Islam, Bengal

Islam (in Bengal)  came to Bengal comparatively late. Within about one hundred years of its advent, Islam penetrated into northwestern India, and Arabian traders came into contact with the coastal regions of India, including Bengal. But it took about five hundred years for Muslim political power to reach Bengal. According to unconfirmed traditions, some Muslim sufi-saints came to Bengal even before the political conquest, but Islam actually entered in full force with the Turkish conquest towards the beginning of the 13th century. Bangladesh is today a Muslim majority country; about 90% of her population belongs to the Islamic faith.

During the first three hundred years or so of Muslim rule, the Turks of one or the other group- the Khaljis, the Ilbaris and the Qaraunahs, ruled Bengal. The Abyssinian slaves occupied the throne for a few years in the late 15th century and then came successively the Sayyids, the Afghans and the Mughals. So broadly speaking, the Muslim rulers of Bengal belonged to three racial groups- the Turks, the Afghans and the Mughals. The last were originally linked with the Turks.

Islam entered Bengal both by land and water. By land the Turkish conquerors came with their religion, culture and concept of governance, while the Arab traders came through waterway. They also came with their religion and culture, with a purpose different from that of the Turks. The influence of the Arabs in some parts of Bengal, particularly in the coastal region of Chittagong is remembered through traditions. But the Arabs probably did not affect the society as deeply as was done by the Turkish conquerors.

The Turks came with the avowed intention of establishing political power. The Arabs came to trade in the trading season, and left when the season was over. But for the Turkish conquerors the situation was different. They conquered, established a kingdom and a government and took other steps to strengthen their position. Ever since the establishment of the first Muslim kingdom in Bengal there was a continuous flow of Muslims into Bengal. There came the soldiers, who were, in fact the backbone of political power; the religious learned people, the Sayyids, Ulama and the Mashayikhs to disseminate religion; the civil servants, experts in politics, finance and governance; the traders and businessmen, and also the artisans and craftsmen. They all came in search of employment and /or better livelihood. The Mongol destruction of the Baghdad Caliphate in the thirteenth century led to widespread displacement of Central Asian Muslims, who took refuge in the capitals of Delhi and lakhnauti. They even spread to the outlying places. Muslims coming from the cultural centres of central Asia were welcomed; they were known as aizza (‘respectable’) and given suitable employment.

When the Muslim Kingdom was established in Lakhnauti, it was, theoretically at least, a part of the Abbasid Caliphate. Though the caliph’s power was dwindling, he was considered the supreme spiritual head of Sunni Muslims all over. The Muslims of Bengal also shared this view and some early Muslim sultans of Bengal actually imprinted the names of Abbasid caliphs on their coins. Some others, who did not actually inscribe the name of the caliph, assumed titles inscribed on their coins, denoting their allegiance to the institution of the Caliphate. Be that as it may, the Muslim kingdom of Bengal in the pre-Mughal period was for all practical purposes an independent kingdom. During this whole period, the Bengal rulers took the title of sultan, thus proclaiming the character of the Kingdom as a Sultanate. Some Bengal sultans assumed the title of Khalifah themselves. The Caliphate of Baghdad came to an end long before the establishment of Mughal rule in India (or in Bengal). So they had nothing to do with that institution. The Mughals took the imperial title of xahinxah (king of the kings), and they gave the title of sultan to their princes. Bengal, or Subah Bangalah, was all through a province of the Mughal empire.

Islam, which came in the wake of the Turkish conquest, changed the socio-religious pattern of Bengal. Politically, it sowed the seeds of Muslim rule, but socially it planted a Muslim society, opening the gate of Bengal to numerous immigrants from the then Muslim world, which affected the existing society enormously. Islam spread in Bengal in a lengthy process.

Bakhtyar’s kingdom was only a nucleus and the Muslims took more than two hundred years to bring the whole of Bengal under their control. In 1338 Bengal witnessed the beginning of an independent Sultanate under fakhruddin mubarak shah. From this time onward, for two hundred years, Bengal remained independent. This was a period of overall development of the country both politically and culturally. But the most important development of this period was that the country for the first time received a name, ie Bangalah. Before this there was no geo-political unity of Bengal, no common name for the whole country. Bengal was known by the names of its different units, Gauda, Radha, Vanga etc. After Sultan Shamsuddin iliyas shah conquered all these three regions and united the whole of Bengal, the name Bangalah emerged and he earned for himself the title of Shah-i-Bangalah and Sultan-i-Bangalah. Henceforth, the Muslim kingdom of Bengal came to be known as the kingdom of Bangalah. Historians began to call the kingdom Bangalah instead of Lakhnauti, and foreigners also used this name, when came the Mughal subah Bangalah and the British province of Bengal.

The independent Sultanate saw the expansion of Muslim power which spread into every nook and corner of the country, up to kamarupa in the north, Tippara in the east and the sea in the south. Chittagong was conquered by Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah (1338-1349); Faridpur was conquered by jalaluddin muhammad shah (1415-1432) and renamed fathabad. Khan Jahan brought the Khulna-Jessore area under the Muslim rule in the reign of nasiruddin mahmud shah (1435-1459) and ruknuddin barbak shah (1459-1474) conquered Bakerganj. The expansion of Muslim power in Bengal was now complete, and the Muslim kingdom of Lakhnauti founded by Muhammad bakhtiyar khalji was turned into the Muslim Kingdom of Bengal. The Mughals took over this kingdom. After the death of aurangzeb, when Mughal power declined, Bengal like other provinces of the empire was ruled by the nawabs more or less independently. This position continued up to the battle of palashi, 1757.

The establishment of Muslim rule was not an end in itself, for Muslim power had to be sustained in a country where a large number of non-Muslims had been living from time immemorial. These indigenous people were diametrically opposed to the incomers in every aspect of religious, social and cultural life; they were opposed not only in their fundamental beliefs but also in their day to day life from birth to death. So the Muslim rulers of Bengal, from the beginning till the end, built up institutions to disseminate Islamic learning and culture among those who professed the Islamic faith. They built mosques, madrasahs and khanqahs for this purpose. Mosques form an important feature of Muslim society and culture, because they afford opportunity to offer prayers, one of the fundamental pillars of the Islamic faith. In fact when a new area was brought under control and a Muslim settlement was established, a mosque was built to facilitate offering of prayers by the Muslims. Thus numerous mosques were built during Muslim rules down to the 18th century; a few hundred are still extant so that they can be used as prayer houses, while many have perished. Those that are still extant were pucca constructions, but there must have been numerous mud houses or thatched houses built for offering prayers whose existence or numbers cannot be ascertained.

Many Arabic or Persian inscriptions still exist, either fixed on the walls of the mosques, or displaced and removed to museums or other safer places. The inscriptions reveal that the mosques were built at the initiative of rulers or their officers. The inscriptions generally begin with either a verse of the Holy quran or a hadith of the Prophet (Sm) or both, promising the builder the rewards that await him in the next world for founding such religious institutions. The rulers therefore built mosques in full realisation of their performance of a religious duty.

Similarly madrasahs or schools or colleges were built to afford facilities to young Muslims to receive education. Mosques also served as maktabs to impart elementary religious education to the children. There were many madrasahs to impart elementary education, and also institutions of higher learning, particularly in the towns and cities. The rulers got the madrasahs built at state expense, but individual philanthropists also built some. Some of the institutions, called dar-ul-khairat or bina-ul-khair, were residential institutions, where teachers and students were provided board and lodging. Religious persons like the Ulama and the Sufis also built Madrasahs, but they were state patronised. The higher institutions of learning imparted instructions on ilm-i-deen and ilm-i-shara. Ilm-i-deen or religious knowledge and ilm-i- shara or knowledge of shariah may mean many things. In those days, as in the present day, a person had to pursue his study up to a certain level to become an Alim, and the subjects which he had to study were the Quran, Hadith, Tasawwaf, Mantiq, Kalam, and such other subjects, as also the Arabic and Persian languages.

Khanqahs were built to afford facilities to the sufi-saints to pursue their spiritual activities with their followers. They were built either by the rulers or by the Sufis themselves, but they received state patronage. Khanqahs of some of the very famous saints like Shaikh jalaluddin tabrizi, shah jalal, Shaikh nur qutb alam survives even today. Khanqahs of Sufis of the Mughal period are also extant. The Muslim rulers granted lands for the maintenance of mosques, madrasahs and khanqahs. They also granted lands to the Muslim learned people like Ulama and Mashayikh for their sustenance. They were granted by way of imam (rewards), wazifa (stipends) and madad-i-maash (assistance for subsistence). The Ulama and Mashayikh, therefore, enjoyed economic security so that they could engage themselves in the pursuit of knowledge and meditation. The Muslim rulers always encouraged Muslim Ulama, Sufis and other religious leaders, built religious institutions and thus helped the growth of a Muslim society in Bengal.

The building up of Muslim society in Bengal was a long process of gradual growth. The composition of the society quite naturally differed from century to century with the immigration of foreign Muslims and the conversion of local people. The early immigrants were turks, and they belonged to different stocks, like the Khaljis, the Ilbaris and the Qaraunahs. Their supporters also came from far-off places. Arabs and Persians also came, and included people from various professions and other trades. One Bengal sultan, Ruknuddin Barbak Shah imported a good number of Abyssinian slaves to guard the palace and the royal family, and this added a new element in the Muslim society.

With the occupation of Delhi by the Mughals, the Afghans lost control over northern India and they spread over outlying provinces including Bengal. The Afghans also became rulers in Bengal and their supremacy continued for several decades. Then came the Mughals and a fresh wave of Muslim migration to Bengal started. Mughal supremacy in Bengal lasted for several hundred years. So long the Muslim immigrants in Bengal were almost all Sunnis, and Shias were few and far between. With the supremacy of the Mughals there came iranians, mostly belonging to the xia community.

The Mughal subahdars, some of whom were of royal blood were highly cultured. Many scholarly persons from Upper India and outside made their homes and settled in this rich province. The increase of oceanic communications between Bengal and the Persian Gulf countries in the 17th century, tempted cultured Shias, Persian scholars, physicians, philosophers and traders to come and settle in Bengal. A voyage from Bandar Abbas or Basra to hughli was much easier and cheaper than the overland journey across upper India, either through the Afghan passes or via the port of Surat.

Although Shias started coming to Bengal after the Mughal conquest or even before, they came in larger number from the beginning of the 17th century after jahangir’s accession to the throne. After his marriage with Nur Jahan, a shiaite lady, her family became the controlling power of Mughal polities. Members of that family also came to Bengal as subahdars and held many other high posts. In the reigns of Jahangir and shahjahan, a large number of Persian poets adorned the court of Bengal subahdars. Even the court of shah shuja, who was himself a staunch Sunni, was surrounded by a good number of Shia scholars. Of course, he had received his education under a Shiah teacher and his wife and mother belonged to Shia families.

Great Mughal subahdars like mir jumla and shaista khan were Shias. They were accompanied to Bengal by many Shia followers who occupied important posts. Shaista Khan came to Bengal with half a dozen grown up children, who were all trained soldiers and efficient administrators. From the provincial capital down to the sarkars and parganas, from the military department to the rent receiving stations, Iranians and Shias were found thronging along with Sunnis and others. From murshid quli khan to sirajuddaula, ie till the 18th century, the subahadars or nawabs, as they were called then, were all Shias. During this time the Shias became predominant in all branches of administration, in the army, navy (nawara), in the revenue and other departments.

The nawabs, particularly Murshid Quli Khan and his son-in-law shujauddin khan appointed their relatives to the key positions of the state; during the time of alivardi khan, though Hindu officials did go up the ladder, he also confined the most important offices to his relatives, particularly his family members, children of his brother who were all his sons-in-law. So, although initially Sunni Muslims predominated in Bengal society, during the closing years of Muslim rule they gradually yielded place to Shias.

Chittagong being an important seaport, the Arab, Persian and many other foreign traders went there for commerce and trade. Prospects of better livelihood in the newly conquered country and prospects of lucrative trade were responsible for attracting foreign Muslims to this country. While some may have left, many settled here in Bengal. There were also cases of conversion of local people to Islam; the question of conversion is of special significance and will be taken up later in this essay. There were also the children of mixed marriages; many immigrants including the rulers accepted local wives and there are examples of children of such marriages attaining high ranks in society, according to the status of their respective fathers.

So it is found that there were many elements in Muslim society, the Turks, the Afghans, the Mughals, the Arabs, the Persians, the local converts etc. How were these various people integrated into the societyFoodgrain The earliest reference to different groups in society is found in a proclamation of Sultan firuz shah tughlaq issued to the people of lakhnauti on the eve of his invasion of Bengal in 1354 AD. The proclamation was addressed to the (i) Saadat, Ulama, Mashayikh and others of similar nature; (ii) the Khans, Maliks, Umara, Sadrs, Akaber and Maarif and their retinue and followers. A Hindu poet, writing in 1495 AD, refers to the Mughals, Pathans, Shaikh, Sayyid, Mulla and qazi. In the early 16th century duarte barbosa wrote about the wealthy Arabs, Iranians, Abyssinians and Indians of gaur and also about the high living standard of these Muslims. The proclamation of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, an official document, addressed those whose co-operation and help were needed and sought against his opponent, the sultan of Bengal. So they were the people who formed the upper class of the society, the Ashraf as they are called. They belonged to the religious class, the Saadat, Ulama, and Mashayikh, and the official class, the Khans, Maliks and Umara.

The Saadat or the Sayyids were the descendants of the Prophet (Sm), the Ulama or the Alims were those who were well versed in the Islamic sciences or theology. They received training in Muslim Law, Logic, Arabic Letters and religious literature. The Mashayikh or the Sufi-Saints were spiritual persons, sometimes otherworldly or ascetic. Of these the theologians, ie the Ulama occupied a special position, because they occupied judicial and other religious offices. They were the exponents of the Law, having sufficient knowledge and expertise to arbitrate disputes. The word Shaikh literally means old, but technically it means doctor in Muslim Law and Theology. In this sense Shaikhs were Ulama but they were Ulama who had themselves attained or helped others attain spiritual development.

The Sufis of Bengal were called Shaikh, because they actually devoted themselves to the teaching of Islamic sciences alongside their mystic devotions. The Sufis were also called Makhdums, ie those who are served. Shaikh or Makhdum, by whatever name the Sufis were called, were people who were spiritually developed and who adhered to the spirit of Islam. They were renowned for their simplicity of life, strength of character, devotion to faith and peaceful pursuits; they influenced the people and society very deeply. The other groups of Muslims were the Khans, Maliks etc who belonged to the official class and bureaucracy; they were the army personnel and civil servants who ran the administration and were the backbone of Muslim political power.

At the time of the Muslim conquest, Bengal was predominantly a Hindu-Buddhist country. The proportion of Hindus and Buddhists cannot be ascertained, but it is a fact that Buddhists ruled Bengal for several centuries, though before Bakhtyar’s conquest, the Senas, were holding political power. Raja laksmanasena was then ruling over the whole of Bengal. Moreover, non-Aryan elements were always present in Bengal, particularly outside the urban centres and in the river-girt Bangalah; and Buddhism which was uprooted from the land of its birth, ie North India, had been a great competitor of Hinduism on the eve of the Muslim conquest.

The non-Aryan elements had somehow identified themselves with the Buddhists and thus when Hindu-Buddhist rivalry was very much present in the society, Islam came as a relieving force, in which many found an easy opening to salvation and success. This probably led to the conversion of local people to Islam. It is interesting to note that whereas in northern India, the place under imperial domination for centuries, Islam was confined to urban centres, in deltaic Bengal it captured the rural society. The large number of Muslims in this area was not so much due to the introduction of foreign blood into the country as to the conversion of indigenous population for whom the rigid caste system of Hinduism had become intolerable. There is hardly any evidence of forcible conversion in the context of India or Bengal.

During several hundred years of Muslim rule, it is not expected that all rulers were free from religious bias or the desire to win converts even by coercion, but there is a consensus that its extent was very limited. The theory of political patronage also cannot explain the mass conversion to Islam that took place in Bengal because a large number of Hindus occupied state services including the office of ministers. Hinduism had prohibited the outcast from residing in the same village as the twice-born Brahman, had forced him to perform the most menial and repulsive occupations and had virtually treated him as an animal undeserving of any pity; but Islam announced that the poor, as well as the rich, the slave and his master, the peasant and the prince, were all equal in the eye of God. Above all, the Brahmans held out no hopes of a future world to this most virtuous helot, while the Mullah not only pronounced assurances of felicity in this world but of an indefeasible inheritance in the next. So the ‘hewers of wood and the drawers of water’, many a despairing chandal and kaibartta joyfully embraced Islam, a religion that proclaimed the equality of man.

The reasons for conversion may be either mundane, eg for gaining royal favour, job opportunities and economic gains, or genuine love for the faith and desire to be free from oppression from people belonging to higher castes. The last mentioned cause seems to have played a greater part in the matter of conversion in Bengal. Islam with its social justice, principles of equality and fraternity came to the downtrodden people as a saviour when the entire local society was steeped in inequality and caste oppression. And their models in Muslim society were certainly not the kings and nobles, but the Sufis and Ulama whose unostentatious life must have set an example.

It is unnecessary to speculate what percentage of Muslims adhered to the fundamental principles of Islam ie Salat (prayers), Saum (fastings), Zakat (poor rates) and Hajj (pilgrimage to the holy cities), because it was incumbent for Muslims to follow them. There were facilities for practicing the fundamentals and religious leaders were there to preach them.

The great majority of the people, particularly those who entered the fold of Islam later could not be as religious. It is not unnatural that some popular elements had crept into the general belief of the Muslims. It should be conceded that many of the converted Muslims retained their long-inherited customs, social behaviour and even love for Hindu epics. Jola (weavers), mukeri (livestock holders), pithari (cake-sellers), Kabari (fish-mongers), garasal (converts of mixed origin), sanakar (loom-maker), hajam (circumciser), Tirakar (bow-maker), kagaji (paper-maker), Kalandar (wandering faqir or holy men), darji (tailors), rangrez (dyers), Kal (those who beg for alms at night), kasai (beef-sellers), gola or goala (milk-men) etc retained their old professions. Some of these groups were linked with the village economy, others to the textile industry and still others like the tirakar provided weaponry to the armed forces while the kagaji or paper-maker supplied paper for the use of civil servants in the offices and teachers and students for writing books. They continued the professions in which they were engaged before accepting Islam.

Centuries of contact between the Hindus and the Muslims had profoundly influenced both, so that the social and religious life of the Muslims profoundly influenced Hinduism, and in the same manner some practices of the Hindus entered into the life of the Muslims. As a result some popular elements are also found in the religious practices of the Muslims. The most important popular element is found in Pirism. The Persian word Pir is now very loosely used, denoting those spiritual guides for which the Arabic words, Shaikh, Murxid were formerly used.

In the early days, the Pirs were the people who adhered most strictly to the ideals and principles of a spiritual life. They led an austere and puritan life. Pirism was hardly hereditary, because Pirs had to attain spiritual development. But Pirism gradually degenerated and sometimes false tombs or dargahs were built and these even became famous. Wandering Muslim faqirs built, in imitation of Hindu temples and Buddhist Viharas, tombs and mausoleums in the name of famous Muslim Sufis of Central Asia and thus earned their livelihood and found out ways and means to acquire followers. Through assiduous and persistent propaganda regarding the miracles of these saints they attracted people, particularly of the lower classes.

In Bengal there also developed Satya-Pir and Panch-Pir movements and a good number of books were written on the Satya-Pir cult. While the Muslim writers call him Satya-Pir, to the Hindus he was known as Satya-Narayana. In fact, there is no difference between Satya Pir and Satya Narayana. Satya-Pir or Satya-Narayana worship could be noticed in the northern and western parts of Bengal even in the beginning of the 20th century. But the traditions about them may go as far back as the 16th century. The worship of Panch-Pir also gained popularity. Though Panch-Pir dargahs are found in several places, no accepted list of five Pirs is available. The names vary in the lists, though one or two names of local Pirs are found common in all. A number of imaginary Pirs also receive reverence from the credulous masses. They are given different names like Manik Pir, Ghora Pir, Kumbhira Pir and Madari Pir. Offerings are made to them seeking relief from dangers. For example, offerings of milk and fruits are made to Manik Pir, and folk songs known as Manik Pirer Gan are composed and sung in various parts.

In some dargahs people bind coloured threads to the branches of nearby trees and/or stones or walls are washed with lime. Sometimes people offer edibles to fish or tortoises in tanks attached to the dargahs. The fish or tortoises are called madari. The disciples of Badiuddin Shah Madar are called Madari, but the name Madari given to the fish or tortoise shows that the people have forgotten its original connotation.

Mullaism is another element of popular Islam. Mullas are usually consulted by the ordinary and less educated Muslims and they help the village Muslims in performing marriage ceremonies, killing animals on festive and religious occasions, giving taviz (amulet) to the seekers of relief from evils. They also teach children in mosques and maktabs and are paid for their services.

The Muslims also venerate stone representations of the footprint of the Prophet (Sm). In Bangladesh there are several buildings containing the footprint eg kadam rasul at Nabiganj, Dhaka, Kadam Mubarak at Chittagong town and Kadam Rasul at Bagicha Hat, Chandanaish, Chittagong.

The Shias also brought some practices and ceremonies. The most important of them is linked with the tragic death of Imam Husain (R) and his family at Karbala, the Muharram festival. In the late Mughal period, the festival was observed ceremoniously in places like Dhaka and Murshidabad. The Shia nawabs and high officials spent huge amount of money in observing it. Muslim poets have also written on Muharram. Folk songs called jarigan are very popular even today. In the past Taziah processions were organised with pomp, splendour and also grief in remembrance of the Karbala tragedy. The birth, marriage and death of Muslims are guided by set rules, but here also Hindu practices have infiltrated. In their social life also the Muslims were influenced by some Hindu practices. For example, the Axraf and Atraf (or Ajlaf) difference among Muslims was not much different from the caste distinction of the Hindus. In the first half of the Muslim period, the social difference was not so acute, but during the Mughal period when Islam spread to the nooks and corners of the country, particularly in the river-girt area, the cultivators, the weavers, and others who adopted similar professions were relegated to the lower or Atraf class. Economically backward people also belonged to the Atraf class.

The advent of Islam in Bengal gave the Brahmanical ascendancy a rude shock. The importance of the superior castes in both political and social life was greatly reduced. It was not only Islam but several other forces, such as the Manasa, Chandi and Dharma cults, that were opposed to the Brahmancial system and were more amenable to the proselytizing influence of Islam. In their attempt to face these challenges, the Brahamins further tightened their caste rules. The attitude of the Brahmins is exemplified by the foundation of the Navadvipa school of Nyaya, the composition of a number of smrti texts by Raghunandan and his contemporaries and general revival of the culture embodied in the Sanskrit texts. This was, however, a negative approach; instead of liberalising the rules and thus keeping the lower class Hindus, Vaishyas and Shudras, away from the influence of Islam, they tightened the caste restrictions and thus isolated themselves further from the people. They lost their hold over society and in eastern and southern Bengal adherents to the local cults of Manasa, Chandi and the Nathas far outnumbered others.

It was not possible for the Brahmins to keep themselves aloof for long. Living in the same country, contact with the Muslims, Buddhists and other lower class Hindus, whom they treated as mlechchhas or untouchables, was inevitable. This affected their caste purity. Association with the Muslims was called Yavana-dosa (dosa meaning offence). Besides Yavana-dosa, being childless, going to brothels, marrying within the community, marrying wicked girls, killing Brahmins, committing adultery or fornication could affect the social life of Brahmins and entitled them to lose their caste sanctity. So there was a reaction among the Brahmins themselves against this negative and suicidal policy. The idea gained ground in some sections that unless the Brahmins could keep pace with the challenge of time and liberalise their social restrictions, they would not be able to stem the tide of Islam. This group represented the progressive element and their chief exponent was sri chaitanya, the founder of Gaudiya vaisnavism.

Chaitanya was a great reformer who advocated a casteless society. So the most important influence of Islam in Bengal is to be found in the diminishing superiority of the Brahmins, the social revolution among the Brahmins themselves, prominence of local cults like those of Manasa, Chandi and Natha, and finally the rise of Gaudiya Vaisnavism as a means of saving Hinduism, chiefly with its casteless appeal.

The Muslims brought with them their food habits, culinary art and dress, but they had to adjust these to the local climate. Islamic architecture was developed before the Muslims came to Bengal. This architecture with its true arch, dome, minar etc took the place of the false arch and skyline or pyramidal shape. Both religious and secular buildings represented Muslim architecture. The religious buildings were mosques and mazars (tomb), whereas the secular buildings were of miscellaneous kinds, like the houses, pavilions, gates, wells, bridges, gardens etc. The Muslims also introduced mortar in their buildings. But the most important contribution of the Muslims in Bengal was the growth of Bengali literature. Muslims came to Bengal with two languages, Arabic as the language of religion and Persian as the language of culture. They also had their mother tongue, Turkish or Poshtu as the case may be. In Bengal the languages were Bengali and Sanskrit. But Sanskrit was the language of both religion and culture.

The Brahmins considered it sacrilegious to write religious books in a language other than that of the Vedas, ie Sanskrit. The shudras had no access to the religious texts. The Brahmincal ascendancy in the Hindu period was, therefore, a great barrier to the growth of Bengali literature. In the Hindu period, the court language was also Sanskrit. So the rulers and the educated people were interested in the Sanskrit language only. After the Muslim conquest, the position changed; Persian became the court language and Sanskrit receded to the background. Local talents got momentum in cultivating their own language and literature.

Fortunately, the Muslim rulers were tolerant. They encouraged the cultivation of local language and literature; patronised Hindu poets and thus some very important books were written in the Sultanate period. Almost all these poets received patronage from the Muslim rulers. The names of Barbak Shah, husain shah, nusrat shah and the Muslim officers, paragal khan, Chute Khan may be mentioned in this connection. From the 16th century onwards, Muslim poets themselves wrote poems in Bengali. Besides, as an impact of Muslim rule, many Arabic and Persian words became assimilated into the Bengali language. The loan words in Bengali from these languages may be several hundred or even thousand and thus the Bengali vocabulary have been enriched. The Muslims also introduced romantic literature in Bengali. Whereas the Hindus wrote chiefly on religious themes centring round gods and goddesses, the Muslims introduced love-stories of men and women.

The Muslims came in contact with the local people in various ways. In their military establishments such as thanas, or the settlements of peaceful persons, they could not remain isolated and confined amongst themselves. In their day to day life, in the market places, bazaars, in the ports and in the trading stations, people of both the communities came closer. The Mughal revenue system brought the people even closer. Todar Mal’s elaborate land revenue system, called zabti, was never applied in Bengal but ambitious local Muslims and Hindus, of both of whom the mother tongue was Bengali, were now forced to learn Persian to get a share in the extended secretarial work of the Mughal provincial administration.

In Bengal the state revenue was collected through middlemen. Unlike the sultans of Bengal, the Mughal subahdars had no occasion to learn Bengali, and hence the agents of local zamindars at the courts of subahdars had to be masters of Persian. Thus Persian culture infiltrated from the subahdar’s court to that of the Rajas and zamindars of Bengal. During the early period of Mughal rule, the higher posts in the revenue, accounts and secretarial departments were reserved for Muslims and Hindus from Upper India, such as the Khatris from the Panjab and Agra and Lalas from the UP (Northern Province) From the time of Murshid Quli Khan the policy was abandoned; he established a local dynasty, and the high posts also passed into the hands of local Hindus and Muslims; these people were well-versed in Persian. Thus Persian spread in Bengali Hindu society no less than among the Muslims. Thus Islam, which came to Bengal a few hundred years after its birth, influenced the people and the society of this county very deeply.  [Abdul Karim]

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