Bengali, Muslim and Australian; Three Identities in One


“If there is a paradise on earth, It is this, it is this, it is this.”
Amir Khusrow, Kashmir — Delhi Sultanate, 13th century AD

As a second generation Australian of Bengali origin, my relationship with my cultural roots is both remote yet so inextricably close. Whether it be an awkward sentence in Bengali said to greet an uncle, a hot plate of daal and rice for lunch or wearing a panjabi on Eid, cultural hallmarks are scattered throughout my daily life. It can be difficult to navigate through this complex identity. On one hand, my social exposure has been largely restricted to the Australian milieu. On the other hand, the upbringing I received in my home and my phenotype are quintessentially Bengali.
Religion vs Culture?

Islam was inherited as part of my cultural upbringing. A question I often asked myself was if Islam had a conflicting relationship with the larger Indian Subcontinental culture?

Today we assume religion and culture are, for the most part, distinct. However, culture was classically understood by Islamic scholars to be the following four aspects:

  • Practices of the indigenous people of the region
  • Objects — e.g. the style of clothing, food
  • Communication — how people interact
  • Beliefs — understanding of good & bad, origin and purpose

Beliefs were an integral part of one’s cultural identity and thus, religion and culture were understood to be the same thing. In classical Arabic, the word دين (deen), loosely translating to ‘way of life’, was used not only to describe a community’s religious traditions but also their cultural ones, encapsulating the classical understanding of culture.

Today we have a very oriental relationship with our cultural heritage. The biryani we eat or the topi we wear are exotic symbols of a rich culture we feign allegiance to. The ideological separation between religion and culture was a consequence of the 17th century European Age of Enlightenment. Through the rise of secularism, religion was divorced from one’s life affairs. Colonialism brought these newfound ideas to the Orient, remoulding the indigenous psyche. Through the imposition of a Western model of nation states, culture was tied to a rigid geographical dominion and became underpinned by nationalistic sentiments as opposed to theological beliefs.

As a direct consequence of this, we ask the flawed question today; ‘Does religion conflict with culture?’.

Cultural Nationalism
The modern nation states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh formed as a consequence of a hasty decolonisation by the British in 1947 (and Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971), eradicating the pre-existing institutional framework of the Mughal Empire and supplanting it with Western Secular Liberalism. This framework underpins cultural expression in these regions today and manifests itself as cultural supremacy. The Prophet ﷺ said, ‘Whoever calls towards nationalism is not from us’ (Abu Dawood)

Bangladeshi culture is largely shaped by the 1971 Independence from Pakistan. National celebrations such as Victory Day and Independence Day commemorate key milestones in the Bangladesh Liberation War. Mujibur Rahman, a pioneering figure in Bangladeshi history, championed socialism, a secular constitution and a nationalistic sociopolitical identity. The fruits of his vision are reflected in today’s Bangladeshi culture where nationalistic symbols are rife and efforts for an Islamic revival are stifled by the wounds of the nation’s uneasy past with Pakistan.
The Turko-Persian Influence
From Qutb al-Din Aibak in the 13th century to Babur in the 16th century, Turko-Persian ruling classes arriving from Persian and Central Asia had a monumental impact on the cultures of South Asia, integrating their own Persian and Central Asian cultures with the indigenous Vedic culture. This is reflected today not only by the prevalence of Islam but numerous other facets of the region. For example, the iconic Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1653, drew from Timurid architectural tropes of large domes and ‘paradise gardens’, marrying indigenous and Persian cultures.

The Persian language had been an official court language throughout the numerous dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. It was not uncommon to find the Hindu or Muslim upper class proficient in Persian during this era. The Hindustani language, from which Urdu and Hindi are descended from, incorporated many Persian and Arabic loanwords as did Bengali and other South Asian languages. Here are just some of the Persian loanwords that have been adopted by South Asian languages; Sal (year), khargosh (rabbit), piyaz (onion), zindagi (life), fereshta (angel), ishq (love), khuda (God), dost (friend), dil (heart), beheshte (heaven), rang (colour), jaan (life), kagoj (paper), garam (hot), darja (door), naram (soft), rasta (road), sabzi (vegetable), shahr (city), ayna (mirror), angur (grapes), namaz (prayer) and much more.
A Stronghold for Sufism
Islam was a quintessential part of the Turko-Persian influence in the Indian subcontinent and a strong aspect of this identity was Sufism, a comprehensive spiritual discipline focusing on the inward dimensions of Islam. Inherited from classical Persian and Arab scholars, renowned individuals such as Moinuddin Chisti (d. 1236) and Nizamuddin Auliya (d. 1325) transmitted knowledge of Sufism to the Subcontinent and laid the underpinnings for the Chishti Tariqa, the most predominant Sufi order of the region. The Sufi scholarly hierarchy in India was integral to the community and provided legitimacy and support for the ruling class.
A Gradual Conversion from Hinduism
Medieval Hinduism varied drastically across different regions of the Subcontinent, sharing some overarching core ideals. The conversion to Islam from Hinduism in South Asia was a gradual process and syncretism between the two different traditions was quite common. For example, translations of Perso-Islamic stories into the native languages incorporated elements of the indigenous Vedic culture. In Bengal, the Hindu deities of ‘Prabhu’ and ‘Niranjan’ were used to refer to Allah, the Arabian countryside was described as having mango trees and curried rice and motifs from the Hindu epic Ramayana were incorporated into Islamic stories. Thus, there was a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism in the medieval Subcontinent.

It is not surprising that today remnants of this synthesis remain in South Asian Islamic culture. Whether it be haldi (holud) which commemorates ‘Lord’ Shiva’s marriage to Sati or touching the feet of one’s elders which alludes to an ancient Vedic religious tradition, indigenous rituals have maintained a presence in the subcontinent’s practicing of Islam. The recent rise of nationalism has also meant celebrations deriving from Hinduism such as Vaisakhi (Pohela Baishakh — New Year) are commonplace amongst Muslim communities today. Muslims are often oblivious to the polytheisistic basis of many of our cultural practices which can jeopardise our Hereafter.
How to Approach Culture Today?
We live in a very unique cultural dimension. Our Islamic, ethnic and Australian identities can be confusing at times. We can feel pressured by society to be more Australian and by our parents to be more ethnic. However, the culture and identity which transcends ethnic and national boundaries and is central to our beliefs is Islam. Islam is free from mistakes that may be present in our ethnic cultures and Muhammad ﷺ is the best example to follow.

As Australian Muslims, we are part of a relatively new culture which consists of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds sharing a universal bond of faith. We can learn from each other’s languages, cuisines and way of dress and through our differences, build an identity predicated upon worshipping Allah together as one united Ummah.

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Quran 49:13)

Disclaimer: The views, opinions and conclusions presented in these pieces are strictly those of the authors. MYA does not necessarily endorse the personal views of the authors.

Rafa Rahman

Rafa Rahman

Rafa Rahman is a recent Actuarial Studies and Commerce graduate who currently works in state government. He has various interests including history, lifestyle and creative writing, and aims to bring relevant topics to the forefront of Muslim discourse

Like what you’re reading?

Subscribe to Muslim In Print and be the first to know when we post.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments