Islamic Agrarianism

In short, Bengal’s eastern zone was not only an agrarian and political frontier, but also a cultural one, as Islam became locally understood as a civilization-building ideology, a religion of the plow. According to the Nabi-Bamsa, Saiyid Sultan’s epic poem composed in the late sixteenth century, the father of the human race, Adam, had made his earthly appearance on Sondwip Island, off Bengal’s southeastern coast. There the angel Gabriel instructed him to go to Arabia, where at Mecca he would construct the original Ka’aba. When this was accomplished, Gabriel gave Adam a plow, a yoke, two bulls, and seed, addressing him with the words, “Niranjan [God] has commanded that agriculture will be your destiny (bhal).” Adam then planted the seeds, harvested the crop, ground the grain, and made bread. Present-day Muslim cultivators attach a similar significance to Adam’s career. Cultivators of Pabna District identify the earth’s soil, from which Adam was made, as the source of Adam’s power and of his ability to cultivate the earth. In their view, farming the earth successfully is the fundamental task of all mankind, not only because they themselves have also come from (i.e., were nurtured by the fruit of) the soil, but because it was God’s command to Adam that re reduce the earth to the plow. It was by farming the earth that Adam obeyed God, thereby articulating his identity as the first man and as the first Muslim. Hence all men descended from Adam, in this view, can most fully demonstrate their obedience to God- and indeed, their humanity- by cultivating the earth.

Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Begal Frontier

Sufi sheiks felling jungles and propping up mud and straw mosques next to rice paddies isn’t exactly the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of Islamic expansion. Yet this is, by and large, an apt image for the expansion of Islam in Bengal- primarily East Bengal, what is today Bangladesh. For Islam spread in the vast deltas of Bengal primarily, as Eaton notes at the beginning of the above citation, through spreading civilization, specifically, agrarian-based civilization. Much of the groundwork- literally and metaphorically!- for an Islamic, agrarian civilization was laid by a diverse collection of wandering charismatic holy men- sheiks, pirs, darvishes- acting under the auspices of both the higher, more heavily Hindu landed class, and behind them, the Mughal Empire. However, because Bengal was still covered with vast tracts of jungle wilderness well into the colonial era, the work on the ground was very localized and decentralized: the various religious figures yielded much of the local authority in organizing work crews and then farmers onto the virgin land. Mughal- and hence central government- interference was primarily limited to land grants and revenue gathering; significantly, no one in Dehli or elsewhere sought to direct a grand frontier project- people went and worked and farmed. 

As they worked at clearing the jungle and instituting intensive wet-rice agriculture, they also set up mosques, shrines, and madrassas, and through their influence saw many Bengalis gradually embrace Islam. The result was a form of Islam that was- and still is- strongly agrarian, in contrast to the more typically held view- by Muslims and non-Muslims- of Islam as an essentially urban religion. Yet in Bengal Islam principally developed on an agrarian basis, and what’s more, without coercion of non-Muslims: the only edged weapons in great use were axes for felling trees (and, no doubt, fighting off tigers). Certainly, Islamic invaders from the first Indo-Turks to the Mughals swept through the area and set up various kingdoms, but it was not under their influence that Islam primarily permeated the non-Muslim peoples of the delta. By being linked to the plow and the resultingly highly humane vision of agriculture, the expansion of Islam in Bengal was marked by a similar agrarian humaneness and rootedness: something that cannot exactly be said for other extensions of Islam (or of some expansions of Christianity for that matter). It should also be noted however that this initial vision was modified considerably in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the influence of various external sources of Islam, including a certain school on the Saudi Peninsula that has lately entered even the American public consciousness…

Such a frontier of deliberate, decentralized, religiously guided agrarianism wasn’t unique to Bengal, of course. All over the medieval world, Christian and Islamic, one sees examples of this sort of subaltern expansion of frontiers, whether religious, economic, or cultural, from early Christian Ireland to Northern Europe to the steppes of Central Asia. Very often monks, holy men, and various other religious- and usually quite independent- figures can be descried expanding human settlement and commerce- and with them the palpable presence of civilization. Far from ‘poisoning everything,’ the presence of religion, particularly through holy men- both in life and death- was integral in providing authority structures and methods of civilization all across the medieval world.

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