The scattered legacies of Bengal's Sufis
Amongst the chaos of Dhaka city lie countless Sufi shrines (or mazars)—the tombs of Sufi spiritual leaders who have inhabited the country since the 12th century—places where men and women gather to find a moment of peace in an otherwise unrelenting city.
Sufis have a long history in this region, bringing Bengal into contact with Islamic thought and practice before Bakhtiyar Khalji's conquest in 1203. In the 12th century, large numbers of Turkish-speaking groups from Central Asia were driven into the Iranian plateau and further to India, fleeing the Mongol advance. These migrant Turks often grouped themselves around Sufi leaders who drew in many disciples and followers as they arrived in Bengal.
Since this time, Sufism has played an important role in Bengal's syncretic Islamic tradition, and it remains embedded in the social and cultural fabric of Bangladesh, surviving despite the increasing trend towards Islamic orthodoxy in the country.
Though Sufism is thought to exist primarily in rural villages, many earlier Sufi leaders made their way into Dhaka, and their legacies remain in the mazars dotted around the city—particularly in the large followings of many notable pirs who continue to exert significant social and political influence.
The most visible presence of Sufism in Bangladesh is in the following of pirs. Sufism is an esoteric tradition, and its mystical practices are passed down from spiritual guides (murshids, commonly known as pirs in Bangladesh) to their students—murids. A pir's role is to guide and instruct his disciples on the Sufi path.
I spoke to a friend of mine about his great-grandfather, who was the first in his family to become a Sufi. His family descended from Pathans in Afghanistan, and are based in Kushtia. My friend said that one day, under the guidance of Pir Hazrat Abu Zaheer, his great-grandfather decided to give up all his material possessions and follow the spiritual path of God. His family's beliefs descend from this. After his great-grandfather's death, his younger son, a student of zoology at Dhaka University at the time, said that he had gotten a calling, and immediately left his education to become a pir in Kushtia—where he continues to guide his murids.
My friend stressed the importance of this encounter with a pir, saying, "In a spiritual line, you have to have a pir. You won't be able to do without this."
The father of prominent Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Alam was also drawn to Sufism through his relationship with a pir from India. His father used to stress that he and his own pir were like brothers, and that his pir had always emphasised the values of education to his murids, encouraging them to be educated, to go abroad, and to get PhDs. Every year, his father saved up to get a bus to Kolkata and join his pir's gathering, held annually in February or March. Shafiq Bhai stressed that Sufism is "not about practice; you go to a pir and he gives you some prayers to study… some people need some guidance and having a pir also provides a strong brotherhood."
Pirs occupy an important role within Bangladeshi society and politics, gaining influence from their wealth, as well as the spiritual power they are accorded. Historically, when establishing themselves politically, rulers actively sought legitimacy from powerful saints. Indeed, in 1342 when Sultan Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah established the Ilyas Shah dynasty, he did so with the blessings of a renowned saint of the Chishti line.
Sufism also has its remnants in the countless mazars of the capital, which people pass through all day, praying for an answer to various life problems, or searching for a moment of peace amidst a city that never slows down. Most of the people visiting these mazars do not identify themselves as part of any Sufi tradition, or as murids of any specific pir. They simply believe in the power of the saints who lie in these tombs to cure their problems, come to the mazars for a sense of community in the evenings when people gather, or to have some of the food that the mazars provide on a daily basis.
The High Court Mazar, in the vicinity of the country's Supreme Court, is one such example. Residents of the mazar believe it to be the tomb of Shah Khwaja Sharfuddin Chishti, buried in 1590 CE, who travelled from India. The mazar, with its beautiful tiling, provides a stunning entrance to the renaissance style High Court building, and its spirituality stands in contrast to the more formulaic conduct of law and order as you enter the court premises. A middle-aged man selling tea and biscuits near the entrance to the mazar said that he felt the mazar was very different to a mosque as people can come and go at any time. "There aren't set times for prayer and everyone comes here, Hindus, Muslims and foreigners as well," he said. This is thought to be the first Sufi mazar in Dhaka city, and it was a centre of activity in the 1970s, most notably for the followers of Nura Pagla, a famous semi-naked Sufi saint. The atmosphere is much more subdued now, but it continues to draw in various people wanting to offer a prayer to Sharfuddin.
Nearby is the Golap Shah Mazar—a small, beautifully decorated shrine, right in the middle of one of Dhaka's busiest intersections. At noon on a Wednesday, the shrine was relatively quiet, with just a few people scattered around, and only one or two devotees offering their prayers. A 15-year-old boy from Kurigram told me he comes and prays here when he is in Dhaka, ever since being separated from his parents a few years ago. "While a lot of people come here to eat food, I come here just to pray," he said. Another woman who was sitting just outside the shrine said she "didn't know anything about who was in the shrine," but had been staying there for the past six months because they provide one or two free meals a day. People tend to gather there in the evenings, when food is provided for everyone.
Pir Yemeni in Purana Paltan—at the bend of the roads towards the Secretariat buildings—was built in the name of Shaykh Malik, a Sufi saint from Yemen who was supposedly sent to preach Islam in Dhaka by Shahjalal. In Mirpur, at the tomb of Shah Ali Baghdadi, lively Zikrs and Qawwalis are held on Thursday evenings where men, women, and children all gather to celebrate their devotion. These mazars all uphold the spirit of Sufism. They provide food to those who need it, and are a remnant of Bengal's religious syncretism—fusing many Islamic and Hindu practices, and welcoming people from all different faiths and backgrounds. The presence of women at these shrines is also notable in contrast to their relative absence in many other public spaces of the city.
Though Islam in Bangladesh has always been a highly syncretic religion, in recent years, many Sufi traditions have come under fire as efforts to impose a more orthodox and fundamentalist version of Islam have been fostered by certain groups in the country. My friend spoke of the soft persecution that many Sufis in Bangladesh face, citing an instance where he witnessed some hujurs in Sunamganj shutting down singing at a traditional urs ceremony (held annually to honour the death anniversary of a saint). He said that sharing his family history is always scary for him, and that he tends not to elaborate on his faith with anyone apart from close friends. He has ended up in many debates with people who criticise his beliefs and religious practices.
On occasion, this "soft persecution" has had severe impacts. In January 2020, Baul singer Shariat Sarkar was arrested when an Islamic cleric filed a case against him after he'd argued that the Quran did not prohibit the practice of music. Later in the year, two cases were filed against Rita Dewan for "hurting religious sentiments" during a pala gaan performance. Both cases were filed under the now suspended Digital Security Act. More chillingly, a number of Sufi leaders and followers were killed in recent years—such as Muhammad Shahidullah in Rajshahi in 2016 and Farhad Hossain Chowdhury in 2017. Both are suspected to have been killed by Islamist groups who consider them heretics.
As Dhaka city continues to expand—motorways, metro stations, and skyscrapers popping up at an astonishing pace—these Sufi shrines persevere as enduring symbols of beauty and stability amidst the whirlwind of modernisation and encroachment of religious fundamentalism. They will forever remain a testament to this region's vibrant religious traditions and identities.
The author acknowledges the help of Mahbub Alam when doing field research for this article.
Laleh-Naz is a student of Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University, and is learning Arabic and Farsi.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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