Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XVIby Nurul Kabir
THE means that Munshi Meherullah and his converted disciple Munshi Jamiruddin primarily adopted to achieve the objective was oratory — public oratory. He did not have any other alternative; most of the Muslims in rural Bengal, who had earlier been converted to Islam from the lowest rank of the caste-ridden Hinduism, obviously for respite from indignity and caste oppression, had continued to remain poor and, therefore, uneducated, even under several hundred years of Muslim rule of Bengal. The conditions of the lower castes of the Hindus were no different under British rule. Not surprisingly, thus, the-then director of the Public Instruction in Bengal ‘expressed doubts in 1871’ if there really were ‘much differences regarding education between the two great sections’, Hindu and Muslim ‘cultivators’, of the region. Rafiuddin Ahmed says ‘just as the cultivating classes of Hindus — the Namasudras, Pods and Rajbansis — could not afford any education, neither could the Muslim peasant.’ [Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims (1871-1906): A Quest for Identity, Second edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988, p 139] The poor rural Muslims had hardly any command over any written language — Bangla, Arabic or Persian, let alone English. Munshi Meherullah and his disciple, therefore, would visit villages after villages in different districts of Bengal and sermonised ordinary Muslims in public gatherings, thereby achieving tremendous successes in stopping Muslims from being proselytised to Christianity. Professor Abdul Hai, writes: ‘Meherullah proved to be the Rammuhan of the Muslims of Bengal — Rammuhan saved the Hindus from being converted to Christianity in the early Nineteenth century and Meherullah saved the Muslims from being proselytised to Christianity in the late Nineteenth century.’ [Muhammad Abdul Hai and Syed Ali Ahsan, Bangla Sahityer Itibritto: Adhunik Jug (History of Bengali Literature: Modern Period), Eleventh print, Ahmed Publishing House, Dhaka, 2010, p 13 and 99]
Munshi Meherullah, like Rammuhan Roy in the case of Hinduism, was the pioneer in rejuvenating the Islamic spirit among the Muslims of Bengal. However, it took organised intellectual efforts by others as well, to stop the wave of Muslims being converted by Christian missionaries. In case of the Hindus, it was Tattwabodhini Patrika of Debendranath Thakur and a group of writers associated with the periodical, which contributed to the development of Bangla in the process of their intellectual struggle against the influence of Christianity. In case of the Muslims, it was Sudhakar, a Bangla weekly published in 1889, which made the organised intellectual efforts in Bangla to defend Islam by way of interpreting its philosophy on the one hand and propagating the glory of Islam on the other. In the process, the Muslim writers were shaping a different kind of Bangla prose, Arabicised-Persianised, which was different from the Sanskritised prose written by the Hindu intellectuals.
Literature for the Sudhakar group was a means of infusing a sense of confidence in the Muslim society of Bengal about the inherent strength of Islam, enlightening the Bengali Muslims about the great contributions that Islam has made in the development of human civilisation and inspiring them to create their own literature in their own mother tongue — Bangla. In order to achieve their cherished objectives, members and sympathisers of the Shudhakar group not only projected in their literary works the great contributions of the Muslim thinkers in the progress of human civilisation, but also made intellectual efforts to refute the demeaning propaganda against Islam and its followers by the rival religious communities of Bengal, such as the Christian missionaries and the orthodox Hindu revivalists. The organisers of the group included, among others, Sheikh Abdur Rahim (1859-1931), who was the founder publisher and editor of Sudhakar, Moulvi Meyorajuddin Ahmad, who was a professor of Arabic and Persian at the Kolkata Saint Javier’s College, Pundit Reajuddin Ahmad Mashhadi (1859–1918) who used to teach Bangla and Sanskrit at the Kolkata Aliya Madrassah, and Munshi Mohammad Reajuddin Ahmed (1862-1933), who edited a good number of periodicals of the time.
Sheikh Abdur Rahim came to be known in the Muslim society as the ‘light in the darkness of the Muslim Bangla literature in the Nineteenth century’. Rahim wrote, side by side with editing periodicals, a number of books, including a huge one, Hazrat Mohammader Jiboncharita O Dharmaniti, elaborating on the life and religious principles of the prophet of Islam in 1887. His major literary works include two volumes of Islam Itibritta (History of Islam) in 1910, two volumes of Islamniti (Principles of Islam) in 1925 and 1927 respectively, Eslam Tatwa (Theory of Islam) in 1939. Besides, he published many other books on various obligations of Islamic life, such as Namaz, Roja, Hajj, etc and the right ways to meet the obligations.
Pundit Reajuddin Ahmad Mashhadi wrote several books on issues related to the social, political and religious interests of the Muslims in general and Muslims of Bengal in particular. His first printed book Samaj O Sangskarak (Society and Reformer), published in 1889, was about the life, ideas and activism of anti-colonial Islamic thinker of global reputation Jamaluddin Afghani. Explaining the objective behind writing Samaj O Sangskarak, Pundit Mashhadi wrote at the beginning of the book: ‘The rival communities of Islam are out these days to demean the Muslim community by way of distorting history. The Muslims have been portrayed as coward, anarchist, ignorant, incapable rational thinking about the present, extravagant, etc, thanks to the deliberate propaganda… Following years of thoughts, I have decided to publish the life and works of a great Muslim reformist in order to rescue the Muslims from such attacks, to narrate objectively the present conditions of the Muslims and caution them about their possible danger.’ [Reajuddin Ahmad Mashhadi is cited in Wakil Ahmed, Unish Shatake Bangali Mussalmaner Chinta O Chetanar Dhara (The thoughts and ideas of Bengali Muslims in the 19th century), Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1997, p 254] The British rulers were always afraid of Jamaluddin Afghani’s anti-colonialist intellectual activism, and banned Mashhadi’s book on the moulana’s thoughts and ideas.
Mashhadi wrote another book, Agnikukkut (Fireball) the same year, which was a critique of a literary piece of Mir Musharaf Husain that pleaded for Muslim tolerance towards angry Hindu reaction to cow slaughtering. In Agnikukkut, Mashhadi showed that the Hindu reaction to cow slaughtering by Muslims was rather irrational, for the Hindus of the Vedic period used to slaughter cows to entertain guests and religious saints. In this regard, he accused Musharaf Husain of ‘appeasing the Hindu readers’.
Munshi Reajuddin Ahmed, who was an associate of Sheikh Abdur Rahim of the Shudhakar group, also wrote a few books on Islam, glorifying the life and works of its prophet and projecting the successes of Muslim rulers. He published Hazrat Mohammad Mostafar Jibancharita (Life of Hazrat Mohammad Mostafa) in 1927. Earlier, he published two volumes of Greece-Turaska Juddho (War between Greece and Turkey) in 1899 and 1909 respectively, glorifying the heroism of Turkish king Sultan Gazi Abdul Hamid Khan who defeated Greece in the war. Reajuddin Ahmed also edited for some time the periodicals called Musalman, Naba-Sudhakar and Soltan.
To be continued.
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