Shi’ism in Kashmir

Hakim Sameer Hamdani author of Shi’ism in Kashmir in conversation with Faizaan Bhat

A few years back, a friend introduced me to Hakim Sameer Hamdani. Since then, a casual meeting has evolved into a friendship; discussing ideas, and books on philosophy, history, theology, etc. We probably disagree more than agree with each other but that is what defines a dialogue and a debate. An architect by profession, Sameer’s first book, The Syncretic Traditions of Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir, early 14th – mid 18th Century, (Routledge, 2021) looked into architectural tradition linked with the Muslim faith in Kashmir. As a practicing conservationist, he has also been involved in the conservation of Khanaqah-i Mulla, Dastgir Saheb shrine, and Jamia Masjid, Srinagar. In 2021-22 he was the recipient of the Aga Khan Fellowship in Islamic Architecture at MIT, Cambridge.  Earlier this month we met in a cafe in Srinagar and had an amazing conversation about his recently released book: Shi’ism in Kashmir, a history of Sunni-Shi’i rivalry and reconciliations (IB Tauris, 2022). Here are some excerpts from the conversation 

Q. So let’s start with the obvious, why this book?

While researching my book on the Islamic Religious Architecture of Kashmir, I got deeply interested in how our historiography has been used as a conscious tool employed by a class of scholars, mostly operating from Srinagar in framing narratives that project the past as a milieu of religious and sectarian conflict. This is especially true when we speak about a Shia or Sunni society during the medieval or even early modern period. But then how historical is this narrative of an antagonistic past? I do accept that our past is not one which upholds liberal representation, but then the material culture linked with it is replete with examples of what we could call negotiated pragmatism and co-existence. Unfortunately a great deal of our textual history, particularly in the genre of tazkiras (hagiographies) coming as it does from competing centers of power and patronage, often conflates symbols of belonging to a privileged class with religious or sectarian discrimination.

So the question remains, can we historicize or rather contextualize our past in a way that does not seek not to hide from differences- but then also search, and explore for shared similarities- similarities that made us Kashmiris? That was the origin of a book that engages with a layered past and complex moments of our history with competing interests.

Q. But isn’t there a danger that engagement with the past that is traditionally contested can in popular discourse be criticized as being agenda-driven?

Thanks for asking this. That is fascinating, because it reminds me of an informal interaction at MIT, while I was compiling the work. It was a wise person, who when I told him about my research on Shiʿi -Sunni relations in Kashmir, surprised me with a question, “What is your agenda?”. And, while I will leave the wise person unnamed, as is also the tradition in our part of the world- I think this is a question that will be asked of this work, time and time again. Though this book is a look at the past, the nineteenth century to be precise, the nature of Shiʿi-Sunni relations remains a charged issue not only in South Asia but across regions and nations where the two societies live and interact. The pain of killings, destruction, and demonization of each other following events in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are too recent to be forgotten, forgiven, and healed. Fortunately, while Kashmir has also witnessed isolated events of heightened sectarian tension, these events have neither prejudiced nor harmed community relations.

So, then what is the agenda? While at the start of this project, I would have maybe vehemently denied the presence of any embedded agenda, now in hindsight, I am more inclined to believe maybe all of us do have an agenda- even if it is grounded in academic discourse. For me, the agenda, in the end, translates simply into a hope- that Kashmir with all the pain, suffering, and dispossession will survive. And, to survive we as people need to look at our past with all its dissensions and pain-learn and ensure that we and our future generations will understand and realize the perils of sectarianism, just like communalism are too real and too near to be ignored. We also need to understand that differences will exist and where they exist, they need to be celebrated, not hidden behind a veil of assumed unity and uniformity.

Q. Speaking about agenda, given the present political confabulation in the region, especially post-August 2019, some would argue this is not the time to engage in debates about conflict or fissures in history, how do you respond?

I believe today is as good as any other day for engaging with such topics, even if it may seem difficult given the peculiarities of our contemporary political situation. Our present political scenario despite the challenges – the overwhelming challenges to be honest it poses to us as a people, should not be a hindrance or excuse for not examining-investigating and critically engaging with issues such as sectarianism or questions linked to gender and women’s history or casteism, racism, etc. I firmly believe that we as a people, as Kashmiris, are able and competent enough to evolve a conceptual framework within which to engage with these questions. I am not asking that we mimic discourses emanating from the west, or engage in self-loathing or demonizing our past, but silence is not an answer. I hope my readers also agree.

Q. In your introduction, you locate the ‘nature of conflict’ in texts, primarily tarikh (history) and tazkira (hagiography), especially Khwaja Azam Dedhmari’s ‘Tarikh-i Kashmir’. How are you contesting the dominant historiography of Shia-Sunni relations in Kashmir?

Of all the Persian historians of Kashmir, Dedhmari is and remains the most significant. It is his view of the past which stands appropriated by a later generation of historians. But, then Dedhmari’s text also remains the high point of a biased and discriminating text for all those who are not Sunnis. It peddles sectarian prejudices and helps in the othering of the Shia both as a community and as a faith. And, in my introduction, I highlight how Dedhmari’s history writing in the 18th century is dismissive about anything that is conceived of Shia origin- be it Shia preachers, nobles, or sultans. To a large extent, Dedhmari’s predilection towards a sectarian milieu informs and helps in crystallizing sectarian prejudices when we arrive in the 19th century. But then earlier texts contend this sectarian worldview, and in turn, highlight how shifting and changing political interests of elite groups both Shia as well as Sunni mark the reality of medieval Kashmir under Sunni as well as Shia rulers. Interestingly, we have a Sunni saint from the 16th century, Baba Dawood Khakhi who in two of his qasidahs celebrates Shia sultans, Yosuf Shah Chak and Hussain Shah Chak. Similarly, Haider Tulmulli, a contemporary of Khakhi- and a Sunni himself, writes about two wives of Hussain Shah Chak who were Sunnis. Yet strangely, for Dedhmari in medieval Kashmir, Shia and Sunni are two, agnostic and compartmentalized communities- the only intersection between the two is of conflicting and competing monoliths.

Q: Your book sheds light on how the sense of self-identity evolves differently among Kashmiri Shias and Sunnis. Where exactly is the starting point of this evolution?

Well, this notion of a Shia or Sunni identity is quite pronounced when we arrive in the 19th century- especially in the urban center of Srinagar. It is mainly informed from textual writings mostly tazkira’s in the case of Sunnis and for the Shia’s in the literary genre of marsiyas (elegies) that commemorate the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s (صَلَّى ٱللَّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ) grandson, Imam Husain (عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ). And, I would argue that generally as a process this assumes significance during the days of the unraveling of Mughal rule in Kashmir in the early 18th century. This is also a period when we see Shia-Sunni riots becoming a part of city life. So political instability and competing interests help in shaping these processes of self-identification.

Q. You argue that at the start of  19th century Kashmir, the Shia existed as a monolith- could you elaborate on reasons that make you say so?

In the introduction, I do mention that defining Shi’ism or the nature of Shi’ism in Kashmir during the medieval period needs further study- it is not clear. But once we arrive in the 19th century, the period of my study, the abundance of textual records, oral traditions, and archival records maintained in many Kashmiri Shia families clearly indicates that it is located in the Twelver school- the Ithna Ashariyya or what is commonly known in South Asia, Imammia. But, let me highlight that even if located within the same school, there is evidence that indicates the presence of both the rationalist (Usuli) and traditionalist (Akbari) tendencies amongst Kashmiri Shia at the start of the 19th century, though by the end of the same century we do not find any presence of the Akbari’s.

Q. What role did Shia play in the consolidation of the Muslim identity of Kashmir? How were the centuries of rifts and antagonism negotiated in this new identity?

Well, if we see at the first half of the 20th century, the formation of an ecumenical Muslim identity came out through the agency of the community elite- within the Shia and the Sunni society.  Broadly, it emerges from within the boundaries of the capital city, Srinagar. The two individuals who represent this ecumenical formation are Khawaja Saad-ud-din Shawl a wealthy Sunni merchant and Aga Sayyid Hussain Shah Jalali, a Shia Zaildar. It’s worthwhile to remember that under the Dogra, Kashmiri Shia had made incremental gains as a community. This included the taking out of the Ashura procession, re-establishment of the Maarak- the imambada at Zadibal, public commemoration and enactment of Muharram ceremonies in the city, access and patronage at the royal court, and also a degree of security in which to operate their sectarian identity. Yet, the Shia’s agreed to forsake all this, in favor of a unified Muslim front, agitating against the Dogra durbar.

For the Sunnis too, as represented by their elite it meant distancing from an inherited discourse that had projected Shias as the others. It is a gradual process, but once commenced we find both the emerging political as well as religious leaders of the two communities sought to actively project this narrative of a unified Muslim identity, in opposition to a Hindu Maharaja and a Hindu-dominated court. And, I would argue this accommodation and acceptance of each other is something that defines contemporary Kashmiri Muslim society too. Yes, there are tensions, disagreements, and at times conflicting aspirations but the overarching theme of a broad-based Muslim identity continues to operate even today.

Q. You have a book on architecture and now on sectarianism? What next?

Right. I am currently working on a book about Srinagar city, I simply cannot get over my fascination with the resilience of this city, its architecture, and the history of this site. But then, this is also my first venture into popular history- hopefully, readers will be able to connect with it. And, hopefully, I will be able to do justice to the city.

Click to watch the book launch

Click to buy the book on Amazon

Faizaan Bhat is a writer based in Kashmir.

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