“I swear by Allah that I do not fear poverty for you, but I fear the prospect of the material world opening up for you.”—Muhammed Nabi


In Kerala’s Malabar region, the Gulf is the backdrop to almost everything. Indeed it’s been the dominant influence on the social life of Malabar, expressed perfectly by the following joke.

“Here everyone is in Gulf, in four different ways; those who have gone to Gulf; those preparing to go to Gulf; those who lament they cannot go to Gulf; and those worried they might have to return from Gulf.” In other words, everyone’s in the Gulf here.

Gulf money has dramatically increased prosperity in this hitherto impoverished region, which suffered economically at the hands of the Raj. Modern conveniences are the least of this wealth, with the “exterior” of Muslim social life enriched by newspapers, automobiles, mobile phones, the Internet, iPads, and social media. They have all found a way into the lives of Malabar Muslims.

To get an idea of the influence the Gulf has had on Malabar, think about the fact that there’s an international airport at Kondotty, once a remote village in Malappuram.

On the face of it this is a benign, unlooked for miracle even though it’s said that behind every fortune there’s a crime. That is true enough for most fortunes known to history: be it monarchy, feudalism, capitalism or democracy. But the miracle of Arab oil money came without crime.

That story began in the late 1930s with oil struck in the vast desert sands of Arab countries, until then isolated by topography, climate, culture and faith from a world dominated by western industry, power and ideas. It led to a ripple effect that is active even today.

The owners of this miracle fluid, so central to Western industry and modernity, had neither the technology nor the skilled labour required to handle it. So it was westerners who started large-scale extraction near the end of the 1950s. Skilled and unskilled labour from all parts of the world flocked to the Middle East for a share of the bonanza. Kerala too joined the gold rush in its neighbourhood.

Malayali migration to the Gulf started in the early 1960s. But they were usually people travelling illegally in cargo containers and Haj ships. But by the 1970s, it was a mass phenomenon.

Though one says Kerala, the majority came from Malabar, in northern Kerala. Both were old neighbours who’d known each other much before the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Even the name Malabar, hilly region, is an Arab contribution. Legend has it that Cheraman Perumal, the king of Malabar, went to Mecca after converting to Islam. Of Kerala’s 27 per cent Muslim population, the majority live in Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur, Kasargod and Wayanad districts of Malabar.

There is a background to these emigrations in search of jobs. The revolts against feudalism started during the Nationalist movement. Congressmen, communists and socialists all played their part in these struggles. After Kerala was formed in 1956, the first government of 1957 attracted widespread interest as the world’s first democratically elected communist government. Land reform topped the agenda of the government of E. M. S. Namboodiripad, among the country’s foremost communist theorists. His second government (1967) continued with reforms, and on January 1, 1970, the government declared that the process had been completed.

Land reform had an impact on everything. One of the principal results was large-scale unemployment. That was when the doors of the Gulf opened to Kerala. The Malayali who had found freedom from feudalism crossed the Arabian Sea to capitalism.



ccording to the Sachar Committee report (2006), Kerala’s Muslims are the most financially secure in the country. I see three major reasons for it. The first is that in Kerala, there is only one language—Malayalam—for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. All communities share the same tradition in academics, literature, cinema, theatre, music and sport. This has led to an environment marked by a secular outlook and a culture of tolerance which in turn helped all communities develop.

Muslims have always played a prominent role in mainstream politics. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) fought for its rights by not distancing itself from the mainstream, but by placing itself in the forefront. Their persistent point of view was not that they were entitled to particular rights because they were Muslims; but said that because they were Muslims, they should not be deprived of rights available to everyone else. From 1967, they were often part of the government. In 1979, C. H. Mohammed Koya even became chief minister—for 56 days—though the Muslim League just had 11 MLAs.

Though they tend to splurge on elaborate homes, weddings, jewellery, clothes, etc., Malayalis also make it a point to spend big on children’s education. This is where the positive aspect of Gulf money manifests itself most prominently. Muslims, especially girls, have made the most of modern secular education.

The fact that Saudabi, a Muslim girl, topped the SSLC examination in 1999 says it all. That is why so many young Muslims excel at medicine, engineering, IT, journalism, and so on. Indeed if there is a fault to be found, it is the zealousness they have for English.

There is a certain irony about this last tendency. During the Raj, the Mappilas, as they were popularly known, waged a relentless struggle against their overlords and the feudal system that prospered under them. As a result they were isolated from modern, secular education. In the process of hating the English, they ended up hating the language and modern education. English was dubbed the “language of Iblis”. Its study was prohibited; it was haram.

It took a long time to get to the point where they are today. Syed Sanaullah Makthi Thangal (1847-1912), the first reformist of the region, and the Muslim Aikya Sangham (Muslim United Group: 1922-1934), the first reformist movement, worked for modern, secular education, but their efforts did not bear much fruit.

The turning point was the establishment of Farook College in Kozhikode in 1948. Eleven years later, in 1959, girls were allowed in the college. Muslim Education Society, founded in 1964 by Dr P. K. Abdul Gafoor in Kozhikode, accelerated the process of transformation. With the establishment of Calicut University in 1959, a brainchild of Muslim League leader C. H. Mohammed Koya, Malabar Muslims finally found a footing in mainstream education.



o much, then, for the external life, but what about the internal? The first thing to note is that all Kerala Muslims are Sunnis. There may be individuals or families who are Shias but they are not present as a community. Among the Sunnis, the majority follow the Shafi’i Madhab School. A few families, migrants from neighbouring states, follow the Hanafi School. 

However, in the Shafi’i Madhab School, there are groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and Nadwatul Mujahideen, Ahmadiyya, that oppose traditional practices. These “new ideas” can be traced to the Muslim Aikya Sangham’s drive for reform. The Jamaat-e-Islami, whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic State (Hukumat-E-Ilahi), started functioning in the state in 1948. Nadwatul Mujahideen, a Kerala model of the Salafist strain, known in north India as Ahle Hadees, came here in 1950.

The majority belongs to Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah—hardcore traditionalists who at one point fiercely opposed the education of women and even now prohibit women from coming to the mosque on Fridays for Jumu’ah. They also insist that the khuthba or sermon delivered by the imam on Fridays should be in Arabic. Different streams of Sufism like Qadiriyya, Naqshbandiyya, Shamsiyya, Nooriyya and Rifayiyya have their presence among this majority group.

Sunnis pay the greatest respect to Goofi teachers (sheikhs) and martyrs (shaheeds). Their tombs are considered holy. Yearly offerings (uroos) at these tombs carry great weight in their religious life. They are also patrons of traditional art forms like Duffmuttu, Aravana Muttu, Kolkali, Oppana, Mappilappatu and Muttuvili.

Gulf prosperity shows up in the proliferation of madarsas, Arabic colleges, mosques and television channels. The number of annual celebrations, religious study circles, and felicitation ceremonies is up. There’s always a celebration, traditional function, sermon or prayer meeting happening somewhere: visibility and exhibitionism have become synonymous with religious life. The marks of identity are fashion statements for the young. Beards, skullcaps, maftha and purdah are common, and Haj-Umrah are more frequent. Local architecture has vanished from mosques, replaced by the Arabic style. Minarets were non-existent in mosques even three or four decades back; now they are mandatory for even small mosques.

The most significant consequence of Gulf money is intense one-upmanship among religious organisations. The rivalries within these groups did not take long to manifest themselves in a series of splits starting in the 1970s.



he first to break up was the Indian Union Muslim League in 1974. They united after 11 years for Shariat protection. The Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), founded under the aegis of the Jamaat-e-Islami, rose against its parent in 1979 when the revolution succeeded in Iran. Their demand was for a similar revolution in India. The Jamaat, which felt the time had not yet come for revolution, had to disown SIMI, branding its activists as Naxal extremists who in turn called them traitors who diluted Maududism.

In 2002, the Mujahideen split into an official and Madavoor factions. What began as a minor difference of opinion blew up into a split after the rebel group started a newspaper. The official faction split further on whether praying to djinns was sanctioned by the religion.

The earlier Mujahids were inspired by Egyptian reformists like Mohammed Abu and Rashid Rida. By the 1970s they were looking to Saudi Arabia, not for ideas and ideologies, but for money to raise madarsas, mosques and Arabic colleges.



espite all the advances, Muslims are still unprepared for a world of democracy, secularism, nationalism and scientific reasoning. Most are blind to the backwardness that has befallen the community on account of its obsessive adherence to conservative interpretations of religious laws. As a consequence, religious extremism, fundamentalism, demands for an Islamic state in India and blatant anti-women attitudes now mark their presence.

Let me explain.

As Gulf migration picked up pace, eminent novelist N. P. Mohammed started the Islam and Modern Age Society (1970) in Kozhikode. Its objective was to reform Sharia laws in accordance with changing times and Indian realities. But conservatives and “progressives” ganged up to defeat it. Sunnis, Jamaat and Mujahids united against the Islam and Modern Age Society. The scenario was repeated in the EMS-Sharia controversy in 1984-86 and in the debates that followed the Shah Bano verdict in 1985, by which Muslim men were not to be exempt from paying maintenance to a divorced wife. Using emotional constructs like “minority”, “backward community” and “cultural identity”, clerics managed to shut out all possibilities of reform. Curiously, the “progressives” too believe the doors to reform are closed forever!

There are other examples of this mindset. Abortion was legalised in the 1970s but all Muslim organisations opposed birth control and abortion saying it was a law against God.

All Muslim organisations opposed fixing the age of marriage at 18 for women, saying it was against Sharia. But the community ignored them.

Many still feel watching television or cinema is haram. In 1985, an imam lost his job because his son brought a TV from the Gulf. Madhyamam, the newspaper run by the Jamaat, still does not carry advertisements for movies.

In earlier times, the veil only covered a woman’s hair. Then came makna which covered ears and neck as well. After that came purdah—around 20 years ago. It is now a cloth that covers everything except the eyes—literally burying the woman in black. The Muslim women of Malabar are not going back to purdah; they are only entering it.

One of the key criticisms of Sharia law centred on polygamy. The Modern Age Society sought to abolish or at least control it. But Gulf money resurrected this decaying evil. Even Mujahids, who claim to be “progressive”, have written “scholarly” articles and conducted seminars glorifying polygamy. Women are tempted with the prospect of heaven if they allow their husbands to marry twice or thrice.

Most Muslims believed in various forms of sorcery, crystal-gazing, astrology and horoscopes. The fight against these un-Islamic practices had partially succeeded when a faction of the supposedly progressive Mujahids came out with the claim that it was okay to seek the help of djinns!

The Prophet died in 632, 14 centuries ago. But his holy hair reached Kozhikode recently. Now a holy hair-mosque is planned in Kozhikode and people are drinking water in which this hair has been dipped, seeking cures from disease and divine blessings. Though some Sunnis oppose this, their opposition is founded on the argument that the hair is fake; had it been real diseases would have been cured and blessing would have been showered from the heavens. Only the Mujahids and the Jamaat have opposed the mosque citing that it is un-Islamic to claim divinity for the Prophet’s mortal remains.

There are many provisions in Muslim law that are blatant violations of human rights. They include the one-sided right of the man to divorce his wife (talaq); the provision that in succession rights, women have claim only to half of what the man claims; the provision that if someone dies while his/her father is alive, the children of the deceased do not have any succession rights; the prohibition for a couple to adopt children even if they have none. No organisation is willing to correct these violations or even address them. Even those scholars who say “Muslim Personal Law” in India is a product of the unholy nexus between clergy and imperialism and that it is in many instances antagonistic in nature to the Sharia, oppose reform. If even the real Sharia laws contain anti-human provisions, what is the point in depending on these scholars?

In general, the “progressiveness” of Muslim organisations in Kerala is concerned with revivalism; it vehemently opposes renaissance and reform. It keeps repeating that anything modern is dangerous; it will only lead to hell. Its slogan is to return to the holy books. It obstinately claims that everything is present in the Quran and that nothing needs to be added.

It was Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of Jamaat, who said that Quran is the constitution of Muslims all over the world. His argument was that the only reform needed was to cleanse society of the evils that had found their way into Islamic society over the centuries; and that progressiveness lay in upholding the tradition of the Prophet.

The idea of the Islamic state is a mere reenactment of the tribal culture of seventh century Arabia. Everything else is the rule of the devil. And according to the Jamaat, it is the duty of the Muslim to fight against this rule of the devil. It proposes theocracy in place of democracy; pan-Islamism in place of nationalism; and state religion in place of secularism.



his brings us to Abdul Nasser Maudani, the first to bring Kerala on the national stage of terrorism. He was inspired by Maududism though the Jamaat has never supported armed resistance. A Sunni by birth and practice, his is the first example in Kerala of an Islamic scholar establishing a political party and entering mainstream politics.

In 1991 he formed the Islamic Seva Sangh (ISS) when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was peaking and Advani had started his rath yatra. As the name suggests, its objective was to protect Muslims from the RSS. Like the RSS, like Jamaat, ISS too was not a political party.

The politics he proposed—whether he accepts it or not—was an exact replica of Maududi’s model. Sample these viewpoints he presented in his various speeches:

Today, Islam is in danger in India. There is no point seeking the help of political parties, including supposedly Islamic parties.

Parties like Muslim League are good for nothing. Religion and politics are not separate for a Muslim. Islam is a comprehensive way of life that includes political ideology too. So all Muslims should bury their differences and unite for a common cause.

Muslims should abstain from electoral politics because elections benefit only the leaders, not the community. Whichever nation you belong to, all Muslims are citizens of the same “country”.  The world should be divided on the basis of faith—those who have faith and those who don’t.

Maudani, who presented the ideological world of Maududi in his speeches, soon became a cult hero for the youth. The RSS, taken aback by the support, threw a bomb and crippled him—he lost his right leg. This was in 1992.

In 1992, when Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindu terrorists, ISS along with Jamaat was banned by the central government. Jamaat fought and successfully overturned this ban through conventional means. But Maudani left ISS and launched the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Its objective was to work for the upliftment of the oppressed and for a Muslim-Dalit alliance. Some of the leaders of the party are Dalits. Later, Maudani would say that he embraced the path of secular democracy while he was an undertrial in the Coimbatore serial bomb blasts case.

The National Development Front, which started in Kozhikode from 1993, was a modified version of the banned SIMI. Inspired by Maududism, they have a history of arms training; they drew the water and fertiliser for their growth from the insecurity created by the Babri event. Later this “cultural organisation” changed its name to Popular Front of India (PFI), which later became the political party Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI).

Its stated objective is to protect the Muslims from Hindu terrorism and state terrorism. Counter attack, according to them, is not violence. They describe it as the “ideology of resistance”.

The accused in the “Kaivettu case”, in which Professor Joseph’s hand was chopped off for allegedly defaming the Prophet, are members of the NDF.

There have always been debates, fights and rivalries on religious stages. But it was only towards the end of the 1980s that it descended to physical violence. When the Sunnis split, one group resorted to physical means while settling disputes relating to the mosque.

A group called Sunni Tiger Force was formed to protect Kanthapuram A. P. Aboobacker. They have also been accused of attacking the Mujahids. Even debates in connection with Ramzan dawn have ended up in murder. The accused in the murder of Chekannur Maulavi belong to the AP Sunni group.

The picture of the Malabar Muslim social life is of religion, business and politics combining to exploit the possibilities offered by Gulf money. All organisations run media houses, publishing firms, educational institutions, etc. And they are all profitable businesses—in the name of religion.

The proposed holy-hair mosque will be a fine example of the “trinity”. What is coming up is India’s biggest pilgrimage centre whose cost is estimated at `40 crore. Naturally, the price of surrounding land will rise dramatically. Though a symbolic foundation has been
laid, the actual site of the proposed mosque has not yet been revealed. That only validates the fact that what is going on is a mere real estate deal. The popularity it will undoubtedly generate in the community can be used to further strengthen an already formidable vote bank.

Reformist and renaissance movements are conceding defeat to revivalism. The management brilliance of this “industrial religion” continues to foster its commerce with the political class.

Translated from Malayalam by 
Suresh P. Thomas.