Bangladeshi American Muslims Prosper

A community of ironclad faithful believers from the time of the Delhi Sultanate

By Misbahuddin Mirza

September/October 2022

 The young boys sat neatly in a straight row along the wall of Brooklyn’s Jamaica Muslim Center’s Al Mamoor Masjid’s carpeted floor, sitting on their left foot, their left leg tucked under their left thigh. Their right leg, bent in an inverted V-shape, supported their chest as they swayed back and forth incessantly, repeating a single Qur’anic verse countless times. Children of Bangladeshi descent in the Center’s hifz program memorize the Qur’an in about three years. Elsewhere in this mosque, the instructor is teaching tajweed, the proper pronunciation of Quranic Arabic, to a group of beginners. This mosque, the largest mosque built by Bangladeshi Americans in New York City, is simply awesome with its two grand minarets reaching upward to touch the clouds. 

In another area of Brooklyn, Mohammad Khan, the young executive director and co-founder of the Cityline Ozone Park Civilian Patrol (COPCP), is busy overseeing the food pantry, which provides free household essentials such as fresh fruit, vegetables, canned and dried goods, halal chicken and PPE to about 2,000 New York City residents each week. About half of the beneficiaries are from the Bangladeshi community; other population sections comprise the rest. COPCP also provides several services to the city’s needy Bangladeshis, including liaising with law enforcement and patrolling the neighborhood in marked cars.

The community is also active in politics. Sheikh Rahman (D) is a state senator in Georgia. Shahana Hanif (D) was recently elected a New York City councilwoman. Shahin Khalique (D) is an elected councilman from Paterson, N.J. At the local level, the community has been quite active. M.A.F. Misbah Uddin, a city government actuarial, is the treasurer of DC 37, an umbrella organization of 57 unions with 126,000 members and 50,000 retirees. His late father, Moulavi Anwar Ullah, was an ally of and imprisoned along with Mahatma Gandhi during India’s freedom struggle. 

Stating that Bangladeshi Muslims have established 70 mosques in the city, Misbah Uddin also explained that the Covid-19 pandemic had devastated the city’s Bangladeshis, as most of the recent immigrants lack sufficient education and therefore work as cab drivers and street hawkers.

Bangladesh is located on the Bay of Bengal, surrounded by India on the west, north and east, and by Myanmar on the southeast. Almost the same size as the State of Georgia, it contains 230 rivers, including 57 internationally recognized rivers, which make certain areas susceptible to severe seasonal flooding. Other characteristics are insufficient rainfalls, which cause droughts; coastal areas with salinity intrusion issues; and rising sea levels, due to climate change, that have swallowed up several villages. 

Although rapid industrialization has improved economic conditions, it has also created an environmental nightmare, with river pollution at disaster levels. Bangladesh’s literacy rate is about 75%. The World Health Organization ranks Bangladesh 85 in the world in terms of life expectancy: 73.0 for males and 75.6 for females.

Islam reached Bengal in the 12th century when, right after the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, the intrepid military general Bakhtiyar Khilji made a lightning dash to conquer all of northern India stretching from Delhi to Bengal. Many Bengalis, especially in the eastern half of Bengal, soon converted thanks to great traveling missionaries such as Shah Jalal, who propagated Islam until finally settling down in northeastern Sylhet. Today, every time a Bakhtiyar Khilji coin comes up at a numismatic auction, the Bangladeshi community goes into a tizzy, outbidding each other in hyper euphoria.

Bengal remained in Muslim hands under it finally succumbed to the British due to the betrayal of the infamous Mir Jafar (d. 1765), who, during the battle of Plassey (1756) conspired with the British to replace Siraj-Ud-Daula.

The British destroyed the prosperous Bengali economy. During the great famine (1943), some 3 million perished due to malnutrition or disease as during World War 2, the British shipped the grains to its soldiers serving abroad. During India’s struggle for independence, Bengal’s Muslims established the Muslim League in Dhaka, which demanded a separate Muslim country called Pakistan. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were some of the key leaders of the Indian National Congress (INC), which was spearheading India’s independence struggle. 

Eventually, the British granted freedom, dividing the country into India and Pakistan along geographical areas of religious majority. This resulted in West Pakistan being located next to Iran/Afghanistan, and East Pakistan next to Myanmar. 

Bangla, the county’s primary language, is an Indo-Aryan language spoken as the primary language by 210 million people worldwide, with most speakers living in South Asia. The Bangla used in Bangladesh contains some Urdu-Persian-Arabic vocabulary, while the Bangla used in India uses some Sanskrit vocabulary. In 1837, English replaced Farsi as the official language in court cases or tax disputes. 

Today’s Bangla script is derived from Brahmi. However, this was not always the case. Until 1837, Bangla was written in the Nastaliq script — a Perso-Arabic script also used by Urdu, Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi and Balochi. This change by the ruling British was implemented to divide the Subcontinent’s Muslims along the linguistic line — similar to Kamal Ataturk’ replacing the Ottoman Arabic-based script with Latin. 

B. Z. Khasru, writing in The Wire (Dec. 11, 2021), stated, “To the surprise of many, nearly 500 Dhaka residents petitioned the government in 1839 in favor of Persian against their native Bengali” and “They argued that Bengali script varied from place to place; one line of Persian could do the work of ten lines of Bengali; the awkward written style [derisively dubbed the crab style] of Bengali read more slowly than that of Persian, and people from one district could barely understand the dialect of those from another district. The petition surprised many people not just because the Bengalis went against their mother tongue but also because both Muslims and Hindus jointly favored Farsi. Of the (500) signatories, 200 were Hindu and the rest Muslim.” 

Khasru wrote that literary giants including Rabindranath Tagore, Hararaprashad Shastri and Ramendra Subdar Tribedi agreed with Calcutta University fellow Syamacharan Ganguli’s protest over the Sanskritization of Bengali. 

Shortly after independence, the Bangla-speaking East Pakistanis, who were in the numerical majority compared to the multilingual West Pakistanis, felt that the West Pakistani political leadership was discriminating against them and that its wealth was being used disproportionally to benefit West Pakistan. They also resented the proposed imposition of Urdu. 

However, the big falling out came when the then Pakistan president and chief martial law administrator, Gen. Yahya, succumbed to West Pakistan’s majority leader Z.A. Bhutto’s pressure, and refused to accept the 1970 election results and hand power over to the victorious East Pakistani leaders. In the national assembly, 151 seats were needed for a majority; the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had 160 + 7 seats, whereas Bhutto’s People Party only had 81 + 5 seats.

One thing led to another. Things soon got out of hand, leading to a fratricidal war and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. 

Today, the typical Bangladeshi American Muslims face the same challenges as other Muslim communities in the U.S. — how to preserve their younger generation’s zeal and passion for Islam as they try to pass the baton down to their better educated younger generation. 

Misbahuddin Mirza, M.S., P.E., is a licensed professional engineer, registered in the States of New York and New Jersey. He served as the Regional Quality Control Engineer for the New York State Department of Transportation’s New York City Region. He is the author of the iBookIllustrated “Muslim Travel Guide to Jerusalem.” He has written for major US and Indian publications.

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