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Keeping Islamic tradition of tolerance alive

Muslims in Kashmir appear to have succeeded in keeping their tolerant religious traditions in the face of a fundamentalist onslaught from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Arab states. "Islam came to Kashmir from Persia, it came through preaching and teaching rather than conquest and battles," said Omar Farooq, the 14th "mirwaiz" (emir) of Srinagar.

india Updated: Oct 13, 2002 21:29 IST

Steeped in the Sufi mysticism they embraced some 500 years ago, Muslims in Kashmir appear to have succeeded in keeping their tolerant religious traditions in the face of a fundamentalist onslaught from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Arab states.

"Islam came to Kashmir from Persia, it came through preaching and teaching rather than conquest and battles," said Omar Farooq, the 14th "mirwaiz" (emir) of Srinagar.

Farooq's Persian ancestors, leading Sunni Muslims, were among the earliest to preach in the Kashmir Valley following the arrival of Shah Hamadani, revered as a saint in the summer capital Srinagar.

"Our Islam is one of tolerance and brotherhood, based on the teachings of the Prophet but also on an exchange of ideas, mystic music and poetry," said Farooq, the young political-religious leader who founded the Hurriyat separatist alliance in 1993.

"It has more in common with Central Asia than South Asia or Arab countries," he added.

In the streets of old Srinagar, filled with mosques boasting unique pointed wooden roofs, the women's way of dress shows the diversity of Kashmiri Islam. Some are clad in head-to-toe burqas, some in colorful veils, while others keep their heads uncovered.

The laid-back Islam is part of the heritage of the Himalayan region, where Sufi verse is passed on from generation and generation.

"These sounds and words which go deep in the soul have saved me from despair," said Ahmad Qureshi, a tailor, who lost his two sons in the Kashmir conflict.

Sufis, who are found across the Muslim world, mix traditional Islamic rites with a focus on spiritual experience, practicing solitary meditation and following the quest for divine love lauded nine centuries ago by the Farsi poet Rumi.

This brand of tolerance has formed the identity of many Muslims in Kashmir where Sufism has melded with Hinduism and Buddhism over generations of successive rule by the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras.

"This is the reason why the Hindu minority had been safe in Kashmir until the arrival of foreign fighters," said Noor Ahmad Baba, chairman of Kashmir University's political science department.

Soon after Kashmir's insurgency against Indian rule broke out in 1989, the ranks of guerrillas who were fighting for independence became overtaken by "jihadi" fighters from the Arab world, Afghanistan and particularly Pakistan, which controls one third of Kashmir.

At the same time, Islamic seminaries financed by Saudis have multiplied in Kashmir, propagating the desert kingdom's puritanical Wahabi ideology.

"Sunni Wahabi militants supported by Pakistan repress Kashmir's culture, the Sufi arts and lifestyle," said Baba.

"But this type of Islam has not developed any roots here. Sometimes it is imposed on people through terror or attracts young, hopeless Kashmiris, but it is not in the hearts of the people of this land." Farooq, a critic of both nuclear states that claim Kashmir, agreed.

"Some vested interests in Pakistan and India have attempted to promote extremism in Jammu and Kashmir, but I honestly think that the deep nature of Islam in Kashmir has remained the same," he said.

Farooq does not deny the presence of extremists among the Kashmir guerrillas, but considers it all too convenient for India "to present the fight for the identity and rights of Kashmiris as part of fundamentalism or terrorism."

"You have to draw a line between a freedom struggle and terrorism," he said. "India is feeding extremism by refusing to negotiate a political settlement," he said.

First Published: Oct 13, 2002 20:44 IST