What are the greatest struggles in Eastern South Asia?
What does Islam look like in Eastern South Asia?
What is God doing in Eastern South Asia?
The Muslims living in Eastern South Asia, which surrounds the Bay of Bengal, number about 150 million in Bangladesh and another 150 million in Eastern India, Myanmar (Burma) (4.3% Muslim), and the Maldives (98.4% Muslim) combined.
Bangladesh has one of the densest populations in the world, and the Indian states of West Bengal (27% Muslim) and Bihar (17% Muslim) are the most densely populated states in India. Bengali-speaking peoples are the largest ethnic group in Eastern South Asia, and the majority of the 275 million are Muslim. The minority Muslim population of Myanmar, the Rohingya, are Bengalis who migrated to Myanmar from India during the British Raj from 1858-1947.
Millions in the region live in poverty. Much of the terrain is river flood plains nestled up against the Himalayas. Though most of the region is very flat and close to sea level, some parts are hilly and mountainous. Rich soil and plenty of rainfall makes the region a breadbasket. Many live as farmers, shopkeepers, garment makers, and traders.
The biggest struggles across the region are economic, as countries struggle to keep pace with rapid population growth. In Bangladesh, where 87% are Muslims, the extreme crowding in heavily populated agricultural regions has led to a massive rural exodus as people flock to the cities in search of work and survival. Childhood malnutrition is considered the worst of any country in the world.
In India, the rise in Hindu nationalism has put pressure on the Muslim minority. There are regular flare ups of Hindu mob violence against Muslims. Though there are millions of Indian Muslims, many feel increasingly marginalized and are falling behind economically.
The Muslims in Myanmar (Burma) face unrelenting pressure from the Buddhist majority, with more than a million living in refugee camps in Eastern Bangladesh. In the Maldives, thriving tourism has benefitted thousands, yet poverty is still an issue.
The vast majority of Muslims in the region are Sunnis, but a large percentage of them express devotion to saints and Sufi leaders. There are countless Sufi brotherhoods. In Bangladesh, the primary Muslim sects are Sunni, with a total of 5.3% being non-Sunni Muslims, mostly Shia and Ahmadiyya. In India, Shia Muslims are 25-30% of the Muslim population.
One remarkable expression of Muslim devotion in Bangladesh is the annual Bishwa Ijtema (Global Congregation) that brings 5 million devotees together for three days to pray and listen to Muslim preachers. This massive gathering on the outskirts of Dhaka draws Muslims from across Bangladesh and 150 other countries. It is the one of the largest annual gatherings of Muslims in the world, second only to the Hajj (pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia.
In both India and Bangladesh, Muslims typically live harmoniously with Hindus. There is a high level of inter-religious socializing among the elite, and Hindu-Muslim marriages are common. However, in both countries, there is growing alarm at the increasingly successful efforts of Wahhabi Islamists promoting political, factional, and violent Islamism (imported from Saudi Arabia), that is similar to the influential home-grown Deobandi Islamism of 20% of India’s Muslims.
God is raising up a number of indigenous missions in India that are ministering among Muslims. Because of the strong pro-Hindu national government in India, there is very little social cost for Muslims who choose to follow Christ. Government officials in India do not usually persecute converts from Muslim backgrounds.
Muslims are coming to Christ across northeast India in a variety of church-planting ministries. House churches are multiplying among Muslims in West Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh as well as the states surrounding Bangladesh in the northeast.
In Bangladesh, though the response to the Gospel in Dhaka appears quite limited, there are some large movements to Christ outside of the capital. Ever since a translation of the Bible into the Muslim-dialect Bengali was completed in 2000, there has been growing response to the Gospel. Some of these movements are remaining largely within their Muslim communities, whereas the believers in other movements more openly identify as Christians.