By Aman Ullah
[Moshe Yegar, was a Second Secretary at the Embassy of Israel in Rangoon during early 1960s. During his stay in Burma he submitted a thesis on the subject “Muslims in Burma” for my M. A. degree to the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His subject was to deal with the Muslim community in Burma from the eleventh century up until the year 1962 with a purpose of reconstructing the chronological history of the community and to follow the main trends that characterized that community. This article is part of his thesis.]
The Arakan District, extending some 350 miles along the eastern shores of the Bay of Bengal, is cut off from Burma by a range of near impassable mountains which were an obstacle against permanent Muslim conquest but permitted occasional inroads and contacts between Bengal and Burma. The northern part of Arakan, today called the “Mayu District”, was the point of contact with East Bengal. These geographical facts explain the separate historical development of that area – both generally and in terms of its Muslim population – until it was conquered by the Burmese Kingdom at the close of the eighteenth century.
In addition, from the very beginning of Muslim commercial shipping activity in the Bay of Bengal, the Muslim trading ships reached the ports of Arakan just as they did the ports of Burma proper. And as in Burma so, too, in Arakan is there a long tradition of old Indian settlement.
Bengal became Muslim in 1203, but this was the extreme eastern limit of Islamic overland expansion. In northern Arakan close overland ties were formed with East Bengal. The resulting cultural and political Muslim influence was of great significance in the history of Arakan1. Actually, Arakan served to a large extent as a bridgehead for Muslim penetration to other parts of Burma, although the Muslims never attained the same degree of importance elsewhere as they did in Arakan.
The influence of Bengal on Arakan was negligible up to 1430. This independent kingdom turned westward, toward Bengal, as a result of the growing power of the Burmese Court of Ava. In 1404, the King of Arakan, Narameikhla (1404—1434), was forced to flee the Burmese to Gaur, capital of the Bengal Sultanate, which 86 years earlier had already become independent of the Mogul Emperor in Delhi. Ahmad Shah, Sultan of Gaur, welcomed the refugee. Narameikhla remained at the court of Gaur, where he served as an officer in Ahmad Shah’s army and fought in his wars. In 1430, Ahmad Shah’s successor, Nadir Shah, granted Narameikhla’s request and gave him an army under the command of a general named Veil Khan, in order to regain his throne. This general betrayed him, but sometime after that Narameikhla succeeded in re-conquering Arakan with the help of a second army supplied by Nadir Shah. Upon his return, Narameikhla founded a new city, Mrohaung (also called Mrauk-U), which remained the capital until 1785 when Arakan was conquered by Burma. Narameikhla’s Muslim soldiers, who came with him from Bengal, settled in a village near Mrohaung and built the Sandikhan mosque, which still exists today. Muslim influence in Arakan, then, may be said to date from 1430, the year of Narameikhla’s return. As a result of the close land and sea ties between the two countries which continued to exist for a long time thereafter, the Muslims played a decisive role in the history of the Arakan Kingdom.
Narameikhla ceded certain territory to the Sultan of Bengal and recognized his sovereignty. As proof of his vassalage and despite being Buddhist, he and his heirs took Muslim titles in addition to the Arakanese titles. He also introduced Nadir Shah’s system of coins bearing the kalima as used in Bengal since the Muslim conquest of 1203. Later on he struck his own coins which had the name of the king in Burmese letters on one side and his Muslim title in Persian on the other. Arakan was thus subject to Bengal until 1531. Her kings received their Muslim titles from Bengal sultans. Nine vassal kings received Muslim titles. Even after becoming independent of the Bengal sultans, the Arakan kings continued the custom of using the Muslim title in addition to the Burmese or Pali title. This was because they not only wished to be thought of as sultans in their own right, in imitation of the Moguls, but also because there were Muslims in ever-larger numbers among their subjects. Court ceremonies and administrative methods followed the customs of the Gaur and Delhi sultanates. There were eunuchs, harems, slaves and hangmen; and many expressions in use at court were Mogul. Muslims also held eminent posts despite the fact that the kingdom remained Buddhist.
The Arakan Kingdom was closely connected with the Muslim territories to the west in other ways as well. After the death of Narameikhla, Arakan started expanding northward and there were regular Arakan forays and raids on Bengal. Early in the seventeenth century the Portuguese reached the shores of Bengal and Arakan. At that time, too, the raiding Arakanese ships reached the source of the Ganges. They came into contact with the Portuguese and permitted them to establish bases for their operations and also granted them commercial concessions. In return, the Portuguese helped to defend the Arakan boundaries. In 1576 Akbar the Great, Emperor of Delhi, was efficiently ruling Bengal so that Arakan was now facing the Mogul Empire itself and not only Bengal. The Portuguese knowledge of firearms and artillery was more advanced than that of the Moguls, and Arakan profited much thereby. Joint Arakan-Portuguese raids on Bengal continued until the end of the eighteenth century and ceased entirely only with the strengthening of the British naval force in the Bay of Bengal.
The capture and enslavement of prisoners was one of the most lucrative types of plunder. Half the prisoners taken by the Portuguese and all the artisans among them were given to the king; the rest were sold on the market or forced to settle in the villages near Mrohaung. A considerable number of these captives were Muslims. In addition to the Muslim prisoners and slaves brought to Arakan from Bengal and even from North India, many more came to serve as mercenaries in the Arakanese army, usually as the king’s bodyguard.
The main source of information on that period is the Portuguese traveler, the Augustine monk Sebastian Manrique, who was in Arakan from 1629 to 1637. Using not only his own memoirs but also ancient Arakanese sources placed at his disposal, Manrique in his book describes the arrival of Muslim prisoners, and Muslim army units at the king’s court; he mentions important Muslims who were holding key positions in the kingdom and comments on the foreign trade colonies – mostly Muslims – which existed in Arakan. The prisoners were brought from Bengal in Portuguese and Arakanese ships, some of whose sailors were themselves Muslims – a fact that did not trouble them in their profession, not even the fact that enslaving a Muslim stands in contrast with the Muslim Law, the Sharia. Manrique gives a detailed description of such a Muslim prisoners’ convoy which he accompanied. He even tried – without success – to convert the Muslims to Christianity. Some of these captive slaves were settled in special areas guarded by Muslim soldiers.
The Arakan king of that period, Thirithudamma (1622-1638) had a Muslim counsellor or doctor. Manrique describes him as follows: “A false prophet of the Maumetan faith, who in promissing to render him [the king] invisible and invincible, undertook that he should obtain the vast Empires of Delhi, Pegu, and Siam, besides many other similar inanities … [the Muslim doctor] having twice visited the hateful Mausoleum … was held to be a saint by these Barbarians”.
Manrique witnessed the king’s crowning ceremony in which Muslim units also filled an important function. The parade was opened by the Muslim cavalry unit of Rajputees from India led by its commander the lascoursil (cavalry leader). With him marched the eunuch sword-bearers. “This man, who was of Maumetan race and sect, was dressed in green velvet ornamented with plaques of silver, mounted upon a superb white horse from Arabia … This Agarene commander led six hundred horsemen in those squadrons: the first composed of Mogors, who, confident of future bliss in the paradise of their false prophet, were clothed in silks of various textures, but all green in colour. They carried gilded bows decked out with green, slung on the left shoulder. On the left side they also had slung from their cross-belts, handsome quivers, while curved scimitars, plated with silver, hung from their belts. All the horses in the Agarene squadron were clothed in green silks of various kinds”. The representatives of the Muslim units as well those of other religions such as the Portuguese officers or the Christian Japanese mercenaries in the king’s service, were not allowed to enter the pagoda for the crowning ceremony itself.
Some years later, in 1600, the Mogul prince Shah Shuja* fled to Arakan. This important event brought a new wave of Muslim immigrants to the kingdom and also caused political changes. The episode has been described by many historians. Its exact details are not known and the several versions differ. Not all historians mention their sources. As early as 1639, Shah Shuja’, the second son of the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan, was designated deputy of the King of Bengal. In 1657 the Emperor fell gravely ill and it was rumored that he had died. The struggle for succession between the sons began immediately; Aurangzeb won, dethroned his father in 1658 and declared himself emperor. Shah Shuja continued his fight but was finally defeated in 1660. Since he did not succeed in establishing his rule in Bengal, he fled, together with his family and bodyguard (the number of his followers varies in each version), from Dacca to Chittagong. Sandathudama, King of Arakan (1652-1687), granted him permission to continue to Mrohaung on condition that his followers surrender their weapons. He appeared there on August 26, 1660, was welcomed by the king and given a dwelling near the town.
It is not possible today to differentiate among the various Muslim groups or between them and the Buddhist-Arakanese, among whom they live. The Arakanese Muslims are Sunnites despite the preponderance of some Shi’ite traditions among them. Under their influence many Muslim customs spread to the Buddhists, such as, for example, a veil for the women similar to the purdah. Today the Arakanese Muslims call themselves Rohinga or Roewengyah. This name is used more by the Muslims of North Arakan (Mayu region) where most of the Muslims – approximately 300000 – are concentrated, than by those living near Akyab.
Writers and poets appeared amongst the Arakanese Muslims, especially during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries; and there were even some Muslim court poets at the courts of the Arakanese kings. These poets and writers wrote in Persian and Arabic or in the mixed language, Rohinga, which they developed among themselves and which was a mixture of Bengali, Urdu, and Arakanese. This language is not as widespread today as it was in the past and it has been largely replaced by Burmese and Arakanese. These artists also developed the art of calligraphy. Some manuscripts have been preserved but have not yet been scientifically examined. Miniature painting in Mogul style also flourished in Arakan during this period. The Muslims who came to Arakan brought with them Arab, Indian, and especially Bengalese music and musical instruments. Persian songs are sung by Arakanese Muslims to this day.
That is how the Rohingas preserved their own heritage from the impact of the Buddhist environment, not only as far as their religion is concerned but also in some aspects of their culture.