Islamization of Gilgit and Surrounding Areas – Extract from the Research of CAK 1995

Islamization of Gilgit and surrounding areas
(contributed by Andreas Rieck, Hamburg)

The present-day Northern Areas of Pakistan have remained Buddhist or pagan for several more centuries after the adjacent regions of Eastern Afghanistan, Transoxania, Eastern Turkestan (Chinese Sinkiang), the Punjab and the Valley of Kashmir had become ruled and largely inhabited by Muslims. Popular legends refer to the spreading of Ismailism in Gilgit and its surroundings by a conqueror from Badakhshan named Taj Moghol already in the 14th century, and the Rajas of Gilgit of the Tarakhan dynasty have recently tried to date back their ancestors’ conversion to Islam until aproximately the same time. But it is more probable that the first Muslim missionaries reached Gilgit, Nager and Hunza only during the second half of the 16th century. They have been Twelver Shi’is, mostly of Iranian origin, who migrated to those mountain kingdoms via Kashmir and Baltistan. After Shi’ism in Kashmir declined in the wake of the Mughal conquest of 1586, it could still expand in Baltistan, Astor, Gilgit, Nager and Hunza during the following centuries promoted by itinerant preachers and local rulers. Thus the only Shi’a majority area with some geographical extention in the whole Indian subcontinent came into being from the late 16th century onwards.

By contrast, both Ismaili and Sunni Islam have reached the surroundings of Gilgit only since the early 19th century. Ismailism was spread by missionaries from neighbouring Badakhshan and Chitral first in the valleys west of Gilgit (Ghizr, Yasin, Punial) since the last decades of the 18th century, and it was later adopted by the Tham (Mir or hereditary ruler) of Hunza Silum Khan III (d. 1824). During the 19th century it was forcefully introduced in the hitherto Shi’i Kingdom of Hunza, leaving only pockets of Shi’i population in the villages of Ganesh, Dorkhan, Aliabad, and Murtazabad. In Gilgit itself Ismailis from Hunza, Yasin and Punial started to settle only since the 1930s. Nowadays Ismailis and Shi’is together account for some 65 % of the population in the former Gilgit Agency, i e. the present-day districts of Gilgit, Ghizr and Diamir.
Sunni Islam was spread by peaceful mission as well as by military conquest via the Indus-, Kaghan- and Astor valleys between the early 18th and the late 19th centuries and it is nowadays prevalent in the Diamir District (including Darel-Tangir, Chilas and Astor subdivisions). While the Indus valley and its side valleys up to the confluence with the Astor river had been hitherto pagan, in the Astor valley as well as along the Gilgit river from Bunji to Punial large parts of former Shi’i (and some Ismaili) communities have been gradually converted or supplanted by Sunni migrants and conquerors. The last changes in the confessional setup of the Gilgit District took place as late as May 1988, when several thousand Shii villagers between Bunji and the eastern outskirts of Gilgit fled their homes during a week of sectarian conflict.
Peculiarities of the local Muslim communities
Twelver Shi’ism and Ismailism in the Gilgit Agency have coexisted with a plethora of pre-lslamic beliefs and practices, like shamanism (or Danyalism) and acts of worship connected with fairies and certain animals, until far into the 20th century. The same was true, if to a lesser extent, for the Sunni communities of the Diamir District. But during the 20th century all three Muslim communities have become strongly influenced by their religious centers abroad and transformed into something like “model communities” for their co-religionists, each in a specific way In the case of the Ismailis of the Gilgit Agency, change of religious practices was largely due to reforms initiated by their spiritual leaders residing in Bombay and later in Europe, the third and fourth Aga Khans (Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, Imamate from 1886 to 1957, and Karim al-Husseini, Aga Khan IV since 1957). They are stressing the importance of communal solidarity in everyday life and of material and scientific progress, with village councils (since 1923), special schools and educational programs (since 1946), a communal system for solving legal disputes. The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (1982) and the Aga Khan Health Services provide their services to the local non-lsmaili communities, too. Similar developments take place in the field of education The lsmailis of the Gilgit and Ghizr Districts thus received support from their co-religionists abroad, many of whom are wealthy merchants (for example in Karachi and Bombay), and their development programmes have also drawn contributions from other international donor agencies. They have reached a cutting edge over both Shi’is and Sunnis in the Northern Areas in terms of educational qualification and success in private business as well as within the local civil service. They have also taken the lead in providing educational facilities for girls.
Among the Sunnis and Shi’is, too, communal life has intensified in the 20th century, but in a different sense. Both communities have emerged as strongholds of a conservative religious orthodoxy of Sunni and Shi’i Islam in Pakistan, respectively. Thus the Diamir District and parts of Gilgit and its surroundings form part of what could be termed a “belt of Sunni orthodoxy” stretching from Baluchistan via most of the North West Frontier Province to Azad Kashmir along Pakistan’s western and northern borders. They are characterized by intense religiosity of the local population and a strong influence of religious leaders and clergy-led political parties, like the Jamiat al-Ullama-i Islam, the Jama’at-i Islami, and the Sipah-i Shaba. Especially noteworthy is the large number of followers of thc Tabligi Jama’at among them, an unpolitical mass movement which enhances its members to strict observance of Islamic tenets in their daily lives and sends them to regular “missionary tours” on their own expense in their home region as well as abroad. The Tablighi Jama’at, which has become active in the Northern Areas only since the 1970s, is currently running large congregational centers in Chilas, Gilgit, Astor and the Tangir and Darel valleys and building the largest mosque of the Northern Areas in Chilas.
The Sunnis in the valleys around Chilas, have practiced a system of tribal democracy until the end of British rule in the Gilgit Agency, with varying jirga (assemblies of elders) as the only semblance of central authority. It had been marred, however, by frequent cases of intra-communal violence due to self-justice, especially in honour-related matters, and was at times degenerating into pure and simple anarchy. The British had confined themselves to a very loose control of Chilas and the surrounding valleys, leaving notably Tangir and Darel largely to themselves. These valleys have also acceded to Pakistan formally only in 1951 and retained some privileges, like the right to carry firearms and exploit their wealth of timber on their own account.
Among the Shi’is of Gilgit and its surroundings. Nager and Astor (and even more so in Baltistan) religious fervour and a powerful position of the Ulema (Muslim clergymen) is matching that among the local Sunnis. But other than the Sunnis of the former Gilgit Agency, the local Shi’is have remained relatively isolated from their co-religionists abroad and their religious centers (in Lucknow/lndia, Iraq and Iran) until the end of the 19th century. Only since that time a local class of “professional” Ulema trained in those centers has emerged in the Gilgit Agency, which has shown itself ambitious and successful in transforming superficial Shi’i lslamization into a strong observance of orthodox Shi’i tenets.
In Nager they have been helped by the local rulers (mir), who have tried to compensate their loss of political independence since the war of 1891 by posing as promoters of a Shi’i “Islamic state”, but the Ulema had become largely independent of the ruler’s support even before the abolishment of the latter’s prerogatives in 1972. Shi’i Ulema from the Northern Areas have become firmly entrenched and highly overrepresented within the Shi’i religious hierarchy of Pakistan, occupying positions as Friday preachers and instructor in religious schools in all parts of the lowland, too. In their home villages many of them have founded local Welfare Societies (Anjuman) organizing communal affairs, and they have got involved into political issues with regional or nationwide concern, like the struggle for provincial status of the Northern Areas or various campaigns of the Shi’i political party, the Tahrik-i Jafari, Pakistan (until 1992 Tahrik-i Nifaz-i fiqh-i Ja’fariyya). Most Shi’is of the Northern Areas nowadays have a strong feeling of sympathy or even allegiance towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, but are aware that their minority status in Pakistan precludes an imitation of the Iranian example.
Places of Worship
Very few mosques older than 100 years have been preserved in the entire Gilgit Agency. The finest examples of old wooden mosques can be found in the Darel and Tangir valleys resembling those in Swat and lndus Kohistan The oldest mosque in Nager (Kamal Masjid in Uyum Nager) bears the inscription “8211” which could mean 1128 Hijri, i.e. 1716 A.D There are also some abandoned old Shi’i mosques in the villages of central Hunza. The best known tombs of Muslim saints are those of Sayyid Shah Sultan Arif in Danyor (opposite Gilgit), of Sayyid Shah Wali in Ghulmet (Central Nager) and of Baba Ghundi in the Chupursan valley. There are dozens of other tombs of Muslim missionaries with only local fame in the villages of all three Muslim communities, but the veneration of saintly tombs is being discouraged by the Ulema in the Sunni areas. In the lsmaili villages mosques have been replaced by or abandoned in favour of Jama’at Khanas (“Community Houses”) since 1923. following the example of the Khoja-lsmaili communities of the Indian west coast after orders from Aga Khan III who had sent an emissary to the “mountain Ismailis” in that year. In Gilgit town, a Central Jama’at-Khana could be built only between 1938 and 1945 (OPENING CEREMONY) after overcoming the objections of the Mir of Hunza and of local Sunni and Shi’i dignitaries. Congregational worship in the Jama’at-Khana usually takes place on Thursday evenings (i.e. “the night of Friday”). All Jama’at-Khana in the Northern Areas have been built in nearly identical architectural style with neither local colorit nor any “sacral” elements. In the Shi’i villages the local Imambarah are usually more prominent than the mosques, representing the focus of Shi’i communal life with recitations of elegies consecrated to the memory of the twelve Imams on every Thursday evening and other special days of the Muslim calendar, notably during the first ten days of the month Muharram. Most Imambarah in the Northern Areas have been constructed only during the last decades with considerable local efforts (financial contributions and unpaid labour). Both local Jama’at-Khana and Imambarah are usually of quadratical shape. While the Jama’at-Khana have windows in their walls and an European-style roof, the walls of the Imambarah are without windows. Only a special opening in the middle of their flax roofs allows to let the daylight inside. Those Imambarah usually have colourful decorated woodwork on the inner side of the ceiling.
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2 thoughts on “Islamization of Gilgit and Surrounding Areas – Extract from the Research of CAK 1995

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