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Arabs, The


Arabs, The had connection with Bengal from very early times. Striking Arab influence is noticed in various aspects of Bengali life and clime. For instance Mulk Bangal (the country), Khalij Bangal (the Bay), Hujjat-i-Bangal are famous ancient Arabic vocabulary. Amma (mother), abba (father), most generally used by the Muslims of Bangladesh, are pure Arabic words. In Noakhali some popular call-attention vocabularies are derived from Arabic. In Chittagong, the habit of responding to a call saying labbai is derived from Arabic labbaik. In Chittagong, Noakhali and Sylhet, the indigenous people were afraid of settling in the forest zones for the fear of jinnee and wild animals. The Muslim settlers took courage in setting up habitats under the patronage of the wali-auliya (holy men), who remain buried in the midst of settlements; their resting places and burial grounds are venerated as mazars (shrines).

Muslim contact with Bangladesh occurred in two phases; the first phase was from the 8th to the 12th century AD and the second from the 13th century onwards. The sea-faring Arab traders and travellers made the first phase of contact and, at the same time, they preached and propagated the religion of Islam. It was a peaceful and pacific penetration; its occurrence is obvious but its evidence is scarce.

Nonetheless, contemporary trade reports, travelogues, historical accounts and geographical descriptions preserved in the writings of the Arabs - traders Sulaiman (c 851 AD), Zaid al-Hasan, Ibn Khurdadbih (d 912 AD), Al-Masudi (d 956 AD), Ibn Hawkal (c 976 AD), geographer Al-Idrisi (c 1100-1165 AD) and others - relating to south and southeast Asian countries, make it amply evident that from the 8th to the 12th century AD the southeastern areas of Bangladesh, particularly to the east of river Meghna, had become a busy hub of the Perso-Arab trading activities. When the Sasanid empire fell into the hands of the Muslims in the 7th century AD, all Persian trade came under Muslim hegemony and in course of time the rising Arab traders took over the maritime trade into their own hands.

The Arabs started plying on the high seas as early as the 9th century AD under the patronage of the Abbasid Khalifahs. The period from the 9th to the 16th century AD was the golden age of Perso-Arab sea-borne trade and commerce from Spanish Gibraltar to the Chinese Port of Canton. According to the maritime historian Hadi Hasan, the Arabs, Persians, Abyssinians, Indians, and others used to settle in Bangladesh. The land of this country was fertile and the climate congenial. Most of them were big merchants and possessed ships of their own. Among the ports of Bengal Samandar figured prominently, which can be identified with modern Chittagong. Aloe-wood was brought down to the port for export from a distance of 15 or 20 days through sweet water from Kamarupa and other places and rice was produced in and around the port in abundance. The port of Samandar may have been situated somewhere near the confluence of the rivers Brahmputra and Meghna roughly at one day's distance from the sea or the island of Sandwip.

The Arabs, while passing through the long coastal belt of the bay of bengal, would collect and purchase forest products. They would also procure valuable and rare commodities brought down from far-flung areas of eastern India, Assam, Kamarupa and chittagong hill tracts to the ports of the coastal areas at diverse points. The Dutch historian Van Leur suggests that the coastal areas of Bengal, Arakan and other places were marked by numerous Arab settlements and agency houses engaged in collecting local products and commodities for shipment.

In ancient times the areas now covered by the greater Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts and parts of greater Noakhali were under the Arakanese kingdom. In 953 AD the Arakanese king Tsu-la-taing Tsan-da-ya made an expedition to Thu-ra-tan (Bengal) and established a pillar of victory with an inscription saying Tset-ta-going, meaning it is improper to make wars. Some scholars believe that the name Chittagong has been derived from Tset-ta-going. It is also suggested that Thu-ra-tan is an Arakanese corruption of sultan, which indicates that a Muslim community may have grown up in the Chittagong area by the middle of the 10th century AD and that the Arakanese king had to suppress it by applying force. Some have also claimed that a small sultanate, which was suppressed by the Arakanese king, might have been establishment there. In the absence of definite proofs, the existence of a Muslim principality cannot definitely be ascertained. But considering the overwhelming Muslim majority in the area and the tangible physiological features amongst the Muslim population of southeastern areas of Bangladesh such a possibility cannot be altogether ruled out.

Tangible contact of the Arabs with Bangladesh are discernible from the archaeological finds, a gold coin at paharpur in the Naogaon district and two coins (one gold and one silver) at mainamati in the Comilla district, of the Abbasid Khalifah. The gold coin found in Paharpur is dated 788 AD and bears the name of Khalifah Harun-or-Rashid. It was found amidst the ruins of a Buddhist shrine at Paharpur. One similar gold coin and a silver coin were found in the ruins of shalvan vihara, Mainamati. The gold coin was minted under the rule of the Abbasid Khalifah Mustaqim Billah (1242-1245 AD). The silver coin is partly damaged and its date could not be deciphered.

All these evidence undeniably prove the close and continuous trade contact of the Arabs with Bangladesh; but nowhere large scale Arab migration to or settlement in Bangladesh is clearly discernible. It is however, noted in some genealogical tradition that, Sayyid Alauddin husain shah, having come to power in Bengal (1494-1519 AD) invited Arabs to migrate to this country to strengthen his hands. Thereupon some Arab families came to his court. Yet their number must have been very small. [Muin-ud-Din Ahmad Khan]

Bibliography Abdul Karim (Sahityavisharad) and ME Haq, Arakan Rajshabhaya Bangla Sahitya, Calcutta, 1935; SB Qanungo, A History of Chittagong, Chittagong, 1988; AM Chowdhury, Dynastic History of Bengal, Dhaka, 1967; A Karim, Social History of the Muslims of Bengal, 2nd ed, Chittagong, 1983; MM Ali, History of the Muslims of Bengal, IA, Riyadh, 1985; SH Hodivala, Studies in History of Indian Muslim, New Delhi (Reprint), 1992.