Dossier 21: Mullahs, Migrants, Miracles: Travel and Transformation in Sylhet (Bangladesh)

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Katy Gardner
February 1999
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Dominating the courtyard of the homestead of Abdul Hossain is a large and ostentatious shrine. Decorated with Arabic designs and words, and surrounded by flags, the shrine (mazaar) is similar to hundreds of similarly venerated graves scattered over the landscape of rural Sylhet, in north-east Bangladesh. It proclaims for all to see that the late Abdul Hossain is a pir. It is a social recognition of his spiritual power; by giving offerings and directing prayers towards it, believers can gain the help of an intermediary with privileged access to God. The presence of a pir in their lineage is thought to signify great religious purity amongst family members. As part of a pir's lineage, they are inherently more holy than others. Indeed men in subsequent generations will inherit their ancestor's holiness, and, if they study and lead pure lives they may themselves become pirs, receiving the devotion, submission and offerings of disciples who come in search of guidance and help.

All this is familiar in South Asia, where pirs (often described as Sufi saints [Ewing 1980:][1] are key figures in local Islam. Pirs, it is argued, enabled 'orthodox' Sunni faith to merge with indigenous culture when it was first introduced to the region, thus ensuring its acceptance amongst the masses (Cashin 1988; Haq 1975; Roy 1982; Saiyed 1989). Whilst the notion of 'syncretic' Islam is highly problematic, it rightly indicates the embeddedness of the pir in South Asia: in Bengal, pirs and their shrines are as old as Islam. Abdul Hossain's case is, however, distinctly contemporary. Unlike most pirs, he had no followers during his lifetime, and claims that he is a pir have only been made some years after his death. His cult is also exclusively confined to members of his immediate patrilineage. Indeed, their assertions that they are now part of a pir lineage, and as such are more inherently holy than the hoi polloi, are generally scoffed at by more distant relatives and neighbours. The legitimacy of a pir is always of course a social construct (Ewing 1980). But a particular interest in the construction of Abdul Hossain's pir-hood is its relationship to change in his family's economic status and their subsequent attempts to transform their own religious status.

Like many other local shrines, the mazaar of Abdul Hossain is partly a result of overseas migration. More than the donations of devoted disciples, it was founded by remittances sent by family members in Britain. The shrine is a useful entrance to the two main themes of this paper: the spiritual transformations and miracles of pirs; and the economic opportunities, and subsequent economic transformations of migration. Both types of transformation are interrelated; but rather than migration un-lineally affecting religious beliefs and behaviour, the relationship is more circular. Originally, I suggest, migrants were part of the culture of miracles. The economic transformations resulting from migration have however led to a gradual rejection of charismatic pirs. But rather than moving away from their cults to complete monotheism, change has come internally; the cults have themselves been transformed. The legitimacy of this new breed of pirs no longer rests upon charisma and miracles, but instead upon scriptualism and notions of 'orthodoxy'. Abdul Hossain's family, for example, asserts that his power is derived from his knowledge of Quranic texts and Islamic learning. Unlike the followers of most pirs, they do not claim him to be the agent of miracles and today, activities at his urs (death anniversary) are very different from those of most pir cults. There is no singing, ecstatic dancing or dhikir (repetition), but instead recitation of the Quran and namaz (formal prayer). Like so many of their neighbours, they are also migrants.

Tiny and kin-based as it is, the cult is thus part of far wider processes in Sylhet, and intimately tied to sweeping changes that have come to the region in recent decades. These have been largely engendered by the widespread migration of many Sylhetis abroad, primarily to Britain, but also to the Middle East, USA and Western Europe. This and the consequent enrichment and leaps in social status of migrant families, is closely associated with growing Islamic 'purism' in the area (and by this I mean the increasing influence of Quranic text reference of the Shar'iat and stress on adab or correct procedures). These practices, and the boundary between what is and is not acceptable are the subjects of continual negotiation between different groups.

Pirs, and the continually disputed criteria for their legitimacy, straddle this boundary. Although some of the most orthodox disclaim any allegiance to pirs, others have redefined their pirs as Sunni holy men of the highest scriptural tradition, separating themselves from the cults of charisma and miracles which are increasingly left to the poor and powerless. There is therefore a growing polarisation between purist activities and belief and what is increasingly being interpreted by the economically and politically powerful as 'incorrect' religious behaviour.

A Culture of Miracles; Bengali Pirs

No comprehensive description of Bengali Islam is possible without reference to pirs (Roy 1982), although at times the category covers such a broad range of characters that there is danger of it becoming meaningless. In general it is associated with Sufism (Ewing 1980; Lewis 1985; Nanda and Talib 1989), but this too covers a whole spectrum of beliefs and categories (Baldick 1989; Cashin 1988; Wilson 1983).

In Sylhet pirs are sometimes saints of the highest order such as Shah Jafal (who, it is generally agreed, introduced Islam to Sylhet), or the 360 disciples who came with him and who have acquired pir status (Roy 1982). The term may also be used for various figures shared with local Hindus such as Kwaz, the 'saint' of fishermen (Blanchet 1984; Saiyed 1989), or simply for ordinary mullahs (clergy) when the speaker wishes to denote particular respect. In the cults of living pirs, devotees express extreme deference and subservience (Nanda and Talib 1989).

The pir is believed to possess special spiritual power, which allows him to communicate with God, and to be a vehicle for miracles. Only through his guidance, it is believed, can God be found. Many followers of pir cults in rural Sylhet speak of their need for a guide to teach them holy ways and act as an intermediary with God. Others may visit the pir at times of particular need: sickness, economic crisis, marital problems, and so on, bringing material offerings (shinni) such as sacrificial meat. The pir usually responds to requests for help with tapiz (amulets), foo (blowing on supplicant), or in some cases the utterance of a mantra (blessing with holy power). How effective these are depends on how powerful the pir is thought to be, or how 'hot'. The hotter a pir, the more transformative power he is thought to have.[2]

In Talukpur, the migrant village where I worked, not everybody follows a living pir. Whilst all villagers told me the greatest pir is Shah Jalal, only a small proportion claimed to have a living pir. Most of those who did belonged to the poorest families, which have not enjoyed the benefits of migration. These families cited a holy man in Eeshabpur a nearby village as their pir. Generally they had been introduced through kin, or had inherited cult membership from their parents which they would pass on to their own children. Others cited different pirs, usually living locally. Whilst many did not visit their pir, regularly, all told me they would visit in times of need.

The following are statements made by the villagers who today tend to be the poorest and most marginalised, about their pir. People carry him from here to there on their heads. They bring a throne and carry him on it. What this man says has effect...

“The pir gives directions on how to lead my life. He shows me a straight path. I serve him and he tells me to fast pray and in what way to lead my life. If I do the things which my guru orders then I will go straight to Heaven. I sit by the pir and he tells me how to order my life...”

The power of a pir is thought to increase at death (Troll 1989). Their graves are venerated as shrines, whilst disciples or male next of kin usually inherit the saintly mantle. Like the caliph, the line of descent from the Prophet the pir creates a holy line, in which descendants are closer than others to Allah. Many Sylheti cults are based around shrines of the dead. Soil and water from these are believed to contain mortaba (spiritual power) and effect cures in the sick. On the anniversary of the pir's death an urs is held. This usually involves singing into the night, drumming, and ecstatic dancing. Although I was never able to attend, the few villagers prepared to enlighten me whispered that ganja (marijuana) and prostitution were sometimes present at urs. The legitimacy of pirs is generally based upon evidence that they are the vehicles of miracles seen as proof of their special relationship with God.

These miracles invariably involve the transcendence of 'natural' law and reversal of apparent realities. These events were recounted by the followers of a local pir:

He did not go [visiting] by boat, but wearing shoes, walking over the water. This is the proof of his saintliness; then people believed he was a saint, that he had strength, and they called him pir...[3]

Some people were saying our pir was a cheat. One day they decided to prove whether he was pir or a fake. They hid some copper in the house where he was staying, then they closed the doors and set fire to it. Later, they found that those coins had melted but the pir had been not touched.

A child lay dead, her funeral shroud around her. The pir appeared and looked into her face and suddenly she was alive. Then he turned himself into a tiger, and ran off into the jungle.

Pirs, then, can transform their bodies and transcend elements which defeat normal men and women. They usually have healing powers and people who are not followers of a specific cult often visit when sick. If he is alive they will receive the pir’s foo and amulets, if dead they will take soil from his mazaar. Because he has a special relationship with God he may also be able to influence events in a follower's life and for this reason pirs are often visited in times of crisis. An amulet or blessing may bring back an errant husband make a woman fertile or cure a man of sickness. Specialist pirs also exist who can find stolen property or detect thieves. Again, these pirs are often only visited in times of pressing need. Through devotion to a pir, then, followers are given a chance of escaping a state of affairs which seems inevitable.

This transformative ability extends to economic affairs. In the lines of a devotional song popular amongst labourers: 'My guru is a precious thing. He makes iron into pure gold'. Indeed whilst the pir’s power is spiritual, and may be strengthened by his own asceticism, he may have the power to bring wealth to his followers. Poverty brings one closer to God, followers of pirs assert; but in turn, closeness to God can bring prosperity. Local myths often stress the economic transformations brought about by pirs. In one, the family of a labourer who stumbled upon the relics of a dead pir’s grave was rewarded with great prosperity when they built a mazaar on the site and venerated it as a holy place. A similar link between holiness and wealth is echoed in many devotional Sufi songs:

Oh Great Guru,
nobody returns from your court empty-handed:
Allah gave his riches to Roussel;
Allah disappeared;
Khaza received Allah's wealth and stayed in Ajmir;
Khaza, everyone goes to your shrine:
If somebody wants something,
he will give from his unlimited treasures.[4]

It is this which brings me to migration which, too, has led to economic transformation. I suggest later that overseas migration from Sylhet was originally informed by beliefs in the miraculous. But while the earliest migrants were initially part of the culture of the pirs and their miracles, many now follow a different religious path. Their transformation has been so radical that they now reject the charismatic pir, changing him into something more fitting to their new social and religious status.

Miraculous Transformation and Migration in Sylhet

As Eickelman and Piscatori point out (1990: 259), the relationship between migration and religious change has been little examined by anthropologists. With a few exceptions, studies of labour migration are mainly located under the broad rubric of political economy concentrating upon economic and political change but neglecting the ideological concomitants of such change. Those studies which do exist tend to focus entirely upon how religious belief and behaviour are affected by migration rather than examining the interrelationship of economic change and ideology as a two-way process. In Sylhet, however, whilst labour migration is at one level controlled by external economic forces it is itself influenced by ideologies of transformation central to local Islamic belief. In turn, migration and economic prosperity have contributed to religious change and especially to a rejection of belief in miraculous transformation.

There are interesting similarities between the miracles of the pirs and migration. Both involve transformation on many levels. Just as the pir cited earlier can 'turn iron into pure gold', migration has enabled many families to reinvent themselves as high status landowners. Like the miracles of the pirs, travel involves a crossing, and redefinition of boundaries (Eickelman and Piscatori 1990: 5). More significantly, the spirit with which migration takes place often involves belief in the possibility of miracles, of being able to turn the world around and be transformed. As we shall see, in both instances, reality is not necessarily fixed; the given order of affairs can be changed.

Migration to Britain from Bangladesh is a peculiarly Sylheti phenomenon. Although South Asians have always migrated overseas (Clarke 1990), and migrants to the Middle East come from all over Bangladesh (Islam et al. 1987), migration to the UK has been mainly monopolised by Sylhetis who, from the nineteenth century onwards were employed by British ship companies and travelled the world as crew (Adams 1987; Eade 1986). Their success is partly explained by the fortuitous success of a number of Sylheti sarengs (foremen, who controlled employment), who understandably favoured their kinsmen and fellow countrymen in recruitment. Although work on the ships was punishing, by village standards profits were considerable: a year's work in a ship's engine rooms might enable a man to buy land or build a new house. Anyway, many seamen did not confine themselves to the seas, jumping ship once they had docked, and seeking their fortune on dry land. Most of those who smuggled themselves ashore did so in London. A small but steadily increasing population of Sylhetis was established in Britain by the early 1950s (Adams 1987, Peach 1990).

Over the 1950s, the numbers increased dramatically. The post-war British economy needed cheap and plentiful labour, much of which was recruited from South Asia. It was a case par excellence of chain migration: just as ship workers helped their kin and find work, so British-based Sylhetis now helped each other to migrate. By the late 1960s, however, the situation had changed. British industry had declined, and immigrant labour was no longer in demand. New laws, radically curtailing entrance to Britain, were introduced. Alarmed by the increasing insecurity of their situations, most migrants responded by applying for British passports and sending for their wives and children (Ballard 1990: 219-47). At the same time, many Sylhetis switched from redundancy-prone factory work to the business of restaurants, capitalising on a growing British appetite for curry. Since the early days when single men travelled to the West and returned every couple of years to their villages, things have greatly changed. Children are born and bred British, and the notion held by many migrants in the 1960s and 1970s that their stay in Britain was strictly temporary, and only to earn money, has increasingly faded (Carey and Shukur 1985; Eade 1990).

Meanwhile in Sylhet, a new form of labour migration had appeared by the 1970s, with the increasing importance to the Bangladesh economy of labour migration to the Middle East (Hossain 1985; Islam et al. 1987). Legally migrants can only enter these countries with official work contracts, which are sold by brokers for considerable sums. In Sylhet, many households without members in Britain have quickly taken advantage of this new opportunity, obtaining contracts for their young men and hoping for similar economic rewards. Other migrants enter illegally. These men face great insecurity. Working casually, often in the construction industry, or as street vendors, they have no legal rights and, if caught, face immediate deportation (Owens 1985). Although some have grown rich from Middle Eastern earnings, many do not recoup the initial capital expenditure. Others are cheated by brokers who take their money, but never deliver the promised contracts. In spite of such experiences, however, migration is perceived as the main economic opportunity available, and many households send their sons abroad more than once.

Just as the nature of migration has changed, so have the migrant villages (Gardner 1990, 1991). Those with high levels of overseas migration are startlingly distinct. Rather than the mud and thatch huts typical of Bangladesh, these villages are filled with stone houses, sometimes two or even three stories high. The migrant villages seem prosperous, replete with material evidence of their overseas success and a far cry from the impoverishment of much of rural Bangladesh. Similar remittance-induced 'booms' have been noted elsewhere in Asia (Ballard 1983; Kessinger 1979; Watson 1975).

In Sylhet, most migrant families have indeed enjoyed a success story of sorts. The original migrants, whilst not usually destitute, were by no means the wealthiest of their villages. Some were even landless, helped in their migration by the patronage and loans of better-off kin or neighbours. Many were originally small landowners with just enough capital to pay for the initial costs of migration. These men returned home rich, investing their earnings in land, the vital commodity upon which the well-being and position of all households in rural Bangladesh depends. Most became moderate, or very large, landowners (Gardner 1990). And so by the 1970s, when men who had been working in Britain had accumulated enough money to convert themselves form small owner-cultivators or sharecroppers to large landowners, people began to appreciate that fortune could be made abroad. Given these leaps in fortune, foreign countries have increasingly been viewed as a source of great bounty, the means of economic transformation. In the eyes of those who have never been abroad, migration is something of a miracle:

Now if I go to London I'll get big and strong... Our poverty will be over.
(A landless sharecropper).

A poor man can get rich - but only by going abroad.
(A sharecropper).

This economic miracle is very real. In Talukpur, land owning is strongly correlated with migration to Britain and the Middle East. Of the seventy households, only twenty-six are not involved in migration; over half have family members in Britain, and the rest are in the Middle East. Of the twenty-five landless households, only one has experienced migration to the West, whereas of the twenty-seven richest land-owning households, i.e. those with over six acres, only one has no migrant members. These patterns have radically changed since the 1950s. Most households with British migrants were originally small to medium landowners, and some were landless. Within a few decades, their economic positions have been transformed.

Correspondingly, those without access to foreign wages have found it increasingly difficult to compete in the struggle for local resources. During the period of most intense migration in the 1960s, when migrants struggled to buy as many fields as possible, local prices shot up. To buy fields today, foreign income is crucial. Other price rises - in labour, basic commodities and agricultural technology - have also contributed, making it increasingly hard for a small plot without capital behind it to be viable. The processes of land loss are as common in Sylhet as elsewhere in the country (Hartman and Boyce 1983; Jansen 1987). But in migrant areas, high prices offered to owners may have been a further incentive to sell, and once landless they had little chance of climbing back on to the land-owning ladder. In sum, there has been increasing polarisation between the migrants and the non-migrants.

Migration overseas has thus become something which non-migrants dream of, and aspire to. Families without migrants constantly seek ways to gain access to the opportunities which they perceive migration to offer, however low their chances might seem to the dispassionate outsider. Many households sell their few fields to fund a trip to 'Saudi', and even if cheated once will take further loans to try again. In Talukpur several households have lost all their land through their desperate attempts to join the category of 'migrant': a common fate in Sylhet.

Whilst the economic transformation brought about by migration is of a different order to the miracles of pirs, I suggest that belief in the latter has influenced the spirit in which migration has been carried out. One example of this is the risk taking involved in migration. As we have seen, potential migrants sometimes gamble away all their land on the chance of buying a work contract for the Middle East. When they are cheated, or the illegal migrant caught and deported before he can recoup his expenditures, their households tend to accept the disaster as part of the destiny which they tried to change through migration, but failed. In this view, life is something which can be radically changed, if God wills it.

The lives of successful migrants are often filled with instances of risk taking. Some, for example, have become involved in gambling, the illusory promise of instant fortune. The life histories of older British-Sylhetis often illustrate the connection between risk, gambling and migration. Problems with gambling were mentioned to me by several families with male members in Britain, and the earlier stages of migration: leaving for Calcutta, jumping ship, hiding out illegally, and going wherever there appeared to be economic opportunity, all involved risk. Contrary to Rodinson's conclusion that Islamic entrepreneurs tend to shy away from potential risks, preferring investments which bring certain gains (1974: 161), it seems that amongst Sylheti Muslims, at least, risk is an accepted element in the quest for economic transformation. Rather than a slow but steady process of accumulation, many prefer to gamble everything in the hope of a miracle.

In many cases, the gamble has paid off and the economic and social positions of the migrants have been transformed. Not only have they acquired land, but they have built new houses, educated their children, hired extra labour so that family members no longer need to work in the fields, and generally become high status landowners. This has not simply involved worldly change, but in many cases also a transformation of religious status which, in turn, has involved a rejection of the culture of miracles.

Migrants tend to present themselves as more pious than other villagers. By sending their sons to madrasas, contributing to funds for local mosques, and being freed from manual labour to spend more time studying the Quran, many migrant families have become highly religious. Many can now afford to perform haj, usually on their way back from Britain, or after working in the Middle East. This is of course the ultimate spiritual transformation: hajjis are deemed to have been purified of worldly sin and are treated with special respect and deference. As part of their reinvention some families have literally rewritten their histories, renaming their lineages with Islamic titles such as Khan and Sheikh. In Talukpur, various lineages have only been known by these prestigious titles for one or two generations. As others comment: 'They only started to write their name like that after he made money in London'. This use of prestigious Islamic titles by those whose economic status has improved has been described in many Muslim groups in South Asia (Vreede-De Stuers 1968: 3). In these cases, religious behaviour, and outward signs such as Islamic titles, are used to indicate a change in social position: relative religiosity becomes the explicit issue in implicit negotiations of status and power.

Migration and Theologies of the Self

Given these worldly changes, it is not surprising that many successful migrants now have very different ideas about destiny from poorer non-migrants. While the poor tend to declare that 'Allah gave us this position, so how can we change it?', the rich often assert that 'Allah helps those who help themselves'. Migrants and non-migrants also express remarkably   different opinions about their relationship to God. Everyone agrees that 'Allah has no partners', but poorer, non-migrant villagers argue that only those with God-given mortaba can pray to Allah directly: ordinary mortals must use a pir as an intermediary in their relationship to God. In the theology of many of the richer men in Talukpur, however, Allah can be approached directly, and wealth is the reward He gives the pious. Thus, whilst the followers of living pirs are unable to face God directly, because in the works of one man: 'I am nothing', migrants tend to make statements similar to this one of a return migrant from Germany: 'If a man leads a pure life, prays, does Haj and attends religious events, then he can pray direct to God'.

Related to these differences, those who visit living pirs in Talukpur today are invariably poor men and women, who have little power to control their circumstances. It is these people who speak openly of the pir that their family follows, or who visit pirs in times of trouble. It is the poorest villagers, too, who most often state that they cannot approach God alone, and need an intermediary. For them, the pir is a middleman to an unapproachable God: at times he may be treated almost like a deity himself.[5] In Talukpur it is not true that only the poor have pirs; but the richer men, who have taken control of their own destinies, tend to have different beliefs about fate and their relationship with God. Rather than a simple dichotomy between migrants and non-migrants, then, there is a continuum: most of the younger, better educated men of migrant families tend not to believe in living pirs. Many richer men visit pirs in times of extreme crisis, but even then do not wear tapiz for, as one woman explained it: 'Men don't like to wear amulets because others would see them in the bazaar, and they'd be ashamed'. It is these men who are increasingly opposed to the miraculous cults.

In the second part of this paper I shall show how alongside, and partly because of the economic transformations of Sylheti migration, there has been a shift in attitudes towards God, and in religious behaviour. This involves a new emphasis on scriptualism, Islamic purity, and the international community of Islam. It has also entailed a rejection of what are now termed 'impurities', or activities which are closer to Hindu or tantric practices than those of Sunni orthodoxy. Alongside growing economic 'differentiation', then, has come religious differentiation in which the richer and educated members of the village continually seek to dismiss the religious activities of the poor as 'impure' or 'incorrect'. Pirs, however, are still important, for some families seeking to assert their new social status have reinvented their pirs or claimed that they themselves are descendants of a pir. The pirs of rich migrant families have thus themselves been transformed.

The New Purity, Migration and Religious Change

While reformism is nothing new in the history of religion (Caplan 1987a), it is true that the direction of change in many contemporary Islamic societies is towards a 'new traditionalism', an increasing puritanism which seeks to reject the old, localised ways (see, for example, Gilsenan 1982; Roy 1982). In Sylhet, modernity, if that is how we are to describe the increasing importance of international migration and foreign revenue in the area, has been met with increased religious fervour. Indeed, return migrants are often the keenest to assert a traditionalism (in this case in the form of religious orthodoxy) which, as many writers have shown, is invariably a social construct, the product of contemporary circumstances and continual reinterpretation of the slippery past (Bourdieu 1977; Cohen 1985; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). Clearly, modernity must not be confused with secularisation (Caplan 1987a: 10).

I defined purism earlier as stress on adab: correct religious procedure as laid down by the Quran and other sources of Islamic law such as the Hadith and Shar'iat. It is concerned with the 'fundamentals' of the Islamic tradition, presented as enshrined in the holy text. Such concepts of 'orthodoxy' are however highly problematic (Baldick 1989: 7). Movements aiming to purify local Islam, or what we might term Islamic 'revivalism' are not new to South Asia, but have tended to erupt periodically, especially in the face of external threats such as British colonialism (Metcalf 1982; Roy 1982). The link of Islamic 'revivalism' to political resistance or its rise as a reaction to political inequality has been noted in many parts of the Muslim world (see, for example, Geertz 1968; Gellner 1981). In the Sudan, for example, where Sufi saints, or marabouts were politically and economically powerful, the puritanical Wahabi movement has challenged the hierarchy of the marabouts through their rejection of mysticism and insistence on Muslim equality (Amselle 1987). In a similar vein, as Asim Roy has argued, Islamic revivalism in Bengal at the end of the twentieth century was a reaction against colonial domination and heralded a rejection of traditional Bengali syncretism (Roy 1982). This argument provides a useful insight into the link between colonialism and religious reformism. It is especially pertinent for peoples who have a long history of contact with the West, and who today are continuing that relationship through migration.

Islamic purism in Sylhet is not simply the product of overseas migration, but it is linked with it. At the most practical level, this has to do with economic change. Within migrant villages it is predominantly the richest men (who usually have experience of migration, or whose close kin have migrated) who are most interested in enforcing what they define as 'orthodoxy'. This is the key to the acquisition of status, and it is the richer families who are most able to manipulate its definition. I suggest that this association with doctrinal purity and economic class has always existed, and that there has always been religious heterogeneity amongst local Muslims in Sylhet. Roy, for example, mentions the presence of a small Ashraf elite in Bengal, descendants of the original Muslim invaders (1982).

A minority of wealthy and educated people probably always leaned to the higher-status Sunni textual tradition. For the vast majority, this was out of reach since they could not read Arabic, or afford many of the religious activities which I describe below. Migration has meant that in some parts of Sylhet, whole villages, or many households within them, have become relatively prosperous. Suddenly religious activities, which have always been revered, have become accessible. As we have already seen, families can now pay for sons to learn Arabic, can perform haj, and so on. It is not surprising that they should seek to differentiate their religious activities from those of the poorer, illiterate neighbours. At the same time, far wider processes have affected the way that Islam is viewed locally. Missionary movements such as Tablighi Jama'at[6] and the political parties such as Jama'at i' Islam have grown rapidly over recent decades. The growth of mass communications, which can reach remote villages such as Talukpur, has aided the spread of doctrinalism, and nationally the ideal of the community of Islam has in many ways taken the place of secular Bengali nationalism (Eade 1990). Similar processes have been at work all over South Asia.

There are other links between overseas migration and increased purism in Sylhet. Migrants to Britain and the Middle East have moved from an Islam based around localised cults and moulded to the culture and geography of the homelands, to an international Islam of Muslims from many different countries and cultures. This international Islam is one of universals: the holy texts are the only common language, and Mecca is the only universally perceived centre (Metcalf 1982: 12). This, of course, is not confined only to migrant communities, but involves a global spread of ideas, and perceived homogeneity (Gilsenan 1982: 18). In this perspective, the localised shrines of Sylheti pirs can only be perceived as peripheral.[7] In their new locations, Bengali Muslims had now, with other Muslim groups, to construct new communities based around the ideals of an international brotherhood of Islam and a central body of texts.

Travel and moving into a foreign culture may also prompt a heightened sense of 'being a Muslim' (Eickelman and Piscatori 1990: 16). The increasing importance of this identity, and its expression through revivalist movements is a common reaction both to imperialism (Metcalf 1982) and to being a beleaguered minority. As Caplan notes (1987a: 22), amongst all so-called 'fundamentalist' groups is a strong sense of 'otherness'. Thus, while not all migrants are interested in Islamic revivalism, many have been forced to define themselves first and foremost as Muslim, and in their religious institutions, their mosques, madrasas and festivals, increasingly join with other Muslims to create a universalist Islam (Eade 1990).

Religious Practice in Talukpur

It would be incorrect to present religion in Talukpur in terms of a straightforward dichotomy between 'purists' and non-purists. Amongst the majority Muslim population, there is much shared ground. All Muslims believe in certain basics (the five pillars of faith, the Day of Judgement, Heaven and Hell, and so on), and all attempt to follow basic Islamic laws. [8]Religious behaviour is thus a continuum, with the most puritanical situated at one end, and the least at the other. This continuum tends to reflect economic levels within the community. Those who are the most puritanical reject religious practices not derived directly from what they define as the Tradition. As the imam of one of the richest household's private mosque put it:

Is not all milk white? Yet one drop of urine from a cow will ruin the whole bucket. Is it not so that one tiny prick will burst a balloon, one hole will sink a boat? In this way, one mistake will spoil someone's religiosity.

The purist end of the continuum is represented by the mosque and the village madrasa - the small Islamic college where students learn Islamic history and Quranic verse by heart. This madrasa and its students are part of the Tablighi Jama'at movement. Every year they organise a wa'as (preaching): an event for all local men, where renowned mullahs (those learned in the Quran and other holy texts) come to the village to preach and pray. The event lasts for twenty-four hours: the prayers and words of the mullah are broadcast across the fields all night. Men who attended told me that the sermons stressed the need for increased purity and rejection of 'incorrect' practices. The visitors had also urged them to keep their women in stricter purdah.

The behaviour of family women is an immediate indicator of piety, and extremely important for families anxious to assert their religious status. The less women are seen by outsiders, the more 'correct' the family is seen to be. This, like many other external signs of piety, is far easier for richer families to maintain. Seclusion costs money. The verandahs built around houses, the rickshaws and even shrori (covered sedan chairs) hired to carry women, the burqas, and, most importantly, the ability to keep women within the household and not send them out to earn wages, all demand a certain level of prosperity, which many non-migrant families do not have. Most landless women in the village are forced to seek work outside their own household. As they say, 'Who can bother with purdah when her belly is empty?'.

Other external indicators of piety are also more available to the richer families. All of these are seen as increasing the virtue which an individual accumulates over his or her lifetime and which is reviewed on the Day of Judgement. Such activities include Haj, donations to the mosque or madrasa, and the giving of generous sacrifice (korbani) at religious festivals.

Orthodox households may also hold milads (functions in which local mullahs and madrasa students visit for prayers and donations of shinni). These are held to mark the death anniversary of an ancestor, or on various dates in the religious calendar[9], and can generate religious merit for the entire household. Again, only the more prosperous households can afford to hold a milad.

Religious virtue can also be gained through knowledge of Islamic texts and of Arabic. For households which can pay the costs, this can be taught to children by a resident mullah. Those who have read the Quran are also accorded special religious status, as are those who can write Arabic. Hajjis too, as we have seen, have a special spiritual status. It is thus possible to invest financially in religious merit, which not only ensures a smooth transition to Heaven, but much worldly power too.

In many ways purism is defined not so much by what it represents, but more by what is opposes. The most puritanical of the village seek to banish a host of beliefs and customs which, as they are marginalised, are increasingly associated with the 'ignorance' of women and poor men. Examples of activities dismissed as 'ignorant' or 'incorrect' are devotion to Kwaz, the pir (or Hindu god) of water, or to Loki, a spirit of the house.[10] The poorest Muslim women pray and offer shinni (ritual offerings, usually food) to both Kwaz and Loki, but women from richer households deny belief in them. Other activities said to lead to punishment in this of the after-life include singing, use of drums, and dancing. In the company of the most pious, those who have performed haj, for example, such activities can barely be mentioned. All the songs which I recorded, many of which were devotional Sufi songs, were sung in secret by women or landless labourers, far from the ears of the household head. It is this secrecy which most indicates the degree of division in Talukpur.

Whilst economic and social power does not determine an individual's beliefs, the puritanical tend to be the most powerful men of the village. It is these men who are most keen to impose their new pieties on women and labourers who, in turn, are increasingly ashamed of their activities. 'We'll tell you when Abba goes to the bazaar!' the women of my household would declare, and it was only as his figure disappeared down the path that the stories of spirits and the songs would start. Likewise, when landless women showed me their traditional Bengali dances, the doors of their hut had first to be bolted. Reflecting the same division certain information is seen as directly oppositional to religiosity. Discussions about magic, the healing powers of medicine men, and spirits, invariably had to stop when Abba was saying his prayers, even though he was in another room.

Many of the activities which the puritanical condemn are central to the pir cults of the poor. Since urs involve singing, dancing and drumming, they are depicted by the religiously respectable as shocking in the extreme. At an urs of Shah Jalal, held during my fieldwork, a return migrant attacked a group of excited worshippers for their dancing and drumming.[11] The assertion that Allah can only be approached through an intermediary is extremely suspect to purists, who argue that God can always be approached directly, so long as one is pak (pure). In their eyes, the devotion paid to a pir may come dangerously close to worship of him. Various other methods to gain closeness to Allah are also extremely dubious. Ecstatic trance, possibly reached through ganja, meditation and tantric practices are roundly condemned. As one madrasa student put it:

Bad pirs are those who play music for prayer. For us this is bad: we call them pretender pirs. There's one like that I know of, who smokes ganja, drinks, and plays drums and sings as he prays. There are two types of pir, you see. One is good, and the other is marifot (tantric).

Significantly, purists tend to be against miracle-making, dismissing the miracles attributed to lesser-known pirs. As one man commented of a pir’s shrine in a predominantly landless neighbouring village: 'No one in Talukpur believes in him. He's a poor man's pir'. A Talukpur sharecropper, however, told me the pir was extremely powerful and could walk on water.

Such stories are said by the rich to be superstitious, their miracles the tricks of fakes. Asked if they believe in local pirs and the stories told of them, return migrants, especially from Britain, referred to them disparagingly as evidence of the stupidity of the illiterate labourers who follow them. Since they have the power to control so much of their own lives, they appear to have no need of such miracle-making. It is interesting that purists also condemn gambling, the worldly path to transformation. I suggest that it is no coincidence that they are against both types of miracles - that of the pir and that of gambling. Theirs is now a world of certainties, in which virtue and wealth can be gained through steady investment, not risk and God-granted grace.

An example of the changing attitudes of richer villagers to the cults of living pirs is given by Heron Shah, a pir who has lost support in Talukpur. Originally, villagers told me, many people believed in him, and would flock to his homestead for his blessing. But in recent years, he has lost legitimacy, for the richer migrant families who once were his followers stopped believing in his miracles. As he became more desperate to prove his powers, he became more ridiculous. Eventually he claimed to predict his own death, but as one woman put it: 'We all went to see, on the day he said he would die, but nothing happened. That man didn't die. So how can we believe in him?'. What is interesting is not that Heron Shah did not die - for what happened could have been interpreted in many ways by believers - but that his followers now refused to believe in his miracles.

Economic Class and Religious Reinvention

The creation of religious 'correctness' involves continual re-styling of religious practice. In this, what is and is not 'proper' is defined by the most powerful. As they create religious status through 'orthodoxy', the criteria of which they also define, the religious activities of those without power are marginalised and presented as opposed to what is 'correct'. Meanwhile, people continually attempt to modify their behaviour in accordance with that of the most powerful. For example, some of the men who had been to the Middle East but were nonetheless landless were chary of admitting their devotion to local pirs. Religious practice not only marks out particular groups, it also reproduces them. The powerless are associated with unrespectable form of worship and are thus accorded even lower status, whilst the rich reiterate their power and status through their participation and knowledge of a system of beliefs which is of great prestige.

Lionel Caplan has suggested that to understand religious behaviour we must focus upon power relations between groups (Caplan 1987b). The hierarchy of religious discourses in Talukpur must indeed be interpreted politically. I suggest that whilst some degree of religious heterogeneity may have always existed amongst Muslims in Talukpur, as economic polarisation has increased, so too has religious differentiation. Rather than a united shift from the pluralism of traditional Bengal to the monotheism of modernity (Roy 1982), there is instead continual conflict and confusion within the village over religious activities, with the alternate views very much related to relative degrees of secular power.

Other writers have focused upon the link between ecstatic Sufi cults and social marginality. Michael Gilsenan, for example, has argued that Sufi mysticism in Egypt and the Middle East has an inherent appeal to the poor and marginal. There, scriptualism is monopolised by the wealthier and better educated, simply because it is not accessible to the poor, whose own charismatic cults the rich despise (1982: 86). This is a useful insight which to an extent can be applied to Sylhet. But we must also be cautious of creating false dichotomies between charismatic cults and textual 'orthodoxy'. By describing them in terms of an opposition between mysticism and purism, the flexibility of the cults is hidden, for cults initially associated with mysticism can change within themselves. In Sylhet, the cults of those whose economic positions have improved have been transformed into respectable 'orthodoxy'. The pir is not inherently oppositional to purism, for interpretations of his role are malleable. Indeed, rather than rejecting pirs, many rich families now seek to improve their status through close association with one. But instead of being lowly followers, subject to his holy authority, they now claim to be his official keepers, or of his lineage.

The Reinvention of Pirs

Earlier, I quoted a madrasa student distinguishing between what he termed 'good' pir, and those who are marifot - or part of an ecstatic, tantric tradition. These he condemned as sinful. The student was part of the Tablighi movement, and told me that he did indeed have a pir, based in Sylhet town. This man was also mentioned by other villagers as their pir. He is presented by them as a stern proponent of doctrinal Islam, and his followers in Sylhet publish a regular newsletter, urging people to take up more pure ways. When I asked what sort of person he was, the student replied: 'Human, like us. He has much knowledge of religion, and teaches us'.

The pir, it seems, is appearing in a different guise. Shah Jalal is a good example of the way that cults can be reinterpreted by groups competing for religious prestige. Although some of the most orthodox men in the village claimed that they did not have a living pir, all without exception told me they were followers of Shah Jalal. Today Shah Jalal is represented by many in wholly purist terms. Those threatening such an image are not likely to be tolerated (such as the revellers who were attacked by an orthodox Londoni at the urs). The khadims (official caretakers) of the shrine now stress the historical legitimacy of Shah Jalal as a Yemeni soldier who brought Islam to Bengal. They dismiss stories about his miracles, stressing that he was mortal, but now is close to God. Claims about the miracles of other pirs, they also told me, were 'superstitions, which you get in all religions'.

Similar reinterpretations have been made for smaller pirs. A shrine in the same village as Abdul Hossain marks the grave of a pir whose family lives locally. Again, this pir is not associated with miracles, and certainly not with marifoti practices. Again too, his family is rich and of high status, and would certainly not wish to be associated with the miraculous cults of the poor. As a relative and follower of the pir put it:

It's not a singing and dancing urs. It's a time when my brothers invite many mullahs and madrasa students, and they pray for others, and read the Quran. Then they sacrifice a cow and prepare a big meal which everyone eats. Then they pray again, and everyone goes their own way.

These cults are clearly very different from those of the landless speakers cited earlier, at least in the way they are presented to outsiders. All the marks of 'correct' praxis are there: the formal prayer, sacrifice, and the presence of mullahs. If they were once charismatic mystics no one admits it. They have been 'routinised' (Weber 1947: 334), stripped of their spiritual powers to become holy men who uphold the social order rather than threaten it through their miracles.

But this is not the only difference between the cults of the rich and those of the poor. Not only are the former's pirs now presented in different terms but, most interestingly many claim the pirs as their ancestors. Indeed, rather than pirs dying out in the face of puritanism, in recent decades there has been an outbreak of new shrines and revelations of pir-hood. Rather than the legitimacy of these ancestral pirs being demonstrated through miracles, it is often revealed through the dreams of mullahs. Such claims tend to be made by the richer, migrant families. In the case of Abdul Hossain, a mullah employed by the family as a teacher, is said to have received in a dream the revelation that the dead dada (paternal grandfather) was a pir. And the woman who described her pir continues as follows:

My mother's lineage is a pir's lineage. Yasin Ali was the leader of the village - he was so rich and powerful that lights shone from his place just like a palace. And his family did so many good works that one of his line was made a pir by Allah. But during his life people didn't realise it. After he died, a mullah dreamt it and people then realised he was a pir, so my brother established that mazaar.

If the claims are accepted or at least tolerated by others, such families can identify themselves as of pir descent, the most prestigious title possible. Not only does this bring secular status, but also hereditary religious merit, passed down along the line. For in contrast to Islamic ideals of total equality, the notion of succession from the Prophet involves belief in a God-given hierarchy. As is often pointed out, Islam is used to legitimise widely different political arrangements (see, for example, Geertz 1968).

Another way of acquiring special spiritual blessing and status for the lineage is through revelation that a pir has been buried on homestead land. Since Sylhet is famous as the land of pirs and since not all of Shah Jalal's legendary disciples’ remains have been discovered, a great many claims are possible. Again, revelations are usually made in the dreams of people with Islamic learning, often madrasa students given board and lodging by a family. If a burial place is said to lie in the land of a family, and they build a shrine in that place and mark it with special respect, then great fortune, it is said, will fall to them. They will also become the caretakers of the shrine, itself a holy and prestigious function. Obviously only landowners can make such claims.

Sometimes the claim is simply that a pir rested at a particular spot or prayed there. This too leads to the place being marked as particularly holy and to the construction of a shrine. Both types of shrine are continually appearing in Sylhet. An educated informant told me that since the 1970s hundreds of new shrines dedicated to a disciple have appeared. The claims are invariably made by the rich or the mullahs whom they support.


Ernest Gellner has suggested that Islam is in a state of constant flux between monotheism and pluralism (1981). These modes of faith are associated with different political systems, which, whilst apparently applying only to Middle Eastern tribal systems, Gellner assumes to be definitively 'Muslim'. On a similar tack, Leach (1983) has argued that religions involve radically different features over time. In 'icons of subversion', devotees are directly inspired, and God gives charisma independently of the existing political hierarchy. Over time, however, this changes into an 'icon of orthodoxy', where humans are impotent before deities. Only superior mediators, who usually have a high position on the social hierarchy, can act as intermediaries. Here, religion upholds established political hierarchies and God gives them legitimacy. In both arguments, religious behaviour is holistic; it is assumed that meanings are shared and when change occurs it is spread evenly throughout the religious community.

The evidence presented here admittedly covers only a very short time scale. But Abdul Hossain and the other pirs of rich migrants indicate that rather than one mode of faith merging gradually into another, change may also occur within cults. Indeed, not only can different modes of faith coexist, but they can also be represented by a single icon: pluralism, in the form of the pir, can express the ideal of monotheism. Thus, whilst outward features of faith need not necessarily change, they are transformed internally. They are also used and understood by different people in different ways, as the case of Shah Jalal, with his purist caretakers and intoxicated celebrants, illustrates.

The modes of faith are arranged hierarchically too, for the doctrine of the most powerful is by definition the most dominant (Caplan 1987b: 14). Combined with this, the meanings given to each general type shift according to context. Whilst the general message of international reformism is primarily one of the equality of Muslims united against the pagan, non-Muslim world, in the local context it is the language of hierarchical difference. And ironically, whilst the cult of the mystical pir stresses spiritual hierarchy, its accessibility to followers, and messages which link poverty with holiness, work against secular hierarchy.

Rather than being discrete and bounded, there are numerous cross-over points between the different modes of faith. Both are poles of a continuum towards which different social groups tend to gravitate. Indeed, elements at one end can be reinterpreted and used by those clustering towards the other. This is so for the pirs who, rather than being discarded by the rush towards reformism, have been reinvented. The pirs of the rich have shifted from being, in Leach's terms, agents of subversion to being those of orthodoxy. Meanwhile the poorer and less powerful villagers, while accepting the dominant discourse and struggling to follow it, also continue to place their faith in local charismatic intermediaries.

We have thus come full circle. Pirs have the power to transform, to perform miracles which can change everything. But so too does migration. The transformations of migration are, however, of a different order. With their newly found wealth and social status migrants and their families have been able to aim for the highest degree of religious piety as defined by themselves. Thus, while demonstrating their dynamism, the pir cults of the rich can also be manipulated by the powerful in the construction of status. No longer dependent upon the pir for his miraculous interventions (which they say they do not need), the prosperous families of migrants reinterpret the pirs, and use them to legitimate and build their religious prestige.

Miracles, and the granting of holiness by God irrespective of secular hierarchy, become less important than the hereditary ability to be closer to God than others. The religious status of the families is transformed, but not through the miracles of the pir. Instead, their transformation results from the migration and the economic and political power which it has engendered. And in turn, the pirs of the self-defined purists are also transformed: no longer crossing the boundaries of nature, they are stripped of their charisma and become learned holy men. No longer agents of the supernatural, these pirs of the rich are instead agents of a new doctrinalism which, though it may unify Muslims internationally, is increasingly divisive within Talukpur.


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Source: This paper was published in T.N. Madan (ed.) Muslim Communities of South, Culture, Society, and Power, (Dhaka: University Press Limited), 1995, pp.145-176 and is reprinted with permission from the author and from Manohar Publishers and distributors, New Dehli.

The University Press Limited
P.O. Box 2611
Dhaka 1000, Bangladesh

Revised and Enlarged Edition 1995 (in association with Manohar Publishers (New Delhi))


[1] 'Syncretism' implies a creole religiosity born from the mixture of 'pure' or 'orthodox' Islam with indigenous culture. Since everywhere Islam is expressed and interpreted in different ways, and nowhere exists in a 'pure' form, the term must be treated with suspicion.

[2] South Asian notions of and religious transformation are further discussed by Parry (1979: 327).

[3] A similar story is told about Shah Jalal, the great Sylheti pir. According to this, when first journeying into the district, he crossed the rivers which lay across his path by spreading his turban cloth on the water, and using it as a raft. Once again, spiritual power overcame 'natural' elements.

[4] Devotion to Chisti of Ajmer, sung by labourers in Talukpur.

[5] For further discussion of intermediaries in monotheistic traditions see Gellner (1981) and Hume (1976).

[6] This north Indian movement of spiritual renewal dates from the 1920s and exists throughout the world. Its main aim is spiritual guidance: spreading correct religious practice amongst Muslims.

[7] There is an interesting parallel here with Turkish migrants in Germany whose concepts of core and periphery, in both religious and secular domains, have also shifted (Mandle 1990).

[8] Shared 'basics' include the prohibition of alcohol and pork, daily prayer, fasting, the seclusion of women and, for men, weekly attendance at the small village mosque.

[9] In much of the Muslim world, milad is the commemoration of the Prophet's birthday. In Talukpur, however, the term is used more loosely.

[10] Loki is almost certainly a version of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Mention of Kwaz is also made by Blanchet (1984) and Saiyed (1989).

[11] Another event shunned by the purists is the annual festival of Muharram. This is of course a Shi'ite festival, marking the martyrdom of Mohammed's grandson Hussain. Despite the fact that Bangladeshi Muslims are predominantly Sunni, it is, however, celebrated by some groups, though only attended by the poorest men in the village. As a woman I was not able to go to the shrine where it was held, but the labourers and rickshaw drivers in the nearby bazaar downed their tools for the day for the celebration. There, I was told, they would perform dhikir (repetition of God's name), wail, and flagellate themselves. Respectable village elders conceded the holiness of the occasion, but said they would never attend.