The Diversity in Indian Islam

Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam challenges those who suggest that Muslims are divorced by their religion from local Asian cultures.

This essay was originally published in The Times of India on August 10, 2002.

Though the bulk of Muslims in South Asia are located today in a northern belt that runs from the valley of the Indus to the delta of the Ganges, we all know that there are and have been important Muslim communities elsewhere which have different origins and histories.

Long before a powerful Sultanate came to be set up in Delhi and its environs, trading groups from West Asia brought Islam to western and southern India through maritime commerce, and it was an extension of the same process that eventually brought that religion to what is today the most populous Muslim country in the world, namely Indonesia. But this Islam, which is linked intimately to the Indian Ocean and its trade, seems to have a difficult time penetrating the consciousness even of exhibition-makers, museum-keepers and self-styled Islamologists.

Even when Sir V. S. Naipaul visits the Muslims of Indonesia and Malaysia, he can only see people desperate to conform to some model imported from the Middle East, and alienated by conversion from their own culture. Anyone who has worked seriously on Indonesia knows how wrong he is, but what worth is an historian or an anthropologist against the prestige of the Nobel prize, which has rendered the already ubiquitous Trinidadian omniscient to boot? South India too has its Muslim communities, whose origins lie not in the ephemeral sultanate that the Khalji armies created in Madurai in the late 13th century, but in an earlier time.

Of these communities, the Mappila Muslims of Kerala are relatively well-known, and it is only the recent elevation to the country's highest office of A P J Abdul Kalam that has brought some popular attention to the Tamil-speaking Muslims of the south-eastern coast. Known as Maraikkayars, from the Tamil word marakkalam (meaning boat), and distinct from the Urdu-speaking Muslims of the Arcot area, one can find traces of this community in the area running from Rameswaram to Kanyakumari from at least the ninth century, besides another nucleus in the area around Naguru.

In the centuries that followed, evidence points to their activity as traders, as fishermen, and also as entrepreneurs and divers in the great pearl-fishery of the Gulf of Mannar. By about 1500, two important centres existed for their activity, namely the towns of Kayalpatnam and Kilakkarai. It was from here that they struggled with the Portuguese for control over the pearl-fishery and for the trade with Sri Lanka, where they came to play a significant role as well. But it is the 17th and 18th centuries that mark a cultural high-point for this community. This is the period when, from an initial situation where their high culture was expressed in Arabic, they begin to make increasing use of Tamil as a literary language.

A great example of this is the so-called Sirapuranam, a brilliant life in poetry of the Prophet Muhammad written by a major poet of the time, Umaru Pulavar. Umaru was instructed by a certain Shaikh Sadaqatullah, a Sufi master of the Qadiri order who lived at Kayalpatnam. But since poets need not just masters but patrons, the work, as well as several others, was patronised by a great merchant of Kilakkarai called Sidakkadi. This Sidakkadi, a Maraikkayar magnate of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, epitomises even today what a great patron should be for many in Tamil Nadu, where he is virtually a household name. His name was originally Shaikh Abdul Qadir, but it was shortened in his own lifetime. Much has been written about him by literary scholars and historians.

Historians have shown his close association with the Setupati Rajas of Ramnad, whose ventures he partly financed. But what is worth noting is that neither he nor Umaru Pulavar saw themselves as being forced to choose between an Arab-Islamic culture and a Tamil one. A poet of his time could thus write that he was:

Lord Sidakkadi, King of Kayal/
who protects eloquent Tamil poets/
even as he protects the wide earth/
and the whole community of believers/
with his arms stout as mountains.

When groups coexist in a society over extended periods of time, it is only natural that mutual borrowings take place, whether in music, poetry, the visual arts or cuisine. There is no particular virtue in this, just as there is none in insisting obstinately on purity. What would today's purists make of an invocation to Sidakkadi, who

comes from Baghdad where Lakshmi plays/
who is an ocean of compassion/
and a treasure of dharma and good qualities?

When a 17th-century poet writes in Tamil, all this sounds perfectly natural, indeed the obvious vocabulary of expression. The same happens in Malay, when the ancestor of the Sultan of Melaka is described as going to the heaven of Indra. Yet, all of this does not mean that the Islam of the Maraikkayars was simply some variant of a triumphant Hinduism. A Maraikkayar must surely be allowed to eat idlis and play the veena if he so desires, as much today as in the 17th century. But it is not for us to say whether the Tamil of Umaru Pulavar is to be preferred to the Arabic of Shaikh Sadaqatullah. Producing acculturation by fiat is no more desirable than obstinately insisting on the purity of an imagined past.


Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Doshi Professor of History at UCLA and was recently named the founding director of the UCLA Center for India and South Asia. Click here for a profile.

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Published: Saturday, August 6, 2005

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