The Islamization of Bengal

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The cover of Richard Eaton’s book, upon which this post is premised.

I just reread Richard Eaton’s book The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, and thought I’d make some observations on the theory it purports, and some of the implications. The entire book is available for free: Here.

The Theory

Eaton’s theory of Islamization rests on a much broader theory of how Bengali religion; both Hindu and Muslim was transmitted. It goes more or less as follows: New agricultural technologies, systems of land tenure, and legal/governing institutions were the main drivers behind the spread of both religions. Initially Brahmins, but later Sufis would head into a new region of the delta and establish themselves as local elites responsible for agricultural management (a similar pattern can be seen in the Deccan). Often the Sufi leader and his institution, or a temple institution would get a land grant from the state for this purpose, but this was not always the case. These religiously affiliated colonists brought with them new agricultural technologies from the west, which they would then implement locally. By some arrangement, religious elites became aligned with political elites. This was either because a preexisting regime sent out the Brahmins/Sufis in the first place, or because the regime sought to co-opt them once they had gained a following, and increased local agricultural productivity. Along with religion, the Brahmins and Sufis would bring in with them notions of law, languages, trading customs, etc. which brought eastern regions into the orbit of Indic civilization. In western Bengal this happened in the Epic period. In north Bengal, this happened in the historical period just preceding the Mughals. Due to its lateness, the land tenure system in the north was more primitive, relying on corvée labor rather than taxation in the form of crops or currency which existed in the west of Bengal. In the east and south of the delta however, no organized system of agriculture, government, or religion existed prior to the Mughal period. It was what we would call “aboriginal.” The main driver of this entire pattern was the eastward shift of the Gangetic delta between ~1400 and 1800, which rendered old land less productive, and forced people to confront the task of clearing and farming the forest. This moving river system thus constitutes a frontier in multiple dimensions; ecological, political, technological, and religious. All of these frontiers long predate the presence of Islam in the subcontinent, and can be easily discerned in earlier Sanskrit depictions of the region. Most of Bengal is described as mleccha territory outside the domain of “Aryavarta” in Sanskrit texts like the Baudhayana Dharmasutra (5th c BCE). Thus, Islamization is just the most recent episode in a phenomenon, which has roots in the Bronze or Iron Age.

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From the book. Maps illustrating the eastward migration of the Bengal delta.

Other Theories

This general pattern explains the population drift, and the transmission of new religion and technology eastward over time. But here it might be necessary to back up a step. The broadest problem, which Eaton is trying to solve, is the uncanny distribution of Muslim populations in the subcontinent. It is striking on a demographic map that Muslims are concentrated on the eastern and western flanks of north India, but are thinly spread out in the middle. Eaton lays out the prior 4 theories to explain Islamization before presenting his own. They are as follows: Continue reading

Imaginary Indias

Today I’m taking a break from the more serious, intellectual type of thing I normally do. How about we explore some alternative histories which have struck my fancy as of late?

I’ll start this off with the most interesting, thorough, and beautiful alternative history scenario I’ve ever read:

Gurkani Alam

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India in the year 2000. Click map for full size image.

Gurkani Alam (by Tony Jones) is premised on the historical theory that Aurangzeb’s incompetent reign was the turning point in Mughal history, which led to it’s decline and the ease of British domination starting in the 18th century. In some ways, the reality is more surprising than the alternative history. Aurangzeb was not Shah Jahan‘s chosen successor, and had to pull off a protracted coup d’etat in order to become ruler. His older brother, Dara Shikoh (who was killed at the conclusion of the coup), was extremely religiously tolerant. Shikoh had fostered a close relationship with the Sikh community, had 50 Upanishads translated into Persian under the title “Sirr-e-Akbar” or “The Greatest Mysteries” the “Kitab al-maknun” or “hidden book” referred to in the Koran, and authored a title called “Majma-ul-Bahrain” or  “The Confluence of the Two Seas,” which is an exploration of Sufi and Vedanta mysticism. In my estimation, Dara Shikoh’s religious pluralism outshines even that of Akbar.

To contrast, Aurangzeb’s leadership style diverged tremendously from prior rulers, especially in regards to religion. Akbar had established a set of policies designed to foster religious liberalism. He revoked the jizya tax on non-muslims, intermarried with Hindu kingdoms, and appointed non-Muslims to high administrative posts. Either out of the practical realities of ruling a mostly non-muslim population, or out of ideological sympathy, religious liberalism was largely retained by Jahangir  and Shah Jahan (with the notable exception of anti-Sikh violence perpetrated by the former.) These policies were scrapped by Aurangzeb in favor of a cartoonishly evil theocratic Islamic approach. This combined with his overly rapid (and very expensive) conquest, undermined the stability of Mughal rule. The empire became a soft target for Sikh, Pashtun, Rajput, and Bengali revolts, as well as Maratha, and eventually British incursions.

Gurkani Alam departs from reality in 1644, with the unexpected death of Aurangzeb in battle. Dara Shikoh becomes emperor, and continues in the old liberal Mughal tradition, while not weakening the empire with reckless expansion. The more stable outcome is a long lasting Mughal state in the north, in which Sikhism plays a much larger role, an independent South Indian federation, and a subcontinent which, while highly prosperous is not particularly permeable to Western imperialism.

I won’t spoil the details of the universe for you, but check out the concluding world map:

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Gurkani Alam in the year 2000. Click the map to see it full size.

Mughalstan

Ok, so when I said “alternate history” at the start of this post I was using the term perhaps too loosely. Mughalstan is more of an alternate future for the Indian subcontinent dreamed up by Islamic nationalists, possibly in cooperation with Dalit nationalists. It is amusing for two reasons:

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Most detailed version of Mughalstan map

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Akbar Commits Gestapo-style Medical Crimes in an Attempt at Rationalism

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Mughal Emperor Akbar, (1556-1605). Religious reformer and commissioner of freaky experiments. From the National Museum, New Delhi
Image source Indiapicks.com

When I was reading Abd al-Qadir Bada’uni’s history, Tarikh-i-Badauni in preparation for the last post I made on the Razmnamat, I came across an interesting passage. According to Bada’uni, Akbar carried out an early psychological experiment in infant seclusion. The history reads:

“In this year (989 H. [1581 AD]), in order to verify the circumstances of the case (of the man who heard without ears), an order was issued that several suckling infants should he kept in a secluded place far from habitations, where they should not hear a word spoken. Well-disciplined nurses were to be placed over them, who were to refrain from giving them any instruction in speaking, so as to test the accuracy of the tradition which says, “Every one that is born is born with an inclination to religion,” by ascertaining what religion and sect these infants would incline to, and above all what creed they would repeat. To carry out this order, about twenty sucklings were taken from their mothers for a consideration in money, and were placed in an empty house, which got the name of Dumb-house. After three or four years the children all came out dumb, excepting some who died there – thus justifying the name which had been given to the house.”[1]

Italics added

I had thought that for sure that Akbar must have been the first one to carry this experiment out. But I was wrong. It turns out that Psamtik I, Pharoh of Egypt from 664 – 610 BC, Frederick II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1212–122, and James IV, King of Scotland from 1488–1513, all had beat Akbar to the punch. However, they all did it to discover which language the infants would end up speaking.[2] Akbar seems to be the first to try this with religion in mind.

I truly admire the impetus for this experiment. He was trying to obtain some scientific data on the question of religion by removing the variables of societal and parental conditioning from the equation. How modern! Of course, if he was trying to find the “true” religion via this method, the whole premise of the experiment is flawed. Even if people are inclined towards a particular religion without any conditioning, it doesn’t necessarily mean that religion is true. However, Bada’uni never hints at such a bold hypothesis, so I must conclude that it was a very admirable attempt at rational discovery of truths normally reserved for “revelation.”

Less admirable is the fact that he was willing to sacrifice the lives of several children to get the answer. This is the kind of thing I’d expect to read in a Nazi or Japanese war crimes tribunal. Were the deleterious effects of social and maternal deprivation not known at the time? Or did the concept of child abuse simply not exist in the 14-1500s, as Psychohistorians like Lloyd deMause would argue?

I’ve looked for other references to this experiment for more information, but have only been able to find this one reference from Bada’uni’s history. I’m also unclear on what he means by “the man who heard without ears.” I’m assuming it means a man who believed a religion without ever having heard it due to deafness. If anyone has more information put it in the comments please.

Hit “Continue reading” for citations.


(Edit: It has become evident that I need to substantiate the title of this piece. Sure, the Gestapo didn’t actually conduct the experiments, but neither did Akbar. The Gestapo was just Himmler’s tool for pressuring the medical establishment and doing logistical tasks like picking out the subjects. Regardless, a better title would have replaced “Gestapo” with “SS” or “Himmler.” I’ll probably change that at a later point in time)

[1] Elliot, Sir Henry Miers. The history of India, as Told by its own Historians: The Muhammadan period, Hertford, 1873, Page 533

[2] Sułek, Antoni. The Experiment of Psammetichus: Fact, Fiction, and Model to Follow, Journal of the History of Ideas, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1989), pp. 645-651

King Akbar’s Mahabharata, or the Razmnama (Book of Wars)

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The battle of Duryodhana and Bhima (among others.) From the 1616-1617 edition of the Razmnama. By Kamal.
Image source: Simon Ray


When I was little I used to come across prints (much less elaborate than the above) in my house of scenes from the Mahabharata—with (what I assumed to be) Urdu writing on them! It confused me. I looked it up. Turns out, the Mughal king Akbar had a copy of the Mahabharata translated into Persian. Mystery solved. I put it to the back of my mind until recently when, while trying to plug gaps in my knowledge base I found out that there is actually a pretty interesting cast of characters behind this translation. An impassioned, suicidal artist, and his apollonian counterpart! An Islamic fundamentalist tasked with translating infidel texts! A king motivated by both religious toleration, and the maintenance of his regime’s legitimacy! Plus, it’s a good focal point around which to examine Indian art history which gives me the opportunity to post pretty pictures. Swiftly onwards–

Akbar’s Translation movement:

Akbar has a well-earned reputation as the most tolerant and humane of the Mughal kings. His formal policies towards non-muslims displayed liberality, and the composition of his court bespeaks of inclusivity. The range of art and music he chose to patronize also knew no religious bounds.[1] He even founded “Din-e-Ilahi,” a new syncretistic religion that earned the scorn of the orthodox Muslim intelligentsia.

Given these tolerant and syncretistic tendencies, it is no surprise that Akbar was interested in gaining access to the literature of the non-Persian speaking world. During his reign Akbar’s scholars translated works from Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, and Latin into Persian, and also did substantial translation work from Persian into Hindi. Though the Mahabharata was the center of his project, Akbar also had the Ramayana, the Artha Veda, the Lilavati (a treatise on mathematics), and other Sanskrit texts translated into Persian.[2] [3]

Court historian Mulla Daud writes that Akbar “ordered, that the rational contents of different religions and faiths should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.” Akbar’s reputation for tolerance has helped this explanation for the translation movement stick.[4] However, one should treat anything explanation given by court historians as suspicious. The Razmnama’s text has an array of strangely translated passages, additions, or omissions which justify this suspicion. While I’m sure that Akbar was genuinely interested in reading Hindu texts and spreading knowledge of them amongst his nobility, I also think that the translation project had distinctly fetishistic and propagandistic elements to it.

But First—

The Translation Process:

Ok, here’s the basic process. First, Sanskrit literate Brahmans (many of whom were converts to Islam) translated a common North Indian variant of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Hindi both in text, and verbally. Then the Hindi text was translated into Persian by a staff of Muslim, Persian speaking scholars. [5] Then that raw translation was converted into poetic verse by the project’s head, a scholar named Abu al-Fazl. [6] So obviously “translation” is a very loose term. It’s really more of a retelling.

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A folio from a 1616 copy of the Razmnama in which: “Asvatthama Fires the Narayana Weapon (Cosmic Fire) at the Pandavas.” You’ll notice I have so far posted no images from the 1587 manuscript which is under discussion here. That is because it sits in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur off limits to all historians. So thanks for nothing City Palace Museum in Jaipur.
Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

(If on the main page, hit “Continue Reading” for more [theres pretty pictures ahead {do it}])

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Bengali Feminist Sci-Fi: “Sultana’s Dream” by Roquia Hussain

Read the story here! If you find the writing style basic, keep in mind, English was her fifth language. Its an early work of both feminist literature, and science fiction. I think you’ll dig it.

sul·tan·a [suhl-tan-uh, –tah-nuh] (noun)

1: : a woman who is a member of a sultan’s family; especially: a sultan’s wife

2: a mistress or concubine of a sultan

3: A female sultan *

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The Zenana Deodi in the middle of Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajastan. This is from a royal palace, probably a tad fancier than the one Hussein grew up in.

A note on Purdah: This is a customary practice wherein the sexes are segregated, and the movement of females is restricted to the zenana (women’s quarters) with varying levels of severity. It also usually entails the requirement that females wear a veil, burka, or some sort of covering. This was much more common in the middle and upper class than amongst the poor populations. While it exists in both Hindu and Muslim communities, Muslim implementations are generally more severe, hence Roquia Hussain’s consciousness raising efforts.

Some Context: Muslim Reformers in the Bengal Renaissance: Calcutta 1900! A bustling early-capitalist metropolis with a sizable bourgeois and upper class– A set of intellectuals economically capable and philosophically inspired to paint, write, make scientific discoveries, and root out social evils. What a time it must have been to be alive!

Like many intellectual renaissances, the Bengal Renaissance (broadly defined: 1775-1941) entailed a simultaneous harkening back to ancient traditions for inspiration, and a striving for modernity and progress.** Hindu writers and thinkers revived and reinterpreted Vedic/Upanishadic philosophy to combat social ills like sati and the caste system. Likewise, The Muslim intelligentsia entered a period of self-criticism wherein writers looked back to their Islamic traditions for sources of inspiration, and reinterpreted their texts to liberalize Islam from the inside.

Muslim scholars like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, advocated a “continuous, unending process of ijtihad, interpretation according to the needs of the time” and wanted to overhaul the Madrassa system of education much like Hussain. The author Kazi Abdul Wadud honored the prophet Muhammed as “a great man,” and referred to him as “just like a light-house to the sea-voyagers” but denied that he was “omniscient” or an “all-pervading master.” Wazed Ali, another writer, observed “the arrival of a religious reformer is essential for the removal of filth from life. In Muslim society too, high-souled men appeared from time to time to remove filth and to make religion time-befitting.”[1] Do you see a pattern emerging?

Now examine some quotations from our author, Roquia Hussain:

“where there is much rigidity in religion, there is greater oppression of women”[2]

“[religious books are] nothing but man made code.” [3]

“Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female — both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep and pray five times a day.” [4]

“The opponents of female education say that women will become wanton and unruly. Fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam, which gives women an equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?”[5]   ***

A similar pattern emerges, no?

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Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

Well-intentioned scholars sometimes try to contextualize Roquia Hussain within the global or even western feminist movement.[6] I’ve seen her described as a “contemporary” of Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Virginia Woolf. But in what sense are they really contemporaries? Hussain’s consciousness raising mission was extremely focused on her own social group. She wrote almost entirely in Bengali, and about issues, like purdah and zenana, which impacted the Bengali Muslim upper and middle classes. [7]  Her writing was not intended for, nor read by western audiences.

Hussain may have been more radical than most of her Bengali cohorts, but she was still firmly within their social and literary milieu. The pattern evident in her nonfiction writing is the same pattern we see in other Bengal Renaissance socio-religious reformers: Liberal reforms are advocated through appeals to religious tradition, while simultaneously jettisoning negative or outdated aspects of that same tradition. Hussein’s religion played a major role in her approach to feminism. Her opposition to purdah coexisted with her encouragement of wearing the veil.[8] She believed in universal education– so long as it was segregated by sex and included Arabic in the curriculum.[9] She believed in the earthly origins of scripture, and also in the God of the Qur’an. This is the tension, or confluence (depending on your perspective) at the heart the Bengal Renaissance.

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Other cool Bengal Renaissance stuff:

Complete works of Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali) (English)

Paintings by Abanindranath Tagore 

“The Renaissance in India” a collection of essays by Sri Aurobindo (PDF direct download link)

The Torch Bearers of Indian Renissance,” a PDF detailing the scientific and mathematical minds of the Bengal Renissance

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* This is an amalgam definition from Webster.com, dictionary.com, and wiktionary. I include it because I think the name “Sultana” was intentionally chosen for it’s mixed connotations in regards to female power.

** Call me a colonial apologist but… I think its obvious that the British colonial presence in Calcutta (the capital of British India until 1911) had something to do with the Bengal renaissance, particularly in the contribution of what we conceive of as “modern” ideas. Calcutta received contact with the west earlier, and more strongly than the rest of India. British critiques of Indian culture, classical liberalism, the English language, British artistic and literary techniques, the presence of a colonial hegemon to inspire nationalist reactions– These are all indispensable parts of the Bengal Renaissance. This is not to credit the Bengal Renaissance to the British, but merely to observe that cultural diffusion and the importation of new ideas from abroad has a destabilizing, influence on existing cultural patterns.

*** In Sultana’s Dream when Sultana asks Sister Sara about religion, this is what occurs “What is your religion, may I ask?’

‘Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful.”

Hit “Continue Reading” for citations.

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