Islam came to Bengal comparatively late. Within about one hundred years of its advent, Islam penetrated into north western India, and Arabian traders came into contact with the coastal regions of India, including Bengal. But it took about five hundred years for Muslim political power to reach Bengal. According to unconfirmed traditions, some Muslim sufi-saints came to Bengal even before the political conquest, but Islam actually entered in full force with the Turkish conquest towards the beginning of the 13th century. Bangladesh is today, a Muslim majority country; about 90% of her population belongs to the Islamic faith. It is not widely known that Islam had reached that part of the world long before Ikhtiyar al Din Muhammad ibn Bakhtiyar Khalji’s arrival at Bengal in the beginning of the thirteenth century. Excavations carried out during the 1930s led to the discovery of two coins issued by the early Abbasid Caliphs in Paharpur in Rajshahi and Mainamati in Comilla. The coin discovered in Paharpur is dated 172 AH (788CE) and was issued during the time of Harun al-Rashid, the famous Abbasid Caliph who reigned from 170-208AH (786-809CE), while the other coin found in Mainamati was issued during the time of Caliph Abu Abdullah al Muntasir Billah who ruled from 247-248 AH (861-862 CE).
The discovery of these coins clearly shows that the Muslim traders and businessmen have been visiting different parts of Bengal during the second and third century of Hijrah (8th and 9th century CE), if not earlier. Thes e early Muslim travellers came to Bengal via the Persian Gulf and Taiz, a port of Baluchistan and Thath, the port of Sind. From there they moved to Gujarat, Calicut and Madras before reaching the Bay of Bengal where Sylhet (known to them as Shilahat) became their main centre of activities long before the time of Shah Jalal, the patron saint of Sylhet. The same happened in Chittagong which was known to the early Muslim traders and businessmen as Sadjam. The arrival of these Muslim traders at the coastal regions of the subcontinent in general and Bengal in particular subsequently paved the way for the Sufis and other Muslim missionaries to move into different parts of Bengal in order to disseminate the message of Islam in that region.
Syed Shah Nasir Al-Deen (or Shah Nasir Uddin) was originally from Iraq but came to Bangladesh to spread Islam. Early Arab Muslims however established commercial as well as religious contacts within the region before the conquest, mainly through the coastal regions as traders and primarily via the ports of Chittagong. Arab navigation in the region was the result of the Muslim reign over the Indus delta. The activities of the Muslims were expanded along the entire coast of South Asia including the coasts of Bengal. The religion of Islam entered the region in many different ways, the Muslim traders, the Turkish conquest and the missionary activities of the Muslim Sufis. One of the authentications of the Arab traders present in the region was the writings of Arab geographers, found on the Meghna River located near Sandwip on the Bay of Bengal. This evidence suggests that the Arab traders had arrived along the Bengal coast long before the Turkish conquest. The Arab writers also knew about the kingdoms of Samrup and Ruhmi, the latter being identified with the empire of Dharmapal of the Pala Empire. Between the 8th century and 12th century, the Buddhist dynasty known as the Pala Empire ruled Bengal. During that time, the majority of the population in Bengal were thought to be Buddhists. After the decline of the Pala dynasty, the Sena dynasty came to power. The large scale conversion to Islam began in the 13th century and continued for hundreds of years. Conversion was generally collective rather than individual. Islam attracted numerous Buddhists and Hindus. Sufis were responsible for most conversions. They preached Islam as a religion of peace and truth. The beauty of Islam and lifestyle of the Sufis attracted them to be Muslim. The Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent took place between the 12th and 16th centuries. Bengal became a province of the Delhi Sultanate in 1204. In the 14th century the Sultanate of Bengal became independent and emerged as a regional power. It adopted Bengali as one of its official languages, alongside Persian, the diplomatic language of the Islamic world, and Arabic, the liturgical language of the religion. The Sultanate also ruled parts of Arakan and Assam. The Sur Empire briefly overtook the region in the 16th century. During the sultanate period, Hindu aristocrats occupied prominent positions in the administration.
The Mughal Empire eventually controlled the region under its Bengal Subahviceregal province. The Mughal Emperors considered Bengal their most prized province. Emperor Akbar redeveloped the Bengali calendar. Emperor Aurangazeb called Bengal the Paradise of Nations. Two Bengal viceroys – Muhammad Azam Shah and Azim us Shan assumed the imperial throne. Mughal Bengal became increasingly independent under the Nawabs of Bengal in the 18th century. The agrarian reforms of the Mughal Empire also played a crucial role in developing Bengali Muslim society. According to historian Richard M. Eaton, “Islam became the religion of the plough in the Bengal delta”. The delta was the most fertile region in the empire. Mughal development projects cleared forests and established thousands of Sufi-led villages, which became industrious farming and craftsmanship communities. The projects were most evident in the Bhati region of East Bengal, the most fertile part of the delta. People from various parts of the Muslim world settled in the region. Settlers intermarried with the local population. This made East Bengal a thriving melting pot with strong trade and cultural networks. It was the most prosperous part of the subcontinent. East Bengal became the canter of the Muslim population in the eastern subcontinent and corresponds to modern-day Bangladesh. One of the notable Muslim Sufis was Shah Jalal. He arrived in the region of Sylhet in 1303 with many other disciples to preach the religion to the people. However according to a 16th century biography made by Shaikh Ali, a descendant of one of Shah Jalal’s companions, Shah Jalal had been born in Turkestan, where he became a spiritual disciple of Saiyid Ahmad Yasawi, one of the founders of the Central Asian Sufi tradition. According to legend, Shah Jalal, came to Sylhet from Delhi with a band of 360 disciples to preach Islam and defeated the Raja Gour Gobinda in a dispute. As a result, Sylhet developed into a region that was home to numerous saints and Islamic shrines. His uncle, Sheikh Kabir, one day gave Shah Jalal a handful of earth and asked him to travel to Hindustan with the instruction that he should settle down at whichever place in Hindustan whose soil matched completely in smell and colour, and devote his life for the propagation and establishment of Islam there.
Like Shah Jalal of Sylhet (located in the north-eastern Bengal), and Jalal al-Din Tabrizi of Deotala, Khan Jahan became the pioneer of Islam in south-western Bengal. Khan-i-Azam (the Great Khan) Khan Jahan, better known as Hazrat Khan Jahan Ali, was of Turkish extraction but very little is known about his early life, education and background. Since he hailed from a noble Turkish family, he may have had some training in Turkish, Arabic and aspects of Islamic sciences during his early years before pursuing a career under the Tughluqids. Khan Jahan may have been born during the rule of Ghiyath al-Din Mahmud, the fourth Tughluqid Sultan, and went onto serve the rulers of this dynasty with some distinction since he became a notable member of this ruling family. Thanks to his dedicated serve to the Tughluqids, the Sultan of Delhi offered Khan Jahan a plot of land in the Sundarban area, located in present day Bangladesh. This offer was subsequently confirmed by the then Sultan of Bengal and this prompted Khan Jahan to take necessary steps to establish himself in this difficult and challenging part of Bengal. Located today in the south western district of Khulna, Khan Jahan’s fief (jagir) was virtually an inhabitable plot of land, being as it were an integral part of the Sundarban, the largest mangrove forest in the world. Surrounded by dense forest, with wild animals and beasts roaming around at will, Khan Jahan must have moved into this fertile jungle somewhat reluctantly. After clearing up this locality, he established several settlements in and around the area today known as Bagerhat. This took place during the early part of the fifteenth century. Thanks to his devotion and dedication to the task at hand, Khan Jahan soon cleared up a large area and in so doing he formally established his rule there. An adherent of Islamic spirituality, Khan Jahan was a prominent practitioner and exponent of Sufism. Although it is not clear whether he was a chishtiyyah, suhrawardiyyah, naqshbandiyyah or qadiriyyah Sufi (or an adherent of a combination of two or three of these Sufi Orders), soon after establishing himself in Bagerhat he became instrumental in the conversion of the local Hindus, Buddhists and animists to the fold of Islam. His valiant and pioneering effort to transform a largely inhospitable region into permanent human settlement proved such as success that he later gave the name of Khalifatabad to this region. Derived from the Arabic word khalifah (representative or vicegerent), this word is used in the Holy Qur’an to refer to human beings as God’s trustworthy representative on the earth (see Holy Qur’an, Surah Baqarah, verse 30).
The choice of the name Khalifatabad says a lot about Khan Jahan as an individual, Sufi preacher, Islamic reformer and ruler. He appears to have been steeped in Islamic thought, culture and spirituality, and as such he was determined to establish a settlement where the people would live by the principles and practices of Islam, that is to say, they would live as khalifatullah fi’lard (God’s representatives on the earth). Inspired by the Qur’anic view of man, his role and purpose in this world, Khan Jahan inspired the locals not only to embrace Islam but also to cooperate with him to transform the Bagerhat region into a fully-fledged Islamic dominion.
The writer is currently a student of economics at the University of Dhaka.