Evolution of Mediaeval Bengal

Time Period: 1204-1757

The Middle age of Bengal coincided with Muslim rule. Out of about 550 years of Muslim rule, Bengal was only ruled by Delhi-based All-India empires for almost 200 years. For approximately 350 years, Bengal remained virtually independent. The Muslim rule of Bengal is usually divided into three phases. The first phase, which lasted from 1204 to 1342, witnessed the consolidation of Muslim rule in Bengal. It was characterized by extreme political instability. The second phase, which spanned the period 1342 to 1575, saw the emergence of independent local dynasties such as the Ilyas Shahi dynasty (1342-1414), the dynasty of King Ganesha (1414-1442) and Husain Shahi dynasty (l493-1539). The third phase, which lasted from 1575 to 1757, witnessed the emergence of a centralized administration in Bengal within the framework of the Mughal empire. The Mughal viceroys in Bengal curbed the independence of powerful landlords who were known as Bara Bhuiyas and suppressed Portuguese pirates who frequently interfered with the flow of foreign trade.

Muslim rule in the region is marked by two major achievements. First, prior to Muslim rule in this area, Bengal was an ever-shifting mosaic of principalities. The natural limits of Bengal were not clearly perceived until its political unification by the Ilyas Shahi rulers in the 14th century. Secondly, the political unity fashioned by the Muslim rulers also promoted linguistic homogeneity. Unlike their predecessors, the Muslim rulers were ardent patrons of Bengali language and literature. Prior to Muslim rule, the Bengali vernacular was despised for its impurities and vulgarities by Hindu elites who were the beneficiaries and champions of Sanskrit education. The spread of Islam challenged the spiritual leadership of upper caste Hindus. The intense competition between Islam and resurgent Hinduism in the form of Vaisnavism for capturing the imagination of the unlettered masses resulted in an outpouring of their stirring messages in the vernacular Bengali language.

The Muslim rule of Bengal also witnessed the gradual expansion of Islam in this region. Contrary to popular beliefs, the Muslim rulers in Bengal were not in the least idealists or proselytizers; they were primarily adventurers whose sole aim was to perpetuate their own rule. The preponderance of Muslims in Bangladesh region stands out in striking contrast to the singular failure of Muslims in converting local people in other parts of northern and southern India. The distribution of Muslims in different regions of South Asia clearly contradicts the hypothesis that the patronage of the temporal authority was the most crucial variable in the spread of Islam. If this hypothesis was correct there would have been Muslim preponderance in areas around the seats of Muslim rule in northern India. The fact that the Muslims remained an insignificant minority in the Delhi region where they ruled for more than six hundred years clearly suggests that Islam in South Asia was not imposed from above. In Bengal, the share of Muslims in the total population was higher in areas remote from the seats of Muslim rule.

Islam was propagated in the Bangladesh region by a large number of Muslims who were mostly active from the 14th to 16th centuries. Among these missionaries, Hazrat Shah Jalal, Rasti Shah, Khan Jahan Ali, Shaikh Sharafuddin Abu Tawamah, Shah Makhdoom Ruposh, Shaikh Baba Adam Shahid, Shah Sultan Mahisawar, Shaikh Alauddin Alaul Huq and Shah Ali Bagdadi deserve special mention. While similar Muslim missionary activities failed in other regions of South Asia, Islam ultimately succeeded in penetrating deeply into Bengal because the social environment of this region was congenial to the diffusion of a new religion. In much of South Asia, strong village communities were impenetrable barriers to the spread of alien faiths.

In Bengal, the corporateness of village institutions was weak in eastern areas; it gradually increased towards the western areas. The distribution of Muslim population also followed a similar spatial pattern in this region. The Muslims in Bengal were concentrated in the eastern areas and the share of Hindu population was much higher in western areas.

The Muslim rule of Bengal contributed to economic polarization and cultural dichotomy. Except the brief interludes of the northern Indian empires, pre-Muslim Bengal was ruled by local potentates. Most of the Muslim rulers either acted as agents of Delhi or tried to use Bengal as a stepping stone for attaining political authority in Delhi. Economic exploitation intensified during this period owing to transfer of resources to northern India. The main victims of this exploitative system were locally converted Muslims and low caste Hindus. The sole aim of the Muslim rulers was to mobilize as much resources as possible. The size of the immigrant Muslim ruling elite was small. Furthermore, different factions of the ruling elite did not trust each other. Consequently, Muslim rule in Bengal became a coalition of immigrant Muslims and upper caste Hindus.

The gradual process of conversion to Islam in Bengal resulted in an intense interaction between Islam and Hinduism. At the folk level, however, there was less confrontation and more interaction between Hinduism and Islam. A syncretic tradition developed around the cult and pantheons of pirs. The actual practices of local Muslim converts were an anathema to both Hindu and Muslim religious leaders. The orthodox Hindus, despite their political reconciliation with Muslim rulers, despised the local Muslims as untouchables (Mlechhas). The Muslim religious leaders were equally scornful of the customs and practices of local converts. Hated by immigrant religious leaders for their ways of life and by the local aristocracy for their adherence to an alien faith, local converts faced a dichotomy of faith and habitat which found expression in an emotional conflict between religion and language. This dichotomy can be traced in Bengali literature as early as the fourteenth century. ‘Those who are born in Bengal but hate Bengali language”, asserted the 17th century poet Abdul Hakim “had doubtful parentage. Those who are not satisfied with their mother tongue should migrate to other lands”.

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