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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Buddhism and Islam > Historical Sketch of the Muslims of Tibet

Historical Sketch of the Muslims of Tibet

Alexander Berzin
October 2001

Survey of the Tibetan Muslims

Before 1959, there were approximately 3000 Tibetan Muslims living in Central Tibet. They were the descendents of Muslim merchants who came to Tibet from Kashmir, Ladakh, Nepal, and China, mostly between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, married Tibetan women, and settled there. They spoke Tibetan and followed most Tibetan customs. They had four mosques in Lhasa, two in Shigatse, and one on Tsetang, built in Tibetan style architecture. Further, they had two Islamic schools in Lhasa and one in Shigatse for studying the Quran and Urdu. In Indian exile as well, the Muslim and Buddhist Tibetan communities live in harmony, with religious tolerance.

Origins from Kashmir and Ladakh

There is a long history of trade between Kashmir, Ladakh, and Tibet, over the course of which merchants from these areas settled in Western and Central Tibet. After the late fourteenth century introduction of Islam in Kashmir and Ladakh by Sufi masters, the settlers would have included Muslims. The main influx of Kashmiri and Ladakhi Muslim immigrants to Tibet, however, occurred during the mid-seventeenth century reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama. They came to Tibet mostly because of widespread famine in Kashmir and settled in Lhasa.

Special Privileges Granted by the Fifth Dalai Lama

As part of a policy of tolerance for all religious factions, the Fifth Dalai Lama granted the members of the Muslim community special privileges. They could elect a five-member committee to supervise their internal affairs; could settle their own disputes independently according to the Sharia laws; could open shops and conduct trade in other Tibetan cities; and were exempt from tax. In addition, they could eat meat during the Buddhist holy month of Sakadawa and did not need to take off their hats to the monk officials during the Monlam prayer festival. Moreover, the Fifth Dalai Lama gave the Muslim community land in Lhasa for a mosque and a cemetery, and invited its leaders to all major government celebrations.

Trade Missions with Ladakh

As part of the Tibetan-Ladakhi Peace Treaty of 1684, the Tibetan government allowed a trade mission from Ladakh to come to Lhasa every three years. This continued even when Tibet was closed to other foreigners. Numerous Kashmiri and Ladakhi Muslim merchants accompanying these missions stayed on in Tibet, joining those of their community already living there.

Kashmiri Muslim merchants had also settled in Nepal, where they conducted trade between that country and the Kashmiri Muslims of Tibet. When Prithvi Narayan Shah expelled them from Nepal with his conquest of the Kathmandu Valley in 1769, many emigrated to Tibet. After the Tibetan-Nepali Treaty of 1856, they resumed their trade with Nepal and India.

In 1841, the Dogra army of Kashmir invaded Tibet. After their defeat, many of the Kashmiri and Ladakhi Muslim soldiers who were taken prisoner chose to remain behind. Some of the Hindu Dogra prisoners also chose to settle in Tibet and embraced Islam. They introduced the cultivation of apricots and apples into the country.

Hui Muslim Settlers

From as early as the seventeenth century, Chinese Hui Muslims merchants from Ningxia settled in Siling (Chin. Xining) in Amdo, northeastern Tibet. They married Tibetans and conducted trade between China and Central Tibet. A number of them later settled in Lhasa, where they formed a separate Muslim community with its own mosque and cemetery.

Under the rule of the People's Republic of China, the situation has changed significantly. The Tibetan Muslims have faced the same type of persecution as have the Buddhists. Most of the cities in Amdo are now inhabited primarily by Chinese Hui Muslims, and the local Tibetans there have been marginalized to the high grassland steppes. Moreover, large numbers of Hui merchants have been settling in Central Tibet. Unlike the Tibetan Muslims there, however, they do not integrate with the local population, but rather maintain their Chinese language and customs.