DOI link for Introduction
DOI link for Introduction
What is Bengali Islam? Or, posing the question more generally, is there anything such as Bengali Islam at all? Is it reasonable to inquire into the nature of such an entity, or is ‘Bengali Islam’ actually a non-entity formed by an illegitimate combination of categories? Strange as it may sound, these are the crossroads anyone approaching this question is confronted with sooner rather than later. In fact, the term Bengali Islam is synthetic in character, merging, as it does, ethnic, linguistic and religious denominators in an attribute-noun construction; and thus, arguments may arise about the validity of such merging. Are not, as one type of argument would have it, both categories situated on completely different planes that prevent any interaction between them, and is their combination therefore anything but a baseless contrivance? Islam being one, a variant of this line goes, it is meaningless to speak of Bengali Islam, as this would imply that the attribute ‘Bengali’ modifi es the meaning of the noun Islam in some way or other, which by defi nition of the latter cannot be the case. If at all, Islam in Bengal might be admitted as a sensible object of investigation, concerned with the character and effects of Islam in the region of Bengal. Historical evidence and direct perception, another type of argument holds, furnish suffi cient data to disprove such contentions; distinctness of religious practice, textual traditions, cultural environment, etc. bear out the assumption that the expression ‘Bengali Islam’ does indeed denote something that exists and can reasonably be investigated. The hermeneutical problem sketched out in these two extreme positions is not a mere academic preoccupation, but has been a bother to many strands of Bengali society for quite a long time. The juxtaposition of Bengaliness and Islam has caused much unease, and these terms are often conceived as competing
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categories. Rather than relying on their partial overlap in order to ensure their harmonious coexistence, their inherent tensions are activated by various political and cultural agencies. Imminent solutions to this problem are not in sight at present either. Especially in the young nation-state of Bangladesh, the question whether Bengaliness or Islam should be the predominant factor has, for obvious historical reasons, again become a major preoccupation in the political and cultural domains. More than other Muslims, the Bengali Muslims are portrayed as having problems in reconciling their religious and ethnic identities, so much so that Joya Chatterjee felt prompted to ask: ‘The Bengali Muslims: a Contradiction in Terms?’ (Chatterjee 1998). While it would be more than misleading to insinuate that most of the c. 160 millions of Bengali Muslims consciously suffer from any such inherent identity confl ict, the fact remains that in some quarters, especially among the political and cultural elite, the question about the relationship between Bengaliness and Islam is troublesome. This is also true of much of the academic literature on the topic. A good example of the dilemma awaiting scholars of Bengali Islam is Md. Enamul Haq (1902-82). This renowned Bengali historian of religion grew up in Baktapur in rural Chittagong, in the direct vicinity of the shrine complex of Maijbhandar which this book is about, as the son of one Maulana Aminullah.3 A well-known Bangladeshi historian related an anecdote to me according to which Enamul Haq in his youth once visited Maijbhandar with a co-student in order to pray for success in his examinations. During their prayer at the tomb, the servants of the shrine pushed the boys to the ground, maintaining that the right way to show obeisance to a saint was to touch the fl oor with one’s forehead. Such behaviour, however, clashed with Haq’s reformist Islamic education, according to which sağda, ‘full prostration’, was exclusively due to Allah during the ritual prayers. It was allegedly triggered by this and similar experiences that Haq later decided to single out Bengali Islam as his life-long topic of research.4 In his History of Sufi -ism in Bengal, which was to appear in 1975 after being withheld from publication in the Pakistani period, he describes the doctrines and history of Indian and, subsequent to it, Bengali Islam, examines Islamic saints in Bengal, discusses the mutual infl uences among Sufi sm, Vaishnavism, Yoga and Tantra, and dedicates a separate chapter to the Bengali Bauls.5 On the one hand, Enamul Haq narrates the independent development of Bengali Islam as a story of decay:
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From the seventeenth century downward, Ṣūfīism in Bengal adopted a new channel and within a century and a half, it absorbed so many indigenous elements in both beliefs and practices that it not only lost its pristine purity and individuality but also its spiritual signifi cance, inherent strength and expansive character.