Book review: Mapilla Muslims-A Study on Society and Anti-Colonial Struggles

By Yoginder Sikand,

The Mapillas of Malabar in Kerala are one of the oldest Muslim groups in South Asia. They also happen to be among the most well educated and economically prosperous Muslim communities in India today. The history of the Mapillas and the role of numerous various individuals and movements that shaped Mapilla identity and fortunes are neatly encapsulated in this well-researched book.

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The book begins with a discussion about the history of Islam in Kerala. The author admits that the veracity of the traditional legend about a local Hindu king converting to Islam and then traveling to Arabia to meet the Prophet Muhammad is open to question, but, quoting from numerous early Sanskrit and Arabic texts, he shows that Islam arrived on the Malabar coast well before it reached other parts of India. He describes the evolution of the Mapilla community as resulting from conversions among Arabs who had settled in Malabar in pre-Islamic times, intermarriage of Arab traders with local women, and conversions, especially from the ‘low’ castes, as a result of the missionary efforts of a number of Arab traders, scholars and Sufis, whose egalitarian message served as a clarion call for liberation for those enslaved by the caste system and the Brahminical religion.

The author raises the interesting question of the rapid spread of Islam in Kerala (where Muslims account for over a fourth of the population today) despite the virtual absence of Muslim political rule in the region. One of the key factors for this, he says, were the cordial relations that the Arab traders settled in Malabar enjoyed with many local Hindu Rajas, especially the Zamorins of Calicut. The Rajas treated the Arabs with respect, for they played a crucial role in the local economy.

They allowed them full religious freedom, and some of them even encouraged conversions of local fishermen to Islam in order to man their navies, given that, at that time, orthodox Hindus were forbidden to cross the seas on pain of being excommunicated from their caste. Testifying to the harmonious relations between the early Muslims in Malabar and the local Hindus, the early medieval Portugues traveler Barbosa, the author tells us, writes that the Zamorins gave each Muslim trader a Nair guard and a Chetty accountant to help manage his business. Vasco da Gama, who invaded Calicut in the late fifteenth century, primarily to oust the Muslims from the Indian Ocean trade and to spread Christianity in the region, noted that the Muslims of Calicut, the principal Muslim-dominated trade centre in Malabar, ‘lived in the city not like foreigners, but as natives’, and that from them the Zamorin ‘received much profit’.

Scores of Sufi missionaries also played a central role in the spread of Islam in Malabar, the author tells us. The first of these, Malik bin Dinar, was a disciple of the noted Sufi Hasan al-Basri. He is credited with having set up a number of mosques in the region. While Sufi orders such as the Chisthtiyya and the Suhrawardiyya were also active in Malabar, a central missionary role was played by the Qadris, particularly Syeds of the noted Makhdum family who were originally from Yemen, but, in addition to Malabar, had spread to south-east Asia as well, serving as traders, religious scholars and spiritual guides. These Sufis were among the pioneers of literature in the Arabic-Malayalam dialect, and, in contrast to much of north India, used mosques, instead of Sufi hospices or khanqahs, as centres of Islamic instruction.

The author devotes considerable space to the evolution of a unique Mapilla Muslim culture that combined Arab and local elements. Hindu and Buddhist converts to Islam in Malabar, as elsewhere in India, did not wholly abandon their pre-Islamic practices and institutions. Thus, caste rules continued to be followed, although with much less severity. Several customs associated with the Sufi shrines betrayed local influences, and many Hindus, particularly from the ‘low’ castes, regularly visited these shrines. Hindu influence was (and still is) readily visible in Malabari mosque architecture and several life-cycle rituals of the Mapillas.

A major turning point in the history of the Mapillas was the arrival of the Europeans in Malabar, starting with the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century, followed by the Dutch and then the British. The author describes in graphic detail the fiery hatred for Islam and the Christian crusading spirit that drove the early Portuguese adventurers, who sought to oust the Arabs as controllers of the Indian Ocean trade.

Using numerous medieval sources, the author describes the widespread destruction wrought by the Portuguese on the Muslims of Malabar, the mass-scale rapes and massacres and even forced conversions to Christianity of Muslims. In the process, they succeeded in destroying Muslim control over maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. It was at this time, the author notes, that some Malabari ulema raised the standard of jihad against the white colonialists. Interestingly, he points out, no such calls for jihad had ever been issued by the local ulema before the Portuguese invasions, for Muslims in Malabar had hitherto enjoyed considerable protection and patronage by many Hindu Rajas and, therefore, did not consider Malabar to be an ‘abode of war’. The author clarifies, and this is important, that the jihads that were called for did not aim at establishing Muslim rule in Malabar, but, rather, were a passionate appeal for Muslims to unite with the Hindu Zamorins of Calicut and rise up to oust the European invaders.

Similar calls for jihad, the author says, were again raised from the mid-nineteenth century onwards up until the Mapilla Revolt of 1921 by several Mapilla ulema, this time against the British and the largely ‘upper’ caste Hindu oppressive landlords. These were essentially peasant revolts against the feudal-imperialist nexus, as is evidenced by the fact that a large number of ‘low’ caste peasants also joined the revolt (and many of them converted to Islam at the same time), and that the focus of the attacks by Mapilla peasants was on the properties (including, in several cases, the temples) of ‘upper’ caste landlords, not the huts and small village shrines of the ‘low’ castes.

Some of these revolts began when ‘upper’ caste Hindu landlords deliberately insulted ‘low’ caste Hindu converts to Islam for not obeying the rigid rules of caste deference after their conversion. Thus, a revolt in 1843 was triggered off after a Nair landlord forced a Muslim woman, a ‘low’ caste Ezhava convert to Islam, to remove her breast-covering because Ezhava women were forbidden to cover their breasts as a marker of their ‘inferiority’. Likewise, in 1890 another revolt broke out after a Nair landlord insulted a Muslim cleric, a former ‘low’ caste Cheruman, who, two decades earlier, had converted to Islam. His ‘crime’ was his refusal to remove his sandals while passing before the landlord as a sign of deference to him.

These revolts occurred essentially in areas where Muslims were heavily oppressed mainly small peasants or landless labourers, mainly descendants of ‘low’ caste converts, while, for instance, in Calicut, where many Muslims were prosperous traders, most Muslims fervently supported the British. In other words, both religious ideology as well as class oppression were key factors behind these revolts.

The book’s treatment of the period of Mapilla history till the exit of the British is excellent, dealing with critical aspects of Mapilla history and culture in a summarized and easily readable form. However, a detailed post-1947 history of this fascinating Muslim community still waits to be written, a period that is equally fascinating, for it was then that the Mapillas took in a major way to modern education, which has made them among the most literate and economically prosperous Muslim communities in India today.