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The identity of Bangladesh as a modern nation-state is derived from a cohesive ethnic and regional base in which Islam has long been a key element. Nearly all of the country’s 114 million people are speakers of the Bengali language, and, minor sectarian variation aside, some 85 percent are also Sunni Muslims governed by the Hanafi school of Islamic law. Most of the remaining 15 percent are Hindus.

Islam in Bengal dates from the arrival of Turkic invaders in 1200 CE. In 1576 the region was incorporated into the Mughal Empire, which retained hegemony until 1757 and the onset of the British empire in India. Military and political domination do not by themselves produce mass conversion; thus one mystery of South Asian history is how the territory today comprising Bangladesh came to contain some 40 percent of the Muslims counted in British India at its first census (1872), and to become home to around 30 percent of all South Asian Muslims today.

In explanation of this scholar-administrators who early censuses, notably H.massive conversion had occurred among low-caste Hindus seeking refuge from caste oppression in the egalitarian fold of Islam. Seen as an insult to Islam, this conclusion was vigorously opposed by English-educated Muslim intellectuals such as Khondkar Fazli Rubbee, whose Origins of the Musalmans of Bengal (Calcutta, 1895) attempted to show that the Muslim population of Bengal was mainly descended from Arab, Mughal (Turphenomenon, the British devised and interpreted the H. Risley, concluded that kic), and Afghan invaders. Muhammed Abdur Rahim (1963, 1967) has more recently sought to reiterate the argument, but with statistical evidence that few other .historians accept. A contrasting view has it that Bengal was the last bastion in India of a corrupt and effete Buddhism, and so its people were ripe for the appeal of Sufi mystics who followed the first Muslim rulers.

In one way or another, historians universally emphasize the role of Sufism in the initial stages of Bengali conversion to Islam. Current explorations of Bengali Muslim history link the earliest phase of islamization to the deforestation of the Bengal Delta by land-hungry peasants of no discernibly stable religious commitment, spurred on by the revenue-famished rulers of both preMughal and Mughal Bengal. In Richard Eaton’s (1993) analysis, Sfifi adepts also figure prominently as charismatic pioneer leaders or ghdzi-pirs (“warrior saints”) who organized the spread of farming, protected cultivators from the natural and supernatural hazards of the forest, and spearheaded development of rural communities, linking them to the Muslim rulers. Over time, devotional cults initiated by these Sfifi pioneers came to focus on them as “saints,” and their religious ideology, Islam, thus embryonically embedded itself in the deltaic countryside. This amalgam of agriculture and religion might be seen as the first stage of islamization in Bengal. Its legacy lives on in the myth of creation found today among Bengali Muslim cultivators, who, as described by John Thorp (1978), see themselves as descendants of a primordial Adam, the first Prophet of Islam and also the First Farmer, created by God for the express purpose of mastering the earth.

A second stage of Islamization in eastern Bengal may be witnessed in the development of a tradition syncretizing popular forms of Islam and Hinduism. Asim Roy (1983) argues that the formal doctrines of Islam were at first absorbed only lightly by the largely rural Bengali population. Their folk religious culture mingled beliefs in the fantastic with perceptions of the natural world, and mixed superstition, myth, and magic with faith. This was no less true of Bengali Hinduism, since it was Vaishnavism (Krishna-focused worship) and not orthodox Brahminical codes that captured the imagination of rural people who identified themselves as Hindus, providing forms of religious devotion as emotionally satisfying and evocatively mystical as the Sufi pirism that had enthralled converts to the Muslim fold.

The result was a syncretic folk religion in which Sufi pirs and Vaishnavite saints were worshiped interchangeably by both Hindus and Muslims. Worship itself commonly took form (and to this day often occurs) in didactic narrative exposition by local or itinerant charismatics, or it featured folk music whose devotional lyrics were imbued with spiritual metaphor and allegory intelligible to Hindus and Muslims at once, and whose performers might claim to be either or both. Indigenous healers and shamans might proffer curatives whose power was derived from Qur’an and Krishna alike.

There was, however, a considerable gap between the popular religion of most rural Muslims-descendants of indigenous converts known as the ajlaf or atraf (“low ranked”) social classes-and Muslim elites or ashraf (“noble”) classes who claimed Middle Eastern descent and espoused a version of Islam that looked to North India, Persia, and Arabia for its inspiration and its linguistic expression (in Persian and Urdu, not in Bengali). That gap was bridged by religious guides, preceptors, philosophers, and poets whose writings introduced orthodox Islamic dogma by seeking its broad parallels in Hinduism. For example, accounts of the life of the Prophet might be couched in terms accommodating to the Hindu belief in divine incarnations, and descriptions of Fatimah might evoke the Mother Goddess of popular Hinduism. There developed a “Muslim-Vaishnavite” synthesis in lyric poetry; similar efforts at harmonizing Hindu and Muslim cosmological, mystical, and esoteric traditions arose. Thus was constructed a syncretic version of Islam that aimed at accommodating elite, PersoArabic versions as well as the devotional, pir-focused folk traditions of rural non-elites who had identified themselves with the Islamic faith. This may be seen as the second stage in the Islamization of eastern Bengal.

A third stage may be posited with the rise of several strains of revivalism confronting the homegrown, syncretic Bengali variety of Islam in the early nineteenth century. Among the most important was the Fara’izi (Fara’idi) movement (from Arabic fard, recalling the obligatory duties of Islam), founded in 1818 by Hajji Shari`atullah (1781-1840), an East Bengali whose twenty years in the Arabian Muslim heartland had imbued him with Meccan standards of belief and practice. Spreading rapidly throughout eastern Bengal down to 1900, this movement called upon the local Muslim faithful to abandon pirism and eschew Hindu-tainted customs and beliefs. The Fara’izis presented what they considered orthodox models of Islamic credo and conduct and insisted that belief and behavior be shaped in conformity with the Five Pillars. They also became active in agrarian struggles, which often pitted Muslim peasants against Hindu and European landlords, thus adding a religiously communal element to the social and political antagonisms spreading in the Bengali countryside at this time.

Another movement, the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyah, an Indian counterpart to the Wahhabi movement of eighteenth-century Arabia, had been initiated in Delhi in 1818 by Sayyid Ahmad Shahid (1786-1831). Introduced into western Bengal by Titu Mir (1782-1831) in 1827, it also became involved in peasant struggles. A key feature of this movement was its emphasis on strict adherence to the shad `ah; one of its offshoots, the Ahl-i Hadith (“people of hadith”) movement, was vehement in stressing ijtihad. The Ahl-i Hadith movement is the most visible remnant of the last century’s reformist movements in Bangladesh today, with a reported two thousand local branches and two million adherents in the mid-1980s, especially in the northern districts of the country. Its local groups display distinctive variations in ritual performance but otherwise avoid exclusive, sect like behavior and are open to relationships with Muslims of other persuasions. The Ahl-i Hadith is led by highly educated and articulate spokespersons, such as its long-standing amir, Professor Muhammad ‘Abdul Bari, a respected Islamic scholar and top university administrator; these leaders have developed the original movement’s doctrines toward progressive social reform along Islamic lines.

The revivalist “purification” of Bengali Islam undermined its earlier syncretism by stressing the differences between Islam and Hinduism. As Rafiuddin Ahmed (1981) has argued, these militant movements deepened Islamic consciousness in late nineteenth-century East Bengal and paved the way for effective mobilization of its Muslim peasantry by the Muslim elites who would lead the Pakistan movement in the twentieth century. Such elites included in their number many belonging to an Islamic modernist tradition, begun in the late nineteenth century and similar to its counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim world, which advocated Western education and stressed the utility of European science in harmonic combination with classical Islamic scientific and humanistic learning and moral ideals. Thus, in its Islamic dimension, by 1947 the maturing national identity of East Bengal not only retained remnants of Sufism and syncretism but also contained elements of orthodox fundamentalism and modernism.

From a large survey she has recently conducted of Bangladeshi Muslims claiming an active faith, Razia Akter Banu (1992) has identified three basic tendencies in present-day Bangladeshi Islam, all of which have their roots in these historic movements. Nearly half of her rural and a quarter of her urban respondents evinced the syncretism of folk belief and practice described above. Followers of popular forms of Islam most often represent lower levels of income, education, and occupation.

Attribution of supernatural power to pirs is an especially salient feature of popular Bangladeshi Islam. Commemorative gatherings (`urs) at the ubiquitous tombs (mazar) of the pirs occur year-round, and major shrines are located throughout the country. At least one major Sufi order (tariqah), the Qadiriyah, has a large following, with a national center in the Chittagong district village of Maijbhandar. These Maijbhandari, as they are called, meet in weekly gatherings (mahfil) where religious folk music forms the centerpiece of devotional worship, and they have an annual conclave at their national center. The nature and extent of Sufi activity in Bangladesh needs much further study, but it is widespread and attracts persons of all social, educational, and occupational backgrounds.

Another So percent of Banu’s rural sample, and more than 6o percent of her urban respondents, claimed adherence to orthodox forms of Islam: literality in acceptance of Qur’an and hadith, strictness in observing the obligatory duties, and total obedience to the Hanafi school of law. Both urban and rural people of moderate educational background register among the ranks of the orthodox; in the rural areas orthodoxy is associated with relatively higher levels of land ownership, in contrast to its correspondence with middle levels of income in the cities.

Finally, while very few rural Bangladeshi Muslims espouse an Islamic modernist point of view, with its emphasis on rationalism and scientism and rejection of literalistic determinism, Banu found that 12 percent of the urbanites in her sample adopted this perspective. Not surprisingly, espousal of this viewpoint was associated with high levels of Western education as well as with higher occupation and income.

Banu’s study also suggests that adherents to both the popular and orthodox versions of Islam hover between high and moderate levels of actual practice, as measured by the degree to which they claim to carry out the daily and annual obligatory duties of the faithful. Modernists tend toward moderate and lower levels of practice, as one might surmise. In my observation, the daily and weekly requirements of prayer and the mandate of the annual fast are widely met by rural Bangladeshis, and a good deal of social pressure is exerted via shaming mechanisms and fear of embarrassment toward the maintenance of Muslim propriety in public conduct. In urban areas, where normative conformity is more difficult to exact, performance in these areas is more varied.

The Islamic component of East Bengal’s regional identity was at the forefront of its people’s political consciousness during their struggle for an independent Pakistan until 1947. Thereafter, however, the Bengalis in what became East Pakistan became disillusioned as they perceived their economic, political, and cultural interests increasingly subordinated to those of their confreres in non-Bengali West Pakistan. Accordingly, the ethnolinguistic element of their national identity, especially pride in their language and its associated cultural traditions, took political primacy, and although their religious commitment to Islam by no means waivered, it no longer shaped their immediate political goals. By the mid-1950s Bengali enthusiasm for the Muslim League, which had spearheaded Pakistani independence, became deeply eroded. The growing rift between Pakistan’s eastern and western wings broke into rebellion in 1971, and, led by the secular nationalist Awami League, an independent Bangladesh was born. [See also Muslim League; Awami League.]

In part because members of Islamic political parties had-sometimes violently-opposed separation from Pakistan, the first constitution of Bangladesh (1972) proclaimed secularism as a principle of state policy and prohibited political parties based on religious affiliation. Individuals thought to have stood against independence on religious or other grounds were stigmatized, and, not uncommonly, ordinary Muslims visibly observant in dress and ritual performance could find themselves shunned or mocked by supporters of the party in power.

A great many Bangladeshi Muslims, however, were uncomfortable with official secularism. Daily religious practice went on unabated, as did the expressions of popular and orthodox Islam noted above. The Delhibased Tablighi Jama’at, which aims at strengthening Islamic faith and practice among believers, became highly active in the country, attracting large numbers and presaging an Islamic resurgence. In 1975 the increasingly dictatorial Awami League was overthrown; a more favorable domestic climate for the political expression of Islam was ushered in.

Against this domestic background, one should also note that Bangladesh was receiving mounting proportions of its foreign aid from the oil-rich and conservative Arab states, where Bangladeshis were working in massive numbers, especially in Saudi Arabia. The post-coup government of Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) became prominently active in Islamic international organizations, and increasing ties to the wider Muslim world may have prompted it in 1977 to replace the secularism clause of the constitution with a proclamation of “absolute faith and trust in almighty Allah,” mandating that government strengthen “fraternal ties with the Muslim states on the basis of Islamic solidarity.” The Zia government began to sponsor Islam as well, in its establishment of a cabinet-level Division of Religious Affairs, creation of an Islamic Foundation for research, and plans for a new Islamic University. Under a separate directorate in the Ministry of Education, since 1975 the number of madrasahs in Bangladesh has increased by 50 percent, their teachers by one-third, and students by well over two-thirds. The subsequent government of H. M. Ershad (1982-1991) continued in this vein; the president and members of his cabinet publicly associated themselves with a famous and politically active pir. In 1988 the National Assembly passed a constitutional amendment declaring Islam the “state religion” of the country.

The intent and import of this change remain unclear. It did not, however, result in institution of the shari’ah. Bangladeshis have not recently been prone toward fundamentalist government. In the first post-independence National Assembly election (1979) that permitted Islamoriented parties to compete, the conservative but nontheocratic Muslim League won 19 of 300 seats and 1o percent of the popular vote; no fundamentalist parties contested. But in the parliamentary election of 1986, the Muslim League’s mere four seats were surpassed by ten that went to the Jama’at-i Islami (Islamic Assembly), which advocates a fullfledged Islamic state. Harbinger of things to come, the Jama’at’s student front, the Islamiya Chhatra Shibir (Islamic Student Group), emerged as a major force in Bangladesh’s politically volatile universities. Not surprisingly, then, the Jama’at garnered nearly 12 percent of the popular vote in the 1991 National Assembly elections, winning 18 (6 percent) of all 300 seats, and 8 percent of the 221 it contested.

It remains to be seen whether Bangladesh will ever become an Islamic state. Its past has shown, however, that Islam seeks perennial renewal in the dynamic interplay between Bengali nationalism and Muslim universalism that lies at the heart of its national identity.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in South Asia; Pir.]


Ahmad Khan, Muin-ud-din. History of the Fara’idi Movement in Bengal, 1818-1906s. Karachi, 1965. Definitive work to date on the Fara’izis and their relations with other movements; essential reading on Islamic revivalism in nineteenth-century Bengal.

Ahmed, Rafiuddin. The Bengal Muslims, 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity. Delhi, Oxford, and New York, 1981. Best general study of nineteenth-century Bengali Muslim society, covering religious, social, and political development in an integrated manner. See also his Islam in Bangladesh: Society, Culture, and Politics (Dhaka, 1983), and Religion, Nationalism, and Politics in Bangladesh (New Delhi, 1990), both collections of original essays on social and political aspects of Islam in Bangladesh since 1971.

Ahmed, Sufia. Muslim Community in Bengal, 1884-1912. Dhaka, 1974. Comprehensive study with chapters on educational, social, economic, and political development, focusing on elites.

Banu, U. A. B. Razia Akter. Islam in Bangladesh. Leiden and New York, 1992. Unique and highly imaginative social science survey research study of current attitudes and beliefs, with informative historical background chapters.

Eaton, Richard Maxwell. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-176o. Berkeley, 1993. Path-breaking reassessment of the spread of Islam as seen in the context of Bengali agrarian and economic history.

Haq, Muhammed Enamul. A History of Sufi-ism in Bengal. Dhaka, 1975. Detailed, if not particularly critical, history through the medieval period, with an outline of major beliefs and biographical notes on saints.

Karim, Abdul. Social History of the Muslims in Bengal, Down to A.D. 1538. Dhaka, 1959. Covers intellectual development, social organization, and daily life in the early Islamic period.

Mallick, Azizur R. British Policy and the Muslims of Bengal, 17571856. Dhaka, 1961. Focus on educational policy and its impact on Muslim society; background on religious syncretism and revivalist reaction to it.

Rahim, Muhammed Abdur. Social and Cultural History of Bengal. 2 vols. Karachi, 1963-1967. Tour de force survey of Bengal’s medieval history from a Muslim nationalist perspective; covers all aspects, including both Hindu and Muslim societies.

Raychaudhuri, Tapan. Bengal under Akbar and Jahangir: An Introductory Study in Social History. Delhi, 1953. Seminal study of the early Mughal period, with important chapters on religious development. Roy, Asim. The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton, 1983. The best study of beliefs and practices in the prerevivalist medieval period; essential for the study of popular Islam in Bangladesh today.

Thorp, John P., Jr. “Masters of Earth: Conceptions of `Power’ among Muslims of Rural Bangladesh.” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1978. Pioneering anthropological study of community organization and religious culture among Bangladeshi Muslim peasantry.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/bangladesh/

  • writerPosted On: October 15, 2012
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