A wide choice of music today from both the Bengals! The first title is Sarbonaash (Total destruction) by actor, musician and composer Shilajit from West Bengal.
The next track is from Saaptak, a band from Bardhaman in West Bengal, a fresh new take on a folksy number sung in colloquial Bengali.
Listen now to Shironamhin, a multi-award winning indie band from Bangladesh, with their number Abar Hashimukh (Again a smiling face). They have been singing since the 1990's and are one of the top ten from B'desh.
From Bangladesh to West Bengal again - Surjer dike cheyo na (Don't look at the sun) from super popular band Chandrabindoo , among the top ten in West Bengal.
And finally, a young band from Bangladesh, Shopnojal - singing a title called Sondhya Tara Hoye (Being the evening star). I like their simplicity and the unpretentious, very desi style of sitting crosslegged with the guitar as if it's a sitar - talk about Easternising your instrument!
Sword...or...Sufi...which was Supreme?
There are an estimated 190 million Bengali Muslims, one of the largest ethnic group of Muslims, second only to the Arabs. (Bengali Hindus make up another 80 million). Bengal was under Muslim rule since the 13th century till the British took over, and it has been a Muslim majority region for many centuries. However, Bengal was profoundly Hindu and Buddhist for millennia before that. So how did this Islamisation come about, so far away from Arabia?
Islam, just like Christianity, did not make its first landfall in Bengal, it came in from the west. By early 8th century, Arab armies had crossed and taken Sind under a commander called Mohammed ibn Qasim. Then Mahmoud of Ghazni invaded India in the 11th century for the first time.
Mahmoud went on to invade India seventeen times, pushing east beyond into Saurashtra (Gujarat), destroying Hindu temples, breaking idols, and plundering their considerable riches. He generated lots of sound and fury, and booty of course, but very little actual Islamisation happened.
There are four, much debated, theories of Islamisation of the sub-continent. 1) Immigration of Arabs and non-Arab Muslims from other regions, 2) by the ‘sword’ i.e. forced conversion by Muslim invaders/rulers, 3) spontaneous conversions to escape jizya/other taxes and for political/economic gain, and 4) conversion by lower caste Hindus to escape the oppressive caste system and ill-treatment by higher castes. Most historians agree that none of them fully explain the process.
Al Masudi, the Arab historian, records the first resident Muslims in Bengal in the 940’s – a handful of Arab/Persian merchants who had settled there. In 1204, Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Persian Turk commander of the Mamluk Sultan of Delhi, conquered Bihar and Bengal, ushering in Islamic rule in Bengal for the next 5 centuries. Khilji destroyed the Buddhist monasteries and practically annihilated the Buddhist culture. A succession of Muslim rulers put up mosques and Islamic monuments, often with building materials scavenged from erstwhile Buddhist or Hindu buildings. As Islamic rule in Bengal progressed, the rulers broke away from the central command in Delhi and declared independence. Muslim migrants from Central Asia, Abyssinia and Arabia itself came to serve in the military and merchant establishments.
From 1206 onward, Turks were on the move due to the rise of the Mongols, whether as mercenaries, adventurers, slaves or refugees. Groups of Turks travelled to Bengal also, under the leadership of an older, spiritual guide, often a Sufi saint leading his disciples. The oldest Islamic inscription found in Bengal is dated to July, 1221 – about a khanqah (Sufi hospice) built by a fakir. Shaikh Jalaluddin Tabrizi (d. 1244-45) and Shaikh Shah Jalal Mujarrad (1271-1346) were two early Sufis who had great impact on Bengal. They are credited with conquests and conversion of the local people. But whether the early Sufis actually converted their followers from one set of beliefs to another is not certain. They might have rather introduced Islam to a group of hill peoples unfamiliar with any form of organised religion.
From early on the Sufis expressed an interest in yogic beliefs and practices. A major Tantric text, Amritkunda (Pool of Nectar) was translated from Sanskrit to Arabic and Persian and was widely circulated. Many Bengal rulers were liberal, encouraged religious harmony, patronised exchange of ideas and employed members of both faiths in their administrations. Sufis and Sannyasis both got royal stipends.
Note also that the independent Muslim rulers of Bengal styled themselves with all manners of grandiose titles – Sultan us Salatin (Sultan of Sultans) Zill Allah (Shadow of God) etc, but not one of them used the title of Ghazi (a warrior of faith). Nor were any of the beloved Sufis called a warrior in contemporary writings.
Then in the 16th century two monumental, but unrelated, events changed Bengal’s religious and natural landscape forever.
One, the Mughal Empire annexed Bengal and created the Bengal Subah. And two, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra both changed courses and flowed southeast, leaving the west relatively less fertile and with silted-up, unnavigable channels. The Bengali population migrated eastwards. Due to the newer river courses, East Bengal was now directly connected to North India and Delhi, the Mughal capital. The local economy boomed.
After the Mughal conquest, huge tracts of the Sunderbans were cleared and made suitable for rice farming. The increases are reflected in the imperial tax records of the 16th and 17th centuries. Men, leading a band of workers, migrated into East Bengal, from North India and further west, at once clearing the land for rice, and populating the lower delta. Many of them were Muslims and/or Sufis.
Medieval Bengali literature and folklore bristles with tales of holy men (Pirs) coming east, clearing forests, performing miracles, building mosques and khanqahs around which villagers coalesced. While Islamic ideas of Allah, the Prophet, the holy cities, the Caliphs and other revered figures were introduced, none of the existing panoply of Hindu deities was discarded. They continued to exist alongside each other, equally respected for centuries. Bengal thus developed its own syncretic practice, a unique combination of Hinduism and Islam.
What about the other two theories – Islam as passport for advancement at court and as escape hatch from caste related oppression? The Muslims of East Bengal had their own classification of social status (Ashraf=noble, immigrants; Ajlaf=local; Arzal=Degraded) and occupational groups (Jola=Weavers; Kasai=Butchers, etc) - the caste system transitioned almost seamlessly into the Muslim society. Also, those coming into Islam from the lowest classes of Hindus gained no advantage whatsoever by accepting it and remained shunned. Also, if Islamisation was due to political motives, then it’s strange that the maximum happened in the fringes of the Empire, leaving the regions close to Delhi/Agra untouched. Add to this the fact that most Bengali Muslim rulers had prominent positions filled by Hindus. In fact, traditionally many of the Diwans and close advisors to the Muslim kings have been Brahmins or Kayasthas. So neither of these hold much water.
Islamisation of Bengal was therefore a gradual process of assimilation rather than a straightforward, abrupt ‘conversion.’ The Sufis spearheaded the spread of agrarian change as well as Islamisation, and went onto influence every sphere of life in Bengal, as in India generally. Even today, the Sufi saints are revered all across the subcontinent and their shrines draw hundred of thousands of visitors, both Muslim and Hindu. Read more here.
Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019