Bangabandhu was personally religious, but not a bigot. We can identify at least four contributing factors in the development of Bangabandhu’s religious psyche. First, the family religious environment. The members of the family were used to say prayers and recite the Holy Qur’an early in the morning. Bangabandhu thus had exposure to Islam and Islamic ethos in his childhood. Second, by temperament and training, Bangabandhu imbibed the spirit of the history of Bengal and its tradition. The history of Bengal is replete with people’s religiosity, and there is hardly any instance of religious dissonance or religious intolerance (before the advent of colonialism). Needless to mention, Bangabandhu had a keen sense of history and its spirit; and thus he grew into a man of liberal and progressive ideas. Third, Bangabandhu’s strong sense of democracy had it that the state belongs to all; and religion is a private matter. Resultantly, religious plurality was an article of faith for him. Nevertheless, he was wont to exclaim “I am a Bangali, I am a Muslim.” It is understandable that he did not find his Bangaliness and the Islamic religion in conflict; to him both existed in tandem in his personality. It appears that, in upholding such a belief Bangabandhu appears to have kowtowed to Dr Muhammad Shahidullah’s famous saying that, “It is true we are Hindus or Muslims, but the higher truth is that we are Bangalis.” Fourth, it appears that Bangabandhu imbibed the true meaning and underlying spirit of Islam and the Holy Qur’an. As is known, Sura Hajj, chapter 22, in its verse 40 says, “If I [Allah] had not willed, there would not have been synagogue, temple, church and mosque in the world.” In other words, religious pluralism is accepted and vetted in the Holy Qur’an. Thus, Bangabandhu’s religious psyche and policies he pursued and actions he undertook appear to have had these four influencing factors.
Religious Psyche of Bangabandhu
As revealed in Bangabandhu’s travelogue New China 1952 (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 2021), we get an exposure to his religious psyche. The travelogue is a different one in that the traveller Bangabandhu was a traveller cum keen observer. As a traveller, he witnessed what his eyes met; as a keen observer, he had a penetrating eye to look deep into the revolution spawned sea-change that had overtaken China since 1949. Bangabandhu, the budding national leader, had his nation and its state in his mind as he marvelled at the speed and, enormity of change; and, as a result, the outpoured writing was a comparative one – comparison between the changed (and changing) China and change – aspiring his homeland. The relevant comparison was in the religion of China and the then East Pakistan. As written, pre-revolutionary China was mired in bigotry and superstition; and it was no better than East Pakistan. In revolutionary China, religion became a private matter, with which the state had nothing to do. Bangabandhu’s heart ached by observing the desired change in comparison with what had prevailed back at home. In writing about this state of mind, he lays bare his religious psyche for us to ponder and analyse.
We are primarily drawn to the statement wherein Bangabandhu puts on record his personal faith, “. . I am very much a believer. And I am proud that I am a Muslim.” That he was intensely pious, but never a bigot, and also a firm believer in the progressive elements of religion (in his view, all religions), is amply illustrated as he writes, “If people had always pursued the right path to religion, they wouldn’t have been involved in strife against other peoples and states over the ages. But to protect their selfish interest men have always tried to wield religion and wealth in all kinds of ways. This is why a religion is so often split by schisms.” These are the words of Bangabandhu the sociologist of religion writing empirically. A pious man as he was, his heart was pained as he witnessed abuse of religion with ulterior motives. By his own admission, Bangabandhu was a pious Muslim as well; but, even in Islam, his personal faith, he had to encounter the unwanted scenario common to other religions. He was critical of aberrations in other religions; he did not thus spare Islam for unislamic accretions. He was a man who always called spade a spade. It is his conviction that Islam is very much farther than its pristine purity. As he rightly observes, “. . how if all Muslims had followed the religious path laid out by the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) they would not have to face the conflicts that arise amides them from time to time. But the religion of Islam is now riven by so many factions. . . . what do such schisms signify? We see not only Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists involved in riots and communal violence. You all know about Shia-Sunni riots and about the way in which thousands of Muslims have been murdering each other. Surely, you know as well of the massacres that have been taking place of Kadiyani, Shias, Sunnis in the Punjab; these probably have parallels in the annals of history.”
Having thus delineated the empirical scenario vis-a-vis Islam, Bangabandhu contextually raises some poignant questions; “What are the causes? What is the state of religion now? And what is the condition of the people who are now the gurus of our religion?” These are loaded questions, and answers to which adequately explain the sorry state of religion, be it Islam or other religions. As for Bangabandhu, the religion-peddler (dharma guru), are mostly responsible for distorting and abusing Islam. “If you think about the situation even for a moment, “Bangabandhu analyses, “you will realise that these so-called religious gurus or Pir Sahibs often declare that to learn English is a sin and our country has been grievously affected by attempts to do so.” Moreover, as he goes deeper into understanding these religion-peddlers, he writes, “some of these people there [the then East Pakistan] who are 60 or so years old will marry 14 year old girls!” Again, “In our countries . . stories circulate of Pir Sahib’s whose disciples have handed over their daughters to them. And so a 60 year old Pir Sahib will accept his disciple’s gift and marry a 12 year old girl!”
Religion-based politics has proved to be counterproductive and dangerous. Europe has learnt this hard-lesson after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); but many of the Third World countries, including the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), are yet to learn this lesson — the politics in these countries have had negative and cruel ramifications. After all religion is for personal piety, not to be vulgarized by mixing it with such a mundane vocation as politics. The whys and how’s of religion – politics nexus come out vividly as Bangabandhu writes, “such politicians use religion to further their own causes and to secure their position as leaders. They dupe the masses in the name of religion in order to reign over them and suppress them. These are the people who make our religion look contemptible to the rest of the world; they have done enough damage to it that way and will continue to do so in the future.”
Bangabandhu’s Speeches/State ments Regarding Islam
In the radio/television election speech in November 1970, Bangabandhu was candid to foreshadow the role of Islam in the Awami League electioneering strategy. As he said, “There is an ongoing propaganda against us [the Awami League] that we do not believe in Islam. Our Islam is that of Hazrat Rasule Karim’s (SAW). This Islam has taught the people of the world the mantra of just and justice. Only those people who abuse Islam can think of anti-Islamic law in a country of 95 Muslims.”
The historic 7 March speech is a pointer to Bangabandhu’s personal piety. To Haji Golam Morshed’s (his life-long honorary companion) query on the way to the Race Course (as he was driving the car), as to what Bangabandhu would say in the speech in the absence of any supporting papers, Bangabandhu tilted his face upward and said, “Do not worry. I shall say what Allah would will me to say.” Exactly, his speech was so providentially ordained, that it has now turned out to be a legend, not only for Bangladesh, but the world.
Moreover, this speech contains an Arabic word — inshaAllah. Bangabandhu used this word as sura kalf, in its verses 23 and 24 ordain humans to use this word when saying something in future tense.
On 10 January 1972, in his homecoming address, Bangabandhu reminded everyone the Islamic/Muslim quotient of the new state of Bangladesh by the statement, “Let everyone be informed that now Bangladesh stands as the world’s second largest Muslim State and Pakistan’s position is the fourth. Indonesia is the first, while India is the third [in terms of Muslim population].” Bangabandhu made this statement purposely to dispel the Pakistani propaganda that the state of Bangladesh had emerged a Hindu state. This statement sounded queer in the mouth of an apostle of secularism; but Bangabandhu made this remark keeping the present and future of Bangladesh in consideration.
On 7 June of the same year, at a Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan) rally, Bangabandhu made a decisive statement, “Bangladesh will be a secular state. Secularism does not mean irreligion. Muslims will pursue their religion. Hindus will pursue their religion. Christians will pursue their religion. Buddhists will pursue their religion. This soil does not host irreligion, but boasts of secularism. This has a meaning. No religion-peddling will be allowed in this country. None will be allowed to oppress people in the name of religion. In this land of Bangla, there will not be politics in the name of religion to groom razakars such as al-Baders. Communal politics will not be allowed.”
On 12 October 1972, in the Bangladesh Ganoparishad speech, Bangabandhu harped on the same themes of secularism and religious pluralism. He said, “Religion cannot be used for political purposes. The people of Bangla do not want this. He will be rejected by the people of Bangla, if someone does this [uses religion for politics].” The same theme was repeated in the speech of 4 November. He categorically stated, “Secularism does not mean irreligion. The seven and a half crore people of Bangla will have the right to pursue their religions. We do not want to enact laws to bar religion; and we will not. . . . Muslims will pursue their religion; no one holds the power to hinder this. Hindus will pursue their religion; no one holds the power to hinder this. Buddhists will pursue their religion, Christians will pursue their religion, no one will hinder them.” Such statements appear to have had at least two purports: to establish interfaith harmony and to establish religious pluralism and/or religious democracy (not only political democracy). Bangabandhu summed up his views on religion in politics by saying in the same speech that “Our only objection is that none will use religion as a political tool. We have watched over the last twenty-five years bigotry in the name of religion, exploitation in the name of religion, perfidy in the name of religion, oppression, killing and adultery in the name of religion – all these have been perpetrated on this land of Bangla.” But the more salient was the directive contained in the same speech, “Religion is the holiest of things. The holy religion should not be used as a political tool.”
On 18 January 1974, in the council meeting of the Awami League, Bangabandhu appeared to have shared the core of his life-long religious philosophy when he quite emotively said, “Those who provoke communalism in politics, those who are communal, are lowly-born, their mind is narrow. One who loves humans, can never be communal. Those Muslims who are present here say that there is khuda who is the lord of all creations (rabbul alamin), not only of Muslims (rabbul muslemin). Be Hindus, be Christians, be Muslims – all are equal to him.”
The speeches/statements referred to above have certain salient features. First, despite being a Muslim majority country, Bangladesh was sltated to be, in terms of ideological orientation, a secular country. Second, the avowed secularism was never meant to be irreligion, but religious pluralism and interfaith harmony; in other words, religious democracy, wherein religion would be a private matter, away from state concern. Third, religion would not be a capital of politics or religion. Fourth, religion would not beget communalism and obscurantism. Above all, Islam would stick to its pristine purity.
Bangabandhu’s Steps to Promote Islam in Bangladesh
Bangabandhu patronised the establishment of the Sirat Majlish with the erudite Islamic scholars in order to portray true Islam to the public. This newly formed institution hosted Eid-e-Miladunnabi on 12 Rabiul Awal in 1973 and 1974. Bangabandhu himself inaugurated celebration meetings in the Baitul Mukarram (national mosque) campus; and this is the reason why the Islamic Foundation hosts such celebrations every year. It is worth mentioning that we have public holidays on Eid-e-Miladunnabi, Shab-e-Qadr and Shab-e-Brat (Muslim celebrations) on Bangabandhu’s personal directive. Moreover, movie-showing has since the days of Bangabandhu been stopped on these days at the cinema halls; this is to uphold the sanctity of these holy days.
By propaganda, Pakistan was meant to be an abode of Islam, but the situation on the ground was certainly at variance with the Islamic ethos. The discrimination against Bangalis, and oppression of them was justified using the Islamic rhetorics, although, in spirit and ethos, Islam was never in congruence with such Pakistani misdeeds. Some examples of the Pakistani mockery of Islam included allowing of drinking, gambling and horseracing. Bangabandhu stopped all these anti-Islamic activities by enacting laws with specific provision for punishment for offence.
The present-day Suhrawardy Udyan was the Race Course of the Pakistan period, an inheritance of the colonial days. On Sundays, in keeping with the colonial tradition, there was regular gambling in the name of horse-race. Bangabandhu stopped this horse-race, and gave the place its present name. He also transformed the race-course into a park, which was turned into a lush-green patch of land with massive tree plantation. Tree-plantation, according to hadith, is on act of duty enjoined by the holy Prophet, who is reported to have said, “If you guess that tomorrow would be the doomsday, even then sow a sapling today.”
During the Pakistan period, there was no system of government financial support for the haj pilgrim. This system was introduced immediately after independence. It may be mentioned that because of the Saudi ban, no Bangladeshi Muslim could perform haj/umrah; this ban was withdrawn in 1973, after Bangabandhu had requested the Saudi King Feisal. It is to be noted that as many as 6,600 Bangladeshi persons performed haj during the Bangabandhu tenure with government financial support.
The Madrasa Education Board was reconstituted with new power and responsibility. Moreover, the new body was given autonomy, which it had not had under the Pakistan authority.
It was Bangabandhu’s personal initiative which was instrumental in starting off radio and television programmes with recitations from the holy Qur’an, accompanied by exegeses.
Bangabandhu’s patronization of the Tabligh Jamaat was a legend. Bangabandhu alloted a spacious field at Tongi (near the capital Dhaka) so that the Tabligh could hold its annual meet, which is second in size to the haj pilgrimage; and the largeness of assembly is explained by the fact that the devotees come from all over the world. The ever expanding Tabligh finds no difficulty in accommodating the increasing number of devotees because of this far-sighted decision of Bangabandhu. This is an example of how Bangabandhu was religiously inclined; but his disavowal of religion-peddling and politicised religion or religionised politics was also a legend. Even the Kakrail mosque, the Tabligh headquarters in Bangladesh, was given additional lands for much needed expansion immediately after independence on the orders of Bangabandhu.
It is amazing to know that Bangabandhu facilitated Tabligh’s missionary activities in the otherwise religiously nonchalant the then Soviet Union. It is on record that the Tabligh delegations visited the Soviet Union with government support during the tenure of Bangabandhu. The present day international activities of the Tabligh is based on the background patronising activities of Bangabandhu.
An Islamic Academy used to function during the Pakistan period, which existed adjacent to the Baitul Mukarram. This institution never did what it was supposed to do; and there was no research publication on Islam. On 28 March 1975, by an ordinance, Bangabandhu created the Islamic Foundation for conducting higher research on Islam, and publication of Islamic pamphlets and books. It may be mentioned that, in the whole of the Muslim world, the Islamic Foundation is a unique institution in enjoying government material and financial support. The list of publications by this foundation includes nearly five thousand titles on Islamic history, Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic philosophy. Islamic economics, Islamic sociology; and biographies of the followers of the Prophet and other religious personalities. More important publications include 28 volume Islamic encyclopedia and 12 volume Sirat encyclopedia. During the Mujib centenary, publications on Bangabandhu have been added. It may be suggested that this foundation would do well by translating renowned works in Arabic and English on Islam into Bangla; or vice versa Bangla works on Islam/Muslims into English for worldwide circulation and reading.
Besides promoting the cause of Islam at home through perceptive policy-interventions, Bangabandhu made sure that the same would be done in the international affairs of Bangladesh. In the 1973 Arab-Israel War, Bangladesh extended unconditional support to the Arab cause. Moreover, to match this diplomatic support, Bangabandhu sent material support; 1 lakh pound tea (there was shortage of supply in the local market) and 28-member (largest from any Muslim country) medical team were dispatched. Needless to mention, such sincere overtures of Bangladesh made the desired impact on the Bangladesh-Arab interrelationship.
In February 1974, Bangabandhu took the bold step in joining the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) (present name is Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, OIC), held in Lahore, Pakistan. In retrospect, this move by Bangabandhu appeared to be the right step in normalising Bangladesh-Arab world mutual relationship. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Bangladesh’s joining of the Islamic summit was preconditioned by the Pakistani recognition of Bangladesh. On 22 February, Pakistan recognised Bangladesh; on 23 February, Bangabandhu flew to Lahore. The incident would remain an example of the craftiest diplomatic demarches of Bangabandhu. In retrospect, it must be said the pathway was paved for Bangladesh’s access to ptero-dollar aid/assistance club, so necessary in view of reticence of the Western donors. Moreover, it should be remembered that the Muslim world, believing in the Pakistani propaganda, had anti-Bangladesh role in 1971; and, Bangabandhu, using this opportunity, sought to woo the Muslim countries. Strategically, he was right.
Bangabandhu’s Islam was not the Islam as peddled by obscurantists. Bangabandhu’s Islam had the origin in its pristine purity. A pious Muslim as he was, Bangabandhu was also believer in religious pluralism – pluralism being the essence of democratic ethos. In believing in religious pluralism, Bangabandhu stuck to the historical tradition of Bengal, and the essence of Islamic ethos. In the 1,314 days, he was at the helm of affairs, Bangabandhu promoted Islam, but at the same time patronised other religions. He sought to turn Bangladesh into a perfect abode of religious pluralism.
Dr. Syed Anwar Husain
The writer is a Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)