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E-Pao! Education - Early Manipuri Muslims

Early Manipuri Muslims

By: Farooque Ahmed *


Muslim travellers and saints were acquainted with Manipur from a deep past. Alberuni (b. 973) described Manipur as "Udayagiri" in his Kitab-ul-Hind (Naorem Sanajaoba, ed., 1988: 44; Lal Dena, ed., 2,000: 15; E.C. Sachau: 1910: 299-303). Even earlier, a Muslim saint is noted to have come during Meitei/Manipur king Naophangba's time and we find evidence that he could be none other than Amir Hamza, one of the uncles of Prophet Muhammad (570-632 AD).

The story of Amir Hamza is coloured with local myths and bravado (military cult) by Bengali local folk in their tradition. As Asim Roy (1983: 104-5) noted: "Amir Hamza fought against the king of Gaudades, that is Bengal, and subsequently converted him to Islam. He also marched against, subdued, and converted the king of Rosang in the south of Chattagram in Bengal. Reference was also made to the Himalayan peak of Kailas". He had a wife named Saiyad (A. Roy, p. 93).

O. Bhogeswor mentions of one "foreign scholar" coming from the west and met Meitei pandit/scholar Ashangba Laiba during Naophangba period. We assume that the foreign scholar was not an ordinary figure and must be Amir Hamza that Syed Ameer Ali (1926: 7) talked of.

The foreign scholar-saint is quoted to have discussed of "Meetei ritual of cremation" and his/their practice of "burying the corpse horizontally" etc in his discussion with king Naophangba of Manipur. As regards Naophangba's reigning period 428-518 AD as given in Cheithrol Khumbaba, Arambam Heirangou (1993: 17) and G. Kabui (1991: 159) talked of some inaccuracy and antedating.

It is believed that the historical event took place around 635/45 AD. R.K. Sanahal (1989: viii-xv) noted that Manipuri Muslim or Pangal clan, Aribam, the earliest had existed from king Naophangba's time and that the Manipuri king himself conferred the Aribam title on the Muslims.

As noted by Asim Roy (1983: 176) on Bengal's Muslim esotericism-mysticism, the name "Manipur" is curiously mentioned to be associated with the Zodiac that is inexplicable from modern knowledge and reality: "One who is able to visualize it all forever is capable of 'foretelling' events. Having attained this, the mystic fixes his attention on 'a star' positioned in 'the region of Manipur'.

Firishtahs (angels), surs and asurs inhabit the place. The sun and the moon occupy, respectively the right and the left sides of the body…This results in yog-siddhi and Allah bestows 'very long life'".

Amir Ali (1926: &) noted: Prophet Muhammad had five uncles - Abd Manaf alias Abu Talib, Abbas, Hamza, Abdullah and Abu Lahab. George Watt (1892: 26) noted: Not long after the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, one of his uncle went to China. Asim Roy (1983: 89) wrote: Bengali Muslim hagiographical accounts record on uncle of Prophet Muhammad named Amir Hamza having come to Bengal and further east.

Meitei Puya hagiographical accounts reveal that a Muslim saint emerged in Manipur during Naophangba's period.

Kartic Maiba (1996: 18) noted: "This Naophangba period Pangal saint continued his sojourn after a brief preaching in Manipur". TW Arnold (1913: 294) wrote: Prophet Muhammad once said, "Seek for knowledge, even unto China".

At the same time, "Mohammed also dispatched embassies" to various kings until 632 AD and that 631 AD "is known in Moslem history as the 'year of deputations', in consequence of the large number of embassies which came from (many) quarters to accept Islam….a teacher invariably accompanies the departing guests to instruct the newly converted people in the duties of Islam" (Ameer Ali, pp. 15-16).

This would suggest that Amir Hamza came to this region either as an ambassador of faith or as a teacher for instructions on faith in distant lands.

Muslim hagiographical accounts of Northeast India have revealed two saintly persons having come in this region, although records of their activity is vaguely given (Asim Roy, 1983 and several Muslim accounts). It means that they should be not so far from Northeast (say Assam or Bengal). The two saints are given as - Amir Hamza and Muhammad al-Hanifa (in 680 AD) having come in this region.

Records of life and activity of Hanifa has been given being attributed to the place- Maungdaw, north Arakan of Burma (Abul-Fazl Ezzati: 1994: 333). Another one as "Pangal Musalman guru" without specific name, of Naophangba period, has been given in Meitei Puyas as Kangla Houba, Sakok Lamlen and Nongchupharamlon (Mss.), which are also published (RK Kokngangsana, 1955:2: Kanglei Langba Pakhangba; Khulem Chandrasekhar Singh, 1992: 10: Sakok Lamlen Ahanba).

There is no other account in any other south Asia or S.E. Asia region of so an early Muslim saintly person, except in this Manipuri account of puyas. Hence, this "Pangal Musalman guru" can only be Amir Hamza, who happened to be the uncle of Prophet Muhammad. Like Muhammad alHanifa (son of Caliph Ali 656-661 AD) who landed in Arakan in 680 AD, another one in Manipur Amir Hamza wanted to reach China.

"Tradition ascribes to Muhammad (the Prophet) the saying, 'Seek for knowledge even unto China'" (TW Arnold). In sequence to that, as Dr. Edkins wrote: "at this time, the Arabs had been trading with China for at least a century, for Mahomet's death occurred AD 632 and that of his uncle (an immigrant to China)", not long afterwards (G. Watt: 1892:26, A Dictionary of Economic products of India, vol. Vi, part I, London).

Arabs had trade relation with China also through Assam, Manipur and Burma (Watt: pp. 59,98). Amir Hamza has been confirmed as one of the five uncles of Prophet Muhammad by Syed Ameer Ali (1926:7) and Muhammad al-Hanifa as one of Caliph Ali's son (Ameer Ali, 94; Asim Roy, op cit; TP Hughes (1885: 575), J.L. Bachrach (1984:21). Hence Muslims accounts of saints found in Bengali sources are no mere folk tales as regards Amir Hamza and Hanifa.

Ezzati (p. 333) wrote: "Hanifa reached Arabsha Para, north of present day Maungdaw in north Arakan en route to China in 680 CE after losing an important battle at Karbala (Iraq)" (The Spread of Islam, Tehran). Asim Roy had this to say (1983: 89): "A semi-historical person named Hanifa, believed to be a son of Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, became the center of many heroic and supernatural exploits, which people wished to hear….Amir Hamza, uncle of Muhammad emerged as another popular hero, whose imaginary military exploit provided much religious-cultural nourishment to the folk believers" (Asim Roy, 1983: 89, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal: Sterling Publishers, New Delhi).

Hanifa is not a semi-historical or mythic figure, nor was Amir Hamza military adventurist as folk tales would have us believe. Thomas Patrick Hughes (1885:575) described Muhammad al-Hanifa as "Mohammad, another son of the Caliph Ali whose mother was a daughter of the tribe of Hanifah".

The story of Hanifa in Burma and Amir Hamza in northeast is confirmed by Abd al-Nabi, Saiyid Hamza, Faqir Gharib Allah (1867) as Asim Roy (1983:89ft. 8) described.


Farooque Ahmed wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on May 26th, 2006

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