The death of Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, center, pictured in 2013, came just a day after an unprecedented revolt involving thousands of students at his highly influential madrasa, or Islamic school. Photo: AFP

Tens of thousands of people gathered to mourn the controversial leader of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist group as his funeral was held on Saturday in a rural southeastern town, police said.

Allama Shah Ahmad Shafi, who had led the hardline Hefazat-e-Islam group since it was formed in 2010, died of age-related complications on Friday in the capital Dhaka. He was believed to be over 100 years old.

His death came just a day after an unprecedented revolt involving thousands of students at his highly influential madrasa, or Islamic school, forced him to resign after three decades as its chair.

Shafi made his mark in national politics when he marched tens of thousands of his followers into central Dhaka in May 2013, demanding harsh blasphemy laws and the execution of atheist bloggers.

That rally ended bloodily when police evicted his followers from the capital’s main commercial centre. Around 50 people were killed in clashes with security forces – most of them shot dead – in some of the worst political violence the country had ever seen.

Around half a dozen bloggers and secular activists were later hacked to death by Islamist extremists.

On Saturday, after Shafi’s body was brought back to his school in Hathazari outside the port city of Chittagong, vast crowds of his followers rushed to the town to pay their respects.

Local TV stations aired live footage of people, mostly men in religious dress, packing roads and spaces in and around the school.

“Some 150,000 people have already gathered here on the madrasa ground, in the buildings and out on the roads to his funeral prayers,” regional police chief Anwar Hossain told AFP. Shafi’s supporters said the turnout was far higher.

Madrasa revolt

As supreme leader of Hefazat-e-Islam, Shafi oversaw its growth into the South Asian country’s biggest Islamic fundamentalist group with millions of supporters.

Bangladesh is 90% Muslim and Shafi drew on support from seminaries at the tens of thousands of Islamic schools in the conservative nation of 168 million people.

His followers saw him as a key defender of the faith, but to his critics he was known as the “Tamarind Cleric”, who wanted to roll back the secular character of modern Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina praised Shafi’s contribution to the expansion of Islamic education in the country in a statement.

Shafi’s unceremonious resignation as head of the madrasa – which is considered the heart of conservative Islam in Bangladesh – took place on Thursday night after a two-day long demonstration at the school.

Up to 3,000 madrasa students took part in the revolt, a police spokesman told AFP, which was triggered by the sacking of three madrasa teachers, allegedly orchestrated by Shafi’s powerful son Anas Madani.

The students also forced Madani’s sacking from the school.

In recent years, relations have improved between Hefazat-e-Islam and the secular government, which agreed to the group’s demands for recognition of madrasa degrees and allowing students from all madrasas to compete for government jobs.