Islam in the south

Print edition : August 23, 2013
Two books that provide a corrective to the wrong notions that Islamic studies are a monopoly of the north and that Islam first came to the north and spread from there.

YEARS ago, I had written a deservedly laudatory review of The Indian Muslims, a veritable classic. But its author sharply criticised it for an omission. A scholar to his fingertips, Professor Mohammed Mujeeb rightly pointed out that I had ignored a vital dimension: Muslims in the south. In this as on much else, he was rare. Very many people, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar particularly, fondly imagine that Islamic studies are a monopoly of the north. But Islam came first to the south, contrary to Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s bogus doctrine that Muslims’ “homelands” lie in the parts of India in the north-west and the east in which Muslims constituted the majority, implying that they spread from there. In the south, however, especially in Kerala, Islamic studies have flourished for long as they have indeed in Hyderabad.

These two books provide a corrective to those wrong notions. The Book People is an imprint of Olive Publications, established in 1999 by Dr M.K. Muneer, now a Minister in the Government of Kerala. It has published over 1,300 books in Malayalam so far, by leading writers, artists, critics and historians. It moved into publishing in English under the banner The Book People. This collection of essays by Asghar Ali Engineer, who sadly died recently, is its first title.

As one would expect of the noted scholar, the essays are erudite and thought-provoking and strike a blow for reform. The first few essays demolish myths on jehad and on Islam and terrorism. Particularly noteworthy are the essays “On the Concept of Compassion in Islam”, “Compassion in Islam—Theology and History”, “Islam and Religious Freedom” and “Islam and Secularism”. There are over 40 essays on a host of themes, including the rights of women in Islam. They testify to the author’s erudition, thoughtfulness and respect for the truth. The volume is excellently produced.

L.R.S. Lakshmi teaches history at Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi. The Muslims of Kerala, primarily in the northern region of the State, known as Malabar, are referred to as Mappillas. Her book is a study of the social and institutional changes of Malabar Muslims during the colonial period and presents the Mappilla community in a wider Indian context and in the richness of its diversities. Particular emphasis has been laid on their women, who are socially more powerful than their counterparts in the rest of the subcontinent. The author argues that while Mappillas do represent a monolithic community, there are inter- and intra-regional variations.

The book covers important aspects such as education and social mobility. Particularly instructive are the chapters on reformist trends, on the Mappilla leaders’ skills in political mobilisation, and on their progress in present times. It is a vibrant and progressive community, well integrated in its milieu while retaining its own identity—good Muslims, good Keralites and good Indians.

The author’s research and insights do full justice to the subject.

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