Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, Middle Bengali became a major idiom of literary expression in the kingdom of Arakan. It is within the domain of this coastal kingdom, which then comprised the region of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh, that Muslim subjects of the Buddhist kings started using the courtly vernacular that was previously cultivated by Hindu dignitaries of the Ḥusayn Shāhī sultans of Bengal. By the mid-17th century, which constituted a moment of economic prosperity and maximum territorial expansion, all genres of Middle Bengali poetry were represented in the corpus of texts written by authors living in the urban and rural areas of the kingdom. The many treatises on Muslim beliefs and meditative practices, the hagiographic literature, and the courtly romances testify to the formation of a local Islamic cultural ethos. After the Mughal conquest of Chittagong in 1666, local literacy was still cultivating standards set by authors of the Arakanese period such as Saiẏad Sultān and Ālāol. In Arakan itself, Bengali Muslim literature continued to be produced and transmitted until at least the first half of the twentieth century. A large number of manuscripts was collected in the first decades of the twentieth century and these are preserved in various institutions in Bangladesh. The Bengali literature of Arakan is characterized by its Indic religious idiom and Sanskritized poetics, but also by its complex intertextuality that reflects the region’s connections with north India and the Persianate trading networks of the Bay of Bengal. Up to the 2000s, the Bengali literature of Arakan has mostly been discussed within the framework of the national literary history of Bangladesh, but subsequently scholars have relocated this corpus within the cultural domain of the Bay of Bengal and the Islamicate literary traditions of South and Southeast Asia.
R. Michael Feener
Southeast Asia has been a historical crossroads of major world civilizations for nearly two millennia. Muslim traders were sojourning along the shores of the Indonesian archipelago from at least the 8th century, and by the turn of the 14th century local Muslim communities had taken root, and the region’s first sultanate was established in northern Sumatra. Since then, Muslim communities had been established across many other parts of Southeast Asia, where in the 21st century they comprise demographic majorities in the nation-states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei and significant minority populations in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Singapore.
The Islamization of these societies, and their inclusion into an expanding constellation of Muslim societies in the medieval and early modern periods, was facilitated by intensifications of activity along the maritime trading routes linking Southeast Asia to ports on the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Swahili Coasts with those of India and China over the medieval and early modern periods. Over the course of this history, the expansion of Islam in the region was not dominantly directed from any single source but rather the result of diverse, interlaced strands of commercial and cultural circulations that connected the region to multiple points in an expanding Muslim world—adopting local traditions to produce diverse and dynamic vernacular forms of Islamic cultural expression.
Paul Buell and Francesca Fiaschetti
The Mongols, creators of the largest continuous land empire in history, who initiated an unprecedented era of international exchange, are mostly known for their land conquests and contacts, but, they also actively participated in maritime and land trade. The key event in this development was a Mongol commercialization ongoing with the Mongol conquest of key coastal areas in China and Iran that brought them face to face with the trading world of the South Seas and Indian Ocean. There was a military aspect of this, starting in Japan, Southeast Asia, and Java, and there was the diplomatic and informal initiatives of Qubilai-qan to expand Mongol influence over the seas as far as the Red Sea and Africa, in ways not achievable with military means alone. A thesis is that the Mongols in China ended by creating, with the help of the Mongols in Iran, a first maritime age, paralleling those established by the Portuguese and others that came later.