Introduction / History There are a significant number of Sylhetti Bengali living in the United Kingdom. Many have returned to their religious heritage after years of neglecting it. Today, nearly all of them are devout Muslims, even those who are married to English or Irish women.
Driven by poverty and drawn by ambition to see the world, many Sylhetti Bengali left Bangladesh and joined the English merchant fleet. During World War II they were vital to Great Britain's survival. After the war, they settled in various cities of the United Kingdom.
Their presence in the United Kingdom from the 1920s to the 1950s encouraged other Bengali to emigrate from Sylhet in the 1950s and 1960s. The immigrants have established dynamic new communities in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Cardiff, and Liverpool. Some of the pioneers flourished, particularly in the Indian restaurant business, others struggled, but only a few returned to Bangladesh.
What are their lives like? Early Sylhetti Bengali immigrants to the United Kingdom were all from upland areas of the Sylhet district in northeastern Bangladesh. When the ports of Calcutta, Bombay, and Chittagong were established and the East India Company started to send ships to Bangladesh, the Sylhetti Bengali got jobs on ships as firemen.
Some Sylhetti sailors left the ships as early as 1920 and joined the small, but growing, community in eastern London. They often found jobs in the clothing trade or some branch of catering. Some worked in the boiler houses of large hotels, where they, as ex-firemen, found the suffocating atmosphere to be no problem.
Later, Bengali "coffee shops" began to spring up. This proved to be the initial step towards the first Sylhetti-owned Indian restaurants. By 1946, there were 20 such restaurants in London. This number grew to 300 in the United Kingdom by 1960 and over 3000 by 1980. The vast majority of these were owned by Indian families from Sylhet.
In 1947, lobbying by Bengali Muslims influenced the way the United Kingdom handled the release of British India into two independent countries, Pakistan and India. Many Sylhetti Bengali lobbied in the UK through the Congressional Muslim League; others rallied in the Sylhet district of Bangladesh. Eventually, the Bengali voted to be a part of Pakistan instead of India.
In the early 1950s, the London community of Sylhetti men was about 300. By 1962, the number had grown to 5,000. It was very common for the early immigrants to marry their English or Irish girlfriends, most of whom converted to Islam. After World War II, the first Sylhetti Bengali wives joined their husbands, and more have brought their families ever since.
What are their beliefs? Before the thirteenth century, the people of Sylhet had been Buddhist and Hindu, with a blend of traditional rituals. Later, the Sylhetti were introduced to Islam by Shah Jalal of Yemen, a Muslim holy man. They became Sufi Muslims (Muslim mystics who focused on meditation, devotional songs, and poetry) rather than orthodox Muslims.
After coming to the United Kingdom, early Sylhetti Bengali were negligent of their religious duties. However, after World War II, a new generation of more religious Sylhetti arrived. Many joined the political or religious organizations, clubs and leagues that began, mainly in London and Birmingham.
The opening of a Muslim University in the UK increased the number of devout Sylhetti Bengali Muslims.
What are their needs? Despite the abundance of Christians and churches in the United Kingdom, the Sylhetti Bengali remain virtually unreached with the Gospel. few of the Sylhetti in the UK have become Christians.
Muslim communities are highly organized and press constantly for legislation to favor Islam. Christians have been apathetic or fearful to witness to Muslims, and conversions have been few.
Prayer Points * Ask the Lord to raise up Christians in the United Kingdom who will share the love of Christ with Sylhetti Bengali.
* Pray for effectiveness of the Jesus film among the Sylhetti Bengali.
* Pray that Sylhetti Bengali will have radio broadcasts available in their own language.
* Pray that God will give Sylhetti Bengali believers boldness to share Christ with their own people.
* Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will begin breaking up the spiritual soil through worship and intercession.
* Ask the Lord to bring forth a vigorous Sylhetti Bengali church for the glory of His name!