Skip to content

Chapter 3

Proselytization in Provincial Muslim Kingdoms

A year before the dawn of the fifteenth century, Timur had claimed to have invaded Hindustan to destroy its infidels and idolators.1 In the year 1400 India was predominantly Hindu; Muslims comprised less than 2 per cent of the population. The country south of the Krishna River right up to Cape Camorin formed the Vijayanagar empire and it was Hindu. On the west coast, the strip between Goa in the south to Chaul and (future) Bombay in the north was in the hands of independent Hindu rulers. In the Bahmani kingdom conversions and immigration were swelling Muslim numbers. But the whole of Central India with Rajasthan to the west and Gondwana to the east was Hindu. East U.P., Bihar and Orissa were also Hindu. Only in Baluchistan, portion of the Punjab west of the River Ravi, Sind and Bengal there were good number of Muslims, but there too the Hindus were in majority. In the heart of the Sultanate - the eastern Punjab, Delhi and its outlying regions, and western U.P. - Gujarat, and Malwa, Muslim numbers were rising but were not yet large. Timur might have made his declaration merely as a champion of Islam, and yet he was not wrong in his assessment of the Hindu population of India.

After Timur’s visitation, a number of independent Muslim-ruled kingdoms like Gujarat, Malwa, Khandesh and Jaunpur also came into being at the expense of the weakened Sultanate. Bahmani kingdom had declared independence about the middle of the fourteenth century, and Bengal too had become virtually independent. Curiously enough the break up of the Turkish empire helped in the rapid rise of Muslim population in the fifteenth century. The Hindu rulers no doubt had gathered strength, but they had to keep on fighting against newly established Muslim kingdoms as well as the Delhi Sultanate and in the process, and whenever they were defeated, a number of their soldiers and subjects were captured and made Musalmans. Besides conversions of non-Muslims in India a large number of foreign Muslims also arrived from abroad during this period.

To keep themselves in power, the Saiyyad and Lodi Sultans of Delhi (1414-1526) went on inviting Afghans from beyond the Indus to help them stay in power. Consequently, a large number of Afghan leaders and men came into India like ‘ants and locusts’ and helped in the rise of Muslim population.2 All these factors helped in swelling the ranks of Muslims. In this context it is worth remembering that this period was, it appears, marked by feverish Muslim proselytization even outside India. All the European visitors to India like Nicolo Conti, Athnasius Nikitin and Santo Stefano were compelled to convert to Islam on their way to India.3 In India itself, according to Barbosa, the sultans of Delhi had made life extremely difficult for the non-Muslims.4 Many of the northern Hindus, especially the Yogis, ‘unwilling to stay under the power of the Moors’, became wanderers.5 Thus like the fourteenth century, the fifteenth also was a century of rapid rise of Muslim numbers through immigration and conversion. In this chapter, therefore, we shall cursorily go through the history of these kingdoms of India which were ruled by Muslim kings, and see how Muslim number grew there in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The Sultanate - The Punjab, Sind and U.P.

During Timur’s invasion the important places in the Punjab were systematically sacked. Punjab was always the first to bear the brunt of Muslim invasions directed against Hindustan, and Muslim invaders were keenly interested in making conversions. The Ghaznavids and Ghorids had occupied it and converted many people to Islam. The Mongols had also ravaged it occasionally. And for many years at a stretch, during the reigns of Sultan Nasiruddin and Ghayasuddin Balban (1246-86), they had held the trans-Ravi and Sind regions under their sway. Under them conversions used to take place on a large scale.6 In the second quarter of the fifteenth century the successors of Timur were holding parts of the Punjab to ransom, and rebellions of Muslim adventures were creating anarchical conditions.7 During this period and after, therefore, the Muslim population of the Punjab swelled considerably mainly due to proselytization. Immigration of foreign Muslims too was there on a good scale, for, as said earlier, the Saiyyad rulers, to deal effectively with foreign invaders and local rebles, and the Lodis to consolidate their position, invited large number of Afghans from across the Indus. Thus foreign immigration and campaigns helped in the rise of Muslim population in the fifteenth century Punjab.

Uttar Pradesh formed part of the Sultanate from its very inception. Consequently ‘its invasion’, which brought converts, was ruled out. But in the fifteenth century, the region to the east and south of Delhi - Katehar, Doab, Bayana and Mewat - had become a problem tract under the Saiyyads, and there they contented themselves ‘with the ignoble but customary satisfaction of plundering the people’,8 and obtaining some converts in the bargain. In eastern U.P. the flourishing Muslim kingdom of Jaunpur again helped in the rise of Muslim numbers. However, the regular warfare between the Lodis and the Sharqis had made both of them loosen their grip on neighbouring Hindu Rajas and Zamindars. But when the Sultanate once again gathered stability, the policy of proselytization was revived with vigour. Sikandar Lodi is credited with sustained activity in this regard. His intolerance in Gwalior, Mathura, Banaras and Allahabad,9 his various ‘Islamic’ regulations, and the fact that a ‘contemporary (inscription) declares him a staunch Muslim who made the foundations of Islam strong’,10 point to large additions to Muslim demography.

By the fifteenth century Sind also contained a substantial population of Muslims, but when actually Sindhis converted to Islam in large numbers is not precisely known. However, Muslims had been growing in number there ever since the days of Mahmud of Ghazni. Like in Punjab, Ghaznavid governors had also ruled over upper Sind.11 Later on the rule of Qubacha, his defeat by Iltutmish, the pressure of Mongols, and the rule of the Sultanate of Delhi had all combined to Islamize northern Sind to a large extent. In southern Sind the Sumras, a native Rajput tribe, was ousted by another Rajput tribe, the Summas, in the fourteenth century. The Summas were Muslims and Hindus by turns,12 but ultimately they seem to have ‘adopted Islam, and propagated the religion in their dominions,’13 so that when Firoz Tughlaq invaded Tatta in 1361, he prohibited the plunder or captivity of the people because they were Muslims.14 But the Hindus were also there in large numbers. When Sultan Mahmud Beghara of Gujarat received ‘complaints from Southern Sind where Muslims were said to be persecuted by Hindus,’ he marched to their relief in 1470. He met many leaders of Sumras, Sodas and Kalhoras who ‘told him that they were professing Muslims but knew little of their faith or its rules, and were wont to intermarry with and to live as Hindus.’ In Sind, ‘Compulsory conversions to Mahometanism were not infrequent, the helpless Hindu being forcibly subjected to circumcision on slight or misconstrued profession, or the false testimony of abandoned Mahometans.’15 Mahmud invited many of them to Gujarat ‘where teachers were appointed to instruct them in the faith of Islam.’.16 In the first quarter of the sixteenth century, Shah Beg Arghun, driven from Qandhar by Babur, expelled Jam Firoz, the last of the Summas, and his son Shah Husain took Multan in 1528. When Humayun took refuge in Sind (1541)17 Muslim population in the cities of Sind had grown considerably. The countryside had a mixed population in which half-converted Muslims and Hindus predominated.


Kashmir’s conversion to Islam on a large scale also dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century. Mahmud of Ghazni had made some stray efforts at preoselytization. Later on arrived in Kashmir one Shah Mirza in saintly robes from Swat in 1315. He entered the service of Sinha Deva, the ruling prince. Shah Mirza helped to oust the Hindu dynasty, and finally he himself ascended the throne in 1346.18 Thus there were Muslim kings in the Kashmir Valley from the middle of the fourteenth century. However, it was during the reign of Sikandar Butshikan (1394-1417), that the wind of Muslim proselytization blew the strongest. He invited from Persia, Arabia and Mesopotamia learned men of his own faith; his bigotry prompted him to destroy all the most famous temples in Kashmir - Martand, Vishya, Isna, Chakrabhrit, Tripeshwar, etc. Sikandar offered the Kashmiris the choice between Islam and death. Some Kashmiri Brahmans committed suicide, many left the land, many others embraced Islam, and a few began to live under Taqiya, that is, they professed Islam only outwardly.19 It is said that the fierce intolerance of Sikandar had left in Kashmir no more than eleven families of Brahmans.20 His contemporary the Raja of Jammu had been converted to Islam by Timur, by ‘hopes, fears and threats’.21

By the time of Akbar’s annexation of Kashmir (C.E. 1586) the valley had turned mainly Mohammadan. When Father Xavier and Brother Benedict went to Kashmir with Akbar this is what they learnt: ‘In antiquity this land was inhabited by the Moors, possibly a reference to Timur (contemporary of Sikandar the Iconoclast), and since then the majority of the people accept Islam.’22 When Kashmir was under Muslim rule for 500 years (1319-1819) Hindus were constantly tortured and forcibly converted. A delegation of Kashmir Brahmans had approached Guru Teg Bahadur at Anandpur Saheb to seek his help.23 But Kashmir was Islamized.

Those who fled to preserve their religion went to Laddakh in the east and Jammu in the south. It is for this reason that non-Muslims are found in large number in these regions. In the valley itself the Muslims formed the bulk of the population.


The kingdom of Gujarat was established in 1396 and its rulers were descended from Wajih-ul-Mulk, a converted Rajput. This dynasty made great efforts to spread Islam. One of its famous rulers, Ahmad Shah (1411-1442), was responsible for many conversions. In 1414 he introduced the Jiziyah, and collected it with such strictness, that it brought a number of converts to Islam.24 This Jiziyah was not rescinded till Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat in 1573. Even after that it took time to go,25 bringing converts all the while. In 1420 Ahmad Shah punished the ‘infidels’ of Satpura; in 1433 he raided Dungarpur and in 1440 he brought about Idar’s submission.26 All his conquests were accompanied by conversions and boosted Muslim demography. Mahmud Beghara’s (1458-1511) exertions in the field of proselytization were equally impressive. In 1469 he led an army into Sorath against the Mandalik of Girnar. To the Raja’s protests that he had paid the tribute regularly, Mahmud replied that he had come ‘neither for tribute nor for plunder, but to establish the true faith in Sorath.’ The Raja went on fighting and fleeing and resisting for a whole year, but then had to accept Islam,27 and received the title of Khan-i-Jahan. It stands to reason that he did not convert alone. In 1473 a raid on Dwarka brought in some more converts. When Champaner was attacked, its Rajput Raja Patai fought very valiantly. He was defeated but refused to accept Islam. For this he was done to death with great barbarity.28 In 1484 his son was made Musalman (again, not alone) and in the next reign became the Amir of Idar, receiving the title of Nizam-ul-Mulk.

About conversions through enslavement, Dr. Satish C. Misra, who has made a special study of the history of Gujarat, writes that ‘the conflict (in Gujarat) veered round two main objectives - land and women. The conqueror inexorably demanded, more often forcibly wrested, both land and women ’29 Surely a large number of women would have been made Musalman during these wars.

Immigration of foreign Muslims was also not inconsiderable. Ferishtah writes that following the example of sultan Barbak Shah of Bengal, the sultans of Gujarat and the Deccan also invited groups of Abyssinians and gave them ‘positions of respect and trust.’30 But Gujarat needed no lessons from Bengal. She abounded in port-towns, and these were doing brisk trade. Her industry was also well-developed. Traders arrived from abroad as well as slaves and soldiers. ‘Because of the constant threat from the Rajputs and other neighbouring peoples, the Sultan of Gujarat (maintained) a large standing army, recruited mostly from foreign Muslim adventurers to whom he (paid) handsome salaries.’31 On the basis of the writings of Barbosa, Cortesao and Azevedo, Professor Donald F. Lach summarises the situation thus: ‘Moors from all over the Islamic world congregate in the cities of Gujarat to carry on trade or to find employment as soldiers of the sultan. In addition to the native Moors and their co-religionists of Delhi, a cosmopolitan flavour is given to life by the presence of Turks, Mamlukes, Arabs, Persians, Khurasanis, Turcomans, Abyssinians, and a sprinkling of renegade Christians.’32

In Cambay, Ratanpur and Rander, the Portuguese found a number of foreign and Indian Muslims.33 According to Orta, who wrote around 1560, there were a few local Muslims and some low caste Hindus in Bassein when the Portuguese took it in 1535-36.34


Since the days of Khalji and Tughlaq sultans of Delhi, there were large number of Muslims in Malwa, both indigenous and foreign.35 These numbers went on growing during the rule of the independent Muslim rulers of Malwa, the Ghoris and Khaljis (1401-1562). The pattern of growth of Muslim population in Malwa was similar to that in the other regions. Captives made in campaigns against Kherla, Orissa, and Gagraun, in the first quarter of the fifteenth century, would have added to Muslim numbers. Similarly, when sultan Mahmud led an expedition against the Hara Rajputs in 1454, he put many of them to the sword, ‘and sent their children into slavery at Mandu.’36 In 1468 from the ravaged and burning town of Karahra (near Chanderi), 7,000 prisoners were taken.37

The harem of Malwa sultans formed a great source of proselytization. The seraglio of Ghayas-ud-din (14691500) was filled with beautiful slaves girls and daughters of Rajas and Zamindars.38 The number of its inmates was 16,000 according to Nizamuddin and 10,000 according to Ferishtah.39 However, with the rise of Rajputs to power in Malwa, the enslavement of Hindus and the proselytizing activity of Malwa rulers may not have been as sustained as in other regions. Foreign elements in the Malwa army and administration were also not conspicuous.

The Deccan

The Bahmani or the kingdom of the Deccan had come into being in 1347. With the extension of its dominion and power, Muslim population saw a rapid rise. Continual war with Vijayanagar, Orissa and other smaller Hindu kingdoms brought slaves who in course of time became Musalmans. Nobles and soldiers of foreign extraction filled the army and political life of the Deccan. A few instances of these would suffice to give an idea of the acceleration of Muslim numbers in the Deccan.

The first Bahmani king, Alauddin Bahman Shah (1347-1358) despatched an expedition against the northern Carnatic Hindu chieftains, and his booty included ‘1000 singing and dancing girls, Murlis, from Hindu temples.’40 In 1406 Sultan Tajuddin Firoz (1397-1422) fought a war with Vijayanagar and captured 60,000 youths and children from its territories. When peace was made Bukka gave, besides other things, 2,000 boys and girls skilled in dancing and music.41 Incidentally Firoz had a harem of 800 women of various nations, but of course all Muslims.42

His successor Ahmad Vali (1422-36), marched through Vijayanagar kingdom, ‘slaughtering men and enslaving women and children.’43 The captives were made Musalmans.44 Sultan Alauddin (1436-58) collected a thousand women in his harem. When it is noted that intermittent warfare between the Bahmani and Vijayanagar kingdoms continued for more than a century and a half, the story of enslavement, conversions, and harems of kings and nobles need not be carried on. Even ordinary soldiers used to get many slaves, and at the end of the battle of Talikot (1565), ‘large number of captives consigned to slavery, enriched the whole of the Muslim armies, for the troops were permitted to retain the whole of the plunder ’45 Capture of women and children in wars with Telingana and southern chieftaincies too added to Muslim population.

The Deccan was also full of foreign Muslims. Most of Bahman Shah’s nobles were foreigners. ‘His Afghan minister was succeeded by a Persian from Shiraz and he again by a native of Basrah.’46 Ahmad’s son Alauddin also surrounded himself with foreigners. No wonder that in the Bahmani kingdom two parties sprang up - Foreigners (better termad as Afaqis) and Deccanis.47 Both were at daggers drawn for power and in politics. Humayun (1458-61) bestowed his favours upon the Foreign faction. His renowned minister Mahmud Gawan was a foreigner, who kept an army of 20,000 men.48 Another Malik-ul-Tujjar, the governor of Daulatabad, had with him 7,000 foreign horse.49 Sultan Ahmad had a special corps of 3,000 archers from Iraq, Khurasan Transoxiana, Turkey and Arabia.50

There were thus foreigners of all extractions in the Deccan - Arabs, Afghans, Abyssinians, Egyptians, Persians and Turks. Names of some officers like Saiyyad Husain Badakhshi, Mir Ali Sistani, Abdulla Kurd, Qara Khan Kurd, Ali Khan Sistani and Iftakhar-ul-Mulk Hamadani are indicative of their foreign extraction and predominant position.51 Besides the Bahmani kingdom, Vijayanagar also employed a large number of Muslims in its armies.

One class of foreigners, the Africans, need special mention. Their dark skin made them a class apart, not being considered equal by the other fair-skinned foreigners. ‘To the negroes were added the Muwallads, a name applied to African fathers and Indian mothers.’52 In politics they were partisans of the Deccanis, in status ‘low caste’, in number very large. It would not be unsafe to assume that at the end of the fifteenth century foreigners in the Deccan were in the neighbourhood of a million.

The Malabar Coast

In Malabar, Muslim population increased considerably during the period of fourteenth-fifteenth-sixteenth centuries. In Quilon, the pearl fishery was monopolized by the Muslims who were there in large numbers. Such was their strength and influence that, although the ruler of Quilon and his armed retainers were always close by the city, the real arbiters of justice in local affairs seemed to be the wealthy ‘Moors’ who ran the fishery.53 Both Barbosa and Barros talk of the large number of Muhammadans, both foreign and indigenous, in Malabar. The foreigners included Arabs, Persians, Gujaratis, Khurasanis and Deccanis. The local ones were called Moplahs. They were mostly Sunnis, they lived in cities and made their living by trade. They comprised about 20 per cent of the total population.54 Barbosa contends that they were so numerous that the advent of the Portuguese alone prevented Malabar from becoming ‘a Moorish state.’55 A letter from Goa of the Year 1568 asserts that ‘the Malabar nation is Muslim, and they are almost all pirates and hostile to the Christians.’56 But the arrival of the Portuguese provided a check and a challenge to Muslim proselytizing endeavour. They had captured Goa, Daman and Diu in the early years of the sixteenth century. In their triumphal entry into Goa (C.E. 1510), ‘the clergymen were at the head of the procession.’ Albuquerque encouraged his soldiers to marry in the families of his Turkish officers. Force was also openly used for obtaining converts. And we shall see later on, the Portuguese tried to check conversion to Islam.


Sind and Punjab lay on the route of Muslim invaders. They bore the brunt of so many Muslim invasions for a thousand years from 712 to 1761. In these provinces as well as North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan Muslim immigration too was considerable. Therefore, the extensive growth of Muslim population in this region is understandable. But Bengal, especially eastern Bengal, calls for a special study, for Bengal did not lie on the route of the Muslim invaders. Nor did it form a base of operations for further conquests into India as were Punjab and Sind. But Bengal was another region where the rise of Muslim population was rapid, and probably in the medieval period itself eastern Bengal especially began to have a majority of Muslim population. An explanation for this phenomenon has posed a problem before scholars and demographers. However, as we shall see presently, the overall picture of Islamization in Bengal is quite clear: only in details it is a little blurred.

The main reason for large-scale conversions in Bengal, as indeed elsewhere, lies in the proselytizing endeavour of its Muslim rulers and (this is peculiar to Bengal) Sufi Mashaikh. Muslim invasions from northern India had started from the early years of the thirteenth century. Bakhtiyar Khalji had invaded Nadia (1203) and Balban had marched (c. 1279-80) as far as Sonargaon in eastern Bengal. The Tughlaqs continued to assert their authority over Bengal and led many expeditions into it. During such campaigns some usual conversions would have taken place. But large number of Muslims were made under the independent Muslim rulers of Bengal. ‘It is evident, from the numerical superiority in Eastern Bengal of the Muslims  that at some period an immense wave of proselytization must have swept over the country and it is most probable that that period was the period of Jalaluddin Muhammad (converted son of Hindu Raja Ganesh) during whose reign of seventeen years (1414-1431)  hosts of Hindus are said to have been forcibly converted to Islam.’57 About these Dr. Wise writes that ‘the only condition he offered were the Koran or death  many Hindus fled to Kamrup and the jungles of Assam, but it is nevertheless probable that more Muhammadans were added to Islam during these seventeen years (1414-31) than in the next three hundred.’58

Employment prospects also helped in the rise of Muslim population, for says Barbosa: ‘It is obviously an advantage in the sixteenth century Bengal to be a Moor, in as much as the Hindus daily become Moors to gain the favour of their rulers.’59

Moreover, ‘the enthusiastic soldiers, who, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, spread the faith of Islam among the timid race of Bengal, made forcible conversions by the sword, and, penetrating the dense forests of the Eastern frontier, planted the crescent in the villages of Sylhet. Tradition still preserves the names of Adam Shahid, Shah Halal Mujarrad, and Karmfarma Sahib, as three of the most successful of these enthusiasts.’60 The story of conversions under independent Muslim kings of Bengal (1338-1576) is not very clear as written records about them are few, but stray references clearly show that ‘at some times and in some places, the Hindus were subjected to persecution.’61 Tradition credits the renowned Shah Jalal of Sylhet making large-scale conversions. In Mardaran thana in Arambagh sub-division of Hoogly, where the Muhammadan population predominates over the Hindu, there is a tradition that Muhammad Ismail Shah Ghazi defeated the local Hindu Raja and forcibly converted the people to Islam.62

Hand in hand with the proselytizing efforts of the rulers was the work of Sufis and Maulvis. From the time of Muhammad bin Tughlaq to that of Akbar, Bengal had attracted rebels, refugees, Sufi Mashaikh, disgruntled nobles and adventurers from northern India. The militant type of Mashaikh found in Bengal a soil fertile for conversion, and worked hard to raise Muslim numbers. Professor K.R. Qanungo has noted that the conversion of Bengal was mainly the work of Barah-Auliyas.63 Professor Abdul Karim has also referred to militant Sufi proselytization.64 But Dr. I.H. Qureshi is the most explicit in this regard. He writes: ‘The fourteenth century was a period of expansion of Muslim authority in Bengal and the adjoining territories. A significant part was played in this process by the warrior saints who were eager to take up the cause of any persecuted community. This often resulted (in clash) with the native authority, followed, almost invariably, by annexation ’65 This also shows how elastic were the methods adopted by the Sufis. They acted mostly as peaceful missionaries, but if they saw that the espousal of some just cause required military action, they were not averse to fighting. ‘The Sufis  did not adopt the Ismaili technique of gradual conversion  They established their khanqahs and shrines at places which had already had a reputation for sanctity before Islam. Thus some of the traditional i.e. (Hindu) gatherings were transformed into new festivals. (i.e. Muslim). As a result of these efforts, Bengal in course of time became a Muslim land ’66 In brief, the Sufi Mashaikh converted people by both violent and non-violent means, occupied their places of worship and turned them into khanqahs and mosques to make Eastern Bengal specially a Muslim land.

Stories of forcible conversions in Bengal are narrated by Muhammadan medieval historians themselves with great gusto and we need not dilate upon them.67 From early times ‘each seat of Government, and each military station was more or less a centre of missionary agitation’. We find another agency from across the seas working towards the same end. Arab merchants carried on an extensive and lucrative trade at Chittagong and disseminated their religious ideas among its inhabitants. When Barbosa visited Bengal at the beginning of the sixteenth century, he found the inhabitants of the interior Gentiles, subject to the king of Bengal who was a Moor, while the sea ports were inhabited by both Moors and Gentiles. He also met with many foreigners - Arabs Persians, Abyssinians and Indians (probably Gujaratis). Caesar Frederick and Vincent Le Blanc, who were in Bengal in 1570, also inform us that the island of Sandip was then inhabited by Moors.68 In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Chittagong surely was one of the centres from which unceasing propagandism was carried on. When it is realised how Muslim merchants from India played a major role in the conversion of Mallaca and then the other parts of South-East Asia to Islam,69 an appreciation of their proselytizing endeavour and achievements in Gujarat, Malabar and Bengal can be easily made. Thus foreign Muslims were there too in large numbers in Bengal. They migrated on several occasions and for various reasons. Some came in the wake of conquest, others as traders and businessmen.70 Ruknuddin Barbak Shah (1460-74) was probably the first ruler who maintained a large number of Abyssinians as protectors of his throne. He recruited 8,000 Habshis and gave them key positions in his government. Aside from the Abyssinian eunuchs at the court, it was common for other eunuchs to act as harem guards.71 In addition to the Abyssinians, Bengal played host to other foreigners, especially merchants from Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and other parts of India. Many stayed on in Bengal because of its fertility, riches and cheap food.72 ‘Little is reported by European writers about the Hindu population of Bengal beyond remarks to the effect that their children are sometimes sold to be eunuchs, that many of them become converts to the Muslim faith, and that they constitute the majority of the population outside the port cities.’73 While European accounts of Gaur talk of a mixed population of Muslims, Hindus and foreigners (Moors), the Manasa Vijaya of Vipradasa (composed 1495) mentions large population of Muslims in Satgaon. It says, ‘The Muslim population of Saptagrama is innumerable; they belong to the Mughals, Pathans and Mokadims, Saiyyads, Mullas and Qazis ’74 Obviously Bengal cities had a good number of Muslims in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The methods of conversion employed in Bengal were the same as seen elsewhere in medieval India. But what made Bengal different from many other parts of India as non-resistant and vulnerable to conversions was its peculiar political, religious, and social condition. Politically, Bengal could not withstand Muslim attacks from the very beginning as is clear from the shocking non-resistance of Lakshman Sen to Bakhtiyar Khalji’s invasion. Perhaps the kingdom was already thoroughly infiltrated by Muslim adventures from the west and traders from the north. Its Muslim governors and rulers, due to its geographical location and the unsatisfactory medieval means of communication, mostly remained independent of Delhi, provoking, nevertheless, occasional attacks from the Delhi Sultans. Such emergencies brought the local rulers and the people closer to each other. Besides, ‘throughout the period from the 13th to the 18th century, the northern, eastern and south-eastern frontiers of the Muslim ruled area of East Bengal remained in fluid condition and the boundaries swung to and fro with tides of fresh conquests ’75 (and conversions).

Thus the People of Bengal accepted their Muslim rulers as one of themselves, and the rulers on their part adopted and patronised the people’s language and literature, art and culture.76 Translations of many important Hindu works were done at the orders of Muslim rulers,77 and ‘as a result of this interaction of Hinduism and Islam curious syncretic cults and practices arose, (there) grew the worship of a common God, adored by Hindus and Muslims alike, namely, Satya Pir. The Emperor Hussain Shah of Gauda is supposed to be the originator of this cult ’78 Adherents of such cults provided potential converts to Islam. Muslim rulers were keen on increasing Muslim numbers. They could provide jobs and other economic incentives to conversions and, as has been pointed out earlier, Barbosa was struck by the fact that in Bengal ‘everyday Gentiles turn Moors to obtain favour of the King and Governors’. Others converted as the only means of escaping punishment for crimes. Besides, wherever Muhammadan rule existed slavery was developed, and ‘slavery was accepted by the Hindus as a refuge for their troubles. Delhi court obtained not only its slaves (in thousands, as for example under Firoz Tughlaq) but also eunuchs from the villages of Eastern Bengal (a wide-spread practice which the Mughal Emperor Jahangir tried to stop). The incursions of Assamese Maghs, the famines, pestilences and civil wars  drove them in sheer desperation to sell their children as Musalman slaves’.79

To such compulsions obviously the very poor and socially backward people would have succumbed. For the rich other methods were brought into operation. The Census of India Report of 1901 says that ‘the tyrannical Murshid Kuli Khan enforced a law that any Amal, or Zamindar, failing to pay the revenue that was due  should, with his wife and children, be compelled to become Muhammadans’, but the practice was much older as vouched by the Banshasmriti.80 Conversions, such as that of the Raja of Samudragarh, had a chain reaction. The converted Rajas and Zamindars used to compel others in their lands to become Musalmans for fear of losing their support, nay even for making them their active Muslim supporters. In this regard we have seen the achievements of Sultan Jalaluddin, himself a convert form Hinduism. Kala Pahar, the dreaded iconoclast, and Murshid Quli Khan were Brahman converts. So was Pir Ali or Muhammad Tahir, a Brahman apostate, who ‘like all renegades  probably proved a worse persecutor of his original faith than others who were Muhammadans by birth.’ The Census report of 1901 continues to say: ‘The present Raja of Parsouni in Darbhanga is descended form Raja Pudil Singh, who rebelled against the Emperor and became a Muhammadan by way of expiation. The family of Asad Khan of Baranthan in Chittagong, has descended from Syam Rai Chowdhari who was fain to become a Musalman  The Diwan families of Pargana Sarail in Tippera, and of Haibatnagar and Jangalbari in Mymensingh, the Pathans of Majhauli in Darbhangha’, all sprang from old Hindu houses. They, their propagation, and their progeny added to Muslim numbers.

The religious condition of Bengal too made people vulnerable to Muslim proselytization. The Pala rulers of Bengal were Buddhists and Buddhism, in spite of the damage caused to it by Bakhtiyar Khalji, remained prevalent in the land until at least the fourteenth century. The Senas were Hindus. They patronised Brahmins and Sanskrit. They were destroyed by Bakhtiyar, but not Hinduism.81 However, a sort of rivalry between Buddhism and Hinduism,82 and zeal of Muslim ‘Saints’ combined to create a situation for people’s exposure to conversion.

The social structure of Bengal too was not coalesced. It was an amalgamation of Hindus, non-Hindus, and foreigners. The invaders and immigrants from the side of Assam, Tibet and Burma were not Hindus. Abdul Majid Khan even goes on to say: ‘In fact India or the land of the Hindus ended in Bengal west of the Bhagirathi.’83 The statement is not quite true, but in the Bengal Census Report of 1872 Beverley has explained in great detail the difficulty of settling who are and who are not Hindus.84 The dark, short and broadnosed people of Bengal are called pre-Dravidian by anthropologists. Tibeto-Chinese or Mongoloids also came into Bengal and have become part and parcel of the people. It is not known when the Bodo section of the Tibeto-Burman branch of these people (Bodo, Mech, Koch, Kachari, Rabha, Garo, Tipra) came to Assam and East Bengal, but are found spread all over North and East Bengal.

In brief in eastern Bengal, Chandals and Pods and in northern Rajbansis and Koches predominated; the proportion of orthodox Hindus was very small. Pods, Chandals and Koches all have traces of Buddhist influence. Among Koches traces of Buddhist influence still survived when Ralph Fitch visited the country in the sixteenth century.85 Muslim religion must have crumbled the defences of Chandals, Koches, Pods and other tribes and low classes on whom there was little Hindu influence. Thus it were the peculiar political, religious, but more especially social conditions of Bengal that exposed its people much more to Muslim proselytization. Had the common, poor, unsophisticated sections of the backward classes been left to themselves, they might have remained contented with their local forms of devotion and folk culture. But Muslim rulers, soldiers and Sufi Mashaikh left the high and the low hardly any choice in the matter. The lower classes of course were more vulnerable. However, the picture of proselytization in Bengal is not very clear and the problem is still open to study.

But there can be no doubt as to the local origin of most of the Muhammadans in Bengal, especially in North and East. Dewan Fazle Rabbi, however, has tried to prove that Bengal Muslims are mainly of foreign extraction. Nothing can be farther from the truth, but before we critically assess his ill-founded thesis, we shall sift the evidence about the local origin of Bengal Muslims which in itself would refute their extra-Indian nativity. Brian Hodgson writes about the voluntary conversion of Koch tribe of North Bengal,86 Dr. Wise about the tribes about Dacca, and Buchanan Hamilton about other tribes, but they all agree that Bengal Muslims are descendants of local inhabitants.87 And the appellations and professions of the low class indigenous people did not change with their conversion, as will be clearly seen in the following Table.

Showing Muslim Functional Castes in Eastern Bengal88

Name of the Group Where reported Traditional occupation
Badiya or Abdul Bogra Circumcisers
Bajadars Jessore Musicians
Chunia Bogra — —
Dai Dacca, etc. Women act as midwives
Dhawa Bogra and Rajshahi Fishermen
Duffadi Malda Hooka sellers
Karindi Jessore Originally hawkers of glass beads, now engaged in agricultural operations.
Kathara Bogra Originally workers in lead foil used to decorate image of Durga, now gold and silver workers.
Kulu Bogra, etc. Oilpressers
Kutti Dacca Masons, hackney-carnage drivers, etc.
Mahifarash Dacca Fishermen
Manjhi Bogra Fishermen and boatmen, now turning to agriculture.
Mirshikari Bogra and Dacca Now goldsmiths
Naliya Bogra Weavers of reed mats
Pirkhodali Malda — —
Punjhra Malda Fish sellers
Rasua Jessore Hawkers of glassware
Sanaidar Dacca Drummers
Sandar Bogra Hawkers of glass bangles and tinsel.

In other parts of the old province of Bengal also the general opinion, buttressed by census enumerations, is that the Muhammadans are recruited mainly from local converts.

It may be generally said that almost the whole of the functional groups such as Julaha and Dhunia and the great majority of Shaikhs, probably nine-tenths in Bengal and possibly half in Bihar, are of Indian origin. The foreign elements may be looked for chiefly in the ranks of the Saiyyads, Pathans and Mughals. Even here there are many who are descended from Hindus, because high caste converts are often allowed to assume high titles. ‘In Bihar a converted Hindu of the Brahman or Kayasth caste is usually allowed to call himself a Shekh (Shaikh) and to associate and intermarry with genuine Shekhs. A Babhan or Rajput in the same circumstances, becomes a Pathan  In Mymensingh high caste converts are given title of Khan and call themselves Pathans  (Even) the lower castes  after the lapse of some years  are gradually recognised as Shekh.’89 As Nazmul Karim rightly points out: ‘The pseudo-Syeds have been on the increase not only in India but throughout the Muslim world, even from the beginning of Islamic history’,90 and the high titles among Bengal Muslim do not necessarily point to their foreign extraction.

Khan Bahadur Dewan Fazle Rabbi of Murshidabad wrote a book in Urdu entitled Haqiqat-i-Musalman-i-Bangala91 to prove that Bengal Muslims were mainly of foreign extraction. This was done probably to controvert the statement of Beverley in the Census Report of 1872 that ‘the existence of Muhammadans is due not so much to the introduction of the Moghal blood into the country, as to the conversion of the former inhabitants.’ Mr. Abu Ghaznavi of Mymensingh, who prepared an excellent account of the Muhammadans of his district, probably in connection with the 1901 census, also supported the foreign origin theory, but he admitted that local converts bulked largely in the total. In Muhammadan histories no mention is made of any large-scale Muhammadan immigration from Upper India, and in Akbar’s time the climate of Bengal was considered so uncongenial that an order to proceed there was considered a punishment. Muslims came to Bihar first, but there their number has remained small. Foreign Muslims would not have chosen to settle in the swampy regions of Noakhali, Bogra and Backergunje.

In short, analysing the data collected by Mahalanobis in 1945 about the ethnic groups of eastern Bengal mainly, Majumdar and Rao also arrived at the conclusion that Muslims of Bengal are of indigenous origin mainly from lower classes.92 These accepted Islam with their local prejudices, minor beliefs, forms of devotion, folk tales and folk cultures, and of course retaining Bengali as their mother tongue. And this explains the great rise of Muslim population in Bengal which did not lie on the route of Muslim invaders and was also situated far away from the seat of Muslim imperial power.

In conclusion it may be emphasised that even when historical forces had divided the country into a number of independent states consequent on the break-up of the Delhi Sultanate, the work of proselytization continued unabated. Indeed, it made the task of conversion easy. Small regions could be dealt with in detail and severe Muslim rulers, orthodox Ulema and zealous Sufis worked in them effectively. It was due to extraordinary situations that the Kashmir valley and Eastern Bengal became Muslim-majority regions as far back as the fifteenth century. In other parts of the country, where there was a Muslim ruler, Muslim population grew apace in the normal and usual way.


‘While the Muhammadan population was still scattered, it was customary for each householder to hang an earthen water-pot (badana) from his thatched roof, as a sign of his religious belief. One day a Maulvi, after some years’ absence, went to visit a disciple, who lived in the centre of a Hindu village, but could not find the ‘badana’. On enquiry he was told that the Musalman villager had renounced his faith and joined an outcaste tribe. On his return to the city, the circumstances being reported to the Nawab, a detachment of troops was ordered out, the village surrounded, and every person in it compelled to become Muhammadan.’

Also see M.L. Roy Chowdhury, ‘Preaching of Islam in Bengal (Turko-Afghan Period)’, in Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Twentythird Session, Aligarh, 1960, Pt. I, pp.168-181, esp. p.171, where quotations from Bijoygupta’s Padma-Purana and Jayananda’s Chaitanaya Mangal show some methods of forcible conversions.

  1. Sharafuddin Yazdi, Zafar Nama, Bib. Ind. Text (Calcutta, 1885, 88), 2 vols., II, p.14. Also Mulfuzat-i-Timuri, trs. in Find D, II, p.429. 

  2. So much so that Rizqullah says that under Sikandar Lodi one half of the country was assigned to the Farmulis and the other half to other Afghan tribes. Waqiat-i-Mushtaqi, trs. in E and D., IV, p.547. 

  3. Major, India in the Fifteenth Century/(London,1857) Introduction. 

  4. Barbosa, Duarte, The Book of Duarte Barbosa, 2 Vols., (London,1918-21), II, p.230. 

  5. Ibid., I, 230-33. 

  6. Mohammad Habib, Some Aspects of the Foundation of the Delhi Sultanate, Dr. K.M. Ashraf Memorial Lecture (Delhi, 1966) p.20. 

  7. For the anarchical conditions in the Punjab see Lal, Twilight, pp.79-100. 

  8. Ibid., pp.101-109. Also C.H.I. III, p.207. 

  9. Lal, Twilight, pp.77, 192. 

  10. Ibid., p.187. 

  11. Tuhfat-ul-Kiram, E and D., I, pp.341-42. 

  12. Ibid., p.337. 

  13. C.H.I. III,p.501; also Tarikh-i-Masumi, E and D, I, pp.224-26, and Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1845, pp.159-60. 

  14. Afif, op. cit., p. 233. 

  15. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1841, p.20. Even in the nineteenth century Hindus in the service of the Amir were obliged to wear beards like the Muslims. Thornton, Gazetteer, IV, p.296. 

  16. C.H.I., III, p.309. 

  17. Ibid., pp. 501-502. 

  18. Ferishtah, II, p.337. 

  19. Ibid., II, p.341. 

  20. C.H.I., III, p.281, Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470), the Akbar of Kashmir, recalled the exiles, assuaged the fears of the Hindus, and abolished the Jiziyah, but the converts continued to remain Musalman. 

  21. Zafar Nama, op. cit., II, pp.168-69. Lal, Twilight, p.39. 

  22. Lach, Donald F., Asia in the Making of Europe, (Chicago, 1965), vol. I, p.467. 

  23. Macauliffe, M.A. The Sikh Religion, 6 vols., IV, pp.371-72. 

  24. Ferishtah, II, pp. 185. Also Satish C. Misra, The Rise of Muslim Power in Gujarat (Bombay, 1963), p.175. 

  25. R.P. Tripathi, Some Aspects of Muslim Administration (Allahabad,1936), p.318. 

  26. C.H.I., III, pp. 298-300 

  27. Ibid., pp.305-06. 

  28. Ibid., p.310. Ferishtah, II, p.202. 

  29. S.C. Misra, op. cit., p.205. 

  30. Ferishtah, II, p.298. 

  31. Castanheda, Historia do descobrimento e conquista de India pelos Partugueses (Third Ed. Coimbra, 1928), II, p.316. Mentioned in Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe, p. 399. 

  32. Lach, I, 401. 

  33. Barbosa, op, cit., p.140; Orta and Pires in Lach, I, 404. 

  34. Lach, I, 405. 

  35. U.N. Day, Medieval Malwa (Delhi, 1967), pp.6-7. 

  36. C.H.I., III p. 356. 

  37. Ibid., p.360. 

  38. Day, op-cit., p.244. 

  39. Tabqat-i-Akbari, III, p. 351. Ferishtah, II, 255. Dr. U.N. Day op. cit., pp.244-46 thinks that the figure of Nizamuddin is exaggerated. Probably it is not. When it is realised that Ghayasuddin had two battalions of Habsh and Turkish women guards, each of 500, the figure of 1600 (given by Wolseley Haig) appears to be too small to be true. In fact according to Pires, who wrote between 1512 and 1515 the king of Malwa was said to have 2,000 women warriors who rode out to battle with him. (The Suma Oriental of Tome Pires (London, 1944), I, P.37 cited in Lach, I, p.420). A harem of 1600 inmates would have hardly aroused any comment from medieval chroniclers. But Ghayas’s saraglio was an unique institution. It was built with beauties collected from all over the world (Ferishtah). Girls were also abducted to supply its requirements. ‘Besides the musicians, singers, and dancers, usually found in a royal seraglio there were goldsmiths, blacksmiths, shoemakers, weavers, potters, tailors, makers of bows, arrows, and quivers, carpenters, wrestlers, and jugglers, each of whom received fixed wages, their officers, also women, being paid at high rates ’. (W. Haig and Ferishtah). The wages - two seers of grain and two tankahs per head per day - given to harem inmates were so low as to make one feel that it was a stable for women rather than a harem. If the number was manageable the women would have been paid and looked after better. In view of all this, the figure of 16,000 may not, after all, be an exaggeration. 

  40. C.H.I., III p.375-76. 

  41. Sewell, A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar), pp.57-58. 

  42. C.H.I., III, p. 391. 

  43. Ibid., p.397. 

  44. Ibid., p.398. 

  45. Ibid., III, 449. Also Sewell, p.198. 

  46. Ibid., III, pp.403-404. 

  47. H.K. Sherwani, Mahmud Gawan (Allahabad, 1942), pp.61-7l, esp.p. 63 and n.50. 

  48. C.H.I., III, p.432. 

  49. Ibid., p.406. 

  50. Sherwani, op. cit., p.65. 

  51. Ibid., pp.65-68. 

  52. C.H.I., III, p.404. 

  53. Barbosa, II, pp. 122-23. 

  54. W. Logan, Malabar (Madras, 1951), I, p.199. Also Lach, 368-69. On the impression of Barbosa and Barros. 

  55. Barbosa, II, p.74. 

  56. Lach, op. cit., I, p. 447. 

  57. C.H.I., III, p.267. 

  58. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1894, Pt. III, p.28. 

  59. Barbosa, The Book of Duarte Barbosa, II, p.148. Also Castanheda cited in Lach, I, p. 415. 

  60. Loc. cit. 

  61. Census of India Report, 1901. VI, Pt. I, Bengal, pp.165-181. 

  62. Ibid. 

  63. ‘Bengal was not conquered by seventeen Turkish cavalieres (of Bakhtiyar Khalji); but by the barah-auliyas, or twelve legendary Muslim militant saints, the Pirs who cropped up after the seed of Islam had been broadcast in the plains of Bengal.’ K.R. Qanungo, op. cit., p. 151. 

  64. Abdul Karim, Social History of Muslims in Bengal, pp.136-38, 143-146. 

  65. On the authority of Jadunath Sarkar, History of Bengal, pp.68, 70. 

  66. Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi, The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947), Monton & Co., S-Gravenhage, 1962, pp.70-71, 74-75. 

  67. Here is one such story cited in the Census of India Report, 1901, Vol. VI, Pt, I, Bengal, pp.165-181. 

  68. Voyages de Le Goowz, p.157, cited in Census Report, 1901,op.cit. 

  69. D.C.E. Hall, A History of South East Asia, pp.177-183. 

  70. Abdul Karim, p.140-41. 

  71. Barbosa, II, 147. 

  72. Lach, I, 416 

  73. Ibid., I, pp. 417-18. 

  74. Sukumar Sen, Bangla Sahityer Itihasa (Calcutta, 1940), p.114, cited in Abdul Karim, op. cit., p.153. 

  75. Nafis Ahmad, ‘The Evaluation of the Boundaries of East Pakistan’ in the Oriental Geographer, II, No. 2, July, 1958, p.101. 

  76. D.C. Sen, History of Bengali Language and Literature (Calcutta University, 1911), pp.10, 12, 13-14. 

  77. Tara Chand, op. cit., p.214. 

  78. Ibid., p.217. 

  79. Census of India Report, op. cit., for 1901. 

  80. It gives a historical sketch and genealogy of the family of Raja of Samudragarh, a place situated between Katwa and Bandel Railway Stations. Since the writer Satya Krishna Biswas was descended from Gopi Mohan Biswas, the last Diwan of the ruling house (op. cit., p.10), the narrative appears to be quite reliable. It says that after Bakhtiyar Khalji overran Bengal, it became a rule that if revenue was not deposited within the prescribed time, the defaulting landlord (bhuswami) had either to lose his land or become Muslim. This is also referred to in the Banglar Itihasa of Babu Raj Krishna (p.7). Banshasmriti says that once Raja Ranjit Bhatt of Samudragarh went to deposit his land revenue, but at the Treasury he found that the Raja of Krishnanagar had not reached in time. He reflected that if the Raja of Krishnanagar became Muslim, much harm would be done because he was a bigger landlord. Therefore, ‘in the larger interest of Hinduism’, Ranjit Bhatt deposited his money as revenue on behalf of the Raja of Krishnanagar and himself became a Muslim. But the most interesting part of the narrative is that on his return to his land the newly converted Raja started compelling others also to embrace Islam (because perhaps therein alone lay his security and defence).

    According to the author of the Banshasmriti the family still lives in Samudragarh, now only a small village. All the members are given two names - one Hindu and the other Muslim at the namakaran ceremony. The present Raja’s (1926?) Muslim name is Ichamat Khan and Hindu name is Makhan Lal Thakur. 

  81. P. Saran, Resistance of Indian Princes to Turkish Offensive, Sita Ram Kohli Memorial Lectures, Punjabi University (Patiala, 1967), p.34. 

  82. R.C. Mitra, The Decline of Buddhism in India, pp.78-79. 

  83. Abdul Majid Khan, ‘Research about Muslim Aristocracy in East Pakistan’ in Pierre Bessaignet (Editor), Social Research in East Pakistan, pp.18-25. 

  84. p.131, also pp.96,129. 

  85. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1873, Pt. I, p240. 

  86. Essays on Indian Subjects, I, p.108, cited in Census of India Report, VI, Pt. I 

  87. Statistical Account of Rangpur, p.221, cited in Census Report, 1901, VI, Pt. I, Bengal, pp.165-181. 

  88. Extract from Census of India, 1931, V, Part I, p.423. 

  89. Census of India Report, 1901, VI, Part I, Bengal, pp.165-181. 

  90. A.K. Nazmul Karim, ‘Muslim Social Classes of East Pakistan’ in Changing Society in India and Pakistan, University of Dacca (Oxford University Press, Pakistan, 1956), pp.120-30,138-143.

    Karim also quotes the well-known saying “Pesh az yin qassab budem, badazan gushtem shiekh: ghalla chun arzan shawad, imsal syed meshawem.”

    (The first year we were butchers, the next Sheikhs, this year, if prices rise, we shall become Syeds). 

  91. Its English translation is also available, entitled The Origin of the Muhammadans of Bengal, Thacker, Spink & co., Calcutta, 1895. 

  92. D.N. Majumdar and C.R. Rao, Race Elements in Bengal, Asia Publishing House (Bombay, 1960), pp. 74-77.