THE ENIGMA OF HAJI QASIM
Haji Muhammad Qasim Shalmani is said to have been a charismatic leader figure and adventurer, active across the Peshawar Valley and its surroundings in the second half of the 18th Century. Despite finding mention in many historic sources, he remains a mystery being highly enigmatic and elusive. His main effort seems to have been to try and restore Swatis to influence at various points in their former domain other than Hazara, which they had lost nearly 300 years before to the Sarabani Afghans.
He was said to be a learned and skillful political strategist and warlord — having spent many years at Makkah in Arabia, where some think that he was influenced by the actions and doctrines of Abdul Wahab, who was his contemporary or a little before him. He practiced an ascetic and political form of Sunni islam, which he used as his vehicle to accomplish his objectives and motivate others.
Reliable sources say that he was a Shalmani Dehqan from the community of Shalmanis (now calling themselves “Sulemanis”) settled in Kia Kabal village on the right bank of the Indus presently in District Haripur, Hazara — near Ghazi and Topi. The village now lies submerged in the Tarbela Dam, along with other notable settlements such as Khalabat, etc. The whole area was populated with Tajik Dehqans from time immemorial.
The arrival of the Afghans in the region changed things — and saw the movement of the Yusufzais towards Tanawal, Garhi Amazai, Nara Amazai and Kupi Amazai locations in the late 16th Century. There they fought the Tanoli inhabitants. The Kalazai and Said Khani sub-clans of the Utmaznzai clan of the Mandanr division of the Yusufzais, captured the hilltops around these villages and began moving down on the slopes of the Tanawal Hills. They said nothing further to the Tanolis, but came upon the well populated Kia Kabal village, and took control of it from the Shalmanis — who in turn migrated to the village Thapla and its adjacent hamlets on the opposite bank of the river — which is located on Chattar Road. It should be noted that at this point the River Indus is broad and shallow, and the channel is easily fordable at most times.
It was in Thapla later that Haji Qasim was born, and after returning from his long travels he set up a spiritual retreat or “khanqah” in his village which became the hotbed of his influence and ideas. After some time, however, he announced that he would be leaving again in the direction of Kabul, to visit a spiritual mentor — and that he would probably not return. His saintly reputation was well established, and so the local population, consisting of Tareen Afghans, Utmanzais, Tanolis, Basra Gujjars and Shalmanis/Sulemanis, protested. He told them that he would bring someone from his own tribe to replace him in his role as local saint. He then went to Allai in Mansehra, from where he brought Akhund Umar who was a Jahangiri Swati, and installed him in his khanqah as his successor. Thereafter the local tradition has it that Haji Muhammad Qasim set out “for Kabul” and disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
The disappearance of Haji Qasim from his village of Thapla sees the mysterious appearance of a figure of the same name and character in the Doaba region in the northern part of Peshawar Valley. He was said to have come from the eastern direction with a handful of close associates, including one Haji Jalal. They both quickly became friends with the local Gigyani Afghan tribal chief Aimal Khan, a man who is celebrated in verse by contemporary local poet Misri Khan Gigyani. Haji Qasim and Haji Jalal, after cultivating the confidence of Aimal Khan for some time, tricked him and taking him aside, put him to death. They then proceeded to dominate a large section of the Doaba area — particularly the Daman region in its northwest. Qasim seems to have gained the favour of the Durrani rulers who had freshly established their empire. They awarded him with a “mansabdari” (administrative post) and the landed estate that traditionally went with such an appointment.
It was in Panjpao village, at the southern edge of the Daman area and on the outskirts of Shabqadar that Haji Qasim established another khanqah as his center of activities. He then invited another Swati-Shalmani from further north in Bajaur — my ancestor Mirsaid Kamil Shah, later called Akhund Zafar Baba — and informed him that he would be handing over both his spiritual and temporal responsibilities to him, as he was retiring from the world. Many say he was Akhund Zafar’s father; mentors are traditionally regarded as “fathers” in this society — but nothing can be ruled out. Haji Qasim is said to have died and been buried in the graveyard that adjoins the khanqah — as that cemetery still bears his name. His grave exists, and the locals can point it out (see pictures below).
The fact that people in Thapla are still unaware of where Haji Qasim went and how he ended up — and that to the people of Doaba-Shabqadar, he suddenly appeared coming out of the east, without knowing anything else about his origins…is a fairly typical instance in the nature and character of local historiography. Nobody seems to have joined the dots in this, as in many other happenings. Regarding other anecdotes relating to Haji Qasim that are available, it is said that the imprints of his activity are to be found in in many other places, including Malakand, Swabi and Nowshera — and that his followers had reached as far as Kohat from where they brought a new batch of Bangash tribesmen to Mansehra. He is said to have operated with a band of a few followers who were highly trained and motivated. He is described as an ascetic, a fanatic who eschewed the trappings of power, and was very shrewd and capable, being focused solely on his goal and then quickly appointing others in his place after he had secured victory.