Converting Kashmir

Kashmir’s transition to Islam has multiple stakeholders over a long period of time. But for converting Kashmir into an Iran-e-Sageer, little Iran, by making Persian language, culture, practices and trends popular in a Hindu-majority society, only the Muslim immigrants led by Hamadani father and son are solely responsible. They re-created a new social order on the ruins of a caste-ridden society, reports Masood Hussain

Khanqah at Sopore.
Khanqah at Sopore. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Kashmir’s transition to Islam was a work in progress for not less than four centuries. Contribution to the process was diverse. It came from different classes: job-hunters, traders, rulers, missionaries, the immigrants, and the local Rishis.

“Although there were three or four mosques in this land, no Azaan was given and no congregation prayers were offered,” chronicler Sayyid Ali writes in his Tarikh-i-Kashmir while detailing the arrival of Amir-e-Kabir Mir Syed Ali Hamadani. The book was written in 1579. “The five daily prayers and Friday prayers were for the first time established and offered on the platform which had been raised at the place of a monastery.”

Cultural Shift

But the contribution of the immigrant Sayyids’ was beyond the Azaan and the conversion. They helped change the local culture and improve it to suit the monotheism they preached. With their arrival, not only the concept of sacred and profane did change, but the kitchen and wardrobe also changed. They helped change the systems of interaction and engagement. They helped a struggling Persian to takeover Sanskrit as the court-language and opened a new era for the Kashmiri intellectual whose works started echoing in Persia. They brought their own crafts in and Kashmir embraced them in such a way that Cashmere became Kashmir’s real identity. Within a few decades of their arrival, Kashmir’s entire lifestyle changed.

“It is erroneously assumed that Sayyid Ali was accompanied by 700 Sayyids whose functions merely revolved around the religious axis,” FehmidaWani writes in her doctoral thesis The Search For Shared History of Mankind: A Case Study of the Technological and Cultural Transmission from Persia and Central Asia to Kashmir. “The fact is that this group of 700 followers comprised the people belonging to different professions so as to ensure not only a safe and convenient journey from distant lands to Kashmir and a comfortable stay in the Valley, accustomed as they were to a particular lifestyle, but also to translate their agenda of spreading Islam and Islamic culture into reality.”

With him, Shah-e-Hamadan brought his huge library that was maintained by a Kitabwar, the librarian, Sayyid Kazim. Some of them operated as Tabibs and Hakeems as well, indicating that they had some knowledge about Muslim medicine also. They dovetailed Islam from the Arab world with the rich Central Asian culture and experimented in a space which was hungry for social intervention.

They set up schools where the religion was taught. In his Islamic Culture in Kashmir, G M D Sufi has quoted from Tarikh-i-Kabir that Sultan Sikander had appointed a Bokhara scholar Moulana Afzal as head of the grand college opposite to the great mosque.

Crafts and Economy

The crafts the immigrants brought with them gave them the status of a giver and teacher. It might have contributed to their appeal for the spread of a new faith. The Amir’s emphasis on earning through lawful means and making it part of the faith broke the stagnation of Kashmir’s economy.

“Shawl Bafi (shawl making) is still known in Kashmir as Kar-i-Amiri (the Amir’s work) undoubtedly because of its relation with the Amir-e-Kabir,” Mohammad Iqbal Rather notes in his doctoral thesis A Study of Islamic Political Thought of Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani (1314-84 AD). “By this process of bringing new sciences, culture and values from Iran to Kashmir, Hamadani helped in fostering the unique socio-cultural and religious ambience of Kashmir.”

Rather says certain crafts existed in Kashmir but were on the decline. He credits the Amir with the introduction of Hamam Dari, Kafsh Dozi, Dozandgi, Kabab Pazi, Harisa Pazi, Ḥalwa Pazi, Gilkari, Zargari, Ṣahafi, Qalin Bafi, Kagaz Sazi, Qalamdan Sazi, Ḥakaki, Sozan Kari, Pashmin Sazi, and Jild Sazi. The first community Hamam, for instance, was set up in the Khanqah-e-Moala. It is the only place in Kashmir where a Hamam operates on the first floor. Normally Hamams operate in the ground floors. “He used Islamic ethos as a means of human development,” Rather concludes.

New Jobs

Fehmida has listed the names of the professionals and the localities of Srinagar that survives till date as an undisputed impact of the central Asian immigrants. “Thus one finds a Persian or Central Asian nanwai (baker), qassab (butcher), bawerchi (cook), khiyat (tailor), naddaf (cotton dresser), nassaj (weaver), allaf (com chandler) and a host of 18 other professionals hugging a Khanaqah,” she writes.

Khanqah at Tral.
Khanqah at Tral. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The occupational krams (castes) buttress the same argument: Chikin (embroider), Sheshagar (mirror maker), Jild-saz (book-binder), Kaghaz-saz (paper manufacture), Khattat (calligraphist), Qalin-baf (carpet weaver), Shawl-baf (shawl weaver), Nalaband (fierier), Allaqaband (braider), hakkak (lapidary), Roshangar (polisher), Naqqash (painter), Naqati (dot maker), Zargar (goldsmith), Sazagar (equilizer), Shanagar (maker of shawl wear’s loom), Sekhgar (maker of skews), Ranggar (dyer), rafugar (fine darner), Hakim (doctor), Suhaf (book-binder), chettagar (maker of chintz), Kachgar (mirror maker), Kozagar (cup maker), Zaz (maker of musical instruments), and Jalakdoz (embroider).

Well before the fall of Shahmiris, Srinagar city had localities known for clear cut professions: Naiband-pur for ferries, Kamangar-pur for bow makers, Bunduk-Khar Muhalla for musket makers, Jildgar Muhalla for bookbinders, Qalamdan-pur for pen case makers, Shesha-gar-pur for glassmakers, Chinkral Muhalla for China pot makers, Sazgar-pur for shawl making, Roshangar Muhalla for polishers, Chetta-gar Muhalla for cloth printers, Kachgar-pur for glass artisans, Sarraf Kadal for bankers, and Shora-gar Muhalla for gun-powder makers.

Suiting Sultanate

The immigrants suited the Sultans who had to consolidate their empire with the majority of subjects as Hindus. Facilitating the spread of the faith they also belonged to become an ideal way of creating an affinity with the subjects.

“Sultan Sikandar realized that Islam is one of the main bases for political unity and strength,” believes Fehmida. “And the Sultan Sikandar felt that Sayyids are the main figures among his subjects those deserve for his legitimacy and loyalty. So with the growing speed of Islam in Kashmir, it strengthened the State more.” She believes, the Sayyids made “social basis strong for the Sultanate”.

Barring one exception, Sultans never got involved in conversions. They, however, facilitated the preachers. Apart from helping them create their centres for preaching, they ensured these centres have adequate income. They also started offering huge estates to the Sayyids in the city and the periphery.

Bestowing Lands

The chain of preachers remained busy in spreading Islam after the demise of Bulbul Shah in 1327. “His mission of spreading the message of Islam was carried on by his disciple Mulla Ahmad, till the reign of Sultan Shihabuddin (1354-73),” writes Surayia Gull in her Development of Kubraviya Sufi Order in Kashmir with Special reference to Mir Saiyid Ali Hamadani. “Thereafter the D’awa work was carried on by other Sufis like Saiyid Jalaluddin of Bukhara and SayidTajuddin, during the reign of Shihabuddin. They were accompanied by Saiyid Masud and Saiyid Yusuf.” It was only after them that Mir Saiyid Ali Hamadani came in the picture.

The granting of land estates to the Sayyids started during the reign of Sultan Qutub-ud-Din (1373-89). “The Chitar region in the pargana Khourpora was granted to Sayyid Jamal-ud-Din Atai and the villages of Sepora and its adjoining areas in pargana Vihi was given to Sayyid Firruz, the area of Naidkhai was granted to Sayyid Kamal, and the area of Lethpora was given to Mir Sayyid Kazim,” Fahmida has recorded. “Mir Sayyid Rukun-ud-Din and Mir Sayyid Fakhr-ud-Din were the two brothers and they were granted the Olar pargana. Sayyid Jamal-ud-Din, who was well educated in the Islamic theology, lived at Srinagar, and he took the responsibility of a counsellor to the Sultan at the time of his necessity. The area of Bijbihara along with other facilities was granted to Mir Sayyid Muhammad Qurashi and Mir Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah.”

These Sayyids who in most of the cases passed on these land estates to their families, are all buried in the respective places, Fehmida insists quoting the source Shajrah-e-Sadaat-e-Kashmir. Adds Rafiqi: “Not only the Sultans, even their queens at times made grants, both in cash and kind, to the shrines to earn religious merit.”

“It was through this process that large sections of the rural poor owed allegiance to them for having controlled their social and economic life,” Bashir Ahmad Sheikh has quoted The State in Medieval Kashmir saying in his scholarly work The Impact of Sufism on the Socio-Economic and Cultural Conditions of the Jammu & Kashmir (16th-18thC). “Particularly when the Sayyids retained control of large proportions of cultivable waste in areas like Vihi, Nagam, Sepora, Tral, Nunwani, Chitar, Avanmpora, Naidhai, Martand, Bijbehara, Khurpora, Lar, Pakh, Vachi, Soura, Kulgam, Biru and various other areas.”

Sultan Sikander continued with the process of keeping the preachers on the right side of his priorities. Tarikh-e-Kashmir graphically describes the settlement of three immigrant brothers – Sayyid Alauddin, Sayyid Fakhruddin and Sayyid Tajuddin, the mureed’s of Hamadani Jr and the offsprings of the celebrated Sayyid Jalaluddin Bukhari. “At the behest of Syed Muhammad Hamadani, the revenue of the village of Sikanderpora, paragna Beru were assigned to them by Sultan Sikandar for their maintenance,” Sayyid Ali had recorded. “All three were married and settled down in the village.”

Apart from the evolution of a physical structure on the Suffa that had earlier been granted to the Amir, the appointment of Sheikh-ul-Islam was a major intervention. Khanqah apart, the Sultan set aside the revenues of a separate pargna at the disposal of the Sayyid for his personal use.

“It was a department of ecclesiastical and judiciary and a number of villages and hamlets from each pargana were reserved and granted for that noble post,” Bashir Ahmad Sheikh writes. “Hence for this purpose that from the income of these villages granted for this post, that stipends and alms could be distributed among the Qazis, learned Sayyids, the mendicants, the needy, travellers and to the pilgrims according to their needs properly.”

Khanqah at Pampore. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur
Khanqah at Pampore. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The outcome of these interventions was anybody’s guess. “The Sayyids in the medieval society of Kashmir strengthened their position by making contacts with different social groups in the society to their own orders,” Bashir insists. “They almost dominated all fields of the human society and evolved into a landed aristocracy, through the royal patronage of the Shahmir Sultans they got influenced by the implicit in Muslim notions of status, wealth and respect almost naturally provided to them.”

Marriages and Families

This close association between the immigrants and the host population was supposed to create relations. Unlike Kashmiri Rishis who escaped from life to the caves and mountains at one point of time, the immigrant Sayyids raised families wherever they settled. Within Srinagar and outside, they had a huge spread. They would preach Islam in the Khanqahs and the mosques. At home, they would be cultural beings.

“There is profuse evidence that these preachers married local girls,” Fehmida has quoted Tuhfat al-Ahbab recording. “These matrimonial relations forged a wonderful cultural synthesis. While these settlers were greatly influenced by their local wives, an equal quantum of reverse influence cannot be doubted.”

Normally these marriages took place between the Sayyids and the local elites. Even some of the immigrants started marrying into the Sultans. Suha Batta, who later became Malik Saifuddin, gave his daughter to the Amir’s son, Mir Muhammad Hamadani. She, however, died a year later.

Sayyid Muhammad Bahaiqi had entered Kashmir during Sikander’s reign. The family settled in Beerwa’s Kandahama village. His daughter married Sultan Sikandar’s son, who eventually became the great Kashmir king, Zain-ul-Abidin, the Budshah. History knows her as Vodha Khatona or Baihaqi Begum. “Later, Hayat Khatun, the daughter of Saiyid Hasan, the son of Saiyid Muhammad Baihaqi, was married to Sultan Hasan Shah (1472-84),” Prof Abdul Qayoom Rafiqi, records in the introduction to the Tarikh-e-Hassan translation. “The family relations with the ruling house helped the Baihaqi Saiyids to obtain important positions in the state administration and they also took an active part in the intrigues and rebellions, which followed the death of Sultan Hasan Shah.”

New Caste System

But the preacher arrivals had its flip-side too. They had come to spread the faith in a caste-ridden society where inequality was the norm. They ended up creating a new social order that introduced new inequalities. The immigrants, apparently because of knowledge of the faith and access to the power started commanding a higher position in Kashmir’s social stratification.

For the spread of Islam, there were two movements going on – one by the powerful Rishis who literally held the entire periphery of Kashmir, and the central Asian preachers who dominated the Srinagar city and some of the key sub-urban belts.

The immigrants had an elevated sense of their pedigree and most of them were invoking their lineage with the prophet and emphasising over it. “He (the author of Tarikh-i-Kashmir) criticises them for their arrogant behaviour and accuses them of ‘big brother attitude’,” Rafiqi writes. “He points out that they were proud of their high lineage and family pedigree and as such did not treat the Kashmiri nobles with honour and dignity.”

Sayyids were unimpressed by the endemic movement to the extent that when Mir Muhammad Hamadani decided to pay Sheikh Nooruddin a visit at Zalsu, a strong section of the Sayyids opposed it. They saw the Sheikh as Mard-e-Nadaan, an illiterate man. They fell in line only after Hamadani Jr overruled them. This is the key factor why Sheikh has said a lot about the Ulema and the Mulla in his poetry, not because they disliked him but because they were discriminatory towards the host population.

This led to scathing criticism of the “group of Sayyids” by the Kubrawi ulema like Khawaja Habibullah Naushahri, who revealed the trend in various verses. “Out of sheer vanity, (they) claimed to be the descendants of the Prophet,” writes Rafiqi. “So proud were they of their descent that they are said to have passed derogatory remarks about Nuruddin. The main reason for such unbecoming behaviour was their concern over the Rishi’s extreme ascetic habits under the influence of Hinduism.”

“Their malicious mind, arrogance, hypocrisy and pursuit of material gains at the cost of spiritual benefits were so horrifying to him (Sheikh) that he even urged his followers to seek the refuge of Allah at the mere sight of an Alim,” Kashmir’s foremost historian on the subject, Prof M Ishaq Khan, wrote in his magnum opus Kashmir’s Transition to Islam. “In his view, there was no more horrifying and utterly convincing representation of deadly evil than the Ulama with factious spirit emanating from their false learning and pride. Addressing such Ulama in the severest terms, Nuruddin warned that none of them would obtain salvation on the Day of judgement.”

So said the Sheikh:

[By] displaying the caste in the world,
What will thou gain?
Into dust will turn the bones,
When the earth envelopes the body:
To utter disgrace will he come,
Who, forgetting himself, jeers at others

Was this the reason for Sheikh wielding more influence? Notes Prof Khan: “Not only in devotion but also in respect of esoteric knowledge, Sayyid Ali did not find any parallel to Nuruddin in Kashmir. This shows that Nuruddin had begun to wield greater influence among the Kashmiris than even Sayyid Ali Hamadani and Sayyid Muhammad Harnadani.”

Though Khat-i-Irshad managed the transfer of the leadership, things did not change for many centuries. The social order remained unchanged as well-read and wealthy immigrants would be able to manage the subsequent regimes better than the vast host peasantry would ever do. The social status they carved for themselves during the initial days of their settlement did not change ever. This was despite the fact that a few generations later, the progeny of the Sayyids got busy with diverse professions but they retained the control over the matters of faith. In most of the cases, their ancestors were laid to rest in demarcated graveyards on which their followers constructed tombs, locally called Rouza. These structures continue to be the spots of frequent assembly and the resultant commerce goes to certain families. Right to claim the income is sort of inheritance.

Interesting Protocol

In his Kashmir Under Sultans, Prof Mohibul Hassan has offered a detailed narrative about the social stratification that existed during the Sultanate. Nobles were playing second fiddle to the king as the religious class was enjoying No 3 status. This class was dominated by the Ulema, the Sayyids and the Sufis.

Jamia Masjid Shopian. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur
Jamia Masjid Shopian. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Ulemas, the most respected category comprised Qazis, Muftis and the Shaikh-ul-Islam and most of them were foreigners. Somehow the families retained this status. “The Kashmiri Ulama after studying at the feet of some learned and pious man in Srinagar proceeded to Samarqand, Heraat or Mecca, and returned after having undergone a course of training abroad,” writes Hassan. “It was only then that they were regarded as full-fledged jurists.”

Owing to their descent from the prophet, Sayyids enjoyed “a special sanctity” and special respect as kings and nobles “conferred upon them all kinds of privileges”. In the order of priority, Pirs with their Murids followed the Ulema even though they exercised greater social and religious influence. Rishis were the last in the order. They lived in self-denial, stayed away from power politics, were widely followed in the periphery, far away from the palaces of Srinagar and voiced their concern against the oppression. Though the Sultans sung in praise of their spiritual guides, they could not do justice with the people on primary labour issue.


During most of the Sultanate, Mohibul Hassan insists that Begaar, the forced labour continued. “In fact, from the time of Shihabuddin, it was exacted even from the Hanjis who were required to serve the king seven days in every month. Besides transport, compulsory labour was also taken for collecting saffron. Under the Shah Mirs, men were forcibly employed to separate the saffron from the petals and the stamens, and for this, they were given a certain quantity of salt as wages.”

(This is the last of the three-part series on the socio-economic impact of the immigration of more than 1000 preachers and professionals that Amir-e-Kabir Mir Syed Ali Hamadani and his son Mir Muhammad Hamadani led to Kashmir during the initial years of the Kashmir Sultanate. You can read the first part of the series here and the second part here.)


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