Muslim upper class, also known as ashraf, included urban Sufis, religious officials (‘ulama), and foreign-born soldiers and administrators formed the Muslim elites. In fact, foreign origin, even if only of one’s ancestors, formed an important, if not defining, element of ashraf identity. Writing around 1495, the poet Vipra Das referred to the Muslim preachers (mullas) and judges (qazis) of Satgaon as “Saiyids,” “Mughals,” and “Pathans”—that is, men claiming an Arab, Central Asian, or Afghan origin.
About a century later the poet Mukundaram (fl. 1590), like Vipra Das a native of the southwestern deltaic Bengal, described urban Muslims as men who had immigrated from points west of Bengal. Religious sentiment also inclined ashraf Muslims to look westward. In 1505 the patron of a mosque in Sonargaon proudly counted himself as one “who has made a pilgrimage to Macca and Madina, and has visited the two foot-prints of the Prophet.” Similarly, a 1567 inscription on the congregational mosque in Old Malda compared it with the holy shrine in Mecca, referring to Malda’s house of worship as the “second Ka‘aba” (thani ka‘aba). For the devout, phrases such as these served to mitigate the great distance separating Bengal from Islam’s holiest shrines in Arabia, tenuously linked to the delta by a long and dangerous sea voyage and leading the new converts into a make-believe sense of solidarity
Prominent among the ashraf were judges, or qazis, who possessed sufficient expertise in Islamic Law to arbitrate disputes involving fellow Muslims. Below them in status were the mullas, the ubiquitous ordinary preachers and the least-educated members of the Muslim establishment. An inscription on the congregational mosque at Satgaon, dated 1529, hints at how these two members of the ashraf interrelated:
"Because the body of mullas and landholders (arbab) will be cursed
by God if they defraud public endowments, it is binding and necessary that governors
and qazis prevent such frauds, so that on the Day of Judgment they
will not be seized for their oppressions".
Socially distinct from the ashraf were Muslim urban artisans who formed part of Bengal’s growing industrial proletariat and were all converts or children of those converted under duress. Mukundaram mentions fifteen Muslim jatis in a list of communities inhabiting an idealized Bengali city of his day—weavers (jolaha), livestock herders (mukeri), cake sellers (pithari), fishmongers (kabari), converts from the local population (garasal), loom makers (sanakar), circumcisers (hajam), bow makers (tirakar), papermakers (kagaji), wandering holy men (kalandar), tailors (darji), weavers of thick cord (benata), dyers (rangrej), users of hoes (halan), and beef sellers (kasai), all specifically targeted for conversion, due to their strategic role in social infrastructure.