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History of Islam in Kerala

Kerala had connections with Arabia from the time of Solomon. Arabs traded with Kerala for gold, ivory, monkeys and peacocks. Arab merchants came to Kerala from Egypt long before the Romans. Their main port was Alexandria and ours Kodungallore. Pre Qur’an references to black pepper ,swords from India and teak in Arab poetry indicate trade connection to Kerala. It took about 30 to 40 days for Arabs to make the journey to Kerala.

Muslims of Kerala have always believed that their origins in Kerala go back to 7th century AD when the religion originated in Arabia. The numbers increased in the 9th century. In the 8th century there were many centers for religious conversion in the state. Cheraman Perumal’s pilgrimage to Mecca was a major influence in this regard. The history of Muslims in Kerala is closely intertwined with the history of Muslims in nearby Lakshadweep islands.

Kerala’s only Muslim kingdom was Kannanore’s Arakkal family. Historians disagree as to the time period of Arakkal rulers. Some claim that ancient coins date the Arakkal rulers to the 8th century. Kerala historian Mr. A. Sridhara Menon seem to believe that the Arakkal kings came to power in 16th or 17th century and issued their coins at the earliest in the 18th century. One of the rulers that presided over the kingdom was Junumma Beevi who ruled for 49 years. By 1909 Arakkal rulers lost Cannanore and cantonment. By 1911 there was further decline with loss of “chenkol and udaval”?*. During those years they allied and clashed with the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English. The British played the biggest part in removing all vestiges of titles and power from the Arakkal rulers. One of the last kings Arakkal Abdu Rahiman Ali Raja (1881 -1946) was active in helping his subjects. The last ruler was Ali Raja Mariumma Beevi Thangal. After her time the family broke up.

During the time of the Samuthiries the Muslims of Malabar played major role in the local army and navy as well as ambassadors to Arabia and China. They also forged alliances with Moslil rulers og Gujarat and Bijappur. Even before this period they had settlements in Perumathura, Thakkala, Thengapattanam, Poovar and Thiruvankottu in southern Travancore. Muslims from Pandi Desham migrated meantime for trade to Erattupetta, Kanjirappalli, Mundakayam, Peruvanthanam and Vandiperiyar in Kottayam district. In the 17 th century trade links were established with places like Kayamkulam and Aleppy in the west.

It was during the time of Samuthiris that the title of ‘Marakkar’ was created. During the reign of the four marakkars played significant role in trade. During the time the second Marakkar Muslims spread from port areas to hiiilsides of Valapattanam, Theekkodi, Pandalayani, Kakkadu, Kozocodu, Ponnani. From there many migrated to Palakkadu. Muslim influence reached it’s peak at the time of Kunjali Marakkar (4th).After Kunjali Marakkar and Samuthiri parted company Muslim influence declined.

During the Dutch period a prominent Muslim trader named Mooskoi spearheaded the development of trade centers in Chenganacherri, Pandalam, Kayamkulam, and Alappuza.

During the time of Hyderali and Tippu Sultan there was a revival amongst Muslims of Malabar. The Arakkal king signed a treaty with Hyderali. Samathuri followed up with his own treaty with Hyder.

In the post Tippu era king Pazassi waged war against the British with the help of Malabar Muslims. In the 19th century anti Bbritish riots erupted on account of their repressive policies.

The British passed a very repressive act in 1852.

19th century saw political servitude and financial ruin. The 1832 earth quake in Malabar and subsequent famine led to mass migration of Muslims to Cochin and Travancore. A prominent leader at the end of 19th century was Veliyankottu Ummarkhasi. From the end of the 19th century to the first three decades of this century those who led the community include Hamadini Sheik, Vakkam Abdul Kadar Mawlawi, and Seethi Sahib.

The so called “MAPPILA LAHALA” was actually a chapter of India’s freedom struggle. It was the expression of the built up frustration and rage amongst Muslims against British Government and land lords. Many prominent Muslims played leadership roles in the “Khilaphath movement’ and Indian National Congress. The British tried to split the Hindues and Muslims as part of their ‘divide and rule’ strategy. Many Muslims were hanged or deported. The British were eventually forced to abandon their scheme to deport large numbers of Muslims to Andamans. Relief organizations came to the aid of widows and orphans. One of the orphanages established then still exists on Maryhill in Calicut.

Social, educational and service organizations evolved around religious institutions. Ponnani was a major center of higher learning. Students from foreign lands came to study there. There were institutes attached to mosques in Ponnani, Thanoor, Thirurangadi, Parappanangadi, Nadapuram, Kodiyathur, Mahi, Vadakara and Payannur some 700 years ago.

In the nineteen hundreds a number of social and political organizations evolved. Muslims who were used to only Arabic education began to give greater emphasis to English education. The government encouraged private Muslim educational institutions and educators. Vakkam Abdul Kadar Moulavi was a leader who made significant contributions in the social arena from 1873 to 1933. He was the founder of the famous newspaper ‘Swadeshabhimani’ and two other newspapers. He was the greatest leader in modern education among Muslims. Several high schools and elementary schools were started by the Muslim community during this period. Attaining school in Malappuram and a Mohamadan high school in Aleppy came in to existence along with other educational institutions in Edava, Kozikode, Mahi, Ernakulam, Vettathu, and Puthiyangadi.

Muslim League the first true political organization came in to being in 1937.Leaders like K. M. Seethi Sahib joined the Muslim League from Congress. In 1924 ‘Al Amin’ newspaper was started to promote social well being and nationalism amongst Moslims. In 1932 joining with Christians and Ezavas Muslims demanded proportionate representation and won 8 seats in the state assembly in Travancore. Mr P. K. Kunju became the chief whip.

Muslims participated in various phases of the Indian independence struggle such as the salt law protest, and non-cooperation with the rulers.

In the first elections in Travancore Muslim League and Congress ran under an alliance. Mr. T. A. Abdulla became a minister. In Cochin state mr. Siti Sahib was elected unopposed to the state assembly. Both he and Mr. V. K. Kutty Sahib fought for the rights of Muslims in the state. Cochin mail and Chandrika were Muslim newspapers who played major roles in these efforts.

Muslim League which was started in Malabar in 1937 extended their activities in to the newly formed Kerala state. After India’s independence Muslim League continued to be politically active although there were dissident voices from time to time. Muslims also actively participated in the political process through Congress, Socialists and communists.

In the Panampilly ministry Mr. A. A. Rahim and in the E.M.T. ministry Mr. T. A. Majeed served. Ms. Ayisha Bhai was deputy speaker. In the Pattam Thanu Pillai ministry Mr. P . P. Ummarkoya was minister of education. Both Mr. Sithi Sahib and Mr. C. H. Mohamad Koya have been speakers. In the subsequent years a number of prominent leaders became ministers. The list of names include C. H. Mohamad Koya, P. K. KUNJU, E. K. Impichi Bawa and Avukkadar Kutty Naha.

There were a multitude of organizations working in the social, educational, cultural and religious spheres by now. Several arts colleges and an engineering college in Quilion and postgraduate institutions in Faroke, Pulikkal and Arikkode are matter of great pride for the Muslim community of Kerala.

Kerala Muslims follow their religious practices stringently. Belief in one God, prayers five times a day, Ramsan fast, Sakkath and Hajj are some of the traditional observances of Islam. Prayers are usually held in mosques. A religious scholar named ‘ Khathib’ leads the prayers. Friday prayers are mandatory for Muslims. The mosques called Juma masjids are ruled by an elected local committee. Except in some places like Ernakulam and Calicut women do not attend church prayers. Most of the older churches are built like Hindue temples. Examples are the churches in Calicut, Kottayam and Kodungallore. The Muslim churches in South India are quite distinct in this regard compared to the ones in northern India.

Muslims follow unique customs. Circumcision is done at the age of 12. This is called ‘Sunnath’. The ceremony associated with this is called ‘Marga Kalyanam’. EID and Hajj are more widely celebrated than Muharram.

Some Hindue traditions are followed by a few Muslim churches. ‘Nerchakal’ (gifts) are traditional Hindue customs adopted by Muslim churches in Kundotti, Malappuram, Theruvathu, Kanjiramattam, Changanacherri, Peruvanthanam, Manjali ad Bhimappalli. Observances such as ‘Chandanakudam’ ‘Kodikuthunerccha’ are certainly derived from distinctly Kerala influences.

Muslim inheritance laws stipulate that all men get equal shares in inheritance , all women get half of a man’s share. Widows with out children get one sixth and widows with children get one eighth of the family assets.

The matrilineal system unique to Kerala was adopted by some Muslim groups in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Inheritance along the lines of women of the house, although opposed to Islamic rules was again the result of local influences. After 1949 however bills were passed in Madras assembly, Cochin assembly and Travancore assembly abolishing the matrilineal system.

Muslim marriages are based on contract principle. After wife’s death or divorce second marriage is allowed. At he time of the wedding the amount of money the father of the bridegroom will give to the bride’s father is publicly announced. It is called ‘mahar’. Bride’s father and bridegroom will repeat the amount of mahar. Women do not have an active role in the ceremony. There is women only ceremony ‘thali kettu’, which is a Kerala tradition rather than Islamic. Under certain circumstances divorce is possible according to Muslim law, This is called ‘thalak’.

Like the houses of Namputhiri brahmins and nairs Kerala Muslim houses were also ‘nalukettu’. A central court yard was completely surrounded on all four sides by buildings.

Muslim women wear ‘mundu’ with a coloured border blouses with long sleeves and a head gear called ‘thattam’.In addition to ordinary jewelry women wear gold or silver waist bands.

In ancient times the ornaments and hair styles distinguished Christians, Muslims and ഹിന്ടുസ്.

Kerala Muslims had several subdivisions. Some of these subgroups are known by such names as dakkini, labba, Kachmeman, nainar, ravuthar, marakkar, and koyimar. The dakkini group are descendants of the armies of sultan of Bijapur. Labbas are traders. They live in Kerala as well as Tamil Nadu. Labbas are of Arabic extraction. Ninars are believed to be converts from the Drawidians. Ravuthars were active in trade. Muslims of Malabar are collectively referred to as ‘Mappilas’. Kachumemons are descendants of traders of Gujarati origin. Another group called vattakolikal are of Arab decent and are mostly traders. They are also called navathukal. Koyimar originated in the area of Malabar called chowa and played a major role in internal and external trade.

Arabic language played a dominant role in the culture of Kerala Muslims. There were several Kerala writers of worldwide reknown in Arabic. They wrote books on grammar, religion, medicine, and history. Subsequently a version of Arabic -Malayalam with Arabic script of Malayalam words developed. The vast Arabic Kerala literature includes love songs, battle songs and poetry and prose. Many original Arabic works were also translated in to Arabic-Malayalam.

Kerala Muslims also had distinctive recreational sports. Women’s ‘oppanapattu’, men’s ‘baithu’, kathupattu, kolukali aravanamuttu are some of these art forms. In central Malabar there was a practice called ‘padayani’. Muslims owned ‘kalaris’ where they trained in traditional techniques. Some Muslims were also wrestlers. Muslims entered newspaper industry nearly 80 years back. Early newspapers had such names as ‘Keraladeepakam’, ‘sathyanadakahalam’, ‘sathyaprakasham’ and ‘Malabari’.

Several Kerela Muslim writers have made their impact on Malayalam literature. These works include novels, short stories, poetry, history, and travelogues. Among Kerala Muslim writers one name that stands out is that of Vaikkam Mohamad Bashir.

*sword and rod

© Kerala History Series : Dr. P. K. John


Abu Abdullah • March 28, 2008

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