A Reflection on the Socio-political Causes of the Advent of Islam in Kashmir

From the time immemorial Kashmir has attracted scholars and poets, historians and adventurers from all over the globe and it still stands unique in many respects known to us even today. Her culture has been rich and her past glorious and like a bunch of rogues fighting among themselves for a lady with unparalleled beauty, the three major South Asian countries have been demanding its control among themselves for past more than six decades. The lady who was world-famous for her beauty is today notorious for her ugliness.1 In this paper I am neither reflecting upon the glory of this land of ‘godly-men’ (called either sufis or risis) nor am I getting into any debate about the contemporary situation in the South Asian sub continent where the Valley is located, but I am aiming to understand why, when and how was Islam introduced into the Valley and what were the socio-political conditions responsible for it. I chose this topic for this paper not because it has not been studied by earlier historians but because both Hindu and Muslim historians who studied this topic earlier have either been biased or were busy contradicting each other’s theories thus proclaiming their own religion to be superior and offering complete injustice to history.2 What also I am interested in looking at is the uniqueness of Islam in Kashmir and in the course of my study for this paper I encountered that the roots for this theme lie in the way Islam was introduced into the Valley. The first half of the paper is an attempt to understand the socio-political milieu of Kashmir in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD those could have paved a smooth way for Islam to enter into the Valley. The later half will deal with an examination of the preaching of Islam in Kashmir. I have made an attempt to focus less on the political developments  (of course I cannot afford to ignore them completely) and more on social and cultural change that was taking place in Kashmiri society of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD.

Flipping through the pages of history of Kashmir we get to know that the first Arab invasion into Kashmir was made by Muhammad Bin Qasim during the reign of King Chandrapida (711-719 AD), but he returned back to Damascus without causing any harm to the Valley.3 The Arab governor Junaid also threatened Kashmir later, but the then ruler Lalitaditya (724-43 AD) successfully defended his kingdom. Thereafter, Mahmud of Ghazni made two unsuccessful attempts to invade Kashmir in 1015 AD and 1021 AD4 and Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316) just remained busy conquering the rest of India and never invaded Kashmir. But “Kashmir was invaded, crushed and tortured by Mongol hooligans. It happened in the reign of Sahadeva (1301-20)” says Parimu (1969:71). It was Zulju, a Mongol from Turkistan, who made an attempt to conquer the valley in the spring of 1320 AD. “The Mongols continued their ravages in the Valley for eight months, until the commencement of winter. During this period fields had been for the most part left uncultivated, for the inhabitants had either been killed or escaped to the mountains” says Hasan (1959:35). It becomes important for us to understand the situation of Kashmiri society immediately after the Mongol invasion because since the Valley was in complete chaos the common masses must have been looking forward for a positive change. The life of common people seems to have been devastated both materially and morally. And on top of that they were facing a fatal natural disaster of famine that completely ruined their lives. Later in this paper we will also see how these people were already bitterly fed up with the complete administrative chaos in the Valley that had also paved the way for social demoralization. Thus Hasan (1959:36) says,  “After the withdrawal of the Mongols the inhabitants returned to the Valley from the mountains whither they had fled to escape massacre or enslavement. They witnessed the havoc which the invaders had caused. Many found themselves without houses, without relations, and without friends. In addition to these sufferings, they were subjects to the harassments of the neighbouring hill tribes, who raided the Valley and plundered them of whatever they still possessed, and then carried them away as slaves. Moreover, to crown it all, famine stared them in the face. As there was no organised government in the country, the local chiefs made themselves independent. In some cases the inhabitants themselves organised their defence against the depredations of robbers and the hill tribes by taking possession of a fort and choosing some strong person as their leader. Among those who took advantage of the prevailing anarchy, the most prominent was Rinchana”. Rinchan (1320-23 AD) was a Tibetan Buddhist who converted into Islam5 at the hands of Saiyid Sharafu’d Din or Bulbul Shah (d. 1326 AD) belonging to the Suhrawardi order of Sufis. He was the first Sufi who traveled to Kashmir from Turkistan. Rinchan was very impressed with Bulbul Shah and he granted revenue of several villages to him besides making a Khanaqah and a langar (alms-house) for him.6 Thus Rinchan, even though he ruled over Kashmir only for three years, became the first Muslim king of Kashmir and Islam the official religion of the Valley. Although the first Muslim Sultanate was established later by Shah Mir.7

We also come across the references to the presence of Muslims in the Valley as early as the middle of the eighth century, long before the establishment of Muslim rule in the country. Muslim traders and soldiers were entering into Kashmir and Kalhana records that Lalitaditya, son and successor of Vajraditya, “sold many men to the mlecchas, and introduced into the country practices which benefitted the mlecchas”8. It is also worth mentioning what Stein says, “Islam made its way into Kashmir not by forcible conquests but by the gradual conversion, for which the foreign adventurers both from the South and Central Asia had prepared the ground”9. As opposed to Ulama and Sayyids a large number of whom was taking shelter in Kashmir in the fourteenth century, it were groups of Piras and their Murids who were important and exercised greater influence on the social, religious and cultural life of the Valley.10

From the above account we learn that the condition of common people in the fourteenth century in Kashmir was completely sad.11 They were just trying to recover from the chaos created in the Valley by Mongols and the famine that had recently hit the Valley. The social scenario was already poor and there was political unrest in the country.12 Lawrence (1895:189) even says “and in 1305 AD when Raja Simha Deva was king, Kashmir was a country of drunkards and gamblers, and the women were no better than they should be”. Bamzai’s (1973:308-09) observation also needs a careful mention; “It can safely be deduced from the above that Islamic influence was making itself felt in Kashmir long before the country had a Muslim king. Islamic missionaries and adventurers came into Kashmir and preached the doctrine among the people who were thoroughly saturated with the tenets of Brahmanism and Buddhism. The preachings of these first missionaries do not seem to have produced any deep impression and it required all the religious fervour and the devotion of selfless divines and dervishes like Bulbul Shah to convince the Kashmiri people and convert them to the creed and philosophy of the new religion”.

We made mention of the Sufi saint Bulbul Shah earlier in the context of Rinchen. Bulbul Shah was the first Sufi to enter into the valley who “appears to have deeply impressed the people by his personal example, his methods of preaching and persuation, at a time when the fortunes of the ruling dynasty were in the melting pot and the people were passing through a period of political instability, heavy taxation, and crushing burdens of feudalism” Bamzai (1973:524). However, the most important Sufi saint who visited the valley after him in 1372 AD was Sayyid Ali Shah Hamadani.13  With Hamadani Islam started getting the true colour in Kashmir and he “practically established Islam in Kashmir and laid its foundations well and true” Bamzai (1973:525).

After having made a brief assessment of what was happening in the Valley at the social lever, we now move on to the second part of our paper that will focus on the preaching of Islam in Kashmir. An important study of interpreting the Kashmir’s transition to Islam and the role that Muslim Rishis had to play in it was undertaken by Mohammad Ishaq Khan (2005) recently. Khan has covered fifteenth to eighteenth centuries in his book and has raised some of the very crucial questions and attempted to answer them to the best of his capacity. Though he seems to be little anti-Brahmanist at times, but his overall investigation has been fair. Many scholars have written about Sufism in Kashmir before Khan, but no one seems to have raised the important question he did. In the pages to follow, I will now try to discuss about Sayyid Ali Hamadani, Sheikh Nur-ud-Din alias Nund Rishi and Sufi orders in general those played the significant role in the preaching of Islam in the Valley.14

A detailed account about the life and works of Sayyid Ali Hamadani is offered by Agha Hussian Hamadani.15 Hamadani (1984:19) says “The religious and ethical philosophy of Sayyid Ali Hamadani is closely associated with his ideas of state and government. The central idea of his philosophy is social justice which is derived from the fifth chapter of his book, Zakhirātul Malūk”. Besides being a Sufi saint he is also said to have been a great scholar of Arabic and Persian languages and is also supposed to have authored some 170 works.16 Among the works he composed the most important in the context of Kashmir is the Aurad-i Fathiyya. This work is a collection of all those Aurad which Hamadani is supposed to have compiled from one thousand and four hundred Sufis of his age.17 The tradition also attributes him to have performed many miracles those impressed the saints belonging to non-Muslim faith in the Valley and they accepted the Islamic faith.18 The Aurad-i Fathiyya stands unique as far as Islam in Kashmir is concerned. Khan says, “Islam, in no small measure, owes its success to his remarkable role which was distinguished by his tolerance towards the Kashmiris’ penchant for singing hymns aloud in temples. The sight of a small number of people professing faith in Islam and simultaneously going to temples must have caused a great deal of concern to Sayyid Ali. But it goes to his credit that instead of taking a narrow view of the religious situation in Kashmir, he showed an acute discernment and a keen practical sense in grasping the essential elements of popular Kashmiri religious culture and ethos, and gave creative expression to these in enjoining his followers in the Valley to recite Aurad-i Fathiyya aloud in a chorus in mosques”.19 Hamadani seems to have understood the need of making Islam intelligible to common people in Kashmir and hence he introduced the aloud recitation of the Aurad-i Fathiyya. This  practice was, however, considered to be un-Islamic because this was against the Shari‘a and was not approved by Sayyid Ahmad Kirmani, another Sufi who visited Kashmir in the sixteenth century.20 Even the leaders of the modern Ahl-i Hadith movement oppose this form of worship by Kashmiri Muslims. Nonetheless, this practice is still prevalent among the Muslims of Kashmir. Islam seems to have “developed as a resilient tradition of its own in Kashmir, first under the guidance of Sayyid Ali Hamadani and later, under Nuruddin Rishi”21. But “this accommodation to the local Kashmiri context did not proceed far enough, however, Mir Sayyed Ali and his Iranian disciples who had accompanied him to Kashmir wrote and preached in Persian and Arabic, which few Kashmiris could understand. Further, they were based largely in Srinagar, close to the royal court, and thus had few links with the Kashmiri masses, most of who resided in far-flung villages. It was left to Hazrat Nuruddin Nurani (1356-1440), commonly known as Nund Rishi, to transform conversion to Islam into a mass movement, by expressing it in a form rooted in pre-Islamic Kashmiri traditions, using these traditions as a vehicle for the spread of Islam” Sikand (p. 4).
Sheikh Nur-ud-din or Nund Rishi22 (b. 1377 AD), ‘the patron saint of Kashmir’ as he is locally called in Kashmir, is revered alike by the Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir even today. Khan (2005) has devoted a major part of his book to the philosophy, both social and religious, of Nund Rishi. He undoubtedly had the major role to play, after Hamadani, in the propagation of Islam in the Valley and since he was a Kashmiri himself so he had to do it in the language of the masses; Kashmiri. And there is exactly where his importance lied. He was not teaching Islam to common people, but he, as a Sufi rishi, was spreading a message of universal brotherhood through his poetry which could be understood even by the most illiterate person in Kashmir.23 Thus Khan  (1986:201) appropriately puts it; “Nur-ud-Din seems to have visited almost every part of the Valley to spread his message of divine love and human brotherhood in the popular dialect. There are a number of villages in Kashmir which still preserve the tradition of his visit or sojourn in one form or the other. It was, indeed, easier for the common man to understand the esoteric spirit of Islam-submission, dependence on God, obedience, contemplation, repentance, endeavour, dedication, altruism, and a fulfilment of the duties of fellowship – through Nur-ud-Din’s popular mystical verses than through the scholarly works of the Sufi missionaries. The scholarly version of Islam given in the Persian language by a Sufi at a gathering was beyond the ken of the common man with his average intelligence. It seems that the poverty and humility of the Rishis and, by all accounts, their very presence had a magnetic influence which was far more important than the mere knowledge of the Ulama or the learned Sufis. They made the presence of the divinity become more perceptible and closer to the poor”. So we understand that the importance of Nur-ud-Din as far as the preaching of Islam in Kashmir was concerned, is far more greater than Sayyid Ali Hamadani and Islam in Kashmir got introduced through a Sufi movement that still stands distinct in many respects in Kashmir.

From the above discussions we can conclude that Islam in Kashmir was not simply a matter of ‘conversion’ from one religion to another, but it was a very gradual process that went on for centuries together. Later in the fifteenth century we see Islam making much progress under the reign of Sultan Zain-ul-abdin (r. 1423-1474 AD) and his father Sultan Sikandar (1389-1413 AD) who received many more Sufi-saints in Kashmir headed by Mir Muhammad Hamadani (1372-1450 AD) in the year 1393 AD. So I would completely agree with Khan (1986:200) when he says that the on-going process of Islamic acculturation should not be regarded as ‘conversion’ to Islam in the strict sense of the word. For instance Nund Rishi who was just a Sufi saint truly motivated by spirituality was only preaching his message of spirituality and not the principles of Islamic faith, but he did get some prominent non-Muslims into the fold of Islam by the power of his spiritual messages. The Sufis after Nund Rishi also preached the the same sort of messages to one and all in the Valley.

Thus we can conclude that the socio-political situation in Kashmir at the time Islam was formally setting its footsteps into the Valley was extremely favourable. People, who were completely demoralized because of the political and social instability in the Valley were in need of a positive change that was offered to them by the philosophy and social reforms introduced by the Sufis who were the adherents of Islam.

Bamzai, P. N. K. (1973) A History of Kashmir: Political, Social, Cultural, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (2d rev ed.). New Delhi: Metropolitan Book Co.
Chakraborty, Uma. (1991). Ksemendra ; The Eleventh Century Kashmir Poet – A Study of His Life and Works. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
Gauhar, G. N. (1988). Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali (Nund Rishi) (Makers of Indian literature). Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.
Hamadani, A. H. (1984). The life and works of Sayyid Ali Hamadani (A.D. 1314-1385). Islamabad: National Institute Of Historical And Cultural Research.
Hasan, M. (1959). Kashmir under the Sultans. Calcutta: Iran Society.
Khan, M. I. (1986). The Impact of Islam on Kashmir in the Sultanate Period (1320-1586). in  Indian Economic and Social History Review 23;187 : Sage Publications.
Khan, M. I. (2005). Kashmir’s Transition to Islam : The Role of Muslim Rishis, 15th-18th Century. New Delhi: Manohar.
Lawrence, Walter. R. (1895) The Valley of Kashmir. London: Oxford University Press.
Parimoo, B. N. (1978). The ascent of self: A re-interpretation of the mystical poetry of Lalla-Ded. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Parimoo, B. N. (1984). Nund Rishi – Unity in Diversity. Srinagar: Jammu & Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.
Parmu, R. K. (1969). A history of Muslim rule in Kashmir, 1320-1819,. Bombay: People’s Pub. House.
Rafiqi, A. Q. (1972). Sufism in Kashmir, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. India: Bharatiya Pub. House.
Sikand, Yoginder.  Popular Sufism and Scriptural Islam in Kashmir
Sufi, G. M. (1974). Kashir – Being a History of Kashmir from the Earliest Times to Our Own (two volumes). New Delhi: Light & Life Publishers.
Sufi, G. M. (1979). Islamic Culture in Kashmir (1st ed.). New Delhi: Light & Life Publishers.

1. In the past couple of decades an enormous amount of literature has been produced regarding what is called the “Kashmir Conflict”. Most of this literature is either dealing with the political conflict or the terrorist or militant activities taking place in the Valley. On the other hand where I see many political experts writing on “Kashmir problem” who sound extremely monotonous to me, I have also come across, rather recently, two such scholarly studies those have tried to understand the depths of the problem of Kashmir in colonial India. Cf. Rai, M. (2004). Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir. Princeton: Princeton University Press. and Zutshi, C. (2004). Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

2. This is a very general claim I am making here that is purely based on my common consensus of the works I have read so far. I am afraid that I do not have enough time and space to get into such details in this paper. This is also one of the feelings I got when I saw that none of the Sanskrit historians of Kashmir mentioning Lal Ded, the immortal poetess of Kashmir, but some of the Persian historians do mention her with much reverence. I will touch upon this topic briefly later in the paper. In this paper I do not discuss these issues at all, but I expect to throw some light on them in a forthcoming revised version of the same.
3. Cf. Hasan (1959:28)
4. Cf. Hasan (1959:28-29)
5. Hasan (1959:39) “Rinchana’s mind was inquisitive and alert. He was fond of the society of learned men and Hindu and buddhist priests, and used to discuss with them the respective religions in order to find a satisfactory answer to the question: “what is truth?” But the discussion failed to satisfy his spiritual cravings. Buddhism, the faith in which he was born, had become diluted with foreign elements and so could not offer him any solace. Hinduism also did not appeal to him because of its caste-ridden rules and the arrogance of the Brahmans who were its custodians. Owing to his inability to discover the truth, he felt a sense of frustration and a spiritual vacuum in lis life. As a result, he was troubled and restless, and passed sleepless nights, weeping and praying to God to gude him to the right path. It was in such a state of spiritual unrest that he came into contact with Sayyid Sharafu’d-Din, commonly known as Bulbul Shah.…..”.
6. See Rafiqi (1972:17).
7.  Cf. Parimu (1969:86ff)
8. Quoted by Hasan (1959:234)
9. Quoted by Sufi (1974:345).
10. Hasan (1959:222)
11. See Bamzai (1973:309) for more details.
12. Concerning the moral and ethical degradation of the people in Kashmiri society in the thirteenth century, I cannot but stop myself from just going a little back to eleventh century and try to understand the situation of the society then as depicted by the Kashmirian poet Ksemendra who is not very popularly studied and hence his works have caught the attention of the scholars merely recently. Ksemendra was deeply concerned about the “administrative body and society of Kashmir which were corrupted to the very core and prompted the astute moralist Ksemendra to criticize so ruthlessly” Chakraborty (1991:3). Chakraborthy (1991:6) further adds saying “Keeping in harmony with the administrative conditions, the society of Kashmir also became equally morally degraded. All men and women, young or old, high or low, rich or poor had before them no ideal which they could follow. They also became as immoral and undisciplined as the inefficient and immoral government officials. In a word, indiscipline and corruption became the watchword of the day and the inherent quality of Kashmir during the 10th century AD.” Since the topic of my focus in this paper is no directly related to this issue, I am not willing to discuss more about either the works of Ksemendra or the situation of the Kashmiri society in the eleventh century. But at the same time I would like to propose that the social situation in eleventh century Kashmir was already much worse and it must have gradually worsened in the preceding centuries. Between eleventh and thirteenth centuries we see a gap of almost a century and immediately after that we see the dominant rise of Islam in Kashmir. All these points want to make me believe that the social and political scenario was already bad in Kashmir and what the Mongol invasion and famine as discussed above was just another addition to the misery of the people of “Happy Valley”. I do think that this discussion needs another elaborate platform to be discussed and I may think of doing it in a separate paper altogether.

13. There are many doubts raised by historians about the date Hamadani visited Kashmir and also how many times he visited. This, however, is not the topic of much concern to us here.
14. Here I am purposely not making any mention of Lal Ded who may or may not have had any role to play in preaching of Islam in Kashmir (Khan-1986:199). In Kashmir, like Nund Rishi, she is revered alike by Hindus and Muslims, but I have seen a strong tendency among Hindu scholars to drag her towards them and also in Muslims who always want to justify that she did convert to Islam. The best example of the former lies in Parimu (1978) and the later in Khan (1986). So in other words, I think, this immortal poetess has just become a puppet at the hands of both Hindus and Muslims. At the same time I strongly feel that Lal Ded needs a very serious and careful attention by scholars. First of all, I believe, her Kashmiri sayings ought to be philologically evaluated and then only we can go ahead interpreting her and getting the true sense out of what she was preaching. She might have had some role to play as far as the preaching of the spiritually motivated Sufi thought was concerned, but we are certainly not very sure about that. Khan (1986:199) maintains that she converted to Islam because she was abandoned by Brahmins since she did not adhere to the Sanskrit language and taught in the Kashmiri; the local language of the masses in Kashmir. I do not completely disagree with Khan, but I think that she needs a very serious study and then only we can think of coming to some solid conclusions.
15. Hamadani (1984:4-9)
16. See Rafiqi (1972:39-40ff), Hamadani (1984:28ff)
17. Hamadani (1984:30).
18. Rafiqi (1972:37)
19. Khan (2005:69)
20. Khan (2005:69)
21. Khan (2005:68-70)
22. For more details on the life and works of Sheikh Nur-ud-din Wali alias Nund Rishi one may refer to Gauhar (1988) and Parimoo (1984). The former is a small work talking about his life and works in general and the latter is a much details work focusing his works in Kashmiri language with an English translation.
23. Khan (1986:201)


Author: Mrinal Kaul

I am a Kashmirian Orientalist

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