ETHNONYM: Assamese Muslims

Assam is an Indian state located between 26° and 28° N and 90° and 94° E. Muslim Assamese speakers number 2 Million out of a total Muslim population of about 5 million in Assam. Although the basic values of the Assamese Muslims are Islamic, they share some Hindu customs and practices, which are contradictory to Islamic conventions. While intermarriage with Hindus is rare, many Assamese Muslims identify more strongly with other Assamese who are Hindu than with other Muslims. Their identity is inexorably connected with the Asamiya language and the region of Assam. Asamiya (Asambe, Asami), the native language of the Assamese, is derived from Sanskrit and is the official language of Assam State. There are two important dialects, eastern and western, which are very different in linguistic structure from each other. The language is rich in borrowed vocabulary from Hindi, Persian, Arabic, English, Portuguese, and regional tribal languages. The language uses the Bengali script.

The Asamiya-speaking Muslims of Assam developed their culture through continuous contact between Islam and native regional cultures. They have many cultural traits in common with Assamese Hindus and are less orthodox than other Indian Muslims. Assam first came into contact with Islam in 1206, when Muhammad bin Bakhtar led a military expedition to Tibet through the region. In 1532 Turbak invaded Assam with a Muslim army and was defeated by the king of the Ahoms. Those taken prisoner were settled in the region and married Assamese women, losing all their Islamic culture within a few generations and adopting local customs. In the 1630s, the Muslim saint Shah Milan, also known as Azan Faqir, opened the way for Islamic missionaries, by winning the patronage of the Ahom rulers. Between 1910 and 1931, thousands of Bengali Muslim peasants from eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh, settled in the riverine tracts of the plains. Their descendants today have adopted the Asamiya language and identify themselves as Assamese. In the last forty years, thousands more Bengali Muslims have migrated to Assam, settling there as rice farmers. Many local non-Muslims resent them because they have kept their language and customs. Many more Indian Muslims have immigrated from other regions, especially Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Most of them are urban nonfarmers.

Agrarian Assamese Muslims inhabit clustered hamlets and villages surrounded by their fields. Hindu and Muslim Assamese generally live separately; some do live together, however, keeping their separate identities but sharing some common institutions. Approximately 70 percent of Assamese Muslims are farmers by occupation. The principal crop of the region is paddy (rice) of several different local varieties. Other important crops include, maize, wheat, oilseeds such as mustard, jute, and sugarcane, and various seasonal vegetables. Many farmers also engage in small commerce, trade, and work as wage laborers. The Marias are traditionally brass workers. Most urban Muslims pursue varied occupations Including the professions.

Assamese Muslims combine many Islamic and Hindu customs. Assamese Muslim families are patriarchal and patrilineal. Women are allowed to inherit one-eighth of their father's property. The kinship terminology is very similar to the Hindu. Avoidance relations between father-in-law and daughter-in-law and between husband's elder brother and younger brother's wife are practiced among both Muslims and Hindus. Marriage among Assamese Muslims entails two separate events: the ring ceremony, which is followed by the actual marriage. After the negotiations are fixed, the future groom's parents and kin visit the bride's home. The entourage brings a gold ring, silk clothes, and sweets as gifts. The marriage ceremony is consummated with the reciting of verses from the Quran by a Muslim cleric. Cross-cousin Marriage is not encouraged.

Components of the Hindu caste system are present among Assamese Muslims. They are divided into a three-tier system: the Sayyids, who hold the highest status and claim to be descendants of the prophet Mohammed; the Sheikhs, composed of the local peoples, who are second in social Status; the Marias, who hold the third social slot and are the descendants of the Muslim soldiers captured in the Muslim invasion of 1532.

The vast majority of Assamese Muslims are Sunni of the Hanafi juridical rite; however, they observe many local Hindu rites that put them at odds with Islamic practice. For example, many are attracted to the Vaishnavite philosophy preached in Assam by the sixteenth-century philosopher Sankaradeva.

See also Muslim ; Sayyid ; Sheikh


Ahmad, Imtiaz (1976). "For a Sociology of India." In Muslim Communities of South Asia , 172-178. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House.

Ali, A. N. M. Irshad (1979). "Hindu Muslim Relations in Assam." Man in India 9:261-381.

Das, B. M., and A.N.M. Irshad Ali (1984). "Assamese." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, Vol. 1, 58-63. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.


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