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Revisiting Medieval Kashmir History with Prof. Rafiqi

It is going to reorient the key debates in Kashmir history
01:00 AM Dec 21, 2023 IST | Muhamad Maroof Shah
revisiting medieval kashmir history with prof  rafiqi

Prof. A. Q. Rafiqi, the author of brilliant rejoinder to Prof. Ishaq Khan’s Kashmir’s Transition to Islam, Sufism in Kashmir and noted translator of historical work The Letters of Mir Sayid Ali Hamdani, is one of our most brilliant contemporary historians. He has given us another important work, an English translation with historical analysis of History of Kashmir (Tarikh-i- Kashmir of Saiyid Ali). This is going to reorient the key debates in Kashmir history. The key theses he propounds overturn much of popular scholarly opinion on a number of issues and as such should concern every student of Kashmir history, religion and culture. Before we elaborate these theses, a few remarks about the work.


Rafiqi’s work helps to bring in focus Persian sources of Kashmir history that haven’t been given due attention due to non-availability of scholarly translations of them. The book contains illuminating historical analysis for which major Sanskrit chronicles of Jonaraja and Srivara are studied to put Saiyid Ali’s work in perspective. It is an important contribution to Kashmir history that engages with preceding works and contemporary historical scholarship. It is a critical work and interrogates the original on major points.


The book is daring in its approach to historical material and reaches radical conclusions that are disturbing to those who uncritically take hagiographic material and narratives that project particular ideological groups. Its critique embraces many key theses and methodological stance – uncritical reliance on hagiographic lore, problematic chronology, ideological projections/othering – of Muslim Persian chronicles about Kashmir. Rafiqi deconstructs certain points communal history of Muslim and Hindu historians and minces no words in condemning as fictions certain popular beliefs about saints presented by many Muslim historians. The translator has taken few liberties with the text and given us a lucid read while maintaining fidelity to the original. One can identify very few problematic interventions such as translating Sahib-i-Irshad as spiritualist (spiritualist has negative occultistic connotations and isn’t loyal to text).


I invite readers to read the book and consider for cognizance some arguments elaborated in his previous books and some of them briefly presented in this work as well. Let me mention only a few points from
introduction and lengthy detailed historical analysis preceding the translation for want of space here.


• Rafiqi points out that Saiyid Ali’s assertion that it is the climate that didn’t suit Syed Ali Hamadani so had to leave isn’t correct. For him it is the politics that didn’t suit him.


• Regarding the story of levitation competition between Shaykh Nuruddin Bhum Sad or Saiyid Ali Hamadani and a hermit, Rafiqi softly puts his skepticism by remarking: “The stories regarding the two competing in levitation is a stock tale of the yogi-Sufi confrontation common in the hagiological literature.”


• “The story of Saikh Nuruddin approaching Bhum Sadh dressed in a cow skin is incompatible with the known character of the Shaikh.”


• “Similarly the author’s statement that Shaikh Nuruddin made conversion to Islam a condition of his helping Zainuddin, when the latter was sick, is also irreconcilable with the Shaikh’s humanitarian bent of mind.”

• Questioning the whole edifice of Khan’s thesis regarding central role of Reshis in Kashmir’s transition to Islam, Rafiqi presents a few points that cumulatively call for attention and revisiting the whole Islamization narrative. 1) He states that the Rishis were neither “conscious missionaries” nor high priests but saints who “were willing to help the needy on the spiritual path.”A careful analysis of the literature, dealing with the Rishi saints of Kashmir, clearly shows that during the period under review, the Rishis didn’t seek adherents to Islam 2) Many of the Rishi practices were rooted in the local traditions and the Hindu ascetics and Brahmans who entered the Rishi path “seem to have perceived little difference between the goals pursed by them and by the Muslim Rishis.”3) Rishis avoided public meetings and as such couldn’t be public missionaries though at individual level they weren’t averse to guiding people.

• The meeting between Mir Muhammad and Shaikh Nuruddin at Zalsu (Chrar) is “a hollow tale without any element of historical truth.” Rafiqi presents number of arguments, especially the discrepancies in chronology and early age of Shaikh for such a spiritual encounter, showing implausibility of such a meeting. Thus the narrative of Khat-i Irshad and Saikh Nuruddin offering formal allegiance to Saiyid Muhammad Hamadani isn’t credible.

• Downplaying the commonly postulated role of religious or ideological factors, Rafiqi asserts that Rinchana’s conversion to Islam was obviously for political reasons and “the ruthlessness of Mirza Haider towards the Shias was, in fact, dictated by political reasons.”

• Rafiqi notes and builds upon the points made in Sayid Ali’s work to reiterate his case against those historians who downplay the role of immigrant Sufis in Islamization of Kashmir. He notes that Seyed Ali Hamadani, “during his stay in the Valley, didn’t confine himself only to “royal circles” and the “capital” but visited different places in the Valley. He asked his prominent disciples to settle down at important Hindu centres of the time.” He further notes network of khanqahs served as the centres of preaching and teaching of Islam. The importance of Seyed Ali’s work, for Rafiqi, lies in showing the role of immigrant Sufis in the spread of Islam while as its limitations regarding uncritical attitude towards hagiographic material and sectarian framing, portrayal of Reshi-Sufi relationship, certain elements in chronology and unhistorical/legendary material are noted as well. Rafiqi points out that Seyed Ali gives the wrong impression that there was a a personal rivalry between Mir Muhammad and Seyed Muhammad Hisari. He notes that differences between the two saints were ideological and not personal. Rafiqi takes the author to task for failing to give proper account of departure of Mir Muhammad .

• Rafiqi points several evidences that downplay the communalist portrayal of Sikandar, especially before the advent of Mir Muhammad. He shows that iconoclastic reputation is highly exaggerated. However, against many Muslim historians who eulogize and defend Sultan Sikander’s religiously inflicted politics, Rafiqi notes that he didn’t follow consistent policy in letter and spirit. “He not only imposed jizya on Hindus but also interfered with their religious practices. For example, they were prohibited to apply tilak and the practice of satee was also banned.”

Let us read, with Rafiqi, this important short history of medieval Kashmir, critically, and come up with counterarguments to rewrite the Kashmir history that takes note of his theses that problematize received understanding of role of Rishis, politics of saints and ideological factors in religion inflected politics and religious othering. Rafiqi’s larger project is a critique of biased accounts of medieval history premised on religious othering and the supernatural, besides a critique of colonial history and reconstruction of more rational account. Rafiqi has made important contribution to modernist historiography in Kashmir and presented an account of saints and politicians that questions most medieval and many modern accounts of history. History becomes more an account of mortals than gods and we come to appreciate the need to unlearn so much in our history books that have nurtured a closed, doctrinaire, homogenizing narratives despite the march of modernity and globalization.