Sufi of Suburbia: Struggles of a Muslim identity in Bangladesh

Shahana Siddiqui.

Published in Forum on 7 February 2010.

This piece takes a journey of self-discovery while trying to understand the notion of the Bengali Muslim identity.

Photo: HANDE GULERYUZ YUCE/GETTY IMAGES

“Brother stand the pain; Escape the poison of your impulses.
The sky will bow to your beauty, if you do. Learn to light the candle.
Rise with the sun. Turn away from the cave of your sleeping.
That way a thorn expands to a rose. A particular glows with the universal.”
- Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Confessing a Disclaimer
BRAC Development Institute (BDI) at BRAC University organised a fascinating two-day long conference in December 2010 on “Transcending Binaries: Islam and Politics in South Asia”, bringing in the likes of Saba Mahmood and Tariq Ali (via video conference) and a wide range of academics globally. Professor Syed Hashemi, Professor Firdous Azim and Samia Haq with the support of colleagues and friends, pulled off one of the best gatherings of intellectuals on regional politics, social anthropology and history to engage with each other and the larger audience on the state of secularism in South Asia within the global context of post 9/11 world order. Along with international presenters and partners, the sessions were packed with Government advisers, civil society members, academics and interested individuals.

What set this conference apart from the many I attended the past couple of years in Bangladesh is not only the subject matter in itself, but how well thought out the sessions were, with the presenters and respondents keeping the discussions robust and relevant. In my great excitement, I vowed to write a piece on the state of secularism in Bangladesh at the dawn of 40 years of independence. What does secularism mean to the post ’71 and the 9/11 generation?

When it came to the actual task of penning the thoughts/ideas, I realised I had nothing new to contribute to the topic. Everything I wanted to say has been said before. Every position I wanted to take has already been taken by others. So what is the point of hoarding six pages into the Forum magazine?

I was at first trying to write about secularism from the angle of constitutional changes, but legal experts have already dominated that debate. Then I tried looking at it from a socio-political process, but it was turning out to be a lousy attempt at an academic paper.

Writing about secularism from any of these approaches would entail a certain degree of detachment. More so, none of these approaches speak to my generation of discontent and globalisation.

Then what was I bringing new to the table? Moreover, how to start a conversation on secularism when we have not even begun to speak of the changing nature of the Bengali Muslim identity? Even if we do discuss the changing Muslim identities, we do so from binaries, (as many of the conference speakers pointed out), i.e. if we are secular, it is automatically implied that our religiosity is either non-existent or done in “moderation” or those who are pious, devout Muslims, are unable to be secular.

It is necessary for the Muslim Bengali majority to discuss the fact that circumstances have changed dramatically since the original ideas of communal harmony and acceptance as mentioned in the 1972 Constitution. The Muslim majority has yet to openly, critically discuss the new emerging identities within the global context for us to comprehensively address the issues of secularism and accepting (not tolerating) the “others”. Identity searching and establishing secularism need not happen separately, but rather should happen simultaneously.

But I will argue that we have yet to find the space to engage with each other on the Muslim identity without getting defensive or personal. In alignment with a profound comment made by former Ambassador Harun-ur-Rashid at the conference and later suggested by my father when discussing this article, maybe the point of departure for this entire conversation should be from the basis of non-communalism rather than secularism.

So I changed my angle to write this article. Write from the personal. This personal narrative is about the macro level changes impacting the micro level decisions as a political being. This is a personal exercise to first position oneself as a non-communal citizen with the hopes of finding some answers to the quest for a secularism that is relevant to us. This article is written from the perspective of someone who has very much experienced and continues to experience a constant state of confusion as a liberal, a Muslim, a woman of colour, West-educated, post-71 generation, a witness to 9/11 and a Bangladesh-settled citizen.

In the beginning there were Sufis and 1971
My own story of trials and tribulations with Islam begins with my family’s own history.

My late Dada, Md. Nazir Ullah would tell it really well. The story goes something like this: a great Chishti Pir from Ajmer, India (based on time line and some research, it may have been Shaykh Mu’in ad-Din Chishti, but we are not entirely sure) came to the Bengal area with his entourage of wandering Sufis. One of them fell in love with a native (most probably a low caste Hindu) woman, converted and married her. But alas! The wandering soul could not be tamed and one day, after the birth of a male child, the Sufi was gone, never to return.

With teary and distant looking eyes, Dada would conclude “ei bhabe amra Mosolmaan hoyechhi.

My late grandfather (rest his soul), told that story beautifully with the right amount of emotions and convictions. It is fairly easy to understand how romantic that story was to a young 14-year-old highly impressionable girl. But that is exactly the problem with our narratives on Sufi origins — we romanticise that past without deeper understanding of the Sufi ideals and philosophies, let alone critically asking about the processes by which the conversions took place.

“Liberal” Islam imagination stops at this general story of heritage. Ask anyone on Sufi teachings and one will get sweeping comments and remarks revealing our ignorance of our forefathers and their histories.

Sufis are in general seen as qawaali singing, wandering, esoteric Muslim preachers who spread the message of the Almighty’s benevolence and had a great love for the Prophet. To find God, one must love all of His creations, even if they are practising other religions/beliefs. This is usually the narrative of Bengali Muslims on why we are secular.

It came as no surprise when at the secularism conference, a number of Bangladeshi civil society members kept saying that we are “secular by nature” because of our Sufi heritage.

“Secular by nature” — what does that even mean?

To me it means that we have stopped at Nana-Dada’s stories. It means, we are quite ignorant of what it means to have Sufi origins and hence what secularism has anything to do with Sufi Islam. Sufism is now almost a folklore — some true, mostly imaginary.

The present generation has very little information on these Sufi beginnings. In fact, I will argue that it is exactly because of such shallow and romanticised stories of the past, we suffer from an inferiority complex of not being “Muslim enough”.

From the Sufis, our popular secularism narrative leaps centuries and plunges right into the liberation war. The liberation war is often synonymous to fighting for secularism.

While that is part of the larger history, the political struggle is lost in mass media and popular culture and narratives. In the struggles of keeping the ideology of a non-communal state where people of all religion are equal, secularists have in a certain sense created hyperboles on “inherent secularism” of the Bengali people.

In these dichotomies, even I have personally felt lost and not at all comfortable choosing a side. While I was raised by my deeply pious Nana, I was also raised with a great sense of love for all that is Bengali, including learning Hindu theology, because of my father.

Many would term my family as “moderate” Muslim. Again, what is that? That we believe in moderation? That we sin or practise in moderation? That we drink and pray in moderation? No, the secular or the fundamentalists did not know where to put us and neither did we subscribe to any boxes.

9/11 and our global Muslim identity
I clearly remember running a little late for a 9am class on September 11, 2001. The campus was a little quiet but that didn’t quite register till I entered the building where my class was scheduled. At the very entrance, a group of students in complete shock and horror stared at a television screen. At inquiring as to what they were all looking at, with utter disbelief, my best friend asked me, “Shahana, you seriously don’t know? The World

Trade Center got hit!”

And so it did. The world as we knew it changed the minute that plane went through that monumental building in the middle of New York City. In the midst of the complete chaos, disarray, while we watched CNN and tried to stream Al-Jazeerah (at that time, it was still an underground alternative media house), all I could think of was — they will be coming for us.

And so they did. The Patriot Act came into effect. Civil liberties were frozen. Even while the civil rights activists were advocating against it, there was a general fear of Muslims.

Muslim community leaders were giving fatwas to sisters to take off the hijab and suddenly anyone remotely considered to be an expert on Islam and Muslims were coming on to the televisions and giving sweeping comments — “Islam is a religion of peace”.

Muslim, Arab, South Asian Americans kept stressing, “WE ARE AMERICANS”.

My religion became my ethnic identity.

Without any protest (in fact in many cases, supportively) the foreign male students lined up at the immigration offices to report on their entry and exit into the country. “If this was India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, it would have been worse.” Of course it would have been worse. But this wasn’t India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. This was America, the land of the free, the home of the brave. This was the country preaching to the rest of the world on justice and equality.

I was one of the luckier foreign students because of the activist and liberal college I attended. My friends and professors were protective towards me (and other foreign students) and institutionally we took a stand against the Patriot Act, keeping student records private. But this was a bubble. The bubble burst every time I travelled out of the college peripheries. Though physically I was not lynched, there was always a fear of getting harassed. Doing mundane things like going to the mall or a diner became stressful.

February 15, 2003, hundreds of college mates got on buses and made way to New York to protest against the war on Iraq. We blocked off 50 blocks of the city. Almost a million people from across the country came to that march. As we chanted anti-war slogans and clashed with the riot police, local and international media did a fantastic job in NOT telecasting any of the ground scenes. Whenever I talk about that march and the number of other similar marches in Chicago and San Francisco, people look at me dumbfounded as if those marches are figments of my imagination. What Matrix effect — déjà vu! Such is the power of media!

A week later, we watched the first set of bombs over Baghdad. I cry at the drop of a hat, but very few times in my life have I cried the way I did that night. Something fundamentally changed. I no longer wanted to be in the US and felt this deep sense of connecting with my Muslim identity.

For many of us religion became a political stand rather than a spiritual conviction. Some put bombs around themselves and some went off to study abroad programmes in the Middle East to find “answers”.

Why the Middle East?

Here I go back to my earlier point about not being “Islamic enough”. The weak understanding of our own Islamic heritage creates much confusion among many that perhaps something is amiss with the way we practise the religion.

An important reason for feeling this “second class” Muslim status has to do directly with the language barrier, that Arabic is not our native language. Somehow we have convinced ourselves and have accepted the hegemonic claim that without knowing Quranic Arabic, we cannot interpret the religion and come to conclusions on its legal jurisprudence. Both fundamentalists and secularists have used this rhetoric to justify one’s enforcement of practices from Arab nations and the other’s rejection of religion.

Post 9/11 global politics along with “second class” Muslim complex leads to the one-way road to a study abroad programme in the Middle East. Some went to these programmes to be better Muslims. Some went to get a better job in the US State Department upon returning. And some idealistic ones went to learn Arabic, seek knowledge and find answers.

What a load of complete rubbish! Study abroad programme in a Middle Eastern country left me jaded, sun burnt and sexually harassed because Arab men tend to think Desi women all run around the fields in skimpy lehenga-cholis like they do in the Bollywood films!

Instead of finding any sense of camaraderie with Arab Muslims, I came out of the programme convinced (and remain true to that conviction till today) that religion can never overcome cultural, class, political differences. We can only overcome these differences through humanity and mutual respect, and not religion.

So I did what anyone in my situation would do — like the prodigal daughter, I returned to the motherland.

Photo: JULIEN BRACHHAMMER/GETTY IMAGES

Return to the promised homeland
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh of my childhood and pre-college days had dramatically changed. War criminals of 1971 were a part of the ruling coalition, and massive corruption characterised the economy. People were flaunting religion (sudden proliferation of Bismillah, Alhamdullilah, Mashallah in every sentence; the Khoda Hafez vs. Allah Hafez debates, etc.) and money everywhere, all the time.

One could actually see the change in the physical make up of Dhaka and its peripheries.

More women were donning the niqab and more men were bearded. What was a simple gathering of Tablighi Muslims became hyped up as an important gathering for all Muslims. Roads and highways were being blocked, airports were making special arrangements for those attending the Akheeri Monajaat. State and culture were making spaces for this revival of an Islamic identity that had almost nothing to do with Bengali Muslim identity.

In addition to the rise of political Islam, two generations of migrant workers had established a new globalised middle class. No longer do the middle class ideologues reside in the post war 1970s/80s Bengali ethnicity dominated identity. This new middle class is mushrooming in peri-urban and urban spaces. Suddenly we find in the middle of Habiganj, 2000-people accommodating community centres at every union with at least one wedding in a quarter having the groom arriving in a helicopter.

When the national leaders are too busy with political mudslinging in the Parliament and local government bodies are too confused to implement any project without directives from the central government, it is the new middle class in the graam-gonjo putting up the schools, the small businesses, generating employment and influencing the masses.

When the migrant worker returns from Dubai after 20 years with cash in his pockets and sets up a madrassah that shelters and feeds at least 50 children from extremely poor households in his village, who cares about Sufism, secularism and ekattorer chetona?

What does it all mean?

I am not sure what it all means.

When I read the World Bank report on how madrassahs have contributed to the literacy achievements of Bangladeshi children, I am confused as to whether I should rejoice that more children can read or write, or be thoroughly worried that secular education could not meet the demands of the people. After all, major NGOs such as BRAC are working closely with maulanas at the community level and “empowering” them to give positive messages in their khutba and waz because people still consider them as the guardians to the gates of heaven.

I am also not sure of the old school secularists who will almost to prove a point, take an atheist standpoint, put up the overtly Bengali outlook and thus present secularism as a space for the educated, those with pedigree. There is a real disconnect between the secular discourse of Bangladesh and the grassroots level realities. More and more, it has become an either/or situation.

But I also have no time for this post-modern, all is fine, all is acceptable, all is fluid stand without a stand (!). While identities are fluid and should not be constrained to binaries, discourses require a clear vision that is in a great lacking. This vacuum is primarily because of the limited spaces we have to openly argue without being tagged with partisanship and/or being politically persecuted.

To stay true to my wandering Chishti heritage, I will end this with the following: “Surely in the body of Adam is a small knot of flesh, and in this knot is the inner heart, and in this heart is a moral core, and in this core is a spirit, and in this spirit a secret, and in this secret is a light, and in this light is I (ana)” — I am still trying to find my own light, ana.

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