Muslims of Tibet
By Masood Butt
January – February 1994
Tibet had pockets of Muslims entrenched within its borders although there is no documentary evidence on how Muslims first came to settle there. In fact, information on Tibetan Muslims in general itself 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.
During the reign of Umar bin Abdul Aziz (717-720) of the Persian Empire, it is believed that a delegation from Tibet and China requested him to send Islamic missionaries to their countries. Caliph Umar is said to have sent Salah bin Abdullah Hanafi to Tibet. The Abbasid rulers of Baghdad also maintained re1ations with Tibet in the eighth and the ninth centuries.
Kashmir and Eastern Turkestan were the nearest Islamic regions bordering Tibet. It is said that Muslim migrants from Kashmir and Ladakh areas first entered Tibet around 12th century. Gradually, marriages and social interaction led to an increase in the population until a sizable community came up around Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. There was no large-scale conversion to Islam though. Thomas Arnold, in his book, The Preaching of Islam, published in the early part of this century says, “Islam has also been carried into Tibet proper by Kashmiri merchants. Settlements of such merchants are to be found in all the chief cities of Tibet: they marry Tibetan women, who often adopt the religion of their husbands…”
Tibetan Muslims trace their origin from immigrants from four main regions: China, Kashmir, Ladakh and Nepal. Islamic influence in Tibet also came from Persia and Turkestan.
Muslims are known as Khache among Tibetans. This appear to be because the earliest Muslim settlers to Tibet were from Kashmir which was known as Khache Yul to Tibetans.
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. In recent years, one mosque in Lhasa has been renovated, with Tibetan Muslims from India sending religious inscriptions to it for use. Tibetan Muslims were mainly concentrated around the mosques that they constructed. These mosques were maintained well and were the centres of Muslim social life in Tibet.
Tibetan Muslims led a reasonably free life in a Buddhist environment. In fact, during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama, Tibetan Muslims received the following special privileges:
i) They were permitted to settle their affairs independently, according to the Shariat Laws. The government permitted the Muslim community to elect a five-man committee, known as ‘Ponj’ who looked after their interest. From among the Ponj, a leader – known as Mia to Muslims and Kbache Gopa – (Muslim headman) among non-Muslims – was elected. ii) Tibetan Muslims were free to set up commercial enterprises and were exempted from taxation. iii) Tibetan Muslims were also exempted from implementing the ‘no meat rule’ when such a restriction was imposed in Tibet every year during a holy Buddhist month. Muslims were also exempted from removing their caps to Buddhist priests during a period in a year when the priests held sway over the town. Muslims were also granted the Mina Dronbo (invitation to different communities) status to commemorate the assumption of spiritual and temporal authority by the fifth Dalai Lama.
In addition, Muslims had 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 functions. Gyanda Linka is said to contain unmarked graves believed to be those of foreigners who came to preach Islam to Tibet. Kygasha was mainly used by Muslims of Chinese origin.
The above privileges were contained in a written document provided to the Tibetan Muslim community by the Tibetan government. These privileges were enjoyed until Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959.
Tibetan Muslims confined themselves mainly to trade and commerce. Hardly any of them indulged in fanning. As the community grew, Madrasas (primary schools) were set up in which children were taught about Islam, the Koran and the method of offering namaz (prayers). Urdu language was also part of the curriculum. There were two such Madrasas in Lhasa and one in Shigatse.
After finishing their stuthes in these Madrasas, students were sent to India to join Islamic institutes of higher learning such as Darul-U1oom in Deoband, Nadwatul-U1ema in Lucknow and Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. The annual report of Darul-U1oom 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 a problem. Students were sent along with Muslim merchants making their annuals trip to India. This took months as they had walk or ride on yaks for most of the way. Therefore, once the students got admitted to institution in India, they usually did not return to Tibet until the completion of a stage of their education.
Quite a few Tibetan Muslims have successfully completed their stuthes in India, with many being well versed in Arabic, Urdu and Persian. The most famous among them could be Faidhullah who undertook the ambitious task of translating into Tibetan Gulestan and Boastan, Persian poetry of Sheik Sadi. Faidhullah’s is well known among Tibetans for his popular book aphorism Khache Phalu (few words of advices from a Muslim). Even today, Tibetans continue to quote from his book, (an English translation of Khache Phaluh as been done by Dr. Dawa Norbu and published by the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives).
Tibetan Muslims were able to preserve their community’s identity while at the same time absorbing their traditional Tibetan social and cultural traditions. They elected a Ponj committee to look after their affairs. The Tibetan government approved the formation of this committee and gave it a free hand to undertake its activities and to decide on matters concerning the Tibetan Muslim community. Tibetan Muslims have also made significant contribution to Tibetan culture, particularly in the field of music. Nangma, a popular c1assica1 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 tilting 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 Tibetan National Uprising of 1959 His Holiness the Dalai Lama went into-exile in India followed by a significant number of Tibetans. However, a majority of Tibetan Muslims, particularly those residing in Lhasa, could go out of Tibet only a year later. In between they had to suffer extortion, terrorism and cruelty under the hands of Chinese occupation forces, like their fellow Tibetans. During this critical period, Tibetan Muslims organised themselves. They approached the Indian mission in Lhasa to claim for Indian citizenship, referring to their Kashmiri ancestry, to escape Chinese tyranny. Mr. P.N.Kaul was the head of the Indian mission then. At that time, the head of the Ponj of Tibetan Muslims was Haji Habibullah Shamo. He was, however , under Chinese detention along with other leaders like Bhai Addul Gani-la;.Rapse Hamidullah, Abdua1 Ahad Hajj, Abdul Qadir Jami and HajiAbdul Gani Thapsha under various charges. While Bhai Abdu1 Gani-la was charged with the putting up of anti-Chinese posters, Rapse Hamidullah was arrested on account of his connection with a senior Tibetan official. The initial response of the Indian Government was lukewarm. It said only those whose Permanent domicile remained in the state of Jammu & Kashmir and who visited India from time to time, whose parents or one of whose grandparents were born in undivided India, are potential citizens of India”, and it would , only accept them. But some time later, in later 1959, the Indian Government suddenly came out with the statement that all Tibetan Muslims were Indian nationals, and started distributing application forms for Indian nationality among them.
Chinese illtreatment of Tibetan Muslims continued Chinese authorities duped Tibetan Muslims into selling their property to them in return for the freedom 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 having acquired these property, 1ibetan Muslims were not allowed to emigrate. Instead, restrictions were imposed, and a social boycott declared. Nobody was allowed to sell food to Tibetan Muslims. Many old and weak Tibetan Muslims as well as children thed of starvation.
Those Tibetan Muslims who were able to cross over into India in the border towns of Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Gangtok in late 1959 gradually moved to Kashmir , their ancestral homeland from 1961 to 1964. They were accommodated in three huge buildings in Idd-Gah in Srlnagar by the Indian Government. At that time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama had sent his Representative to inquire about the conditions of Tibetan Muslims.
During the first two decades of their life in exile, Tibetan Muslims attempted to rebuild and re-organise themselves. Lack of proper guidance and 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, Nepal as well as moving to other parts of India in search of better opportunity .
His Holiness the Dalai Lama continued to keep in touch with the situation of Tibetan Muslims. Knowing their problems, His Holiness, during his visit to Srinagar in 1975, took up the matter with the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir. He also encouraged the formation of the Tibetan Muslim Refugee Welfare Association. This Association began to chalk out projects for the economic and educational upliftment of Tibetan Muslims. With an initial financial assistance by His Holiness, coupled with assistance received, later from Tibet Fund, New York, a handicraft centre, a co-operative shop and a school were established. A group of young Tibetan Muslims were given training in Carpet making in Dharamsala.
The Association was able to get some land for resettlement. 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.
A primary school had been started in 1975 in a rented building to provide modern as well as traditional education to Tibetan Muslim children. Although the school was shifted to a comparatively better place in the new settlement, it still faces problems: it is run on donations and does not have a separate compound. However, some students are being sent to Central Schools for Tibetans elsewhere in India. To date, 22 Tibetan Muslim children have been admitted to Central School for Tibetans in Shimla and Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh state.
The Association has eight office bearers who look after the affairs of the community . There is a Tibetan Muslim Youth Association which plays an important role in social upliftment of the community . This youth association is in contact with the Tibetan Youth Congress. The Department of Health in Dharamsala has set up a primary health care centre to look after the medical needs of the settlers.
Nothing much is known of the present condition of Tibetan Muslims inside Tibet. According to one report there are around 3000 Tibetan Muslims and around 20,000 Chinese Muslims. Since the opening up of Tibet, some Tibetan Mus1ims outside Tibet have been able to visit the country while quite a few have also come out.
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. Tibetan Muslims in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Nepal have a joint Tibetan Muslim Welfare Association based in Kalimpong. Its present general secretary is Mr. Amanulla Chisti. During His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to Darjeeling in April l993. Tibetan Muslims there dressed in their traditional garments participated in a ceremony. There are around 1200 Tibetans in the new settlement in Srinagar consisting of 210 families.
Tibetans in general have suffered greatly under Chinese occupation. Tibetan Muslims have undergone great mental and physical strain on account of their peculia situation. They continue to look upon their Muslim brethren throughout the world to support peaceful solution of the Tibetan problem so that the, too, like their Tibetan Buddhist brethren, can return to their homeland. When asked whether he would return to Tibet in the even of a solution, a young Tibetan Muslim responded, “It is better to live under the bridge in one’s own homeland than be a refugee in an alien land.”