History of a false dichotomy

The Sacred and the Secular
December 26, 1997

The years 1926- saw the rise of two new social movements that left a lasting imprint on the cultural history of Bengal's Muslims. The Tabligh-i-Jamat or Faith Movement, launched by Maulana Ilyas in 19, gained a significant following in east Bengal after the partition of 1947. But a year before the founding of the Faith Movement, a group of intellectuals in Dhaka formed the Muslim Sahitya Samaj (Muslim Literacy Association) as the vanguard of a movement they called Buddhir Mukti (Emancipation of the Intellect).

The central thrust of Tazeen Murshid's work is "to explore whether there is such a thing as a monolithic 'Muslim mind' which works in a way peculiar to itself in colonial and post-colonial contexts''. The answer based on her thorough research on Bengali Muslim intellectual history is resoundingly in the negative. During the century spanning the 1870s to the 1970s the Muslims of Bengal displayed many variations in their attitudes, views and intellectual orientations. Given these variations, Murshid's other contentions about "an explicit tension between the opposing pulls of a secular, rationalist outlook on the one hand, and a communal or religious tendency on the other" seems conceptually problematic. Her evidence shows considerable imbrication between the religious and secular. Also religious sensibility should not be confused with "religious-communal" bigotry. For example, Maulana Ilyas, founder of the Faith Movement, "did not show any hatred towards other religions'', while the rationalists of the Sahitya Samaj "did not advocate irreligiosity but rather an enlightened attitude to religion".

In a strong early chapter on education, Murshid shows that it was cost rather than narrow-mindedness that constrained educational choices for Muslims. The maktabs and madrasahs on the one hand received meagre financial aid from the colonial state, and on the other were, for many Muslim students, the only affordable educational institutions, where poorly-qualified teachers emphasised religious instruction over other parts of the curriculum.

Most vernacular schools were staffed with Hindu teachers and taught texts were permeated with stories from Hindu epics and mythology. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century the emergence of a Muslim intelligentsia occurred in a context of competition for educational and employment opportunities with the Hindu educated classes.

Murshid's discussion of religion in politics in the final decade of colonial rule covers terrain that has been well traversed by others. She correctly reaffirms the heterogeneous nature of the Bengali Muslim intelligentsia in terms of their politics and how, even after the increasing resort to religious idioms and symbols, "economic considerations remain(ed) paramount''.

Future historians will be in her debt for exposing the "inadequate evidence, bias and lack of sound logic" that has led a few scholars, and Richard Attenborough in Gandhi, falsely to accuse H. S. Suhrawardy of organising the 1946 Calcutta riots. What is often glossed over is not only that almost all the police were European and Hindu while most victims were Muslims, but that the riots damaged Suhrawardy's political objective of keeping Bengal united.

Murshid's chapters on post-colonial East Pakistan and Bangladesh also contain a wealth of information on the politics of culturally informed identity. "Although the appeal of the language movement was secular in nature," she writes, "student activists did operate within a religious framework". They undertook special prayers and fasts to pay homage to the martyrs of February 21 1952 who died opposing the imposition of Urdu as the only official language by the votaries of a state-sponsored Islamic ideology. After the creation of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took pains to explain: "Secularism does not mean the absence of religion.'' Even in the future, Murshid concludes, "secular objectives will probably have to be placed within a religious framework if they are to have any meaningful impact on society''. Scholars of the subcontinent can aid that process by discarding the false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular once and for all.

Sugata Bose is professor of history and diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, United States.

The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses 1871-1977

Author - Tazeen M. Murshid
ISBN - 0 19 563701 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 492

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