The rise of Islam after 1500 in the Indian subcontinent

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For me, Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760, is the best analysis of the peculiar spatial distribution of religion in South Asia today. This is not because Eaton’s work is without flaw, or beyond reproach. It is because few have made as concerted an effort to analyze this issue in a dispassionate manner.

The map to the right shows the proportion of Muslims within united Bengal in ~1870 by region. The outlines of Bangladesh and West Bengal are already clear. That being said, one feature that seems clear is that the more marginal areas are curiously mostly Muslim (e.g., the far southeast). Eaton’s broad argument, following upon others, is a consequence of the fact that these areas came under intensive cultivation only during the Mughal period, and therefore under the aegis of Muslim elites. Therefore, the local peasantry took up a nominal Muslim identity as a matter of course. To reinforce the mechanism, Eaton points out that there are noted cases of villages founded by Hindu zamindars in the east where Hindu shrines were built, and the peasants nominally adhered to the sect of Hinduism professed by the zamindar.

The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760 is fully available online. I encourage you to read it. One thing that is now clearer to me again after reading it is that Islam as a religious identity of the peasantry of eastern Bengal is a notable feature only after the Mughal conquest of 1576. Visitors to Bengal from other regions before this date mention Muslims only as residents of cities and towns. Additionally, these Muslims often have some foreign connection, whether it be Afghan, Turk, or Persian. As far as the rural people go, none are mentioned as Muslim. Some of them described in eastern Bengal also seem likely to have been Tibeto-Burman in origin. They are described as “beardless”, and Muslim commentators assert they are neither the religion of India nor are they Muslims.

After 1600 visitors began to observe large numbers of Muslims in places such as the lands on either side of the Meghna river. In contrast, observers of the Hooghly basin note that all the inhabitants are Hindus (e.g., a Jesuit declares they are all “idolaters”).

In another paper Eaton analyzes Punjab. While the Islamicization of Bengal was driven by small mosques and shrines in newly founded hamlets, Eaton argues that in western Punjab Islamcization was driven by the transition of pastoralist Jatts to farming, and their settlement around charismatic Sufi shrines. But, he presents data that suggests that this process of Islamization was gradual and somewhat later than the present-day Muslims assert. Siyal Jatts of Jhang in northern Punjab assert they have been Muslim since 1250. But a record of names of notables from this community suggests this is unlikely.

Islamicization began in the period between 1400 and 1500. But the shift from Punjabi names to self-conscious Muslim names did not complete in totality until 400 years had passed.

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57 Replies to “The rise of Islam after 1500 in the Indian subcontinent”

  1. There’s a piece I found, which is a review of the book “Becoming Hindu and Muslims-Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal 1342-1905” by Saumya Dey, who is a professor at OP Jindal Global Business School.

    http://indiafacts.org/becoming-hindu-and-muslims-reading-the-cultural-encounter-in-bengal-1342-1905/

    Dey critiques some of Eaton’s points like how Hindu-Muslim identity and division is older and not just a product of 19th century colonialism. He also mentions Tripura, which is right next to East Bengal, and how Tripura had a strong Hindu and Sanskritic ethos. The reviewer is summarizing Dey’s argument and rebuttal.

  2. This has been elaborately dealt by SN Balgangadhara and others in a recent book, ‘Western Foundations of the Caste-System.’

    this by the reviewer is moronic.

    some of the criticisms i sort of agree with, but i don’t actually perceive eaton’s book to be the way it’s described either. you can read the book online.

    1. The sentence the “British created the caste system” or “Western Foundations of the Caste System” is clickbaity. Balagangadhara and his students seem to be very particular when it comes to definitions of words/concepts. He makes similar claims when he says that Hindus are a people without “religion”, “Hinduism” doesn’t exist, and “caste system” doesn’t exist because of specific definitions he uses.

      By “caste system doesn’t exist”, they’re referring to how it is described in Manu Smriti and Hindu texts. They acknowledge that there are mostly endogamous jati groups, who interact with each other in differing ways and sometimes oppress each other, but how jatis interact with each other on the ground and how caste is described in Hindu texts are very different.

      The details of his and students’ books are good, but his being pedantic on definitions makes it annoying to laymen.

      1. I have the book (an essay collection). It does NOT make the Dirks argument that “British created caste,” but it is convoluted and meandering.

        The book should be seen as a reaction to dominant academic and popular discourse on Indian caste rather than something that posits its own hypotheses.

  3. “But the shift from Punjabi names to self-conscious Muslim names did not complete in totality until 400 years had passed.”

    I dont know if there is a relation , but in India, communities which have been christian for longer time like S-Indian/North East Christians have English names like Matthew etc while C-Indian tribes who have converted later have Indian/Hindu names like Aditya etc.

    1. This is incorrect in as much as you generalize to all of India. In Kerala, longstanding Christian communities that predate the arrival of Brahmins have had names that reveal a local substratum (Yohannan, Ousep, Mathayi, Lukose etc…), and that persist even today, whereas communities of more recent Christian provenance have European-inspired names (John, Joseph, Mathew, Luke). Of course, if the only “Indian” names are Vedic-inspired, then you are correct.

      1. What are the christian communities which predate the arrival of Brahmins? Does that mean Christianity pre dates Hinduism in Kerala?

        The names you have mentioned (Yohannan, Ousep etc) are themselves originally inspired from non Indian names, so i am not sure why are you making a difference between this class of names and the recent European names. (John, Joseph, Mathew, Luke) . Both sets of names origin are from outside India.

        1. The names you have mentioned (Yohannan, Ousep etc) are themselves originally inspired from non Indian names, so i am not sure why are you making a difference between this class of names and the recent European names. (John, Joseph, Mathew, Luke) . Both sets of names origin are from outside India.

          please stop being a moron. john, joseph, mathew, luke are not european names.

          1. OMG, man i meant non Indian origin names, uff.

            Madsang himself called them as European inspired (John, Joseph, Mathew, Luke) names . I was just referring to that comment. Both me and Madsang mean is what constitutes non Indian origin/Indian origin, not literally European or English or whatever.

        2. What are the christian communities which predate the arrival of Brahmins? Does that mean Christianity pre dates Hinduism in Kerala?

          the legend says they go back to st. thomas. a lot of the brahmin communities arrived after. but i think the legend is probably wrong and christianity came and flourished somewhat later. probably after 700 AD if i had to bet

    2. S-Indian/North East Christians have English names like Matthew etc while C-Indian tribes who have converted later have Indian/Hindu names like Aditya etc.

      you sound like a dumbass tbh. matthew is not an english name. st. thomas was not an english person.

        1. yes. it’s not european. these names are semitic! there are arab forms of these names. the reasons syrian xtians have these names isn’t europe, it’s their middle eastern cultural connections. didn’t you know this? what am i missing.

          1. “yes. it’s not european. these names are semitic! there are arab forms of these names. the reasons syrian xtians have these names isn’t europe, it’s their middle eastern cultural connections. didn’t you know this? what am i missing.”

            What saurav was meaning to say, and what I understood immediately, is that John, Joseph etc are the English language *variants* of the original Hebrew names, just as Johanna, Ousep etc are the Indic variants of the *same* Hebrew names. Even a child can see that these are cognate words. Christianity is practiced in over 150 countries. Naturally there will be different spellings in different countries for the common origin names.

            the larger point that you are missing is that again a real debating point got lost in the semantics war.

        2. Saurav,

          If you read the Bible translation into Sinhalese (and assume Indian langs) the connection of Christian names to Islamic/Arab names becomes evident. Also European/Eastern Euro pronunciation which is closer to the original.

          eg.
          Abraham = Ibrahim
          Joseph = Yusuf
          Mary/Maria = Mariam
          Elias = Illias

          Shalom = Salaam (means peace, my sisters name)
          Amen = Ameen (end of prayers, means so be it).

  4. Did the Ashraf muslims in Bangla desh support Pakistan in the liberation struggle?
    Can’t recall a Bhukari or Baig etc in that movement.

    1. Did the Ashraf muslims in Bangla desh support Pakistan in the liberation struggle?

      some of the few did. but there are very few who are really ashraf in east bengal. the more religious muslims tendend to have a soft spot for pakistan. it was generational too. my parents were pro-independence. their parents were not.

  5. Eaton contends that Indians did not see Muslims as Muslims but rather from their Ethnicity e.g. Turushkas but is that enough when Muslims did indeed see Indians as Others ? He brings this narrative in his latest book ‘India in the Persianate Age’ & thus contends that the period of medieval India is better represented as Persianate instead of Muslim or Medieval.

    https://www.academia.edu/2399492/Doxography_and_Boundary-Formation_in_Late_Medieval_India
    – Paper shows how Indians started forming Hindu identity when faced with challenge of Islamic identity. Now who will decide whose ‘othering’ forced Indians to change their worldview so drastically ?

    Why then Eaton has not proposed that Indian studies of ancient period be done by removing modern religious denominations & instead they must be studied as Indic ways of contesting & forming ideas in those periods ?

    For e.g. –
    Rethinking India’s Past by Johannes Bronkhorst
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umvq9IpMATc

    Furthermore to move beyond the problematic axiom of Muslim where world was either Islamic or non-Islamic he put forwards a question i.e. For whom did these writers speak ? Is he then not overlooking Islamic bubble & problem entailed in it.

    Let me present a ‘Thought Experiment’ – Remove all notions of identities {Religious, political etc.} as we understand in modern times instead imagine ‘social differentiation’ as the source of identity. In this case what kind of differences can we imagine as identities – Regional/Spatiality, Language & profession.

    This was the reason due to which colonizers had so much trouble in categorizing identities of Indians especially during it’s earliest censuses.

    ——————————————-

    The above explanation is necessary because Muslims are the first people in the region to claim Identity & made it the centerpiece of world-view. In prior periods we find that world-views were constantly contested and negotiated thus Identities never mattered much as they were simply markers of philosophical positions rather than some form of completely new world-view & system.

    The problems which needs to be addressed –

    It is necessary to apply same frameworks to different periods of studies of Indian subcontinent {or South Asia} to maintain consistency of Identity claims to produce academic analysis which truly represent the history of Subcontinent in honest ways & for that academia will have to include Indic perspectives which differs from academia’s current positions.

      1. // you need to be less verbose. your thoughts aren’t complicated. //

        I feel this too & i want my posts to be brief but i make silly mistakes when i try to do that. I will try to do better in my future posts.

  6. The common factor seems to be groups that existed at the margins of caste Hindu society – unrooted settler farmers in Bengal, and Jatts. As I understand, Jatts are a kind-of-weird steppe-elevated low-caste group, presumably the result of one of the later steppe intrusions into India. Is that right?

    Your post makes it seem like Jatt conversion is the main reason that Punjab is so Muslim today. What % of Punjabis are Jatts? It’d be quite remarkable if a big % of the population of such prime agricultural land descended from people who were recently pastoralists.

    1. Why is it wierd? Jats and Jutts don’t care too much for Brahminical rituals which is why they don’t fit into the caste system as it correlates with dna. There is nothing wierd about it. Jats and Rajputs have many surnames in common. Bhattis, Janjuas, Tiwanas, Chauhan and Parmar etc, are jat when Sikh but Rajput when Muslim. Elaborating sociology from the very limited perspective of the caste system can be very misleading. In the Punjab there are no high castes as such and Brahminism is virtually absent. The Khatri is both trader and priestly. With the Arya Samaj coming in and taking over Khatri and Jat communities, caste is even deader than it was.

  7. Your post makes it seem like Jatt conversion is the main reason that Punjab is so Muslim today. What % of Punjabis are Jatts? It’d be quite remarkable if a big % of the population of such prime agricultural land descended from people who were recently pastoralists.

    i think the term ‘jatt’ does a lot of work here. a lot of jatt samples i see from pakistan seem to be very genetically dissimilar from indian samples. so i’m not sure that the specific jatt-thesis is true. but, the general issue is that marginal groups were more open to islam. this seems the same case in the roman world with xtianity, marginal/liminal elites came to the religion before core senatorial elites.

    re: pastoralist to ag. this is believable. the same happened in iraq in the past few hundred years. modern agricultural techniques re: irrigation orders of magnitude better than premodern ones.

    1. It depends on the kind of people who are in your jat sample from Pakistan. Many people identify as Jat when they are not actually so. This is particularly true in the Pakistani Marches where jat stops being an identifiable community and becomes a generic term for any fellow or family following a range of rural professions.

  8. p.s. elite conversion matters a lot. for various reasons ‘bosnian’ and albanian elites became muslim without become linguistically turkish. this resulted in eventual mass conversion of most of their ethnos.

    i think the reason that criticisms of eaton using tripura have less weight is that the hindu elite of east bengal was eviscerated by the arrival of muslims in the region in the 13th-century. even raja ganesha’s son had to convert to islam to maintain power. hindu upper castes were present in eastern bengal, but i bet a fair number migrated from more ‘hinduized’ regions of the delta.

    1. Who were the Punjabi elite then? The elite classes were the landowning tribes and their leading families. In Northern Punjab, some of them such as the Awan, Bhatti and Janjua clans seem to have converted almost to a man. Others remained Hindu or became Sikh later on the emergence of the faith. Khattars for example are both Muslim and Hindu. On the other hand Khatri Muslims though found in some strength are much smaller in size than the vast number of other tribes that converted. It was usually through the influence of some Pir or Syed who set up shop in the area of the tribe’s dominance. Then the local branch of the clan converted as a whole.

  9. Jatts are about 1/4 of Punjabis if I remember correctly, but Eatons point applies across the board, and is probably even more correct than he realizes.

    Most Punjabi tribes were traditionally pastoralist before the British period, as most of the Punjab was not settled agriculturally. The only groups that were more likely to be found in cities were the Brahmins, Khatris, and Dalits. Which are the only major Punjabi groups that are mostly Hindu today.

  10. The steady rise in the Muslim population in Punjab might be due to increased fertility as pastoralists settled into an agricultural setup i.e. differential fertility might be a much bigger reason than conversion or Islamicization.

    AFAIK Hindus were concentrated in the cities so might have a steady FR.

    Been looking for data on this but have not been able to find it for before 1855 census.

    Also, interesting thing going on in the graph between 1700 and 1800 as the %age of Muslim names drops among the Siyals of Jhang. Wonder if that’s due to Sikhism.

    1. Its probably better to think of Islam in Punjab distributed over area rather than population. The area West of the Sutlej-Beas was mostly Muslim, the area East of it was mostly not. The British sponsored a number of canal colonies in West Punjab that turned the unproductive pastoral lands into fertile agrarian communities, which resulted in higher fertility rates in the West vs. East.

      I think you are right about the Sikh thing. Muslims in pre-colonial Punjab weren’t particularly devout, and Muslim names were probably more of a status thing while under Mughal and Afghan rule. Once Sikhs took over, there was less reason to take Muslim names since it was worth nothing under their brief rule. In fact it probably hampered your prospects compared to having a Punjabi name.

      1. Not quite so. Sikhs and Hindus predominated in the districts east of the Ravi, not the Sutlej Beas basin. Jats and Rajput tribes converted sometime from the 15th century onward. Brahmins in the frontier converted to Islam as well, but they were always a marginal group in an area where Rajputs and Jats were the most important communities. Others tribes that converted were the Awans and Gakkhars who were the dominant tribes in North Punjab.

        1. We have census data that shows Muslims being a majority between the Ravi and Beas-Sutlej before partition. The exception was Armritsar district but that’s only due to heavy settlement of the region by Sikhs from Malwa around the 18th century.

          1. Not just Amritsar; Jullunder, Hoshiarpur and even most of Gurdaspur (where Batala and Pathankot tehsils were Hindu majority and even Gurdaspur was only marginally not so). Lahore too was about equal with Lahore town actually Hindu majority, and initially awarded to India by Radcliffe before Justice Munir persuaded him to change his mind.

        2. “Others tribes that converted were the Awans and Gakkhars who were the dominant tribes in North Punjab.”

          Do muslim pastoral tribes have an hierarchy among themselves? Like are Ghakkars above Sials etc?

          1. They contended for power among themselves before the Sikh takeover after which they mostly allied with the Sikhs and after that with the British. There was no caste hierarchy as such.

  11. The steady rise in the Muslim population in Punjab might be due to increased fertility as pastoralists settled into an agricultural setup i.e. differential fertility might be a much bigger reason than conversion or Islamicization.

    this is clearly an issue. but please note these are % from one single group.

    urban vs rural is huge issue. in 19th-century muslims had lower TFR than xtians cuz muslims lived in cities in balkans.

  12. Were the urban Muslim elites genetically assimilated into Bengalis? We know Afghan(Pathans) have the same ancestral components as Bengalis, so could a fraction of the autosomal DNA of east Bengalis be from Pathans?

    1. i assume they were assimilated. there were never that many, and urban TFR is low, so the impact is small. also they were all men basically i bet, so they’d have to intermarry as a matter of course.

  13. S-Indian/North East Christians have English names like Matthew etc while C-Indian tribes who have converted later have Indian/Hindu names like Aditya etc.

    i cannot vouch for it, but if it is really true, i have a theory for it. christianization of c-indian tribes is an ongoing phenomenon. the process is not smooth and peaceful. there have been clashes in orissa between converted tribal people and parent tribe. may be the missionaries are being circumspect and not causing alarm by overtly christian symbols and names.

    1. Well perhaps, i guess more than that, its similar to Islamization of Punjab. The first generation keeps the same punjabi names then, slowly it changes to the somewhat punjabi variant of muslim name (or vice-versa) , then muslim name. Roughly that course followed in N-East as well.

      What we have now is adivasi tribes having Hindu names and christian surname (or vice-versa) , so somewhere in the middle.

      1. What we have now is adivasi tribes having Hindu names and christian surname (or vice-versa) , so somewhere in the middle.

        I have adivasi background friends whose names are full “Hindu” or whose first names are Christian and last names are tribal. I have Christian friends in the south whose names are pure Hindu or whose first names are (last name Christian).

        Stop trying to find a pattern. There isn’t any. You’ll see all combinations in all geographies, ethnicities, castes….

        The point of converting to Christianity for most people is so they can escape conformity and express their individuality (at least to some extent). They are not going to then succumb to nomenclature conformism then.

        1. It was just an observation, nothing much to fret about. I mean i haven’t come across names like Catherina Tresa or Andrea Jermiah in those areas, That’s all.

        2. Lakshman Kadirgamar

          Named after two Hindu Gods.
          3rd gen Protestant Christian from fathers side. 4th or 5th gen Protestant Christian from mothers side.

          Mother: Edith Rosemand Parimalam Mather. Mather is an American name.

          Foreign Minister, 1994-2001. Mainly his effort to have LTTE banned internationally. Killed by LTTE sniper.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakshman_Kadirgamar

          Pedigree: can see the mix of Christian and Tamil Names.
          https://ceylontamils.com/search/pedigree.php?individualID=5666

    2. You have names that look local but if you break it up pretty obvious that it is Christian

      eg: Jesudasan
      Sathianathan
      Santhiapillai*
      PeduruPillai
      Chelvam (Also Selvam) and Chelvanayagam
      Varagunan
      Varatungarajan
      Gunanayagam

      There are also subtleties.
      e.g. Pillai normal means Catholic.
      Chelvam would be Protestant Jaffna Tamil. Selvam etc Indian Tamils.

      1. on a lateral matter, the female malayali christian names are puzzling. where does, mini, nini, rosy, etc come from?

    3. Bengali Christians retained their Hindu names. I knew a Gautam Dutt a Nirmal Mukherjee and a Sankar De, and others who continued to have Hindu names despite converting generations ago.

      1. True in other parts of India as well. The Indian test cricketer Chandu Borde – who represented India between 1958 and 1969 – was Christian, for instance.

        Interestingly Kripal Singh who also played Test cricket for India, was born Sikh and converted to Christianity and apparently practiced both religions thereafter.

  14. if they convert to protestantism or catholicism today there is not a major rationale for name change within the religion (aside from baptismal names). indigenization is seen as good.

    in any case, european xtian didn’t see the need to change all their names. names like william and charles are fine names and have non-hebrew/christian origins.

  15. @Onlooker. Caste is dead in Punjab? tell that to the abused dalits aka Chamars. They always seem to be ignored in these discussions and they are a significant minority.

    1. No point talking to these folks man. For a subset of Indian immigrants (esp. pastorals from NW India, some non-Hindus from South), and I guess a majority of Pakistani immigrants, the financial vs social capital tradeoff doesnt work out as well as they expect. Especially when they observe the overwhelming success of Indians there (this has its own issues of course).

      So all this bombast about Jats, Rajputs, Indus valley, Indo-Aryanism etc. Its just noise.

    2. I did not say it was dead. I said there was no caste hierarchy as such. Brahmins are found infrequently and are not at the top of the hierarchy. Rajputs are top dog where they dominate the population and similarly for Jats. In the Shyam Chaurasi area of Hoshiarpur, the backwards and Dalits make sure the others castes keep their heads down. The prejudice against Dalits continues; however, unlike elsewhere in India the Dalits fight back fairly successfully.

  16. Telugu Christians still have full Hindu names, leading to the accusation that they are closet christians. Many avail reservation benefits as Madigas or OBC but attend churches.
    On the flip side there is some movement back to their original hindu castes are political mobilisation is happening.
    Interesting.

  17. Glad to see Eaton being mentioned here, and I recall Razib having done that before. I think his ‘Rise of Islam…’ is the best book on medieval Bengal. I was fortunate enough to work with Eaton (online and remotely) on his book ‘Éssays on Islam and Indian History’ as an editor in Oxford University Press Delhi in the late 90s. Since it was mostly a collection of previously published essays, there wasn’t much that I had to do except look at consistency (standardizing spellings etc). If I recall correctly, there was one new essay on temple desecration in India.

    1. “If I recall correctly, there was one new essay on temple desecration in India.”

      But y was it needed though? I dont recall any temple destruction (or memory related to it ) wrt Bengal. Perhaps some local memory.

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