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Kashmiri Sufism: Theological Resources For Peace-Building

By Yoginder Sikand

21 July, 2006

The on-going turmoil in Kashmir is commonly perceived as essentially a religious conflict, a violent and deadly confrontation between Hindus and Muslims. Key players in the conflict, including Islamist and Hindu chauvinist groups, see the conflict as representing a religious war, a grand cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, variously defined.

In this understanding of the Kashmir conflict, as in the case of inter-communal conflicts in the rest of South Asia, Hindus and Muslims are perceived as two, well-defined, homogenous communities, neatly set apart and unambiguously defined, and as having been fiercely opposed to each other ever since the two first came into contact with each other many centuries ago. In other words, the conflict in Kashmir is understood as being but the latest stage in over a thousand-year history of unceasing, relentless conflict between Hindus and Muslims, whose religious beliefs are said to be so different from, and so contradictory to, each other as to make constant strife between them inevitable. The existence of shared beliefs and values between Muslims and Hindus, and of multiple identities, is thus totally denied.

The notion of Hindus and Muslims being two, separate monolithic blocs is, as historians are increasingly coming to realize, a fairly modern construct. In pre-British India, community identities were often fuzzy and ambiguous, permitting considerable overlaps, cross-overs and sharing between groups and individuals who may not have even been aware of being either 'Hindu' or 'Muslim'. Even in cases where identities were clearly separate, many Hindus and Muslims shared a common cultural universe, holding certain common beliefs, cherishing certain common values and respecting common saints.

Kashmir provides some of the clearest instances of shared religious identities, remnants of which are still to be found, in however attenuated forms, today. As numerous writers have noted, the Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits shared several customs and beliefs in common, and the numerous Sufi shrines that dot the Valley attracted Hindus as well as Muslims in large
numbers. While Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims were undoubtedly aware of their differences, popular Sufism served to promote a common way of understanding the world. Belief in the powers of the Sufi saints and attendance at their shrines thus helped promote what could be called a 'dialogue of every-day life' between Muslims and Pandits. To the south, in Jammu, as in adjacent Punjab, Sufi saints had a large following among Hindus, Dalits, Muslims and Sikhs. Although this shared popular tradition was not powerful enough to completely erase differences between the different groups, it was crucial in the promotion of organic ties and relationships across community boundaries.

The Sufi traditions of Jammu and Kashmir still play an important role in the lives of people in the region. These, and certain theological resources contained in both scripturalist Islam and more 'mainstream' forms of Hinduism, can play an important role in helping build bridges between people of different faiths. The task before concerned believers and social activists today is to seek to uncover and highlight these religious perspectives on inter-faith dialogue and cooperation that can play a vital role in challenging the politics of religious hatred that continue to play havoc with the lives of the people of Kashmir, leading to seemingly endless death and destruction.

Kashmiris refer to their land as Pir Vaer or Rishi Vaer , the valley of Rishis and Sufi pirs. Shrines dedicated to these men of God (and, a small number of women as well) are to be found in almost every village in the region. Most of these saints were Sufi masters belonging to various different mystical orders. The earliest known Sufi in Kashmir about whom firm historical evidence is available was the thirteenth century Suhrawardi from Turkistan, Sayyed Sharfuddin 'Abdur Rahman, fondly remembered as Bulbul Shah. He arrived in Kashmir in 1295, and was instrumental in the conversion of the Buddhist ruler of Kashmir, Rinchen Shah, to Islam. Several Buddhists and 'low' caste Hindus, groaning under the oppression of the Brahmins, are said to have followed Rinchen and joined the Muslim fold.

The next major Sufi to enter Kashmir was the fourteenth century Iranian Kubrawi saint, Mir Sayyed 'Ali Hamdani. He is credited with having secured numerous conversions to Islam, owing principally to his own teachings and charisma. He is popularly remembered as amir-i kabir ('the great leader') and bani-i musalmani ('the founder of Islam [in Kashmir]'). He was accompanied by several of his Iranian disciples, who settled down in various parts of Kashmir, spreading Islam and the principles of the Kubrawi Sufi order in the region.

Islamisation through the agency of the Sufis gradually grew into a powerful social movement. Thousands of 'low' caste Hindus and Buddhists began converting to Islam in the search for liberation from the shackles of the caste system and the Brahminical religion. A product of this initial encounter between Islam and local traditions in medieval Kashmir was the Muslim Rishi movement, the only indigenous Sufi order in Kashmir. Rishism, as it developed over time, represented a fierce challenge both to the 'worldly ' ulama' ('ulama-i duniya) associated with the courts of the Sultans as well as the Brahminical establishment. While rooted within the broader Islamic tradition, it stressed universal values such as peace, harmony, love and fraternity between all creatures of God, irrespective of religion. As such, then, it had a remarkably universal appeal. Although it is largely to the peaceful missionary efforts of the saints of the Rishi order that the mass conversion of the Kashmiris to Islam can be traced, the Muslim Rishis came to be held in great esteem by even those who remained wedded to their ancestral faith. The shrines of the Rishis grew into popular places of pilgrimage for both Muslims as well as Hindus, bringing them together in common participation at shrine rituals as well as helping build bridges between people of different castes and faith traditions.

The origins of the Rishi movement go back to pre-Islamic times. In the Vedic period, Rishis were world-renouncing hermits who retired to caves in forests and mountains to meditate and subject themselves to stern austerities. In the later Buddhist era, Rishis took the form of bhikkhus, who lived a simple life and dedicated themselves to serving the poor and the needy. The founder of the Muslim Rishi movement in Kashmir, Nuruddin Nurani (1377-1440), sought to mould the pre-existing Rishi tradition, transforming it into a vehicle for the spread of Islam, using local institutions and methods to make Islam more intelligible to the Kashmiris.

For Nund Rishi, as Nuruddin Nurani is more commonly known, or, as his Hindu followers remember him, Sahazanand ('the blissful one'), Islam was a universal message that stressed love, tolerance and service and at the same time crusaded against social injustice. The breadth of Nund Rishi's vision can well be appreciated from the fact that he accepted as his first spiritual preceptor the Shaivite female mystic, Lalleshwari, fondly remembered by the Muslims as Lalla Mauj ('Mother Lalla') or Lalla 'Arifa ('Lalla, the Realised One'). Although born in a Brahmin family, Lal Ded crusaded against the superstitions and soulless ritualism of the Brahminical religion. Bitterly castigating the priests for having reduced religion into a bundle of rituals devoid of any social concern, she cried out in anguish:

O fool! Right action does not lie in fasting or other rituals. The idol is but stone, the temple is but stone. From top to bottom all is but stone.

Lal Ded insisted that Hindus and Muslims must realize their common humanity, being creatures of the same God. Thus, she says in a well-known verse:

Shiva is All-Pervading.
Do not differentiate between a Hindu and a Muslim.
If you have understanding, then realize your own self.
In truth, this is the means to realize God.

Inspired by Lal Ded's dedication to the one formless God, known to Hindus and Muslims by different names,Nund Rishi prayed thus:

That Lalla of Padmanpore,
Who had drunk to her full the nectar.
She was an avatar of ours,
Oh God, grant me the same spiritual power.

In another verse, Nund Rishi invokes the name of LalDed and appeals to God:

Lalla drank fully at the fountain of immortality.
She has witnessed the omnipotent glory of Shiva.
Hence, we treasure utmost adoration for her in ourhearts.
She carved for herself the stature of an exalted one.
O God, grant that very boon to me.

Although he was a pious Muslim, Nund Rishi's understanding of Islam was broad enough to be open to inspiration from people of other faiths as well. Thus, the story is told of how greatly he was moved by the example of a Hindu peasant girl called Bhawan, who earned her livelihood carrying water to a village and spent all her earnings on feeding her birds while she would herself starve. In her memory, Nund Rishi prayed to God:

That little girl in a small village
Who quenched the thirst of the thirsty
Flew in the high heavens with her pet birds.
Bestow on me, my Lord, the same grace.

The realization that Hindus and Muslims were children of the same God, whom they called by various names, served as a powerful message of harmony and reconciliation.

Thus, Nund Rishi cried out in anguish:

Children of the same parents,
When will Hindus and Muslims cut down the tree of dualism?
When will God be pleased with them and grant them His grace?
We belong to the same parents
Then why this difference?
Let Hindus and Muslims worship God alone.
We came into this world like partners.
We should have share our joys and sorrows together.

Service to others, then, was a cornerstone of the Muslim Rishi tradition. Worship of God was meaningless if it did not translate into actively helping those in need, irrespective of religion. 'Oh Nasruddin', Nund Rishi told one of his chief disciples, Baba Nasru, 'He
shall win the world who serves others'. Elsewhere, addressing Hindus and Muslims alike, he said:

Oh Hindus and Muslims! How will you attain salvation
if you don't take good deeds with you?
Prayers and ritual performances, if not accompanied by
good deeds, not only do not please God,
Rather, they condemn one to damnation in Hell.

Several of Nund Rishi's verses contain a biting critique of empty ritualism, a call for social justice and an appeal to recognize the common humanity of Hindus and Muslims:

The Mullah in the mosque
And the Brahmin before the idol of stone
Perhaps only one out of a thousand of them will be redeemed
Otherwise, Satan will grab them all.


The fake darwesh counts his beads,
And derives joy from hearing their sound,
But closes the door of the mosque and does not say his prayers.
Remember O cheat!
You are not God's friend but His foe.


The fake Rishi is always worried about his stomach.
Eating delicious food, he has forgotten God.
Donning the dress of a Rishi, he misleads others.
If he is a Rishi, then who is a thief?


The Mullah is happy with gifts and feasts.
The Shaikh is driven by greed and lust.
The Sufi stops not from cheating others.
Eating three seers of mutton and a maund of rice
The old, infirm Pundit searches for a young virgin wife.
Near to his funeral pyre, he refuses for a wife a widow.


O slave of God! You have a rosary in your hand,
But it is actually a knife.
You have opened a shop in the bazaar of this fleeting world to rob others.
Pay heed lest you shall be used as fuel in the fire.
Oh! What a pity!
You have cut off your own feet with your axe.


After Nund Rishi's death, the Rishi movement spread further in Kashmir under his various deputies (khulafa ). Like their master, they, too, played a central role in the peaceful spread of Islam in the region, while also bitterly critiquing social injustices, inequalities and superstitions, the stern ritualism of the court ' ulama and the oppression of the Brahmin priests. In addition, they also propagated the message of love and harmony between Hindus and Muslims. Till this day, the Kashmiris, both Muslim as well as Hindu, consider Nund Rishi as their 'national saint', and as the spiritual and cultural symbol their land, fondly remembering him as the shaikh ul-'alam or the 'preceptor of the world'.

As in the Kashmir valley, in Jammu, too, various Sufi saints played a central role in building bridges between Hindus and Muslims, while, at the same time, actively working for the spread of Islam in the region. Today, scores of Sufi shrines are found all over the Jammu province, where Hindus, Muslims Sikhs and Dalits gather together. In many cases, non-Muslim heavily outnumber Muslims at these shrines. What is particularly interesting about the stories that are told about these Sufis is the central role of Hindus in these traditions, making popular Sufism in Jammu a truly inter-community project.

The first Sufi to visit Jammu, according to available sources, was Pir Raushan 'Ali Shah. According to the Gulab Namah, a nineteenth century history of Jammu, he was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad and arrived in Jammu the seventh century A.D., although this is not credible. He is said to have so impressed the Hindu ruler of Jammu, Raja Sarpala Dhar, that the king requested him to settle down in the town, where he lies buried. Another noted Sufi whose tomb is in Jammu was Pir Lakhdata. Because of his generosity towards the poor, he is said to have been blessed by Guru Nanak with the honorific title of 'Sultan Lakhdata' or the 'giver of hundreds of thousands'. Like him, Baba Budhan 'Ali Shah, whose dargah is located near the Jammu airport, is widely respected by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims alike. A descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, his real name was Sayyed Shamsuddin, and he is said to have been a close friend of Guru Nanak. The fifteenth century Iranian Isma'ili saint Pir Mitha, whose shrine is located on a hillock on the banks of the Tawi in a locality named after him, is regarded as the patron saint of one particular clan of the Hindu Jheer caste. He is said to have been a close friend of the Gorakhnathi yogi, Garib Nath, and to have lived together with him in a cave, Pir Khoh, which is now a major Gorakhnathi centre on the outskirts of Jammu town. The nineteenth century Sufi, Baba Jiwan Shah, whose dargah is also in Jammu, is said to have had numerous Hindu disciples, including Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the Dogra ruler of Kashmir. Another Sufi whose legend is associated with the Dogra rulers of Kashmir was Sayyed Ghulam 'Ali Badshah, whose shrine at Shahdara Sharif, near Thana Mandi, in the Rajouri district, is the single largest dargah in the state.

The rich Sufi traditions of Jammu and Kashmir have thus played an important role in bringing people of different castes and faith traditions together. Numerous Sufis have had Hindu disciples, and today Hindus heavily outnumber Muslims as pilgrims to several Sufi shrines in the Jammu region. Not all, or even most, of the pilgrims who flock to the shrines may be aware of the details of the life and teaching of the saints. Yet, the very fact of people of different communities intermingling at the dargahs can itself lead to radical changes in the way they perceive religion, religious identities and inter-community relations.

The popular Sufi traditions of Jammu as well as Kashmir, then, contain rich possibilities that could be used to develop new understandings of identity that can help articulate a new vision of religion that is grounded in universal love and concern transcending narrowly inscribed communal boundaries.









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