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


  1. Dear Nabeel, It's really great.
    I would suggest to attach the related images with your blog articles, instead of linking it from the source (if there is no copyright issue).

    All the best


  2. Dear Yasir

    Thanks for the feedback.
    I've replaced the links with the images.


  3. Other than the Keralolpathi and subsequent writings, have you come across any other source which talks about the Cheraman Perumal? The Story of the conversion and the pickle which i had covered earlier of course refers to popular sources, but I am still not convinced.

    Also as we all know Prophet Mohammed was a trader and so I think it would be a good idea if you could cover the story of the prophet in his earlier days to set perspective.

  4. Thanks for the comment Maddy.

    I've almost completed a fairly detailed study on that..Just adding the final touches. Hopefully will post by EOW.