How Shiism, marked by persecution, taqiya and other survival tactics, evolved in the valley.
Come Muharram, the month of mourning, Kashmir’s Shia-dominated areas come alive with black banners and portraits of religio-political revolutionary leaders from Iran and beyond.
The banners of modern day Shia icons from Iran to Lebanon in Kashmir illustrate how the Shia resurgence has spilled over borders, into places like Kashmir with small Shia populations with their own troubled history.
This new assertiveness from a community which till recently would observe Taqiyah (1), or dissimulation, for fear of being persecuted merely for observing rituals like those in Muharram, is demonstrative of the urge of the new generation Shia to assert as a community.
They see in the victory of the Shias in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran their own triumph – a sense of relief after nearly 1500 years of subjugation, denial of what they see as their fundamental right to mourn their greatest loss, their heroes in the deserts of Karbala. The urge to overcome the fear psychosis they have been living with as a community ever since. It is an attempt to put up a bold face amid shadows of the lurking fear.
Driven from one place to another, minority within a minority, devoid of heroes, they look beyond borders. The Shia awakening elsewhere is infusing new vigour, new enthusiasm in the youth in Srinagar, Baramulla, Budgam and even in far flung places like Ladakh.
There is a bold statement. Big brother you can cow us down or take us for granted at your own peril!
Although there has been no official census on sectarian lines in Kashmir, a conservative estimate puts the Shia population of the whole of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state at around 2.5 million.
Shias are a majority in the northern areas of Gilgit-Baltistan currently under Pakistani federal control.
Ninety- eight percent in Baltistan and 60 percent in Gilgit and adjoining areas are Shia even though successive governments in Islamabad have attempted to alter the demographic composition of the region to suit their long term political interests.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the community is chiefly concentrated in Srinagar, central district of Budgam, Baramulla, parts of Bandipur and Ladakh region.
Very few Shia Muslim habitations can be found in southern parts of Kashmir and they virtually do not exist in the Chinab valley where as in other frontier and mountainous belts situated on the approach roads to Kashmir, the community was virtually decimated by the marauding Mughal and Pathan invaders during 16th -18th century.
History tells us that Mughal governor Mirza Haider Dughlat Kashgari (1540-51-) in order to stem the Kashmiri resistance and to perpetuate his rule brazenly adopted the policy of divide and rule and let loose a reign of terror upon the restive Shia population.
Though the brief period of Shia glory in Kashmir ended after the Mughal treachery that led to the fall of the Chak dynasty, (The last Kashmiri sultanate 1561-1587), the community’s aversion to foreign rule ran supreme.
It was in the mid16th century, when the Mughal power was at its zenith in India, that a few Kashmiri nobles had invited the army from Delhi to get rid of the local Chak rulers.
And when in the middle of the 18th century, the Mughal Empire had begun to decline, a few Sunni Muslim Kashmiri nobles invited Ahmed Shah Abdali, the brutal ruler of Afghanistan, to ‘liberate’ their country. Pathans, like Mughals, obliged and overran Kashmir in 1752. In order to maintain their stranglehold over Kashmir, Abdali’s satraps not only doubled taxes of their impoverished subjects but persecuted the Shia minority with a fanatical vigour as they, like Mughals, saw in them a perpetual threat for their stubborn beliefs. Fifty years of Afghan rule were rife with suppression of Shia Muslims.
With Kashgari sowing the seeds of hatred among the Muslim community for political ends, Shias in Kashmir in subsequent years had to pass through the most atrocious period of their history.
Plunder, loot and massacres which came to be known as taaraj, devastated the community.
History records 10 such taarajs, also known as taraj-e-Shia, in 1548, 1585, 1635, 1686, 1719, 1741, 1762, 1801, 1830, 1872 during which the Shia habitations were plundered, people slaughtered, libraries burnt and their sacred sites desecrated. (2)
Such was the reign of terror during this period that the community widely went into the practice of taqiyah in order to preserve their lives and the honour of their womenfolk. Village after village disappeared, with community members either migrating to safety further north or dissolving in the majority faith.
The community has yet to recover fully from the shocks of these taarajs – the last one suffered more than a century ago – and the fear of hidden lurking dangers continues to haunt it to date.
The revival of sectarian based politics in Pakistan during the mid-eighties and the dramatic resurgence of anti-Shia forces there reinforced fears in the community. The fears actually worsened after the outbreak of the armed uprising in Kashmir in the late eighties with some militant groups, actively supported by the Pakistani state and perceived by the community to be influenced by anti-Shia hate propaganda.
This perhaps can explain the reluctance of the community to actively throw in their lot with the separatist movement. This was unlike in the past when the community was in the vanguard of the pro-Pakistan movement in Kashmir.
It was because of this fear that, during the past two decades, Kashmir, particularly Srinagar, saw emergence of Shia enclaves, now increasingly taking the shape of ghettos.
Zadibal, Bagwanpur, Shalimar and Bemina, the Shia dominated areas of the city absorbed a heavy influx of community members from smaller pockets of downtown Srinagar like Kamangarpora, Shamswari, Fateh Kadal, Chinkral Mohalla, Habba Kadal, Rainawari, Khanyar, Nowpura, Khankah-e-Sokhta, Chattabal etc where Shias alongside Sunni Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits, had been living for centuries, creating a composite setting. This relocation, which had brought them temporary security, has spawned complications of its own, with dangers of breakdown of established social order.
And with this, the small Shia pockets spread out in predominantly Sunni areas of the city are gradually disappearing.
The persecution suffered by Shias in Kashmir during the successive foreign rules was not new for the community. Many of the standard bearers of Shiaism, like Saadaat or the descendants of the Prophet (pbuh) and other missionaries who played a key role in spreading the faith in Kashmir, had left their homelands forced by similar situations.
During the reign of the Umayyads and Abbasids (661-1258) the persecution of the Shia was so severe that they continued to migrate from one place to another in search of a peaceful habitat.(3)
Many Saadat and other Shia missionaries that came later, either to escape persecution at the hands of rulers of their time or for the purpose of spreading their faith, traveled to distant lands. Kashmir embraced them in her bosom and the valley soon became one of their favourite destinations.
First to arrive was Syed Sharafudin alias Bul Bul Shah from Ardabil followed by Mir Syed Ali from Hamadan.
Shrines of these missionaries, revered by people irrespective of their religious or sectarian allegiance, dot every part of the Kashmir state.
Thus the families who still post-fix their names with the city of their forefathers’ origin can be found in abundance across Kashmir.
Hamadani, Semnani, Kashani, Kirmani, Geelani, Mazandarani, Shirazi, Isfahani, Qazvini, Araki came from all parts of Iran and made Kashmir their home. Interestingly, the overwhelming majority of those who arrived in Kashmir either for missionary activity or for refuge were from Shia Iran and rarely do we find any missionary of Arab origin buried in Kashmir.
Noted Shia families like Ansari, Safavi, Razavi, Jalali all trace their roots to Iran.
They till date hold sway over politico-religious life of the Shia community.
Even artisans, craftsmen, physicians (hakeems) and scholars who accompanied the missionaries or came later on bore Persian surnames. This is cited as one of the reasons for monopoly of the Shia community over arts and crafts until recently.
As the Indian awakening movement began in the early 19th century, Shia nobles like Mir Syed Hussain Shah Jalali were championing the cause of the community at different forums in and outside of the state.
In 1885, he established the Anjuman-e-Imamiya, the first politico-religious organization of Shias of Kashmir, and subsequently founded the first-ever educational institution alongside that of Mirwaiz Rasool Shah, by name of Imamiya High School where students from all sects including Kashmiri Pandits studied.
Jalali, who was a landlord and was later nominated to the legislative assembly by Maharaja Hari Singh, strived tirelessly for the cause of the community and it was due to his efforts that Shias for the first time in 300 years (after the Chak era) took out the Muharram procession during daytime.
Jalali family’s influence however waned with the death of Syed Muhammad Jalali, son of Mir Hussain Shah Jalali, who was the first Muslim from Kashmir to be nominated to the upper house of the Indian parliament as a Muslim representative.
Short lived was the influence of Mir’s contemporary in politics Munshi Muhammad Ishaq who rose to prominence in the early stages of the plebiscite movement. He was one of the founding members of the Plebiscite Front.
However, two families who have left a profound impact on the community in religio-political and social spheres and continue to do so are the Safavi dynasty of Budgam and the Ansari family of Srinagar. Both have produced some outstanding ulema in the past and since the clergy exerts enormous authority in the Shi’a communities the world over, Kashmir was no exception.
Such was the widespread devotion towards these two families that the Shia community of Kashmir had a vertical split with the community divided between two new groups which came to be known a firqa or sub-sect. Those following the Ansari family came to be known as Firqa-e-Qadimi (the older sect) while those following the Safavi family of Budgam are known as Firqa-e-Jadidi or the new sect.
For many, this dominance of the two select clans has been the bane of the Shia community in Kashmir, as successive governments have cultivated top figures in order to suborn the entire community. This has not only perpetuated the influence of the clans but also made it near impossible for a common Shia to make his mark on the political stage.
Ever since Mulla Aalim Ansari, a scholar of repute and the founder of the Ansari dynasty here, arrived in Kashmir accompanying Mir Syed Hussain Razavi Qumi during the reign of Sultan Zainul Aabidin Budshah (1420-1470), Ansari’s have wielded enormous influence over the vast majority of the Shias of Kashmir.
Ansari dynasty which has produced outstanding scholars and theologians, most of them alumni of the great seat of Shia learning at Najaf in Iraq faced a major split in 1962 when some influential members of the community chose teenager Moulvi Iftikhar Hussain Ansari as the successor of his father and the then head of the Ansari family, Moulvi Muhammad Jawad, on his death instead of Moulvi Muhammad Abbas Ansari, grandson of his brother the noted theologian Moulvi Fazal Ali Ansari. Moulvi Jawad had himself been chosen following death of his brother Moulvi Fazal Ansari.
Abbas who had said goodbye some eight years earlier to Kashmir and settled in Najaf was made to reconsider his decision by a stream of letters urging him to return and lead the community, an invite that he later accepted in 1961, albeit reluctantly.(4)
A bitter feud ensued and it continues to dog the community till date.
The Qadimis were split between Abbasis and Iftikharis both sides taking up diametrically opposite sides in Kashmir politics. Iftikhar was anointed as heir to Maulvi Muhammd Jawad and not only took up the reins of his party the Shia Association including powerful endowment (Auqaf) that controlled Qadimi Imambargahs and allied assets but whole of the ancestral property. It is widely believed that Bakhshi Ghulam Muhammad, Sheikh Abdullahs bête noire, played a key role in Iftikhar’s succession.
Abbas who found himself ditched took shelter in mainstream movement for plebiscite led by Sheikh Abdullah, where he quickly rose to prominence thanks to his oratory skills and Najaf background.
This followed the formation of Anjuman-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimin which he aimed at being a platform for all the Muslims, but the party remained confined within the Shia community despite his strenuous efforts.
Both parties have ever since remained on the opposing sides in Kashmir politics with Ittehadul Muslimin in the camp that advocates right to self-determination for Kashmiris and Shia Association toeing a pro-India line.
Be it voting in elections or holding of frequent religious services or grand Muharram processions, both parties maintain their separate identity.
Since the Abbas faction lost Auqaf assets early on to Iftikhar, it strived to establish its own institutions.
The Ittehadul Muslimin established a trust, Al-Abbas Trust, in the mid-nineties which runs a dozen government recognized English medium schools including two of the level of higher secondary in different impoverished Shia villages.
Safeena, the mouth piece of Ittehadul Muslim, remained in print till the mid-seventies and later resumed publication in 2002 only to close down again in 2007.
The writer of repute Ansari dynasty ever produced preferred seclusion to the lure of the dynasty politics. After a brief stint, when he had been chosen as a candidate by the Muslim United Front in 1987, Maulana Mustafa Ansari, till his death in 2006, devoted his time to research and learning, leaving behind 31 monumental books, including Urdu and Kashmiri commentary of Quran, thus upholding the family legacy and reviving the dying tradition of scholarship.
Sadaqat, a journal published by the Shia Association, closed down in the early seventies. The Association, however, continues to run scores of madrasas named Muarif al-Uloom in various Shia dominated villages.
While the Ittehadul Muslimin has a party structure with an elected president and secretary general, hereditary rule still prevails in the Shia Association.
Moulvi Iftikhar remained the lifelong president of the Shia Association, and his younger brother as its vice-president.
Both Abbas and Iftikhar factions run parallel Sharia courts to provide quick justice to their petitioners in the matters of personal law in accordance with the Sharia.
Long before his demise in September, 2014 Moulvi Iftikhar, had virtually pulled himself away from his clerical duties and would rarely don his religious robes. He remained a member of the state legislative assembly, and belonged to the People’s Democratic Party led by Mufti Muhammad Sayeed which he had joined after quitting NC following former’s rise to power.
Eight years later in October of 2022 Moulvi Abbas Ansari also passed away after 82 years of venturous life. Abbas had withdrawn from active politics after Pakistani meddling led to the rupture in multi-party combine of the Hurriyat Conference, the political face of Kashmir’s separatist movement.
Abbas Ansari was forced to quit as chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, after Pakistan backed his rival Syed Ali Geelani in 2004 following Ansari’s decision to enter into talks with New Delhi on the Kashmir issue. He was the only separatist politician from the Sheikh Abdullah era who had stayed away from the lure of election politics. Yet he became the first separatist leader whose effigy was torched in Kashmir in 2009 for stating that the Hurriyat should stay away from electoral politics and neither support it nor oppose it.
Since his colleagues backtracked on the collective decision following pressure from hardliners, he was marginalized in the multi-party forum. Abbas later nominated his son, Masroor, an alumnus of the famous Qum Seminary, as his political heir.
Jadidis or the followers of the Agha family of Budgam became the largest Shia sub-sect following the split in the Qadimis.
Aghas, unlike Ansari’s are Sayeds, a title they flaunt by wearing black turbans. They are the descendants of Mir Shamsudin Araki (1481-1526), a highly revered Sufi saint of Noorbakhshia order who arrived in Kashmir from an Iranian town called Arak and was instrumental in spreading the Shia faith in most parts of Kashmir, notably Baltistan.
The patriarch of the Agha family, Agha Syed Yusuf al-Mosavi al Safvi, popularly known as Agha Sahab of Budgam, held the reigns of the family firmly in his hands till his death in 1982.
Agha sahab was renowned for his charisma and enjoyed a devout following among a section of Shia community. His Sharie Adalat or Sharia Court was popular with even non-Muslims who would take their cases to him for speedy justice.
Following the death of Agha Syed Yusuf, a bitter feud erupted in the Safvi dynasty with his son Agha Fazlulah staking claim on the mantle. The claim was rejected by Yusuf’s deputy, cousin and son-in-law, Agha Syed Mustafa, with a majority of followers declaring him as the legitimate leader of the Jadidis. Congress and NC both played key role in the split with the former backing Mustafa faction and National Conference supporting Fazlullah.(5)
Anjuman-e-Sharie Shiayan, the party primarily formed to provide speedy justice based on the principles of Sharia to followers, also got split.
Divided families began running the parallel factions of the Anjuman, and both claim to be its rightful owners.
Further divisions soon surfaced in the party after Agha Mustafa’s two sons joined opposite political camps, with the elder one, Agha Syed Hassan. becoming part of the separatist conglomerate Hurriyat Conference, and the younger son, Agha Mehdi, jumping into electoral politics on the Congress party ticket in 1996.
Earlier, Agha Hassan had unsuccessfully contested elections on Janata Party ticket in 1977.
Syed Mehdi contested several Assembly and Lok Sabha election as a Congress nominee and as an Independent candidate but lost every time. He was killed by militants in a landmine blast in November 2000 near Magam town sending the party rank and file into grief. The then chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, upon his visit to the family to pay condolences, offered the NC membership to Mehdi’s teenage son, Ruhullah, who later became a minister in the Omar Abdullah cabinet.
Fazlullah, who himself stayed away from electoral politics, left the job to his younger brother Mehmood who was a minister twice in the National Conference government and later joined the PDP.
He quit the party after being denied the election ticket, and has since returned to NC.
Anjuman-e-Sharie weakened after the split, but continues to wield influence among a major section of the community. It runs a number of schools, the major one being the Babul-Ilm at Budgam.
One person who still upholds the intellectual legacy of the dynasty is Agha Syed Baqir. Baqir shuns publicity and confines himself to spiritual pursuits. He rarely leads traditional services in Imambargahs, even though many of Jadids look up to him for guidance in the matters of religion.
Following Aga Fazlulalh’s demise in January of 2018, his son Agha Syed Hadi, an alumnus of Qom seminary took over as his heir. Hadi has since infused new vigour into his faction of Anjuman-e-Sharie by his oratory skills and smart use of social media.
The profound influence the clergy wields over the community is more starkly visible in Shia dominated Kargil, a geographically isolated area, 205 Kms north of Srinagar.
Here clergy continues to shape the destiny of the people.
The spectacular rise of the Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT), a voluntary organisation comprising mostly youth, had created an upheaval of sorts for the socio-political order of the desolate and impoverished district of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir nestled in Himalayas.
Influenced by the Islamic Revolution of Iran, IKMT embarked on an ambitious plan to intervene in the socio- economic life of the people by introducing a variety of programmes ranging from watershed management to modern education and even an Islamic bank.
It also became active in local politics.
The 2001 census threw up a new reality. Ladakh, known as Buddhist land the world over suddenly had grown into a Muslim majority area with 52 percent population subscribing to Islam. With eighty five percent of Muslims in Kargil adhering to the Shia faith, the community now had a decisive say in the political affairs of the whole of Ladakh region.
The rise of the Buddhist movement in Leh and the adjoining areas demanding separation from Muslim Kashmir kindled a political awakening in an otherwise docile population of Kargil further strengthening the support base for the IKMT.
IKMT dominated the first Kargil Autonomous Hill Development Council created by the government for running the region’s affairs.
The traditional clergy, increasingly marginalised by this new and seemingly revolutionary fervor gripping the local youth, saw it as a challenge to its established hegemony over the community and began opposing it.
Their hold over the populace to steer it in a particular direction, for example at an election time, began to slip and the course of events began increasingly to be determined by the youth influenced by the revolution.
This signified a major divide in the Shia community in Kargil already deeply entrenched over doctrinal matters like on the issue of Taqleed (6). While Imam Khomeini Trust, comprising young clerics educated in Iran, followed Ayatullah Ruhullah Khomeini on the issue of jurisprudence, 40 year old Islamia School Trust followed the Iraq-based Ayatollah Abol Kasim al Khoe, Khomenis contemporary who opposed the concept of Vilayat-e-Faqih, (Rule of Islamic Jurists) as propounded by the latter.
There have been consistent efforts from well-meaning people to bring the warring factions together but only with limited success.
The divisions on religio-political basis are exploited to the hilt by the interested national and regional political parties, negating the benefits of new demographic realities.
The district’s proximity to the Line of Control that divides Kargil from its parent region Baltistan, now in Pakistani control, is another major reason for the region’s backwardness.
The population is outnumbered by the military as the district lies on the strategic fault line between India and Pakistan thus mired in political uncertainty.
(1) Taqiyah means to hide your real belief for the sake of your safety.
An eminent Shia authority, Ayatollah Hussain Ali Sistani describes the concept of Taqiyah as follows:
a)Taqiyah is done for safety reasons. For example, a person fears that he might be killed or harmed, if he does not observe Taqiyah. In this case, it is obligatory to observe Taqiyah.
- b) Reconciliatory Taqiyah. This type of Taqiyah is done when a person intends to reconcile with the other side or when he intends to soften their hearts. This kind of Taqiyah is permissible but not obligatory.
- c) Sometimes, Taqiyah may cause a more important obligation to be lost or missed, if so it is forbidden. For example, when I know that silence would cause oppression and infidelity to spread and will make people go astray, in such a situation it is not permissible to be silent and to dissimulate.
- d) Sometimes, Taqiyah may lead to the death of an innocent person. If so, it is not permissible. It is therefore haram (forbidden) to kill a human being to save your own life.– Tarikhush Shiah, p.230
According to the Shia scholar Muhammad Husain Jafari, Shi’ism would not have spread if it wasn’t for Taqiyah.
(*) In Islam there are five recognized schools of Divine Law: 1) Hanafi; 2) Shafi; 3) Maliki; 4) Hambali and 5) Jafari all named after their Imams.
The first four are called Sunni, and the fifth one is known as Shia.
The first four schools have many major theological differences among themselves as well as with Jafaris.
Jafar-as-Sadiq was the sixth in lineage of Shia Imams and founder of Shia fiqh or Jafari jurisprudence.
Imam Jafar happened to be teacher of Imam Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafi school, dominant among the Sunni sects worldwide including in Kashmir.
(2) Hassan Koihami: Tarikh-e-Hassan, Vol 1; Syed Baqir Shah, Subh-e-Taleh (2008)
(3) A careful study of Islam takes us through its blood soaked history. The day noble Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) departed from this world political feuds surfaced in the newly born Islamic state resulting in many fratricidal wars.
The tragic events began unfolding one after other in quick succession, instigators chiefly being the neo-Muslims of Mecca who had embraced the new faith following their defeats in the battle fields and not by its appeal.
When Ali, the trustworthy lieutenant of the Prophet was chosen for the post of Caliph in the most anarchic situation following the murder of third caliph Usman he chose to migrate from the Prophets city, Medina, which by now had become a centre of intrigue and conspiracy.
He had kept a low profile ever since the demise of the Prophet and despised the pomp of the world and submitted to the will of God. He was Imam for his followers, some of them renowned companions of the Prophet like Salman al Farsi and Abu Zar Ghafari.
He however accepted the position albeit reluctantly in order to save the fledgling state from extinction.
But Muawiyah, son of Abu Sufyan, a Meccan chieftain, who was posted as governor of Damascus by the third caliph, revolted and refused to accept Ali as Caliph of Muslims.
In 660 CE the most heroic chapter in the early history of Islam came to an end when the most notable of the Prophets clan, Ali, husband of his beloved daughter, Fatima and father of Hassan and Hussain was murdered inside the mosque of his capital city Kufa while in prayer.
Twenty years later the Prophet’s entire family, some as young as 6 months, were butchered in the most gruesome manner in the plains of Karbala (680 CE) not far from Kufa. Noble women of the Prophets family, including his grand daughter Zainab, were imprisoned, paraded in chains and taken to the Omayad court in Damascus. Damascus was ruled by the son of Mu’awiya, Yazeed (645–683) the architect of the tragedy.
If this was the fate of Prophets kin one can imagine that of their followers who call themselves Shia, during those times.
Shias never really recuperated since.
Lone male survivor of the Karbala massacre, young and ailing son of Hussain, Zainul Aabideen became the new Imam, fourth in the lineage (680 CE).
It was grandson of Zainul Aabideen, Imam Jafar Sadeq (702-765 C.E.), 6th in the lineage, who founded the Shia fiqh or Jafari Jurisprudence
(4) Moulvi Abbas Ansari: Ayena-e-Haq Numa (1961)
(5) After the Founder-president of Anjuman-e-Sharee Shiaan, Aga Syed Yusuf Al-Moosavi Al-Safavi, passed away in August 1982, the Aga family of Budgam got divided into two factions. The pro-Congress faction installed Aga Syed Yusuf’s deputy, cousin and son-in-law, Aga Syed Mustafa, as the president of Anjuman-e-Sharee Shiaan in presence of then Prime Minister of India Mrs Indira Gandhi. The pro-NC faction broke away and accepted Aga Syed Yusuf’s eldest son, Aga Syed Mohammad Fazalullah as the president of the Anjuman. Daily Excelsior, Jammu August 23, 2002
(6) Taqleed means following an acknowledged religious authority, a Mujtahid or Marja, in matters of religious laws and commandments. Shias believe Imamate followed Prophethood as Ummah can not be without an Imam at any point of time. So in absence of an Imam as 12th (Imam Mehdi), last in the line of Imams, went into occultation his successor is the most learned of Marja, or Mujtahid. Clergy act as the representatives of Marja in their respective places.
Author is editor-in-chief of Kashmir Observer. He can be mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This is an updated version of the article originally published in the Border Affairs, New Delhi, Vol X No IV-Oct-Dec 2009)