Bangladesh is the world's second most populous Islamic country with at least 85% of its 134,000,000 million people practicing the religion. When Bangladesh separated from West Pakistan in 1971, it declared itself a secular nation; however, it has subsequently committed the government and people to following the Islamic way of life. Consequently, the proportion of Hindus (about 18% of the total population in 1971) has shrunk over the past 30 years to about 14% today. Buddhists, less than 1 million, inhabit the mountainous area in Chittagong Province and share their traditions with Tibet and Bhutan.
Islam in Bangladesh has mingled with local beliefs and practices and has incorporated elements from both Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which flourished in the area prior to the coming of Islam. Especially in the rural areas, non orthodox interpretations of Islamic beliefs and practices are prevalent, particularly the worship of Saints (Pirs); large celebrations are held commemorating the anniversary of their deaths and it is believed that intervention from them is best sought at that time.
Bengal, part of which became Bangladesh in 1971, had a large Hindu and Buddhist population prior to the 13th century. Bengal Buddhism produced a number of important Buddhist monks and missionaries and was at one time a center of Tantric (mystical) Buddhist movements. Bengal Buddhist monks were important in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet under the Pala Buddhist Dynasty, which ruled the area from 750 until1150; during this time Buddhism spread through Bengal and neighboring states. Just prior to the Islamic conquest, an orthodox and militant Hindu kingdom replaced the Pala dynasty; the strict caste rules and discrimination practiced by this dynasty drove many of the lower classes to convert to Islam in the 13th century and thereafter. The egalitarianism of Islam, especially the ideals of equality, brotherhood, and social justice, were appealing both to Buddhist and lower caste Hindus.
The Turkish conquest of India began in 1001 with the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni in Afghanistan and reached Bengal only in 1202 when the Hindu Sena dynasty was overthrown. From this time on, many Bengalis converted to Islam. Islamic influence continued with the establishment of the Mughal dynasty and the conquest of Bengal by the forces of Akbar the Great. By the time of the coming of the British in the 18th century, the majority of Bengalis were Muslims.
Many of the most successful Muslim missionaries were Sufis, the mystics of Islam. Sufism stresses a direct, unstructured and personal devotion to God in place of the more ritualistic outward observance characteristic of mainstream Islam. One important belief in the Sufi tradition is that spiritual guides, Sufi masters or Pirs, are important in helping ordinary believers understand truth and establish a relationship with God. The history of Islam is full of the perennial tension between the ulama (the Muslim scholars) and the Sufis, who have at times been considered heretical. However, the Sufi masters were the most important element in the conversion of Bengali Hindus and Buddhists to Islam and today, most Bangladeshis are influenced by Sufi masters or ideas. Both Fakirs (Sufi holy men) and Pirs (Sufi holy men who have achieved a higher spiritual level) are common throughout Bangladesh's rural area and shrines of deceased Pirs are numerous and well kept.
Three of the Sufi brotherhoods are widespread in Bangladesh: the Qadiri, the Naqshbandi, and the Chishti. The first two are close to orthodox Islam but the Chishti, founded in Ajmer, India, has some quite unorthodox practices, including the use of music in liturgy. Many musicians and poets have come from this brotherhood. Many disciples join these brotherhoods both to achieve personal enlightenment and to assist in the work of these Sufi masters. Pirs are not religious officials in a formal sense; while villagers would ask Pirs for advice and inspiration, they don't lead communal prayers or deliver the Friday sermon at the local mosques; these are the functions of selected community leaders. Some Pirs, however, are taking part in politics, the most notable being Pir Hafizi Huzur who ran as a candidate for Prime Minister in l986.
While Islam has no formal organization of clergy, the group of scholars known as the Ulama, provide leadership for their communities and unofficially interpret and administer religious law. Their authority rests on their knowledge of the Shariah, the body of law that grew up in the centuries after Mohammad's death in 632 A.D. They generally are graduates of the Madrassa, the Islamic schools and have the titles of mullah or maulvi. These religious figures lead prayers, advise on religious practice, make local decisions, and perform marriage and funeral ceremonies. However, in Bangladesh, they often provide unorthodox services such as providing amulets, talismans and charms for everything from snakebite to impotence. Many villagers have great faith in these objects and they are a good source of income for the mullahs, many of whom have only limited religious training. Other unorthodox practices include the hanging of lights throughout the house for the celebration of Shabi Barat (Festival of the Bestowal of Fate), a practice derived from the Hindu Festival of Lights (Diwali), as well as rituals to exorcise evil spirits (jinni) and worship of local saints.
The eradication of these practices and the creation of an Islamic state is a goal of the educated ulama, increasingly a goal of students on university campuses, and currently an important factor in politics. The Ulama consider the teaching and preserving the Islamic way of life to be a primary function of the government. This is reflected in the increasing involvement of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the life of the country. In addition to providing financial support to mosques and community prayer grounds, and organizing the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, the Ministry supports the training of religious figures, and research and publication on Islam. In 1984, the Zakat Fund Committee was established to solicit annual Zakat (charitable donations, required of all Muslims) and to distribute the funds to orphanages, schools, hospitals, etc. In 1988, a constitutional amendment was passed proclaiming an "Islamic way of life" for Bangladesh; the tension between religious and secular politicians has steadily increased in recent years. The current situation, with the "war on Terrorism" and the US invasion first of Afghanistan and then Iraq, has fueled Bangladeshi Islamic fundamentalists; this has resulted in the persecution of minorities and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists have been attacked in recent years. In spite of the increasing "Islamization" of Bangladesh, its Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of the man who proclaimed Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in 1971, continues to enjoy widespread popularity.