Tibetan Muslims straddle faith and tradition in China and India

The community dates to the 14th century, when merchants from Nepal, China, and Kashmir began settling in Tibet.2022.01.17

Sakina Batt, a young Tibetan Muslim who now lives in Kathmandu, has had an audience with the Dalai Lama. Photo: RFA

When Sakina Batt, a young Tibetan Muslim from Nepal, wrapped up a four-year job working with the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India, she received a rare honor: an audience with the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans.

“I completely broke down when I entered the room,” she said. “The environment was such and the vibe was such that even though it was just a virtual audience, I felt so special.”

“Just because I’m a minority, just because I’m a Tibetan Muslim who worked at the administration, I was given that opportunity,” added Batt.

“Most people don’t know about the existence of the Tibetan Muslims,” she told RFA’s Tibetan Servce.

“Religion, of course, is the only difference between devout Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists,” she told RFA. “Other than that, everything is the same. We have the same culture, we have the same traditions and language, what we eat is the same, and what we wear is the same.”

Batt, 30, hails from a community whose origins date at least to the 14th century, when Muslim merchants from Nepal, China, Kashmir and Ladakh began settling in Tibet, according to information on the website of Tibet House U.S., a Tibetan cultural institution based in New York.

Sakina Batt, who worked for the Central Tibetan Authority for four years, met Sikyong Penpa Tsering last year.
Sakina Batt, who worked for the Central Tibetan Authority for four years, met Sikyong Penpa Tsering last year.

The migrants intermarried with Tibetan Buddhist women, who then converted to Islam, while adopting Tibetan language and customs.

By the 16th century, these Tibetan Muslims, now known as Khache, formed an integral part of Tibet’s golden age, according to David Atwill, a history professor at Pennsylvania State University who wrote about Tibetan Muslims in his 2018 book Islamic ShangriLa: InterAsian Relations and Lhasa’s Muslim Communities1600 to 1960.

“In the [Tibet Autonomous Region], most of the Khache have, when forced to choose their officially designated ethnicity … have identified themselves as Tibetan even as they continue to believe in Islam and attend daily prayers at the local mosques,” Atwill wrote in an email. 

After China took over Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala nine years later, many Tibetan Muslims left the region for neighboring areas to preserve the religion and identity they felt were threatened in communist China.

Their biggest community lives in Kashmir, but smaller pockets can also be found in Darjeeling and Kalimpong in the Himalayan foothills of India’s West Bengal state, and in Kathmandu, Nepal, where 120 Tibetan Muslim families live, according to a May 2018 article in the Nepali Times.

They were granted citizenship by India due to the Kashmiri roots. Today, Tibetan Muslims form a very small minority in Tibet.

The Muslim community’s origins in Tibet date at least to the 14th century, when Muslim merchants from Nepal, China, Kashmir and Ladakh in present-day India began settling in Tibet, according to Tibet House U.S. (Courtesy of Siddiq Wahid)
The Muslim community’s origins in Tibet date at least to the 14th century, when Muslim merchants from Nepal, China, Kashmir and Ladakh in present-day India began settling in Tibet, according to Tibet House U.S. (Courtesy of Siddiq Wahid)

In the Tibet Autonomous Region, Muslims worship at least five mosques in the capital Lhasa area and exist peacefully with Buddhists, Atwill said.

“Like their Buddhist Tibetan brethren, the Tibetan Muslims face an array challenges to maintaining their Tibetan identity, maintaining fluency in the Tibetan language with the younger generation and identifying ways to promote their Tibetan identity in politically difficult times,” he wrote.

“While in the TAR, they continue to struggle to straddle the ethno-religious divide between being Tibetan and Muslim, when being Muslim is equally assumed to be Hui (not Tibetan),” he said.

Atwill said the Chinese likely chose to treat Tibetan Muslims differently than Uyghurs out of “cautious convenience” and a desire to not drive the Khache into a “common allegiance with the ethnic Tibetan majority,” many of whom want independence from China.

“That said, the Khache, like Muslims across China, remain vigilant and concerned about the stark anti-religious turn of recent policies,” he said.

Under leader X Jinping, China has mounted a campaign to “Sinicize” religion and make adherents place their loyalty in the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

To Tibet’s north in Xinjiang, an estimated 1.8 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities have been incarcerated in an extensive network of internment camps where they are subject to violence and forced labor.

The current Dalai Lama visited the Tibetan Muslim community in Srinagar, Kashmir, in 2012, regularly receives their representatives, and has participated in inter-religious events, said José Cabezón, the Dalai Lama professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  

“The Dalai Lama considers Tibetan Muslims an integral part of the Tibetan people, and has tremendous respect for their history and culture,” said Cabezón.

Journalist Lowell Thomas visits a Muslim shop in Lhasa, 1949. (Courtesy of the James A. Cannavino Library, Marist College)
Journalist Lowell Thomas visits a Muslim shop in Lhasa, 1949. (Courtesy of the James A. Cannavino Library, Marist College)

Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service and Roseanne Gerin. Translated by Tenzin Dickey. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

source https://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/muslims-tradition-01142022181835.html

Categories: Asia, China, India, Tibet

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4 replies

  1. When Muslim community is small they show peaceful religion, thay are nice.

    But when Muslim community are growing big, they want to establish Syariah law.: Halah food, halal restaurant, halal hotel, halal Bank, Halal grocery etc etc

    When there is a extremist Imam among them, create problem and conflict in community, just like in Indonesia ( ISIS, Taliban, FPI, HTI, PKS etc ). Rafiq knows well about Indonesia .

    I am 76 years now, I never find a peacefull Islamic country yet, even in Indonesia.

    When I was young I saw the extremist Muslim destroyed Ahmadiyah and Churchs.

    Recently The extremist Muslim burned Ahmadiyah Misque in Kalimantan, and they closed some churchs in Sumatra and Aceh.

    Look at Yamen, Afghsnistan, Syria, Iraq

    I believe that there is something wrong in Islamic teaching.
    Dont you think so Ahmadiyah ?

    God bless you all ❤️

    • We do believe everything is wrong with judeo-Christian imperialism.

      Its very peaceful of white Christians to murder millions of Iraqis in the most recent war. If I go back decade by decade number of dead bodies from imperialist Christians will be no match for the dead bodies by islamists. Apparently it was Jesus who commanded George W Bush and Tony Blair was motivated by Christianity to peacefully murder Iraqis in war. How about in your own neighboring Vietnam? Or should we go further?

      The truth is you are a bigoted lowlife who is poor enough to immigrate to a rich country and rich enough to afford internet. May be take your frustration coming from your personal life and work on fixing your personal life than exposing your lack of grey cells?

  2. Tibetans are undergoing a systematic & state-sponsored cultural genocide devised by the Communist Party of China. From prayer flags to smoke furnaces, CCP is demolishing everything.

    • What do you think which one is more dangerous between Khilafah Taliban, ISIS and Communist Party?

      What Isee now, TALIBAN AND ISIS under Islsmic law is more dsngerous than China.

      China Government has been helping Islamic countries from Arab to Indonesia.

      What are Islsmic countries are doing for the world now?

      God bless Ahmadiyah with the truth 🙏❤️

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