3 months ago

Baha'i faith, Urdu and politics with Mahmudul Haq

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There exist approximately a thousand Baha'is in Dhaka. Last Wednesday, Baha'is ended their 19-day fasting and celebrated Eid-e-Nowruz, their New Year. Bangladeshi and Iranian Baha'is joined together to celebrate the religious festival at the National Baha'i Centre located at the capital's Shantinagar. 

Nowadays, Persian, a rarely heard classical language in Bangladesh, resounded through the hall for about five hours. The celebration, unlike two Muslim Eids, Durga Puja, Christmas or Buddha Purnima, still has a relatively brief duration, starting from 11 am and ending at around 4 pm while in Iran, as a Baha'i tourist from Iran told this author, Nowruz lasts for two weeks. 

If one looked at the gate from outside, he would not see any frill or ruffle sending forth a festive atmosphere. This author talked to Mahmudul Haq, who has spent a five-year stint as a teacher at the Department of World Religion and Culture at the University of Dhaka. He has put out Baha'i's of Bangladesh: A Short History of the Baha'i Religion and its Community in Bangladesh (2019). Muhammad Tanim Nowshad, also a teacher—of the German language—at the same university's Institute of Modern Languages, author, and translator, joined part-way through the confabulation. 

Bollard at Bengal: The advent and growth 

Mahmud initiated the tête-à-tête with an amicable smile under a characteristic Pakistani moustache. Baha'i faith had reached this land during the days Bahá'u'lláh', the founder of the religion, had lived. 

As of the recorded history, the first Bengali Baha'i was Muhammad Ishak, who hails from Mymensingh. He obtained a letter sent from Baháʼu'lláh—an undated one. Yet again, since it was a letter from Baháʼu'lláh, it should have been before 1892, when the religious leader passed away. But Baha'is as a community here have grown much later. People from the Indian subcontinent used to live in Burma for work. Some Bengalis from Shatkaniya, Chattogram learned of the religion first there and embraced it as a community. 

In the 1960s, Baha'i community was taking form. Now they are all over Bangladesh. There's no concentration like other religions, however. They are thinly spread across the state and come from both the elite and the working class. But lately, Bangladeshi Baha'is' connection with Burma has dwindled.

Tanim Nowshad (on right) wishes to learn Urdu from Mahmud. In exchange, Mahmudul Haq doesn’t see fit to die without mastering Persian from Tanim

Mahmud recalled that even five years ago, Baha'i course was optional in Dhaka University's Department of World Religion and Culture. Then the scene improved and he began teaching there for one semester per year. Moreover, the religion has been naturalised here to the point that like other religious groups, they also get the Prime Minister's wish in their festivals. 

He claimed that people from various religious backgrounds have accepted the Baha'i religion—Hindu, Muslim, or even indigenous groups; and added that day's (Nowruz) prayer was chanted in Arabic, Persian and Marma. They try to put emphasis on diversity. Hence they don't differentiate between a Baha'i and a non-Baha'i. They believe all to be Baha'i until they retort and say 'no!'. 

The differences in the religions arise from ages as per their belief. He told the interviewer, "Jesus or Moses' rituals were not the same. But those are, in essence, not contradictory to each other. It was suitable for their respective time only. You can say the Baha'i faith is practically a ritual-free, rather freewheeling religion. We don't have any strict dietary laws. We only keep aloof from eating what science forbids to take. The rest is upon the culture I belong to." 

"For instance, about one-third of Bangladeshi Baha'is are converted (or declared as is the norm in Baha'i faith to define conversion) from Hinduism. They haven't eaten beef and they won't be pushed to eat it after they recanted their birth belief. But yes, any intoxicating substance is forbidden. Human civilisation has reached the apex of collective maturity; hence, we don't need any strict set of rituals." 

According to Mahmud, people are usually averse to religion in Dhaka as a whole. Among the lower stratum people, the Baha'i faith can be seen to be held by day labourers and grocery staffers as one moves out of the capital. Mahmud could recall an acquaintance with a rickshaw-puller Baha'i from Mymensingh when he himself was newly converted. 

Baha’i faith: A précis

The core scripture of Baha'i faith is considered to be Kitab-al-Aqdas. Their notion of scripture is different from Islam or Christianity. They do not have a single Qur'an or Bible to call a scripture. Instead, Baháʼu'lláh had written several books which are called scriptures in a body. Baháʼu'lláh had written both in Arabic and Persian. But are the Bengali versions translated from the original languages so that the nuances are not lost in the secondary translation? 

The last centre of Baha'i faith was Shoghi Effendi. He was well-versed in English and translated many a scripture and saying in Baha'i faith into English. Bengali Baha'i literature have been translated from that authorised translation and are regarded as accurate. Referring to Encylcopaedia Britannica and World Christian Encyclopaedia, he claimed Baha'i faith to be nosing ahead other religions in terms of growth rate. 

Nowruz feast

Baha'i elected body consists of nine members or any multiple of nine. New Delhi's Lotus Temple or any other Baha'i house of worship comprises nine entrances. But what is the significance of the number nine in the Baha'i faith? He replied that nine includes all the other digits; it includes people from all walks of life, irrespective of class or colour. 

Baha'is try to emphasise similarities with other groups of different hues rather than finding ways of discord: they have worked with a women's organisation and also on child education. With whoever their point of interest matches, they work with them.

Iranian Baha'i families 

Mahmudul Haq could estimate a ballpark figure of four to five Iranian Baha'i families currently living in Bangladesh. They came here first as students in the 1970s. "Then, our tertiary education was way better than now. In the 1980s, I had seen ten families. As the 1979 Revolution cropped up, they'd found themselves in a fix and subsequently scattered to other countries. Unfortunately, children of those extant families cannot read or write Persian now, although they can speak it. Often, I crack jokes to them, 'What type of Iranian are you? You don't have a good command over such a language!'"

From Karachi to Dhaka

The story of Mahmudul Haq is no less intriguing. His father was originally a Kutti from Old Dhaka but had ended up in Karachi during the British Raj and breathed his last there. Mahmud was born and brought up in the chief port city of Pakistan. He studied English literature at the University of Karachi and also began working there. 

"Interestingly enough, my father used to look for Bengali husbands for my sisters and sent them to Bangladesh. Around 1981, my eldest brother-in-law died. His demise necessitated emotional support for my sister in Dhaka. I ended up here," Mahmud reminisces, "I can recall my parents chatting in Bengali between them and talking with us in Urdu." So he needed to learn Bengali. 

Did Karachi's environs encourage him to be proselytised in any way? Different Baha'i individual has different background stories. Karachi has the oldest Baha'i community in Asia. The teenager Mahmud moved away from the inherited religion and leaned towards Marxism. As a bibliophile, he came across a book on the Baha'i faith. Gradually, this led him to accept the Baha'i faith.

Baha'is in Pakistan

Baha'is in Pakistan are many in number. When Báb introduced the Baha'i faith in 1844, many of his followers hailed from South Asia, from Multan. Mahmud pointed out that Multan was a hub for Sufism, and many a teaching of the Baha'i faith has its roots in Sufism. There were Indians who were martyred along with Báb.

Mahmudul Haq with eminent Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz

At this juncture, Herr Muhammad Tanim Nowshad chipped in with valuable inputs. An author of Islampurbo Iraner Dhormomot (Religions of Pre-Islamic Iran), he asked Mahmudul Haq if Baha'is are being persecuted in Pakistan. Mahmud replied in the negative: there, like in Iran, everywhere, citizen's religion is taken into account. Baha'i faith is nationally approved. Imran Khan had ordered that the Baha'i kids should read their religious textbooks from grades one to five. 

"Imran Khan was rather a tolerant ruler," remarked Tanim. Mahmud continues, "Yes. But in Iran, if someone kills my brother, the first question the cops would ask me would be about my religion. If I were Baha'i, my case would not even be filed. In Pakistan's parliament, there are reserved seats for religious minorities. But since Baha'is don't engage in party politics, Zoroastrian MPs represent Baha'is there."

Apolitcal Baha'is  

As per Mahmud, Baha'is are, to all intents and purposes, apolitical lest their fundamental teachings should then run the risk of being flouted. They don't dislike politics. Politics, in itself, is not deemed negative among them. Additionally, they have not reached the population yet to do politics. In some countries, they are on the verge of getting involved in politics, however. Mahmud sees the silver lining around the clouds and wonders if Bangladeshi electoral procedures are better thought of. 

No persecution, but…

As the interviewer entered through the gate of the National Baha'i Center, he was puzzled about whether a festival was going on or not. Naturally, a question arose as to whether there was any fear of persecution from the majority group. But Mahmud reassured that Baha'is still haven't faced any such persecution like that upon Hindus, Ahmediyas—the kind in an organised way. But, for example, in villages, Baha'is have been abused physically and are outcasts for being proselytes. 

"Yet those are localised persecution, not under any banner. All the governments and civil administration, since the independence, have nipped any danger of attack in the bud and convinced the mob that we are far from being heretics: we are merely observing our own religion."

"But a very interesting anecdote I would like to share. In the middle of the 1980s, some people took to the streets against Ahmediyas, and they also attempted to fire a shot across the bows of local Baha'is. They began giving out leaflets and pasting posters on walls that read 'Declare Kadiyani (as they call Ahmadiyas) and Baha'is non-Muslims.' Then we sought newspaper offices for help, and even to the then Khatib of Bayt-ul-Mukarram Mosque and told him we were already not Muslims in the first place. I cannot remember his name; a very good fellow he was. He afterward wrote a statement saying, 'Our rivalry is with Kadiyanis, not Baha'is'. That helped us a lot. The fumed mob was finally put off: 'Baha'i' was removed from their banners and posters."

No Baha'is to learn Persian!

The readers must have already gauged that the Iranian government deems Baha'is as adversaries. In line with this, the Iran Cultural Centre in Dhaka also vented anger at Mahmud. He shared another anecdote with us. 

"There goes a saying in Urdu that if you can't speak Persian well, you are jahel (ignorant). I can speak it and can somehow make of texts, too. So, to learn properly, I went to the Iranian Cultural Centre. Eventually, I couldn't make it for two reasons: I had to start from the beginning as per their curriculum, but hey, I could enrol in the advanced programme! I asked them and said, 'I don't think I will be an educated Urdu speaker until I grasp Persian well. And as a Baha'i, I feel fondness for the language too.' I had hardly uttered the word 'Baha'i'. Then, the Iranian officer there was all riled up. Prior to this, I didn't know their outlook towards Baha'is since I was newly converted."

Urdu literature

Javed Hussen, the popular Urdu translator, is of Mahmud's acquaintance. He admires Javed's work. He met him first at a programme at Bishwo Shaittya Kendra. That was upon Faiz Ahmed Faiz. He has written an article on Allama Iqbal in Urdu and is thinking of publishing it in DU's Urdu department's journal. Furthermore, he has created a Facebook group for young Bangladeshi Urdu enthusiasts. He has noticed a growing band of young Bangladeshis, for example, 'the fan base of Javed Hussen,' are enthused by Urdu literature.

Religion Encyclopaedia in Bengali

There is no Oxford-standard Encyclopaedia of Religion in Bengali. However, there have been decent attempts by Muhammad Habibur Rahman and Shanjid Arnob. But there is yet to be published from DU's Department of World Religion and Culture. Asked about this, Mahmud appeared to be positive about a potential encyclopaedia from DU. 

"In earlier times, the administration often didn't pay due attention to this department. But now things have changed, funding has increased…I see junior faculty members going abroad (for higher education)."

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