Some early preachers and saints who propagated the message of Islam in Bengal are Baba Adam Shahid, Shah Muhammad Sultan Rumi, Shah Sultan Mahisawar, Makhdum Shah Dawlah Shahid, Makhdum Shah Mahmud Ghaznavi, Shaykh Farid al-Din, Shaykh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi, Sharf al-Din Abu Tawwamah and Sharf al-Din Yahya al-Maneri.
Baba Adam Shahid
This early Sufi preacher and disseminator of Islam came to Bengal from Makkah in order to propagate his faith in the subcontinent accompanied by several thousand followers (according to one account, he had seven thousand disciples), he settled in Vikrampur in Munshiganj, not far from Dhaka. Little is known about the saint and his activities other than the fact that he fought the local Hindu ruler, King Ballalasena, in order to establish his presence in Bengal. Shah Muhammad Sultan Rumi This great personality is considered to be one of the earliest preachers of Islam in Bengal. According to a document dated back to 1671, he came to Bengal in the pre-Muslim period and settled in Madanpur in 1053. Here he became renowned for his asceticism and spirituality, inspiring the local ruler to embrace Islam. Impressed with Shah Rumi, the ruler then offered him a large plot of land as a gift; this area became known as Madanpur. After the death of Shah Rumi, he was laid to rest in his local village which is today located in the district of Mymensingh, Bangladesh.
Shah Sultan Mahisawar
This remarkable early preacher of Islam in Bengal was, in fact, a prince who had hailed from Balkh. After renouncing worldly pomp and power in favour of asceticism and Islamic spirituality, he became a follower of Shaykh Tawfiq al-Dimashqi who encouraged him to proceed to the subcontinent in order to propagate Islam there. He sailed to Bengal on a boat shaped like a fish, hence he became known as ‘Mahisawar’ or ‘fish-rider’. On his arrival in Hariramnagar, he was opposed by the local Hindu ruler and in the ensuing battle the Muslim saint and his followers defeated their opponents. Shah Mahisawar’s kindness, generosity and sense of justice and fair-play soon won the hearts and minds of the local population who gradually embraced Islam.
Shah Dawlah Shahid
According to tradition, this great Muslim personality was a descendant of Mu’adh ibn Jabal, a prominent companion of the Prophet (peace be on him), although the historians have not been able to verify this claim. Originally from Yemen, he came to Bengal in order to preach Islam and settled near Shahzadpur in Pabna district. On his arrival, the Shaykh became the main focus of
According to one account, Shah Dawlah was a student of Shaykh Shams al-Din Tabrizi, the spiritual mentor of Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, the world famous Muslim poet and spiritual figure.
attention in the local area and, feeling uneasy by the increasing popularity of the Muslim saint, the local Hindu ruler launched an attack on the saint and his followers. In the ensuing battle, Shah Dawlah and many of his followers were killed. He was buried by his nephew near a mosque in Shahzadpur and, as expected, his shrine continues to attract visitors to this day. According to one account, Shah Dawlah was a student of Shaykh Shams al-Din Tabrizi, the spiritual mentor of Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, the world famous Muslim poet and spiritual figure. Whether this is true or not, after his death, Shah Dawlah’s family members and followers continued to preach the message of Islam in and around Shahzadpur, which according to some scholars was named after this great Muslim preacher.
Makhdum Shah Mahmud Ghaznavi
This eminent personality hailed from Ghazna (located in modern Afghanistan) and he lived during the early part of the thirteenth century. He arrived in Mangalkot in the district of Burdwan (today located in the Indian State of West Bengal) in order to preach Islam to the locals. However, King Vikram Kesari, the local Hindu ruler opposed the Shaykh and his followers and, accordingly, the Shaykh wrote to the Muslim ruler of Delhi seeking military assistance. Once the Muslim army arrived, the Shaykh and his followers joined forces and together they drove out the tyrannical Hindu ruler from Mangalkot, leaving the Shaykh and his followers in charge of this area where they continued to preach Islam.
Shaykh Farid al-Din
According to tradition, Bayazid Bistami (also known as Abu Yazid al Bistami), the renowned Persian scholar and saint had visited Bengal and died there. There is a famous shrine in Nasirabad, a village in Chittagong, which is said to be that of Shaykh Bistami. However, there is no credible evidence to suggest that the Shaykh had visited Bengal and therefore the claim that he was buried in Chittagong is no more than a legend. In the same way, it is argued by some people that Shaykh
The khanqahs of the Sufis, which were established in every nook and corner of Bengal, were great centers of spiritual, humanitarian and intellectual activities
Farid al-Din Mas’ud Ganj-i-Shakar (better known as Baba Farid), the renowned Chishtiyyah Sufi scholar, had also visited Bengal during his extensive tour of India in order to preach Islam there. Accordingly, there is a fountain located close to a hill in Chittagong which is known as Chashm Shaykh Farid. Although there is credible evidence to suggest that Shaykh Farid had visited northern Bengal, being as he was present at Deotala during the death of Shaykh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi, however, there is no evidence to prove whether he had visited Chittagong.
Shaykh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi
Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi was the most celebrated of the early saints in Bengal. It was his missionary zeal and great spiritualism that accounted for the spread of Islam and the development of the Muslim community in North Bengal in the early days of the Muslim rule in this province. Indeed by his piety, ideal character and humanitarian service, Shaikh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi left such profound impression on the minds of the people and morals of the society that his memory has for ever been enshrined in the hearts of the millions of the Bengali people. After completing his studies and attaining kamaliyyat (spirit perfection), he moved to the subcontinent and became renowned as a disseminator of Islam in northern Bengal. This great scholar is often confused with Shah Jalal, thanks to Ibn Battutah’s claim that he had met Shaykh Jalal al Tabrizi. Actually he had met Shah Jalal in Sylhet in 1346 and not Shaykh Jalal al-Din Tabrizi, who was, according to most scholars, at least thirty five years older than Shah Jalal of Sylhet.
Sharf al-Din Abu Tawwamah
This great preacher of Islam in Bengal hailed from Bukhara (located in modern Uzbekistan in Central Asia) and was educated in the province of Khurasan where he became renowned for his learning, spiritual attainments and piety. After mastering both the exoteric and esoteric sciences of Islam, he moved to Delhi during the reign of Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Balban where he became renowned for his profound learning and spiritual attainments. As the Shaykh began to capture the local’s attention, the Sultan encouraged him to leave Delhi and settle in Sonargaon in East Bengal. Widely considered to be the real pioneer of Islam in this part of East Bengal, the Shaykh established his Islamic center in Sonargaon and began to propagate the faith throughout that area. After a lifetime devoted to learning, teaching and disseminating Islam in the subcontinent, this renowned scholar and spiritual master died in 1300 and was buried in Sonargaon.
Sharf al-Din Yahya al-Maneri
He was the son of Shaykh Yahya of Maner in Bihar and was born in 1262. He was a dedicated seeker of knowledge and wisdom so much that he became a proficient Islamic scholar when he was only fifteen. Impressed by his learning and piety, Shaykh Sharf al-Din Abu Tawwamah took him to Sonargaon with him where young al-Maneri polished his knowledge of Islamic sciences and spirituality under the tutelage of his master. Impressed him al-Maneri’s attainments, subsequently Shaykh Sharf alDin Abu Tawwamah married his daughter to his distinguished pupil. In appreciating his works, Shaikh Abd al-Haq Dehlavi wrote, ‘Shaikh Sharf al-Din Maneri is one of the distinguished saints of India. He is beyond praise. He has highly merited works at his credit. They contain principles of the sufi faith and the secret of truth.
By their religious fervour, missionary zeal, exemplary character and humanitarian activities, they greatly influenced the mind of the masses and attracted them to the faith of Islam.
Their achievements, either in the spread of Islam or in the expansion and consolidation of Muslim rule or in the education and enlightenment as well as in the elevation of the mind and morals of the Bengali people in general and the Muslims in particular, had been more substantial than those of the Muslim generals, conquerors and rulers. By their religious fervour, missionary zeal, exemplary character and humanitarian activities, they greatly influenced the mind of the masses and attracted them to the faith of Islam. To the physical conquest of the Muslim generals, they added the moral one by strength and stability to the Muslim rule in the land of a non-Muslim population. The khanqahs of the Sufis, which were established in every nook and corner of Bengal, were great centers of spiritual, humanitarian and intellectual activities and these greatly contributed to the development of the Muslims and the elevation of the Bengali society in various ways.
The writer is currently studying economics at the University of Dhaka.