Understanding the Bengal Muslims: Interpretative Essays (Hardcover)
by Rafiuddin Ahmed (Editor)
"The volume will interest historians of South Asia, scholars of Islam and religion, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists as well as lay readers." (jacket)
[Rafiuddin Ahmed is Professor of Asian Studies, Elmira College, Elmira, New York and Adjunct Professor of History, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA.]
Book Review by
The Muslims of Bengal, including the present-day state of Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, form the single largest Muslim ethnic group in the world after the Arabs. This book, a collection of ten essays, seeks to provide a broad overview of the Bengali Muslim identity. Although each of the essays deals with a particular aspect of Islam in Bengal, they all seek to grapple with what, for many Bengali Muslims, has seemed an almost insoluble dilemma -- whether they are Bengalis first or Muslims, and how their ethnic loyalties can be reconciled with the demands of a faith that transcends national boundaries. Little is known about how the Bengal countryside, particularly the eastern part of the province, located far from the centers of Muslim political rule, emerged as the home to the largest number of Muslims in the South Asian sub-continent. Richard Eaton, in his brilliantly researched essay, explores the fascinating process of the Islamization of the people of eastern Bengal, a process that he believes began in the sixteenth century. He writes that conversion to Islam was actually discouraged by the Mughal governors of the province, but, despite this opposition, large masses of Bengalis turned Muslim. Relying on hagiographies of local Sufi saints and Mughal land records, he argues that the process of Islamization in Bengal must be seen as, above all, a result of the agrarian policy of the Mughals. Mughal governors, eager to augment their revenues from the land, provided rent-free land grants to both Hindus as well as Muslims to cut down the dense forests in the eastern parts of the province and bring them under settled cultivation. The Muslim pioneers in this region employed local, largely aboriginal tribal people, as cultivators on the new lands. After their deaths they began being revered as saints, being attributed with supernatural powers. Gradually, these aboriginal people were Islamized, a process that did not reject previously-held beliefs directly, but accommodated Islamic elements within pre-existing cosmologies. Hence, conversion to Islam in eastern Bengal, as indeed in many other parts of India, took the form of an extended process of cultural change over several generations, rather than a sudden and complete change in identity, beliefs and allegiances. Because of the nature of the process of Islamization in Bengal, the Bengali Muslims continue to share much in terms of world-views, beliefs and practices with non-Muslim Bengalis, a phenomenon which Ralph Nichols observes in his paper on Islam and Vaishnavism in rural Bengal. While many ulema and Muslim reformers see this shared tradition as a sign of incomplete conversion or as 'unlawful innovation' (bid'at), Nichols seems to suggest that it was actually through developing this shared tradition that Islam was able to make headway in Bengal in the first instance, successfully expressing itself in terms which the Bengali peasants would find understandable. Peter Bertocci examines, in his contribution, the way in which rural Bengali Muslims understand their faith in precisely these local terms, drawing close parallels between institutions and identities that both Bengali Muslims and Hindus construct their own social worlds.
Understanding the Bengal Muslims--Interpretative Essays
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
1. Who are the Bengal Muslims? Conversion and Islamization in Bengal/Richard M. Eaton.
2. Islam and Vaishnavism in the environment of rural Bengal/Ralph W. Nicholas.
3. Islam and the social construction of the Bangladesh countryside/Peter J. Bertocci.
4. The Bengal Muslims and the world of Islam: Pan-Islamic trends in colonial Bengal as reflected in the press/Mohammad Shah.
5. A Muslim voice in modern Bengali literature: Mir Mosharraf Hosain/Clinton B. Seely.
6. The changing world of Bengali Muslim women: the 'Dreams' and efforts of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein/Sonia N. Amin.
7. Radicalism in Bengali Muslim thought: Kazi Abdul Wadud and the 'Religion of creativity'/Shahadat H. Khan. 8. The Bengali Muslims and the state: secularism or humanity for Bangladesh?/Joseph T. O'Connell.
9. Gender and Islam in Bangladesh: metaphor and myth/Shelley Feldman.
10. Bengali Muslims and Islamic fundamentalism: the Jama't-i-Islami in Bangladesh/Enayetur Rahim.
"Who are the Bengal Muslims? What are their social origins? How do they define their linguistic and regional identity? These questions are pertinent to an understanding of the contemporary debates, especially in Bangladesh, on what being a 'Muslim' and a 'Bengali' mean. The essays in this volume offer interesting insights into the social and cultural processes which contributed to the making of this community, the second largest Muslim ethnic population in the world after the Arabs.
"The eleven essays in this volume cover a number of topics which are particularly relevant to the ongoing debates in the region, such as conversion and Islamization in medieval Bengal, patterns of Orthodoxy and syncretism in Bengali Islam, humanism, secularism, and fundamentalism in Bengali Muslim society, the changing roles of Muslim women in a tradition-bound society, and the controversy regarding the Bengali Muslim identity. The essays retrace the roots of these debates and provide new insights into the issues and concerns of the Bengal Muslims today.
"The contributors include historians, social scientists, linguists, and generalists whose common concern is to produce an interdisciplinary and scholarly collection, offering fresh perspectives
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