Different Branches of Islam in Bangladesh Past and Present (Part-I) – Hamidur Rashid Jamil


The nature of Islam in Bangladesh exerts a profound influence on the country’s society and politics. Islamist activity in Bangladesh, viewed generally, takes three broad forms: the traditional revivalism of grassroots movements such as the Ahl-i-Hadith and Tablighi Jama’at; the incremental political Islam of Islamic political parties (most prominently the Bangladesh Jama’at-i-Islami; and the more radical, subversive activism of jihadist organizations such as the Harkatul Jihad al-Islam (HUJIB) and Jagrato Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMB), which seek to capture state power through unconstitutional or violent means. Bangladesh has emerged as a moderate Muslim country through the accommodation made by successive governments between Islamic and secular values, in large part because of Islam’s prominence in as a source of religion-cultural identity.

Pre-Islamic History:
Rice-cultivating communities existed in Bengal since the second millennium BCE. The region was home to a large agriculturalist population influenced by Indian religions, but was not fully integrated into the caste system. Buddhism influenced the region in the first millennium. The Bengali language developed from Apabhramsa and Magadhi Prakrit between the 7th and 10th centuries. It once formed a single Indo-Aryan branch with Assamese and Oriya, before the languages became distinct.
A few decades following the Sena Conquest of the region, the Sena, they were conquered by BakhtiyarKhalji opening up the region to a greater influx of Sufi missionaries. This hypothesis would explain why the Islam spread faster in East Bengal than West Bengal. Essentially, East Bengal had a large Buddhist population compared to West Bengal. The conquest of the area by Hindu kingdoms led to the subjugation of Buddhists in the region. With the Turkic conquest, came the arrival of Sufi missionaries who were more successful at converting the largely disaffected Buddhist East Bengal versus the largely Hindu regions of West Bengal.
This made East Bengal a thriving melting pot with strong trade and cultural networks. It was the most prosperous part of the subcontinent. East Bengal became the center of the Muslim population in the eastern subcontinent and corresponds to modern-day Bangladesh.

Islamism and Society:
Bangladesh, widely regarded as a moderate Muslim democracy, is 89.7 percent Muslim and 9.2 percent Hindu, 0.7 percent Buddhists, 0.3 percent Christian. Animist and believers in tribal faith constitute 0.1 percent of the population.33 Islam serves as the religion-cultural identity of the predominantly Muslim country. More than 98 percent of the population is ethnic Bengali. Non-Bengalis include a minute number of Urdu-speaking Biharis. Among the country’s Muslims, more than 99 percent are Sunni and follow the Hanafi school of thought. Several Shi’a and Ahmadiya sects are also represented, albeit only nominally.
Mosques in Bangladesh serve as active centres of religious activity. In the country’s 65,000 villages, there are an estimated 133,197 mosques, which act as focal points for daily and weekly prayers and assembly. A parallel structure of some 58,126 maqtabs (informal Islamic schools) imparts basic Islamic knowledge to young children (including how to read the Koran, pray, etc.) Mosque imams act as influential elders in the country’s rural power structure. On the whole, therefore, society in Bangladesh can be termed “mosque-centric.”

Islam entered Bangladesh through the following three ways:
1. The Chittagong port was one of the major ports for entering the eastern region including China, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Many merchants used to anchor at the Chittagong port and go to China using land roads. The Arab merchants had been using this port since pre-Islamic period and continued to do so after they embraced Islam. They used to preach Islam along with their business activities. Islam began to spread from that time.
2. King Cherumol Perumol of Tamilnadu coastal kingdom Malabar embraced Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammad (PUH). As a result that area turned into a centre for preaching Islam. Preachers used to come to Bangladesh from that region.
3. After the conquest of Sindh by Muhammad Bin Kashem, many preachers used to come from the Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Turkey on their feet to preach Islam here.

The silent preaching of Islam that went for more than six centuries remained hidden due to lack of historical evidences. Modern researchers are finding evidences are being found from the books written by Arab Muslim historians, geographers and Muhaddises.
The folk stories and songs provide substantial hints about many Islam preachers and saints. There are signs of their tombs and Dargahs. We find many mosques built by them. These indicate that Islam had been spreading in Bangladesh for six centuries before the Muslims conquered Bengal. The repressed anti-Aryan people of Bengal began to adore Islam from that time.

Before Conquest of Bengal:
People of this land were familiar with Islam before the conquest of Bengal. Arab merchants had links with Chittagong port since pre-Islamic period. It has been proven in recent studies that a group of Sahabis including Abu Oakkas Malik, Quyes Ibn Sairadi, TameemAnsary, Urrah Ibn Assasa, AbuQuyes Ibn Harisa came to Chittagong in 618 during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (PUB). They preached Islam there for few years and then went to China.

The following Sahabis came to Bangladesh through Chittagong seaport after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (PUB):
♦ Abdullah Ibn Utban
♦ Assem Ibn Amr Tameemi
♦ Sahel Ibn Abdi
♦ Suhael Ibn Adi
♦ Hakim Ibn AbeelAssaqafi
Later five delegations of the Tabeyees including a group of Muhammad Mamun and Muhammad Mohaimen came here to preach Islam.
In 712 Muhammad Bin Kasem conquered Sindh. It paved the way for Muslims to come to Bengal.
In 778 a group of Muslims fell into a storm in the Bay of Bengal. They were taken to the King of Arakan Ma-ba-toing. The king became very pleased with them due to their behaviour and intellects. He gave them several villages to settle. As a result, an Islamic society was developed in the course of time.
During 866 to 874, the famous saint of Iran Baezid Bostami preached Islam in Chittagong. Although most of the historians say that he returned to his homeland, many people believe that he died and was buried in Chittagong. His shrine is still in Chittagong.
In 954, the Muslims of Arakan became so powerful that they established Muslim rule in a part of Chittagong. King San-da-ya could not tolerate the Muslim rule and defeated them.
In 1053, Shah Muhammad Sultan Balkhi reached Harirumpur of Manikgonj through river way. He later established an Islam preaching centre around Mohastangar of Bogra. He established mosques and Islamic schools. During this time, he had to fight with King Parshuram of Mohastangar. The king was killed in the battle. Later the Army Chief Surkhab and captive princes Ratna Moni embraced Islam. Shah Muhammad Sultan Balkhi arranged their marriage and nominated Surkhab as the new king.
In 1053, Shah Muhammad Sultan Rumi came to Netrokona with a group of preachers. He invited the king of Madanpur for embracing Islam. The king refused first but accepted the invitation later and entered into Islam.
In 1179, Baba Shah Adam came to Bikrampur with a group of preacher to preach Islam there. Later he was martyred in a battle with king BallalSen .
In 1184, Shah MakhdumRuposh came to Rajshahi as the first Islam preacher there. He was one of the preachers who built the base of Islam in Bangladesh in a completely hostile environment. He turned Rajshahi into an Islamic locality. His activities were centred on Rampur and Boalia.
The conquest of Bengal started in 1204. Islam began to receive patronisation from the rulers. The barriers for the people of this region for embracing Islam were removed. As a result they began to enter into Islam in large numbers. Islam did not come here with the help of swords; rather the people of Bangladesh embraced it through love and profound understanding.

Influence of Sufism:
According to an estimate approximately 26% of Bangladeshi Muslims identify themselves with a Sufi order, almost half of whom adhere to the Chishti order. During the Sultanate period, syncrestic Sufis emerged and formed khanqahs and dargahs that serves as the nerve center of local communities The tradition of Islamic mysticism known as Sufism appeared very early in Islam and became essentially a popular movement emphasizing worship out of a love of Allah. Sufism stresses a direct, unstructured, personal devotion to God in place of the ritualistic, outward observance of the faith and “a Sufi aims to attain spiritual union with God through love” An important belief in the Sufi tradition is that the average believer may use spiritual guides in his pursuit of the truth. Throughout the centuries many gifted scholars and numerous poets have been inspired by Sufi ideas.
The Qadiri, Maizbhandaria,  Naqshbandi, Chishti, Mujaddid, Ahmadia, Mohammadi, Soharwardi and Rifai orders were among the most widespread Sufi orders in Bangladesh in the late 1980s. Prominent Sufi personalities in Bangladesh includes Hazrat Khwaja Enayetpuri, Sayed Delaor Husaein, Abdul Gafur Hali, Ahmed Ullah Maizbhanderi, Salekur Rahman RaheBhanderi, Sayed Ziaul Haq, Syed Rashid Ahmed Jaunpuri.
Islam had and has been reached in different regions in different and/several forms depending socio-political, cultural etc. situation. This subcontinent is not different from such scenario. Now, the Islam what we are practicing in our lives has a strong root with its past. Probably, we have very religious fragmentation because Islam had come in this region through different forms.

The author is continuing his graduation from Department Of Arabic at University of Dhaka.