December 7, 2011


[The study of South Asian Islam has expanded in recent decades to include communities and traditions on the margins of the political, cultural and religious centers of South Asia. However, only a small body of scholarship yet exists on the topic of Islam and Muslims in Nepal. In this Hindu majority country, the Muslim population is one of diversity and growing national visibility, and it is increasingly looking toward the global umma. This essay provides an overview of the history of Islam in Nepal and Nepal’s Muslim population, followed by a brief review of recent changes in Nepal’s religious and political identity that have created unprecedented opportunities and responsibilities for its minorities, including Muslims. It then reviews the main areas of inquiry undertaken by the few studies on Muslims in Nepal, particularly Muslim identity, Hindu–Muslim conflict, and Islamic revivalism. This is followed by a discussion of contemporary Muslim organizations in Nepal. The essay concludes with thoughts on directions for future research in this rich, but underexplored, area.]

By Megan Adamson Sijapati

The History and Demographics of Muslims in Nepal

US Ambassador to Nepal Scott H. DeLisi engaging with
students  at the madrassa (State Dept.)
Muslims make up an estimated 4.2 percent of Nepal’s population of approximately 29 million, making them the country’s second largest religious minority. Most Muslims in Nepal are Sunni and of the Hanafi school of law, though there is a growing number of Muslims affiliating with the Ahl-e Hadis1 school and there are also small numbers of Shia Muslims in the southwest of the country. Mirroring Nepal’s population at large, Nepal’s Muslims are a heterogeneous demographic in terms of ethnicity, geographic region, class, language, and sectarian orientation. Nepal was officially a Hindu kingdom from its unification in 1768 to the 2006 Jan Andolan (People’s Revolution) that led King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to relinquish absolute power and paved the way for the state to become secular. Since officially becoming a secular democratic republic in 2006, Nepal’s many ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslims, have sought a new place in the national public sphere by participating in the country’s increasingly complex arena of identity politics and political and social reform. For many Muslims, this has meant cultivating new Muslim collectivities and identities from across boundaries of caste, region, and doctrine, and looking outwards to the global umma.

The history of Islam’s arrival in Nepal is recounted in a number of essays (Ansari 1980, 1988; Dastider 1995, 2000; Gaborieau 1972, 1977, 1993, 1995; Sharma 1994, 2004; Siddique 2001; Sijapati 2011).2 The first record of Muslim presence in the current territory of Nepal is found in an inscription from the period of the Malla Kings, recording a brief invasion of the Kathmandu valley in 1349 by Sultan Shams ad-Din Ilyas of Bengal (Acharya 1973). The first Muslims to settle in Nepal, however, were Kashmiri traders of woolen goods who were given permission by the Newar King Ratna Malla (1482–1512) to settle in Kathmandu as a midpoint on trade routes between Kashmir and Lhasa.3 During this time Kashmiri Muslims were also invited to work as court scribes for correspondence with the Delhi Sultanate, as producers of perfumes, and as musicians.

Oral histories recount a Kashmiri fakir in the 16th century by the name of Shah Miskeen Baba using his spiritual powers (as a siddha, some say) to convince the Malla king at the time to grant him a plot of densely forested land, located south of the current palace complex, for the establishment of a mosque in the valley.4 The fakir was later buried there. His nephew, also buried there, is believed to have constructed the first mosque in Nepal at the site.

Outside of the valley, in the northern hill regions, Muslims arrived from north India in the 17th and 18th centuries by royal invitation for training in the manufacturing and usage of military armaments, agricultural tools, and glass bangles. In the Tarai (the fertile strip of lowlands bordering India), Indian agricultural laborers were invited to Nepal by the Hindu Shah kings in the 19th century, for the purpose of cultivating the land, and many of these migrants were Muslims (Ansari 1988). Today, the vast majority of Nepal’s Muslims reside in the Tarai, and many are descendants of local converts, perhaps as far back as the Delhi Sultanate.

Most scholarship on Muslims in Nepal discusses the population (and their history recounted above) in terms of the country’s three main geographic and climatic zones: the northern hills, the Tarai, and the Kathmandu valley. In the northern hills, where the Muslim population is smallest and most diffuse, many are of the bangle-making caste (referred to in the census as Churautes) and work as merchants and artisans. Throughout Nepal’s northern hill regions once finds mosques, madrasas, and saints’ shrines (mazars).
Saint veneration was, and continues to be, an important component of Islam practiced by Muslims in this region (Gaborieau 1972, 1993, 2003). The hill regions are home to unique local forms of Islamic practice such as the veneration of Ghazi Miyan in the western hills, which combines Hindu, Shia and Sufi narrative and ritual components (Gaborieau 2003), The northern hill city of Pokhara was home to the celebrated Nepali Muslim poet Ali Miyan (d. 2006).

In the contemporary Tarai, where over 90 percent of the country’s Muslim population resides, Muslims constitute, on average, ten percent of each district (Gurung 2008). Many speak north Indian languages such as Awadhi, Bhojpuri, and Maithili and share cultural traditions with and often marry Muslims on other side of the Indian border. Those formally educated also speak and read Urdu and Nepali. Many work in the field of agriculture or are involved in trade and traditional artisan practices such as bangle making and weaving. Traditionally, as in other parts of South Asia, descendants of local converts—as are most Tarai Muslims and many hill Muslims—are ajlaf, or low status ethnic groups (or castes) within Muslim society. In contrast are ashraf Muslims, who claim high social status based on their descent from Turks, Afghans, or Arabs; in this category fall Kathmandu valley’s Kashmiri Muslims and some hill and Tarai Muslims. Throughout the Tarai there are saints’ shrines, mosques, and Islamic schools, which, in particular, are in greater number than elsewhere in the country. Nepal’s largest madrasas are located in the Tarai, including the oldest and largest, Sirajul Uloom Al-Salafiya, in the town of Krishnanagar.

In the Kathmandu valley reside Muslims who have migrated from the hills and the Tarai, often for economic opportunities, as well as Kashmiri Muslims (who are Nepali but hose ancestors settled in Kathmandu from Kashmir centuries ago), many of whom are affiliated with Sufi orders such as the Qadiriyya and Naqshbandiyya, Newar Muslims (Newars are an ethnic group indigenous to the Kathmandu valley), and other converts originally from Kathmandu. It also is home to Tibetan Muslims, some of whom are descendants of Tibetan traders from the 16th century forward, but most of whom sought refuge in the Kathmandu valley following China’s occupation of Tibet in 1952.

The Kathmandu valley’s Islamic ritual spaces are varied, as are they are across the country. The land once given to the Kashmiri fakir is today the site of the Kashmiri Takiya Jame Masjid, one of the two largest mosques in the valley. It houses several saints’ shrines—including Shah Miskeen Baba’s and that of his nephew, Shah Ghyas ud-Din— and Kashmiri Muslims celebrate the ‘urs (the annual commemoration of the death of a Sufi saint) of each of the saints buried there. These saints’ tomb complexes attract some Hindu visitors as well, who, alongside Kashmiri Muslims, come to venerate the saints and petition them for favors. The practice of saint veneration at the mosque upholds a vibrant ritual tradition in an increasingly text-oriented Islamic religious culture in the valley currently promoted by reformists. This mosque also serves as the meeting point for Nepali Hajj pilgrims prior to their departure for Mecca; returning Hajjis gather there again as a resting point before heading to their homes outside the capital valley.

The Kathmandu valley’s other large mosque, the Nepali Jame Masjid, is located down the busy street of Durbar Marg (N., ‘‘King’s Way’’) from the Kashmiri Takiya Jame Masjid. Though it is a new structure, built in the 1990s reportedly with funds from a private Saudi donor, it rests on the site of an older mosque constructed in the 17th century by Tarai-based Muslims (‘Hindustani’ Muslims, as earlier literature calls them), who had migrated to the Kathmandu valley and were given royal permission to build their own separate mosque. The mosque is led and attended by many of the reform and revival  riented Muslims—many of whom are ajlaf Muslims who have migrated in recent decades from the Tarai to the Kathmandu valley—increasingly dominating Muslim discourse in the country. Like the Kashmiri Takiya Jame Masjid, it draws hundreds for Friday prayer and is a social and religious hub for the valley’s Muslims. The practice of shrine  veneration that takes place just up the street at the Kashmiri Takiya Jame Masjid is quietly condemned by some members of the Nepali Jame Masjid, and conflicts have reportedly arisen between the leadership of the two mosques on the issue. South of the Nepali Jame Masjid complex are Islamic bookstores, travel agencies specializing in flights to the Middle East, southern Nepal, India, and Pakistan, Arabic translation services, and Halal food shops.

The most significant points of difference among Nepal’s Muslims are based on geography and doctrinal orientation: Muslims of the northern hills and the Kathmandu valley see themselves as distinct from those from the Tarai, and vice versa. Across the country, those of Barelwi or Sufi orientation5 (such as Kashmiri Muslims) view the more reformoriented Muslims (many of whom are from the Tarai) affiliated with Deoband,6 Ahl-e Hadis, Jamaat-i Islami,7 or Salafi schools of thought with suspicion, and vice versa (Gaborieau 1993; Sharma 2004; Sijapati 2011). Earlier research on Muslims in Nepal labeled these reform and revival oriented, conservative Muslims as ‘Wahhabi’, presumably repeating the term used by those outside the group (the term is used pejoratively by those who disapprove of the most conservative reformist movement). Among them, Deobandi and Jamaat-i Islami oriented Muslims, many of whom are from the Tarai, have emerged in recent years as self-appointed spokespersons for the country’s Muslims and for a renewal and reform of Islam (Gaborieau 1993; Sharma 2004; Sijapati 2011). They have studied at madrasas such as Jamiatul Falah in Azamgarh and Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow, and Universities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These members of the Tarai based Muslim population living in Kathmandu are increasingly active in the public sphere and national identity politics, particularly as many Kashmiri Muslims decline direct involvement in the identity politics so profoundly shaping Nepal at present (Sijapati 2011).

 ( For full reading of the paper please click here )


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Dirgha Raj Prasai <>
Date: Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 2:38 AM
To: The Himalayan Voice <>

Muslim peoples are involved in trade and commerce in Nepal since past three hundred years. In  1343 (1400 B.S) Nawab Samsuddin of Bengal, together  with his 31,000 Muslim warriors attacked Lumbini, Janakpur, Panauti, and reached Kathmandu but they were chased away later. It is also mentioned in Taleju Temple inscription of Bhaktapur (Yogi Naraharinath) that 2,400 Muslim warriors were killed and 600 fled the battle field. No historical record of another Muslim attack after the defeat can be found in Nepal. But later gradually, Muslims began entering Nepal. Some of them were invited for jobs related to medicine and some others voluntarily entered Nepal for trading horses and medicines from Kashmir. We can see two mosques- Jame and Kashmiri near by Hindu King's palace in Kathmandu which were erected in 1743 (1800 BS).  

King Prithvi Narayan Shah had visited Benaras for offering worship to Lord Vishwonath. At that time he purchased some weapons and returned home  bringing some Muslims artisans. When Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Kathmandu, the King  then recognized the mosques that had already existed. Prithvi Narayan Shah was the unifier of Nepal.

After signing the Sugauli Treaty in 1857, the land from Rapti to Mahakali was lost which was again returned back later as a "Naya Muluk" - newly acquired land. Prime Minister Junga Bahadur  Rana also invited Muslims from Lucknow to settle in Nepalgunj which used to be a forest area.   The Muslims people live in harmony with other peoples in the country. 

After unification, Nepal feared attack from the British forces. And Muslim Emperor Nawab Bajir of Lucknow pledged support to Nepal in case a war broke out between Nepal and the East India Company. Later when the Anglo-Nepal war did break out in 1815, but the Muslim Emperor Bajir Shah lent support to the British Empire. And then, in 1857 British sought help of Nepal against Muslim Empire. Junga Bahadur Rana with a seething temper for revenge quelled the Muslim forces. British forwarded the hand of friendship and eventually returned Nepal’s lost land that they had occupied previously. 

Unlike in India, religious tolerance persists in NepalNevertheless some prominent  Muslim leaders were  killed in recent years, there is profund religious harmony in the country. But the cowardly killings are taken as an indication that some external forces still want  to disturb existing religious and communal harmony in the country which Nepalese peoples always condemn. 

Dirgha Raj Prasai