Kashmir Special

Sufism and the Emergence of Islamic Identity in Kashmir

The advent of Islam in Kashmir is a fascinating phenomenon. Islam was not imposed upon the people of this area by the imperial might of an invader, but was spread and took root in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance, through spiritual interaction and intellectual dialogue between the Sufis and the local political and religious elite. Prior to the advent of Islam, this region was once a stronghold of Buddhism. Referring to the decline of Buddhism in Afghanistan and Central Asia, Oskar von Hinüber has observed:



"The encounter between Buddhism and Islam did not, however, result in the immediate destruction of monasteries or in anything like the horrible massacre of monks. Buddhism and Islam existed side by side for centuries in many places, for instance at Bamiyan, where the ruler embraced Islam during the eighth century, but where, nevertheless, Buddhist monasteries were still functioning a hundred years later. Indeed close contacts seem to have persisted between the two religions over a long period of time. But, nonetheless, the year 1000 roughly marks the beginning of a steep decline of Buddhism, and the great Muslim scholar Al-Beruni (937-1950) was able to witness and to describe only the last traces of the vanishing religion."1
After the lapse of five centuries, Buddhism in Kashmir met the same fate when Buddhist rulers came under the spiritual influence of the Sufis from Central Asia and Iran. Rinchana – the ruler of Kashmir from 1320-1323 – was formerly influenced by a Suhrawardy saint from Turkistan, Abdul Rahman, popularly known as Bulbul Shah. Inspired by the teachings of Bulbul Shah, he, along with his brother-in-law, commander-in-chief and several other members of nobility, entered the fold of Islam. Rinchana adopted the name of Sultan Sadar-ud-Din and thus, became the founder of the first Muslim dynasty in Kashmir.2 This was the time when both the nobility and the clergy were thoroughly degenerated. According to Kalhana: 
"King Kalsa (11th century AD) was addicted to enjoy the charms of his own daughter-in-law. His son Harsha, however, surpassed him. Incestuous as he was, he failed to differentiate between a consort and his own sister."3
Debauchery was not the monopoly of the kings and nobles alone, priests and monks had also sunk to the lowest depths of immorality, a poem by Kshemendra written in a dialogue form, seems to me the best commentary on the social and moral situation that prevailed in this area at the time of inception of the Sufi movement. Kshemendra, the most famous contemporary Sanskrit poet asks:
'Bhiksu, why is your body so emaciated?
On account of catching fish.
Do you eat fish?
Yes, it is part and parcel of wine.
Do you drink wine?
Yes, in the company of women.
Do you mix with women?
Yes, after I strangle my enemies.
Have you enemies?
Because I burgle.
Are you a thief?
Yes, because I gamble.
Are you a gambler? 
Yes, I am a Bhiksu.'4
Read together with various legends relating to Lalla Arifa's conversion to Islam, this poem provides an excellent insight into the moral decay that existed in this region before the advent of Islam. In a sense, Kashmir was ready to embrace the egalitarian message of Sufi humanism. The arrival of Sayyid Ali Hamadani appeared on the scene in the 14th century and is seen to be the catalyst.
Under the influence of a Kashmiri Shaiva guru Lalla became a Yogini and went about the country, singing and dancing in a half nude or even nude condition. When questioned about such disregard for decency, she is said to have replied that there were no men and therefore she had no reason to be ashamed. But when she saw Sayyid Ali Hamadani in the distance, she cried out: 'I have seen a man'. Crying out she turned and fled. She leapt into the blazing oven and disappeared. Sayyid Ali Hamadani followed her and offered his own shawl to her. Thereupon she appeared from the oven clad in the garments of paradise.5
The basic message embodied in legends like this is that at a significant moment of cultural confrontation when degenerated Buddhism was rapidly losing ground to militant Hinduism, Islam emerged as a liberating force. The arrival of Sayyid Ali Hamadani (1314-1385 AD), popularly known as Amir-i-Kabir or Shah-i-Hamadan, along with 700 followers, in the year 1372 AD signifies an extension into this area of an egalitarian society, with a fully developed way of life and a dynamic culture. This group of Sufi missionaries led by the charismatic personality of the Amir-i-Kabir provided a focus for the transmission of concepts and values of Islamic humanism. The artificial social barriers invented by Brahmans to divide the society into high castes and low castes, half castes and outcastes began to crumble, thus providing the suffering humanity an easy opening to success and salvation. This is the key to understanding the spread of Islam with enormous rapidity as well as the everlasting popularity of Sayyid Ali Hamadani in the region. According to Dr. A. H. Dani:
“The whole land resounds the mission of Sayyid Ali Hamadani and his disciplines.... Tradition associates the building of mosques with this mountaineer saint, who is the first to cross the peak of K2 in his missionary zeal.”6
Dr. Dani has stated elsewhere that the name of Sayyid Ali Hamadani has been deeply embedded in his memory since the very childhood by his mother, who like other Kashmiri mothers, often used to venerate the Saint due to his learning and piety.7
Both oral tradition and written chronicles put extraordinary emphasis on the supernatural powers of the Saint through which he was able to inspire Hindu Yogis and Buddhist monks to embrace Islam along with their followers. But the fact of the matter is that the interaction which took place when practitioners of the three great religions encountered, enriched and revitalized all areas of individual and collective life. It was less of mysterious supernatural powers and more of the obvious socio-economic ideals and praxis of the spiritual movement spearheaded by Sayyid Ali Hamadani that proved to be his greatest miracle. He brought about a total transformation from a decadent to a dynamic society by creating a chain of Sufi centers and industrial units throughout the region and then linking these Khanqahs and Karkhanas with bazaars. This linkage proved to be a source of change and development by a continuous exchange of commodities and concepts from Kashmir to Kashgar and other important centers in Central Asia and beyond.
Sayyid Ali Hamadani preferred to call his place of worship the Khanqah, the place of Sufi congregation is a Sufi center where people are welcome irrespective of caste and creed. This is a place of worship and meditation as well as of discussion and guidance on every topic under the sun. Attached to Khanqahs were Karkhanas, the industrial units where members of the Sufi brotherhood used to work under the guidance of and in association with the Sufi Sheikh. The organisation of the Karkhana was almost the same as that of a Khanqah:
"Apart from employing skilled labour, these Karkhanas imparted to Kashmiris in various techniques of manufacturing. The labour power of these Karkhanas came to be organised on the basis of ranks like Ustad (master), Khalifa (apprentice) and Shagird (pupil), who worked around the master to produce or manufacture what was required by the nobility and the urban people."8
Seeking markets for the products of these Karkhanas was an obvious necessity. With this inevitable linkage between the Khanqah, Karkhana and bazaar, the conventional boundaries between the sacred and the secular were first blurred and then vanished. The role that Sayyid Ali Hamadani played in enabling the people to reshape their destiny and to restructure their economy on progressive lines earned him the everlasting title of Amir-i-Kabir. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) has highlighted this fact in his poetic drama, Javid Nama:
Guide he of that emerald land, 
counselor of prince and dervish and sultan; 
a king ocean-munificent, to that vale
he gave science, crafts, education, religion.
That man created a miniature Iran
with rare and heart-ravishing arts;
with one glance he unravels a hundred knots – rise, and let his arrow transfix your heart.
At a time when the veneration of the Amir-i-Kabir was reduced to an empty ritual, Iqbal made him a living metaphor for the regeneration of the people. He took a flight beyond the spheres and lamented in the presence of Sayyid Ali Hamdani:
Under the heavens man devours man,
nation grazes upon another nation.
My soul burns like rue for the people of the vale;
cries of anguish mount from my heart.
They are a nation clever, perceptive, handsome,
their dexterity is proverbial,
yet their cup rolls in their own blood;
the lament in my heart is on their behalf.9
Right at this moment, when the cup of Kashmiris is still rolling in their own blood and a dangerous strife is raging in the length and breadth of Kashmir, I passionately long for the revival of the Sufi movement of Sayyid Ali Hamadani. The very movement that had revolutionised the medieval society by liberating and channelizing the creative energies of the society.


The writer is an eminent scholar and has served as the former Rector of International Islamic University, Islamabad. He frequently writes for newspapers and other print media.
E-mail: [email protected]


1.  Bechert, Heinz and Gombrich, Richard (ed.). (1991). The World of Buddhism. London: Thames & Hudson. P.107.
2.  For an excellent account of the peaceful penetration of Islam in Kashmir, see: Khan, Mohammad Ishaq. (1994). Kashmir's Transition to Islam: The Role of Muslim Rishis. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors.
3.  Stein, M. A. (1900). Kalhana’s Rajatarangini: A Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir (Volume II). India: Archibald Constable and Company Ltd. P.273.
4.  Weber, Dr. Albrecht. (1853). Indische Studien. Vol xviii. Berlin. P.367. He is the most noted Sanskrit poet of 11th century. He is reputed to be the author of many books, of which thirty-four, including Darpadalana, Desha Updesha and Brihatkathamanjari, are believed to be available.
5.  For more details please see: Temple, R.C. (1924). The Words of Lalla the Prophetess. Cambridge University Press.
6.  Dani, Ahmad Hasan. (1989). Islamic Architecture: The Wooden Style of Northern Pakistan. Islamabad: National Hijra Council. P.41.
7.  Amir Kabir of Khatlan. (1985, November 28). Viewpoint. P. 29.
8.  For a detailed study please see: Ahad, Abdul. (1987). Kashmir to Frankfurt: A Study of Arts and Crafts. New Delhi: Rima Publication House. 
9.  Arberry, A.J. (1966). Javid Nama: Versified English Translation. London. P. 116 & 117.

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