Folk Islam is alive and well in Bangladesh judging by politicians pre-election activities

Published on Thursday, December 25, 2008


Folk Islam is alive and well in Bangladesh judging by politicians' pre-election activities

A.H. Jaffor Ullah

After 23 months of emergency rule, Bangladesh 's voters will head to thousands of polling places on December 29, 2008 to elect the members of the parliament.  The politics is brought to life anew.  Therefore, it is a high time to analyze the social mores of this nation and to show how Bangladeshi politicians are in the race to prove who is a better Muslim.

I lived the first one-third of my life in a country that has changed its name first from East Bengal to East Pakistan in 1956 and then from East Pakistan to Bangladesh in 1971.  But one thing that did not change much is the religion for the majority of the people of this land comprising of about 56,000 square miles.  Religion has been used or abused in this impoverished land depending upon how one analyzes political sea change, which this tiny nation has experienced in the last six decades after becoming independent in August 1947.   

When I left my ancestral homeland in 1969, the main religion was a version of Islam that could be characterized as folk Islam.  However, this undefined variety of Islam took some severe thrashing from another imported version of Islam, which is known as Wahabi Islam.  For a while I thought that the folk Islam is on the way out to make a room for the stricter Wahabi Islam.  But how wrong I was!  Read on and you will figure out facilely what my thesis is about the deep-rooted 'Folk Islam' in Bangladesh .

The news that gave me a jolt had its origin from Dhaka in the second week of December 2008.  Bangladesh is going through a rapid change lately.  The military-led caretaker government that promulgated the Emergency Rule since January 11, 2007 is making all the preparation to handover the governance immediately after the parliamentary election that is slated for late December this year.  The emergency rule will make its way to allow for the electioneering and all indications are that two dominant parties will fight it out while maintaining civility, the rule of law, and a semblance of normality all throughout Bangladesh .


Sheikh Hasina, the leader of Awami League started the campaign first visiting Sylhet town, which is home to one of the renowned saints of Bengal , Hazrat Shah Jalal.  Ms. Hasina paid her respect to the great Sufi saint by offering her prayer at the mosque located in the Dargah compound. A visit to the Dargah is not considered a complete one unless a short offering of prayer is performed in the name of the saint standing closer to the grave.  This is a custom allover Bangladesh .  Ms. Hasina then visited the Dargah of two lesser-known saints to complete her journey to Sylhet.

Begum Khaleda Zia, the last PM and the leader of BNP is no less religious than her nemesis.  She also visited the Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Jalal's Dargah immediately after Hasina's visit to the Sufi shrine to start the political campaign.  To visit the Sufi shrine in Sylhet must have its allure.  The success rate will be 50% to say the least!  One of the two Begums will come out victorious in this election.


On the surface, the news of the two Begums visiting Hazrat Shah Jalal's shrine before embarking on a marathon political race tells the huddled masses that both of them are religious and they really wanted the blessings of the departed saint so that they could come out victorious in the forthcoming election.

There is however another explanation for the visit to Sufi shrine by these two Begums. One must comes to term with the fact that Bangladesh has progressively become a religious nation in the last three decades.  Therefore, a visit to the Sufi shrine should be taken as a symbol of religiosity.  Even though the secular segment of the society always say that religion should never be used to sway the emotions of electorates, in reality the religion card plays very well in this nation of about 150 million impoverished people.  Nonetheless, I looked at the news from another perspective.  Is our indigenous Sufi Islam still in vogue?  The news of both Hasina and Khaleda visiting the most prominent Sufi shrine tells me that this folksy brand of Islam -- no matter how incongruous it is in terms of Wahabi Doctrine -- is very much alive and well in Bangladesh .

Most scholars of South Asia now agree that sometime in the 12th century Islam was introduced to Bengal by Sufi missionaries.  These proselytizers probably came from Iraq or Iran via Afghanistan first to northwestern part of India and from there they came to Bengal traversing land. Many Bangladeshis wrongly think that Arabs came to this country via sea.  This is far from being truth. 

In 1950s the Islam I saw in former East Bengal was decidedly a Sufi one.  On Thursday night the Sufis would get together to meditate to the rhythm of folk music.  In this gathering they often participated in what may be termed as "Jigir" or "Djikir." Sufi fakirs and devotees would also visit Sufi shrines, which are popularly called Mazars, allover Bengal on Thursday night to pay homage to departed Aolia, Pir, or Dervish. Persian bayat or poetry used to be recited in those gatherings.  This tradition continued well into 1960s but then came the onslaught of Deobandi Movement in erstwhile East Pakistan .  The epicenter of this new movement was Ramna Kakrail Mosque.  The Deobandi missionaries came from Uttar Pradesh , India to purify Islam from Sufi influenced "Folk Islam."  It now turns out that the Madrassah in Deoband, UP, had received their funding from Saudi Arabia .  Awash with money, the Mullahs from Deoband came to Dhaka to establish their headquarters in Kakrail Mosque.  In early 1950s the Kakrail Mosque was a ramshackle place of worship but within the next 10 years the mosque changed its demeanor. 

In the winter months scores of folks from rural areas would flock to the Kakrail Mosque to participate in 'Tafsir.'  This new movement was formed to take the Muslims away from Sufi ideology, which is mishmash of Koran, Hadiths, and folk legends about Aolias, Pirs, Dervishes, to a monolithic brand of Islam dominated by Wahabi philosophy.  The Saudis gleefully funded the project and the Imams and Mullahs of Deoband became the foot soldier of this "re-inventing Islam" movement.  In mid-1960s the Kakrail Mosque would organize a marathon Tafsir session often lasting an entire week.  The number of participants grew by the year; soon the organizers of the movement shifted the venue to Tongi, an outskirt of Dhaka , ten-twelve miles to the north. The organizer, Tablig al-Jamaat, named the 5-day marathon preaching session as "Ijtema" or "Bishwa Ijtema."  During Ziaur Rahman's reign a government land located on the banks of Turag River became the venue site.  The number of participants to Ijtema was rising fast all throughout 1990s.  The newspapers in Dhaka estimate that about 2-3 million devotes attend the religious congregation.  Therefore, more devotees attend Ijtema than Hajj pilgrimage, which is attended by about 2 million Muslims from allover the world.

While Tablig al-Jamaat made the Ijtema a very successful event, numerous changes were noticed in the way the devotees wear skull cap, the women wear hijab or modesty vale, and how people greet or say good-bye to one another.  Gone are the boat-shaped skull caps of 1950s and 1960s.  This has been replaced by more ornate and embroidered round skull cap.  In 1950s we used to call them Baluchi cap.  The Bengali way of greetings have waned and in its place came the Arabic salutation.  The farewell greeting "Khoda Hafez" - a Persian tradition was replaced by "Allah Hafez."  Perhaps people living inside Bangladesh do not realize that social custom had gradually changed but an expatriate Bangalee like me is sure to notice the subtle change taking place in the realm of linguistics and social mores.

Under these backdrops, the two Begums and their alliances are locked in a vicious political fight.  We will know the results of the parliamentary election on December 30, 2008 provided everything goes all right. From the action taken by both the leaders to visit the most revered Sufi shrine in Sylhet before jumping into the political fray it is abundantly clear that notwithstanding Deobandi schools tireless campaign for over six decades, Bangladesh is still a land of Sufi Islam .  Action speaks louder than words.  Both Hasina and Khaleda know that a visit to Hazrat Shah Jalal's Dargah Sharif will produce a political dividend, which they could not afford to lose.  


Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans , USA

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