There are two types of challenges that a society may confront. A society in political, social and economic crises readily accepts and absorbs changes in order to restructure itself while the intellectuals and ruling classes respond to the challenges of time.
The result of this strategy is that it keeps the society far from chaos and disorder as its old institutions are reformed periodically preventing their collapse.
But when a society is attached to its traditions, cultural and social values, it may not be ready to bring any change and reform to its structure. In this case, it becomes stagnant and sterile.
If a society cannot alter itself at a time when it needs reformation of its traditions and institutions, all efforts for reformation become useless after passing the critical phase because by that time the roots of its institution become so corrupt that any steps to reconstruct them will fail.
Societies which follow the revolutionary process of reform look forward to the future. On the contrary, stagnant societies go back to their past roots and find solutions to their problems on the basis of ancient wisdom. Change in progressive societies is a pleasant experience while in stagnant societies, it is torturous and painful.
The subcontinent witnessed several religious reformist movements in the 19th century. Two different movements emerged under different political and social circumstances to fulfill the demands of the Muslim community in India. Some appeared before 1857 while others occurred after.
As a result of the decline of the Mughal dynasty and the subsequent take over by the East India Company, the political and social condition of the Muslim elite classes became miserable. The Muslim nobility were disappointed by the loss of their status but failed to analyse the emerging power of the Marhattas, the Jats, the Sikhs, and the Rohillas who steadily weakened the Mughal rulers by attacking and plundering cities and towns. There is lot of material available in the historiography of the time where historians have graphically depicted the picture of decline and decay. Poets composed verses reflecting the dismal social and cultural scenario, but there were no intellectuals to lead the society out of this disorder by creating ideas and thoughts.
In the absence of intellectuals and thinkers, the ulema assumed the leadership of the Muslim community, using religion as a tool to reform, repair, and reshape their political, social, and economic condition. The first half of the 19th century witnessed a movement known as Fraizi Movement in East Bengal, where the East India Company had established its rule after the Battle of Plassey. The change of political rule created a new conflict between Hindu landowners and the Muslim peasants. Among the landowners were some Muslims who had occupied landed property during the Mughal era. Extremist in their religious views, they held the local Bengali Muslims in contempt. The East India Company’s commercial and trade policies deprived the artisan class of employment and income. In these circumstances, Haji Shariatullah (d.1840), championed the cause of the Muslim peasants and united them by creating a spirit of brotherhood. He urged them to observe the original teachings of Islam. His aim was to purify Islam from unIslamic traditions and rituals to convert the Muslim community as puritans, and to inculcate in them the spirit to uplift their social and economic status. The movement became popular among the Muslim peasants and artisans. To create a sense of identity, a particular dress and style of life was promoted. The peasants were attracted to the movement on the basis of the slogan that land belongs to God. Both the peasants and artisans were urged not to pay taxes which were burdening their economic condition.
After the death of Haji Shariatullah, his son Dudu Mian took the responsibility of the movement and faced the opposition of not only of the zamindars but the government of the East India Company as well, whose interest was to keep order in its territories. Dudu Mian changed the character of the movement and converted it from resistance to compromising.
The movement attempted to solve social and economic problems of Bengali Muslims with the help of religion, creating in them a religious identity which separated them from the rest of the Bengali people. However, one important aspect was that Bengali language was used for preaching and writing religious tracts which were understood by common people. Consequently, the Fraizi movement, separated itself from the North Indian Muslim community. It liberated the Bengali Muslims from the North Indian cultural hegemony, created religious rather than political consciousness giving an opportunity to the Ulema to lead the Muslims of Bengal.