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Sufi mystics from 1370s changed Kashmir’s identity. But orthodoxy of 1970s is the challenge

In 'Kashmir at the Crossroads: Inside a 21st-Century Conflict' scholar Sumantra Bose presents an authoritative account of the Kashmir conflict.

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The mass conversion of the Kashmir Valley to Islam occurred in the fourteenth century. This was catalysed by Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, a Persian Sufi mystic from Hamedan in western Iran, who visited Kashmir thrice in the 1370s and 1380s accompanied by hundreds of disciples, many of whom settled in Kashmir. Hamadani is known as ‘Shah Hamdan’ in Kashmir. After his death, a mosque – the Khanqah-e-Maula – was erected in his honour in the 1390s on the Jhelum River in Srinagar, where it currently stands in a rebuilt eighteenth-century version.

Also Read: How Sultans of Gujarat and 3 Sufis gave Ahmedabad a written history

The Kashmiri transition to Islam is, however, identified above all others with a locally born Sufi saint, Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani. He was born around 1377 in a village south of Srinagar and lived until about 1440. Noorani is referred to in the Valley as Alamdar-e-Kashmir (patron saint) and is also known among Muslims and non-Muslims alike by the Sanskrit name Nund Rishi (Nund the Sage). Noorani was greatly influenced by Lalleshwari, a woman mystic of Shaivite Hinduism (which worships the deity Shiva), who lived from about 1320 to 1392. Lalleshwari is known as Lal Ded (Mother) in Kashmir, and Srinagar’s main maternity hospital is named after her. Lalleshwari is also the founder of the Kashmiri literary tradition. She expressed her spirituality in couplets in Kashmiri, which belongs to the Dardic group of Indo-Aryan languages. Sheikh Noorani, Lal Ded’s follower, was a ‘Muslim Shaivite’ who ‘translated Islam into Kashmir’s [pre-existing] spiritual and cultural idiom’. Noorani’s mausoleum-shrine is located in Charar-e-Sharief, a town about 20 miles south-west of Srinagar. In 1995 the mausoleum-shrine was razed by a fire that broke out during a gun-battle between Indian Army troops and insurgents who had occupied the holy site. It has since been rebuilt and continues as a place of pilgrimage not just for Kashmiri Muslims but also for Hindus and Sikhs who live in the Valley. The specifically Kashmiri version of Islam pioneered by Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani was taken forward in the fifteenth century by Kashmir’s greatest indigenous ruler (sultan) Zain-ul-Abidin, who reigned from about 1423 to 1474. He is known in the Valley as Badshah (Emperor), and Badshah Chowk, a large square in the centre of Srinagar, is named in his honour. Zain-ul-Abidin foreshadowed the syncretistic policies of India’s greatest Mughal monarch, Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605 and tried to implement an innovative official religion, Din-i-Ilahi, a hybrid of Hinduism and Islam. Among other initiatives, Zain-ul-Abidin sponsored a Persian translation from the original Sanskrit of an epic chronicle of Kashmir from antiquity to the eleventh century composed around 1149 by a poet called Kalhana. Kalhana’s legendary chronicle Rajatarangini (The Flow of Kings) consists of 7,826 verses in 8 books. Centuries later, Rajatarangini was translated into English in 1900 by Marc Aurel Stein, a British explorer and scholar.

The version of Islamic faith implanted in Kashmir by Shah Hamdan, Sheikh Noorani/Nund Rishi and Zain-ul-Abidin proved enduring and resilient, and defines the everyday practice of Islam in the Valley 600 years later. The Kashmir Valley’s towns and villages abound with ziarats, shrines dedicated to Sufi saints down the centuries, some of whom are women. Relic worship, which has its roots in Kashmir’s pre-Hindu Buddhist past, also persists. Its most famous example lies in the gleaming-white Hazratbal shrine on Srinagar’s outskirts where a hair believed to be from the beard of the Prophet Mohammad is preserved. The Kashmiri literary tradition that began with Lalleshwari/Lal Ded also continues. In the late sixteenth century Habba Khatun, a woman poet and singer, composed verses suffused with loss and longing. The outstanding heir to this tradition is the twentieth-century poet Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor. The result is a very distinctive ethnolinguistic identity, infused with religious faith, that is peculiar to the Kashmir Valley.

Also Read: How chanting Ram and Bhagavad Gita gifted by a Sufi dacoit helped a Chambal bandit in prison

This dominant tradition of faith and culture in the Kashmir Valley was not really challenged until the second half of the twentieth century. The main challenge came from the local wing of Jama’at-i-Islami (Islamic Rally, JI), a Sunni fundamentalist movement in the subcontinent inspired by the teachings of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi (1903–79). It made inroads into Kashmiri society in the 1970s and 1980s, and from the early 1990s, when insurgency erupted in the Kashmir Valley, JI’s version of Sunni orthodoxy was actively promoted by the Pakistani state and its agencies in the Valley. It remains a minority tendency, at odds with the deeply rooted historical traditions of the Kashmir Valley.

This excerpt from ‘Kashmir at the Crossroads: Inside a 21st-Century Conflict’ by Sumantra Bose has been published with permission from Pan Macmillan India.

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