Oct 14

The Simple Equation of the Bengali

The following is a translation of an article which originally appeared on the website pathchokro[dot]com. No rights to this translation are reserved, and may thus be reproduced freely. Sourcing the translation and the original article, to their respective websites, however, would be much appreciated. 

Jobayer Al Mahmud

Bengali and Muslim – is there any conflict between these two terminologies? The question may have different answers. It may be a yes, or a no, or something else entirely. Generally, the Islamic scholars do not see this as an issue of debate, but rather as something afoul or too trivial to discuss. On the other hand, the secular civil society takes this question very seriously. In fact some believe that this should be the main issue of discussion in today’s Bangladesh. To put things under perspective, almost all secular civil society intellectuals believe that Muslim and Bengali identities are in such a state of disagreement with each other, that there is a huge gap in effect present between them.

Islamic scholars do not worry themselves with this debate, largely because of their preoccupation with pondering upon the matters of religion, or due to being busy with imparting moral education to the masses. However, since secular civil society intellectuals do not worry about the above in the least, they are content to get on with their lives and remain in never ending agony over the paramount nature of the Muslim-Bengali identity conflict.

Say for example that there is a conflict between one’s Muslim identity and one’s Bengali identity; what would be the nature of such a conflict? What would be the origins behind such a conflict? And who is to blame for the prevalence and continuum of this conflict? To understand all this, it would be best to go into a discussion on the definition, alongside the relevance of the two terms.

If one takes the word “Muslim” into account, it would be clear that there is little debate amongst Islamic scholars as to the definition of a Muslim. This is due to the fact that the Prophet (S.A.W) himself put forward the definition as to what the word “Muslim” would represent and constitute. In stark contrast, there is a multitude of opinion among secular civil society intellectuals as to what the term “Bengali” constitutes. In retrospect, some of these opinions (about themselves, nonetheless) have been so degrading as to be unfit for any modicum of consideration by the civilized society.

Those who tend to hold positive views about the Bengali society often face a daunting task while trying to define the term “Bengali”. On what basis would one define the term “Bengali”? Would it be on the basis of language or culture? Or would it be on the basis of terrain or through inheritance?

If one would define being “Bengali” on the basis of the ability to speak the language, then how would one incorporate into this definition, the thousands of English-medium students in this nation, many of whom lack respectable knowledge of the vernacular? What would be their identity? If one claimed that being “Bengali” was on the basis of a distinct culture, then a question would arise as to what is Bengali culture? Looking back at history, one would claim that the people of this region were originally non-Aryans. Then came the Aryans, followed by the Buddhist, Muslim and finally Christian invaders. Each of them brought with them their own culture in the process. So which amongst these will be designated as Bengali culture? Hindu, Buddhist or Christian? If one thus believes the culture of non-Aryans to be “Bengali” culture, then that would that not lead to a negation of a bulk of the culture presently associated with contemporary cultural practice such as those in the vein of Pahela Baiksakh celebrations, because such celebrations were not a part of non-Aryan culture? In light of above, if we believe that Bengali culture is like a flowing river, then we need to seriously ask: where is the problem in accepting Muslim culture as Bengali culture?

Similarly, if the terrain of Bangladesh became the basis of definition of the Bengali identity, then where would that put the Bengalis of Calcutta and those of other nations? What would be their identity? It is well known, though, that the latter call themselves the real Bengalis, and label us as being fake Bengalis. Then coming to the inheritance factor, which gets debunked just as easily; those foreign nationals who live here and have married into the society, are their offspring not Bengalis?

Therefore, a multitude of problematic issues arise when we try to define as to what constitutes a “Bengali”. But then, can we say that Bengalis have no identity? This question is very difficult to answer, and we surely do not intend to go there. We just want to understand why Bengalis suffer from an inferiority complex when faced with the question of their identity; and why secular intellectuals, especially those at Shahbag, shout themselves hoarse, “Who am I, who are you? Bengali! Bengali! ”. We need to find the answers to these questions.

We can say, that in this region, there are Muslims, and there are Bengalis, who have a conflict with regards to their identities, and that there is need to resolve such a conflict.  But before such an undertaking, it is required of us to understand how much is this conflict reflected within the society or the state we live in, in terms of reality. If one asks a person from a village, an upazila or the city –“ who are you (i.e. what is your identity)?”,  then he or she is sure, after stating his or her name and father’s name, to state, “I am a Muslim”, or “I am Hindu, Buddhist or Christian”. And unless asked, the person would never naturally be expected to say, “I am Bengali”.

So the question now prevalent is – who are Bengalis? Who are the wielders of this identity? In contemporary retrospection, probably two kinds of people love to hold such an identity. One of them include the hilly land grabbing agents, and the other includes the chetona (emotive) agents. Both of them sport a common trait. Those who are Bengalis in the hills, want to establish their supremacy over the indigenous people by evicting them, while the Bengali chetona agents, dream of removing, from the hearts and minds of the masses, all emotional attachment and association connected with religion and morals, and establish the supremacy of the secular chetona instead.

However, there is also a difference among the two types of Bengalis described above. There is no problem of the hill region Bengali with accepting the Muslim identity; for the conflict is with the indigenous hill people, and is narrow and well-defined. The problem of the latter, that of the chetona laden Bengali, is with the Muslim identity, and is characteristically complex and undeniably murky.

So, from the above we can now derive that just those believing in non-communal emotive attachment or chetona are Bengalis, while those having faith in religious chetona are Muslims, Buddhists or Christians. So the question then comes along – Is there as much of a conflict between the Bengali identity and the Hindu identity, as there seems to be within the Muslim identity and the Bengali identity? The answer probably is, ‘no’. Because when the great Sharat Chandra, in his novel ‘Sreekanth’ says, “Today Bengalis and Muslims are playing each other in a football match”, it then becomes clear that there there is no difference between Bengali and Hindu, that they are both actually one and the same. This will be more clearly felt when reading Ishwar Chandra or Bonkim, where one is left with the impression that “being Bengali means Hindu, and being Hindu means Bengali; Muslims can never be Bengali.” Therefore, in the intellectual civil society, though a lot of debate may be present on the whether one is Bengali-Muslim or Muslim-Bengali, there is no such controversy regarding being Bengali-Hindu, Bengali-Buddhist or Bengali-Christian.

So, in the flow of things, we may surmise that only in the case of the Muslim identity is the Bengali identity incompatible, while no such controversy exists with the Hindu, Buddhist or Christian identities. If we arrive at this hypothesis, we may even point to the fact that under the guise of the Muslim-Bengali identity conflict, deep down it actually is a manifestation of the Hindu-Muslim conflict.   And our bright secular intellectuals, while beating drums on the former, tend to completely ignore and even vehemently deny the latter. But of course, it is neither our place, nor our aim, to expose the thick headedness of our secular intellectuals.

Now, as a further point of debate, even if we take into account the claim that the term Bengali does not refer to the Hindu community, but normal Bengali-speaking people, the question the arises as to whether there is similar animosity to the Muslim religious identity amongst people of other languages and/or states around the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we would find that such animosities are absent. A look at countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia or Iran would give a clear definitive picture in this regard.

So, where exactly lays the point of conflict between the Muslim and Bengali identity?

One explanation could be that our secular intellectuals have still not been able to discover the point of conflict between the Muslim and Bengali identity, or that even after discovering it, they are unable to muster the courage to speak about it.

The second explanation would be that there was never any conflict between the Muslim and Bengali identity; that the secular intellectuals have solely created this debate to serve and fuel their own selfish interests. And Allah knows best about the truth behind this.

Leaving the secular civil society behind us at this junction, let us look at the Islamic scholars. Do they really believe that there is no conflict between the Muslim identity and the Bengali identity? It could be that, due to being busy with limiting themselves to the Muslim community, they really do not think of the land or country as being belonging to them. But this would be untrue, especially when one comes to examine the titles or names borne by the Islamic scholars of our society. Many Islamic scholars include the names of their places of birth within their own names. Sometimes, it so happens that while their actual names cease to be known, they gain recognition with the part of their name that reflects their places of origin. Some such famous Islamic scholars of repute would include – Keramat Ali Jounpuri, Moniruzzaman Islamabadi, Abdul Hai Paharpuri, Junaid Babunagari, Nurul Islam Olipuri, Tafazzal Haq Habiganji and many others. Each and every one of them is known by the name of their areas of origin, and it would not be far from the truth to say that each and every one of them takes pride in this fact.

At this juncture, let us examine whether a lack of communication between the Islamic scholar society and the general masses of this country is the reason that they do not ascribe to a conflict in Muslim and Bengali identities. Just as before, taking into account ground realities, this presumption simply does not hold on any account either. There is no doubt in the fact that secular intellectuals are nowhere near the Islamic scholars in gauging the temperament of the general masses and understanding, building inroads with and maintaining close communication with them. A testament to this would the fact that if one were to take the public attendance in gatherings presided over by Islamic scholars and compare it to those of secular intellectuals; the attendance in the latter would not even equal one percent of the attendance in the former. The masses love the Islamic scholars, and it is with them that they identify with when contemplating on their daily life problems.

Finally, let us examine one more facet to the argument at stake. Perhaps the Islamic scholars are not aware of the differences in identities arising from the nation-language-ethnicity nexus. But this gets debunked as well; when we see Islamic scholars give excellent commentary addressing the roots of the issue at hand, while quoting the Quran,

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” [Surah Hujurat: 13]

In light of this verse, it is undeniable that Islamic scholars always have the best of intentions and thoughts while addressing the issues of nations-language-ethnicity, abiding by the directions of the Divine in regard nonetheless.

At one moment of this process of comtemplation, it came to the mind that, in reality, this exercise was in actuality futile, and that time was in reality simply being wasted. I needed to question an Islamic scholar or secular intellectual about their thoughts on the subject. Since secular intellectuals are a breed high far away from my grasp, I decided to ask an Islamic scholar about his thoughts on the issue. He gave me an extraordinarily insightful answer, saying, “Muslims can accommodate Bengali, non-Bengali, Iranian, Turanian, English – all of them, but look at those people identifying themselves as Bengali. They are highly reactionary and they can’ stand Muslims at all.”


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  1. Chris Brown

    Tortuous thinking, the article writer has.
    “Bengali” is going to be a more variable term than “Muslim” but with any large sample sive you’re going to be a long way from homogeneity
    Whether either of the two terms in their larger or smaller variety can be in conflict is probably most easily seen on any question of authority:if the Bengali states’s demands and the Islamic faith’s expectations are are not in accord at any point, then there is a tension for an individual as to whether their first loyalty is to Bengal and its institutions and laws or to Islam and its institutions and laws.
    Some years back in the UK there was a question as to whether people of Pakistani origin who had become British citizens had truly become British. Somebody suggested that the real test was who they supported when Pakistan were playing England at cricket.. When it came to the push… (it was lighthearted and also caused a fair old row.)
    It’s along those lines I have heard some Islamic scholars asserting that Islam is not compatible with democracy: what if the people voted for something un-Islamic? Would the people’s democratic will prevail, or would Islam and the teachers of the Quran reject that authority?

    State laws on freedom of speech and freedom of religion (and against murder) have not been respected by certain individuals in West Bengal and in Bangladesh outraged secular and atheist bloggers producing what they took to be to be anti-Islamic writing, while feeling an Islamic duty and right to to to defend Islam, with violence.
    It may be held that these were not respecting Islam, either, only what peculiar version they had been taught, or come to. That is a separate category of belonging , identifying with and respecting (or not) the authority of…

    ” we see Islamic scholars give excellent commentary addressing the roots of the issue at hand, while quoting the Quran,
    “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female…”

    Well yes this is clear and excellent for those who hold to the Quran,
    Those intolerant of their neighbours by street, or neighbours by country, may not be respecting the authority and teaching of the Quran and Islamic scholars whilst still identifying themselves as Islamic.

    As an atheist I note the teaching of the Quran but I do not sit under it.
    I don’t believe in Adam and Eve, for a start.
    But even in a secular state the civil power could in theory lawfully demand obedience and conformity from me (in my identity as a citizen of that state) where I would find myself myself in rebellion to my own country and state. It turns out I do have a higher power in such a context: my own conscience. So my identity is (slightly?) split too.

    1. Talukder Shaheb

      Well Chris, first and foremost, thank you for trying to understand. Some points for you to consider.

      a. The terms ‘secular Bengali’ and ‘Muslim Bengali’ here have their historical contexts, stemming from a historical background of couple of hundreds of years of colonial rule. In fact, everything happening around you has its own historical context and is to some extent part of a product of a challenges and response mechanism, probably so well explained by Toynbee.

      b. I believe, before Lord Macaulay taught us to think along communal lines under the policy of ‘divide and rule’, the Hindus and Muslims lived side by side in largely peaceful periods throughout history, a majority Hindu population under a Muslim rule nonetheless. The wars back then were nothing in scale or atrocity to the level of violence and loss of human life as under colonial rule or after they ‘civilized’ us to conform to secularism along the European model while lighting and endorsing a division of the subcontinent along communal lines; a potential recipe for disaster.

      c. You cite the threat of a few terrorists/radicalized elements. Though innocuous in wording, it has deep implications in the present world of today. Show me how the bombing of Iraq on the pretext of WMD, the invasion of Afghanistan, the killing of thousands of innocent people in the name of fighting terrorism and ‘restoring democracy’ was not a bigger act of terrorism. I wonder what the dead innocent people killed would have to say to your theory and justification for keeping autocratic regimes in place of systems which have been shown to act comparatively a lot more justly for centuries, bringing prosperity, peace and stability.

      d. The next time you say democracy or Islam, please think in terms of what democracy/Islam, whose democracy/Islam. In today’s world, democracy is not what you think, but is what the West (especially the US) wants you to think, while having reduced you to the status of weak nations and cut your cultural/historical roots. Its not that you do not have a better solution to govern yourself and live by, its that you just do not have the option to do so; you risk being dragged down by force (the victory of FIS in 1992 Algeria was foiled by army; democratically elected Mursi was toppled by the army which had full endorsement of the West and Western interests; et al)

      Though I had a lot more in mind, I presently am a bit busy. Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

  2. Robi-ul Dawn Johnson

    @chris : bro no need to be confused about ‘islam’ and democracy ..what you need to know is that the only authentically recorded history is that which is mentioned in the quran..until proven otherwise(which is quite close to impossible really). the solution is to go ahead democratically and let people choose their religions of choice. Whilst making sure that nobody’s religious sentiments get effected in any sort of way. Use your freedom of speech to do good things only. That’s the message. If someone can be at peace not believing in god, let them be atheists. Let them try to disprove the existence of god, logically, rationally, without bringing emotion into it. And then, let the smarter muslim minds debate with them like civilized enough beings. Only kill people if you are at war, that is the islamic way. Retaliation is the islamic way. And one more thing, shariya laws are not state exclusive, they are a muslim ummah exclusivity. It belongs to all muslims, who are supposed to be led by a caliph. That being said, the system is long gone. And it most likely would not come till the end of times, with the re-arrival of Isa(PBUH) and things/events like that.
    Lastly, the caliphate topic may bring the whole idea of the “IS” up. IS is far from something islamic, it uses religion as both a shield and a sword(and in oil rich places..the latest weaponry of course) to fill their pockets up by themselves. The emotions..thoughts, feelings, ideas of a muslim, that is what they aim to take a sort of, advantage of. What they ultimately want is to keep their business going. And also, when people talk about the west not caring about the smaller nations to much, it is a thing of the past. Human rights issues have only become more sort of, highlighed extensively and a mainstream thing after the second world war. So try not to take what happened before that era(the 1940s) into consideration too much.

    Times change, people change, govt. personnel changes, and so do their policies.

    Do not let people feed you with hate.

    At the end of the day, we are all human beings, before and above anything else.

    God bless, and also, mister talukdar, do you think that your blogs could make more difference at home, are they mostly composed in english so that when foreigners google current bd affairs up, they are meant to stumble upon blogs such as yours in the first place ? Quite patriotic, i must say, in a funny, ironic, and a tragic kind of way.

  3. Robi-ul Dawn Johnson

    and also mister talukder…when was the last time the OIC or let’s say saudi arabia, or jordan or iran has stepped in to help some of your muslim brothers up, right ? I am a muslim too, what i am saying is, if you want to mislead people, give them the chance to be able to think about things too. If you believe in your wits, your level of intellect, you would be okay with counter statements or arguments too, right ? As long as they are rational enough, right ?

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