Islam in Ladakh

Abdul Ghani Sheikh gives fascinating detail from far off Ladakh about Islam and Muslims in the ‘roof of the world’ The land of Ladakh has been a cradle of Islam for centuries and the valleys and the mountains of the region have been resounding with the echo of Azaan.

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Abdul Ghani Sheikh

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Abdul Ghani Sheikh gives fascinating detail from far off Ladakh about Islam and Muslims in the ‘roof of the world’

The land of Ladakh has been a cradle of Islam for centuries and the valleys and the mountains of the region have been resounding with the echo of Azaan.


The area of Ladakh including Aksaichin is about 95000 sq. km. Most of the area is dotted with desolate mountains, barren land, and inhospitable terrain. Farming and human habitation are not possible in view of high altitude and severe cold. For its unique landscape, Ladakh, is called “Moon Land”, Magic Land”, “Mysterious Land”, and the “roof of the World”. In its long history, Ladakh has been described with different names. Many historians have called it “Little Tibet” and “Western Tibet”


Muslims constitute 52 per cent in the two lakh population of the region. The rest are Buddhists. There are a few hundred Christians also. Ladakh region consists of two districts; Leh district and Kargil district. In Leh district Buddhists are in majority, whereas Kargil district has a majority of Muslims. Kargil has a little edge over Leh in respect to population. Muslims constitute about 20 per cent of the total population of Leh district.

Apart from Leh town, Muslims are inhabited in 25 villages out of 112 villages of Leh district. On the eve of partition, Muslims migrated to Pakistan from some villages resulting in decline in their population.

The Muslims of Ladakh comprise of Sunnis, Shias, and Nurbakhshis. Sunni Muslims are of the Hanafi school of thought. There are nearly 111 mosques throughout the length and breadth of Ladakh associated with Ahlus Sunnat wal jamaat. The historical Jama Masjid of Leh is the biggest mosque of ladakh. There are hundreds of mosques in Kargil area. At Padum, the far flung capital of Zanskar, there are three mosques including a Jama Masjid for Friday congregation for the 100 Muslim families of the village. The Panikhar village of Kargil district also has many mosques.

The Jama Masjid of Leh was built in 1666-67 under an agreement between Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir and Ladakhi ruler Deldan Namgyal.

Ladakh paid annual tribute to the Mughal government and in return, the Mughal government provided protection to the territorial integrity of Ladakh.

Initially, the architecture of the mosques bore Tibetan, Central Asian, and Ladakhi influence. Now minarets and domes are being added according to Islamic architecture. There is a small mosque at Leh, which is older than Jama Masjid. With the rise of the population of Muslims and influx of traders from Central Asia and Kashmir there was a growing need for building a bigger mosque. Consequently Jama Masjid came into existence and recently it was further extended.

There is a memorial of Mir Sayed Ali Hamdani, popularly known as Shah-e-Hamdan, in the Jama Masjid. According to local traditions, the great Sufi saint had offered namaz at this site.

At Shey village, 10 kms from Leh, the construction of a mosque is attributed to Shah-e-Hamdan. It is the oldest mosque in Ladakh and has assumed the significance of a shrine in view of its association with the great saint. He passed through in the 14th century on his way to Chinese Turkistan.

Origin of Islam in the Region

Islam was introduced in Ladakh by Shah-e-Hamdan, according to Kashmiri historians and local traditions which passed from generation to generation. He carried out preaching and propagation of Islam in the region and built mosques. According to Professor Mujib, he built a mosque at Padum, capital of Zanskar. The popular traditions indicate that Mir Sayed Ali Hamdani visited Baltistan also, and the credit of the construction of the old mosques in the region goes to him. However the advent of Islam in the region appears older.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, when the entire region of Ladakh, Baltistan, and Gilgit were arena of conflicts between neighboring powers viz.; China, Tibet, Central Asia, Muslim world and Kashmir, Ladakh witnessed movements of Arab forces and traders. In the Tangchey area of ladakh engraved names of Arabs and a verse from the Holy Quran exist on the cluster of boulders. In these Arabic inscriptions the names of Nasir Bin Saleh Abu Mansur, Abul Ayat and Zakaria Ibn Qasim are important. These names have been documented as army commanders and administrators in the annals of Central Asia during that turbulent period. The propagation of Islam in the neighboring countries and regions gave an impetus to propagate Islam in Ladakh. During the reign of Caliph Walid Ibn Abdul Malik, the noted Arab General Qutiba Bin Muslim in 705 C.E. conquered Lower Turkistan. In 751, the Chinese army was completely routed by the Arabs in the decisive battle of river Talas leading to severe setback for China in Central Asia.

In the 9the century, the whole Central Asia was under the sway of Islam. The earliest reference to Islam in Ladakh is found in the time of the Abbasid Caliph Al Mamun (813-833 C.E.). In an inscription located in Afghanistan, thanks have been expressed to Almighty ALLAH for conquest of Tibet and Baltistan. It is historically proved that Caliph Al Mehdi had demanded tribute from Tibet.

Arab historians Yaqubi, Tabari, Ibn Khaldun, Alberuni, Masudi etc. have mentioned about Tibet in their books. Ladakh was a part of Tibet during those days.

Islam came to Kashmir in the 13th century. A pious and learned Muslim, Sayed Sharif-ud-Din, gets the credit for introduction of Islam to the valley. He belonged to Chinese Turkistan. A fugitive Ladakhi prince Rinchen Shah was first to embrace Islam at the hands of Sayed Sharif-ud-Din. He was the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir and was known as Sultan Sadar-ud-Din Rinchen Shah.

Shah-e-Hamdan was followed by his principal disciple, Sayed Noor Baksh. He nurtured the sapling of Islam planted by Shah-e-Hamdan. After a couple of years, Mir Sahmsud Din Iraqi, a scholar of Shia school visited Baltistan and Kargil. Many Baltis converted to Islam and adopted his school of thought, the chiefs of Baltistan embraced Islam followed by the chiefs of Kargil.

Muslim scholars and Syeds were invited by the chiefs of Baltistan and Kargil to impart Islamic teachings to their children and to acquaint people with Islamiat.

They were encouraged to settle down in those areas by grant of lands and some of them married the daughters of the chiefs. Islam made rapid strides up to the Indus, the Shayok, and the Suru valley of Ladakh.

Ladakh was a tributary of the Mughal Empire during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The Ladakhi rulers invited Kashmiri Muslims for performances of different jobs. They included interpreters, smiths to mint coins, and Munshi to write the king’s Persian correspondence to the Mughal governor of Kashmir. King Jamyang Namgyal of Ladakh granted land to seven Muslim traders of Kashmir.

They were known as royal or palace traders, who received special trade privileges in return for some service to the royal family. Their descendents have divided and subdivided into many families at present. A significant number of traders from Central Asia, Kashmir, and other parts of India settled down in Ladakh permanently, they married Ladakhi women. Thousands of Sunni Muslims of Leh town and other parts of Ladakh are their offspring. Hundreds of Balti Muslims shifted to Ladakh in the 17th century and settled down near Leh. Their descendents are now in thousands Muslims adopted local social customs, food habits, dress, and language of Ladakh. However, they preserved their Islamic identity and have firmly held aloft the flag of Islam.



Isalm in Modern Ladakh

In 1869, the Muslims of Leh opened a maktab at Leh, where temporal as well as spiritual education was imparted to children. Later, a primary school was opened. At present there are several educational institutions run by the Muslims. These include Islamia English Medium Public High School Leh and the Imamia English Medium High School Chushot. In 1930s the Sunni Muslims of Leh set up a welfare organization known as the Anjuman Moin-ul-Islam, Leh, which continues to function. Later Shia Mulims set up Anjuman Imamia.

The literacy rate of the new generation of Muslim boys and girls is about 100 per cent at present. Scores of Muslim boys and girls are studying in educational and technical colleges in various parts of the country. For the first time in the history of Ladakh, a religious institution named as Madrasa-e-Uloom-ul-Quran has been established near Leh at Thiksay village. Apart from Islamic theological education, the students are committed to memorize verses of the Holy Quran. InshaAllah, in near future the students will receive instructions in the Quranic knowledge and the traditions of Holy Prophet in this institution.

The Muslims of Ladakh have produced scholars, learned persons, enterprising adventurers, distinguished architects, physicians in the Tibetan system of medicines and many freedom fighters, such as Munshi Abdus Sattar who was awarded a Tamarapatra. Muslims have made significant contributions to Ladakhi literature, language, culinary arts, etc. They have played a key role in creating social consciousness among people for tolerance, equality and sanity.

Nowadays, the ulema and scholars having qualified from world reputed Islamic institution Darul Uloom Nadvatul Ulema, Lukhnow, local learned theologians of various Islamic institutions and lady scholars educated at Madrasa-tul-Banat. Malegaon, Maharashtra, have launched a vigorous campaign to acquaint Muslims about Islamiat and create awareness regarding virtues of spiritual life, which is yielding positive results. ¨