It is quite rare for a centenarian to gain so much attention. Yet, this was the case for Bangladesh’s Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, born in 1916, who was a revered religious figurehead to his disciples and admirers, but equally vilified by his critics.
In fact, Shafi’s rise to prominence within the country only came during his late nineties — when most people are incapacitated or at least have withdrawn from public life. Until 2013, except for his thousands of students, teachers of Qawmi madrasas and some disciples in greater Chittagong and adjoining areas, not many Bangladeshis knew of Ahmad Shafi.
The two most crucial events of Shafi’s life were shaped by his students.
The first was on May 5th 2013, when he and his associates brought in thousands of madrasa students to Dhaka laying siege to the centre of the capital — an event that was ultimately subject to a brutal government crackdown. Despite that setback, the incident turned him into a powerful political force under the shadow of a so-called non-political organisation, Hefajat-e-Islam.
The second involved an inward-looking student uprising at the country’s largest Qawmi madrasa, which forced him last week to quit the post of the director-general of the madrasa he ran for about four decades. Shortly afterwards he died — with his transfer to a hospital delayed for a significant period as agitating students feared that the security forces mobilised outside the madrassa would move in as soon as he left the campus.
His madrasa, Al-Jamiatul Ahlia Darul Ulum Moinul Islam, popularly known as Hathazari madrasa, is the largest Islamic seminary in the country. He was also the chairman of Qawmi Madrasa Education Board, “Befaqul Madaris”, in Bangladesh. His organisation Hefajat was founded in 2009, apparently to realise official recognition of the educational qualifications that madrasas award to improve the employment prospects of millions of their students.
Hefajat’s political power started to gain momentum in 2013 when they placed a 13 point charter to the government and organised the Dhaka siege. Their demands included amending the constitution to put back the words “faith in Allah” in the constitution; declaring that any legislation must not conflict with the edicts of Quran and Sunnah; the enactment of a blasphemy law with provision for death sentence; scrapping of national policies on women and education; declaring members of the Ahmadiya sect as non-Muslims; and the prosecution of “bloggers”.
Hefajat’s Dhaka siege almost coincided with the Shahbag movement, a politico-cultural uprising, blessed by the ruling Awami League and its allies, demanding the hanging of war criminals. It was a critical juncture in Bangladesh politics, just seven months away from a general election with the BNP-led opposition alliance crying foul of the war crimes trials in which most of the accused were leading members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the second largest party of the opposition alliance. Sensing the mobilising power of the Hefajat, the BNP extended its support to the siege programme which made the government even more resolute to break it. Government action resulted in the deaths of dozens of those who took part with most of the associates of Shafi implicated in criminal cases and imprisoned. The leader himself was however spared — and there begun his emergence as a powerful political force.
An example of how quickly his political fortunes changed took place five years later when his organisation Befaqul Madaris invited Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to a reception, on November 4th 2018, barely three weeks before the 12th parliamentary election, at Suhrawardy Uddyan in Dhaka. The meeting presided over by Shafi was addressed by among others a serving general, Major General Zainul Abedin. General Abedin, who has now died, was then the military secretary to the prime minister and has often been described as the liaison person between the government and Shafi. The general’s public speech amidst an election campaign was particularly eye-catching as Sheikh Hasina was bestowed the title “Mother of Qawmi” for having granted the top Qawmi degree equal status to a university master’s degree. Political convenience allows strange bed-fellows, and Prime Minister Hasina who once scorned Shafi for his oblique comments against women graciously accepted the honour given by his organisation.
Between the 2013 crackdown on the Qawmi movement and the granting of equal status to its degree, major changes have taken place quietly in the country’s educational curricula. Writings of non-Muslims disappeared from school text books and words favoured by Islamist politicians crept in. Provisions for tougher actions against alleged hurt to religious sentiment were also inserted into the much criticised Digital Security Act.
Shafi achieved many of his demands without much publicity, avoiding the resistance that might have come from elements within the ruling party and its support base, who see themselves as secular and progressive. His use of unsavoury language — when he said that women out on streets made men “salivate” — was widely criticised and earned him the name “Tetul (tamarind) Hujur”.
His public opposition to girl’s education was the kind of conservative brand of Islam comparable to Afghanistan under Taliban era. It was the reason Western governments were alarmed at his alliance with the government and have been making their discomfort known for some time.
But, his dealings in the shadows also created problems. Distrust and internal power struggles started brewing in both his madrasa and within Hefajat. His emotional attachment to his youngest son Maulana Anas Madani probably impaired his judgement leading to the ouster of Maulana Junaid Babunagari, who became a rival. Several other senior teachers of his madrasa fell out with Anas Madani which ultimately caused the student uprising. Allegations against the son range from taking monetary and other favours from the government and various intelligence agencies to deliberately side-lining other senior figures in the Qawmi movement. Some of the social media posts by organisers of the student uprising also exhibited anger against Hefajat’s silence over the government’s relations with India.
In the absence of Shafi, the question everyone is asking is what direction the Qawmi movement and Hefajat will take. It is too early to conclude how the post-Shafi leadership at both the Hathazari madrasa and Hefajat will shape up. At the height of the uprising, when Shafi was still alive, the government stepped in and shut down the madrasa. The reorganisation of the management body, Shura, has not yet been completed, albeit, a temporary arrangement has been put in place. But, those who are part of the pro-Anas group have sought to blame Babunagari for fuelling the student unrest and conniving with the opposition BNP and Jamaat.
The adversity Shafi faced at the end of his life indicates a bitter divide and power struggle within the organisation. It is unlikely that the division can be bridged soon. As a result, Hefajat faces the real possibility of a chaotic split with those who are opponents of the government risking an unceremonious exit and likely retribution. Whatever happens, the deep-rooted changes forced upon the society by Hefajet in relation to Islamising education and restricting progress in relation to women’s greater social freedom, may well last for some time.●
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist.