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Muslim Religious Movements


Muslim Religious Movements of nineteenth century Bengal were mainly revivalist, but also partly liberal modernist reformist in nature.

Nineteenth century Bengal witnessed a few reform movements among Muslims as well as Hindus. The Islamic Reform movements, such as Faraizi, Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah, Taaiyuni and ahl-i-hadith, occupied a conspicuous position among them. These were revivalist in character and stirred deep religious sentiments among Muslims throughout east, west and north Bengal, and succeeded considerably in rousing the Muslim masses to action. The Tabligh Jamaat and Seerat Conference movements, which recently stirred similar mass enthusiasm in Bangladesh, are reminiscent, and to a great extent also the spiritual progeny, of these movements of the preceding century.

Universal Perspective Religious movements being social phenomena have to be studied in the wider context. Islamic revivalist movements had taken such hold of Bengal in the 19th century that historians rated them as the persistent sign of life in a subjugated and decadent Muslim community. Religious revivalism in itself was not, however, peculiar to the Muslims of Bengal, but had become widespread throughout the Muslim world, affecting the Muslim Ummah as a whole. There is a suggestion that it had cropped up in different parts of the world under the impact of imperialism.

Thus considered, the Wahhabism of Arabia appears to have arisen under the impact of Ottoman imperialism. Mughal and British imperialism produced the movement of Shah Waliullahi and the Teriqah-i-Muhammadiyah. The Fariazi, Taaiyuni and Ahl-i-Hadith movements arose under British imperialism. The Fulani and Sannusiyah of North Africa arose under French and British imperialism, and the Paduri and Muhammadiyah movements of Indonesia under the impact of Dutch imperialism.

In popular parlance these religious reform movements came to be associatively known as Wahhabism and Islamic revivalism, tajdeed al-Islam, as against a somewhat Western Renaissance-oriented Muslim modernism and Pan-Islamism, ittihad al-Islam. The movements, in general, were universal; both aimed at re-awakening Muslims all over the world; and both carried the slogan: 'Islam in danger'. Therefore, there existed considerable mutual sympathy and a good deal of unity of purpose and identity of sentiments between them. Yet, they pursued different goals and occasionally expressed disapproval of each other's programmes and scrupulously maintained exclusiveness and independence of each other's stance.

Local perspective Although Bengal was occupied by the Muslims in the beginning of the 13th century AD and ruled by them till 1757, it was not fully Islamised. It comprised a cosmopolitan society consisting of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, who lived side by side in adjacent but separate villages and hamlets under a tolerant regime that ensured universal justice and security. In this local cosmopolitan historical perspective, the social scene in Bengal in the 19th century, as far as reform was concerned, sharply contrasted with the slothful situation obtaining in the 18th century. Intellectual life in Bengal during the 19th century became especially quickened and enlivened by the impulse of socio-religious reform which took hold of both Muslim and Hindu communities. In the second decade of the century, it made an intelligent section of both the communities question the compatibility of the current patterns of their life with their respective religious inspirational sources, and also with the immediate and future prospects of their communities. The immediate cause of such a re-awakening was the impact of British rule on Bengal.

The rule of the east india company in Bengal had completely shattered the social frame of the country, firstly, by sapping the authority and status of the Mughal Ruling class which comprised Muslims and Hindus in equal numbers; secondly, by destroying the traditional lifestyle of the rural well-to-do class; and thirdly, by setting up the Hindu Banyans of Calcutta, who were mainly marwari businessmen and moneylenders and worked as Gomastahs (commercial agents of the English in India), often styled as 'black Gomastahs of white men'. The zamindars, feudal lords newly created by the permanent settlement of 1793, perpetrated atrocities on the masses. The gomastas and the zamindars were joined by a third group of ambitious fortune hunters, Englishmen looking for opportunities for capital investment in rural Bengal. Many of them probably brought money and skills from the lost colonies of America, and as indigo planters gave a 'royal colour' to the scourging of the peasantry.

The combined impact of these developments upon the social structure of a subjugated people can be well imagined. Such a pattern of a 'protected scourging' thus formed a corresponding 'take-over process' of the East India Company's rule over Bengal (1757-1857) as against the systematic destruction of the Mughal administration, which has been designated by Lathrop Stoddard as the policy of 'pacific penetration' by Western imperialism. This policy had created many social and economic anomalies especially in the rural life of Bengal.

Little wonder, therefore, that it aroused a deep sense of pity in the minds of Christian missionaries, and a sense of remorse in some good souls from the ranks of English administrators, and also considerable sympathy amongst humanist groups in England. With their blessings, encouragement, help and participation, raja rammohan roy laid the foundation of a 'Renaissance' type of modernist/ Western social reform movement in Calcutta around 1814, which spurred numerous other social reform movements in Bengal and India for remodelling the Hindu social system.

However, if the British challenge had produced a somewhat positive response among the Hindu elite of Bengal, during the corresponding period it produced a negative response among the Muslims and spurred a number of 'revivalist' religious reform movements, beginning with the Faraizi movement of haji shariatullah in Bengal and the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah movement of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid of Rai Bareilly in Delhi, both of which came into existence about the year 1818 AD.

In contrast to the Muslim revivalist movements, Raja Rammohan Roy's reform movement is generally regarded as a Renaissance movement. It should, nevertheless, be observed that it differed from the European 'Renaissance model', especially as it was deeply infused with a revivalist desire to restore a pristine Hindu or Aryan religious spirit. The European Renaissance aimed at integrating the classical, secular, Graeco-Roman spirit of the 'rationalism' of the 'past' with the merciful Christian 'morality' of the 'present', to create a 'humanism' that could be the foundation of a happy and civilized 'future' world. In comparison, however, Raja Rammohan Roy's Renaissance aimed at resuscitating a pristine Aryan 'Unitarianism of God' with the help of the modern Western rationalist spirit. In the heart of hearts, it was not secular but deeply religious. Consequently some other important Hindu reform movements, such as the Arya Samaj, were antagonistically spurred by Rammohan's reformist activities and inspiration.

Islamic revivalism and the Hindu Renaissance thrived within the same space and about the same time. They affected each other, unfortunately more by their mutually antagonistic revivalist impulse, than by the actual or imagined 'rational' impulse of the Renaissance. Thereby they tended to break asunder the time-honoured Islamic or Mughal peace of 'religious tolerance' and began fostering a new form of Hindu-Muslim communalism.

Local Islamic perspective Bengal, from the Muslim conquest (1205) till the Battle of Palashi (1757), continued to be a well-secured stronghold of the world Muslim community. Politically also, it remained a bastion of Muslim power in the Indian subcontinent. But the Battle of palashi brought in the English, and as a consequence, Muslim society decayed and shrank under constant stress. The period of subjugation under the British can be subdivided into two periods: first - pure slavery of 100 years under the East India Company's rule and second - protected subjecthood for 90 years under the British Crown, the Great Revolt of 1857 drawing the dividing line between the two.

In the first period, Muslim society moved from light to darkness, from hope to despair, from Darul Islam to Darul Harb, that is, from the abode of peace to the abode of war. Muslims waged a relentless and unlimited war against the enemies of Islam to defeat their conspiracy against Muslim society and the religion of Islam. It was a war unto death - Jihad or Hijrat, which eventually gave birth to the Faraizi movement of Haji Shariatullah and dudu miyan, the Tariqah-i-Muhammadyah movement or so-called Indian Wahhabism of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid, titu mir, Maulana Wilayat Ali and Maulana Inayat Ali, the Ahl-i-Hadith movement of Shah Ismail Shahid, and Maulana Nazir Husain and also the Taaiyuni movement of Maulana karamat ali of Jaunpur.

In the second period, following the great shake-up of 1857, the Muslims - not as a community, but individually - endeavoured to adjust themselves to the alien political power, to tame their nature before adjusting to the modern civilization of the West, to compete along with other subject peoples of the British empire in order to grab the amenities of a happy and cultured life under Pax Britannica, to exchange jihad for the protection of the British law, Aman. In a word, they tried for a transition from the abode of war (Darul Harb) to an abode of protection (Darul Aman) by means of giving up political ambition and accepting wholeheartedly the administrative peace, the rule of law, as the be-all and end-all of a happy modern life. These ideals and the accompanying sentiments and emotions became crystallised in one word- loyalism.

The Islamic revivalist movements thrived in Bengal with high emotional fervour from about 1820 to 1870, most of the time at a frantic sentimental level until they were systematically destroyed or tamed as non-political, religious movements by the British government. Thus considered, they may be said to form a 'transitional bridge' from the state of slavery to the state of protectorate. Until the struggle fizzled out, the slogan of 'Darul Aman' and the idea of protectorate could not take hold of Muslim society. After the revivalist movements fizzled out the Renaissance type of Muslim modernism, overtly or covertly pronouncing the slogan of 'loyalism', took charge of leading the Muslim community nearer to the English rulers along the road of constitutional progress.

Functions Coming into being as a puritan reaction to the impact of imperialism, as an international jihad movement and as a move to re-organise and reintegrate local Muslim society in the local socio-political perspective discussed above, the first and foremost task before the Islamic revivalist movements of Bengal was to revive the original doctrines of religion. This was also the main task set before Hindu reform movements such as the Brahma Samaj and Arya Samaj. In their reformist endeavour, both the groups called for purging their respective societies, but offered grounds for the fresh community-wide contact between them and their like-minded co-religionists across provincial barriers.

One of the functions of Islamic revivalism was thus the 'breaking of isolation' of the Muslims of different parts of the Indian sub-continent which had been caused by the shrinking of the Mughal power during the preceding century.

Secondly, it may be noted that, in all, there were four Islamic revivalist movements that gained popularity in Bengal. Out of them, the Faraizi, Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah and Ahl-i-Hadith aimed at reviving the pristine teachings of Islam and purging Muslim society of un-Islamic local accretions. The fourth, the Taaiyuni movement led by Maulana Karamat Ali Jaunpuri, had split off from the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah and wanted to retain some traditional institutions of Muslim society such as Fatiha, Milad and Urs, which were rejected by the other three. Moreover, following the revolt of 1857 the Ta'aiyuni movement joined hands with the Muslim modernists and declared India under the British Crown as an 'abode of protection' or protectorate (Darul Aman), which according to Maulana Karamat Ali absolved the Muslims from the religious obligation of jihad, that is, fighting unto death for the liberation of the Muslim community, and from Hijrat, that is, migration to an abode of Islam. Moreover, the reformist trend of Shah Waliullah of Delhi had influenced the Ahl-i-Hadith movement.

The Faraizi movement arose under the direct influence of the Wahhabism of Arabia and had no direct link with the movement of Shah Waliullah or the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah of Delhi. On the other hand, the movement of Titu Mir was a direct extension of the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah of Delhi.

Being manifestations of a universal type of Islamic revivalism, these reform movements emphasized the social egalitarianism of Islam, equality of mankind as the creation of one Allah, brotherhood of Muslims, the unity of the Muslim world and the need for waging jihad for the liberation of Muslim lands from the hands of the infidels. For this purpose, the upholders of these movements also sought to resuscitate the Islamic Ummah, which became in course of time a central part of their reform programme. For this reason, the Islamic revivalist movements everywhere in the world, overtly or covertly, aimed at establishing an Islamic social order and political State, and as a matter of policy, turned directly to the masses.

A second important function of Islamic revivalism was, thus, reinfusing a deep sense of organic unity of the Ummah and of the value of Islamic egalitarianism and brotherhood in the consciousness of the Muslims.

Moreover, their strategy of mass contact and fiery speeches delivered with equal fervour from the pulpit and the political platform, for rousing religious sentiments against internal corruption of Muslim society as well as against the conspiracy of the foreign rulers, succeeded considerably in waking up mass consciousness to the deplorable political and economic situation of the Muslims all over the world.

A third important function of Islamic revivalism in Bengal was thus the widening of general awareness, psychological re-invigoration, and reform and re-organisation of society. In the early 1820s when Sayyid Ahmad Shahid visited the city of Calcutta, he apparently received no opposition from any quarters of the Muslims, Hindus or the government administration. But in the first flush of its mass popularity in rural Bengal, in parts of 24 Parganas and Nadia under Mir Nisar Ali alias Titu Mir from about 1827 to 1831, it came upon the quicksands of a conspiracy of the new class of Hindu zamindars and gomastahs with whom the European indigo planters also joined hands.

However, Haji Shariatullah had lived at Mecca from 1799 to 1818. While he was a student he had closely observed the conflict of the Wahhabis of Arabia with Ottoman imperial power and watched how they were destroyed by Khedive Mohammad Ali at the behest of the Ottoman sultan. The Haji took shelter in patience and sobriety, and saved his movement by retreating completely from politics into the arena of social and religious reform. [Muin-ud-Din Ahmad Khan]

Bibliography WW Hunter, The Indian Musalmans, Calcutta, 1936; Azizur Rahman Mallick, British Policy and the Muslims of Bengal, 1757-1856, Dhaka, 1961; Muin-ud-Din Ahmad Khan, History of the Fara'idi Movement in Bengal, Karachi, 1965, Dhaka, 1984; Social History of the Muslims of Bangladesh under the British Rule, Dhaka, 1992.