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The Great Ethiopian Dynasty Of Bengal

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#1 Djehutis Wisdom

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Posted 21 May 2007 - 11:32 PM




By Horen Tudu



African migration into the Indian Sub-Continent has occurred in both voluntary and involuntary waves. It is critical to emphasize that India’s most ancient existing inhabitants known as Adivasis are also of African origins. This has been recently confirmed on anthropological, linguistic and biological foundations. Therefore, we shall not needlessly lay controversy on such definitions and direct our efforts towards more pressing topics. In this article we shall focus on a specific subset of Africans, namely a small group of Ethiopians that rose to great prominence during the 15th century CE. During this period a great Abyssinian dynasty ruled over the entirety of Bengal under a single unified Muslim sultanate. Moreover, this episode of Abyssinian rule marked one of the most unique eras of Bengal’s history, where the Habshi rulers imparted great benevolence to the poor and destitute, as well as demonstrated impressive patronage of the arts, literature, architecture, science, and medicine.

The period of Ethiopian rule is a largely untold and neglected period of Bengal’s history, stemming from the dishonesty and bias of the predominant historical literature, written mostly by the upper caste Hindu, and Ashraf Muslim authors that have traditionally held a monopoly over the intellectuals spheres, whilst embracing formal academic routes. One can only condemn these misguided and unethical scholars that have championed their history at the expense of others. Therefore, the surviving Hindu eyewitness reports written in Bengali are fanatically skewed and riddled with inconsistencies while the external accounts written by Chinese, Portuguese and arab travelers into the region are widely accepted by the historical community as being more reliable. It is only in recent times this unmerited monopoly has been challenged. I praise the efforts of those intellectuals that have paid a tremendous sacrifice for depicting a more accurate account of India’s history. Consequently, I dedicate this article to the following individuals that have provided me with invaluable inspiration:

Dr. J. K. Jamandas, Professor Kancha Iliah, Professor K.P. Aravaanan, U. P. Upadhyaya, Dr. Hadwa Dom, Professor Uthaya Naidu, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, V.T. Rajshekar, Dr. Runoko Rashidi, Shankar Nadar and Periyar Ramaswami. I urge the readers to locate and read their classic works.

Lastly, I remark that this article is not meant to be the final, comprehensive source on this particular subject. Rather it is a brief introduction that will hopefully spark dialogue and more thorough primary investigations, specifically historical, archeological and anthropological research into the African presence in India. In a much broader context, this field is still in its infancy and there is a great deal more to uncover.

Muslims in India: Ashrafs, Ajlafs, and Habshis

Before we delve into the chronology of the Abyssinian dynasty, of which is the focus of this article, let us briefly provide the necessary background information about the diverse categories of Indian Muslims in order to avoid confusion in later sections. It is historically recognized that the members of the Islamic faith first embarked upon organized military campaigns into the Indian Subcontinent with the arab conquest of Sindh in the 8th century CE. It was much later, during the end of the12th century (1192-1206) that North India was effectively conquered and the Delhi sultanate, or kingdom was established. During the 14th century (1338-1407) the Delhi sultanate fractured into six independent sultanates, located in Malwa, Gujarat, Jaunpur, the Deccan, Khandesh, and Bengal. It was during this period that a large number of Ethiopians entered into the Indian Subcontinent as slaves, soldiers, eunuchs, and as military administrators.

It is important that we elucidate certain distinctions in terms of the social stratification of Muslims in India. Most of the Muslim foreigners that claim aristocratic arab or Indo-european origins outside of India are designated the title “Ashraf”. The Ashrafs can be divided into 4 major categories. In particular, there are Sheiks, Sayeds, Moghuls, and Pathans. For many years during the sultanate period, the Islamic leadership exclusively consisted of Ashrafs. However in terms of their relative population, the Ashrafs were primarily concentrated in the northwestern part of India, in modern day Pakistan. During the territorial consolidation of the Mughal Empire in 1526 CE, the entirety of the Indian Subcontinent was ruled until 1689 CE. It was chiefly during this period did the Ashrafs proselytize towards the underclass indigenous ethnic groups in India and thus the remainder of the Muslim population consisted of former low-caste and Dalit converts known as the “Ajlafs”, with sizeable numbers in East Bengal or modern day Bangladesh. Apparently, it was a more favorable social climate to escape the Hindu caste hierarchy by converting to Islam. Although, the very notion of social distinctions based on race and ethnicity violate the essential egalitarianism of Islam, the “Ajlafs” have always been perceived as subordinate to the Ashrafs. However, these class distinctions are of no comparison to the social rigidity of racial apartheid present in the Hindu caste system, for the intermarriage between Ashrafs and Ajlafs was a common occurrence, both in the past and in present day Indo-Muslim societies.

East African Muslims have enjoyed a distinguished presence ubiquitously across a large stretch of the medieval Islamic empires, from the Mediterranean, to North Africa, to the Middle East, and ultimately the Indian Sub-Continent. These remarkable assemblages of Africans derive mostly from the East African littoral states and the Red Sea region of the African and Arabian coastlines. They are better known as Habshis and Siddis. The term Habshi is an Arabic word for an Ethiopian or Abyssinian, while the term Siddi can be literally related to the Ashraf identity Sayed, of which means “my lord”, or those direct descendants of prophet Muhammad. Their inception into the various Islamic territories as mercenaries and soldiers was often voluntary, as many adventurous individuals joined to escape routine life while others were interned by force. Unlike North American slavery, the Habshis were able to serve as reputable military administrators and numerous individuals were granted unrestricted upward mobility. Furthermore, many would rise to undisputed positions of power, ruling over largely non-Ethiopian populations in India. We now direct our focus to the region of Bengal.

Bengal: The Pre Dynastic Era

It is crucial that we provide some details about the preceding political establishment that existed just prior to the Abyssinian episode as well as some essential themes about the land of Bengal itself.

Bengal is a celebrated northeastern province of the Indian Subcontinent that has experienced relative isolation from other the regions of India, thus contributing to its cultural and ethnic distinctiveness. Geographically containing the largest delta in the world, magnificent flowing rivers, while blessed with the abundance of fertilizing silt and vastly enriched land resources, Bengal has always attracted new pioneers, merchants and subjugators. Although the various newcomers sometimes coexisted with earlier inhabitants and have adopted and exchanged assorted cultural and linguistic rudiments, there are clear and identifiable racial groups that are separated via religion and caste. Before the introduction of Muslims into Bengal there were two important racial groups within the population, the Adivasis and the Aryans. The first group forms the bulk of the population, and unquestionably represents the earliest inhabitants of proto-Austroloid stock. Historical evidence in the form of the principal Aryan Vedic literature makes contemptuous references to the Nishadas that survive today as the Kols, Sabaras, Chandalas, Santhals, Mundas, and the Oraon. Many ethnographic investigations directed towards the upper stratum of the social order have yielded the Aryan Brahmins as a distinct, foreign racial unit that was impervious to the racial composition of the Indigenous tribes in the surrounding population.

Islam permeated into Bengal during the 13th century with the influx of Islamic merchants, preachers, Sufi mystics, and military personnel. In the port city of Chittagong many arrived while passing along the Bay of Bengal, deeply influencing the lasting Rohingya civilization in the ancient state of Arakan as well as the local Chittagonian culture. One can divide these Islamic migrations into two major periods, that is the Mughal(circa 1526 CE) and pre-Mughal periods. These foreign settlers, although very small in numbers belonged to wide assortment of ethnic groups: Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Persians, and Mughals. This long association between the Islamic world and the politics of the Hindu caste system resulted in the now apparent Muslim majority state, especially in the eastern portion of Bengal. In the pre-Mughal period, medieval Bengal was deeply influential as a succession of independently ruled Sultanates, led by Ashraf rulers, the most prominent being the two dynasties of Ilyas Shah.

Shams-uddin Ilyas Shah founded the first dynasty; ruling through 1342-1359 CE and later the dynasty was resurrected by Nasir-uddin Mahmoud in 1437 CE, merging a substantial portion of East Bengal with Western Bengal and Orissa. Evidently, in this period many military battles were incurred during the consolidation and expansion of the dynastic domain. Nasir-uddin was succeeded by his son, Barbak Shah (1459-1474 CE) and later by Shams-uddin Yusuf Shah (1474-1481 CE). There is much speculation as to how the second Ilyas Shah dynasty concluded and how its particular ending coincides with the beginnings of the Habshi episode. The frequent view propagated by many authors of Bengali history texts is that the Abyssinian palace guards in 1487 CE assassinated the last ruler of the Ilyas Shah dynasty and subsequently seized power. Recent evidence has cast doubt upon the simplicity of such an occurrence. Over 8000 Abyssinians were well-known members of the Ilyas Shah administration and carried out vital civic duties such as the supervising and building Islamic schools, acting as court magistrates, collecting tolls and taxes, law enforcement, and the official overseers of the trade and commerce sector. Consequently, this elicited much antagonism from the upper caste Hindu community since it violated the orthodox Brahmin standards of Manu by giving power to an African people, or non-Aryans, of which is considered a serious crime in the Hindu edicts. Many prominent Ashraf families harbored similar sentiments about the increasing power of the Habshis, ultimately causing many to conspire towards their demise. Sources indicate that many Habshis responded to this denigration by banding together along with the chief eunuch of the main palace, Barbak Shahzada to assassinate the brother of Barbak Shah, Jalal al-Din Fath Shah, who detested the Habshis and was seeking actions towards their removal. The strike was completed and Barbak Shahzada took the throne under the name of Ghyath al-Din Barbak Shah. Hence, these events set into motion the reign of the Habshi Sultans of Bengal.

The Abyssinian Episode

The brief reign of the Habshi dynasty of Bengal consisted of four rulers over a six-year period:

Ghiyath al-Din Barbak Shah 1487-1488 CE
Saif al-Din Firuz Shah 1488-1490 CE
Qutb al-Din Mahmud Shah 1490 CE
Shams al-Din Muzaffar Shah 1490-1493 CE

The opening ruler, Barbak Shah held power for a brief stint only lasting 3-6 months. He was noted to be an insecure and sometimes paranoid personality, often alienating himself from most of his subjects including many of the other Abyssinians. His paranoid delusions sometimes drove him to orchestrate executions of any potential rivals similar to the early days that Saddam Hussein took power in Iraq. Furthermore, he only surrounded himself with the most loyal cohorts and installed his administrators accordingly, given that he viewed faithfulness as taking precedence over competence. Subsequently, Barbak Shah’s administration was known to have the least support of his subjects. Another Abyssinian noble by the name of Malik Andil exploited this deterioration of civic allegiance and rallied together with the loyalists of the previous regime, assassinating Barbak Shah and claiming the throne under the title Saif al-Din Firuz Shah in 1488 CE.

Firuz Shah ascended into power with full support of the local nobility, both Ashrafs and Habshis. Firsthand accounts by arab historians bestow the reputation upon Firuz Shah as the greatest of all four Habshi sultans of Bengal. He was a bold and charismatic leader, while showing secular restraint and generosity towards Muslims and non-Muslims alike. He awarded living wages to artists and architects and further bolstered his support by distributing rupees among the poor and oppressed Namasudra(low caste) and Dalit populace. As a testament of his considerable patronage of the artistic and cultural sectors, many mosques, towers and inscriptions survive today. The Firuz Minar, located in Gaur, West Bengal endures as one most revered monuments in of all of Bengal. It stands 26 meters tall with a complex spiral staircase of 73 steps; it is a lasting imprint of the short-lived Ethiopian presence in Bengal.

Firuz Minar of Gaur, West Bengal
A lasting monument built by the Habshi Sultan Firuz Shah
The son of Firuz Shah, Mahmud Shah took power in 1490 CE along with his top advisor, another Abyssinian named Habash Khan. Not long after their emergence into leadership was a successful coup d’etat staged by a rival faction under the auspices of an Abyssinian named Sidi Badr Diwana. The rebel leader executed Mahmud Shah and his entire cabinet, capturing the sultanate under the title Shams al-Din Muzaffar Shah. In spite of its rather violent beginnings, for the next three years Muzaffar Shah lead an extension of the cultural patronage of Firuz Shah, developing a sophisticated currency coinage system and the construction of a famous mosque built in 1491 CE. During the last few months of his reign the anti-Abyssinian sentiment of the upper caste Hindus and the Ashrafs was reaching a climax. Finally, the last Habshi Sultan was killed under the orchestration of the Ashraf, Hussain Shah, with the assistance of the Hindu paiks or military guards. He subsequently cleansed the administration of the Abyssinian nobles, expelling them to the Deccan. Thus, the Habshi rule of Bengal ended as it began. However it should never be forgotten, as it is an important slice of Bengal’s vast history.


1) Goron, Stan. "The Habshi Sultans of Bengal." African Elites in India - Habshi Amarat. Ed. Kenneth X. Robbins and John McLeod. Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2006.

2) Ali, Shanti S. The African Dispersal in the Deccan. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1996.

3) Chauhan, R. R. S. Africans in India - From Slavery to Royalty. New Delhi: Asian Publication Services, 1995.

4) Ahmed, Nazimuddin. Discover the Monuments of Bangladesh. Ed. John Sanday. Dhaka: The UP Limited, 1984.

5) Ahmad, Imtiaz, ed. Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India. 2nd ed. New Delhi: Mohohar, 1978.

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