Book Review: Rediscovering the Muslim Heritage of Bengal
The Muslim Heritage of Bengal, by Muhammad Mojlum Khan, Leicester: Kube Publishing, 2013, pp412, PB, £19.99.
Muhammad Mojlum Khan’s latest book, The Muslim Heritage of Bengal: The Lives, Thoughts and Achievements of Great Muslim Scholars, Writers and Reformers of Bangladesh and West Bengal is a treasure of histories of the region, through the contributions of 42 individuals spanning from early Islam in the region, through the various Sultanate formation, Mughal supremacy and well into the colonial encounter.
It arrives at a time of great sorrow and tumult in Bangladesh, emblematised by the massacre of unarmed religious protesters by the state in the early hours of 6th May 2013. This volume, which extends past 400 pages, substantiates the civilisational background very much missing from the public mind, media and academia at this stage. Self-knowledge and understanding is essential for dignified, personal, social and political existence, and narrow single identity politics works against this.
The individuals rendered to us from the historical archives include warrior politicians like Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji, the well-known Shah Jalal and less well-known mystics like Khan Jahan Ali, who held political authority in the south of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and whose buildings stand beautifully to this day. These are figures whose individual lives deserve extended treatment, but this is just the beginning.
There is much to discuss about each of the people included in this historical tapestry of the Muslim experience in Bengal, from theologians, creative writers, institution builders, educationalists and reformers. It is not possible to discuss this in detail here as Bengal’s connection to the global Ummah extending over a millennium is a fascinating story, not least as one of the first sites of the colonial encounter. From a heritage of largely successful anti-missionary discourse and activism, to literary explorations of Karbala tragedy, and from modernity, ‘the notorious Muslim backwardness problem’ to the pursuit of justice, there are multiple points of entry to the events, ideas, people and locations detailed in this fine tome.
The last entry, on the much loved and appropriated Begum Rokeya presents a historical struggle and hope that will chime with many across genders and persuasions, on the level of family, institution building and imagination. Begum Rokeya’s 1905 work of science fiction, Sultana’s Dream should be essential bedtime reading for parents as it tackles issues of technology, war, environment and distributions of labour and wealth with a beauty, sincerity and humour that present day, donor drenched NGOs and community arts ventures struggle to top.
As well as surveying the lives and works of 42 influential personalities covering more than 800 years of history, this book is written accessibly for the general public. The author’s Introduction, Conclusion and Chronology of Islamic History of Bengal are particularly interesting as they present an analysis of how the history of Bangladesh has been written previously, and this work, which is written by someone steeped in the social experience of Bangladeshis in Britain, but rooted in Islamic values and, at the same time, in possession of a universal outlook, nicely blends the three dimensions of the author’s self-identity.
I think this book will find itself well-thumbed on the bedside tables of people of Bengal Muslim background outside and inside of Bangladesh and West Bengal. It will serve as an important reference for a multitude of personal and institutional projects in this area. I commend the author, for whom I still have many more questions, and thanks to the publishers who did a wonderful job. I heartily recommend it for you to buy and pour over this Ramadan and beyond.
Dr Fuad M. Ali
Academic and Co-Director of Developmentia Project.