A Community’s Integration Within Regional Folk Tradition: The Mappilās in the Mālābārī Society, 7th-17th Centuries

November 23, 2022

Anwit Shahi is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He has done his master's degree in history, specializing in medieval Indian history from Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His main area of interest is Islamicate South Asia, especially religious and mystical traditions in South Asia, and ethno-histories of South Asian Muslim communities.

A Community’s Integration Within Regional Folk Tradition: The Mappilās in the Mālābārī Society, 7th-17th Centuries

The tale of the South Asian civilization is, in a good measure, a tale of migration, acculturation and genesis of new communities. This is even truer of the region’s coasts, which, being prosperous emporia within the flourishing Indian Ocean trade network since time immemorial, have constantly invited seafaring mercantile peoples to settle along them, merge with local populations, and give rise to newer communities. A most instructive instance of this phenomenon is the integration of Mappilā Muslims, a people of part-Arab and part-Indic origin, into the socio-political milieu of the medieval Mālābār coast, situated at the southern end of the Indian Subcontinent. The metaphor of ‘beehive formation’ has been used to describe the harmonious induction of the Mappilās (as of the Jews and Christians of Mālābār before them) into the local society. Analogous to the addition of new cells to a beehive, their integration into Mālābār’s society seems not to have disturbed its overall structure.[1] This study intends to investigate this phenomenon in detail, through Mappilā folklore.

Using folklore as source has its own methodological complications. Heuristic problems- those of determining the source-material’s period of composition and authorship, prominently figure alongside the problem of determining the factual accuracy of its contents, given that it has been orally transmitted over centuries, and thus undergone redactions and interpolations, giving rise to different versions of the same legend(s). However, these problems become navigable once we transcend a rigidly positivist outlook of viewing sources as a repository of hard ‘facts’, in favor of viewing its contents as ‘signifiers’- symbolic representations of contemporary social realities. Besides, folklore has the added advantage of giving us a fuller picture of the contemporary lived reality, as it originates from among the masses, as opposed to exclusively focusing on ‘high literature’ or courtly annals and chronicles which, by centering our attention solely on the literati and the political elite, may obscure from vision the popular aspect of contemporary social realities.[2] To this end, two genres of Mappilā folklore have been utilized. The first is the origin-myth of the last Chéra emperor, Chérāman Pérumāl (as recorded by authors from diverse milieux- the Arab traveler Ibn Battūtā, the colonial Portuguese official Duarte Barbosa, and a local religious scholar, Zain al-Dīn Makhdūm), whose conversion and beneficence are believed to have led to the genesis of Mālābār’s earliest Muslim community. The second is the collection of folktales featuring Kunhāyan Musaliār, a fabled local cleric of ready wit and protagonist of many a victorious cerebral duel, who worked his way to royal favor. These sources can be fruitfully utilized to analyze how the Mappilās integrated themselves into Mālābār’s predominantly Hindu substratum on three principal counts- political, social, and religious.


The context for the integration of the Mappilās into Mālābār’s pre-existing Indic political institutions and culture was provided by two factors. Firstly, there was an absence of any tradition of political sovereignty within the community, as they had lived in perpetuity under Hindu kings. Secondly, a feature of Mālābār’s political economy was the royal authority in the countryside being weak, fragmented, and diffused. Consequently, the kings of Mālābār had failed to bring the income from agriculture within their taxation-base, and as such were heavily reliant on taxes on maritime commerce for their sustenance. This was an arena where the seafaring mercantile Arabs trading in Mālābār, the progenitors of the Mappilās, figured prominently.[3] It was this mix of political exigencies and confluence of economic interests which caused a symbiotic relation between the Mālābārī royal houses and the Mappilās to develop, eventually integrating the latter into the region’s political culture. For instance, the Chinese Muslim traveler-historian, Mā Huān, tells us that local Muslims figured prominently within the administration of the Zamorin of Calicut, the head customs official (Shāh Bandar) of the port-town himself being a Muslim.[4]

The extent of this political integration is also borne out by Mappilā folklore. We see, for example, in one of the Kunhāyan folktales, that Nettūrān, the chief steward to the Rājā of Kottayam, enters into a dispute with his sovereign over the ownership of a coconut fruit from his orchard which had fallen into the king’s palatial enclave. Although by custom the fruit belonged to the steward, the king had claimed its ownership, refusing to return it. An indignant and upset Nettūrān then enlists Kunhāyan’s help, who, on learning of what had transpired, shares the steward’s indignation, instantly reminiscing about the legendary justice of one Rājā Krishṇa Vermā, a former king who, in contrast to this king’s greed, had reportedly executed his own son in-law for an offense as trifling as taking a mango fruit from a garden that the latter did not own.[5] That this reminiscence was Kunhāyan’s reflexive response to an instance of royal injustice, indicates that not only were the Mappilās familiar with the local Hindu kingly lore, but they had also internalized it into their own political consciousness.

What further strengthens this impression is another story which serves as a sequel to this episode. Aided by Kunhāyan’s sharp wit, the steward succeeds in driving home the king’s unseemly conduct to the latter. Amused and impressed by the whole turn of events, the king summons Kunhāyan to his court to further test his intelligence. Learning of this, Kunhāyan’s mother is inconsolably distraught, fearing the worst for her son. She feels that, slighted by Kunhāyan’s cheekiness, the king must surely have summoned her son to punish him, and not to reward him by conferring ‘robes and bracelets’.[6] However, it so happens that, impressed by Kunhāyan’s cleverness, the king appoints him assistant royal steward. Two telling observations may be made here. Firstly, the idiomatic invocation of ‘robes and bracelets’ as tokens of royal favour indicates that the Mappilās were intimately familiar with the court culture of the local Hindu royal houses. Secondly, that neither the king, nor his steward, nor Kunhāyan himself thought of the appointment of a Muslim to a position of such close royal proximity as an oddity, indicates that the appointment of Muslims to highly important courtly positions was a natural and routine occurrence in Mālābār’s Hindu kingdoms.

The versions of the Chérāman Pérumāl legend relayed by Duarte Barbosa and Zain al-Dīn Makhdūm, further buttress this conclusion. Barbosa mentions that the legendary Emperor, after converting to Islam and instituting the first mosque that became the nucleus of Mālābār’s earliest Muslim community, and before departing to Mecca, had effected a tripartite division of his kingdom between his three trusted lieutenants, subsequently the progenitors of the royal houses of Kollam, Calicut and Cannanore.[7] Zain al-Dīn, after narrating the legend, adds that this story was ‘well known among the Hindus’ of the region.[8] The same legend, therefore, was being appealed to by the local Hindu dynasties to ritually legitimize their sovereignty, and by the local Muslims to explain the genesis of Mālābār’s earliest Muslim community. Thus, while a Hindu royal legend doubled as an origin-myth for the Mappilā Muslims, Islamic motifs of conversion, a mosque’s foundation and pilgrimage to Mecca had entered Hindu kingly lore, indicating that a sense of a shared political past had evolved among local Hindus and Muslims.


The gradual adoption of the host society’s socio-cultural practices by migrant peoples, as they blend into their new locales is a rule that holds true universally. The same applies to the Mappilās, historically speaking, and this is amply borne out by their folklore.

The effect of local culinary culture upon Mappilā dietary practices is prominently visible in Mappilā Muslim folklore. A Kunhāyan folktale informs us that when one of Kunhāyan’s teachers visits Kunhāyan’s home to take him along, he is served a meal of rice-flour bread by his pupil’s mother.[9] Later, we see that on reaching his teacher’s residence, the dinner served to Kunhāyan consists of coconut dishes, and even the cutlery is made of coconut shell.[10] Here we may not that coconut and rice are the chief produce, as well as staple food items of Mālābār’s coastal clime, and the impact of local culinary practices upon Mappilā cuisine is clearly visible. Several sociological studies have noted the presence of caste among South Asian Muslims,[11] akin to their non-Muslim neighbours, and the case with the Mappilās is no different. This may be gleaned from the community’s folklore. In a story, we see that when Kunhāyan receives a marriage proposal from an aristocratic family, his peers lamentably note that while their friend was set to marry into a patrician household, they hadn’t received proposals even from the families of ‘fishermen and lumberjacks’.[12] Later, trapped in an undesirable marriage, we see Kunhāyan escape by feigning to be a barber by caste, as his in-laws are anxious to get rid of a groom of so lowly a social station.[13] We must note that the references to these occupational castes in all of the aforementioned episodes are visibly pejorative, menial as their work was perceived to be by the caste-bound local society. This is clearly indicative of the fact that the notions of a ritual hierarchy among castes, subscribed to by their Hindu neighbours, had been imbibed by the Mappilā Muslims as well.

Besides caste, shared notions regarding gender too had come to be subscribed by the Mappilas and their Hindu neighbours. Along with the custom of matrilineal reckoning of descent and inheritance, arguably adopted under the influence of their neighbouring Hindu Nāyars, the Mappilās had adopted the distinctively Hindu practice of giving a dowry to the bridegroom.[14] The latter phenomenon is observable in one of the Kunhāyan stories, where the hefty dowry received by him excites his peers’ envy.[15] The adoption of practices such as dowry- which have historically had strong correlations with wider perceptions regarding gender- into Mappilā custom indicates common ideas and practices, straddling religious frontiers, prevailing in the society of Mālābār.


As the Mappilās integrated themselves into Mālābār’s ‘beehive’ social formation, their religious ideas and practices acquired a distinctly regional orientation. A markedly different style of mosque-architecture, which had more in common with local Hindu temple-architecture than with architectural traditions in the Arab or the Eastern Islamic world, came to be developed by them.[16] The legal compendia and commentaries produced by their ulamā in the  Shāfi’ī canonical tradition, shared by other maritime Muslim communities in the Indian Ocean region, came increasingly to focus upon local issues, such as commercial and social interactions with the local non-Muslims.[17] This gradual indigenization of Islam, which had behind it a several centuries-long process of the faith growing roots in the region and entering the local constellation of religions comprising Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism as a natural part of Mālābār’s landscape, is also visible in the community’s folklore.
We have referred to the Mappilās adopting Hindu architectural influences in their religious buildings, and the same can be seen in a Kunhāyan story where he, as a young student visiting the village of Peringathūr, notes that the pallī (a mosque-complex) ‘looks like a temple’.[18]

The trajectory of Islam from a new faith in Mālābār, jostling for a foothold among the region’s pre-existing religious traditions to a vibrant religious tradition, a naturalized and firmly-rooted part of Mālābār’s landscape, is clearly visible through different versions of the Chérāman Pérumāl legend. In an early version reported by Ibn Battūtā, a tree on whose leaves the shahādah appears inscribed naturally- a miracle which had overawed the Emperor into embracing Islam, survives attempts to uproot it, while the sacrilege of a mosque by a local Brāhmaṇ is avenged through divine retribution.[19] In a later version reported by Zain al-Dīn, the agents of the Emperor’s conversion is not any miracle, but a Shaykh’s entourage on a pilgrimage to a mountain peak in Ceylon bearing Prophet Adam’s sacred footprints.[20] While Ibn Battūtā’s version of the legend harkens back to a time when anxieties about Islam’s survival in Mālābār prevailed among the local Muslims- palpable through such metaphors as physical attacks on the miraculous tree and the mosque, Zain al-Dīn’s version- containing such metaphors as the Shaykh and the pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak- represents a decidedly later stage in the faith’s integration into Mālābār, when a local religious leadership had evolved and Mālābār’s larger neighbourhood had passed into a sacred geography connecting it to Qur’ānic prophets, given Ceylon’s physical proximity to Mālābār. This inference is corroborated by both folklore and verifiable historical data. While Ibn Battūtā had been relieved to find the few and far-between Muslims’ houses in Mālābār.[21] Kunhāyan finds the road from Odattil to Ponnānī dotted with pallīs.[22] The Makhdūm family of scholars, from which Zain al-Dīn himself hailed, also exemplify this pattern- of Yemeni origins, they had indigenized over generations,[23] winning great prestige among the local Muslims for their vast scholarship and magnanimity. In Weberian terminology, they had combined in their persons both individual charisma as scholars of repute, and hereditary charisma as scions of a holy lineage, so much so that in popular belief a quasi-supernatural aura had come to surround them- a friend of Kunhāyan’s, for instance, believes that disregarding a Makhdūm’s wish could invite divine wrath.[24]

Mappilā folklore also indicates that the management of Muslim religious establishments was done in a manner similar to that of local Hindu shrines. In a Kunhāyan story, the decision of the Hindu Landlord of Tirumanashery to evict the Makhdūms from their estate (which happened to house the pallī as well) at Ponnānī is opposed by the local notables, both Hindu and Muslim.[25] This episode indicates the following developments- firstly, the practice of giving land endowments to mosques, akin to those given to Hindu temples, had struck roots in Mālābār; secondly, akin to the agrahāra and brāhmadéya endowments made to Hindu temples since ancient times, a notion of inviolability and irrevocability was attached to these endowments too, and thirdly, a tradition of joint management of shrines by the local notables, irrespective of their faiths, had come to prevail in Mālābār.

Thus, we see that over the centuries, the Mappilās had come to share several common political, socio-cultural, and even religious ideas, institutions, and practices with the Hindus of Mālābār. A thorough perusal of their folklore establishes that, having forged centuries-old ties of shared political, socio-cultural, and to some degree, even religious attitudes with the local Hindus, the Mappilā Muslims had fitted themselves into the ‘beehive structure’ of Mālābār’s society, and Islam had settled comfortably among the other religious traditions of Mālābār, making the mosque as natural a part of the region’s landscape as the temple.



Barbosa, Duarte, The Book of Duarte Barbosa, Translated by Mansel Longworth Dames. London: Haklyut Society, 1921.

Battūtā, Ibn, Rehla , Translated by Agha Mehdi Husain. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1976.

Muhammed, V. P., Kunhaayan the Clever and the Kings of Malabar, Translated by J. Devika. Gurgaon: Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd., 2012.

Makhdūm, Zain al-Dīn, Tuhfat ul –Mujahideen , Translated by  S. Husain Nainar. Kulala Lumpur and Calicut: Islamic Book Trust and Other Books, 2005.

Prange, Sebastian R, Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Dale, Stephen Frederick, Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier: The Mappilas of Malabar, 1498-1922. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Ray, Rajat Kanta, The Felt Community: Commonality and Mentality before the Emergence of Indian Nationalism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Ahmad, Imtiaz, ed. Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India. New Delhi: Aakar Books, 2008.

Koya, S.M. Mohamed, “Matriliny and Malabar Muslims.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Volume 40 (1979): 419-431.

Sakal, Fahri, “The value of folklore as source of historical research.” Milli Folklor 10(77) (March 2008): 50-60.


[1] Rajat Kanta Ray, The Felt Community: Commonality and Mentality before the Emergence of Indian Nationalism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 111-112.

[2] For a detailed discussion, see Fahri Sakal, “The value of folklore as source of historical research”, Milli Folklor 10(77) (March 2008): 50-60.

[3] Stephen Frederick Dale, Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier: The Mappilas of Malabar, 1498-1922 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980),18-19.

[4] Dale, 27.

[5] V.P. Muhammed, Kunhaayan the Clever and the Kings of Malabar, trans.  J. Devika ( Gurgaon: Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd., 2012) 40-41.

[6] Muhammed, 45.

[7] Duarte Barbosa, The Book of Duarte Barbosa, trans. Mansel Longworth Dames (London: Haklyut Society, 1921), 3-5.

[8] Zain al-Dīn Makhdūm, Tuhfat ul –Mujahideen , trans.  S. Husain Nainar (Kulala Lumpur and Calicut: Islamic Book Trust and Other Books, 2005), 30.

[9] Muhammed, Kunhaayan the Clever, 3.

[10] Muhammed, 5.

[11] For details on the phenomenon, see Imtiaz Ahmad, ed. Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India (New Delhi: Aakar Books, 2008).

[12] Muhammed, Kunhaayan the Clever,33.

[13] Muhammed, 35-36.

[14] S.M. Mohamed Koya, “Matriliny and Malabar Muslims”, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress Volume 40 (1979): 419-431.

[15] Muhammed, Kunhaayan the Clever,33.

[16] Sebastian R Prange, Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 124-125.

[17] Prange, 116-118.

[18] Muhammed, Kunhaayan the Clever,4.

[19]Ibn  Battūtā, Rehla , trans. Agha Mehdi Husain (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1976), 187-188.

[20] Makhdūm, Tuhfat, 29-31.

[21] Battūtā, Rehla, 182.

[22] Muhammed, Kunhaayan the Clever,17.

[23] Prange, Monsoon Islam, 110-120.

[24] Muhammed, Kunhaayan the Clever,86.

[25] Muhammed, 24-26.

Published Date: November 23, 2022
Topics: South Asia

Anwit Shahi

Anwit Shahi is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He has done his master's degree in history, specializing in medieval Indian history from Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His main area of interest is Islamicate South Asia, especially religious and mystical traditions in South Asia, and ethno-histories of South Asian Muslim communities.
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