Volume 2 Issue 6 | July 2007
Rubaiyat Hossain explores the roots of Islam in Bangladesh
I dedicate this piece to Dr. Syed Nomanul Haq, Assistant Professor, Near and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania.
Just the other day bombs were blasted in the railway stations of a few major cities in Bangladesh, killing one unfortunate rickshaw-wallah. The bombers left aluminum plates that had messages inscribed on them, which declared that NGO workers and Ahmadiyas would be prosecuted.
This is not news to us.
In Bangladesh, after the four-party alliance came to power in October, 2001, minority religious communities were systematically marginalised and brutalised. In the meantime, all English medium schools have introduced a mandatory subject called “Islamiat,” but failed to mandate Bengali literature and grammar syllabus.
The other day I saw a news clipping on NDTV (India), where a 12 year-old kid was shown slaughtering a man. Imagine: a few young kids standing around, pieces of black cloth with white Arabic lettering tied around their heads, with perfectly innocent expressions, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and gently pushing a sword down a man’s throat, while a few others hold him down by his arms and his legs.
The news gave me a chill like no horror movie ever did. This was real. These were real 12 year-old children, like my cousin or your brother, slaughtering another human being. The level to which such violence and brutality in the name of Allah have been normalised in today’s world, made me thoroughly sick to my stomach.
Isn’t it time that we took notice and thought twice about such phenomena? When I turn on the television each night, I hear Peace TV preachers give answers to questions such as “Can Muslim women work?” in a room packed with a male only audience. I have to remind myself that this is the year 2007. Does this seem normal to everybody, or am I just losing my mind?
Recently, I have noticed a growing number of women covering themselves in different modes of purdah. Some wear complete cloaks which cover from head to toe, some wear chadors to cover their upper body, some wear stylish, colourful head-scarves to match their daily outfits, and, finally, if one watches the home-bound garment factory workers every evening, one will certainly notice that most of these women cover their heads.
In a place like Bangladesh, where violence against women is an accepted social norm, and women’s movement in the public realm is yet to be respected by men, it is no wonder that women would cover themselves to save them from being sexually harassed, especially if they commute after sunset.
It is also quite apparent that there is an effort in present day Bangladesh to create a certain mode of Islamic society, and it comes as no surprise that women’s bodies would become the ground for pronouncing such ideologies through the surveillance of female sexuality by measures such as purdah and fatwa.
When Awami League, which believes in secularism, agrees to sign a treaty to legally validate fatwa, we know that we have nearly lost the battle to remain secular. It is yet to be seen if the new regime proves successful in dealing with religious militancy, and with the shadowing effect of a force that attempts to establish a new moral/national ideology to create a certain brand of Islamic state.
In the meantime, when I speak to my friends or my students I feel that there are two camps within the young population: a group that defines religion as the mother of all malice in today’s capitalist world, and the other group which feverishly holds on to a certain notion of Islam handed down to them by their families and communities. In most cases, kids from neither group are fully aware of the historical, theological, and mystical aspects of Islam. Both groups fail to realise the beauty and liberation offered by the particularity of Islam in Bengal, especially the wonderful ways Sufism has to offer in achieving spiritual awakening.
If we throw out religion altogether because it has been used by the capitalist system as the “opiate of the masses,” or because atrocities have been carried out its name, then we commit a crime larger than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We throw out thousands of years of philosophy and human effort to reach divinity.
On the other hand, when we refuse to acknowledge the history of Islam in Bengal, and fail to realise that we are not actually aware of Islamic scriptures, and we are blinded by societal norms handed down to us by previous generations, we participate in a mis-construct in the name of Islam.
I must clarify that I am fully aware that I don’t speak for the masses: but my experience is shared by a fragment of the middle-class society, which is informed by a certain political milieu, and I write based on that experience. Even though I was born in a devout Muslim family, I grew up completely misinformed about Islam.
I had an Arabic teacher who came every Friday morning, but I didn’t learn anything worthwhile, except to fear mullahs from the mosque. I learnt that Islam was a tough religion. The rules were rigid, and hell was a blood-curdling place.
It wasn’t until I was fortunate enough to be a student of Dr. Syed Nomanul Haq that I learnt the history of Islam in South Asia, and the bounties it has to offer to a soul searching for pure bliss. Professor Haq introduced me to the wonders of Urdu ghazals, Sufi poetry, and Islamic mysticism. I came to read Faiz Ahmed and Iqbal’s poetry, where nothing else mattered except for the love for Allah.
If one looks at the history of Islam in Bengal, then it becomes apparent that the type of Islam that spread in this region made its impact because of the uniqueness it offered in creating a spiritual tradition where nothing seemed more important than the love between humanity and divinity. When Islam came to South Asia, it didn’t arrive in a vacuum. There was thousands of years of unbroken spiritual tradition developed by Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. The tension of spreading a “foreign” religion in the new land remained as one of major challenges for Islam in South Asia.
When Pakistan was created as a land for Muslims in South Asia, many Muslims protested, including Hazrat Khawaja Enayetpuri, a Sufi saint residing in East Bengal. According to him, this partition was not going to gain anything for South Asian Muslims other than years of endless violence. His prophecy came true when Bangladesh bathed in bloodshed gave birth to a nation in 1971, that started of as secular, but soon began persecuting its Hindu, Buddhists, Christians, Ahmadiya and Tribal population for a homogenised Sunni Muslim country.
Does this mean that as South Asians we have failed to mitigate the differences between Hinduism and Islam? Does this mean that as South Asian Muslims we really can’t do without separate homelands? If the answers are yes, then we must look back at pre-British South Asia to contemplate how Muslim kings ruled in this land for hundreds of years without incidents of massive riots that later became so prevalent in British India. I am not proposing that before the British came it was all a rosy picture, one simply can’t forget the atrocities carried out by Aurengzeb, for instance. Then again, one couldn’t speak about Aurengzeb without mentioning Akbar, who made a very genuine effort to honour and incorporate Hindu, Buddhist, and Zen religious beliefs into his own practice.
Akbar (1556-1605) went as far as proposing a new religion called Din-i-Ilahi. If a king did that in this day and age, he would probably be called a heretic, but most surprisingly back in those days, one of the strictest Sufi leaders of South Asia, Shayakh Ahmad Sirhindi, considered Akbar’s actions were only as bida, something that was done against the fabric of the society, something that deviated from the norm.
I have mentioned earlier that, one of the biggest challenges of Islam in South Asia was to infiltrate in the local geographical, social, and cultural setting. Poet Amir Khasru pronounces the dilemma of Islam being planted in a “foreign” land in his writing Ashiqa celebrating the love of Muslim prince Khizar Khan for the Hindu princess Dewal Rani. What is significant in Amir Khasru’s writing about India is his insistent attraction towards Indian landscape and the moral dilemmas he suffers with Islam and Hinduism.
Historically, many attempts have been made in mitigating the gaps between Islam and Hindu and Buddhist ideals and beliefs. As Akbar intended to settle the debates in a high philosophical ground at his Ibadatkhana, Kabir, a popular 15th century poet, attempted to bridge the gap for the common Muslim and Hindu men and women living side by side in villages.
In Kabir’s verses, Krishna is aligned with Karim, and Ram with Rahim. Still at the end we find poet Kabir actually rejecting both Hinduism and Islam. Akbar, similarly, we can conclude, felt such unease with the presence and co-existence of Islam and other indigenous Indian religions that he was compelled to get rid of everything and create a blend of his own.
It seems to me that both Kabir and Akbar felt very confused at different stages of their lives with the question of how to juggle and peacefully co-exist two distinct, strongly developed, and, may I say, quite opposite human philosophies in comprehending the higher being.
What makes South Asian Islam so beautiful is the struggle it has gone through in mitigating the differences and finding commonalities between two uniquely different spiritual systems. After all, that is what is so unique about South Asia is its ability to assimilate and localise people, culture, religion, language, food, clothes, music, etc. When Islam and pre-existing Hindu societies intermingled with each other, they shared cultural customs, devotional practices, geographical space, however, they remained most distinct about one singular point, Islamic monotheism.
In Islam one couldn’t visualise God and one couldn’t share God’s attributes. He was only one and not many. This foundational belief served as the crux of disagreement between Islam and Hinduism, a problem often solved by the Vedic notion of a monotheist God.
The riots that we have witnessed in recent days and the gruesome incidents of partition, can be understood as politically motivated. The actions could be seen as their struggle to assert a certain socio-cultural identity, but it was far from simply defending one’s faith.
The challenge of monotheism if that God is not visible. How does one then fathom the deity? Visual art in India has always made attempts to paint the face of God. In Hinduism, God is transcendental, he is everywhere and yet nowhere. Thus, one of the main challenges of Islam in South Asia becomes visuality in searching for the beloved or Allah or God. Here, the vision of God couldn’t be fulfilled. And this search for vision is one of unique particularity of Islam in South Asia. If God can’t be seen then any type of manifestation becomes a veil and the vision is arrested in the veil.
It was the job of South Asian Sufis to ponder such questions. Since in Islam, Allah is One, then rises the question of plurality. How can singularity have produced plurality? If there is no ontological existence of the reflection of Allah, then how will human beings reach the divine? It is in response to such predicament the Sufi religious traditions in South Asia flourished.
Sufi orders are not mutually exclusive, but they often overlap each other. It is a cumulative tradition, which has gained its unique flavour in South Asia. Chishti — a widely respected and practiced Sufi order has become accessible to the South Asian people regardless of their religion because of this order’s inclusive nature. The use of music to invoke the divine, which is particular to the Chishti order, has made it closer to the Indian tradition. Central to the Chishti practices are listening to music and the recollection of Allah — zikr. The practice of zikr in Chishti order approves of vocal zikr, whereas Naqshbandi order condemns vocal zikr and emphasises the silent recollection of Allah.
The incorporation of local cultural practices in the Chisthi order doesn’t limit itself to music, but Indic yogic practices are merged with the practice of zikr. Even zikr in the local language is permitted in this order. The shrine of Shaykh Mu’in ad-Din Chishti in Ajmer has been a popular pilgrimage site for Sufis from all different orders. Even Taj-ad-Din ibn Zakariyya (d.1646), who later became dedicated to Naqshbandi order, initially began his spiritual quest by visiting the dargah in Ajmer sharif.
As the lines are blurred between religious groups and various Sufi silsilas within Islam, Chisthi silsila and Sufism as a whole begin to look very fluid. However, taking a closer look at some of the key Chisthi practices reveal that this order even though fluid and open to all, follows a strict practice of the sharia, especially praying five times a day, fasting, following the ways of the Prophet along with the practices of sama and zikr.
Sama comes to occupy a special place in Chishti practices, as it makes this silsila open to a wider range of people and unique to the South Asia context. Sama or listening also brings forth a very important paradoxical question, which lies at the crux of Sufism: the relationship and dialectic of union between the lover and the beloved. If humanity is the very barrier of reaching the divine, and reaching the divine means the moth burning itself in the flame, the only precondition for union remains the annihilation of the lover’s human form into the beloved. On the other hand, the love relation between the lover and the beloved loses its intensity if the dialectic of knowing and not knowing, getting and not getting, finding yet not finding is removed from the spiritual relationship between the human and the divine. Sama explores these contradictions by seeking a musical solution.
Maulana Ahmed Riza Khan Barelwi (1856-1921) was the towering central figure of the Barelwi movement, the only reformist movement in colonial India that supported the trend of Sufi devotional practices that have developed in South Asia starting from the 12th century. Ahmed Riza Khan was associated with Qadiri silsila, and highly regarded the place of the Prophet in Islamic theology. He celebrated maulud, and wrote based on the Sufi doctrine of nur-imuhammadi or the “Light of Muhammad.”
This light had derived from God’s own light and the prophet was himself this light, which was hazir o nazir, “present and observant” in all places. Taking this stand about the Prophet he linked himself more closely to Sufi devotional practices, and distanced himself more from the Wahhabis. It must be mentioned that overall, the urban educated elites supported the Deobandhi and Ahl-iHadith movement, whereas for the rural and less educated population, the Barelwi was more accepted.
Shah Waliullah’s (1703-1762) views on Sufi practices were ambivalent. He supported many practices, but also opposed them by saying that practices like sama can overpower one’s soul with a full scope of fitna. In fact, his views on Sufi practices went through an evolutionary process which is exposed him to the practices at the young age and later as he gained his own standpoint where he sharply condemned it: “What people have devised in the matter of shrines, taking them as grounds where melas are held, belongs to the worst heresies.”
However, it must be noted the Shah Waliullah was far more supportive of Sufi practices than he is credited. He was certainly concerned about the deviation from the central monotheist theology of Islam, but by no means was he condemning visiting shrines and continuing other Sufi devotional practices. The Ahl-i Hadith claimed to be the real followers of Sayyid Ahmed Barelwi. They rejected cults of saints, and the taqlid of laws. They regarded no other source authentic than the Quran and the Hadith. They also opposed the practices of ijma. Overall, they claimed to go back to the authentic sources and authority of Quran and Hadith and cut across anything that came between the way.
It is apparent that the challenge of breeding a “foreign” religion in this land remained a big issue for Sufis in South Asia, a challenge we still are struggling to resolve. As Bangladeshis today, when we evict Hindus from their land, and pronounce loudly that we are nothing but Sunni Muslims, we do so by remaining ignorant about the complicated and dialectic history of Islam in this region. The regimes we have had since the inception of Bangladesh didn’t address these issues seriously, rather they used Islam as a political tool to homogenise the population under the banner of religion when all other state ideology had failed.
Today we fail to acknowledge that Sufi masters were the single most important factor in South Asian conversions to Islam, particularly in what is now Bangladesh. The Qadiri, Naqshbandi, and Chishti orders were among the most widespread Sufi orders in Bangladesh. Most Bangladeshi Muslims are influenced to some degree by Sufism, although this influence often involves only occasional consultation or celebration rather than formal affiliation. Both fakirs and pirs are familiar figures on the village scene, and in some areas the shrines of saints almost outnumber the mosques. In some regions the terms fakir and pir are used interchangeably, but in general the former connotes a holy man and the latter an established murshid, a holy man who has achieved a higher spiritual level than a fakir and was able to show a path to divine knowledge.
A number of Islamic practices are particular to South Asia. For example, the anniversary of the death of a pir is observed annually. Popular belief holds that this anniversary is an especially propitious time for seeking the intercession of the pir. Large numbers of the faithful attend anniversary ceremonies, which are festive occasions enjoyed by the followers of the pir as well as orthodox Muslims. The ceremonies are quite similar in form and content to many Hindu festivals.
Several 19th and 20th-century fundamentalist reform movements, aimed at ridding Islam of all extraneous encroachments, railed against these and similar practices. Nevertheless, the practice of pir worship continued to grow. Hindu influences can be seen in the practice of illuminating the house for the celebration of Shabi Barat (Festival of the Bestowal of Fate), a custom derived from the Hindu practices at Diwali (Festival of Lights). Rituals to exorcise evil spirits from possessed persons also incorporate Hindu influence. Often, villagers would fail to distinguish between Hindu and Muslim shrines.
Post-1971 regimes sought to increase the role of the government in the religious life of the people. The Ministry of Religious Affairs provided support, financial assistance, and endowments to religious institutions, including mosques and community prayer grounds (idgahs). The ministry also directed the policy and the program of the Islamic Foundation, which was responsible for organizing and supporting research and publications on Islamic subjects. The foundation also maintained the Bayt al Mukarram (National Mosque), and organised the training of imams. Some 18,000 imams were scheduled for training once the government completed establishment of a national network of Islamic cultural centers and mosque libraries. Under the patronage of the Islamic Foundation, an encyclopedia of Islam in the Bangla language was being compiled in the late 1980s. Finally Islam was proclaimed as the state religion by the infamous Ershad regime.
None of the regimes, however, sought to critically revisit the socio-cultural history of Islam in this region. We are still all very confused about what it actually means to be a Bengali Muslim. Anthropologist Rehnuma Ahmed notes that, one of the failures of secular intellectualism in Bangladesh has been constantly remaining uncomfortable with Islam and avoiding engaging with it. As Islamic interpretation was left to the mullahs, we continued facing problems of extremism and violence.
We grow up devoid of proper Islamic knowledge in our so-called secular families, yet we are not secular enough to let Islam go altogether. So we continue to seek the knowledge from mullahs, and now from Islamic TV and Peace TV who are more concerned with controlling and exploiting female sexuality then to reach divinity.
When will we rise with Faid Ahmed’s prayer and acknowledge that as South Asian Muslims what matter to us most is the love for Allah? When will we awake to realise that if anything is foreign in this land then it is the orthodox Islam we encounter today? When will we open our eyes and realise that a few hundred years ago we were all Hindus and Buddhists? When will the Muslims of Bangladesh seek refuge in Sufism to counter the violence we witness in the name of Islam?
A’iye hath utha’en ham bhi,
Ham jinhen rasm-e-du’a yad nahin,
Ham jinhen soz-e-mohabbat ke siwa
Ko’i but, ko’I khuda yad nahin…
Come, let us also lift our hands,
We who do not remember the custom of prayer,
We who, except for the burning fire of love,
Do not remember any idol, any God.
Rubaiyat Hossain is a Lecturer at Brac University.
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