Inter-Religious Harmony and Cooperation: A Muslim Model from the Traditional Arts and Cultures of Malabar


A poor boy, named Kunhi Marakkar, had lost his father in the early days and was brought up by is pious mother, who affectionately cared for him and aspired to make him a disciple of a great scholar of that time, Zainuddin Makhdum the First (1467-1522, of Ponnani.  He also trained in the traditional martial arts of the time, known as Kalari.  According to a legendary story in the Kottupalli Mala, his mother supported him as a teenager with some money to start a small business selling fish.  Once he was passing near the Ponnani mosque with a loaded basket when Makhdum saw him and predicted that the boy would cross the ocean and fight as a hero against the invaders.

The Mala relates the remarkable story of a teenage boy becoming a Sufi disciple and then rising to the level of a widely acclaimed warrior and blessed Martyr.  Makhdum asked Kunhi Marakkar to abandon his fish-load, provided him with new clothes, and accepted him as a student.  When he reached home the boy explained the incident to his mother, who welcomed his great opportunity to join the Ponnani Graduate School and acquire knowledge of Islamic theology, literature, history and adab or etiquette.


Eventually when he grew up his mother found a pious girl for him to marry.  On the eve of the wedding the news came to him that the Portuguese had captured a young girl and kept her in their custody.  While others continued to enjoy the marriage feast, at night he rowed a small fishing boat out to the ship anchored off the coast and as a one-man attack force managed to free the girl from the savage and ruthless invaders.

Taking her back to the shore, he peddled the vessel determined once again to become a martyr in a holy war.  It was Kunhi Marakkan’s final journey to fight against the Portuguese.  As he had wished, in his second battle he was cut into pieces.  The Portuguese cut his fragmented body into seven pieces and threw them into the sea.

The Kotuppallii Mala narrates the story that one piece had come to shore at Manath and was respectfully buried there.  After a few days, the local Hindu ruler had a dream about the martyrdom of this great fighter.  In this strange dream he saw the martyr’s head floating over water.  When the ruler immediately sent people to find the head and give it a proper ritualistic burial they noticed that eagles were flying around a nearby fort.  When they tried to capture the head, it moved away, so they asked for the help of Muslims, who recited some prayers seeking the support of the Almighty and promptly retrieved the head.  They prepared the burial ground on the hill, but it was impossible to move the head from the place where it was found, so they decided to bury it in the river bank.

  This song was composed in the Malabari language by an unknown author and was included in the traditional ritual book of Malabar called Sabeena.  The Kottuppalli Mala includes other stories, such as the early life of the great Manath Parambil Kunhi Marakkar and the wonderful moment when he met the great scholar Makhdum the First of Ponnani in his early life at a local festival at Manath.  The recitation of this ballad was common in ritual performances for divine blessings, as well as later to invoke the blessings of great martyrs for personal problems, for the cure of diseases, and for fulfillment of desires.  The Kottupalli Mala starts with the following lines:


In the village of Veliyamkode

At the house of Manath

With great love and affection

The mother brought him up

To acquire knowledge and fighting skills.


The Mala is a model for the incorporation of the indigenous communities’ tradition.  Every year at Veliyamkode a festival is conducted in the birth place of the first great martyr against the Portuguese, where thousands attend and celebrate the festival called Nercha.

By promoting this festival Malabar Muslims also find an opportunity to promote this moderate ideology, which was supported by the 16th century scholars as a synthesis of two cultures in the Malabar’s social milieu.  These events had notably contributed to the popular culture of Islam in Malabar and accelerated assimilation of Malabar’s different traditions by bridging the gap between the two Hindu and Muslim communities.  The.Nercha festival celebrating moderation helps to boost harmony in the society.  The Kottuppalli Mala, a ritualistic performing song, illustrated not only the story of Kunhi Marakkar’s heroic martyrdom, but created awareness of the concept of Jihad to protect women and human rights.

It is notable that this great warrior had sacrificed his life on the eve of his marriage to protect the chastity of a girl who was not a blood relation or a friend.  This is a very important message to the current generation of youth on how the 16th century people protected the rights of women.

This great story of protecting fellow human beings was well preserved and recollected in annual festivals that helped to prepare the mindset of the people toward this noble value in the Malabar region.  Assimilation of cultures through events, preserving the vision of harmonious living, and popularizing the Islamic approaches of moderation through various practices have promoted the Islamic identity and its own popular culture.  Unfortunately, this history is rarely identified or highlighted by current historians, because the acclaimed histories were written by European scholars or by others who relied on European primary sources.

Malabar Muslims promoted ideas of interreligious cooperation by adopting the social philosophy of various conventional festivals that were assimilations of folk traditions.  They gave much respect to shrines of great religious leaders, which received traditional backing from the 16th century Muslim scholars like Shaykh Zainudhin and his scholarly followers.  Often shrines became a center of solace as the egalitarian ideal of faith really attracted the natives because of the fame and name of the Sufi scholars and the greatness and sacrifice of renowned martyrs.  

The annual Nerchas in honor of Sufi scholars were Islamic festivals similar to the temple festivals like Nattu Utsavam, Kavilattam, Pooram, and Vela. The difference is that Muslims worship only the One Almighty God and avoid saint worship, as described in the study by Dale and Menon.  These writers considered the festivals as exclusive and elaborate ceremonies combining Islamic elements with certain features of indigenous folk festivals.  The focal point of each Muslim Nercha, they wrote, is the reverence shown to a Pir, Shaykh, or Shahid.


The local festivals received much prominence because of this hybrid character.  Nercha means the act of taking a vow.  It is a Malayalam word derived from the Dravidian root Ner, a word with numerous meanings, including ‘truth’ and ‘agreement’.  Several variants of the word clearly express the concept of offerings at a mosque.  The Muslims of Malabar used the term Nercha to designate the two fundamental aspects of the ceremonies, namely, first, the idea of a vow that reflects the central religious purpose of each Nercha, and, second, the ritualized respect of remembering and honoring an Islamic saint or martyr.

The rituals and processions have a common culture with similar elements as the yearly festival of the region regardless of differing religious beliefs.  Misako Kawano from Tokai University, Japan, identifies Nercha festivals by Muslims as visible symbols of communal harmony.  When we go deep into the nature of these festivals it is evident that the people’s aspirations and longings were to take part in the festivals and deepen their faith.  Realizing this special nature of the region, the 16th century scholars supported these Sufi festivals, including their commemoration of the great warriors who fought and sacrificed their lives to protect the Hindu King Zamorin.

These festivals were village celebrations by people from all walks of life and became part of the spirit of the land.  The Nerchas developed into village ritual festivals celebrated by rural folks as a manifestation of a common culture and heritage.  This special folk culture developed fraternity among the people, strengthening the message of unity and integrity.  The local Hindu community had always participated in the festivals of the Muslims.  Moreover, some of the performances using traditional drums and other types of equipment in these festivals were played even by non-Muslims.  The practical message of these festivals was nothing other than binding people together and incorporating Islamic culture as a means to overcome any feelings of alienation from the Hindu community of Malabar.

In some of the Hindu festivals, Muslim local leaders took part as supporters of the event.  The same thing happened in Islamic festivals.  For example, in many of the Teyyam festivals of northern Kerala, the ritual role as suppliers of salt and sugar is observed by the Muslims.  By the 16th century, identical cultures of assimilation in local Islamic festivals were seen in various parts of Malabar.  Another festival with similar performing songs and rituals is seen in the local history of Kolathnad.  It also celebrates the 16th century martyrdom of great fighters, who tried to protect the land from the invaders.  This event recollects the passion for martyrdom by fighters like Mahim Pokkar, born in Ponnilakath House, later known as ‘Sahidorakath’, due to his martyrdom in the 16th century.  In that era the atrocities committed by the Portuguese soldiers in the town against the weak and women, particularly under the administration of Albuquerque, showed them to be savages.   Even children were brutally murdered and some innocent people were tied up and forcefully exposed to the burning sun.

Zainuddin Makhdum the Second depicted the real nature of Portuguese massacres, brutalities, and other evils in his Tuhfat-al Mujahidin.  This was the situation that forced Mahim Pokkar to combat this ruthlessness by courageously trying to free them from the clutches of monsters.  Portuguese soldiers once surrounded him but could not capture him due to his natural skill in martial arts and inborn heroism.

Mahim Pokkar’s special forces never engaged in combat inside the town and always tried to resist the atrocities without creating trouble for the general public.  This history introduces a lovely mother who blessed her son to protect the rights of fellow beings, especially women and children.  This great warrior was introduced in a ballad as a great personality with supernatural power.  Even the stories of farmers were narrated in the ballad about this great fighter.  Two laborers, later known as Sirajuddin and Abdullah, understood the  greatness of martyrdom and joined him in the resistance movement by following the  principles of Islam under his guidance. These three together resisted the Portuguese atrocities, but the two followers lost their lives.  Mahim Pokkar, however, survived and was resting under a tree when a Portuguese soldier threw a spear at his head.  Mahim Pokkar managed to throw his sword and shield against the enemy and behead him, but the spear had wounded Mahim Pokkar gravely and made him a martyr.  His sword fell into the sea, but people found it and rushed to find him.  The Mala narrates the amazing incident that the shield fell down into his mother’s lap, who took it in the spirit of poetic justice shown by his determination and dedication to protect the rights of women and children thanks to the ardent support of a great mother.

In the latter part of this great ballad, the story described the inter-religious harmony in Malabar when Muslims and Hindus collaborated in searching for the bodily remains of this great warrior.  They finally found him with the help of the local Hindu chieftain, Kokkarachan.  The ballad narrates the supernatural occurrences during the burial.  At Mamba, people could not lift the body any further, so they decided to select that area for the holy burial.  This story also emphasizes the moderate view of Malabar Muslims evident in assigning land that belonged to Kokkarachan to build maqams and mosques in honor of the martyrs. The local leader became prosperous and donated the surrounding lands for siyara buildings located 16 kilometers away from Kannur. The Mamba Makham Mala relates wonderful aspects of  assimilation to the cultural milieu of north Malabar.

The Ramanthali Mala is another ballad written in the Malabari language praising the valor of the local people who fought against the Portuguese atrocities in the 16th century.  A group of people from Ramanthali near Ezhimala sacrificed their lives under the leadership of Pocker Moopen.  There were seventeen people in his team, but ten names were known from the available verses of the ballad, including the leader Pocker Moopan.  Others were Pari, Kalander, Kunhipari, Pari, Qamber, Abubaker Bukhari Hassan, Ahmed, and Cherikakka.   The ballad starts with supplication and praise to the Almighty for providing the opportunity to compose the poem.  Then it describes the splendors and wonders of the martyrs who were eulogized everywhere.  It is clear from the ballad that they were all youngsters.  The ballad was a ritual among the Malabar community of the 16th century and was passed from mouth to mouth as a folk song.  It was a well written ballad using Old Tamil as well as Malayalam words along with Arabic terms.  This Mala praises each martyr by explaining their great qualities and follows the tradition as a memoir of cultural assimilation through festivals.

In Calicut the Malabar cultural and culinary festival Appa Vanibha Nercha commemorates the great life of Shaykh Mamukkoya (1511-1572).  During the festival all communities of Malabar offer beads artistically made in the form of various human organs.  It is believed that even chronic disease or disability can be cured by offering a special Appam created with dough in the form of the organ of the person who suffers from the disease.  This shaykh was a very active supporter of the Hindu king Calicut Zamorin in the 16th century.  At the crucial moment during the Chaliyam war against the Portuguese, the shaykh officially took part in the meeting of Malabar Muslim leaders convened under the direction of the Hindu king at Calicut Mosque.

This Nercha is still observed in the month of Rajab according to the Hijra calendar.  Earlier a ritual procession was conducted as part of the Nercha.  This   was a popular event because the variety of cultural performances, as well as elephants and traditional drums, attracted the general public.  Along with these Nerchas there were a number of other festivals traditionally developed as part of the events.  It is notable that these ceremonies were utilized as agricultural festivals in which farmers brought agricultural products for trading.  In earlier days, people supported the big event by contributing their own farm products right after the harvest.  The agrarian context of these festivals was accentuated by a special annual cattle fair, the Bread Festival, which celebrates the cultural and culinary accomplishments of the region.


The Muslim festivals also share other important characteristics with the non-Islamic festivals, although they seldom rivaled the other traditional festivals. The offertory procession, the varavu, was an important part of the fest. The cultural performances at the Nerchas were great occasions to showcase the Malabar culture and art forms.  Various performing troupes and singing groups made this festival a cultural event of Malabar by integrating various cultural and art forms.  Through the canons and rituals of popular culture in the same socio-religious milieu commemorating great warriors and philosophers both the Muslim and the Hindu communities preserved their social and cultural harmony.

Sixteenth-century Malabar was a multi-cultural society with a variety of local arts and artisans.  Muslim leaders had realized this fact and tried to create new literary and art forms to enrich the existing cultural diversity of the region.  The constant interaction with local people and the assimilation of traditional arts with Islamic themes paved the way for novel forms of performing arts with special vocals celebrating the heritage and history of Islam.  This tactful and powerful message of integrated art forms resulted in wider acceptance of Islam in the region as a major religion.  Newly emerged Islamic folk poetry and performing arts marked the influential presence in the land of a variety of cultural adaptations.

The moderate viewpoints of Malabar’s sixteenth-century Muslim scholars  accelerated the assimilation and integration through widely popular traditional rhymes and folk languages.  This joyful atmosphere of arts and cultures bonded the people together irrespective of their differences.  Newly emerged performing arts and songs were mostly staged at marriage ceremonies.  Saintly scholars of the era taught the indigenous Malabari people the principles and virtues of a happy life through many popular poems that influenced Malabar’s overall culture.  The practical guidance of moderate Islam propagated by these scholars provided a new perception and distinct vision to prepare for a special spiritual awakening throughout the land.

It is important to note that the basic etiquettes of Islam were taught through folk rhythms, some of which were widely used as part of Mappila performing arts.  The Muslim leaders of the era attracted believers, as well as non-believers, and provided intercultural poetic evenings with appropriate musical instruments, special singers, and composers.  People tried to incorporate the Prophet’s stories through various art forms invoking a special, aesthetic sense and mood as part of their artistic assimilation.  The prime aims of these arts were to teach Islamic stories through a popular art form by modulating it in a religiously accepted aesthetic culture and mood.  These newly emerged art forms helped to facilitate easy access to the lives of the Prophet and his great companions for everyone, including even the Malabar region’s illiterate tribes.


Islamic Ritual Arts and Literature

The emergence of special Islamic performing arts, litany, and literature helped to overcome the estrangement between the indigenous groups of Malabar and the Muslim community.  Sixteenth-century scholars also contributed to develop these arts and literature by composing literary works wholeheartedly supporting the performing arts.  Scholars urged Muslims to perform the songs in order to Islamize the regional arts without losing their artistic sense and folk values.  They also had kept harmonious relations with the people of the region and the king.

It was remarkable that the composition of the famous eulogy on the Prophet called Manq’us Mawlid by Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum the First managed to influence the personal and social life of the Malabar diaspora living abroad in various continents, including Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, and Europe, as well as South East Asia.  

This special poem played a prominent role in binding people to the blessed tradition of the Prophet.  People maintained the interesting practice of reciting the Mawlid as a mixture of prose and poetry in praise of the beloved Prophet.  This art form was very popular, like the folk performance played by the Kurava, who were experts in both palmistry and the traditional cultural performances in order to wash out bad omens from the life of new born babies and adults from the villages.  The Mawlid was frequently recited in Malabar Muslim homes, as well as in the mosques, each with a particular meter and rhythm and occasionally with a chorus.  This exclusive practice with aesthetic perception kept alive the Prophet’s stories in the minds of the Malabar people.  

The Manq’us Mawlid became an important ritual of Malabar for marriages and all other auspicious occasions.  The Mawlid starts with praise of Allah Almighty, Who created the charismatic radiance of the Prophet before creating all the worlds in the universe, unveiled the moon of prophetic Guidance, and superbly bestowed the name Muhammed.


“These are the starting lines of Mawlid:

May blessing be on the Prophet, may peace be upon the Prophet.

From the land of Makkah the Prophet is an intercessor of Allah,  

From the land of the Arabs the Prophet is the beloved of Allah.   

You arise as a full moon overshadows the stars.

No, your greatness is unlimited,

You are the best of all prophets of God”


This poem kept abreast of the poet’s personal life by explaining his own experience and it was accepted by the community without a second thought.  It was recited in each home of Malabar as a religious and cultural ritual and became an annual event in mosques and religious schools.  Personification is the way of storytelling in this distinct poetic language of a great writer, who excelled in poetic metaphors in the 16th century along with his equals in Islamic tradition, especially in adab or etiquette.

“If you were my father and mother, never seen in my life.  

Your intercession hereafter will be a great solace to us.

No one can compare to you, oh my Controller, you are best of all prophets.

I am burdened with many sins, but I rely on you.

From your heavenly river we thirst for a cup of water.

Openhandedly in times of need you help us with your mediation.

We will be helpless if we lose this gift.  

Wish the blessing of the Almighty forever on the Prophet.  

As stars in the sky my dear master you are the best of all prophets.”


In its artistic sense the Manq’us Mawlid was composed in an elite format following  the traditional ritualistic diction.  The first part contains Prophetic sayings and Qur’anic verses authentically narrated.   Just after the introductory note and verses it deals with the authentic story of the Prophet’s birth, which was narrated with the specific time and date quoting the name of the narrator to maintain the authenticity of the account.  This was the difference between the traditional folk songs of Malabar and the Mawlid, which narrated stories with authentic quotes from the Qur’an and Prophetic traditions.  From this it is evidently clear that the Mawlids were meant to teach history and the etiquettes of Islam through a special artistic form similar to the popular folk culture.  At one point it is presented as a direct interaction with the Prophet in which the poet tried to open his heart and explain all the hardships in his life.  This methodology of Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum I, made the Manq’us Mawlid a popular poem performed in Malabar and among the Malabar diaspora around the world.  The religious scholar turned poet composed this poem to personify his mind as well as his soul in seeking solace from the Prophet, which explains the wide acceptance of his ritualistic performance.

Though Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum the First was a learned scholar respected by all Malabar clans and supported by the King of Calicut, it is clear that the poet spoke about the burden of sin in the first person and pleaded for the Prophet’s intercession to relieve his pains.  The style and its special diction, which were meant to be recited by a group of singers in praise of the Prophet to obtain solace from the personal, family, and social problems of life, made the Mawlid very popular among the traditional community of Malabar Muslims.

“I, today, possess innumerable sins, severe and countless.

I, oh my master, bequeath my pain to you, the best of all prophets”.

In the next lines the poet included the group by requesting help for the entire community.

“We on the day of reckoning thirst for a cup of water from your heavenly stream”.


Then they asked for mediation on that horrible day when nobody would be able to help another.  In 16th century Malabar no voice was raised against the Islamic art forms or the literature like Mawlid, which directly sought support of the Prophet because they had followed the populist Sufi tradition

In another section named the Prophetic embodiment, the story of the Prophet’s family, especially the greatness of his respected father and mother, was illustrated.  It is related that the Almighty decided to manifest the treasured light and preserved pearl from Abdullah, the father of the Prophet, to Amina, the mother of the Prophet.  This performance literature sheds better light on the overall life of the Prophet, including his family, birth, childhood, etc.  The Prophet’s mother was described as the most righteous and virtuous woman in all of Arabia.  The language used even in the prose section of the Mawlid was remarkable as the author used beautiful metaphors to express each authentic moment from the birth of the Prophet.

“At the beginning of the first spring, the azures of heaven and earth raised their celebrated eagerness and sanctified the light down upon the Ka’aba and Safa when the time of the splendid and gracious birth came closer and the sun of triumph towered in the sky”.  Similarly, this poem described various events in the form of performance poetry preceded by prose paraphrases on the same subject in each section.

  This mixture of poetry and prose can still be found in the Malabar diaspora around the world, including the South Pacific.  I experienced the same warmth of the Malabari Mawlid in the communities who migrated to the South Pacific.  The Malabaris who migrated to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada also recite the same Mawlid on special occasions, keeping the same centuries-old meter and tone.  It is remarkable that this community used to sing some Malabari renditions of this Mawlid lauding their wonderful Malabar tradition, though they were unable to follow the meaning of the Malabari words that they used for special occasions.  I could feel the inner sense of Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum’s Manq’us Mawlid from various towns of Fiji – Lautoka, Sigatoka, Suva, and others in various towns in Australia like Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.  I also found groups that performed these songs in a beautiful and traditional way.  A number of songs had been developed with the support of Islamic scholars and had influenced the minds of believers as well as non-believers of the time through the art form and its rhythm from the land and tradition of Malabar.


Moderate Strategies of Pattu

Pattu is a form of songs derived from the folk culture of Malabar, as well as from the Tamil popular culture, which people celebrated with great passion.  Pattu was developed by Muslim lyrists and singers of Malabar to attract people from various walks of life.  It was an independent form of literature, which kept its special identity through a variety of genres.  Mappila Pattu kept a special rhythm derived from the cultural and social background of Malabar Muslims.  There were a variety of songs in this genre classified as Kalyanapattu, Malappattu, Khissapattu, Kathupattu, and Padappattu, etc.  It is not easy to identify the year in which this special poetic form was established, but the first one found so far was written by Qazi Muhammad bin Abdul Aziz of Calicut, who was a renowned philosopher, poet, and Sufi leader of 16th century Malabar.  

The famous poet of Malayalam Ulloor noted in his book on the literary history of Kerala that Arabic Malayalam had 600 years of heritage.  The name of this language, however, was not Arabic Malayalam but Malabari.  O. Abu, a famous critic of this special genre of poetry expressed his opinion that this poetry derived from the 9th century, based on his analysis of the language and other features of the work like the special  form of  the poem, maturity of folk language, and its way of presentation.  

Qazi Muhammad was a follower of the Qadiri Sufi order founded by Muhyi al Din ‘Abd al Qadiri, and his work was a notable  contribution to Islamic devotional  literature.  This existed mainly in the hearts of the Malabari people, who taught the song to new generations in their spare time and also recited this as a source of solace in their hardships.  Later it was developed as an aesthetic passion of their culture and tradition.  It was written in Malabari, a vernacular of the Muslim intelligentsia of 16th century Malabar.  It was neither Arabic nor exactly modern Malayalam, but a mixture of both.  The Muslim community was familiar with the Arabic letters and script.  Although the language used Arabic script, many words were liberally borrowed from Tamil, Persian, etc.  Even philosophical discourses like Muhiyuddin Mala, authored by Qazi Mohammed, had enriched this branch of literature.  The Mappila songs also added to the emotional integration of the Islamic and other regional cultural and art forms.

Sufism is a mystical movement in Islam represented by individual men and women who devote themselves singly and exclusively for the service of the Merciful God and the joyous experience of the Almighty’s grace.  In the 16th century, Malabar scholars were the flowers of Sufi orders and doctrines.  They also developed new Sufi literature and performing arts to facilitate inclusivism among the people of Malabar.  Hence these works of literature and song maintained the assimilationist mood of Malabar culture and integrated Hindu and Muslim cultural and educational diversities.

In Malabar, Sufi leaders were accepted, loved, and respected by all, regardless of their religious belief and background.  Sufi scholars promoted communal harmony with their devotional activities and attracted the cast-ridden and oppressed lower castes to their religious and organizational fold.  Sufism had popularized communal harmony and religious solidarity in Malabar, where both Hindus and Muslims followed Sufi leaders and tried to purify their life by accepting the higher reality inherent in their inner souls.  Thus, the mystics and Sufis assumed the role of defenders of Islam.  Sufi scholars played many roles in society,  including as social reformers, traditional intellectuals, poets, and great warriors.  They were the powerful voice of the poor, untouchables, and underprivileged.  Sufism never promoted fundamental or fanatic perversions of Islam but always tried to promote the moderate way in belief and practice and propagated the beauty of friendship, family attachment, mutual understanding, love, and affection.

The wonderful lines of Qazi Muhammed had been imprinted in the minds of people before it was written in Ola and later on paper.  Qazi narrated marvelous moments from the life of his Shaykh Muhiyudhin ‘Abd al Qadir Jilani.  He started with Bismi, Hamdu, and salawat:

‘Allah Thiruperum thudiyum Sawlavathum.

Athinal thudanguvan arul chytha bedamber’


Thiru perum means God and Sthuthi is used in modern Malayalam instead of ‘Thudi’, which denotes blessings.  It was written using Malabari language in the 16th century by the great scholar of the time.

Alam Udyavan yekal arulale

Aye Muhammed Avarkkila ayovar.


The poet is describing the life of the great Shaykh, who came from the family of the Prophet (PBUH) by the grace of Allah.  Kila means lineage.  Both lineages were from the Prophet’s family, which is described in the following lines:

Sulthanul Awaliyaa yennu perullovar.

Sayyidavar thayum bavayum anoovar.


Shaykh Jilani from the family of the Prophet (PBUH) is called the emperor of Sufi shaykhs, but as a poet he made the life of the Prophet simple, more readable, and digestible even for the ordinary people of Malabar.

Palile vennapol baithakki chollunoon

Pakkiyam ullovar ithine padichchovar.

Kandavan Arivalan kattitharum pole

Khali Muhammed ennu perullovar

Kozhikkotte thura thannil pirannovar.

Korva ithokkeyum nokkiyeduthovar.


In later years, this song became a ritual among the Malabar Muslims.  At any critical moment people performed this song with heartfelt affection for the Shaykh so they could overcome the problems they faced with the confidence and baraka of enlightenment acquired from these lines.  The poet used the language of the ordinary people of Malabar even though poetry was written normally in an elite language that was not easy for them to grasp.  People enjoyed various levels or realms of the poem in accordance with their taste for the language and their power to acquire and enjoy poetic wisdom.  Some of the people were ardent supporters of the Mala even though they might not have believed in the poetic justice used by the poet in composing the poem.  Qazi reveals the fact that he used some of the texts of Shaykh Jilani as references in the poem.  Qazi also depended on the writings of Shaykh Jilani, such as Bahjath and Thakmeela.

Avarchonna baithinum bahija kithabinum

Angine thakmeela thannilum kandovar.


When I presented a paper at a seminar in Malappuram and supported his opinion on metaphors used in the poem, some of the traditional clerics were strictly against addressing it as a poem by pointing out that the references for this work were famous books by Shaykh Jilani.  My concern was that the clergy might continue to argue and force their students to believe in the actual existence of the Two Oceans, namely, ‘Shari’a and ‘Thariqa’ in Central Asia.  Qazi explained that Shari’a and Thariqa were two oceans on both sides of the Shaykh. This poetic expression had eased the mindset of the coastal people who always worked on the sea.  Shaykh Jilani became very popular in Malabar and his name was used by the next generation of people with great respect.  This name became popular in Malabar and it also has new Malabari versions, such as Moideen Moidutty, Moideen Koya, Moideen Kunhu, and Kunju Moideen Kuty.  They also named mosques after Shaykh Moideen Palli of Calicut.  


When I was doing research among the Malabar diaspora in the South Pacific, I was amazed to hear the ancient wedding songs in Fiji and participate in special Islamic rituals that were very similar to those in Malabar centuries ago.  Although I was able to find some primary sources in the Fiji Islands, manuscripts of various Mawlids, Maala, and Rathibs written by Malabari scholars, their language was often only remotely similar to the contemporary language of Malabar.  The words they sung in their songs were difficult to identify, because some of the words were never used in Malabar and others were much altered by the passage of time.


Models from Ethnic Folk Arts

The Muslims of Malabar developed various traditional cultural forms as living examples of cultural adaptation, such as Oppana, Kolkkali,and Mappila Pattu.  Some of the Mappila folk performances, like the Kolkkali and Oppana, are mere imitations and modifications of Hindu folk items.  The performance of Oppana is indebted to a folk item named after Thiruatirakkali, which is performed exclusively by Hindu women.  The clapping and movement in a circle along with joyful recitation of the folk songs are the main characteristics of both Kolkkali and Oppana.  In the folk songs of Oppana more Arabic and Persian vocabulary is used along with Malayalam words.  The performance itself is rhythmic, artistic, and melodious.  

The classical theaters of Kerala, Koodiyattam and Kathakali, had borrowed at least some costumes from the Arabs and the local Mappilas.  The female costumes in Kathakali are the same dress used by Mappila women.  The dress known as ‘Kuppayam’ was a forbidden thing for a lower caste woman, who kept her upper part naked.  Therefore, the model was taken from the Mappila womenfolk.  The cult of Teyyam is a ritualistic art form.  Even in such a performance the Muslim characters are incorporated as boatmen of the goddesses.  These characters wore fez caps and also observed the namaz as ritual.

The policy of the rulers in traditional Kerala was to encourage all religious communities, but they were quite liberal in their attitude toward religious groups other than their own.  King Zamorin’s approach to the Muslim community is described by Qazi in Fath’hul Mubeen by emphasizing that Muslims enjoy the right to sit at the king’s right side. As a result of such treatment Muslim merchants of the olden days used to come in large numbers.  The caste system in the Hindu community had weakened its position by putting down its lower caste as untouchables for higher castes.  Islam caused them to open their doors to these oppressed groups, which sought their liberation through conversion into other religions.  Once converted, their caste grievances were largely mitigated.  Such conversions in the early centuries had increased the numerical strength of the followers of those religions.  The Sufis enjoyed great influence over the rural folk who were attracted to the liberating essence of Islam.


An analytical study of Malabar society reveals that it had promoted a composite culture by developing an in-depth harmony among diverse religious communities and integrating them together in a collective experience of pluralism. This spirit of community is shown in their festivals, rituals, and artistic performances. The natural boundaries of diverse religious systems did not lock the people of Kerala in watertight compartments, but instead opened the way to a broader matrix of a mosaic and composite culture.  This culture is a product of collective human experience almost unique in the annals of history.

Today, however, many of the cultural expressions of the Mappilas are under attack from both classicists and progressivists.  Their search for Islamic purity as part of a narrowly fundamentalist paradigm of thought is prompting them to reject many ritual celebrations and processions with an indigenous character as un-Islamic.  These puritanical movements shun the folk elements of a composite culture of Malabar and lead to the polarization of religions and communities.


Models of Harmony from Islamic Culture

The Hindus in Kerala followed the centuries-old practice of hypergamy, which had three basic rules for members of the upper-castes: 1) women were permitted to marry only into their own or a higher caste (social group or educational level); 2) men were permitted to marry only into the top three castes; and 3) Brahmans were permitted to marry only Brahmans of the same generation in descent from a common ancestor.

The Namboothiri of Malabar married women from the Nair family, and the Nair family welcomed this recognition of their high caste.  The children from these marriages were not Brahmans nor did they share the privileges of their Nair kin, but they did qualify as members of matrilineal lineage and therefore were always considered to be Nairs.  This relationship was counted by K. M. Pajikkar as the foundation of matrilineal and matrilocal systems.

The matrilineal system of inheritance, writes R. E. Miller, is a special feature of Malabar society.  It is seen among a section of Muslim communities in Malabar called Mappila. Many rituals from Malabar weddings are colorful and unique for their  special forms derived from the assimilation of various cultures, especially the mixture of  international and regional flavors.  These traditions derived from the amalgamation of different cultures and lifestyles that existed in Malabar together with the Islamic tradition and ritual from various parts of Arabia.  In this unique marriage culture the differences between the affluent and the poor and between the scholars and the illiterate were not explicitly clear.  


All the people of Malabar celebrated marriage as a festival with family and friends.   People helped each other to make the event colorful and emotionally effective without expecting any remuneration or payment.  The singers and traditional dancers enjoyed the privilege of being part of the cultural festival.  There were special groups to sing songs composed specifically for each marriage, including the names of the bride, bridegroom, and both families.  The groups coming from the bride’s house and from the house of the bridegroom’s house competed in the songs.  Some instant poets and singers on the spur of the moment invented lines and counter lines to beat the other group.  There was no religious discrimination in the traditional Muslim marriage.  The Muslim marriage was the regional festival of the village, so everyone contributed to the event by working hard to make it successful.

In the 16th century most of the settlements were along the coastal belt of Malabar, because they depended on the sea for trade and fishing.  Among these communities were the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy families who lived together and supported each other.   In small coastal towns of Malabar, the Muslims and other communities lived together in the same neighborhood and even in adjacent houses, mingling and eating with each other.  For religious worship, however, the Muslims gathered in one mosque and the Hindus worshipped at temples associated with their rigorous caste system.  People attended traditional educational centers, like Guru Kulam and Othu palli, run by Hindu and Muslim scholars respectively.  The Malabar community had maintained mutual respect and harmony because the scholars from both communities were mutually admired for their scholarship and contributions to society.  Othu Pallies were the centers where pupils could learn the basic methodology of religion, as well as the traditional songs and rituals.  The system of teaching and the patterns they followed in teaching and writing were strictly in the unique Malabar tradition.  Knowledge other than religious was acquired from practice and maintained by special assistants.

The cultural assimilation was also reflected in the style of the houses, which adopted traditional architecture to suit the climate, available building materials, and the craftsmanship of traditional builders.  There were three patterns of houses among the Muslim as well as Hindu communities of Malabar, the lower class, middle class, and aristocracy.  Muslims and non-Muslims built the same type of house from one of these three choices after considering their financial status.  

Aristocratic houses followed unique, old patterns strictly adopting the conventional Vastu traditional architecture.  The style of Nalukettu and Ettukettu as the traditional ancestral houses of Malabar consisted of the Padippura, gate house, and long veranda.   The traditional Muslim Tharawad was just a replica of traditional Hindu houses.  They were all built strictly following the traditional Vastu of Malabar.  Two big windows were arranged like rectangular openings on the wall facing the veranda with thick wooden doors attached in the traditional way using rounded wooden ends.  Its dual purpose when unfolded was to be used as a solid bench, on which the elders of the house reclined in the evenings or in the afternoons after lunch.  This has various names in different areas of the Malabar region, but the usage and the structure are almost the same.  The rooms in both Hindu and Muslim houses have the same name in various areas.  Muslim houses have a special place for formal prayer.  Hindu houses have a Pooja room.  Muslim Tharavadu kept two built-in platforms on either side of the entrance in an open area between the Kolaya and Naduvakam for performing traditional ritual arts like Ratib or Mawlid.

These big houses were normally two stories with a wooden staircase to the second floor.  Where the home kept the matrilineal tradition this is where the husbands presided.  This area, called the Arra, is a strictly private part of the house.  All the other people living in the house gave much respect to whoever stayed there as a guest of the family.  This area was in the center of the house, where normally a square opening on the roof provides access to the fresh air outside the house.  This system kept the house cool during the hot seasons of Malabar.  This was really a blind adaptation of the traditional Malabar houses to the Muslim life styles and to the cross-cultural relations of Malabar.  If it is small it was called Naduvakam, where the open sky was visible and inhabitants enjoyed better ventilation and contact with nature.  This Muslim Taraward was the same as the Nadumuttam of Nalukettu.  The doors on three sides led to the rooms for the women and the elders of the family.  Married girls usually spend their night upstairs and during the day they spend time normally in the common area of the house with their brothers, sisters, cousins, and father and mother.  In the matrilineal system the rooms on the first floor were arranged for Puthyappala, who pray the whole night and seldom come down or mix with other women folk in the wife’s house.

In this system, the husband or husbands are given a special room in the wife’s house with all facilities as a house within the bigger house.  They enjoy breakfast in this special room, where the wife serves her husband and the mother in law takes great care to keep him happy.  

In the middle-class house, all these are arranged on a single floor in accordance with the space, family status, and regional social status.  The middle-class house is rectangular in shape, but a miniature of the same architectural structure with single floor facilities.  This also provide an arras with available facilities.  In the next class, the lower section of the community also followed the matrilineal status considering the custom of the locality.  These houses are very small huts, built in clusters, usually on the sea shore without inside toilet facilities.

The Malabar Muslims still enjoy two types of kinship organization, namely, the   patrilineal and the matrilineal.  The Muslims from the interior of South Malabar, especially in the Malappuram and Palakkad districts and in the interior suburban areas of the coastal region of Kozhikode and Kannur, maintain the patrilineal order.  But most of the 16th-century Muslim settlements followed the Matrilineal set up.  It is clear from this scenario that when people accepted Islam as their religion they never insisted on changing their social systems as long as they were not against the basic beliefs of Islam.

There were karanavars or heads of households in patrilineal as well as matrilineal family systems, one system of karanavar from the mother’s family, and the other from the father’s family.  On the mother’s side the eldest brother of the mother is the most powerful person in the family; in the patrilineal structure the grandfather or the father who is the eldest of the family will be the head of the family.  In the early years, people followed the joint-family system, which helped them to survive in any circumstance.  

In cultural heritage Muslims adopted the traditional Hindu family system of Malabar.  Though the matrilineal system was unknown in Arabian Islam, this special Malabar system was happily incorporated into the religion, and great scholars supported this system by accepting their families and circles of friends to avoid alienation from the real cultural heritage of the region.  In the patrilineal systems, married woman used to live in the house of the husband after marriage and the husband will not have much role to play in the daily household matters of the wife’s Tharawad.  The children are brought up in the father’s family and are identified by the family name of the father.  In the other system, they will use the family name of the mother where they all reside together.  Only a minority community from among   Malabar Muslims pursued the matrilineal system, but these groups lived in the major places where the 16th-century Muslims were prominent powers and important groups, especially in Ponnani, Kozhikode, and Valapattanam.

The Nayars are considered to be the progenitors of those North Malabar Muslims who follow the Marumakkathayam law of inheritance with its principle of non-division.  This kinship group closely resembles the matrilineal units of the Nayars of Malabar with reforms and revisions. The matrilineal units are called tharawads or Puras, in which the members trace their lineage in the mother’s line, but with some variants in practice, such as the rare custom in the Koyilandy and Vadakara districts of Kozhikode where the husband stays permanently in the tharawad of his wife.  


Cultural assimilation is widely reflected also in the marriage ceremonies.  The Nikah is an important religious ceremony in a Muslim marriage, but in the traditional practice of Malabar the marriage is consummated only after holding a function called kalyanam.  In some cases the nikah is solemnized months or years ahead of the real traditional kalyanam.  In another tradition the nikah can be performed on the day of the kalyanam, when the bridegroom and his friends visit the house of the bride.  According to the usual practice of the matrilineal system, nikah is normally solemnized in the bride’s house or in the mosque near the house.  

In Malabar the activities other than nikah were almost the same in the kalyanam of both Muslims and Hindus.  Resembling the Hindu system of Thali Charthal, the Muslim bridegroom also ties the mahar around the neck of the bride when he first visits her.  In traditional Malabar style both Muslim and Hindu marriages are arranged by traditional marriage brokers or family friends or elders of the family who help to find matching spouses.  In an official practice called Nischayam the elder male members meet to announce and declare the proposal and fix a date for the marriage.

In the matrilineal style of both systems it is a matter of prestige to decorate the maniyara, which nowadays is called Ara as the shortened version of the word.  The bride’s family will be very careful to arrange a maniyara that is suitable for the status of both families and for viewing by relatives and friends before the marriage party does.

According to matrilineal custom still followed today, on the wedding night the bridegroom and his close relatives and friends will visit the bride’s house for a delicious dinner called Thakkaram.  Those who keep the tradition do so in order to link the generations through this type of traditional ceremonies and feasts.  


During his field study in the South Pacific on the ethno-cultural moorings of Malabar, this researcher found the people proudly hosting thakkaram for their daughter’s groom.  Zulaikha Khthoon, a Fijian Malabar community member, is now happily living in Melbourne, Australia, with the family and is keeping the pride of the Malabar tradition.  She affirmed that she would do Thakkaram for her eldest daughter just as her parents had arranged that traditional feast for her.  In order to maintain the memory of the traditional feast she would like to prepare such a wonderful moment for her, because marriage ceremonies are very important in Malabar where the family is regarded as a wonderful and well-integrated system.

The requirements of marriage from the Islamic point of view are simple and universal in nature.  The essential requirements of a Muslim marriage are:  1) the partner should not be selected from a certain degree of kinships, 2) the marriage should have the full consent of both parties, 3) the groom should pay an amount or give an ornament called mahar to the bride, and 4) the Nikah should be solemnized by a Qazi.  The Malabar marriages, however, for many centuries have been an amalgamation of both Islamic and traditional rituals, which makes Malabar a place for wonderful weddings.  

Many symbols of unity are still pursued with mutual respect.  Formerly, at the time of wedding ceremonies, a brass lamp was lighted by the eldest female member in the Muslim family, as is done in the Hindu family.  This was also followed by sprinkling rice on the heads of newly wedded couples, which is also a Hindu custom.  Another common practice is for the newly married couples to sit on a white sheet spread over a blanket.

The careful respect for marriage demonstrates the moderate strategy of Malabar Muslims to keep the society as a single body irrespective of religion, color, and creed.  The basic requirements of Muslim marriages all around the world are the same, but differing contexts of life style and culture have created variation in function and application.  In the special harmonious circumstances of the 16th-century the Malabar Muslims and Hindus lived together and supported each other in all kinds of family ceremonies and local events without segregation in either religious or social ceremony.  They all lived together in the same locality, mixed with each other, and proved the historical necessity of being best neighbors and friends.  The 16th-century scholars of both faiths supported this interfaith religious harmony and cooperation by assimilating each other’s cultural events and regional ceremonies.  This cultural integration and social assimilation paved the way for the emergence of new art and literature with Islamic values and became part of the culture of the land.  In later years, people from all walks of life and from all religious groups adopted these art forms and their special functions.


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Abbas Panakkal
By Abbas Panakkal

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