There seems to be little written about the Thangals of Kerala. Professor Hussain Randathani tells me that there is some original research that has been done on this line of Muslims in Kerala, but that most of it is in Malayalam and hence inaccessible to me.
Islam in its Persian-Arabic attire failed to make much sense to the masses [in India]. That is why its “cultural mediators” were constrained to make the Islamic traditions more meaningful to the converts in syncretic and symbolic forms. In the process, the pristine purity of dogma and tenets, which the Faraizis in Bengal and the mujahideen in the northwest tried in vain to restore, was tailored to suit the spiritual and material urges of the people. Local customs and heterodox traditions, which were repugnant to Muslim orthodoxy, found a place in the corpus of beliefs and religious practices. This was reflected in the diversity or religiocultural practices, and also in the variety of political and economic experiences.
Hasan, Mushirul “The Myth of Unity” in Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India Ed. Ludden, D Page 189
What is fascinating about the man whose shrine I had come to visit in the town of Kondotty, Sheikh Mohammed Shah, was that he may have carried a dual Muslim identity – both Shia, and Sunni.
Both Stephen F. Dale in his work The Mappilas Of Malabar, 1498 – 1922: Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier and Roland E. Miller in his Mapilla Muslims of Kerala do give us some more details about this unique orientation, but I will write more about that in a future essay. Suffice it to say that under pressure from the orthodox Sunni orientations, many Shia claimed taqqiya, a recognized practice that the Shias can resort to in times of duress. Similar action has been taken by groups of Nizari Ismailis, the Khojas and the Pirana ie. Satpanthis as well.
Rehman Thangal, great-grandson of the the Sheikh, greeted me in his lovely home adjacent to the shrine and we spend some hours talking about the story of the Thangals, and their powerful influence in society and politics in the region of Kerala. Much of that influence is how a bygone memory – the land reforms in post-independence India resulted in the social and material dissolution of the Thangal dynasty. However, they remain a highly respected and venerated family in this part of Kerala. Rehman proudly showed me a number of manuscripts from this ancestor’s library – a hand written Koran, copies of various Persian texts like Gulistan and even small momento that had survived in his family’s collections like a pistol personally given to the Sheikh by Tipu Sultan himself. I was unable to however learn anything too specific about the history of his family. In fact, even he was not sure about the origins and story of the Sheikh whose shrine had been in the care of his family.
The shrine itself is a lovely Indo-Persian structure. Looking slightly worn down because of the heavy cover of rain, its place in the community was also a mystery. I did not see many people stopping by, but then again, it could just be the weather. Rehman told me that a major nerchass is held at the shrine in early March of each year. A series of photographs taken by a Japanese researcher, Misako Kawano, who had visited the family recently to document the cultural traditions of the Thangals, show a fairly large affair involving hundreds of people. Rehman assured me that the event began at the shrine and moved to the front yard of the family home for the evening finale. I will have to return here next March to witness it.
I am now travelling in Kerala to explore the history of the ‘other’ Muslims. The mainstream narratives of India’s Muslims tend to ignore the diversity and plurality of India’s Muslim community. They gloss over the many variants and local traditions that emerged in Muslim religious practice, and prefer to speak of the community as one. In fact, parroting a classical colonialist preference, modern Muslim prefer to see all Muslims as one homogenous, cohesive and uniformly similar social and political body. This view, a result of the exigencies of colonial rule and administration, has remained stuck in the minds of the modern Muslims nationalists and others. As Mushirul Hasan points out (Ibid Page 193):
The colonial government’s reforms of 1909, enacted to defuse the Congress demand for a greater share in administration and decision-making, was a calculated masterstroke; it discarded the notion and jettisoned the prospect of secular nationalism. It established separate electorates for Muslims, along with reservations and weightages, and thus gave birth to a religiopolitical community, sections of which began to see themselves in the colonial image of being unified, cohesive, and segregated from the Hindus…An otherwise diverse community was thus homogenized…in order to be suitably accommodated within political schemes and bureaucratic designs.
It is here, from Kerala, that one can start to unravel the diversity of the Muslims of India. The Mapilla Muslims are the earliest of Muslim communities in the country, and the saints, mystics, traders and settlers that arrived here in the 7th and 8th centuries, the first to carry the message of the religion to the people of the country. The Mapilla Muslims of Kerala retain a culturally and historically distinct Islamic culture that retains many of its influences from regional non-Islamic religions including Hinduism. The Thangals, a family with its lineage to the Ismailis is heir to a complex Muslim heritage whose proponents have actively searched for ways to reconcile and incorporate traditions from outside the orthodoxy of Islam.
Their stories are the stories of Islam in India – complex, varied, and syncretic. My journey in Kerala is meant to reveal this usually forgotten or ignored beginning of Islam in India, and of the many diverse communities and people that belong to it. The culture, history, society and rituals of the Muslims of this region are vastly different from anything we could imagine in North India or Pakistan. This is precisely what I aim to show.