua, where he observed that “the king’s palace and the large and small palaces of the nobility and temples, are all in the city. They are Musalmans.” The only Muslims the foreigner mentioned were city-dwellers, not peasants.
In the early sixteenth century, following Vasco da Gama’s maritime voyage to India in 1498, we get the first European accounts of Bengal and its peoples. But again, so far as concerns the delta’s Muslims, these writers appear to have been aware only of an urban, and not a rural population. Referring to Gaur, which he claimed to have visited sometime between 1503 and 1508, Ludovico di Varthema wrote that “this city was one of the best that I had hitherto seen, and has a very great realm,” adding that the sultan’s entire army, two hundred thousand men, were Muslims. Writing between 1512 and 1515, evidently on the basis of reports from merchants or ship captains who had visited Bengal, Tome Pires remarked that the king “is a very faithful Mohammedan” and that “the kings of this kingdom turned Mohammedan three hundred years ago.” But Pires makes no reference to the religion of the population at large.
Pires’s contemporary Duarte Barbosa, whose writings on Bengal were also based on travelers’ accounts and not direct observation, has much to say about the “respectable Moors” of Gaur, whom he describes as walking about “clad in white cotton smocks with their cloth girdles, silk scarves, and daggers garnished with silver and gold.” His references to their eating well, their free-wheeling spending, and to their “many other extravagances” clearly point to wealthy urban merchants and not to rural society. Indeed, Barbosa speaks of Gaur as a city inhabited by white men, with its “strangers from many lands such as Arabs, Persians, Abexis and Indians.” Yet he also makes the important remark that “the Heathen of these parts daily become Moors to gain the favour of their rulers”—the only contemporary evidence that would appear to support the Political Patronagetheory of Islamization. But since he never mentions Muslims except in the context of the capital city, Barbosa appears to have been referring to the Islamization not of peasants but of those Hindu artisan castes that other sources associated with the sultanate’s urban proletariat.
So far as concerns the countryside, it is only from the late sixteenth century, and in particular after the Mughal conquest (1574), that we have solid evidence of a Muslim peasant population anywhere in Bengal. The earliest reference is that of the Venetian traveler Cesare Federici, who in 1567 noted that the entire population of Sondwip, a large island in Bengal’s southeastern corner opposite Chittagong, was Muslim, and that it had its own Muslim “king.” Federici was also struck by the agricultural development of Sondwip, which he judged “the fertilest Iland in all the world.” In April 1599, not long after Federici’s visit, a Jesuit missionary named Francis Fernandez traveled up the channel of East Bengal’s Meghna River on an evangelizing tour, carefully noting the customs of the local people and evaluating the prospects of converting them to Christianity. Reaching the rural districts near Narayanganj in southeastern Dhaka District, Fernandez recorded that “I started examining whether there were any chances of propagating the Christian religion, but I found that the people are nearly all Mahometans.” This is the earliest unambiguous reference to a Muslim peasantry in the heart of the delta proper.
Several seventeenth-century European travelers made similar observations respecting the appearance of Muslims in the Bengali countryside, and noted that Islam was a very recent movement, dating only from the Mughal conquest. Writing in 1629, by which time Mughal power had become firmly established in the delta, the Augustinian friar Sebastião Manrique says: “In the early days, all the kingdoms of Bengala followed heathen cults, as the greater part and even now most of them do to this day. Except some, however, who since this region became subject to the Mogol Empire, have abandoned the heathen faith, and the more difficult road to hell to follow the wider and easier road which is that of the Alcoran [Qur’an].” In 1666 the French traveler Jean de Thevenot made much the same point—as well as exhibiting the same anti-Muslim bias, typical among seventeenth-century Europeans:
Like Manrique, Thevenot understood Bengal’s pre-Mughal period as pre-Muslim, and believed that Islam had become dominant in Bengal only after the Mughal conquest, which had occurred somewhat less than a century before he was writing. It is significant, too, that Europeans observed concentrations of Muslim peasants only in the eastern half of the delta, and not in the older, already Hinduized western sector. For in 1699, exactly a century after Fernandez encountered Muslims in the rural Dhaka region, another Jesuit, Father Martin, S. J., who so far as we know traveled only in the Hooghly region of west Bengal, noted that “nearly the whole country is given to idolatry.”
The Country [i.e., Bengal] was kept in far better order under the Patan Kings, (I mean) before the Mahometans and Moguls were Masters of it, because then they had Uniformity in Religion. It has been found by experience, that disorder came into it with Mahometanism, and that diversity of Religions hath there caused corruption in Manners.
Other contemporary data confirm Manrique’s and Thevenot’s general point that Islamization did not appear among the masses until after the Mughal conquest. The earliest Persian source touching on this matter dates from 1638, when the Mughal governor of Bengal, Islam Khan Mashhadi, complained to the raja of Arakan about Portuguese raiding of the Noakhali coast. There, the governor wrote, the Portuguese had been committing “depredations on the Muslim masses.” In the 1660s another Mughal source, the ‘ālamgīr-nāma by Kazim b. Muhammad Amin, stated that most of the peasants of Ghoraghat, or what is now the Rangpur region of northern Bengal, were Muslims.