Bengal, once an outpost of the Islamic world, today has the largest Muslim population in South Asia. Linguistically, Bengali Muslims (approximately 150 million in Bangladesh and 60 million in West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and other regions of South Asia and in certain parts of Arakan in Burma) form the second largest linguistic group in the Islamic world after the Arabs. Islam is not only the faith of the majority of the two hundred and thirty million Bengali-speaking people inhabiting the eastern part of South Asia, but it is also their predominant and primary culture. Although geographically distant from Makkah and Madinah, the heartland of Islam, Bengal has none the less played an important role in shaping the history of the Islamic East.
Merchants and the Faith: Early Islamic Contacts with Bengal:
Merchants played a vital role in disseminating religion and culture in the Old World. This is especially true of Islam, as Muslim merchants carried the message of Islam to different corners of Asia and Africa both through overland and maritime trades. In the absence of any organized institution of professional missionaries, trade and commerce played a key role in conversion to Islam. However, the historical experiences as well as the process of this transformation were different in nature when compared with the aggressive proselytization of Western Christian missionary institutions. While the missionary activities were viewed by many traditional societies in the East as one of the tools of colonial expansionism, Islam entered in these regions in most cases as civilization making ideology and finally emerged as a primary regional culture.
The Muslim Conquest of Bengal and the Beginning of Islamic Consolidation:
Like most of the other regions in the Islamic world, the history of Islam in Bengal begins not with defeat, but with victory; not with fall, but with rise. The pivotal message of the early Islamic inscriptions is of God’s help in the total victory, not God as a source of testing (See, for instance, Chehil Ghazi Masjid Inscription in Dinajpur, Dated 865/1460). The first Islamic inscription from the reign of Sultan ‘Al’ Din ‘Al Mardan asserts that Islam grows every moment due to the effort of the ruler. Even the popular titles of the Muslim rulers of the Bengali sultanate, such as Abu ’l-Muzaffar (victorious), convey the same message.
A Bengali is a person of ethnic and linguistic heritage from the Bengal region in South Asia speaking the Indo-Aryan Bengali language. Islam arrived in the first millennium and influenced the native Bengali culture.
The influx of Persian, Turkic, Arab and Mughal settlers contributed further diversity to the cultural development of the region However, historians including Richard Maxwell Eaton, Ahmed Sharif, Muhammad Mohor Ali and Jadunath Sarkar are in agreement that the bulk of Muslims are descended from Buddhists who were converted to Islam by missionaries. Today, most Bengali Muslims live in the modern state of Bangladesh, the world’s fourth largest Muslim-majority country, along with the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam.
The dominant majority of Bengali Muslims are Sunnis who follow the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. There are also minorities of Shias and Ahmadiyas, as well as people who identify as non-denominational (or “just a Muslim”)
British-ruled Bengal was a hotbed of anti-colonial rebellion. In the early 19th century, Titumir led a peasant uprising against colonial rule. Haji Shariatullah led the Faraizi movement, advocating Islamic revivalism. The Faraizis sought to create a caliphate and cleanse the region’s Muslim society of what they deemed “un-Islamic practices”. They were successful in galvanizing the Bengali peasantry against colonial authorities. However, the movement suffered crackdowns after the Mutiny of 1857 and lost impetus after the death of Haji Shariatullah’s son Dudu Miyan.
After 1870, Muslims began seeking English education increasingly. Under the leadership of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan the promotion the English language among Muslims of India also influenced Bengali Muslim society. Social and cultural leaders among Bengali Muslims during this period included Munshi Mohammad Meherullah, who countered Christian missionaries, writers Ismail Hossain Siraji and Mir Mosharraf Hossain; and feminists Nawab Faizunnesa and Roquia Sakhawat Hussain.
Islamic Resurgence in Bangladesh’s Culture and Politics: Origins, Dynamics and implications:
In Bangladesh, the resurgence of Islam is not synonymous with Islamic militancy. Islamic militancy grew in frequency and intensity between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, but as a transitory phenomenon on the periphery of Bangladeshi life and society. It arose for two main reasons. First, it is the predictable outcome of the sustained misgovernment of the Bangladeshi state. It is predictable in a Muslim-majority country that some of the militant groups protesting this official corruption are Islamic. These rebel groups are socially marginal. Their actions are reactive, episodic and unlikely to be the co-ordinated operations of a broad movement. Second, global factors have provoked some militants to engage in terrorist activities, some of which are anti-West, albeit rhetorically. Majority-Muslim Bangladeshis do not support such activities but do share the militants’ perception that the major Western countries are anti-Islam, as evident in their apparent indifference, sustained over decades, to Muslim sufferings across the globe, in which they have been directly or indirectly complicit. By highlighting Bangladeshi political developments in an historical context, this paper shows that Bangladeshi-Muslim nationalism has emerged as an alternative to Bengali nationalism-secularism. Both these movements have long roots in the history of the region, and could therefore become the basis of a stable, two-party political system. A necessary, if not sufficient, precondition for such a development is that the two major political parties (the Awami League and the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party) cooperate in establishing a stable, competitive political culture on the basis of this natural divide in Bangladeshi society. Such a development would represent an historic advance away from the current political paradigm of wasting public resources on ideology-driven, authoritarian policy-making under democratic paraphernalia.
The author is continuing graduation from Department Of Arabic at University of Dhaka.