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Political Economy of Zamorin and Religious Conversion to Islam

By Muhammed Aslam E.S.

The spread of Islam in Calicut (Malabar) through religious conversion of the natives had two phases. The first phase of conversion between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries was mainly facilitated by Arab-Muslim trade links as well as Da’wat (the concept of religious preaching in Islam) of Sufis. In this phase of medieval period, the natives were attracted to the new religion by the cultural and economic presence of Arabs or the Arab-Muslim cosmopolitanism. Most of the conversions which occurred during the period, especially in 14th to 16th century, were connected with the political economy of Zamorins, then the rulers of Calicut.

During the 14th century, some sections of Muslims of Calicut, those who are directly or indirectly engaged in trade, had attained special privileges from the native rulers. The important factor accounting for this phenomenon is the political change which happened, followed by the economic development, in the region. In the middle of the 14th century, a new political trend started in the region  with the shifting of the headquarters of rulers from inland agrarian centres to maritime trade centres to attain maximum economic benefits and political power (Pius Malekandathil, 2010). One of the important political changes was the transfer of the royal residence of the Nediyirappu Svarupam from Eranad, inland region in south Malabar, to the maritime trade centre of Calicut.

The motivation of Zamorin in shifting his royal residence to Calicut was to promote economic development through trade. For this reason, he treated the Arab-Muslim merchants and their native partners in the region with great respect. Zamorin’s positive attitudes inspired by the economic aspirations towards Arab-Muslims and their native associates opened new possibility of conversions to Islam in different forms. On this the author of Tuhfat Al-Mujahidin, a historical epic of the sixteenth century, Zainuddin Makdhum opined, “Muslims enjoyed great respect and regard from the Hindu rulers. The main reason for this is that the construction and development of the country is taking place through the Muslim.”

It is difficult to say that the process of early religious conversions to Islam occurred only through the Arab maritime trade relation.  But it also facilitated through the Sufi engagements in the region.  The ‘story’ of Cheraman Perumal’s conversions, one of the medieval rulers of Malabar, claims that the ruler went to Mecca and converted to Islam. There is no evidence of material or economic motivations in the case of Perumal as a ruler to convert from Brahmanical Hinduism to Islam. According to the available knowledge about Perumal’s conversion, it seems to have been spiritually motivated. Following his conversion, a group of Arab-Sufis came to Malabar for Islamic Da’wat under the leadership of Malik bin Dinar and his twenty two associates. Under the influence of these Arab Sufis, the people of coastal areas of Malabar began to convert to Islam. This is supposed to be the first organized effort to propagate Islam in Malabar. Parappil Mohamedkoya, a local historian of Calicut, has written that four Nambudiri Illams (Barhmin Households) in Calicut and surroundings converted to Islam due to the efforts of the Sufis. The Sufis were not part of any trade group but followers of the tradition of Hasan al-Basari Sufism. Early mosques in Malabar were situated on the coastline and most of them were in commercial centres.

In the mid-fourteenth century, when the North African traveler Ibn Battuta had visited Kerala on his way to China, he recorded valuable information on the character, size and institutions of contemporary Muslim community in Kerala. He observed that the Kerala Muslims shared the Arabic and Islamic culture which charecterised most of the Muslim communities which were scattered along the Indian Ocean trade routes. Battuta observed that most of the Muslims who settled in the coastal line of Malabar were either merchants or ulamas from Arabia or Persian Gulf region. During this period, the largest settlements of Muslims were found in the principal commercial centres such as Quilon and Calicut. According to Dale,  “The size and prosperity of this remote Muslim settlement in 14th century is as unambiguous an example as these could possibly be of the direct connection between commerce and the foundation of Muslim settlements in Kerala” (Dale, 2003).

It is important to discuss the political economy of the Zamorin when talking about religious conversions to Islam. It is not a matter of ‘religious tolerance’ of a Hindu ruler as historians generally articulated but it should read as connecting with political economy of the period. Long term settlement of Arabs was a necessary factor for continuous trade engagements and the trade competition across the Indian Ocean also necessitated a situation for formulating new political strategy in Calicut. For this purpose, the native rulers arranged for Arab merchants all facilities including residence, religious places and matrimonial relations. Here, religious conversion through marital relation is important to mention while we are discussing about history of cosmopolitanism in Calicut. The marital relations of Arab-Muslim men with native women started as result of trade treaties. According to various sources, there were four hundred Nair women who got married to Arab merchants in Malabar from households like Ambadi Kovilakam, Valiya Kovilakam, Cheriya Kovilakam, Eraambira Kovilakam, Padinjare Kovilaam, Kizhake Kovilakam, Kuttichira Thamburatti Illam, and Vettathur Kovilakam with the permission or instruction of the Zamorin (See Parappil Mohamedkoya, 1994). The Nahas, one of the elite families in south Malabar, also emerged through such amarital relation. The question which arises in this context is who the real agent of religious conversion was: individual convert or external power. Historians are not bothered about the question of agency of individual woman but of those who converted to Islam for the sake of power. .It was the interest of male feudal power for expanding their economy with international trade by using woman as an object.

Another form of conversion which happened in the region was the religious conversion of fisher folks called Mukkuvas. Their religious conversion to Islam during the period was different from the conversion of elites. Zamorin of Calicut ordered that one or two members of the fisherman’s family should be brought up in Islam from the Mukkuva community. The basic idea behind converting fishermen was to build a naval power with the support of Arabs and to create a labour force in the coastal region for merchants. The question of agency is valid in the case of fishermen community also. Unlike conversion of any other caste groups to Islam, they faced exclusion from both within the religion and outside their religion and were treated as ‘pusilam’ or ‘pusilan’ which means neophytes or new converts.

The situation entirely changed after the decline of Arab-Muslim trade in sixteenth century due to the Portuguese attack. Arabs returned to their homeland and other safe economic zones and a new political economy developed in Calicut. The cosmopolitan nature of Calicut has been formed through the trade relations with Arabs than any other trade power. Like any other factor, various forms of religious conversions also supported to a large extent the making of a cosmopolitan city like Calicut.

Muhammed Aslam E.S.,
Research Scholar, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. Email:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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