I am very aware of tiptoeing where, even, angels might fear to tread. However, a very evidently unique Islamic tradition, that appears to have coexisted within a diversity of religious beliefs for centuries, seems the very essence of a social, cultural, economic, political, and philosophical heritage of what is Bangladesh, and who are the people of Bangladesh, today.
That diversity that pre-existed in these very unique lands of the Ganges delta, that are now the lands of Bangladesh can only inspire, in the observer and student, a very special admiration and awe.
There is, in fact, no part of Bangladesh that has not experienced the influence of Islamic teaching from its earliest times, in the seventh century.
It is, of course, equally true that there is also no part of Bangladesh that has not experienced the teaching, and practice, of philosophical and religious beliefs from earliest animist, through shamanic, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, and even Christian, as well as many of the sub-sects of these great groups, and agnosticism and, no doubt, actually rare though it may be, even atheism. And, without doubt, observably so to the traveller through even the remotest corners of the land, as I have been privileged to experience over nearly 20 years, all aspects of that diversity continues to exist, even today.
Through them all run threads of idealism, realism, mysticism, and even commercialism; but then, the Ganges delta, lands that lie at the heart of Bangladesh today, was probably one of the world’s earliest centres of trade, and cultural exchange. And as the great 18th century French philosopher, Charles- Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu, famously observed: Peace is the natural consequence of trade. And a consequence of peace, and wealth, is unquestionably, social, cultural, and even philosophical advance. Small surprise, then, that these lands around the Ganges saw the evolution of great groups of philosophical belief -- shamanism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, amongst them, as well as great centres of learning, and even linguistics, such as Sanskrit.
Both the historic culture, as well as the increasing rigidity of such as the Brahmanic tradition of Hinduism, and the almost endemic wealth that sprang, for centuries, from the trade and native agricultural and manufactured production, attracting the later depredations of displaced and adventurous Afghans, may well have provided, from earliest times of the development of Islam, converts.
That such conversions were neither forced, nor widespread is, perhaps, suggested in the writings of Ibn Battuta, who observed the valuable gifts of gold and silk, donated by the Muslim rulers at the time of his 14th century visit to Sonargaon, to converts.
The Islamisation of the lands that are now Bangladesh is widely credited, today, to the arrival of the Turkic speaking soldiers of the Persian-Islamic civilisation, who seized power in north India as the Delhi Sultanate, early in the 13th century, with Bengal as the target for one part of the loose alliance of the men, many of whom were, basically, soldier-slaves, accompanied by a strong influence of Sufism.
But there is, in fact, little doubt that Islam arrived much earlier, even during the lifetime of the Prophet (pbuh).
An uncle of the Prophet, Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, is credited with the foundation of the Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou, in 627CE/AD. His travel as a trader is said to have been through the port of Chittagong, whence, almost certainly, he travelled up the Brahmaputra, and along the Lohit River valley into Sichuan and Yunnan, to the upper reaches of the Yellow River, and thence to the coast.
Chittagong of the ninth century is believed to have already contained a shrine built to memorialise Bayazid Bastami, a Persian Sufi saint. And, indeed, there is every reason to think so; although Bayazid may well never have visited the place, there it is known that a community of Muslim traders was based there, probably, from early in the seventh century, since we know that, already, the first of the “Silk Roads” commenced from there, almost certainly over 1,000 years earlier.
Then, of course, near Rangpur, in North Bengal, there is the possible early mosque at Lalmonirhat, known as the “Lost Mosque.” Built, perhaps, around 690 CE/AD, close to the junction of the Teesta, and Brahmaputra, it could well have marked a gathering place of Muslim traders, since both rivers give access to ancient trading centres in, or through, the Himalayas.
Whatever the tangible evidence, certainly the empirical evidence for an early advance of Islam into these lands lurks in the background of such regimes as the great Pala Dynasty, with their own apparent religious beliefs, but clear evidence of their religious tolerance. A tolerance, incidentally, apparently displayed by subsequent Muslim regimes in the area, especially that of the Mughals.
Chinese Islamic historians, in fact, credit Abi Waqqas with being one of the originators of the introduction of Islam into China, and since he is believed to have made use of Chittagong for some of his travels, there is no logical reason for supposing that the evangelism of Islam had to wait another half millennium.
There is, however, no doubt, that once the Turkic Muslims reached the lands of Bangladesh, their administration may well have appealed to, at least, some of the indigenous peoples with their extraordinarily rich history.
Hailing from the Caliphates of the Middle East, and the depredations thereabouts, of the Mongol onslaught, they certainly had the capacity and experience to bring with them not only their military expertise, more than a touch of the experience of dealing, militarily, with the Mongols, but also something of the cultural heritage of those very sophisticated and “civilised” Caliphates.
Whether soldier slaves of the Caliphate tradition, simply adventurers, or just refugees, they fled the Mongols in all directions, and south east into India was one favoured direction.
Often led by warriors of repute, their groupings usually gathered around a charismatic holy man, whose mastery of mystic powers, that owed as much to pre-Islamic Shamanic traditions as to their hero status that was akin to the great Nordic characters of the contemporary west. They were, in fact, tightly bonded groups.
It has been mooted that these bands of “holy adventurers” were responsible for a kind of Holy War against the Hindu, Buddhist and Shamanic indigenous traditions.
However, more recent research into these adventurers suggest that, as the 14th century traveller, Ibn Battuta, recorded in his journal of his meeting with the famous Shah Jalal in modern Sylhet, “The sheikh was one of the great saints....He had to his credit keramat (miracles) well known to the public as well as great deeds ... The inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.” There is, in fact, empirical evidence that the native inhabitants were of a Shamanic tradition, living largely beyond the great Hindu and Buddhist traditions of other parts of the region.
Like, it seems, most of the bands of adventurers, who travelled without families, Shah Jalals were encouraged to settle as householders, and marry local women.
In fact, there are numerous references, from more recent times, especially in the 16th and 17th century, to the sense that much of what was then the Assamese area were, as one Mughal officer wrote, “notorious for magic and sorcery,” which sounds remarkably like Shamanic traditions, even in the west, such as the Celtic Druids.
That the Sufi tradition had some commonality with these traditions suggests that integration, more than religious war, was the common part.
There is no doubt that the warrior adventurers slowly gained ascendancy, and that the educated of Afghanistan origin assumed, together with some of Persian origin, administrative roles. There is little doubt that, almost, civil war, between the warrior bands persisted, until the arrival in the mid-16th century of the Mughals, with an administration of far more Persian tradition, continued to bedevil these lands.
The arrival of the Mughal-Persian administrators eased the earlier rulers from the cities, “to have, and to hold,” more rural areas. It seems quite clear, however, that in both urban and rural societies, a high degree of the religious tolerance, characteristic of the rule of the 13th century refugees from the Mongols through the Mughal period, ensued into the British period.
That, it seems, was the early history of the Islamisation of these lands of Bangladesh; not so very different, in fact, to Islamic traditions around the world, throughout history.
Whatever, if anything, has more recently changed in this, internationally, at least, in these lands of Bangladesh today, there is little doubt that the vast majority of its people continue to share a tradition that has served it well enough from the time of the Prophet (pbuh) himself.