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Peter J. Bertocci
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The identity of Bangladesh as a modern nation-state is derived from a cohesive ethnic and regional base in which Islam has long been a key element. Nearly all of the country 's 148 million people are speakers of the Bengali language, and, minor sectarian variation aside, some 85 percent are also Sunnī Muslims governed by the Ḥanafī school of Islamic law. Most of the remaining 15 percent are Hindus.

Early History of Islam in Bengal.

Islam in Bengal dates from the arrival of Turkic invaders in 1200 C.E. In 1576 the region was incorporated into the Mughal Empire, which retained hegemony until 1757 and the onset of the British empire in India. Military and political domination do not by themselves produce mass conversion; thus one mystery of South Asian history is how the territory today comprising Bangladesh came to contain some 40 percent of the Muslims counted in British India at its first census (1872) and became home to around 30 percent of all South Asian Muslims today.

In explanation of this phenomenon, the British scholar-administrators who devised and interpreted the early censuses, notably H. H. Risley, concluded that massive conversion had occurred among low-caste Hindus seeking refuge from caste oppression in the egalitarian fold of Islam. Seen as an insult to Islam, this conclusion was vigorously opposed by English-educated Muslim intellectuals, who attempted to show that the Muslim population of Bengal was mainly descended from Arab, Mughal (Turkic), and Afghan invaders. Historians writing from a Pakistani nationalist perspective in the 1960s sought to reiterate the argument, using statistical evidence that not all historians would find convincing. A contrasting view dating from the British period argued that medieval Bengal had been the last bastion in India of a corrupt and effete Buddhism, and so its people were ripe for the appeal of the Ṣūfī mystics who followed the first Muslim rulers.

Historians universally emphasize the role of Sufism in the initial stages of Bengali conversion to Islam. Richard Eaton's (1993) innovative exploration of Bengali Muslim history links the earliest phase of Islamization to the deforestation of the Bengal Delta by land-hungry peasants of no discernibly stable religious commitment, spurred on by the revenue-famished rulers of both pre-Mughal and Mughal Bengal. In Eaton's analysis, Ṣūfī adepts figure prominently as charismatic pioneer leaders or ghāzī-pirs (warrior saints) who organized the spread of farming, protected cultivators from the natural and supernatural hazards of the forest, and spearheaded development of rural communities, linking them to the Muslim rulers. Over time, devotional cults initiated by these Ṣūfī pioneers came to focus on them as “saints,” and their religious ideology, Islam, thus embryonically embedded itself in the deltaic countryside. This amalgam of agriculture and religion might be seen as the first stage of Islamization in Bengal. A second stage of Islamization in eastern Bengal may be witnessed in the development of a tradition syncretizing popular forms of Islam and Hinduism. Asim Roy (1983) argues that the formal doctrines of Islam were at first absorbed only lightly by the largely rural Bengali population. Their folk religious culture mingled beliefs in the fantastic with perceptions of the natural world, and mixed superstition, myth, and magic with faith.

The result was a syncretic folk religion in which Ṣūfī pirs and Vaishnavite saints were worshiped interchangeably by both Hindus and Muslims. Worship itself commonly took form (and to this day often occurs) in didactic narrative exposition by local or itinerant charismatics, or it featured folk music whose devotional lyrics were imbued with spiritual metaphor and allegory intelligible to Hindus and Muslims at once, and whose performers might claim to be either or both. Indigenous healers and shamans might proffer curatives whose power was derived from Qurʿān and Krishna alike.

There was, however, a considerable gap between the popular religion of most rural Muslims—descendants of indigenous converts known as the ajlāf or aṭrāf (low ranked) social classes—and Muslim elites or ashrāf (noble) classes who claimed Middle Eastern descent and espoused a version of Islam that looked to North India, Persia, and Arabia for its inspiration and its linguistic expression (in Persian and Urdu, not in Bengali). That gap was bridged by religious guides, preceptors, philosophers, and poets whose writings introduced orthodox Islamic dogma by seeking its broad parallels in Hinduism. This may be seen as the second stage in the Islamization of eastern Bengal.

A third stage may be posited with the rise of several strains of revivalism confronting the homegrown, syncretic Bengali variety of Islam in the early nineteenth century. Among the most important was the Farāʿizī (Farāʿiḍī) movement (from Arabic farḍ, recalling the obligatory duties of Islam), founded in 1818 by Ḥājjī Sharīʿatullāh (1781–1840), an East Bengali whose twenty years in the Arabian Muslim heartland had imbued him with Meccan standards of belief and practice. Spreading rapidly throughout eastern Bengal down to 1900, this movement called upon the local Muslim faithful to abandon pirism and eschew Hindu-tainted customs and beliefs. The Farāʿizīs presented what they considered orthodox models of Islamic credo and conduct and insisted that belief and behavior be shaped in conformity with the Five Pillars. Another movement, the Ṭarīqah-i Muḥammadīyah, an Indian counterpart to the Wahhābī movement of eighteenth-century Arabia, had been initiated in Delhi in 1818 by Sayyid Aḥmad Shahīd (1786–1831). Introduced into western Bengal by Titu Mīr (1782–1831) in 1827, it also became involved in peasant struggles. A key feature of this movement was its emphasis on strict adherence to the sharīʿah; one of its offshoots, the Ahl-i Ḥadīth (people of Ḥadīth) movement, was vehement in stressing ijtihād (independent legal reasoning); a vestige of this movement remains today as the most visible remnant of the last century's reformist movements in Bangladesh.

The revivalist “purification” of Bengali Islam undermined its earlier syncretism by stressing the differences between Islam and Hinduism. As Rafiuddin Ahmed (1981) has argued, these militant movements deepened Islamic consciousness in late nineteenth-century East Bengal and paved the way for effective mobilization of its Muslim peasantry by the Muslim elites who would lead the Pakistan movement in the twentieth century. Such elites included in their number many belonging to an Islamic modernist tradition, begun in the late nineteenth century and similar to its counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim world, which advocated Western education and stressed the utility of European science in harmonic combination with classical Islamic scientific and humanistic learning and moral ideals. Thus, in its Islamic dimension, by 1947 the maturing national identity of East Bengal not only retained remnants of Sufism and syncretism but also contained elements of orthodox fundamentalism and modernism.

Islam in Modern Bangladesh.

Although a bit dated, the sole existing large survey conducted of Bangladeshi Muslims claiming an active faith by political scientist Razia Akter Banu (1992) still has generally descriptive value. Banu identified three basic tendencies in present-day Bangladeshi Islam, all of which have their roots in these historic movements. Nearly half of her rural and a quarter of her urban respondents evinced the syncretism of folk belief and practice described above. Followers of popular forms of Islam most often represent lower levels of income, education, and occupation.

Indeed, attribution of supernatural power to pirs is an especially salient feature of popular Bangladeshi Islam. Weekly local gatherings (mahfil) where religious folk music forms the centerpiece of devotional worship are widespread, and commemorative gatherings at the ubiquitous tombs (mazār) of the pirs occur year-round. Throngs of devotees, sometimes massive in numbers, attend annual conclaves commemorating the saints whose remains are entombed in such shrines. Ṣūfī activity in Bangladesh is widespread and attracts persons of all social, educational, and occupational backgrounds.

Another 50 percent of Banu's rural sample, and more than 60 percent of her urban respondents, claimed adherence to orthodox forms of Islam: literality in acceptance of Qurʿān and ḥadīth, strictness in observing the obligatory duties, and total obedience to the Ḥanafī school of law. Both urban and rural people of moderate educational background register among the ranks of the orthodox; in the rural areas orthodoxy is associated with relatively higher levels of land ownership, in contrast to its correspondence with middle levels of income in the cities. Finally, Banu found that 12 percent of the urbanites in her sample adopted an Islamic modernist point of view, which emphasizes rationalism and scientism and rejects literalistic determinism. Not surprisingly, espousal of this viewpoint was associated with high levels of Western education as well as with higher status occupation and income.

Banu's study also suggested that adherents to both modern and orthodox versions of Islam hover between high and moderate levels of actual practice, as measured by the degree to which they claim to carry out the daily and annual obligatory duties of the faithful. Modernists tend toward moderate and lower levels of practice, as one might surmise. The daily and weekly requirements of prayer and the mandate of the annual fast are widely met by rural Bangladeshis. Indeed, a good deal of social pressure is exerted via shaming mechanisms and fear of embarrassment toward the maintenance of Muslim propriety in public conduct, especially in the matter of fasting during Ramadan. In urban areas, where normative conformity is more difficult to exact, performance in these areas is more varied.

The Islamic component of East Bengal's regional identity was at the forefront of its people's political consciousness during their struggle for an independent Pakistan until 1947. Thereafter, however, the Bengalis in what became East Pakistan became disillusioned as they perceived their economic, political, and cultural interests increasingly subordinated to those of their confreres in non-Bengali West Pakistan. Accordingly, the ethnolinguistic element of their national identity, especially pride in their language and indigenous cultural traditions, took political primacy, and although their religious commitment to Islam by no means wavered, it no longer shaped their immediate political goals. By the mid-1950s, Bengali enthusiasm for the Muslim League, which had spearheaded Pakistani independence, had become deeply eroded. The growing rift between Pakistan's eastern and western wings broke into rebellion in 1971, and, led by the secular nationalist Awami League, an independent Bangladesh was born. See AWAMI LEAGUE and MUSLIM LEAGUE.

In part because members of Islamic political parties had—sometimes violently—opposed separation from Pakistan, the first constitution of Bangladesh (1972) proclaimed secularism as a principle of state policy and prohibited political parties based on religious affiliation. Individuals thought to have stood against independence on religious or other grounds were stigmatized, and, not uncommonly, ordinary Muslims visibly observant in dress and ritual performance could find themselves shunned or mocked by supporters of the party in power.

A great many Bangladeshi Muslims, however, were uncomfortable with official secularism. The Delhi-based Tablīghī Jamāʿat, which aims at strengthening Islamic faith and practice among believers, became highly active in the country, attracting large numbers and presaging an Islamic resurgence. In 1975 the increasingly dictatorial Awami League was overthrown; a more favorable domestic climate for the political expression of Islam was ushered in.

Against this domestic background, one should also note that Bangladesh was receiving mounting proportions of its foreign aid from the oil-rich and conservative Arab states, where Bangladeshis were working in massive numbers, especially in Saudi Arabia. The post-coup government of Ziaur (popularly called “Zia”) Rahman (1975–1981) became prominently active in Islamic international organizations, and increasing ties to the wider Muslim world may have prompted it in 1977 to replace the secularism clause of the constitution with a proclamation of “absolute faith and trust in almighty Allāh,” mandating that government strengthen “fraternal ties with the Muslim states on the basis of Islamic solidarity.” The Zia government began to sponsor Islam as well, in its establishment of a cabinet-level Division of Religious Affairs, creation of an Islamic Foundation for research, and plans for a new Islamic University that indeed did come into being. Under a separate directorate in the Ministry of Education, the number of madrasahs (Islamic religious schools) in Bangladesh began a sharp and continuous increase, as did the number of teachers and students, that has remained unabated to the date of this writing. The subsequent government of H. M. Ershad (1982–1991) continued in this vein. The president and members of his cabinet publicly associated themselves with the famous and politically active Atroshi pir, at whose shrine Ershad announced his intent to pass a constitutional amendment declaring Islam the “state religion” of the country. This the National Assembly did in 1988. Bangladeshis with a secular outlook sometimes view this action as a start toward the post-independence rehabilitation of political Islam in Bangladesh.

Despite their commitment to Islam as a matter of faith, Muslim Bangladeshis on the whole have never been prone toward Islamist forms of government, and parties advocating such views have never fared especially well in electoral politics. In the first post-independence National Assembly election (1979) that permitted Islam-oriented parties to compete, the conservative but non-theocratic Muslim League (ML) won 19 of 300 seats and 10 percent of the popular vote; no Islamist parties contested. In the parliamentary election of 1986 the ML's mere 4 seats were surpassed by 10 that went to the rehabilitated Jamāʿat-i Islāmī (JI, Islamic Assembly), which advocates a full-fledged Islamic state. The Jamāʿat and a newer Islamist party, the Islami Oikya Jote (Islamic Unity Group), went on to garner nearly 12 percent of the popular vote in the 1991 National Assembly elections, winning 18 (6 percent) of all 300 seats, but experienced a setback in the parliamentary elections of 1996 when the secular Awami League (AL) regained power for the first time since 1975. In 2001 these two Islamist parties acquired 19 seats in parliament, all but one going to the JI, with 12 percent of the popular vote. They ran as part of a coalition government with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that swept the AL aside. This was the first time that one of the country's two major political parties had engaged in open electoral alliance with Islamist groups, leading to fears among secularists that Islamist parties might use their influence in the winning BNP coalition to promote Islamization policies in the new parliament.

These concerns did not materialize, owing, perhaps, to the immobility of the National Assembly for the next several years while the long-standing feud between the two major parties continued both in parliament and in the streets. No one in Bangladesh was prepared, however, for the startling rise in radical Islamist violence that gripped the country not long after the election of 2001. Over the previous decade, the ranks of jihadists dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic state in Bangladesh had mushroomed, fueled, some claim, by the rapid growth of madrasahs noted above, which produced young militants willing to lend themselves to jihadist goals and activities. While at various times the Bangladesh press has claimed the existence of between 30 and 50 militant Islamist groups in the country, the most prominent to emerge in public view after 2001 was an organization at first known by two names: Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB; Awakened Muslim People of Bangladesh) and/or Jamaʿat ul-Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB; Assembly of Muslim Fighters of Bangladesh), whose leaders issued repeated demands for the immediate installation of sharīʿah as the law of the land. The existence of these groups was long denied by the BNP government and its JI allies. But when their demands were backed by a rash of bombings, beginning in 2003, bringing increasing death and destruction and culminating in 2005 with a spectacular, time-coordinated series of blasts in 63 of a total of 64 districts in the country on a single day (August 17), official denials could no longer be sustained. Under pressure from a beleaguered public and international aid donors alike, the BNP government began a crackdown that continued over several months in late 2005 and early 2006. Results to date appear to have been a successful disruption of the JMJB/JMB organization and activities, as well as the arrest of the group's top leaders, several of whom were executed for their crimes in 2007.

Although radical Islam has suffered a setback in Bangladesh, the possibility of its resurgence in the current world environment cannot be ruled out. However, barring a state collapse and a vacuum into which organized and well disciplined jihadist groups can move, Taliban-like, to take power, it is unlikely that Bangladesh will ever become an Islamic state. Its past has shown, however, that Islam seeks perennial renewal in the dynamic interplay between Bengali nationalism and Muslim universalism that lies at the heart of the country's national identity.



  • Ahmad Khan, Muin-ud-din. History of the Farāʿiḍī Movement in Bengal, 1818–1906. Karachi, Pakistan, 1965. Definitive work to date on the Farāʿizīs and their relations with other movements; essential reading on Islamic revivalism in nineteenth-century Bengal.
  • Ahmed, Rafiuddin. The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity. Delhi, India; Oxford; and New York, 1981. Best general study of nineteenth-century Bengali Muslim society, covering religious, social, and political development in an integrated manner. See also volumes he edited: Islam in Bangladesh: Society, Culture, and Politics (Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1983), and Religion, Nationalism, and Politics in Bangladesh (New Delhi, India, 1990), both collections of original essays on social and political aspects of Islam in Bangladesh since 1971, and Understanding the Bengal Muslims: Interpretive Essays (New Delhi, India, 2001), a collection of original essays on aspects of Bangladesh history, politics, and culture by social scientists and historians.
  • Banu, U. A. B. Razia Akter. Islam in Bangladesh. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York, 1992. Unique and highly imaginative social science survey research study of current attitudes and beliefs, with informative historical background chapters.
  • Eaton, Richard Maxwell. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. Berkeley, Calif., 1993. Path-breaking reassessment of the spread of Islam as seen in the context of Bengali agrarian and economic history.
  • Haq, Muhammad Enamul. A History of Sufi-ism in Bengal. Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1975. Detailed, if not particularly critical, history through the medieval period, with an outline of major beliefs and biographical notes on saints.
  • Rīyāja, Ālī. God Willing: The Politics of Islamism in Bangladesh. Lanham, Md., 2004. Comprehensive study of political Islam in Bangladesh.
  • Rīyāja, Ālī. Unfolding State: The Transformation of Bangladesh. Whitby, Ont., Canada, 2005. Discussion of the growth and changing development of the Bangladesh state from independence onward.
  • Roy, Asim. The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton, N.J., 1983. Important study of beliefs and practices in the prerevivalist medieval period; essential for the study of popular Islam in Bangladesh.
  • Thorp, John P., Jr.“Masters of Earth: Conceptions of ‘Power’ among Muslims of Rural Bangladesh.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1978. Pioneering anthropological study of community organization and religious culture among Bangladeshi Muslim peasantry.
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