Bengal Muslims on the Way to Decline


Begum Rokeya


Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, commonly known as Begum Rokeya, was a Bengali writer, thinker, educationist, social activist, and advocate of women’s right. She was born on 9 December, 1880 at Mithapukur Upazila, Rangpur District, now part of Bangladesh and died on 9 December, 1932 at  Kolkata. Her following article, written over eight decades ago, shows the then condition of Muslims and her faith in Islam, Islamic culture, education and rights of Muslim women. It shows not only Bengali Muslims in both parts of Bengal also in the whole Subcontinent of what used to be India when she lived to have plummetted to unbeleivable depths:

Honourable president and respected audience! I always vex you with the issue of the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School to such an extent that some people may consider me a “nuisance”. Had I been an idolater and had a deity to worship, the deity would have definitely been irritated and said: “During the time of worship, instead of making supplications like ‘Give me riches! Give me fame!’, this girl continuously says: ‘Give a home for the school! Give it prosperity and advancement!’ So kick this bugger away!”

Today I beg a little time from you so that you can kindly listen to a few words of mine with patience.

You all know that I will not die if this Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School ceases to exist. Certainly, nothing like this will befall me, that

“My homestead will be razed to the ground,

Pots will not mount on the furnace

The physician will not find the pulse

And I will be gasping in a dying state.”


I will not sustain even an iota of loss if this school does not continue to exist. Then, why do I want the progress of this school? I do not want it to increase my own good reputation. I do not want it to commemorate the memory of my husband. I want it only for the welfare of the Bengal Muslim community. If the two words “Sakhawat Memorial” cause any harm to the school, then let those two words be erased from the “signboard”. Certainly, I will have nothing to lose or gain if the Muslim community survives or goes to the dogs, because I do not have any descendants who will perturb me by their probable bad state or shame me by their misdeeds. So you have understood that I have no personal interests in my concern for this school. If those who have children and in future want to look after the community, then my appeal to them is this: please build this beneficial girls’ school as a model institution.

Turn over the page of history once and you will see that such a time came when the light of knowledge peeped through the dark house of the Bengali Hindus; then they opened their eyes. Thereafter, by the twittering of the birds they came to realize that night time was over, it dawned. They stood up leaving their idle bed. In spite of this, where could Hindus go? Due to their system of innumerable taboos, they become outcaste by doing this, or by eating that. Therefore, they became Christians in droves. Gradually, in lieu of “Bandyopadhyay,” they became “Bannerji”; and a “Sarker” turned to be a “Sirker”. In the time of that dreadful, critical situation, renowned social welfare workers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen founded the Brahmo Samaj, the Society of God [in 1828]. This prevented Hindus from becoming Christians en masse. Then they had their own schools and colleges; their sons and daughters no longer went to Christian schools. They protected themselves by becoming independent.

Conversely, the Muslim community was seeing a dream of castle while sleeping in woody undergrowth. At that time, the light of awakening also peeped through their dilapidated thatch. They could not remain satisfied with reading Pandenama and Shahnamah only. They ran to the schools run by the Hindus and by the Christians. They did not set up any schools or colleges of their own at all. By receiving education from Christian colleges, they turned into good sahibs. They spoke the English language, called household attendants “behara” instead of “beyara” and porters “coolie” instead of “motey”.

Still then, not much extensive harm befell the Muslim community. Because children could not see whether their fathers drank tea or smoked cigarettes in clubs. They always saw their devout, prayerful mother at home. They used to imitate that role model and offer namaz (prayer) in imitation of their mothers. Facing east, south or any other direction, they used to copy the call for ritual prayers “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.”

Gradually, the educated fathers could not remain satisfied by teaching their daughters only books like “Rahe Najat” and “Sunavan” at home. They sent their daughters to Convent and Hindu schools. Having gone to the Convent, Laila’s name was changed to “Lily”, and Zaynab’s to “Jenny”. Equally, having gone to Hindu schools, Ayesha’s name became “Asha”, and “Kulsum” turned to be “Kusum.” If it had stopped at that, it would not have caused much detriment to the Muslim community. However, that was not the end of our downfall.

Subsequently, it required Christian ayahs to bring up Jenny’s children so that they could learn how to speak English. Her daughter’s name became “Barbara Areef”. Now Barbara does not see her mother praying at home, so the church becomes the model of her play. Upon returning home after learning songs from the Convent, she sings:

“Jesus saves me this I know

For the Bible tells me so,”


“Mussulmans are unfaithful

Beat them with a shoe and pull their ears.”


On the other hand, Kusum’s daughter’s name has now become Soudamini Begum! Soudamini’s model of play is idol worshipping and making gods with clay. She sings:

“Smearing the clay of Jamuna in the body

Write the name of Lord Hari on it;

All friends meeting together sing the glory of Lord Hari

When you are exasperated.”


“The tonsured Mussulmans,

They have neither wealth, nor honour.”


The other day, I happened to meet with a “Mussulman Brahmo” woman during the occasion of the Bengal Women’s Educational Conference. She outspokenly said that, since in the Mussulman community of her childhood, there was no provision for women’s education, her father arranged for her higher education by seeking the support of the Brahmo Samaj. The way she received education and culture did not give her opportunities to discuss the Qur’an and Hadith. So she could not adjust to Muslim society.

The Muslim community including her parents and brothers had to lose such a well-educated woman. For the lack of women’s education, the loss register of our society has been becoming extremely heavy. I have been informed by a reliable source that some respectable, high-born Muslim young men are advertising in newspapers that, if graduate brides are not available, they will not marry; or, if graduate women are not found in the Muslim community, they will become Christian.

Some lament: “My mother gave me in marriage to an illiterate woman; now let her live with her daughter-in-law. I can’t live as a householder with that wooden doll.” Some gentlemen audaciously demand an “I.A. pass” bride. Some want at least “matriculation pass” brides; otherwise, thy will become Christian or Brahmo.

The main reason of this extreme feeling is the current irreligious education, as the poet Mr. Akbar of Allahabad excellently puts it:

“How can the infant get any scent of its parents’ character?

While it is fed on tinned milk and gets educated

by the [colonial] Government.”

It now appears that the houses of highly educated Muslim gentlemen are not illuminated without an “MA pass” bride. However, instead of rebuking those gentlemen, arrangements should be made so that we can rectify this. It is also in my knowledge that many godless men have reformed at the hand of suitable, learned wives.

In this twentieth-century many other people have held onto their own practices tightly after having them reformed, rectified and refined. By incorporating our social norms, such as inheritance, divorce and khul’a in their customs, they are trying to sanction bills like the Bill of Daughters’ Inheritance in Fathers’ Property, the Bill of Divorcing One’s Wife, and the Bill of Divorcing One’s Husband. Conversely, we are turning into some peculiar brutes by abandoning our very beautiful religion and social practices. How will a name like Surendra Salimullah Samuel Khan sound?

The sum and substance of this is that the only remedy to this situation is an ideal Muslim girls’ school where our daughters will receive a high education that will enable them to keep pace with people from other communities and regions of the modern world. Muslim women from other greatly civilised communities and even of other parts of the subcontinent are becoming doctors, barristers, councillors and members of the Round Table. Why should our women be deprived of this splendid development and prosperity? Ideal Muslim girls’ schools will produce ideal Muslim women whose children will be like Hazrat Omar Faruq and Hazrat Fatema Zahra. To realize this goal, the spread of the teachings of the Qur’an in a large measure is necessary; that is, extensive spread of its translations into Bangla and Urdu is essential.

In my childhood, I used to hear my mother say: “Qur’an Shareef will protect us as a shield.” That statement is very true. However, this is not to say that we will need to fasten a big and beautifully wrapped-up Qur’an tightly on our back. Rather, in my humble opinion, I understand that a universal education in the Qur’an will guard us from the danger of superstitions of various kinds. Religious practices according to the Qur’an will protect us from moral downfalls and social degradations.

(First published in the monthly Mohammadi, Calcutta, Jaistha, 1338. Included in A. Quadir (Ed.), Rokeya Rachanabali (2nd ed.) (1999) (pp. 244-247). Dhaka: Bangla Academy.  Translated from Bengali by Dr Mahmudul Hasan, Associate Professor, Department of English, IIUM, Kuala Lumpur)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 July 2016 on page no. 11

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