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Kashmiriyat is a Prototype for Hindustaniyat – I

By: Sultan Shahin


South Asian Islam finds its best expression in Kashmir’s Rishi-Sufi order and its precious gift known in the valley and beyond as Kashmiriyat, of which the Kashmiri people are justly proud. The defining features of Kashmiri Sufism are a belief in both the transcendence and immanence of God, respect for other religions, belief in reincarnation, emphasis on following the right path (very similar to the eight-fold path taught by Lord Buddha), developing mind’s potential through meditation and absorption, using primarily a technique called paas-e-anfaas (watching the breath, a form of pranayama), belief in miracles performed by the Sufi saint and his or her capacity to intercede with God on behalf of his followers, love of idols of gods and goddesses and contempt for the Mullah, the priest who teaches a ritualistic version of Islam. The evolution of Kashmiri Sufism has been possible because of a peaceful interaction between Islam and Hinduism in the South Asian region over 14 centuries, in which both religions have discovered a spiritual symbiosis. But it needs to be emphasised, particularly in view of the current Islamic fundamentalist propaganda against the Islamic spirit of Sufism, that though it has remained open to influence from other religions and philosophies, the essential temperament of Kashmiri Sufism remains Islamic.


Born in the sandy dunes and hills of Arabian Desert 14 centuries ago, Islam has spread throughout the world. It now claims almost two billion followers. Wherever it has gone, it has acquired a local colour, while retaining its basic belief systems. Islam itself has encouraged this process. The Holy Quran exhorts its followers to believe in all the prophets of God, by whatever names they may now be known, who preceded Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him).

In Islamic traditions the number of such seers, who brought messages from God, is put at 1,24,000, though only 25 names could be mentioned in the Quran. Thus while expressing belief in the oneness of God and the prophethood of Mohammad, a Muslim simultaneously expresses belief in all the previous messengers of God as well. It is natural that the Muslims have not felt obliged to distance themselves totally from their previous beliefs and practices even after conversion to Islam, at least to the extent these did not contravene their new Islamic beliefs. Indian Islam, therefore, naturally has its own indigenous flavour. And it finds its best expression in the Sufi way of life in the Kashmir valley.

Kashmiri Islam is renowned for its broadmindedness and its deep commitment to tolerance of all streams of thought. It is known to be firmly anchored in the Indian soil. Where from does their deep commitment to a composite Hindu-Muslim culture, to what we call secularism, which is basically respect for all religions, emanate? What is the source of this deep connection with India despite the militant separatism of the past decade? Why is Kashmiriyat so important to the Kashmiri Muslim? I think the answer lies in the eclectic and syncretic nature of their spiritual beliefs. It is the impact of Sufi and Rishi visions of Islam that have helped him synthesise the message of Prophet Mohammad with the teachings of earlier prophets of Islam that constitute the core beliefs of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Perhaps the most important factor that contributed to Kashmiriyat is the history of a peaceful spread of Islam in this region. An authority on Kashmir, Dr. M. A. Stein maintains that Islam made its way into the valley not by forcible conquest but by gradual conversion, for which the influx of foreign adventurers from the south and central Asia had prepared the ground. Definite historical facts that would account for the extraordinarily large number of conversions that took place in Kashmir are not available, as Sir Thomas Arnold points out with regret.  But whatever scanty information is available leads us to attribute this surprising phenomenon to a long and continuous missionary movement carried out by Sufi saints, pirs, faqirs, dervishes and ulema. The Islamic missionary entered the valley at a time when, in the words of W.R. Lawrence it “was a country of drunkards and gamblers.” Such an atmosphere is very much suited for the spread of a new philosophy or religion.

Rishi-Sufi Order

The most important influence on the Kashmiri Muslims, in terms of their Kashmiriyat, is that of the Rishi order of Sufis. While the Sufi orders like the Suhrawardi, Kubravi, Naqshbandi and Qadri, arrived in Kashmir from Persia, Central Asia, and Central and North India, the Rishi order evolved in the Valley itself in the beginning of the 15th century.

The Kashmir valley was already permeated with the traditions of Hindu asceticism and Buddhist renunciation. As an authority on Kashmiri Sufism, Prof. Abdul Qaiyum Rafiqi explains, the term Rishi itself is clearly a derivation from Sanskrit traditions. Important chroniclers of this period, Abul Fazal, for instance, or Emperor Jahangir, reveal a close resemblance between the life-styles of the Sufis and the Hindu Rishis as well as Buddhist and Jain monks. Jahangir corroborates Abu’l-Fazl in his Memoirs. He says: “Although they have not acquired learning and mar’rifa, they live a frank and unostentatious life. They criticize nobody and ask for nothing from anyone. They restrain the tongue of desire, and the foot of seeking. They neither eat meat nor marry. They always plant fruit-bearing trees in uninhabited parts, so that they may benefit people. But they themselves do not hope to reap any advantages from these trees.” Baba Dawood Khaki and Baba Naseeb, too give a similar account.

Nand Rishi Sheikhul-Alam Sheikh Nooruddin is the forerunner of the Rishi order of Sufis. Having wielded tremendous influence on the Kashmiri society, Sheikh Nooruddeen is considered the national saint of Kashmir.  His ziarat (shrine) at Charar-e-Sharif is visited by thousands till this day and is a main target of the Fundamentalist Islam’s ire. His sayings show that he believed that God is both immanent and transcendent. God is everywhere, not confined to one place or another. According to Sheikhul Alam, all the branches of knowledge are nothing but the commentary upon the proclamation of faith, “There is no God but Allah”. If one truly seeks God, he says, everything but Allah becomes worthless. One, who recognises himself, recognises God: “When I was able to recognise my own self, I was able to recognise God; both loss and gain became identical to me and the distinction between life and death disappeared.”

He once told his mother: “God was and is and shall be for ever; He is independent of all other creatures; He lacks nothing.”

Further he says:

“There is one God,

But with a hundred names.

There is not a single blade of grass,

Which does not worship Him.”

With such deep commitment to spiritual growth and the Islamic philosophy of Divine Unity as expressed in the philosophy of Wahdat-ul-wujud, which is uniquely similar to the Hindu philosophy of non-duality (Advaita), it is not at all surprising that the Rishis consistently preached complete harmony among different religions and peace and understanding among their followers.

This was not always easy. Sheikhul Alam Sheikh Nooruddin, for instance, faced restrictions during the reign of Suha Bhatt who had started persecuting non-Muslims in his newfound Islamic zeal after conversion to the new faith. Aware of the tension created between Hindus and Muslims during the reign of Sultan Sikandar, Sheikh Nooruddin wrote:

“We belong to the same parents.

Then why this difference?

Let Hindus and Muslims (together)

Worship God alone.

We came to this world like partners.

We should have shared our joys and sorrows together.

Nand Rishi Sheikh Nooruddin’s message was not confined to Hindus and Muslims alone. It speaks to all mankind. That is why his sayings and his verses have acquired the character of proverbs and are routinely referred to by Kashmiris of all hues in their daily life. Another reason for the popularity of his verses and that of many other Rishis may be the fact that they expressed their thoughts in the simple language used by the common folk. The message given by Kashmiri Rishis or even Sufis of previous orders, who had arrived from Central Asia, is always the same – divine unity of All That Is.

In fact it is the Sufis of previous orders who had prepared the ground for the emergence of Rishis with their powerful message of religious synthesis. One poem is of special relevance. This is from the verses of Sarfi, a Sufi of the Kubravi Order.

“O, Sarfi!

What benefit are you going to gain from the pilgrimage?

If Kaaba, temple and tavern are not identical with you.

O, Sarfi!

As on every side a ray has

Fallen from His face to light the night,

Impossible it is for you to say that Somnath

Has not the Kaaba’s light”.

It is also noteworthy that many a Sufi and Rishi, have had no hesitation in expressing their love of idols of gods and goddesses. In fact they consider idol-worship as part of the phenomenon of mystical love. Sheikh Yaqub, a Sufi of the Kubravi order, for instance, proudly calls himself a kafir of Ishq (Divine Love) and yearns to burn himself in the fire of love. He challenges the ulema (scholars) who find fault with the love of idols, to tell him if anything else is more meritorious in the world than the crime of loving idols. He asserts repeatedly that his faith is the love of idols.

The same convergence of Hindu-Muslim thought is discernible in Kashmiri mysticism on the question of reincarnation. While few Muslims in other parts of the sub-continent believe in reincarnation in the context of the philosophy of Karma, it is not unusual to find many believers in this theory among Kashmiri Muslims. Kashmiri Islam is much indebted to the Persian influence in this regard. Verses like the following from the Masnawi by Hazrat Jalaluddin Rumi, are common knowledge in Kashmir:

“I died as mineral and became a plant,

I died as plant and rose to animal,

I died as animal and I was Man.

Why should I fear?

When was I less by dying?

Yet Once more I shall die as Man,

To soar with angels blest;

But even from angelhood I must pass on….”

Sufism involves the improvement of man’s relationship with man as well as man’s relationship with Allah. Those who believe in Wahdut-ul-wujud also believe that the only real existence is Allah who is therefore Wajib-ul-wujud. All other beings are shadows, phantoms of our creation as the poet Mir says:

Ye tawahhum ka karkhana hai

Yan wohi hai jo aitebaar kiya

(This universe is nothing but delusion

Nothing exists except what we assume).

This idea is similar to the philosophy of Vedanta–– ‘There is only one Brahma and none else exists’. The most distinguished exponent of Wahdat-ul-wujud was Shaikh Mohiuddin Ibn Arabi, the author of Futuhat-e-Makkiya and Fusus al Hikam. Some Sufis like Mansur al-Hallaj, Qazi-ul-Qazzat Hamadani, Masud Bak were martyred for propagating the philosophy of Unity of Existence, yet the idea remained a pillar of Sufi belief, especially among the Sufis of India, where the philosophy of Vedanta gave it a firm foundation.

For the Sufi God is both transcendent and immanent. The concepts of transcendence and immanence (bhedabheda) Indian philosophy too asserts both identity and difference between the world and finite individuals, on the one hand, and Brahman, on the other. The world and finite individuals are real and yet both different and not different from the Brahman. Brahman is viewed as both the material and the efficient cause of the world. Though Brahman as cause is different from Brahman as effect, the two are identical inasmuch as the effect dissolves into the cause, as the waves return into the sea.  As waves are both different from and identical with the sea, so are the world and the finite individuals in relation to Brahman. The finite selves are parts of Brahman, as sparks of fire are parts of fire.

It is not at all surprising in this context that one of the most influential personalities in Kashmir until the present day, though not a Kashmiri himself, is Mughal Prince and brother of Emperor Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh who discovered a lot of common ground between Hindu and Muslim religious thought:

Here is the secret of unity (tawhid), O friend, understand it;

Nowhere exists anything but God.

All that you see or know other than Him,

Verily is separate in name, but in essence one with God.

Like an ocean is the essence of the Supreme Self,

Like forms in water are all souls and objects;

The ocean heaving and stirring within

Transforms itself into drops, waves and bubbles.

So long as it does not realise its separation from the ocean,

The drop remains a drop;

So long he does not know himself to be the Creator,

The created remains a created.

O you, in quest of God, you seek Him everywhere,

You verily are the god, not apart from Him!

Already in the midst of the boundless ocean,

Your quest resembles the search of a drop for the ocean!

The relationship between the broad-minded Sufis and the conservative Ulema has never been cordial in most Muslim societies. But whereas the Sufis were on the margins of society in several other places, in Kashmir, as in other parts of India, they were the dominant influence. This is what makes Kashmir different from Muslim societies in other parts of the world. This made it possible for the Sufi in Kashmir to rebuke the preacher rather than being the target of abuse as in other places. Sheikh Nooruddin, for instance, could afford to be highly critical of the Mullahs who make it their profession to recite the Quran and get money in return – one of the greatest crimes in Islam. The Rishi-Sufi appears to have nothing but contempt for this tribe of people:

“A spiritual guide seems like a pot full of nectar,

Which may be trickling down in drops.

On examining him we found him empty in mind,

He may be preaching to others but forgetting himself.

O Mullah your rosary is like a snake,

You begin to count the beads when

Your disciples come near,

You eat six meals one after the other,

If you are a Mullah, then who are the thieves?”

Sheikh Nooruddin is almost prophetic, when he makes the following prognosis about the fundamentalist Mullah:

“The people of Kalyug in every house

Will pretend to be saints,

As a prostitute does when dancing,

They will pretend to be innocent and extremely gentle.

They will excel thieves in living by unlawful means,

To hide themselves they will repair to a forest.”

The same thought is expressed by Dara Shikoh in these words:

Paradise is there where no Mullah exists—

Where the noise of his discussions and debate is not heard

May the world become free from the noise of Mullah!

And none should pay any heed to his decrees!

In the city where a Mullah resides,

No wise man ever stays.

One essential feature of Kashmiri Sufism is a faith in miracles performed by the Sufi saints and their ability to intercede with God on behalf of their followers, a power that was restricted to Prophet Mohammad alone, that too to be exercised on the Day of Judgement alone and not in matters of solving mundane day-to-day problems. Fundamentalists make much of it to prove that Sufism is far from Islam, as it seems to encourage pre-Islamic superstitions, though Islam wants to make people rational and the Prophet himself did not depend on miracles to convey his message to the people or to impress upon them his closeness to God as prophets had done before him.

This makes it imperative that we try to understand the Sufi view of the place and function of miracles in their scheme of things.  “Miracles,” said Naqshband, “have a function, and that function operates whether they are understood or not. They have a true (objective) function. Hence, miracles will in some people produce confusion, in others scepticism, in others fear, in others excitement, and so on. It is the function of the miracle to provoke reactions and supply nutriment; nutriment in this case which varies with the personality acted upon. In all cases the miracle is an instrument of both influence and assessment of the people acted upon.” All miracles, according to the Sufis, have thus such a multifarious action on humanity that they cannot be (a) performed except when needed, and generally develop as incidental happenings; (b) diagnosed or defined because of the complexity of their nature. The nature of a miracle cannot be detached from its effect, because it would not be of any importance if a human being were not involved.

A point of convergence between Kashmiri mysticism and the general Vedanta philosophy is the belief that performance of duties together with knowledge of Brahman leads to liberation. In religious life, like many Vedantists Kashmiri Sufis are an advocate of bhakti, but bhakti is not a mere feeling of love or affection for God, but rather is dhyana, or meditation, directed toward the transcendent Brahman who is not exhausted in his manifestations. As Dara Shikoh pointed out:

Thou wish to enter the circle of men of illumination?

Then cease talking and be in the “state”;

By professing the unity of god, thou canst not become a monotheist

As the tongue cannot taste sugar by only uttering its name.

Even the meditative technique that Kashmiri Sufis use is closer to the Indian tradition. By and large they use variations of paas-e-anfaas (watching the breath). This is similar to various techniques of pranayama widely practised in India’s Hath-Yoga traditions. These meditative techniques were being practised initially by the Shaivite yogis of Kashmir before the advent of Islam. The Sufis have added the repetition of the word Allah or Allahoo or huwwa to their meditative technique. (To be concluded)



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