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E-Pao! Essay - Saint Shah Jalal in Northeast India (1257-1346 AD)

Saint Shah Jalal in Northeast India (1257-1346 AD)
— A hagiographical account —

By: Farooque Ahmed *



R. Brown in 1873 observed that Muslims or Pangals had been in Manipur "from great antiquity" as Manipuris informed him. Luckily the antique history is not entirely lost from redemption as Meiteis have an admirable tradition of noting down past events and legacies - both historical and non-historical in the form of annals (Puyas) like Kangleiron, which, if one carefully peruses, contains valuable information about Muslims. When tallied these with available Muslim and outside accounts, we can evince a fairly accurate hagiographic Pangal history.

Hagiography means the book of description about saints and holy people. By far the most famous Sufi saint in Northeast region especially Barak valley is Shaikh Shah Jalal who preached in Barak valley in 1330s and 1340s AD but he is not known to have come in the Imphal or Central valley of Manipur.

The three most renowned saints in Indian subcontinent were Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti who arrived in India in 1190 and was based at Ajmer where he died in 1234 AD, secondly Shaikh Nizamuddin Aulia who was born in Badaun in 1336 and based at Delhi (PN Ojha, 1978: 52, Delhi), and thirdly Shaikh Shah Jalal who came from Tabrizi to Sylhet in 1257 AD where he died in 1346.

Marco Polo who was then in China came by the Silk route to pay a visit to this renowned saint (see for his coming: Amitabha Bhattacharyya:1977:92). Because of saint Jalal's extraordinarily longevity of life, Shah Jalal's name and his activity is confused by many historians with two or three other near contemporary saints with similar prefix or suffix names, and hence their place of origin or birth.

However, all this confusion is put to rest when the famed global trotter historian Ibn Battuta came to Kamrup and Sylhet in 1345 to meet Shaha Jalal, and described in his travel diary "Rehla" back home in Morocco, also translated into French and English, in which he described that he had the opportunity to live with him for three days, addressed him as "Shaykh Jalal al-Din of Tabrizi", he found the saint hoary old and slim of around 150 years (HAR Gibbs: 1929: 268-69: PN Ghosh: 1978:9).

N.N Acharyya (1984:52-53) noted: "Battuta visited Assam in AD 1345 and met saint Shaikh Jalal-ud-din of Tabriz who settled in a mountain in Kamrup… saint Jalal-ud-din died in 1346 AD at the age of nearly 150 years- his birth date being 1199".

BC Allen et al (1979:31) confuses it with another Shah Jalal from Yemen who came to Sylhet in 1384. Similarly RM Eaton (1997: 212) misconstrues him "as a Turk from Turkestan sent to India by a Central Asian Sufi". Gan Chaudhuri (1980:18) and NR Rouchoudhury (1983:11) in their histories on Tripura describe that Muslims led by saint Shah Jalal conquered Sylhet from prince Ishan Deva in 1257 AD.

Sylhet was composed of three important states - Gaur, Laur and Taraf. Some historians attribute the incidents in one of these regions as Sylhet and don't clearly explain the separateness of their historical progression and hence cause big confusion with one another. As Milton S. Sangma (1994:81, Delhi) wrote: "In the rest of old Srihatta (Sylhet), i.e., the Central and Western portions of the Barak valley, there emerged two states viz, Gaur and Laur. There was another state, called Taraf, which was a feudatory state under Gaur. Gaur was conquered by the Sultan of Delhi in 1384 AD".

Taraf was already inhabited by sea-borne Pasha Muslims between 650-680 AD. Cheitharol Khumbaba (1989:5-6) noted that Pong prince Samlungfa forayed into Pasha (i.e Taraf) around 698 AD before turning to Manipur, which Pemberton (1966:113) also said, happened around 777 AD where he identified Basa (Pasha) to be Banga in Cachar.

As to Muslim movement in other regions: "After the first Moslem reached Canton (South China) in 671, considerable numbers settled there and prospered as middlemen between China and the overseas World" (LS Stavrianos,1971: 123). PN Ghosh (p. 9) quotes "Rehla" where Ibn Battuta narrated about Shah Jalal's mission in Barak valley: "He was one of the greatest of saints, and a most unique man.

He performed famous miracles as well as great and memorable deeds. He was a man far advanced in years. He informed me (May God have mercy on him!) that he had seen the Abbasid Caliph Musta'asim-Billah, at Bagdad and that he was in that city at the time of the Caliph's assassination (AD 1258 that should be around 1256/57 AD by proper calculation from original Hijri era).

Subsequently his disciples informed me that the Shaikh died at the age of 150; that he had been observing the fast for about forty years and was not in the habit of breaking it until after the lapse of ten consecutive days. He had a cow with the milk of which he used to break his fast. He would remain standing all night. He was a lean, tall man, with sunken cheeks. Through his efforts, many of the mountaineers became converts to Islamism and this was the motive which led him to dwell in their midst".

PN Ghosh (p. 6/apx) notes that "Ibn Batutah once calls the saint Tabrizi and once Shirazi" which shows that Shah Jalal used to live in Shiraz too before coming to India (Sylhet) in 1257 AD. TW Arnold (1913:281) confuses his place of birth with Bukhara and with another saint who died in 1291 AD when he writes: "Of immense importance in the history of Islam in India was the arrival in that country of Sayyid Jalal-al-Din, who is said to have been born at Bukhara in 1199".

That Shah Jalal was born in 1199 at Tabriz and died at Sylhet in 1346 AD has been confirmed by NN Acharyya (1984:53) quoting Ibn Battuta's own account "Rehla" (1356 AD) and Riyaz-ys-Salatin by GH Salim (1788 AD).

"Ibn Batutah, as we are told by the Berber historian Ibn Khaldun (the Father of History), dictated on his return to Morocco, at the request of the Merindite Prince Abu'Inan faris a description of his travels to Muhammad al Kalbi (1356 AD) who abridged the work called Rehla (My Travels) [PN Ghosh, p. 5; Gibbs, p. 11].

AS LS Stavrianos (Past and Present - A Global history, 1971:135, 150, New Jersey) says: Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a "great historian and father of Sociology". So, the only original account of a historian who met Shah Jalal in Barak valley and whose account survives is Ibn Batuta's, which, so is the most legitimate authority on the missionary of Shah Jalal in Northeast India.

Eaton (1997:76) gives his own hagiographical description that "it was a certain Sikander Khan Ghazi and not the Shaikh, who had actually conquered the town (Gaur), and this occurred in the year 1303-4. The second is a contemporary account from the pen of the famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta (d.1377) who personally met Shah Jalal in 1345.

The Shaikh was quite an old man by then and sufficiently renowned throughout the Muslim world that the great world traveller made a considerable detour- he had been sailing from South India to China- in order to visit him. Travelling by boat up the Meghna and Surma (Barak) rivers, Ibn Battuata spent three days as Shah Jalal's guest in his mountain cave near Sylhet town".

BC Allen et al and Milton Sangma (1994:74) misconstrue (gaur?) part of Sylhet conquest by Muslim in 1384 as an act of saint Shah. He was another Shah or Jalal.


* Farooque Ahmed wrote this article in The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on April 25th, 2006


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