In the eastern delta, where settled agrarian life was far less advanced than in the west in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Islam more than other culture systems became identified with a developing agrarian social order. As state-supported pioneers established Islamic institutions in formerly forested areas, three different kinds of frontier—the economic frontier separating field and forest, the political frontier separating Mughal from non-Mughal administration, and the religious frontier separating Islam and non-Islam—fused into one.
Yet Islamic institutions were by no means the only ones that grew with Bengal’s advancing frontiers. In the forests of both Chittagong and Sylhet, new communities formed around pioneers and institutions associated with Hindu deities. In fact, the active delta was so ripe for cultural and economic development that even Christian pioneers made an impact, and this without the benefit of Mughal patronage. In 1713 the French Jesuit Père Barbier journeyed through Chittagong and into the interior of what is now Noakhali District, where he encountered a community of Christian peasants organized around the authority of a local patriarch. “At five days’ distance from Chatigan [Chittagong],” he wrote,
The old man (vieillard) Barbier encountered and identified as “le chef de ces Chrétiens” was apparently not a European but a Bengali Christian, for the Frenchman had to employ an interpreter to communicate with him. Evidently the man had managed to forge for himself a clientele from amongst the local population, in effect functioning as a petty zamīndār of a local community to which he gave both religious and economic leadership. In this instance, it was neither a Muslim nor a Hindu institution but a fledgling Christian one that grew with agricultural development on the Bengal frontier.
we made a detour of one day to visit a Christianity [i.e., a Christian community] to be found in a place named Bouloüa [Bhallua, northwest of Noakhali town]. God maintains and directs it Himself immediately: for it is rare that any missionary goes to visit it.…
The chief of these Christians is an old man who has five sons, all married. Their family, and the labouring folk who are gathered around them (for they have taken arable lands) form a village of three to four hundred persons. The laborious life which they lead, added to the vigilance and attention of the chief, keep them in the greatest innocence.
Nonetheless, while Bengal’s agrarian frontier accommodated Hindu and even Christian institutional growth, it was a Muslim gentry that received the lion’s share of patronage from Mughal district revenue officers. It was they who acquired the greatest amount of state-recognized control over patches of virgin jungle, who attracted the most local labor for reducing the land to rice paddy, and who built the mosques or shrines that in turn served as nuclei for the economic and religious transformation of micro-regions. Greater patronage ultimately favored the growth of rural Muslim communities over the growth of communities professing other religious identities.
It would be wrong, however, to explain religious change here or elsewhere as simply a cultural dimension of political or economic change, or to understand Islam itself as a timeless and fixed system of beliefs and rituals that the people of the delta passively accepted. For in the midst of the dramatic socioeconomic changes taking place in premodern Bengal, Islam creatively evolved into an ideology of “world-construction”—an ideology of forest-clearing and agrarian expansion, serving not only to legitimize but to structure the very socioeconomic changes taking place on the frontier. On the one hand, Islamic institutions proved sufficiently flexible to accommodate the non-Brahmanized religious culture of premodern Bengal. On the other, the religious traditions already present in eastern Bengal made accommodations with the amalgam of rites, rituals, and beliefs that were associated with the village mosques and shrines then proliferating in their midst. In the process, Islamic and Bengali worldviews and cosmologies became fused in dynamic and creative ways, a topic to which we now turn.