Sufi’s choice: syncretic rural Islam of Bangladesh

Sufi’s choice: syncretic rural Islam of Bangladesh

Following the sermons accompanying the Friday prayers in the Canberra mosque recently, the Imam took a shot at the custom of observing Shab-e-barat in the Indian subcontinent. Without naming any countries or cultural group he attacked the “arrogance” of “innovation”, that observed the 15th Shaban as an important day. According to the Imam, the 15th Shaban is not an important day in the Islamic calendar and people observing it are simply making things up.
My goal in this essay is not to protest the views of the Imam, which I do, but to point out the extent to which our traditional views of Islam are under attack not only from the Islam-bashing secular quarters but also from the ultra-zealous theocratic ideologues.

Till about the early 1970s this attack against Islam used to come from mainly one particular direction. Following urbanisation under the tutelage of the English colonisers our educated elite took a very dim view of traditional Islamic practices, particularly its rural variety. In popular secular Bangla literature a village Maulavi is malevolent, oppressor of women, ignorant, and comical in his beard and Islamic garb. The fact that most of our elders in fact did look like that Maulavi is conveniently forgotten by the secular progressive writers. While excesses of religious zealots did take place and are not to be condoned, the relentless depiction of the Maulavis in nefarious rather than positive roles created an image, a cultural icon which implicitly turned village Islam into something who is backward and retrograde, something to be shunned. Indeed, itself is often a subject of ridicule, and progressive writers often go out of their way to dissociate themselves from any attachment with Islamic practices.

This pseudo-progressive negation of religion is often selectively applied against Islam; these practioners of progress often show a disproportionate degree of sympathy for other beliefs. As agnostic humanists they should see all religious impulses as human condition worthy of notice and sympathy. Rather they often selectively turn against Islam, cleverly hiding a bias that has its genesis in the early days of urban Anglophilic Bengal renaissance. That bias was perhaps not all communal, rather it was the antipathy of the urban occident-loving sophisticate for his peasant forefathers. By lampooning the habits and beliefs of the peasants, the newly initiated sophisticate obtained not only kudos from the colonial masters but also obtained a form of complex psychological boost, a feeling of having discarded the old notions and having become truly modern.

This nexus between modernity and antipathy for rural Islam continued unabated for a long time till perhaps the mid-1970s. Around that time the second onslaught started on our tradition-bound Islamic practices. That onslaught is of an International Islam genre, the same genre as the one articulated by the Imam of the Canberra Mosque. In contrast to the earlier attack coming from “secular” and “progressive” quarters, this later one is coming from the foot soldiers of doctrinaire purity of ideological Islam. In their view, Islam is more akin to a sparse austere doctrine, bound by simply rules of faith in which tradition has no place. In their view, syncretic speculations, ideas of great Sufi scholars such as Al-Arabi, conjectures of great historian Khaldun, or the philosophy of the great scholars Ibne Sina or Abu Rushd have no place in Islam. In the view of these zealots, seven hundred years of patient conversion through love, culture, songs, philosophy is not worthy of respect.

At a time when Islam is not only a matter of spirituality but a stratagem of geopolitics, such austere, simplistic belief is gaining ground. During the last ten years I have observed the disappearance, among devout expatriate Muslims, of many rituals and behaviours that I always considered denoted an Islamic culture, if not a pristine doctrine. They include the Milad Mahfil including the Qeyam, whereby one stands up and recites respects to the prophet in the form of a chorus, observance of Shab-e-Barat, and greeting people with “Khuda Hafez”. In fact, in expatriate Islamic communities in Western cities it is increasingly difficult to find a religious man who would be ready to stand up and do Qeyam, a custom that is rooted for many years in Islamic culture of the subcontinent.

Overzealous people who are attacking these customs forget that faith is not an austere abstraction but is rooted in the human mind through memory, affection and a hundred symbols and cues that humanise the religion. Religious faith, like language and culture, harnesses the propensity of human brain for a sense of wonder for the present life and hereafter, and turns the inherent sense of enigma into an organised belief system consisting of chores and duties, as also of rituals. When you remove the rituals and culture what you are left with is a bare bone of doctrines, dry dictates, and a form of mind-chilling and culture-destroying zealotry which cannot in the end bring anything good to a society.

Thankfully the Sufi philosophers of our rural land knew of these pitfalls. Seven hundred years ago, they preached and defended Islam hundreds of miles away from their place of abode. They combined faith with imagination and through understanding and inclusive persuation they preached their faith in our land. In their infinite wisdom they made a choice. And that choice, made by people like Hazrat Shah-Jalal and Hazrat Bayezid Bostami, defined the future of Islam in our land for the last seven hundred years. That choice was one of an organic understanding of the human psyche, of understanding of symbolism of nature and rituals, and of explaining faith through metaphors of hidden meaning extant in the human body and its transience. That belief system, consonant with the culture of our lush riverine delta, generated the syncretism that is the hallmark of Bangali Islam.

In the current era replete with urgent choices and paradoxes, we have a pathway crafted for us many hundreds of years ago. In recent years it has been hidden from us both by our pernicious modernity and simplistic zealotry. It is the shining and enduring choice made many years ago by our Sufi forefathers.


This essay written in 2003 is from his book “Paradigm Shift; Reflections on Nature Heritage and Islam” published in 2007 by Shomoy Prokashon, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Abed Chaudhury

Abed Chaudhury

আবেদ চৌধুরী একজন আন্তর্জাতিক খ্যাতিসম্পন্ন বাঙালি জিনবিজ্ঞানী, বিজ্ঞান লেখক এবং কবি। তিনি ক্যানবেরা শহরে বসবাস করেন। আবেদ চৌধুরী আধুনিক জীববিজ্ঞানের প্রথম সারির গবেষকদের একজন। তিনি পড়াশোনা করেছেন ঢাকা বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের রসায়ন বিভাগে, যুক্তরাষ্ট্রের অরেগন স্টেট ইনস্টিটিউট অব মলিক্যুলার বায়োলজি এবং ওয়াশিংটনের ফ্রেড হাচিনসন ক্যানসার রিসার্চ ইনস্টিটিউটে। ১৯৮৩ সালে পিএইচডি গবেষণাকালে তিনি রেকডি নামক জেনেটিক রিকম্বিনেশনের একটি নতুন জিন আবিষ্কার করেন, যা নিয়ে সে সময় আমেরিকা ও ইউরোপে ব্যাপক গবেষণা হয়। তিনি অযৌন বীজ উৎপাদন-সংক্রান্ত (এফআইএস) তিনটি নতুন জিন আবিষ্কার করেন, যার মাধ্যমে এই জিনবিশিষ্ট মিউটেন্ট নিষেক ছাড়াই আংশিক বীজ উৎপাদনে সক্ষম হয়। তাঁর এই আবিষ্কার অ্যাপোমিক্সিসের সূচনা করেছে, যার মাধ্যমে পিতৃবিহীন বীজ উৎপাদন সম্ভব হয়। ১৯৯১ সালে তিনি শৈবাল ও অন্তরীক্ষ নামে কবিতার বই লেখেন।

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