Three Arab taxi drivers chat near a McDonald’s restaurant in Kuwait City, 2002. Reuters.

Recent terrorist attacks in Bangladesh and their links to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS) led by Arab Muslims have enraged many against the phenomenon of Arabization-Islamization, namely, increasing subversion of Bangali Muslim way of life by Arab culture and extremist Islamic ideologies. The allegation is that Arabization-Islamization cultivated the toxic environment of religious militancy in Bangladesh. This commentary evaluates the phenomenon in a comprehensive and coherent manner.

First, the joining of Arabization and Islamization is driven by the fact that Arabs are overwhelmingly Muslims. Importantly, the reverse is not true, most Muslims are not Arabs. Thus the joint vilification of Arabization and Islamization is rather misplaced. For centuries, as the East Indians and South-East Asians converted to Islam, their indigenous way of life did not get Arabized. Also, the Arab culture reflects the wider Semitic practices indicating its inherent independence of Islam.

Second, Arabic is a man-made language and Arabs existed long before the advent of Islam. Since Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was an Arab, the Quranic verses are cast in the Arab context for the Prophet to live by example and to enable the Arabs to connect to his message. But to be universal, it is their spirit and not their letters that should constitute their application. The literal and ritualistic modules of Islam are thus self-defeating that leave no room for tolerance of a competing module, let alone indigenous cultural norms and other religions.

Flush with financial means and aided by technology, the drive for legitimacy and supremacy by the competing literal modules of Islam has unleashed a global wave of religious ritualism, extremism and militancy. The wave reaching Bangladesh is an Arab-centric one by way of early historic links, regular pilgrimage related travel and the modern day economic links of trade, aid, banking and labor mobility. The inevitable consequence is the infiltration of religious ideologies and cultural practices by Arab Muslims, most notably in KSA. That is, the recent trend of Arabization in Bangladesh is a natural by-product of forcible Islamization as envisioned by the sponsoring Arab-centric module.

But Arabization par se is not the driver of religious militancy in Bangladesh. For centuries, Bangla vocabulary and Bangali (and sub-continental) culture have evolved and thrived on the fusion of indigenous and non-indigenous (Indian, Afghan, Persian, Turk, Anglo, Portuguese, Burmese, etc.) sources. And yet there was no major transformation in the religiosity and religious practices of Bangalis. Thus causality runs from Islamization to Arabization and not the other way.

Third, in a confused reaction to religious militancy, many Bangalis are being critical of changes in everyday practices that are perceived as akin to Arabization. Two such lightning rods are the parting phrase “Allah Hafez” and the wearing of hijab.

The fierce critique of “Allah Hafez” and defense of “Khoda Hafez” by Bangalis defies any logic. “Khoda” is a Persian word and “Allah” is an Arabic one. Unless Persianization of Bangalis is more acceptable than Arabization, there is no reason to detest “Allah” in favor of “Khoda” by Bangali Muslims since “Allah” is the word for God in the Holy Quran. The argument that “Khoda” has traditionally been used is a lame one. The ancestors of Bangali Muslims were mostly Bangali Hindus and yet “Ishwar” and “Bhagaban” gave away to “Khoda”. It is also paradoxical that the very people who wish to retain “Khoda” in “Khoda Hafez” are hysterically opposed to “Zindabad”, a cheering phrase in Hindi-Urdu tradition and of Persian origin. Thus the argument against “Allah Hafez” makes little sense, is silly and hypocritical.

With respect to Hijab, it should be noted that covering of hair and bosom in public by girls/women is a historic tradition in the Indian subcontinent, most notably amongst the Muslims and Sikhs. Dopatta, anchal of Saree and borkha (with uncovered face) have long been used for this purpose. And the decency/privacy purpose of such clothing transcends any specific religion. Granted that Hijab is an Arab tradition, opposition to it runs against the principle of freedom of expression with decency. It is also hypocritical since we do not observe the same degree of disapproval and outrage against the massive infiltration of western and non-Bangali Indian wardrobes, along with music, serial dramas and movies, and even the wedding rituals.

Fourth, for a true believer in Islam, Prophet Mohammed, PBUH, is the dearest human being that ever lived. Looking down upon Bangali Muslims who choose to practice the beloved Prophet’s language and culture is disrespectful. More importantly, it can trigger resentment that may transform benign religiosity into fatal extremism. As we are deep into westernized practices by way of history and due to worldly necessity, opposing just Arabization as evil may send the wrong signal of selling out to the west.

Lastly, many argue that religions, Islam included, are purely a spiritual matter that is in the utmost private domain of the believer’s mind, rituals are not needed for spiritual salvation and they injuriously emphasize the letters instead of the spirit of the divine codes. Often the result of ritualistic emphasis is intolerance, leading to forcible religiosity and ultimately religious militancy. Undeniably this line of advocacy has some validity, specifically in the context of Islamization, and hence guarding against infiltration of the intolerant and highly ritualistic module of Islam is warranted. That said, it is fallacious and disrespectful to strip a religion of its rituals, private or collective, as ordained in the divine code, just because they may have undesirable consequences in some uncontrolled for instances.

To conclude, understanding the causal structure of the phenomenon of Arabization-Islamization is vital to mitigating the undesirable consequences. Blanket opposition to the phenomenon is illogical, hypocritical and counterproductive. Further, it constitutes a level of intolerance and insensitivity that allegedly characterizes the phenomenon itself. Arresting the phenomenon at the Arab source would entail massive economic costs to Bangladesh in terms of foregone wage, trade and aid, and a very unpleasant level of political, social and religious disassociation from and frictions with the Arab countries. Is Bangladesh ready for the tradeoff?

Mo Chaudhury, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

14 Responses to “Arabization and Islamization”

  1. Khalid

    I am just wondering what will happen to people who are named Khuda Bux or Barkate-Khuda. Indian Muslims have been using Khuda Hafez for centuries. I remember also people often saying ‘ আল্লাহ মাফ কর ‘. What is wrong with us all. You can say whatever you like.
    In Arabic , God is Allah. Even non-Muslims in Arabic peninsula and in North Africa say Allah. Christians there, read bible in Arabic and church services are conducted in their language as is done in Bangladesh. Bangalee Christians say ঈশ্বর । That doesn’t make them Hindus. There is problem with conservative sunni Muslims. If the Muslims are forced to speak the language in which Quran was revealed, wear Arabian dress and behave like them- then Islam is not a universal religion. Khalas !

  2. sadeque

    It appears to me that all of us are beating about the bush without any comprehensive knowledge of Quran , Hadith, thier interpretation by Prophet sm himself, his companion and thereafter by various authorities during the 1400 years of a living religion.

    I myself do not profess to be anywhere near an expert.

    Think of how revolutionary was the Quranic social, economic and family law in a world one and half millennium ago. We have to go back in history to see what personal,social and economic justice were meted by the other faiths. Please read the history of status of women in christianity, witch hunting and burning these unfortunate women in stake, legacy of slavery in USA and apartheid in South Africa exist even in 21st century.

    Almost total obliteration of”INDIGENOUS'” population of North and South America, Australia and New Zealand was not hindered by Christian faith of colonist/imperialists .

    Although Muslim Emperors ruled India for about a millennium Hindus are still majority in India specially around the capital cities of Sultans and Mughals.

    How Jews were treated by Christian European cities in “Ghettos” and by Nazis in 1930s and 1940s in modern Europe.

    In middle ages Jews migrated to Muslim middle east from Christian European persecution.

    After about 700 years of muslim rule in Spain, all muslims were eliminated (ethnic cleansing?) from Spain by Queen Isabella
    .
    In Christianity bond in marriage between a man and women, even when totally incompatible was to be separated only by death. Divorce was not allowed. So powerful people had many mistresses and some even eliminated their wifes by death to get rid of her and marry to his liking. Taking a mistress is an act punishable unto death in Islam.

    Islam has allowed divorce. But Quran says divorce is allowed only when parties are totally incompatible to each other and is the worse allowable permissible act. But to be effective it has also laid down specific rules so that the lady is well compensated.

    Child marriage: In Islam child marriage may be held. However, girl will not go to husband’s house till she become a major. Since human history began a girl is supposed to have attained adulthood when she starts menstruating. Now modern diverse scientific evidence have changed age of adulthood by enactment of human law; which also varies. To follow this human law is not barred by any Quranic verse.

    I don’t want to comment on Hindu marriage law, divorce, Suti, human sacrifice, multiple marriage by Brahmins which were modernised and eliminated by the British colonist at the urge of Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Many other law specially inheritance law is till now discriminatory for women falk.

    Even now intolerable heavy hand of caste system exist causing human suffering in Hindu society.

    Allowance of 4 wives in Islam: Quranic verse allowing 4 wives has also orders to maintain equal treatment between the wives. It also emphasised that it is well nigh impossible for most people to treat all wives equally. Now if someone only follows the part of the verse of Quran to his liking violating the other half of the verse, then he is clearly violating Quranic law.

    Taking of mistress openly or secretly is very gravely treated in Islam and is punishable by death if proved in the court of law.

    In Islam a woman will inherit from her parents, husband, and son. Moreover her income and assets are exclusively her. She is not given burden of maintaining her own family which is exclusively the burden of the husband. Husband is also to take care of his parents and sisters till he gives her unto marriage etc.

    Paradise is beneath the foot of a mother(not father).
    .
    Quran says if you find your parents in old age treat them so well like a hen who covers her chickens with her wings, so that they(parents) do not have to utter “Oh”.
    A wife will be a witness about her husband in the day of judgement.

    In Islam beating of a wife is allowed with some prior conditions: if she disobeys her husband then he should tell her mildly with reason to rectify herself, when she refuses persistently wife is given a separate bed. Even if it does not correct her he is allowed to beat (!) her taking care never to beat on her face. Only allowed to beat mildly with fine branches of tree so that no marks become visible on the skin. What a beating and what a punishment!!

    In war (Jihad) Quran orders not to harm children and old people, women folk, priest hermit , fruit bearing trees, water-hole and prisoners of war etc. Fighting should cease if the other party offers proposal of peace. No humiliation or disfiguration of dead body of the enemy is allowed in Islam.

    To me all mischief is caused by our ignorance of Quran, Hadith, their interpretation and application by all/ most of us. Most of our ulemas(!) are ignorant of source book because of their lack of expertise in Arabic language and dearth of knowledgeable teachers and source books
    .
    Moreover like me those who are modern educated do not have in depth knowledge of world history, religion and culture nor about our own religion Islam.
    Christian and Jew Ulemas are better knowledgeable about Islam then most of us and our Muslim Ulemas.

  3. Mo Chaudhury

    I appreciate feedback and respect the right of readers to express their opinions however disagreeable those are. Needless to say it is disappointing to see comments that are simply sentiment driven. For a useful debate, a more careful reading is needed. For example, I never said Torah is in Arabic. Arabic language and culture are part of the semitic complex, Hebrew being another one, for example.

    It is the discretion of readers to bring Pakistan into picture no matter what, although this dysfunctional state has long ceased to be relevant for Bangladesh. Perhaps it is politically convenient to live in the past for some and keep beating up an enemy of the past when the criminals of 71 are nearly extinct. The new opponent, ISIS, did not originate in Pakistan neither it is flourishing there or from there. After persistently denying the existence of ISIS in BD officially, only now all the jongis killed/arrested for the brutal slayings are being identified as ISIS radicals. Better late than never.

    I appreciate feedback and respect the right of readers to express their opinions however disagreeable those are. Needless to say it is disappointing to see comments that are simply sentiment driven. For a useful debate, a more careful reading is needed. For example, I never said Torah is in Arabic. Arabic language and culture are part of the semitic complex, Hebrew being another one, for example.

    It is the discretion of readers to bring Pakistan into picture no matter what, although this dysfunctional state has long ceased to be relevant for Bangladesh. Perhaps it is politically convenient to live in the past for some and keep beating up an enemy of the past when the criminals of 71 are nearly extinct. The new opponent, ISIS, did not originate in Pakistan neither it is flourishing there or from there. After persistently denying the existence of ISIS in BD officially, only now all the jongis killed/arrested for the brutal slayings are being identified as ISIS radicals. Better late than never.

    Further, some readers see my opinion as thinly veiled encouragement for fundamentalism. They simply took the sinister way of ignoring parts of my article.

    “..competing literal modules of Islam has unleashed a global wave of religious ritualism, extremism and militancy. The wave reaching Bangladesh is an Arab-centric one… The inevitable consequence is the infiltration of religious ideologies and cultural practices by Arab Muslims, most notably in KSA. That is, the recent trend of Arabization in Bangladesh is a natural by-product of forcible Islamization as envisioned by the sponsoring Arab-centric module.”

    Lastly, can any of the disgruntled readers explain why westernization and Indianization or Persianaization or any other form of cultural subversion of our original Bangali culture is any better than Arabization? Arabization, as undesirable it is, has at least a prophetic link for the vast majority of Bangladeshis.

    Bangladesh can use more pragmatism and less political fanaticism of any kind!
    Joy Bangla, Joy Bangladesh!
    http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2013/04/03/joy-bangla-joy-bangladesh/

  4. sundar

    self claimed comprehensive and coherent evaluation sounds ludicrous in the first place. all arguments in favor of Arabization and Islamization are just self serving not objective at all. Tradition, historical etc are all very archaic terminology used in defence of obscurantism.

  5. Shahabuddin

    1. Spiritualists never makes any violence against ritualists. Spiritualists only want to be left alone and practice spiritualism. But it is the ritualists that attack the spiritualists. They are killing the in Bangladesh, and many other places. I hope the writer is not one of their supporters or sympathizers.
    2. Khoda Hafez is like our tradition of ‘Milad’ and ‘Kolakuli’ during Eid festival. They are part of our culture for centuries. Those who introduced ‘Allah Hafez’ are the same people who are now advocating against Milad and Kolakoli. The goal obviously is to establish that ‘Bengali people are not good Muslims. What Bengalis do and know is always wrong’. Pakistan did it openly (like islamisation of language, Nazrul poems, and banning Tagore). Now they are doing it in a veiled manner. This is cultural aggression.
    3. Ghomta is Bengali culture definitely. Borka and hijab is not. The language on Parda in Koran is interpreted differently by different translators. I have no problem with them, except when they threaten our security. Radicals also promote Hijab as their flagship symbol.

    • Jalal Uddin ahmed

      I agree with your opinion.
      ” Do not exceed the limits of religion ” If we follow this simple sentence many of the existing problems will be over. But the problem is who is going to follow ? That itself is the problem.

  6. Tapas datta

    even in 70s people used to call Maa and Baba instead of Abba and Amma. Suddenly certain taboos started crippiling up in our society in light of Arabasisation. Now we have been through extreme Islamic renession of Hassan Al Banna and Al Kutub who brought the web of islamaization.

    • sadeque

      My age is 75 years. I have been and my family and relations were calling our parents as ABBA and AMMA. It is long before birth or even before the concept of Pakistan.

      It is also used in Hindi-Urdu dialect in Indian subcontinent long before the birth of Hassan Al Banna and Al Kutub.

      AMMA is also used in South Indian languages: Malayalam,Telegu, Sinhalese, and Tamil etc. In old German it means wet nurse and Old Norse it for grandmother. Amma is also found in Syriac languages long before the advent of Islam or Arabic conquest of Middle East.

      ABBA is a Syriac or Chaldee word and is found in New Testament (Bible). It’s greek equivalent which is translated “father”. It is a term expressing warm affection and filial confidence. It has no perfect equivalent in English language.

      Can someone let me know how the Arabs call their mother and father? As far as I know Amma is used for uncle!!

      I have been in the midst of struggle for Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is impossible for us to go back in history to become part of Pakistan after what they have done to unarmed people of the then East Pakistan.

      Neither we would wish to be a colony of Delhi as was during Mughals and Delhi Sultanate.

      It is for Independent Bangladesh that all of us irrespective of HINDU AND MUSLIM fought and died under the spiritual guidence of Bongobondu.

      If need be our young generation will take the light again and shall fight unto death to keep our hard earned Independence. KEEP FAITH IN GOD. DO NOT FEAR OF PAKISTANI PHANTOM.
      Rather struggle to be intellectual giants like Subash Bose, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das,Sher-e Bangla Fazlul Haque, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad etc. Only rhetoric without intellectual background will not carry us anywhere in the world at large.

  7. Tahera Rashid

    Our ties with Iran is much stronger than with Arabia. In proximity, South Asia and Persia are much closer. Many of us have roots in Iran. Islam came to Bangladesh through Persia. There is no necessity for us highly cultured Bangladeshis to adopt Arab barbarism in return for a few handouts.

  8. Akteruzzaman Chowdhury

    Arabs can be Christian and also Shia. Interestingly the Bible and Torah are also printed and read in Arabic. Arab Christians and Shia are very literate and powerful. What we admire here in Bangladesh is the Sunni Arabs. Sunni Arab countries are always fighting against terrorists so they don’t depict terrorism. In Bangladesh the situation should be considered locally. If a person wears an arab dishdasha or a maxi then he will not condemn the terrorists. But in Arabia the arab will condemn the terrorist.

    • Sumit Mazumdar

      Mr Chowdhury: Where did you get the information that the Torah is printed in Arabic? The Torah was and is written in Hebrew. There are no Jews left in any Arab country. Either they left or they were thrown out. The only middle eastern countries where there are any significant Jewish populations left are Iran and Turkey, both non Arab.

  9. Sumit Mazumdar

    This commentary very cleverly hides a fact. That the source of Arabization is the post-1971 Pakistan, and behind the attempts to Arabization are attempts to wipe out the gains from the Liberation war.
    In the post-1971 Pakistan there was great amount of hand wringing about the great military and political loss. Plus the very foundation of the two-nation theory, and hence the raison de’ Etre of Pakistan itself was at stake. Bhutto realized this and with the help of the Mullahs spread the canard that Pakistanis are descendants of Arabs and were not really South Asians. Johnny-come-lately historians preached this incessantly and changed their history books. The net result after 45 years is evident. Pakistan – a people who became believers of a false historial theory – now constitutes a failed nation by every measure.
    Arabization of Bangladesh will connect its future to its past with Pakistan. If Islam is Universal why does one need the Arabs, who have expressed nothing but intolerance towards other people? As to economic disadvantages of stopping Arabization, the past 4-5 years have shown the beginning of the end of Arab economic dominance. The world will steadily march towards a non-fossil fuel based society, and Arabs will have little say in how progress occurs. This year, with massive lay offs of South Asians in Saudi Arabia, is an omen of things to come.

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