Religion and Harmony: A Malabar Experience



Malabar in southwest India has been blessed with Hindu rulers for thousands of years who welcomed immigrants. Most notably these were the Christians two thousand years ago from Southwest Asia, led by Saint Thomas the Apostle of Jesus Christ, and a millennium and a half ago Muslims from the same region who came as merchants to carry on the sea trade that had come to bind together three of the world’s five continents, namely, Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The rulers of Malabar provided complete freedom, respect, and support for the highest principles of both Islam and Christianity as guidance for adapting their detailed applications to the context of Malabar in pursuing harmony among its three diverse cultures.

Over the course of time the followers of these three world religions developed a confederation of peoples based not on secular rule by a centralized state regime but on the enlightened cultures of the three component nations themselves. This resulted not by specific intent but simply by practice into what can serve as a global model of harmonious social, economic, and political respect and cooperation.

The Pledge

The largest annual Ramadan congregation in India takes place near the capital city of Malappuram in one of India’s few Muslim majority districts. Here at the Ramadan congregational prayer service conducted by the Ma’din Academy Muslims from all over India and beyond gather on the eve of 27th Ramadan to seek the blessings of Ramadan’s most sacred night, Laila al Qadr. The most important parts of this congregational gathering are repentance (tauba) and a pledge of commitment. All believers ask Allah to forgive their sins and they promise not to repeat these sins ever again. The congregation concludes with a pledge to start a new life of commitment to good deeds.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims gather in the congregation and take an oath to abstain from all extremist and terroristic activities. They pledge that they will never engage in any activities that will harm the body or soul of a fellow human being and destabilize the country. The congregation confirms its strong commitment to a harmonious heritage of India where all religious communities live together. The pledge asks the believers to behold the true values of Islam and refrain from all activities that threaten civilized life.

In the Pledge the congregants promise that, “We the servants of Allah and followers of Prophet Muhammad affirm in good faith that we will strive to promote the virtue and well-being of our family, friends, teachers, and the whole of humanity. We will be in the forefront to give a helping hand to the poor and the oppressed. We have assembled here on the 27th eve of Ramadan, upholding forbearance and abstention from everything that Allah has forbidden, to rededicate ourselves in the service of humanity and to lead a life afresh devoid of sins and transgressions. We reaffirm that usurping the rights of fellow-beings is a grave offense to humanity. We honor the dignity of others. And we praise God for blessing us with an Islamic life. Even as we take pride in being Muslims, we respect and honor all other faiths and their followers. We will keep a continuous vigil against forces that work to destroy the oneness of humanity”.

The History and Dynamics of Interfaith Cooperation

The Ramadan congregation gains its social relevance because it goes beyond a conventional Muslim religious gathering in order to give a strong message of communal harmony by serving as a meeting point of different religious groups. The Ramadan program provides an opportunity for Muslims and non-Muslims to join together and help each other. Members of the Hindu community support the Muslim believers by praying together on one of their most sacred nights.

Out of the twelve commercial venues prepared for the prayers, two belong to Hindu families. The families let Muslims pray on their grounds without paying rent paying rent to the organizers. P.K. Sreekumar from a traditional Hindu family states, “For the last ten years we have been providing our one-and-a-half acres of land along the highway for prayers. We have very good relations with the Muslim community here”. Another person, Chandran, said he also volunteers to help the organizers in arranging parking space for vehicles ferrying pilgrims. K.P. Haridasan, another Hindu resident, has provided the basement of his multi-storied shopping complex to use it as a prayer hall for women. For many years the land had been used for such prayers. Now, after he has constructed a building on the land, he lets the organizers use the facilities for prayer inside the building.1

This contemporary example of religious harmony and cooperation is not a rare incident or aberration from common practices, but rather continues a historical relationship that has been preserved and nourished by different religious communities in Malabar. From the time of Islam’s arrival, Hindu rulers and the common people have received the religion and believers with an open hand. In his Tuhfat al Mujahidin, the first recorded history of Malabar, Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum provides many insights into the life of the Hindu and Muslim communities and their interactions. In the introduction, he describes how Islam entered the region and how the support of local rulers helped Islam gain acceptance and popularity.2 He writes. “Groups of Muslims entered some of the seaports of Malabar and settled there. In the course of time the inhabitants of these towns embraced the religion of Allah. Thus, Islam took root and its adherents increased in number. The towns in Malabar became populated with them, because the non-Muslim rulers did not oppress them or disrespect their ancient customs”.3

The Muslim community’s reward for this acceptance and hospitality by the Hindu rulers and community was their complete allegiance and commitment to their rulers and the law of the land. The community helped the trade and commerce of the country flourtish and gave their lives for the kingdom whenever it was necessary. The intention behind the writing of the Tuhfat al Mujahidin was to encourage the Muslim community to fight against the Portuguese invaders and their efforts to colonize Zamorin’s territory where the Muslims lived peacefully. The pledge against terrorism at the Ma’din Academy’s Ramadan prayer congregation heralds the continuation of the commitment of Muslims to the peace and harmony of the land they call home.

The opening paragraph of this article from Tuhfat al Mujahidin is important here in many ways. It is taken from Part Three (al qism al thalis) of Tuhfat al Mujahidin, entitled “Certain Strange Customs of the Hindus in Malabar”, where he describes the customs and practices of different Hindu castes. Here, Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum describes the mutual respect that existed between the Hindu and Muslim communities.4

Though the Muslim leaders of that time did not possess governmental power, they enjoyed respect and special consideration from the Hindu rulers. Muslims were provided financial aid and help from the rulers to organize Friday prayers and Eid celebrations. This historical account proves that the communal harmony and cosmopolitanism in Malabar went beyond trade and commerce and extended to the religious and everyday life of the people. Though the Islam and Hindu religions may appear to be ideologically antithetical, because Islam insists on the Oneness of God and popular Hinduism appears to support polytheism, this apparent divergence did not prevent both communities from helping each other even in purely religious events and practices, including the joint organization of gatherings.

Qadi Muhammad praised Zamorin5 the Hindu ruler in Calicut, for his support for the community in his Fath al Mubin and urged the Muslim community to protect his kingdom by fighting against the Portuguese. He wrote, “I have composed a part of this narrative so that kings and emperors will listen to it. Perhaps they might think of waging war against them when they hear it or perhaps they might take a lesson from it. And perhaps it may travel around the world and reach Syria and Iraq in particular, so that they might realize the courage and bravery of King Zamorin, who is well-known all over the world as the ruler of the famous Calicut, may it ever remain glorious. He loves our religion of Islam and the Muslims among all the peoples of mankind. He is the helper of our religion and the executor of our Islamic law to the extent that he has even allowed a pronouncement to be recited in the name of the Caliph. And Muslims are his loyal subjects wherever they live in his in country. Only the leader of the Muslim community, Shah Bandar, along with all the other Muslims are permitted to stand on Zamorin’s right side they live/ (The leader of the Muslim alone) and no pagan can stand on the right side the Zamorin during his festivals (lines 12 to 21).6

These lines show the special consideration that the Muslim community and their leaders enjoyed under Zamorin. Fath al Mubin and Tuhfat al Mujahidin are precious first-hand accounts of the colonial powers’ arrival in Malabar and of the resistance to it. They also reveal to us the social life and inter-religious relationships existed of the time. These accounts help us to appreciate the fact that different communities coexisted peacefully in Kerala in the time of Zamorin. Especially lines 17 and 18 show that religion served as the ground for Muslim-Hindu cooperation: “He is the helper of our religion and the executor of our Islamic law to the extent that he has even allowed Muslims to address him as ‘the One who loves our religion of Islam and the Muslims from among all the peoples of mankind’.”

Muslim community received generous support in terms of land, funding, and labor from Hindu rulers to build mosques throughout Kerala. This support was mainly facilitated by the conversion of Cheraman Perumal, a Chera king, after witnessing the Prophet Muhammad’s miracle of the split moon. He went to meet the Prophet in order to become a Muslim with the help of Arab traders and adopted a new name, Thajuddin. He started his return journey to propagate Islam in Kerala with a team of prophet’s companions led by Malik bin Dinar, but the king fell sick on the way. Before his death, the king wrote a letter, addressing his family, which instructs them to receive Malik Bin Dinar and his team and provide them with all the necessary help. The king later died and was buried in Zafar (now Salalah) in the Sultanate of Oman. Malik bin Dinar landed in Musris (Kodungallore) and met the ruler of the area, who made necessary arrangements for them to teach about Islam and build mosques. Malik bin Dinar and his colleagues built twelve mosques in different parts of Kerala along the coastal areas of the Arabian Sea.

The mosques in Kerala embody the region’s inter-communal relationships. The early mosque architecture of Kerala does not copy the features of either the Arabic style or those of the Indo-Islamic architecture of northern India. These mosques bear strong resemblances to the region’s temples and Hindu place of worship and to the theatre halls (koothambalam). They have a large prayer hall with a mihrab on the wall that faces the Ka’ba surrounded by a veranda. Some of them have a tall basement like the adhisthana of temples.

The mosques were constructed by local artisans following the instructions of the Muslim religious leaders. The Juma Mosque in Ponnani, which was built in the year 1510 by Zaynuddin Makhdum the First, beautifully embodies Malabar’s tradition of harmony. The architect of this mosque, Ashaari, was a Hindu and a good friend of Makhdum. It is believed that the architect later became a Muslim. The mosque that contains the tombs of Ashaari is near to Makhdum and the Asai and is known as the Asari Thangal. It was in this mosque that Zainuddin Makhdum wrote the Tuhfat al-Mujahidin.

Architectural historians have also found influences of cultural connections between Muslims and Buddhists in several places, including Ponnani and Kuttichira in Kozhikode (Mishkal Pally).

This inter-communal relationships were not restricted to the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities. Sayyid Muhammad Maula Bukhari (1731-1792), one of the most influential leaders from the sayyid family, those who descend from the Prophet Muhammad, had a close relationship also with Shanjur, a Jewish trader in Cochin. Sayyid Muhammad Maula Bukhari, the son of Muhammed Bukhari, a famous Sufi, moved to Malabar from Kavarathi for religious studies at Valapattanam. He later settled and started his scholarly career at Chembitta Palli in Cochin, South Kerala. The site of his mosque was allotted by the Maharaja of Kochi. As a Jew, Shanjur, was impressed with Maula Bukhari’s account of the prophet, Moses, and donated a large teak tree for the mosque’s renovation. This mosque got its name (Chempitta Palli) from the roof of the main hall, which is covered with ‘chempu’ (copper).

Mamburam Sayyid Alavi Thangal, one of the most revered Sufi leaders in Malabar and whose trusted administrator was Konthu Nair, had a close relationship with the local Hindu community. His charismatic appeal transcended communal boundaries. Both Muslims and non-Muslims considered his words as authoritative. Folk songs indicate that it was Sayyid Alavi Thangal who suggested the date of the annual Kaliyattakkav Ulsavam, a popular festival of low caste Hindus, which is still held today in the middle of Edavam (end of May).7

In combination, all the above examples may surprise who associate religion with rhetoric, conflict, and violence. The hegemonic narrative of secularism insists that religion must be barred from public life in order to bring about peace among people of different cultural and religious background. The historical experience of Malabar shows that the European experience of secularism is not universal, but rather results from its specific historical context. In Malabar it is precisely public respect for religion and its practice in places of worship, festivals, and prayer congregations that make possible the harmony of community coexistence and interfaith cooperation.


  2. The question of when and how Islam entered Malabar has been contested by many scholars. Zainuddin Makhdum devoted one full chapter to this discussion. After describing the importance of cooperation in the Jihad against Portuguese colonizers to protect Islam and Muslims, he narrates the stories about the advent of Islam in Malabar and analyses them. He is of the view that there is not enough evidence to say that Islam entered Malabar at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and he concluded that the famous story about the Hindu king meeting the Prophet and embracing Islam is far from true. Many historians, however, believe the light of Islam did reach Malabar at the time of the prophet. Along with other evidence, the centuries-long trade relations between Malabar and the Arab world suggests that the king who gave a gift to the Prophet in the form of a bottle of pickle that had ginger in it mentioned in the Hadith reported by Imam Bukhari, wherein Abu Saeed al Khudri and Imam Al Hakim in Al Mustadrak would be Cheraman Perumal from Malabar.
  3. Shaykh Zainuddin, Tuhafat al Mujahidin, translated) by Muhamed Hussain Nainar, S, Madras, 1942, p. 12.
  4. In Part Three of Tuhfat al Mujahidin, Makhdum describes how the Hindu community openly accepted conversion to Islam. He writes, “Unbelievers never punish those of their countrymen who embrace Islam, but treat them with the same respect shown to the rest of the Muslims, even if the convert belongs to the lowest of the grades of their society” (p. 52). This account evidences the level of pluralism and communal amity that prevailed between the Hindu and Muslim communities in those days.
  5. Qadi Muhammad, son of Abdul Aziz Nazirudin, the 10th qadi of Kozhikode (a locally appointed juristic scholar who issues fatwas), was both a poet and a historian. He was the contemporary of Shaykh Zainudin II, the author of Tuhfat al Mujahidin. His “Muhyi al Din Mala”, a poem that praises Muhyi al Din Abd al Khadir al Gilani, is widely sung by Muslims in Kerala. Fatah al Mubin was the first famous work of Qadi Muhammad,wjich he wrote in 1578 before he was appointed as the Qadi in 1617. Besides these two famous works, he has penned 15 works on grammar, eschatology, phonetics, astrology, mathematics, behavioural science, rhetoric, and personal counselling. He died in 1618 (A.H. 1025) and was buried at the Kuttichira Juma Masjid, Kozhikode.
  6. Qadi Muhammad, Fath al Mubin, Calicut, 2015, pp.18-19.
  7. Salim Idid, ‘Kadha parayunna Mamburam’ Chandrika Daily, 27Ih April 191 9, p. 3 89

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Sayyid Bukhari
By Sayyid Bukhari

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