Muslim Leadership with Sectarian Obsessions: Can Keralite Islam Go Beyond Its Century-long Fences?
By Mahmood Kooria
What was happening in Keralite Muslim public sphere while the Assam riots and Mumbai violence occurred in July – August 2012? The answer is very simple: it was continuing its unyielding sectarian debates with new turns and causes. The only exception, rather coincidence, was that the accused prisoners of second Marad communal riots of 2003 were sentenced by the High Court of Kerala for life-time imprisonment of sixty-two and life-term for twenty-four years. They had all been acquitted by the trail court in 2009.[i] The riots at Marad were a series of clashes between Muslims and Hindus causing the death of around ten lives on both sides. It started in January 2002 by way of scuffles between two groups over drinking-water at a public tap. It led to the death of three Hindus and two Muslims. Consequently, in May 2003, eight Hindus and one Muslim were massacred through planned violence. The coastal region of Marad was gradually turned into a communally-tense area, leading to massive police-arrests of Muslims and compelling Muslims to leave the region to secure their lives. After decade-long judicial procedures, in August 2012, the High Court of Kerala came up with judgements – just five days after the Mumbai violence of Muslims in response to the Assam riots.
Leaving this accidental case aside, the religious public sphere of Kerala was continuing its aggressive sectarian debates dividing Muslims into sects and groups. This time it centred on a lock of hair that a cleric, Kanthapuram AP Abubakr Musliyar, claimed to belong to Prophet Muhammad and he proposed building the largest mosque in India to preserve this ‘holy relic’. But, soon after his declaration, another religious leader Dr. Bahauddhin Muhammad Nadwi came up with a strong opposition indicating that Musliyar was cheating the Muslim public with fake-relics, and that the hair-lock didn’t actually belong to Prophet Muhammad.[ii] Nadwi was supported by the Jama’at-i-Islami Kerala and Kerala Nadwathul Mujahidin – the Wahhabi Movement, against Musliyar.[iii] Subsequently, the followers of each leader attached to certain organizations, organized massive public meetings, speeches, talks, and ‘abusive’ challenges substantiating their claims and opposing the counter-arguments.[iv] Later on, Abubakar Musliyar organized a journey from one end of Kerala to another in order to strengthen his organizational structure, which was followed by a counter-journey by Dr. Nadwi’s group expounding against Musliyar. Almost all newspapers, television channels, and social network sites were filled with sectarian comments, statements, supportive and opposing arguments along with satirical articulations.
While looking from the outside, it may appear as a comic drama – tangled with angry stunts and fights; something that could be read along the framework of The Great Debaters (directed by Denzel Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey), replacing its political contents with the religious one! But, that is the scenario of Keralite Islam for almost last one century. The religious clergies debate with each other very ferociously on a number of different theological, juridical, spiritualistic, materialistic, and political aspects. They debate whether or not the Friday sermons (khutba) has to be translated into local language, the loudspeaker could be used for that, the counts of non-obligatory prayers (tarawih) during the month of Ramzan, the Prophet Muhammad could be praised by reciting certain works (mawlid), the dead persons could be memorialized or not, the graveyards can be visited (qabar-ziyarat), the women can go to mosque, so on and so forth.
This ‘tradition’ of stern debates in Keralite Islam mainly emerged after the oppression of Mappila Muslims by the British colonial government during a series of Malabar Rebellions which culminated in 1921-22. The community’s involvement with wider social and political issues prior to 1920s was thence completely thwarted by the colonial repression of its leaders, movements, religious collectives, and societal consciousness. The massive killing, imprisonment or expatriation of many such leaders who addressed wider anxieties consequently forced the community to shrink inward into its internal religious and theological fences.[v] Based on various theological strands, numerous individual organizations emerged in the region which could be identified as Sunnis, Mujahids/Wahabis, Jama’ath-i-Islami, Tabligh Jamaa’th, so on and so forth. Through this, Keralite Islam started its ‘organizational factionalism’[vi] debating over many of the aforementioned issues. Around 1990s, this deep-rooted organizational factionalism took different curves and turns entangled with such political, social, and economic issues as the demolition of Babari Masjid, immense migrations to the Gulf countries, and advancement of new diminutive factions again with theological overtones. They always engaged each other, quarrelling around certain minute issues, and it still continues. As we see, this time it is about a lock of hair.
I am not underestimating such religious debates. But what is striking to me is: beyond such theological debates, the social issues or everyday problems of Muslim commons are not at all a matter of concern for these religious clerics.[vii] Even now, while the Muslim community in Kerala continues to be economically and educationally backward, they never engage with such grassroots issues. While Muslim religious organizations are some of the biggest and richest institutions in Kerala, they never spend their money for the empowerment of the sect they claim to stand for, and never address their difficulties.
Between these kinds of internal struggles, I don’t think the religious leaders ever got time to think about Muslims and Islam seems to stand external to their power-locus – mainly in northern Kerala (Malabar) where the larger population of Muslims are concentrated. Thus, such issues related to larger Indian Muslims as riots or its consequences mostly never become a matter of discourse or of concern to the Keralite Islamic public sphere led by these religious authorities, barring the intermittent journalistic notes or descriptive articles published in newspapers and magazines, including many run by them. The well-known cultural and social activist of Kerala, Civic Chandran has written about this: while many homeless refugee-weavers came to Calicut in 2002, following the Gujarat riots, seeking livelihoods by selling their products, none of the Muslim organizations or Muslim leaders paid attention to them. He says, if the mosques of Calicut would have bought their products at least to use as doormats, these refugees would have survived with their livelihoods.[viii] This is the best exemplification of Keralite Muslims’ attitude towards the issues of larger Islamic/Muslim concerns in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. At the same time, they boast of their religious awareness and advancements compared to other parts of India.
Kerala Islam continues to be a ‘defensive Islam’ for the last one century, each group defending themselves against their opponents. They pathetically fail to promote ‘constructive or creative Islam’. Whoever endeavours to do that has to come out of the rigid communitarian frameworks outlined by clergies. I am not putting a blanket generalization. There are certain very productive groups and organizations, but their activities are limited and constrained due to the powerful structures of the aforesaid religious organizations. The activities of a Muslim political organization, Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) with its stronghold in Kerala, are worth mentioning, especially their response to the riots. They collected funds, clothes and other materials from its followers to help the refugees in Assam. But, it was reported that many of the clothes collected and sent to Assam by IUML were second-hand and torn, which appeared to be a deliberate insult to the refugees. When the media-reports came out, the IUML leaders had to apologize publicly.
Such a religious and political leadership is leading Kerala Muslims, leaders who are not at all aware of their co-religionists, despite their claim that they are much concerned about them. The question that intrigues us is whether this collective of religious and political leadership can engage with the everyday lives of a community, and whether they will ever come out of their unnecessary sectarian debates and theological mania to make the religion more creative and productive for the wellbeing of society.
While Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella, two prominent scholars who have worked on Kerala Muslims, write about the sociological aspects of Keralite Muslims, what they consciously or unconsciously fail to address is the societal consequences of this sectarian rigidity within the Muslim community and, instead, they mark it vaguely as part of the ‘reformist enthusiasm’ against ‘traditionalism’.[ix] Further, while the historical and sociological studies have to address such questions academically, the community-representatives, who engage in activism, have to think about some paradigm shifts that can generate a much more creative Islam and a productive community.
[Mahmood Kooria, doctoral candidate at Leiden University, The Netherlands, has authored various books on South Indian popular cultures. Abu, Son of Adam: Space and Time in Visual Visions (Mathrubhumi Books, Calicut) is his latest work. He can be reached at email@example.com]
 See http://www.indianexpress.com/news/marad-riots-hc-awards-life-term-to-24-acquitted/989241 – accessed on 19 January, 2013.
 Abdussamad Vaniyambalam, 2012. Thirukesa Vivadam: Oru Postmortem Report (Malayalam). Darul Huda Students Union Press, Chemmad.
 See the contributions to KT Husain, ed 2012. Thirukesam: Thettum Shariyum (Malayalam). Vachanam Books, Calicut.
 A journalistic report on the debates has been prepared by Joanna Sugden, 2012. ‘India mosque hit by Holy Hair row’. In The Wall Street Journal. http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/11/15/religion-journal-india-mosque-hit-by-holy-hair-row/ – accessed on 20 January, 2013.
 Mahmood Kooria, 2011. South Indian Muslims’ attitudes towards the formation of Pakistan. Unpublished Masters’ Dissertation. Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, pp. 34-38
 I am indebted to Abdul Rahoof Ottatthingal for this term and concept which he will elaborate more in his working doctoral thesis at Centre for Studies in Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
 Rafeek Thiruvallur, 2011. ‘Iniyum thelinjittiallatha Muslim samudayam: Aathmavicinthanatthinte churukkezhuthu’ (Malayalam). In Religion in Visual Language: Recent Islamic Trends in Kerala’s Public Sphere, ed. Mahmood Kooria. Islamic Sahitya Academy, Calicut, pp. 135-137
 Civic Chandran, 2011. ‘Mathatthinum mathetharathwatthinumidayile Muslim: Madhyamangalil ninnulla paddhangal’. In Religion in Visual Language: Recent Islamic Trends in Kerala’s Public Sphere, ed. Mahmood Kooria. Islamic Sahitya Academy, Calicut, p. 115.
 Among their copious studies on Keralite Islam and Muslims, see for example: Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella, 2008. ‘Islamism and Social Reform in Kerala, South India’. Modern Asian Studies, 42, pp. 317-346