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Volume 49, Number 1January/February 1998

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Islam on the Roof of the World

Written by José Ignacio Cabezón
Photographed by Kevin Bubriski

It was during a visit to Lhasa in 1991 that I saw my first Tibetan mosque. Of course, students of Tibet are aware that Muslims exist in that country and have important functions in Tibetan society, but being concerned principally with Buddhism we—unconsciously, I think—nonetheless work on the presupposition that Tibetan culture is monolithically Buddhist. We realize how unfounded that presupposition is only when we are confronted by something that challenges the stereotype: a mosque in the heart of lhasa, or simply a walk through the city's Muslim quarter.

There, I was struck anew by the diversity of the city and its inhabitants, and I wondered what this Himalayan urban center must have been like in earlier times, when people from India, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, central Asia, Mongolia, china and even southeast Asia had greater access to Lhasa, whose name means "place of the gods" in Tibetan.

Islam spread to Tibet from two directions: the north and the west. Moving from Arabia through Persia and Afghanistan, it reached China in the seventh century by the ancient Silk Roads across Central Asia. (See Aramco World, July/ August 1988.) From the northern province of Ningxia and other points in China, the religion then moved southward into what is today eastern Tibet. Chinese Muslims, known as Hui (See Aramco World, July/August 1985), eventually settled in Suing and in the Kokonor region of eastern Tibet generally, and carried on trade with central Tibet. Though many of these merchants remained permanently in eastern Tibet, where their descendants can be found today, some, like their brethren from the west, eventually moved to Lhasa. There, they preserve their religion and customs to the present day in a small and tightly knit Hui community.

A variety of Tibetan sources attest that Tibetan rulers conquered large portions of Central Asia westward to Persia during the eighth and ninth centuries, a time when Persians, Uighurs, Turks and Tibetans vied for control of portions of Central Asia. In one particularly interesting episode we hear of the ruler of Kabul, who was originally a vassal of the Tibetan king, converting from Buddhism to Islam sometime between 812 and 814, and capitulating to the Abassid ruler al-Ma'mun. As a token of his sincerity, he is said to have presented what from the Muslim accounts appears to have been a gold statue of the Buddha. Al-Ma'mun sent it to Makkah, where it was melted down to make coins.

The regions which make up present-day Afghanistan and the new nations of Central Asia (See Aramco World, May/June 1997) have lain outside the sphere of Tibetan influence for centuries now. Though Tibetans and Arabs were in direct contact even from these early dates in the ninth century, it seems that Muslims began settling consistently in western and central Tibet only in the 12th century.

Part of this influx came from Turkistan, Baltistan and Kashmir through Ladakh (See Aramco World July/August 1993) and spread into western Tibet and Lhasa from there. Indeed, two Muslim teachers from a Central Asian religious order, Ali Hamadani of Srinigar and his son, Muhammad Nur Bakhsh, appear to be responsible for extensive conversions in Baltistan in the 14th century.

The Muslim community of Lhasa today comprises two distinct groups of people: those whose heritage is Chinese, and those whose heritage is Kashmiri, Nepalese, Ladakhi, Sikh or otherwise non-Chinese. There are fewer than 1000 of the latter, called kha che in Tibetan, a term which means both "Kashmiri" and "Muslim." Some of them trace their roots back to the 12th-century traders. The Chinese Hui, called gya kha che, number roughly 2000. Each subcommunity of Muslims uses one of the city's two main mosques: Those principally of Kashmiri and other non-Chinese origin use the Chota Masjid, or Small Mosque; the Chinese Hui use the Bara Masjid, or Large Mosque. Each group has its own leader and ruling council, and each maintains administrative ties to the Tibetan government. Like most Tibetans in Lhasa, Tibetan Muslims have undergone hardships since the Chinese occupation in 1959. The situation at present has improved, however, and there is greater freedom of religion than there was, for example, during the Cultural Revolution.

Many of the Hui are butchers or vegetable farmers. Like the Kashmiris, they belong to the Hanafi madhhab, one of the four traditions of law in Islam, have their own imam, or prayer leader, their own madrasa, or religious school, and a cemetery known as the Kygasha, 15 kilometers (9 mi) outside Lhasa.

Although Muslim traders were already a long-established presence in Lhasa and other major Tibetan cities by the 17th century, the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) marked a turning point for Islam in Tibet. According to oral tradition, a certain Muslim teacher who lived in Lhasa at the time used to pray on an isolated hill at the edge of the city. The Dalai Lama spotted the man at prayer every day, and one day asked that he be brought to him. The teacher explained that he was worshiping according to the precepts of his religion, and that he did so on the hill because no mosque existed in the area. Impressed with his faith, the Dalai Lama sent a bowman to a site near the hill and had him shoot arrows in each of the four cardinal directions. A house was built at the place from which the arrows were shot, and the land around it, extending as far in each direction as the arrows had flown, was deeded to the Muslim community. The place came to be called The House of the Far-Reaching Arrows, and became the site of Lhasa's first mosque and cemetery.

But the fifth Dalai Lama provided more than land to these Muslims of Kashmiri origin. He is said to have given official patronage to the 14 elders and 30 youths who were the original occupants of the site. His positive stance toward the Muslims of Lhasa seems to have been part of a larger formal policy of encouraging ethnic, cultural and economic diversity in Tibet, a policy called mi sna mgron po, or "the invitation of the peoples." In addition, Muslims were given considerable freedom to settle their own legal affairs within their community in accordance with Islamic law, and to open their own shops and trade freely without having to pay taxes.

Today the land bequeathed by the fifth Dalai Lama is also known as the Kha Che Gling Ga, or Muslim Park. It is used by the Kashmiri Muslim community as a picnic ground and a site for other communal functions. Recently, a traditional Tibetan arch (sgo) was built to mark the spot where the original mosque stood. Until a separate Kashmiri mosque—today's Chota Masjid—was built in the center of Lhasa, the mosque at Kha Che Gling Ga was the Kashmiri Muslims' only place for communal prayer, and thus came to be known simply as the Friday Mosque. The men of the community would walk several kilometers each Friday from their homes in the city to the outlying mosque, and then share the traditional meal together. Leftovers would be brought back to Lhasa as tshogs, or "blessed food," to be shared with those who could not come. Although it is the Chota Masjid that is the main center of regular worship for Kashmiri Muslims today, the site in the park is still occasionally used, especially during festivals, and the community's imam, Habibullah Bat, resides nearby.

Most Tibetans have little knowledge of the historical and religious texts that discuss the history of the Muslims who live among them. Their encounters with Islam come as they always have, by direct contact with ordinary Muslim traders: in the east from China, and in the west from India, especially the regions of Ladakh, Kashmir, Bihar and Kalimpong. Even before the economic incentives offered during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama, Muslim traders from the west were already one of the few sources of many items indispensable to Tibetan life, such as saffron, dried fruit, sugar and textiles. On their return trips, the Muslim merchants carried wool, musk and tea, as well as Tibetan shawls, salt, gold, Chinese turquoise and yak tails—a traditional symbol of authority among peoples descended from the Mongols. Some of the Muslim merchants kept their permanent residences outside Tibet proper, but many settled in the country and became the nuclei of small but often prosperous and culturally thriving Tibetan Muslim communities. It was not uncommon for the men of these communities to marry women from the Tibetan Buddhist community who converted to Islam.

We know much less, however, about the Muslim communities outside Lhasa. We know that mosques existed, for example, in Shigatse, Tsethang and Suing, and that the first two of these communities were sufficiently organized to have appointed imams, but apart from this we can say little else.

Though well-integrated into Tibetan society economically, culturally and linguistically, the members of Lhasa's Muslim community have probably maintained a stronger sense of religious and ethnic identity than their coreligionists in Tibet's border regions. This is to be expected, given their commitment to preserving their religion in the face of the overwhelmingly Buddhist world that surrounds them—a world that is nonetheless their home.

José Ignacio Cabezón is associate professor of philosophy at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Of his numerous articles and books, he is most recently co-editor of Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre.

Kevin Bubriski has lived and photographed in South Asia for more than eight years; his photographs have been widely exhibited and collected. His home is in Vermont .


This article appeared on pages 12-23 of the January/February 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1998 images.