Published on 17th April, 2020, in the Economic Times
Nabi Bansa is a Bengali epic written over 300 years ago that narrates the tales of Islamic prophets. Here we are told that when Adam was cast out of Eden, he fell to Serendib, the island of Sri Lanka, and then walked across what we now know as India, to Mecca where he was finally reunited with Hawa or Eve. Together they built the Kabah, the House of God. And after they had prayed to Allah, they were visited by the archangel Gabriel who taught them how to be husband and wife, how to set up home, and how to plough the earth and grow wheat.
When historians speak of the spread of Islam, they refer either to military or mercantile expeditions, but rarely agriculture. Yet between the 8th and the 15th Century, the ‘Islamic corridor’ between Europe and Asia improved agricultural practices across Spain, North Africa and South Asia. They took sugarcane from India and spread its cultivation to other parts of the world. They introduced coffee wherever they went. They popularised the use of the Persian water wheel that uses strength of draught animals to irrigate farms.
Islam spread in coastal India through sea merchants. It penetrated the North Indian plains and Deccan plateau through warlords who became rulers and collected taxes. As Islam settled into the land, there were jobs created in the courts of kings and noblemen. This prompted many to convert to Islam. Others converted to avoid Jizya tax. There were career converts as well as economic converts. It is commonly believed that many Indians from the lower socio-economic strata converted to Islam to liberate themselves from the oppressive hierarchy of Hinduism. Yet, this was not widespread. In fact, the arrival of merchants, invaders, immigrants, as well as conversions led to only 10-15% of population conversions. This was very different in other parts of the world.
Islam spread across Persia, replacing Zoroastrian faith entirely. It spread to Spain and North Africa, replacing Christianity entirely. But such absolute transformation did not happen in India. Hinduism and Jainism continued to flourish. In fact, 75-80% of population retained their faith as per the 1921 Census of British India. A high concentration of Islam was found primarily in two regions. One was East Bengal, which eventually became Bangladesh. The second was in the northern stretch of the Indus River, in Punjab, which became Pakistan. These two areas with high Muslim density emerged in a very unique way – through agricultural practices popularised by Sufis amongst marginalised communities as per exhaustive research done by historian Richard Eaton.
Sufism where love was valued more than law emerged in Iran in the 12th century. The Sufis came along with the Sultans to India. If Sultans had political power, then Sufis had mystical power. The support of Sufis was crucial for Sultans if they wished to control the people. Sufis were charismatic popular leaders who established lodges known as Khanekhaz. They also established schools known as Madrasas. They offered various services such as healing and were said to have magical power. Unlike the traditional Muslim cleric, they believed in singing and dancing, but they respected the Quran, the Sharia and the Hadith. They were educated men. They provided legal services. They brought a whole cultural revolution in the areas that they settled in. This happened especially in the northern Indus and the Gangetic Delta regions.
In the Punjab area, the migrating Jatt herdsmen settled around these Sufi communities. The Sufis helped them to make the arid land cultivable by introducing the Persian irrigation wheel technology (was known in ancient India as ‘jala-yantra’ or ‘ara-ghatta’, but only in pockets). So, agriculture became widespread. Over several generations, the beneficiaries converted to Islam. It was a cultural transformation that occurred over almost 100 to 200 years.
In Bengal, the river delta changed its course, moving westwards. The Mughals encouraged people to transform the now accessible wilderness of the Gangetic Delta into agricultural land to expand their revenue base. The hunters and fishermen, practitioners of old fertility cults, and tantric rituals, on the fringes of mainstream Hinduism, came in contact with the Sufis who established small local dargahs and masjids and introduced them to new farming methods.
The beneficiaries of the new farming technology gradually became Muslim. The local mystics and wandering minstrels spoke of Bon Bibi (forest goddess) and Satya Pir (the true holy man) that mingled local Hindu and Buddhist occult and mystical ideas with Islamic occult and mystical beliefs. The local ‘Indian’ forms of Islam were sanitised by Muslim intellectuals and made less local and more mainstream (Persian) in 19th century, following exposure to European education and the Caliphate Movement. This reformation in Muslim society by foreign-returned educated youth, mirrored the reform movements in Hinduism spearheaded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. It eventually led to the partition of India, when foreign-educated Muslim and Hindu leaders forgot old ways of collaboration and chose competition instead.
Today, in a world where Islam is linked with Arab Oil, Wahabi puritanism, and ISIS terrorism, few remember the agricultural legacy of Islam. And that is a shame.