Kashmir's Transition to Islam : The Role of Muslim Rishis (Fifteenth to Eighteenth Century)

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Item Code: NAE904
Publisher: Manohar Publishers And Distributors
Author: Mohammad Ishaq Khan
Language: English
Edition: 2002
ISBN: 9788173041990
Pages: 314 (8 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 400 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

The book breaks fresh ground in historical research. Based on a critical and empathic understanding of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian and Kashmiri sources, it provides a critique of Orientalist scholarship against the background of an historical enquiry conducted into the processes of Islamization and its dynamics in relation to the role of Muslim Rishis (Kashmiri Sufis).

Professor Ishaq Khan has brought together a number of perspectives- the historical, the sociological, and the religious. The crux of his argument is that Islam is not merely a matter of theological propositions, but also a historical realization: realizing the Oneness of Allah by total surrender, dedication, service and above all self- sacrifice for the good of humankind.

The Rishi movement is an integral component of the process of Islamization that started in the picturesque Valley in the wake of the introduction of Sufi orders from Central Asia and Persia in the fourteenth century. The author particularly focuses on the paradox and tension that the Kashmiri Brahmanic society experienced as a result of the Rishi’s advocacy of virtues such as self- imposed poverty, identification with the poor and the down- trodden, and above all opposition to the caste system.

A significant feature of the book is a perceptive analysis of legends and miracles associated with Muslim Rishis.

The author advocates the idea of looking at history from a fresh point of view, and argues in favour of studying the history of human civilization in its totality, involving an interaction between religion and society. The author has shown that the history of human civilization cannot be studied in watertight compartments of matter and faith. The present work is therefore worthy of attention and should be of interest to a wide range of readers, rather than merely to specialists.


About the Author

Mohammad Ishaq Khan is Professor of History at the University of Kashmir. Formerly the Leverhulme Senior Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Dean Faculty of Social Sciences and Dean Academics at Kashmir University, he is presently working on a Biographical Dictionary of Sufism in South Asia. He is the author of History of Srinagar, 1846-1947: A Study in Socio- Cultural Change; Perspectives on Kashmir: Historical Dimensions; Experiencing Islam and numerous research articles published in learned journals of international repute.


Preface to The Third Edition

Professor Richard Maxwell Eaton has raised some pertinent points regarding Kashmir’s Transition to Islam and “difficulties inherent in the historical use of Indo- Muslim hagiographies” (journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 1999, Oxford). While I am indebted to the learned scholar for his encouraging remarks and insightful comments, nevertheless, some misgivings need to be dispelled.

True, in certain cases, there are “long gaps” between “events discussed and the earliest recorded reference to them”; but it must be borne in mind that such criticism founders on the bedrock of the earliest sources, now extinct, but used by later Persian chroniclers. For instance, Sayyid ‘Ali, who wrote his Tarikh-i Kashmir in the 1570s, refers to several earliest works which are now not available to us. On the contrary, where contemporary or near contemporary chronicles are available, their authors do not provide any information about an event of crucial significance as eyewitnesses. Thus the intriguing silence of the Sanskrit chroniclers about Lal Ded, Saiyid ‘Ali Hamadani and Shaikh Nuruddin Rishi speaks volumes for their hubristic attitudes.’

It is also important to note that the terminology of a “conscious missionary” for Shaikh Nuruddin Rishi has been used in a much broader context of invitation to join spiritual and social fellowship (da ‘wah) epitomizing the teachings of the Qur’an, Sunna and Tasawwuf rather than within the perceived narrow confines of the nineteenth- century “Protestant efforts at systematic and bureaucratized proselytization.” One wonders why the application of the term “conscious missionary” appears “misleading and quite problematic” to Eaton given a plethora of evidence quoted in this book from Nuruddin’s poetry, tazkira literature and, also, the latter- day perceptions of his missionary and liberating role in the folk consciousness against the background of the egalitarian teachings of Islam vis-à-vis caste system! One also wonders at Eaton’s speculation as to “how ascetics and social recluses could at the same time have been active farmers…who conferred dignity on manual labour”. Isn’t there sufficient evidence in this work itself to show that several Rishis including the prominent ones like Baba Hardi Rishi and Shaikh Daud Batmaloo were also active farmers? For that matter even Nuruddin Rishi is reputed to have once symbolically cultivated a piece of land in order to emphasise the spiritual and social importance of manual labour, abhorrent to the Brahmans. Isn’t his poem Gongal- nama addressed to the peasants with the main aim of impressing upon them the need for combining asceticism with the agricultural service to God?

Notwithstanding the primary importance of contemporary sources for reconstructing the past, their absence vis-à-vis an event or events in a given case need not, however, prevent an historian from exploring such a challenging historical phenomenon creatively and imaginatively in consonance with the spirit of the time. This point is particularly elaborated in our examination of the advent of Mir Sayyid ‘Ali Hamadani in Kashmir in 1384. Although his sojourn in the Valley was an event that had far reaching implications for the future of Brahmanism in Kashmir, yet the Sanskrit chroniclers, viz., Jonaraja and Srivara have not referred to him. In fact, the choice of what events to record and the significance attached to them and what to delete was actually determined by their superior notion of caste (pp. 7-9). Our analysis of the Sanskrit chronicles of the fifteenth century calls in question not only the value of eyewitness accounts, but also the authenticity of historical records against the background of the cherished notions of caste. These contemporary sources cannot always be relied upon as having overriding value, because of their authors’ predilections in favour of their own closed ethnocentric cultural environment.

It is heartening to learn on the Internet that Barnes and Nobles have sorted this book as one of the best sellers. My sincere thanks to Manohar for bringing out the third edition. For this edition I have corrected a few errors of fact and print; otherwise, the text remains unchanged.



Kashmir constitutes a special area in the history of Islam considering the spirited response of its people, living in the Hindu- Buddhist environment, to the egalitarian teachings of the Sufis from Central Asia and Persia who began to pour into the picturesque Valley from the fourteenth century. The response, in fact, first came from Lal Ded, the wandering Saivite woman mystic of the fourteenth century and her spiritual offspring, Nuruddin Rishi, the founder of the indigenous order of Muslim Rishis.

The aim of the book is to enable readers to understand and appreciate what Islam meant to the Rishis and their adherents including even the Sufis of the Kubrawi and Suharwardi orders. Islam, as understood by them, sought to subject the felicity of life on this planet to the norms of morality and of responsibility. Man therefore had to regulate the pattern of human life in such a way as confirmed the truth of the Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace of Allah on him) saying: “Religion is indeed man’s treatment of his follows.”

What has prompted me, over a period of eight years, to make an indepth study of the spiritual manhood of the Rishis vis-à-vis their social role has been the absence of any serious work which may objectively evaluate the contribution of Kashmir to such a universal movement within the fold of Islam as Sufism. I have endeavoured to bring a new dimension of understanding to the study of Islamic spirituality (Sufism) on careful, critical and empathic analysis of those beliefs, practices, issues, developments, and movements that provide some appreciation of that faith which has inspired and informed the lives of Kashmiri Muslims.

There is a direct and fundamental relationship between the evolution of Shaikh Nuruddin’s religious career and the gradual development of what may be called the Kashmiri Muslim society. For centuries his mystical poetry has remained the Weltanschuung of Kashmiris.

Although I have quoted verses from B.N. Parimoo’s English rendering of the Shaikh’s poetry wherever necessary, the translations for the most part are entirely my own. I must confess that no translator can reproduce the sublimity and comprehensiveness of the words used by the Shaikh, which mean so much in a single symbol. And this is the reason that at some places I have rendered the meaning of the original in a paraphrase.

It is a matter of great pleasure for me to express grateful thanks to all those who have helped me in the writing of this book: to Abdul Hamid rather for his assistance at the preliminary stage of the work; to Hakim Abdul Hamid and Sayyid Ausaf Ali for their hospitality during my stay at Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi; to Professor Syed Vahiduddin for useful advice; to Dr. Triloki Nath Ganjoo for drawing my attention to the Sharda manuscript on Shaikh Nuruddin’s poetry in his possession; to Professors G.R. Malik and G.M. Shad, Ghulam Nabi and Ghulam Qadir of Chrar-i Sharrif and Dryagam respectively for extending various courtesies; to Professor Mushirul Hasan for seeing the book through the press; and to Mr. Ajay Jain of the Manohar for bringing it out neatly and expeditiously; and, last but not least, especially to Dr. Christian W. Troll, formerly Director and Professor of Islamic Studies at the Vidyajyoti Institute of Religious Studies, Delhi for granting me an easy access to excellent library facilities during his stay in India. It would not be out of place to mention here that during his stay in the United Kingdom (February- September 1992) occasional meetings with Dr. Troll at Oxford and Birmingham made me feel deeply sensitive to such issues of faith, identity, and values as have invigorated my zeal for exploring them in greater depth in times to come.

The tolerance and fortitude of my wife and the love of children have been a great source of strength for me in times of trouble. I dedicate this work to my children with a fervent prayer that they imbibe universal love, tolerance, altruism and, above all, piety so highly valued by the Rishis as true followers of Islam.



This is a study of people in transition consequent to the advent of the Sufi orders in Kashmir from Central Asia and Persia from the early fourteenth century. Although a gradual process of peaceful penetration by Muslim traders and adventurers had begun in the picturesque Valley centuries before the establishment of the Muslim Sultanate in 1320 by Rinchana, a Buddhist convert to Islam, it was not until the works of philanthropy undertaken by the Sufis, through the organization of the khanqahs, that a gradual process of Islamic acculturation began in the caste- ridden Kashmiri society.

But the most distinctive feature of the Kashmiri khanqah was (and still is) the devotional fervour with which an invocatory prayer, Aurad-i Fathiyya, compiled by Mir Sayyid Hamadani, was recited aloud in chorus by the faithful. Although it is doubtful whether the Tauhidic Weltanschauung characterizing the spirit of the prayer was understood by common people in the formative phase of Islam in the Valley, nonetheless, it would not be too bold to assert that their participation in the religious assemblies fulfilled more a social rather than a spiritual function. How these common folk were able to oppose or transcend the Brahmanic society is shown not only by the grave threat felt by the Brahman chroniclers of the fifteenth century on account of the pollution caused by the stimulus given by Lal Ded, the wandering Saivite woman mystic of the fourteenth century, against the particularism of the Brahmans. Because of her denunciation of the caste system, idol worship, rituals associated with temple worship and friendliness with Sufis, Lal Ded was ostracized by the highly caste- conscious Brahmans. On the other hand, the folk undergoing the process of Islamic acculturation preserved the memory of the impassioned soul of Lal Ded, not only as a convert to Islam, but above all, as a rebel against the Brahmanic creed. The present work that denies to Islam the role of a “religion of social liberation”. On a careful examination of the original sources, including hitherto unutilized material in Persian and Kashmiri, I have attempted to show that the Valley of Kashmir constitutes a special zone in the history of Islam, where it not only dealt a severe blow to Brahmanism but simultaneously promoted traditions of tolerance, faith, friendliness and fellow- feeling for members of society. The study’s main focus is on the social response of Kashmiris – in the form of emergence of the mystic order of Muslim Rishis – to the egalitarian and philanthropic teachings of Islam as externalised in the Sufi’s personality and behaviour.

For over four centuries, the Muslim Rishis, under the influence of their illustrious spiritual preceptor, Shaikh Nuruddin (1378-1439), used the Sufi concept of self- realization not only for ennobling and humanizing social behaviour, but also for galvanizing human action for the betterment of society. Islam, in this work, thus ceases to be a dogma of theologians, the ‘mysteriously known essence’ of the Orientalists, or a political system, but rather unfolds itself as a huge historical movement of eternal spiritual and moral strength, which is by no means independent of life situations.

This work has also tried to show the superficiality of scholarly attempts at cramping the Islamic civilization into pigeon holes of cultural synthesis, syncretism, ‘Orthodoxy’ versus ‘popular religion’, the ‘Prophetic religion’ vis-à-vis ‘Sufi Islam’ and so on. I have therefore also endeavoured to dispel the popular misconceptions about the so- called religious syncretism of the Rishis that both scholars and upholders of ‘Islamic Orthodoxy’ have allowed to enter their minds. Instead, the thesis that I have tried to build up is that the syncretic tradition has been the necessary concomitant of the process of Islamization rather than its culmination. The fact is that during the centuries of Islamic acculturation, the apparent syncretism of Islamic beliefs and local practices concurrently marked the beginning of a movement for the realization of the ultimate, if not immediate, objectives of Islam at both the individual and social levels.

The Source material on how Islam entered the Valley of Kashmir is not meager; but unfortunately, very little work has been done by modern scholars on this subject of vital significance. And whatever little exists lacks any objective analysis in terms of inter- disciplinary approach in Social Sciences, or, for that matter, even in the context of the emerging trend in Islamic studies to study Islam from the standpoint of Islam itself. But before we examine the views of modern scholars about the spread of Islam in Kashmir, it would be worthwhile to evaluate the source material used in the present work.

The biographical account of Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani given by his disciple, Nuruddin Jaffar Badakshi, in Khulasat al- Manaqib is the earliest source about the kubrawi Sufi. Written within a year of Sayyid Ali’s death (1385), the work does not contain any information regarding his role in Kashmir beyond a casual reference to his departure for the Valley. Notwithstanding a legendizing tenor in Badakshi’s work in describing the miraculous exploits of Sayyid Ali in different parts of the Muslim world, he does not fail to give an objective assessment of his spiritual preceptor’s historical role. Thus he quotes Sayyid Ali as saying that his contemporaries were unable to recognize the value of his work and his role and that it would become intelligible only a century after his death.

Jafar Badakshi’s silence about Sayyid Ali’s activities in Kashmir and his reference to the Sufi’s statement raise some suggestive questions in our mind, to which not enough attention has been given in modern writings on the situation of Islam in the Valley in the wake of the Sayyid’s death. First, it is doubtful whether the Sayyid visited Kashmir three times; nor does he seem to have really stirred the Valley during his brief visit by securing mass conversions either through miracles or by organizing public sermons in the towns and villages of Kashmir. In Chapter III we have attempted to show that during his sojourn in the Valley the activities of the Sayyid remained confined to the Sultan and a group of neo- converts in Srinagar. And in order to assess the contribution of the Sayyid to Islam in Kashmir we would emphasize the need for understanding his historic role in sociological terms in the light of his prolific writings. Of these, Aurad-i Fathiyya, in particular, Dhakirat al- Muluk, and a collection of letters, known as Maktubat are relevant for our purpose.

The invocatory prayers called Aurad-i Fathiyya were vouchsafed to Sayyid Ali Hamadani by the Prophet Muhammad in a state of spiritual experience. “They are the pivot of the order and especially intended for recitation at the group halqa.” What prompts us to treat an invocatory prayer as an important source of the early history of Kashmir is the pattern of behaviour, reflected by the Muslims of the Valley during its loud recitation. It has been discussed elsewhere that Islam is not merely an abstract ontological category independent of life situations; it is a huge historical movement of very long time periods, a consciousness expressed in the daily life and collectivity of different cultural systems. That this consciousness is also revealed in the centuries – old recitation of Aurad-i Fathiyya in a manner undoubtedly suggestive of local influence emboldens us to dispel certain misconceptions about conversions to Islam in Kashmir. Our purpose is not to identify and isolate ritual data for analysis but rather to locate such data within broader historical and cultural matrices in which they occur and find their meaning.

An important work of Sayyid Ali Hamadani is Dhakhirat al-Muluk. Its essential purpose is to guide Muslim rulers in the discharge of their duties towards their subjects in the light of the Quran and the Sunna. The essence of the Sayyid’s admonitions to rulers- inadequately brought home in the modern assessment of his work – is his concern for rendering equitable justice, irrespective of religious differences. While nine chapters of the book mainly focus on religious, social and ethical issues, only one chapter is devoted to the government and its obligations towards the subjects. Yet a modern scholar in his evaluation of Dhakhirat al-Muluk seeks to describe Sayyid Ali Mission in Kashmir as a failure since Sultan Qutbuddin did not subscribe to his “political thinking” of imposing “severe discriminatory conditions” of the Sh’afi law upon his non- Muslim subjects.

Although Dhakhirat al-Muluk is not a source of the history of Kashmir, yet it is necessary to remove certain misunderstandings about its author’s role in Kashmir in view of the above treatment of a passage from it as evidence of his supposed “conflict” with the Sultan for not enforcing the Shari’a in his kingdom. In the first place, there is no concrete evidence in the sources to show that the Sayyid ever stood for imposing “discriminatory conditions” on the Kashmiri Sultan’s non- Muslim subjects, who were undoubtedly in an overwhelming majority on the eve of his advent in the Valley. Added to this is the fact that Sayyid notwithstanding his adherence to the Sh‘afi school, showed broad-mindedness in allowing a band of local converts and Muslim settlers in Kashmir to follow the Hanafi law. Sayyid Ali’s decision seems to have been guided by expediency, since the Hanafi law, as compared to the other three schools of Islamic jurisprudence, is less rigid in regard to the treatment to be meted out to non- Muslims by a Muslim ruler. Likewise, while showing regard for the local religious ethos in allowing neo- Muslims to read Aurad-i Fathiyya aloud in chorus, the Sayyid demonstrated a keen sense of practical wisdom and judgement in laying a firm foundation for the gradual assimilation of the folk in Islam.

Thus the view that Sayyid Ali accepted the Caliph Umar’s covenant “as a document to be followed universally in all conditions and at all times” does not hold water since the document has been quoted out of context. A careful reading of Dhakhirat al-Muluk reveals that the covenant of Umar has the context of the Magi and Ahl-i Kitab rather than Kashmir.

Sayyid Ali’s letters addressed to the Sultan of Kashmir, Qutbuddin (1373-89), are also revealing. They reflect his tolerant attitude towards the non- Muslims of Kashmir. Had the Sayyid not approved of the “friendly” attitude of the Sultan towards non- Muslims he would have expressed his displeasure, disappointment or disgust in his letters written from Pakhli on the eve of his departure from the Kashmir Valley. On the contrary, the Sayyid seems to have been deeply aware of the implications of his historical mission in Kashmir; and this explains why he enjoined the Sultan to make efforts to popularize the Shari‘a mindedness, neither his letters nor Dhakhirat al-Muluk give even the faintest hint that he wanted the Sultan to be unfriendly towards the great majority of his non- Muslim subjects. For him, all subjects of the Sultan were the children of God; hence it was a religious obligation for the Sultan to protect the rights of the weak against the strong.

Sayyid Ali’s letter to his close disciple, Sayyid Muhammad Khwarzami, written also from Pakhli, also deserves careful examination. This letter raises serious doubts concerning popular assertions about the radical Islamization of Kashmir brought about by Sayyid Ali in his own lifetime. While the Sayyid’s description of Kashmir as a territory of infidels suggests that he did not cause a complete metamorphosis of the social and religious life of Kashmiris, his implicit praise for Sayyid Muhammad Khwarzami for having gained spiritual bliss in such a region is redolent of his mission to ameliorate the malaise of the decadent Brahmanic society through peaceful means. It will be seen that Sayyid Ali’s mission in Kashmir was not simply to inspire the local people to a more personal, ecstatic approach to divine love within the ambit of Quran and Shari‘a, but it was also to make his disciples dedicate themselves to socially useful purposes.

It follows that the chief mission of the Kubrawi Sayyid’s was not to “uproot infidelity” from Kashmir by imposing the Shari‘a from above;but it was to make the people still undergoing the process of Islamic acculturation adapt themselves to the Shari‘a – oriented culture through self- realization and self- intellection. It is not, therefore, difficult to understand why the Sufis of the Suharwardi order belonging to the sixteenth century, or for that matter, even the Kubrawis and Naqshbandis made genuine attempts at understanding the social roles of the Rishis through intellectual understanding or appreciation. And what has to be borne in mind is that even as standard- bearers of the Shari‘a they did not fail to make sense of what Islam meant to the Rishis.




  Preface to the Third Edition vii
  Preface to the Paperback Edition ix
  Preface xi
  Introduction 1
I Conceptual Framework of Conversion to Islam 22
II The Historical Background of the Rishi Movement 36
III Socio- Religious Milieu of Shaikh Nuruddin Rishi 61
IV Shaikh Nuruddin's Religions Career and its Social Impact 95
V Religious Thought of Shaikh Nuruddin 111
VI The Attitudes of the Sufi Orders Towards the Rishi Movement 144
VII The Rishis and Conversion to Islam 177
VIII The Societal Dimensions of Miracles and Legends 205
IX Epilogue 221
(A) Genealogy of Shaikh Nuruddin 241
(B) Genealogy of Sayyid Ali 243
(C) Women Sufis of Kashmir 245
(D) A Note on Risala-i-Lahmiyya 250
(E) Khat-I Irshad of Sayyid Muhammad Hamadani 256
(F) Elegy of Sham Ded 259
  Glossary 261
  Bibliography 283
  Index 295

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