- “India is like a giant tree, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs are the roots of the tree, if any community is not safe the country won’t be safe”
Pir Abu Bakr, speaking on Khilafat Movement (1919) in Calcutta
- “Pir Abu Bakr Siddiqui of Furfura was arguably one of the most learned, revered and influential Sufis of nineteenth century Bengal.”
Muhammad Mojlum Khan, Bangladeshi born British non-fiction writer and literary critic.
Sufism played an important role in spreading the message of Islam in the Indian subcontinent in general and Bengal in particular. Right from the 13th century onwards different Sufi saints came to Bengal and spread the message of equality, love and harmony. In order to get a grasp of Islam and Muslim societies in Bengal, it is very important to understand the geographical and socio-cultural milieu of Bengali Muslims which is very much rural and agrarian oriented. Richard Eaton rightly pointed out, that the Islam in Bengal is the ‘Religion of the Plough’.
Furfura Sharif is one of the most important and influential Muslim pilgrimage centres in Bengal situated in the Hooghly district of present West Bengal. Pir Saheb of Furfura Sharif is having enormous popularity among the Bengali speaking rural Muslim population in Bengal.
We briefly analyze the role and contributions of Pir Abu Bakr (1846-1939) of Furfura Sharif in the socio-religious reform of Muslims in Bengal. Pir Abu Bakr is popularly known as ‘Mujaddid-e-Zaman’ (Reformer of the Age) Dada Huzur Pir Qebla because of his multi-faceted activities in the field of education, social work and religious reform.
Pir Abu Bakr Siddique was born on 18th March 1846 at the village of Furfura Sharif under the Jangipara Block in the Hooghly district of present West Bengal. According to ‘Shajranama’ (Clan tree), he was the descendant of the First Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq. Pir Abu Bakr lost his father at a very early age. He received his elementary education at the local primary school in the village and later joined Sitapur Endowment Madrasah, and Hooghly Mohsenia Madrasah (one of the oldest madrasah in Bengal name after the famous philanthropist Haji Mohmmad Mohasin) for higher education where he completed the degree called ‘Jamiet-ul-Ula’.[i]
Pir Abu Bakr later moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and studied, Quran, Hadith, Tafsir, Fiqh, Faraiz from the famous Islamic scholars Maulana Syed Ahmed Shahid and Hafez Maulana Jamaluddin. He even went to Madina (Saudi Arabia) and mastered the knowledge of Hadith (sayings and deed of the Prophet) from famous Maulana Syed Ameer Rezwan.[ii]
Pir Abu Bakr Siddique received the Bateni (spiritual) knowledge from his Pir-o-Murshid (Sufi master) Shah Sufi Syed Fateh Ali Waisi based at Maniktala in Kolkata. He mastered the knowledge of four major Sufi orders such as Mujaddedia[iii], Nakshebandia[iv], Chistia[v], Qaderia[vi] under the guidance of his spiritual master Shah Sufi Syed Fateh Ali Waisi. Pir Abu Bakr Siddique was basically the follower of Hanafi[vii] School of thought, which is one of the most popular schools of thoughts in South Asia, and was the founder of the Silsila-e-Furfura Sharif (order of Furfura Sharif) which is one of the most influential Sufi religious networks among the Bengali Muslims of Bengal.
Sufism in Bengal
Sufism in Bengal had arrived early, from 13th century onwards and attracted the large numbers of people mostly from the lower strata of the society through its message of equality, love and simplicity. Sufism attracted people from different faiths and belief, resulting in a culture of respect and tolerance. The Sufis/ Pirs maintains ‘Khanqas’ for the Murids (disciples) to impart Talim (knowledge), Tajkiia-e-Nafs (reformation of self) and Khidmat-e-Khalq (serving the people) irrespective of their caste, creeds and differences.
In order to get a grasp of Islam and Muslim societies in Bengal, it is very important to understand the geographical and social milieu of Bengali Muslims. Unlike other parts of India where Muslims are generally concentrated in urban or semi-urban centres, Bengali Muslims mostly inhabit rural areas where agrarian activities constitute the only source of livelihood. As Richard Eaton rightly points out, Islam in Bengal is the ‘Religion of the Plough’.[viii] The most distinguishing features of Sufism in Bengal are directly linked to the rural agrarian practices of the local Muslims. Sufism in Bengal is very diverse and heterogeneous, as described by Asim Roy in his book on Islamic syncretism in Bengal.[ix]
In the early 19th century onwards in Bengal, the concept of revivalism of Islam in general and Sufism in particular started taking deep root among the Ulemas and Sufis due to various reasons such as the downfall of Muslim dynasties at the hands of British/ Western powers; changing scenario of global politics, mainly the downfall of Khilafat in Turkey and the introduction of Khilafat movement and political instability in India. This led to the development of a sense of politico-religious identity among the Ulemas in the Indian subcontinent.
Therefore there were many Ulemas and Pirs during the 19th century were very active not only in religious and spiritual matters but also with regard to social and political issues. Among these Sufis, Pir Abu Bakr of Furfura was one of the most influential Pirs in Bengal who had a huge influence and following among Bengali Muslims masses throughout undivided Bengal.[x]
Reforming and Revivalism of Sufism:
Pir Abu Bakr Siddique was not only a religious or spiritual Pir but also an educationalist and philanthropist. Moreover he is known as a great social and religious reformer of 20th century Bengal. He is remembered as “Muzaddid-” (Reformer) among his murids (disciples).
So far as the religious idea of Pir Abu Bakr Siddique is concerned, he was vehemently against the idea of Shirk (any act which deems someone/something equivalent to Allah), Pir worshipping, Pir Sujood (prostrating at Pir’s feet), using Chaddar at Mazar or Tomb, Qawalli (musical festival in the sufi shrine), Urs( celebration of Pir’s death anniversary), Mannat, participating in the festivals of singing and dancing, smoking and consuming liquor etc.[xi]
Pir Abu Bakr’s idea of Sufism is based on the Quran, Hadith,(sayings and deed of the Prophet) Ijma (consensus) and Qiyas (analogical reasoning). He believed in ‘Tassauf’ (spirituality), Tajkiya-e-Nafs (purification of self) though Zikr, Fikr, Moraqaba and Mushahida (meditation). According to Pir Abu Bakr, the role of Sufism should be “Khidmat-e-Khalq” (serving the people) and Tahfooz-e-Deen (preservation of religion). Based on these ideas, he founded Anjuman-e-Waizeen-e-Bangla (Association of Islamic orators) and Jamiet-e-Ulama-e Bangla-Assam (Association of Islamic scholars of Bengal and Assam) in the early decade of 20th century Bengal.[xii]
Pir Abu Bakr has gone beyond the traditional framework of Sufism and Pir-ism where Sufis generally confined within the religious and spiritual realm and least involved in the economic and political issues. He, on the contrary, was very conscious and active regarding the social and political situations of the Muslim community. He regularly organized thousands of ‘Waz-Mahfil’ (Islamic conglomeration) and Bahas (religious debates or confrontation between Maulana and Moulavis, largely popular in South Asian Islamic traditions) throughout Bengal especially in the remote rural areas of Bengal and made them aware not only about the basic tenets of Islam but also about the contemporary situations of Muslim community. He was a very powerful orator which had a significant impact on the rural Bengali Muslim society and this helped in the reformation and revivalism of Sufism in Bengal.[xiii]
Nineteenth Century was the important phase in the history and polity of Bengal because the major reform and revival movements (religious, social and political) reached its full momentum in this period.
Pir Abu Bakr established hundreds of educational institutions throughout Bengal where people could receive both religious as well as secular education. For instance, he built Furfura Fatheia Senior Madrasah at Furfura Sharif in the memory of his Pir, Sufi Syed Fateh Ali Waisi on the eve of non-cooperation movement against the British imperialism.[xiv]
The famous Madrasahas which was founded by Pir Abu Bakr Siddique such as Furfura Fathehia Senior Madrasah (Hooghly), Noakhali Islamic Senior Madrasah, (Noakhali in present Bangladesh), Bagura Mustahiba Title Madrasah (Bagura, Bangladesh), Barishal Darul Sunnat Title Madrasah (Barishal, Bangladesh), Chitagong Darul Uloom Madrasah, (Bangladesh), Netra High Madrasah (24 Parganas South, West Bengal), Nilkhamari Senior Madrasah (Bangladesh), Feni Senior Madrasah (Bangladesh), Dok Senior Madrasah (Hooghly, West Bengal), Pabna Ulat Senior Madrasah (Pabna, Bangladesh) and many more.
Pir Abu Bakr directly and indirectly patronized more than a dozen Bengali weeklies and socio-religious journals such as Shariet-e-Islam, Islam Darpan, Mihir-o-Sudhakar, The Mussalman, Islam Hithashi, Banganoor etc. All these weeklies and monthly journals used to debate on various social issues such as the problems of dowry, oppression of poor agricultural workers by Zamindars (landlords), female education, importance of the girl child, rights of women in Islam, spreading of modern scientific and technical education, etc. which played an important role and brought large amount of reform in the Muslim societies of Bengal.[xv]
The leaders of ‘Wahabi’ and Farayijee movements, like Hazi Shariyatullah, Dudu Mia etc. considered this country (British India) as ‘Darul Harb’( land of infidels) and they forbade performing Jummah (weekly conglomeration prayer in every Friday) and Eid’s prayer because they believed that Jumma and Eid prayers only should be celebrated in “Darul Islam” (land of Islam). As a result Jummah Namaz was stopped in a number of mosques. Initially Maulana Karamat Ali Jonpuri and subsequently Pir Abu Bakar Siddique under the influence of Maulana Karamat Ali, vehemently protested against the stopping of Jummah prayer. As a result Jummah Namaz was again re-introduced in the rural village mosques of Bengal.[xvi]
Pir Abu Bakr Siddique neither used to consider India as “Darul-Harb”(land of infidels) or “Darul-Islam”(land of Islam) rather he used to prefer “Darul-Aman” (land of peace), where all communities, religions, languages and races would coexist peacefully without affecting each other rights and faiths.[xvii] His understanding of ‘nation’ is quite similar with the idea of ‘Muttahida Qaumiyat’ (composite nationalism or united nationalism) as proposed by Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani of Deoband Islamic school.
He was also a great social worker and philanthropist. He successfully organized hundreds of relief camps through Jamit-e-Ulama-Bangla (Association of Islamic scholars of Bengal) for the victims of natural calamities such as floods, earthquake, cyclone etc. The basic idea behind establishing Jamiet-e-Ulama-e-Bangla was “Khidmat-e-Khalq” (serving people) and “Tahfuje-e-Deen” (preservation of Islam). Pir Abu Bakr of Furfura played a very crucial role in the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle especially during Non-cooperation and Khilafat movements. He organized hundreds of public meetings, rallies, throughout Bengal in support of Non-cooperation and Khilafat agitation.
Vernacularization of Islam and Bengali Muslim Identity:
The Bengali Muslim has long been regarded as a living oxymoron, his Muslimness vitiated to the extent that he is a Bengali. The idea that outside the Middle East Islam, Islam exists in contradiction with a ‘host’ culture is widely accepted, and pervades much of the literature on Islam in South Asia.
Joya Chatterji argues that Bengali Muslim identity is thus commonly perceived as being split by fault line, with Bengaliness and Muslimness coexisting uneasily on the opposite sides of a deep and fundamental divide. She further argues that Bengali Muslim culture is almost invariably written about in terms of a series of binary opposites which loosely correspond to the primary Muslim versus Bengali opposition: ashraf (Muslim of foreign ancestry) versus atrap (Muslim of local or regional origin) orthodox versus heterodox, sharia (Muslims who adhere to sharia) versus basharia (Muslims who practices local cultures such as pir worship) Urdu speaking versus Bengali speaking, elite versus popular and so on.[xviii]
Noted scholar Rafiuddin Ahmed in his seminal book ‘The Bengal Muslims: A Quest for Identity’ where he argues that in Bengal there has been a conflict between traditionalist and fundamentalist, Ashraf versus Atrap, rural versus urban Muslims regarding the identity of Bengali Muslims. Ahmed further pointed out that large chunks of rural Bengali Muslims were neither persuaded by the feelings generated by Urdu speaking Ashraf Muslims nor influenced by Hindu culture and Sanskritised Bengali.[xix]
Pir Abu Bakr vehemently opposed the concept of Ashraf-Ajlaf division like ‘Urdu superiority’ over Bengali Muslim through different newspaper, religious debates and ‘Waz-Mahfil (religious conglomeration) which certainly helped in the process of developing the notion of ‘jati’ or ‘community’ among the Bengali Muslims.
He played a crucial role in contextualizing the debates of Bengali Muslim identity. The identification of Bengali Muslims with Bengali language and literature could be noticed in the first decade of 20th century. The paper ‘Nabanur’ which was patronized by Pir Abu Bakr of Furfura, asked in its editorial that ‘What else could be the mother tongue of Bengali Muslims other than Bengali? Those who want to give Urdu the place of mother tongue of the Bengali Muslims, merely try to attain unattainable’.[xx]
The mass appeal of Pir Abu Bakr was more effective because he made Bengali language as the vehicle of expression. He propagated Islam among the masses through his writings and speeches in Bengali. He had a proper understanding of the changing circumstances and in a pragmatic way, he patronized religious literature in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Bengal among the Bengali Muslims.[xxi]
This was not only attracted large number of half-literate and non-lettered rural Muslims of Bengal but also changed the imagination of Islam. The common misperception and synonyms of Islam-Urdu and Urdu-Islam was countered by vernacular Islam of Bengal.
The intervention of Pir Abu Bakr Siddique in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal had not only led to religious reform among the Bengali Muslims but also made enormous impacts on the politics of the region. These socio-religious reforms by him had certainly shaped and transformed the identity of Bengali Muslim community from pure religio-cultural category to religio-political community. Though he directly did not affiliated to any political party but the activities of him had great impact on politics.
As a Sufi or Pir, he promoted Islamic practices, values and etiquettes through waz-mahfil (typical Islamic gathering popular in rural Bengal) vernacular religious tracts, leaflets, pamphlets and madrasas. Along with religious practices, he was also vocal about peasant rights, oppression of the Zamindars (landlords), and moneylenders because majority of the Muslims in Bengal were agrarian labors. As a result Pir Abu Bakr could win the hearts of millions of the poor agrarian folk in undivided Bengal.
Critically speaking, the rise of Pir Abu Bakr also led to rise of new trends in the politics of Bengal at the subterranean level based on the normative and puritan concept of religion rather than the using the category of class alone. The amalgamation of Sufi saints and politics may lead to radical Islamic politics and need serious research on the role of the Sufis in South Asian Islam.
Primary sources (In Bengali)
Aftab-e-Shariyat, Mahtabe-e-Tarikat, Muaiye-e-Sunnat, Mahiye-e-Bidayat, Mahbubue-e-Subhani, Alem-e-Hakkani, Mujaddid-e-Zaman Hazrat Pir Abu Bakr Siddique, Dada Huzur Pir Qebla (rah) Sakkhorito “Wasiyatnama”, Published by Syed Ajmat Hussain, Kanayat Library, Furfura Sharif, Hooghly, India and printed by Azad Printing Press,2011, Pabna, Bangladesh.
Amin, Maulana Ruhul.1347. ‘Furfura Sharifer Itihas o Bonger Aulia Qul: Shah Sufi Maulana Abu Bakr Siddique (rah) Bistarito Jiboni’ 15th Falguna. Bashirhat.
Siddique, Md. Toyeb. 2013. ‘Furfura Sharifer Mojadedde-e-Zaman (R.H) er Jiboni’ published by Centre for Peer Abu Bakkar Siddique Research Studies, Furfura Sharif: Hooghly.
Shariye-e-Islam, monthly Bengali ‘Hanafi’ religious magazine; edited by Maulana Ahmed Ali Enayatpuri; published form Calcutta in 1924 under the patronage of Pir Abu Bakr of Furfura Sharif.
Syed, Bahauddin. Banglar Srestha Ulamader Jiban o Karma: 100 Bachharer Itihas 1901-2002, Furfura Sharif: Pir Abu Bakr Research Centre.
Ahmed Rafiuddin, The Bengali Muslims, 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity, Delhi: Oxford University Press 1981
Chatterji Joya, The Bengali Muslims: A Contradiction in Terms? An overview of the debate on Bengali Muslim Identity in Mushirul Hasan (ed). Islam: Communities and the Nation: Muslim Identities in South Asia and Beyond, Delhi: Manohar Publication, 1998, pp.265-282.
Dey Amit, ‘Bengali Translation of the Quran and the Impact of Print Culture on Muslim Society in the Nineteenth Century’, in Societal Studies, 2002, 4(4):1299-1315.
Eaton Richard M, Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997
Roy, Asim, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton University Press, 1983
Sarkar, Chandiprasad. 1991. The Bengali Muslims: The Study on their Politicization 1912-1929. Calcutta: K.P Bagchi Press
Tundawala Alefiya, ‘Multiple Representations of Muslimhood in West Bengal: Identity Construction through Literature’. South Asia Research, 2012, Vol.32 (2): 139-163.
 See, Md. Toyeb Siddique, ‘Furfura Sharifer Mojadedde-e-Zaman (R.H) er Jiboni’ published by Centre for Peer Abu Bakkar Siddique Research Studies, Furfura Sharif, Hooghly, 2013, pp.13-14.
[ii] Maulana Syed Ajmat Hussain, ‘Wasihatnama of Pir Abu Bakr’ published by Kanayat Library , Furfura Sharif and printed in Pabna, Bangladesh, 2011.
[iii] Mujaddedia is a one of the four major Sufi order named after the famous Sufi master and reformer Mujaddid Alf-e-Shani Ahmad Sirhindi, whose shrine is situated in the state of Punjab in India.
[iv] Nakshabandia is also a major Sufi order popularly known as Nakshabandiya tariqa. This Sufi order was founded by Hazrat Bahuddin Nakshabandi (1318-1389) in Bukhara at present Uzbekistan.
[v] Chistia is one of the most important Sufi orders mainly found in South Asia particularly in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The founder of the Chistia order was Hazrat Khawa Mainuddin Chisti whose shrine is situated in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, India. The shrine of Ajmer is the most popular shrine in South Asian region.
[vi] Qaderia is also an important Sufi orders in Central Asia also found in Bengal region. The founder of the Qaderia order was Hazrat Abdul Qader Jilani popularly known as Gausal Azam. Whose shrine is situated in Bagdhad,Iraq.
[vi] Hanafi school of thought is one of the most popular school of Islamic jurisprudence among four established school of Islamic jurisprudence. Hanafi school of thought belongs to Imam Abu Hanifa. He is popularly known as Imam-e-Azam which means the great Imam. The follower of this school of thought is called Hanafi. Hanafi school of thought is the most popular in Asia particularly in South Asia. The other three schools of thoughts are Maliki, Shafi and Hambali.
[vii] For details please refer, Richard M Eaton, ‘The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760’ Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994. The author provides details study about the growth and expansion of Islam in the delta region of Bengal.
[viii] see Asim Roy, ‘The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal’ Princeton University Press, 1983. Asim Roy has discussed in details about the development of syncretism in Bengal.
[ix] See Chandiprasad Sarkar, ‘ The Bengali Muslims: The Study on their Politicization 1912-1929’ K.P Bagchi Press, Kolkata 1991, pp.111-112.
[x] See, Maulana Syed Ajmat Hussain, ‘Wasihatnama of Pir Abu Bakr’ published by Kanayat Library, Furfura Sharif and printed in Pabna, Bangladesh, 2011, p.11.
[xi] Md. Toyeb Siddique, opcit, pp.62-63
[xii] Rafiuddin, Ahmed, The Bengali Muslims, 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity, OUP, 1981, pp.101-102.
[xiii] Chandiprasad Sarkar, opcit, p.114
[xiv] Shariat-e-Islam, vol.8, Bengali year: 1337 pp.169-173
[xv] See, Maulana Ruhul Amin. ‘Furfura Sharifer Itihas o Bonger Aulia Qul: Shah Sufi Maulana Abu Bakr Siddique (rah) Bistarito Jiboni’ 15th Falguna, 1347, Bashirhat.
[xvi] Pamphlets issued by Pir Allama Qutubuddin Siddique on behalf of Mujaddid Mission, Furfura Sharif, regarding the comparative ideological issues of Furfura, Deobandi and Ahle-Hadees (Wahabis), 2011.
[xvii] Joya Chatterji. ‘The Bengali Muslims: A Contradiction in Terms? An overview of the debate on Bengali Muslim Identity’ in Mushirul Hasan (ed), Islam: Communities and the Nation: Muslim Identities in South Asia and Beyond, Manohar Publication, Delhi, 1998, p.258.
[xviii] Ibid …p.266
[xix] Alefiya Tundawala, ‘Multiple Representations of Muslimhood in West Bengal: Identity Construction through Literature’. South Asia Research. Vol.32 (2): 2012, pp. 139-163, p.142.
[xx] Sarkar, opcit, p.14
[xxi] Amit Dey, ‘Bengali Translation of the Quran and the Impact of Print Culture on Muslim Society in the Nineteenth Century’, in Societal Studies,4(4), 2012, pp.1299-1315.
This article was published in the South Asian Cultural Studies Special Issue 2018. This is being republished with some editing for clarity.