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Muslims In Kerala And Elsewhere: Accounting For The Difference

By Yoginder Sikand

30 June, 2007

Muslims form around a quarter of Kerala's population. Islam's first contact with India took place in Kerala, more than a thousand years ago. Kerala has the distinction of being India's most literate state. Although in terms of literacy the Muslims of Kerala are slightly behind the Hindus and the Christians of the state, they are considerably ahead of Muslims living elsewhere in India. In contrast to north India, where most of India's Muslims live, Kerala boasts numerous Muslim educational institutions, hospitals, orphanages and other such community-based institutions.

There is thus much that Muslims elsewhere in India can learn from the Kerala Muslim experience. However, few outside Kerala know about this unique model. Part of the reason has to do with language. Kerala Muslim scholars and social activists have produced an impressive corpus of literature about their community, but almost all of this is in the Malayalam language, the official language of Kerala, which is not understood or spoken by Muslims elsewhere. Likewise, few Kerala Muslim community activists write in Urdu, Hindi or other languages spoken elsewhere in India or even in English.

A second reason for the fact the Muslims elsewhere in India are not generally aware of the unique Kerala Muslim experience is a certain tendency on the part of many north Indians, irrespective of religion, to assume that north India must lead and the rest of India, including the south, must follow. This tendency is reflected in a particularly warped understanding of Indian nationalism and culture that is based essentially on the experience of the elites of the Gangetic belt. In the Hindu case, it is reflected in the notion that north Indian Brahminical culture and the highly Sanskritised Hindi language form the bedrock of Hindu or even Indian identity. In the Muslim case, it is reflected in the equally misplaced notion that the cultural traditions of the Muslim elites of Uttar Pradesh, and, to a lesser, extent, Bihar, rooted in highly Persianised Urdu, form the basis of the identity of the Indian Muslims as a whole. Perhaps this deep-rooted north Indian-centrism is also a reflection of the age-old Aryan-Dravidian divide. Be that as it may, it has had a seriously deleterious effect. It has meant that the Kerala Muslim experience has, unfortunately, been ignored by Muslims living elsewhere, particularly in the north.

Several historical factors account for the uniqueness of the Kerala Muslim model. The history of Islam and Muslims in Kerala is quite different from that of most of the rest of South Asia. Islam had its first contact with India on the shores of Malabar, in northern Kerala, Arab merchants playing a key role in establishing Muslim settlements here and spreading the faith. Trade links between Arabia and Malabar existed even before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad and were further strengthened after this. In fact, it is said that the Hindu rulers of Calicut, the Zamorins, decreed that at least one son of every fisherman family should become a Muslim in order to assist the Arabs in conducting overseas trade, thereby contributing to the prosperity of the Calicut kingdom. Kerala's international trade was controlled by the Arabs till the Portuguese arrived on the scene in the early sixteenth century. Few Hindus dared to cross the seas to engage in trade because of the ban imposed on this by the Brahmins, who felt that this might lead to the disintegration of the caste system, with people being exposed to other ways of life or being unable to practice the rules of 'purity' and 'pollution' abroad.

The Hindu rajas of Kerala thus welcomed the Arab merchants since they played such a valuable role in the local economy. They were granted lands to build mosques and, gradually, they married local women, the off-spring of which unions are the Mapillas, the Muslims of Malabar. The word 'Mapilla' means 'son-in-law', indicating the high respect with which the Muslims were considered by the Hindus of Kerala.

Islam thus spread in Kerala peacefully, largely through traders. Muslims never ruled Kerala, except for a brief period under Tipu Sultan, because of which the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in Kerala is quite distinct from that in the north, where successive Muslim dynasties ruled for over a thousand years. The north has had a long history of conflicts between Muslim and Hindu ruling houses that is in stark contrast to Kerala. Consequently, historically, and even now, Hindu-Muslim relations in Kerala have been far more harmonious than in the north. This has enabled the evolution of a distinct Malayali or Keralite identity, based on a common language, which unites the Hindus, Muslims and Christians of Kerala and sets them apart from other Indians. This also explains why in Kerala, unlike in large parts of north India, there are no separate Muslim ghettos—Muslims and others live, by and large, in the same mixed localities.

All this has meant that there is considerable give and take and sharing between the different religious communities in Kerala and ample opportunities to learn from each other. In contrast to much of north India, this tradition of inter-community harmony has enabled the Muslims of Kerala to focus on the work of social reform and institution-building. In the north, a long history of communal conflict and the persistent, deep-rooted and widespread insecurity among Muslims there have meant that north Indian Muslim politics have been focused on the defence of the community and its identity rather than on the work of internal reform.

Related to this is the legacy of the Partition. The Partition affected the north Indian Muslims particularly, in contrast to Kerala, which was virtually untouched by its consequences. Few Kerala Muslims migrated to Pakistan. In north India, on the other hand, the bulk of the Muslim middle-class, which could have played a key role in institution building, political mobilisation and promoting modern education, migrated to Pakistan. The majority of the Muslims who remained behind were poor, mainly from the 'lower' castes. Being accused, rightly or wrongly, of being responsible for the Partition, and faced with constant anti-Muslim pogroms, pervasive discrimination and the growing strength of Hindutva chauvinism, the north Indian Muslims were too afraid to mobilize politically as a strong force. It was felt that this would invite charges of being 'communal' or 'anti-national'. Hence, lacking a strong independent political identity, the Muslims of north India were politically divided and weakened. The north Indian Muslim political leadership, for whatever it was worth, was divided between different political parties, but even these so-called 'secular' parties used them to gain Muslim votes but actually did little at all for the Muslim masses. Afraid to alienate their political bosses, these Muslim political elites consistently refrained from addressing the manifold problems of the Muslim masses.

In contrast, the middle class among the Muslims in Kerala steadily grew in the post-Partition period, especially due to the Gulf boom from the 1970s onwards. They played a key role in mobilizing the Muslims politically as a strong, effective force. Being taken seriously by various political parties, they were able to get many of the demands of the community met. While in north India Muslim politics have been dominated by symbolic, although not unimportant, issues—Babri Masjid, Urdu, Muslim Personal Law and so on—in Kerala Muslim political discourse has been very different, focusing more on social and economic issues.

In Kerala, in contrast to the north, there has historically been a strong Muslim mercantile class. This class has flourished in recent years, and has financed the establishment of a wide range of community institutions. On the other hand, in the north there was historically hardly any Muslim merchant class, trade being controlled by the Banias, or, as in Gujarat, by Muslim caste-groups of Bania and Lohana origins, such as the Memons, Khojahs and Bohras. A large section of north Indian Muslim elites were landed aristocrats, and after 1947, the abolition of the princely states and the zamindari system and the subdivision of holdings hit this class particularly badly. In north India, the Muslim middle class is much less significant and so they have not been able to play the same assertive role in community institution-building as have their Kerala counterparts. Further, while in north India Muslim elites have, typically, stayed away from the masses, taking little or no interest in their issues, possibly for fear of being wrongly branded as 'communal', this is not quite the case in Kerala, where the middle class has strong links with the masses through various institutions and socio-religious movements.

Another key difference between the Kerala and the north Indian Muslim case is cultural. North Indian Muslim culture, as articulated by north Indian Muslim elites, continues to be represented in a feudal mould, reflecting a nostalgic longing for the past, stemming from centuries of the political dominance of Muslim elites, the 'ashraf', now long since ended. This feudal culture is reflected in the huge hiatus between the Muslim elites and the masses. Kerala, on the other hand, never had a long tradition of Muslim rule, and historically lacked a Muslim feudal class. Hence, Muslim popular culture is considerably less hierarchical. This is also reflected in the striking difference in the work culture of Muslim institutions in Krala and in the Urdu-Hindi belt, where many such institutions suffer from a distinct lack of professionalism and from the stern authoritarianism of their managers.

Yet another key aspect of the Kerala Muslim model is the role of various social reform movements in the state, including the strong communist presence, the activities of various Christian organisations and the anti-caste movement, all of which have also impacted on the Muslims of the state. Added to this is the long tradition, from the late nineteenth century onwards, of Islamic reformist movements in Kerala, which continue to be vastly influential. They have played a key role in bridging the sharp dualism between the ulema and the 'modern'-educated class, in promoting 'modern' as well as religious education, including women's education. They have also set up literally thousands of institutions that cater to the community—not just madrasas and mosques, as in much of north India, but also schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, industrial centres, banks, newspapers and so on. In this way, the ulema in Kerala have played a more socially engaged role than their counterparts in the north as far as community work is concerned.

Although the Kerala Muslim model cannot be wholly replicated elsewhere in India because each region has its own specific context, there is much that can be learnt from it. Muslim organizations and social activists in other parts of India could consider arranging for study tours to visit Muslim institutions in Kerala and interact with their counterparts there. In addition, the work of Kerala Muslim organizations and social and religious reformers urgently needs to be documented and published in English, Urdu, Hindi and other languages so that Muslims elsewhere can profit from their example.

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted on



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