A squat and priggish man of 46, Abdul Lateef Al Kindi has a thick salt-and-pepper beard and a reputation for causing controversy. During a sermon last August at his mosque in Srinagar—one of the capitals of Kashmir, and its largest city—he evoked the spirit of Islam as observed fourteen centuries ago, in the Prophet’s time, and demanded a total break from local traditions. He railed against the veneration of the tombs and relics of saints—common practice in Kashmir—as vestiges of ancient Greek and Hindu mythologies with no place in Islam.
Historically, Kashmir has been dominated by Sufi Islam, a mystical branch of the faith that the puritanically minded abhor. But Al Kindi plans to change all that. In a region already wracked by internal division and foreign pressure, he represents yet another potentially destabilizing force: orthodox Salafism, aggressively expansionist and imported from Saudi Arabia.
After the sermon, we drove to Al Kindi’s rented apartment. He lived in a prosperous area with large houses and fenced-in compounds stretching along the barbed wire–topped wall of a sprawling Indian army camp. The ragged three-room flat was a temporary accommodation for his family; he was putting the finishing touches on a house in a new suburb. Constructing even a modest house in Srinagar is out of reach for most, but Al Kindi, an alumnus of the Saudi-backed Islamic University of Medina, managed thanks to a hefty monthly stipend from his alma mater.
We sat on plastic garden chairs inside his makeshift library of Islamic jurisprudence and history. Books lay in heaps on the floor and on shelves running the length of the walls. A book on the Saudi royal family was displayed proudly. I asked him why Salafism was suddenly gaining popularity in Kashmir. “Before, we didn’t have the support that we have now,” he said. The Saudis provide free literature to anyone who cares to read, and they distribute the Salafi message over the Web, cell phones, and satellite television. One popular video clip shows Tauseef u Rehman, a Salafi cleric in Pakistan, attired in the style of a Saudi sheikh and calling for the implementation of Islamic law in all Muslim societies—a perfect synthesis of strict, old-time religion and modern technology.
Al Kindi is acutely aware of Salafism’s outsider status in Kashmir. “You know how much pressure we’re working under in Kashmir,” he explained. “You have to be careful about what you say in sermons, speeches. We have been instructed by our leadership not to talk politics.” In his sermon he whipped worshippers into a frenzy over Western aggression in Muslim lands, decried the acceptance of Western values among the population, and blasted Palestinians for harming their aspirations toward statehood by “living like Jews.” But he steered clear of the complex affairs of Kashmir, even as he ridiculed Sufi customs.
As we talked late into the afternoon, the giggles of children perked up the nearby courtyard. Al Kindi excused himself and then returned after a few moments, irritated. The neighborhood boys were playing with his children. “I forbade them from playing with these boys,” he exclaimed. “I don’t want my children to be spoiled by outside influences.”
When it comes to spreading his own influence, Al Kindi is not working alone. Though he is the only Salafi preacher in the region, there are about 200 graduates from the Islamic University of Medina nearby. The challenge they represent to traditional beliefs has not gone unnoticed. In Palpora, a couple miles north of Al Kindi’s mosque, an ugly brawl broke out last October when Salafis questioned rituals followed by adherents of the Hanafi school of Islamic law, whose tradition, like Sufism, the Salafis disdain.
For some Salafi adherents, the doctrine offers not just a spiritual cleansing, but also an opportunity for social mobility, as Al Kindi’s story testifies. In the remote area of southeastern Kashmir where he was raised, amenities taken for granted in modern societies—transportation, medicine, safe drinking water, electricity—were scarce. Now, after being handpicked from his boyhood school and earning his PhD in Medina, he’s a star preacher with an adopted Arabic name, a fixture on theological television shows, an able recruiter to the faith, and a popular professor at Salafia College in Srinagar, where nearly 200 low-income students are studying to be clerics. And he’s building that house.