AN OVERVIEW OF HISTORICAL AND SOCIO-CULTURAL LIFE OF THE ASSAMESE MUSLIMS

Aminul Islam
Research Scholar, Department of Sociology, Gauhati University, Guwahati, Assam, India


ABSTRACT
Historical and Socio-cultural life of the Assamese Muslims is an important indicator of their community character. This paper is based on both primary and secondary sources of data.  The main objectives of this paper are to explore various historical & socio-cultural markers of the Assamese Muslims community which has been shaped in Assam as a result of inter-marriage, mutual interaction, cultural adaptation and acculturation with Non-Muslims communities of Assam. This paper is an attempt to put together various facts and findings of Assamese Muslims in a systematic manner to understand them as a community rather than religious group. The various aspects of folk culture, family, marriage, kinship of Assamese Muslims, which are Non- Islamic in nature and typically local in origin, have resemblances with that of the Non-Muslim communities of Assam.
Keywords: Society, Culture, Folk culture, Religion, Muslim, Family, kinship, Marriage, Assimilation, Assamese

1.      Introduction
Assamese society is fundamentally a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. The Muslims has become a part of this society since 12th century onwards, when a Turk military commander named Bakhtiar Khilji had been credited with the inclusion of Bengal to the domain of the Turks in North India. Subsequent to this, Khilji’s attempted expedition to Tibet via Western Assam, then known as Kamarupa in the year 1206, marks the beginning of Muslims in Assam, if not earlier. Later, a series of Military expedition in 1226 and  1257, and 14th century onwards,  led to settling down of Muslims in Assam mainly in western parts as colonies set up by the victorious rulers.  During that period, a number of Sufi saints and Maulvi had preached Islam in a peaceful way. As a result conversions occurred both by way of preaching  and marriage. A historian had pointed out that these captured Muslims did not obviously bring women with them and therefore married with local Non-Muslim Assamese girls. This had helped them to assimilate gradually into Assamese society and to gain acceptability as one of its inseparable components. In due course of time they gave up their own language and became unilingual Assamese speaking people , “As for the Musalmans who had been taken prisoners in former times and chosen to marry here, their descendants act exactly in the manners of the Assamese than towards associations with Muslims. The Muhammadans who had come here from Islamic lands engaged in the performance of prayer and fasting, but were forbidden to chant the call to prayer or publicly recite the world of God” (Gait: 1997). But they succeeded in maintaining their religious identity. The Muslims who came as Turk and Afghan soldiers, administrators, merchants, and religious preachers, married local girls and settled down in Assam from 13thcentury to 17th century and are largely known as Assamese Muslims (Axomiya Musalman).  During that period, people of different Hindu religious sects also came into this region from various parts of the country. The coming of the Tai-Shans, who came at that time to Assam from the eastern side led to the emergence of an amalgamated culture in Assam and within that, Assamese Muslims developed their cultural identity which was typically local in origin in several aspects. As a result.pure racial identity of these Muslims as Arabians, Turks, Pathans and Mughals was no longer visible and the community has taken root and shaped their socio-cultural markers and identity in the soil of Assam under local ambience and life-style. Prominent historian Shihabuddin Talish in his ‘Tarekh-e-Asham’/ ‘FathiyahIbriyah’ (which accounts for Mirjumla’s invasion of Assam in 1662-63 and description of Assam) comments thatMuslims of Assam are the descendants of Muslim captive soldiers, they married local girls and have adopted  local culture to such an extent that they are Muslims only in name having hardly anything to do with Islam. In 1630 C.E. with the arrival of social reformer Shah Milan, popularly known as Azan Peer/Fakir in Assam, there started a process of systematic propagation of Islamic basic tenets in simple Assamese language which further helped in shaping cultural contents of Assamese Muslims. During that time, cultural assimilation and consolidation of Assamese Muslims was so solid that they were known to have fought against the mighty Mughal forces for the sake of sovereignty of Assam.  Assamese Muslims exhibited cultural contents, which presented basic Islamic principles as indigenous subtexts and the same can also be traced to Hindu as well as tribal practices and beliefs. The patterns of it execution often reflect local influences and variations. Inter-religious marriage and membership in the ‘Assamese’ linguistic group has facilitated cultural interactions between Muslims and Hindus. Except in religion and its resultant rituals, Assamese Muslims are linguistically, culturally, economically and socially similar and closer to Assamese Hindus. Their dressing patterns, food habits, day-to-day behaviors, housing pattern and even most of the interior arrangement of households are nearly indistinguishable from Assamese Hindus. This category of Muslims is deeply assimilated and well-accepted in the Assamese society. Assamese Muslims village are scattered in around Hindu villages.” Saikia (1978) revealed that there are many separate Hindu and Muslims villages in Assam. The two communities do not always reside separately. There are a large number of villages where the people of the both communities live together having different prayer house, Namghar and Mosque, in different places of the same villages. They jointly take part in the welfare of the particular village. Hence, social interactions with Hindus present distinctiveness, exhibiting both exclusions and inclusions.

2.      Objectives
Through this paper, an attempt is made to highlight the historical fact and socio cultural aspects of the Assamese Muslims community. It also gives a brief overview of their various social institutions and folk culture which operate within the purview of Assamese society.

3.      Methodology
The method of study of this paper is both descriptive and exploratory. The field work for this paper was conducted in two Assamese Muslims concentrated villages namely Mukalmua and Naryanpur village of Nalbari district (Assam)in betweenJanuary to April/2015. Interview and case study were conducted with respondents and few village elders from these villages.

4.      Results &Discussion
The Assamese Muslims exhibit association with their community character through its cultural contents and boundary maintenance with the Assamese Hindus.   Sociologically speaking, Islam and Muslims are not synonymous. Islam is the religion and Muslims are the group of people who follow Islamic religion. The basic value of Assamese Muslims is Islamic, despite regional and syncretistic variations in their social milieu. Though they observe Islamic rites and practices, yet they are less orthodox than other part of Muslims of India. Family, marriage, kinship are part of their social institutions. Kin group include a number of family members and relatives among whom mutual help in various social occasion take place. The Kinship terminologies of Assamese Muslims are comparable to that of Assamese Hindus. Assamese Muslims families are patriarchal and decent is traced through the father. The Rule of succession and inheritance are patriarchal but these are sometimes modified by the wished of the original owner. Women are entitled to inherit one eighth of the father property (Baruah, 2012). The formalities of Marriage of Assamese Muslims cover two separate ceremonies, the ring ceremony (Angathi pindhua) and actual marriage ceremony (Nikah). Marriage customs are characterized by synthesis of Hindu and Muslim rituals.  Aquiqa is a naming ceremony of a new born and social gathering of close kins .In Aquiqa,  the head of new born is shaved and a cow or goat is sacrificed in the name of the new born.  Circumcision (Sunnat or Musalmani kara) is another event of social gathering of close kin among Assamese Muslims. A boy is usually circumcised between the ages of five to ten years. The person who performs the surgery is called as Baidar or Hajam. This ceremony is performed early in the morning. Apart from these, in case of death of an individual, Assamese Muslims perform post mortuary rites on third between seventh, tenth and on forty days. As a whole, on the occasions of birth, death, and marriage, the rituals practiced by Assamese Muslims has some resemblances with Assamese Hindus.  In social hierarchy of Assamese Muslims, elements of Hindu caste system find some kind of reflection. Assamese Muslims are usually categorized into Sayed, Goriya and Moriya sects. The Sayeds are (descendants of the prophet Mohammad). The term ‘Goriya’ is a referent of contested origin and accordingly the population bears a mixed history and has come to include all the Muslims who settled in Assam during the pre-colonial period. According to Edward Gait, the ordinary Muslims of Assam call themselves as Goriya which is an indication of their claim to have come originally from Gaur the ancient Muslim capital of Bengal. It is well known that Muslims had entered Assam obviously through Gaur or Bengal (Ahmed, 2010). The Moriyas are descendants of Muslim soldiers captured by the Ahom ruler Suhungmung Dihingia defeating Turbak in the battle in 1532. Some historians would contend that they are originally Pathans who settled in Assam and known as brass-workers for their expertise in this profession.

Assam is a land of diversity where mutual interaction is clearly noticeable in the manners and customs of the people which developed through the process of racial fusion and peaceful co-existence. The Assamese Muslims constitute a sizeable part of the total population of the state. Although they follow Islamic religion and rituals, these Muslims have bear a distinctive Assamese character at the folk level, socially, culturally, and linguistically. The Muslims first made its entry and took root in 13th century in the western part of Assam. As a result the culture of these early settled Muslims of western Assam holds the key in understanding the process of fusion of Islamic culture into the broader Assamese culture. Gradually, Islam spread to other parts of Assam valley and the Muslims introduced themselves both as settlers and local converts, fully integrated and assimilated into the Assamese socio-cultural milieu and thus contributed to the Assamese society. This community has mingled with the other native people including tribal and non-tribal of the Hindu fold, without giving up their Islamic principles and in this way Assamese Muslims have enriched social and cultural life of the total stock.  This process of assimilation and acculturation with Non-Muslims help this community to form its regional character.   In folk cultural aspects of Assamese Muslims, practice of variousfolk festivals, ceremonies & feasts are noticeable. Assamese Muslims participated and cooperated in secular festivals like Rongali Bihu, Magh Bihu and  had  practiced  Bisohori Geet,  Mohohoo Geet, Aai Geet, Biya Geet, Nao-Khelor Geet, etc. They practiced customs and feasts like Aag Anna, Kachi Utha, No-khowa which are related to agriculture and harvesting (Field study, 2015).

But in recent times, observations and practices of these customs are disappearing from society on one hand while on the other hand continuing process of islamisation occurring through propagation of Tablig  jamat seeking to reinforce Islamic practices by individual contact is rapidly increasing among this community. These are influence of pan Islamic culture which has captured the entire Muslims world on the basis of religious identity. Among the Assamese Muslims at social level, local jamat or Moholla plays an important role. Religious and social functions are shaped and maintained by the local Mohalla or jamat (Muslim congregation comprised of the Muslim men folk affiliated to a Mosque). The jamat comprise of those members of the neighborhood whose male members usually follow Mosque to perform prayer (Namaj). Maintenance of customs and social norms of local community is the responsibility of the jamat or Moholla. It therefore serves as a public assembly with selected set of jury usually comprises of local male elders and learned men to arbitrate and give verdict while settling local level disputes and issues of morality. Issues ranging from inter-household family disputes, land disputes of neighbourhood, elopement of girls, violations of customs and morality of its local community. In case of religious issues advice of the Maulavi or  Jonab (Islamic learned men) is often sought. The role of jamat is conspicuous in rural areas while in certain localities of urban area too, jamat plays its role in accordance with community character particularly in the field of education, assistance to the poor, development of socio-religious institution. It also serves as a moral pressure group upon people of the locality to adhere to the expected norms and behaviors. In rural area penalties imposed by jamat or Moholla may range from Aghoriakora, (social boycotting), compulsion to seek Razohwa khoma (public apology) in the Razahuwa sabha(community meeting) of jamat by offering tamul-paan (Betel-nut), monetary fine, etc. Islamic Dharmia sabha or Jolsa, (Religious congregations) are organized by the local jamat considered to be an important affair in most rural areas where emphasis is given to follow Islamic rites and principles as prescribed in sacred texts like in the Quarn and Hadith(Field study, 2015).

In urban area too, such congregation are facilitated and organized effectively to retain local community existence. As a whole Assamese Muslims socio-cultural life operates within the social structure of Assamese society.

5.      Policy Implication
Assamese Muslims has represented a sizable section of Muslims of the state. They are an integral part of Assamese society. The contributions of this community in social, political and cultural arena of Assamese society are immense. But in present time, educational and economic status of this community has not progressed much.  Due to the wave of globalization, modernization and islamisation, folk practices and cultural mosaic of this community are in the path of oblivion. The present generation of people of Assamese Muslims are not familiar with their socio-cultural aspects and folk practices. So, it is high time to formulate some policies by the Government in this regard. Apart from educational and economic development of the Assamese Muslims, attention should be paid in preservation of folk cultural practices and customs of this community. The non government organizations which are working for the upliftment of this community, should also raise their voices and articulate various issues of this community to the government for effective policy execution.

6.      Conclusion
Through the discussion in this paper it can be concluded that expedition of Muslims from 13th century to 17th century as Turk, Afghan, Moughal was a notable landmark in the mediaeval history of Assam. The Muslim settlers from Islamic countries  had made Assam their permanent home, assimilated with the Non-Muslims people, adopted Assamese (Axomiya) as their mother tongue, accepted local habits, folk culture, customs and thus identified themselves as Assamese Muslims (Asomiya Musalman) whole heartedly. This community has contributed immensely in socio-cultural arena of Assamese society and thus have become an inseparable part of the Assamese identity.

References
  • K. Ahmed. The Muslim of Assam. Guwahati: EBH publisher, 2010, p.88
  • Ali ANM Irshad and B. M Das. “A brief Note on Background, Society and Culture of the Assamese Muslims”, in T. Baruah (ed.) People of Contemporary North East India. Guwahati: Prastisruti publication,2012, p.180.
  • E. Gait.  A History of Assam. Guwahati: Lawyer’s Book Stall, 1997, p.141
  • M. Saikia. Assam Muslim Relation and its Cultural Significance. Naharani (Golaghata): Luit Printers, 1978, p.230


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