With a population of 160 million, Bangladesh is the world's fourth largest Muslim nation after Indonesia, India and Pakistan and the third largest Muslim-dominated nation. Many Muslims in Bengal — eastern India and Bangladesh — are descendants of relatively recent converts to Islam and may of them still cling to customs rooted in Hinduism and pay homage to Hindu gods even though its is forbidden by the Quran. A large mosque was built in Dhaka with money frm Saddam Hussein.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The symbols and sounds of Islam, such as the call to prayer, punctuate daily life. Bangladeshis conceptualize themselves and others fundamentally through their religious heritage. For example, the nationality of foreigners is considered secondary to their religious identity. Islam is a part of everyday life in all parts of the country, and nearly every village has at least a small mosque and an imam (cleric). Prayer is supposed to be performed five times daily, but only the committed uphold that standard. Friday afternoon prayer is often the only time that mosques become crowded. Throughout the country there is a belief in spirits that inhabit natural spaces such as trees, hollows, and riverbanks. These beliefs are derided by Islamic religious authorities. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The duties of the Muslim, which form the "five pillars" of the faith, are recitation of the shahadah (kalima in Bangla), daily prayer (salat; in Bangla, namaj), almsgiving (zakat; in Bangla, jakat), fasting (sawm; in Bangla, roja), and pilgrimage (hajj). The devout believer prays after purification through ritual oblations at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed genuflections and prostrations accompany the prayers that the worshiper recites while facing Mecca. Whenever possible, men pray in congregation at a mosque, led by a prayer leader; on Fridays they are obliged to do so. Women may attend public worship at mosques, where they are segregated from men, although most women commonly pray at home. A special functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire community at the appropriate hours; those out of earshot determine the prayer time from the position of the sun. Public prayer is a conspicuous and widely practiced aspect of Islam in Bangladesh. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Most Muslims in Bangladesh are Sunnis, but there is a small Shia community. Most of those who are Shia reside in urban areas. Although these Shias are few in number, Shia observance commemorating the martyrdom of Ali's sons, Hasan and Husayn, is widely observed by the nation's Sunnis.

History of Islam in Bangladesh

The history of Bangladesh is related to that of the larger area of Bengal. Early Muslim explorers and missionaries arrived in Bengal around A.D. 800. The Islamic conquest of Bengal began with the 1204 invasion by Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji after annexing Bengal to the Delhi Sultanate. The history of Bangladesh is related to that of the larger area of Bengal, which became independent of Delhi by 1341.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: In 1204 the Bengal region was conquered by Muhammad Bakhtiyar, a Turkish Muslim. With capitals at Gaur, Pandua, Dhaka, and Lakhnauti, Turkish Muslims governed Bengal (under the Delhi sultanate) until 1342. The area was subsequently controlled by the independent Ilyas Shahi and Husayn Shahi dynasties, which included Abyssinian (Habshi), Arab, and Afghan rulers. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

After Muslim invaders from the west secured a foothold in Bengal in the 13th century, their political control encouraged conversion to Islam. In the 13th and 14th centuries, after waves of Turkish, Persian, and Afghan invaders, the religion began to take a firm hold in the area. Since then, Islam has played a crucial role in the region's history and politics, with a Muslim majority emerging, particularly in the eastern region of Bengal. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Sufi sects took root at an early stage in what is now Bangladesh. Arab and Persian traders began arriving in Bangladesh in the A.D. ninth century. Sufi religious teachers succeeded in converting many Bengalis to Islam, even before the arrival of Muslim armies from the west. Arab, Persian and Chinese traders sought fine muslins, pearls and precious stones. Bengal was known for its silk and cotton cloth weaving industries.. The famous 14th century Muslim geographer Ibn-I-Batuta described Chittagong as madina-tul-Akahzar ("the green city").

By 1612 the Mughals, a Muslim dynasty that spread across India, had gained control of Bengal. The Mughals ruled Bengal until the British took over its administration, an event attributed in great part to Robert Clive's defeat of the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Bengal thus became part of British India.

Later History of Islam in Bangladesh

The wholesale conversion to Islam of the population of what was to become Bangladesh began in the thirteenth century and continued for hundreds of years. Conversion was generally collective rather than individual, although individual Hindus who became outcastes or who were ostracized for any reason often became Muslims. Islamic egalitarianism, especially the ideals of equality, brotherhood, and social justice, attracted numerous Buddhists and lower caste Hindus. Muslim missionaries and mystics, some of whom were subsequently regarded as saints (usually known as pirs in Bangladesh) and who wandered about in villages and towns, were responsible for many conversions. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “None of the many Muslim rulers of Bengal were interested in converting the indigenous people to Islam. In fact, they were tolerant of the diverse religious practices of people in their territory, often patronizing the arts and literature of the various communities. In 1905 the British divided Bengal, viewed as too large to govern, into two states, East Bengal and West Bengal, with the majority of Muslims living on the eastern side. In 1947 British India was partitioned into the newly independent nations of India, with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, dominated by Muslims. East Bengal became a province of Pakistan, although a thousand miles of Indian territory, as well as differences in language and culture, separated it from the rest of Pakistan to the west. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Bengalis took great offense to what they perceived as an attempt to "de-Banglacize" their culture and to replace it with cultural elements of West Pakistan. West Pakistanis, however, saw their own culture as more authentically Islamic and associated Bengali culture with Hinduism. In response, Muslims in East Pakistan began to assert a Bengali identity, which they shared with their Hindu neighbors, and many Bengali Muslim politicians no longer believed that having a common religious identity with West Pakistan was enough. In 1952 the Language Movement, advocating Bengali as the language of East Pakistan, began, which led to agitation for independence from Pakistan in the name of linguistic nationalism. In 1971 East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh.

Sufism in Bangladesh

Sufism has traditionally been strong in Bangladesh. The tradition of Islamic mysticism known as Sufism appeared very early in Islam and became essentially a popular movement emphasizing love of God rather than fear of God. Sufism stresses a direct, unstructured, personal devotion to God in place of the ritualistic, outward observance of the faith. An important belief in the Sufi tradition is that the average believer may use spiritual guides in his pursuit of the truth. These guides — friends of God or saints — are commonly called fakirs or pirs. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “In the Bengal region Islam was spread by Sufis (Muslim mystics) and itinerant holy men and not by the patronage of Muslim rulers. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, Sufis were interested in Islamic philosophy and values. Evidence of their great impact on the culture of Bengal can be found in the preserved literature of the Sufis, the shrines (mazars) dedicated to the Sufi saints, and the continued appeal of Sufism in Bangladesh. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Sufi masters were the single most important factor in South Asian conversions to Islam, particularly in what is now Bangladesh. Most Bangladeshi Muslims are influenced to some degree by Sufism, although this influence often involves only occasional consultation or celebration rather than formal affiliation. Both fakirs and pirs are familiar figures on the village scene, and in some areas the shrines of saints almost outnumber the mosques. In some regions the terms fakir and pir are used interchangeably, but in general the former connotes an itinerant holy man and the latter an established murshid, a holy man who has achieved a higher spiritual level than a fakir and who has a larger following.*

Ever since Sufism became a popular movement, pious men of outstanding personality reputed to have gifts of miraculous powers have found disciples (murids) flocking to them. The disciple can be a kind of lay associate earning his living in secular occupations, consulting the pir or murshid at times, participating in religious ceremonies, and making contributions to the support of the murshid. In addition, he may be initiated into a brotherhood that pledges its devotion to the murshid, lives in close association with him, and engages in pious exercises intended to bring about mystical enlightenment.*

The Qadiri, Naqshbandi, and Chishti orders were among the most widespread Sufi orders in Bangladesh in the late 1980s. The beliefs and practices of the first two are quite close to those of orthodox Islam; the third, founded in Ajmer, India, is peculiar to the subcontinent and has a number of unorthodox practices, such as the use of music in its liturgy. Its ranks have included many musicians and poets.*

Pirs in Bangladesh

A Pir or Peer is a title for a Sufi spiritual guide, master or teachers. They are also referred to as a Hazrat, and Sheikh or Shaykh, which is literally the Arabic equivalent. The title is often translated into English as "saint" and could be interpreted as "Elder". In Sufism a Pir's role is to guide and instruct his disciples on the Sufi path. This is often done by general lessons (called Suhbas) and individual guidance. Other words that refer to a Pir include Murshid The path of Sufism starts when a student takes an oath of allegiance with a teacher called Bai'at or Bay'ah where he swears allegiance at the hands of his Pir and repents of all his previous sins. After that, the student is called a Murid. From here, his batin (esoteric) journey starts. [Source: Wikipedia]

In Bangladesh the term pir is more commonly used and combines the meanings of teacher and saint. In Islam there has been a perennial tension between the ulama — Muslim scholars — and the Sufis; each group advocates its method as the preferred path to salvation. There also have been periodic efforts to reconcile the two approaches. Throughout the centuries many gifted scholars and numerous poets have been inspired by Sufi ideas even though they were not actually adherents. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Pirs revered by many Bangladeshi Muslims. They sometimes provide guidance and offer advice on personal and professional matters. Pirs do not attain their office through consensus and do not normally function as community representatives. The villager may expect a pir to advise him and offer inspiration but would not expect him to lead communal prayers or deliver the weekly sermon at the local mosque. Some pirs, however, are known to have taken an active interest in politics either by running for public office or by supporting other candidates. For example, Pir Hafizi Huzur ran as a candidate for president in the 1986 election. The pirs of Atroshi and Sarsina apparently also exerted some political influence. Their visitors have included presidents and cabinet ministers. Pir Atroshi was the spiritual guide for the former president Hussain Ershad (ruled 1982–90), who was known to consult frequently with the pir. *

South Asian Islam

Bengali Islam is influenced by Hinduism. A number of Islamic practices are particular to South Asia, and several of them have been subject to reforms over the years. For example, the anniversary of the death of a pir is observed annually. Popular belief holds that this anniversary is an especially propitious time for seeking the intercession of the pir. Large numbers of the faithful attend anniversary ceremonies, which are festive occasions enjoyed by the followers of the pir as well as orthodox Muslims. The ceremonies are quite similar in form and content to many Hindu festivals. Several nineteenth- and twentieth-century fundamentalist reform movements, aimed at ridding Islam of all extraneous encroachments, railed against these and similar practices. Nevertheless, the practice of pir worship continued unabated in the 1980s. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Nonorthodox interpretations of Islamic beliefs and practices pervaded popular religion in Bangladesh in the 1980s. Hindu influences can be seen in the practice of illuminating the house for the celebration of Shabi Barat (Festival of the Bestowal of Fate), a custom derived from the Hindu practices at Diwali (Festival of Lights). Rituals to exorcise evil spirits (jinni) from possessed persons also incorporated Hindu influence. Often, villagers would fail to distinguish between Hindu and Muslim shrines. For example, shrines called satyapir, which dot rural Bangladesh, are devoted to a Hindu-Muslim synthesis known as Olabibi, the deity for the cure of cholera. This synthesis is an intriguing superimposition of the Hindu concept of divine consort on the stern monotheistic perception of Allah.*

The Almadiyya sect — which many Muslims consider heretical — has about 100,000 members This sect has been singled out for attacks. See Terrorism. Ahmadiyya is a Muslim sect that does not recognize Mohammed as the last prophet. Members believe that the 19th century Punjabi Muslim reformer Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (c. 1839–1908), was a Messiah who claimed to have succeeded the Prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims regarded Ahmadis — the followers of Ahmadiyya — to be heretics for their belief that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a savior foretold by the Quran. Muslim leaders accused Ahmadis of defying the basic tenet of Islam that says Muhammad was the final prophet and God’s last direct messenger. Ahmadis insist they are Muslims and argue their leader was the savior or “subordinate prophet” rather than a prophet. Ahmadis are more numerous in Pakistan than Bangladesh.

Major Theologians and Authors in Bangladesh

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Girish Chandra Sen (1835–1910), a Hindu born in Dhaka, was a teacher when he was introduced to the Brahma Samaj, a Hindu reform movement that incorporated teachings from traditions represented in India at the time, including Islam and Christianity. Educated in Persian, Sen studied Islam and published many books on the religion, including the first full-text translation and commentary of the Quran in Bengali. In recognition of his achievement and contribution to Bengali Islamic culture, Bengali Muslims bestowed on him the title maulana, typically reserved for learned scholars of Islam. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Muhammad Naimuddin (c. 1840–1908), born in Tangail, was a scholar of Islam and a prolific writer of books on Islam in Bengali. In 1871 he wrote Jabdatal Masayel (Essence of the Issues), one of the first prose works in Bengali on Islamic practice. Naimuddin was the second to write a commentary of the Quran in Bengali.

“Muhammad Akram Khan (1868–1968) was born in Calcutta and moved to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the partition. Khan was the provincial leader of the Muslim league and so was a proponent for the creation of Pakistan. A journalist, politician, and scholar, he wrote a biography of the prophet Muhammad and a Bengali commentary of the Quran. Although he favored the creation of a Muslim nation, he was a modernist, believing the Quran should be interpreted according to the needs of a changing society.

Imam, Mullah, Ulama and Muslim Leaders and Organization in Bangladesh

Although a formal organization of ordained priests has no basis in Islam, a variety of functionaries perform many of the duties conventionally associated with a clergy and serve, in effect, as priests. One group, known collectively as the ulama, has traditionally provided the orthodox leadership of the community. The ulama unofficially interpret and administer religious law. Their authority rests on their knowledge of sharia, the corpus of Islamic jurisprudence that grew up in the centuries following the Prophet's death. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The members of the ulama include maulvis, imams, and mullahs. The first two titles are accorded to those who have received special training in Islamic theology and law. A maulvi has pursued higher studies in a madrasa, a school of religious education attached to a mosque. Additional study on the graduate level leads to the title maulana.*

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”:The imam is associated with a mosque and is an important person in both rural and urban society, leading a group of followers. The imam's power is based on his knowledge of the Quran and memorization of phrases in Arabic. Relatively few imams understand Arabic in the spoken or written form. An imam's power is based on his ability to persuade groups of men to act in conjunction with Islamic rules. In many villages the imam is believed to have access to the supernatural, with the ability to write charms that protect individuals from evil spirits, imbue liquids with holy healing properties, or ward off or reverse of bad luck.

Villagers call on the mullah for prayers, advice on points of religious practice, and performance of marriage and funeral ceremonies. More often they come to him for a variety of services far from the purview of orthodox Islam. The mullah may be a source for amulets, talismans, and charms for the remedying of everything from snakebite to sexual impotence. These objects are also purported to provide protection from evil spirits and bring good fortune. Many villagers have implicit faith in such cures for disease and appear to benefit from them. Some mullahs derive a significant portion of their income from sales of such items.*

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Muslim leadership in Bangladesh takes different forms. The ulama (religious scholars) provide guidance to the people, but they also offer legal and religious opinions on all matters concerning Muslims, including foreign and domestic policy. In a less formal way there are the pirs. The Tablighi Jama'at is a worldwide Muslim pietistic movement active in Bangladesh. Participants travel the country advocating the observance of Islamic rituals and make great efforts to convert others to Islam. The Islamist political party Jam'at-i-Islami, also active in this way, supports government policy that is informed by Islamic values. Sufis welcome membership in their orders to both men and women. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Mosques and Sufi Mazars in Bangladesh

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “In Bangladesh, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, the house of worship is called the mosque (masjid). Bangladesh has a national mosque, built in Dhaka in 1967, that is known as Baitul Mukarram. It is also home to the Islamic Foundation. Its architectural style replicates the Kaaba in Mecca. Tara Masjid (Star Mosque), also in Dhaka, is an eighteenth-century mosque that features porcelain stars on its domes and interior ceilings. The largest mosque in Bangladesh, aside from the contemporary national mosque, is the seventeenth century Mughal mosque in Khulna called Sait Gumbad (seven-domed). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“In addition to mosques, other holy places include the many Sufi mazars, or shrines, that dot the landscape. The most famous and commonly visited shrines are those of the saints Shah Jalal in Sylhet, Khan Jahan Ali in Khulna, and Bayezid Bistami in Chittagong. There are many more that are frequently visited, especially on Thursday evenings for dhikr (remembrance of Allah), a Sufi practice in which a short religious phrase is repeated again and again, and on Fridays after congregational prayers.

“In Bangladesh the many shrines of Sufi saints are regarded as sacred sites. These shrines are destinations for lesser pilgrimages known in Islam as ziyara. The anniversary of the death of a pir is observed annually. Popular belief holds that this anniversary is an especially propitious time for seeking the intercession of the pir. Large numbers of the faithful attend anniversary ceremonies, which are festive occasions enjoyed by the followers of the pir as well as orthodox Muslims. The ceremonies are quite similar in form and content to many Hindu festivals. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Muslim Customs in Bangladesh

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Muslim women typically wear the sari, which is the customary dress for women of Bangladesh. A more observant Muslim woman, especially outside a major city, uses the end of the sari, called the achol, to cover her head. Traditionally women begin to wear the sari at marriage. When in public women from conservative and Islamist backgrounds also wear the burka (a long overcoat and veil) over the sari. To attend prayers in a mosque, men often choose to wear pajamas (cotton trousers) with a panjabi (knee-length shirt). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“There are no Islamic dietary practices distinctive to Bangladesh. Muslims in Bangladesh perform the same rituals as Muslims elsewhere. Muslims choose Quranic and biblical names for their children, but Persian names associated with rulers are also quite common. The marriage ceremony has many features distinctive to Bangladesh, including the panchini, when the ring is given to the bride by a parent or guardian, as well as a gay holud (symbolic bathing in turmeric water) for the bride and then a gay holud for the groom. After a feast arranged by the bride's family, the groom's family organizes a bou bhat, which is a feast held primarily for the groom's family.

“Most sacred in Bangladesh, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, are the Quran and Muhammad. This is reflected in the importance and meaning attached to Quranic recitation and the celebration of the Prophet's birth. The sacredness of the Quran is also seen in its use as an amulet to avert danger.

Sharia in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, where a modified Anglo-Indian civil and criminal legal system operates, there are no official sharia courts. Most Muslim marriages, however, are presided over by the qazi, a traditional Muslim judge whose advice is also sought on matters of personal law, such as inheritance, divorce, and the administration of religious endowments (waqfs). [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

In the late 1980s, the ulama of Bangladesh still perceived their function as that of teaching and preserving the Islamic way of life in the face of outside challenges, especially from modern sociopolitical ideas based on Christianity or communism. Any effort at modernization was perceived as a threat to core religious values and institutions; therefore, the ulama as a class was opposed to any compromise in matters of sharia. Many members of the ulama favored the establishment of an Islamic theocracy in Bangladesh and were deeply involved in political activism through several political parties. Most members of the ulama were also engaged in carrying on the tabliqh (preaching movement), an effort that focuses on the true sociopolitical ideals of Islam and unequivocally discards all un-Islamic accretions. Tabliqh attracted many college and university graduates, who found the movement emotionally fulfilling and a practical way to deal with Bangladesh's endemic sociopolitical malaise.*

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Social justice is an important element in Islam. In Bangladesh it is reflected in the platforms of such religious political parties as the Jam'at-i-Islami, which argue that Muslims are obligated to care for the poor and needy. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“In a country as impoverished as Bangladesh, efforts toward social justice take on particular importance, and throughout Bangladesh there are international and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) pursuing the issue. Many of these organizations, however, find themselves in conflict with Islamist groups over the meaning of social justice. Islamist groups such as the Jam'at-i-Islami, for example, believe the roles of men and women are different yet complementary. A woman is expected to remain at home and take care of her husband and family. It is the husband's responsibility to provide for the family financially. In contrast, NGOs work to make women self-reliant and financially independent.

Cultural Impact of Islam in Bangladesh

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Islam has had a tremendous impact on Bengali architecture, music, art, and literature for centuries. Throughout Bangladesh, Mughal and Sultan rulers built mosques and mausoleums in traditional Islamic architectural style. These buildings feature domes, minarets, and arches typically associated with Islam while incorporating local and easily available materials of brick and stone. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Notable in Bangladesh and neighboring West Bengal, India, are the Bauls, a wandering community famed for their beautiful and captivating musical tradition. The Bauls are not only Bengali troubadours but also a religious sect inspired by Sufi and indigenous traditions of Bengal. Some Baul communities today identify themselves with Islam, and their music is a form of Islamic devotion, while others are associated with Hinduism.

“Sufism has greatly influenced culture in Bangladesh and continues to do so today. One of the celebrated Sufi brotherhoods in Bangladesh is the Maijbhandari tariqa, known throughout Bangladesh for its devotional music. Much of it is performed in Bengali using Bengali instruments, such as the mandira, a percussive instrument made of two metal bowls.

“The extent of Sufi influence goes back to the rise of Islam in Bengal and is found in the literature of the past several centuries. Themes and stories from the Arab and Persian world were adopted and expressed through Bengali artistic forms, and many have been written down and preserved. This early puthi literature includes biographies of the prophet Muhammad, Sufi themes of separation and union with God as expressed in the love stories of Laila and Majnun and of Yusuf and Zulaikha, and more philosophical texts, creation stories, and elegies of the Shi'a martyr Hussain.

Islamic and Government in Bangladesh

Post-1971 regimes sought to increase the role of the government in the religious life of the people. The Ministry of Religious Affairs provided support, financial assistance, and endowments to religious institutions, including mosques and community prayer grounds (idgahs). The organization of annual pilgrimages to Mecca also came under the auspices of the ministry because of limits on the number of pilgrims admitted by the government of Saudi Arabia and the restrictive foreign exchange regulations of the government of Bangladesh. The ministry also directed the policy and the program of the Islamic Foundation, which was responsible for organizing and supporting research and publications on Islamic subjects. The foundation also maintained the Bayt al Mukarram (National Mosque), and organized the training of imams. Some 18,000 imams were scheduled for training once the government completed establishment of a national network of Islamic cultural centers and mosque libraries. Under the patronage of the Islamic Foundation, an encyclopedia of Islam in the Bangla language was being compiled in the late 1980s. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Another step toward further government involvement in religious life was taken in 1984 when the semiofficial Zakat Fund Committee was established under the chairmanship of the president of Bangladesh. The committee solicited annual zakat contributions on a voluntary basis. The revenue so generated was to be spent on orphanages, schools, children's hospitals, and other charitable institutions and projects. Commercial banks and other financial institutions were encouraged to contribute to the fund. Through these measures the government sought closer ties with religious establishments within the country and with Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.*

Although Islam played a significant role in the life and culture of the people, religion did not dominate national politics because Islam was not the central component of national identity. When in June 1988 an "Islamic way of life" was proclaimed for Bangladesh by constitutional amendment, very little attention was paid outside the intellectual class to the meaning and impact of such an important national commitment. Most observers believed that the declaration of Islam as the state religion might have a significant impact on national life, however. Aside from arousing the suspicion of the non-Islamic minorities, it could accelerate the proliferation of religious parties at both the national and the local levels, thereby exacerbating tension and conflict between secular and religious politicians. Unrest of this nature was reported on some college campuses soon after the amendment was promulgated.*

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Several Islamist parties have formed a coalition with the ruling BNP. The BNP may be described as a conservative party that identifies strongly with religious heritage, while Islamist parties would like to see the institution of some kind of Islamic government. Although Islamist parties are not popular in Bangladesh, their coalition with the BNP grants them significant power. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Controversial issues include “Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as the poor people and women they represent and work with, are overwhelmingly opposed to fundamentalist oriented policies, as these would likely hinder access to better jobs and other means of generating income for women. Another controversial issue has been Sufi saints (pirs) and the many practices associated with their veneration, which have come under attack from some Islamist groups, though many Bangladeshis venerate saints and acknowledge their power.

Massive Prayer Gathering in Bangladesh During Coronavirus

In March 2020, right as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold around the globe, tens of thousands of Muslim devotees gathered in in Raipur town in southern Bangladesh to pray "healing verses" from the Quran to rid the country of the virus. AFP reported: “Local police chief Tota Miah said some 10,000 Muslims gathered in an open field in Raipur.“They held the Khatme Shifa prayers after dawn to free the country from the coronavirus," Miah told AFP, . [Source: AFP, March 19, 2020]

“Organisers claimed the number of worshippers was 25,000. Miah said organisers did not get permission from authorities to hold the session.Photos of the gathering was widely shared on social media, with commenters slamming the massive rally. Authorities have already shut schools and asked locals to avoid large gatherings in an effort to halt the spread of the disease. “Unbelievable how they even have done it without notifying the police? They will be held responsible if anything happens to the people in the region," Abdur Rahman wrote on Facebook.

In early April 2020, authorities tried to stop Friday prayers to avert coronavirus spikes. Reuters reported: “In Bangladesh, some people were expected to go to mosques even though the government appealed to them to stay at home to reduce the risk of infections.Bangladesh's top religious body, the Islamic Foundation, said elderly people and those with fever or cough, symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, should offer prayers at home.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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