Mirwaiz matters

Last week, Mehmood-ur-Rashid wrote an advisory to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq (“Time for Umar Farooq to rediscover”, Greater Kashmir, 12th July, 2019). The tone was reverential, analysis deferential, and the sentiment sympathetic. 

It is unlikely that Mirwaiz will respond. Not in public, at least. Will he speak about the issues from the pulpit of Jamia Masjid? Will his weekly canonical discoursesor his all-important liturgical interventions address the concerns expressed?  Unlikely. And that is precisely where the tragedy starts.

One need not be in agreement with Mehmood’s argument, but whatever he has said,ought to be discussed. Even if, the timing of the “extra ordinary” meeting of the Muttahida Majlise Ulema where Mirwaiz apparently spoke about “social issues” is a bit curious. Equally so, the quick reaction by the columnist!

Contrary to the five roles of Mirwaiz listed out in the column,there are basically only two: First, he is the Mirwaiz; an institution in itself. In fact, it is theonly institution of the Kashmiri muslim civil society. Also it is unique to Kashmir.

The position that he holdsis not divinely ordained; it is socially created and sanctified. In recognition of the eloquence, erudition and engaging style of “wazkhaani”, theologist Hafiz Rasul Shah (1783 – 1845), was designated as Mir Waiz. Now it is a 200 year old tradition! A seat of great significance and promise. Sadly diluted.

The reason for dilution is his second, acquired, role: that of a political leader. By virtue of heading a political party, the Awami Action Committee, he is into formal politics. Currently, he is aligned with the Hurriyat Conference and a part of a larger separatist grouping.

Historically, Mirwaiz grew in prestige and respect to become a venerable institution not because of any particular political ideology but for social reforms, preaching of Islam, and working for the empowerment of Muslims.

Mirwaiz Rasool Shah became the Mirwaiz in 1890, and revolutionized the societal thinking by setting up Anjuman Nusrat-e-Islam, the first association of Kashmiri muslims. In 1889, despite severe criticism of the conservatives, he founded the Madrassah Nusratul Islam at Rajouri Kadal; the first educational institute of muslims in Kashmir. This led to Mehjoor calling him the Sir Sayeed of Kashmir way back in 1908.

The impact of these initiatives, obviously went beyond the realm of social reform. In April 2016, the Anjuman, energised by the first crop of educated young men from Islamia High School, represented to Sir M H Sharp, demanding equal rights for Muslims in getting modern higher education which was hitherto denied. This predates the Lord Reading memorandum. Indeed,it was a resolution passed by the Anjuman at the Islami High school in August 1922 that culminated in the 17 point memorandum presented to Lord Reading in 1924.

Thisapproach of social politics changed with the advent of Molvi Yousuf Shahas the Mirwaiz in 1931. An alumni of Darul Uloom, Deoband, he was attracted to the Khilafat Movement. He arranged political meetings in the variousmosques of Srinagar, which were addressed by the young members of the Reading Room. This was the first time, a Mirwaiz had got involved with political activism and party politics. Till then, he was above party politics.  This had implications.

Till Molvi Ahmadullah Shah was the Mirwaiz, he was accepted by all the muslims as their religious leader. His authority had also been ratified by the Dogra regime. Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah, in order to eliminate the threat posed to his position by Sheikh Abdullah, set up his own political party, the Azad Conference in 1933. He also compromised his position and stature by accepting a stipend of Rs. 600 from the Dogra regime.Abdullah retaliated by aligning himself with MirwaizHamadani, a rival religious leader further diluting the authority of the Mirwaiz Kalan.

Thirty years later, political adventurism was once again undertaken. In March 1964, Mirwaiz Mohammed Farooq transformed the Awami Action Committee, a body fighting for recovery of Moe-e-Muqaddas, into a movement for political self-determination. Ever since, even though the basis of his real power has been rooted in religion and tradition, the use of that power has been only political.

This preoccupation with the political have seriously undermined the social, cultural and spiritual dimensions of the society. The biggest damage of getting the institution of Mirwaiz into active politics – then and now — has been on the efficacy of his word. By virtue of where he sits, what he says, ought to have the authority; moral and institutional; a writ that runs large in the community. This got restricted to his political followers. The political class is only a subset of the larger Kashmiri muslim community of believers.

What is needed today is rebuilding the “social capital”;a compact which recreates the intrinsic value system among the community. These are linkages which provide the basis for an enlightened polity. There has to be a mindset reset in the community. It is a social need, not a political necessity.

For this, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has what no one else can have: the power of the pulpit. This is a platform of position, prestige, and power. It is the seat of authority, from which the agenda of the civil society is to be, and can be set. And there is 1400 years of Islamic history,across civilisations and countries, to back it.

The Islamic orthopraxy and ritual practices that Mirwaiz controls are valid expressions of Islam. These are “primary texts” that can inform us about our self-identity and articulate ideals and values symbolically and pragmatically.In our situation today, it is important to promote the idea and ideal of social unity not limited to the theological unity of tawheed but extended to a secular social contract.

There is need to articulate the values of a social order or cultural system, create culture and reproduce the master narratives required for the people to act in “meaningful and effective ways”. That in turn will set the stage for a political narrative. Given the existing structure, where can this be done?

In the world of social media, the impact of the “premodern” ritualised form of mass communication”, the friday sermon, is being hugely underestimated. The khutba, along with the waaz and the congregational prayer, provides masses with the right place and the optimal moment in which to orient and channel their sentiments into a righteous manner. Seen as public discourse, it goes much beyond the immediate communication between the preacher and his audience during the preaching event. It envisages the perpetuation and the cultivation of religious ideas, political ideologies, moral dispositions, symbolic systems – in sum the transmission of culture. Hence, communications from the pulpit should serve as the principal media through which religious discourses are applied and played out in the concrete socio-political, rather than a cosmogonic, context.

To do this, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq doesn’t have to look far. He may like to reassess the legacy of Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah and perhaps draw more inspiration from Mirwaiz Rasool Shah. He may find two out of the seven objectives of setting up the Anjuman, extremely relevant today. Time to dust the documents and reread what his forefathers had drafted with understanding, vision and wisdom. This done, Mirwaiz will be more effective as whole on his own rather than an appendage to the sum of parts.


It is a little known fact that one of the foremost political strategist of the freedom struggle of Kashmir, unrecognised and un-feted, Khawaja Ghulam Ahmed Ashai, was the topper of the first batch of five students from Mirwaiz’s Islamia School who appeared for matriculation examination of the Punjab University in 1908 A.D.  Pandit Sarwan and secured second position!