Islamists and Bangladesh

And how big is the Islamist vote in Bangladesh anyway? Let’s think about it through attendance at mosques

Let us define the Islamist voter as someone who would blindly vote for any party or candidate basing their platform on Islam. The vast majority of such voters in Bangladesh do not have more than a few years of formal schooling. The small minority that is educated is not capable of leading the rest, because these two groups of Islamist voters have quite different visions of Islam.

This difference in how Islam is to be envisaged goes back to the 11th century, when a schism emerged among Muslims on education and knowledge. Specifically, Imam Ghazali called for madrasa education to focus only on religious study, ignoring science, statecraft, philosophy, and mathematics.

When Muslims conquered Syria, they came across hundreds of books by Greek philosophers and mathematicians. During the Abbasid Caliphate starting from 750 AD, Muslims actively searched, translated, and disseminated such books of knowledge under royal patronage. Although many of the ideas in those books contradicted Muslim cultural and religious beliefs at that time, they still went ahead with studying and distributing them in the interest of acquiring knowledge. Meanwhile, Europe was in the dark ages where all scholarship was confined into monastery-based theological studies.

But things turned upside down from the effects of the Crusade, and then the Mongol invasion. From the interactions of European Christians and Arab Muslims, the Europeans acquired the secular study of knowledge in the Arab lands and the Muslims took up the Church-based education of Europe. The hope continuing the tradition of Ibne Rushd, Ibne Sina, al-Beruni, al-Khwarizmi, al-Farabi, al-Kindi, Jabir al-Haiyan etc, withered into nothing.

Imam Ghazali was chiefly responsible for this. He forbade all heretical ideas and thoughts to preserve Islam. He fiercely attacked Ibne Sina in his book Tahafut al Falasifa. Because of the vehemence of his attacks, even bold thinkers like Omar Khayyam withdrew from broadcasting their ideas vigourously.

Because of Ghazali, madrasa education, which was the only mass education system for the youth apart from the universities for higher education, confined itself only to religious studies. But there was opposition to this restriction in mass education in different parts of the Muslim world.

Eventually, this schism led to three regional schools: A science-oriented one based on Egypt’s al Azhar, a syncretistic one in Turkey, and a religion-focused one based in Samarkent.

Bangladesh’s madrasas are the heir to the Islamic discourse written in Farsi a millennium ago in Samarkent. The Samarkent school was abolished by the Soviets, but its literature survived in the madrasas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (Deoband), and Bangladesh’s Qawmi madrasas.

The textbooks used in Bangladeshi madrasas are all based on the Samarkent school literature, and are written in Farsi or archaic Urdu. Indeed, there are instances of Hadiths of questionable authenticity taught in our madrasas based on this literature. For example, only recently such a dubious Hadith was circulated in social media, claiming that the Prophet (pbuh) ordered us to attack India. Being the heir of the Samarkent school, madrasa students of Bangladesh tend to read archaic Urdu and Farsi more than modern Arabic-Farsi-Urdu.

After September 11, 2001, modernisation of Bangladesh’s madrasas became a priority. The then BNP government, with the assistance of Jamaat and large foreign funding, attempted a modernisation drive. This led to an intense conflict between Qawmi Madrasas and Aliya Madrasas and those trained from Medina University – with the latter denounced as Jew-trained-heretics by some eminent leaders of the Qawmi madrasas.

The imams of nine out of every ten mosques in Bangladesh are from these Qawmi madrasas. They are the role models of Bangladeshi Islamists. Scholars from different schools are viewed with suspicion by those trained in the Samarkent tradition. To expect modernising Islamists like Fetullah Gulen or Tariq Ramadan is thus unrealistic in the Bangladeshi context.

And how big is the Islamist vote in Bangladesh anyway? Let’s think about it through attendance at mosques. The same mosque that can’t fit the jamaat on a Friday, causing a traffic jam outside, can’t find a single line of Muslims for the Fajr prayer.  That is the blunt reality of Islamism in Bangladesh.

The apparent rise of Islamism in today’s Bangladesh is a socio-cultural reaction against AL misrule and Shahbaghi cultural hubris. It is similar to the socio-cultural reaction against the upper caste Hindu chauvinism a century ago. Just like the Muslim League politics ended after partition, sympathy for Islamists will also wane once the political scene changes.

Before an Islamic revolution is even plausible in Bangladesh, Islam has to be actually practiced alongside science and technology. The vast majority of us practice neither. Those who practice both, however, don’t represent the Samarkent traditionalists, who are the actual Islamists.

And that’s why Islamist politics is a non-starter in Bangladesh.

Source: Dhaka Tribune


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