BY ANUTTAMA BANERJI
Sufism in the Kashmir Valley
Sufism (Tasawwuf) as an ideological framework or religious belief system originated in the seventh century when mystics wearing coarse woollen clothes asserted that they had found a way of acquiring ‘mystic knowledge’ of God (Allah). The Sufi mystics sought holy communion with God through an intensely personal liaison with the Divine Power. (Parveen, 2014:39) While most Sufi orders in India have traditionally followed the principle of Wahadat ‘al Wujud (unity of all existence) which preached that all religions led to God and mystical union with God was possible, some Sufi orders also followed the principle of Wahadat ‘al Shuhud (unity of all witness) that negated the claims of the former and stated that God was unique in his Self, and in no way could any created object be a part of His being.
Within Kashmir, the principle of Wahadat ‘al Wujud has largely held sway as Sufism has given birth to a rich and eclectic culture within the Kashmir Valley. Like the erstwhile Mughal state which was not a wall-to-wall carpet but was a patchwork quilt, Kashmir too, has always possessed a rich cultural heritage and Sufism as an ideological belief system has further enriched the socio-cultural belief systems of the local Kashmiri population. The convergence of humanism, spirituality and tolerance within Sufism has attracted ordinary Kashmiris within the Sufi fold as various Sufi orders (silsilas) have flourished within Kashmir such as the Naqshbandi, the Qadiri, the Suhrawardi, the Kubrawi Silsilas and the Sufi order of the Rishis. Barring the order of the Rishis which had indigenous origins, the other orders had Iranian or Central Asian origins. In fact, Sufism had a twin impact in Kashmir. Firstly, it acted as a catalyst in the spread of Islam in Kashmir. Secondly, Sufism gave birth to a composite culture within Kashmir as different religious communities, be it, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist came to reside in Kashmir peacefully (EFSAS, 2017) Thus, Sufism on the one hand strengthened Islam as a religious entity within the region, it also paved the way for the creation of a composite cultural identity within Kashmir.
Sufism, Islam and the Spread of Composite Culture
The spread of Sufism coincided with the rise of Islam within Kashmir. While Sufi saints played a role in strengthening Islam as a socio-religious entity within the valley, they also propagated the assimilation of different religious cultures and identities. For instance, Hazrat Bulbul Shah of the Suharawardi order strengthened the foundation of Sufi Islam in Kashmir when he acted as a catalyst in the conversion of the Buddhist prince Rinchana to Islam after the Buddhist Prince was denied the right to convert to Hinduism after his marriage to the Hindu princess Kota Rani, the daughter of the erstwhile King Ramachandra. (Ahmed Shah, 2021) He also advocated the synthesis of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism within the valley to bring political stability within the region.
Similarly, Mir Syed Ali Hamadani popularly known as ‘Shah-i-Hamadan’ enriched Kashmiri society for the better through his diverse contributions in the field of philosophy, ethics and jurisprudence on the one hand and art and craft on the other. (Ahmed Shah, 2021) For example, through his books like Zakhiratul Mulk, Shah-i-Hamadan tenaciously provided his followers with a comprehensive code of conduct that could enable them to lead a virtuous life, eventually allowing them to attain eternal salvation (Sa’adah) As a pious Sufi, he also believed in earning from lawful (Halal) resources. (Greater Kashmir, 2015) and he had an all pervasive influence on the rise of Sufi Islam within Kashmir. Since his teachings were based on the notions of Tawheed (oneness of God) Ikhlas (purity) and Unity, he attracted several followers from all walks of life including the patrician and plebeian classes (EFSAS, 2017) for he envisioned a society where people of diverse religious backgrounds could live together as a community peacefully. (Singh, 2018)
However, the most notable contribution in this regard was made by the Sufi saint Hazrat Shiekh Nuruddin Wali, also known as Nund Rishi. His shrine at Charar-i-Shareef is popular among both Hindus and Muslims. Importantly, his popularity among both Hindus and Muslims can be attributed to the fact that he preached communal harmony and promoted the universal notion of love. Interestingly, what makes him a true ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity was his respect and adoration for the Shaivite female mystic Lal Ded or Lalla Arifa (Lala, the Realised One) and convergences between their teachings can be found till this day. Both Nund Rishi and Lal Ded were tolerant in their beliefs and supported the marginalised sections of society. They vehemently opposed the caste system and the existing superstitions within the Hindu religious fold. (Sikand, 2001) and Nund Rishi’s shukhs and Lal Ded’s vakhs initiated a conversation in medieval society about faith and its enduring role in society.
Rise of Pluralistic Cultural Order in the Valley
Due to the burgeoning influence of mystics like Nund Rishi and Lal Ded, a pluralistic culture of tolerance emerged within Kashmiri society that saw its finest expression in religious festivals and cultural celebrations across the valley. For example, the birth of the river ‘Vitasta’ (Jhelum) was celebrated with great fervour by both communities where the king himself (King Zain-ul-Abidin/ Bud Shah in this case) served as the high priest. In fact, this festival ‘Vethrutava’ that feted the birth of the river Jhelum was celebrated with much fanfare even when most of the Kashmiri population had converted to Islam in medieval Kashmir. (Ahmed Sheikh, 2017) This celebration of the river’s brith can be attributed to the fact that the river Jhelum is the lifeline of the valley and has remained an important mode of transportations and internal trade since ancient times. (Hakhoo, 2015)
Similarly, both Hindus and Muslims also came together to celebrate the onset of Spring by celebrating the festival of ‘Badamwari’ (Almond Festival) amidst much fanfare. (Nadeem, 2020) Similarly, Nagayatra was celebrated by both Hindus and Muslims during Bhadun (August) (Ahmed Sheikh, 2017) Similarly, Na’ats or devotional poems praising the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) were composed by Hindus (Ashiq, 2018) while Muslim artists composed Hindu Kirtans or devotional hymns (Nazir, 2018) Thus, due to the influence of eclectic Sufi traditions, Kashmiris came to develop customs (Rewaz) that strengthened the notion of a composite culture.These cultural practices paved the way for the creation of a society that was inclusive and tolerant.
Therefore, the arrival of Sufism in Kashmir greatly impacted the society and polity of Kashmir. Moreover, Sufi saints in Kashmir while cementing the Islamic belief system in the valley worked assiduously to build a society that espoused the cause of inter-faith harmony. The rise of a pluralistic cultural order in the Kashmir Valley was a by-product of the positive influence of Sufi saints in Kashmir as the inherent eclecticism that informed Sufi practices within Kashmir richly influenced the lives of ordinary people in the Kashmir Valley. Thus, Sufism as an ideology promoted the creation of a composite culture in Kashmir.
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European Foundation for South Asian Studies (2021) Kashmir’s Composite Culture: Sufism and Communal Harmony- KashmiriyatEuropean Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) URL: https://www.efsas.org/publications/study-papers/kashmir’s-composite-culture-sufism-and-communal-harmony-kashmiriyat/
Hakhoo, S. (2015) Happy b’day Jelum, the lifeline of Valley Tribune India 26 September 2015 URL: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/features/happy-b-day-jhelum-the-lifeline-of-valley-138277
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Singh, J. (2018) From Shaivite masters to Sufi saints: The land of spiritual gurus-Kashmir Times Now 24 October 2018 URL: https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/gurus-of-kashmir-shaivite-masters-sufi-saints-hindu-muslim-gurus/300016
Anuttama Banerji is a Freelance Features Writer & Political Commentator
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.