Bangla Language | Bengali Literary History

by Thibaut d'Hubert, The University of Chicago

Bengali literature developed in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent in about the eighth/fourteenth century, when Bengali, also called Bangla, became a literary language. After 739/1338 Bengal was an independent sultanate ruled by Turko-Afghan elites based in the urban centres. Starting from 983/1575 the region was then progressively integrated into the Mughal empire and was entirely conquered in 1010/1610. During the late Mughal period (12th/18th century) the province became virtually autonomous. Bengal came under British control during the second half of the 12th/18th century. After the independence of 1947, the region was divided on a religious basis between the Indian state of West Bengal and East Pakistan. The war of 1971 led to the independence of East Pakistan that became the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

It is often claimed that Muslim patronage ushered Bengali poetry into being. There is little evidence of such courtly literature before the tenth/sixteenth century. Before the elaboration of an Islamic literature, the works of Hindu poets contained elements reflecting aspects of Islam in the regional culture, such as references to the sultan of the time or to characters inspired by stories from the early history of Islam. Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, the grandsons of the prophet Muḥammad, for example, are treated by the poets as Muslim rulers forced to celebrate the cult of Manasā, the goddess of the snakes, in early maṅgalakāvyas (c. ninth/fifteenth century), narrative poems that celebrate the spread of the worship of a deity. Arabic and Persian vocabulary, related mainly to religion and professional activities practised by Muslims in Bengal, is also found in texts from this period.

1. The beginning of Bengali Muslim literature in eastern Bengal

The first Bengali Muslim authors appear to have lived in the southeastern corner of Bengal, in the region of Chittagong. They were either Afghans culturally acclimated to Bengal, who used Bengali as a means of literary expression, or local Hindus recently converted to Islam. The sultanate (600–945/1204–1538) and the Afghan period (945–83/1538–75) saw the beginnings of a courtly culture that gradually integrated regional features, among which were the use of Bengali as a cultural language. But it was only in the Arakanese kingdom, which stretched along the coasts of southeastern present-day Bangladesh and the northwestern part of Myanmar, that regional Muslim elites of the cities and rural areas used Bengali for literary purposes. The language and prosody were the same as that of earlier and contemporary Hindu poets. Changes occurred mainly in the themes, which were now taken from Persian literature, and through the creation or reinterpretation of existing literary forms. Unlike the Urdū poets, Bengali authors never adopted Arabic-Persian prosody. There were occasional late (thirteenth/nineteenth-century) attempts to use the Arabic script to transcribe Bengali. Formally speaking, the only visible impact of an Islamicate literary culture on Bengali was the practice of arranging the pages of manuscripts or printed books in order to read them from right to left.

The first author to leave a substantial oeuvre whose date and geographical location can be firmly established is Sayyid Sulṭān, who lived at the end of the tenth/sixteenth century. He was a rural religious figure who produced many texts in Bengali, in a wide range of literary forms, from narrative poems called pańchālī to short lyric poems (pada). He is representative of the religious mind of the rural gentry of the late tenth/sixteenth century. During this period, Islam spread primarily among rural populations. Even in religious writings, the language was largely the same as that of Hindu poets. Sayyid Sulṭān's Nabīvaṇsha (“The line of the Prophets,” c. 992–4/1584–6) and his treatise on spiritual practices entitled Jñānapradīpa (“The lamp of knowledge”) contain many elements borrowed directly from Hindu mythology and yoga. These are usually reinterpreted in order to fit the framework of Islamic theology. Sulṭān's sources are Arabic and Persian texts, which he does not name precisely. His audience seems to have been the rural populations of Chittagong newly converted to Islam.

Sulṭān's works strongly influenced authors who lived in Chittagong during the eleventh/seventeenth and twelfth/eighteenth centuries. His disciple Muḥammad Khān is a major figure among those authors. His works were read in Chittagong and the neighbouring region of Comilla. He completed the narrative of his master with his Maqtūl Ḥusayn (“Ḥusayn slaughtered,” c. 1056/1646), an epic and elegiac poem on the death of the Prophet's grandson at the battle of Karbalāʾ (Muḥarram 61/October 680). Muḥammad Khān was also the first Muslim author to compose an allegorical poem, the Satya Kalivivādasaṇvāda (“The disputation between the Golden and the Iron Ages,” 1045/1635). We find few references in these texts to the political context in which they were composed.

Another important literary trend of the Muslim Bengali literature of this period is linked to the prolific man of letters ʿAlāwal (Ālāol, fl. 1061–82/1651–71). Unlike Sayyid Sulṭān, ʿAlāwal was an urban poet, who wrote for wealthy Muslim dignitaries of the Buddhist kings of Arakan. His texts are all transpositions from eastern literary Hindī, also called Avadhī (e.g., Muḥammad Jāyasī's Padmāvat, 952/1545), and Persian (e.g., Niẓāmī Ganjawī's Haft paykar, 593/1197) into Bengali. We can draw the outlines of his literary career from information available in his works. His poetry is refined and erudite. In addition to the ethical and religious concerns evidenced in his texts, he provides valuable insights into the courtly culture of his time. The most striking feature is the integration of Sanskrit, Hindī, Persian, and Bengali literary traditions in a single adab or cultural ethos adapted to the needs of the cosmopolitan environment of Mrauk U, the capital of the Arakanese kingdom. Even after the conquest of Chittagong by the Mughals, in 1077/1666, ʿAlāwal's texts were widely distributed and read in the region. He remained the model of a court poet, and many authors composed pańchālīs inspired by Persian mathnawīs, using his highly Sanskritised style.

In the northeastern regions of Comilla and Sylhet, Bengali literature developed in a way similar to that in Chittagong, but there were few explicit interactions, in terms of the circulation of texts, among the three regions. Shaykh Chānd (ca 1059–1137/1650–1725) was a major author in Comilla, which was part of the Tripura kingdom ruled by the Hindu dynasty of the Māńikyas. He played a role comparable to Sayyid Sulṭān, by providing the rural readership with a voluminous Rasulacarita (“Life of the prophets”) and Ṣūfī treatises such as the Ṭālib-nāma (“The book of the seeker”). Judging from the many manuscripts of his texts collected in Comilla, Shaykh Chānd remained very popular until the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the region of Sylhet, a quasi-autonomous tradition is traceable from the twelfth/eighteenth century. A script found only there, the Sylhet nāgarī, was designed by Muslim copyists. The genres represented are the same as in Comilla and Chittagong, that is, lives of the prophets, treatises on spiritual practices and fiqh, and padas.

2. Muslim Bengali literature in West Bengal

Even though Chittagong literature circulated in print in Calcutta during the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, another tradition prevailed among the Muslims of the western part of Bengal. In the mid-twelfth/eighteenth century, Shāh Gharīballāh (ca 1165–93/1772–80) composed texts on themes already existing in East Bengal, such as the battle of Karbalāʾ and the story of Laylī and Majnūn. He does not seem to have been familiar with the Chittagong versions of these stories, and his sources were Persian or Hindī texts. His idiom differs from that used in eastern Bengal. It contains Hindī and Persian words and expressions and was later referred to as Musulmani Bengali, dobhāśī (“containing two languages”), or mishrabhāśārīti (“style of the mixed language”). The direct successor of Shāh Gharīballāh, Sayyid Ḥamza (ca 1144–1222/1732–1808), shifted from the Sanskritised idiom to that of his predecessor, whose epic poem Amīr Ḥamza he completed in 1201 of the Bengali calendar (c. 1209/1794). The dobhāśī literature was very popular, and many texts were distributed from Baťťalā, in northern Calcutta, where cheap books were printed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Another successful kind of text that developed with the advent of printing was the literature on Satya Pīr, a mythical saint worshiped by Hindus and Muslims alike for his ability to bring wealth and comfort. Many manuscripts containing versions of the tales about this religious figure are also kept in the collections of West Bengal and Bangladesh.

3. The formation of modern Bengali Muslim literature in colonial Bengal

During the second half of the nineteenth century, some authors who wished to enter the literary circles of Calcutta adopted the new idiom and genres of the Hindu literati. At this time, Western forms such as the novel and the use of prose, and sonnet and blank verse in poetry, as well as the direct expression of social concerns changed profoundly the way literature was conceived. Premodern forms have continued in use up to the present, but a break did occur between the ancient and the new tradition. The late integration of Bengali Muslims into the British educational system limited the impact of Muslim authors on the intellectual life of Bengal. The religious themes inherited from the dobhāśī literature were still the main sources of inspiration for many Muslim poets and novelists. Mīr Musharraf Ḥusayn (1848–1911) is the most important author of this period. He tried all the genres of his time and wrote an autobiography that is a landmark in Bengali literature. Muslim authors also wrote plays, such as Mīr Musharraf Ḥusayn's Vasantakumārī nāťak (“The play of Vasantakumārī,” 1873), ʿAbd al-Karīm's Jagatmohinī (“The world-enchanting,” 1875), and Qādir ʿAlī's Mohinīpremapāsh (“Mohinī's love-lace,” 1881). The plays were fashioned according to the rules of Sanskrit dramaturgy and imitated contemporary Hindu playwrights (e.g., Dīnabandhu's (1829–1874) Nīl darpańa, (“The indigo planting mirror,” 1860), and Ḥusain's Jamidār darpańa, (“The mirror of the landlord,” 1873)).

Bengali Muslims engaged in the publication of several periodicals in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century. Periodicals such as Kohinūr (“The mountain of light,” named after a famous Indian diamond, which belonged to various rulers and is now part of British crown jewels), first published in 1898, allowed men of letters and intellectuals to share their points of view and to debate topics in literature, religion, politics, and the complex question of the identity of Bengali Muslims. The need of Muslims to acknowledge their role as members of Bengali society in order to enhance social unity and offset divisive British social policy became a central issue for the essayists. The editors were Muslims, but many contributors were Hindus. In the field of religion, the efforts of Muslim authors were directed mainly towards refuting anti-Muslim pamphlets written by Christian missionaries. In this connection, some Hindu and Brahmo (members of a religious reformist movement formed by the urban elites of Bengal during the first half of the 19th century) scholars produced valuable works on Islam, such as the first Bengali translation of the Quʾrān, in 1881, by Girishchandra Sen (1834–1910). The latter also wrote a life of the Prophet entitled Mahāpuruś Muhammader jīvan-carit (“The life of the great man Muḥammad,” 1885). The many biographies of the Prophet written during the second half of the nineteenth century helped shape the identity of Bengali Muslims by providing iconic models of individual behaviour.

The opinions of Sunni reformist movements of various tendencies such as the Deobandī, the regional Farāʾiḍī or the Barelwī, had some influence on the ideology of the writers of essays and other nonfiction of this period, but novelists and poets seem to have maintained their autonomy, putting forward such issues as the social status of women, education, and child marriage.

During the decades preceding the independence of India and Pakistan, the poet and songwriter Qāḍī Nadhr al-Islām (Kazi Nazrul Islam, 1899–1976) became a major figure. He was inspired by Hindu devotional songs and by adaptations of the Persian poems of Ḥāfiẓ Shīrāzī (c. 715–92/1315–90). The energy generated by the uprising that is the theme of his famous poem Vidrohī (“The rebel,” 1922) is a crucial aspect of his art and inspired many poets who came after him.

4. Bengali literature in Pakistan and Bangladesh

The formation of a new Bengali Muslim identity resulted from the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. On the one hand, Bengali Muslims gained the opportunity to elaborate their own literary idiom, distinct from that of Hindus, but on the other, Urdū, not Bengali, was the official language of Pakistan. Other social and political issues crystallised around that of the recognition of the status of Bengali as a national language in Pakistan by the government. This led to the “movement for the language” (bhāśā āndolan) and its violent repression in 1952, vividly depicted in Jahira Rayhāna's (Ẓahīr Rayḥān's) novel Āreka phālguna (“Another month of Phālgun, ”1969, Phālgun being the twelfth month of the North Indian Hindu calendar, falling in February–March). Important novelists of this period are Abū al-Manṣūr Aḥmad (1898–1979), Abū Isḥāq (1926–2003), Akbar Ḥusayn (1917–81), Qāḍī Afsār al-Dīn (1921–75), Abū Rushd (b. 1919), Shawkat ʿUthmān (1917–98), and Sayyid Walīallāh (1922–1971), whose Lālasālu (“Tree without roots,” 1948) is an emblematic novel of this period. It tells the story of a religious man who settles in a village and relies for his living upon the villagers' beliefs in the power of the tomb of a local saint. Depictions of rural society and the criticism of superstitions are often encountered in the literature of the years that followed partition. The movement for the recognition of the Bengali language produced a new creative impulse that lasted until 1958, when martial law was imposed by Iskander Mirza (1899–1969) and Ayyub Khan (1907–74).

The latter's strict military regime of the 1960s prohibited novelists from freely depicting contemporary society. Many East Pakistani historical novels were aimed at condemning the ill-treatment endured by Bengalis. Authors evincing strong Marxist ideology, such as ʿAbd al-Ghaffār Chaudhurī (1934-), who wrote Chandradvīpera upākhyāna (“The story of Chandradvīpa”) during the 1950s and published it as book in 1960, and the bold and prolific novelist Satyen Sen (1907–81), or Shawkat ʿUthmān (1919–98), the author of Krītadāsera hāsi (“The slave's laughter,” 1962), nourished the revolutionary imaginary on the path to independence. But when the moment of the fight for independence arrived in the late 1960s, it was through poetry that a real aesthetics of the uprising, already present in the work of Nadhr al-Islām, reached its fullest development. Svādhīnatā tumi (“Freedom, you are…,” 1972) by Shams al-Raḥmān (Shamsur Rahman) (1929–2006) is the most acclaimed poem on independence. The celebration of the 21 February, the date of the general strike of 1952 for the recognition of Bengali as a national language, remains an occasion for poets to declaim their compositions inspired by the fight for independence.

The post-independence period produced many novels and anthologies of poems on the theme of the war of 1971. Novels such as Anvar Pāshā's (1928–71) Rāiphela roṭi āorāta (“Guns, bread, and women,” 1973), Shawkat ʿUthmān'sJahannama haite bidāya (“A farewell to Hell,” 1971), Shawkat ʿAlī's (1936-) Yātrā on the “black night” of 25 March 1971, Sayyid Shams al-Ḥaq's Niśiddha lobana (“The forbidden salt,” 1981) are examples of this trend. Among the writers of the 1970s and 1980s, two women novelists are prominent, Selinā Ḥusayn (b. 1947) and Rijiyā Raḥmān (b. 1939). Among the works of the latter is Vaṇ theke Bāṇlā (“From the Vaṃ-s to Bengal,” 1987), an historical novel dealing with the history of the Bengali people from ancient times to 1971.

Even though rural life has remained central to the setting of Bengali novels and poetry up to the present, the urban social environment increasingly influenced authors living in Dacca. The use of dialect in the dialogues of short stories and novels is characteristic of recent Bangladeshi literature. Humāyūn Aḥmad (b. 1948) and Imdād al-Ḥaq Milan (b. 1955) are two prolific and popular authors of the last decades who draw on contemporary events for their short stories and novels. Al-Maḥmūd (b. 1936) is recognised by critics for his poetry, short stories, and, since the 1990s, his novels.


Abedin Quader (ed.), An anthology of modern literature from Bangladesh, Dacca 1985

Ahmed Sharif, Bāṅālī o baṅlā sāhitya, 2 vol., repr. Dacca 2003–4

Amit Dey, The image of the Prophet in Bengali Muslim piety, 1850–1947, Calcutta 2005

Ānisujjāmāna, Muslima mānasa o bāṇlā sāhitya, repr. Dacca 2001

Asim Roy, The Islamic syncretistic tradition in Bengal, Princeton 1983

Mahbubula Alama, Bāṇlādeshera sāhitya, Dacca 2009

Priti Kumar Mitra, The dissent of Nazrul Islam, New Delhi 2007

Qazi Abdul Mannan, The emergence and development of Dobhāsī literature in Bengal, up to 1855 A.D., Dacca 1966

Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906. A quest for identity, New Delhi 1981

Rafiuddin Ahmed (ed.), Understanding the Bengal Muslims. Interpretative essays, New Delhi 2001

Richard M. Eaton, The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier, 1204–1760, Berkeley 1993

Shamsur Rahman, The best poems of Shamsur Rahman, trans. Shankar Sen, Calcutta 2005

Sufia M. Uddin, Constructing Bangladesh. Religion, ethnicity, and language in an Islamic nation, Chapel Hill 2006

Syed Waliullah, Tree without roots, trans. Qaisar Saeed, Anna-Marie Thibaud, Jeffrey Gibian, and Malik Khayyam, London 1967

Tony K. Stewart (trans.), Fabulous females and peerless pīrs. Tales of mad adventure in old Bengal, Oxford and New York 2004.


by James M. Wilce, Northern Arizona University

People often make particular linguistic variants straightforward indexes of identity. This lacks analytic validity but reveals the linguistic ideologies upon which the politics of nationalism often turn (Bauman and Briggs 2003). Following Stewart (2001), we should be cautious of modern notions that linguistic form (e.g., Bengali discourse full of Sanskrit- or Perso-Arabic-derived words) directly reflects an author's politico-religious stance or a Hindu or Muslim identity conceived as a pure essence.

Ask Bangladeshis what divides Muslim from Hindu speech and they will mention pani (vs. jɔl) ‘water’. This favorite index actually derives from Sanskrit. Yet, the ‘Muslim’ valeur of pani is a social fact. Such facts warrant attention to ideological representations of ‘Perso-Arabic’ lexemes in Bengali – and suggest that lists of loanwords require reanalysis in terms of ideologies.

1. Semantic domains

The semantic categories of Arabic loanwords in Bengali reveal the history of Bengali Islam. “The ordinary Bengali words for ‘paper’ kagɔj (Arabic kaġaḏ) and ‘pen’ kɔlɔm (Arabic qalam) [are] both… corrupted loanwords” (Eaton 1993: 293). Muslims spread literacy in Bengal, and associated terms reflect that fact.

Bengali Muslim kin terms are also mostly Arabic. Muslims usually call fathers abba; Hindus use baba. Some loanwords like mullah or imām designate Muslim social categories or reflect institutions of Mughal governance, e.g. the (now honorific) title qāḍī (kāzī). Then there are labels designating high birth – sayyid, šex, ašraf – which played a significant role in Bengal's social history (Ahmed 1981). Bengali Muslims use different honorifics from Hindus, e.g. šaheb (like ‘Mister’). Muslim names are also typically Arabic. The 19th-century Islamization of Bengal involved rural Muslims rejecting their ‘Hindu’ (Bengali) names (Ahmed 1981:106).

Other salient loanwords denote ritual acts – e.g. ḥajj. In late 20th century Dhaka, Bengali newspapers were peppered with such terms; their use peaks during Ramadan. Musa (1995:93) lists 28, including axeri munajat ‘final prayer’, id mobārak ‘happy Id’, zakāt ‘alms’, janāza ‘funeral prayer’, and mīlād mahfil ‘gathering to celebrate [the Prophet's] birth’.

2. Phonology and grammatical categories of loanwords

Phonological nativization of loanwords has been the rule in the past. Arabic /a/ in unstressed syllables has followed Bengali rules of vowel harmony to become /o/ in syllables preceding a high vowel (/u/ or /i/). Arabic consonants were generally replaced with their closest Bengali counterparts. The spelling of Arabic-derived terms has recently undergone ‘reform’. The Islamic Preaching Mission, once the Toblig Jamat, is now the Tablig Jamayat; mowlanas are now mawlanas, at least in writing (Musa 1995:93). Most Arabic loanwords are nouns, typically appearing in otherwise purely Bengali contexts and receiving Bengali affixation (masjid-e ‘in the mosque’) rather than Arabic morphology such as the definite article. Phrases like bissɔ-ijtemāʿ ‘world gathering’ or ṣiyām-sadhɔna ‘fasting-asceticism’ that join Arabic loanwords with Sanskrit derivatives are common. The 17th-century rise in non-nominal Arabic elements borrowed into Bengali was reversed in the 18th century – probably reflecting the declining fortunes of Persian under British hegemony (Mannan 1966:73). Among the non-nominal borrowings is the Arabic ẓāhir, used by the early 18th-century poet Vidyapati (Mannan 1966:67) in a verb phrase karilo ẓāhir ‘make manifest’. This illustrates the way Arabic loanwords can appear in Bengali verb phrases by virtue of the latter's capacity to form compound verbs using nouns or adjectives and the Bengali pro-verb kar ‘do.’

3. Counts and frequency of Arabic and Islamicate elements in Bengali

There are no large corpus-based linguistic studies of Bengali, let alone of the frequency of Perso-Arabic terms in actual instances of contemporary Bengali discourse. Writing in pre-Partition Calcutta, S.K. Chatterji counted 2,500 Perso-Arabic terms in Bengali (Chatterji 1934:210; Ahmed 1981:121). Writing 30 years later in Islamic East Pakistan, Hilali (1967) listed 9,000 such loanwords. But the relation of such ‘counts’ to actual usage is unknown.

We find a range of loanword frequencies in a small corpus of carefully transcribed, naturally occurring Bengali speech of various registers. In ‘Latifa's’ 1992 lament (Wilce 1998) only 6 percent of total word tokens were Perso-Arabic loans. By contrast, in the Bengali ‘translation’ of an Arabic prayer offered at a 1991 wedding (Wilce 2002), about 33 percent of the total words are Arabic loans.

Arabic-laden prayers and other speech registers – and metadiscourses on the frequency of loanwords – reflect linguistic ideologies inseparable from postcoloniality and competing nationalisms (Irvine and Gal 2000). Such ideologies played a clear role in the history of Bengali.

4. History and historiography

Apparently, it was the Hindu poet Bharat Chandra in his poem Mansingha Kāvya (1752) who coined the term dobhaṣi Bangla ‘dual language’ (Haq 1957:174) for a register using many Perso-Arabic loanwords. Some dobhaṣi literature was written in the → nastaʿliq script, or in Bengali written from right to left.

Haq argues that dobhaṣi reflects the 19th-century Wahhabi movement in southern Bengal. Abdul Mannan, who wrote the definitive treatment of dobhaṣi literature in 1966, sees its origins in earlier Mughal patronage of Bengali. The first work on record “which has preserved evidence of the influence of the language of Muslim rulers [on Bengali] is the Mɔnɔsavijɔyɔ of Bipradās Piplāi”, a Brahmin (ca. 1495 C.E., Mannan 1966:59).

Bharat Chandra wrote the following (from Onnɔdamɔngɔl):

na rɔbe prɔsad guṇ

[Persian, Arabic, Hindustani]

na hɔbe rɔsal

lack grace and poetic quality.

ɔtɔeb o kohi bhaṣa

I have chosen, therefore, the

yaboni misal

the mixed language of the Muslims.

ye hok se hok bhaṣa kavyo rɔs lɔye

The ancient sages have declared: “Any language may be used. The important thing is poetic quality” (Mannan 1966: 69–70; emphasis added)

This precolonial aesthetic of mixture gave way to a drive for purification.

In the 19th century, dobhaṣi Bengali borrowed even more Perso-Arabic lexemes, perhaps (ironically) reflecting forces unleashed by Halhed's (1969/1778) Grammar of the Bengal Language. Halhed considered foreign elements pollutants in the “pure Bengalese”. He acknowledged “the modern [mixed] jargon of the kingdom” but declared the loanwords unintelligible outside large cosmopolitan towns (1969:xiv). Following Halhed's lead, British Orientalists and Hindu pundits working in Calcutta (Ft. William College) produced a Sanskritized register successfully promulgated as ‘standard Bengali’. The intensification of Perso-Arabic borrowings in 19th-century dobhaṣi was thus a reaction to Orientalism and the Sanskritization of Bengali. As emerging Hindu and Muslim leaders competed for populist appeal, they declared the others' favored register (Sanskritized vs. dobhaṣi) “unintelligible to the masses”.

Some of Halhed's successors – e.g. William Carey – at least for a time rejected linguistic purism. “A multitude of words, originally Persian or Arabic, are constantly employed in common conversation, which perhaps ought to be considered as enriching rather than corrupting the language” (Carey 1801:iii; emphasis in original). But Qayyum (1981) notes that later editions of Carey's Grammar omitted these words. Around 1850, British missionary James Long dubbed the Islamized form of Bengali “Musalman Bengali” (later called Musalmani Bangla – a form relevant to producing targeted translations of the Bible).

Around 1900, members of the Hindu Bengali intelligentsia, such as Dinesh Chandra Sen and Rabindranath Tagore, made “Bengali literature” central to their “romantic nationalism” (Chakrabarty 2004). They believed that “the national [Bengali] literature” could engender a mystical union of the divergent groups of Bengali speakers, transcending the Hindu-Muslim divide. While they somewhat naively advocated this vision, Muslims in the united British Indian state of Bengal formed a Muslim Literary Association (1911), sensing that the Bengal Literary Academy (formed in 1893) was in some subtle way simply a “Hindu Bengali Literature Society”. But it was subtle. Hindu romantic nationalists did not advocate anything like the expurgation of Perso-Arabic words from Bengali. That was not what alienated Muslim literary figures. What the Hindu romanticists did so successfully was to promulgate a lexically Sanskritized Bengali that somehow appeared to be both the unmarked form of the language and the prestige variety.

5. Muslim attitudes to official support of Bengali

Colonial control required understanding and ranking various forms of Bengali. Two visions competed, ascribing to Bengali an enduring Hindu ‘essence’ or a growing Islamic influence. The first branded Musalmani ‘unintelligible’. The second prompted colonial officers and some Muslim leaders to propose a ‘separate language’ for Bengali Muslims (Ahmed 1981:122). But colonial intelligentsia made Sanskritized Bengali represent not only a primordial essence but a prestige standard. Muslim opposition even to a Musalmani variety was a reaction to the putative Hindu essence of Bengali and to Musalmani's reputation as an “unsophisticated patois” (Ahmed 1981:126; cf. Qayyum 1981).

That some (not all, Anisuzzaman 1996) Muslims of the mid-20th century rejected Bengali language education indicates Bengali had become a bone of contention. Today, Bengali historians debate whether Partition was the fruit of the Raj's divide and conquer policy or the resolution of ‘essential’ differences. Metadiscourses about Bengali are part of that tortured history.

6. The status of Bengali in the East Pakistan and → Bangladesh eras

After Partition, the provincial East Pakistan government appointed an East Bengal Language Committee whose policy goals, summarized under the banner sɔhɔj bangla ‘Simple Bengali’, were: “i) that… Sanskritization… be avoided as far as possible by the use of simple phraseology…; ii) that… expressions and sentiments of Muslim writers should strictly conform to… Islamic ideology; and iii) that the words, idioms and phrases in common use in East Bengal, especially those in the Puthi… literatures be introduced in the language more freely” (Chowdhury 1960, as translated by Dil 1986:454).

The reference to the dobhaṣi Puthi literature makes clear that the “idioms… in common use” were Perso-Arabic. Pakistan had strong motivations for replacing Sanskritic with Islamicate derivatives. Appeals to linguistic ‘simplicity’ may sound democratic but, in Pakistan and elsewhere, often serve other agendas (Bauman and Briggs 2003).

In the late 1980s, Arabic expressions began displacing Persian ones among Muslim Bangladeshis; Muslims began using Allāh ḥāfiẓ rather than the Persian Xoda ḥāfiẓ ‘go[o]db[ewith]ye’. In 1995, Bangla Academy Director Monsur Musa wrote: “Nowadays, in certain Bengali newspapers, an eagerness to substitute Arabic words for prevailing Persian terms can be seen. These newspapers use ṣalāt instead of namaz, ṣiyām instead of roja – and Allāh is considered better than Xoda” (1995:92; translation mine). Musa noted that the Arabic words in announcements of religious events made them quite hard for the average Bengali to understand – an echo of older claims?

7. Conclusion

While for some, proliferating loanwords represent an impure accretion on the language of the land of Bengal, for others they can signal the true identity of the Bangladeshi nation-state – an Islamic identity (Farukkhi 1990). And there are many positions in between, for example those who celebrate Bengali authors' playful use of Perso-Arabic loanwords (Anisuzzaman 1996). The contemporary Bengali scene is a broad span over rapidly moving pani.

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Irvine, Judith and Susan Gal. 2000. “Language ideology and linguistic differentiation”. Regimes of language: Ideologies, polities, and identities, ed. P. Kroskrity, 35–83. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Mannan, Qazi Abdul. 1966. The emergence and development of Dobhāsī literature in Bengal (up to 1855 A.D.). Dacca: Department of Bengali and Sanskrit, University of Dacca.

Musa, Monsur. 1995. Bāṇlādešer rāstrabhaṣā [The state language of Bangladesh]. Dhaka: Bangla Academy.

Qayyum, Muhammad Abdul. 1982. A critical study of the early Bengali grammars: Halhed to Haughton. Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.

Stewart, Tony K. 2001. “In search of equivalence: Conceiving Muslim-Hindu encounter through translation theory” History of Religions 40:3.261–288.

Wilce, James M. 1998. Eloquence in trouble: The poetics and politics of complaint in rural Bangladesh. New York: Oxford University Press.

——. 2002. “Tunes rising from the soul and other narcissistic prayers: Contested realms in Bangladesh”. Everyday life in South Asia, ed. D. Mines and S. Lamb, 289–302. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


by Enamul Haq, Md.
(i) Muslim Bengali Language.

Bengali belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. It may have begun to evolve as a separate language with a distinct identity, out of Gauṛa Apabhramsa, about the 8th or 9th century A.D. The greater part of the vocabulary of Bengali was derived or borrowed from Sanskrit.

The Muslims conquered Bengal at the beginning on the 13th century, and ruled the country for nearly six hundred years. Under Muslim rule Persian was one of the languages of culture, provincial administration, and inter-state communication. Because of this, large numbers of Persian words and, through Persian, Arabic and Turkish words, became part of the Bengali language.

In 1836 English replaced Persian as the language of administration. From then onwards Persian no longer enjoyed the same status as before in the national life of Bengal and of northern India generally. Before the handing over of power in 1947, which resulted in the partition of Bengal, words of Perso-Arabic origin constituted nearly 8% of the total vocabulary of Bengali, and a little more than 15% of MuslimBengali vocabulary. Hindustani began to be spoken in Calcutta from the latter half of the 18th to the middle of the 19th century, and a number of Hindustani words were received into Bengali vocabulary. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was in written Bengali something of a conflict between Sanskritised Bengali, that is, Bengali in which Sanskrit words preponderated, and Persian Bengali; examples of this can be found in the works of Mrityunjay Bidyālankār and Rām Rām Basu. During this period innumerable Muslimpunthis, known as Musalmānī Bānglā, appeared. These were written in a mixture of Bangali, Hindustani and Awadhi.

Words of Persian, Turkish or Arabic origin which have become part of Bengali can be classified under seven broad heads, namely: (1) Administration and warfare, e.g., phouj (soldiers) < fawd̲j̲ , tak̲h̲t (throne) < tak̲h̲t, laṛāi (war) < larāʾī, shahid (martyr) < s̲h̲ahīd , d̲j̲akham (wound) < zak̲h̲m, etc.; (2) Revenue and law-courts, e.g., d̲j̲ami (land) < zamīn, khād̲j̲nā (revenue) < k̲h̲azāna, Āin (law) < āʾīn , hakim (judge) < ḥākim, kazi (judge) < ḳāḍī , phaisala (judgement) < fayṣala, etc.; (3) Religion and ritual, e.g., Āllah (God) < Allāh , khodā (God) < k̲h̲udā, nāmāz (prayer) < namāz , rod̲j̲ā (fasting) < rawḍa , had̲j̲ (pilgrimage) < ḥad̲j̲d̲j̲ , korbāni (sacrifice) < ḳurbānī, etc.; (4) Education, e.g., doāt (inkpot) < dawāt, kalam (pen) < ḳalam , kāgad̲j̲ (paper) < kāg̲h̲ad̲h̲, tālbilim (student) < ṭālib-i ʿilm, etc.; (5) Races, religions, and professions, e.g., Ihudi (Jew) < Yahūdī, Hidnu (Hindu race) < Hindū , Muslim (Muslim), Phiringi (English) < Farangī, dard̲j̲i (tailor) < darzī, etc.; (6) Culture and civilisation, e.g., rumāl (handkerchief) < rūmāl, golāb (rose) < gulāb, āṭar (perfume) < ʿiṭr , āynā (mirror) < āʾina, korma (preserved meat) < ḳurma, koftā (meat ball) < kūfta, hālwā (a type of sweetmeat) < ḥalwā, etc.; (7) Common things and notions in life, e.g., naram (soft) < narm, bāhbā (Well done!) < bah bah, shābāsh (Bravo!) < s̲h̲ād bās̲h̲, khabar (news) < k̲h̲abar, etc.

Persian contributed as many as 2,500 words to Bengali vocabulary in general, and nearly another 2,000 words to the vocabulary of the Muslims inhabiting the south-eastern part of East Pakistan in particular. In addition, Persian suffixes like ī, dān, dānī, dār , k̲h̲wur, bād̲j̲ , gīrī, are used to form Bengali adjectives, abstract nouns etc., e.g., desh + ī = deshi (country-made), phul + dānī = phuldānī (flowervase), dokān + dār = dokāndār (shopkeeper), guli + k̲h̲wur = gulikhor (drunkard) mamlā + bād̲j̲ = mamlābād̲j̲ (litigant), bābu + gīrī = bābugīri (interested in fashion), etc. Persian words like nar and māda denote gender in Bengali, e.g., pāirā (pigeon), narpāirā (male pigeon), mādi pāirā (female pigeon). Similarly mardā and mādi before a Bengali word of common gender denote the male and the female of the species respectively, e.g., mardā kukur (dog), mādi kukur (bitch).

Arab merchants developed commercial relations with the people of the south-eastern coastal regions of Bengal long before the political conquest of the country by the Muslims. The Muslim conquest in later times strengthened the religious and cultural ties of the people of this area with the Islamic way of life, and resulted in an increase in the numbers of the Muslim population. It left its mark on the pronunciation of words in this part of Bengal; for example, in the districts of Noakhali, Čittagong and Sylhet the use of the Arabic voiceless velar fricative k̲h̲  in place of the Bengali plosive k and k̲h̲ of the same category, e.g., k̲h̲apoṛ < kāpoṛ (cloth), k̲h̲āi < khāi (I eat), etc., and the Arabic voiced alveolar fricative z in place of the Bengali voiced plosive-like affricate d̲j̲ of the standard Bengali dialect, e.g., zāi < d̲j̲āi (I go), zānā < d̲j̲ānā (to know) etc.

Since the handing over of power in 1947 there has been in East Pakistan a growing tendency to absorb words of Perso-Arabic origin in large numbers through Urdu, as a result of cultural and political contact with West Pakistan.

(ii) Muslim Bengali Literature
Formative Period (900-1200 A.D.).

Bengali sprang up as a distinct branch of the Indo-Aryan language about three hundred years before Muslim rule in Bengal and flourished as a regional literature a century and a half after the Muslim conquest. But it did not exist either as a language or as a literature before Bengal came in contact with Islām and the Muslims. Archaeological excavations at Pāhārpur (Rājs̲h̲āhī) and at Maināmatī (Tripurā), which led to the discovery of a few ʿAbbāsid coins of the period from the 8th to the 13th centuries, and the history of Muslim saints like Bāyazīd Bisṭāmī (d. 874) at Nāṣirābād, Čittagong, SulṭānMaḥmūd Māhīsawār (1047) at Mahāst̲h̲ān, Bogra, MuḥammadSulṭānRūmī (1053) at Madanpur Mymensingh, Bābā Ādam (1119) at Vikrampur, Dacca, prove that there was constant maritime and missionary communication between the Muslim world and Bengal while the Bengali language was being formed.

Turki Period (1201-1350 A.D.).

The Turks conquered Bengal in 1202 and took 150 years to establish their administration all over the country. This was the period of creation of an Islāmic atmosphere through administrative, religious and social machinery. Sanskrit, the fountainhead of Hindu culture, fell into desuetude; Persian, the official and cultural language of the Muslims, came into prominence; and Bengali, the language of the masses, developed rapidly. S̲h̲ek Sub̲h̲odayā, a Sanskrit hagiology on S̲h̲ayk̲h̲Ḏj̲alāl al-Dīn Tabrīzī (d. 1225), and Niranjaner Rus̲h̲mā, a Bengali ballad by Rāmāi Pandit, contain sufficient materials indicative of the growing Islāmic atmosphere in Bengal.

Period of Independence (1351-1575 A.D.).

Bengal became independent under Sulṭān Iliyās S̲h̲āh (1342-1357) and preserved her independence for 225 years. The Sultans of Pandua and Gauḍ identified themselves with the people and extended their patronage liberally to Bengaliliterature irrespective of caste and creed. The Ḇh̲āgavata, Rāmāyaṇa and Mahāb̲h̲ārata were translated into Bengali under their direct patronage; the great poets Vidyāpati and Čandīdās flourished; and Muslims, participating with their Hindu neighbours, opened up new avenues of literary themes primarily derived from Perso-Arabic culture.

The first attempt at popularising Bengali among Muslim scholars was perhaps made by the saint-poet Nūr Ḳuṭb-i ʿĀlam (d. 1416) of Pandua, who introduced the 'Rīk̲h̲ta Style' in Bengali, in which half the hemistich was composed in pure Persian and the other half in unmixed Bengali. The saint was a classmate of G̲h̲iyāt̲h̲ al-Dīn Aʿẓam S̲h̲āh (1398-1410) and a life-long friend of the Sultan, under whose patronage Vidyāpati of Mit̲h̲ilā and MuḥammadṢag̲h̲īr of Bengal, the author of the first Bengali romance Yūsuf-Zulayk̲h̲ā, flourished. Other writers of romances, like BahrāmḴh̲ān with his Laylā-Mad̲j̲nūn, Sābirid Ḵh̲ān with his Hānifā-Kayrāparī, Donāg̲h̲āzī with his Sayf al-Mulk and MuḥammadKabīr with his Mad̲h̲umālatī (1583-1588), followed Ṣag̲h̲īr in quick succession.

Muslim historical tales too were introduced in Bengali by a few poets. Zayn al-Dīn wrote Rasūl Vijay on the exploits of the Prophet, under the patronage of Yūsuf S̲h̲āh (1478-1481), who also helped Mālād̲h̲ar Basu to compose S̲h̲rīkris̲h̲ṇa Vijay. Sābirid Ḵh̲ān also wrote a Rasūl Vijay, while S̲h̲ayk̲h̲FayḍAllāh (1545-1575) composed G̲h̲āzī Vijay and Goraks̲h̲a Vijay.

The earliest Muslim poet introducing Islāmic precepts in Bengaliliterature, was Afḍal ʿAlī. His book of admonition, Naṣīḥat-nāma, was written on the tenets of Islām. He was also a composer of songs, in one of which he mentions the name of Fīrūz S̲h̲āh (1532-1533).

Positive literary evidence on the fusion of Hindu and Muslim culture is found in S̲h̲ayk̲h̲FayḍAllāh's Satyapīr (1575). He described in it the beliefs and practices of a new cult aiming at a common platform of worship for Hindus and Muslims alike. Čānd Ḳāḍī and S̲h̲ayk̲h̲Kabīr, two composers of songs on the common ideals of Ṣufīs and Vais̲h̲ṇabs, flourished during the time of Ḥusayn S̲h̲āh (1493-1519) and his son Nuṣrat S̲h̲āh (1519-1531).

Mughal Period (1576-1757 A.D.).

Bengal came under the Mug̲h̲als in 1576, to whom the country was a 'hell full of the bounties of heaven'. They introduced their own culture with more stress on Persian and neglected the provincial literature. Notwithstanding this, Hindu literature developed on the themes of Čandī, Manasā, Ḏh̲arma, Annadā and Gangā; Vais̲h̲ṇab literature reached its climax and MuslimBengaliliterature, deeply influenced by Indo-Persian literature, flourished as never before.

Among Muslim literary figures, two major poets deserve special mention, namely, SayyidSulṭān (1550-1648) and Ālāwal (1607-1680). The former was the saint-poet of Čittagong; Nabī Vaṃs̲h̲a, his magnum opus, rivalled the BengaliRāmāyaṇa and Mahāb̲h̲ārata in all respects; the latter, who was a scholar poet of the Arakanese Court, adopted the theme of Padmāyatī (1651), from Hindī. Both of them exerted a wide and abiding influence on successive generations of poets, who not only improved upon the old themes, but also discovered new ones.

In the field of religion, the Naṣīḥat-nāma of S̲h̲ayk̲h̲ Parān (1550-1615) and Kifāyat al-Muṣallīn of Muṭṭalib (1575-1660) are outstanding. Naṣr AllāhḴh̲ān (1560-1625), a prolific writer on religious subjects, wrote the S̲h̲arīʿat-nāma, Mūsār Sawāl and Hidāyat al-Islām. The Bayānāt of Nawāzis̲h̲ Ḵh̲ān (1638), Hazār Masāʾil of ʿAbd Karīm (1698), Naṣīḥat-nāma and S̲h̲ihāb al-Dīn-nāma of ʿAbdal-Ḥakīm (1620-1690), Sarsāler Nīti of Ḳamar ʿAlī (1676) also deserve notice.

In the realm of Muslim tales, the Nabī Vaṃs̲h̲a, Rasūl Vijay and S̲h̲ab-i Miʿrād̲j̲ of Sayyid Sulṭān; Ḏj̲ang-nāma of Naṣr AllāhḴh̲ān (1560-1625), Amīr Ḥamza (1684) of G̲h̲ulām Nabī and Anbiyāʾ Vāṇī (1758) of ḤayātMaḥmūd narrate many legends about the Prophet and his uncle Ḥamza. Sayyid Sulṭān's Iblīs-nāma, MuḥammadḴh̲ān's Ḳiyāmat-nāma, S̲h̲ayk̲h̲ Parān's Nūr-nāma and Muḥammad S̲h̲afīʿs Nūr Kandīl were built up with the Muslim concepts of Satan, Doomsday and Cosmogony respectively.

Romances introduced earlier were developed by ʿAbdal-Ḥakīm in his Yūsuf Zulayk̲h̲ā and Lālmatī Sayf al-Mulk, Nawāzis̲h̲ Ḵh̲ān in his Gul-i Bakāwalī (1638), G̲h̲arībAllāh in his Yūsuf Zulayk̲h̲ā and Muḥammad Akbar in his Zeb al-Mulk (1673). When pure romances became monotonous, S̲h̲erbāz in his Fikr-nāma and S̲h̲ayk̲h̲ Sāʿdī in his Gadā Mallikā (1712) introduced moral instruction in romances.

A good elegiac literature developed centring round the tragedy of Karbalā. MuḥammadḴh̲ān in his Maḳtūl Ḥusayn (1645), ʿAbdal-Ḥakīm in his Karbalā, ḤayātMaḥmūd in his Ḏj̲ang-nāma (1723), and MuḥammadYaʿḳūb in his Maḳtūl Ḥusayn (1694) contributed largely to the wide popularity of this theme.

British Period (1757-1947).

The Hindus took advantage of Western education at least half a century before the Muslims, and revolutionised Bengaliliterature by the introduction of a new prose and a new poetry embodying Western ideas, thoughts and forms. Iswar C̲h̲andra Vidyāsāgar (1820-1891), Bankim C̲h̲andra C̲h̲atterjī (1835-1894) and Mad̲h̲u-sūdan Datta (1824-1873) played a great rôle in this literary regeneration.

The Muslims entered the field half a century later. Mīr Mus̲h̲arraf Ḥusayn (1848-1931), Pandit Riyāḍal-Dīn Mas̲h̲hadī (1850-1919) S̲h̲ayk̲h̲ʿAbdal-Raḥīm (1859-1931), Kayḳobād (1858-1951), Muzzammil Ḥaḳḳ (1860-1933) and Dr. Abu 'l-Ḥusayn (1860-1916) took to this new Bengali to lay the foundation of modern MuslimBengaliliterature and a host of others came in their wake. Among them IsmāʿīlḤusaynS̲h̲īrāzī (1870-1931) was the most illustrious.

Meanwhile, Rabindranāth Tagore (1860-1941), the Nobel prize-winner, appeared on the literary scene of Bengal and raised her literature to a world stature.

Nad̲h̲r al-Islām (b. 1899), the Rebel Poet of MuslimBengal, ushered in a new school of realistic poetry full of life, light and vigour. He shared the sorrows and sufferings of his countrymen in particular and of oppressed humanity in general. He was the only singing bard to herald a new era of common men and awaken them to struggle for the independence of their motherland, a struggle which culminated later in the creation of Pākistān. In his wake, the poet Ḏj̲asīm al-Dīn (b. 1902) came forward to sing the songs of rural Bengal, particularly of its east portion, now known as East Pākistān.


(i) MuslimBengali Language.

Halhed, BengaliGrammar 1783, intro.

(ii) MuslimBengaliliterature.

Md. Enamul Haq, MuslimBengaliLiterature, Karachi 1958

idem, Muslim Bānglā Sāhitya, Dacca 1958

Abdul Karim, Put̲h̲i Parichiti, Dacca 1958

Sukumar Sen, Islāmī Bānglā Sāhitya, Burdwan 1358 B.S.

idem, Bānglā Sāhityer Itihās, vols. i-iii (2nd ed.), Calcutta

Md. Abdul Hai and Sayyid ʿAlī Aḥsan, Bānglā Sāhityer Itivritta, Dacca 1956

Dinesh Chandra Sen, Vanga Bhās̲h̲ā-o-Sāhitya, 8th ed., Calcutta 1356 B.S.

Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Origin and Development of the Bengali Language, Calcutta 1926

Md. Shahidullah, Bānglā Sāhityer Kat̲h̲ā, Dacca 1953.

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