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Loss of tolerance mourned in Kashmir

In atmosphere of war, multicultural customs are also under attack.

By Scott Baldauf Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 19, 2001



CHRAR-I-SHARIEF, INDIA

Love, tolerance, and spiritual striving are not exactly words outsiders associate with Kashmir, particularly after the India-Pakistan summit ended Monday in disagreement over the territory. But the words do describe Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism whose qualities have long been embraced by Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris alike.

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So, when an ancient shrine for a Sufi saint burned to the ground here in May 1995, after a two-month battle between militants and Indian security forces, many Kashmiris mourned not just the wooden structure itself, but the loss of the broader spirit of kashmiriyat - the philosophy of religious tolerance, respect, and interdependence that has pervaded this Himalayan region for centuries.

After all, Sufi shrines have always functioned as the public squares of Kashmir, where Muslims and Hindus would come to pray for a direct mystical connection with God, or to receive spiritual guidance on everything from better health and successful business deals to the selection of a proper spouse.

But today, while the burned-down shrine of Nooruddin Noorani is close to being rebuilt, Sufism itself remains under attack. The gentle Sufi teachings are losing their resonance at a time when Kashmiri families are mourning the loss of 34,000 loved ones, when Islamic militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan are bringing their own rigid form of Islam, and when many Kashmiris are setting aside their spiritual growth in favor of a fast buck.

Indeed, some Kashmiris argue that Sufism is the first and greatest casualty of the 12 year-long militancy, since in seeking self-determination, the Kashmiri people have lost the cultural distinctness that gave Kashmir its identity.

"Sufism is on the wane in Kashmir," says Amitabh Mattoo, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and an expert on Kashmir. "It is under attack from the militants, and also from the forces of modernity. There is more intolerance in Kashmir, and less pacifism. There is less belief in the plurality or multiplicity of religions and more sectarianism."

Abdul Ghani Bhat, an Islamic scholar in Srinagar and chairman of the main Kashmiri separatist organization, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, agrees. "At a time when the commercialism of life has undermined the spiritual life, spirituality has probably lost relevance. In my opinion, Sufism is extinct."

When the first Sufi mystics arrived in India in the 12th century A.D., they caused an instant stir. For the orthodox Sunni Muslims already in India as conquerors, Sufism was a heretical sect, because of its penchant for mixing in bits of various religions into a mostly Muslim stew. But for the Indian masses, Sufism was the kind of Islam that even a Hindu could love, with its florid poetry, its passionate and entrancing vocal music, and its personal, mystical connection with the Divine.

Even today, the mosques and shrines of Kashmir practically thrum with a mystical spirit that many Muslims of other sects find discomforting. In Srinagar, thousands throng to the famed Hazratbal Mosque once a month to see a single hair of the Prophet Muhammad's beard. For strict Muslims, worshipping a physical relic is superstitious and blasphemous. Indeed, some of the more radical foreign militant groups fighting for Kashmiri independence have pledged to destroy Sufi shrines as un-Islamic.

But for Kashmiris of all faiths, Sufism is too deeply entrenched in their culture to be killed. Here in Chrar-I-Sharief, the sound of hammers and buzz-saws echo as turban-wearing Sikh carpenters reconstruct the tomb of Nooruddin, who brought Sufism to Kashmir. The faithful stream in, prostrate themselves, and pray for guidance. Some tie bits of string to the metal gate that surrounds the tomb. The strings act as symbolic messages to the saint to help the faithful with worldly problems.

"People come with different motives," says Manzour Ahmed, a carpet seller from Srinagar who has come here to pray. "Some people come because they have no child. Some because they have no progress in life. I came here on business, but I came to this shrine first. It gives me peace of mind."

Bashir Ahmed Babloo, a driver from Srinagar, says he began to consult every Sufi saint he could find in 1995, after his brother disappeared. Each saint told him the same answer: His brother was safe in another city and he would be in touch soon. Finally, last February, Mr. Babloo's brother gave him a call from Ahmedabad, where he was working.

Sajjad Nashin, caretaker of this shrine, says the teachings of Sufism are alive and well, thank you. "Whatever the Holy Koran taught, it was oneness. We are one blood, one creed, and one human being. Over the centuries, Hindus used this place to pray. How can they say that Sufism is dead? It's just a political gimmick of New Delhi to cause divisions among the people."

But you can't judge the strength of a religion by the numbers of people in the pews, says Professor Bhat. "Tens of thousands may throng into shrines anywhere in Kashmir, but the traditional attitudes of people should not be misconstrued as the essence of spiritualism." He arches his eyebrows mischievously. "After all, lovers also go to meet at the shrines."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor