Islam in Bangladesh

Dr. Sheikh Rustam Ali



From 1947 to 1971 Bangladesh was East Pakistan and is in the eastern half of the cultural, linguistic, and to a great extent, the chief economic region of Bengal; the western half is the Indian state of West Bengal. The people of Bangladesh are 87 percent Muslims, the remaining populations of 13 percent are predominantly Hindus although there are some Christians and Buddhists. Quite naturally, the Banaladeshis share various cultural and socio-economic characteristics with their West Bengali neighbors. Yet, the Muslims of Bangladesh have distinctive social patterns associated with almost all facets of their daily life. It is appropriate, therefore, to narrate briefly the early Muslim contact with Bengal before we discuss the influence of Islam in Bangladesh. Bengal was one of the latest lands to come into political contact with Islam. It was also one of the earliest to fall victim of European colonial expansion in the mid-eighteenth century.

Between these two events there elapsed a period of more than five hundred years, during which the land turned out to be the habitat of the second largest Muslim population (over one hundred million) in the world. Indonesia remains the largest Muslim nation. And ever since the arrival of the Muslims the course of the sociopolitical and cultural developments of this area has been deeply influenced by Islam.

The Muslim conquest of Bengal took place in the opening years of the thirteenth century, mainly as a sequel to Muhammad Ghori's expedition late in the 6th hijrah century in northern India. Long before that, however, early Arab Muslims had established commercial as well as religious contact with Bengal, particularly in its coastal region. One immediate result of the establishment of Muslim power over the Indus delta, commanding the mouth of the Arabian Sea and the vast west Indian coast generally, was that it secured Arab navigation in the region.

In the course of time the Arabs extended these activities along the entire coast of South Asia including the coasts of Bengal. Islam entered Bengal through three channels--the Arab traders, the Turkish conquest and the missionary activities of the Muslim Sufis. The writings of Arab geographers reveal that Arab traders had frequented the Bengal coast long before the Turkish conquest. The location bordering Bengal that finds prominence in the Arab accounts is Samandar, identified with a place in the mouth of the Meghna river near Sandip islands on the Bay of Bengal. The Arab writers also knew about Samrup and the kingdom of Ruhmi, the latter being identified with the kingdom of Dharmapal of the Pal dynasty. It is not certain whether the Arab contacts led to any Muslim settlement in Bengal; some coins of the Caliphs have been discovered from ancient sites of Paharpur in Rajshahi and Mainamati near Comilla. On the basis of the word Thuratana in the Arakanese tradition, some scholars have concluded that the Arabs founded a Muslim Kingdom in Chittagong.

The facial resemblance's of the people of Chittagong, the mixture of Arabic words in the Chittagonian dialect, and place names in and around the port city have been put forward to prove the Arab settlement in Chittagong. Turkish inroads toward the East started earlier, but it was at the beginning of the 13th century that Bengal came under Turkish sway. The dashing push of Muhammad Bakhtyar Khalji toward Nadiya met with brilliant success--he made Lakhnauti in northwest Bengal the seat of his government. The Muslims took more than 200 years to bring the whole of Bengal under their control. Satgaon was conquered during the reign of Sultan Ruknuddin Kaikaus (1291-1300), in whose time the conquest of East Bengal was also begun. During the next reign, that of Sultan Shamsuddin Firuz Shah (1300-1322), the territory right up to Sylhet was conquered, enabling the Tughlaqs to divide Bengal into three governorhsips--Lakhnauti, Satgoan, and Sunargaon. Slowly the whole territory of what is now known as Bangladesh fell under Muslim rule.

It is impossible to say who was the first Muslim saint to come to Bengal. If traditions that persist in different parts of Bangladesh are to be believed, a large number of saints came to Bengal long before the Turkish conquest. From the beginning the saints paid attention to educating the people. They also influenced the rulers in molding their policies and interfered in the politics of the country whenever they thought that policies of the rulers were going against the spirit and interest of Islam. Muslim society in Bengal was founded upon three important supporting groups--the Muslim ruling class, Muslim scholars, and the saints, Sufis and Pirs. The popular form of Islam in Bangladesh includes pirism and mullaism. Etymologically, the word "pir" means old. But it is generally used to denote the teachers who give spiritual guidance. Reverence to the pirs is not of Bangladesh oriqin--it was imported from Iran through northern India.

Local tradition is noticeable in the growth of mullaism or priestly influence. Mullahs are held in more reverence in the rural areas. The miracles and the piety of the Muslim saints and pirs played upon the people's imagination and led them ultimately to accept Islam. Other factors contributing to the historical conversion was the deteriorating condition of the existing society of Bengal. On the eve of the Muslim conquest, Bengal was inhabited by Buddhist and Hindus. Jainism--which was once a flourishing religion--had already declined. The manifold social restrictions imposed by the Hindus relegated both the Buddhists and the lower class Hindus to a position of contempt and untouchability.

When the latter two groups of people were treated in this manner, Islam came into Bengal. Muslim saints began to teach the Islamic principles of equality while the rulers took steps to build up Muslim culture on the basis of a casteless society. Many Buddhists and Hindus chose to identify themselves with the Muslims in order to be free from social injustice and to gain equality and good position in society. As a result of large-scale conversion, many local beliefs, not allowed by the Islamic dogma but useful in achieving compromise, found their ways into the Muslim society of Bengal.

The above discussion makes it clear that Muslim society in Bengal developed orthodox principles of Islam and at the same time accommodated certain popular traditions. Islam looked to mosques, madrasas, and khanqahs for its strength. These institutions became the pillars of society and all eyes were focused upon them for guidance. The 1872 census of Bengal--the first to be conducted in this area-- indicated that Bengal was inhabited by large number of Muslims. It showed that 48 percent of the total population in Bengal were Muslims, the majority of whom lived in East Bengal.

For the initial years in the emergence of Bangladesh, its relations with the rest of the Muslim world were less than cordial. Most of the Islamic world supported Pakistan during the 1971 struggle for independence of Bangladesh. The creation of Bangladesh was made possible through close cooperation with India and the Soviet Union. For the most part Bangladesh ignored--and was ignored by--the other Muslim nations. The "founding father" of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, proclaimed Bangladesh to be both secular and socialist, and adopted a radically socialist economic policy that included the nationalization of all industries, banks, and insurance companies. Because Pakistan retained the hope of eventually regaining East Pakistan, Islamabad might also have influenced Muslim nations to withhold their early recognition of Bangladesh.

In 1975 Mujib and most of his family members were killed in a coup engineered by some disgruntled army officers. Having eliminated Mujib, the young officers had little idea of how to proceed. For some time it appeared that the People's Republic of Bangladesh would be renamed the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh but a radio announcement suggesting such a move was rescinded. In 1977 Ziaur Rahman assumed the presidency; he received electoral sanction by winning 60 percent of the votes in the parliamentary elections of February 1979. Unlike Mujib's exclusive stress on secular, socialistic norms of government, Zia was very much aware that 87 percent of the population of Bangladesh were Muslim. When asked whether the Islamic revivalism in the world would affect Bangladesh, Zia replied: "We give religion due importance in our life. Our people are very religious... I do not think any Muslim country has such a large number of mosques."

The new constitution, however, was explicit about protecting the rights of the minorities, most of whom are Hindus. Secular law prevails in criminal and civil matters, except where religious law supercedes it, as in personal matters. In such matters, the religion of the individual concerned is consulted. For example, bigamy is forbidden in civil law, but this applies only to Christian men and to all women, since Muslim and Hindu men are permitted multiple wives according to their religious laws. Thus minority Hindus and Christians are not subject to Islamic laws as are Muslim Bangladeshis. This ingenious formulation protects minority rights while at the same time acknowledging the law of the Muslim majority. In general, the 1970s saw Bangladesh assert its Islamic identity, but on a muted level.

Although the Muslims of Bangladesh are deeply religious, they show no indication of wanting to impose Islamic law on non-Muslim minorities in the country. What is happening in Bangladesh is a mature redefinition of the nation as a Muslim country engaged in the perilous process of modernization and determined not to lose itself in that process. In 1988, President Hussain Muhammed Ershad amended the constitution to provide for recognition of Islam as the state religion of Bangladesh. This amendment bill--passed unanimously by the Jatiya Sangsad or national parliament--provided for declaring Islam to be the state religion but did not declare the country as a religious state. The official name of the country, "People's Republic of Bangladesh" remains unchanged.

Under almost continual popular demand, Ershad resigned in December 1990. His abuse of Islam for political purposes and failure to hold free and fair elections, underscored by the viability of Islam and Bengali nationalism as pursued by his popular predecessor-Zia--slowly but surely eroded Ershad's popularity and effectiveness as a ruler. In the 1990s whatever course Bangladesh politics takes, it can hardly be in the direction of secularism as understood in the West, that is, separation of religion and politics, Islam is likely to remain part and parcel of the socio-political life in Bangladesh.

 [The author was a professor of political science at North Carolina State University, Durham, North Carolina. He passed away several years ago. May Allah bless his soul.]