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Understanding the Bengal Muslims--Interpretative Essays
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand


Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi

Year: 2001

Pages: 271

Price: Rs.595

ISBN: 019565520-6


The Muslims of Bengal, including the present-day state of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, form the single largest Muslim ethnic group in the world after the Arabs. This book, a collection of ten essays, seeks to provide a broad overview of the Bengali Muslim identity. Although each of the essays deals with a particular aspect of Islam in Bengal, they all seek to grapple with what, for many Bengali Muslims, has seemed an almost insoluble dilemma -- whether they are Bengalis first or Muslims, and how their ethnic loyalties can be reconciled with the demands of a faith that transcends national boundaries. Little is known about how the Bengal countryside, particularly the eastern part of the province, located far from the centers of Muslim political rule, emerged as the home to the largest number of Muslims in the South Asian sub-continent. Richard Eaton, in his brilliantly researched essay, explores the fascinating process of the Islamization of the people of eastern Bengal, a process that he believes began in the sixteenth century. He writes that conversion to Islam was actually discouraged by the Mughal governors of the province, but, despite this opposition, large masses of Bengalis turned Muslim. Relying on hagiographies of local Sufi saints and Mughal land records, he argues that the process of Islamization in Bengal must be seen as, above all, a result of the agrarian policy of the Mughals. Mughal governors, eager to augment their revenues from the land, provided rent-free land grants to both Hindus as well as Muslims to cut down the dense forests in the eastern parts of the province and bring them under settled cultivation. The Muslim pioneers in this region employed local, largely aboriginal tribal people, as cultivators on the new lands. After their deaths they began being revered as saints, being attributed with supernatural powers. Gradually, these aboriginal people were Islamized, a process that did not reject previously-held beliefs directly, but accommodated Islamic elements within pre-existing cosmologies. Hence, conversion to Islam in eastern Bengal, as indeed in many other parts of India, took the form of an extended process of cultural change over several generations, rather than a sudden and complete change in identity, beliefs and allegiances. Because of the nature of the process of Islamization in Bengal, the Bengali Muslims continue to share much in terms of world-views, beliefs and practices with non-Muslim Bengalis, a phenomenon which Ralph Nichols observes in his paper on Islam and Vaishnavism in rural Bengal. While many ulema and Muslim reformers see this shared tradition as a sign of incomplete conversion or as ‘unlawful innovation’ (bid‘at), Nichols seems to suggest that it was actually through developing this shared tradition that Islam was able to make headway in Bengal in the first instance, successfully expressing itself in terms which the Bengali peasants would find understandable. Peter Bertocci examines, in his contribution, the way in which rural Bengali Muslims understand their faith in precisely these local terms, drawing close parallels between institutions and identities that both Bengali Muslims and Hindus construct their own social worlds.

The local Bengali expression of Islam (a term I deliberately use in place of the more commonly used expression Bengali Islam) is not a static, unchanging phenomenon, however. From the eighteen century onwards, reformers and radicals have been active in Bengal, seeking to purge the Bengali form of Islam of what are seen as ‘un-Islamic accretions’, seeking to bring it in line with a sharī‘ah-centric scripturalist understanding of Islam. Muhammad Shah’s paper looks at this process of reform in the context of the Khilāfat movement in the early years of the twentieth century, arguing that one of the principal aims of the Bengali activists in the movement to protect the Ottoman Khilāfat was to reform the Bengali Muslim tradition, bringing it closer to a sharī‘ah-centred understanding of Islam as defined by the reformist ulema. Yet, the Khilāfatists were not alone in seeking to redefine the ways in which the Bengali Muslims understood their faith at this time. Sonia Amin, in her paper on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein, the pioneer of Bengali Muslim women’s education, and Shahadat Khan, in his article on the reformist and anti-colonial activist Kazi Abdul Wadud, show how a different agenda for the Bengali Muslims was also being articulated at this time, centred on issues of modern education, women’s rights and inter-communal harmony. Despite the efforts of reformists, whether ulema or modern, western-educated Muslims, the Bengali Muslims have been unable, the book suggests, to comfortably reconcile their twin identities: as Bengalis, on the one hand, and as Muslims on the other. Joseph O’Connell discusses the ways in which Bengali Muslim self-identity has undergone radical shifts in the course of the previous century. Pitted against the Hindu ‘upper’ caste bhadralok, Bengali Muslims enthusiastically supported the cause for the separate Muslim state of Pakistan, stressing their religious identity over their ethnic identity. Yet, not long after the creation of Pakistan, a strong movement based on a sense of a separate Bengali identity, pitted against what was seen as the oppressive West Pakistani ‘Other’, emerged, galvanizing itself as a mass movement that ultimately succeeded in creating the basis of the new state of Bangladesh. O’Connell contends that torn apart as the Bangladeshis are between their Islamic and Bengali identities, a new understanding of national identity must be articulated, one based on humanism, not shunning religion altogether, but drawing inspiration from humanist strands in the various different religions that are practiced in the country. This calls for a redefinition of what it means to be a Bangladeshi Muslim today, seeking to express Islam in a manner that takes into account modern sensibilities on issues related to pluralism, democracy, human rights, and the rights of women and religious minorities. This is a point also made by Shelly Feldman in her paper on gender and Islam. The process may not be smooth, however. As Enayatur Rahim shows in his brilliantly argued piece on the Jamā‘at-i-Islāmī in Bangladesh, hostility to ethnic aspirations and local identities, and an unwillingness to reflect and redefine perspectives in the face of new situations on the part of influential Islamist groups in the country do not help make matters simpler for this task of developing new visions of religion. Overall, this book excels as an overview of the social history of the Bengal Muslims. The scant attention paid to the Muslims of West Bengal and the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam and Tripura, and the silence on the Tablīghī Jamā‘at, easily the single largest Islamic movement in Bangladesh and on the contemporary Bengali ulama are, however, unfortunate. But, perhaps, that can be left for another book.


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