By Masood Butt
DHARAMSALA, February 18 - Tibet had pockets of Muslims entrenched within its borders, although there is no documentary evidence on how they first came to settle there. In fact, information on Tibetan Muslims is scarce. But the existence of Tibet appears to be known to the Muslim world from the earliest period of recorded history. Arab historians like Yaqut Hamawi, Ibn Khaldun and Tabari mention Tibet in their writings. In fact, Yaqut Hamawihas, in his book Muajumal Buldan
(Encyclopaedia of Countries), refers to Tibet in three different ways: Tabbat, Tibet and Tubbet.
Kashmir and Eastern Turkestan are the nearest Islamic regions bordering Tibet. It is said that Muslim migrants from Kashmir and Ladakh first entered Tibet around 12th century. Gradually, marriage and social interaction led to an increase in the population until a sizable community came up around Lhasa, Tibet's capital.
Muslims are known to the Tibetans as "Khache". This is perhaps because the earliest Muslim settlers had come from Kashmir which was known as "Khache Yul" in old Tibetan texts.
The arrival of Muslims was followed by the construction of mosques in different parts of Tibet. There were four mosques in Lhasa, two in Shigatse and one in Tsethang. Tibetan Muslims were mainly concentrated around the mosques, which also served as the centres of Muslim social life in Tibet.
It was actually the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), who played a seminal role in helping to pave the way for the flourishing of Muslim community in Tibet's Buddhist environment. He issued a decree, granting Tibetan Muslims special privileges, which they enjoyed until the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. In accordance with this dercee:
- The Muslims were permitted to handle their affairs independently, according to the Shariat Law. The Muslim community was permitted to elect a five-man committee, known as "Ponj", to look after their interests.
- They were free to set up commercial enterprises and were exempted from taxation.
- They were also exempted from the "no-meat rule", enforced on the Buddhist populace during the holy Buddhist month.
- They were also exempted from removing their hats in deference to Buddhist priests during a period in a year when the priests held sway over the town.
- In addition, Muslims were given their own burial place. There were two cemeteries around Lhasa: one at Gyanda Linka, about 12 km from Lhasa town, and the other at Kygasha, about 15 km away. A portion of Gyanda Linka was turned into a garden and this became the place where the Muslim community organised their major public events. Gyanda Linka is said to contain unmarked graves believed to be those of foreigners who came to preach Islam to Tibet.
As the community grew, Madrasas (primary schools) were set up to teach Islam, the Koran and the namaz (prayers). Urdu language was also part of the curriculum. There were two such Madrasas in Lhasa and one in Shigatse.
After finishing their studies in these Madrasas, students were sent to India to join Islamic institutes of higher learning such as Darul-Uloom in Deoband, Nadwatul-Ulema in Lucknow and Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. The annual report of Darul-Uloom for the year 1875 mention the presence of two foreign students there: a Burmese and a Tibetan. Jamia Millia Islamia received its first batch of Tibetan students in 1945.
In those days, transportation within Tibet was undeveloped. Students were sent along with Muslim merchants making their annuals trip to India. This took months as they had to walk or ride horses or yaks for most of the way. Therefore, once the students got admitted to an institution in India, they usually did not return home until the completion of a stage of their education.
Quite a few Tibetan Muslims successfully completed their studies in India, achieving proficiency in Arabic, Urdu and Persian. The most famous among them was Faidhullah, who undertook the ambitious task of translating into Tibetan Gulestan and Boastan, Persian poetry of Sheik Sadi. Faidhullah is well known among Tibetans for his popular book of aphorisms, Khache Phalu
(A Few Words of Advice From a Muslim).
Even today, Tibetans quote from his book in support of a point of view in secular debates. An English translation of Khache Phaluh
has been done by Dr. Dawa Norbu and published by the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives.
Tibetan Muslims have also made significant contribution to Tibetan culture, particularly in the field of music. Nangma
, a popular classical music of Tibet, is said to have been brought to Tibet by Tibetan Muslims. In fact, the very term Nangma
is believed to be a corruption of the Urdu word Naghma
, meaning song. These high-pitched lilting songs, developed in Tibet around the turn of the Century, were a craze in Lhasa with musical hits by Acha Izzat, Bhai Akbar-la and Oulam Mehdi on the lips of almost everyone.
After the failed Tibetan National Uprising of 1959 His Holiness the Dalai Lama went into-exile in India, followed by a significant number of Tibetans.
However, the majority of Tibetan Muslims, particularly those residing in Lhasa, were able to leave only a year later. In between they, like their Buddhist compatriots, had to suffer extortion, repression and other acts of cruelty at the hands of Chinese occupation forces.
During this critical period, Tibetan Muslims organised themselves and approached the Indian mission in Lhasa to reclaim Indian citizenship, citing their Kashmiri ancestry. At that time, the head of the Tibetan Muslim community, Haji Habibullah Shamo, was under Chinese detention along with other Muslim leaders like Bhai Addul Gani-la;.Rapse Hamidullah, Abdual Ahad Hajj, Abdul Qadir Jami and HajiAbdul Gani Thapsha. While Bhai Abdul Gani-la was charged with putting up anti-Chinese wall posters, Rapse Hamidullah was arrested on account of his connection with a senior Tibetan official.
The initial response of the Indian Government to the Muslim request was lukewarm. It said only those who had permanent domicile status in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and those who visited India from time to time, and those whose parents or one of the grandparents were born in India, would be considered potential citizens of India.
But some time later, in late 1959, the Indian Government suddenly came out with the statement that all Tibetan Muslims were Indian nationals and entitled to citizenship.
Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities duped the Muslims into selling their property to the government in return for permission to emigrate to any Muslim country. Seeing this as a possible way of saving their religion and culture, many Tibetan Muslims willingly parted with their property. But the authorities reneged on their promise and instead orchestrated a campaign of social boycott against them. Nobody was allowed to sell food to Tibetan Muslims. Many old and weak Tibetan Muslims as well as children died of starvation.
Such Tibetan Muslims as were able to cross over to the Indian border towns of Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Gangtok gradually moved to Kashmir, their ancestral homeland, from 1961 to 1964. The Indian Government sheltered them in three huge buildings in Idd-Gah in the Kashmiri capital city of Srinagar. His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent his Representative to Idd-Gah look into their conditions.
During the first two decades of their life in exile, Tibetan Muslims attempted to rebuild and re-organise themselves. Lack of proper guidance and community leadership proved to be an obstacle in their development. Also, housing in Idd-Gah was inadequate to meet the requirements of a growing family. In the process, Tibetan Muslims began to scatter, emigrating to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Nepal. Some moved to other parts of India in search of better livelihood opportunity.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama continued to keep himself informed of conditions of Tibetan Muslims in Idd-Gah. In 1975 he visited Srinagar and raised their problems with the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Following a request from him, the Chief Minister provided the Tibetan Muslims with land for their resettlement.
His Holiness also encouraged the formation of a Tibetan Muslim Refugee Welfare Association. This Association began to chalk out projects for the economic and educational upliftment of the community.
With the seed money from His Holiness, followed by assistance from Tibet Fund in New York, a handicraft centre, a co-operative shop and a school were established. A group of young Tibetan Muslims were invited to Dharamsala to learn the trade of carpet-weaving and marketing.
The Department of Health in Dharamsala has set up a primary health care centre to look after the medical needs of the Muslims.
Saudi Arabia provided funds for the construction of 144 houses and a mosque in the new settlement. Construction was completed in 1985 and the houses distributed among the people. Not all people could be accommodated and some continued to reside in the old settlement.
There is now a Tibetan Muslim Youth Association which plays an important role in the social upliftment of the community, and maintains contact with the mainstream Tibetan Youth Congress.
Nothing much is known of the present condition of Tibetan Muslims inside Tibet. According to one report there are around 3000 Tibetan Muslims there.
The total population of Tibetan Muslims outside Tibet is around 2000. Of them, 20 to 25 families live in Nepal, 20 in the Gulf countries and Turkey. Fifty families reside in Darjeeling-Kalimpong areas bordering Tibet in eastern India.
They continue to look up to their Muslim brethren throughout the world for support to the cause of Tibet so that they can one day return to their homeland and enjoy the life of dignity that they once enjoyed. A young Tibetan Muslim in exile, when asked whether he would return to Tibet in the event of a solution, responded, "It is better to live under a bridge in one's own homeland than to live as a refugee in an alien land." *Masood Butt is a Tibetan Muslim and senior official of the Tibetan exile administration.