(Note prepared from Richard Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204-1760, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994, chapters 5 and 10)
We hear various theories about how people converted to Islam in India. In this book, Richard Eaton presents these theories, criticizes them, and then gives his own historical reconstruction. This book was received with acclaim by scholars. In the light of the current communal crisis in our country, and the urgent need to educate ourselves, I thought I would make a very short summary of two chapters and circulate it to those interested.
1. One theory is that Islam came to India through migrations. While many Arab traders did settle permanently in Kerala, this did not happen in other parts of the country.
2. Many believe that Islam was forced on people. But Eaton points out that those who propose this theory cannot explain how force was applied, or how exactly someone could be ‘converted’ by force. The region around Delhi and Agra saw a great deal of warfare conducted by Muslim dynasties; but here, Eaton points out, Muslims have been fewer in number (as a proportion to the total population of that area) than in west Punjab, east Bengal, etc. So, he says, the ‘conversion by military force’ theory does not work.
3. Some say that people converted to Islam when it was politically or economically convenient—when one did not wish to pay a tax or a levy, or when one had political ambitions. The same geographical pattern pointed out above, however, makes this unlikely.
4. Did people become Muslims to escape caste oppression and the stigma of untouchability, or to escape poverty? We are all aware that Muslims till today are some of our poorest groups; and Eaton points out that in medieval times, the intellectuals did not see Islam in social terms, as a bringer of social equality. Instead, they saw it in theological terms, as belief in monotheism, in contrast to the polytheism of Hindus.
Eaton says that all four theories were constructed with surprisingly little reference to historical sources. His book is on Bengal. There, the historical evidence—mainly the accounts of European travellers and missionaries—indicates that there was a large Muslim population in the countryside by Mughal times (say, 1574 to 1707).
But it was not Mughal policy to convert subjects to Islam! Mughals always took steps to win over a population after military defeat. So what happened?
Mughal rule was interested primarily in the success of agriculture, and in deriving revenues from agriculture. The more successful and more extensive the cultivation of the land, the more taxes the Mughal state could acquire. Under Mughal rule, the cultivation of rice became exceptionally successful in Bengal, and this province began to export rice.
In northern and eastern Bengal, up to the Mughal period, huge tracts of land were marshy and covered with thick forest. Until that period, various tribes lived in the jungles on fishing, hunting, and shifting cultivation. But in the Mughal period, the marshes were reclaimed, and the forest cleared, over large parts of north and east Bengal.
Such a project required a long-term investment of labour and money. It took three to four years to ‘clean’ land for cultivation. Trees had to be cut; water drained away; the salt water had to be led away from cleared fields; tanks for fresh water had to be dug; and as soon as an area was ready, it had to be planted, or else the jungle would quickly re-grow. People faced dangers from disease and from tigers. Such pioneering colonization required not only time and money, but also inter-family co-operation, division of labour, leadership organization, and new institutions. The new institutions had to deal with land allocation, land registration, co-operation between the newly settled villages, and the allocation of taxes between them. Simple tribal societies lack such social and political institutions.
What happened was that many Muslim pirs and shaikhs were the pioneering leaders of this colonization. There are dozens of Bengali stories about forest and land reclamation organized or started by men like Mehr Ali, Shah Jalal Mujarrad, Khan Jahan, etc. It is these charismatic leaders who organized the tribal fishers and hunters into pioneering groups and settled them on cleared tracts. Small mosques and dargahs were built, and assemblies of villagers would meet there on Fridays, first remembering a Pir (--at a fatiha), then discussing local problems. This was a new institution for Bengal (and for Mughal India).
But how did tribal people ‘become’ Muslim? The process suggested by Eaton is three-fold.
I. First there was “inclusion”. Allah entered the thoughts of the people, through the agency of the shaikh or pir leaders. In Bengali folk songs of the 17th and 18th centuries there are references to local gods and goddesses (Shiva, Chandi, etc) and also to Allah and pirs.
II. Then there was “identification”, a merging of Muslim and Hindu elements. The words “Allah” and “Niranjan” were used interchangeably.
III. Then came “displacement”. By the 19th or 20th century, local deities and cults were eliminated, the “folk deities” were forgotten. Large numbers of people now believed in Allah exclusively. This was the result of reform movements led by several Muslim scholars. The process became relatively easy once printing and books reached Bengal.
Note that if we follow Eaton, conversion was not an event, but a process that took 300 years or more!
Shereen Ratnagar is a noted Indian historian and archaeologist.
Three Essays Press for books on history, education, culture, media, society and politics with a South Asian accent and a contemporary slant.