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Eaton and Bengal

May 9, 2007

Judging from comments on Shamshir’s previous post, there is a good bit of interest on Eaton’s book that describes how Bengalis became Muslims.

If this has never appeared paradoxical or peculiar to you – then you definitely need to find yourself a world map. There are some nice antique ones downtown. Go buy one, and if you don’t like it, give it to me. I have always wanted to own one of those old colonial maps, intimations of the fine art/science that is modern western cartography.

Consider how disconnected Bengal is from the wider swathe of the Islamic World, from Morocco to Pakistan. Eastwards of Pakistan is 1000 miles of India with its overwhelming Hindu majority population (yes, I know there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, but that doesn’t matter for my post).

Keep inching eastwards, and bang, you have Bang-ladesh. And more than 100 million Muslims. By the way, Bengalis and Arabs are the two largest ethnic groups among Muslims globally.

What explains the formation of such a sizable Muslim community disconnected from central nervous system of Islam?

Of course it makes sense Pakistan is majority Muslim, being contiguous with Central and West Asia. Kashmir, North India make sense too. But Bengal? Rajasthan, UP, etc, being closer to the Mughal seat in Delhi had a greater chance of becoming majority Muslim than Bengal. So why are most Bengalis Muslims?

Eaton has his story to tell to explain. Which I find convincing for the most part, with some caveats. Stay tuned for more on the story of Islam in Bengal, as I try to break my blogging ice.

Salam Namaste.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2007 9:25 pm

    Welcome back bhai. Heabhy miss korcchilam tomare blog-e. Jajabor hoye ki bhabe bhanish hoye gechhila.

    The Eaton posts will be fascinating. I’m looking forward to some interesting discussion here…

  2. May 10, 2007 8:42 pm

    Easy to forget how exceptional Bangladesh is in this respect. Frustrating that not very many Bangladeshis see it that way! Good luck with your paper, jajabor. Check out Robert Pape if you’re interested in that topic.

  3. Jajabor permalink
    May 11, 2007 2:00 am

    Asif, you are the man. Robert Pape’s book was the first I read on this topic, and his research is where I have found my point of departure.

    I do think it’s a useful work. But cultural phenomena lose out much in the way of insightful analysis when they are straightjacketed into neat categories. I love Dr. Pape’s category of “Salafi-influenced population” as one of his independent variables. In any case, I am glad our reading tastes overlap. 🙂

    So far, I have found Asad’s book very useful. And another by a French Iranian called “Allah’s Martyrs.”

  4. May 13, 2007 2:09 am

    I AM the man :)! Heheheh…. I’ve read only parts of Pape’s book, so just familiar with the overall thesis. Yes cultural phenomena does lose out. The parsimony vs. depth/prediction problem in social science.

    I’m thinking of re-reading Eaton and doing a blog post on him. We can have an online conversation between yourself on this blog and mine (gotta love the hyperlink!). After the 15th though. Hope the paper’s going well!

  5. May 16, 2007 2:02 pm

    anybody read Mohar Ali’s ‘History of Muslims of Bengal’?

  6. May 20, 2007 9:09 pm

    Nope. What does it say and when was it written?

  7. May 22, 2007 10:31 pm

    It traces Muslims in Bengal from the 13th century to the 20th, explaining conversion, migration, rulers etc.
    It’s valuable contribution to the story of Muslims in Bengal.

    As for Eaton, he doesn’t really explicitly say how ‘Bengalis’ became Muslims, he puts forward the argument how Muslims came to be the majority in Bengal and more so in the east. And his arguments are not wholesome on how the region ‘became’ Muslim. He rather explores the phenomenon that agricultural growth seemed to be synonymous with the rise of the Muslim population in Bengal during Mughal rule.

    (I do wonder how much sense I make^

  8. May 23, 2007 1:40 am


    I thought he was quite explicit on how Bangalis became Muslim and says that conversion played a greater role than migration. More when I have time.

    How, pray, does a region become Muslim?

    I visited your blog. Highly interesting.

  9. May 23, 2007 6:48 pm


  10. May 23, 2007 6:50 pm

    okay was having problems posting before.

    As I was saying…

    Your ‘highly interesting’ sounds dubious…

    Like I said Eaton’s argument is not wholesome, he dismisses migration completely. Given the earliest encounter of Muslims in Bengal is around the ninth century and Muslims have been settling in the region since then, then surely their numbers would/could have grown to an extent it made them the majority population?

    And if you look up my ‘became’ it was in quotation marks. Land does not patronage religion people do…do I have to further explain this?

  11. May 23, 2007 6:58 pm

    I actually did find your blog highly interesting. Nothing dubious there.

    He dismissed migration completely as the source of how Muslims became a majority, not of how a minority of Muslims may have got there. “Earliest contact” argument is highly misleading and depends on too many assumptions. Besides, Muslims have been in contact with North India for an equal, if not greater, amount of time. So why not North India?

    No further explanations required on that point. You just sounded like everyone else who talks about “Muslim lands” or a “Muslim state”. To this day, I have not had a satisfactory answer as to what they mean.

  12. May 23, 2007 8:23 pm

    What sort of explanation you looking for? And I’m actually unaware of the ‘others’, please do elaborate.

    (Muslim state will be technically a state that rules under the Sharia. Muslim lands, where Muslims inhabit the land or the former. I find it quite clear.)

    Back to Eaton.

    As for why not North India.
    The Arabs were big sea traders, it was easier for them to get to Bengal as it was in the coast, North India requires trip through Afghanistan etc. ie. through land. These Arabs were largely, if not all, Muslim. I find that a plausible reason.

    Asif: “He dismissed migration completely as the source of how Muslims became a majority”

    And I’m saying they are a possible reason on the majority argument. The fact that they have lived in Bengal and raised their families and ‘off sprung’ many more Muslims over a long period of time…

    I’d say history is mostly assumptions. You make what you can of it given what’s available to you.

  13. Sajid permalink
    May 23, 2007 9:12 pm

    i have some thoughts on this string, debating if i should do a blog post or reply to the comments section. wonderful to see a good blogging audience interested in s. asian history. in any case, more later. possibly tomorrow.

  14. May 23, 2007 10:07 pm

    I think you misread. I said I want no further explanations on what you meant.

    I’m not even going to go into the Sharia state debate. And by your definition of Muslim lands, the whole of the West are Muslim lands. I hope you refer to them as such.

    Back to Eaton:

    I think he deals with the sea-traders theory pretty well. Arab sea traders were mostly Shafei, which is why Indonesia is predominantly shafei. Bengal is predominantly Hanafi, like Pakistan and North India. Therefore, overland migration accounts for both is his argument.

    Are Muslims more “potent” than their religious counterparts that their offsprings outnumbered Hindus and Buddhists and animists living in this area? Once again, I find the conversion theory much more probable.

  15. May 23, 2007 10:38 pm

    Jeebus. Think you like taking the opposite end of the stick.

    Anyway I wouldn’t say potent but I believe they (Muslim migrants and perhaps converts) probably moved more into Bengal and moved further east under the Mughals in taking the ‘plough’ and the Hindus stayed stationary hence more Muslims were found in the east of Bengal.

    (I should get back to work)

  16. May 24, 2007 2:56 am

    I actually like agreeing with people whenever I can. I’m just finding it hard to agree with your assertions is all.

    When I said “migrants”, I meant Central Asian and West Asian migrants straight from there settling down in Bengal. Not, as you seem to assert, migrants who had settled down in India with the Mughals. If you remember, this was the response of the Muslim intelligensia towards the British census report, as Eaton discusses.

    Why this response came about is of particular interest to me. It came about to a certain extent because the Muslim intelligensia did not want people to think that they were descended from “lower caste”/”untouchable” Hindus. What’s funny is that Muslims should not deem relevant things like “caste” at all, but they did. So they said, we’re not from here, we’re from Central Asia, of “good stock”.

    Now I’m not imputing that motive on you. But when you first said “migrants”, that is exactly what it seemed like to me. Right now, you seem to be saying that Bengal was all empty land before a bunch of Muslims and Muslims only came by to inhabit it (which btw, is in complete agreement with the gist of Eaton’s “moving agrarian frontier”, just not the mechanism). Was this indeed the case?

    My intention is not to argue with people, but to point out fallacies and ask questions. Basically play devil’s advocate hoping to learn.

  17. May 24, 2007 7:03 am

    I wasn’t calling for you to agree with me, just putting across an alternative point of view I didn’t think we were arguing 🙂

    It is widely written about the upper class Muslims, the ashraf’ snobbery towards the aftrabs and the ashrafs’ claim that Muslims largely are migrants in India. I would say I wouldn’t dismiss this theory completely, snobbery or not, it’s also a valid argument in my eyes.

    And yes at your Eaton bit. Don’t have time to elaborate. Later.

  18. talam permalink
    May 30, 2007 2:16 am

    Ok, completely off on a tangent here – from the original post, “There are some nice antique ones downtown.” – really? care to recommend one with nice, old south asian maps?

  19. May 30, 2007 6:33 pm

    If you are ever in London, make sure you catch the book market by the NFT, Waterloo. Old empire maps, plenty of South Asian ones. Starts from £30..

  20. June 1, 2007 10:42 am

    My peripatetic mate, please make a post post-haste.:)

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