Srinagar: Mohammad Yasin Zahra, an octogenarian priest at Kashmir’s historic Khanqah-e-Moula mosque, has spent a big part of his life hunkering down at a loggia attached to the 600-year-old Sufi hermitage that towers imposingly over the Jhelum river in Srinagar.
The shrine’s arcades, its graven plinth, the papier-mâché ceilings and latticed woodwork have for centuries symbolised the spiritual mysticism permeating the Islamic faith in Kashmir. Zahra is among the ‘peers’ or a priestly class that traces their family lineage to the Sufi saints who had come to Kashmir from Central Asia to spread Islamic teachings.
The Kashmir valley is pockmarked with hundreds of such ancient hermitages that were once the centres of Islamic learning and have now become sacred religious spaces consecrated to the memory and legacy of Sufi saints.
Peers like Zahra have for decades devoted themselves selflessly to the maintenance of the Khanqah-e-Moula. “I was a child when I used to carry hides of slaughtered sheep on my shoulders and walk long distances to bring them to Khanqah where they were sold and the proceeds were saved to be used later for the upkeep of the shrine,” he said. “That was before Partition. Such is the dedication of our family to this place.”
For centuries, the maintenance of Islamic hospices in Kashmir was overseen by ‘Intizamiya (Management) Committees’ manned by the spiritual peers, mujawirs (attendants of a shrine) and khadims (care-givers).
They say they did not take salaries but pocketed a share from the religious endowments, called nazar-o-niyaz, offered voluntarily by the devotees.
“It was a sort of income for us, yes,” said Bashir Hamadani, another peer who officiates as a muezzin at Khanqah. “But it was also a tradition with which our identity is tethered.”
However, the latest decree by the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board has pulled the plug on the practice of collecting nazar-o-niyaz in a manner that has historically been a norm, and effectively demonetises the management of shrines for everyone except for the Board itself.
Legal justification of the Waqf Board’s move
As per Islamic teachings, Muslims are obligated to apportion a part of their wealth as charitable bequests as part of their commitment to the welfare of the larger Muslim community. The endowments are deemed as ‘waqf’.
Coming against the backdrop of a wider political clampdown in J&K following the reading down of Article 370, the Waqf Board’s decision has now become mired in controversy as several political parties allege that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Union government is trying to throttle all potential avenues of dissent in the former state.
The Waqf officials, however, told The Wire they are only implementing the guidelines enshrined under the Waqf Act, 1995, applicable to J&K after August, 2019, as per which there cannot be two parallel revenue-collecting mechanisms at shrines.
Citing numerous grievances by the devotees who complain that the peers allegedly use foul means to extract nazar-o-niyaz, Waqf officials said they are trying to stymie such “unethical practices.”
The Jammu and Kashmir Wakafs Act, 2001 was the first to strip the mujawirs and khadims of their historical authority over shrines. The J&K Muslim Specified Wakafs and Specified Wakaf Properties (Management and Regulation) Act, 2004 did, however, appear to protect the some rights of mujawirs, but only under very stringent conditions.
“Due to political considerations, their enforcement was never observed to the letter,” a Waqf official told The Wire.
The Waqf Act, 1995, stipulates the creation of the Board of Waqfs where the ‘Chief Executive Officers’ are authorised to exercise “control, maintenance and superintendence” over the Waqfs.
“As per law, even if there is a mutawalli (manager), it has to be appointed by us,” an official said. “The Union law gives more powers to the Board. The erstwhile law, by comparison, make government the overriding authority. We are only implementing what’s written in the law books.”
But the mujawirs are accusing the Waqf Board, currently headed by BJP leader Darakshan Andrabi, of unjustly seizing control over revenue from the shrines. They key argument the peers produce in their defence is historical legacy.
Historians and experts have always described the advent of Islam, and by definition, its practice in Kashmir, as peculiar.
“For example, the special prayers called Aurad e Fathiya, emphasising the centrality of monotheism in Islam, were introduced by a Persian Sufi preacher Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani more than 600 years ago,” said G.N. Khaki, professor of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University. “Across the whole of South Asia, they are recited during prayers only in Kashmir.”
These elements have lent a distinct cast to Islam in Kashmir. “The shrines are at the centre of this spiritual uniqueness,” said Zahra, who is also the alam-bardaar (standard-bearer) at Khanqah. “It was our ancestors who ordained the ways in which the social wealth of shrines would be spent. We even have that document written by Ali Hamadani himself.”
Zahra denies allegations that peers and khadims harried devotees to pay niyaz offerings. “We don’t do that here,” he said. “Historically, we have always stationed two donation boxes on our behalf. One is where nazar-o-niyaz is collected. In the other box, the funds for the tameer or construction are received.”
“For tameer funds, we issue proper receipts,” he continued. “That’s how we repair or renovate the shrine every now and then. In 2015, when an earthquake damaged the spire of the shrine, we funded its repair. Subsequently, a fire incident took place and again, it was us who funded its restoration. Waqf did absolutely nothing except for recovering its own boxes.”
Hamadani, the muezzin, said his family has been associated with the shrine for centuries. “My forefathers have been here before the Dogra times. They told me stories of how Khanqah used to have Rs 127 annual income and how the maharaja would offer continuous oil supply, free of cost, to ensure that the 600-year-old lamp inside the shrine inaugurated by Ali Hamadani himself is kept lit, no matter what. The Waqf Board is a recent creation. We are very old legatees.”
At Dastgeer Sahib, another prominent shrine thronged by both Sunni and Shia Muslims in Kashmir, similar donation boxes have also been removed. On the rear side of the mosque, a small door opens into a corridor which leads to the residence of Khalid Geelani, who officiates as the Sajjada Nasheen (hereditary custodian) of the shrine.
Geelani, squatting on a carpeted floor, his face pensive, said, “We are not against reforms but there were better ways of doing it. We have been involved in the management of this shrine for more than 400 years. This land is registered at the Revenue Department in the name of my forefathers.”
“We manage the day-to-day affairs here which include a religious commemoration on the 11th of every month and annual urses (anniversary days) when lakhs of devotees visit the shrine,” he continued. “It’s an institution and the interdependence forms its cornerstone. If we are running it, there has to be a monetary angle to it. These places are not self-sustaining.”
Following the demise of his father in 2008, Geelani left a well-paying job in Dubai only to take the shrine’s custodianship. He said managing the Dastgeer Sahib was his family obligation. “How can people like us be suddenly uprooted from the institutions we have nurtured for centuries?” he asks.
Geelani claims direct descendance – 47th in the line – from Sheikh Abdul Qadir Geelani, an 11th century Iranian preacher whose relics are stored inside the shrine. “There are thousands of mureeds (devotees) associated with our family. This is a trust-based relationship,” he said.
Politics of control over religious spaces in Kashmir
Control over religious spaces in Kashmir has been a political Holy Grail for decades. Historically, the shrines of Kashmir have been reservoirs of social capital and landed wealth linked directly to the application of political authority.
Following the decline of the lucrative Kashmiri shawl trade in wake of Franco-Prussian war in late 19th century, as well as due to the British-led land settlement policy in Kashmir that divested big land owners of their large estates, the Valley’s wealthy Shawl merchants turned to other vocations to maintain their influence and prestige. As a large number of them were also care-takers of religious places, the immediate response was to re-establish their control over shrines.
As various Kashmiri Muslim elites vied for political influence, bitter disputes followed, creating a new “political exigency of locating and defining an identifiable ‘Muslim community’ on the Kashmiri political landscape,” as leading Kashmiri historian Chitralekha Zutshi wrote.
Attempts by the Muslim leaders to adumbrate new but competing political domains (corresponding to the influence of a particular shrine) coincided with an intense focus on Islam and its definitions. “Shrine disputes were articulated precisely around the issue of whether or not the shrine worship was sacrilegious to Islam, an issue that had never before been as contentious among Kashmiri Muslims,” wrote Zutshi.
The disputes helped various socio-religious and political groups of that time reify their loyalties around two powerful political blocs. One was the Muslim Conference (MC) led by Sheikh Abdullah, who benefitted from the patronage of Khanqah-e-Moula. The other was Anjuman Nusrat-ul Islam (ANuI) headed by Mirwaiz Yahya Shah, the chief preacher of Jamia Masjid.
It was from these formative arrangements that Kashmir’s modern day political fronts emerged. While MC eventually renamed itself as the ‘National Conference’, the ANuI, for all practical purposes, became a forerunner to the pro-independence Hurriyat group.
“The shrines play such a paramount role in Kashmir that in land revenue laws, there was a separate legal category called muafidaar, meaning someone who held and managed agricultural land on behalf of a shrine,” said Sheikh Showkat, a legal scholar and political analyst based in Srinagar.
“There are political parties in Kashmir that have benefitted from the landed wealth associated with the shrines. That’s probably why shrines were brought under the purview of the government-led Waqf Board in the early 2000s. And now, this fresh step is probably the last nail in the coffin to end the role of shrines in politics,” he added.
Waqf officials, however, deny any such motives to their moves. “We have convinced the government with great difficulty to push through these reforms,” an official said. “Hazartabal and Baba Reshi shrines have no mujawirs. Yet they are still performing well under our authority. We are not interfering with any religious activity, be it recitation of Naats or Khatam-e-Shariefs. Even the peers are free to take money for these rituals if their devotees pay it voluntarily. But we will not allow boxes.”
The officials said the Waqf Board does not receive money from the government and relies on Waqf revenue, of which shrines are a part. “We manage 13 schools, four colleges and four Dar-ul-Ulooms,” the official said. “We offered Rs 11 crores one-time-assistance and 25 acres of land for the establishment of a university in south Kashmir, and Rs 54 crores for a university in Jammu. There are 31,000 properties in our management including 2,500 hotels and shops. We pay salaries to 1,600 employees. But because of the pilferage of our income from shrines, our revenue is nearly the same as our expenditure.”
Yet, suspicions over the Waqf Board’s decision and its possible political implications have continued to linger. On Monday, the Board issued an order banning Dastarbandi (turban-tying ceremony) at the shrine which, the order states, was “carried out to promote political agenda at sacred religious places.”
“The idea is to demolish the age-old traditions as we know them,” said Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson for the NC. “Every Kashmiri knows that we pay to peers at the shrines out of our own free will. The Waqf Board has pulled an allegation out of thin air and without even conducting an inquiry, took this drastic decision.”
Shakir Mir is a journalist based in Srinagar.