Bengali Muslims

Not to be confused with Bangladeshis.
"Islam in Bengal" redirects here. For other uses, see Islam in Bengal (disambiguation).
Bengali Muslims
Bengali Mussalmans[1][2]

Muslim-majority districts of Bengal highlighted in green on a map in 1909
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Bangladesh 146,000,000 (2011)[3]
 India 35,300,000 (2011)[4]
 Pakistan 2,200,000 (2011)[5]
 Saudi Arabia 1,200,000 (2010)[6]
 UAE 700,000 (2013)[7]
 Malaysia 500,000 (2009)[8]
 UK 500,000 (2011)[9]
 Kuwait 230,000 (2008)[10]
 Oman 200,000 (2010)[11]
 Qatar 150,000 (2014)[12]
 USA 143,619 (2007)
 Italy 115,746 (2013)[13]
Bengali with different dialects

Bengali Muslims are an ethnic, linguistic, and religious population who make up the majority of Bangladesh's citizens and the largest minority in the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. Ethnic Bengalis who adhere to Islam, they speak the secular Bengali language, which is written with the indigenous Bengali alphabet. They form the second largest Muslim ethnolinguistic group in the world (after Arab Muslims).[14]

Bengal was a leading power of the medieval Islamic East.[15] The Bengali Muslim population emerged as a synthesis of Islamic and Bengali cultures. After the Partition of British India in 1947, they comprised the demographic majority of Pakistan until the independence of East Pakistan (historic East Bengal) as Bangladesh in 1971. Bengali Muslims are now concentrated in Bangladesh.


A Bengali is a person of ethnic and linguistic heritage from the Bengal region in South Asia. The region was historically separated from India by the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, allowing the Bengali people to develop an independent language and culture. Islam arrived in the first millennium and greatly influenced Bengali culture and civilization. The influx of Persian, Turkic, Arab and Mughal settlers further added to the rich cultural melting pot of Bengal.[16] Today, most Bengali Muslims live in the modern state of Bangladesh, the world's third largest Muslim-majority country.

The dominant majority of Bengali Muslims are Sunnis who follow the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. There are also minorities of Shias and Ahmadiyas, as well as people who identify as non-denominational (or "just a Muslim").[17]


Pre-Islamic history

Rice-cultivating communities existed in Bengal since the second millennium BCE. The region was home to a large agriculturalist population influenced by Indian religions, but was not fully integrated into the caste system.[18] The inhabitants of historic Bengal region were mostly Indo-Aryan but also included minority tribal groups like Austroasiatic, Dravidian, and Tibeto-Burman people. Buddhism influenced the region in the first millennium. The Bengali language developed from Apabhramsa and Magadhi Prakrit between the 7th and 10th centuries. It once formed a single Indo-Aryan branch with Assamese and Oriya, before the languages became distinct.[19] The indigenous Bengali script developed as the chief writing system in Bengal and Assam.

Early explorers

Early Muslim traders and merchants visited Bengal while traversing the Silk Road. This increased trade with seaports like Chittagong from the 9th century.[20] [21] Coins of the Abbasid Caliphate have been discovered in many parts of the region.[22]

Early Islamic kingdoms

Battle scene on the River Ganges depicted in the Akbarnama

Early Muslim explorers visited the Bengal region while traversing the Silk Road in the first millennium. One of the earliest mosques in South Asia is under excavation in northern Bangladesh, indicating the presence of Muslims in the area around the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad.[23] Starting in the 9th century, Muslim merchants increased trade with Bengali seaports.[21] Coins of the Abbasid Caliphate have been discovered in many parts of the region.[22]

The Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent took place between the 12th and 16th centuries. Bengal became a subdivision of the Delhi Sultanate in 1204. In the 14th century the Sultanate of Bengal became independent and emerged as a regional power.[24] It adopted Bengali as one of its official languages, alongside Persian, the diplomatic language of the Islamic world, and Arabic, the liturgical language of the religion. The Sultanate also ruled parts of Arakan and Assam. The Sur Empire briefly overtook the region in the 16th century. The local aristocracy also commanded significant power.

The Bengal Sultanate, 16th century

The Mughal Empire eventually controlled the region under its Bengal Subah viceregal province. The Mughal Emperors considered Bengal their most prized province. Emperor Akbar redeveloped the Bengali calendar.[25] Emperor Aurangazeb called Bengal the Paradise of Nations.[26] Two Bengal viceroys  Muhammad Azam Shah and Azim-us-Shan  assumed the imperial throne. Mughal Bengal became increasingly independent under the Nawabs of Bengal in the 18th century.[27]


Mughal Bengal, 18th century

Muslim rule abolished the caste system and enforced conversion through the construction of mosques, madrasas, and Islamic monasteries. Sufism entered as a liberating force.[28] The early Sufis of Bengal promoted social reform. Their monasteries provided sanctuaries where ideas of human equality and solidarity were encouraged.[28] Islamic culture was synthesized with Bengali culture. Mass conversions took place due to the syncretic and mystical diffusion of Islamic concepts by Sufi missionaries into the indigenous Bengali society.[29]

The agrarian reforms of the Mughal Empire also played a crucial role in developing Bengali Muslim society. According to historian Richard M. Eaton, Islam became the religion of the plough in the Bengal delta.[15] The delta was the most fertile region in the empire. Mughal development projects cleared forests and established thousands of Sufi-led villages, which became industrious farming and craftsmanship communities.[30] The projects were most evident in the Bhati region of East Bengal, the most fertile part of the delta.[29]

People from various parts of the Muslim world settled in the region. Settlers intermarried with the local population.[15] This made East Bengal a thriving melting pot with strong trade and cultural networks. It was the most prosperous part of the subcontinent.[30][31] East Bengal became the center of the Muslim population in the eastern subcontinent and corresponds to modern-day Bangladesh.[29]

British period

A. K. Fazlul Huq, known as the Lion of Bengal, was the 1st Prime Minister of Bengal.

The region fell to the control of the British Empire in 1757. The British displaced the ruling Muslim class.

British-ruled Bengal was a hotbed of anti-colonial rebellion. In the early 19th century, Titumir led a peasant uprising against colonial rule. Haji Shariatullah led the Faraizi movement, advocating Islamic revivalism.[32] The Faraizis sought to create a caliphate and cleanse the region's Muslim society of what they deemed "un-Islamic practices". They were successful in galvanizing the Bengali peasantry against colonial authorities. However, the Faraizis lost popular support due to their strict religious doctrine and were politically eliminated in colonial crackdowns after the Mutiny of 1857.[33] In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Bengali Muslim middle class developed in British Bengal. The imparting of secular Western law and education sowed the seeds of an Indian enlightenment era, often called the Bengali renaissance. Bengali language and literature were modernized through the works of secular British Indians. The efforts of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in promoting the English language among Muslims also influenced Bengali Muslim society. Social and cultural leaders among Bengali Muslims during this period included Munshi Mohammad Meherullah, who countered Christian missionaries, writers Ismail Hossain Siraji and Mir Mosharraf Hossain; and feminists Faizunessa Chowdhurani and Roquia Sakhawat Hussain.

The creation of Eastern Bengal and Assam established visions for a sovereign Muslim-majority homeland in the eastern subcontinent. The All India Muslim League was founded in Dhaka in 1906. The early Muslim League dominated politics in East Bengal. A. K. Fazlul Huq was the first Prime Minister of Bengal under British rule. Bengali Muslims also dominated politics in Colonial Assam, where Maulana Bhashani emerged as a populist leader. Muhammed Saadulah served as the first Prime Minister of Assam.

Partition and Bangladesh Republic

An important moment in the history of Bengali self-determination was the Lahore Resolution in 1943, which was promoted by British Bengal premier A. K. Fazlul Huq. The resolution initially called for the creation of a sovereign state in the "Eastern Zone" of British India.[34] However, its text was later changed by the top leadership of the Muslim League. Despite calls from liberal Bengali Muslim League leaders for an independent United Bengal, the British moved forward with the Partition of Bengal and India in 1947. The Radcliffe Line made East Bengal a part of the Dominion of Pakistan. It was later renamed as East Pakistan, with Dhaka as its capital. The All Pakistan Awami Muslim League was formed in Dhaka in 1949.[35] The organization's name was later secularized as the Awami League in 1955.[36] The party was supported by the Bengali bourgeois, agriculturalists, the middle class, and the intelligentsia.[37] Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin, Mohammad Ali of Bogra, and H. S. Suhrawardy each served as Pakistan's prime minister during the 1950s; however, all three were deposed by the military-industrial complex in West Pakistan. The Bengali Language Movement in 1952 received strong support from Islamic groups, including the Tamaddun Majlish. Bengali nationalism increased in East Pakistan during the 1960s, particularly with the Six point movement for autonomy. The rise of pro-democracy and pro-independence movements in East Pakistan led to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.[38]

Bengali Muslim intellectuals Muhammad Shahidullah (right) and Qazi Motahar Hossain (left) during a literary conference of the Bengali Language Movement in 1954

The modern republic of Bangladesh was established as a secular and democratic state. Founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the country's socialist strongman until 1975. Ziaur Rahman became Bangladesh's first military ruler in the late 1970s. Zia restored free markets and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In 1988 general Hussain Muhammad Ershad pushed for the constitutional recognition of Islam as the state religion. After the restoration of the parliamentary system in 1990, Bangladeshi politics have been dubbed the Battle of the Begums due to the rivalry between Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the BNP.[39] An emerging economy, Bangladesh continues to face economic and social challenges, including poverty and climate change.[39] In 2010 the Bangladesh Supreme Court reaffirmed secular principles in the constitution, particularly the separation of mosque and state.[40]

The Indian Bengali Muslim minority in West Bengal co-exists peacefully with the state's Hindu majority. In the Indian state of Assam, the Bengali Muslim minority has faced anti-ethnic and Islamophobic violence perpetrated by Hindu nationalist groups.


Areas of the Hanafi school are shaded in light green

Bengali Muslims constitute the world's second-largest Muslim ethnicity (after the Arab world) and the largest Muslim community in South Asia.[41] An estimated 146 million Bengali Muslims live in Bangladesh, where Islam is the state religion and commands the demographic majority.[42] The Indian state of West Bengal is home to an estimated 24.6 million Bengali Muslims, who make up 30 % of the state's population . Three districts in West Bengal  Murshidabad, Maldah, and North Dinajpur have a Muslim majority.[43] The Indian state of Assam has over 10.7 million Bengali Muslims, who make up 34% of the state's population. Nine of out thirty-seven districts in Assam have a Muslim majority. The Rohingya community in western Myanmar have significant Bengali Muslim heritage.[44] They form the second-largest community in Rakhine State and are concentrated in border and coastal areas near Bangladesh.

A large Bengali Muslim diaspora is found in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, which are home to several million expatriate workers from South Asia. A more well-established diaspora also resides in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Pakistan. The first Bengali Muslim settlers in the United States were ship jumpers who settled in Harlem, New York and Baltimore, Maryland in the 1920s and 1930s.[45]


Ustad Alauddin Khan (centre), one of the greatest maestros of South Asian classical music, performing with his ensemble in Dhaka, 1955
Mausoleum of Lalon Shah, a syncretic Baul poet inspired by Sufism


Surnames in Bengali Muslim society reflect the region's cosmopolitan history. They are mainly of Arabic and Persian origin, with a minority of secular Bengali surnames.


Architecture is considered the supreme form of Islamic art. An indigenous style of Islamic architecture flourished in Bengal during the medieval Sultanate period.[46] Terracotta and stone mosques with multiple domes proliferated in the region. Bengali Muslim architecture emerged as a synthesis of Bengali, Persian, Byzantine, and Mughal elements.

The Indo-Saracenic style influenced Islamic architecture in South Asia during the British Raj. A notable example of this period is Curzon Hall. Modern and contemporary Islamic architecture evolved in the region since the 1950s.


Sufi spiritual traditions are central to the Bengali Muslim way of life. The most common Sufi ritual is the Dhikr, the practice of repeating the names of God after prayers. Sufi teachings regard the Prophet Muhammad as the primary perfect man who exemplifies the morality of God.[47] Sufism is regarded as the individual internalization and intensification of the Islamic faith and practice. The Sufis played a vital role in developing Bengali Muslim society during the medieval period. Historic Sufi missionaries are regarded as saints, including Shah Jalal, Khan Jahan Ali, Shah Farhan, Shah Amanat, and Khwaja Enayetpuri. Their mausoleums are focal points for charity, religious congregations, and festivities.

The Qadiri, Maizbhandaria, Naqshbandi, Chishti, Mujaddid, Ahmadi, Mohammadi, Soharwardi and Rifai orders are among the most widespread Sufi orders in the region.[48]


As part of the conversion process, a syncretic version of mystical Sufi Islam was historically prevalent in medieval and early modern Bengal. The Islamic concept of tawhid was diluted into the veneration of Hindu folk deities, who were now regarded as pirs.[49] Folk deities such as Sitala (goddess of smallpox) and Oladevi (goddess of cholera) were worshipped as pirs among certain sections of Muslim society.[16]


Bengali Muslims maintain their indigenous language and script.[50] This tradition is similar to that of Central Asian and Chinese Muslims.

Bengali evolved as the most easterly branch of the Indo-European languages. The Bengal Sultanate promoted the literary development of Bengali in order to curtail the influence of ancient Sanskrit. Bengali was the primary vernacular language of the Sultanate. During this period, Bengali borrowed a considerable amount of vocabulary from Arabic and Persian.[51] Under the Mughal Empire, considerable autonomy was enjoyed in the Bengali literary sphere.[52][53] The Bengali Language Movement of 1952 was a key part of East Pakistan's nationalist movement. It is commemorated annually by UNESCO as International Mother Language Day on 21 February.


Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh

While proto-Bengali emerged during the pre-Islamic period, the Bengali literary tradition crystallized during the Islamic period. As Persian and Arabic were prestige languages, they significantly influenced vernacular Bengali literature. The first efforts to popularize Bengali among Muslim writers was by the Sufi poet Nur Qutb Alam.[54][55] The poet established the Rikhta tradition which saw poems written in half Persian and half colloquial Bengali. The invocation tradition saw Bengali Muslim poets re-adapting Indian epics by replacing invocations of Hindu gods and goddesses with figures of Islam. The romantic tradition was pioneered by Shah Muhammad Sagir, whose work on Yusuf and Zulaikha was widely popular among the people of Bengal.[20] Other notable romantic works included Layla Madjunn by Bahram Khan and Hanifa Kayrapari by Sabirid Khan.[54] The Dobashi tradition features the use of Arabic and Persian vocabulary in Bengali texts to illustrate Muslim contexts.[54] Medieval Bengali Muslim writers produced epic poetry and elegies, such as Rasul Vijay of Shah Barid, Nabibangsha of Syed Sultan, Janganama of Abdul Hakim and Maktul Hussain of Mohammad Khan. Cosmology was a popular subject among Sufi writers.[56] In the 17th century, Bengali Muslim writers such as such as Alaol found refuge in Arakan where he produced his epic, Padmavati.[20]

Bengal was also a major center of Persian literature. Several newspapers and thousands of books, documents and manuscripts were published in Persian for 600 years. The Persian poet Hafez dedicated an ode to the literature of Bengal while corresponding with Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah.[57]

The first Bengali Muslim novelist was Mir Mosharraf Hossain in the 19th century. The highly acclaimed poetry of Kazi Nazrul Islam espoused spiritual rebellion against fascism and oppression. Nazrul also wrote Bengali ghazals. Begum Rokeya was a pioneering Bengali female writer who published Sultana's Dream, one of the earliest examples of feminist science fiction. The Muslim Literary Society of Bengal was founded by free-thinking and progressive teachers of Dacca University under the chairmanship of Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah on 19 January 1926. The Freedom of Intellect Movement was championed by the society.[58] When Bengal was partitioned in 1947, a distinct literary culture evolved in East Pakistan and modern Bangladesh. Shamsur Rahman was regarded as the country's poet laureate. Jasimuddin became noted for poems and songs reflecting life in rural Bengal. Humayun Ahmed promoted the Bangladeshi field of magical realism. Akhtaruzzaman Elias was noted for his works set in Old Dhaka. Tahmima Anam has been a noted writer of Bangladeshi English literature.


Hason Raja was a mystic Muslim poet whose songs are widely popular in the region

A notable feature of Bengali Muslim music is the syncretic Baul tradition. The most famous practitioner was Fakir Lalon Shah. Baul music is included in the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Nazrul Sangeet is the collection of 4,000 songs and ghazals written by Kazi Nazrul Islam.

South Asian classical music is widely prevalent in the region. Alauddin Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and Gul Mohammad Khan were notable Bengali Muslim exponents of classical music.


Within Bengali cuisine, Muslim dishes include the serving of meat curries, pulao rice, various biryani preparations, and dry and dairy-based desserts alongside traditional fish and vegetables. Bakarkhani breads from Dhaka were once immensely popular in the imperial court of the Mughal Empire. Other major breads consumed today include naan and paratha. Different types of Bengali biryani include the Kachi (mutton), Illish pulao (hilsa), Tehari (beef), and Murg Pulao (chicken). Mezban is a renowned spicy beef curry from Chittagong. Halwa, pithas, yogurt, and shemai are typical Muslim desserts in Bengali cuisine.


Eid-ul-Fitr at the end of Ramadan is the largest religious festival of Bengali Muslims. The festival of sacrifice takes place during Eid-al-Adha, with cows and goats as the main sacrificial animals. Muharram and the Prophet's Birthday are national holidays in Bangladesh. Other festivals like Shab-e-Barat feature prayers and exchange of desserts.

Secular festivals are based on the Bengali calendar which was redesigned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Celebrated by Bengalis of all faiths, they include the Bengali New Year, Spring Festival, and Autumn Harvest Festival.

Bishwa Ijtema

The Bishwa Ijtema, organized annually in Bangladesh, is the second-largest Islamic congregation after the Hajj. It was founded by the orthodox Sunni Tablighi Jamaat movement in 1954.


Baitul Mukarram, the national mosque of Bangladesh and the headquarters of the nation's Islamic Foundation

There is no single governing body for the Bengali Muslim community, nor a single authority with responsibility for religious doctrine. However, the semi-autonomous Islamic Foundation, a government institution, plays an important role in Islamic affairs in Bangladesh, including setting festival dates and matters related to zakat. The general Bengali Muslim clergy remains deeply orthodox and conservative. Members of the clergy include Mawlānās, Imams, Ulamas, and Muftis.

The clergy of the Bengali Muslim Shia minority have been based in the old quarter of Dhaka since the 18th century.

Notable individuals

Muhammad Yunus is the first Bengali Muslim Nobel laureate. Begum Rokeya was one of the world's first Muslim feminists. Kazi Nazrul Islam was renowned as the Rebel Poet of British India. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the first President of Bangladesh. Fazlur Rahman Khan was an American Bengali Muslim engineer who reshaped modern skyscraper construction. Humayun Rashid Choudhury served as President of the United Nations General Assembly. M. A. G. Osmani was a four star general who founded the Bangladesh Armed Forces. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a renowned leader of the Indian Independence Movement and the first Education Minister of modern India. Altamas Kabir was the first Bengali Muslim Chief Justice of India.[59] Irrfan Khan and Nafisa Ali are prominent Bengali Muslims who act in Indian cinema. Alaol was a medieval Bengali Muslim poet who worked in the royal court of Arakan.[20] Mohammad Ali Bogra served as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Begum Sufia Kamal was a leading Bengali Muslim feminist, poet, and civil society leader. Zainul Abedin was the pioneer of modern Bangladeshi art. Muzharul Islam was the grand master of South Asian modernist terracotta architecture.

Human rights issues in India

In recent years, the Indian Bengali Muslim community has faced increased Islamophobic attacks. The 2012 Assam violence saw widespread attacks on the state's centuries-old Bengali Muslim population. Indian Hindu nationalist politicians have accused Bangladesh of trying to expand its territory by ostensibly promoting illegal immigration. However, Indian government census reports note a decline in immigration from Bangladesh between 1971 and 2011.[60][61]

The response to the alleged illegal migration by Bangladeshis in India has seen double standards. In 2014 Narendra Modi, the then Prime minister hopeful threatened to expel all "illegal Bangladeshis" but made a distinction between Bengali Hindus and Muslims. Modi remarked that "those who are forced to flee Bangladesh and are sons of mother India, love the nation, worship (the Hindu goddess) Ma Durga.....they will be protected and given the same status as other sons of mother India. But illegal Bangladeshi migrants, who are being brought to India in the name of vote-bank politics, will have to go back to Bangladesh."[62]

See also

Other Bengali religious groups

Other Muslim ethnic groups


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