Islamic Community In Nepal
Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
Last Saturday, Muslim Association Nepal organised a symposium in Kathmandu on Islam in Nepali History. Though the title of the programme had a religious undertone, it was interesting because it attempted to look into Islam as a theme influencing the evolution of Nepali history. I was invited by the organisers as a speaker from the TU’s Central Department of History. At a time when Nepali youths are losing interest in history as a discipline of learning, it was a fresh opportunity to cast hindsight on the contribution of a particular community in the formative years of Nepali nation.
Though a minority religious group constitutes only 4.4 per cent of the total population of Nepal, Islamic community forms a distinct spot in the rich tapestry of Nepal’s social life. Historical evidences show that the rise of Islam had a historic turn in the Indian sub-continent after Mohammad Bin Quasim conquered Sindh in the eighth century. However, the Muslim community is found to have arrived in Nepal only in late medieval age. They are said to have introduced firearms and the use of gun powder in areas of Nepal which were then known as the Baise and Chaubise states.
Islamic community was not native to Indian Sub-continent, let alone Nepal. They had arrived in India from Arab peninsula. When they struck their root in India, they were also invited by the then Nepali rulers to benefit from their skills in trade, technology and other intricate social functions. The Muslims of Nepal are mostly from India but some of them are also found to have come directly from Afghanistan, Persia, Iraq and other Arab countries at later periods. The existence of Iraqi market in Indrachowk is often cited as a proof of the existence of Arab Muslims in Nepal. This community has contributed immensely in introducing arms and ammunition technology, aesthetics and value of diversity in the Nepali society.
The largest number of Muslims is found to have migrated to Nepal in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. It was one of the first large revolts of the Indian people against British colonialism. There was a sizable number of Muslims in the rebellious Indian British Army. When the revolt was crushed, many Indians, including Muslims came to Nepal seeking asylum. Most prominent of them were Bahadur Shah Zaffar who was a senior courtier of the Delhi Court and Begum Hazrat Mahal, wife of Wazid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Lukhnow.
The first Muslims who came to Nepal are said to have been from Kashmir. That is the reason why they are found referred to as Kashmiri Muslims in Nepalese history and literatures. They first came here as bangle sellers and were known as ‘Churaites’. The Muslims like the Hindus are not a homogeneous group. They are dichotomised as Kashmiris and Hindus, Hill and Terai and Baraqui and Deobandis.
The Muslim community is found to have played an illustrious role in the unification process of Nepal. Nepal’s great unifier late Prithvi Narayan Shah has spoken highly of three Muslims named Sheikh Wazar, Mohhamad Taqi and Bhekha Singh who, according to him, had come all the way from Lukhnow to serve in his court. They were skilful in the handling of firearms. Prithvi Narayan Shah speaks of giving them ‘Ajitani’ which must have been a prestigious military position at that time.
In Nepal, the first Mosque was built by the Kashmiri Muslims in 1524. The Mosque is known as Kahsmiri Taquia and located a little east of Ghantaghar. The Mallas were quite fascinated by the technical skills and their business connections. They also helped them introduce court etiquettes of Mughal Empire. It is said that the Mallas were so much influenced by the elaborate court decorum of the Mughals that they invited senior court officials and hired them as their own courtiers. However, the practice of hiring Mughal courtiers was later discontinued when they started to come into conflict with the indigenous nobility.
The Muslim community has also earned fame in Nepal as musicians, perfume dealers and ornament makers. They were one of the earliest people to popularise music as a respectable form of art. The Malla rulers regularly brought Indian musicians, dancers, puppeteers and other entertainers, some of whom used to be Muslims. When Kathmandu Valley was brought under the control of Prithvi Narayan Shah, he discouraged Indian entertainers and instructed to promote indigenous Newar entertainers citing three reasons. He said that foreign entertainers would drain nation’s property, loosen social morality and gain access to state secrecies.
The Muslim traders were perhaps the first people to introduce expensive and enduring perfumes in Nepal though we find mention in history that they were not the ones who introduced it Nepal for the first time. It was in use during even Lichhavi period. Chinese traveler Huen Tsang has mentioned that the Lichchhavi Kings used perfumes and ornaments.
The Afghan Muslims are said to be experts in making cannons, guns and cartridges which were in great demand during late medieval period. So credit for transferring skills and arts of modern warfare to Nepal army can be attributed to the Muslim community. The use of firearms had helped Prithvi Narayan to turn the table on him during the war of unification. Prithvi Narayan Shah had high opinion about the Muslim community of the Terai though he was unhappy about the role of some other communities of Terai who had helped Captain Kinlock to procure logistics in Janakpur area in his campaign against Prithvi Narayan Shah on behalf of Jayaprakash Malla.
After unification, Prithvi Narayan Shah’s tendency to promote Hindu religion at the cost of other religions caused mass migration of Christian community from Nepal. Some Muslims are also said to have left Nepal for fear of reprisal. But Prithirvi Narayan Shah allayed their fears by giving them permission to build Jame Masjid on the eastern bank of Ranipokhari. The Mosque which stands as a conspicuous symbol of religious tolerance even today was later renovated by Bahadur Shah Zaffar with his own expense to help it help weather through the ravages of time.
Today Islam is in the midst of global discourse. The western capitalist countries try to depict it as a fountainhead of religious radicalism. The Islamic community is under great psychological stress because of the tendency of the global media to equate it with global terrorism. It is unfortunate. In Nepal the Muslim community has demonstrated a very high level of social consciousness of tolerance, harmonious co-existence with other religious values and has presented an inimitable capacity for social integration. It has now become an inseparably band of colour in the rainbow of diversity.