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Book Review

Life of a Legend

Anika Hossain

Rudabeh Shahid's “The Mystic Contribution: Khan Jahan Ali and the Creation of Bagerhat” was inspired by the spiritual beliefs of the author's grandparents who believed in worshipping God out of love rather than fear. While their beliefs seemed strange to the author who grew up in the midst of political turmoil in Bangladesh during the 90s, her study of comparative religion in the US helped her understand the role of Sufism behind the Bengali conversion to Islam and cleared away her confusion regarding her grandparent's beliefs.

The book is an objective review of the role played by the legendary Khan Jahan Ali in introducing Islam to the Southern regions of Bengal and his architectural contributions such as the Shait Gumbad Mosque and many others in Bagerhat, where he is said to have first settled. What is most impressive about this book is that Shahid has done a great job in presenting the limited facts and opinions without forming her own conclusions.

Shahid starts off by dealing with the question of how Islam was introduced in Bengal. She mentions and rejects four major theories, which have been proposed. These include “immigration theory, which states the Muslim population in Bengal are descendants of immigrants from Central Asia and the Middle East. Shahid points out that this theory may apply to some parts of South Asia, but it does not explain the spread of Islam among the rural populations towards as far east as the Sundarban forests located in southern Bengal. The “forced conversion theory” which suggests that the invading armies from Central Asia forced the conversion to Islam on Hindus and followers of other local religions at gunpoint. However, the author calls attention to the fact that there are very few records that support this theory and had it been true there would be more conversions in areas in Northern India, which are more geographically exposed to military invasions.

The “patronage theory” which suggests that the common people embraced Islam in order to win economic and political favours of the ruling class is also rejected by Shahid who reasons that had this been the case, there would be a decrease in the Muslim population as one moved further away from the Muslim centres of power, which did not happen. Infact, the concentration of Muslims was greater in the rural regions. The fourth theory proposes that the lower caste Hindus adopted Islam to escape the rigid caste system. Here Shahid points out that the recently converted Muslims had their own caste system, separating immigrants from locals and although this system was not as strict, it still applied to all Muslims. With her convincing arguments, the author proves that none of these theories can fully explain the rise of Islam in Bengal.

Shahid goes on to make a good case for the role of Khan Jahan Ali, separating myths from historical facts, suggesting that not only did the legendary saint bring Islam to Souhern Bengal, he and his followers played a vital role in converting the dense forests of the south into agricultural land, building highways, bridges, constructing reservoirs to supply drinking water to the inhabitants and about 360 mosques in Bagerhat alone, adding new architectural designs which were a combination of local Buddist/Hindu/ Bengali architecture and the imperial architecture of Delhi, known as the “Khan Jahani” style. Shahid carefully examines the structures constructed under his supervision and compares them to similar structures in India and Nepal, and also finds similarities in the designs and material used by the Tughlaq sultans who were of Turkish descent. She examines the architecture of the Shait Gumbad Mosque and Khan Jahan Ali's tomb and the spiritual significance of the structures in detail and concludes that he combined pre-Islamic elements into the designs, blendingthe message of Islam with the old indeginious beliefs to make the religion more acceptable to locals.

In a critical review, Shahid's professor Asit Roy Choudhury from Victoria University says, " I am sure this brief study will inspire others to seek further information and solve some of the enigmas that surround Khan Jahan Ali who had often been described as a monarch without a crown.” All in all, it can be said that for a first publication from a young author, it is a very informative and interesting book and an important contribution to the understanding of Islamic mysticism and the rise of the Islam in Bengal.

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