Origin of the Muslim Population and their Social Stratification under Bengal Sultanate

Mar 2019
Many know that chiefly Hindus, including Buddhists and Animists, lived in Bengal
before 1200 A. D. The ruling power was in the hands of Brahman Sena dynasty. While
an adventurer and ambitious Turk Muslim named Bakhtiyar Khalji defeated Laksmana
Sena, the fate of the population of this region as though started to change. With that,
change also came in their religious identity. Muslims, increasing with a slow, but steady
figure, were replacing Hindu population. With this increase, the then Bengal, which is
now Bangladesh, contains Muslims as the majority of her population and today the
Hindus are the minority. Some say, Muslims living here are all no doubt converts from
Hindus, though it seems not logical. Some say, all Muslims living here must have had
their foreign origins, since some foreign titles, like Shah, Sayyid, khan belong still to
some families and these titles, as we know, belonged once too to some Sultans, Wazirs
and high officers. Others say, we are the descendants of sufi-saints, since they hold the
titles, as Pir, Faqir etc. Discourse on this issue also exists among the researchers. To
know the truth, we should analyze the racial origins of Bengal Muslims of Sultanic
period. Muslims of that period were of two kinds-----immigrants from different Muslim
countries and local converts. Now, discussion on these two types will continue in the

Muslim Out-comers

Historians count the years from 1200 to 1576 as Sutanic period in Bengal. In that time,
uncountable Muslim out-comers rushed to this green land. Nationally, most of them were
Arabs, Persians, Turks, Abyssinians and Afghans. Generally, three kinds of people came
here---conquerors, preachers and traders.

Conquerors and Rulers: Either at the end of 1204 or in the beginning of 1205,
Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji, originally who was a Turk, invaded Nadia
defeated King Laksmana Sen. Later he established his rule in Lakhnawati (Gaud). From
that time till 1338, various tribes of Turks sat on the throne of this rich land.

Sultan Ilyas Shah and his descendants, who remained in power as independent Sultans of
Bengal with great credit and success, were Iranians.

From 1487-1493, four Habshis, i.e.
Abyssinians reigned this region for 6 years.

Though there was a controversy on their
lineage, Sultan Ala-al-Din Husain Shah and his dynasty were identified as Arabs.
Afghans held the power of Bengal for 38 years until Akbar conquered Bengal.

The descendants of all these sultans settled themselves around Sonargaon, Satgaon and
Lakhnawati. Also, their wazirs (ministers), amirs (nobles), other high officers and
soldiers were mostly from their followers, who accompanied them at the time of the
invasion of Bengal, and later settled themselves in this land.

Among these Sultans, some, who were apt warriors, swelled with high ambition,
conquered new areas besides their own regions and appointed new governors, high
officers and soldiers from their own people in newly captured land. All these foreigners
populated vast areas from the far villages to the capital cities. Sultan Mughith al-Din
Yuzbak, (1251-1257) the brave and good ruler of Lakhnawati, conquered the whole
Radha and Firuj Shah (1301-1322) occupied Banga, Satgaon, Mymensingh, and Sylhet.
In the ruling period of Fakhr-al-Din Mubarak Shah (1338-1349), Chittagong came under
the Muslims’ hands for the first time. Faridpur was conquered by Jalal-al-Din
Muhammad Shah, Khulna-Jessore, by Khan Jahan, the commander of the Army of Sultan
Nasir-al-din Mahmud Shah and Kamrup-Kamta by Husain Shah. The reign of Kamrup
was extended from the river Karatoa to the river Mansha and Kamrup was on the east to
the river Brahmaputra.

Al these areas, later distinguishably populated by Muslims, prove
one thing that the foreign Muslims and their next generations started to inhabit this land
as locals.

Preachers: Now it is clear that even before the advent of Bakhtiyar Khalji in Bengal,
Arab and Persian preachers with their own racial traders came to this land by sea-route.
Later, in lieu of ever going back to homeland, they started to live generations after
generations around coastal areas and, to some extent, here and there of Bengal.

For instances, Bayazid Bustami (874 A.D.) in chittagong, Sultan Mahmud Mahisawar
(1047 A.D.) at Mahasthan in Bogra, Muhammad Sultan Rumi (1053A.D.) at Madanpur
All these saints left enough traces of their coming to the above mentioned places in pre-Islamic

Most of the Sultans patronized sufi-saints-ulama as well as took their advice in
administration. Their positions were high in the society as the symbols of purity and
in Mymensingh and Baba Adam (1158-1189 A.D.) at Bikrampur in Dhaka.
guardians of Sharia (The laws of Islam).
Mar 2019
For this, many sufi-saints came to this landduring Sultanic period and started to live here permanently.

In the period of Sultan Firuj Shah, Sufi Hajrat Shah Jalal with his 313 followers came
from Turkey at first to Satgaon, then went to Sylhet. From that time till his demise, he
stayed in Sylhet with his great influence on people. While Fakhr-al-Din Mubarak Shah
was on the throne of Sonargaon, 12 Aulias (saints) came to Chittagong for the preaching
of Islam. The names of three famous Sufis, contemporary of Sultan Ilyas Shah, whom he
revered heartily, were found as Shaikh Akhi Siraj-al-Din Usman, his disciple Shaikh Ala-
al-Haq and Shaikh Raja Biabani.

Ala-al-haq with his family settled himself here. His son
Shaikh Nur Qutb-al-Alam was an influential person in his time. It proves that other sufisaints
also must have found this place safe for their permanent inhabitation.

Even before the adventurous foot-step of Bakhtiyar Khalji in this country, Arab and Persian traders came by sea-route in the coastal areas of Chittagong.

The rich surplus agricultural and industrial products paved the way for flourishing trade
and commerce in Bengal attracting traders from outside. A great number of Arab, Persian
and Turk merchants came to Bengal immediately after the conquest of Nadia by
Bakhtiyar Khalji and later settled themselves keeping the bridle of trade and commerce in
their hands strongly.

From 1338 to 1538, in these two centuries, Sultans of Bengal were no more under the
authority of Delhi’s. Those days, being enthusiastic by the warm welcome of these
independent immigrant Sultans, flocks of many Muslim out-comers of all kinds, such as,
merchants, traders, preachers, soldiers, ulama-mashaikhs, adventurers etc. gathered in
this country and started to inhabit from one generation to another.

Instances of Converts

Converted Muslims came from Hindus, Buddhists and Animists. Hindus were of
generally two classes---Upper and Lower.

Upper Class Hindus
A few Brahmans accepted Islam either willingly, which probably didn’t occur frequently,
or by the pressure of any kind, which was apparently dominant. For instance, King
Ganesh was compelled to convert his son ‘Jodu’ to Muslim only being afraid of losing
power. He was in the threat of attack by the Sultan of Jaunpur, named Ibrahim Sharki.
Then, Nur Qutb-Alam, a powerful saint, who had high contact with Sultan Ibrahim
Sharki, gave him an ultimatum either to take Islam or to take dreadful fate of being
overthrown from the throne. So, in lieu of taking Islam by himself, he helped his son to
be converted.

Another person named Kalapahar was the famous general of Afghan Sultan Sulayman

Karrani (1565-1572). He was before a Kayastha and later a converted Muslim.
Lower Class Hindus
Lower class people outnumbered the upper class in conversion, which occurred in a few
cases by coercion, but in many cases by influence and willingly.

Tribal people, who believed in animism, also changed their religion in a considerable
number. For instance, on the way of his Tibet expedition, Bakhtiyar Khalji captured a
man of Mech tribe and converted him giving a Muslim name ‘Ali’. Then, three tribes,
such as, Koch, Mech and Tharu, lived in the foot of Himalayas towards the north of
They were animists, but turned into Muslims, as thought to be, by the influence
of Ali Mech.

Sena dynasty, which started its journey from 1095, began to eradicate Buddhists from
Bengal persecuting them in a great number. This is why, while Muslims came to power
bringing the end in the Sena rule, Buddhists too accepted Islam willingly, wishing to
survive being free from the oppression of Brahmans.

Arguments for converts

Hindu caste system took shape on the basis of a Law book, written by Aryan priests
between 200 bc and 100 ad, named Manu Smriti. This caste system, rigorously obeyed
before, divided Hindu society into 4 classes, at the top of which were Brahmans, i.e. the
priests, who were considered as earthly Gods. Second position was for Kayasthas, the
warriors. Vaisyas, third in rank, were farmers and merchants. Sudras, the fourth, were
laborers, mainly servants of Brahmans. There was another group out of these four,
considered as classless and called formerly untouchables, now Harijans, who did and do
the worse work of the society. Untouchables were aborigines of India.

In Sultanic period, Hindu society was tormented under this caste-system. From the
historical study, it seems that low-born Hindus and untouchables embraced Islam much
more in number hastily than the upper class. Also, Many Buddhists accepted Islam,
Mar 2019
since they were under the torture of the society and probably outnumbered the Brahmans
in conversion. Arguments in favor of this statement are much strong.

1. History says that in every age, priests of all religions stood against any kind of
conversion since they considered themselves as the shields of their sacred religions. So, it
is the duty of a priest to keep an eye on the matter that no body can slip out from his own
religion, which is of course a treachery with God. Brahmans used to lead the ceremonies
of worship, having the top position in the society with economic solvency. In this case,
while Muslims were snatching their positions, they must have been filled with anger,
which, in turn, made them rigid and impenetrable to Islam. So, usually they were a few in
number in regard to resignation to Islam and so were the Kayasthas. Even in British
period, when a large number of Brahmans and Kayasthas, being highly educated, got the
higher posts in administration, even in that fertile time, they didn’t convert themselves to
Christians as much as were expected. But their doing so was much more reasonable in
those days than in Sultanic period.

2. Vaisyas, who were by heredity farmers and traders, usually came in contact with
Muslim Sufis and traders. This contact influenced greatly upon their conversion. The
same was true for Sudras, the laborers, who had to serve for all class Muslims ranging
from Sultans to soldiers.

3. People, living in intolerable social torture, extreme economic misery and deep
darkness of illiteracy, have tendency to be converted the most. So many untouchables
took Islam as blessings.

*Two factors were responsible behind conversion:

Preachers’ Activities: Christians have built missionaries worldwide for the purpose of
the increase of their own people. In such case, they are very successful, since the major
religious people in the world are now they and still they have continued the process. In
Bangladesh, a remarkable numbers of the tribal people are now Christians, which has
been possible only by the activities of Christian Missionaries in those areas.

In Pre-Islamic and Sultanic period, many Sufi-saints with their disciples came to Bengal
as well as in the whole India. Their honest life-leading, immaculate countenances and
refined manners, some with the ability of performing miracles, easily attracted ordinary
people. For instances, a great number of common people in Bengal accepted Islam at the
hands of Sufi Shaikh Jalaluddin Tabrezi (d.1225), Shah Abdullah Kirmani in the
thirteenth century, Akhi Sirajuddin (d.1357) and Shah Jalal in the period of Sultan Firuj
It is assumed that most of those converts were from low caste Hindus and

Then, low castes, untouchables and Buddhists were going through social injustice,
inequality and harassment, which provoked them to come out of Hinduism by their
resignation to the new religion. Muslim saints pronounced the enchanting words that all
human beings are equal in the eye of Islamic law and these words had a magical touch on
the contemporary people’s minds. In 1981, about five thousand untouchables in Tamil
Nadu converted themselves to Islam,

because of being grilled under the caste system. It
might happen in Bengal too in Sultanic period.

The longing for administrative posts: Those days, all the higher posts were occupied by
Muslims, ranging from Sultans to soldiers. There was another meaning of being colored
with Islam, i.e., the better chances in administrative posts, though Hindus also were given
the higher posts in the period of some Sultans. But there are evidences that all Sultans
patronized saints and Muslims as well. So, it can be inferred that they were not such
liberal as we mean today, i.e., they loved to see their own religious people outnumber
others everywhere. In this case, low class Hindus, of course, changed their religion for
their better future.

Discourse on who the majority are

Historical accounts regarding conversion in Bengal in Sultanic period are not enough.
This is why, our conclusions always raised debates and doubts among the scholars, who
tried to opine everything in their own ways. Though we can’t claim our own opinions as
indisputable, at least can hope that our arguments and reasons must have taken us near
the truth.

According to H. Beverly, the conversion of the numerous low caste people to Islam,
being resulted from the ‘exclusive caste system of Hinduism’, was the reason of the
increase of Muslims in this territory.
That means, he thought, coverts were the majority
among the Muslims of Bengal.

On the basis of the measurement of nasal height, H.H. Risley opined in 1982 that Bengal
That is, he indicated the untouchables. Muslims were actually converts from the lowest classes of Hindus.

But Risley forgot that Abyssinians, with their many features similar to non-Aryans’
including short nose, also came to Bengal numerously in Islamic period and made this
place their safe habitations.

Rubbee refuted Beverly-Risley theory saying that the majority of Bengal Muslims is the
new generations of foreigners. Muslim Rulers always transferred their capital from one
city to another, namely Gaud, Rajmahal, Dacca, Murshidabad. Those cities have major
Muslim population and those people are none but the descendants of those ruling races,
once in power.

R.C. Majumdar argued that conversion by coercion helped spread Islam among the
people of this region. On the contrary, M.A. Rahim emphasized on both conversion of
low-caste Hindus and migration of Muslims from outside.

Muhammad Mohar Ali believed that Muslims of Bengal were largely immigrants and
partly local converts. Converts were mostly from highest classes of Hindus including
lowest classes too, as well as Buddhists and others.

Analyzing all above arguments and historical accounts, it seems that in Sultanic period,
immigrants outnumbered local converts. So, foreigners were the majority. And converts
came mostly from low-class Hindus as well as Buddhists and others. But a few converts
came from Brahmans and Kayasthas.
Instances of mass conversion were not found. Conversion occurred slowly. M. Mohar Ali
estimated that the rate of conversion was 15% of total locals in more than five hundred
So, it can be inferred that less than 3% of the population embraced Islam in a

Many Muslim Families, bearing racial titles still living in many parts of Bangladesh,
prove that they are descendants of their foreign forefathers, who came from different
Muslim countries, such as Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Asia Minor, Iran, Turkey etc.
Examples of such titles are Khaja, Khan-panni, Mirza, Sayyid etc.

What the truth is…

It happened in many places of the world that immigrants, once the minority, became the
majority occupying a land and, being pushed back, the aborigines either terminated or
became pariahs. These examples are, in front of everyone’s eyes, Red Indians in America
and aborigines in Australia. In Sultanic period, it happened too in Bengal, though slight
differently. Muslim migrants from different Muslim countries populated, not
overpopulated, Bengal at the beginning of Islamic period. Gradually their number
increased by their descendants and a little bit by converts. Yet, then, as hypothesized, half
of the population was Muslims in India in the mid-eighteenth century. After 1947, by the
migration of Muslims from west Bengal to the East and the reverse for Hindus reasoned
the swelling of Muslim population in this country. But racial originality has already gone
by this time by inter-racial marriage between local converts and immigrants. Also, in
British and Pakistani period, so many social and political events occurred resulting in
illegal births that it is very difficult to search fresh racial origins for Bengali Muslims
without including and analyzing those events. So, as we are now mixtures, how we can
say, which race or races, we really belong to. This is why, A.A. Ghuznavi said that in
1901, 20% of Muslims were descendants of foreign settlers, 50% were mixtures of
foreign blood and 30% converts. And he said rightly, ‘perhaps the majority of the
Mohamedans of the present day have the mixture of foreign blood in their veins though
that might have undergone a great many dilutions’.

Social Strata of the then Muslim Society


Though, according to Islamic Law, all human beings as the creatures of one almighty
Allah are equal, which the preachers propagated then, the real picture was different. The
Muslim society was apparently divided into two classes, as, the upper and the lower. This
could, in no way, be resembled with the caste system of Hinduism, rather took a unique
form. Also, there presented the middle class, still undefined by other researchers. All
these are being discussed below.
Mar 2019
The Upper Class

This class chiefly belonged to the Sultan and his high officials, given the most important
and responsible charges of many departments. No doubt, the top position was reserved
for the Sultan, who exercised unlimited power and enjoyed a pompous and luxurious life,
as the symbol of both awe and respect before the common people.

The poet Krittivasa
said that he had to cross nine halls to meet his contemporary Sultan, which indicates how
away he lived from ordinary life. Among the high officers, his next position went to
Wazirs (the ministers) of different departments, such as, revenue, finance, military,
external affairs etc. The Sultan awarded some of them, analyzing their credibility and
capability, by giving the posts of provincial governors. The nobility, known as Amirs,
who always surrounded the Sultan as showy ornaments, had and could exert influence on
the selection of Sultans for the throne. This is the reason they got high dignity in Sultan’s
court as well as in the society. Besides, the commanders of various contingents or
campaigns, the principal revenue collector titled Sar-I-Gomastah, the Head Qadi as Chief
Justice, appointed in the capital city, all these were highly dignified persons in Sultanic

A large number of immigrant merchants, who lived in towns and cities then, were
included in the upper class of Muslim Society. Some of them often held important
governmental posts.

These wealthy people usually inhabited in towns and cities and enjoyed luxurious lives.
They lived in brick-built houses, ate delicious food, in ceremonies special preparations
like polau, biriani, kurma, kalia, kopta, kabab etc (all foreign Muslim food habits), wore
garments of high quality and adorned them with jewelry. Generally, the rich kept at least

3-4 wives at the same time, though sometimes the number exceeded the usual.

Not for wealth, but for their spiritual images, as the representatives of God, Sufi-saints,
and Ulama were also reverend to all, though they also enjoyed economic solvency, being
patronized by all, specially by the Sultan himself. But their life-style was quite simple
with no grandeur in attires, and always stayed away from any earthly greed and sin. The
ulama, which meant the learned men, were the interpreters of Sharia, i.e., the Islamic
Law. Their work was not only to teach people and train the judges, but also to provide
advice for the Sultan in his important administrative affairs, in which they played vital

*While Delhi Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq was in his campaign against Bengal, he issued a
proclamation in 1353, which witnessed that various categories of dignified persons were
present in the contemporary Muslim society of Bengal. Those were, according to the
order of precedence, as follows.

1. Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet’s Family), ulama and mashaikhs (the Islamic

2. Khans, Maliks, umara, sadrs, akabir and Ma’arif and their suite.

The titles of Khan and Malik were often awarded to high officials, as ministers, generals
etc. Umara is the plural form of the term ‘Amir’, which meant nobles. Sadrs, Akabir and
ma’arif were also high officers in charge of different departments.

3. Zamindars, muqadims, mafruzman, malkan and the like
These people were engaged in the administration and the collection of land revenue.

4. Hermits and saints.

The Middle Class
All subordinate officers with less important duties under the high officials could be sided
to this class, such as, the ordinary soldiers including the cavalry, the infantry (called as
Paiks), the navy and the elephant corps, the local and village revenue collecting agents
and the Qadis under the head Qadi. Dihidar was the village revenue collector and Poddar
worked as both the revenue collecting agent and the money-lender, both subordinate
officers to Sar-I-Gomastah (Principal revenue collector). But during Husain Shahi period,
the revenue collecting agents changed to Talukdars and Majmuadars.
These are the few
instances and anyone can find as many as possible.

The Lower class

Farmers, weavers, laborers, etc. all gathered in this group. Also, people of various
occupations, who lived mostly in rural areas, grew up to the fullest at the end of the
sixteenth century. These professionals were pithari (cake-seller), Kabadi (Fish-seller),
Kagazi (the maker of paper), rangrej (the cloth-dyer), goala (milk-seller), jola (weaver),
mukeri (cart-puller), kasai (butcher), sanakar (the maker of looms), darzi (tailor), hajjam
(those who circumcised the male-children) etc.

According to M. Mohar Ali, immigrant Muslims used to do these jobs, which later went
on from father to son by heredity.
But most of these occupations were very old typed
and prevalent in this region for a long time. A very few of them might have been
introduced by the foreigners, such as, the work of hajjam. Analyzing the above
professions, it can be correct to conclude that, the lower class Muslims were mostly from
converts, though some foreigners were involved in agriculture too, since there are
instances in the history.

But their social life was as ordinary as before, though the economic condition of people
was rather good, but no splendor touched their thatched hut, usually made of bamboo and
wood in rural areas and covered with two or four slanting roofs.

What is the New?

From the above study, the new what are found are as follows----

*Both Hindu caste system and Muslim class-system, though then undeclared, but still
present, were formed on the basis of occupations.

*Social mobilization was impossible in the then Hindu society, i.e., while an untouchable
could never be a Brahman, there were reports about Muslims that once an Abyssinian
slave, later he became the Sultan of Bengal. Also, a lower caste Hindu could never marry
a Brahman, but Muslim Sufis often married converted girls.

*The regional governors had sometimes, if not often, direct touch with ordinary locals,
which indicates that the upper class was not absolutely out of the reach of the common.

*The lower class, who lived in towns and cities, used to imitate the upper class in their all
affairs, even in the styles of dress,
which means that the rich were the symbols of
grandeur to the ordinary. That means, these two classes were distant from each other on
the basis of economic and political status.

*Since no distinction on the basis of race, color, or country was allowed to Islam, this
didn’t exist; rather another kind of distinction in respect of merits and qualifications was
clearly found in administration, i.e., in the upper class.

*None of the common, either local converts or immigrants, treated each other as
inferiors, rather kept good relation to themselves, though there was a distance between
the government and the mass.

*The high ranking Muslims, such as qadis, muftis, ulama, religious faqirs etc., who
merged themselves in the common people living in village, had direct contact not only
with the villagers, but also with Sultans and his officials. One of Ulama, appointed as
Imam for the supervision of regular prayers in Mosques, but called as Mulla, played the
head role in a village in important ceremonies.
He was the part of the villagers, yet enjoyed the high respects. So, these respectable persons had different position in Muslim

*Ordinary people said five times prayers in the same mosques, sent their children to the
same maktabs for education and put on the dresses of the similar Islamic styles.
All these Islamic customs took those people closer to each other eliminating any kind of
distinction among them.

Therefore, Muslim class system never reached that stage, where it could become the
means of exploitation in Sultanic Bengal that we found in the present society of

*Kamrun Nahar is doing her M.Phil on “Political Violence in Bangladesh” at
Institute of Bangladesh Studies (IBS) under the University of Rajshahi in
Bangladesh. She is also an author of two published Bangla novels.

here is the PDF : http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
Mar 2019
So this entire post is just an attempt to prove that Bangladeshis are mainly descended from these Arab, Turk, Abyssinian settlers? I'm sorry but that's really far-fetched.
What I am saying is, bangladesi people are mix of Native Bangladesi people (30%) and Arab+Turkic+Persian+Afghans (70%).


Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
What I am saying is, bangladesi people are mix of Native Bangladesi people (30%) and Arab+Turkic+Persian+Afghans (70%).
This is very incorrect. Bangladeshis are basically Bengalis. Mixes are exceptional.

"A great many Bangladesh Muslims call themselves Sekh (Shaikh), the category supposed to have genealogies going back to those Arabs who assisted Mohammed when he fled to Medina. But there is little noticeable foreign admixture in the population and obviously most converts to Islam came from middle to lower castes of Buddhists and Hindus. -- The claim to Sekh status came about because every village was touched by Sufi preachers who were almost invariably called Sekh, and their converts modeled themselves after these holy men. Genealogies can be rearranged to accord with economic fortunes, a village leader might style himself Khan and claim Mughal or Pathan ancestry, or a landowner might discover that he is Sayyid, a descendent of the Prophet." - Book: 'Peoples of South Asia' by Clarence Maloney (p352)
Jan 2019
What I am saying is, bangladesi people are mix of Native Bangladesi people (30%) and Arab+Turkic+Persian+Afghans (70%).
One look at Bangladeshis will tell you that they are 100% South Asian and most likely tribal in fact. Also genetics completely disproves this theory but that's a banned topic so I won't go on further.
Likes: prashanth

Similar History Discussions