The Shariah, Mullah and Muslims in Bangladesh

mullahThe Shariah or Muslim code with all its variations and contradictions has created problems both for Muslims and non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated as well as other countries in our times. The term “Shariah” evokes bad memories among its victims as well as opponents who want the abolition or drastic reforms of this Draconian code. Our experience tells us that Shariah is inherently prejudicial to women, non-Muslims and freethinkers and that its language, spirit and, above all, execution, go against the spirit, ideals and teaching of Islam as one finds in the Quran. However, ironically the mullahs or the various categories of Muslim clerics who are supposed to be the upholders of the ideals of Islam, the religion of peace and tolerance, have been the main promoters and defenders of Shariah which stands in contravention of human rights, decency and civilized behhaviour.

Another hindrance towards the process of reformation of the Shariah (if not its total abrogation) is the immoderate views of many practising and non-practising Muslims who simply endorse the views of the backward-looking mullah who mostly cite the Hadises (Sayings” of the Prophet) and books of Fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence) to justify the oppressive Shariah. The collective ignorance of the Muslim community combined with the vested interests of some members of the community is sustaining this incongruous Shariah code. The Muslim community in general and that of Bangladesh in particular can replace this absurd, outdated un-Islamic code of Shariah with a liberal and modern one only through collective efforts of the members of the civil society, human rights groups, intellectuals and politicians belonging to both the Islamic and secular groups. They need to educate both the mullahs and ordinary Muslims with regard to the obscurantist aspects of the Shariah.

The core of the problem is political. So, only social reformist agenda by a few cultural groups will not be able to bell the cat. Most importantly, slanderous, Islam-bashing writing and activists like Taslima Nasrin and others with a built-in prejudice against Islam combined with their abysmal ignorance about religion, history and culture of the people concerned are as counter-productive as the close-minded mullahs in this regard.

Brief history and background

We need to understand the importance of Islam both in the private and public domains of the Muslims in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, many secular/Islam-bashing Bangladeshi intellectuals think that Islam is just a peripheral, alien concept, subject to subsumption under Bengali Nationalism or what they think is “secularism”.

Although apparently Bangladesh came into being in the name of Bengali nationalism and secularism, the country has retained its Muslim/Islamic character for the obvious reasons. Firstly, it is the third largest Muslim country after Indonesia and Pakistan. Secondly, those who believe and promote the primordiality of the Muslim/Islamic identity for the country also argue that a) the emergence of Bangladesh did not signal the death of the “two-nation-theory” as the Muslim majority East Pakistan, for various reasons, emerged with a new name as an independent country; and that b) “secularism” was never a raison d’etre for the Liberation Struggle of 1971.

Not only “pro-Pakistani elements” but many leading pro-Bangladeshis also hold similar views. It is noteworthy that while the late Abul Mansur Ahmed, a leading pro-Bangladeshi figure, portrayed the emergence of Bangladesh as the late realisation of the “Lahore Resolution” (of 1940 for separate Muslim states in the Subcontinent), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in his first public speech in independent Bangladesh in 1972 proudly asserted that Bangladesh was the second largest “Muslim country” in the world.

In view of the above, it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh has retained its Muslim/Islamic character and of late has re-asserted its Muslim/Islamic identity by incorporating Islam as the “state religion” through an amendment of the Constitution. This politically motivated, opportunistic legislation of 1988 by military dictator General Ershad has remained intact under the post-military oligarchs of the country. The pervasive influence of Islam culturally, socially and politically has remained intact and has been rather gaining ground in Bangladesh in the recent years.

One may explain the Islamic resurgence in Bangladesh in terms of “a global phenomenon”, nothing so unique about the country. I have in an earlier essay attributed it to the “failure of the welfare state” –– as in Algeria, Egypt, the Sudan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim World, Islamic resurgence in the post-Cold War also reflects the growing frustration of the Muslim lower middle classes and urban poor at the failure of the promised welfare state under “socialism”.

This essay is, however, an attempt to go beyond economics and politics to explain the prevalent influence of the Shariah and mullahs on the bulk of the Bengali Muslims. This again is not an appraisal of Islamic resurgence and militancy in Bangladesh but an attempt to understand what goes on in the name of Islam with special reference to the codes of conduct and day-to-day behaviour of the average Muslim beyond the realm of politics. This is, in short, an attempt to explain the influence of Islam on the Bangladeshi Muslim psyche in terms of the psychohistory of the people.

Contrary to the popular belief, the mass conversion process of Bengalis into Muslims in the medieval period was neither initiated by the Muslim rulers nor had the people who got converted primarily been the low caste Hindus. The bulk of the converts came from the persecuted and marginalised non-Hindus, some Buddhist and mostly tribal.

As Richard Eaton has shown in his seminal work, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, Muslim saints and Sufis were instrumental in Islamising the deltaic southeastern Bengal, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries, by providing leadership in clearing forests and reclaiming lands in the wake of a series of catastrophic turbulence caused by the shifting of riverbeds. The Sufis, so goes the theory, not only helped the indigenous tribesmen fight wild animals, especially tigers, but also taught them the use of plough and bullocks and simultaneously introduced Islam highlighting the concept of an almighty God or Allah, said to be much more powerful than the hitherto worshipped gods and goddesses.

The process of reclaiming forests and driving away wild animals in the newly reclaimed southeastern Bengal under the Turco-Persian Sufi leadership under the Mughal patronage exposed Bengali Muslims and the new converts to the “great traditions” [to paraphrase Robert Redfield] of Islam as well as Sufism. However, the history of mass conversion of Bengalis is also replete with stories of supernatural power and “miracles” of the Sufis. Consequently one may argue that Islamisaion of lower Bengal was more due to the “miracles” and the sincere support that Sufis lent to the helpless Bengali cultivators against natural calamities and extortionist Hindu rulers and landlords than due to the spiritual superiority of Islam.

Even if we agree with Asim Roy ( The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal ) that the bulk of the Bangladeshi Muslims had been syncretistic up to the mid-19th century before the puritanical Islamic reformism of Karamat Ali Jaunpuri and the Faraizis under Haji Shariatullah and Dudu Miyan gained any foothold in the region, we cannot deny the preponderance of the Shariah-oriented “great traditions” of Islam, at least among the upper class Muslims. Both the evangelical and “warrior Sufis” (Shah Jalal, Khan Jahan and many others) and Mughal civil and military officials promoted the Shariah-based “great traditions” of Islam in the region. The British also retained the Shariah as the basis of Muslim personal/family law to avoid further complications and confrontation with the orthodox Muslims.

However, the so-called “great traditions” or the Shariah-oriented Islam in South Asia, including Bengal, actually incorporated thousands of pre-Islamic “little traditions” of the Middle East and Central Asia. These post-Prophet accretions, superstitions and both the non- and un-Islamic rituals, customs and laws are collectively known as the Shariah law. Under the influence of the ulama (theologians), Muslims globally believe that Shariah is in accordance with the teachings of the Quran and the Holy Prophet. Now, to understand the nature of Shariah and the surrounding myth about its divinity and inseparability from the Quran or scripture (“great traditions”) we need to know its origin and growth during the last 1,000-odd years, including its overpowering and malevolent effects, especially on women, minorities and Muslim free-thinkers.

What is Shariah?

The term Shariah literally means the track created by camels to and from the water holes, ponds or river, implying that it is more of a tradition rather than a new set of laws, to be followed blindly by the Muslims. The proponents of Shariah assert that there is no scope of further investigation or re-interpretation of the Quranic texts and the Hadis literature. In short, Shariah is the combination of legal opinions of Muslim jurists (Muftis and Faqihs) sought and enforced by medieval Muslim rulers. Thus the main sources of Shariah are: The Quran; Hadises or the so-called and actual sayings of the Prophet; Fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence based on the individual and/or collective opinions of jurists (Qiyas and Ijma, respectively); local customs and traditions and common sense.

Since there are only around eighty-odd Quranic verses which are regulative or prescriptive, the thousands of Shariah regulations are obviously based on thousands of spurious Hadises and legal opinions of the pre-modern Sunni and Shia jurists during the 8th and 11th centuries. Since we know about the poor quality of most Hadises with regard to their authenticity and the low level of intellectual capacity of the medieval Hadis collectors, including Imams Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmizi and Abu Dawood and Muslim scholars and jurists like Abu Hanifa, Hanbal, Shafi, Malik and (even the great philosopher, Imam Ghazzali), we have every reason to shudder at the very idea of accepting the infallibility of the so-called Hadis and Fiqh-based Shariah considering it as sacred as the Holy Quran.

A brief history of Shariah requires a re-appraisal of the history of Hadis collection. Although the collection process started during the lifetime of the Prophet and immediately after his death, a systematic albeit unscientific collection process started around two hundred years after the death of the Prophet. From its absurdity to abysmal vulgarity, unscientific crudeness, the Hadis literature is full of contradictions, lies and concoctions to justify anything that suits the caprice of unrefined kings and nobles, debauch husbands and womanisers, polygamists, rapists and child abusers, dictators, ruthless murderers and slave owners. The collection process and the contents of the so-called Sahih (authentic) Bukhari Hadises, supposed to be the most authentic in the entire corpus of Hadis literature, are good enough in establishing their absurdity. Imam Bukhari is said to have collected more than 600,000 and retained around 7,000 Hadises considering them Sahih or authentic/acceptable. One may forgive Imam Bukhari’s lapses and limitations but there is no justification in accepting all of these “Sahih Hadises” as the sayings of the Prophet ignoring their vulgarity, contradictions and anti-Quranic expositions.

The Hadis literature is full of vulgar, pornographic and totally unnecessary narrations about the Holy Prophet’s methods of cleaning himself after copulation, his sexual prowess, said to be “equivalent to the virility of forty young and healthy men”. We also find in these “Sahih Hadises of Bukhari Shareef” and in the collections by Muslim, Tirmizi and others how Eve (Hawwa) was created from a rib of Adam; why wives should prostrate before their husbands; how dogs, donkeys, horses and women belong to the same category and hundreds of other narratives which contradict the Quran, history, science, nature and common sense. They are also unjust and humiliating for women, non-Arabs and non-Muslims. It is interesting that while the “Rib Story” about the creation of Eve is a pre-Islamic, Biblical myth and is not mentioned in the Quran, other pejorative expressions about women and non-Muslims, quite common in the Hadis literature and Shariah, also do not exist in the Quran. While polygamy is very restrictive and conditional in the Quran (only the war widows and orphan girls in the wake of the Battle of Wuhud were allowed to be married, “two, three or four” at a time by Muslim men), the Hadises and the Shariah law have not only justified polygamy but also the pre-Islamic institutions of harem, concubinage, temporary marriage or Mutah (according to the Shiite Shariah), veiling of women, castrating of slaves and among other vices, the subjugation of women in every sphere of life.

Fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence as it exists today as the text of the Shariah law developed during the Umayyad (660-750) and Abbasid dynasties (750-1258), especially during the 8th and 11th centuries. The early Abbasid rulers ruthlessly persecuted many leading Muslim jurists on charges of heresy, although most jurists justified absolute monarchy and other vices associated with it in the name of Shariah. The subservient jurists virtually created two sets of Shariah law and principles, one for the ruling classes and another for the masses. Under the aegis of these opportunist jurists, women, slaves and non-Muslims suffered most. Due to the double standards of Muslim rulers and their subservient ulama/jurists it appears that what the Quran has given to women and non-Muslims has conveniently been taken away by the Shariah. The evil of Shariah became most apparent during the ruthlessly autocratic Ottoman Turkish rule (1280-1922). The Sultans and the self-styled Ottoman or Osmanli caliphs or Khalifas (Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt and overthrew the Mamluk sultan and the puppet Abbasid Caliph in 1517 and adopted the title of caliph) formally introduced the Shariah as the official code in the empire. Later Indian Muslim sultans also introduced Shariah for their Muslim subjects.

The grip of Shariah became overpowering during the reign of the most immoderate and ultra-orthodox (and cruel) Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. He not only implemented Shariah to the detriment of women, non-Muslims and Muslim free-thinkers but he also gave royal patronage and generous funding for the codification of Shariah law. This resulted in the publication of the magnum opus of Shariah in the Subcontinent, the famous or infamous Fatawah-i-Alamgiri. This collection of Shariah laws dating from the early Abbasid period is the standard source of Muslim law for the Sunni Muslims of the Subcontinent, including Bangladesh.

Further elaboration of the evil of Shariah and its anti-Islamic spirit and role reveals that it virtually stands against the Quran by placing a parallel theology, ethics and law in total contravention of Islam. We may cite a few examples to prove our assertion:

  • While the Quran prescribes 80 lashes as punishment for adultery, the Shariah sanctions stoning to death for both the adulterer and adulteress (Stoning to death is a Jewish custom, once applied by the Prophet as a mode of punishment for a Jewish man and woman in accordance with their law in the nascent Jewish-Muslim state of Medina.);
  • While there is no death penalty for apostasy in the Quran for renouncing Islam, the Shariah is very strict about enforcing the death penalty for the apostate or Murtad (the proponents of this harsh view might have been misled by the first Caliph Abu Bakr’s declaring holy war against the apostates of Arabia who revolted and challenged the Medina-based nascent state of the early Muslims after the death of the Prophet);
  • While the Quran stipulates equal status for men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims in the eyes of Allah, the Shariah under the influence of spurious Hadises deviates from the Quranic injunctions in this regard.

    One may cite hundreds of such violations of the spirit and prescribed Quranic code through Shariah. A reappraisal of the mullah (his psyche, background and limitations) and the mullah-elite and mullah-mass nexuses is required for a proper comprehension of the problem.

    Mullah and his Mindset

    Mullah is a generic term denoting all the Muslim clerics, Imams (prayer leaders), madrassah (Muslim seminary) teachers, pirs (Sufi mentors) and other members of the ulama (Islamic scholars). As a class they represent politically subservient, economically dependent (and not-so-wealthy and even poor) and socially subservient but influential groups of people.

    Their subservience and dependence on the polity, especially since the disappearance of Muslim dynasties in most Muslim countries during the colonial and post-colonial periods (18th-20th centuries), have turned them into angry bigots vying for the restoration of their lost glory, power and influence under Muslim empires and kingdoms. The mullah is perpetually unhappy with modernism as he rightly apprehends it will eventually hammer the last nail into the coffin of mullahcracy. Although “pragmatic” mullahs collaborated with pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial cruel and corrupt autocracies, justifying rulers like Yazid, Sultan Mahmud, Timur Lang, Aurangzeb, British colonial masters, Yahya Khan, General Zia ul Haq, Saddam Hussein, General Ershad, General Suharto and many others as “Islamic”, but simultaneously asserted their rights to interpret the Shariah, for the obvious reason. By legitimising autocracy they legitimise their privileged position in the polity.

    The mullahs are the first ones to raise the “Islam-in-danger” slogan as they have successfully drawn the synonymity between Islam and themselves. In short, they do not mind legitimising autocracy, slavery, harem, polygamy, concubinage and even genocide and terrorism provided there is a give-and-take between themselves and their patrons.

    Their opposition to NGOs and other agents of empowerment and employment for Bangladeshi women in the recent years is reflective of their apprehension of losing leverage, influence and employments (as quacks and “healers”) to the “agents of globalisation and modernisation”, especially in the countryside.

    Although the socially conservative mullahs could be politically radical, as it happened during the 19th and early 20th centuries in British India, they nevertheless remain backward looking and reactionary, as we know, the vast majority of Bengali mullahs collaborated with the Pakistani military during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Their lack of liberal education and employability in lucrative jobs are also responsible for their apprehensive, vacillating and opportunistic nature. What they learn in the madrassah, both in the old and the “modern” ones, is simply unbelievable. The primitive madrassah system follows the thousand-odd-year old curricula devoid of any modern sciences (natural or social). Geography, history, sociology, economics, anthropology or psychology are simply beyond their comprehension. They even have no idea about other religions. The only thing they know/believe that all the roots of knowledge are there in the Holy Quran and that the followers of all the other religions will go to hell (contrary to what the Quran tells us in the Surah Baqara, Chapter 2).

    Most madrassah graduates, including the Shaykhul Hadises or Muhaddises (Hadis scholars) and Fiqh scholars in Bangladesh cannot even converse in standard Bengali. They only know some pidgin Bengali, Urdu and Arabic. The highest educated madrassah graduate has very sketchy to no idea about the history of Bangladesh (let alone world history), politics and economics.

    Their lack of exposure to liberal education –– the study of modern history, philosophy, logic and literature –– has turned them into extremely intolerant and angry people. Their anger, immoderate views and megalomaniac attitude also reflect their inherent inferiority complex vis-à-vis the modern/Western educated people, members of the rich and powerful elite classes. Hence the emphasis on Shariah-oriented education and government so that the mullah remain politically important and socially influential.

    It would be too trite a postulate to assume that only the Bangladeshi mullahs, including the “highly educated” ones, are the only remnants of rusticity and obscurantism, but their counterparts in Pakistan, India, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere are also equally, if not more, ignorant, intolerant and arrogant.

    While Moulana Delwar Hussain Saidi, one of the most well-known mullahs of Bangladesh, compares women with fruits and animals in his public speeches, the late Sheikh Jadd al-Haq of the Al-Azhar University in one of his public statements in 1999 (quoted by the BBC) justified female genital mutilation or “female circumcision” as Islamic and antidotal to HIV (AIDS) infection. We know he was wrong on both counts. The cruel genital mutilation is a pre-Islamic Ethiopian and central African custom (practised by Muslims, Christians, Jews and animists in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, west Asia and Southeast Asia) and has nothing to do with Islam. And we know that this cruel practice cannot save women from AIDS.

    What should be done

    Without giving more details about the rusticity of the mullah, we may suggest the remedy as to how to contain the mullah, curtail the influence of the overpowering Shariah and motivate the civil society, political parties, civil and military bureaucracy, students and intellectuals, peasants and working classes, including women, to do something positive in this regard.

    The educated, rich and powerful sections of society must call the shots. They must put their foot down and assert firmly that neither the Shariah nor its main proponents, the mullahs, have any locus standi to interfere in the running of the state and in the religious affairs of the Muslims. They must also assert that as the Shariah contradicts the Quran and so does the Hadis literature to a great extent, so they are dispensable. We must assert that to remain a good faithful Muslim, one does not have to believe in Hadis literature and Shariah. One has to believe in six things to remain Muslim and the Hadis is not one of them. Modern Muslim scholars, mainly social scientists — historians, philosophers, anthropologists and sociologists — and a few enlightened mullahs with sufficient knowledge about comparative religion, astronomy (to resolve the problem of moon sighting for the next 500 years for example, for the smooth celebration of Eids and Ramadan), geography, physics, Islamic and world history and literature will have to establish the superiority of the intellect over presumptuous knowledge and pretentious books of the Hadises and the obsolete Fiqh.

    For the sake of uniformity and justice for the women and other weaker sections of society, the bulk of the Hadis literature should be banned for its anti-Islamic and blasphemous contents denigrating the Holy Prophet and the Quran. Muslim intellectuals and members of the civil society in alliance with all the secular/liberal political parties and the enlightened sections of the ulama should come forward with the argument that since there is no priesthood in Islam, no Shaykhul Hadis or Moulana, let alone the half-educated mullahs, should be allowed to arrogate the sole authority of interpreting the Quran and the authentic sayings of the Prophet. Any practising Muslim social scientist should be considered a member of the ulama, entitled to interpret the Quranic texts in accordance with the need of the 21st century, not the 8th or 11th centuries.

    The civil society, political parties and the government should come forward in support of egalitarian and just family law to give equal shares of property to the female family members and prohibit polygamy once for all. Bangladeshi Muslims across the board should support the government move to allow women to seek divorce when they find it impossible to live with their husbands any longer, in accordance with the Quran.

    Unless the unholy nexus between greedy Muslim men and the self-styled custodians of Islam (the mullah) who resort to the Shariah to deprive the Muslim women from their rights, forcing them to wear the hijab, turning them out of the mosque and accepting the husband’s right to marry two, three or four women at a time, there is no way out of the iron grip of the Shariah and its obscurantist supporters among the mullah and other ignorant Muslims. We must stop the ignorant mullah from giving speeches violating any injunction of the Quran or justifying something as Islamic by citing conveniently some Hadis or Fiqh as their source. They must not be given a free rein on Eid and Friday congregations and should be strictly monitored by the law enforcing agencies so that they do not publish or narrate things over TV, Radio or in any public forum contrary to the teachings of the Quran and against minorities and liberal/freethinking Muslims. Measures should be taken to proscribe selective Hadises for their vulgarity, unscientific expositions and for contradicting the Quran. Rustic “Islamic” books like the notoriously vulgar and unscientific Moksodul Momeneen, Neamul Quran and scores of other publications, full of un-Islamic materials, along with the video and audio tapes of Moulana Delwar Hussain Saidi should be banned for the sake of Islam and decency. Most of these books written by various mullahs are pornographic and blasphemous to Islam. They represent the popular Islam or the “little traditions” heavily influenced by Tantric Hinduism, Baul cult and other local non-Islamic beliefs and traditions.

    Finally, educated Bangladeshi Muslims should stop the mullahs whenever they start narrating fairy tales and absurd stories in the name of Islam and its Prophet in public forums and mosques. If the educated and powerful members of society continue to protect the mullahs out of compassion and respect for their “piety and knowledge”, then there is no way out of the quagmire of Shariah and the evil influence of the rustic, syncretistic mullahs who promote pre- and un-Islamic alien cults and belief systems in the name of Islam. In fact the mullahs (with a very few exceptions) are polluting the society as well as Islam. Since the mullahs can be very vicious, as we experienced in 1971 during the Liberation War, we should be also very firm and united in our resistance to mullahcracy. The mullahs only understand the language of coercion. They flourish most under rulers like Aurangzeb, Zia ul-Haq and Ershad and are contained as mere subservient clerics under bold and decisive rulers like Akbar, Jahangir, Jinnah, Sukarno and Mahathir Muhammad. The moment a ruling class or a party in power tries to coax the mullah to contain its political adversaries or to legitimise its rule, the mullah sits on its head and “Islamise” the polity to the detriment of secularism, liberal democracy and human rights. We must make people understand that neither the mullah nor his Hadis and Fiqh are necessary for us to remain good Muslims. As there is nothing divine about the Shariah so is there no truth in the mullah’s assertion that they are the naib-i-rasool or lieutenants of the Prophet of Islam. A Muslim does not need any intermediaries to reach God and His Prophet.

    (Taj Hashmi, Holiday, November 2004: The author has a BA Hons and MA in Islamic History and a PhD in Modern South Asian History. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain. He has authored four books including, Women and Islam in Bangladesh (Macmillan, London 2000). He teaches modern history at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada.)

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