ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Casteist Demons and Working-Class Prophets: Subaltern Islam in Bengal, c. 1872-1928


Uddin Layli - Queen Mary University of London, School of Politics and International Relations, London, United Kingdom


01 – Bengali Muslim Societies and Literatures, c.1600-1947


 This paper investigates the relationship between caste and Islam in colonial Bengal to explore the possibilities of a radical subaltern Islam. Scholarship, mostly drawing on North India, has emphasised the contradiction between the traditions of Islamic egalitarianism and the existence of a hierarchical system of social stratification among Muslims. This article, however, shows that caste-based tensions and struggles produced a more revolutionary Islam. I suggest that the subversive potential of Islamic egalitarianism,  described in early Islam, was kept alive by low-Muslim caste groups in Bengal.  The reality of caste enabled multiple understandings of what it meant to be a Muslim, and the more radical among them were subaltern ontologies. I employ the writings on caste by four unreliable narrators – a colonial ethnographer, an Ashrafi Muslim anthropologist, and two Muslim reformers – to describe the politics and lifeworlds of low-caste Muslim groups in Bengal. The article argues for more nuanced understandings of this period of Islamic reform, conscious of the subaltern textures shaping its course. I show how a politics of rejection emerged as a response to the problem of caste inequality. The repudiation of elite Muslim titles, the centering of subaltern histories and articulation of a felt Islam revealed the revolutionary potentialities of subaltern Islam in colonial Bengal.