Understanding Sunni-Shi’i rivalry in Kashmir: Review of ‘Shi ̒ ism in Kashmir’ by Hakim Sameer Hamdani

The book traces sectarian struggles within Kashmir’s Muslim community and their impact.

Published : Jun 08, 2023 18:29 IST - 7 MINS READ

Kashmiri Shia Muslims during a procession in Srinagar on August 9, 2022, on the 10th day of Muharram.

Kashmiri Shia Muslims during a procession in Srinagar on August 9, 2022, on the 10th day of Muharram. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

The British author Julian Barnes, in his Booker-winning book The Sense of an Ending, asserts that “history is created where inadequacies of documentation meet the imperfections of memory”. History, essentially mankind’s memory, serves as a guide for organisational progress in the cosmos. Without its memory, mankind would be adrift.

However, Kashmir as a society has been adrift, facing numerous political and socio-religious catastrophes. Instead of relying on history as a guide, it has turned to the non-historical dapān tradition.

In Hakim Sameer Hamdani’s book Shi ̒ism in Kashmir: A History of Sunni-Shi ̒i Rivalry and Reconciliation, the author criticises the dapān tradition, which has fuelled sectarian rivalry and social catastrophes. Hamdani aims to relieve ‘history’ from this surrogacy of the dapān tradition.

The book consists of five chapters, along with an introduction. The first chapter outlines the initiation of Islam in Kashmir, focusing on the dialogue between the Buddhist ruler Rinchana and Bulbul Shah. This event becomes tainted with sectarian strains, especially in the works of Azam Dedhmari, an 18th-century Kashmiri Sunni historian.

Dedhmari sourced his texts from the Tazkiras of Sheikh Hamza Makhdum, an anti-Shi ̒i Suhrawardy master, resulting in the “foundation of Muslim rule in Kashmir (being portrayed as) a Sunni enterprise”. This frames the Shi ̒i arrival and presence as a “later development, a betrayal of pure faith of Islam as represented by the Sunnis”, thereby ‘othering’ the Shi ̒i as rafizi. Hamdani argues that Dedhmari’s works draw from Bahristani shahi, the oldest text on the conversion of Rinchana, followed by Malik Haider’s text, which lacks sectarian biases.

Shi ̒ ism in Kashmir: A History of Sunni-Shi ̒i Rivalry and Reconciliation
By Hakim Sameer Hamdani
I.B. Tauris
Pages: 213 
Rs.7,690 (hardcover)

In the 16th century, the rivalry between Iraqi and Makhdum sects shaped the hagiographical literature of Makhdoom, particularly in the works of Baba Khaki and Tulmuli. The Makhdum became an anti-Shi ̒i champion of Sunnism in these texts, which are not mentioned in the parallel historical writings of the period, including those of the leading Sunni historian Ali.

These texts became the source of folklore and dapān culture, perpetuating the Shi ̒i-Sunni rivalry in Kashmir until the 19th and 20th centuries. The Chak rule, associated with the Shi ̒i community, saw the rule of the ‘other’ by the Sunni, and its end as the “vindication of the righteousness of Sunni faith”. This led to the first Shi ̒i-Sunni riot in Mughal Kashmir.


The second chapter explores the fluid interrelationship between the post-Mughal State, Sunni majority, and Shi ̒i identity formation. It examines the genre of Marsiya, travelogues, and parallel vernacular sources. Hamdani argues that the Afghan state harshly treated the Shi ̒is, leading to their migration to the more hospitable Awadh state. The presence of affluent Iranian Shi ̒i merchants, supported by faith-based patronage and matrimonial alliances, further strengthened trans-regional Shi ̒i identity.

The Afghan state became anathema to Shi ̒i imagery and symbolism, resulting in riots in 1793 and 1801. During these incidents, imāmbādas were specifically targeted and burnt, and the Shi ̒i populace was subjected to looting and prosecution. This led to a near-complete erasure of public Muharram ceremonies, with rituals being performed in secretive basements (tah-khanas) to avoid state and Sunni majority scrutiny.

The end of the Afghan state brought relief from state harassment for Shi ̒is, but they faced harassment from the Sunni population for the first time in five centuries, following the end of Muslim rule in the land. Additionally, the non-Muslim political landscape proved antagonistic to Muslims and their sacred geography, which was confiscated for state purposes.

Building upon the second chapter, Hamdani explores the articulation and vocalisation of Shi ̒i identity under non-Muslim rule in the pedagogical spaces of Marak. This is done through the literary performative genre called Marsiya.

The Marsiya originated during Mughal times, starting from rural settings and then spreading to urban areas. During Afghan rule, secretive performances of Marsiya gave way to its assertion in the public sphere in post-Afghan Kashmir. This resulted in another riot in 1830, described by Hamdani as a “violent Sunni reaction” to a Shi ̒i procession, mirroring the annual Sunni procession.

This riot marked a radical challenge to the Sunni ownership of urban space during Afghan rule. The Marsiya-Majlis not only became central to the Shi ̒i identity as a faith-based pedagogical space institutionalised by Marak, it served as a cultural link for the Shi ̒i diaspora, with a regular flow of financial and other forms of aid. However, once the Shi ̒i society achieved a secure existence, internal dissensions related to class, power, and exploitation emerged.

Nature of representation

The fourth chapter delves into questions of representation and the nature of the representation of the Shi ̒i community by its leaders. Marak becomes a contested space within the community, with the distribution of khums, a form of community money, becoming a source of dissension between the Rizvi and Mausvi sayyids.

This dissension expressed itself in an urban-rural and rich-poor divide, becoming the hallmark of late 19th and 20th-century Shi ̒i Kashmir. The distribution of khums, exclusively controlled by the Rizvi sayyids, was seen as an assault on the privileges of the Mausvi sayyids. The factionalism between the Rizvi and Mausvi sayyids escalated into Firqa-i-Qadim (Old Group) and Firqa-i-Jadid (New Group), leading to legal disputes involving the Dogra judicial system over the ownership of Marak and its economy.

These disputes resulted in the construction of another imāmbāda in Budgam to challenge the representation of the imāmbādas in Zadibal and Hassanabad. Despite the Dogra state’s efforts to prevent civil disturbances, riots broke out in 1872, causing extensive devastation. Reconciliation efforts were glimpsed when Syed Mahdi paid homage to major Sunni sacred spaces, resulting in a softening of sectarian boundaries between Shi ̒is and Sunnis.

Modern education

In the final chapter, the author examines the reactions of the Shi ̒i community to modern education, social equity, and political empowerment. The focus is on collective responses to the obstacles posed by Hindu governance to the Muslim society as a whole. The re-establishment of the Shi ̒i community with its sacred imagery and symbolism aligns with the Dogra rule and the challenges brought by modernity, particularly Christian education.

Hamdani argues that, unlike Sunnis, the Shi ̒i response was divided along the Firqa-i-Jadid and Firqa-i-Qadim continuum. Non-clerical organisations like the Shi ̒i Upliftment Association emerged in the 1930s, advocating for Western education to empower the community. The Hinduisation of authority during the Dogra rule and the rise of political consciousness led Shi ̒is and Sunnis to join forces in the struggle for the freedom of Kashmir after 1947.

However, the Shi ̒i community experienced political marginalisation, with no representation in the State ministry until the 1980s. The fear of riots continued to haunt the Shi ̒is, prompting them to relocate to the peripheries, such as the interiors of Dal Lake, isolating themselves from the general populace. This process has not only resulted in the othering of the Shi ̒i community but also its dehumanisation, perpetuated through the dapān tradition.

Hamdani concludes with an aspirational note, suggesting that Kashmiri Muslim society can overcome sectarian rivalry and focus on coexistence and history. The author emphasises the dynamic nature of individual interactions and their potential to redefine what it means to be Shi ̒i or Sunni. This perspective offers hope not only for Kashmir but also for South Asia as a whole.

The book holds immense value for South Asian history, particularly for students and scholars of Kashmir studies. Hamdani challenges the prevailing belief that Sufi shrines serve as centres of syncretism in Kashmir. By analysing primary and secondary sources, as well as ethnographic research, the author unveils the polemical literature and Sunni-Shi ̒i rivalry that has been produced within these Sufi shrines, which fuels antagonism.

However, the book does suffer from the Streisand effect. While attempting to hide the prevalence of caste within Shi ̒i society, the author inadvertently reveals it through statements such as “the conflict within the Shi ̒i community was a class struggle” (page 109) and “None of the (Shi ̒i) reformers addressed the issues of the caste-based structure of Shi ̒i society” (page 200). It remains to be seen if the author will provide similar treatment to factionalism within the Shi ̒i community, its various forms, and the developmental consequences it has caused.

Mohammad Asif is with the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. Muneeb Yousuf is with the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

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