Syed Gulzar Qalandar is a mystic who, his disciples say, has slept only on a few rare occasions in the last 20 years of his self-absorbed meditation and prayer. A small and slender man, with a long shiny beard and serene looking face, Qalandar appears all the more otherworldly with his head covered in a white scarf held in place by a striking blue headband. Sleepy-eyed, he speaks with a soft voice so low one has to strain to hear his words. The mystic mumbled his reverence for the Creator and His love for the people who do good deeds and help ease the suffering of the poor and needy.
The mystic, who renounced the affairs of life at a very young age to spend his time in contemplation, is the antithesis of an aggressive, priggish, and iconoclastic Salafi adherents whose bruising mockery of the mysticism Qalandar espouses—a tradition going back to nearly seven hundred years when Islam in Kashmir was preached by saints and mystics from Central Asia—was encouraging young and well-read students to come out in the open and defend a respected tradition. On a sunny morning last fall, in a clearing surrounded by the freshly harvested walnut trees in a far-off suburb of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, a crowd of young and old men sat under a tent chanting responses to the mystic’s devotional songs. Among the crowd were almost a dozen young men wearing long black hair that fell to their shoulders under knitted skullcaps, a new breed of young, resurgent believers in Sufi Islam eager to spread the message of the mystic.
One of them was Sameer Purra, 22, studying to be a doctor. Purra, a mild-mannered man who, unlike his friends, wore short hair under a knitted skullcap, grew up in an old part of Srinagar. At a young age, he came under the influence of a firebrand Salafi preacher at the local mosque. For a time, Purra was fascinated by the priest’s discourse about Islamic history and the need for taking Islam back to its pure past. But he grew irritated each time the priest spoke disrespectfully about the local custom of belief in mystics and their spiritual powers to heal ailing and psychologically troubled people. Purra could no longer tolerate the tirade against the sanctity of local customs and traditions and decided it was time to cut off ties with the priest.
Looking back on his days spent with the Salafi priest, he came to a conclusion that it was “a dogma with no spirituality.” He was apprehensive about the rise of what he described as foreign ideologies, which were spewing sectarian hatred and intolerance in the society. He felt the need for going back to the teaching of saints to maintain harmony.
“To retain our identity we have to ground our political movement in our cultural traditions and customs. It is all the more important now for us to stand united as a people to struggle for our political rights. All these ideological forces wanting to fight on our behalf have no role in this and we should not encourage them,” he said, reflecting a belief completely antithetical to Salafi followers, who believed identifying Islam with local cultural practices had portrayed an image of Islam that was weak and pacifistic.
The resurgent Sufi faith was an answer to the fast growing popularity of the hard faith of Salafi Islam in Kashmir. The Saudi Arabian-trained Salafi preachers were telling people in their sermons across the length and breadth of Kashmir that venerating tombs and shrines of mystics, an old cultural practice of Kashmir, was a heresy for which the Creator would punish them in the hereafter. This view, previously unheard of in Kashmir, was not just reviving the Sufi believers to defend their beliefs, but also pitting the two against one another.
This past summer, at least half a dozen shrines and other places of worship were either partially or completely burned. The burning of the 200-year-old Dastageer Sahib shrine in Srinagar was the biggest shock. Early one morning, worshipers spotted smoke rising from the rooftop of the shrine and before the fire tenders could put out the flames, the entire shrine had been destroyed. Men and women were seen beating their chests and crying in pain at the loss. At first, the fire was blamed on faulty wiring in the shrine, but when it became clear that the electricity in the area at the time was cut off, suspicion began to emerge that it might be sabotage. The Sufi believers openly blamed Salafi followers for creating an atmosphere of hate against the practice of shrine-going in Kashmir. Some of the Salafi adherents openly gloated on social networking sites that the shrine was a place where the shrine-goers indulged in “un-Islamic practices” and its burning was a divine act of putting the wrong thing right.
So far, police investigations have found no direct link to any sectarian group that might have torched the shrine. Probes into fires at other places of worship have yielded no conclusive answer to what caused those fires. But the burnings of the places of worship this past summer were seen as the beginnings of new sectarian strife in Kashmir.