Kerala is a state in southwest India on the Malabar Coast, facing the Arabian Sea. It is home to a population of around 35 million.
It’s a very tourist-friendly area characterized by its maritime tropical climate and beautiful scenic mountains, waterfalls, beaches, lakes, etc.
As Muslims, we of course don’t judge a society based on materialistic standards, however it is still interesting to know that Kerala has the highest Human Development Index (HDI) of any Indian state.
It also holds importance from the perspective of Islam—around 25% of its population is Muslim, with the rest of its population being 55% Hindu and 20% Christian. The percentage of Muslims is in actuality higher than this if you take into account the Indian diaspora. The majority of the Indian emigrants to the Gulf in particular are Malayali-Muslims. (“Malayalis” are the natives of Kerala.)
This means Kerala’s Muslim population is around 10 million, which makes them greater in number than many Muslim-majority countries in the world.
Another interesting fact:
After being converted by Arab traders as early as the 7th century, the Mappilas (the term generally used for Malayali-Muslims)—who are concentrated on the rural Malabar coast—are in fact the first and oldest Muslim community within South Asia.
This is the reason why Mappilas are generally Shafi’is in terms of their jurisprudence, whereas other Muslims of the Subcontinent (who were converted mainly by Turks and Afghan-Pashtuns) are Hanafis.
101 years ago, in August 1921, the Mappilas launched a rebellion against British rule and its Hindu facilitators. In sha’ Allah we’ll be exploring the details and significance of this rebellion and discover why it remains relevant for us even now.
The Mappilas: South Asia’s First Muslim Community
As mentioned earlier, the Mappilas happen to be the Indian subcontinent’s first Muslim community.
Not only were they converted by Arab traders but they also intermarried with them (and to a lesser degree with Persian traders later on). Interestingly enough, this is actually where the name “Mappila” originated from.
Canadian historian Roland Miller (known to be the leading Western authority on Mappilas) writes in his book, Mappila Muslim Culture: How a Historic Muslim Community in India Has Blended Tradition and Modernity, on p. 26:
Not only did the Arab Muslim traders remain the commercial partners of the region’s Hindus, some of them also married indigenous women and took up residence in the area. When they did so, they received the hospitable name “Mappila,” which we introduced earlier. The term is a combination of two Malayalam words: “great” (maha) and “child” (pilla). The phrase “great child” was a respectful synonym for son-in-law, and is still so utilized in contemporary colloquial Malayalam. Its usage by friendly Hindus was their way of giving the hand of welcome to the new Arab members of their families. Out of such settlement patterns and marriage unions the Mappila Muslims received their origin.
The multiethnic heritage of the Mappilas can also be observed from the unique features in their appearance when contrasted with their Hindu neighbors.
For centuries the Mappilas lived prosperous lives. Their intra-Islamic trade with Arabs was very lucrative and fruitful—especially when it came to spices (the much-envied black pepper in particular). However, these dynamics would change drastically with the arrival of the Europeans and, of course, their local Hindu collaborators. Miller writes on pp. 30-31:
It is said that all good things must come to an end, and fortunes will change, but not all endings are as traumatic as the Mappila experience after the fifteenth century. It was not only Mappila misfortune but the misfortune of the entire Malayalam culture, for the old harmony suddenly fell by the wayside.
What brought about the change was the advent of the Europeans. They had long been looking for a direct link to the spice coast that bypassed the Arab-controlled Middle Eastern trade routes.
Da Gama’s arrival ushered in the colonial era that would end up in Western preeminence (…) the Portuguese were followed by the Dutch, English, and French competitors, all of whom formed trading companies to exploit the new possibilities.
The Mappilas were in the way of this development. Their support of Middle East connections and the Arab traders put them on the wrong side of the equation. For a short time their traditional Hindu friends stood by them against the Europeans, but the economic realities forced a reconfiguration of the relationships. When the spice trade came under European control, Hindu landowners and producers went with the stronger power. The Mappilas were the losers in the struggle.
This would then go on to form the background of the Mappila rebellion.
How Marxists Distort the Mappila Rebellion
Marxist historiography, with its historical materialist bias, looks at everything through the lens of class conflict between the proletarian and bourgeois classes.
Within this particular context, they argue that the Mappilas were “impoverished peasants” revolting against their British rulers and Hindu landowners.
This is clearly an obvious attempt to secularize the Mappila rebellion and to remove Islam completely from their struggle.
If this really was the case, as Marxists claim, then why did they begin to agitate so late?
Why did Mappila not revolt against their European oppressors and the Hindu collaborators decades (if not centuries) earlier?
There is of course another more credible reason:
During the ’20s there was a pan-Islamist political agitation called the Khilafat Movement, which aimed to restore the Ottoman Empire. This was at the time when Indian-Muslims began to embrace Muslim separatism at the popular level. Prior to this it was mainly just a few intellectuals who were more or less isolated.
The Mappila rebellion was part of this. It was Islamic in essence.
In fact, Ali Musliyar (pictured)—who was a graduate of Deobandi seminaries and eventually executed—was the most important leader of this struggle and also an active participant in the Khilafat Movement.
Hindu nationalists know this.
For instance, one of only two novels penned by Sarvarkar (the spiritual father of Hindu nationalism) is about the 1921 Mappila rebellion.
The riots, which had led to the deaths of hundreds of Hindus in the Malabar region, still remains a debated topic among historians.
Recently, the BJP waded into the debate by dubbing the rebellion the first “jihadi massacre of Hindus” in Kerala. It said history was distorted, and the uprising, which began as part of the Khilafat Movement, ended up with the massive killings of Hindus. The BJP also blamed the Congress for making the Khilafat Movement a part of the freedom struggle in the Malabar region, which at the time, was part of the Madras Presidency under the British regime.
The uprising had also led to largescale conversion of Hindus to Islam.
The BJP is of the opinion that depicting the “unprovoked massacre of Hindus as part of the Independence struggle is an insult to history as well as the majority community in Kerala”.
When it comes to the actual rebellion itself, the Mappilas targeted British colonial officers and the Hindu landlords that aided them.
Their movements were not only restricted towards individuals—the rebels also attacked government infrastructures such as police stations.
Ultimately their efforts failed due to numbers and the technology of British India’s security forces (including local collaborators). Thousands of Mappilas died, while tens of thousands were sent to the dreadful Andaman Islands penal colony; many forever missing.
Despite it being a “failure” from a materialistic perspective, we can still appreciate that Muslims rose up in the name of Islam and died as martyrs—likely expecting such a loss to begin with—and that they didn’t limit themselves to “anti-colonial” agitation by targeting Europeans alone but also extended their attacks towards the “native” traitors.
The Mappilas demonstrated that Islam, not the secular parameter of “nation,” was the rationale for the struggle. And as such, they attacked the Hindu traitors with the same vigour with which they attacked the British colonialists.
The Demonization of the Mappilas
Considering the rebellion, it’s obvious that the Mappilas would be demonized both by the British colonialists and the Hindus.
In his 2018-article, Mappila Muslim Masculinities: A History of Contemporary Abjectification, Muhammadali Kasim further expounds upon such clichés shared by both groups.
We thus read on p. 6:
Interpreting Mappila Muslim history as that of a “frontier” one, Dale has considered their encounters with oppressors as “religious militancy,” implying their hypermasculine trait (Dale 1980). Mappila men, in his words, “conducted each attack as religious act—as jihad, war for Islam. Each was distinguished by a ceremonial pattern which, in all but a few cases, was climaxed by the most spectacular, identifiable characteristic of the outbreaks: the virtual suicide of all the Mappilas involved, in an attempt to become shahids (martyr for the faith)” (Dale 1975, 86). These irrationalizing narratives, which labeled Mappila men as death seekers, were a convenient camouflage intending to obliterate the factor of colonial violence that both incited and exerted in the rebellion, and thereby to elude agents of their killings, that is, in another words, jeopardizing colonial violence from historical consciousness.
Colonial constructs of Mappila masculinity permeated the nationalist discourse as well. Celebrated nationalist poet Kumaran Asan’s ( 2004) Duravastha, for example, portrayed the rebellion as an attack committed by “cruel-Muslims” on Hindu brethren.
After discussing how Mappilas are regularly accused of “love jihad” in Kerala, Kasim writes on p. 11:
Their inability to exercise self-control is viewed as an inevitable expression of a wider pathology of Muslim masculinity. “Naturalized as an essential quality of ‘meat-eaters,’ the strength of Muslim men’s sexual desire is thought to be such that it might hinder discerning ‘proper’ (hetero) from ‘improper’ (homo) sexuality, whereby strong homosocial bonds might easily slide into outright homosexuality” (p. 533). Sarkar (2002) observes the role of this anxiety, “a kind of penis envy” that can only be overcome by violent deeds, in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat.
Of course, all of these stereotypes regarding Muslim masculinity extend far beyond just the Mappilas and in fact far beyond even other Indian-Muslim communities as well, which makes the struggle of the Mappilas even more relevant for all of us.