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A Critique of Hybrid Islam


Rajarshi Dasgupta

CONSTRUCTING BANGLADESH: RELIGION, ETHNICITY, AND LANGUAGE IN AN ISLAMIC NATION
By Sufia M. Uddin
Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2006, pp. xx 224, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 3 March 2007

Sufia M. Uddin makes an engaging and persuasive argument on a current topic of global concern, which is critical to the future of Bangladesh—the make-up of a modern Islamic identity. Inspired by the work of Talal Asad, her book maps a distinctive South Asian passage of Islam from pre-modern times to the recent past, presenting Bangladesh as an Islamic nation on its own terms. These terms are a product of long and layered histories, spanning Mughal rule, British regime, print culture and religious discourse on the one hand, and local customs, affective nuances, social relations and rival ‘visions of community’ on the other. The book sets off with a vivid picture of early Islamic discourse in the Bengali language, moving from tafsirs and nasihatnamas to the Qur’an’s translations and exegesis in a broad sweep. Sufia narrates how vernacular idioms joined this discursive world, and how the modern register of nation evolved its own rituals and symbols. This region became East Pakistan after decolonization, but its peculiar blend of ethnicity, religion, and language eventually led to the founding of Bangladesh in 1971. The book relates thereafter the rapid regime shifts and party politics in the budding nation, suffering a rise of fundamentalism aided by military rule, by critical events abroad and, ironically, by an expanding global diaspora. In a nutshell, it is a skilfully interlaced genealogy of a regional, hybrid Islam in Bangladesh, written from a postcolonial perspective. Constructing Bangladesh explores in this way the less known connections between religion, nationhood and modernity, beyond the metropolitan mould.   We are not entirely sure, however, if the author realizes the actual potential of this argument. While there is a clearly positive valorization of the hybrid features of Bengali Islam, the book seems at times equally eager to retain the flavour of an original Arabic Islam, as the standard to measure against. This folding back reveals a niggling anxiety, among other things to avoid a contagion of the so-called Hinduism, of the other (West) Bengal. Consequently, the scope is carefully confined to the achievements of eminent Muslim personage in the early chapters. The popular spread of Islam is taken to naturally follow from a benevolent Mughal regime, which makes little sense without the backdrop of caste system in Bengal. But, apart from a detour on a Brahmo reformer who translated the Qur’an, there is no caste, no Hindu, no bhadralok essayed ...


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