Sufism on the brink of extinction in Kashmir.
Sufism is deeply ingrained in the culture of Kashmir, yet very few people practice it. Sufis believe in oneness with God and the purity of souls, which is why they have a special place in the hearts and minds of Kashmiris. The people of Kashmir respect their belief system and pay homage at their shrines. Then why does this family practice Sufism in secrecy?
Located in a village of Kashmir, a house with a shrine of their own is celebrating the death anniversary of a Sufi saint. A group of musicians are singing songs in Kashmiri that take verses from poets like Amir Khusro, celebrating the saint’s life of devotion. When I enter the room, the feeling of spirituality is almost palpable. I instantly connect with the room’s energy and find a spot to sit, trying not to disturb the people. But I’m chided by the woman of the house for not covering my head. In Islam, especially in Sufism, a woman must cover her head at all times. I instantly put on the hood of my jacket but that’s not good enough. She instructs one of the girls to get me a 'dupatta' to cover my head properly, along with a part of my face. I concur.
Music and a palpable spiritual energy fill the room.
The woman has an angelic face and the discipline of someone hardened over time. I ask about the goings-on in front of us. Just then a woman in the group starts convulsing uncontrollably. A few women rush to cover her up. Seeing me confused, she explains that the woman is in ecstasy. She’s being covered because they are known to tear their clothes in a trance.
Her eyes sparkle as she tells me about her father-in-law, the Sufi saint whose death anniversary I was attending. They are a small family of Sufis, the few remaining in Kashmir who still practice Sufism for its teachings and not just its art forms. Together with her husband, the saint’s son, they are trying to keep the teachings alive and preach a more humane way of life, rather than complete submission to any religion.
The singing and euphoric dance, the shrine on their property, and the ritualistic practices in uniting with Allah set them apart, thus creating a divide between them and rest of the people in their village. As I probed more to know about the “difference,” I could see a hint of fear and sadness in her eyes as she tells me that they need to practice it in secrecy because of its contrary beliefs from conventional Islam.
Collapsing in ecstasy. Image Source: Reuben Vicente
As she was talking about the beauty of Sufism, her tone dropped a few notches as she told me how precarious it is for them to practice this philosophy in its entirety. It’s often considered opposing to Islamic principles, and therefore heretic. As a family, they faced exclusion from their neighbours, and sometimes open threats for following a different path to Allah.
I don't know if it was fear or denial, but she volunteered an explanation that she is an honest Muslim who prays five times a day, observes thirty days of Ramzan, and celebrates Eid in fervor. However, she also believed in meditation, giving children the freedom to practice what they believe in, and living a life of spiritual oneness with God that is not dictated by any religion. This was Sufism to her, a belief largely unacceptable to the people of Kashmir who follow a strict code of Islam as decreed by Sharia.
Practicing Sufism in secret with a shrine in the house.
My conversations with the small sect of Sufis and majority of Kashmiri Muslims led me to believe that Sufism is deeply embedded in the Kashmiri culture, giving it the tolerance and hospitality that we all know too well as Kashmiriyat. However, as far as its practice is concerned, to each his own seems to be the general consensus.
Sufism has always intrigued me. Its music is like no other, its poetry like songs. But it was only after my visit to Kashmir and this family that I understood it completely. I respect the fact that the family didn't wish to be named, and was thankful for their warm hospitality. I know I will be back.
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By Kanika Gupta
Photographs by Kanika Gupta
Cover photo credit: Pinterest.com