Accepted paper:

Custodians of Muslim identity: Islam, state, and the ulama in Bangladesh


Humayun Kabir (North South University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper addresses the madrasa custodians’—the Islamic scholars (ulama) indistinguishable primarily for their scholarly tradition in seminary-types Islamic schools—religio-political activism and discourses on the imaginaries and boundaries of being Muslim in Bangladesh.

Paper long abstract:

With essential similarities to elsewhere in the Muslim world, a cross-cutting relationship between piety and politics has been visible in the Indian subcontinent including Bengal, at least, since the late nineteenth century. Historical and political trajectories—colonial modernity, emergence of new nation-states, massification of knowledge (Islamic knowledge), fragmentation of religious authority, rise of “new communal activities”, and global cultural penetration—made deep inroads into the Bengali-speaking ulama’s reformist roles. The ulama, the custodians of madrasas who are indistinguishable for their religious training in early Islamic scholarly traditions, were primarily concerned about and occupied with the proliferation and promotion of Islamic teachings and thereby, aimed to shape the collective religious consciousness on what Muslims should be aware of. Now the locus and focus of ulama’s activities are not coterminous with piety-based activism. Rather, they are increasingly visible as political agitators and negotiators. The shifting and extended roles of the ulama and their discourses on being Muslim are to be unfolded in this paper in relation to their engagements and disengagements with the Bangladeshi state. What causes them to target the state as a central force not just for altering the political ideology but for structuralization of certain norms, customs, and practices they endorse and recognize as “Islamic” are to be analytically deciphered in the paper. The discourses, narratives, and rhetoric the ulama promote in the process of bargaining and negotiating with the state are, I submit, the collective articulations of an agency—Islamic identity. Such agency has continuously been endorsed in relation to the historical reflexivity, a process by which the ulama connect to the roles of their predecessors and mirror themselves to the modeled past of Islam. However, the contemporary ulama are seen as contested and argumentative on the question of being proper Muslim both within and outside their circles.

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