Bourdieu and Bengali Islam. A spatial temporal discussion of the adoption and social utility of Islam for British Sylheti Bangladeshi Muslim Workers in (Tower Hamlets) East London

Seminar Paper, 2017
50 Pages


Table of Contents



The Past is Prologue: The Historical Significance of Islam in Work for Bengalis

The Consecration and Social Utility of Islam for Bengalis

Understanding Islam at a Local Context

Globalisation and Arab Influence on British Islam

Bourdieu, Durkheim and Weber on Islam

The significance of Bengali Kinship

Kinship networks




This booklet explores spiritual thought and bodily work that has been an integral part of the Islamic faith. The discussion in the booklet aims to examine the Islamic process of spiritual conversion and bodily work that began for the Bangladeshis with migration and human capital investments defined by Arabic power that would provide the basis of identity and social organization. The discussion asserts the argument the Islamic faith through the reproductions of kin networks, as well as the operation of a specific set of social practices and social action suffused with Islamic representations was reproduced intergenationally by the Bengali workers, replicated through migration within the predominance of the family to transform the urban space of Tower Hamlets into an sub Islamic field with religious citizens with religious agency and identities. In the process ergo transforming the secular sphere of Tower Hamlets into an ethno religious multicultural sphere.

Key Words

Bourdieu, Bengali, Islam, Muslim, Workers, Agency


This booklet is forms an extended discussion of ‘Bourdieu and Bengali Islam’ (Aziz, 2017). The discussion, for the purposes of analytical clarity is organised into eight interlinked parts. Each of these parts functions so as to provide a particular insight into the complex history and development of Islam for the British Bangladeshi Muslims residing in the East London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Each part provides an important perspective in each sub field that sheds light on the adoption and reproduction of religiously coloured cultural capital reproduction in the British Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets. The corpus of the eight parts link up to the overarching arc and trope of the discussion concerning Islamic capital, whilst not a whole corpus of Pierre Bourdieu’s oeuvre, the paper aims to recruit Bourdieus (1984) ‘cultural products’ to provide a particular insight into the religiously inspired reproductions of cultural capital formation that have been adopted by the British Sylheti Speaking Bengali diaspora located in Tower Hamlets.

The themes, under discussion in the booklet, form part of the preliminary literature review and study based on participant observation and semi-structured discussions/interviews with different generations of Bangladeshis in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The research forms part of a two phase qualitative ethnographic narrative methodology consisting of first hand observational recording in and around the boroughs religious spaces and places of cultural capital dispensation i.e. religious ritual ceremonies, social meetings and mosques during 2012- 2015 and then in 2016 and supplemented with auto biographical interviews with first generation and second generation Bangladeshis (Aziz, 2015).

A social constructionist approach was undertaken for the study which aimed to provide an additional insight into a number of keys areas with a distinct focus on faith and how faith as a social lexical marker affected the first and second generation Bangladeshi’s experiences and views pertaining to social solidarity and work. The research aimed to explore the mutually constituted relationship of the Bangladeshi people of Tower Hamlets and the social structures (relations between social actors and urban fields), the spheres of Tower Hamlets, the hybrid actors, their networks – religious- kin networks their habitus and the reproduction of distinctly ethnic and islamicized field (or milieu) and capitals in social life.

The Past is Prologue: The Historical Significance of Islam in Work for Bengalis

In order to understand the significance and social order of faith and kinship in the lives of the first and second generation Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, and how they have both shaped and marshalled the actors in the space they occupy, it is important to revisit the historical events, which have given form and functional meaning to these concepts. Moreover, how they connect as prologue with work for the British Bangladeshis residing in Tower Hamlets.

In Islam the concept of work is understood from its literate basis, its religious Quranic text, the recitation. The primary text of Islam is over 1400 years old. The substantively identical and sacred unaltered text remains authentic to all earlier revelations and is regarded by Muslims as divine, its scripture as the last literal words of god before the day of judgment (Rodinson, 1974). In marked contrast to the Christian Old Testament, the recitation prescribes a comprehensive doctrine and divine human law. Its majestic quality is not limited to the logic of reason and sensory perceptions but remains a coda to the noumenal world unbound by the outmoded human project. Revealed in 610 – 630 as the only unaltered Holy Scripture to retain its original orthographical form, the Quran remains a complete codex for Islamic cultural transmission and reproduction. The Quran marshals nearly a quarter of humanity in all matters - both in the private and public sphere - from one generation to another and from state or space to another throughout a Muslims complete spatial temporal lifespan. Even in translation it is possible for the reader to register the majestic superhuman quality and ‘transcendent power which penetrates the believer’s soul’ (Robinson, 1982, p.180) with each and every reading (Sterlin, 1984).

In Islam worship and work remain in tandem (Ghazali and Sharif, 2008). The Quranic texts corpus contains 6,236 verses and a morphology of Arabic words which can have up to 10 different meanings contingent on the context they are understood (Khalid, 2008; Subhani, 2015). The words ‘ amal ’ and ‘ fi’l ’ are interchangeably mentioned in over 360 verses of the holy text and are broadly understood and translated to give meaning to what is understood by Muslims as work (Mufti, 2006).

For Muslims, worldly work is considered fundamental to both sustenance and salvation as work provided the coalesced means to be both individually and socially productive. Both within the private realm of the family and the public sphere of the community, and in seeking gods ‘bounty’ on earth that similarly encompasses making use of all raw resources and the material means of production provided for work and self-sufficiency. In Islam sloth is relegated as a manifestation of an absence of faith and puritan hard work exalted as a virtue (Eposito, 1980).

This central orthodoxy was especially true for the pre partition Bengali masses residing specifically in the eastern Bengal delta region of Sylhet, whose ancestors gradual adoption of the faith began between 1300 and 1800, not with a military conquest and conversion but a religious alteration, with Islam supplanting Hinduism, shaped by migration that would lead to the amalgamation of faith and work bound in early transnational capitalism.

The remnants of that distinctly patriarchal system in due course would refashion a cultural capital legacy that resembles its modern distinctive cultural value system and guiding universal framework found today interacting in the local particularities of the Bengali masses, in both rural Sylhet in Bangladesh and urban Tower Hamlets in Britain (Eaton, 1993; Gardner, 1992, 2002; Thorp, 1978).

The Consecration and Social Utility of Islam for Bengalis

Fundamental to this historical process was Arabic trade and commerce in the region, a product of migration, as well as the arrival of a charismatic Yemeni immigrant embodying significant sacred cultural capital, Shah Jalal in 1303 (Siddiq, 2015). Shah Jalal, celebrated by Bangladeshis for both integrating Islam and promulgating a distinctively Bengali Islamic culture and identity into what was then a medieval Sylheti society consisting of largely jungle dwelling Hindu peasant cultivators would go on to define the field. The transformation lead to the creation of a unique social juxtaposition bespoke to the Sylheti Bengalis with Islam and Bengali culture companionably yoked (Eaton, 1993; Uddin, 2006).

For Bengali Hindus in Sylheti society, laying claim to membership of a high caste meant that labouring on land was considered dishonorable. By contrast, those of who gradually converted to the Muslim manifesto where quintessentially emancipated from Hindu metaphysical servitude and unconstrained from its cultural traps that demanded conformity and could readily deploy their labour power and cultivate land. The eclectic blending of Roy (2001) and Halbfass’s (1981:1988) work suggest the resultant temporal conversion of the Bengali Hindus, lead not only to a social reconfiguration of space and place, from what was then an inegalitarian and highly stratified Hindu sphere controlled by an oppressive Hindu caste and kinship system., to a more autonomous public sphere and a more plural society devoid of the culturally constructed social systems operated by the dominant ‘bourgeois’ Brahmans. The net outcome of this conversion led to a completely new brand of worship with a conscious coupling of state and mosque in a consecrated configuration that would shape the practise of the agents with a new outlook and belief. The result of the gradual process of conversion over the ensuing decades meant that for many of the Sylheti Bengali Muslims were no longer a part of the ancient myths and superfluous ritual practices that controlled their external locus of identity and ascribed social tiers to their proletariat power. Instead, they became a part of an enlarged world of Islamic sociolinguistic understanding, padded with Arabic lingua franca and global communitarian belief that would unite their Bengali Muslim consciousness, piety, ritual and social reality in a new Islamic symbolic system a new sacred religious cultural capital that would connect their everyday customs, linguistic habitus and religious practices with the dialogical values of the global social Islamic field and beliefs of millions of Muslims across the world. (Franco and Preisendanz, 2007).

The articulation and adoption of a new religious cultural capital and moral framework meant that all whom converted to Islam were now no longer demonised or stood in judgment by the outmoded divisional Hindu doctrine, which provided the liturgies and supplied the manifold canon of legendary Hindu deity’s and restricted occupations to specific groups over generations. Whilst the pertinence of Hinduisms was asserted in the public sphere of Sylhet, Islam gradually evacuated its substance. The world’s second most practiced religion had no schisms, no grand pope, and no religious impulse to convert other believers; instead it underscored a shared humanity that unified the Sylheti social actors shared public meaning. The Hindu caste system in effect had sawn deep historical divisions into the Bengali society’s DNA only for Islam to arrive and alleviate with it access to the global pluralism of Islam.

The infusion of Islam in Sylheti Bengali society meant that those who converted where no longer on the margins. Instead, they were now equal in their submission and in adore of one indivisible god. From the masses who laboured in the agricultural and manufacturing economy as cultivators, spice merchants, brass and goldsmiths to the less adulterated and easily despised in the lower sector economy such as fisherman, carpenters and weavers etc. All were now a part of the circle of compassion and community of kinship in their social value and social standing, united in what Durkheim’s (1964) [1893] sociology characteristically defined as mechanical solidarity, through both adherences to Islam and work that constituted their collective conscience (Eaton, 1993). Thorp (1978) argued that for the Bengali Muslim cultivators, labouring on the land was sacramental and a symbolic expression of an affinity to a celestial supervision through the emulation of the rudimentary forms of action and work that would have been performed by Adam. For peasant Bengali farmers who considered themselves descendants of Adam, to labour on the land was to achieve an affinity with the divine omnipotence, to cultivate the land was to cultivate a rich interior existence that would allow Muslim labourers to experience life more meaningfully. Extending the idea of a firm belief in the spiritual value of manual labour, Huff and Schluchter (1999, p.167) suggested the development of an Islamic space and identity for the Sylheti Bengali Muslim cultivators was culturally linked by agriculture and religion. For early Bengali Muslims, their Muslim identity was forged through labouring and cultivating that ‘allowed the progressive inscription of their Islamic identity to their social order’ and the shaping of an Islamic life.

The islamization process that lead to a spatial temporal and social transformation of the Bengali Sylheti masses in terms of economic, ecological, and social change, continued for several more ensuing decades. This historic process of migration and commercial trade with the Middle Eastern tribal nations across the Arabic trade route facilitated the arrival of several more prominent and charismatic migrant leaders, notably, Khan Jahan (1459), Khondkar Shah (1650) and Umar Shah (1734). Each of whom are credited with positing their own creed with what could be described as the embodiment of early rudimentary forms of human and cultural capital, that would both pioneer and mechanise the farming methods of the jungle dwelling Sylheti Bengali Muslim farmers, ergo into a distinctive peasant proletariat labour force engaged in the transformation of dense virgin forests into rice cultivating lands for the production of cash crops in a thriving economic zone (Meillassoux, 1981 ; Rubbee, 2010: Uddin, 2006).

Each of these historical figures from a Bourdieu perspective, are important, as each are historically attributed with positing the indigenous population of Sylhet with new farming and cultivation methods. As well the adherents of their own interpretations of Islam intergenerational, that led to the structural transformation of the public sphere with construction of new Islamic canonical grandes écoles structures, i.e. miniscule mosques, madrasas and the formation of new social agents, ritual practices and position, a new mystery of ministry. Namely religious actors with significant symbolic capital, known as ‘ mullahs ’ and ‘ phirs ’ that would go on to legitimately supervise a new spiritual vanguard of Islam within the semi-literate masses of the rural sphere of Sylhet (Wacquant, 2005).

These religious leaders as ‘agents of consecration’ imbued with ‘religious’ agency, insured the dialectical process and spiritual mortar needed to strengthen the social organisation of the peasant proletariat labour power within the subsistence economy was mobilised symbiotically around worldly work and spiritual prayer, that would in due course, lead to a religious reconstruction of space by these religious citizens and production and consumption of goods and services that would have a spiritual administration headed by a new set of social actors within a newly created field , i.e. the creation of religious fields facilitating social structures involved in religion and social actors ascribed localized contracted identities according to a new religious doxa and habitus. (Bourdieu, 1971;1993 p.74- 111, Eaton, 1993; Habermas, 1962; Hasan 2007; Uddin, 2006).

These chronological events are an important research priority for the analysis of the descendants of the Sylheti’s located in present day Tower Hamlets. Particularly when reviewed from a Bourdieuian prism. The application of Bourdieu’s primary ‘thinking tools’ shows that the dialectic method that led to the adoption of faith and the acquisition of skills to both labour in addition to confront and clear the dense delta jungle space the Sylheti Bengali Muslim masses occupied, provided the impetus that would ultimately lead to the formation of new fields and the reshaping of the embodied social practices of individuals, an internal audit of individuals through faith.

For Bangladeshi Muslims, religion was no longer an embodied sub rational private practise preoccupied with spiritual rewards and the afterlife but a legitimate basis for public and social organization that exponentially increased their cultural capital, i.e. autonomous religious citizens with religious agency engaged in the public sphere (Habermas, 1962; Henkel, 2011; Winandy, 2015). This ‘modus operandi’ or mode of practise according to Bourdieu (1977, p.77) amounted to objectification and incorporation that is ‘the internalisation of externality and the externalisation of internality’. What emerges from these socio-historical events is a cultural legacy that shows the promotion of a process of intergenerational cultural reproduction of a religiously coloured capital reproduction that Tariq Mooded (2004) and others would later term as ‘Muslim capital’. That fostered the construction of community cohesion and work that was replicated and transmitted intergenerationally, transferred from the rural arena of Sylhet and is present today at a local context in the urban arena of Tower Hamlets. In sum, an ethno religious social reproduction of a rural Islamic ‘village network’ model of place and space, manufactured in the mirror image of its pastoral roots and nestled in a wider ‘secular’ urban sphere that warrants further understanding from a local context than it has hitherto received (Farooqi, 2006; Abbas, 2011).

Understanding Islam at a Local Context

Eickelman (1982) pointed out, despite theoretical problems; the study of how Islam is locally understood and interpreted is a valuable tool in understanding the changes in religiosity and patterns of thought from a local context The challenge in the study of a world religion from a local context is in illustrating how expressions of Islam are understood by the locally advantaged and none advantaged, the educated and uneducated, and how the cultural polarisation experienced by the individuals practicing the faith can also predicate the social order of the milieu (Eickleman, 1990; Knott and McLouglin, 2014).

Piscatori (1990) pointed out that micro level studies of Islamic communities in general have in the past been predisposed to researching the role of gender, the hegemony of men, the role of kinship and socio economic influences on migration and community formation, whilst negating the exploration of the universal transmition and reproduction of religion in labour migration.

Understanding the multiple expressions of Islam within the context of the local is essential to understanding how Islam, as a monotheistic faith, binds the community network into a faith based group. These religiously inspired networks provide what Hirschman, (1984) called the ‘moral resource’, as an important source of social capital that is distinct from secular sources, providing a functional dialogue across racial, ethnic and economic classes. Putnam (1995, p.67) defined these characteristics as ‘features of social organisation such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate co ordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’. For Putnam (1993; 1995; 1998) the foundations of social capital formation were located in trust and normative values that could cut across community dividers and bring to the forefront the social solidarity of networks in civic and community participation, which provided a powerful resource for individuals situated in migratory communities. For Bourdieu (1997, p.51) these value systems ‘provides each of its members with the backing of the collectively owned capital, a credential’ which could be embodied and transmitted through a process of ‘socialization’ that could afford each of its members the ability to generate social capital investments in networks.

Some studies in the past have been unsuccessful in grasping the essential notion of faith as an important source of social and cultural capital in networks that provides the moral mortar towards building reciprocal relationships, which constitute common bonds, common religious identities as well as the potency to invoke categorical allegiances. As a case in point, Dench, Gavron and Youngs (2006) abstract analysis of the trends in Britain’s Bangladeshi Muslim communities was inadequately elucidated. The author’s neglect became manifestly recognisable when the authors pointing to the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, erroneously claimed ‘the Islam practiced in Bangladesh and in Britain amongst first generation…bares traces of local Hinduism and leans towards liberal Sufi tradition’ (p.96). A terse review of Islamic literature and ethnographical recording within the borough reveals that the Bangladeshi communities in Britain are mainly Sunni Muslims belonging to the second largest faith in the world with over seven hundred and fifty million adherents, a religion of peace practiced by a quarter of humanity, and subscribe more specifically to the Hanafi school of thought, the largest of the orthodox Islamic jurisprudence schools. Hanafi (Abu Hanifi d.767) jurisprudence within Sunni Islam came into fruition in the Abbasid capital of Bagdad and forms one of the four schools of thought within Islamic jurisprudence. The other three schools of thought consist of Hanbali founded in Bagdad (AbuHanafa d.855), Maliki which formed out of the practice of the Medinan Judge (Ibn Malik d.795), and Shafai developed by a disciple of Malik (Al-Shafi’i d.820), each cognomen termed respectively after the men who headed them and each school of thought accorded equal respect in orthodoxy (Eaton, 1993, Robinson,1982).

In Tower Hamlets, whilst the vast majority of first and second generation Bangladeshi’s subscription to faith is rooted in the Hanafi school of thought since the 1990s, set against the backdrop of generational confusion and cultural confusion, there has been a steady and growing minority of second and some third generation Bangladeshis whose orientation to faith has moved away from the traditional Hanafi school of thought practised by their parents and more towards a ‘quasi’ Salafist movement, to manufacture their sense of social unity and fashion their social identity by often discarding national or ethnic identities and adopting instead hyphenated identities.

A move viewed by some conservative first generation Bangladeshis with ‘homeland’ habituated identities, as a thin simulacrum aberration to the orthodox Hanafi position (Garbin, 2005: Modood et al, 1994, Thapan, 2005). The central appeal of the moral matrix of Salafism with some of the younger generations lies in its non-ethnic diffused accessibility. As well as being highly fashionable its simplicity is much more comforting to the uninitiated than the alternative orthodox position. The easily absorbed Islamic literature available in an assortment of English vernaculars and multimedia platforms allows the aesthetic consumption of ritual goods and services as well as the fashioning of identities of functional relations that advocates concepts of Islamic brother-hood that connects with the fetish value of the disaffected youths. Observed in this sagacity ‘taste classifies’ and it classifies the classifier’ (Bourdieu, 1984, p.6) These cultural tastes, their membership to one group in opposition to all others, their petite consumption and easy adoption in direct opposition to mainstream cultural and symbolic capital is, what Modood (1990) based on his assessment of British Islamic culture suggested marks what Bourdieu (1979) (based on the study of French culture) earlier termed as their ‘distinction’ as a social badges of pride that were easily attainable irrespective of their level of accumulated religious linguistic resourcing or piety (Bourdieu, 1979; Goodhart, 2012).

Alexander (2000), connecting faith with identity, suggested this improvised construction of identity fashioned on faith offered a psychological refuge for young Bangladeshis from confronting the reality of underachievement, poverty, discrimination and conventional politics prevailing in the inner London borough. Salafism has three overlapping sub divisions of faith, which are pietistic, political and the ominously metastasized Jihadi division. Second generation Bangladeshis post 9/ 11 and 7/7 have a greater inclination towards the political division; a form of islamist politics laced in the urban language of the street that Goodhart (2012) suggested offered a beleaguered sense of empowerment. Bowen (2014) clarifies appropriately; Salafism predicates a return to the basic tenets of Islam that is simple and monotheistic and is a division of Islam that is practiced in the British Muslim community that is influenced by the influential teachings of eighteen century religious reformer Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab over 1,000 years after the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him).


Excerpt out of 50 pages


Bourdieu and Bengali Islam. A spatial temporal discussion of the adoption and social utility of Islam for British Sylheti Bangladeshi Muslim Workers in (Tower Hamlets) East London
London Metropolitan University  (Working Lives Research Institute)
Dprof Researching Work
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
"I have no doubt that this small work shall open the doors for richer and richer contributions from the author in future years." Nadeem Hasnain, Former Professor of social Anthropology, University of Lucknow, India. Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research "The book combines ethnography and social theory to offer a valuable perspective on religion, community and kinship among Bangladeshis in East London." Nazli Kibria, Professor of Sociology, Boston University This work forms an extended discussion of "Bourdieu and Bengali Islam" by the author Abdul Aziz.
bourdieu, bengali, islam, british, sylheti, bangladeshi, muslim, east, london
Quote paper
Abdul Aziz (Author), 2017, Bourdieu and Bengali Islam. A spatial temporal discussion of the adoption and social utility of Islam for British Sylheti Bangladeshi Muslim Workers in (Tower Hamlets) East London, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Bourdieu and Bengali Islam. A spatial temporal discussion of the adoption and social utility of Islam for British Sylheti Bangladeshi Muslim Workers in (Tower Hamlets) East London

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free