37. Ramadan and religion in Bangladesh

We’re in the third week of the holy month of Ramadan, pronounced Ramzan here, and also known locally as Rojha. Ramadan is very significant in Bangladesh which, after Indonesia and Pakistan, has the third largest Muslim population in the world, with almost 90% (i.e. almost 148 million) of the population practising Islam. This year, Ramadan began on the 23rd August after a period of uncertainty. I failed to get an exact date from my colleagues in the week preceding the 23rd. Puzzled, I investigated further. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, begins with the first naked-eye sighting of the new crescent moon. (The Islamic calendar is not the same as the Bengali calendar – see post 15). While the date for the astronomical new moon was August 20th, the Moon Sighting Committee of the Government of Bangladesh decreed Sunday 23rd as the first day of Ramadan. Weather conditions this year did not facilitate an earlier sighting. This was also the first day of Ramadan in India and in Pakistan, though there were countries too where it began on either 21st or 22nd.) Since the Islamic lunar calendar is 11/12 days shorter than our solar calendar, Ramadan shifts back 11 or so days each year. During this month, Muslims fast from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. After fasting for 29 or 30 days (again depending on moon-sighting), the three-day festival Eid ul-Fitr (‘solemn festival’ of the ‘breaking of the fast’) takes place and this is a time of celebration with family and friends, a little like our Christmas celebrations. Eid ul-Fitr is one of the two main annual Muslim holidays in Islam. The other is Eid ul-Azha (‘solemn festival’ of ‘sacrifice’) – more on which later.

Every morning during Ramadan, I am awoken at around 4 a.m. to the sounds of clattering pots and pans in neighbouring apartments as food is being prepared for the important first meal of the day. From the end of the first morning prayer (Fajr) at sunrise, fasting begins and continues until the commencement of the fifth and final prayer (Isha) at sunset. Ramadan is not just about abstaining from the basic needs of food and water though. It’s a time for reflection on higher religious needs; for atonement for past sins; for deeper contemplation through reading the Qur’an (Koran); for giving thanks through praying; for reaffirmation of faith and for renewed dedication to Allah. It is a time when good deeds and virtuous behaviour are emphasised.

With regard to ‘fasting’, it seemed to me as though eating times were merely being inverted. During Ramzan, all food was being eaten between sunset and sunrise instead of between sunrise and sunset. Where, I wondered, was the sacrifice in that? As a person with the unhealthy habit of eating most food after sunset, I very often skip lunch. So the only difference was the timing of breakfast, theirs (substantially larger than mine) before 5a.m. and mine before 7.30a.m. However, of course it’s much more than this. It’s knowing that you can’t have that cup of tea or coffee, that glass of water, that snack etc. When I’m on a diet, all I can think about is food. And most people, unlike me, need to eat regularly to maintain their energy levels throughout the day. And so, during this time many businesses and offices shorten the workday e.g. from 9.30a.m. to 4p.m. However, for those working outdoors doing physical labour in high temperatures, the exigencies of Ramadan must be extremely difficult.  Of course exceptions from fasting are made for children, for pregnant women and for those who or unable to fast for health reasons. I was very conscious at work that my colleagues were fasting and took care to keep any food out of sight in my office – though see post 39.

Iftar

At 7.30 p.m. or thereabouts, the call to evening prayer rings out from mosques around the city. After the prayer is said, the day’s fast is broken with a light meal called Iftar. I have participated in Iftar on a few occasions. One is particularly memorable: it was an evening I was working late. On such evenings I can’t use the front door to exit because it’s locked, and so I walk through the accommodation block. On my way out, I usually drop in to say hello to Saifullah, the Manager of the hostel. On this particular evening there was a large crowd around: a group of union parishad secretaries from all over the country were staying in the Institute, undergoing their one-month induction programme. (The union parishad (UP) is a local government unit – a ‘rural council’, see post 8 pt. 13.) Groups came in to talk to me as they passed Saifullah’s office. They were surprised when I used a little Bangla, and delighted when I knew where their home districts were. Not for the first time, I wished I had a better grasp of the language. My colleagues Nazim and Majhar dropped by then and asked if I’d like to join the group for Iftar. I was delighted with the invite. They told me that it would begin at 7.30p.m. that particular evening. Shortly before this time, I went to the dining room and joined the group of UP secretaries at one of a number of long, oil-skin clad tables. It was about 7.26p.m. Plates of food were already set out on the table and everybody sat waiting for 7.30p.m. Some were fidgeting a little – nobody had eaten or drank anything since before sun-up that morning. At exactly 7.30p.m. they began to pray together. They held their hands up by their ears, palms facing forward, bowed their heads and closed their eyes. After they had completed the prayer we all started to eat. At first I felt slightly uneasy being the only foreigner and the only woman in the room, unsure of how this would be perceived. However, my fears were unfounded: people made me feel very welcome and were happy to explain points of religion to me and answer my questions, in so far as language would permit. I felt privileged to have been allowed to participate.

Another evening during Ramadan, I was wandering around Dhanmondi after work at Iftar time. The atmosphere was very relaxed and people were sitting around in groups by the lake and on the streets waiting for the evening call to prayer to ring out. Stalls were selling Iftar snacks, but many people had brought their own food. I was inundated with invitations to join groups. And so I had a lovely spontaneous evening with a group of students by the lake, enjoying good conversation and a memorable Iftar experience.

It is incredible to walk through busier parts of the city at Iftar time. Incredulously, everything stops. Most shops and offices shut down to accommodate the evening prayer and the meal. The chaotic and deafening noise of traffic vanishes and Dhaka becomes a ghost town. For a short time, all is uncharacteristically and eerily calm and quiet. Through street windows people can be seen sitting round in circles on the floor enjoying Iftar. Once the prayer and the meal have finished, life resumes at full intensity: shops reopen, traffic reappears and Dhaka is once again a familiar hub of hustle and bustle.

During Ramadan it takes me longer to get back to Lalmatia after work. Everybody is rushing to get home for Iftar: no matter how I try to time it, I end up in a traffic jam. During these slow journeys (by CNG) I witness marvellous, colourful, mouth-watering displays of food in street stalls. At each one there are queues of people buying snacks in anticipation of Iftar at sundown. The Iftar meal consists of moree (puffed rice), chola (a lentil and potato vegetable mix), some fried vegetables, some fruit (usually a banana) and an extremely sweet, sticky, coiled, biscuit-like snack.

Eid ul-Fitre

At the end of the month of Ramadan the fasting period culminates in celebration, as the three-day Eid ul-Fitre (festival of the breaking of the fast) begins. This is a time to celebrate with family and so tens of thousands of people leave Dhaka to go to their home villages. Trains, buses and ferries are packed to overflowing. Many, who fail to get tickets before they sell out, or who can’t afford to buy them on the black market, travel dangerously on the roofs of crammed trains and buses.

In many ways, it’s like our Christmas celebrations: there’s Eid shopping, alms-giving, an exchange of greetings, cards and gifts and meals with family and friends. I found myself getting caught up in the spirit of Eid shopping on a few occasions, justifying it by telling myself that I wouldn’t be doing any Christmas shopping this year. One evening after Iftar I wandered into Jatra, a shop I love in my neighbourhood (see post 10). The atmosphere was palpably cheerful and festive. On the second floor there were two musicians – a blind man and a young girl – seated on a mat on the floor. The man was playing a small, stringed instrument to accompany their joyful singing. I had a very pleasant hour or so fitting on all the new shalwar-kameezes that had arrived for Eid. I bought a pink-and-green one and some cards too. Of course I was part of a small elite in that shop, a fact that I was quickly reminded of the moment I stepped into the street outside its doors.

Some people use their Eid holidays to do some travel too – as do many of us volunteers. I too used the free time from work to travel to the Sundarbans (see next post 38).

Eid ul-Azha

The other big annual Muslim festival is the three-day Eid ul-Azha (festival of the sacrifice). This is quite an extraordinary and bloody affair and not for the faint-hearted. Eid ul-Azha is celebrated approximately 69/70 days after Eid ul-Fitre in the final month of the Islamic calendar. It coincides with the world’s largest Muslim annual pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca. (Incidentally, the world’s second largest annual congregation of Muslims takes place in Dhaka. Unfortunately I didn’t get there, though I did notice the even bigger traffic jams in Dhaka over the three days in January – one of which was a workday.) On the third day of the five-day Hajj in Mecca, Eid ul-Azha is performed. It commemorates Abraham’s (Ibrahim’s) willingness to sacrifice his only son Ishmael. (This is the same story that is found in the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Torah, though Christians and Jews believe it was Isaac who was sacrificed.) It is celebrated by Muslims with the slaughter of a cow or goat, depending on one’s means. In Bangladesh, for a week or so before the festival, there are many fairs throughout the country where cattle and goats are traded in large numbers. Many animals are brightly adorned with garlands of fresh flowers, ribbons and tassels. After the morning prayers on Eid, the chosen animal is led to the entrance of the house by the head of the household and faced towards Mecca. Its legs are tied and it’s dropped on its side. With a quick slash to the throat the cow is killed. Water is poured over the throat while the animal bleeds out. Those with responsibility for skinning the animal immediately get to work cutting up the carcass. Within no time, the meat is taken indoors to be divided up into parcels for distribution amongst the poor in the neighbourhood.

Though fast and methodical it is a very visceral experience. Usually there are quite a few cows being slaughtered at the same time on a street, so one animal might be standing by looking at another being cut up. Steam from the warm bodies of the animals envelops the scene and the streets are strewn with heaps of heads, hide, hooves and other body parts, as well as buckets of intestines and innards. Afterwards the streets are covered in cow dung and streams of blood. However, within a few hours that too disappears. While I was involuntarily shocked by the sacrificial slaughter I observed, I had to remind myself that I eat meat – albeit neatly packaged and unrecognisable. If I had to behold the kinds of killing scenes that I witnessed during Eid ul-Adha on a regular basis, would I make a different choice?

During Eid ul-Adha, as with Eid ul-Fitre, many people travel over the holiday period. I went to the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the southeast for a few days at the end of November (see post 43).

Talking about Islam and religion in Bangladesh

Before I came to Bangladesh, I didn’t know a lot about Islam or what it would be like to live in a predominantly Muslim culture. In the West, particularly since 9/11, Islam has got a lot of negative press. I had memories of one or two bad experiences while travelling in Muslim countries too (outside Asia). ‘Religion’ is often an emotive topic, but talking about Islam is particularly characterised by controversy and anxiety. Consequently, silence often replaces open discussion. I can understand this to a certain degree. Growing up in Ireland, with the Northern Ireland conflict on my doorstep, I am all too aware of the inherited, institutionalised, politicised hatred between Catholics and Protestants in my own country. Amongst some Muslims there is a caricatured image of Christians (or Westerners, more generally) as immoral, promiscuous drunkards. Just as there is a caricatured image amongst some Westerners of Muslims as violent haters of women and potential suicide bombers. With these thoughts in mind, I was very careful and felt a good deal of responsibility when it came to exchanging views in relation to religion, particularly with regard to the very idea of free speech itself.

Such exchanges were further complicated by the fact that I don’t adhere to any established religion. I put a lot of thought into trying to facilitate an understanding of this position. I would point out that I recognise and admire the positive historical force of religion and its impact on learning, on architecture, on art, etc. I would try to explain that while I abhor proselytism and the use of religion to justify injustice, I know some very fine people who are deeply religious. I would try to explain, that for me, all knowledge and values, including those of any authority, exist in relationship to their contexts. I would attempt to make clear that I continue to try to find my own orientation in a world in which everything is relative, but that this does not preclude commitment to values and beliefs and associated responsibilities. I would explain that this is not a stance that I have taken lightly and that, for me, it is a more difficult one than that of committing to a belief in certainty and absolute authority. (I would even try to put in a joke about the wisdom of Solomon!) I would acknowledge that I am of course obviously, in cultural terms, a Christian (and a Catholic) and though now a non-adherent, I have empathy with the religious beliefs and rituals of others. I would admit that despite the sometimes stifling religious environment of my youth, there are times when I look back with a little nostalgia too at those shared ceremonies and rituals in which I participated happily as a child. I would explain that I recognise how this culture of ritual and devotion in religion enriches community and brings people peace and comfort and meaning. And finally I would acknowledge that I remain open to possibilities: there is so much that is unknown about the nature of reason and the nature of reality.

Quite frankly these discussions were often exhausting. Trying to understand and be understood can be hard work. On occasion, it’s not easy to put yourself in a position where you are obliged to hear, listen and accommodate another’s worldview – even when you are the kind of person who can generally see many sides to a story. It would be far easier at times, for both parties, to remain locked in separate worlds. I have renewed admiration for those who engage in conflict resolution and peace-making. Coincidentally, I was thinking about this one night while I was listening to John Lennon’s songs, ‘Make love, not war’ and ‘Imagine’. Love may indeed be ‘the answer’ but it’s not as simple as it sounds, and imagining ‘all the people living life in peace’ can seem like a bit of a pipe dream at times. (And there’s nothing better than religion to put the kibosh on brotherly love!) Still, it is imperative that we keep on trying. Finding common ground is always a good place to start, and so I would often invoke the spirit of Rabindranath Tagore (see post 29) who, though not a Muslim, is admired and respected nonetheless by Bengali Muslims. It was the universal creative spirit that was the object of his religious worship and the inspiration for his creativity. He saw this spirit expressed and manifested in the beauty of nature, in human love, in music, in language, in poetry and in art. He wholeheartedly embraced difference; he was spiritual and yet secular, emotional and yet rational. Personally, I have found his work helpful in contributing to my constantly evolving understanding of the nature of a ‘God’ entity.

The language barrier was a big stumbling block of course and prevented deeper, meaningful engagement. I have to admit that at times I simply told people that I was Christian. In Bangladesh, I haven’t personally experienced many negative religious-related incidents. In fact, I have had only one bad experience, when I was berated by fanatical Muslims on the steps of the beautiful national mosque in Dhaka. Apart from that one rather disheartening incident, I have found that people are tolerant and willing to engage respectfully in conversations about religion. They welcome questions and lay no claim to superiority in their answers. However, what was very obvious to me was the complete lack of even mildly iconoclastic views on Islam. Not one person that I met had the slightest negative criticism of Islam. Such conformity and homogeneity frightens me a little. However, I know, from reading, that Muslims all over the world continue to debate the implications of the Qur’an’s (Koran’s) teachings for everyday life. I know too that ‘Islam’ is a worldview that is engaged with critically and subject to diverse, often conflicting, interpretations. While none of the people I met in Bangladesh openly criticised Islam, neither did they criticise other religions or make claims that Islam was superior. I think that the absolutist project that many in the West fear is the exception rather than the rule.

Bangladesh is an ideologically tolerant country, and relatively speaking there is little religious fundamentalism (though see below). Many commentators maintain that the social cohesion that exists at national level relates more to Bengali culture than to Islam. They contend that when Bangladesh seceded from East Pakistan – the ‘Land of the [Muslim] Pure’ and became Bangladesh, the ‘Land of the Bengals’, Bengali culture and language replaced religion as the country’s organising principle. To this day there are people who prefer to refer to themselves as Bengali rather than Bangladeshi. Many, though not all, of these are supporters of the Awami League, the party that fought for Bangladesh’s independence on the basis of a Bengali identity, one that overrode the Muslim identity that was the basis of Pakistan. (The term ‘Bangladeshi’ was associated with General Ziaur Rahman, and the Bangladesh National Party that he founded.) See post 8 and post 14.

There are some Islamic scholars who say that Bengali Islam – particularly that in rural Bengal – is not really ‘pure’ Islam at all, but a confused mixture of Hinduism and Islam – a sort of syncretism. Others argue that religion is never practised uniformly and has been informed, throughout history, by region and place. In other words, as with other religions, there are many ways of being Muslim.

Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the vocal Islamic fundamentalist minority in Bangladesh. Although two of the country’s four main banned militant groups have been outlawed, networks of full- and part-time activists remain in existence. Though less vocal now than they were in the 1990s, the string of bomb attacks in 2005 was a reminder that these groups are still active. Every day there are reports in the papers of abuses in the name of Islam e.g. punishments for crimes against Islam (see post 44). There are many reported violations against the sizeable Hindu, Buddhist and Christian minorities in Bangladesh, though these are often the result of political rather than religious intimidation (see post 57). In some rural areas, Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic political party, is growing in strength, and is rumoured to have international financial support from Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic countries, for the building of mosques and madrassas (religious schools). Many Hindus and moderate Muslims speak of the steady imposition of an Islamic identity in some rural villages in Bangladesh, where Muslims and Hindus have historically lived together peacefully  sharing a Bengali identity. Traditionally, the role of the imam (Muslim priest) in society was restricted to rituals of birth, marriage and death, but that is changing too. Some development agencies have unintentionally added fuel to the fire by giving a central role to imams, in the name of strengthening communities, based on their programmes in other Muslim countries. This is resulting in a further erosion of secular space. While historically, religious traditions have coexisted in Bangladesh, today more and more of the traditional communal cultural activities enjoyed by both Muslims and Hindus are disappearing. For example, there was the jatra – a theatre performance by travelling troupes of actors based on local history and folklore, or the patua sangit – a genre of folk song performed by rural canvas painters (patuas), and based on local folklore and religious mythology (both Hindu and Muslim). While of course it is inevitable that culture will change over time, in many villages it appears that the once vibrant Hindu-Muslim public gatherings are being replaced by Muslim prayer gatherings and sermons.

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, these rights are not always respected in practice. Though the level of harassment of journalists has declined in the past 4/5 years, reported threats against the media by Islamist groups (as well as by party activists and organised crime groups) continue. Those responsible do so with impunity. For example, in February 2009 journalist Farid Alam fled the country after receiving death threats from an Islamist group, in connection with his new book on militant Islam. During the flare-up of fundamentalism in the 1990s, there were violent campaigns – including death threats – by conservative religious authorities against the feminist writer Taslima Nasreen, who was forced into exile for ‘blasphemy’. Her novellas and essays question the Islamic justification for the unjust treatment of women. She also questions aggression against the Hindu minority in Bangladesh. Her book Lajja (Shame), published in 1993, recounts the wave of violence against Bangladeshi Hindus after the destruction of Babri mosque in India by Hindu fanatics. Since then, two more of her books have been banned. She still lives in exile. Freedom of speech cannot be taken for granted here. For example, in 2007, controversy surrounded a cartoon published in the popular daily newspaper Prothom Alo, which resulted in the arrest and detention of its editor. More recently, Bangladesh blocked access to Facebook after satirical images of the prophet Muhammad and the country’s leaders had been uploaded. (Incidentally, a block on YouTube was also imposed in 2009 for political reasons ‘in the national interest’.)

For now though, Bangladesh’s secular roots are holding. The economic environment is perfect for the growth of radical Islam, which offers answers and spiritual rewards for suffering that a commitment to democracy cannot match. The surprise is not how radical Bangladesh is, but how moderate it remains. The world could learn much from the tolerant and moderate Muslims I meet every day in Dhaka.

Hinduism in Bangladesh

A tenth or so (16 million) of the population of Bangladesh are Hindus. And while I visited the Dhakaswari Temple on a few occasions, as well as other temples and festival pandals throughout Bangladesh, I can’t say that I gained a real in-depth understanding of Hinduism as practiced here – other than what I knew already from travelling in India. Almost all of the friends I made were Muslim, and so I spent more time in their company learning about Islam. I think I need to spend a year immersing myself in Hinduism now!

Against the backdrop of Islam, particularly serene Islamic architecture, the world of Hinduism is extraordinarily colourful and noisy. From time to time, I came across Hindu festivals – one particularly memorable one on the beach in Cox’s Bazar (see post 50). Hindu Street in Old Dhaka does a brisk trade in clay and bamboo statues and effigies for these festivals. Durga Puja is the largest and most important annual Hindu festival celebrated in Bangladesh over five days in September/October. It commemorates the victory of the goddess Durga over the demon Mahishashura. The Buriganga River in Old Dhaka is the place to be.

To capture the spirit of the festivities, you could read this interesting essay by Fakrul Alam. In it he recounts his childhood memories of ‘Durga Puja days’ in Dhaka, against the backdrop of the religious atmosphere of the time, and reflects on the changes that have occurred since then. There is an added bonus by way of explanation of a song by Shah Abdul Karim, Age Ki Shundor Din Kataitam, which triggers his memories of those days. (For more on Karim, who sadly died during my time in Bangladesh, see post 55.) Incidentally, for those who are interested, Ramkrishna Mission – referred to in the essay – is in Gopibagh in Old Dhaka, not far from the beautiful ‘Rose Garden’ Zamindari Palace.

Buddhism in Bangladesh

As part of Bengal, Bangladesh had a flourishing Buddhist culture until the 12th century, making Bengal the last stronghold of Buddhism in an increasingly Hindu and Muslim dominated subcontinent. Today, Buddhism is practised by an estimated 0.7% (1.1 million) of the population and is most evident amongst the ethnic minority groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and elsewhere (see post 43). During a visit to the Dhammarajikha Buddhist monastery in Dhaka, I accidentally bumped into the abbot who, upon hearing I was from Ireland, invited me to meet a group of his friends gathered in an air-conditioned room. I wanted to talk about Buddhism in Bangladesh but they were more interested in talking about Irish literature – and Beckett in particular. The abbot arranged lunch for me which I ate alone in a bare room next door. I appreciated the hospitality, but the experience was more Beckettian than Buddhist!

Christianity in Bangladesh

Christianity arrived in what is now Bangladesh during the late 16th to early 17th centuries through Portuguese traders and missionaries. Christians account for approximately 0.3% (500,000) of the population, though it feels as though there are more, due to the presence of foreign aid organisations and missionary groups. Approximately two-thirds of Bangladeshi Christians are Catholic and a third Protestant, with half of all Christians belonging to ‘tribal’, ethnic minorities. Christmas is a low-key event (see post 45). Farmgate in Dhaka has the largest Christian community in Bangladesh and is the site of the first church (see picture on left). Catholic schools in Bangladesh have a very good reputation. A past principal and part-founder of one of these schools (Notre Dame College in Dhaka), American Fr. Richard William Timm, the head of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh, received the Magsaysay award for International Understanding in 1987. On Victory Day 2009, there was an article in the Daily Star which described some of Fr. Timm’s experiences during the Liberation War.

Some photographs follow. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (44 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1. A truck in Old Dhaka

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2 responses to “37. Ramadan and religion in Bangladesh

  1. SayeedSayeed301

    A very good understanding. Interesting and logical to read.

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