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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 November, 2003, 00:52 GMT
Shops vie with mosques at Eid

By Alastair Lawson
BBC correspondent in Dhaka

Dhaka street scene
Critics say Eid in Bangladesh has gone the way of Christmas

As the festival of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, approaches, Islamic scholars in Bangladesh are warning against the commercialisation of the biggest date in the Muslim calendar.

They are particularly concerned that materialism seems to be ousting the mosque as the main focus in the lives of middle-class urbanites.

"The end of the period of fasting, called Ramadan, is supposed to be celebrated quietly during Eid by giving presents within the family and by giving to the poor," said Professor M Shamser Ali, one of the country's foremost experts in Islam.

"Instead some middle class people are turning this holy ceremony into a shoppers' frenzy, spending frightening amounts of money on clothes and other accessories that they don't need," said Professor Ali.

Bangladeshi girl with henna
A more traditional Ramadan image: A Bangladeshi girl paints her hand

"It is not just in the shops where there is greed. In restaurants too there is gluttony on a monstrous scale."

"Some middle-class people seem to have forgotten that Islam says it is acceptable to eat and drink - but it is unacceptable to be wasteful."

Professor Ali says the Eid ceremony is fast going the same way as Christmas in the West, which critics say has lost its spiritual significance because of excessive commercialisation.

'Spend, spend, spend'

In Bangladesh, there is little doubt that shops in towns and cities all over the country have done a roaring trade in advance of Eid, while restaurants at nightfall are full to the brim.

Professor Ali
Twenty years ago there was never such extravagance, people would not dream of indulging themselves in the way they do today
Professor Ali

Nowhere is the retail side of the ceremony more apparent than in the Aarong chain of handicraft and clothes stores.

Here saris sell for as much as $180, while traditional knee-length trouser suits, or shalwar kameez, can be even more expensive.

"Its true that in the run up to Eid people are encouraged to spend, spend, spend," says Aarong shop manager Nizam ul-Haq.

"It is also true that each year we do more and more business in advance of the ceremony.

"I think this is because there is more middle-class spending power and more people with disposable incomes."

"They have an Eid bonus, they have spare money and they want to spend all this money on kids and the family."

The religious majority

But not everyone thinks that the emphasis on shopping and bargains ahead of Eid is necessarily a bad thing. Mafhuz Anam is editor of the Daily Star newspaper.

"I see it as a natural evolution of festivities in the modern world," he said.

"In Bangladesh, Eid is emerging as the biggest economic event.

Chinese restaurant during Ramadan
Even Chinese food in Dhaka comes with a Ramadan-friendly message

"I know of sari producers and garment makers who do their whole year's business on this particular occasion - for the rest of the year they basically break even.

"It is unimaginable the amount of buying and selling that is going on at the moment."

"But if you take modernism in general you could say that the spirit of Christmas has also been lost."

"I think that as we have become more humanist in our lifestyles, we have become better human beings from more secular values."

Mr Anan says that it should be remembered that only a small minority in this country of 130 million people are taking part in the retail bonanza.

Half the population still earns less than a dollar a day and can't afford the shopping frenzy.

This silent majority remains devoutly religious.

For them, prayer is still more important than retail at this most holy of celebrations.

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