On the Richard Eaton thesis

Awrup Sanyal

[Please note that the review might reveal more than you want to know before reading the book. I would say skip it and read the book.]
Anyone interested in Bengal’s premodern to modern history – through the Delhi and Bengal Sultanates, and the Mughal rule in India, and consequently in Bengal – and more importantly the rise and spread of Islam in Bengal will have to go through this thoroughly illuminating seminal work from Eaton.

This book is specially important now as once again controversies over Islam in the Indian subcontinent – the idea of ‘jihadist’ conquerors and convert-or-perish theories are being propagated and stoked anew – as India reels under the yoke of the militant and supremacist Hindutva regime. Egregious ideas and revisionist histories on this subject are in existence, polluting and hampering any informed discussion about this important socio-religious, political, and cultural past of the subcontinent that has shaped amongst other things literature, music, language, judiciary, administration, revenue and taxation, labour, and land holding patterns, and indeed the cosmology of its superhuman agencies, and intermediaries between God and men.

Eaton’s book throws a sharp and focused light on the matter of the rise and spread of Islam in India, but more specifically Bengal. Few of the dominant theories are knocked off the table with the support of diverse evidences ranging from travelers’ accounts, to hagiographical texts, Hindu or non-Hindu cult texts, coinage, inscriptions, court histories, revenue, taxation and myriad administrative documents, census, folklore, songs, incantations, so on and so forth that all point to the raison d’être of the rise of Islam in Bengal. But, it is not Bengal that saw the rise of Islam, rather the eastern delta of Bengal, centered at and further east from Dhaka that embraced Islam.

Without revealing the whole book, which is impossible as Eaton covers history, geography, and everything in between and beyond that explains with compelling evidence his central argument of Islamization of Bengal, let us look at the major signposts.

The four dominant theories that have found ready acceptance inadequately explain the process of Islamization – i.e., the Immigration theory (that the bulk of India’s Muslims are descended from other Muslims through migration); the Religion of the Sword theory (diffusion of Islam through conquests, a function of military or political force); the Religion of Patronage theory (conversions happened to receive political patronage); and perhaps the most widely accepted one (started by the British, accepted by many Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals) is the Religion of Social Liberation (in which it is the result of the discriminatory Hindu caste system).

Before I come to Eaton’s compelling theory of the mass Islamization of the eastern Bengal delta I will just tick off a few points that will clear some misconceptions, misperceptions, and dubitable ideas.

Interestingly, as evidenced from census reports across centuries, the main swathes of the Delhi Sultanate (beginning with the Turko-Persian rule), Bengal Sultanate, and the Mughal Empire were not where maximum conversion to Islam happened. In fact it remains almost negligent.

The Perso-Islamic rulers were not interested in conversion; the Mughals were the most secular rulers ever.

The landed Islamic gentry were called Ashrafs who were urban, and not connected to the local people. Their alliance was with the ruling sultans and governors.

Pre-history Bengal was divided in 5 segments – Varendra, Bhagirathi-Hooghly basin, Vanga, Samatata, and Harikela. The north-western Bengal delta was most penetrated by both the Brahminical-Sanskrit culture, and the conquests from the north. Further down, especially the eastern delta was thick forestry, almost impregnable, wetlands, and riverine estuaries, unfit for conquests. Thus, the eastern delta, or the Bhati as it was called, came under the Mughal rule as late as the 17C! Bengal resisted the Mughal conquests ( and other attempts from the north) for almost three to four centuries (by the Bengal Sultanate, and later the renegade Baro Bhuyians of the east).

Serendipitously, a major geological change coincided with the final Mughal penetration of Bengal, the Ganges shifted course creating the Ganges-Meghna system that drained out through the east into the bay. The original course (the Adi Ganga is a dried up nullah that still flows through Kolkata, carrying in its depleted waters the stories of Chand Saudagar, Behula and Lakhinder).

The penetration of Islam (amongst the masses) was not big in the western delta. Here Islam – the literate religion, or the religion of the Book – faced the somewhat stronger foothold of the scriptural religion of the Hinduism/Brahmanism, and Buddhism, as opposed to the eastern delta, where the presence of Brahmanism was scant, and the populations were aboriginal, tribal, animist, and pagan.

And, it is here in the eastern delta, the Bhati, the impregnable forest and wetlands, that Islam spread the most. It happened for a few reasons, as Eaton points out.

Primarily, a thrust for spreading the wet-rice cultivation. Almost like the idea of the Wild West people staked out into the forest, cleared the land, prepared it for wet-rice cultivation and was given that developed land in endowment by the governments (the Bengal Sultans and the Mughals) who wanted more revenue from these now cultivable lands.

The ‘people’ who staked out were mostly Muslim intermediaries who were more entrepreneurial and skilled at wet rice cultivation. Though they were not necessarily religious scholars they quickly adopted the role of one by setting up thatched bamboo mosques where the Koran would be read; the natives who formed the major labour force participated in these congregations. For the first time the natives encountered a literary religious system that proved more superior and structured than their own religious persuasions. These intermediaries who were called the Pirs entered the jungles (read the tales of Gazi Pir, Bon Bibi, Dokkhin Rai), cleared it for cultivation, and gradually the new peasants got absorbed into the folds of Islam.

Initially, a mixed cosmology of superhuman agencies from Bengal, and from Arabia and Persia presided over the local Islamic practices (Adam was from Sondwip, for example). Later, as travels to Arabia became easier with the English run steamships more people went for Hajj and the religious intermediaries brought back with them the tenets of Wahabi Islam, that was taking hold almost globally, to the delta. Such a change, for example, affected the women, who worked shoulder to shoulder with the men earlier, but were later barred from.

So, to conclude, as the economic expansions into the forested eastern delta for rice cultivation flourished, spearheaded by the Muslim entrepreneurs (also called Pir and Shaikh), the local native population, who were recruited as farm hands, converted to Islam.

But, the book has far more to offer. Hope this whets the appetite.

Awrup Sanyal is a fiction writer and a communication specialist.

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