Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Story of Islam in Kerala - Part 3

Rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula

In the last two posts, we had a fairly detailed look at the trade relations between Malabar and the Middle East throughout the ages of history. I'd thought of putting up the Perumal story today but felt a brief background of the timeline of events in the history of the Prophet is required for a better analysis of the Perumal story.So today we look at a brief background on the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and the historic timeline of the incidents in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and the spread of Islam in Arabian Peninsula as relevant to this study.As Francis Peters notes in his work, Mecca: a literary history of the Muslim Holy Land, the history of Hijaz, the area that includes in Mecca and Medina during the era of Ignorance or Jahiliyyah is primarily derived from Muslim sources including the Holy Qur'an. These lands were inhabited by nomads and oasis dwellers whose culture was oral and few archaeological evidences remain to say the story of this inhospitable desert land. Hardly any reference is found in contemporary Greek and Roman sources of the era about Hijaz specifically, though to the south of Najran and north of Madain Salih, there are more descriptive accounts from Procopius and others.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born in AD 570* to the merchant family of Banu Hashim of the tribe of Quraysh, in the town of Makkah, a commercial centre of the era in Arabia. The Banu Hashim family were pioneers of trade amongst the Quraysh and had built up a trade network with business relations extended to Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Abyssinia. In Sirat Rasulullah, the first biography of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Arab historian Ibn Ishaq (d. 767 AD) reports that Hashim ibn Abd Manaf died in Gaza while travelling with his merchandise (5). 

Makkah was also the site of an important house of worship called the Ka’bah, built by the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Ismail). 
The annual pilgrimage to the Ka’bah, a tradition reaching back centuries among the Arab tribes also brought wealth and prestige to the Makkans. This short chapter in the Holy Qur'an provides an interesting window on the life of the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the Prophet's (PBUH) mission.

In the name of God, Most Gracious , Most Merciful,
For the taming of Quraysh (1) For their taming, we cause the caravans to set forth in winter and summer. (2) So let them worship the Lord of this House, (3) Who provides them with food against hunger and with security against fear(4) (Qur’an, 106 (Chapter Quraysh) :1-4)

The winter and summer journeys referred here were timed to the monsoon winds on the Indian Ocean, which brought ships laden with goods from India, East Africa and China to the ports of Yemen in the winter, and allowed the caravans to regularly buy goods which they transported to Syria and its Mediterranean ports during the summer.  The incident mentioned in the last post about the failed attempt by the Yemeni king Abraha Al Asram also increased the prestige of the Quraysh amongst the Arabs as the custodians of the Kaaba, which was protected by divine forces and this lent safety to their trade caravans(6). 

The Prophet himself as a young boy was involved in the caravan trade, and made trips to Syria as part of the trade caravans from Makkah and in time he came to be respected for both his business success and his wisdom. Yet He loved to go off by himself into the surrounding hills of Makkah to think about the meaning of life. In AD 610 the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) revealed the first verses of the Holy Qur'an to the Prophet while in meditation in the cave of Mt. Hira. The first 13 years of propagation were very difficult for him and his followers. In this period, the Muslim community was largely limited to the town of Makkah and even in here, they were a minority.

It was during this period that the incident of the splitting of the moon occurred. The Qur'an in Chapter 54, Al Qamar or the Moon refers to the incident :
The Hour of Resurrection has drawn near and the Moon has split asunder - 54:1
This incident is believed to have occurred around AD 615. The incident has been narrated by commentators of the Qur'an as follows: "It was the 14th night of the lunar month; the Moon had just risen when it suddenly split and its two parts were seen on either side of the hill in front. Then after a moment or so they rejoined. The Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) at that time was at Mina. He told the people to mark it and be witnesses to it."

After thirteen years of struggle for survival in Makkah, the Muslims migrated to Madinah in an event called the Hijrah, which marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar, in 622 CE (Common Era). Even in Madinah, the growth of the community in the initial years was slow.

Ancient trade routes in the Arabian Peninsula

It was in AD 628, that an important historical event called the Treaty of Hudaybiah changed the pattern of growth of Islam. It was then that Islam began to spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Later that year, the Prophet (PBUH) sent messengers with letters to the kings and chiefs of neighboring lands including Byzantine, Persia, Ethiopia and Egypt inviting them to Islam. The messenger to Persia was rebuked by Khusrau II and he ordered his governor in Yemen**, Badhan to summon the Prophet to his court in Persia. When Badhan's messengers arrived in Medina seeking the surrender of the Prophet, he replied to them that the Emperor Khusrau was dead, murdered by his own son. The messengers took the message to Badhan, he sought to verify this prediction*** and when he came to know that this was true, he accepted Islam along with the Persians in Yemen. This first account of Islam in Yemen was in AD 628, six years after the splitting of the moon incident. Two years later in AD 630 after the Muslim conquest of Makkah, the Prophet sent Ali Ibn Abi Talib and later Muadh Ibn Jabal to teach Islam to the people of Yemen. By the time of the death of the Prophet in AD 632, almost the whole of the Arabian Peninsula including Yemen had come under Islam.

At the other end of the peninsula, Persia which included Basra (Ubullah) and other port cities in the Persian Gulf that traded with the Malabar and China came into the fold of Islam after the Prophet passed away in AD 632. The conquest of Persia began in AD 633 with The Battle of Sallasil (Chains) led by the legendary Khalid Ibn Walid and continued for the next few years. 

Basrah, in particular came under Islam in the 14th year of Hijrah - AD 635-636 after the second Caliph Umar Bin Al Khattab sent an army led by Utbah Ibn Ghazwan to conquer Ubullah. The famous Arab historian Tabari (d. 923 AD)  repeatedly refers to Ubullah as "Farj Al Hind" and at one place quotes the message from the Caliph to the Commander as follows:****
 ' O Utbah, I have appointed you to rule the "land of India" ....'. (Ard al Hind) 

The ninth century Persian historian Al Baladhuri (d 892) also quotes Utbah describing the port of Ubullah to Caliph Umar in his work Futuh-ul-Buldan:****
وكتب إلى عمر يعلمه ذلك ويخبره أن الأبله فرضة البحرين وعمان والهندوالصين‏.‏
"And (Utbah) wrote to Umar informing him that Al Ubullah was an opening (port) to Bahrain and Oman and India and China."

Tabari also describes how strongly the town was fortified, pointing to the importance of trade with India and China and its significance to Persian economy.

The battles for Persia continued for a few more years. The veteran Persian general Rustam was killed and his army defeated at the  Battle of Al-Qadisiyyah in November, AD 636. A further crushing blow was inflicted in the Battle of Nahawand which marked the last attempt by the Persians to put up a fight. The Sassanid empire lasted a few more years till AD 651 when the last Sassanid ruler was killed. 
The local population did not convert to Islam and remained in the Muslim state paying a jizya,which was much lesser than the poll taxes imposed by the Sassanids. The Caliph Umar is said to have occasionally setup a commission to survey the taxes, that if they are not more than the land could bear. Conversion of the Persian population to Islam took place very gradually, mostly under the rule of the later Abbasid Caliphate, when the capital of the Caliphate was moved from Syria (Damascus) to Persia/Iraq (Baghdad).

What has all this to do with the story of Islam in Kerala? 
Well, the first accounts of Islam are related to an incident in the Prophet's life that is believed to have occurred during his stay in Makkah. Given the above context, in the next post we analyze the story of the Perumal and examine how possible it is for such an incident to have happened.
* AD 570 is the tradition followed in Islamic narrative and is called the Year of the Elephant when Abraha from Yemen attacked the Ka'aba. Western scholars disagree with this narrative, but do not have verifiable sources to explain the defeat of the mighty Aksumites at Mecca, and except a few inscriptions that remotely narrte a similar incident dated a few decades prior, no sources have been discovered archaeologically to date the incident with accuracy. What's sure is that the event was not after AD 570 since by then the Sassanians had conquered Yemen by defeating the Aksumites.

** See my previous post for more about the Persian conquest of Yemen
*** This was of a predictive nature in this context since it was a matter of instant reporting of something that happened hundreds of miles away, at a time when the speed of communication depended on the speed of the horse.
**** Click on the links to download the original Arabic texts of Tareekh Al-Tabari and 

and Futuh Ul Buldan.

Part four of the study can be found here.
1) Commentary for Chapters Al Fil (No:106) and Al Qamar (No:54),  Thafheem-ul-Qur'an by Syed Abul A'la Maudoodi ( (English) , For Malayalam, For the other languages, see )
2) Wikipedia articles on the Islamic Conquest of Persia
3) Encyclopaedia of Islam By Mufti M. Mukarram Ahmed

4)Pg 168 Volume 12 of The History of Al-Tabari, Tarikh Al Rusul Wal Muluk by Tabari, translated by Yohannan Friedmann
5) cited in Pg 27, Mecca: a literary history of the Muslim Holy Land By Francis E. Peters
6) ibid , Pg 42

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Story of Islam in Kerala - Part 2

In the first post, we had a look at the geographical nature of Kerala and the importance of the spice trade and the way it shaped the maritime contacts of its people.
Today we take a look at the trade relations in more detail of people who had relations with the land throughout the centuries .

Greeks, Romans and Egyptians
During the 3rd and 2nd millienia BC, the Assyrians, the Babylonians in Sumer (Iraq) and the Egyptians had extensive trade with spices from Malabar . Biblical references to the spices indigenous to Kerala also point to this thriving trade contact of these civilizations with the land of Malabar. Kesari Balakrishna Pillai opines  that there might have been Indian colonies to the East of River Tigris in BC 3102. (1) 

The 5th century BC Greek historian Herodotus refers to the spices traded by the Arabs but he wrongly believed the spices originated in Arabia.His accounts though point to strong trade between Arabs and Malabar in his time. Later the Greeks themselves learnt to reach Malabar by sea. In the first century AD,  Hippalus  is believed to have discovered a new and faster route to Kerala using the Monsoon winds. Whether this was learnt from the Arabs or something the Greeks discovered is unknown, but in the following centuries there was a very strong trade relation between the Egyptians, the Romans (Egypt was under the Romans in those days) and the Malabar. (2) This trade played an important role in the rise of Alexandria as a major trading port in the early centuries of the Christ era. Myos Hormos, a Red Sea port in Egypt was the place where goods from Malabar were disembarked and taken to Alexandria. Indian merchants had settlements in Alexandria as evident by the massacre of a colony of Indian merchants by Caracella in the beginning of the third century.(3) The journey from Myos Hormos to Muziris took almost 40 days. The number of coins discovered in Muziris belonging to each era of the Roman empire point to the Roman trade peaking during the time from Augustus (d. AD 14) to Nero (AD 68) after which there was a marked decline in the following centuries, with the last Roman coins upto the time of Flavius Zeno (AD 491) being discovered in South India. There was even a temple dedicated to Augustus in Muziris, and significant populations of Romans inhabited colonies in Muziris. (4) Once the Roman trade declined, the Indian traders went back to the Arab mariners to take their goods to the markets in Europe and elsewhere.

Christianity is believed by some to have reached Malabar in the first century AD through St Thomas but many question the authenticity of this tradition. The accounts of the Jews who came to Cranganore in 68 AD and the Alexandrian scholar Pantaneus' writings are cited as proof though some say the latter was just referring to Arabia as India like some Greeks did in those days. Others also point out that Eusebius, the fourth century historian who narrated Pantaneus accounts might have referred to the Indian community in those trading ports of Ethiopia and Arabia. These traders might have later carried their beliefs to their native places thereby laying foundation for Christianity in India in the early centuries of the Christ era.The Jewish presence in AD 68 itself is not accepted completely by historians though it is widely seen as a believable tradition. (12) Tamil traditions narrate a Shaivite believer Maakka Bhaskar who defeated two Christian families in debates and converted them to Hinduism in AD 279. (9)The oldest widely accepted historic origins of the Christian community in Malabar though refers to Thomas of Cana, a merchant from Syria (historical Syria included all of or parts of modern day Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon) who landed at  Cranganore in AD 345 with 400 Christians from 72 families.(5)(6) These immigrants belonged to the Syrian Orthodox Church but later, after the arrival of the religiously fanatic Portuguese, they forced to Latinise the Church, leading to the famous incident of Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu) in 1653 that lead to the formation of the Malankara Church. The initial arrival of the Portuguese though, were welcomed by sections of the community as "the mercy of God upon the Christians of Kerala"(13). Today significant populations of Latin Catholics are found along the coastal regions especially in the South.

The first Jews are believed to have landed in AD 68 in Cranganore fleeing Roman persecution with some accounts putting their number at 10,000. Though not completely supported by evidence, historians consider this a probability, given that there was trade relations between Malabar and the Jews back in the era of King Solomon in 1000 BC.(12) In the fourth century, the Himyarite rulers of Yemen had converted to Judaism thereby establishing a large Jewish community in Yemen.They were later defeated by the Ethiopian Christian kingdom of the Aksumites in 530 AD* and many Jews who had trade contacts with Malabar migrated from Arabia and settled in Chaliyam and Kodungalloor following the defeat. These Arab Jewish communities existed in these places till the days of Abul Fida in the early 14th century as noted in Thaqveemul Buldan.(8) The Bhaskara Ravi Varman copper plates of AD 1000 (some say it dates to the 4th century AD)  point to an established Jewish community settled in Kerala by the 10th century AD. Later waves of migration also occured after the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Jews by the Christian Spanish rulers known in history as The Reconquista.(12) 

Post Roman Era
After the Roman trade declined, the Arabs and Persians continued their trade journeys to Malabar and back. The Greek historian Procopius tell us about an ambassador sent by Justinian  to unite the Christian rulers of Yemen and Ethiopia so that the Ethiopians " by purchasing silk from India and selling it among Romans" can make a good profit which was impossible then for "the Persian merchants  locate themselves at the very harbours where Indian ships first put in". (10) This points to an upper hand for the Persians in their trade during the 6th century. In the second quarter of the sixth century, Ceylon was the entrepot of trade between China and the Near East. Chinese ships sailed all the way upto Ceylon and from there the Persians and the Aksumites (Ethiopians) dominated the trade routes westward. The Persian Nestorian Church even sent bishops to Ceylon for missionary activities and established churches in the port of Male (Maldives). Some accounts also suggest Persian ships went all the way upto China from the port of Al-Ubullah (near Basra). The port was also referred to as 'Farj Al Hind'** or frontier of India during the seventh century pointing to a very well established trade route between Persia and India at the time.(15) B By the third quarter of the sixth century, Yemen had come under the control of the Sassanians (Persians) who had sided with Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan in the quarrel between the successors of Abraha, the king who was killed in AD 571 by divine punishment from Allah according to the Holy Qur'an (Chapter Al-Fil or the The Elephant) while on an expedition to Mecca to destroy the Holy Ka'aba. So, put in context it can be safely assumed that the trade with India was almost completely in the hands of the Persians throughout the sixth and early seventh century. (16) The dominance of trade through the Persian Gulf continued even after Persia came under Islamic rule till the 10th century when the rise of Cairo and demand from Italian cities shifted the trade to the Red Sea. Under Abbasid rule, the capital of the Islamic Caliphate had moved to Baghdad and Basra in Iraq and Siraf on the Iranian coast flourished as the centres of  Indian ocean trade. Goods from Basra were transported to Baghdad by river and then taken to Syria via desert routes and from there to other parts of Egypt and Europe. By then though, Arabs, Jews and Persians were all involved in the trade with Arab ships sailing from Ubullah (Basra) to India and even upto China.(17)

It is in this context that the early accounts of arrival of Islam in Kerala, and the conflicting dates of the same stories needs to be studied and analyzed. The Perumal legend dates back to the Prophet's era, while different accounts about Malik Ibn Dinar are conflicting. Some narrations suggest he was from Basra in Iraq while others suggest he was a companion of the Prophet living as his contemporary. Given the facts above, we'll analyze in our next post the first accounts of Islam in Kerala, and a comparison with the accounts of Islam in the other lands in the trade routes between Arabia and India, ie. China and South East Asia.

Read Chapter The Colonial Era in Arabia by F.E. Peters in Muhammad and the Origins of Islam for a picture of Arabia in the last centuries before Prophet Muhammad PBUH
** Tabari refers to Al Ubullah as Farj Al Hind while Baladhuri in Futuhul Buldan refers to it as Furdat Al Bahrayn Wa Al Uman Wa Al Hind  Wa Al Sin, port from where ships sail to Bahrain, Oman, India and China. This also points to the trade route in the Persian Gulf.

Part three of the series can be found here.

(1) Pg8 Charithrathinte Adiverukal ( quoted by KM Bahauddin - Kerala Muslims: The Long Struggle. Mal. Ed by IPH Pg 27 )
(2) Pg 24 - 29, Arab seafaring in the Indian Ocean in ancient and early medieval times - George Fadlo Hourani, John Carswell
(3) Pg 29,Influence of Islam on Indian Culture By Tara Chand
(4) PG 121-141, Indian Shipping - A History of the Sea-Borne Trade and Maritime Activity of the Indians from the Earliest Times (1912)By Radhakumud Mookerji
(6) Pg 107, A short Survey of Kerala History, A Sreedhara Menon
(8) Pg 34, Malabar, Shamsullah Qadiri , Malayalam Edn ,Other Books.
(9) Tamilian Antiquary, Vol 1 No VI pp 53-505-73-39 as quoted in Malabar, Shamsulla Qadiri pg 33.
(10) Pg 62-63, History of the Wars, Books I and II (Persian Wars) By Procopius
(11) Pg 297, Spread of Islam in China, TW Arnold, Preaching of Islam
(12) Pg 109,  A short survey of Kerala History, A Sreedhara Menon.
(13) pg 300,  “The Latin  Christians of Kerala”, Br Leopold
(14) pg 13, "Three Letters of Mar Jacob Bishop of Malabar, 1503-1550
(15) Pg 40-42, Arab seafaring in the Indian Ocean in ancient and early medieval times - George Fadlo Hourani, John Carswell
(16) Richard Frye. The History of Ancient Iran. 
(17) Pg 44, A history of the Arab peoples  By Albert Habib Hourani, Malise Ruthven