Islam in Bangladesh

Impact of Islam on Socio-Culture and Religious Life of Bangladeshis:

Islam, the great religious and social evolution in the history of man, acted as a mighty spiritual as well as democratic force in the world. With the simplicity of its faith, the principle of universal brotherhood of man in the social order and the high ideal of morality in the way of life, Islam produced revolutionary changes wherever it went. The spirit of the practical spiritual democracy of Islam wrought profound changes in the whole of the Sub-continent. Islam introduced new elements and forces in Bangladesh as well and these had momentous impact on the life of the people of this country. Indeed Islam effected a revolution in the religious and social life of Bangladesh and promoted the growth of healthy and prosperous cultural traditions of the people of this land.

Before the advent of Islam, the population of Bangladesh was composed mainly of the Hindus, Buddhists, the aboriginals and a few Jams. Although the aboriginals formed a considerable portion of the people, they however, did not count in the social life of the time. The Jams had also almost decayed. The Buddhists who were still numerous, marked a decline. With the loss of their political influence on the fall of the Pala Dynasty, the Buddhists fell into confusion and experienced an unfavourable atmosphere under the political and social domination of the Brahminical Hindus. In the Sena period, the Hindus were the dominating people in numerical majority, in political power, in social position and in economic affluence. But, the Hindus also had lost their vitality on account of the existence of the invidious caste system, the oppressive socio-religious leadership of the Brahmins, the degradation of the lower caste peoples and demoralisation of the social life, in a word, discord and confusion prevailed in the social, religious and cultural life of Bengal before the coming of the Muslim in this land.

Penetration of Islam into Bengal: Three channels

Islam entered into Bengal through different channels, added new elements in its population and had influence on the life of its people in various ways. Islam came with the Arab Traders, Sufi preachers and Muslim conquerors, and many of them settled down in different localities of this country. The missionary works of the Sufis and preachers and the acceptance of Islam by the Buddhists and Hindus, being attracted by its religious simplicity and social equality and justice, resulted in the growth of the Muslim people and development of the Muslim society in Bengal. The Muslim people of Bengal was thus composed of two principal elements, the Muslim settlers or the immigrant Muslims, and the new converts to Islam from other religious communities. The immigrant Muslims belonged mainly to the stock of the Arabs. Persians, Turks. Afghans and Mughals. The immigrant Muslims represented the religious social system of Islam. They also brought with them their racial characteristics, cultural traditions and distinctive talents, which contributed to the development and strength of the society in Bengal.

Of the Muslim settlers or immigrants, either as traders or as preachers in Bengal, the Arabs were the earliest and they were the first to lay down the foundation of the religious and social order of Islam in this country. There are local traditions and strong circumstantial evidence which show that the Arabs, in course of their trade with the eastern countries, established their trade contacts with the ports of Samander and Chittagong and some of the Arab traders settled in the Chittagong locality.

According to local traditions, many Muslim Sufis of Arabia and Persia such as, Baba Adam Shahid, Shah Sultan Rumi, Shah Sultan Mahisawar, Makhdum Shah Dawla and Makhdum Shah Mahmud Ghaznavi, came to Bengal to preach Islam before the Muslim conquest of this region. During the earlier period of the Muslin rule, a large number of Arab Muslini scholars and Sufis made Bengal the centre of their mission and adopted it as their home. An Arab family known as the Sayid Hussain Shahi dynasty ruled Bengal with glory for several generations in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (1493-1538).

Arab settlers thus established Islam in Bengal, and laid down the basis of the Muslim culture in this country. The earlier converted Muslims received their religious and cultural traditions of the Arab Muslims. As a result, the orthodox traditions of the Arab Muslims became the basic structure and dominating force of the religious and cultural life of the Muslims of Bengal. Arabicization formed the distinguishing feature of the life of the people. The Muslims of Bengal generally bear Arabic names. In the colloquial Bengali there are numerous Arabic words, which have became almost unrecognisable on account of local corruptions. These speak of the impact of the Arab culture on the Muslim society of Bengal.

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The Turkish conquest in the beginning of the thirteenth century opened Bengal to the Muslim immigrants from Northern India as well as central and western Asia. With Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji, the conqueror, a large body of Khalji Chiefs, soldiers and their followers settled down in Bengal. These conquerors had their families with them in their new homes. In their wake also flocked into Bengal many teachers, preachers, physicians, traders, masons, artisans and Muslims of other professions. Fresh streams of Turks entered this land in subsequent years in the reigns of Sultan Iltutmish (1281-1236) Sultan Ghiyathu'd Din Balban (1266-86 A.D.) and other Sultans of Delhi. As a result, a considerable number of Turks settled down in Bengal and they formed the aristocracy of the Muslim society of this country. A vigorous and robust people endowed with the capacity for organization, the Turkish Muslims integrated the political and social life and made Bengal a prosperous home of the Muslims of the Sub-continent. They brought into this land the cultural legacy of the Muslims of Central and West Asia.

The Turks were the major element of the immigrant Muslim population of Bangladesh. They had a substantial share in the development of the social and cultural life of the Muslims of this country. In course of time they were merged with the other Muslim people.

The Turkish names, terminologies, dress, food, dishes, etc. which are found in the Muslim society of Bengal, even now, express the cultural impact of the Turks on the life of the Muslims. We have received such food dishes as Polao, Kurma, Kalia and Kima from the Turks of Central Asia. Many people of Bangladesh bear such Turkish names and titles as Bakhtiyar, Balban, Babur, Tughlaq, Aftabu'd-Din, Mahtabu'd-Din, Beg, Mirza, etc. The words such as Bibi, Begum, Khanum, Apa, Mukar (nsukar) etc. are of Turkish origin.

During the Ilyas Shahi Sultanate (1342-1410 1441-1493) several thousand Abyssinian slaves were introduced into Bengal. In the declining days of the later Ilyas Shahi Sultans, these Abyssinians became very influential and they ruled in Bengal for some years (1484-93 A. D.). The Afghans also formed an important element of the Muslim people of Bengal. Many of them came to Bengal as hirelings of the Turkish conquerors and rulers. In the sixteenth century the Sur Afghans established their rule in this country (1538-1564). After being ousted from Northern India by the Mughals, the Afghans made Bengal their home and ruled over it for a few years. When the Mughals conquered Bengal, the Afghans merged themselves with other Muslim people of this land. They added a good fighting material to the people. In Bengal many families even now bear such titles as Pathan. Ludi, Sur, Ban Khan, Pahlwan etc. these point to their Afghan origin.

During the Mughal rule (1575-1757) a large number of Mughal officers and soldiers served in Bengal. The Mughal Emperors made a liberal grant of Jagirs to their officers and soldiers in this province. This induced many of them to settle down in Bengal. Prince Munhammad Shuja, as the Subedhar of Bengal (1639-1660) had a large following of Mughal officers and soldiers. After his defeat and flight to Arakan. many of them adopted Bengal ~as their home. The Mughals, who belonged to the same stock of the Turkish people, reinforced the Central Asian Cultural element in Bengal.

The Persians were an influential element in the cultural life of Bangladesh. They came to Bengal as Sufis, preachers, teachers, physicians, traders and masons. During the Mughal rule, particularly in the time of the Murshidabad Nawabs, a large number of officers, soldiers and men of letters flocked into Bengal from Persia. Dhaka, Murshidabad and Hugli developed into important Shia colonies. The Shia festivities, such as the Muharram and Bera, became the common feature of the Muslim society of Bengal. The episode of Karbala acquired much popularity and provided a theme to the Bengali literature. Educated and enlightened, the Persians brought a powerful cultural force in Bengal. Persian was the court language. The Persian language, literature and medicine dominated the literary and intellectual life of the province. The Persian literature had a momentous impact upon the development of the Bengali literature. The Persian Sufism also found a fertile soil in Bengal.

Picture: Islamic Heritage in Bangladesh
Besides, the immigrant Muslims who came from different Muslim lands at different times and settled down here, a large portion of the Muslim people of Bangladesh was composed of the local converts from different faith. A great number of the Buddhists flocked to the refuge of Islam to escape the persecution of the Brahminical Hindus. The Nalanda inscription of Jatvarman and the accounts of Taranath, a Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim, refer to the suppression of the Buddhists by the Hindus rulers. The poem entitled "Niranjaner Rukshma" by Ramai Pandit expresses how the persecuted Buddhists and also the lower class Hindus welcomed the Muslim conquerors as their deliverers. The degraded lower class Hindus being attracted by the simplicity and equality of the Muslim society accepted Islam in large number. A considerable number of the Brabmins and Kayasthas also embraced Islam. There are many instances of Muslims marrying Hindu women of upper classes. The contemporary Sanskrit and Bengali works, such as Amrit Khand and Shikh Suhbhodaya, Rasul Vijaya, give out that many Brahmins, being defeated in religious debates with the Muslim scholars and Shaikhs accepted Islam with their families and followers.

The Chaitanya Mangala of Vrindavandas refers to the voluntary acceptance of Islam by many Brahmins. Barbosa, a Portuguese merchant visiting Bengal in 1518, mentions that many Hindus everyday turned Muslims to obtain the favour of the Muslim rulers. Due to contact, many Brahmins and Kayasthas became outcaste in their society and they found shelter in Islam. The families of Jalalu'd-Din Muhammad Shah, Isa Khan and Murshid Quli Khan were recruits from the Brahmins and upper class of the Hindus.

Impact of Sufis

The Sufis and Sufism had a profound impact on the religious social life of the people of Bangladesh. Hundreds of Sufis came to Bengal in different times from the lands of Islam in Western and Central Asia as well as Northern India. They belonged to various orders, particularly to the Chishtia and Suhrawardia. Though imported from outside, Bengal proved to be the most congenial field for the development of Sufism. It spread throughout Bengal, even to the remotest villages, so that Khanqas and Shrines grew up in every nook and corner of the country. An idea of the prosperity of Sufism in Bengal can be obtained from a letter written by Hazrat Mir Sayid Ashraf Jahangir Simnai (died in 1380 A.D.), a distinguished disciple of the renowned Bengali Sufi Shaikh 'Alau'l Haqq to Sultan Ibrahirn Sharqi of Jaunpur. He writes:

"God be praised, what a good land is that of Bengal where numerous saints and ascetics came from many directions and made it their habitation and home. In short, in the country of Bengal, what to speak of the cities, there is no town and no village where holy saints did not come and settle down. Many of the saints of the Suhrawardia order are dead and gone under earth, but those still alive are also in fairly large number".

By their great spiritual personality, the Sufis promoted the faith, fostered mysticism and Divine love and contributed to the mental and moral development of the people of Bengal. Their exemplary piety and character, extraordinary moral force and great feeling for the suffering humanity drew to them mass of the people wherever they went. To this was added the great liberal and cultural force of Islam, which the Sufis held before the seekers after truth and also to the persecuted and degraded peoples of the time. So the missionary activities of these ideal characters attracted non-Muslims, the Buddhists as well as the Hindus of every class to the fold of Islam. The contemporary accounts express how the people flocked in large numbers to the Sufis of earlier centuries and accepted Islam at their hands.

    Picture:A senior leader

        of Bangladesh's
     largest Islamic party
The Sufis, particularly of the earlier centuries in Bangladesh were noted for their spiritualism and learning. The lives of Shaikh Jalalu'd-Din Tabrizi, Shaikh Sharafu'd-Din Abu Tawwamah, Makhdum Sharafu'd-Din Yahya Maniri, Shaikh Akhi Siraj, Shaikh 'Alau'l Haqq, Hazrat Nur Qutb Alam, Hazrat Hamid Danishmand and others illustrate this fact. Their Khanqas were illuminating seats of religious and intellectual life. They attracted pupils from far and wide. They produced saints and scholars not for Bengal alone, but for the whole of the Sub-continent as well. Sharafu'd-Din Yahya Maniri, Sayyid Ashraf Jahangir Simnani, Nasiru'd-Din Manikpuri, Shaikh Kaku and a few others of northern India were the distinguished pupils of the spiritual and intellectual life of Bengal. The Sufis thus contributed substantially to the educational development of the people of Bengal.

Bengal had been the scene of the widespread activities of numerous Sufis in the Muslim period. As such the Muslims of Bengal came in their intimate contact and under their direct influence. The Sufis represented spiritualism as well as liberalism in their life and idea. They were entirely given to the spiritual and were averse to material world. They made a liberal interpretation of religion. The Bengali Muslims imbibed the spiritualism and liberalism of their great teachers of the faith. Their spiritualism impressed the mind of the people so profoundly that even today a spirit of mysticism and indifference to material world characterizes the Bengali Muslims. In the Bengali literature, particularly in the local folk songs there is a good deal of expressions of their mystic feelings.

The Khanqas of the Sufis were the meeting places of the peoples of all shades of opinions. Hindus and Muslims, and these served as the forum of fred healthy atmosphere for an understanding between the two communities. As a result, the two peoples came nearer to each other and could appreciate each other's institutions.

Reform Movement in Hindu Society

The liberalism of the Muslims with their ideas of social equality and brotherhood, the simplicity of their religion and life and their enlightenment and culture had momentous impact on the Hindu society. The Hindus came in contact with the Muslims in different ways, either as officers of the Muslim rulers or as neighbours of the Muslim population. This Muslim contact produced two types of reform movement in the Hindu society - one was strictly conservative in spirit and the other, though fundamentally conservative, adopted a somewhat liberal outlook to the solution of their social problems. The object of both these reform movements was however the same. These were directed towards maintaining the integrity of the Brahminical society. These were essentially defensive in character, aimed at protecting the social life against tide of the liberal force of Islam. The Bengali literature reflects the feeling of horror of the Brahmins and orthodox Hindus on account of the Muslim influence on their social life. A conservative reformer Nub Panchanon has voiced this feeling of the orthodox Brahmins of the time. In his Gushti Katha he says, "In this age there is a great agitation in Radh and Banga many big families have become degenerated". The writings of Premvilas express the same feeling, It records in the Kalical (degenerated age) "all people have became vicious its main cause is Yavana (Muslim) conquest."

The conservative school of reformers wanted to defend the Hindu society and maintain its orthodox integrity by prescribing some rules and regulations and providing for their strict observance. They revived the study of the Smriti Sastra for this purpose and remodelled it eliminating some rules which were outdated, and incorporating some new ones to strengthen the orthodox social system. Thus they compiled the new Smriti Sastra intended as a bulwark against the onrush of Muslim influence. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Brahmin Pandits, Sulapani and Vrihaspati, represented this spirit of conservative reform on their Smriti Sastra. Pandit Raghunandan who also compiled a Smriti Sastra in the sixteenth century, belonged to this school of conservative reformers. Another prominent reformer of this group was Nub Panchanon, who launched a crusade to purge the society of all external influence and to restore the orthodox basis of the Hindu life. This group of reformers were uncompromising in their ideas of the preservation of orthodoxy. They stood for the expulsion from the society of any person, who had been slightly deviated from the prescribed rules or had been influenced in any way by the Muslims in their way of life.

The other school of reformers also aimed at defending the orthodox footing of the social system but they made compromises where necessary. They did not favour the expulsion of the Brahmins and making them outcaste on account of Muslim influence upon them or for their slight deviations from the orthodox life. They thought that the imposition of such a social odium would lead to the complete desolution and even the liquidation of the Brahminical society. This reform movement originated with an influential Brahmin, Datt Khan who was a personal assistant (Karmokarak) of Sultan Nasiru'd-Din Mahmud Shah (1442-59) of the later Ilyas Shahi dynasty. In a conference of the Jatimala Kachari, a religio-social association, convened by Datt Khan, 25 causes were prescribed for the loss of Kulinisim. It did not prescribe that a Brahmin would fall from orthodoxy on account of Muslim contact or for receiving titles from the Muslim rulers of the country.

Muslim Impact on Vaishnavism

The Vaishnavism of Sri Chaitanya (1486-1533 A.D.) represents the revolutionary effects of the Muslim ideas on the Hindu society. It reflects the Hindu anxiety to defend their society by reorienting it on the model of the Muslim social life. The conservative Brahminical community was daily losing to Islam, whose democratic ideas and equal facilities to all attracted the downtrodden Hindus to the liberal society of the Muslim conquerors. The wiser section of the Hindus felt the necessity of preserving their society against further loss to Islam. They understood that this could be done only by live rating the common people from their degraded life and reforming the society on the ideas of simplicity, equality and brotherhood of all man. This type of democratically reorganised Hindu society would be capable of meeting the Muslim society on an equal footing and this would provide a check to the further desertion of Hindus to swell the ranks of the Muslims.

Chaitanya's Vaishanavism was thus primarily a defensive movement. Born out to the necessity to check the progress of Islam in the Hindu society, by reforming it in accordance with the principles of Islam and Muslim life.

There is strong evidence which proves that in his ideas of reforming the Hindu religious and social life. Chaitanya was principally influenced by the Muslim ideas. The birthplace of Chaitanya, Navadip was not merely the centre of Hindu learning. It also developed into an important place of Muslim colony from the time of its conquest by Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji. Navadip was a seat of Muslim power where many Muslim officials were posted. It is also known from the Vaishnava literature that many Muslims lived in Navadip and in suburban village named Piralya (from Pir Ali). Jayananda records that a number of the Brahmins were degenerated under the influence of the Muslims. This implies that they followed the way of life of the Muslims. Since Chaitanya was born and brought up in the atmosphere of the Muslim influence on the Brahmin society of Navadip, he was naturally acquainted with current ideas of his boyhood and youth.

Sri Chaitanya was not satisfied with the social system that obtained among the Hindus. His dissatisfaction was born at the sight of the degeneration of the Brahminical society and its loss to the Muslim ideas. To save the society against the onrush of Islam, he felt the necessity of purging it of all the evils and remodelling it on liberal lines. He thought over the problem and frequented the abodes of ascetics to find a solution. There is evidence which shows that Sri Chaitanya came in contact with the Muslim Sufis and Pirs and he had religious discussions with them. It is known from Chaitanya Charitamrita that, while returning from Vrindavan, Chaitanya met a Muslim Pir and discussed with him subtle problems of religion and supreme god.

His discourse with the Pir reveals that he was possessed of good knowledge of Islam and he appreciated the ideas of Muslim Sufism.

In the vaishnava faith Sri Chaitanya abolished the caste system and removed all distinctions between the Brahmin and other classes of the Hindu society. He initiated peoples of all castes and creeds into his vaishnava fraternity and accorded them equal status and the same title "Das" meaning servant. This was indeed his adoption of the Muslim ideal of equality and brotherhood. Chaitanya taught, "Chandal (a low class Hindu) is not a chandal, if he utter the name of Krishna; a Brahmin is not a Brahmin, if he follow the path of dishonesty".

Following the ideal of Islam Sri Chaitanya believed in one god. According to his teaching, Sri Krishna is god and the Supreme Reality. The World is in Him and He is in the World (Creation). He is one, though He is represented in all created things. Krishnadas Kaviraj writes, "This world has been created at the desire of Krishna, he is one and has no two bodies.

Sri Chaintanya's Krishna Cult has similarity with the Tawhid-i-wajudi and Tawhid-i-Shuhudi of the Sufis. This expresses the influence of Sufi mysticism on the Vaishnava teacher of Bengal. No Hindu mystic before Sri Chaitanya laid so much emphasis on love as a means to spiritual attainment. Emotional love of Sri Chaitanya was a new feature of his Vaishnavism. As this spiritual love represented sufistic idea, the Muslim poets composed poems on this subject. The only difference is that the love of the Vaishnavas has been expressed through the symbol of Radha, while the love of the Sufis was direct communion with the Beloved God through the feeling of the heart.

The life of Sri Chaitanya as a mystic shows the influence of Sufism on him.