For most separatists, the biggest enemy of Islam is the valley’s Rishi-Sufi tradition of Kashmiriyat, the philosophy of coexistence.

NEW DELHI: At the very outset, let me explain what I mean by syncretic Islam in Kashmir. It stands in complete contrast to the present-day extremist strains of Islamic theology sprouted by the Wahhabi, Salafi (or Ahl-e-Hadithi), Deobandi, Barelwi, and other Takfiri groups or sectarian cults. The syncretic Kashmiri Islam was an inclusivist and non-Takfiri Islam which was never seen as exclusivist, totalitarian, supremacist, or puritanical ideology, unlike the radical Islam of the extremists who have consistently tried to propagate a dry and desiccated religion among the new generation of Kashmiri Muslims. In fact, Kashmiri Islam emanated from an amalgamation of the Shaivite-Buddhist mysticism imbued with Sufism. Central Asian Sufi saints such as Nund Rishi and local Kashmiri Sufi-Shaivite mystics like Lal Ded or Lalla Arifa propounded this beautiful spiritual tradition based on religious harmony, tolerance, and acceptance. This was the syncretic culture of Kashmiriyat that symbolized the unity of religious ideals creating a spiritual symbiosis of all faith traditions in the valley of Kashmir. As a result, Kashmiri Pandits, Muslims and Sikhs, all lived peacefully in the valley for centuries.
It is not difficult to understand what catapulted Kashmir from being a bastion of pluralism into a breeding ground of exclusivism, radicalism and Islamist militancy and insurgency.
The syncretic traditions of religious pluralism have been so deep in the valley that even when the entire country was afflicted with partition on religious lines, the Kashmiris were basking in the glory of communal harmony and religious diversity. So much so that Mahatma Gandhi saw a ray of hope only in Kashmir when India was burning in the post-partition communal riots in 1947. Until the late 1980s, both Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims have jointly participated in festivals like Kheer Bhawani, Amarnath Yatra and shrine visitation of Charar-e-Sharif. Although a few extremists in the valley tried to sabotage the valley’s syncretic culture, the common Kashmiris were imbued with the pluralist Rishi-Sufi tradition. Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir have been known for their wide embrace of the Hindu and Buddhist cultural practices. This is why their version of Sufism is distinctly known as Rishi-Sufism. Lal Ded—the celebrated Sufi-Shaivite saint—has been venerated both by Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir and is still seen in the valley as a major proponent of a plural society. While Muslims call her “Lalla Arifa”, Hindus recall her as Laleshwari. For around seven centuries, Lal Ded has been popularly known for the Kashmiri legacy of religious pluralism. Similarly, the 14th-century Kashmiri mystic, Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali, who is widely known as Nund Rishi, is revered by Muslims as Sheikh-ul-Alam (mentor of all), while Hindus revere him Sahaj Anand (affectionate soul).
But what keeps today’s Kashmir away from its deep roots of religious pluralism? This question is still in place. Even after the abrogation of Article 37 and the bifurcation of the state into two UTs, the practical solution to the valley’s gravest historical tragedy is yet to be explored.
As a matter of fact, the pan-Islamist movements—right from Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to its ilk in India like Jam’at-e-Islami—have been a major source of instability and militancy in Kashmir. Radical Islamist groups believe that political power is indispensable for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. The doctrine of pan-Islamism, based on the Ummatic concept of Hakimiyat and Khilafat transcending national boundaries, has led to violence and turmoil in almost all parts of South Asia, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Jammu & Kashmir.
Now the type of Islam that the Kashmiris have accepted for centuries as a variant of Sufism is totally different from the political Islam which seeks to purge the Kashmiri society of its indigenous characteristics. Various Islamist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and its militant wing, Hizbul Mujahidin, Dukhtaran-e-Millat, Jamiat ul-Mujahideen, Allah Tigers, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Al-Badr, Al Jihad Force, al Umar Mujahideen, Muslim Mujahideen, Islamic Students League, Zia Tigers, and many such organizations decreed the objective of their struggle as Islamization of the socio-political and economic set-up of Jammu & Kashmir. Thus, the Pakistan-sponsored radical and militant Islam which made deep inroads into the land of Rishi-Sufism is still active in the Valley and is misleading the gullible people. Even after the abrogation of Article 370, this pan-Islamism is a grave threat to the pluralistic social order, interfaith harmony, and peaceful coexistence among various communities.
There has been a systematic attempt to propel pan-Islamism in Kashmir. The recent geopolitical events in the Islamic world, especially in Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria have wielded a significant influence among the Kashmiri youth. There is a trend in the new generation of Kashmiri students to go for international law, international relations and human rights, etc. with an aim to internationalize the Kashmir issue as part of the global Islamic movement. The motive is to defend violent extremism and militancy in the name of self-determination. Thus, pan-Islamism has adversely impacted the educated youths in Kashmir who tend to believe that political Islam has great relevance in determining their future. Many scholars of political science, sociology and humanities hold the view that Islamic law should be introduced in the valley. This can be gauged from the ground reality that those who join the militant ranks today include not just misguided and less educated youths but also scholars, PhD students, doctors, professionals, and engineers.
According to a recent report in the local Kashmiri Urdu daily, Roznama Chattan, Srinagar (November 17, 2022), a section of young people are being brainwashed to establish a Caliphate in Kashmir. “At a time when Pakistan has completely surrendered and many have accepted Akhand Bharat as a reality, and the situation has changed with regard to China, young people in Kashmir still dream of picking up guns and establishing a caliphate. The government believed that within half a year the number of militants would be zero. This could not happen. It is not difficult to see. However, a large section of the Kashmiri society has joined the mainstream leadership. Rather, the security forces have received more public support. If the militants emerge from anywhere, it does not take long to annihilate them. The only reason for this is common people’s cooperation in anti-terror operations. These are the changing dynamics in light of which strategy should be made for the future”, notes an editorial in the well-known Urdu publication in Srinagar.
I think the government has to take cognizance of this changing dynamics in Kashmir which is an outcome of increased pan-Islamic movement leading to faith-based militancy in the valley.
The new narrative of Kashmir revolving around empowerment, investment and development (EID) has found resonance among the rural people, Gujjars and Bakarwals, Paharis, Kupwara, Handwara, Gurez and most of the Jammu region. However, in south Kashmir, Jamaat-e-Islami has been influential, as usual, in Kulgam, Tral, Pulwama, Bijbehara, Anantnag, Kokernag, Doru and Pahalgam and that gets reflected in the different political responses and incidents of violence there. In central Kashmir, Srinagar remains the hotbed of political Islamism, separatism, with the Pakistani narrative being parroted by the political elite, intelligentsia, academia, journalists and civil society. It cannot be denied that the separatist leaders have cunningly propelled their political ambition into a religiously inspired and ideologically motivated cause. What was known earlier as an “independence movement”, is now being shaped and intensified as a religious conflict. This is precisely why the militant ideologues have successfully swayed a vulnerable section of the Kashmiri Muslim youth. The worst time in the valley’s history came when the religious antagonists played into local politics.
However, one must not lose hope in the syncretic Kashmiriyat, which has been the main deterrent against the conquest by Kashmiri militants for the past three decades. Remember the attacks on Kashmiri Pandits on one hand, and the militant-led siege of the Sufi shrine Charar-e-Sharif in 1995, on the other. Both were viciously planned to wipe out the syncretic traditions of Kashmir. But the valley’s Hindus and Muslims in general and the Rishi-Sufi followers, in particular, responded with great sagacity. They did not react with any violent outburst even though they were deeply disturbed by the destruction of the most sacred Sufi shrine. Their aim was to fail the religious fanatics in their ferocious designs to fan the fire of communal disturbance and thus destabilize the valley.
I have visited Jammu and Kashmir several times studying how the extremist religious rhetoric is catching the imagination of the new Kashmiri generation. During most of my visits, I encountered the widespread phenomenon of how separatism and radicalism are being fed through Salafism into the minds of the misguided Kashmiri youth. For most separatists, the “first and foremost” enemy of Islam is the valley’s Kashmiriyat (the philosophy of coexistence). When I asked a few of them as to why they castigate the Rishi-Sufi tradition, they straightforwardly answered: “Because it is contaminated with mushrikana tahzib (polytheistic culture) and mubtadi’ana rusoom (deviant customs).”
Clearly, the reason why all separatist groups abhor the Rishi-Sufism is its call for religious pluralism and peaceful coexistence of different faith traditions instead of Islam supremacism in the valley. While the Salafist/Ahl-e-Hadithi ideologues have openly decried and overtly attacked the syncretic traditions of Kashmir, Deobandis, Barelwis and the so-called E’tiqadis have worked out a completely misguiding Islamic theology of exclusivism in the valley.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is an Indo-Islamic scholar and a Delhi-based writer on Sufism.