In Kashmir, Sufism — a branch of Islam that emphasizes mysticism — is carving out a corner for itself on YouTube. Some of the popular Kashmiri YouTube channels about Sufism today — like Nisar Ahmad Sofi’s Kashmiri Sufism and Suhail Zargar’s Kashmiri Songs — have each accumulated over 17 million total views on their channels. Others, like KhanqahTV, GiftofSufiyat, and Sufism in Kashmir Siraj, are also catching up.
It all started with a video in early 2019, when Sofi — who runs a handmade leather bags workshop in Srinagar, Kashmir — uploaded an interview with a Sufism practitioner, Ghulam Safdar, on his YouTube channel. Back then, Sofi’s channel — which has over 88,100 subscribers today — was almost fully dedicated to videos of Kashmiri folk musical gatherings. This was no ordinary interview — it had Safdar and Sofi openly hashing out their divergent views on the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.
The video, which has so far been viewed over 50,000 times, drew a whole range of comments from Kashmiri Muslims disagreeing with, appreciating, or expressing their amusement at the topic. It was unlike anything Kashmiri content creators were known to publish, and a surprising shift from the traditional norm of viewing Sufis as recluses, uninterested in publicly sharing aspects of their lives. For Sofi, the video marked a turning point, after which he noticed more channels uploading interviews with practitioners of Sufism in Kashmir.
“I think what you’re seeing here is a community realizing that embracing this technology ultimately strengthens it, there are people very excited to both tell and see these stories,” Jeremy Burchard, co-founder and chief creative officer of content creator platform RootNote, told Rest of World. “[It’s] both entirely predictable based on our human desire to connect via community [and YouTube’s ability to provide that], and very unique in its specific history, challenges, and traditions.”
YouTube has opened Sufism up to a whole generation that may not have been exposed to it otherwise, according to Muhammad Maroof Shah, a literature scholar who is working on a book on Sufism in Kashmir. These videos are sharing information that traditional practitioners of Sufism wouldn’t impart to non-disciples, and which a disciple would only gain access to — if at all — after over 5–10 years of being tested for their faith, Shah told Rest of World.
“People don’t have time to visit a Sufi these days, so if they see him talk on YouTube, they can gauge if they can connect to him,” Shah said. “A lot of people’s faith has become stronger after this. I have seen people become motivated and visit the Sufis after watching such videos.”
Shah believes that the internet’s questioning nature has created this space for Sufism on YouTube. “This is a response to modernism where everything must be questioned, transparent, and accessible,” he said.
Platforming Sufism online remains a sensitive issue. Showkat Hussain Dar, who teaches at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Awantipora, Kashmir, doesn’t take issue with Sufis documenting their lives on YouTube, but he doesn’t appreciate them delving into more intimate concepts. “Experiences should be sacred, they are meant to be shared or imparted to the proper disciples of Sufism,” Dar told Rest of World. “Propagation of such things might confuse people and their interpretation of Sufi concepts. When it is in public, on YouTube or WhatsApp, it loses its value.”
Sofi, meanwhile, has been teaching himself to be video-savvy, investing in equipment — a camera, a tripod, a laptop, lighting, and a microphone — to make better-quality videos. His channel has over 1,000 videos, many of which are hour-long interviews with Sufi practitioners. The most popular videos on his channel — of Sufi songs — have over a million views. Songs have been a large part of Sufi culture, and Sufi poetry has, over time, been popularized through music. Kashmir has a rich history of such musical forms, locally called sufyan.
Producing content with arguably limited scope and audience — as is the case for videos about Sufism — can prove challenging to those not familiar with consumer demands. “Things like engagement rate, click-through rates, average watch time, etc., can all be used to evaluate content on channels with 1,000 subscribers or 10 million subscribers and still be very valuable,” Burchard said. “At the end of the day, 10,000 views from a highly cultivated, passionate audience is more valuable than 100,000 — or sometimes even 1,000,000 — views from a general population.”
Raja Rayees Ahmad Ahangar, a restaurant owner, was inspired by Sofi, and started the YouTube channel Kashmiri Songs in 2013. It is run by Zargar today, and has over 78,600 subscribers. Ahangar has since moved on to a different Sufi music channel, Ek Mulaqaat. “We thought the new generation is into all kinds of waywardness, but even then, there are people who want to know about Sufism — but they don’t know who to approach and how to seek guidance,” Ahangar told Rest of World.
Creators like Ahangar and Sofi face the same challenges that all Kashmiri creators struggle with — frequent and long internet shutdowns — but there is an added layer of difficulty for them. They must also bear the responsibility of handling subjects that might hurt religious sentiments.
Social media is inundated with religious content that ranges from educational to incendiary and hateful. Platforms like YouTube are almost always brewing with communally charged content, sometimes leading to violence.
“We don’t want to sit in judgment about the character or knowledge of the person [being interviewed],” Ahangar said. “People will decide that; our job is to bring it to them through these interviews.” That being said, he and his team do exercise editorial judgment when the interviewee “says something that should perhaps not be said publicly, some issue of sensitivity, or something that might be misunderstood by the masses.”
Yet, Sofi remains hopeful about the future. “There are others now who are doing good work, I am happy to share the space with them,” he said, adding the caveat that if amateurs — those who are not well-read in Sufism — do such interviews, it can damage the goal. “When I look back at some of my first interviews, it is so embarrassing, sometimes I wish to delete them.”