Belief in Bengal

Weekend Independent | Friday, 17 December 2010 |  Rubaiyat Hossain  

Belief in Bengal

The starting point and the very historical processes of mass “conversion” to “Islam,” in South Asia has long been contested and politicized. For instance, the heavy Muslim settlement in the Eastern Delta of Bengal became a very important political factor in 1947, when the nation-state building apparatus drew boundaries to join the eastern delta of Bengal to West Pakistan on account of the high concentration of Muslim populations in both the regions. There followed yet another consequence of that partition: after the formation of Pakistan with the two wings—East Pakistan and West Pakistan—the heavy concentration of peasant Muslims in the Eastern Delta, the rural atraps found themselves under the economic, political and socio-cultural hegemony of the West Pakistani ashraf. This created rifts between both groups on issues of economic exploitation, political policy and leadership, language, culture, and religious practices. Ultimately Pakistan broke in half, a new country emerged: Bangladesh.

What were the socio-cultural, economic, and political phenomena that can account for the failure of Pakistan—the Muslim majority state of South Asia? When the persistent dreams of a separate homeland for the South Asian Muslims had actually been materialized; one may inquire: what was the array of forces that eventually led to a mass revolt against the West Pakistani military atrocities to establish yet another Muslim majority nation-state, those belonging to the Eastern Delta of Bengal in the South East?

This question has been instantly answered by Bangladeshi historians with the model of an unequal relation between the Eastern and Western wings of Pakistan tied in an unhappy marriage of economic exploitation, top down imposition of socio-cultural and political hegemony, and finally a clear-cut racism of the West Pakistani ashrafs over the East Pakistani atraps.

However, by looking carefully at Richard Eaton’s theory about the mass conversion of low caste Hindus to Islam in the lower delta of Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Eastern delta of Bengal today Bangladesh, between sixteenth and eighteenth century; one could provide a missing piece of Bangladesh’s socio-cultural and religious history to explain the gulf of differences, which remained so persistent and bore historical consequences for the Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims.

Eaton accounts for the high concentration of Muslim population in the Eastern delta of Bengal to the changing courses of the major rivers in region, which resulted in the creation of new land in the lower delta of Bengal. The new agrarian developments created settlements, habited previously uninhabited areas, and a new peasantry came into being between sixteenth and eighteenth century under the Mughal rule. Eaton concludes in his deduction that, the eastward movement of the Mughal empire’s agrarian frontier and the incorporation of the rice boom in East Bengal into the economic hub of the empire created a new wave of settlements in East Bengal; where “Islam” was introduced in the new lands as a, “Civilization-building ideology associated both with settling and populating the land by constructing a transcendent reality constant with the process.”

Sufi masters were sent by the Mughal kings with land endowments, grants for building of a mosque to initiate civilization in the new settlements. It is no wonder that most myths surrounding renowned Sufi masters like Hazrat Shah Jalal, Shah Paran, Makhdum Shah relate to the miracles or keramats performed by these Sufi masters to clear out the area of inauspicious elements: Jinns, ghosts, snakes, tigers, crocodiles to create habitable landmass. The famous 19th century scroll depicts a Sufi master riding on a Royal Bengal Tiger, in his right hand prayer beads and in his left hand a snake.

The Eastern delta of Bengal—the landmass, which is now Bangladesh has historically been a downward pushing delta frontier. It has been settled by Dravidians and looked down upon as ritually impure area in the Vedas. These areas also lie outside the geographical stretch of Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Thus, this area possessed its own local pagan religious practices different than Brahmanical Vedic Hindu practices. In Abul Fazl’s Ain-e-Akbari, the region of Syhtlet was described as a place where people lived in caves and practiced black magic and paganism. However, Sylhet appears again in Ibn Batuta’s narrative in 1345 when a Sufi khanqa or monastery has been established under the leadership of Hazrat Shah Jalal. The myth tells of Hazrat Shah Jalal crossing the river on his prayer rug and coming to Syhlet with 313 men. These men married into the local society and preached the message of Islam.

In Bangladesh/East Bengal, even though Sufi saints started to appear as early as 11th century; between 16th and 18th century there was a wave of massive conversion of the rural peasantry. During this time the changing courses of the rivers created new land in the lower portion of Bengal delta where the Sufi masters would simultaneously preach Islam and initiate a process of civilization building. These two processes went side by side, and Islam became the most important force for the peasantry to count on against natural calamity, epidemics, snakes, wild animals or bad harvests. As Islam’s reach seeped down into the soils of East Bengal to initiate a rice boom and shaped an agrarian civilization, Islam also reached very deep into the bones of the East Bengali peasantry as it continued to support them against natural adversities to harvest their crops.

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