The history of the arrival of Muslims dates back to 500 years ago when the Kashmiri traders traveling via Kathmandu to Tibet were asked to settle here.
Asmin Shrestha, 17, a resident of Indra Chowk in Kathmandu, had a wonderful time this week. Invited to his friend Ashraf Uddin’s home, the Shebais, Sarbats and Kababs were some of his favorite items that he was served. In return, he had immediately promised his friend to get him yomari whenever the item was prepared at his home.
The incident of the exchange of cultures between one Newar and a Muslim was not noticed here for the first time, but Asmin and Ashraf are repeating the trend set by their fathers and grandfathers.
The belief that the streets of Indra Chowk, Asan, Chhetrapati and Thamel are primarily the localities of Kathmandu Newars is not entirely true because these are where most Muslims residing here from centuries choose to work. These streets are filled with the celebrations of dozens of festivals and jatras, while at the same time, “Allah” rests in the hearts of many exchanging the greetings “Assalam Walekum!” everyday.
The belief that the streets of Indra Chowk, Asan, Chhetrapati and Thamel are primarily the localities of Kathmandu Newars is not entirely true because these are where most Muslims residing here from centuries choose to work. (Pratik Rayamajhi)
Ashraf, who recently appeared for his +2 exams, looks after the pote (glass bead) shop inside the Meena Bazaar near Indra Chowk which is the only source of income for his family since the time of his grandfather or even before. Unlike other teens of his age who do not want people to know of their belief in God, he shows no hypocrisy about his habit of praying at the Mosque. Instead, he talks about his prayer schedule openly.
When asked about the arrival of his ancestors in Kathmandu, he explains all that he knows quite happily and without rushing through the story.
“The Kashmiri traders traveling through Kathmandu to Tibet settled here when the Malla king asked them,” he says, adding that he knows only this much of the history and promises to get the rest of the information from his elders.
According to Nazrul Hussain, Chairperson of the Islamic Sangh Nepal, the Muslims are believed to have come here for three reasons. The history of the arrival of Muslims dates back to 500 years ago when the Kashmiri traders traveling via Kathmandu to Tibet were asked to settle here so that the handicrafts, clothing and business would expand through their expertise. The thenking of the Malla dynasty, Ratna Malla, gave them the settlements at Indra Chowk, Asan and Chhetrapati as well as Putali Sadak/Bag Bazaar that was considered a distant area from the capital city of Kathmandu at that time.
The second group arrived here with the Queen of Lucknow who fled her palace with her nearer ones. Thirdly, the Hindus and others who converted to Islam are the oldest ones belonging to the community, mainly in Kathmandu.
In such hilly regions as Gorkha, Lamjung, and Palpa, the generations of the workers the Shah King Prithivi Narayn Shah brought from India to make the arms and ammunition for his ambitious invasions in the 18th century have their significant presence and are known as ‘Pahadi Muslims’ among those settled in the Tarai.
The business trends they introduced then are still carried out by most of their present generations, Hussain stated. Handicraft, clothing designs, bangles/necklace business and royal varieties of food came to Kathmandu with the arrival of Muslims who also pioneered pashmina products in Kathmandu, Hussain added.
There is also a Hindu’s account of the arrival of the Muslims in Kathmandu. A research done on the Muslims of Kathmandu by Alfiani Fadzakir as his thesis submitted for the PhD in Brunel University states that Hindus believe that the king’s elephant had crushed a Brahmin child and the soul became an evil spirit which the Hindu priests failed to get rid of. Therefore, Muslim exorcists were invited to Kathmandu to deal with the spirit, and upon their success, were given land in that area.
However, the question of the origin makes Hussain sad. He wonders, “Other Nepalis also have come from other countries, Aryans from India, Mongolians from the north. Then why do only Muslims have to explain their origin?”
Within the community, the Valley-based Muslims themselves are the marginalized ones, with 2.2% of the total Muslim population of Nepal. Of the total 1,162,370 that comprises 4.4% of the total population of Nepal, only around 27,000 are recorded in the National Census Report 2011. Around 22,000 of them are the residents of Kathmandu.
Only 27% of the Muslims are literate, compared to 65.9% as the national standard as per the Census Report 2011.
However, Kaushar Shah, lawmaker of Nepali Congress from the PR seat, estimates that around 100,000 Muslim currently reside in and around the Kathmandy Valley.
Meanwhile, Muslim females are not as expressive as others in other religions. Shah mentions that the suffering of Kathmandu-born Muslim women is not vastly different from those in the rural areas of the Tarai.
“Educated families send their daughters to school but sadly many of the parents are also illiterate, that too in Kathmandu,” she added. Shah herself is a Kathmandu-born Muslim woman.
Nodding to Shah’s saying, Zahir Parvez, a researcher at the Research Centre for Educational Innovation and Development (CERID), says that the complexities in understanding the culture have sidelined the issue of empowerment.
“The community lived in isolation in the past and was deprived of education during the Rana Regime. This makes them lag in several opportunities,” he added.
When it comes to the openness of the society of Kathmandu, Hifzur Rahman, the writer of the book “Nari” to justify the protection of women in Islam, says that the misinterpretation of the Quran has made the women backward in the Muslim society.
Apart from the typical localities of the older times, newcomers have created their own community in Sitapaila and Hattiban. Likewise, some of the locals have also shifted to the new settlements, leaving their places of origin, Hussain said.
Mother of four, Haider Afrida, who came to Sitapaila in Kathmandu from Mohattari, says that individual mentality also determines how much freedom they want to give their children.
In the major political changes since 1951, Nepal’s Muslims have not been mere spectators but participated in the movements in various ways, as studies have shown. While supporting the establishment of democracy and because of their anti-Rana sentiments, many Muslims courted arrest and were jailed.
Kathmandu-based Nayamuddin, a pro-democracy activist of Praja Parishad, was imprisoned for two years in late 1948, as per another study.
As soon as democracy was established in Nepal, the Muslims, like other communities, also tried to move forward, forgetting the immense pain caused by Rana rulers. History gives credit to the then royal regime for developing a sense of ownership and optimism in the Muslim community.
The first ever Muslim organization was established soon after the democratic era began. In 1953, two groups emerged as the Anjuman Isiah and the Jamate Itehad, which later united to form the All Nepal Anjuman Isiah (ANAI) led by the members of the Kashmiri Muslim Community in the capital.
“Receiving the full support of the Royal Palace, a freedom to run their profession and live a peaceful life prevails since then,” states the said study.
Half a century later, in 2006, the country became secular and began the fight for equal opportunities in the entire sectors for this marginalized group. The representation from the community in the Constituent Assembly (CA) is also on ascending order, as 17 Muslims made their space in CA-2008 with five women. In the second CA, 19 lawmakers belong to this community, along with seven women.
The Next Step
While many marginalized groups struggling for their identity in New Nepal choose to stage protests and enforce strikes, the Muslims have opted for keeping their point of view among themselves to bridge the communication gaps between them and the other groups.
“There are several misconceptions about the Muslims in our society though these aren’t as severe as in other parts of the world,” said Mohammad Shaphiullah, a social activist and the Managing Director of Radiant Formulation Nepal.
Through the CA, the movement for reservation specifying the Muslim community will move on while the issue of the misconception about Islam’s holy book Quran will be cleared through massive interactions, according to the plan of the Muslim community.
“Even when the country was a Hindu kingdom and now when it is secular, people in general have been tolerant of Muslims. They not only defended us in communal clashes but also stood by us during many bad times. These are some of the strongest reasons for the Nepali Muslims to feel ownership in the country,” he added.
While the ongoing wars between Israel and Palestine sadden him and the series of Hindu-Muslim riots in India scare the community here, Hussain has this to say about the Muslims in Nepal:
“We feel fortunate to be Nepali because our Nepali brothers and sisters don’t label our Muslim community as terrorist, like the western countries do.”
Nepali Muslims in Kathmandu and elsewhere in Nepal