Why, 600 years after death, saint of Kashmiri syncretism lives on

Hamdani established a network of khanqahs (hospices), where people could eat and pray together — pathbreaking social change in a rigidly hierarchical society

Written by Sameer Arshad Khatlani | New Delhi | Updated: December 6, 2017 9:23 am
Farooq Abdullah at the shrine of Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamdani on November 16, after the building was damaged in a fire overnight. (Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

On one of his trips to Srinagar, Sir Mark Tully heard an unusual, rhythmically rising and falling chanting coming from a white marble mosque on the banks of the Dal Lake at sunrise. The chanting from the revered mosque in Hazratbal, which houses a relic of the Prophet, he wrote, sounded “not unlike Hindu bhajans”. The veteran BBC journalist wasn’t entirely off the mark.

The faithful have been chanting the Aurad-ul-Fatiha in Kashmir’s mosques since the 14th century saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, who popularised Islam among the masses, introduced the practice. The converts, Tully wrote in India In Slow Motion, missed “their temple worship with its occasional singing and dancing”, so Hamdani collected an anthology of Quranic verses and the Prophet’s sayings for them to chant in mosques. This was a departure from the Muslim practice of silent worship.

Hamdani also introduced the Dua-e-Subah (morning prayer), whose chanting, according to Saleem Beigh of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), has “100 per cent semblance to the morning Buddhist chant”. These practices, seen as abiding examples of Kashmir’s famed syncretic tradition, were alluded to by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti who cancelled all appointments and rushed to Hamdani’s hospice — the Khanqah-e-Moula on the banks of the Jhelum — in Srinagar from Jammu on November 15, after an overnight fire damaged the shrine’s spire.

The Chief Minister was accompanied by several Ministers and top officials. Her arch-rival and former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah followed, and echoed her message that the shrine symbolised Kashmir’s pluralistic ethos and was its source of spiritual solace. Separatist leaders Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik visited, and hundreds of wailing women and men thronged the damaged shrine. Separatist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani issued a statement paying rich tributes to Hamdani and sent a delegation to the shrine. J&K Governor N N Vohra recalled his many visits to the hospice and asked the government “not to lose any time” in repairing the damage.

The architecture of the Khanqah-e-Moula is similar to that of Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, which was built under the guidance of Hamdani’s son, Mir Muhammad, about a kilometre away at Nowhatta in the old city. The courtyard of the mosque, Tully wrote, “unusually for India, isn’t paved, it’s a garden. The customary domes are lacking too; instead the roofs are reminiscent of a pagoda and the dragons jutting out like gargoyles from the roofs are evidence of Buddhist influence.” For Tully, this unusual “building symbolises the particular form of Islam” practised in Kashmir.

Hamdani, a descendant of the Prophet, was born in Hamadan in modern-day Iran in 1314, and lies buried over 1,300 km from Srinagar at Kulob in the Khatlon province of Tajikistan. He visited Kashmir for the third and last time a year before his death in 1384, coinciding with the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur’s overrunning of his native land. He brought some 700 people with him, including artisans, craftsmen, painters, calligraphers and scholars. Hamdani, whom Kashmiris know as amir-i-kabir (the great leader), is credited with promoting crafts including shawl weaving, which has become a symbol of Kashmir globally. He was himself an expert needleworker who rejected the idea of holy men living off their followers, and sewed caps to earn a living.

Hamdani was also a man of letters whom journalist and Union Minister M J Akbar described as a great scholar and missionary in “the Renaissance mould” (Kashmir: Behind The Vale). Hamdani authored over 100 books “ranging from religion to jurisprudence to politics, physiognomy and philosophical poetry”. His “lifestyle of self-abnegation, simplicity and rejection of material world… struck an immediate chord,” Akbar wrote. Hamdani’s Dhakhirat al-Muluk was a guide to rulers on how to treat their subjects, and called for “equitable justice, irrespective of religious differences”.

Hamdani established a network of khanqahs (hospices), where people could eat and pray together — pathbreaking social change in a rigidly hierarchical society. His teachings inspired Kashmir’s indigenous Rishi Sufi movement — the father of the founder of the Rishi movement, Shaikh Nuruddin Nurani, converted to Islam under the influence of Hamdani’s followers. One of the leading lights of the ethos that Shaikh Nuruddin — also known as Nund Rishi — represented, was the woman mystic Lalleshwari, popularly known as Lal Ded, who pleaded against differentiating between a Hindu and a Muslim. “If you have understanding, then realise your own self. In truth, this is the means to realise God.”

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