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A minority within a minority: Nepal’s Tibetan Muslims mark Ramadan

July 14, 2014

by Clare Hennig

July 11, 2014 - Abdul Rehman, a 63 year-old jewellery boutique owner in Thamel, leaned across a counter overflowing with colourful beads and bangles to explain why he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day.

“We are keeping control over ourselves,” said Rehman, “and if we do it for one month we can do it in the remaining eleven months.”

Ramadan began last week with the appearance of the new crescent moon, and as in other parts of the world, Nepal’s Muslims fast during the day for a month of self-control, prayer and spiritual reflection.

Although only 4.2 per cent of Nepalis are Muslim, it is the country’s third most practices religion after Hinduism and Buddhim. Tibetan Muslims like Rehman, however, are a minority within this minority and number only between 300-400.

The Tibetan Muslim community is close-knit because of its shared history of migration and hardships. Most of them fled to Nepal after China’s occupation of Tibet in 1959.

“The migration was purely on the basis of religion during the Cultural Revolution,” Rehman said. “The elders thought, ‘Ok for us we would stay – but what about the future of the children?’ So therefore they migrated.”

Kashmiri Muslims used to trade with Tibet, and in the 16th century the Fifth Dalai Lama asked some of them to stay, granting them religious freedom and rights. They married into the local community and gained converts.

Abdul Rehman’s nephew, Enayat Tako said that both Muslim and Tibetan are equally important elements of his identity. “We want to save our culture, that’s why we mostly marry within our community,” he said.

Like many others, Rehman and Tako’s families first fled to Kashmir and Darjeeling because of their ancestral links to India, later moving on to Nepal for economic opportunities.

Despite cultural and language differences, Tibetan Muslims have integrated well with the other Islamic communities in Nepal. Kashmiri, Indian and Tibetan Muslims all pray together at the same mosques, and celebrate Ramadan together.

“A Muslim is a Muslim, we don’t differentiate,” said Rehman.

The combination of the Islamic faith with Tibetan culture is being passed down to the younger generation as a joint effort between the family and the community. Tako’s 17 year-old daughter and 14 year-old son attend a secular school in Kathmandu. But they read the Quran at home and worship at Jame Masjid on Fridays. On the streets, they speak Nepali but at home, it is Tibetan.

The shared history of migration and the efforts to preserve their heritage have forged strong bonds within Nepal’s Tibetan Muslim community. And the mutual experience of Ramadan each year keeps it strong.

Amina Banu, the Tibetan Muslim founder of Banu’s Total Fitness gym, described how the community comes together each night for iftar, the breaking of the fast, and how the holy month provides the time to grow closer to God and to one another.

Said Banu: “Iftar is always done in my sister’s house. Everybody comes together and we pray ... we cook and it is like a festival. We stay together overnight.”

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