In this article the Brethren explore some rarely mentioned aspects of Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani’s political practice. A close reading of his oath of allegiance, adds a new dimension to our existing understanding of his political project. It excites and liberates us from the Manichean question of secular-versus-religious politics that dominates our discourse so unproductively. It is in the greater interest to supersede this intellectual roadblock, which causes national self-harm, but is woven into a narrow account of our people’s historical experience. It is high time to question current ‘banking’ education narratives and ask whether it is not time for a new ‘Historiography of the Oppressed’.
Down I went into the Diaspora (Piraeus)…
Have you heard the one about the Maulana and the Marxist?
My first brush with the meanings of Maulana Bhashani was at one of those social gatherings that are part of London diaspora life. It was at the height of the kitsch culture madness of Shahbag in early 2013, which was reaching its Islamophobic conclusion of calling for a banning of religion from politics in Bangladesh. I sat next to a former graduate of Sylhet’s famed MC College, a lifelong JSD (National Socialists Party) member, and a Maulana, a Qawmi Madrassa graduate. Their conversation soon descended into an argument, with the JSD member scolding the Maulana, ‘Why don’t you Mullahs give up politics?’ To this the Maulana replied, ‘How does the son question the existence of his father?’ He continued, ‘Without a free India and Pakistan there would be no Bangladesh, without Bhashani there is no Mujib, where do you think free India and Maulana Bhashani came from?’
or the one about the ‘Bismillah Capitalist’?
Related to the above topic, I remember a conversation with the late Dhaka University’s Dr Aftab Ahmed, months before his 2006 assassination and the 2007 Diplomat’s Coup. He was puzzled by a conundrum that came out of study on Islami Chhatra Shibir alumni. He found that a minority progressed into the hierarchy of Jamaat e Islami, and a small number would leave to pursue their spiritual quest, mainly ending up in the ranks of the quietist Tablighi Jamaat. The majority went into the corporate world or private business, and became good capitalists. He noted an important limitation of the party, that it was basically a modern one with a sprinkling of Islam here and there.
Living in London, which comically pitches itself as global Islamic Finance hub, I observe a similar phenomenon. We call them ‘Bismillah Capitalists’, capitalism with a sprinkling of Islam to make it palatable for an indigenous market, and switch off our people’s critical faculties. A thread of the conversation I am sorry not to have developed was Dr Aftab’s call for a Liberation Theology amongst Muslims, and the courage to see and study the politics between the Prophet’s (pbuh) companions. Perhaps the optic of Maulana Bhashani’s soulful politics provides some yeast for the former.
Escape from the shadow of Lagado: Preventing Violent Eurocentrism (PVE)
To understand the significance of Bhashani, we are minded to read him within his tradition. Thus as readers we have to leave our prejudices and let the Maulana speak for himself and be understood in his own categories and definitions.
We must avoid the mistake of many academics at the Academy of Lagado (La-puta), who use Eurocentric monocles, even when gazing in the mirror. This use of an outdated and discredited tradition is unwittingly kept alive today in the field of Bangladesh Studies (BS) by the likes of Ali Riaz and his supporters of publicists and hangers on. It is an academic practice which claims to understand Islam and Muslims, but has no training in philology or religion but a combination of journalism, political science and interests in (self) sustainability. These experts take a cue from a section of their colleagues in Middle Eastern studies, and speak in the name of foreign policy and development, creating an arid landscape ready for the neo-con mind to wrap its talons around. The consequences of such misdirection is increased ignorance and grist to the burgeoning ‘War on Terror’ industry, with ever increasing collateral damage, bordering and crossing over into Islamophobia. An ignorance multiplier effect, exposed by Farhad Mazhar about media manipulation in general and specifically by a recent article on the editorial policy of a national newspaper in Bangladesh, the Dhaka Tribune.
This approach has been critiqued in terms of its professed political objectivity by Edward Said in his ‘Orientalism’, and methodologically by the Native American scholar Ward Churchill in his seminal ‘White Studies’. For the interested, a good starting point for a constructive and knowledge-based philological study of Islam are the works the Malaysian thinker Syed Naquib al Attas, especially his ‘Islam and Secularism’.
The Tao of Remembrance (Mudhakara)
Bhashani’s life reflects the journey of his people, born and educated during the British Raj, he mobilised throughout the United Pakistan period (when not incarcerated) and was revered in Independent Bangladesh. Politically he began with Jamiatul Ulema-e-Hind and signed off in the left wing National Awami Party.
One document that that might help us understand the essence of this enigmatic figure is the disciple’s oath (bayah) he administered to his followers. It is reproduced and translated below.
“I give an undertaking that in Allah the Supreme I profess firm belief. I will believe with certainty that Rasulullah is the sent messenger. I will abide by all the regulations pertaining to the permitted and disallowed, as propagated by the Messenger.
I will not bow my head to anyone besides Allah.
I will endeavour tirelessly to establish socialism, the only way to relieve all forms of human extortion and embezzlement.
I will join the volunteer’s corps of the peasantry to eradicate from society all forms of imperialism, capitalism, feudalism, usury and corruption.
I will perform litanies, contemplation, meditation, prayers and fasting… according to the tariqah of Qadria, Naqshbandiya, Chistiyyah.
Every year on the 19/20th January 5 Magh I will attend the large seminar at Santos, Tangail and assist in the advancement and progression of the Islamic University.”
The disciple’s oath presents two features of Islamic pedagogy; action melded with belief and an anchoring to an oral tradition. Action, or orthopraxy, is seen in the obligation of adherents to engage physically from prayer, fasting, to attending annual gatherings. It is similar to the Aristotelian concept of hexis, a state of being, conditioned by habits and practice known colloquially in Bangladesh as ‘adab’.
The oral tradition is seen in reference to the Chistiyyah, Qadiriya and Naqshbandi Sufi orders and their practices. The Islamic tradition is oral before being written, even the word Qur’an means recitation. Arabs often distinguish between the Qur’an as recitation, and the written copy of it, the mus’haf. Oral primacy is maintained in Islamic pedagogy: from Qur’an memorisation; to the science of understanding where a Prophetic tradition has been narrated from; to the teaching genealogies preserved in the supplications of the Sufis. Such live oral traditions continue to breathe in Bangladesh, through the independent, non-government Qawmi (community) Madrassas, and the Sufi orders.
People with Muslim heritage can relate to this oral tradition through their formative childhood experiences, through the teaching and memorisation of short verses of the Quran, to the method of how to perform the five canonical prayers. This cycle of instruction and embodied practice is communicated from the first community in Makkah with a template established during the early Prophetic period, with the Angel Gabriel teaching the Prophet (pbuh) to recite and memorise the first verses from the Quran, and showing him how to pray.
The principles of this epistemology are laid out in a Prophetic tradition found in the Muwatta of Imam Malik ibn Anas, founder of the Maliki legal school and author of the first book of sacred law. Imam Malik knew many traditions recommending the seeking of knowledge, but felt suffice just to narrate this single hadith on the matter, one which expresses the essence of seeking knowledge, heart to heart – ‘sina ar sina’, teacher to student all the way back to the Prophet (pbuh),
Luqman the Sage (pbuh) made his will and counselled his son, saying, “My son! Sit with the learned men and keep close to them. For Allah gives life to the hearts with the light of wisdom as Allah gives life to the dead earth with the abundant rain of the sky.”
Genealogy of Resistance (Mujahada)
‘Let there be among you who enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong’.
The Oath affirms actions and a continuous struggle against imperialism and feudalism. Our 2013 Twin Towers of industrial and state crimes deserve better than, the paparazzi politics of the Reshma Rescue, the middle class guilt of Lungi March and the Dad’s Army that is Sushil Samaj. The Oath excites a soulful politics of the human solidarity and spiritual awakening – towards the creation of Al Insan al Kamil (the Perfect and Universal Man).
The impact of the Sacred on Bhashani’s political training can be seen not just in the oath’s content and monotheistic refusal to submit to all but God, but in the relationship of his teacher’s to the growing power of colonial capital. As T S Eliot wrote in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’,
‘No poet, no artist of any art, has complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
Bhashani was the disciple of the Baghdadi Pir of Lakhimpur in Assam, who advised him to journey to the Deoband seminary in Uttar Pradesh to study under Maulana Mahmudul Hassan. Bhashani’s chain of teachers were deeply committed to anti-imperial activities against the British before, during and after the 1857 War of Liberation.
Mahmudul Hassan accompanied his father in the war as a boy, and his own teacher Rashid Ahmed Gangohi had to flee from the British for his participation, he was later caught and imprisoned. Gangohi was the spiritual disciple of the Sufi Master Haji Imdad Ullah Makki. The pictures below of Delhi show the ferocity of British retribution on the built environment in the aftermath of 1857, and the simplicity of the graves, reflecting the humility of those who took part in the struggle.
All three scholars (Hassan, Gangohi and Makki) were either influenced, intimately took part in, or were inheritors of the Madrassa Rahimiyyah, the intellectual centre of resistance to the British in 1857. Scholars and students from Rahimiyyah participated in the war intellectually and physically, giving it moral legitimacy and directing movements and defences. Rahimiyyah, translates as an adjective of the enduring manifestation of Divine mercy, grace and love, as a consequence of human work, sacrifices and supplications. The madrassa was established in the 17th century during the reign of the Emperor Aurangzeb by Shah Abdul Rahim, who also helped to compile the Fatawa Alamgiri, a landmark codification of the Muslim legal tradition.
When the British eventually captured Delhi, amongst other civilising barbarities, their Army decided to destroy the leading Islamic educational institute in India, ordering the Rahimiyyah closed and selling it to Hindu businessman. The poet Mirza Ghalib is quoted in William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal,
“The madrasas were almost all closed, and their buildings were again mostly bought up-and in time demolished – by Hindu moneylenders. The most prestigious of all, the Madrasa-i-Rahimiyyah was auctioned off to one of the leading baniyas, Ramji Das, who used it as a store (p463)”.
Out of the ashes of Rahimiyyah, its alumni began a new wave of Muslim institutional innovation, with Deoband (1866), Aligarh (1875) and Nadwatul Ulema (1894) founded to establish dignity, social justice and representation for radically disempowered Muslim communities. These institutions were supported across India, cascading regional developments. Without Deoband, Aligarh and Nadwatul Ulema, there would be no Hathazari or Dhaka University. They also schooled leaderships for the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, who led the freedom struggle for Independence. This contribution was recognised in the anniversary celebrations of the Deoband Madrassa in March 1982, by the attendance of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and leading members of her opposition including Raj Narain, Jagjivan Ram, and Chandra Shekar.
The Academy and the Maulana : Escaping the Cave
Talking about Bhashani connects with wider narratives of religion, politics and the subaltern Bangladesh. He is claimed by most factions as their own, from members of Jamiatul Ulema to Marxists who place his picture beside Marx and Lenin. He continues to suffer poor treatment from the Joy Bangla Kitsch Culture Machine. Recovering Bhashani washes away the formaldehyde into which Bangladesh’s (mis)leadership has tried to drown and trade religion, and remove dynamic religion from both the political sphere and informed public debate. Recovering Bhashani transcends this bourgeois political cul-de-sac of the post-Liberation era.
In the unfortunate political shorthand of our times, leftists are invariably considered atheists who battle with rightists, who invariably aren’t. Figures who cross these two immiscible currents are pathologised if not dismissed outright, for example the case of Abul Hashem, author of ‘The Revolutionary Character of the Kalima’, a formative influence on the Awami League and proponent of Islamic Socialism. His son, Marxist-Leninist historian Badruddin Umar is on the record as saying that his father was ‘a political schizophrenic’.
Between the politics of competition and class considerations, enchantment with the Maulana is not shared by all. In a certain camp of Political Islam, Bhashani has even been takfired upon. His politics of the dispossessed disturbs the tactical movements for business as usual, but with beards. A deconstruction of the cold war politics and the personal anxieties of the individual allegedly behind this dismissal is long overdue. Looking through the eyes of the colonially colour blinded, it seems Bhashani was a flash in the pan never to be found again. Yet the same kind of personalities and struggles against oppression can be found all over the Muslim world.
To the West, in Syria we have Abd al Rahman al Shaghouri (1914 – 2004), a scholar of sacred law, poet and sufi. Originally a weaver, then a textile mechanic and later foreman of technicians at a fabric plant, his story has more than a few lessons of how we think of our garments workers. Al Shagouri was instrumental in unionising workers in Damascus and was part of the team that led the Syrian Textile Workers Union to a successful 40 day strike for workers compensation. To the East, in Malaysia we see Nik Abdul Aziz, graduate of indigenous punduk seminaries and elected premier of Kelantan State for a period of 23 years. Last year we saw a coalition of his Islamic party, Chinese Malaysians and Anwar Ibrahim’s Kedalan forming Pakatan Ryat, The People’s Alliance, and mount the biggest challenge to the Malay ethnonationalist UMNO establishment so far.
Nearly four decades after Bhashani, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to cover up his politics and enduring contributions. The erasure takes several forms, from the demotion of his life in textbooks, to the festival cancellation, following his annual death memorial prayers. In Bangladesh today there is only room for the cultural hegemony of the feudal-industrial complex, which splices the dynasty of ‘The Sheikh’ to the kitsch culture of Shahbag. Judging by the quantity of faces on billboards, or media mentions, or columns in print, the legacy of Maulana has faded away.
The urge to forget emanates from a structural push by literary custodians of elite history to exorcise the undecidability and derailment that Bhashani brings to their ‘Little Boxes’. The false dichotomies we see bandied around today, of religious vs secular, urban vs rural etc, were delivered by ‘Biman’s’ own ‘cabin crew’. The court painters of the Republic’s history have stopped exercising their memory and have forgotten themselves. Their reliance on external marks of writing instead of their internal capacity to remember and relate, holds them hostages to their own appearances. Seemingly knowledgeable and connected, but unfortunately quite the opposite, they are thoroughly intolerant of dissenting views. We see this attitude evident in the ‘Academy’ of Bangladesh today, like three prongs of the same thrusting trident. The flat earth mantra of 3 million war dead, mediated by faux objective civil society speak, and somewhat more sophisticated but juvenile ersatz Jean-Luc Godard, Marxist Existentialist mirages of ‘Utopia’.
Can the subaltern remember?
Unfortunately for his detractors, the ghost of the Maulana and the legacy he represents refuses to die and continues to live in the body politics of Bangladesh. He is the tip of an iceberg of a living collective memory and continuity that permeates and ennobles the lives of ordinary people. Bhashani is more than politics, and in many ways emblematises the country’s story (mistakes included) of an uphill struggle for truth, justice and dignity. It is a narrative which also unfolds in India, as expressed by Mahmood Madani in a recent intervention with Tehelka.
Such a narrative disrupts the orthodoxies of contemporary politics, from the traditional far left arguments of religion being an opium of the masses, to the public Islam offered by Jamaat, of an Islam in the public sphere, relegated to the Islami Bank, local shopping centres, and a few ministries in a coalition government. Tariq Ramadanechoes a similar view when he observes that the present generation of Political Islam in Egypt had strayed from his interpretation of their original raison d’etre – of Liberation Theology. Bhashani’s anchoring in the Sacred speaks to a greater narrative of the Bangladeshi people, which we visit next.
The struggle continues: (left) Maulana Bhashani (1880 – 1976) and (right) Aminul Islam (1973 -2012) trade unionist who struggled for workers rights, and was tortured and killed by individuals linked to the security services of the current Bangladeshi government.
Uncovering the Story(ies) of Bangladesh
Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture as ‘the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’.
In 1989 the British Broadcaster Channel 4, commissioned a three part documentary called the ‘The Story of Bangladesh’. It was directed Faris Kermani, and the theme was betrayal, from Plassey to the modern day. Following the tumultuous events of 2013 and our most farcical election in January it’s hard to say anything has changed. Maybe it’s time for critical introspection, into whether these are isolated events or woven into an overarching narrative of self harm.
The nation’s elite and their foreign partners tout the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 as the end of history. It is a story, of a land without progress and development for progressives and developers without a land. A story which is the exclusive property and achievement of the elites. The villain on this blank canvass is the country bumpkin, who doubles up as an Islamic militant if not a microloan borrower, in a tale faithfully retold recently in the Washington Post.
Viewing the world with this history explains the radio silence and editorial misdirection of its adherents regarding the government’s human rights violations, hamstringing of oppositional voices and state crimes in Bangladesh. The case for investigation has been submitted and is being processed by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Contrast this complicit silence with the amplitude of humane concern when that same alleged state sponsored violence spills over into the homes of minority religious communities. The secret, open to all who work in and know the sector, is in the funding streams and the agendas that frame them.
Towards a Historiography of the Oppressed
There are other histories, for those who listen, rarely recorded by foreign observers and their native informants, but spoken and heard locally and regionally, amongst the people. This Deshnama has its roots in the deeper history of the Bangladeshi people, the places they have been and the peoples from whom they are descended. It is where the history of a sacred land meets its residents, a memory that not only has its (re)source in the Medinan community of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but connects with precedents in the edicts of Ashoka.
It is a familiar synthesis, to the incorporation of the Ethics of Aristotle and the Republic of Plato, into Christian thought by St Augustine and St Aquinas, co-authored and harmonised in the works of medieval Muslim theologians such as Al Ghazali, Al Razi and Averroes. These authors, books and ideas are still read and heard in the mosques, madrassas, churches and temples that bejewel Bangladesh today. The country’s music and poetry is filled with the same cosmopolitan religious symbolism shared and contested by all those who live within it.
Near my abode, there is a wondrous City of Mirror,
where my Great Neighbour lives.
(‘The Great Neighbour’ – Lalon Shah)
It is a chronicle prologued by Atish Dipankar, who arose amidst the general background of the Buddhist struggle in Bengal against the hegemony of the Brahmin led caste system. To invoke a few Prophetic paradigms, it is like a replay of the battle between the Prophet David (pbuh) and Goliath with the dialogue of the Prophet Moses (pbuh) with Pharaoh.
Oppression (zulm) transforms with time from local rajas, Delhi Emperors, the inimitable British East India Company, The British Crown, Calcutta zamindars, military juntas to Indian hegemony. The same can be said for the movements and figures that champion the oppressed (mazlum) like Shahjalal, Isa Khan,Nuraldeen,Titu Mir, Dudu Mian, and Bhashani. Post independence, we might observe Ziaur Rahman’s struggles and achievements, against internal and external opposition, in this vein, in laying the foundations of a modern democratic state amongst the ‘basket case’ ruins of despotictotalitarianism and the devastating 1974 Famine .
This is a story of people with a rich culture, entangled in global and regional developments, and a history of struggling against great odds, with great losses, for justice and dignity, inspired and strengthened by the Sacred. In this narrative, 1971 is a continuation of that history and not its end.
When an individual participates in this of sort historical experience, he or she comes to a new sense of awareness of self, has a new sense of dignity, and is stirred by a new hope. It gives the individual the tools to take on the arrogance, violence and false ending, that characterises the power discourse in Bangladesh today, or at least partially defang it.
Finally, have you heard the one about the Maulana and the Britisher Teacher?
During my research on the 2013 May Massacre in Dhaka, I was fortunate to meet a graduate of the Hathazari Madrassa. He had moved to the UK, taken up a career in business and was now married with children. In our discussions on the importance of education placed by the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406), he narrated an anecdote.
That one day, his son came home from school and told him that he learnt from his teacher that Bangladesh was a poor and backward country, to which the UK government gives a lot of money for development. The next day, instead of dropping his son off to school, the Maulana took him on a day out, stopping first at the Tower of London. As they stood looking at the crown jewels, the Maulana pointed at the Kohi Noor stone and asked his son, ‘where do you think that came from?’ All day father and son visited various landmarks throughout London, which breathes heavily with the impacts of colonial capital, and discussed their history.
The next day at school the furious head teacher wanted to take the Maulana to task for taking his son out of education. When pressed by the head teacher for an explanation, the Maulana indicated to his son to reply. His response and act of defiance is something worth sharing across our amnesiac nation, ‘We learnt in school that Bangladesh was a poor country but that’s a lie, because all its wealth is here in the UK along with the riches of other nations stolen by the British Empire’.
“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child.
(Emperor’s New Clothes –
Hans Christian Anderson)
As practitioners of the ‘Academy, Journalism and Art’ and as seasoned desh watchers, our roles should be to listen and record the stories that the people of Bangladesh tell us, not the ones that our foreign ‘development partners’ (funders & masters) pay for and want to hear. The challenge is to cultivate a dignifying and polyphonic history to humanise each other and heal the divisions that plague Bangladesh – a new ‘Historiography of the Oppressed’.
O you who have attained to faith!,
Be ever steadfast in upholding equity,
bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God,
even though it be against yours own selves,
or your parents and kinsfolk.
Whether the person be rich or poor;
God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them.
Do not then, follow your own desires,
lest you swerve from justice:
for if you distort [the truth], behold,
God is indeed aware of all that you do!
We would like to dedicate this article to Mohammed Burhan Uddin who passed on a few days ago in Tangail, Bangladesh. Pictured here in his mid 80s, he was one of Bhashani’s oldest surviving disciples (mourides). He became involvedas a young man in the 1950s when he heard Maulana Bhashani pray openly ‘don’t do anything for my kids but provide freedom for all’.
He was a cultivator who had not finished his primary education, but well informed about Syria and American Imperialism in general. He was part of a cultivator’s committee which went around checking prices of fish from market to market – just to make sure people were not getting swindled.
A few years ago on the 20th night of Ramadan, Bhashani appeared to him in a dream instructing him to struggle, (Shongram kor) and that modern technology was insufficient, only a people’s movement would work.