Historical Role of Religion in Society and Politics of Bangladesh


May 23, 2013

By Professor M Harunur Rashid

It was as early as the 7th century that Islam as a religion made its way into the life of the people of East Bengal. The Prophet’s (pbuh) maternal uncle Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas paid his third visit to China as the head of an embassy sent by the third Caliph Uthman (RA) in 651, less than 20 years after the passing away of the Prophet (pbuh). Earlier visits of Sahabas (Companion of Prophet) as early as 616 are traditionally believed to have been undertaken at the behest of the Prophet(pbuh) himself to take the message of Islam to Tang China. On their way back they are believed to have used the Yunan-Manipur-Chittagong route, and then reached Arabia by sea.

So, there is nothing surprising that Islam should be so close to the heart of the Chittagonians who had the rare opportunity to receive the Baro Auliah (12 saints) whose shrines are major places of visits by the believers in Chittagong and devotees from other parts of Bangladesh. Another bastion of Islam is Sylhet where Hazrat Shah Jalal came from Konya (?) with his companions and preached Islam as a Sufi mystic. The famous traveller Ibne Batuta (14th century) refers to his ascetic life-style and describes his physical features. So there should be nothing strange about the people of East Bengal being emotional about their religion and particularly sensitive about their love for the Prophet (pbuh) of Islam.

Needless to say, it was not the sword of Bakhtiar Khilji in 1203 that saw the conversion of the Hindus into Islam. The people were charmed by the Sufi ways that imbibed in them love and peace that conquered the hearts of the non-believers. Now when Islam and its Prophet (pbuh) seem to be under slanderous attack by some youths spreading calumny on the internet, it is not surprising that the Ulema and Mashaek (religious scholars and sufis) should vow to undertake a long march to Dhaka to protest this dastardly abuse of their faith in the name of secularism. These people do not belong to the Jamaat-Shibir who has a political agenda. They are the ordinary believers with their hearts full of the love their Prophet (pbuh).

These ordinary believers have made immense sacrifices over the last few centuries. There are harrowing descriptions of their suffering in William Hunter’s The Indian Musalamans (Hunter wrote in fact about the plight of the Bengal Msulims, though the Book was named Indian Mussalmans) published in 1871. The revolt of Titumir in the early 19th century against the Hindu Zemindars, the Indigo planters and the British colonialists is not remembered in Bangladesh as a glorious event to get free from the tyranny of the British and their accomplices. This greatest of freedom fighter of Bangladesh is only marginally referred to in books of history and the media.

Then after the Permanent Settlement of 1793, the Muslims of Bengal became so marginalised by Hindu Zemindars and their intermediaries that they had to be content with a hand-to-mouth existence. This was the time when the bhadralok(Gentlemen) of different professions in Kolkata remained loyal to the British rule. “ … almost everybody- Rammohan Roy, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, and Rabindranath Tagore, in this group remained convinced that British rule was a blessing for the country and as such their loyalty to Pax Britannica was never in question” (Islam, M. M, 2012).

Incidentally, Titumir’s martyrdom received a single column obituary reference in Kolkata papers. With Jute providing the Muslim peasants a little cash to invest in the education of their children, the early 20th century saw the emergence of the educated Muslim youth. With the Hindus starting a terrorist movement against the British, the British Raj took a liberal view of the Muslims and tried to help them come forward in professional fields. For the colonial power, it may have been a divide and rule policy, but it did a world of good to the retarded Muslims of East Bengal – the partition of Bengal in 1905, the establishment of the Dhaka University, the Debt Arbitration Board – all of these went to give the Muslims of East Bengal a welcome relief.

In this backdrop when the two-nation theory was put forward by Mohammad Ali Jinnah aka Quide-e-Azam, the Muslims of East Bengal found in it a great opportunity for their economic emancipation. They accepted it wholeheartedly. The Sylhet referendum is proof enough that the Muslims were all for the creation of a separate homeland of their own.  But these Muslims who so enthusiastically hailed the creation of Pakistan were pious not fanatical. So when the rulers in West Pakistan wanted to create an integrated culture by changing the alphabet and propagating the Islam mantra, they refused to accept their formula of cultural integration.

Islam was invoked to create sympathy for justifying the genocide, but the ordinary believers in Islam did not accept their propaganda. The demolished Shaheed Minar was turned into a mosque, but no one went there to say their prayers. Only a few renegades supported the West Pakistani plan to perpetrate their exploitation and even addressed the UN General Assembly to save Pakistan. The ordinary believers with their love for Islam and the Prophet of Islam never allowed themselves to be led by the nose in the name of religion. There would not have been any Bangladesh if these ordinary believers really believed that the Liberation War was a threat to Islam.

However, in independent Bangladesh, the Islam card has been used in different times by different rulers. But the ordinary believers have simply watched in silence. They understand who is sincere and who is not. The Jamaat, despite their professed manifesto to introduce Qura’nic laws, did not fare well in the national elections. Sheikh Hasina had to wear Hejab in 1996 sacrificing her much professed ‘Dharma Niropexata’(neutrality on religion).

These ordinary believers are no fools. They know how to patiently wait. They have waited long. And now that they have taken to the streets, any attempt to foil their march will act as a boomerang. Piety has a peaceful core and is enduring. Fanaticism cannot prosper for it thrives on sensationalism and is therefore short-lived. And anyone trading off the welfare and resources of these peace loving population for gaining political mileage will have to the rue the day.

Feature Image from Daily Mail