Book review: Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History



Title: Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal

PagesXVIII, 210Year2021ISBN (PDF)9781433183201ISBN (ePUB)9781433183218ISBN (MOBI)9781433183225ISBN (Hardcover)9781433183195DOI10.3726/b17464LanguageEnglishPublishedNew York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 210 pp.

by Taj Hashmi        8 February 2024

Professor M. Rashiduzzaman is an eminent scholar with a distinguished career as a former Professor of Political Science at Dhaka University during the Pakistan era.  He has a distinguished academic career that spans several decades. He is an accomplished professor of political science, with his most recent appointment at Rowan University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rowan University in New Jersey. He has also taught at Dhaka University and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. In addition to his role at Rowan, he has held numerous other teaching assignments throughout his career, including a visiting professorship at Columbia University in the early 1970s. During this time, he made significant contributions to political science, publishing ground-breaking research and providing insightful commentary on key issues. These contributions have helped shape the political science field and inspire future generations of scholars.

This erudite scholar has also authored numerous publications, including scores of peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters edited by eminent authors. His major works comprise of The Central Legislature in British India, 1921-47 (originally published in Dhaka in 1965 and later reprinted as The Central Legislature in British India 1921-47: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj by Peter Lang in 2019), Rural Leadership and Population Control in Bangladesh (published by University Press of America in 1982), Politics and Administration in the Local Councils (published by Oxford University Press in 1968), and Pakistan: A Study of Government and Politics (published in Dhaka in 1966).

Rashiduzzaman holds a PhD in Political Science from Durham University in the 1960s and an MA and BA Hons in political science from Dhaka University in the 1950s. His students speak highly of him, praising his engaging teaching style and his ability to make complex concepts accessible. His academic prowess has earned him the esteem of his peers. His ability to elucidate intricate concepts and historical and social science facts is highly regarded. His arguments are characterized by incisiveness, founded on sound logic and grounded in reality. The book under review reflects, albeit partially, his exceptional and enduring qualities as a scholar and engaging author. This work is a valuable resource that sheds light on Bangladesh’s socio-economic and cultural history during the first half of the twentieth century. It also contributes significantly to cultural anthropology, particularly in an agrarian and pre-modern society like Bangladesh during the period being discussed.

I want to let you know that this narrative is solely based on the author’s memory and the reconstruction of facts before his birth, childhood, adolescence, and youth. The information has been gathered from the author’s recollection and the accounts of his father (1897-1975) and grandfather (1845-1912), as narrated by his father. This is why this work is so unique and beautiful! The author’s father was a schoolteacher. He held a BA degree and was proficient in English, history, and literature. On the other hand, the author’s grandfather was a Bengali-educated village elder who held arable land and a small moneylending business in his ancestral village in the Dhaka District.

This literary work presents a novel paradigm for the fundamental identity of East Bengali Muslims during British colonial rule. It offers a unique perspective on the pivotal decades preceding the 1947 Partition of India and Bengal, roughly a century before the emergence of this impoverished, peripheral region of the Calcutta-centric British Raj as the eastern wing of Pakistan. The book represents a valuable contribution to academic discourse and provides insight into the historical and cultural factors that shaped the development of East Bengali Muslim identity. This work focuses on the deliberate marginalization of East Bengali Muslims, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population, by the British colonial rulers and their Hindu Bengali beneficiaries. This marginalization reduced them to a state of virtual livestock, to borrow from Nirad Chaudhuri’s seminal autobiography. This study identifies the socio-economic, cultural, and psychological factors that have led to the marginalization of the Bengali Muslim community in East Bengal. The author adeptly depicts his father’s account of his grandfather’s perception of the Bengali Hindu and Muslim communities as trees in a forest – although close to each other but having different roots – an analogy that effectively illustrates their proximity yet distinct roots and survival methods. This metaphorical comparison provides a compelling representation of the phenomenon in question, emphasizing the unique characteristics of each community while recognizing their shared location.

The author grew up witnessing the “Great Divide” – to paraphrase H.V. Hodson’s book title on the Partition – between the educated, wealthy, and influential Hindu communities and the mostly illiterate, poor, and marginalized Muslim communities in colonial East Bengal, so had his parents and grandparents. The author’s observations have led to a deeper understanding of the historical and social contexts that continue to shape the region’s present-day reality.

This autobiographical account garnished with his father’s memories and accounts of events as narrated by the author’s grandfather, who passed away in 1912 – more than two decades before the author’s birth – is likely to become an invaluable source to reconstruct the social and cultural history of Bangladesh since the mid-19th century.

With his father’s memories and accounts of events narrated by the author’s grandfather, who passed away over two decades before the author was born, this autobiographical account will be a valuable source for reconstructing Bangladesh’s social and cultural history since the mid-19th century. The account is expected to be a reliable source for scholars and researchers exploring the country’s historical evolution and cultural heritage during this period. The author’s meticulous documentation of his family’s stories and experiences and his insightful analysis of the socio-cultural contexts that shaped them add significant value to this historical account. The work provides new insight into Bangladesh’s social and cultural history, dispelling well-entrenched myths typically associated with premodern societies. The work provides new insight into Bangladesh’s social and cultural history, dispelling well-entrenched myths typically associated with premodern societies. One such myth is that pre-colonial Bangladesh had a syncretistic society transcending narrow divides between Islam, Hinduism, and other faiths, where Bengalis were able to embrace each other’s beliefs and live harmoniously, setting a precedent that we should strive to follow in today’s world. As discussed above, the author has beautifully shattered this myth by citing his grandfather’s analogy of the Muslim and Hindu communities in East Bengal as trees close to one another with entirely different types of roots and sources of nourishment, identity, and aspirations. Accordingly, the work debunks various conspiracy theories about who was responsible for the Hindu-Muslim divide in East Bengal and elsewhere in the Subcontinent during the British era.

Muslims living in the Indian Subcontinent historically traced their origins back to countries such as Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Sheikhs, Syeds, Qureshis, Khans, and Pathans are typically associated with these regions. Farsi (Persian) was the official language for many centuries. Arabic and Urdu were considered the hallmarks of a learned Muslim in Bengal and elsewhere in the Subcontinent during the British period. Northern India was the centre of Islamic revival movements, such as Wahhabism, Sufism, the Tablighee Jamaat, and the Pakistan Movement. North India also hosted the Deoband Madrasa, the Aligarh University and the Aligarh Movement. These movements and institutions significantly shaped Muslim identity in East Bengal and elsewhere in the Subcontinent. The political struggle for independence and Pakistan further tied Bengali Muslim identity with Urdu and North Indian culture.

Due to oversimplified scholarship and politically motivated ideologies in the post-Partition period, East Bengali Muslims were stereotyped as being influenced by Hindu interests. This eventually led to the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. The present study undertakes the task of bridging the cultural dissociation that characterized Bengali Muslims’ extraterritorial loyalty and identity before the emergence of Pakistan. Their primordial allegiance to their Bengali ethnicity in the post-Partition era, however, marked a significant shift in their identity, thus leading to a new identity distinct from the cultural hegemony imposed on them by the Pakistan Movement. It is worth noting that the majority of Bangladeshi Muslims today have a dual identity, identifying themselves either as Bengali Muslims or Muslim Bengalis. The study, therefore, offers a critical analysis of the complex interplay between identity, loyalty, and the political context in which these factors operate, contributing to a better understanding of the dynamics that shape the social fabric of Bangladesh.

*A historian-cum-cultural anthropologist and security analyst, Taj Hashmi, Ph.D., FRAS, is a retired professor of Security Studies at the APCSS, US. He has written several books and hundreds of journal-articles, and newspaper op-eds. As an analyst of current affairs, he regularly appears on talk shows about Bangladesh, South Asia, and World affairs. His latest book, Fifty Years of Bangladesh, 1971-2021: Crises of Culture, Development, Governance, and Identity, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2022. Tel: 1+ 647 447 2609. Email: [email protected]

Previous articlePakistan: The Generals and Judges Who Betrayed the Nation
Next articlePakistan goes to the polls
Dr. Taj Hashmi is a Research Associate at the York Centre for Asian Research at York University, Toronto, and Retired Professor of Security Studies at the APCSS, Honolulu, Hawaii. He was born in 1948 in Assam, India, and was raised in Bangladesh. He holds a Ph.D. in modern South Asian History from the University of Western Australia, and a Masters and BA (Hons) in Islamic History & Culture from Dhaka University. He did his post-doctoral research at the Centre for International Studies (CIS), Oxford, and Monash University (Australia). Since 1987, he is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (FRAS). He is a reviewer of manuscripts for several publishers, including Oxford, Sage, and Routledge. He has authored scores of academic papers, and more than a couple of hundred popular essays and newspaper articles/op-eds on various aspects of history, politics, society, politics, culture, Islam, terrorism, counter terrorism and security issues in South Asia, Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, and North America. He is a regular commentator on current world affairs on the BBC, Voice of America, and some other media outlets.- His major publications include Global Jihad and America (SAGE, 2014); Women and Islam in Bangladesh (Palgrave-Macmillan 2000); Islam, Muslims, and the Modern State (co-ed) (Palgrave-Macmillan, 1994); Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia (Westview Press, 1992); and Colonial Bengal (in Bengali) (Papyrus, Kolkata 1985). His Global Jihad has been translated into Hindi and Marathi. His Women and Islam was a best-seller in Asian Studies and was awarded the Justice Ibrahim Gold Medal by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. He is working on his next book, A Historical Sociology of Bangladesh. His immediate past assignment was at Austin Peay State University at Clarksville, Tennessee, where he taught Criminal Justice & Security Studies (2011-2018). Prior to that, he was Professor of Security Studies at the US Department of Defense, College of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, Hawaii (2007-2011). He started his teaching career in 1972 as a lecturer in History at Chittagong University, and after a year joined Dhaka University (Bangladesh) and taught Islamic History & Culture (1973-1981) before moving to Australia for his Ph.D. Afterwards he taught History (South Asia and Middle East) at the National University of Singapore (1989-1998) before joining Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) as Dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences (1998-2002). Then he joined the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver (Canada) as a Visiting Professor in Asian Studies for two years (2003-2005), and worked as an adjunct professor of History for a year at Simon Fraser University in Canada (2005-2006). Tel: (1) 647 447 2609. Email: [email protected] and [email protected]