Arabisation of Bangladesh

An Asset, Liability or Threat?

Visitors to Bangladesh, who enter the country for the first time through the Hazrat Shah Jalal International Airport in Dhaka, might get the wrong impression about the major languages spoken in the country. Even before disembarking the aircraft, the first thing they notice is the name of the airport in bold Arabic letters on top of the airport building, along with Bengali and English on two sides. There was no Arabic sign on public buildings and thoroughfares until the late 1970s, when religion was inserted in the Constitution by General Ziaur Rahman. The introduction of Islam as the "State Religion" by General Ershad in 1988 was a big step towards further Islamisation of the polity.

However, these steps towards Arabisation and Islamisation were at best nothing more than symbolic gestures, in a country afflicted with tremendous identity crisis; and at worst politically motivated, opportunistic, and hypocritical. 

Nevertheless, playing with people's religious sentiment for the sake of legitimacy by the rulers, and their appeasing the Islamist parties and individuals with Islamic symbols like Arabic signs, and Islam as "State Religion" have already backfired. Unabated cultural Arabisation and Islamisation in the long run could drag the country towards religious extremism.

Arabisation is a generic term. I define it as a process of adopting elements of Arabian culture by non-Arab Muslims and non-Muslims, in historical and contemporary perspectives. One may mention all areas of acquired habits by human beings, including religion, language, politics, law, social customs, food habit, art, attire, and music in this regard. This happened after the phenomenal rise of Islamic empires. Awe-stricken Europeans learnt Arabic and indigenised Arabic/Islamic culture – art, architecture, philosophy, music, medicine and science –in the 9th and 13th centuries during the heydays of Arab/Islamic empires. Historians are unanimous about Arabic/Islamic contributions to European Renaissance.

We need to understand the Arabisation of Bangladesh in historical as well as in the contemporary socio-political, psychological and geo-political perspectives. Overwhelming majorities of people in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia adopted Islam and Arabised their language and culture soon after the expansion of Islam by sword, trade and other means; what is Bangladesh today is no exception in this regard. However, as Islam came here through Persianised Turco-Afghan-Iranian conquerors and Sufis, Bangali Muslims' religious beliefs, vocabulary and rituals – very similar to elsewhere in the subcontinent – have been predominantly Turco-Afghan-Iranian rather than Arabian.

However, Bangali Muslims retained their language, script and many other aspects of the indigenous Bengali culture in the wake of mass conversion. Some of them are still unwilling to give up certain indigenous/Turco-Persian rituals and beliefs – such as showing reverence to dead Sufis/Pirs, and believing in certain cults, including the Satya Pir, the Bangali Muslim version of the Hindu Satya Narayan. In sum, a syncretistic Islam evolved in Bengal, which ultra-orthodox Wahhabi-Faraizi-Deobandi-Salafi Muslims have been trying to supplant with orthodoxy, at least for the last 200 years. Their success is partial.

Thanks to the Persian influence, Bangali Muslims (very similar to Indian and Pakistani ones) often use the Farsi khuda and paighambar to denote Arabic Allah and rasul (messenger or prophet), respectively. Despite the ongoing Arabisation process, Farsi not Arabic is still widely used as the "Islamic language" in Bangladesh. Thus Farsi namaz for prayer (not Arabic salat); roza for fasting (not Arabic  saum); Ramzan  for the fasting month (not Arabic Ramadan); and jaynamaz for prayer mat (not Arabic musalla) are integral parts of Bangali Muslim vocabulary.

However, due to the patronage of ultra-conservative Arab Muslims and their local adherents in Bangladesh, sections of Bangladeshi Muslims are fast indigenising ultra-orthodox Wahhabi-Salafi ideologies, practices and vocabulary. Meanwhile, many Bangladeshi Muslim women have adopted the previously unknown, the Middle Eastern hijab, which is a variant of the Lebanese Catholic nuns' habit. Muslim men and women in the country are fast adopting some weird and hitherto unfamiliar Arabic expressions and Arabian practices in the name of purifying their faith.

Now many Bangladeshi Muslim children have unique (often difficult to pronounce and remember) Arabic names. Many Bangali Muslims have discarded certain old rituals during milad in commemoration of the birth of the Prophet. They have introduced new ones from the Arab World. Bangladeshi Muslims at home and abroad organise halaqa, religious gatherings for learning about Islamic theology from one or more speakers, followed by intense question-answer sessions, prayers, supplications and food; mostly in segregations, Muslim brothers and sisters sitting in separate chambers.

Of late, the hitherto unheard of Arabic expression, "Allah Hafiz" (introduced by General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan) to bid good-bye to someone, is gradually replacing the Farsi "Khuda Hafiz" (May God protect you) in Bangladesh. 

Appraising the Arabisation process in Bangladesh is difficult. The phenomenon is as strange as the stories of The Arabian Nights. One is not always alert enough to notice the changes that have already crept into the psyche of the nation – and the ongoing undercurrents of the process – in the realms of Islamic religion, rituals, and popular culture in the country since the 1970s. Sometimes the government, but mostly adherents of "Islam-loving" political parties, cultural organisations and Islamic scholars flaunt, push and glorify Arabian culture in the name of one religion. Bangladeshi Muslim workers in the Gulf countries – labourers to professionals – have also been Arabising the popular culture in the country. Due to inadequate knowledge of Islam, neither these workers nor their relatives, neighbours and friends differentiate between Islam and Arabisation.

As Badruddin Umar has brilliantly explained in his writings, many disempowered Bangali Muslims during the British period nurtured a romantic extra-territorial loyalty towards Afghan-Arab-Iranian-Turkish lands, their language, rituals, and attire and food habit, and identified themselves as descendants of "original Muslims" from outside India. Tracing one's origin to the Middle East and Central Asia or to some aristocratic families is still fashionable in Bangladesh. It indicates Bangladeshi Muslims' identity crisis and inferiority complex. Many of them still fail to identify which one is their primary identity, Muslim or Bangali.

The quest for Arabisation has some similarities with a section of the Hindu population's quest for upward mobility through the Sanskritisation process, by indigenising Brahmin culture, food habit, attire and gods in South Asian history. Although Arabisation has elements of non-Arab Muslims' quest for upward mobility, it is also an elite plan of action to politically hegemonise mass consciousness.

In sum, since the late 1970s, Muslims of Bangladesh have failed to distinguish between what is Islamic and what is Arab. Arabisation of the popular culture has become synonymous with the Islamisation process in Bangladesh. This synonymy is ominous. It has long-drawn implications for the country. Moderate Muslims, liberal/secular Bangladeshis, and the friends of Bangladesh need to understand the long-term consequences of this slow and steady transformation of the popular culture of Bangali Muslims. Cultural transformation of people is a major step towards their political orientation and makeover. 

The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. Sage has recently published his latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.