Muslim Identity and Demography in Arakan
Part 3. The Muslim Factor in Arakan
Just as it happened throughout the coastal territories from the Arabian Peninsula to the Barbary Coast and the shores of Gibraltar and Iberian Peninsula (and beyond) via Alexandria, Tripoli and Tunis to the west, and to the shores of Mozambique (originally Musa-bin-Baik) via Zanzibar and Mombasa to the south, and to the lower Gangetic Delta (Bangladesh) and beyond (to the Strait of Malacca) via the Malabar Coast of India to the east, the maritime trade route in the India Ocean in those days (pre-dating European colonization) used to be controlled by the Arab/Persian Muslims. As they traded they also created pockets of settlements, and interacting with and marrying into the local populace, which slowly changed the local customs and culture.
After the rapid expansion of Islam in the 7th century, according to Dr. Moshe Yegar, “Colonies of Muslims, both Arab and Persian, spread all along the sea trade routes… As early as the middle of the 8th century, a sizable Muslim concentration could be found in along the southern coast of China, in the commercial ports of southern India, and Southeast Asia…. Merchants brought silk, spices, perfumes, lumber, porcelain, silver and gold articles, precious jewels, jewelry, and so forth from these countries, and some of the trade made its way to Europe.” “Because sailing ships were dependent on monsoon winds and seasons, it was essential for Arabs and other Muslim traders,” writes Yegar, “to set up domiciles in ports that were located in the heart of local communities. Muslim settlements spread rapidly in Asian port cities as Muslim merchants became vital to the economy of the local communities.”
The local inhabitants of Arakan, as noted in the British Burma Gazetteer (1957), had interactions with the so-called Mohammedans – the ‘Moor Arab Muslims’ (merchants/traders), dating at least to the time of Mahataing Sandya (8th century CE). As to the Muslim settlements in Arakan, the renowned scholars of the early 20th century, Professor Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad wrote in 1935: “The Muslim influence in Roshang [Mrohang: the capital of Arakan during the Mrauk-U kingdom] and modern Chattagram [Chittagong] has been noticeable from ancient times. The Arab traders established trade link with the East Indies in the eighth and ninth century AD. During this time Chittagong, the lone seaport of East India, became the resting place and colony of the Arabs. We know from the accounts of the ancient Arab travelers and geologists including Sulaiman (living in 851 AD), Abu Jaidul Hasan (contemporary of Sulaiman), Ibnu Khuradba (died 912 AD), Al-Masudi (died 956 AD), Ibnu Howkal (wrote his travelogue in 976 AD), Al-Idrisi (born last half of 11th century) that the Arab traders became active in the area between Arakan and the eastern bank of the Meghna River [in today’s Bangladesh]. We can also learn about this from the Roshang national history: when Roshang King, Maha Taing Chandra (788 – 810 AD) was ruling in the 9th century, some ship wrecked Muslim traders were washed ashore on ‘Ronbee’ or ‘Ramree’ Island. When they were taken to the Arakanese king, the king ordered them to live in the village (countryside) in his country. Other historians also recognized the fact that Islam and its influence developed in Arakan in the 9th and 10th century AD.” [Explanatory notes within the parentheses [ ] are mine. It is worth noting that in the dialect prevalent in Chittagong and Arakan the vocal sounds ‘Ha’ and ‘Sha’ are interchangeable. Thus the words Roshang and Rohang are interchangeable. – H.S.]
R.B. Smart writes in the British Burma Gazetteer as follows: “The local histories relate that in the ninth century several ships were wrecked on Ramree Island and the Mussalman crews sent to Arakan and placed in villages there. They differ but little from the Arakanese except in their religion and in the social customs which their religion directs, in the writing they use Burmese, but amongst themselves employ colloquially the language of their ancestors.”
As noted by renowned historian Professor Abdul Karim, “The important point to be noticed about these shipwrecked Muslims is that they have stuck to their religion, i.e. Islam and Islamic social customs. Though they used Burmese language and also adopted other local customs, they have retained the language of their ancestors (probably with mixture of local words) in dealing among themselves. Another point to be noted is that the Arab shipwrecked Muslims have retained their religion, language and social customs for more than a thousand years.”
These shipwrecked Arab Muslims became the nucleus of the Muslim population of Arakan; later other Muslims from Arabia, Persia and other countries entered into Arakan.
Dr. Moshe Yegar says, “Beginning with their arrival in the Bay of Bengal, the earliest Muslim merchant ships also called at the ports of Arakan and Burma proper… Muslim influence in Arakan was of great cultural and political importance. In effect, Arakan was the beachhead for Muslim penetration into other parts of Burma even if it never achieved the same degree of importance it did in Arakan. As a result of close land and sea contacts maintained between the two countries, Muslims played a key role in the history of the Kingdom of Arakan.”
It is no accident that Akyab (today’s Sittwe, the capital of Arakan state of Burma, situated on the south-eastern bank of the Naaf River) is a Farsi name, as are so many other towns and villages named, and how over the centuries most of these local inhabitants along the coastal towns and villages, tired of a corrupt form of their ancestral region, would convert to Islam. And this happened centuries before Muslim rulers governed some of those territories.
Professor Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad wrote: “The Arabic influence increased to such a large extent in Chittagong during mid-10th century AD that a small Muslim kingdom was established in this region, and the ruler of the kingdom was called ‘Sultan’. Possibly the area from the east bank of the Meghna River to the Naaf was under this ‘Sultan’. We can know about the presence of this ‘Sultan’ in the Roshang [Mrohang, the capital Arakan during the Mrauk-U dynasty] national history. In 953 AD Roshang King, Sulataing Chandra (951- 957 AD) crossed his border into Bangla (Bengal) and defeated the ‘Thuratan’ (Arakanese corrupt form of Sultan), and as a symbol of victory setup a stone victory pillar at a place called ‘Chaikta-gong’ and returned home at the request of the courtiers and friends. This Chaik-ta-gong was the last border of his victory, since according to Roshang national history – ‘Chaik-ta-gong’ means ‘war should not be raised’. Many surmise that the modem name of Chittagong district originated from Chaik-ta-gong.”
If the story of Arakanese king -- mentioned in its Chronicles -- moving into Chittagong can be believed, in southern Bangladesh, especially in Chittagong, not only was there a Muslim community present but also a Muslim Sultanate ruling there in the 10th century. It may explain why Dr. Than Tun, the former Rector of Mandalay University and Professor of History at the Rangoon University, believed that the kings mentioned in the Inscription might have been Rohingyas, who lived in the eastern part of the Naaf River. He writes, “In the Kyaukza or stone inscription of 1442, it was written that some Muslim kings of Arakan were the friends of king of Ava.”
In their masterpiece, Arakan Rajshavay Bangla Shahitya, Professor Enamul Haq and Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad continued, “In this way the religion of Islam spread and the Muslim influence slowly extended from the eastern bank of the Meghna to Roshang Kingdom in the 8th and 9th centuries. From the travelogues of the Egyptian traveler to India, Ibn Batuta (14th century AD) and from the accounts of the Portuguese pirates in the 16th century, the influence of the ‘Moors’ or Arabs was waxing till then. So it is evident that long before the Muslim race was established in Bengal in the 13th century, Islam reached to this remote region of Bengal. A conclusion may easily be drawn that after the establishment in Bengal, Islam further spread in the region. That is why Bengali literature was for the first time cultivated among the Muslim of the region. Since the 15th century onwards the Muslims of this region began to engage themselves in the study of Bengali, that is, began to write books in Bengali, of which we have lots of proofs.”
The Muslim saints, the Sufis, who came in hundreds to the shores of Bay of Bengal had a fabulous influence in proselytizing the local inhabitants to Islam. The Arakanese chronicle gives reference to the traveling of Sufis in that country at the time of the king Anawarhta (1044-1077 CE) during Pagan period. Even, a Russian merchant, Athanasius Nitikin, who traveled in the East (1470), mentions regarding activities of some Muslim Sufis of Pegu. The Merchant pictured Pegu as "no inconsiderable port, inhabited by Indian dervishes. The products derived from thence are manik, akhut, kyrpuk, which are sold by the dervishes.” As noted by Dr. Mohammed Ali Chowdhury, these dervishes were Muslims, and probably of Arab descent, and that at that time some Muslims (from nearby Muslim India) had settled in those places.
As it happened throughout history, wherever Muslims went and settled, they were able to proselytize the local people. The simplicity of their faith, views about salvation, egalitarian characteristics and ease of practice, and their ethos - morals, values, dealings, manners and customs -- had a profound effect on the local population to gravitate them to the faith of these strangers, the newcomers, away from the degenerative form of their own religion that they had endured. These migrant Muslims married into the local populace and parented children.
In his book, The Essential History of Burma, historian U Kyi writes, “The superior morality of those devout Muslims attracted large number of people towards Islam who embraced it en masse.”
This essential piece of history of the Muslims of the coastal regions of today’s Bangladesh and Arakan state of Burma is simply ignored by chauvinist elements within the Rakhine and Burmese community. They cannot imagine Islam amongst the ordinary masses without rulers being of the same faith. They also forget that Islam from its very inception has been a simple practical religion, away from the curses of racism, supremacist concepts and caste system that so overwhelmingly dominated the then Buddhist and Hindu culture. While the temples, statues, mandirs and pagodas were built with gold and precious ornaments, and monks and priests held the demigod status enjoying the benefits of the vast material resources that were endowed to them for their upkeep, ordinary people went hungry and poor, and were forced to lead a life of begging and eternal servitude. It is no accident of history either that vast majority of people in places like Malaysia, southern Philippines and Indonesia, where no Muslim army went, would one day become Muslims and abandon their ancestral religions.
The restoration of the deposed king Narameikhla (Mong Saw Mwan) to the throne of Arakan by the Muslim Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah of Bengal, thus ushering in the Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1784 CE), is a turning point in the history of Arakan. From this time onward, many of its rulers, indebted to the Muslim Sultan adopted Muslim names (and may even have converted to Islam), a practice that would continue for the next two centuries, until 1638 CE. It is worth noting here that when Narameikhla was dethroned in 1404 CE by the Burman forces, he chose to flee to Muslim Bengal instead of either the Buddhist-ruled Tripura or the Hindu-ruled territories of India.
When the king Naramikhla reached the capital, he was widely acclaimed by his people. He was aided by two contingents of 50,000 Muslim soldiers (first under General Wali Khan and later under Sandi Khan) many of whom later settled in Arakan. They became his advisers and ministers making sure that the territory was not lost again to the Burmans.
The first thing Naramikhla did after regaining his throne was to transfer the capital from Launggyet to Mrohaung, which in the hands of Bengali poets and people became Roshang (Rohang). Those Muslims established the Sandi Khan Mosque in Mrohaung. Their descendants, as noted by the Bengali poets of the 17th century, held high positions during the Mrauk-U dynasty. During the successive centuries the Muslim population in Arakan grew in large numbers as a result of inter-marriage, immigration and conversion. [In my travels around the Diaspora communities, I have come across many of the descendants of those soldiers who came and settled in Arakan during Narameikhla’s time. As Anthony Irwin had noted some 70 years ago, these Muslims look quite different than average Bangladeshis; many of them have distinct Arab and Persian touch about them; many even have Mongoloid touch.]
As a vassal state of the Muslim Sultanate to the west, Arakan adopted the superior Muslim culture from the west in its courts, and minted coins with Arabic inscription of the Muslim article of faith (kalima). In this way, Arakan remained subordinate to Bengal until 1531. Interestingly, however, as noted above, its kings continued using Muslim titles even after they were liberated from dependency on the sultans of Bengal. As to the reason behind this practice, Dr. Yegar writes, “[T]hey were influenced by the fact that many of their subjects had become Muslims. Indeed, many Muslims served in prestigious positions in the royal administration despite its being Buddhist.” In Rakhine Maha Razwin (Great History of Arakan), Tha Thun Aung describes mass conversion of many Arakanese to Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Because of her geographical proximity with the south-eastern parts of Bengal, Arakan developed both political and cultural ties with its neighbor to the north-west. Major Muslim settlements developed along the rivers of Lemru, Mingen, Kaladan, Mayu and Naaf. Its courts and royalties patronized Bengali literature. Some of the best known classical Bengali poets (Alaol, Dawlat Qazi and Mardan) came from Arakan. Its capital city essentially became the breeding ground for Bengali literature in the 17th century. This Mrauk-U period also came to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ in the history of Arakan.
It is also worth mentioning here that as a result of rather lax administrative control of Chittagong by the Mughal and Afghan rulers, and the intermittent rebellion by the Sultans of Bengal against the central government in Delhi, the territory was lost to Arakan between 1580 and 1666 CE. So the ties between Chittagong and Arakan were no less striking than those visible today in places like Texas and California with Mexico.
In their masterpiece work "Arakan Rajsabhay Bangala Shahitya,” Abdul Karim Shahitya Visarad and Dr. Enamul Haq wrote, "The way Bangali flourished in the court of the 17th century Arakan, nothing of that sort is found in its [Bengal’s] own soil. It is surprising that during the exile of Bengali language in Arakan, it was greatly appreciated by the Muslim courtiers of the Arakanese kings and the Muslim poets of East Bengal, especially those of the [greater] Chittagong Division.”
These scholars further wrote, “The study of Bengali literature that the Muslim initiated reached perfection under the aegis of the courtiers of the Roshang kings. It is needless to say that the Kings’ Court of Roshang got filled up with Muslim influence long before this. From the beginning of the 15th century AD the Kings’ Court of Roshang by luck was compelled to heartily receive the Muslim influence…
…. [T]he powerful intrusion of the Muslim influence that penetrated into the Kings’ Court of Roshang in the fifteenth century AD grew all the more in the following centuries. This influence gradually grew so strong that it reached the highest point in the seventeenth century. The Bengali literature in this century shows the full picture of the Muslim influence in the King’s Court of Roshang.”
How can this piece of history about flourishing Bengali literature and the presence of Muslim courtiers and subjects in Arakan be ignored by any objective analyst?
Nor should one forget that when the Mughal Prince Shah Shuja, the Governor of Bengal (1639-59), chose to take asylum in 1660 CE instead of submitting to the authority of Aurangzeb – the new Mughal Emperor, he chose Arakan, which already had many high ranking Muslims serving the king of Arakan. He was accompanied by his family members and retinues, which included hundreds of bodyguards. Upon arrival, however, the Mughal Prince was betrayed by the Arakanese king Sanda Sudamma. While there are competing accounts as to what had ultimately happened to the fate of the Prince, including one account that suggests that Shah Shuja and his family members were treacherously murdered (and another that suggests that he was able to flee to Manipur with some of his retinues), there is little doubt that many of his guards who were attacked savagely by the Maghs of Arakan fled to the nearby jungle. Some of the surviving guards were later made royal archers and bodyguards serving the Arakanese king. Their descendants, known as the Kamans or Kamanchis (bowman), are to be found settled mostly in Rambree Island. Some of the followers of Shah Shuja escaped the persecution of Maghs and crossed to Burma. The king of Ava settled them in Ramethin, Shwebo, Maydu and Meiktila. Their descendants can be found today in these places.
There was yet another kind of interaction between the Kingdom of Arakan with its eastern neighbor Bengal, beginning in the 17th century, when gaining strength, the kings of Arakan would allow the plunder of Bengal, and Bengali captives – tens of thousands - would be brought to work as slaves in Arakan. When the Portuguese moved to the Bay of Bengal, they were allowed to set up their military posts in Arakan. In return, the Portuguese aided the Rakhine Maghs in their piracy in Bengal, terrorizing its people and harassing the Mughal forces. The joint Magh-Portuguese marauding expeditions into Bengal continued well after they were routed out of Chittagong in 1666 by Shaista Khan, the Mughal Viceroy (Subedar) of Bengal and his son General Bujurg Umid Khan. Taking captives, most of whom were Muslims, forcing them into slavery was an important part of those raids.
Friar Manrique, a Portuguese priest who visited Bengal and Arakan and who spent six years in the Augustinian Church at Dianga (Deang, near Chittagong town), was himself a witness to such Magh-Portuguese piratical raids. He wrote, “They usually made there general attacks three or four times in the year, irrespective of minor raids which went on most of the year, so that during the five years I spent in the kingdom of Arracan, some eighteen thousand people came to the ports of Dianga and Angarcale.”
As can be seen from Manrique’s account, the number of those captives was not small, and was in excess of 3,000 per year, and continued for well over a century of piracy.
This is further evidenced by the fact that when the Chittagong fort fell into the hands of the Mughals, 10,000 Bengali (both Muslim and Hindu) captives got liberty and they went to their homes. While the Portuguese pirates sold their captives and/or forcibly baptized them into Christianity, the Magh pirates forced theirs into slave labors in the paddy fields along the Kaladan River (the river was named after these Kalas). So these captives also helped in increasing the Muslim population of Arakan. The descendants of these captives mostly reside now in Kyauktaw and Mrohaung Townships of Arakan.
According to historian Professor Abdul Karim, “In the 17th century the Muslims thronged the capital Mrohaung and they were present in the miniature courts of ministers and other great Muslim officers of the kingdom. An idea of their presence is available in the writings of Muslim poets like Alaol who wrote that people from various countries and belonging to various groups came to Arakan to be under the care of Arakanese king. The Portuguese Padre Fray Sebastien Manrique visited Arakan and stayed for some time; he was also present in the coronation ceremony of the Arakanese king held on 23 January 1635. He gives a description of the coronation procession and says that of the several contingents of army that took part in the coronation, one contingent wholly comprised of Muslim soldiers, let by a Muslim officer called Lashkar Wazir. The leader rode on Iraqi horse, and the contingent comprised of six hundred soldiers. In other contingent, led by Arakanese commanders also there were Muslim soldiers. This evidence of Sebastien Manrique combined with the fact that there were several Muslim ministers in Arakan gives a good picture of the presence of the Muslim in Arakan in the 17th century. The influence of the Muslim officers over the king of Arakan is also evident from the episodes mentioned by Sebastien Manrique.”
The Muslims of Arakan, therefore, are an amalgam of new migrants - Shaikhs, Syeds, Qazis, Mollahs, Alims, Fakirs, Arabs, Rumis (Turks), Moghuls, Pathans - from various parts of the Muslim world that settled during and before the Mrauk-U dynasty, including the captives (the so-called Kolas) brought in from various parts of Bengal and India, and the indigenous Muslims (the children of Bhumiputras who had converted to Islam over the centuries). They created the genesis of what we call the Rohingya Muslims. To put it succinctly: the Rohingya Muslims are the descendants of the indigenous 'Kalas' that either converted or mixed with the Muslim settlers/travelers/Sufis (including Arab/Persian merchants, traders) to the region, the non-returning soldiers who came to restore Narameikhla to the throne of Arakan, the unwilling captives and others that called Arakan their ancestral home. Hence, the Rohingya Muslims are not an ethnic group, which developed from one tribal group affiliation or single racial stock, but are an ethnic group that developed from different stocks of people.
As already demonstrated, the conversion of these indigenous people to Islam has been no different than what has happened throughout history in the last 14 centuries along the coastal regions from Mozambique to Malacca. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Rohingyas of Arakan while having some similarities in matters of physical features, and borrowing religious, linguistic and cultural heritage with their neighbors to the west would develop their own distinct identity, albeit a hybrid or mosaic one. They are neither Chittagonians nor are they Bengalis [Bangladeshis].
The Rohingya Muslims - the ‘Musulman Arakanese’ - as Anthony Irwin noted, ‘are quite unlike any other product of India or Burma that I have seen.’ Similarly, Moshe Yeager noted, “There is very little common – except common religion – between the Rohingyas of Arakan and the Indian Muslims of Rangoon or Burmese Muslims…”
While their ancestral territory would later be colonized by the Tibeto-Burman Buddhists - the ancestors of today’s Rakhines - whose cultural ties have been towards the east, it is the strength of their group character that the Rohingyas of Arakan were able to retain their linguistic and genealogical ties to the soil. After all, the Rakhines are genetically, culturally and linguistically closer to the Burmans (of Burma). On the other hand, as Dr. Yegar noted ‘the Rohingyas preserved their own heritage from the impact of the Buddhist environment, not only as far as their religion is concerned, but also in … their culture.’
As the children of the indigenous people of Arakan, the Rohingyas have as much right, if not more, as the Rakhine Buddhists, to identify themselves with the name that they prefer to describe them. If the late-coming Tibeto-Burman admixture has no problem in calling itself the Rakhaing of Arakan, no outsider (and surely not its abuser) has any right to either define the Rohingya maliciously or deny the same privilege in self-identifying itself.
To call these indigenous people of Arakan -- who identify themselves as the Rohingyas in Burma – “unwanted guests” is like calling the Native Americans unwanted refugees who had settled in America after the Europeans. As much as no massacre of yesteryears and ghettoization of the Native Americans today in designated American Indian Reservation camps can obliterate their genuine right, place, history and identity, no propaganda and government or non-government sponsored pogroms can erase the rightful identity of the Rohingya people of Burma. They are the children of the soil of Arakan.
To be continued .............