Kashmir’s 1.5 Million Shiites Can’t Fit Into a Single Mould – Neither Can Their History

Srinagar's Bulbul Lanker area, which houses Sharafu’d-Din or Bulbul Shah's shrine

Hakim Sameer Hamdani’s ambitious new book looks at the history of Kashmir’s Shiʿa population through the lens of not just the Sunni rivalry that shaped them but also, of reconciliation and unique contributions.

In downtown Srinagar, there’s a red-brick mosque with sloping green roofs overlooking the muddy waters of Jhelum. Its tall spire is made of small wooden slats, and crowned with a crescent-shaped brass finial that soars out skywards. This is where Islam treaded one of its first tentative footsteps in Kashmir in the early 14th century.

Sayyid Sharafu’d-Din, a reclusive Uyghur dervish from north-western (modern day Xinjiang) China had been camping out here for months. One day, Sharafu’d-Din was ushered in the presence of Rinchana, the enterprising Buddhist prince from Ladakh who, while on a military expedition to Kashmir, had overpowered the last of valley’s Hindu generals, heralding himself as the new ruler.

As the apocryphal story goes, an all-absorbing conversation with Sharafu’d-Din captivates the young royal, leading to his initiation into Islam. Rinchana takes up a new name; Sadru’d-Din, and becomes Kashmir’s first Muslim sovereign.

This story is quite well known in Kashmir where Bulbul Shah, as Sharafu’d-Din is popularly known, features among the pantheon of Sufi mystics whose teachings undergird the religious sentiments of the region’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population. But what is probably less acknowledged is that Sharafu’d-Din’s beliefs also reflected a marked predilection towards the doctrines central to Shiʿa Islam.

Bulbul Shah or Sharafu’d-Din’s shrine.

The source of this information is a 400 year old Persian text Baharistan-i-Shahi that was first to narrate in detail the encounter between Rinchana and Sharafu’d-Din, and is permeated with references eulogising Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the first Shiʿite ‘imam.’

Nearly 130 years later, Khwaja Azam Dedhmari, a Sunni historiographer, too mentions the same incident in his famous Tarikh-i-Kashmir, but omits all allusions to Ali, allowing the redacted version of this story to prevail that ends up characterising the foundational moment of Islam in Kashmir in purely Sunni terms.

‘Shi’ism in Kashmir A History of Sunni-Shia Rivalry and Reconciliation

So why is this aspect relatively unknown?

The answer probably is that there has been very little scholarly attention that interrogates the historical perspective of Kashmir’s 1.5 million Shiʿite inhabitants. It is this gap that Hakim Sameer Hamdani’s ambitious new book Shiʿism in Kashmir: A History of Sunni-Shiʿi Rivalry and Reconciliation seeks to fill.

Hamdani, who works as a Design Director at Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) J&K, draws on rare manuscripts – some of which have been lying untouched in the safekeeping of few prominent Shiʿite families in Srinagar. The result is a highly resourceful book that navigates masterfully through the Shiʿite aspects of Kashmir’s history.

The snippets regarding the Islamic history of Kashmir narrated in the book are quite revelatory; not many would know that the earliest references to Muslim presence in Kashmir are featured in Shiʿite hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) compiled by Shaykh Yaqub Kulyani. The hadiths describe a meeting between twelfth Shiʿa ‘Imam’ al-Mahdi and Abu Said Hindi, a Kashmiri adventurer who visits Baghdad city in the 9th century.

There is a small summary about the historic (and mostly legendary) hostility between Shaykh Hamza Makhdum (representing the Sunni side) and Shams-al-Din Iraki (The Nurbakshi Sufi mystic who introduced Shiʿism in Kashmir).

The Mughals conquest of Kashmir though – which locals still recall as a traumatic event – is elaborately explained, for its reasons are rooted in the sectarian skirmishes.

It starts with the execution of a Shiʿa soldier Yusuf Inder who is charged with injuring a Sunni khatib (preacher) of Jamia Masjid during a brawl.

The matters reach the royal court where senior jurists question the judgment and order execution of three qadis (judges) who signed Inder’s death sentence. One of the judges Musa Qazi – although this episode happens much later – is ordered to recite the name of Ali, the first Shiʿa Imam in Friday khutba (sermon).

He refuses to oblige and is executed for it, stirring the Kashmir’s Sunni nobility into protest. Some of them implore Akbar for help who uses it as a pretext to launch a full scale invasion of Kashmir.

While not much is mentioned about the state of Kashmiri Shiʿas under the Mughal period, it is the Afghan rule that goes on to become the crucible in which Shiʿa identity, as a community distinct from – and sometimes on oppositional terms with – Sunnis starts to solidify.

Afghans unleash a wave of persecution against Kashmiri Shiʿites. In 1788, the Zadibal Imambada is gutted under the orders of the Pashtun administrator Juma Khan Alkozi. In 1801, another Afghan governor Abdullah Khan comandeers mobs that destroy the historical Imambada once again, engaging in pillage and sexual violence against Shiʿas.

Faced with the relentless restrictions on their ritual ceremonies, Shiʿas in Srinagar start constructing tah-khana (basements) in their houses “where they could discreetly recite marṣiyas during the month of Muharram.” The despondency of Kashmiri Shiʿa is articulated in the tradition of writing and compiling marṣiyas. (elegiac poems)

The political estrangement leads Kashmiri Shiʿas to seek patronage from the Iranian merchants visiting Kashmir in large numbers. Kashmiri calligraphers like Muhammad Husayn are known to have drawn beautiful Quran codices for their Iranian patrons.

The reconstruction of Zadibal Mʿārak in 1830 was overseen by an Iranian merchant, Ḥajji Baqir, who had married into the family of the Mʿārakdars, the hereditary (custodians) of the shrine.

The Zadibal Imambara

Another response to the campaign of endless persecution is characterised by the outward migration of Shiʿas to the state of Awadh – a historical region in north India corresponding to the modern day Uttar Pradesh – where they built their lives from scratch. Some influential Shiʿas even took part in administrative affairs of Awadh.

Sayyid Safdar helped establish Usuli school of Shi’a Islam as the region’s official jurisprudence. Others like Mehdi Khan set up judiciary and police systems in Awadh.

In 1819, as Sikh rule replaced the Afghans in Kashmir, Shiʿas found the stranglehold of Sunni sectarianism coming loose. As a result, many in the community were lured by the idea of religious reassertion.

On the day of Ashura in 1830, an argument allegedly over the distribution of bulrush stems – used for weaving mats – morphed into a big confrontation as the Shiʿa mourners were accused of blaspheming Islam’s first three Caliphs (Prophet’s successors). This leads to yet another glut of anti-Shiʿa violence in Srinagar.

In early 1850s, the issue of disbursal of khums (remittances) from the Awadhi Shiʿas resulted in the dissension within the Kashmiri Shiʿa community. This division occurred between the Shiʿa aristocracy and the traditional custodians of Zadibal, the Mʿārakdars. The pattern of distribution which was controlled by the Rizvi Sayyids, and later by the Ansaris, alienated the Musavi branch of Kashmiri Shi’ites.

The split compartmentalized the Shiʿa community into Firqa-i-Qadim and Firqa-i-Jadid. These fissiparous tendencies were laid to rest briefly in 1872 when another spell of anti-Shiʿa violence broke out in Srinagar.

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