By Hassan Mneimneh
October 26, 2015
Bangladesh’s brand of Islamic practicing is what groups such as ISIS cannot tolerate
More than a year ago, the “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared itself a universal Caliphate. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, presents himself as the rightful successor to the Prophet and the legitimate ruler of Muslims worldwide.
In the territory that ISIS controls, and in areas within its reach, forces loyal to al-Baghdadi routinely engage in atrocities against those who disagree with their interpretation of Islam, branding them apostates, and exacting from them capital punishment in its harshest forms.
ISIS insists that it represents “true” Islam. Some Muslims, notably among the young, seem inclined to agree. A few, and yet too many, of them have joined ISIS’s ranks, which in fact amounts to leaving promising lives to kill and be killed … in futility.
It is tempting to dismiss ISIS as a betrayal of the spirit of Islam, and even indulge in theories pointing to various nefarious forces responsible for its rise.
Closer to the truth is that ISIS represents the inflation of a strain of thought that has always existed within Islam, but that, until recently, was confined to the margins.
Its journey from the periphery to the centre is one aided and abetted by many actors, some accidentally, others deliberately.
Undoubtedly, though, ISIS finds the substance of its legitimisation in Salafism -- a modern retelling of older understandings of the faith, which claims to give exclusive importance to the fundamental texts -- the Qur’an, as the verbatim divine revelation, and the Hadith, as the canonical corpus of sayings and reported actions of the Prophet.
Throughout history and across geography, Muslims have evidently held both the Qur’an and the Hadith in the highest esteem.
The veneration of the texts, however, was part of the comprehensive endeavour of seeking the Divine, an effort that also incorporated mysticism, ritualism, and syncretism, while relying primarily on a teacher-disciple relationship.
Adepts of modern Salafism would protest vociferously the proposition that their creed owes much of its precepts to Western scholarship, but the parallels are hard to ignore.
Modern Salafism is reductionist in positing an absolute truth that rejects the multiplicity of the religious experience, “rationalist” in its deconstruction of spirituality and standardisation of ritual, and individualist in its denigration of the traditional teacher-disciple relationship.
The resulting conception of the religion is thus closer to 20th century Western models of absolutism than to Islam as lived by Muslims across the ages.
In South Asia, Bengali culture ought to be particularly resistant to this new form of regimentation in the name of religion. The land that is today Bangladesh -- the core of historical Bengal -- has always been a frontier land: Generous, but harsh, with untamable rivers and even more forbidding rains and floods.
The people that inhabited it were shaped in their social and political behaviour by its lush and capricious nature. Since the days of Ashoka, imperial designs over this land were only accorded the illusion of success, soon to realise the elusive and resilient character of the place.
The last to learn this lesson were the generals of Pakistan. When Brahmanism was not yet Hinduism -- with stricter caste discrimination and exclusion of the non-conform -- the conversion of many in the land of Bengal to Islam was an act of empowerment and defiance.
Access to the Divine needed no longer be through the medium of a self-sacralising priestly class, but was instead made available to everyone through simple intuitive rituals.
Soon after, the priestly class changed religious affiliation, and returned as “ashraf” and “fuqaha’” to pursue its attempt at patronising the common people. Through mysticism, ecstatic practices, and the acceptance of the practices of other faiths as valid paths to the Divine, however, the common people repeatedly proved that the agency in shaping the religious experience remained in their hands.
In so doing, and in every respect, the people of Bengal were not departing from the spirit of Islam, but were indeed continuing in its tradition of accommodation and freedom -- a tradition that can be plainly traced to the formative period of the faith.
Certainly, a religious scholar may polish the traditions to elevate the importance of conformity and obedience -- the resulting formulation, however, ought to be understood merely as his reading of history and his understanding of the Divine intent, not the Divine intent itself.
This is a truth that Bengali culture seems to have comfortably reached, as demonstrated by the wide acceptance among its pious of practices with which the Salafist would-be gate-keepers of the faith loudly disagree.
Compared to many Muslim contexts, Bengali culture has displayed considerable resistance to religious regimentation. However, modern Salafism has made some important in-roads, benefitting paradoxically from the increased secularisation of politics and civil life in Bangladesh.
With the rise of globalism, cosmopolitanism, and a future-oriented focus, the function of the faith as a resource for self-assertion and empowerment retreats from the collective consciousness, allowing for versions shaped to equate religion with obedience to gain new prominence.
Modern Salafism often invites Bangladeshis to sort out their allegiance either to an Islam that it posits (and that despite all claims to unadultered authenticity is a modern construct), or to a Bangladeshi culture that it caricatures as being “Hindu.”
It is the local version of the challenge that ISIS has launched to Muslims worldwide: Choose “Islam” and submit, or refuse to obey and be reviled for abandoning the faith.
Worldwide, many Muslims are perplexed by the seemingly compelling argument thus presented. It is in fact a false choice that fails to see Islam as lived by its adepts. Similarly, in Bangladesh, succumbing to the challenge and “siding” with Bengali culture is tantamount to conceding to the framework of modern Salafism that postulates a non-existing dichotomy.
Fortunately, while a few passionate activists fall into such temptation, most Bangladeshis, by their actions, celebrations, and way of life, dismiss the false challenge. Bengal had it right all along: Islam is what Muslims live. In rejecting the opposition of faith and culture, Bangladesh presents an important model for resisting the irredentism of ISIS.
Hassan Mneimneh is Principal, Middle East Alternatives, Washington DC.