Kashmir and Tibet

“We are not the makers of history, we are made by history”

– Martin Luther King. Jr.

I remember, as a child sitting in front of my father, when he was being interviewed by someone from Voice of America, or BBC; even for local newspapers or for research papers. Their understanding of our ‘history’ and ‘culture’ in their articles, papers and documentaries I found very general and sparse.

Now, as I see my father dwindle, creases on his forehead speak of an entire life he spent as a benefactor to people. I feel an urge to pen down, the truth of our roots from a subjective and humanistic perspective.

How can I say I belong to one ethnicity when I’m an amalgam of so many?

Kashmir is my home and that is where I draw my race from. My writings usually represent Kashmir and our human struggle and did I tell you I’ve got quite the downtown swag. Often times my Arab nature peeps in when it comes to the “Adab” and love for Middle East and Palestine.

But how could you know all of this without asking?

The simplest way to bridge the distance between two people is communication and rightly so, when you ask someone their name and their story, you understand their cultures, ancestries, traditions and values. The color of a person’s story must be self-defined, coming from the lips of the person itself, not of any stereotype, normalized judgment or false media analysis, because generalizing someone is taking away the right to their story and when you’re not asking someone their name. You are subconsciously being biased to them. We have become smooth with generalizing a group of people, so much so that we don’t even try to look beyond that.

In the world gradually a huge change is taking place, with the migrant crisis. We should all be concerned about this because it’s a humanitarian crisis. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) At least 79.5 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also millions of stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and lack access to basic rights such as education, health care, employment and freedom of movement.

A key component which usually is focused on is the experiences of violence, loss, and trauma. While those are significant, there are also stories of hope and bliss– and I want to narrate those as well because they are as true a part of our experience as our losses. That is why it is important to look at all the textures and go beyond the single narrative of disruption and disparity.

Our ancestors were Tibetan Kashmiri Muslims called “Lhasa Khache”, who resided in Tibet for several centuries as a wealthy, influential and prestigious mercantile community- an inhabitant that came to merge Sunni Islam with Tibetan cultural elements. My ancestors embodied both being Tibetan and Muslims, and in the process of bridging these worlds, they contributed to the religious, cultural, political and economic landscape of Tibet. We can find some of the earliest mentions of Islam in Tibet in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish documents that discuss the geographic makeup of the country, missionary activities, conversion narratives and political allegiances. Islam entered Tibet via trade from the East as it spread from Arabia through Persia and Afghanistan and arrived in Tibet through the silk routes in Central Asia.

Marc Gaboriau, in his book “Introduction to Recit D’un Voageur Musulman (Paris: Labethno, 1973)” however, posits that more often Muslims traveled to Tibet from South Asia through a larger network of Kashmiri merchants. Kashmiri Muslim merchants, who first came to the region for commerce, then gradually settled in the major cities of Central Tibet, such as Lhasa, Zhigatse, Gyangtse, Kuti and Tsetang. Gradually, inter-marriage occurred between Kashmiri men and Buddhist women who were subsequently converted to Islam. The community began to grow in number, becoming a population of two “mixed races”, Kashmiri and Tibetan. Being a “Khache” thus meant descending from a Kashmiri paternal line and Tibetan maternal line.

My father often reminisces how they were provided education at a local madrassa where students were taught the Quran. A lot of languages were taught as well, which included- Arabic, Urdu, Persian and Tibetan. After completing their education at the madrassa, some students went on to India to join Islamic colleges such as the Darul Uloom in Deoband, Nadwatul Ulema in Lucknow and Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. It was a rigorous travel that took several months to complete by foot and on yak. Once in India, they usually would not return until completing their education.

The greatest influence of the Kashmiri Tibetan Muslims was on central Tibet’s economy. Most of the members of the community were wealthy traders and merchants who facilitated the flow of goods between Tibet and South Asia. Because of these enterprises, many Khaches accumulated considerable wealth and held tremendous prestige in the city.

When the French missionary, Evariste Regis Huc, traveled to Lhasa in 1846, he observed that the Tibetan Muslims were the richest merchants in Lhasa and so influential in money matters that one could almost always find a Persian character on Tibetan coins. The vitality of the commercial economy of Lhasa was so inextricably tied to the enterprises of the Tibetan Muslims that when Muslims ceased doing business to observe religious holidays, commerce in the city would come to a standstill. This wealth and prominence elevated some Kashmiri Tibetan Muslims to the same social level as the Lhasa aristocracy.

When I was a kid, I often asked my father, if we had such privilege and possessions there, what was the main reason that our forefathers came to Kashmir?

He always told me to remember this, “We left Tibet for Islam mainly. Our forefathers thought of preserving the real Muslim identity along with the Kashmiri-Tibetan culture of the next generations to come”

My father’s family did not leave with the ‘faction’. They came later with the help of then Indian Counsel General Mr. P. N. Kaul. They were not “Refugees”, “They” were “immigrants”. They did not “flee”, they chose to “leave”. Now, all these years as my Abba leads the prayers, behind him both native Kashmiris and Tibetans pray together and stand as ‘one community’.

The huge Black lives Matter moment showed how racism is still so prevalent in the world. Racism exists everywhere, the first step is to change mindset. Often we, Kashmiris are labelled wrongly, sadly our race is viewed with doubt and suspension. Though, it angers me a lot and I find myself defending our Kashmiri race at an instant when there is a backlash.

But I want to ask you all today, have we named others rightly for “Us” to be named rightly?

I’d leave you all with this question for self-introspection and with this beautiful hadith which is from the last sermon of our prophet (s.a.w) on mount Arafah, where the Prophet Mohammad (s.a.w.) said,

“An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab, also a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good deeds”

P.S: This article is purely from a humanistic and cultural perspective and intend to promote cultural diversity. There is no political framework involved.

Born and raised in Kashmir, the place she humbly calls home, Sajidah Musally comes from a diverse ethnic and cultural background – Kashmiri, Tibetan, and an Arab by lineage.