Islam on the fringes

By Razib Khan 15 Comments

Decided to start reading India in the Persianate Age: 1000–1765. It’s a fast and easy read (and, it’s an affordable book for a nonspecialist like me who only spends $100 or more on genetics texts). I jumped ahead in a few passages, which seem to be adaptations from papers I’ve read from the author before.

In relation to discussions on this weblog and comments I’ve made:

1) The author describes islands and pockets of wholly Muslim peasants in eastern Bengal observed by the Mughals in the 16th century. These Mughals indicate that these people are not truly Hindu or Muslim, at least initially. This is line the common thesis that Islamicization is a function of the weak to nonexistent integration of these frontier peasants into Indian culture. Mughal observers also note the physical appearance of these people: small, dark-skinned, and beardless. This seems entirely accurate (I cannot grow a beard!).

The author observes that tax receipts over several decades in Bengal exhibited a pattern that is suggestive of a massive population increase in the east and stability in the west. In fact, there were two-fold increases in the east at the same time that districts in the west declined by 10%.

The thesis by the author, which seems broadly creditable, though not proven, is that the transition to high-intensity rice agriculture in the plains of the eastern delta, and in particular east of the Padma, arrived after the Mughal expansion into the reason. As such, the transition to a “higher religion” occurred under Islam, and therefore these people became Muslim (at least nominally). The analogy that is obvious here would be the Christianization of the Montagnards and other Southeast Asian “hill people” during the colonial period, as they had been detached from Theravada Buddhist civilization.

2) The author deploys a similar model, with modifications, for western Punjab. The model here is that Jat who moved up from Sindh abandoned obligate pastoralism and engaged in agriculture, and fixated upon the tombs and shrines of Islamic eminences. Due to the emphasis on paternal lineage, the author observes that the Islamicization of names occurred quantitatively over 300 years, from the 15th to the 18th century (initiation to completion).

The main qualm I have with this model is this: the Jats/people of Punjab do not look to be from Sindh if modern Sindhis are representative of ancient Sindhis. In the language familiar to readers of this weblog Sindhis are enriched for “Iranian-related ancestry” vis-a-vis Punjabis, who are enriched for “steppe.” The Jats in particular are highly enriched for “steppe” ancestry. Going by genetics alone this model is difficult to accept, though as noted in this space it does seem that caste-like stratification has ancient roots in this region, and so that may serve as some explanation.

Note: The model in Bengal implies that Islamicization and Hinduicization occurred in East Bengal simultaneously. That is, most of the sponsors of agricultural reform and intensification happened to be Muslim, but some were Hindu, and in the case of Hindu sponsored developments the regions became Hindu. Further investigation though would be warranted for Bengali Brahmins in the eastern regions, who would then presumably be migrants from the western zone, because it is hard to credit animistic tribes needing the services of literate priestly elites.

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15 Replies to “Islam on the fringes”

  1. Is there some reason , some technological advancement which allowed this rapid growth of pops of Eastern Bengal during Mughal times? Or the Mughals encourage some industry for folks to move in from West.

  2. it is said that tippu sultan forced kannada muslims to talk in urdu/ dhakhani in their homes. tamil, malayali and telugu muslims do not speak urdu in their homes. can some one verify this?

    1. Forcing a language, that too a very different one , down anybody’s throat is not possible over a short term of even 30 years especially in their home territory where their mother tongue has a good ecosystem. Languages of African slaves to the west and Islamic countries was lost due to extraordinary circumstances of vast geographical displacement and the destruction of African society under conditions of slavery.

      OTOH, language replacement can come about through imitation of elites over a few hundred years . That happened in countries where Arabs conquered i.e. west asia and North Africa. And it is happening to many tribal languages across the world as we speak

    2. Brown, I’m not sure about the allegation of forcing. Tippu did create a greater space for Persian and urdu, and one of the first gazettes in the latter was published within the mysore military. The deccan is curiously multilingual in a way that others may not recognize. Lots of caste associated language pockets outside perceived frontiers. What dakhni was for urban pockets of muslims in the early modern period, maharashtri prakrit was in the classical and middle ages. If any region ever reached a plurality of muslims, it could have tipped the region to becoming a completely dakhni linguistic area and perhaps the language would have lost its religious valence.
      At any rate, dialects of dakhni predominate among muslims of north TN, Telangana, MH, North KA, places that were not part of tippus kingdom. The muslims of places that were more politically influenced by him, like Malabar and coastal Karnataka, do not speak Urdu at large. My personal opinion is that urdu-ization has been gradual and continues as social consolidation of deccan hanafi sunni communities with hindustani counterparts, to the extent of swapping dakhni for khari boli based features. The west coast shaafi school communities belong to a different world, and speak variations of local languages with varying levels of Arabic influence.

      1. Just curious, do you know why Urdu spread among Muslim populations such as in the Deccan, but the Persian language wasn’t really adopted anywhere? Was Urdu preferred because it felt more “native”, despite Persian having some official status for centuries?

        1. most of the muslims were native. brown-skinned converts who ate indian food. they weren’t persian. persian was like latin in Europe. elite lingua franca. but nothing more.

          1. Thanks. I know Indian Muslims are native, but I was just thinking how Persian replaced indigenous languages of Central Asia, or how Arabic became main language in Malta and North Africa. Of course I don’t know these various states linguistic policies, but was just curious how Persian never took hold in India.

        2. @Cyrus

          Very, very few people spoke Persian natively in India. The situation is quite akin to usage of Norman French in England, except the overall number of Persian speakers were two orders-of-magnitude fewer in relative terms. And the native Indian elite never picked it up (outside of court usage as an L2 or L3 speaker).

          The impact of Persian on Hindostani/Urdu is also far more superficial (limited mainly to lexicon) than of French on English (affects lexicon, but also morphology). Also unlike French v English, Indians don’t share as much culture or religion with Persians – so there’s little impetus to continue learning it (beyond the occasional language nerd etc).

  3. urdu had traction among upper classes in bengal. but that seems dead? the assocation btwn muslim brown = urdu is totally alien to bangladeshis and my parents would get super annoyed when pak/indian ppl would bring it up.

    1. Yeah, its also interesting that urdu is not the mother-tongue of muslims in any muslim majority region e.g. punjab, sindh, kashmir, or bengal. Even in the deccan, the more agrarian the social context, the more likely the muslim homes use kannada/marathi/telugu at home, and at best the head of household speaks some version of dakhni. They may claim urdu as mother-tongue however. In our native village, the claim from old timers is that urdu/dakhni is a recent affectation among all but the elite classes.

    2. On one of the podcast u did mention that.

      Do u find it odd that ur parents find Urdu being superior, irritating ,while still accepting that arabic is a superior language. This is from what i remember u said on the pod, could be wrong

  4. Yeah, but i felt that part odd.

    A bit like Sanskrit i presume, lot of non -Hindutva folks are dead against Hindi but are somewhat ambivalent on Sanskrit. Even the Dravidians and anti caste folks see Sanskrit as their more deserving rival rather than Hindi who they see as smaller villain.

  5. the issue is some ppl say persian or urdu is more Muslim than bengali among indian muslims. i think in some sense that’s informally true, but my parents grew up during the 50s in east Pakistan. they are not going to concede that at all 🙂 only to arabic will they bend a knee if it’s not bengali

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