The Mahals of Malabar

in Overview
Published on: 23 August 2019

Prof. E. Ismail

Former Head of the department of History at Sir Syed College, Kannur University, Prof. E. Ismail has multiple publications in English and Malayalam, and was awarded the fellowship of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata. Currently, he works with the Malabar Institute of Research and Development based in Vadakara, Calicut.

In Kerala, mahal (mahallu in Malayalam) commonly refers to the local unit of Islamic social organisation, with a Cathedral Mosque (Juma Masjid) at the pivotal position. The origins of this organisational structure are not clearly known as there is little evidence regarding the communal life in Muslim settlements from the early periods. For instance, medieval Arab travellers, traders or writers like Sheikh Zeinudin Makhdoom do not make any reference to the ‘mahal system’ in the Islamic life of Kerala. This overview attempts to trace the genealogical and sociological evolution of this unique system, focusing on the Malabar region.

Kerala can be considered as the earliest Islamic frontier in India where Arabs and other Muslims of West Asia settled and flourished with the aid of rulers and common folk alike. Malik-ibn-Dinar’s mission, beginning in AD 643,[1] resulted in large-scale proselytisation to Islam, first along the coastal regions and then, at least by the end of ninth century AD, in the interior regions. The Arabs and the local converts were called Mappilas[2] and, since they were mostly engaged in sea-borne trade and commerce, the population kept evolving culturally and socially, without showing the characteristics of a permanent settlement.

Though the Muslims had a congregational life wherever they settled, it did not result in a mahal or mohalla life till later. As traders and business people, they received lands from local chieftains and rulers on a reciprocal basis intending mutual growth. The local rulers found contact with the newcomers as an opportunity to prosper, especially after the wane in Roman and Byzantine trade. Complete religious freedom was accorded to all and several mosques were built during this period with the support of the local rulers. There were even instances of rulers aiding in building mosques and donating them to the Muslims as in the cases of the Muccunti Mosque in Kozhikode and the Madayi Mosque in Pazhayangadi (Kannur).[3]

The Muslim community were subjects and not rulers, unlike later in other parts of India, and the native rulers invested in arranging separate dwellings and prayer halls for the community, which enabled the observation of the regular daily prayers at mosques, special Friday prayers (Juma/Jama’at), the celebration of religious festivals and so on. The rulers even met the expenses of the qazis and muezzins (callers for prayers). The Zamorins of Kozhikode also entrusted qazis with the duty of carrying out Islamic law (later called shariah) for their Muslim subjects, which earned the qazi name and fame throughout the Islamic world as a ‘Muslim Sultan’. No wonder, the Muslims considered the region as Darul Salam (house of peace) unlike other regions which were branded as Darul Harb (house of war). Thus, Muslims considered Kozhikode as their own hometown and its ruler (the Zamorin) their own ruler.[4]

Origins of the Social Organisation of Mahals
Mahal or mahallu is a local derivation of the original Arabic term mahallah. Slight variations of the Arabic term can be seen in different languages like Persian, Turkish, Urdu and Hindustani. One finds the term mohallah is a common element in some Iranian place names. It is used either as a prefix or a suffix and usually indicates a province. In Urdu, mohalla means a particular residential quarter for any community.

The mohallas that originated during the primacy of Muslim rule in other parts of India, were not of a religious nature, but based on demographic distribution and distinctive cultural life. It requires a different study to see how they later evolved into ghettoised spaces for various communities. In Kerala, the mahal is associated with a cathedral mosque where the Jama’ath or Friday congregation is conducted to impart religious values to the families living there. Early Arab travellers like Mazudi (ninth century AD), the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Batuta (fourteenth century AD), and Abdul Razak (fifteenth century AD) do not make any mention of such an institution with religious authority over the inhabitants. As mentioned earlier, such a religious institution was neither constituted by any authority nor known in the early period. Sheikh Zeinudin Makhdoom, the medieval Arab-Muslim historian from Malabar, also does not make any such reference in his famous historical work Tuhafat-ul-Mujahidin, though he mentions some qazis in charge of mosques in some Muslim settlements. After constructing mosques in various parts of Kerala, such as Kodungallur, Madayi, Kadalundi and Pantalayini-Kollam, Malik-ibn-Dinar and his mission deputed the early qazis from their own crew.

Legend has it that the first mosque in India, the Cheraman Juma Masjid of Kodungallur, was built in the year AD 629, that is, during the last years of the life of Prophet Mohammed. (According to another version of the legend, Malik-ibn-Dinar arrived in AD 643 and appointed one of his own men, probably his nephew, as the qazi of Kodungallur). However, these mosques constructed along the coastal areas were originally meant for the Arab merchants who frequented these coasts.

The advent of Islam in Kerala was achieved without political support and without military advancements. It was facilitated by two main factors: the frequent visits of Arab merchants and the spiritual influence of the Sufis. Proselytisation took place only later, particularly when Arab merchants began marital unions with the native women, which resulted in the formation of a local Muslim community called the Mappilas. Local rulers, including the Zamorin of Kozhikode, encouraged such marriages and the Zamorin allowed the construction of mosques all over his domain, even meeting the expenses of such mosques. Thus, we first see organised Islamic worship (congregational prayer) among the merchant communities of the coastal regions. The ethnicity of the local Mappila Muslims goes back to the Arab traders and mariners who freely entered into marital unions with the local women.

The second important mosque is in Madayi (Kannur district), constructed in AD 1124 as per the plaque placed there. This has an Arabic inscription denoting the year AH 518/AD 1124 and of the mosque being consecrated on Friday, in the month of Rabiul Akhir. The land for the mosque was given by the Raja of Kolathunad. The first qazi appointed is believed to have been Malik-ibn-Abdurahiman.        

None of the above-mentioned mosques, constructed in the early years of Islam in Kerala, have records of the concept of mahal or of a living pattern usually found in a modern mahal in Kerala. Our field studies centred around such mosques revealed that they were mainly concerned with a Muslim population of a floating nature, engaged in trade and commerce, indigenous and foreign. Such mosques were managed and administered by people of wealth and social status as found in the case of Mishkal Mosque in Kuttichira, Kozhikode. In Menon's History of Kerala, Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan traveller, while visiting Kozhikode in AD 1342, observes:

The Sultan of Calicut is an idolater known as the Samuri . . . The Khazi of Calicut was Fakhrudeen Usman, a distinguished and generous man . . . In this town lives also the very rich and celebrated Nakhuda (ship owner) Miskal who possesses numerous vessels employed in his trade with India, China, Yemen and Persia. When we reached the town Ibrahim, the Shahbunder (chief of the port) came out to receive us. Greater part of Mohammedan merchants of this place are so wealthy that one of them can purchase the whole freightage of such vessels as are put in here and fit out others like them.

An important purpose of mosques in those days, apart from their use as a prayer hall, was the maintenance of the graveyard around them. Deceased Muslims from far and near were buried in the compound of such mosques. Much epigraphical data could be collected from places like Pantalayini Kollam (Kozhikode district) where a mayyathukunnu (graveyard/khabaristan) is located around one of the ancient mosques there. Muslim graveyards in various Muslim settlements like Ramanthali (Ettikulam), Irikkur, Chapparappadavu, Sreekantapuram, Madayi, Peringathur and Dharmadam in Kannur District, Kunhippalli near Mahe, and Shaikinde Palli in Idiyangara and Chaliyam in Kozhikode District also provide valuable epitaphs of considerable historical value.

Religious Functions
The mahals in Kerala developed in a different context and with a different purpose than the mohallas of North India. The mahals were virtually a British colonial creation, forming a Muslim regional section, as they needed to not make inroads into or form relationships with the life and culture of the Muslims living around the mosques. The shariah and the personal laws of the Muslims were unknown to the colonial rulers. The qazi had limited jurisdiction over the people who lived around the mosque and attended congregational prayers and was treated by the British administrators like a parish priest or vicar of a church. Hence, the qazi of a mahal came to have some contact with the local administration. The qazis, being religious heads, had close relations with the members of the mahal and supervised the day-to-day affairs of the people in matters like birth, death, marriage and divorce. The British administrators often summoned the qazis, instead of meeting committees or leaders of the Muslims, to redress grievances. Most mahals faced the issue of finding land for graveyards. The power of allotting such lands was vested in the hands of the local administration.

In Kerala, the janmam[5] right of the land was in the hands of the Namboodiris and the Nairs, highly influential and aristocratic castes of the Hindu community. There were several instances where grants to make graveyards around the mosques were not given. The original janmis (landlords) often failed to allot land for the purpose when parcelling out land for the construction of mosques. This was a very complex issue and demands of the local Muslims were forwarded by the qazis and decisions were finally taken by the janmis and the local administration. Thereby, qazis of the mahals gradually became important with increasing social status, while they already enjoyed religious rights. The qazis of the mahal could thus avoid several instances of conflict between landlords and members of the mahal. Most cases were solved through mediation rather than by judicial or court proceedings. The trio—the qazi (the religious head), the janmi and the local administration (the British)—had equal roles in this respect and they worked in unison. Thus, the British treated the mahals of the local Muslims in the same manner as a diocese that centres on a church with a Christian settlement attached to it.

Another important activity of mahals in Kerala was religious education of the people to equip them to earn a glorious afterlife and to keep them always within the orbit of religion. The dars system in the mosque originated thus and was usually provided facilities in the upper floor of the Juma Masjid in a residential pattern similar to seminaries to train male members in Islamic studies, which included the Quran, Sunnah, Fiqh, and Islamic history and jurisprudence. Members who successfully completed their course later became experts in Islamic theology and became teachers in madrassahs and religious functionaries in mosques. They were given designations like musaliars and maulavis. The system was something like the gurukula, a type of education we had earlier in Kerala. The students used to sit in a circle in front of a lamp (nilavilakku) and the chief Mudaris (a Mudari was the chief of the dars) recited the Quran, the Hadith (tradition, etc.) depending mainly on oral discourse. The Mudari was the principal teacher and the chief custodian of the institution. He was respected and obeyed by all the students and the public alike. Ponnani, in present-day Malappuram district, had the privilege to have the first seminary of that type when the Makhdoom family initiated the system in Kerala. Sheikh Zeinudin I and Sheikh Zeinudin II were teachers of dars. Makhdooms were Syeds (known in Kerala as Thangals) in the line of the prophet and they settled mainly at Ponnani in the late medieval period. They were masters in Islamic law and leaders of the traditional ulemas. They were also writers in theology and Islamic jurisprudence. Tuhfat-ul-Mujahidin, the noted historical work and the first of its kind in Kerala, was written by Sheikh Zeinudin II, against the ascendancy of the Portuguese. They were also shafiite scholars (following the Imam Shafi and his jurisprudence) of Ahlul Sunnah-wal Jama’at, the major Sunni sect in Kerala.

Though not a mahal of the modern concept, Ponnani is considered to be the fountainhead of the Arab-Islamic influences that formed the base of Kerala’s Islamic culture and tradition. Travellers like Francis Buchanan (1762–1829) and writers like William Logan (1841–1914) mention Ponnani as the ‘mini Mecca’ of Kerala. Buchanan says there were 40 mosques in Ponnani during the time of his visit on December 14, 1880. The Makhdooms, the arch clerics of the Kerala Muslims, and their disciples established Muslim life in Kerala with its own identity, unquestioned and unrivalled for years. Zeinudin-ibn-Ahmed Ma’bari was crowned as the qazi of Ponnani at the beginning of the fifteenth century. By about AD 1558 (AH 925), his grandnephew, Abu Yahya Zeinudin Ibn Ali Ahmed, built the Juma Masjid which still exists in the heart of Ponnani town. It is this mosque and seminary that later developed into the present-day Ma’unathul Islam Sabha.

The madrassahs were constituted in the later years for imparting basic religious learning to young Muslim boys and girls. Hence, they promulgated a lesser degree of scholarship in comparison to the darses. While the darses are exclusively controlled by religious heads like the qazis, the madrassahs are controlled by the Mahal Committees of each locality with the sanction of the mosque. Madrassahs evolved from the earlier ōthupallis, centres for nocturnal study and exercise. The mushrooming of madrassahs in Kerala began after the 1950s with each mosque having a madrassah in its possession. Classes were taught in the madrassahs in the morning and in the evening till about 8 pm. Both boys and girls were admitted into the madrassahs.

A major share of the madrassahs is now under the control of the Samastha Kerala Islam Matha Vidyabhyasa Board, under the EK Sunni faction. The AP Sunni faction also has its own share of madrassahs. Both have their own syllabi and textbooks. Though both are Sunni factions, they are rival groups working on the basis of political affiliations. While the EK group aligns itself with the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, the AP group claims to be non-political but has a tendency to ally with the left parties. The political affiliations of these religious groups naturally developed the characteristics of party politics which are reflected even in the formation of the Mahal Committees in various parts of Kerala. 

The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Mujahid or Salafi groups also have their own madrassahs to train students. They too have distinct syllabi and study patterns that cater to their requirements. Since they are propagators of universalism and global Islamic brotherhood, their activities are not confined to mahals or Mahal Committees. Even though they oppose the mahal system theoretically, organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami have designated micro-units of their gathering as halqa. But it is not as effective as the Mahal Committee, which is constituted democratically. The latter does not include religious functionaries including the qazi. Recently, even qazis have been nominated by the Mahal Committees, even though they are selected from traditional qazi families. The mahals which govern the mosque can thus be equated with the Church of England, developed during the time of the Tudors, especially after Henry VIII who was instrumental in the English Reformation. An important characteristic of the Mahal Committee is its democratic character. At present most of the members of the committee are elected by voting, and the President is elected from among them. In some cases, the President has the right to nominate a few members according to their merit, of course with the majority approval of the members.

Even though the mahals function like historic temple committees in which authorities like the yogiathiripads or taliatiripads (Brahmin oligarchies) participated and enjoyed overwhelming rights, in the case of the mahals such powers are almost exclusively handled by the qazis. However, once the committee is constituted, the qazis or the religious functionaries do not have as much of a voice as a parish priest or bishop has in the church or a taliatiri has in a temple. Raja Marthanda Varma suppressed the rights and privileges of the yogakkars who were in charge of the Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple in Trivandrum, when they opposed the state and the king. As mentioned earlier, the qazis were only titular heads with de jure powers, and all the activities of the mosque and the mahal were carried out by the committee headed by a President. Some consider the President’s status as a continuation of that of the Muthavalli, the administrator, in charge of the mosque and its properties including the Wakf. But, Muthavalli is nominated with a commitment to the ruling government and is entrusted all the properties, mainly land. He is virtually a trustee. Whereas, the President of a Mahal Committee is totally different from the Muthavalli by way of his accession to power and in carrying out his responsibilities.

Social Functions
Mahals, since their inception, have had a multifarious role in the Islamic society of the region. In the early period, mahals dictated the dos and don’ts of social life, but as time went on such interferences gradually vanished. The interferences were related to age-old customs and traditions, often enveloped in religious dogmas. Education and modernity created a new socio-political order of change leading to the formation of a liberal and more open society. Earlier, marriage and divorce were decided by these mahals, through their sanction. Nobody could marry or attempt a divorce without the consent of the Mahal Committee. But such restrictions and inclination to the mahal life were not always possible with changes in social life, mobility of the population, migration outside the state, especially to the Gulf countries, in search of employment and so on. The mahals also realised the situation and were not adamant about sticking to their ways. However, the involvement of the mahals in local issues continued in all the disputes that were brought before its forum. For example, property issues, divorce cases, family feuds, ostracism (social ban) of families or individuals and so on were all still dealt with by the local mahals.

In the recent past, large scale politicisation and social change has led to the Mahal Committees losing the powers and responsibilities traditionally vested with them. The power and regulations of the Mosque and Mahal Committees have shifted to bodies constituted by political parties and the panchayats. The rise of local bodies like the panchayats and other civic bodies, which are more committed and legal in nature, has greatly influenced social life. Bodies working in the panchayats have made the local people more aware of their rights and liberties. This has had a negative influence on the mahals, causing them to retract several of their decisions that otherwise would have been imposed as traditions or as matters of religious authority.

The diktats of the mahals often affected the women folk of the community adversely, being the most deprived section of society. Since almost all Muslim marriages were arranged and solemnised by the Mahal Committee of the locality, they claimed that they had the right to even nullify marriages. Their rigid positions became all too evident when a section of Muslims opposed a verdict by the Supreme Court of India, insisting on the registration of marriages in local bodies, an act conducted traditionally by the qazis. Representatives of some Muslim Mahal Jama’ats in Kerala met the Chief Minister and expressed deep concern and anxiety at the verdict of the Supreme Court and requested him not to implement the verdict on any ground.

In fact, such verdicts uphold freedom, protection and prestige of women. The same is the case with the recent development on the passing of the Muttalaq (Triple Talaq) Bill. Though it was not taken up with much fervour in Kerala, the issue caused a hue and cry in Mahal Committees and throughout India, siding with the Muslim Personal Law Board (MPLB), a body that claims to be the custodian of Islamic Shariah.[6]

The mahals appear to be a fierce body when they interfere in issues like divorce and ostracism. One might construe that most of the mahals show a tendency towards misogyny in interpreting Shariah and Islamic law due to instances of harassment against women. The incident of Aysha (pseudo name), a resident of Beemapalli in Trivandrum, living within the jurisdiction of the Mahal Committee of the Beemapalli Mosque, is one such example. The committee harassed her, accusing her of adultery, an accusation which was later found to be fake. Such cases of excesses by the religious committees and the so-called leaders of the community often disturb the life of the poor, particularly the women in the Islamic society of Kerala. Though the Mahal Committee ordered that the accused woman be punished by flogging, court interference saved her from her predicament. Both the court and public found on enquiry that the allegation was false and fabricated by someone with a personal grudge. In fact, the Quranic injunction, while prescribing punishment to both parties who committed adultery, prescribes almost the same punishment to those who make false allegations on women with bad intentions.

Some Mahal committees engage in socio-cultural activities , often encouraging mappila arts like Daff Muttu, Kolkkalli, Arvana, Kuthu Raatheeb and so on, associating themselves with institutions like Thekkiavu (Thaikkavu) and madrassahs.[7]

Mahal Committees organise annual or periodical celebrations like nerchas, sometimes adding a competitive spirit to events with other committees in the neighbourhood. This is common in places like Malappuram where numerous martyrs are consecrated as shahids/shuhadas in the graveyards around mosques. Factions like the Mujahids and Jamaatis disassociate with these events, considering them un-Islamic practices. The Sunnis claim that such processions and singing songs using daffus (rhythm instrument) were reminiscent of welcoming the Prophet to Madeena from Mecca. They utter ‘Ya Nabi Salaam Alaikum’ (O! Prophet of God, you are most welcome and peace be upon you) with great joy and jubilation. Most of the nerchas, particularly the Chandanakkudam Varavu in Kondotty, are organised by the Mahal Committees of the respective mosques. These celebrations attract people from far and near opening new outlets for all people to interact irrespective of their caste, colour or creed.

The mahals are also involved in service sectors like healthcare and education, as evident in Thekkeppuram in Kozhikode. At a time when access to healthcare had not reached poor households, particularly the women and children, the mahals provided such philanthropic services to the relief of many who were confined to their houses. Health clinics initiated by individuals like Koyappathodi Mammad Haji and the Baramis are good examples. A hospital was opened at Idiyankara in 1924 exclusively for the people of Thekkeppuram. Education also got much attention from the mahals leading to the establishment of some schools in the region.
The nucleus of schools like the Madrasuthul Muhammadiya School, the MMLP School and the Hidayatul Islam School was the result of philanthropic works initiated by the Mahal Committees of Kuttichira. This was a great boon for a society that until then was attached to old concepts and traditions and hence lacked mobility.

The mahals of the region, from the early decades of the twentieth century (in 1930s and 40s), were noted for the promotion of music, songs and drama that were very popular among the Muslims of the region. It is an interesting fact that the Mahal Committee of Thekkeppuram never interfered in such activities or never branded them as un-Islamic. Thus revolutionary dramas like Aaranaparadhi (Who is the Culprit?), Elemma (Aunt), Vampathi Neeyanu Pennu (You are the Real Woman, Smarty), Neduveerpu (Sigh) and Taravadum Madisseelayum (Ancestral Home and Pocket) were performed on various stages there. All these plays are noted for their social criticism on certain practices in Muslim life and the family system. Yet, there was little opposition from the Mahal Committees. This indicates how a mahal, over time, transformed into an institution that catered to the requirements of a modern society without ignoring its religious duties and responsibilities.


[1] It is believed that Islam entered into Kerala as a result of the conversion of Cheraman Perumal, a ruler of Kerala, who visited Mecca, and the consequent mission of Malik-ibn-Dinar and his men in different parts of Kerala. They were responsible for building mosques, the first being in Kodungallur.
[2] Mappila is an appellation applied to Malabar Muslims, the local converts to Islam. It originated from two Malayalam terms maha and pilla. Its meaning derives from the combination of the term Ma’ (Mother) and pilla (child) meaning ‘Mother’s child’ indicating children of local mothers in foreigners (here the Arabs). It has to be noted that, like the Nairs of Kerala, Mappilas of coastal Malabar follow marumakkathayam (Matrilineal system: inheritance through mother).
[3] The Muccunti Mosque was built by an Arab merchant Muccian in the landed property of the Zamorin in the coast of Kozhikode. It has an inscription in Arabic and in Vattezhuthu on the daily expenses of the Mosque which were met by the Zamorin. The Madayi Mosque also contains a plaque with an inscription dated to AH 518/AD 1124. The presence of the plaque is attested by William Logan also. Land was provided by the Kolathiri Raja and its first qazi was Malik-Ibn-Abdurahiman.
[4] See Sheikh Zeinudin’s call to believers to wage a war on his behalf against the Portuguese.
[5] Janmam means a form of hereditary proprietary right previously prevalent in the State of Kerala. Janmam lands were originally held by a few zamindari families. These zamindars, members of a princely family, were called ‘janmies’ in Malayalam and their lands, Janmam Estate.
[6] The Muslim Personal Law Board (MPLB) was organised in 1972 by some Muslim leaders and ulemas under the pretext that they were the true protectors of the Shariah and the community. It became popular after the Shah Bano case of 1986. It virtually represented the higher strata of Islamic society of North India.
[7] The Thaikkavus, popularly known as Thekkiyavus, are centres associated with some mosques (or stand independently in rare cases) whose purpose is to train the youth in religious arts like Ratheebs, Maulids etc., celebrated in praise of Sufis, Saints, Shaikhs or some local divinities. During the nerchas or on festive occasions, they move in a procession reciting mad’hs (eulogies) and miracles and singing baithus with the accompaniment of musical instruments like daffu.


Makhdum, Sheikh Zeinuddin, Tuhfat-ul-Mujahidin. Translated by Nainar M.H. Madras: University of Madras, 1942.

Menon, K.P. Padmanabha. History of Kerala. Vol. 1 of History of Kerala, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1993. (Originally published in 1924.)

Pillai, Elamkulam Kunjan. Studies in Kerala History. Kottayam: National Book Stall, 1970.