With merriment in their hearts, Muslims in Nepal are flocking to the mosques and greeting each other with Eid Mubarak. Eid al-Fitr, being celebrated across the world over this weekend, is a great celebration for the community to commemorate the end of their month-long fasting ritual of Ramadan. There is a great fervour among the Newa Muslim community of Kathmandu too.
While details about the religious distribution of Nepal’s population as of the 2021 census are still awaited, it is generally believed that Muslims in Nepal make up around five per cent of the country’s population. Anyone who has been to Pote Bazaar in the east of Indrachok or the Ratnapark area of Kathmandu easily encounters the members of the Muslim community, locally known as Newa Muslims.
Regardless of being a minority, the community is very connected and upholds many learnings that other communities can learn from as well. And, regardless of being a minority, Muslims in Nepal generally feel safe and secure. Unlike its big neighbour, India, Nepal rarely reports clashes between Hindu and Muslim communities.
Yet apart from the selected days and areas, many Newa Muslims in Kathmandu largely walk under the shadows. The leaders of the community hence call for additional reforms to strengthen religious harmony in the country.
History shows that Muslims have been a part of the valley since the Lichhavi period, first as Kashmiri traders of textiles and ittars (hand-crafted perfume) in the 15th century who sought shelter and found a market here, on their way to Lhasa.
Nissar Uddin, the founder and president of Newa Muslim Samaj, says, “It (the migration) is believed to have been during the Malla period. It was the time when the then-kings managed the place in Wotu, Indrachok in Kathmandu for them to stay.”
Like the core city Newa settlements nestled in the area, the Muslim society also had a prominent existence there and even learned Nepal Bhasa as they grew together with the Newa communities already there. But the community, colloquially also called Newa Musalmaa (or Newa Muslims) for their prowess to speak the language, faced a few contentions from others regarding which community they belong to.
“We are very clear that we are Muslims in Nepal. We are not from the Newa community, but our familiarity and harmonious relationship with the local community here gave us that title,” says Uddin, “But I don’t think that the title makes a difference much. Having said that, some have tried to point fingers regarding our affiliation and existence.”
And, the community has today also diversified, he says. “Earlier, it was only in the Indrachok area, but today, the community has dispersed and is in many places in the valley including Mangal Bazaar of Patan and Sukuldhoka of Bhaktapur.”
According to him, the community also has diverged in terms of the profession they are now involved in. Earlier, it was just the pote or textile; a few others would make weapons for the army. But, today, Newa Muslims have become doctors, businesspeople, media persons and influencers. Many have gone abroad as well.
Apart from the main areas of the valley, some families can also be found in the Dallu area of Kathmandu.
“Our clan, as per the stories I have heard, our families alone arrived here (in Kathmandu) and settled in the Bagbazaar area for at least 350 years. Some 80 years ago grandfather moved here (Dallu) from Bagbazaar. They used to work in the tailoring business, but then the younger generation diverged from the work, and only a couple of years ago members of our family also started a furniture shop.”
Despite that, he adds that their core family values and their respect for their religion and mother tongue remain constant.
Harmony is the key
Muslims have been subjected to many biases and mistreatments for years, almost everywhere in the world. But the representatives of Newa Muslims in Kathmandu say that their experience in Nepal for the ages has been peaceful.
“We are very comfortable and we feel safe here. Though there has been much violence in the name of the religion and caste elsewhere, thankfully, there have been no such events here,” says Nizammudin.
He adds, “The community lives in harmony with the locals here and we also stay connected since the community is not that big. Whenever there is any event or gathering, everyone makes their presence known and participates in the events.”
Nissar also shares the same sentiment, adding that the Newa Muslim Samaj was first opened as per the suggestions of the older generation of the non-Muslim Newa community.
“They recognise our existence and even appreciate our presence. The community is very much involved in events of cultural and social importance to other communities as well,” he says, “We have an ambulance that operates to serve everyone in need. We give students scholarships. Ramadan is also a great time for us to engage in volunteer or social work. Apart from that, we have been actively involved in protests for the guthi bill in solidarity with the members of the Newa community.”
He says Muslims in Nepal share several social and cultural values with other communities. “For example, our love for feasts and celebrations is a big commonality although the dishes are different. There are many commonalities between the wedding ceremonies and the way people got their last names of the Muslim and Newa communities as well. But the way we worship is definitely different.”
Having said that, Nissar has come across people who question their interests. But he wants to clarify, “Newa is not just about the language one speaks or their birth. It is about the communal feeling and we see it as that only. And we wholeheartedly accept being called Newa Muslims but not all understand. Even when registering the Newa Muslim Samaj as an organisation, we had to spend a long time to make the ward officials understand and get a recommendation letter from Newa Dey Daboo to avoid any conflict.”