In 1342, Shamsuddin Iliyas Shah, ruler of the kingdom of Shatgaon, annexed two other Muslim kingdoms in medieval Bengal, shortly after all three had declared independence from Delhi. This enlarged kingdom, now called the Sultanate of Bangala, survived as an independent country for over 230 years, and in some sense can be considered a prototype for present-day Bangladesh. Much of what Bangladeshis have inherited as their cultural and political legacy comes from the sultanate era: the name of the country, the currency, religious leanings, language and literature, many folk and spiritual traditions, and roughly the current territorial borders. Indeed, the political identity of Bengal through the ages – first as an independent sultanate, then as a Mughal, British and Pakistani province, and finally as a republic – has its genesis in this period.
Despite establishing a strong, self-assured and independent kingdom, however, the Iliyas Shah dynasty, hailing originally from Iran, remained a foreign presence in the Ganga delta. Whether the largely Bengali-speaking Hindu and Buddhist population viewed their Persian-speaking Muslim rulers as occupiers cannot be known for certain. However, since as early as the reign of Shamsuddin Iliyas Shah’s grandson Gyasuddin Azam Shah, the dynasty’s rule was being undermined by an influential Hindu aristocratic landlord, Raja Ganesh. In 1410, Ganesh successfully captured the state – aided in part by the infighting within the Shah family, with sons killing fathers for the throne – and became the de facto ruler of Bengal for the next five years.
Ostensibly, this rebellion was a reaction against the foreign nature of the sultanate administration; realistically, it was about control. Religious prejudices must also have played a significant part, as Raja Ganesh, upon seizing power, proceeded to persecute the Sufis of Pandua, site of what was then the largest mosque in Southasia. Bengal had already become home to numerous Sufi saints of the Chishti order who, as was the custom of the time, enjoyed a close relationship with the king through a system of mutual patronage. A ruler’s legitimacy came from the moral endorsement implicit in his closeness to a respected saint. Conversely, the absence of patronage meant that the moral health of a reign could not be assured.
After coming to power, Raja Ganesh was neither afforded such patronage nor did he seek it, setting off alarm bells throughout the kingdom. Disturbed by the takeover, Nur Qutb i Alam, the foremost Sufi of Pandua, even invited the Muslim king of neighbouring Jaunpur to invade Bengal and overthrow the new king. Interestingly, however, Raja Ganesh was equally unpopular among the Hindu elite, whom he claimed to represent.
Chishti Sufis first entered Bengal in 1296. Shayekh Akhi Sirajuddin, the third saint of this order, arrived in 1357 on the command of his spiritual guide, Nizamuddin Awliya of Delhi. Sirajuddin left behind him a line of spiritual successors, of whom Nur Qutb was one. Sufis were seen both by themselves and by the population as bringing social justice to a place with deep caste divisions, and where a militant Hinduism dealt heavy-handedly with Buddhists. Before the sultanate was established, a number of Sufis were killed for attempting to introduce social egalitarianism, and the rise of Raja Ganesh looked, for a time, like a return to the bad old days.
The intense power struggle that ensued between the Sufi saints and the new ruling dynasty finally ended with a compromise, whereby Ganesh’s son, Jadu, was allowed to ascend to the throne, but only after he converted to Islam. The offer had originally been made to Ganesh himself, but he had declined. Evidently, Islam, above anything else, was the qualifier for ruling the sultanate, which for the first time was to be governed by a Bengali. This established the precedent that neither ethnicity nor lineage was of consequence in the government of Bengal, but also, more crucially, it preserved Islam as the moral authority in the Ganga delta.
As the first Bengali Muslim king, Jadu, now renamed Jallauddin, set off a process that saw Islam in the delta uncoupled from Persian-Arabic culture. Throughout his reign, Islam continued to fuse inextricably with Bengali culture, as is evident in the architecture of that period and in the development of Bangla as a parallel court language. Thus, by indigenising itself, the sultanate was able to outlive the dynasty that established it, and it would continue to exist as such despite several changes in leadership. A state had emerged, and a nation – a Bengali Muslim one – was following close on its heels.
The Iliyas Shah family did return to power after the rule of Jallauddin’s son. But instead of reversing the policies of its Bengali predecessors, the reinstated dynasty continued to expand the process of indigenisation. With the descendents of the Iranian Shah content to accommodate themselves in the new culture, the sultanate hastened to become a Bengali kingdom. This transformation signalled not just the robustness of Bengali civilisation, but also Islam’s ability to embed itself among the people it reached. To put it simply, Islam became Bengali, and Bengal became Muslim.
The Bengali sultanate reached its pinnacle under another ruling family – the Hussein Shah dynasty. After a series of coups and counter-coups by Abyssinian military officers, in 1493 Allauddin Hussein Shah came to power, ushering in the golden age of medieval Bengali history. During this period, Bengali language and literature found patronage and subsequently proliferated throughout the sultanate. The system of imposing per capita tax on non-Muslims, called jizya, was abolished, and non-Muslims were also appointed to high ranks within the administration. Territorially, the sultanate expanded and also experienced an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity, during which Bengali Hindu society transformed to give rise to a fusion of Hindu mysticism and Sufism.
Mutual curiosity between different religious orders had existed in Bengal since as far back as the 12th century, whenAmrtakunda (The pool of life), a Sanskrit manual on tantric yoga, was translated into Persian as Bahr al hayat, and into Arabic as Hawd al-hayat, and circulated as far away as Kashmir. While the Sufis of the time sought to incorporate the esoteric philosophies and practices of local yogis into their own religious lives, the Hindu mystics began redefining their ideology according to the Sufi worship of divine love. And underlying both of these newer layers was a 1000-year-old Buddhist perspective.
The resulting confluence of these three traditions produced a spiritual practice reliant on devotional singing and chanting, called kirtan, as a means to both profess and transmit the love of god, manifested in this case as Krishna. The parallels between kirtan and Sufi practices such as qawwali and zikr are unmistakable. What makes the parallel clearer is that Gaur Vaishnavism, as this new cult came to be known, registered itself as a monotheistic religion and disregarded the traditional Hindu polytheistic perspective.
Naturally, this created friction with the Hindu orthodoxy. But the Muslim court, including King Hussain Shah and the Sufis, received the new religion favourably and allowed Sri Chaitanya, the founder, to propagate it freely throughout the delta. It is possible that with its conceptual similarities to Sufism as well as its emphasis on casteless equality, the spread of Gaur Vaishnavism actually helped the proliferation of Sufi teaching, and eventually of Islam, in Bengal. However this is conjecture at best, and cannot be verified. Whatever the reason, the Vaishnavis would later join forces with the Sufis to spawn the syncretic Baul tradition, arguably the most significant vehicle of spiritual enrichment in Bangladesh today.
The sultanate of Bengal became embroiled in the politics of northwest India once again when droves of Afghans fleeing the expanding Mughal Empire arrived in eastern India after 1526. Finding themselves dislodged from power in Delhi and Kabul, these Afghans built an alternative nexus of power in Bihar and Bengal. Viewing the rising Sher Shah Suri in Bihar as a buffer between Bengal and the Mughals, Hussain Shah’s successor, Nusrat Shah, fostered friendly relations with leaders of the Pashtun influx. His brother, however, was less astute, and his hostility towards Sher Shah brought an end to the sultanate’s neutrality in 1537 when it came to blows with the Afghans and lost. Bengal then became a launching pad for Sher Shah’s conquest of North India, expelling the second Mughal emperor, Nasir ud-din Muhammad Humayun, from Delhi. Humayun later reconquered Delhi and parts of northwest India, but Bengal remained in the hands of Afghan kings until 1576. The next 30 years were a period of resistance against the advancing Jallauddin Muhammed Akbar, with an ebb and flow of success on either side.
Then, in 1605, the Mughals finally consolidated their rule in Bengal. This ended 233 years of sultanate independence and reintroduced Persian and Urdu into the Ganga delta – and with them, social elitism along foreign and local lines. The Mughal chauvinism evident in the new architecture and institutions of government would sideline Bengal’s own Muslim culture, threatening the existence of the unique syncretism nurtured by the sultans of Bengal. Amazingly, however, despite remaining a province for almost 400 years thereafter, an independent Bengali state reappeared in 1971.
The creation of Bangladesh has put Bengali culture on centre stage once again, and encouraged a pluralistic secular environment where the Baul tradition and Bangla language, literature and art receive patronage in a way that they didn’t during the British, Mughal or Pakistani years. Islam in Bengal is also far less dogmatic than it might have been had Bangladesh remained a part of Pakistan. From Bangladesh’s very beginning, all faiths have been allowed to practice freely, and numerous non-Muslims hold high positions in government departments. In this way, then, the re-birth of the Bengali state can be seen as having brought with it its own revitalised worldview and cultural orientation, as well as a new commitment to the Bengali school of synthesised mysticism.
~ Zeeshan Khan is a Bangladeshi living in Australia, where he is currently writing his first book. He studied international relations and now works in media.