Shariatullah, Haji (1781-1840) was an eminent Islamic reformer of Bangladesh. The district of Shariatpur is named after him. He was born in 1781 in a petty Talukdar family at the village Shamail under the then Madaripur sub-division of greater Faridpur district. He emigrated to Makkah in 1799, returned to Bangladesh in 1818 and started an Islamic revivalist reform movement, akin to the contemporary Arabian Wahhabism. The movement he started came to be popularly known as the faraizi movement. His reform movement was basically religious; but it touched upon various other aspects of the society. He may be characterised as an Islamic revivalist, a social reformer and a populist peasant leader.
While going to the holy Makkah in 1799 at the age of 18, he left behind a demurred, anguished, thrown over, unprotected people bemoaning at the suppression and repression of the indigo planters who lorded over them. The planters had by the side of them an equally outlandish corporation of marwaris who purchased large-scale zamindari estates under the terms and conditions of the permanent settlement of 1793. A third group of agents, popularly called gomastas of the private businesses of the officers of the East India Company, who were also mainly Marwaris and their Bengali associates, took under their monopoly control river ports and markets all over the country.
The combined perpetration of violence and extortion turned the people into serfs and slaves of the type of Medieval Europe; the violent social change was termed by the contemporary annual report of the English Police Commissioner as a 'loathsome revolution'.
When Shariatullah returned home in 1818, educated in religious learning and Arabic literature, schooled under the supervision of the great Islamic theologians of the time at Makkah with unbroken scholarships for nearly two decades, he entertained high hopes for a good and respectable career. His stay at Arabia from 1799 to 1818 coincided with the rise and fall of the Saudi power on the top of the explosive Mawahhidun revolution mistakenly called Wahhabism of Arabia. The Saudi power was suppressed by the Egyptian expedition under Khedive Muhammad Ali's son Ibrahim Pasha, but the revolutionary religious spirit of Islamic revivalism that set the Arab's heart boiling, remained alive. Shariatullah came back with a burning sparkle of the same revivalist fire, which he tried to introduce in Bangladesh.
But the revivalism in the Arabian setting, which contemplated the restoration of the pristine doctrines of Islam that were current in the early Islamic period, were, in view of the polytheistic background of pre-Islamic Arab society, negatively anti-polytheistic. Whereas, since 13th century AD, Islam was propagated in Bangladesh by the Sufi missionary activists who primarily emphasized on holding the iman (faith) at heart was actuated by a positive attitude. This anomaly in attitudes has been the root cause of the so-called Wahhabi-Sunni misunderstanding and quarrel.
In 1818, Haji Shariatullah's mission proved unsuccessful. His preaching of pure doctrines failed to attract audience. He, thereupon, went back to Makkah to seek advice from his teachers. Taher Sombal, his teacher, initiated him into the Qadiriyah Tariqah of Sufism and sent him back to Bangladesh in 1820 with spiritual blessings. The new Sufi element with a call to hold the iman in the qalb (heart) worked like a magnet. This time, his reform movement, which came to be known as the Faraizi, spread far and wide and became popular also in the neighbouring areas of greater Dhaka, Barisal and Comilla districts during the lifetime of the Haji.
He emphasized on holding correct faith in the Tawhid (Unity of Allah) and the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) as well as on abstaining from associating any false gods and goddesses with Him (shirk). Secondly, he laid extraordinary emphasis on performing the compulsory religious duties of Islam, by which he meant all necessary and mandatory duties, such as five times daily prayers (salat), payment of poverty alleviation religious taxes (zakat), fasting in the mouth of Ramadan (saum) and performance of Hajj, which are Faraiz (compulsory duties) and hence the movement was known as 'Faraiz'i'. Besides, he emphasised the unity and brotherhood of the Muslims and equality of mankind; he condemned caste discrimination, which had contaminated the Muslim society. He vehemently condemned numerous un-Islamic customs, usage and polytheistic accretions that had crept into the Muslim society by contagion of the practices of the non-Muslim neighbours. Following the Wahhabi reforms of Arabia, he also condemned the performance of Fatiha, Urs and Milad, which were and still are popular social usage of the Muslims of the sub-continent, and tried to abolish them by stigmatising them as bid'at (irreligious and sinful innovations). This evoked conservative reaction against his movement from the Muslim society around 1831 that resulted into a riot at Nayabari in the district of Dhaka.
Following the classical doctrines of the Muslim legal experts as noted down in Hedaya, he declared British India as a Dar- al- harb (an enemy state); in view of the inability to wage a war of freedom against the occupation power, he gave the lesser verdict that the absence of Muslim administration deprived the Muslims of Bangladesh from holding the congregational prayers of Juma' and Eids. This evoked vehement reaction of the conservative Ulama who continued to perform these prayers fearing lest their abolition should disunite, deharmonise and eventually demolish the Muslim society. His contemporary religious preacher Maulana karamat ali jaunpuri vehemently opposed him on this point and condemned him as the Khariji of Bengal.
In the socio-economic field, following the injunctions of the Quran to the effect that there is nothing due to man except the fruits of his own strivings, he declared that zamindars created under the Permanent Settlement had no right to a share of the agricultural crops produced by the tillers of the land. He instructed his followers not to participate in the Puja festivities of the polytheistic Hindu neighbours, pay any crop-levy imposed on them by the zamindars, besides the legal revenues fixed by the rent-roll of the government. This policy aroused the opposition of the newly created Hindu landlords against his movement. They shrewdly combined their patronising forces with the conservative Muslim peasantry and also took into their arms the forces of the Indigo Planters and their combined forces of opposition gradually came to a loggerhead about the year 1840, when he died and was succeeded by his son dudu miyan. [Muin-ud-Din Ahmad Khan]
Bibliography MA Khan, History of the Fara'idi Movement, Dhaka, 1984; MA Halim, (MS) Haji Shariatullah (Bengali), ASB Collection, Dhaka; Durr-i-Muhammad, Faraizi Puthi in Bengali, ASB Collection, Dhaka.