Islam in Assam before Bakhtiyar Khalji
The re-construction of history of Assam prior to 13th century is very difficult due to lack of recorded history and meager availability of original sources. It is only after the advent of Muslims in political Bengal in 1204 AD and their eventual contact with Assam, we can have recorded history. However, with the coming of the mighty Ahoms in 1228 AD, a new system of maintaining chronicles or court records started in Assam,these chronicles or court records are called Buranjis.
It is a common tendency to trace the history of Muslims in Assam from 1205 AD, the year of Bakhtiyar Khalji’s Assam expedition. However, situated on an important trade route, it is obvious that before the Afghan expedition in the 13th century, there must be some interaction with the Muslim traders from Arabia and Persia who were frequent to this part of the globe since ages.
It is a historical fact that, one of the branch of the famous Silk Route passed through Iran-Afghanistan-India (Southern Route). Prominent Assamese Historian S.L. Baruah opines that, the Iran-Afghanistan-India route (Southern Silk Route) passed through Kamrup and Manipur to reach Yunan.(Journal of Historical Research, Vol V, 1994,Dibrugarh, p.2). George Watt in his book, A Dictionary of Economic Products of India, (1892, vol VI) said that, Syrian and Arab traders on land came to India through Khyber Pass and reached the Brahmaputra valley.
Not only land route, Assam was known to the maritime merchants and sailors of the Muslim world. Arabs-Persian-Syrian traders came into contact with Assam by Sea Route through Chittagong, Tamralipti port, which were important ports of call for China trade, since ages, even before the advent of Islam in the 7th century. “Several Arab colonies settled in Malabar, West Ceylon and Chittagong long before the birth of Prophet muhammad “ (A. K. Mazumdar, Early Hindu India, Vol I)
Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that since ages Arab-Persians-Syrians are in contact with Assam through land route as well as sea route. This interaction through traders, sailors were there before the advent of Islam (7th century). Therefore, there is no point why the interaction will not continue after the advent of Islam, there is also no point to justify why the same Arab, Syrian, Persian who are now Muslim would wait till 13th century (600 long years) to come into touch with Assam. We can also say that, the concept that Islam came to Assam through military expedition in the 1205-06 is not correct. Like any other region Islam came to Assam through the traders and individual preachers.
It is true that before the Bakhtiyar Khalji expedition of 1205-06, we do not have systematic recorded history of continued Muslim settlement in Assam, however, we have enough material to prove the existence of Muslim both foreign and native (and mixed too) as well as their settlement in Assam prior to Bakhtiyar Khalji era. Let us throw some light in that aspect.
Introduction of Islam by Traders-Sailors :
The Islamic calendar, Hijri Era begins from 622 AD. The whole of Arabia became Islamized in the Prophet’s life time. As the Arabs, Syrians and Persians were Islamized before 650AD, their ship voyage to the Bay of Bengal and the straight of Sumatra (South East Asia) brought trade items and religion together in the Arakan coast and Bengal delta simultaneously in their port of call and colonies as Tamralipti, Chittagong and Arakan. They spent time and had local women as their wives which gave rise to an ethnic muslim peoples of mix blood called “Khalazi”. V A Ahmad Kabeer in his book “Muslim monuments in Kerala” said that “Khalazi” in Arabic means Black and White which clearly refers to a mixed generation. The Moplas of Kerala who are descendants born of the Arabs marrying native Keralite or Malabar wives were called “Khalazi” by the Arabs. Thus “Khalazi” became a generic name for such mixed Islamic descendants.
In Surma valley and further into Manipur plains the “Khalazis” were called “Khalacha” , “Kalisa” , “Kala” etc as found in Vaishnavite literatures and Meitei Puya (Puyas are Manipuri old scriptures and cultural history) accounts referring to these 7th -8th century people. The Khalazis again mixed with Mongoloids in marriage as a result of further human movement. In the course of time, many of the khalazis embraced Vaishanvism due to lack of local muslim patronage or Arab Muslims being very few in number. However, the rest remained steadfast to Islam. (Farooque Ahmed; Manipuri Muslims-Historical perspectives 615-2000CE). While Manipuri historian B. Kulachandra Sharma opines that “kalisa” people reached Surma valley and Manipur in the 7th Century. “Pangals (Manipuri Muslim) of Nawphangba era and Kalisa coming to Manipur through SurmaValley and Jiri, settling and doing salt extraction” (History of Muslim settlement in Manipur, Seminar paper).
Apart from the mixed blood “khalazi’ or “kalisa” there are instance of native upper caste hindus also to embrace Islam in Assam much before Bakhtiyar Khaljis expedition in 1205 AD. A section of Nagara Brahmins of Srihatta ( the clan which received land grants from Kumar Bhaskar Varma,the greatest king of Kamarupa) embraced Islam in 646-50 AD. ( Nagendranath Vasu, The Social History of Kamrupa, Vol III). Similarly a section of the Kayastha embraced Islam during the period 743-1199 AD after their contact with the Syrians and Arabs who came to Surma valley. (R.M.Eaton, The rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier,1204-1706).
Chinese traveler Chia Tan’s chronicle of 785-805 AD, noted the presence of Syrian-Arab presence in Srihatta, which the Chinese referred as “Ta-ts’in Po-lo-men”. The Chinese called the Syrians as “Ta-ts’in” while according to G E Gerini (Researches on Ptolemy’s Geography of Eastern Asia) the term “Po-lo-men” refers to the Brahmins. This peculiar term may indicate the local Brahmin converts who came to Islamic fold due to their contact with the Syrian Arabs.
Similarly, Arab Geographers like Sulaiman Tajir (851 AD), Ibn Khurdadhbah (850 AD) and Idrisi (1150AD), were familiar with Surma valley which was traditionally a part of Assam, however Arab Geographer Masudi (d.956), recorded the earliest known notice of native Muslims in the Assam-Bengal region more specifically in the historic Samatata in the Southeastern delta. However, according to RM Eaton (The Rise of Islam and Bengal Frontier 1204-1706) they were probably Arab or Persian merchants settled in Samatata. ( Samatata was a part of tradirional Kamrup since the time of Bhutivarman, 510-555 AD, ref: P C Choudhury : The History of Civilization of the people of Assam to the Twelfth Century AD, SL Baruah: A Comprehensive History of Assam).
Spread of Islam by Sufi Saints and other Preachers:
Islam spread all over the world for various reasons, however one of the most important factors was the message of love, peace and brotherhood by the Sufi saints and the zeal of the individual preachers. It is also true that, missionary zeal of the Islamic preachers was noted right from the beginning of the history of Islam. The “Hayatus-Sahabah” (Biographies of the Prophet’s companions) noted that Prophet Muhammad sent letters of intimation to all kings of the known world the message of Islam.2
Caliph Ali, who was the son-in-law of the Prophet had a son named Muhammad al-Hanafiya from his second wife. It is a historical fact that Muhammad Hanifa reached Arakan (Myanmar) in 680 AD en route to China, married the local queen called Khaya Pari, and settled in Maungdaw, north of Arakan. Following which the natives embraced Islam. (A F Ezzati, The Spread of Islam). The Arakanese (Burmese) Muslims still revered this Muslim preacher.
Similarly, according to the Chinese records, Sa’ad Ibn abi Waqqas, the maternal Uncle of the Prophet brought Islam to China. And the Hui (Chinese Muslims) traced their origin to Waqqas. His son, whose tomb is still in Guangzhou (old Canton), married a native lady.
Curiously enough in Bengal ,Manipur and Assam also legends among the Muslims attribute the spread of Islam in these areas to Muhammad Hanifa and Amir Hamza, the paternal uncle of the Prophet. Numerous legend of Amir Hamza’s adventure in the region of Himalayas, Bengal, Assam, Manipur and Arakan are still there. This legends though do not prove the preaching of Islam by Muhammad Hanifa or Amir Hamza, however, it indicates the possibility of the missionary activities of early Islamic preachers in these areas.
Specially, the Sufi saints, much before the Islamic conquest of Delhi and Bengal, had done their job peacefully on their own. Much before the first Afghan expedition of Bakhtiyar Khalji, the sufi saints preached Islam in Assam and many natives embraced Islam due to their influence. And this familiarity of local people with the muslims is known from the familiarity of the word ‘Turuskah”. The Pathan army of Bakhtiyar Khalji was referred in the Kanai Barasi Rock inscription (1205 AD) of North Guwahati (written in Sanskrit) as ‘Turuskah” and not as “Mlechcha” which was generally used to refer the ‘alien” Muslims in the Sanskrit scriptures of early medieval age. For example,in the Gachtal Inscription (1227 AD) of Nagaon, the same Muslims were referred as “Mlechcha”. Even 14th century Hindu religious scripture Yogini Tantra, which was written in Assam referred to the Muslims as “Mlechcha”.
According to RM Eaton (Indo-Muslim Tradition 1200-1750, in south asia research, vol 22, No 1) already there were “Turuskah” hamlets in pre-1200 AD period which refer to the early Muslim merchants or travelers who lived by paying tax to the local Rajah. There is mention of “Turuskah” or “Pasha Ningthourel” in Manipuri Puyas like “Leithak Leikharol”. According to Y Bhagya Singh (Leithak Leikharol) “Turuskah” is interchangeable with “Pasha”. On the other hand, “pasha” derived from the word “Parsi/Farsi” (Persian). Therefore, it is evident that much before Bakhtiyar Khalji’s expedition “turuskah” was a familiar word in Assam, so was the Muslims and the word “turuskah” in Kanai Barasi Rock Inscription was a synonym of “Muslim” in Assam in that period.
The activities of the Sufi saints in Assam, in the pre and post Bakhtiyar Khalji era, are corroborated by many historical facts as well as legends and traditions attached to their sagacity and magical power. The existence of definite missionary efforts by the Sufi saints and other individual preacher in Assam is attested by the graves of some of these missionaries, which is still visited by hundreds of pilgrims irrespective of religious affiliation. Regarding the spread of Islam in Eastern Bengal and the role of the Sufis ,WW Hunter (The Religions of India) observed that, “Sufism brought in a higher conception of God and a nobler idea of brotherhood of man. It offered to the teeming low castes of Bengal, who had sat for ages abject on the outermost pale of the hindu community, a free entrance into a new social organization”. The same factor also holds good for the adjacent plains of Assam.
However, apart from lower caste and poors, we have evidence of upper caste and powerful to be attracted to the message of love and brotherhood of the Sufis in Assam. As noted by Amit Dey in his “Some aspects of Sufi Movement in Bengal” (in the quarterly review of Historical studies, Calcutta, Volxxxiii, No 3 &4), a Koch king (Chief ?) of western Assam embraced Islam in 1053 AD at the hand of the Sufis. It is evident in history that, whenever the King or Chief embraces one new religion, majority of his subjects also accept that religion (we can compare the impact of “conversion” of Ahom king to Hinduism and the impact on common Ahoms). Therefore, we can assume that many Koch subjects also became Muslims with their king.
S.K. Bhuyan wrote that a saint by the name of Shah Jalal preached in Assam and died in 1189 AD. Similarly, RM Eaton also mentions about a Brahmin Yogi of Kamrup embracing Islam due to teaching of Sufis in the early 13th century.
That, Islam was a familiar faith and there were native muslims before the Bakhtiyar Khalji’s expedition is conclusive proved by the fact that when Bakhtiyar Khalji reached Assam he befriended with a Mech King (Chief) who then became a Muslim and helped Khalji by guiding him the routes towards Tibet. Also when the destroyed Khalji was returning back with a handful of his personal guards the Mech chief helped him to reach Devkot( H K Barpujari, Comprehensive History of Assam, vol II). This Mech King was referred in the contemporary Persian Chronicle “Tabaquat-i-Nasiri” of Minhajuddin Siraj as “Ali, the Mech”. It can be easily assumed that with the Mech Chief many of his Mech subjects also became Muslims. And unless they were familiar with the Islamic faith and the Muslims or unless there was precedence of conversion to Islam by natives such kind of conversion by a King or Chief and his subjects was not possible.
Thus, from the above discussion we can come to the following conclusions-
The assumption that Islam came to Assam in 1205 AD with the first Muslim expedition of Bakhtiyar Khalji is without any ground. Interaction of Islam with Assam started since the advent of Islam in the 7th century as a part of continuing interaction with the Arabs-Syrian-Persians traders since pre-Islamic time. Therefore, Bakhtiyar khaljis expedition can be regarded ONLY as the beginning of political history of Muslims in Assam.
Another assumption that Islam was introduced in Assam through military way is also wrong. Like any other region in India or Asia, Islam was introduced in Assam also through trade. Arabian-Persian traders, maritime merchants, sailors and individual preachers were the first to bring Islam in Assam.
Though Islam came from out side and initial settlements were by the Muslims of foreign origin like Arabs, Syrian, Persians etc. But as they married local ladies a generation of mixed Muslim population came up. This mixed population are the first native Muslims who spread Islamic faith further due to human movement from one place to another, and by way of marrying native women again.
Lastly, we have evidence of even Kings and other powerful like Brahmins and Kayasthas to embrace Islam due to their contact with Sufi saints or other saintly preachers much before Bakhtiyar Khalji’s expedition. Therefore, it is easily understandable that people from lower strata of the society were also converted into Islam. (All over India it is the lower class and caste of the society who were more influenced by the message of the Sufi saints and Islam. A huge majority of Indian Muslims are converts from lower caste hindus). Therefore, we can easily come to the conclusion that there were a native muslim population, in whatever nascent form may be, before the expedition of Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1205 AD.
(To Be Continued)
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