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Islam in Bangladesh

Most Bangladeshi Muslims are influenced to some degree by Sufism, although this influence often involves only occasional consultation or celebration rather than formal affiliation. In the early years of the 19th Century, the Bengali Musalmans were simply a recognised caste, less widely separated from the lower orders of the Hindus than the latter were from the Kulin Brahmans. There were certain essential points of difference, of a doctrinal sort, between the Hindu and Muhammadan villager, but they had a great many rural customs and even religious rites in common. The Muhammadan husbandman theoretically recognised the one Semitic God; but in a country subject to floods, famines, the devastations of banditti, and the ravages of wild beasts, he would have deemed it a simple policy to have neglected the Hindu festivals in honor of Krishna and Durga.

By the early 19th Century the masses of the rural Musalmans had relapsed into something little better than circumcised low-caste Hindus. Around the middle of the 19th Century, one of those religious awakenings so characteristic of India passed over the Muhammadans of Bengal. Itinerant preachers, generally from the north, wandered from district to district, calling on the people to return to the true faith, and denouncing God's wrath on the indifferent and unrepentant. A great body of the Bengali Musalmans purged themselves of the taint of Hinduism, and shook off the yoke of ancient rural rites.

The revival had a threefold effect religious, social, and political It stimulated the religious instinct among an impressionable people, and produced an earnest desire to cleanse the worship of God and His prophet from idolatry. This stern rejection of ancient superstitions widened the gulf between the Muhammadans and the Hindus. The Bengali peasantry no longer looked to their gods, but to the officer in charge of the district, for protection; and when he failed them, instead of offering expiatory sacrifices to Kali, they petitioned Government, or wrote violent letters to the vernacular press.

The second effect of the Musalman revival in Bengal was the social isolation from the surrounding Hindus. The reformed Muhammadan husbandmen stood aloof from the village rites of the Hindus. They ceased to be merely a separate caste in the rural organisation, and became a distinct community, keeping, as much apart from their nominal co-religionists of the old unreformed faith as from the idolatrous Hindus.

Its third result is political, and affected the British. A Muhammadan like a Christian revival strongly reasserts the duty of self abnegation, and placed a multitude of devoted instruments at the disposal of any man who can convince them that his schemes are identical with the will of God. While a return to the primitive teachings of Christ meant a return to a religion of humanity and love, a return to Muhammadan first principles meant a return to a religion of intolerance and aggression.

The very essence of Musalman Puritanism is abhorrence of the InfideL The whole conception of Islam was that of a church either actively militant or conclusively triumphant forcibly converting the world, or ruling with a rod of iron the stiff-necked unbeliever. The actual state of India, where it was the Musalmans who were in subjection, and the unbeliever who governed them, was manifestly not in accord with the primitive ideal, and many devout Muhammadans of the reformed faith began, by plots and frontier attacks, to remove this anomaly.

The majority were not actively hostile, but they stood aloof from British institutions, and refused to coalesce with the system which the British Government had imposed on Bengal. Their rebel camp beyond the frontier had forced the Britishinto three expeditions, which has broken their military power; and the calm, inexorable action of the courts stamped out the chronic abetment of rebellion by Muhammadans within Bengal.

Nonorthodox interpretations of Islamic beliefs and practices still pervade popular religion in Bangladesh. Hindu influences can be seen in the practice of illuminating the house for the celebration of Shabi Barat (Festival of the Bestowal of Fate), a custom derived from the Hindu practices at Diwali (Festival of Lights). Rituals to exorcise evil spirits (jinni) from possessed persons also incorporated Hindu influence. Often, villagers would fail to distinguish between Hindu and Muslim shrines. For example, shrines called satyapir, which dot rural Bangladesh, are devoted to a Hindu-Muslim synthesis known as Olabibi, the deity for the cure of cholera. This synthesis is an intriguing superimposition of the Hindu concept of divine consort on the stern monotheistic perception of Allah.

Ever since Sufism became a popular movement, pious men of outstanding personality reputed to have gifts of miraculous powers have found disciples (murids) flocking to them. The disciple can be a kind of lay associate earning his living in secular occupations, consulting the pir or murshid at times, participating in religious ceremonies, and making contributions to the support of the murshid. In addition, he may be initiated into a brotherhood that pledges its devotion to the murshid, lives in close association with him, and engages in pious exercises intended to bring about mystical enlightenment.

The Qadiri, Naqshbandi, and Chishti orders were among the most widespread Sufi orders in Bangladesh in the late 1980s. The beliefs and practices of the first two are quite close to those of orthodox Islam; the third, founded in Ajmer, India, is peculiar to the subcontinent and has a number of unorthodox practices, such as the use of music in its liturgy. Its ranks have included many musicians and poets.

Pirs do not attain their office through consensus and do not normally function as community representatives. The villager may expect a pir to advise him and offer inspiration but would not expect him to lead communal prayers or deliver the weekly sermon at the local mosque. Some pirs, however, are known to have taken an active interest in politics either by running for public office or by supporting other candidates. For example, Pir Hafizi Huzur ran as a candidate for president in the 1986 election. The pirs of Atroshi and Sarsina apparently also exerted some political influence. Their visitors have included presidents and cabinet ministers.

A number of Islamic practices are particular to South Asia, and several of them have been subject to reforms over the years. For example, the anniversary of the death of a pir is observed annually. Popular belief holds that this anniversary is an especially propitious time for seeking the intercession of the pir. Large numbers of the faithful attend anniversary ceremonies, which are festive occasions enjoyed by the followers of the pir as well as orthodox Muslims. The ceremonies are quite similar in form and content to many Hindu festivals. Several nineteenth- and twentieth-century fundamentalist reform movements, aimed at ridding Islam of all extraneous encroachments, railed against these and similar practices. Nevertheless, the practice of pir worship continued unabated.

Although a formal organization of ordained priests has no basis in Islam, a variety of functionaries perform many of the duties conventionally associated with a clergy and serve, in effect, as priests. One group, known collectively as the ulama, has traditionally provided the orthodox leadership of the community. The ulama unofficially interpret and administer religious law. Their authority rests on their knowledge of sharia, the corpus of Islamic jurisprudence that grew up in the centuries following the Prophet's death.

The members of the ulama include maulvis, imams, and mullahs. The first two titles are accorded to those who have received special training in Islamic theology and law. A maulvi has pursued higher studies in a madrasa, a school of religious education attached to a mosque. Additional study on the graduate level leads to the title maulana.

Villagers call on the mullah for prayers, advice on points of religious practice, and performance of marriage and funeral ceremonies. More often they come to him for a variety of services far from the purview of orthodox Islam. The mullah may be a source for amulets, talismans, and charms for the remedying of everything from snakebite to sexual impotence. These objects are also purported to provide protection from evil spirits and bring good fortune. Many villagers have implicit faith in such cures for disease and appear to benefit from them. Some mullahs derive a significant portion of their income from sales of such items. Most Muslim marriages are presided over by the qazi, a traditional Muslim judge whose advice is also sought on matters of personal law, such as inheritance, divorce, and the administration of religious endowments (waqfs).

The ulama of Bangladesh perceive their function as that of teaching and preserving the Islamic way of life in the face of outside challenges, especially from modern sociopolitical ideas based on Christianity or communism. Any effort at modernization was perceived as a threat to core religious values and institutions; therefore, the ulama as a class was opposed to any compromise in matters of sharia. Many members of the ulama favored the establishment of an Islamic theocracy in Bangladesh and were deeply involved in political activism through several political parties. Most members of the ulama were also engaged in carrying on the tabliqh (preaching movement), an effort that focuses on the true sociopolitical ideals of Islam and unequivocally discards all un-Islamic accretions. Tabliqh attracted many college and university graduates, who found the movement emotionally fulfilling and a practical way to deal with Bangladesh's endemic sociopolitical malaise.

The government operated training academies for imams (Islamic clergy) and proclaimed Islamic festival days but generally did not dictate sermon content or select or pay clergy. However, the government had the authority to appoint or remove imams and exercised a degree of indirect influence over sermon content in government mosques, including the national mosque, Baitul Mukarram.

Sharia (Islamic law) played an influential role in civil matters pertaining to the Muslim community; however, there is no formal implementation of Sharia, and it is not imposed on non-Muslims. For instance, alternative dispute resolution was available to individuals for settling family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, arbitrators relied on principles found in Sharia for settling disputes. In addition, Muslim family law was loosely based on Sharia.

In 2001 the High Court ruled all legal rulings based on Sharia, known as fatwas, to be illegal. After a lengthy judicial review, the Appellate Division of the High Court upheld the ban as part of a broader ruling against all forms of extrajudicial punishment.

Although Islamic tradition dictates that only muftis (religious scholars) who have expertise in Islamic law are authorized to declare a fatwa, village religious leaders at times made declarations in individual cases. Sometimes this resulted in extrajudicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions. Human rights groups and press reports indicated that vigilantism against women accused of moral transgressions occurred in rural areas, often under a fatwa, and included punishments such as whipping.

While there are no laws specifically against blasphemy, religious political parties have pledged to enact such laws should they gain power. The government has not publicly commented on enacting blasphemy laws, but it briefly blocked access to the popular social networking site, Facebook, in 2010 due in part to a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Access was restored within one week, but the government continued to block pages of Facebook it deemed offensive.

The government monitored the content of religious education in madrassahs, and announced its intention to make changes to the curriculum to standardize education, including modernizing and mainstreaming the content of religious education. However, there were two types of madrassahs in the country: Qaumi and Alia. Qaumi madrassahs operated outside of the government's purview. Therefore, Alia madrassahs received support and curriculum oversight from the government whereas Qaumi madrassahs did not.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that there were tens of thousands of madrassahs in the country. A research organization put the number at nearly 33,000, and some journalists estimate that the number was far higher. However, a World Bank study estimated that only 2 percent of students in primary and secondary school attended madrassahs not regulated by the government. According to the same study, another 13 percent of elementary school students and 18 percent of secondary school students attended Alia Madrassahs, which taught a government-approved curriculum. The rest of the students either attended secular government schools or NGO-run schools or did not go to school.

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Page last modified: 27-12-2015 18:47:48 ZULU