The controversy that swirls around the site of what may well be a 7th century mosque near Lalmonirhat in Rangpur avoids a much more interesting question.
The mosque, filmed last year by al Jazeera, has been raised for discussion following my discovery, deep into Google, of the report of the discovery of the site by villagers in the late 1980s. Visiting the site, with some background in archaeology, I was able to establish that the uncovered walls bore every sign of fine brickwork, suggesting a high status ruin, possibly contemporary with the sites being revealed at Bhitagarh and Mahasthangarh, which certainly suggests mid first millennium CE, if not earlier.
The decorative terracotta tiles associated with the site, which were mostly looted, leaving only one for display in Tajahat museum in Rangpur, certainly suggest that, together with reports of far more being discovered, but subsequently looted, confirm a high status building of that period. And the dating tablet, also displayed at Tajhat museum, a terracotta plaque inscribed in Arabic with a Sura, and a date of Hirith 69, suggesting a building date of 692.
There are also what appears to be the terracotta fragment of a dome, still in the hands of the local caretaker. All of which appears to confirm the suspicion that this might well, indeed, be a mosque site from about 500 years before the conventional estimate of the time of the arrival of Islam in the lands of Bangladesh.
The back-story of the discovery is, itself, fairly convincing, being that of the Allies in World War II deciding to build an airfield, and clearing villagers to build the facility that continues to act as an airfield. The villagers were removed to virgin jungle, and left to clear it.
It was during that slow process that the, “heap of rubble” was found, and with it, the tablet that alerted the rural farmers that this was a religious building, that they, unassisted, have meticulously, if rather unprofessionally, cleared.
Over it, they have constructed their own, somewhat basic mosque with a madrassa beside it, for village children, and appointed a very charming young local man, to lead prayers.
Now, reports of initial carbon testing of material from the site, in the USA, suggests that, despite a lack of sufficient carbon material to be sure of dating, and the possibility of some errant material present, the material as tested may originate in the early 18th century.
These uncertain findings do not, of course, obviate the possibility of earlier material existing in a site that has never been professionally examined and excavated.
But the real question raised by the dating tablet suggesting a possible 7th century origin for the mosque, which would significantly change the received wisdom of local history in Bangladesh of Islam, is, in fact, where are the other such mosques of the early arrival of Islamic converts?
The Lalmonirhat mosque stands close by the junction of the Teesta and Brahmaputra rivers, and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation has already accepted that there is sufficient evidence to describe the Brahmaputra route as one of the world famous Silk Roads.” Even, perhaps, the earliest. Whilst the Teesta has, for centuries, also been recognised as the route to Sikkim, through to the Tibetan plateau.
The evidence that these lands of Bangladesh, set around the world’s largest river delta of the three great rivers, the Meghna, the Brahmaputra, and, above all, that of the Ganges was, from at least early in the first millennium BCE, one of the known world’s greatest international centres of trade, may now be judged, internationally, as incontrovertible.
The world’s most ancient maps, made in the nations of the Mediterranean, mark the Ganges delta, and even the inland route of both Ganges and Brahmaputra. The works of the great writers and map-makers of ancient Greece and Rome, including such notables as Magesthenes, Apollonarius of Rhodes, Virgil, Strabo, Pliny, Ptolemy and Plutarch, and the classic period western writings about the people of Gangaridai, their life, industry and their military strength, offer incontrovertible evidence, also emerging from the ground, that there can be no doubt of the wealth and strength of the lands of the delta. Lands so familiar to ancient civilisations that, in mid 1st century BCE, there was even an army of, “men of Gangaridai,” fighting for Rome in its wars in Asia Minor.
Neither is there much doubt that it was in the wealth from trade and peace that inevitably ensued, that great belief groups, such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism flourished, and probably grew and spread through the trade routes of the ancient world.
Since Arab traders, from earliest times, were certainly major participants in this trade, it defies probability that early converts to Islam were not amongst them.
Indeed, since we may suppose ourselves to have every reason to believe, not only that Arab traders, who were converts to Islam, arrived in Bangladesh during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet, we may also suppose that it was by the South West Silk Road, whether by the waters of the Brahmaputra to Mandalay in Myanmar, or by land from the Arakan coast that is now Cox’s Bazar District, into Yunan Province and the headwaters of the Yangtze River, that Islam arrived in China.
We know, from the reported injunction of the Prophet, “seek ye knowledge, even unto China,” that he was aware, not only of the post Han resurgence of the “Middle Kingdom” that is China, and from the reports, unsubstantiated by archaeological evidence, of a mosque in Shanghai of that period, that Islam made an early arrival in those lands of silks, fragrances and secrets.
That we also know of a flourishing Islamic community in Yunan province a thousand years later, from which the great Chinese admiral, Zheng He, originated, raises the likelihood of that corner of China as the nexus of origin for Islam in China.
It may also be considered likely that the Ganges Delta, as a continuing centre of international trade in the middle of the 1st millennium AD/CE, was the starting point for trade with the regions of South East Asia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, that still remain great Islamic centres of religion and culture of Arabic origin.
Kerala, too, en route from the Middle East and Arabia, to the Ganges Delta, lays claim to being the location of another mosque, contemporary with the lifetime of the Prophet. Once again, there appears, in fact, no archaeological evidence for the claim, but if we assume the credibility of the claim, and take it together with that in Shanghai, and of the very ancient Silk Road between the delta and China, it offers further grounds for suspecting that Bangladesh is, a so far unsuspected, key to the original spread of Islam.
To date, the earliest claimed association between Islam and Bangladesh remains the shrine dedicated to Bayazid Bastami in Chittagong, with identified association with the Persian, 9th century Sufi Islamic scholar of that name.
Whether he is entombed in Chittagong, or ever actually visited, is a matter for debate, but the associations seem to spell out an early link between Bangladesh and the Islamic world, considerably predating the accepted “wisdom” that Islam arrived in the lands of Bangladesh in the 12th century.
The circumstantial evidence for an arrival of Islam during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet seems, in fact, overwhelming. Where, then, is the archaeological evidence, especially in the form of places of worship? There must, surely, be, somewhere in these lands of Bangladesh, further, “Lost Mosques.”
Dionysius Periegetes, the 3rd century Roman historian, in describing the peoples of Gangaridai, the historic kingdom of the Ganges Delta that forced the 4th century BCE invasion of the subcontinent by Alexander the Great and his army into retreat, refers to them as, “dedicated followers of Bacchus,” the Roman God of wine and debauchery, giving us a clear indication of the readiness of these lands of Bangladesh to assimilate new philosophies and cultural influences, and it seems unlikely that the teachings of Islam would not have, equally, found ready listeners and converts in what were evidently culturally open and receptive peoples.
Somewhere, deep under the mud and alluvial deposits of these deltaic lands, there is, surely, archaeologically recoverable evidence of such early places for Islamic worship.
Now we know we should be looking for it, rather than accepting the conventional wisdom of arrival with those 12th and 13th century Sufi missionaries, who were probably leaving behind them in the lands of the caliphates from which they originated, with their advanced culture and civilisations being, at the time, devastated by the ravening hordes of the Mongols, there is, perhaps, a greater likelihood of realising the ancient advice, “seek, and ye shall find!”