Of Salafis, Deobandis and Barelwis in Kashmir

Kashmir is a melting pot of cultures, religions, ethnicities and regional identities. The Kashmiri identity is contested and variegated. It is still developing and has survived despite centuries of onslaught from different quarters. Religion has played an important role in shaping the indigenous Kashmiri identity. Kashmir embraced Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam equally with open arms. All these religions went on to create an identity and culture that we witness today. These religions left an indelible mark while shaping the identity of a common Kashmiri. Due to the egalitarian message and practices of Islam, most inhabitants of Kashmir who were reeling under the darkness of social prejudices and caste system embraced Islam without much resentment. Islam in Kashmir was spread through the egalitarian practices of Sufis. Sufism too accepted local influences of Hinduism and Buddhism and an indigenous strand of Sufism termed as “Rishism” evolved.


These Rishis evolved a culture of harmony, fellow feeling and community welfare in the Valley. Further they did not proselytize and rarely engaged with theology. Hence they were never at the centre of controversies. They practiced the values of Islam and for them most mystical practices of every religion lead to the same goal. The God of all religions is same for them and religions are different paths that lead to the same goal. It was their inspiring lives and moral characters that drove hordes of men to their hospices that still continue to be the centres of attraction even centuries after their death. Most of these hospices had a madrasa, boarding, lodging facilities and a free community kitchen associated with them. But now those are relics of past as most shrines and hospices have now been rendered as dens of nepotism, sectarian hatred and money minting institutions for those who control them.

Most of the Rishis spoke against this clergy and priestly class of Islam using derogatory term (Mullah) against them. The poetry of Sheikh ul Alam better known as Alam Dar e Kashmir (torch bearer) or Nund Rishi is full of criticism against this priestly class. Unfortunately, this message of Nund Rishi has been distorted by clergy class who has co-opted and annexed his hospice and now is indulging in the same acts against which Nund led a crusade during his whole life and was even incarcerated by the nefarious designs of the mullahs of his times.

Most Kashmiris have a deep faith in transcendence and the divine reality of God. The shrines and hospices were revered but with the advent of Islamic revivalist movements in the mainland India, the reverence of shrines and hospices came to be disputed. The puritanical, exclusivist Ahle Hadith or Salafi movement started a tirade against the shrines that they described as institutes of grave worship. So in order to behold and save Muslims they started a venomous campaign against shrines, describing them as bastions of shrik.

To supplement them Deobandis too jumped in the bandwagon and reinforced their efforts, though unlike Salafis they had a soft corner for Sufis and were not as vociferous in their criticism and campaigns against the Sufis, shrines and hospices. As a reaction to their efforts, the mullahs who have economic interests associated with shrines started supporting the Barelwis, who started owning the Sufis, describing themselves as their real inheritors and piling up wrong evidences for every economic activity conducted at shrines being in spirit with real Islam.

All these discourses of Salafis, Deobandis and Barelwis are quite alien to Kashmir. All these schools of thought are extremist in their outlook and rabidly sectarian and if provided with hospitable environs violent too. These groups have carried out violent acts against each other and different other sects in the recent past. Earlier they engaged with each other through writing diatribes, pamphlets and books denouncing each other and describing them as deviated and charging them with heresy. The sectarian mosques were used to hold debates against each other. Also the co-option and annexation of shrines by Barelwis who wrongly masquerade as Sufis has done a severe damage to the syncretic and plural message of Kashmiri Rishis.

The distortion of Sufism by Barelwis is another challenge that needs to be met. Now the fault lines between these sects are evident even among the common masses that are caught up in non ending diatribes because social media and internet has made it possible for masses to have a peek into these debates. Literary rebuttals against each other were confined to a refined section but now the videos of the sectarian mullahs are available for mass public consumption, thus widening the divide. Add to it the crisis in Middle East particularly Syria that has opened the Pandora’s box of Shia-Sunni violence. It has its impact on the Muslims of subcontinent too. Although we do not hear about violence between Shias and Sunnis in India but with each passing day the fault lines are widening. To add insult to injury some deobandi mullahs in Kashmir like Noaman Nowsheri and Muzaffar Qasmi are openly attacking the other sects. The show-boy Noaman Nowsheri is being elevated as the Manazir e Islam (Debater of Islam) as he claims to have defeated many Salafis, whereas Salafi mullahs like Abdul Latif Al Kindi and Abid Salafi are refuting him and others.

Many mosques and madrasas have been retrograded into debating theatres and in some cases physical abuses have taken place too. These repugnant debates are streamed live to score points over the opponents. In Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s era Masjid e Zaraar was established by certain Muslim hypocrites to carryout nefarious designs against Islam and Muslims. Prophet (pbuh) ordered the mosque to be demolished. These sectarian mullahs are retrograding every mosque to Zaraar, their designs need to be fought against and a social boycott of these sectarian mullahs needs to be orchestrated. They are vilifying the real message and values of Islam for cheap publicity and earning few bucks.

M.H.A.Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir

Courtesy: New Age Islam



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