Bengal has two main religions, Hinduism and Islam, but within both faiths there is a great deal of diversity of culture, belief and practices.
Islam was brought to Bengal in the eleventh century, when Mughal empire builders from north India and central Asia sought to control the region. The early Muslims of Bengal were mainly people used to living in towns – most were soldiers, but there were also traders, craftsmen and religious leaders. They came from all over south and central Asia and the Middle East. Islam only began to spread quickly among the local peasant and farming population from the sixteenth century onwards, when the Mughal emperor Akbar encouraged 'soldier-saints' to clear the thick forest areas to the east of the delta and use them for farming. Many of these 'pirs' or 'soldier-saints' and their converts followed forms of Islam which were only found in Bengal.
By the twentieth century, Muslims had become a majority of Bengal's population, and were a third of all South Asians. However, there was a big difference between the ashraf (elite and aristocratic Muslims, who usually spoke Persian) and the common folk or atrap Muslims, who spoke Bengali and were mainly peasants. Bengali Muslims belong overwhelmingly to the Sunni division of Islam, although there are small Shia communities, found mainly in Dhaka in Bangladesh and Murshidabad in West Bengal.
Bengali Muslims celebrate the major festivals of Islam: the Id ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim month of fasting (Ramadan) and the Id ul-Adha, or 'feast of the sacrifice', which takes place after the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. Id ul-Adha is in honour of the story of the prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command. Even though Bengali Muslims are Sunnis, they also observe the festival of Muharram, usually associated more with the Shia division of Islam. This festival is held to remember the death of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and martyr of the faith.
Hindus are also divided, mainly by caste (social division); and Hinduism in Bengal also takes many forms. Shaivite Hinduism in the region is known for the strength of its Mother Goddess cults, 'Durga Puja' and 'Kali Puja'. These are among the main annual festivals and are widespread among the upper castes. Vaishnavite Hinduism, on the other hand, involving devotion to Krishna, is popular among the lower castes. Especially important is the annual festival of the Lord Shiva (gajan). The goddesses Lakshmi (of wealth and good fortune) and Saraswati (of learning and culture) also have annual ceremonies.
In addition to formal worship at Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, popular worship involving religious folk music is widespread, especially at Vaishnavite gatherings where kirtans (collective singing of devotional songs) are popular both in the towns and villages. There are many Muslim followers of several Sufi orders. Bengali Muslims are also known for their practice of 'pirism', following Muslim saints or holy men (called pirs). Popular religion in Bengal often mixes both Hindu and Muslim folk beliefs and practices. Bengal is famous for its wandering religious folk musicians (Bauls), who refuse to accept traditional differences between Hindu/Muslim religions in their worship and way of life.
Important folk deities worshipped by Hindus and Muslims alike include the 'goddesses of the calamities': Sitala, goddess of smallpox; Olabibi, goddess of cholera; Manasa, goddess of snakes; Bonbibi and Gazi pir, who protect against man-eating tigers; and Dariya-pir who controls the currents and crocodiles of Bengal's mighty rivers – and all have their annual festivals and devoted followers.
For members of all religious faiths, the annual New Year celebrated on the first day of the Bengali month of Baisakh, on 14 April, marks the beginning of spring and is a joyous occasion celebrated by all.
Rana: why we Biharis celebrate Moharram
Rana is a 15-year-old Sunni Bangladesh-Bihari student who lives in Town Hall Camp and actively participates in Moharram each year.
The story of how Moharram started goes like this: There was once upon a time a saintly Muslim man/baba who lived in a Hindu dominated area. The king of the place was a Hindu and every time the Muslims wanted to do something they wouldn't be allowed to. The saintly man decided he should do something so impressive that the king as well as the rest of the Hindu population would start looking well upon Muslims. So he built a beautiful structure called a Tazia and started playing drums to attract attention.
The king heard the commotion and ordered the drummers to stop. The man replied, 'You're not doing right'. The king then asked, 'What's inside your Tazia?' The man replied, 'If you want to look inside please be my guest.' The king peeped inside and was completely floored by what he saw: in a tiny room built inside the Tazia he saw Hasan and Hussain talking to each other. The baba then said, 'There's still time for you to repent.' The king then converted to Islam and all his people with him. To commemorate this event, and in honour of the baba, Muslims built Tazias.
But Tazias are not taken out in procession by the Bengalis. However, we Biharis still observe Moharram by taking out processions as this has become part of our identity. We come together to celebrate, run through streets where Biharis live and make our presence known during those last three days of Moharram.
Ahmed Ilias: how people become related to each other through religion
Ahmed Ilias is a writer, journalist, social worker and poet who left Calcutta to come to East Pakistan in 1950.
There are many friendships made through the practising of religion. When people go on the hajj together they become 'hajj-brothers' just as when they are followers of the same spiritual leader.
Not many can go on the hajj because it is such an expensive venture, but many non-blood relatives are also made around becoming a 'murid' or a 'follower of a pir'. If I become a follower and somebody else becomes a follower, we're called 'pir-bhai' or 'pir-brother' and we have the same obligation towards each other as brothers would. My aunt and the Nawab's family were related in this way – they were followers of the same pir and so they were in a sibling relationship. This is how I got my first job at the press club. My aunt took me there. The director of the Press was her pir-bhai.
Nizam chacha: the three rules
I have just three rules by which I try to abide:
- I don't tell lies and I always stick to what I say;
- I never willingly harm anyone;
- I trust in Allah and go the halal way.
Towfique: how Islam is practiced differently in different parts of Bangladesh
Towfique is 14 years old and from Chittagong.
He has heard that those Biharis who don't offer namaz (prayers) five times a day are not allowed burial. 'What happens then?' I asked. 'You have to pay up 50,000 to 60,000 takas to the clerics who are then supposed to feed the poor with the money before you are pardoned and allowed to bury your dead in the graveyard,' he explained. 'Parents teach their kids how to say namaz from age five and they all wake up at 5.00 am to troop to the mosque.' 'Even the women?' I asked. 'No, they are not allowed to go to the mosque, they stay at home but they have to offer namaz at home,' he replied.
Vicky (Noor-e-Omar Khan): his parents' mixed marriage and miracles in his life
Vicky is a 17-year-old student from Town Hall Camp. His father, a Bihari, married his mother, a Hindu Bengali.
My mother used to be a Hindu, a Brahmin [member of the highest class]. My father is a Bihari. They fell in love and got married and there was trouble – even a court case filed against them. The police told my mother that if she went back to her father's the guy would be tried for abduction, but she did not want to return to her father so the police happily organized a wedding in their honour. After that my parents lived in Syedpur at my paternal aunt's place for six years.
We came to Town Hall Camp in 1977. My brother and I were both born in the camp. Then my father went crazy and started roaming the streets in an unkempt way and remained so for 12 years. It was the most difficult time of my life. Some used to call me 'son of a Hindu', others 'son of a madman' [keu bolto hindu’r chele, keu bolto pagoler chele].
None of our family members cared for us during those years. I have to say, my uncle who lives in the camp is very poor himself. They had much property but lost everything. But Allah has been looking after us. One day, as a small child of seven or eight, I went to the mosque and cried saying, 'Allah, why did you do this to me? People call me all kinds of names – a Hindu's son, a madman's son.' Then, when I came out of the mosque, I was miraculously circumcised. I started being considered 'special' by the other camp members who all came streaming into our house to visit me that day. We had an impromptu feast and the taunting stopped.
Jobed Ali Gazi: tension between Hindus and Muslims
Jobed Ali Gazi lives in ward number 8 of Tengrakhali in the Satkhira district. He is a Bengali refugee from the West Bengali side of the border.
My father Khoejuddin Gazi had 175 bighas of land in Shamsernagar number 2. We were very rich and the mosque belonged to us. Hindus from East Pakistan started flocking into our villages but we did not say anything, we invited them, fed them and even gave them money to help them settle. But soon after they arrived they started stealing our goats in the dead of night to give them in sacrifice to their goddess Kali. Then, when we would be on our way to the mosque, they would pull at our skull caps. After that, they started setting fire to our houses and fields. 50 to 60 families came over here together. We had lost our land, we weren't going to be choosers so we settled on khas [non-agricultural] land. There were Hindus here and some of us started to treat them badly.
Tapan Sikdar: how Hindu names are transformed into Muslim ones
Tapan Sikdar is a 25-year-old who lives in Ramzannagar in Satkhira and works as a motorcycle-driver.
There is both a covert as well as an overt Islamisation going on in Satkhira and Hindus are being intimidated to leave. We are being told this is a Muslim country and the Islamist extremists have started changing some places with Hindu names – such as Harinagar – to Muslim ones like Habibnagar.
Moutushi Islam: I am a Bengali as well as a Muslim
Moutushi Islam is a Bengali girl of 15 from Dhaka whose family migrated from West Bengal in 1947.
I celebrate Eid as well as all the Bengali festivals. For Eid I get the most clothes and they are all very bright and colourful but for the Bengali festivals I match the colours of my clothes to the festival. For example, on Bengali New Year on 14 April, I usually wear a white sari with a red border, on 16 December, our Independence Day, I wear a green and red salwar kameez or sari to match the colours of our flag; on 21 February, Language Martyrs' Day, I wear a black and white combination with Bengali letters drawn on my clothes; on Valentine's Day I wear red and at the start of Spring or the festival of Boshonto we all dress up in orange. I have much fun celebrating all of these festivals which remind me of my identity as both Bengali and Muslim.
Because of Partition in 1947, and the mass movement of people after this, most of the population of Bangladesh are Muslims. It is estimated that over 90% Bangladeshis are Muslim, with Hindus making up just over 9% of the population.
In Britain, nearly 93% of Bangladeshis are Muslim, making up 16.5% of the British Muslim population, with 0.6% Hindus, 0.5% Christians and 0.1% Buddhist. However, it is likely there are large numbers of Bengali Hindus who are Indian nationals and therefore are not counted in these figures.
Mostaq Ahmed (Tower Hamlets): being a Muslim
Mostaq Ahmed came to London to join his family in 1982. He spoke of the importance of his religion to his identity:
I say my prayers five times a day. I have a firm belief in Islamic principles. I have absolute faith in Allah… I believe Islam is a complete way of life. If you don't sincerely follow Islam, you won't be a good man, you can't be. If you follow Islam you can't be a fundamentalist, rather, if you follow Islam you will be a decent human being.
Boshir Ahmed (Tower Hamlets): the growth of religious community in London
Boshir Ahmed arrived in Britain in 1963. He recalls:
At that time, it was difficult to perform religious duties. Opportunity was limited, scope was limited. Mosques were not available. We had to hire a place in the town hall to say prayers. Nowadays it is easy. There are all the facilities, opportunity has increased, mosques are available. Children can get an Islamic education, Mawlanas [religious teachers] are available to organise a milad [gathering to remember the prophet]… Up to 60s, 70s there was no mosque… Now in Tower Hamlets there are more than 40 mosques.
Mohammed Aziz (Oldham): the growth of religious institutions in Oldham
Mohammed Aziz has lived in Oldham since 1961 and told us of the growth of religious institutions, especially mosques, in the area during this period:
Before, in Oldham there was only one great mosque. It was difficult to provide a space to the people for prayer because our community was growing so fast. Earlier, there were only 700 Bengalis in Oldham, now there are 15,000. So we thought of building a mosque in every area. Inshallah [God willing] we now have 10 mosques in Oldham. We are also thinking of building a central mosque… We hope, inshallah, we'll finish the mosque very soon.
Ashim Sen (Bradford): Bengali/Sylheti Hindus in Britain
Ashim Sen has lived in Britain since 1992. A Hindu from Sylhet, he is part of a network of Bengali Hindus scattered across the UK. He told us that in Bangladesh, relationships between Hindus and Muslims were very positive:
Hindus and Muslims lived together in Sylhet. We lived together in Bangladesh. We are so similar in our thinking that religion was not a problem in our relationship. That is why amongst the hundreds of my friends, 99% are Muslim.
The small numbers of Bengali Hindus in Bradford meant that they were unable to build their own temples, so they joined with other Hindu communities:
Bengalis are frustrated that Gujaratis, Sikhs, everyone has got a temple but we don't have a temple here. So because we don't have our own temple, we make donations to the Gujarati temple. Bengalis donate to the Gujarati temple. The Gujarati temple says that we are welcome all the time. They always welcome us.
Ashim was concerned, though, that young people of Bengali descent in Britain do not know of the existence of the Bangladeshi Hindu community:
Now there is a third generation and a huge gap has developed between Muslims and Hindus. Now if you say 'Hindu', they don't think they can be from Bangladesh. A Muslim boy who is between 10 and 15 thinks Hindus can't be from Bangladesh. Many of them ask me, 'If you are Hindu, why do you speak Bengali?' I know where he is coming from, I don’t blame him. So I tell him that in Bangladesh there are Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians – everyone. They don't know that.
Husna Ara Begum Matin (Tower Hamlets): the changing religious opportunities for women
Husna Ara Begum Matin has lived in Tower Hamlets since the 1970s and is an active member of her local community. She told us that, like most Bengali women, she mainly worships privately at home but that she occasionally attends East London Mosque which is closest to her house:
A mosque is the house of Allah, so every mosque is the same. There is no favourite Mosque. I go there [East London Mosque] because it is close to my house. I go to the mosque only for tarabi [prayers during Ramadan]. I also go if any dead body of anyone I know comes to the Mosque.
She spoke approvingly, however, of the increased facilities for women in many mosques:
Now it has become easier to practise religion. Women have got many groups to discuss about Islam and practise Islam. Much progress has taken place in this arena… There are many mosques and madrassahs… Now the opportunity to practise religion is better than at home.
Shamuz Miah, (Burnley) and Kamal Hossain (Oldham): differences within the Bangladeshi Muslim community in Britain
Shamuz Miah has lived in Burnley since 1964. He spoke of the growth of divisions in religious worship between the West and East Pakistani communities around the time of the Liberation War:
In our area we built a mosque with the Pakistanis. I saw the Bengalis walk out of the mosque, they wouldn't pray over there…
After Bangladeshi Independence, the local Bengali community wanted their own place of worship:
If we wanted to get our flag flying over the mosque, we needed another mosque. We went to the council. They said, 'but you are all Muslims, why do you need another mosque?'... We said 'It is true, we are all Muslims, but we have two languages. That is why we've fought with them…We are two different nations'. Then the council gave us permission to build another mosque. Then Shahjalal Mosque was built. Our flag started flying over it.
Kamal Hossain has lived in Oldham since 1970. He spoke of the divisions between mosques divided by regional identities and by different religious groups within Islam:
There is regionalism in the mosques. There are other groupings too – Tablighi is one group, Jamaat is another group, politically motivated, Sunnis are another group… Before, there was no debate. Everyone would say their prayers together in one mosque.
Shanu Miah and Momin Ahmed (Tower Hamlets): religion, national identity and politics
Brick Lane Mosque is our mosque. My father and uncles worked hard to get that mosque set up… I do pray in other mosques, but I don't feel safe. This mosque is the Bengali's mosque. I am not a politician, but there is a national spirit within me. I have great affection for Brick Lane Mosque.
Momin Ahmed, who has lived and worked in Tower Hamlets since 1990, also spoke of the links between religion, nationalism and politics, and the links to the Liberation War:
We, who are in favour of liberation, go to Brick Lane Mosque. There are a number of mosques that are under the control of the fundamentalists. We do not go to these mosques. We avoid them. I think of Brick Lane Mosque as my own mosque. In the Brick Lane Mosque, I find Islam in the spirit that is liked by most of my countrymen – for example, folk-based Islam or Sufism. In this tradition, they obey pirs [saints]. In this tradition, people don’t use the mosque for politics, they think of it as a sacred place. They use it simply for prayer.
Imran Ahmed (Essex): religious identity v. cultural identity
Imran Ahmed has lived in Britain since 1987. He spoke of the changing role of religious identity amongst the younger, British-born generation of Bengalis:
I think it is a question of political identity. In the universities there are some students who are high-calibre, well-educated, well-informed. Among them, I have observed a tendency towards an Islamic identity. They have an anti-Western view. They explain events in an Islamic way. They want to establish this way of thinking. They arrange discussions, seminars etc for this. They arrange activities that promote this ideology. They are based on Islamic oriented beliefs… I don't agree with them, but they have a strong belief, strong views and they are well informed.
While he felt there were some positive elements, he was concerned that this led to younger Bangladeshis dismissing their national and cultural identity:
One thing is coming out of this Muslim identity that I think has a positive side: at least they are doing something that keeps them off drugs. But they don't feel proud of their Bengali identity, it's not significant to them. Once I talked about it in my school, they replied, 'There's nothing to say about Bengalis; they only eat dry fish.' Yes, honestly, they said this.
Rimi (Essex): cultural over religious identity
Rimi has lived in Essex since 1992 and is in her 30s. She spoke approvingly of the greater opportunities for women to practise Islam in public:
I go to East London Mosque. They have a separate place for women. It is a big place. All kinds of communities go there… In Brick Lane you see many Bengalis but few women.
For Rimi, though, cultural identity is more important than religious identity:
To me culture is the top priority. My father kept us in Bangladesh for this reason. We, myself and my brother, will always give priority to the culture. My parents taught us how to greet a person, how to respect the elders… This is my culture, this is not religion. We'll never forget it. If it becomes stronger, we'll be more united. If we are united, we will have a strong identity. Then others will value us.
Rahela Chowdhury (Newham): religious v. multiple identities
Rahela Chowdhury is a businesswoman and local councillor in East London. She spoke of the importance of her identity as a Muslim but also of other identities she felt were important:
I don't limit myself to one identity… By birth, I'm a Muslim, it is important to me. On the other hand, I am a Bangladeshi, and I feel proud of that; it's equally important to me. Then again, I live in Britain now, my home is here and I'm involved in political issues – I want to be involved with school, college, the mosque, everything, so I cannot ignore this Britishness. At the same time, I am a mother to my children, a sister to my brothers, and a wife to my husband… When I go to the council, I am a councillor, when I go to school, I'm a member of the governing body. All are equally important to me.