I am posting an article I wrote for friends in the late 1980s which later formed part of a presentation I made at the Jagonari Centre in East London in 1994 entitled 'An Analysis of the Bengali Muslim Predicament'
THE IDEA OF ISLAM AS A SYNCRETIC RELIGION IN BENGAL:
OPPOSING PERSPECTIVES AND INCONSISTENT MORAL JUDGEMENTS
It is often asserted that in Bengal Islam developed as a syncretic religion, a mixture of local Hindu and Buddhist traditions, on the one hand, and liberal Sufi Islamic practices, on the other. One implication, based on historical developments, is that those Muslims who try to eradicate or reduce the so-called un-Islamic practices of Bengali Muslims are said to be misguided. They also do not have any love for the traditions and cultures of Bengal and how the Bengali people developed a syncretic Islamic religion rooted in the local soil.
It is a fact that many Muslims and non-Muslims consider the level of Islam among Bengali Muslims to be below the so-called 'true Islam'. Sometimes, especially in the past, it was said that Bengali Muslims were half Hindus and half Muslims. I have heard this from Pakistanis, Indian Hindus, western commentators, Bengalis Muslims, and others. It is also true that different individuals and groups of people, who say that Islam in Bengal is Syncretic and kind of non-pure in relation to what is preached as pure Islam, are motivated by different considerations and derive different implications. For instance, recently, a Pakistani Muslim, during a discussion which I was having with him at the Regent's Park Mosque, angrily claimed that Bengalis were not proper Muslims and that they were really half Hindus, when I asserted that General Yahya Khan, the last dictatorial ruler of united Pakistan, was a killer and murderer.
Another time, during a conversation with a Gujarati restaurant owner, who was a Hindu, told me that Bengali Muslims were more like Hindus and very different from Pakistanis. He claimed to know this from his visits to many Bengali Muslim weddings. Given the context of our discussion in Upton Park in London in the mid-1980s, I thought he was trying to create or contribute towards creating a gulf between Bengali Muslims and Pakistani Muslims.
An interesting example in this debate is that of Maulana Karamat Ali, who was very active in Bengal during the mid and latter part of the 19th Century. He claimed that his reason for settling in Bengal was because he had found that the Muslims of that region had been steeped in "superstitions" and "un- Islamic" practices, and that he apprehended that unless they were shown the correct path divine perdition would befall them. (History of the Muslims of Bengal, Vol IIB, page 607, M Mohar Ali).
During the Pakistan rule, many attempts were made to eradicate the so-called un- Islamic practices of the Bengali Muslims, including the attempt to change the Bengali script. The authorities panicked and did not know what to do with the so- called un-Islamic practices of the Bengali Muslims, and came up with many strange and bizarre ideas to improve the level of Islam. It seems that many people were obsessed with the need to purify Islam in Bengal, including General Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who tried to introduce the Roman script for both Urdu and Bengali languages. He thought, by this, he could create a united Pakistan, based on a common Muslim culture. In truth, their obsession only produced the opposite effects, generating reactions and discrediting Muslims and Islam in the long run.
In contrast, some other people with better understanding and knowledge of the human situation around the world, came to different conclusions regarding the quality of Islam in Bengal, or were able to judge better the validity of various claims.
For instance, Professor Mohar Ali points out that, where Maulana Karamat Ali originated from, Jaunpur in Northern India, was no less superstitious and un- Islamic, in relation to what Maulana Karamat Ali’s stated mission in Bengal . If he wanted, he could have equally absorbed his reforming zeal in Jaunpur, rather than travel to Bengal. According to Mohal Ali, the real reason why the Maulana came to settle in Bengal was to challenge the Faraidi and Jehadi leaders actively operating in the land.
A prominent Pakistani Muslim, Dr Kaukab Siddiqui, who visited Bangladesh in 1986 wrote about his experience. He said that ‘by the time I left I had fallen in love with the country... The people of Bangladesh are strong in their Islamic faith... Dhaka is a city of mosques. Almost every city block has a mosque of its own, and the mosques are full of worshippers. I prayed at a number of such mosques and saw the Islamic fervour of the people’. He also wrote that this was very different from mosques in Lahore which were less full. (Sundar Bengal: The Stench and the Fragrance, by Dr Kaukab Siddiqui). Dr Kaukab Siddiqui did not see Bengali Muslims lacking in any special way in their practice of Islam. I wonder why so many different people see so many different opposing things with respect to Bangladesh and Islam in the country.
In Bangladesh today, the dominant position consists of two contradictory views. On the one hand, it is strongly objected that many Pakistanis and other Muslims, including Bengali Muslims, considered Bengali Muslims to be only half Muslims and therefore needed assistance from outside to improve their Islamic practices. This view caused huge resentments in Bangladesh and many Bengali Muslims often assert that ‘we are as good as them, if not better, and that we do not need others to tell us how to improve our Islam’. On the other hand, it is also asserted that in Bengal, Islam is not orthodox, but syncretic, a mixture of tolerant liberal sufi tradition and the age-old practices of local Bengali culture. It is claimed that those who, whether Bengalis or non-Bengalis, try to attack this aspect of Bengali Islam are fanatics, communal, fundamentalists and traitors. Recently, there was a television programme on Nazrul Islam, the rebel poet of Bengal. During the course of the programme, they showed a folk festival at the shrine of a pir (saint), which consisted of mixed Islamic and local practices. The narrator commented that the Islamic establishment usually frowns on this typical of Bengali expression of syncretic Islam on the ground that it was un-Islamic. There was a definite tone of disapproval of the so-called Islamic establishment's position in the voice of the narrator.
The question I would like to ask is this: If the Islamic practices of the Muslims in Bengal fall short of the ideal is it wrong to try to improve the quality of Islam in Bengal? If the answer is yes, then does this also apply to the democratic syncretic tradition of Bengal, the liberal syncretic tradition of Bengal and so on? I have asked this question, because the history of democracy in Bangladesh is one of vote- rigging, election violence, buying voters, disrupting election meetings, etc. Therefore, it can be concluded that in Bangladesh democracy is syncretic, and therefore, any attempt to introduce real democracy or improve the democratic practices of the people would be an act of trying to attack and destroy the age old democratic syncretic tradition of the people. As people would be alarmed at this suggestion and immediately feel that it is quite legitimate to destroy people's tradition, such as vote rigging, if they do not conform to democratic principles, then why is it wrong for Islam to try to improve the Islamic practices of believing Muslims in Bengal?
I HAVE ASKED THESE QUESTIONS IN ORDER FOR PEOPLE TO EXPLORE ISSUES WE FACE TODAY, CONSIDER MORAL DILEMMAS IN THEM AND TRY TO MAKE CONSISTENT MORAL JUDGEMENTS WITHOUT APPLYING DOUBLE STANDARDS.
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