The “Story” of Islam in Tibet

Although it is seldom acknowledged, Islamic groups exist and intermingle in the largely Buddhist society of Tibet.  Islam came to Tibet via two routes (Cabezon 14). Islam first moves west “from Turkestan, Baltistan and Kashmir into Ladakh and principally through Ladakh into western Tibet,” (Cabezon 15). The other later route is by way of China; first settlements are in eastern Tibet and afterwards move into areas of central Tibet like Lhasa (Cabezon 14). Accordingly there are two groups of Muslims minorities in Tibet today; Kashmiri Muslims also known as Tibetan Muslims and Chinese Muslims also known as Hui (Cabezon 15).

Tibetan Muslims are descendants of “Kasmiri, Nepalese, Ladhaki and Sikh converts” (Cabezon 15). These areas converted to Islam during various Muslim conquests between the 12th and 17th century (Cabezon 15). Tibetan Muslims existed in Tibet prior to the 17th century however it is in this century that the Fifth Dalai Lama institutionalises their religion (Cabezon 1 7). This institutionalization includes such liberties as legal settlements in accordance with Shar’iah law and land possession in Lhasa (Cabezon 17). Tibetan Muslims consider themselves to be part of the Sunni sect of Islam (Cabezon 15). Most Tibetan Muslims were and are traders of various kinds (Sharma 22).

Like Tibetan Muslims, Chinese Muslims or Hui, identify themselves as followers of the Sunni sect of Islam (Cabezon 15). However Chinese Muslims differ from Tibetan Muslims as they have their own religious schools and different burial practices. Unlike Tibetan Muslims most Chinese Muslims work as butchers and vegetable farmers as opposed to traders (15). The Hui’s initiation into Lahasa dates from  the early 18th century (Bo 7).

According to Cabezon and other scholars both these Islamic groups, to this day, live harmoniously with the Buddhist population (23). However since the Chinese occupation in the 1950’s the survival of these groups has been challenged; for instance the exiling of muslim families and individuals and boycotts of Muslims made products (Cabezon 23).

Problems in the “Story of Islam in Tibet”

Pir and the Fifth Dalai  Lama: The institutionalization of Islam in Tibet

“Pir and the Fifth Dalai Lama” is the tale of an encounter between a 17th century Muslim man and the fifth Dalai Lama. The story begins with a theological discussion between the Dalai Lama and Pir (the Muslim) and ends with the Dalai Lama bestowing land to the Kashmiri Muslim community in Lhasa so they can build a place of worship.

In the small amount of research that has been conducted on Islam in Tibet one repeatedly finds reference to this oral story. However the simplicity of the story provokes further investigation of the context in which the exchange takes place. None of the research discusses the possibility of ulterior motives other than “generosity” of the part of the Dalai Lama (Sharma 21). However there is some historical information that could be interpreted differently leading to a different conclusion. The fifth Dalai Lama’s reign is at a time of intra-Buddhist rivalry and conflict (Sharma 21), which means a weak state so Islam could have been seen as a threat to Buddhism at this time. That being said, a Buddhist non-violent response to a possible threat results in the segregation of that community.

Whether or not the Dalai Lama’s intentions are pure, the use of that particular version of the story in Tibetan society is important. There seems to be a folk belief that the Kashmiri Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists have always had mutual respect for one another. Therefore it is understandable that these two communities seem to have an unspoken bond that the Chinese Muslims lack. Many of the original Chinese Muslims were stationed in Tibet as soldiers, which could have perpetuated a different folk belief tied to ideas of  invasion and otherness. This belief explains researchers’ unbalanced focus on the relationship between Tibetan Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists as opposed to the Chinese Muslims even though the groups’ have similar tenants etc as mentioned above. The Hui ethnic Chinese background excludes them especially after the Chinese occupation in the 1950’s.

In conclusion the story about the history of “Islam in Tibet” yields more insight into modern day circumstances than the past. Not surprisingly “Islam in Tibet” foreword by the Dalai Lama exemplifies the “utopian” past:

The younger generation in Tibet struggle for justice and freedom in their own land as those who remember life before the Chinese occupation. Similarly, our Muslim brothers and sisters retain the spirit of their forefathers in being proud to assert their identity as Tibetans, specifically as Tibetan Muslims. (9)

The Dalai Lama emphasises the justice and freedom of the time before the occupation but does not mention  both Muslim groups only the Tibetan Muslims. Although the argument can be made that Buddhist and Tibetan Muslims may have lived in harmony prior to the Chinese occupation, that agenda distorts the research because little attention is paid to the development and inevitable interaction between the two Muslim groups.

What is “Islam”?

Although it is true that some form of Islam travelled from Persia through various other countries and eventually settled in Tibet in the forms of Hui and Kashmiri Islam what various changes occur in the different places is something researchers do not acknowledge. What Islam looks like in those places at a particular point in history and what carries over into Tibetan society remains a mystery. If one could trace the developments of a religion from one area to the next and see what circumstances were necessary to provoke alterations and additions then maybe one could better understand why certain religions die out and others thrive. Thus the arbitrary use of the term Islam weakens the understanding of what Tibetan and Chinese Muslims evolved from and what their own alterations were and what may have existed from the other cultures.

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Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 3:57 am  Leave a Comment  

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