The Rural Mosque in Bengali History
As the focus of public prayer, the mosque has always been the principal public institution in Islamic civilization. Whether a grand edifice or a humble thatched hut, the mosque conceptually conflates Islam’s macrocommunity of the umma—the worldwide body of believers—into a microcommunity of fellow villagers or fellow city-dwellers, affording them the physical space to articulate their collective response to the word of God. As such the mosque is the physical embodiment of the social reality of Islam, and hence the paramount institution by which community identity and solidarity are expressed. This is especially true of the “Friday” or “congregational” mosque (jāmi‘ masjid), in which Muslims gather once a week for a sermon read by one of its functionaries. Such mosques—unlike personal, or private, mosques—were generally intended for the male Muslim population of settled communities and were constructed as soon as any local society had achieved a sufficient number of Muslims to warrant one.
As is seen in table 1 (see p. 67), a total of 188 dated mosques built in the course of six hundred years of Muslim rule in Bengal have survived into the present. Of these fully 117, or 62 percent of the total, were built in the relatively short span of a hundred years, from 1450 to 1550. Most are located in the western portion of the delta, especially near the old Muslim capitals of Gaur and Pandua; almost a third of the total are in the present-day Malda and Murshidabad districts. Conversely, eastern districts like Comilla, Rangpur, Khulna, Jessore, and Bakarganj have only a few mosques each, and Faridpur and Noakhali have none at all. There is thus a negative correlation between the location of dated mosques and the distribution of Muslims in the delta: surviving mosques predominate in western Bengal, whereas Muslim society came to predominate in the east. And whereas the vast majority of dated mosques appeared between 1450 and 1550, the first recorded evidence of substantial rural Muslim communities appears only from the very end of the sixteenth century. How, then, can we reconcile the contradiction between the appearance of these mosques, both in time and in space, and the appearance of a predominantly Muslim population?
The answer is that the mosques recorded in table 1 include only those bearing inscriptions. Endowed by men in command of considerable resources—rulers or other wealthy patrons—these were typically monumental structures built of durable materials like brick or stone, which explains why they have survived into the present. On the other hand,there were many more smaller and humbler mosques that have not physically survived into the present, and that were not endowed with dated inscription tablets. Built of ordinary bamboo and thatching, and patronized not by the court but by local gentry, hundreds of such mosques appeared in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in eastern Bengal. Since the appearance of these institutions correlates positively with that of majority Muslim communities, both in time and place, one may hypothesize that such humble mosques, and not the monumental works of art endowed by the wealthy, played the more decisive role in the Islamization of the countryside (see figs. 22, 23, 24).
Why and how were such institutions built? We have seen that in the empire generally, Mughal policy aimed at expanding the agrarian basis upon which the state’s wealth rested, and at creating loyal constituencies among local elites and their dependents. Although these aims were manifestly economic and political in nature, a characteristic means of achieving them, especially in frontier regions where new lands were being brought into cultivation, was by promoting the establishment of durable agrarian communities focused on religious institutions. Thus, in eastern Bengal, the state oversaw the establishment of both Hindu and Muslim institutions as new lands were opened up for cultivation. Of these, the Muslim institutions proved by far the more numerous and influential, and from them Islamic values, attitudes, terminology, and rituals gradually diffused over the countryside in the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Contemporary state documents mention, in passing, that at such institutions new Friday assemblies or circles of believers had been established (iqāmat-i ḥalqa-yi jum‘a).
Such remarks take on special significance when it is recalled that throughout the delta the fundamental unit of social organization is not and never has been the mauẓa‘, or “village.” Nucleated settlement patterns such as are typical in North India never existed in the delta proper, even though the Mughals, and later the British, continued to use the term mauẓa‘ as though they did. Rather, homesteads are strung out in lines along the banks of past or existing creeks. Or, more often, they are stippled throughout the rural countryside, dispersed in amorphous clusters. A pair of rural sociologists have described the East Bengali countryside as “one vast, seamless village. People build on high ground to avoid floods, and since high ground usually lies along slight ridges or hillocks, their houses are dispersed, with no clear demarcation between one village and the next.” The geographers O. H. K. Spate and A. T. A. Learnmonth remark: “Over large areas there is no real ‘pattern’ at all, so homogeneous is the environment.”
As the Bengali physical landscape was for the most part flat and homogeneous in all directions, so also the social order lacked natural nodes of authority. To be sure, kin groups (baṃśa, goṣṭhī) sharing common patrilineal descent are found in Bengali society. But these do not have the same cohesiveness or social significance as the endogamous barādarīs among Muslims of Upper India, much less the endogamous jātis of fully developed Hindu caste society. In such a circumstance, especially where centralized political authority was weak, as in the hinterland of Mughal Bengal, maintaining social order could be a serious problem. “In lawless communities,” writes Eric Hobsbawm, “power is rarely scattered among an anarchy of competing units, but clusters round local strong-points. Its typical form is patronage, its typical holder the private magnate or boss with his body of retainers and dependents and the network of ‘influence’ which surrounds him and causes men to put themselves under his protection.”
In Mughal Bengal, lacking tightly organized units such as nucleated villages or dominant clans through which authority might be exercised and social control maintained, local networks of patronage coalesced around locally defined centers of authority. The religious basis of these networks is noted by Ralph Nicholas:
The Muslim equivalent of the maṇḍalī, Nicholas continues, is called a millat (Arabic for “sect,” “party,” or “religious group”) or simply samāj, “society,” and is organized around a particular mullā, who may also be called a pīr by his followers. In the southeastern delta the typical millat is composed of from eighty to four hundred members, who dine together during festivals, celebrate rites of passage together (circumcision, marriage, death), and pray together in times of community stress. The mullā who provides the group with religious leadership is maintained by a monthly payment from each family in the millat.
Social order is a serious problem in frontier society everywhere. The people of the lower delta are known to be tough and independent. They are famous for their skill with the lathi [“staff,” “cudgel”], which is often the only means of establishing a claim to a plot after a flood has changed the location of agricultural land. For centuries, in the lower delta, authority was poorly organized, centers of officialism were few and widely scattered. It seems likely that Islam and Vaisnavism functioned to provide authority in anarchic frontier society, and that they did so through loosely constituted religious organizations. The Vaisnava form of this organization is called a mandali (circle, congregation), it is organized around a particular guru, who may be called a gosvai by his followers, and is frequently constituted of persons of more than one village.
Similar structures of authority are found among rural Muslim communities in central and northern Bengal. In the central deltaic district of Pabna, the anthropologist John Thorp notes, a group whose members share mutual “feasting obligations” and who celebrate life-cycle rituals together is locally called a samāj, whereas a group that prays together in a single mosque is known as a jamā‘at. In practice, the jamā‘at may be coterminous with the samāj; alternatively, it may be composed of several samājes. In any event, here as in the southeastern delta, it is the mosque and its socioreligious constituency, and not the “village” or the clan, that serves as the focus of identity and the effective vehicle for social mobilization. In neighboring Rajshahi District, two rural sociologists identified the jamā‘at, a community of some fifty to sixty scattered households drawn to the same rural mosque, as the closest analog of the North Indian nuclear village. The same is true further north. “In many villages,” wrote Karunaketan Sen in a 1937 study of rural Dinajpur District, “there were huts which were places of worship and were called the ‘Jumma-ghars.’ Where there were more than one in a village, the local Muhammedan population was very often divided into factions, each attached to one of the Jumma-ghars.” Whatever Sen may have meant here by a “village,” his remarks confirm that in rural Dinajpur, as in rural Rajshahi, Pabna, and Comilla, the mosque (masjid,jum‘a-ghar) was the effective unit of social organization among Muslims.
The continuing social significance of the mosque in today’s rural Bengali society is a legacy of a time when a religious gentry of ‘ulamā and pīrs—and in their institutionalized form, mosques and shrines—first emerged as nodes of authority around which new peasant communities originally coalesced, and in relation to which such communities were understood as “dependents” (vā bastagān). Such people were attracted to the religious gentry not only as devotees of a religious leader but as groups of client peasants who had formerly been local fishermen and shifting cultivators beyond the pale of Hindu society. Islamization in Bengal, then, was but one aspect of a general set of transformations associated with an expanding economic frontier, which took place most dramatically in the Mughal period. We may scrutinize these processes more closely by examining the exceptional Persian documentation that has survived in two districts on the eastern edge of the delta, Chittagong and Sylhet.