I didn't even know there was a Shabe barat on, this time in 2023. Roads had no festivity and colour, no deluge of people rushing to cook and distribute food to the poor and share with friends. No crowds of the urban destitute thronging homes where halwa and rooti were distributed, no throngs even in the mosques, just a few more. Something has certainly changed since my earlier memories. And more importantly, what does it mean?
The meanings of celebration and piety
Human beings are naturally both. They celebrate and are pious instinctively because they are tools of survival and documentation of overcoming. At the same time they indicate future anxiety about similar difficulties and wish to praise the higher power(s) and ensure safety. Basically the configurations of religion, society and individuals are common everywhere.
During the prehistoric period, archeological evidence shows that humans were stuck in caves during the ice age and experienced food shortages. During this period many instances including cave paintings show that belief in the supernatural began to grow.
This was inevitable since control over life was low and super power support was needed for survival. Circumstances drove people to develop belief systems. Subsequently these systems grew and the enlarged versions became much more complex and elaborate. However, celebration and piety remained the same concept in all faith systems. Both are part of life.
Shabe barat as it was
I was born in 1952 in Tikatuli, which is partly old Dhaka now. Many were middle class migrants from Kolkata, originally from both East and West Bengal. The culture was liberal and that defines it in every space. They were all moral and many were religious. Women were routinely faith practice driven and almost all were home makers. Thus the boundary between private and public life was less.
Women didn't wear hijab let alone burkha. They were seen as markers of rural poverty but women prayed and fasted regularly but had no social pressure to behave in a particular way. Male behaviour was more moderate compared to today and though many smoked, alcohol was unseen in homes, both from social and religious point of view. Liquor was more degenerate than haram. Society was driven by social rather than religious norms.
Which is why, there was no religious sanctions against shabe barat because it was unnecessary as society was not in conflict over it. The religious part was given and was located in the households not the mosque. The social apparatus was wider and brought neighbourhoods and families together. Thus the social role of Shabe barat was much larger than beyond just a religious festival.
Anthropology says that food sharing is the most significant social bonding ritual. That is one reason why every ritual is accompanied by feasts in every faith everywhere. And shabe barat was precisely that. It had created a social ritual that went beyond theology particularly in Bengal which served as an effective historical glue. It was very important to have this coming together of many because it was also embarking on a wider historical journey soon.
The other part was distributing food to the poor. When social empathy is structured and informal, formal legal and social routines are less necessary. They didn't make much difference to the national nutrition scenario but food distribution created a social bond that was integral to social community formation. And this was part of the historical process that was to prove to be significant later on.
What has changed?
My mother first encountered opposition to Shabe barat first in 1964 when we were in Karachi. Pakistanis didn't celebrate it and saw it as 'non-Muslim". We didn't celebrate but once back in Dhaka, it began again. Obviously, the kind of Shabe barat we celebrated was very Bengali Islamic which the Pakistanis detested. They of course forget that their world also held many such practices which would be challenged by more Central Asian zones, who are considered "even closer to God" than Pakistan.
It was still here in 2012 when I returned from Canada but was on the decline. The reasons are many but the social phenomena is being debated more than analyzed and that too on Facebook, the least rational space. Most see it as the rise of religious conservatism generated by Middle Eastern labour migration from the rural areas.
In this information lies a significant fact but that is unpacked. Studies on the issue show that there has been a great reduction in rural poverty and traditional rural classes and institutions have thrived as a result. People are not more religious but more religious ritual observant. Waz, Hajj, and religious adornments are very much on the rise.
Historically, rural religious institutions are extremely strong as the 1780 Fakir-Sannysin revolt against colonialism shows followed by the Faraizis and other groups. They don't exist in the urban space and urban social behavior has fragmented into many segments. The earlier or pre-1971 middle class was much more cohesive and monolithic.
A new class culture?
Thus the liberal non-religious views have been largely replaced. Rural and urban social behavior are far more sexually promiscuous and traditional 'sin' composed of such as drugs consumption, gambling, porn consumption, betting, etc. are at their highest ever, facilitated by digital media. Thus 'haram' as once understood has been normalized even though it is not public as much.
However, funding of social religious institutions have leaped up as part of the class/culture identity markers as they don't require behavioural adjustment to promote them. It has allowed traditional religious groups including those with para-political aspirations to thrive. It's they who have become great political pressure groups on urban social behavior in particular. Hence regular prayers have not significantly improved but a Friday prayer which is publicly visible has. So has disapproving traditional liberal middle class behaviour.
Thus the need for middle-low social cohesion is down as the middle class has broken up into many groups and sub-groups. Nor are they in charge due to lack of independent economic bases. None have any inter-active social ambitions which are dominantly internet based now so events are less needed now.
The poor have declined and need social handouts less and most rural people have lifted themselves out of poverty. The funding of Islamic institutions which are charity based has grown and it's these institutions that are putting pressure and the middle class are unable to withstand it. The changes are in many spaces and the public observance of just one.
Another change coming?
While the decline of the urban middle and the rise of the rural middle as well as the diminishing of the lower/impoverished classes is obvious, they don't signify social dominance yet. More changes are possible as economics changes and some are already noted. The next industrial revolution is going to be built around ICT. And Bangladesh will again provide cheap sources of manpower.
This ICT economic surge is not rural based and nor ME based. They are not traditional either. What they will promote, one isn't sure. So the configurations will be different and may even be non-religious. However, change is certain but it will also mean the rise of trinary as is obvious will happen in any dynamic society.
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