A Discussion with Dr. Muhammad Mezbah-ul-Islam, Executive Director Haqqani Mission Bangladesh (HAMIBA)
With: Muhammad Mezbah-ul-Islam Berkley Center Profile
November 15, 2014
Background: This discussion between Nat Adams and Dr. Muhammad Mezbah-ul-Islam took place at the Information Science and Library Management Department of the University of Dhaka. Dr. Mezbah-ul-Islam discusses the history of the Haqqani Sufi order in Bangladesh and the teachings of its two saints, Hazrat Abu Ali Akter Uddin and Anwarul Huq. He explores the philosophy behind the social work of HAMIBA and in particular its focus on women’s empowerment. Finally he touches on his personal journey with the Haqqani Sufi movement and why he finds his work with HAMIBA so rewarding.
Could you please introduce yourself briefly?
My name is Dr. Muhammad Mezbah-ul-Islam, executive president of the Haqqani Mission Bangladesh (HAMIBA). Thank you for your interest and for interviewing me and our HAMIBA.
Could you tell me a bit about the history of the Haqqani Mission Bangladesh, when it was founded, and what was the purpose behind the organization?
Haqqani follows the works of two great Sufi saints; one is Hazrat Abu Ali Akter Uddin and the other is Anwarul Huq. Both were ascetic philosophers who had a mission of establishing Peace in Society. Haqqani Sufism is very different; it incorporates the essence of all other Sufi orders. Haqqani is in a sense all Sufi orders. This is what makes Haqqani Sufism unique and we think of it as the modern concept of Sufism. It is very moderate and flexible; anyone can come to our Order, and we don't have any restrictions.
Informally, Haqqani Mission Bangladesh (HAMIBA) began working on social issues in 1959 on the basis of the teachings of these two Sufi philosophers and the work grew slowly. Our ultimate goal is to build up a peaceful society and counter some of the misinterpretations of religion. If a man works for humanity he will be a part of making a peaceful society. Islam means ‘peace’ so that is what we are working towards. Since 2014 our appeal to our nation and simultaneously all the human beings of the world is, “In the journey of life be a man of truth and the prosperity of family, society and all of mankind will be established.”
There are two things we are focused on. The first is to give to people the right interpretation of Islam. We know the Prophet took peace as religion. And to build up Islam as peace, we have to work together. Our Sufi saints decided that Haqqani needed to work as an institution to contribute to development from a spiritual or Sufi point of view. The saints decided to formalize their development work to better accomplish their goal of a peaceful society and Haqqani Mission was created as a formal institution. In 1990, Haqqani Mission Bangladesh registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs and the NGO Affairs Bureau of the Government of Bangladesh. For more information you or anyone can visit our website, www.hamiba.org
From the Sufi perspective, why was it important to work on social issues or work with the community? Why was that a focus of Haqqani?
First of all, it is helpful to look at the word ‘Haqqani’ itself. What is ‘Haqqani’? The word has Arabic roots, ‘Haqq’ means ‘oneness with the truth’ and ‘ni’ means emphasis on said truth. So essentially, Haqqani means that one must establish and follow the Truth in order to attain the goal of any work. This is the essence of ‘Haqqani’—“Oneness with Truth and Oneness with One.”
This drives us in all aspects of our personal life; social, political, economic, philosophical, everything. So the truth must be there. You asked, why we are working in the community. If you look at the inner truth of all religious practice, you can see that religion is for ‘humanity,’ not for attainment of any individual or group interest. So, if every human is working towards the truth of their religion, having analyzed socio-economic conditions, they will work on development irrespective of caste, color, creed, etc. Peace and service to humanity are deeply embedded in works of the Haqqani Mission. So, this is our ideological approach and our slogan also: “Work, Humanity and Peace.”
So with that kind of motivation and philosophical background how does this make the way Haqqani Mission works unique?
HAMIBA is a completely voluntary organization, meaning almost all staff have full time jobs in their own areas. Haqqani Mission is the only NGO in Bangladesh that is registered as a religious organization under the government of Bangladesh. Haqqani has two streams—our Darbar Sharif (Khanka), which is the spiritual and religious side of Haqqani, and Haqqani Mission which runs our social welfare programs. Within mission work we run educational institutions, cultural, health, youth institutions, women empowerment and development forums etc., as well as a publication and research arm. All of those institutions draw their inspiration from our philosophers, our Sufi saints. We are implementing their philosophy institutionally.
HAMIBA is working across the country; there are six divisional offices in Bangladesh. We have formed Haqqani Mission Vidyapith (School) and Mohavidyalaya College, Hamiba Cultural Academy. Our vocational program is overseen by the Bangladesh Technical Education Board. We are giving free medicine and other health services every Friday at two sites around Dhaka.
We want to start a theology program to increase Sufi scholarship in Bangladesh. There are about 84 private and 38 public universities here and none of them offer a comprehensive theology course. There are some Christian theologians, but scholars on Sufism, on Buddhism, and on Islam are lacking. There are a few universities that are offering Islamic studies or history of religion etc. We need a way of educating Bangladeshis on the real Islam as well as on the teachings of other religions. This is why Haqqani Mission Bangladesh has plans to open an Institute of Theology where Sufism and all other religions and cultures will be included.
You have a special emphasis on women’s economic empowerment. Why have you chosen that as a central issue?
In our country, women are always behind men. This has cultural roots. We believe women have the same right to work as men, whether at home or outside and be respected for that work. So, our aim is to empower women. This is why we formed the Haqqani Women’s Development Forum (HWDF) in the Haqqani Mission of Bangladesh. We want to discuss all issues around gender in Bangladesh that are going on now. We give lectures to students on a number of women’s issues and discuss how they can protect themselves and make their own decisions. At HAMIBA, all of the men’s wives must be a member of the Women’s Development Group.
Our Darbar is free for all; any one can come, both men and women together without any barrier. Every Sunday and Thursday, there is a gathering for worship and during this, we used to announce that we have this program for poor, middle class, illiterate women. Many of the attendees volunteer for these programs.
We also have a women’s savings program. Women save their money and every member has the right to take money without interest. For example, if they borrow 5,000 taka, they return 5,000 taka with no interest. A membership system exists; every month each woman gives 100 taka or more. The savings group will give 5,000 or more to one woman. She will buy a cow, or start a small business, or repair her house. She might want to use it for tuition fees for her children, but in that case, we will just give a donation to them from our common fund. Savings are very little, just 100 taka per month for all members. But they can give more if they want. Right now we have approximately 60 active members. Last year we had purchased 51 cows and goats. We also donate cows and goats during Eid al-Azha (Qurbani). We donate one cow or goat per family. They can sell it or keep it and manage it. We have seen 95 percent of women or families that have kept them are surviving with this assistance.
We try to help the poor and vulnerable girls, especially those that are staying in slum and rural areas. We have a literacy program to give these girls the skills to come out into mainstream society and participate in the economy of the country. We also want to educate them not to marry before they are 18 years old. We emphasize to them that one day they will be a mother and the next generation will come from them. If they are immature 14 or 16 years, how can our nation improve? They might not be able to feed themselves and their children. We want them to be in school. In our society, especially in urban areas, these girls are not secure at the age of 16, because they are staying in slums and not protected. So we focus on them. This program is still very small scale, but we are working on this.
You mentioned that this is a voluntary organization. Why is it important for people who work for Haqqani Mission to have a full time job as well?
Almost everyone at Haqqani Mission has a full time job and we dedicate our free time to the organization. This is something we strongly believe, that each person has a spiritual and a professional track in their lives. So, first we have to learn to be a ‘Haqqani’ properly. This is why we discuss questions like ‘who am I and what is my mission in life?’ So, our Haqqani Mission has a philosophy to work for yourself first, to build confidence and expertise; that way Haqqani can work more effectively for others. It is not an earning-based organization, it is completely voluntary. So we are simultaneously working for ourselves and for society.
Could you talk about your own history? How did you become involved with Haqqani?
My parents and other relatives were involved with some Sufi orders. So, since from my childhood I had some connection to and interest in the Sufi saints that my parents respected. Right from the beginning in my childhood, I had already absorbed this kind of Sufi essence. In 2005, one of my professional colleagues advised me to visit a Darbar (Mirpur Astana Sarif). He had suggested that we express our problems at the Darbar and until now we are waiting with passion for the Grace of the Darbar to solve them. We are confident and hopeful about the future our Darbar and that the blessings of the Darbar will be materialized.
Gradually, beyond the spiritual aspects, I learned that the Haqqani Mission is working on health, education etc. and the work is all voluntary. They are paying out of their own pocket. They are professionals like engineers, doctors, teachers, businessmen, journalists, NGO workers, lawyers etc. It is a very good community; they are working as ‘true’ people. I thought this would be a good place to work. It is a good place to spend my free time, to change my perspective, share and gather knowledge. Every Sunday and Thursday, they have worship; I personally like to gather with people and to pray to God. We discuss many things which are related to our everyday life. When Darbar offered me the chance to work at the mission, I agreed and I was very excited to take this role.
How is Sufism important to Bangladesh in your view?
Bangladesh has a long and rich religious and cultural history. Sufis came hundreds of years ago to build a peaceful society from their religious point of view. Jesus’ followers also came here as missionaries. The missionary schools and hospitals are good in this country. They came here to work and to build up the society. In Buddhism it is the same thing. So, everyone is working within his or her own tradition. In my observation, behind this there is a religious motivation, but they are not forcing it on people. Sufi saints were the first to bring Islam to this place. They were not bothered by any religion. They respected everyone and allowed them to maintain their own culture. So, Sufism has been a very important in this country and an important perspective on which to build a peaceful society.
To be a Sufi, it does not matter what religion you are. Sufi means being holy, being pure, being wise. You can be a Sufi as a Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist etc. All are there. Every one of these traditions has Sufism. So in our organization, you’ll see that Hindus, Christians and Buddhists are there. We always welcome all castes and all religions. From my perspective, Islam is not a religion, Islam is peace. Our Sufi saints have worked to deliver this message and everything is written in our publications and ‘Weekly Bartaman Sanglap’ (http://www.bartamansanglap.com). They can explain these things in more detail than I can.
How have you seen Islam changing in Bangladesh? Are conservative interpretations becoming more influential?
Yes, almost every religion changes in order to exist in the world. My observation is that the Prophet’s Islam does not exist in this world properly, especially in Bangladesh. Jesus’s Christianity does not exist in this world properly. What Gautama Buddha said, his philosophy does not exist also. But Sufism is different. Originally Sufis themselves used to work in this world. They have always been working for society, but unfortunately now they are not united. So they cannot counter some of these other harmful interpretations; many don’t really try directly. This is the biggest issue. So, Haqqani Mission Bangladesh is trying to make a conference, a network, or a consortium between all Sufi orders in Bangladesh. So, this is another goal, to build up Sufism so it can contribute to a peaceful culture in this society.
What kind of role do you think the Haqqani Mission is playing in preserving the cultural traditions in Bengali?
We have a publication; a weekly newspaper (Weekly Bartaman Sanglap- http://www.bartamansanglap.com) focused on Bengali culture and other important subjects. It is an exceptional publication in Bangladesh. It covers Bengali culture, current affairs and Sufi teachings etc. We are giving our perspective to the nation. This is about our search for truth, but if someone disagrees with us, we always welcome their opinion. This is our continuous process. We commemorate and celebrate all cultural, national and international events and we look deeply into the cultural and religious history.
Looking critically at the history, do you ever get negative reactions from more conservative members of the Islamic community?
Yes, these are very crucial and sensitive questions. We always believed that we have a right to work in the society, but we don't have a right to create trouble in society or for other humans. So if we think it is unwise to speak on certain topics, we do not and this is the Haqqani philosophy. We want to clarify, not anger. When we speak to an audience, we say, ‘This is Haqqani philosophy.’ We don't give our opinion against them. We do not create trouble and always speak and document things logically. We refrain from all kinds of altercations and misinterpretations. This is why we always welcome people to come to us and see what we are doing. Sometimes, people have misinterpretations about us. But everything is very transparent because we must submit all this to the government. I mentioned, no other NGO has registration as a religious organization, only our HAMIBA. Haqqani believes you set your goal and then you work to achieve it. In order to do this you need the right interpretation of all things. We are human beings and we are working for humanity.