Kashmir: Where Sufis are Rishis and Rishis are Sufis!

By Sultan Shaheen

The most dominant influence on the Kashmiri Muslims, in terms of their Kashmiriyat, is that of the Rishi order of Sufis. While the Sufi orders like the Suharwardi, Kubravi, Naqshbandi and Quadri, arrived in Kashmir from Persia, Central Asia, and Central and North India, the Rishi order evolved in the valley itself indigenously in the beginning of the fifteenth century. The Kashmir valley was already permeated with the traditions of Hindu ascetism and Buddhist renunciation.

The term `Rishi' itself is clearly a derivation from Sanskrit and Indian traditions, though some Medieval Muslim scholars have tried to show that it is derived from the Persian word raish or rish meaning the feathers or wings of a bird. Baba Dawood Mishkati, for instance, gives a rather tortuous explanation. A bird whose feathers have been removed has no control over its own movements and depends entirely on the wind. And this is also the case with a Rishi; he is alienated from the world and lives alone, buffeted by fate. This and similar explanations, have, however, failed to impress the average Kashmiri Muslim and he, by and large, accepts its Sanskrit derivation and uses it loosely like his Hindus brethren as synonymous for a sage. In fact many Kashmiris do not even associate the word with any particular order of sufis, but use the word to denote any and every sufi saint.

The indigenous Rishi order of Sufis, however, does differ not only from the establishmentarian and fundamentalist Muslims but also from other Sufi orders in its philosophy and way of life. Many writers who have chronicled the life and times of Kashmiris of this period have been attracted to the unique way of life and philosophy of the Rishi order of Sufis. An important chronicler of this period, Abul Fazl, for instance, is all praise for them. He writes: "The most respected class of people in this country (Kashmir) are the Rishis. Although they have not abandoned the traditional and customary forms of worship (taqlid), but they are true in their worship. They do not denounce men belonging to different faiths. They do not have the tongue of desire, and do not seek to obtain worldly objects. They plant fruit-bearing trees in order that people may obtain benefit from these. They abstain from meat and do not marry."

This account is corroborated by Emperor Jahangir. He writes: "Although they have not acquired learning and marifa, they live a frank and unostentatious life. They criticise nobody and ask for nothing from anyone. They neither eat meat nor marry. They always plant fruit-bearing trees in uninhabited parts, so that people may be benefited by them. But they themselves do not hope to reap any advantages from these trees."

The Kashmiri Muslim Rishi's ascetic and unworldly life thus bears a close resemblance to the lifestyle of the Hindu Rishis and Munis as well as Buddhist and Jain monks. Baba Dawood Khaki describes a Rishi as one who is an ascetic and leads a disciplined life different from those of other saints. He is free from all worldly pleasures. Baba Nasib calls them gracious to the pious and describes them as men of pure heart. Their presence has turned Kashmir into heaven, he says. Cutting themselves away from all worldly relationships, they neither marry nor bother themselves with a family life. Piety is their apparel(khirqa); their nights are devoted to worship and during the day they worship incessantly. Having abandoned all worldly desires, they have succeeded in controlling their carnal lusts.

With such deep commitment to spiritual growth and the Islamic philosophy of Divine Unity (wahdat-ul-wajud), which is not different from Hindu philosophy of no 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. Aware of the tension created between Hindus and Muslims during the reign of Sultan Sikandar, one of the foremost Rishis, 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."

Shiekh Nooruddin himself faced restrictions during the reign of Suha Bhatt who like grandfather, had started persecuting non-Muslims in his new-found Islamic zeal, the Sheikh's message, however, was not confined to Hindus and Muslims alone. It was meant for mankind as a whole. That is why his sayings and his verses have acquired a proverbial character 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 being men of the people they expressed their thoughts in the simple language used by common people.

The message given by Rishis or even Sufis of previous orders, however, is always the same - the divine unity of all that is. In fact it is the sufis of previous orders who had arrived from Central Asia, and who had prepared the ground for the emergence of Rishis with their powerful message of religious synthesis. One poem particularly comes to mind. 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.
I see that comely face manifest in
whatever I regard,
Though I look at a hundred thousand
mirrors in all that one face is manifest.

One great bone of contention between the Muslims and Hindus is the question of idol-worship. To take an extreme case many a sufi and Rishi, however, have had no hesitation in expressing their love of idols of gods and goddesses. In fact idol-worship is considered part of the phenomenon of mystical love. Sheikh Yaqub 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(preachers) 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 relationship between the broad-minded sufis(mystics) and conservative ulema has never been cordial in most Muslim societies. But whereas the sufis were on the margins of society in other places, in Kashmir they were the dominant influence. This is what makes the Kashmiri Muslim society different from other Muslim societies. 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, can afford to be highly critical of the Mullas who make it their profession to recite the Quran and get money in return. He calls them veritable patterns of hypocrisy, one of the greatest crimes in Islam. the Mullas pursue knowledge for purely selfish reasons. He describes them in these words: "They wear big turbans and long garments: they carry sticks in their hands; they go from place to place and sell their prayers and fasts in return for food." 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.
Having a heap of books beside him,
He may have become confused by reading them.
On examining him we found him empty in mind.
He may be preaching to others but forgetting himself."
"O Mulla 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 Mulla, then who are the thieves?"

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

"The people of Kali-Yuga 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 not sow beans, cotton seeds or grains.
They will excel thieves in living by unlawful means,
To hide themselves they will repair to a forest."

What keeps Kashmiri mystics firmly anchored in the Indian soil is their meditative technique. By and large they use variations of pas-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 Shaivaite yogis of Kashmir before the advent of Islam. What Sufis appear to have done is that they have added the repetition of the word of Allah of Huwwa to their meditative technique.


It was fifty years ago when the state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India. The most remarkable event of those stormy time in our history, however, is the fact that Kashmir's Muslims stayed secular in this hour of their gravest trial. It was no mean thing, for them, unlike even their brethren in Mirpur and Poonch, not to speak of other parts of the country, to hear horrendous stories of communal carnage involving millions of Hindus and Muslims and remain utterly unaffected. Instead of giving in to the deadly and rampant communal virus, Kashmiri Muslims waited for and welcomed Indian troops, fifty years ago, to help them in their fight against Pakistani Muslim tribal raiders.

Kashmir has been in the grip of militant separatism for years now. A Muslim-majority region has been seeking to secede from a Hindu-majority country. This is bound to create the impression of communalism and obscurantism rampant in that state. And yet, barring the misdeeds of isolated groups, largely funded from abroad, the masses of people remain extraordinarily secular. Nothing could demonstrate this better than the fact that ordinary Kashmiri Muslims are even today eagerly awaiting the return of their Pundit brothers and sisters who had left the valley at the height of militancy. As reported by Rashmi Sehgal in the Times of India recently, the few Kashmiri Pundits who have returned have received a very warm welcome indeed.

It has surprised many observers that, contrary to the general experience of communal rioting in most parts of the sub-continent, Kashmiri Muslims have been looking after the homes and hearths of their migrated Hindu brothers for years in the fond hope that one day there would be peace and they would be able to return. The demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya was followed by the demolition of numerous Hindu temples in the Muslim Bangladesh and Pakistan, but temples in kashmir, as very dramatically demonstrated by India Today's video-magazine, remained safe from the effects of Islamic frenzy seen elsewhere in the sub-continent, contrary to the claims made by vested interests.

Where from does this deep commitment to secularism, to a composite Hindu-Muslim culture emanate? What is the source of this deep connection with India? Why is Kashmiriyat so important to the Kashmiri Muslim? I think the answer lies in the eclectic and syncretic nature of the Kashmiri Muslims' philosophy of life, his spiritual beliefs. It is the impact of Sufi and Rishi visions of Islam that have helped him synthesis the teachings of Prophet Mohammad with the teachings of earlier sages of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. While elsewhere in the sub-continent, too, their pre-Islamic beliefs, it is in Kashmir alone that one finds them claiming their ancient Indian, particularly Vedic and Buddhist heritage consciously.

The explanation perhaps lies in the history of the spread of Islam in this region. 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 in his highly regarded book "Preaching of Islam." 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, darvaishes and ulema. The Islamic missionary entered the valley at a time when, in the words of W. R. Lawrence (The Valley of Kashmir) it "was a country of drunkards and gamblers." Such an atmosphere is very much suited for the spread of a new philosophy or religion.

In the introduction to his English translation of Rajatrangini, another authority on Kashmir, Dr. M. A. Stein maintains that Islam made its way into the valley not necessarily by forcible conquest but by gradual conversion, for which the influx of foreign adventurers from the south and central Asia had prepared the ground. Bulbul Shah, also known as Sharf-ud-Deen Syed Abdur Rahman Turkistani, was one such adventurer, a mystic, who acquired the first notable success in the spread of Islam in the form of the conversion of Ranchan Shah who became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir and assumed the name sultan Sadr-ud-Deen.

The conversion of Ranchan Shah, also known as Ratanju, Ratanchan and Ranju Shah, in the early fourteenth century, was followed by his brother-in-law and commander-in-chief and several other notables embracing Islam. One of the main reasons of Ranchan's conversion was his anger with the Brahmins who had refused to incorporate a Tibetan like Ranchan to the top of their cast hierarchy and accord to him the rites of royalty. He took it out on the Brahmins, coercing several of them to convert. But the charms of the mystics also had a hand in all this. A place of residence was set up on the bank of the Vitasta for the revered saint Bulbul Shah. This is known as Bulbul Kankar. The first mosque in Kashmir was also built at this place. Bulbul Shah died in 1327 A.D. He was a Syed form Turkistan and believed by some historians to be a disciple of Sheikh Shahab-ud-Deen Suharwardy. Others believe that he was a disciple of Shah Niamatullah Wali, a khalifa of the Suharwardy tareeq(school).

Several other Syeds arrived in the valley and encouraged the spread of Islam further. Prominent among them are the following:

  1. Syed Jalal-ud-Deen of Bokhara, known as Makhdum Jahanian Jahangir, the disciple of Sheikh Rukun-ud-Deen Alam, who arrived in 1348 A.D. and left Kashmir after a short stay.
  2. Sayed Taj-ud-Deen, the cousin of Mir Syed Ali Hamadani(Shah Hamadan), arrived in 1360 A.D. in the reign of Sultan Shahab-ud-Deen. He was accompanied by Syed Masud and Syed Yusuf, his disciples, who lie buried near his tomb in Mohalla Shahab-ud-Deen Pura.
  3. Syed Hussain Samnani, the younger brother of Syed Taj-ud-Deen, a disciple of Sheikh Rukun-ud-Deen Alam, who came in 1373 A.D.

There is evidence to suggest that the two brothers Syed Taj-ud-Deen and Syed Hussain were sent to Kashmir by Syed Ali Hamadani better known as Hamadan Shah to explore the possibility of Kashmir providing the Syeds of Turkistan a peaceful refuge from the persecution of Timur, who seemed determined to massacre this powerful family on some political considerations.

Shah Hamadan wielded an extraordinary influence on the spread of Islam in the valley of Kashmir. Born in 1314 A.D. at Hamadan in Persia, the Syed was the son of Syed Shahabud-Deen. Having memorised the Holy Quran in his early boyhood and having studied theology later, he became interested in Tasawuf(mysticism) and learnt its first principles form his maternal uncle Syed Ali-ud-Deen. He became a disciple of sufi saints Sheikh Abdul Barkat Taqi-ud-Deen and after his death Sheikh Sharif-ud-Deen Mahmud Muzdaqani. His teachers advised him to complete his education by extensive travels in the world. Shah Hamadan followed this advice and visited several countries. In his 21-year long journey he came in contact with several sufis and mystics form various parts of the world. As he returned to his native place, Timur started the persecution of Syeds. This forced him to leave for Kashmir, where he was given shelter in the true Indian tradition. Seven hundred Syeds are said to have accompanied him to Kashmir in the reign of Sultan Shahab-ud-Deen in 1372 A.D.

The migration of so many Syeds along with Shah Hamadan further accelerated the conversion of the great mass of Kashmiris to Islam. But it also gave a mystical color to the new religion that the majority of the people embraced. Prominent among Shah Hamadan's followers who made the greatest contribution were: Mir Syed Haider, Syed Jamal-ud-Deen, Syed Kamal, Syed Kamal-i- Saini, Syed Jamal-ud-Deen Alai, Syed Foroz alias Syed Jalal, Syed Mohammad Kazim, Syed Rukun-ud-Deen, Syed Mohammad Qureishi and Syed Azizullah.

These mystic divines established hermitages all over the country which served as centres for the propagation of their beliefs. The present Ziarat(shrine) of Shah Hamadan is said to have been erected on a spot which he used as retreat on the Vitasta. This is where he sued to discuss religion and philosophy with the Hindu divines and sanyasis and test their so-called supernatural powers. It has also left an indelible impression on the Kashmiri mind as many of the points raised and discussed here have become part of the local folk lore.

Another wave of Syeds came from Turkistan in 1396 A.D. along with the 22-year old son of Shah Hamadan, Mir Mohammad. Three hundred Syeds came this time in the reign of Sultan Sikandar. The Sultan's Prime Minister was a Brahmin named Malik Siya Butt. Impressed with a dialogue with Mir Mohammad, Siya Butt converted to Islam along with his family and many followers and assumed the name Malik Safi-ud-Deen. He married his daughter re-named Bibi Barea to Mir Mohammad. Sayed Mir Mohammad's influence resulted in the prohibition of distillation and sale of wine. Gambling and Sati(the practice of wives being burnt on the pyre of their dead husbands) were also forbidden. He passed away in 1354 A.D. and was buried near his father Khatlan.

The advent of such a large number eminent Syeds who ere seeking refuge from persecution of Timur left a great impression on the valley. As G.M.D. Sufi writes in his valuable contribution, `Islamic Culture in Kashmir', "Deeply imbued with the sufism of the age and country from which they emigrated, these Syeds and their followers seem to have simulated the tendency to mysticism for which Buddhism and Vedantism had already paved the way." Perhaps also shocked refuge in the regions of abstract thought as solace for the worldly repression under which they laboured.

"One cannot forget", says Col. Newall in the journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society, "that the human mind has ever tended towards mysticism and solitude at times when tyrants flourished, and in the present case, no doubt, the wrath of Timur had been aroused against these Syeds, who perhaps may have attempted to adopt an independence of act and speech displeasing to the great conqueror". As Sufi further avers the presence of these types of Syeds naturally influenced the more pronounced mystics of Kashmir, who, as the well-known Rishis or Babas or hermits, considerably furthered the spread of Islam by their piety and utter self-abnegation. They had nothing to do with the state's coersion.

The Mughal King Jahangir did not think much of their learning and says in his Memoirs: "Though they (Sufis, Rishis and mystics) do not have religious learning or knowledge of any sort, yet they possess simplicity and are without pretence. They abuse no one, they restrain the tongue of desire, and the foot of seeking; they eat no flesh, they have no wives, and always plant fruit-bearing trees in the fields so that men may benefit by them, themselves desiring no advantage There are about 2,000 of these people."

Saints and Rishis like Sheikh Nur-ud-Deen, Baba Pom Rishi, Baba Bam-ud-Deen, Sheikh Hamza Makhdumi, Syed Ahmad Kirmani, Syed Muhammad Hisari, and Baba Zain-ud-Deen by their example and precept smoothed the path of Islam in its slow, steady and systematic conversion of particularly the entire valley. Farishta and Abul Fazl have also described them in words of high praise, as abstaining from luxury, living on berries and wild fruits of the mountains, in the remote corners of which many of them had taken their abodes for purposes of meditation and seclusion. In some instances they had constructed ziarates or shrines, many of which remain to this day, attesting in their traditions their founders' austerities and virtues, and forming local schools of holy men or priests whose influence was beneficial to the people as promulgating the principles of humanity and moral virtues.

Having wielded tremendous influence on the Kashmiri society, Sheikh Noor-ud-Deen is considered the national saint of Kashmir. His parents belonged to the family of Rajas of Kishtwar. They embraced Islam at the hands of Yasman Rishi, the younger brother of Palasman and Khalasman Rishis. Yasman Rishi is remembered for his wide travels on the back of a tiger subsisting entirely on a cup of wild goat's milk. He took great personal interest in the upbringing of Shiekh Noor-ud-Deen.

Born in a village called Kemoh in 1379 A.D., Sheikh Noor-ud-Deen renounced the world early in life and retired to the caves for meditation. He is said to have lived in the wildness for twelve years subsisting on just grass. After that he sustained life on one cup of milk daily, and finally on water alone for two and half years before his death at the age of 63 in the reign of Sultan Zain-ul-Aedin in 1442 A.D. His tomb at Chara Sharif, 15 kilometres from Srinagar is visited daily by thousands of people and anecdotes about the simplicity and purity of his life are on the lips of all Kashmiris till today. A large number of people embraced Islam impressed by the simplicity of his lifestyle and the clarity of his teachings and preachings. No wonder the destruction of the tomb a couple of years ago had shocked Kashmiris out of their wits and had occasioned intense mourning among Muslims throughout India.

The Mughal rule provided further impetus to the spread of Islam, as many learned ulema and mystics arrived in the valley during this period. Some miracles are said to have been performed by Syed Shah Farid-ud-Deen Qadri of Baghdad. They impressed the Rajput Raja of Kishtwar so much that he embraced Islam in the reign of Aurangzeb. His conversion was followed by the majority of his subjects. The process continued during the Afghan rule as well.

Thus, the process that had been started by a simple faqir called Bulbul Shah was continued by a volley of saints and mystics, Rishis and faqirs, ulema and learned men. No generals like Mohammadbin Qasim or warriors like Shahab-ud-Deen or conquerors like Mahmud were involved. No wonder the colour of Islam in the valley is still so deeply mystical and deeply respectful of other religions.

It is extremely depressing to see people with such mystical traditions living in such violent times. This is no place to discuss the rights and wrongs of the clashing points of view. But it is difficult to see Kashmir living permanently in the grip of obscurantism and what is mistakenly call fundamentalism. Indeed in my incorrigible optimism, I still see Kashmir's sufis and Rishis leading India itself to a higher level of spiritual development.

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