Whatever I say about the rituals and customs of Kerala Muslims would be with regard to the religious and social lives of Sunni Muslims. Though there are four schools of thought in Sunnis, namely, Shafi, Hanafi, Hanbali and Maliki, Kerala Muslims mainly comprise the Shafi sect. Therefore what I am describing here are the Ramaḍan and Eid customs of the Shafi Sunnis in Kerala.
As you know, fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam, others include, doing namaz five times a day, going on the Hajj and giving zakat.* The Malayalam equivalent for namaz is ‘niskaram’, a word which might have its origin in the Sanskrit word ‘namaskaram’. In Kerala the Arabic word ‘salat’ (usually pronounced ‘salah’ in Arab countries), is never used for namaz, but the word is used in another context, for here there is a practice of singing the glory of the Prophet and such performances are normally called, ‘Salat Cholluka’ (the rendering of Salat).
The word Ramadan derives from the root 'ramad', meaning ‘that which is intensely and harshly heated by the sun’. And the word 'ramdhaa' means the intense heat of the sun. Ramadan was named as such because it burns up the sins of the believers. In Kerala, though the month is called Ramadan, we don’t use the word ‘Saum’ for the fast. The Malayalam word for the fast is truly Dravidian, ‘nomb’, which came from the Malayalam equivalent for observance, ‘nolkkuka’.
In contrast to my childhood, fasting is now spread across all sections of society. In the 1960s, I remember the rich males of the community never observed the fast. It was meant for women and for the poor male members of the community. I still remember the labourers who were not allowed to have a drop of water during Ramadan lying exhausted in front of the mosques. My own family was relatively well off, and the men never observed the fast. As I see it, in Kerala half a century back, fasting was meant for women of all classes, for the poorer classes of men, and for religious or spiritual leaders. However, it has now changed to become a practice common to all.
In Kerala, the pre-dawn meal during Ramadan is called ‘athaazham’, the Malayalam word for the dinner. The next meal is ‘Magrib’, meaning dusk. Madarsas and some of the lower primary schools that follow the Muslim calendar are closed during Ramadan.
Of Dates, Fasting and Feasting
Dates figure in many stories about the Prophet, who is said to have created a species of seedless date. In Kerala, as in the Gulf countries, people break the fast by taking dates, and during Ramadan a wide variety of dates are imported to Kerala. From ancient times Kerala has imported dates from the port of Basra in Iraq, a practice that has even contributed a proverb to Malayalam, ‘Ningal Basarayilekku Kaarakka Kayatti Ayakkaruth’ (‘You should not export dates to Basra’).
An evergreen Malayalam folk song penned by the famous poet PT Abdul Rahman addresses traders from Arabia, ‘Kaamila Ketti Varunnavare, Kaarakka Thottangal Kandavare’. (‘He who visits us in desert caravans, who has seen the date-palm gardens’).
During my childhood, most people in Kerala could not afford even three meals a day. During Ramadan people mostly took pathiri (rice flour dosa) or tharikanji (semolina gruel). Those days Ramadan was meant for night-long prayers and day-long fasting. Now during this month you get almost all varieties of Arabic food in Kerala, and lots of festivities alongside. If you see the newspapers and television, you may get the impression that Ramadan is more a month for feasting than for fasting. In Kerala now it has almost become a culinary festival of Malabar cuisines. To give just one example, traditional Muslims families in northern Kerala could make at least 20 varieties of egg dishes…and the newspapers discuss these matters much more than the prayers and spiritual aspects of Ramadan.
Olive Pickle and the Harbour of Truth
An interesting story of a century ago refers to the relations between Arab traders and the Malabar Coast. A sultan from Arabia sent traders with jars of olive pickle to give every royal family on the Kerala coast, with the request to keep the container for the traders to collect on their return from Ceylon a few months later. The containers were duly collected and presented back to the Sultan. The story goes that the Sultan had placed gold beneath the pickle in all the jars, and only the Samoothiri, the king of Kozhikode, had returned both gold and pickle intact, so the Sultan realized that the king of Kozhikode would be the most trustworthy trading partner. This legend gave Kozhikode its name, ‘Sathyathinde Thuramukham’ (harbour of truth), from which derives the title of historian MGS Narayanan’s book on Kozhikode, Calicut: the City of Truth Revisited (2007).
Hajj, Tears and a Malayalam Film
The Hajj pilgrimage pre-dates the Prophet’s time. What the Prophet did was only to revise the tradition. Even some 50 years back, going on the Hajj was very rare in Kerala. The first reason was poverty. The second reason was that most of those who had attempted the Hajj had not returned. Those days one had to take a train from Kozhikode to Bombay, from where it took another ten days by sea to reach Jeddah. I personally am aware of many cases of pilgrims dying on that arduous voyage. I remember when people set out on the Hajj they would leave at home a piece of cloth that was meant to cover their dead body when it was returned. I remember hearing heart-breaking cries in households as pilgrims bid farewell. When someone went for the Hajj his return was expected after four months. Very rarely would families get letters from pilgrims; if it happened, it was a matter for celebration in the village, and the letter would be read aloud in the nearest masjid on Friday.
The 1961 Malayalam film Kandam Becha Kottu gives a glimpse of Malayalis going on the Hajj. The story revolves around a kind-hearted Malayali cobbler Mohammed Kakka, a faithful adaptation of the famous story of two angels who judge which pilgrim on the Hajj is most pious and God chooses a cobbler from Baghdad, even though he did not go on the Hajj at all, as he had given the hard-earned money for the Hajj to a needy neighbor.
Cheriya Perunnal and Valiya Perunnal
The word ‘Eid’ (‘festival’) first appears in the fifth chapter of the Holy Koran, in a prayer by Isa (Jesus Christ). In Kerala, Eid is commonly known as ‘Cheriya Perunnal’ (‘the small festival’) and Bakrid as ‘Valiya Perunnal’ (‘the big festival’). Bakrid as ‘Bali Perunal’ (‘holy day of the sacrifice’) became ‘Valiya Perunal’ in Kerala.
On the day of Eid, as in many parts of the Muslim world, people in Kerala feed the needy. If I have 10 members in my family, my house is expected to feed at least another 10 people. I remember that in my childhood hundreds of impoverished people would arrive at every home to receive zakat. As already mentioned, poverty in Kerala was that widespread. My moothappa (uncle) was very rich and in the 1960s he used to distribute up to Rs 50,000 during these two days of Ramadan. In those days the daily wage for a male was one rupee and for a woman, 50 paisa. He was doing it to please Heaven and the beneficiaries were the poor.
But, recently I have noticed a shift in Kerala. People don’t give zakat to poor people from other states of India, whose presence in the state is sizable these days. It is also sad that a section of society gives zakat only to people belonging their own community. What the Prophet said was that zakat is something that the have-nots have a claim on from the rich, and is not at all the generosity of the rich. I strongly believe that it has resonances with Gandhi's idea of trusteeship.
Eid and Malayalam literature
The first name that comes to mind is naturally that of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. The spirit of whatever I have tried to communicate about Eid above may be seen in his famous book Entuppooppaakku Oraana Undaarnnu (‘My Granddad had an Elephant’). Other major writers in Malayalam whose works reflect on Eid and Muslim life in Kerala are NP Muhammad, PA Muhammad Koya, UA Kadar, Akbar Kakkattil, MT Vasudevan Nair, SK Pottakkad, and above all PC Kuttikrishnan (known by his penname, ‘Uroob’, also the word for dusk in Arabic).
Let me speak about an important Malayalam work on a Shia Sufi tradition. The oldest Mappila songs in Kerala were written by Khali Muhammad in c. 1607. These songs were written in sweet and simple Malayalam. They celebrate the life of a Baghdadi Sufi, Mohiyuddin Sheikh Abdul Qadir Al-Jilani (1078–1166). In the same period that legendary Malayalam Bhakti poet Poonthanam was writing his 'Jnana Pana' (song of wisdom), Khali Muhammad was writing in equally beautiful Malayalam. The following lines are an instance:
Kasamerum Raavil Nadannangu Pokumbol
Kaiviral Choottaakki Kaatti Nadannavar
(He who walking through the dense darkness of midnight
Made his forefinger a taper to show the path to others)
Women in Islam
The Prophet always supported the cause of women. Even during periods of war he had his wife Aisha by his side. If that is true, then for me it is a certainty that he would have allowed women to participate in prayers. Even today, women are allowed in the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina. All anti-women tendencies in Islam emerged during the latter part of history, possibly due to a nexus between the clergy and the nobility. We see that now people discuss Taliban diktats against sending girls to school. What is new in this? In Kerala, even in the 1930s, such anti-women measures were prevalent in the community. In March 1930, at the fourth state conference of the Samastha Kerala Islam Matha Vidyabhyasa Board (All Kerala Islamic Education Board), a decision was taken to ban girls from going to schools. I should not forget to mention Kozhikode Mohammad Abdur Rahman Sahib, the legendary leader of Malabar, who stood for the rights of Muslim girls to education.