Sunday, June 10, 2007

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Vakkom Moulavi in Perspective



In 1939 when I joined the Aligarh Muslim University as a postgraduate student, my friends and hostel mates, who had mostly come from the U.P. were shocked to learn that I did not know Urdu. "What sort of a Muslim are you?!' some of them asked me with a naive sense of surprise. This was typical and reflected the general level of ignorance among the Muslims of Northern India at that time about the Muslims of Kerala. Most of my North Indian friends didn't know that Islam had reached the Kerala coast during the lifetime of Prophet Mohammed. North India had to wait for more than another century for the arrival of Islam. Kerala had its introduction to Islam direct from Arabia in the same way as it had its first contact with the Arabic language directly through Arab merchant sailors trading with Kerala before and after the advent of Islam. Kerala has produced many eminent scholars of Arabic unknown to North India. Islam had had a warm reception in Kerala. Its egalitarian principles and message of human brotherhood had a great impact on the caste-ridden siesta of the land. After fourteen centuries the Muslims of Kerala still maintain an identity and a cultural ethos of their own, although they retain several features of the common Malayali mode of life. However, over the centuries, like almost all Muslim communities the world over, the Muslim society of Kerala had been contaminated by unhealthy accretions reactionary ideas, superstitions and practices often irreconcilable with the basics principles of Islam. This deviation from the rational, progressive path marked out by Islam had several causes positive and negative. No the posts positive side the greatest harm had been done by the obscurantist Mullahs who gradually assumed the status and powers of a kind of pseudo priestly class in a religion which had totally abolished priesthood in any shape right from the start. over the years they established their vested interests in collusion with the powerful rich and used religion as a means to exploit the ignorant masses for the benefit of both. on the negative side. The absence of a courageous, enlightened and progressive leadership to fight these exploiters i~ left the field free for their harmful activities. And the lack of modern education among the masses provided these obscurantists a fertile soil where superstition could flourish. In this situation it was not surprising that decay from inside and contagion from outside led to so much social decadence. At the dawn of the twentieth century, reformist and educational movements had already made considerable progress in various parts of North India. Muslims, too, had awakened to this need and made a belated start. Nevertheless the Muslims of Kerala were still in deep slumber, steeped in ignorance and superstition. They were educationally very backward and counted for nothing politically and economically. It was Moulavi Mohammed Abdul Kadir of Vakkom who had sounded the clarion call to awaken them.


The Islamic renaissance in Kerala, in the real sense, began with Moulavi Abdul Kadir. His was essentially a Muslim socio-religious movement. He had not only initiated it, but provided it inspiration, dynamism and correct leadership. During the first three decades of this century, which were the last three of his life, he devoted all his time and energy as well as most of his considerable inherited wealth to the movement. His name became synonymous with the movement he had founded and led. The obscure village of Vakkom in Travancore State, which was his family settle where his movement had taken birth, became a place of renown and he himself was known as "Vakkom Moulavi". Moulavi Abdul Kadir was born in 1873. There were neither co1leges nor many schools at that time in Travancore. As a boy he was of a studious nature. His enlightened and wealthy father, who was a prominent merchant and influential leader, engaged a number of scholars from distant places, including an itinerant Arab savant, to teach him every subject he wished to learn. Spurred by his thirst for knowledge and helped manner his own self-study the boy made such rapid progress that some of his teachers soon found that their stock of knowledge was exhausted and at least one of them admitted that had learnt from his student more than he could teach him. Moulavi Abdul Kadir in a short time mastered the Arabic language and acquired profound knowledge of the Quran, Sunnah, logic and Islamic jurisprudence as well as Islamic history. He studied the Malayalam language, in which he became an elegant and powerful writer and eloquent speaker. He had learnt Tamil, Sanskrit, Persian and Urdu and acquired a working knowledge of English and Germinate Early in his career he had started subscribing to Arabic language daily newspapers and periodicals from Cairo, Damascus and Mecca. He was greatly influenced by the radical reformist journal of Cairo, "Al-Manaar", which was edited by the eminent writer and savant, Rashid Rida, and which reflected the views and ideals of the nineteenth century liberal thinker and religious reformer, sheikh Mohammad Abduh. Moulavi Abdul Kadir had preserved in his library the beautifully bound volumes of A1Manaar and he was in correspondence with Rashid Rida. He was greatly influenced by Mohammad Abduh's ideas. Moulavi Abdul Kadir had devotedly studied Al Ghazzali's works, one of which (AlKimia alSaadah) he had translated into Malayalam. Although Al Ghazzali's philosophical thinking had some early fascination for him he had steered clear of his Sufistic path. He never accepted nor approved of the PirMureed system. In his burning zeal to rid the decadent Muslim society of his day of all un- Islamic accretions and to rescue it from the evil influence of the reactionary Mullahs he had drawn great inspiration from the life and teachings of the early nineteenth century Arabian reformer, Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and his thirteenth century ideological preceptor, Ibn Taymiya. Early in his career Moulavi Abdul Kadir had intelligently analysed the problems and correctly diagnosed the malady afflicting his community. Although the Muslim masses of Kerala were intensely religious their idea of Islam was distorted and corrupted over the years by the obscurantist Mullahs who seemed to be still living in the medieval times unaware that the world had entered the twentieth century. A form of hagiolatry, the very antithesis of monotheistic Islam, was promoted and patronized by the Mullahs among the ignorant masses. Many superstitions and empty rituals associated with grave worship were sedulously fostered by the Mullahs mainly for their own gains. These were, however, no special features of the Muslim society of Kerala, but were perhaps even more rampant in other parts of India. The Mullahs performed exorcisms and sometimes even usurped the functions of doctors on the ground that Muslim females could not be seen by male doctors, particularly if they happened to be "infidels"! Their worst crime was that they made Islam appear to be an enemy if progress by preaching to the ignorant masses that it was a "sin" to send children, particularly girls, to school, whereas Islam had made education (acquisition of Knowledge) "obligatory on every Muslim man and woman". The Mullahs even declared that learning ~ English was "haram" or forbidden There were many other evil practices in the Muslim community of the time, such as the dowry system, extravagant expenditure on weddings, celebration of annual "urs" and Moharrum with bizarre unIslamic features bordering on idolatrous rituals, visiting shrines in fulfillment of religious' vows and making votive 'offerings. Moulavi Abdul Kadir launched his campaign against all these evils and unIslamic practices with the help of his devoted disciples and with the cooperation of other learned men who shared his views and ideals. A frail thin man in a plain muslin "kurta" and turban, he traveled up and down the country addressing meetings and exhorting people to seek education and to discard un Islamic practices. He was no demagogue. He did not play on the emotions and sentiments of the people, but only appealed to reason. His gentle voice and measured words had great power of persuasion, and his learned addresses carried conviction and authority. His audiences listened to him with rapt attention. In a few years the unIslamic festivals associated with `dargas' and "saints" ceased to exist everywhere except at two places where the vested interests were too entrenched and the financial profits too massive to be easily swept away. Similarly the Moharrum "festival" with its unIslamic rituals was stopped throughout Kerala except in one city where one solitary committed family kept it going, but there the whole thing degenerated into a bizarre carnivallike event in which the Hindu scavenger class joined for the petty financial gain it brought.

Campaign gathers momentum

Many organizations were set up at local levels and many schools were founded at his instance, some of which developed into higher educational institutions . At every meeting he tried to awaken the people to the danger of social stagnation and falling a prey to unIslamic practices. As the campaign developed into a powerful movement strong opposition was mounted by the Mullahs supported by vested interests. As they lacked the depth of authentic learning and the intellectual caliber to meet him on the intellectual as a first resort. Some issued "fatwas" that he was a "kafir". Some others branded him as a "Wahhabi". In their dictionaries the two words perhaps had the same meaning. Although Moulavi Abdul Qadir was greatly influenced by the principles enunciated by Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and by the reformist movement led by him, he never regarded himself as anything but a Muslim. After all, the name "Wahhabi" itself was coined by the orthodox religious adversaries of Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab as a pejorative term to be derisively used against him and his followers. These medieval minded old Arabian Mullahs of the time, not much dissimilar to our own indigenous species, were hard put to it in their search for an apt nickname. Had they chosen as their label the word "Mohammadi" as directly derived from Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab's own name, they wouldhave failed in their object. So they had to content themselves with his father's name from which they forged the counterfeit "Wahhabi". Neither Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab nor his followers (who include the ruling dynasty of Saudi Arabia) had ever acknowledged this title. It is true that Moulavi Abdul Kadir had drawn inspiration from Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab's movement, but he never regarded himself as a "Wahhabi". He was at one with Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab on his basic approach such as rigorous adherence to Islam's uncompromising monotheism, which completely excludes the doctrine of intercession, visiting of tombs in fulfillment of religious vows, invoking the aid or blessings of saints or making votive offerings to them, graveworship and priesthood. Maulavi Abdul Qadir did not accept the puritanical excesses, petty intolerance and the violent methods of enforcement often associated with Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and his movement. The central idea of Moulavi Abdul Kadir's movement was restoring Islam to its pristine purity and utter simplicity and interpreting the Quranic principles in the light of companions in one single sitting has now been rendered so complex that fifteen years' continuous study can hardly complete it.

Fight against corruption

No doubt it was the lamentable condition of his own community that had kindled in Moulavi Abdul Kadir the reformist flame and brought him into the field of action. But for a man of his moral courage, democratic convictions and burning patriotism , it was possible to confine his attention to the needs of his own small community and shut his eyes to the wider problems affecting the coterie as a whole. At the best of times Travancore was no better than an autocratic Princely State, it compared favorably with other States elsewhere in India. At this particular time, under the authoritarian rule' of Sir P. Rajagopalachari, a lecherous and perverse power rampant bribery and corruption in the administration, the scandalous debaucheries that went on at the top and the palace intrigues of the 0 courtiers, which had brought the Government and the "Royal Court" to disrepute, called for a courageous champion to take up the suffering people's cause. Although there were a few periodicals of a sort, which made their appearance here and there, none of them never dared even to make a reference to these sordid goings-on. Moulavi Abdul Kadir was the first, and the only one, to answer this popular call and the first to suffer its inevitable consequences.


He gave priority of attention to this problem. He man managed to import, directly from England, an automatic flatbed printing press, the latest type available then, in l9O5. He then launched a weekly journal under the title SWADESHABHIMANI~' of 8~bexpa~xio~ THE Patriot", to spear head the fight against corruption and to struggle for the democratic rights of the people. Right from the start, "THE Patriot" became a powerful organ of public opinion. However, the dual task of running "The Patriot" and leading the Muslim reformist movement at the same time soon proved an unmanageable and Moulavi Abdul Kadir looked for an editor for "The Patriot" who would measure up to the high standard o£ integrity, courage and political principles he had set for his journal. He was lucky to have found such a man in a young graduate called Ramakrishna Pillai who had just then been sacked by his own uncle from the editorship of his weekly journal because of his views and uncompromising adherence to principles. A personal interview and discussion of matters of principle convinced Moulavi Abdul Kadir that he had found just the man he wanted. Ramakrishna Pillai was equally lucky to have found just the right man to work with. Moulavi Abdul Kadir placed implicit faith in Ramakrishna Pillai's integrity, patriotism, and political ideals, which were identical of his own. Not once throughout the stormy life of the journal did Moulavi Abdul Kadir find the need to interfere in the editorial policy of his journal to keep it on course he had charted for it. This political collaboration which began in 1906 between two young radical democrats forms a glorious chapter in the political history of Kerala. The saga of Moulavi Abdul Kadir, "SWDESHABHIMANI" and Ramakrishna Pillai still remains to be told in full.

"Sedation" CASE

Heroic men of history who dared to challenge and fight the iniquities of autocrats and powerful vested interests often went down fighting. History tell of many such instances. The fate of "SWADESHABHIMANI" is another example not far removed from contemporary history. Its undaunted assaults on the citadels of corruption and its relentless campaign against the misdeeds of men at the top invited the wrath of the Dewan. Rajagopalachari was a ruthless man and more so when his own position was involved. He tried, and failed, to buy Moulavi Abdul Kadir over. His blandishments and threats having failed, the used his ultimate weapon. In less than five years Ramakrishna Pillai was arrested on a charge of sedition. Moulavi Abdul Kadir gave him fullest backing, moral and material. After a show trial he was sentenced to transportation for life and the Swadeshabhimani Press belonging to Moulavi Abdul Kadir was confiscated. Ramakrishna Pillai died in exile and press lay rusting in the Trivandrum Central Jail. All attempts in to subsequent years to , recover the press invariably failed. It took more than half a century and the formation of a democratically elected Communist Government in Kerala to erect a statue of Rama Krishna Pillai at Trivandrum to perpetuate his hallowed memory and to restore the confiscated Swadeshabhimani Press to its rightful owners. It undoubtedly goes to the credit of the first Communist Government of Kerala and its Chief Minister, E.M.S.Namboodiripad, that on 26 January, 1968, at a public meeting held for that purpose, he presented a new press and equipment to the legal heirs of Moulavi Abdul Kadir, 36 years after his death.

25 years a reformist campaign

In l906, having ensured and editorial integrity of the Swadeshabhimani Moulavi Abdul Kadir concentrated his energy and attention on his main task. The same year he set up the Muslim Printing House at Vakkom, which brought out a cultural journal, "MUSLIM", first as a monthly and later as a weekly. This was followed by "ALISLAM", a monthly journal in Arabic Malayalam, that is, Malayalam written in Arabic script, mainly devoted to the cultural and religious education of Muslim women, who were familiar with the Arabic script. Through the pages of the Muslim he carried on his reformist campaign. Religious tracts and booklets followed. As a result of the continuous campaign throughout the State, the Maharaja's Government introduced the teaching of Arabic in all State schools where there were Muslim pupils and offered them fee concession and scholarships, girls being totally exempted from payment of fees. Moulavi Abdul Qadir wrote text books for children to learn Arabic and a manual for training Arabic instructors for primary schools. At the instance of Moulavi Abdul Kadir the State Government soon instituted qualifying examinations for Arabic teachers of which he was made the chief examiner. Most of his younger ; disciples who flocked to his home to learn Arabic and Islamic religion. eventually became Arabic teachers and carried his reformist ideas far and wide. In the midst of all this work the reformist movement went on with undiminished vigour, the "Muslim" and 'Al Islam` serving as his mouthpiece. As his many sided activities began to claim more and more of his time, Moulavi Abdul Kadir entrusted the editorial responsibility for the "Muslim" to my father, Moulavi Mohammad Kunju, who was his brother-in-law as well as his right-hand man and devoted disciple. Although there were ups and downs, the movement made steady headway. In the early 1920s Moulavi Abdul Kadir took a leading part in setting up an organization called the Kerala Muslim Aikya sangham the United organization of the Muslims of Kerala. About this time he also gave guidance, and full backing for the establishment of the first Muslim bank in Kerala, which however, did not prove a great success.


By 193O Moulavi Abdul Kadir was advanced in age and a lifetime of tireless hard work had begun to tell upon his health. The substantial wealth he had inherited from his father had dwindled away in the process of his long and selfless work for his community and he was fast sinking in debt, making it increasingly difficult to maintain his large family. Nevertheless his zeal for the cause to which he had devoted his life suffered no diminution. In 1931 he founded the "Islamia Publishing House" without much capital. Allama shibli's famous biography of Omar Farooq was translated into Malayalam under the supervision of Moulavi Abdul Kadir by his eldest son Abdussalam and published in two volumes under the title "AlFarooq". While this work was in hand he started his last monthly journal called "DEEPIKA" or "The Torch". This journal which provided articles and comments of a high standard on religious, cultural, political and literary subjects had a wider appeal. Its outstanding feature was the serialization of the Malayalam translation of the Quran together with his brief commentary and the original text written in elegant and superb calligraphic style by Moulavi Abdul Kadir himself. It was his life's ambition to produce a translation of the Quran in Malayalam With his own commentary, but he was not destined to complete the work. He passed away on 31 October, 1932, barely 21 months after the first issue of the "Deepika" had appeared. With his death the entire project collapsed and in the financial crisis that followed his family itself suffered a great deal.

"Islahi Movement"

It is difficult to stick on him any of the familiar labels religious, political or ideological. He could not be called a revolutionary at least in the sense in which it is often used in the common political parlance. He was not a reformer, in the religious sense, as he never sought to "reform" any religious doctrine. He could not be called a "fundamentalist", at least in the latter-day sense, because he did not share their formalist approach nor their narrow-minded orthodoxy, nor their Pharisee like preference for the literal sense rather than the spirit of the Quranic exhortations. He could not be classed as a "revivalist", because the aim of his movement was not just reviving the relics of the dead past, but the recapture of the real spirit of pristine Islam and its adaptation to modern times. His disciples preferred to call his movement the "Islahi Movement", or the Movement for Restoration" How far this correctly reflects its spirit may be debatable. Notwithstanding his profound erudition and understanding of Islamic history, philosophy, jurisprudence and logic, and his deep study of the Quran and to found his own individual school of thought. In fact he held the rather unorthodox view that one could be a perfect Muslim without having to proclaim adherence to any of the four traditionally recognized schools of thought or "madhabs" named after their respective Imams or founders. He disapproved of all schisms and sectarian names. His natural humility was such that he never used the title "Moulavi" with his own name, although many of his contemporaries did. Six decades have gone by since Moulavi Abdul Kadir had passed away. When one looks at his life and work from this distance in time against the backdrop of the momentous changes that have taken place in the economic, social and political life in Kerala, as elsewhere, his achievements may seem less significant than they were in his own day. It would be incorrect, as it would be unfair, to try to evaluate the contribution of a social reformer without reference to the age in which he had lived. The historical approach is, therefore, not merely relevant, but necessary, for a correct assessment of his place in history and in his contemporary society, as well as his contribution towards the reawakening of the Muslim community.

Moulavi Abdul Kadir had had his achievements as well as his failures. His failures may be accounted for by his choice of means and methods as well as the lack of adequate financial resources when they were most needed. His achievements were limited by his own objectives and the inherent weaknesses of his movement. Nevertheless it can be stated without any exaggeration that it is to him, more than to any one else, that 'the Muslim community of Kerala owes its sense of identity and the renaissance that brought cultural regeneration and educational progress as well as emancipation from exploitation by reactionary Mullahs. No less important was his role as a pioneer and a trailblazer in political journalism of fearless, principled, radical, progressive type. Moulavi Abdul Kadir was a man of character and a paragon of many rare qualities. He was equally respected by Muslims, Hindus and Christians who knew him. Whenever he happened to walk into a room or a meeting hall full of people a sort of magnetic effect of his personality was instantly felt there. His piety, humility and sincerity were transparent. Quiet and gentle, he personified an indomitable will and inflexible determination. He was kindhearted and generous to a fault. His faith and fortitude carried him through his last years of adversity. He was too proud and self-respecting to appeal for any help. An ungrateful community to whose service he had devoted his life and wealth looked on with indifference as he slowly sank in indigence and ill health with advancing age. Men like Moulavi Mohammad Abdul Kadir never served their country and people for any selfish gains or personal rewards.

The author is a nephew of Vakkom Moulavi. He had served on the editorial staff of Dawn, Delhi (1942-44) under the editorship of Pothan Joseph. Later he was Assistant Editor, Morning News, Calcutta (1944-45) and Sub editor, The Statesman, Calcutta (1945-46); Chief Sub editor The Pakistan Times, Lahore (1947). Later, he served first as Chief Sub editor and then as senior most Assistant Editor of Dawn, Karachi (1947-54). He also worked as the London Correspondent of the Pakistan Times (1955-59) until it was taken over by the Government.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Moulavi and Swadeshabhimani

“Moulavi and Swadeshabhimani”

B. Kalyani Amma*

The owner of 'Swadeshabhimani' publication and press, Vakkom Abdul Khadir Moulavi - who had shown immense determination and steadfastness from 1905 till the end of September 1910 - was a gem of a person. A 'Swadeshabhimani Souvenir' will not be complete without a reference to him. But, as a matter of fact, I really don't know what I ought to write about him. I had a distant and very limited relation with him. But I shall write whatever I had come across of him and what I had come to know about him through my husband.
It was in 1906 that my husband joined 'Swadeshabhimani'. It was Moulavi himself who came to our house in Thiruvananthapuram and invited him to take charge as the editor and then took us to Vakkom. Though I did accompany him then, I had to return to Thiruvananthapuram within days. During Moulavi' s visit to our house and my shot stay at Vakkom I had just got distant glimpses of him. I had always considered and respected him as an elder brother.
I went back to Vakkom in the same year. We lived in a house next to that of Moulavi' s. In most of the evenings, after the editor had come home, Moulavi used to drop in our house. They used to sit in the varandah and discussed many things. I had listened to them from the inner room. He was very concerned about our well being and comforts. Moulavi was soft-spoken and always wore whites. Many times, I had seen him passing by either alone or with friends. In those days, Hindu-Muslim unity was never in jeopardy. But still, what my husband and Moulavi had was above mere friendship. I'd rather put it as a perfect example of fraternal affection.
I met Moulavi' s mother and sisters during my second stay at Vakkom. They used to send servants to take me to their house as they did not move about freely because of the 'purdah' system which they had followed. I did enjoy their hospitality. I am still thankful to Moulavi' s mother for her maternal affection towards me during my pregnancy at that time.
In July 1907, the press and newspaper office were shifted to Thiruvananthapuram. Though Moulavi was still the proprietor, the editor had been given total freedom in the running of the publication. They never had any legal or financial contract between them. Still, Moulavi provided all the financial aid to set up the press in Thiruvananthapuram. My husband thought he would once repay Moulavi. But somehow he could not. Moulavi used to come to Thiruvananthapuram to meet the editor who was mostly busy with his work. I had seen him regretting not having enough time to spend with Moulavi.

Travancore Government had been waiting for a chance to corner 'Swadeshabhimani' since the beginning of 1910. But they had to wait until the historic declaration of '10th of Kanni' to see the press locked up. I need not go on in detail about it here. For Moulavi, the parting with his close friend and colleague was more touching and appalling than the financial loss it had caused.
It was after Sree Moolam Thirunnal had passed away in 1925 that I came to Travancore again after I had accompanied my husband during his exile. It was at that time that I was fortunate enough to meet Moulavi. Once during my train journey from Kollam to Thiruvananthapuram, some of my friends came at the Chirayalkeezhu station to meet me. They pointed to a man standing by the fence and asked me if I remembered him. I recognised him, it was Moulavi. I let him know that I would be returning to Kollam after a few days and also that I would like to meet him.

After I returned to my daughter's house in Kollam, he paid me a visit and we talked for almost half an hour. Both of us were moved when we talked about my husband and our family. Both of us were at the brink of tears and could not carry on the conversation any longer. Before going, he said his relatives had been persuading him to file an appeal to get the press back. And he added that he had not yielded. "Why do I need the press without my editor?" he asked and went away. I was just silent.

I have come to know that the present Government have decided to return whatever remaining of 'Swadeshabhimani' to its inheritors. There is a fitting inheritor as well. Moulavi's son Sri. Vakkom Abdul Khadir. I hope the Government will do well in giving him what was due to his father without much delay. The press will certainly be of great help to the son who is also a journalist and a writer. My sincere obeisance to a man who was cultured, wise, learned and with a true heart!

(Translated from Malayalam by Sabeen Eqbal)

*B. Kalyani Amma is a writer and wife of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai. The Govt of Kerala returned the press to Moulavi’s family in 1957. This article appeared in a Souvenir brought out during the occasion.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Vakkom Moulavi: Life and Mission

"Communalism and the Muslim Reform Movement in Kerala:
Problems of Engaging with Modernity"


Communalism has been a critical problem of modern India and it unfolds itself in the ever-intensifying scenario of social tensions and conflicts across the country. Though long-acclaimed as the bastion of secularism in India, Kerala society too is confronting the complex process of communalisation and its accompanying social conflicts. Locating the sources of communalisation and their socio-historical context could well be an important task of social scientists in addressing the complex issues underlying the phenomenon.[1] Communalisation is certainly a part of, if not the by-product of, the over-all socio-economic processes taking place in the Indian and global context. No doubt, the share of ‘history’ is also significant, particularly when ‘history’ itself could emerge as a legitimising factor for communalisation.

Many questions are raised in the contemporary debates on communalism whether stagnation and regression of secularisation in Kerala should be understood in terms of the failure of social reform or the inability of social reform to address the whole lot of challenges of modernity. The implicit assumption of such questioning is that any social reform agenda must necessarily be a complete whole having a broad spectrum of politico-economic objectives. Also, such debates uncritically ignore the limits and possibilities of the social reform process within the existing socio-political milieu. Therefore, any stocktaking in terms of “success or failure” may end up with stereotypical readings of the social reform process—that too without understanding its internal dynamics, probably with unrecognised prejudices. Shouldn’t we enquire whether the reform process itself had undergone internal changes and contradictions because of various cross-undercurrents within? We should begin our analysis by a deeper understanding of the wider socio-political realm, within which the social reform process took place. In fact, the wider socio-political realm, by and large, sustained different combinations of social tensions and conflicts—within and across cultures/religions –- as a result of the cross-undercurrents within the Indian nationalism and the stratagem employed by the colonial apparatus, the effects of both have far-reaching implications for social reforms, extending to even Kerala.

That communalism emerged in this setting of colonial modernity is not a new argument. The stagnation and regression of the secularisation process can, thus, be located within modernity itself. Modernity as such was a critical domain to be understood in a wider realm of the structural changes brought about by colonialism and the inevitable responses generated in the context of nationalist politics. Nationalism itself was a problematique engaged differently by different forces. Communal politics in India, in its real sense, began as a response to the structural changes brought about by colonialism and the inevitable race for power and privileges. The mindsets of upper class Hindus and upper class Muslims were moulded by these factors of structural changes that were later interpreted to mean as endemic feelings of cultural/religious dichotomy, if not of distrust. Thus, the history of communalism goes back to the conditions which disrupted social harmony with the onslaught of colonialism. The question here is whether the social reform process had its inevitable share in the making of various identities both at the macro and micro levels. When this is addressed in the context of the social reform among the Muslims of Kerala, several points merit our attention.

The emerging criticisms of the Muslim reform process in Kerala that there was “near complete absence of engagement with the enlightenment paradigm” or “a realistic engagement with modernity” are not only exaggerated but they tend to dampen our intellectual propensity to study social reform process in its complexity and in its socio-historical context.[2] The reform among the Muslims of Kerala did not have a uniform, unilinear character due to the particular circumstances under which it emerged and had to sustain itself. The experiences of south Kerala (Travancore-Cochin) and north Kerala (Malabar) differed, as they had undergone different socio-historical processes and changes. But there had been as many tensions within each segment, as there were between the north and the south.

The Muslim reform process in Kerala extending over half a century since 1880s had different engagements with modernity – from an accommodation within the colonial modernity to expanding concerns of nationalism and the politics of bargain within. The dominant stream of the reform agenda among the Muslims was spearheaded by Sanahullah Makhti Thangal (1847-1912), Vakkom Abdul Cader Moulavi (1873-1932), Sheikh Mohammed Hamadani Thangal (died in 1922), Maulana Chalilakathu Kunjahammed Haji (1856-1919), K.M.Moulavi (died in 1964), et al. under the Islahi movement. They addressed many critical issues of religion and society, thereby taking up the challenges of modernity in right earnest. At no point did they disengage themselves from the enlightenment paradigm. Their voices were not only inspiring but got manifested in their profound thoughts and activities through organisations such as Mohammadiya Sabha in Kannur, Chirayainkil Thaluk Muslim Samajam, Lajunathul Mohammadiya Sangham in Alappuzha, Muslim Aikka Sangham in Kodungaloor, Kerala Naduvattul Mujahideen etc.

The Muslim reform movement, as it was underway profoundly till the early thirties in Kerala, did not seek “a return to the Islamic polity” of a pristine purity, as speculated by many, but it was forward looking, critically and constantly engaging with the challenges presented by modernity. For instance, Makhti Thangal, the pioneer of Muslim reform movement, began his career as a British official, but opted to remain in the realm of Islah, seeking to engage with modernity. On one end of the spectrum, he confronted the Church missionaries who propagated a highly distorted image of Islam; on the other hand, Thangal exhorted the Muslims to come out of their social seclusion to undertake English education (besides in their mother tongue, Malayalam) and through it the emerging challenges of modernity.[3] Makhti Thangal was not anti-British in his essential character, just as Sir Syed Ahamed Khan was during this time, but sought to uplift the Muslims from their self-imposed backwardness and to prepare them to face challenges of modern times.

Similarly, Vakkom Moulavi’s Islahi[4] movement, which spanned over the first three decades of the 20th century, was addressing the challenges of modernity and the critical issues presented by the enlightenment paradigm. The very launching of Swadesabhimani in 1905 heralded the beginning of this engagement. Moulavi’s Swadesabhimani was the first newspaper in Kerala which established communication links with the London-based Reuter. The press itself was imported from England. Those who would talk about Swadesabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai seldom mention about the moving spirit behind it and the symbiotic relationship that prevailed between Vakkom Moulavi and Ramakrishna Pillai.[5] While the Islahi movement was profoundly social, it also exhibited its politico-religious commitments. It was essentially anti-colonial in character; yet it did not seek to offer any Islamic alternative in political terms. Instead, Vakkom Moulavi’s major initiative was to liberate the Muslims from the morass of self-delusions to which they had fallen for so long. But this should not be interpreted to mean a mere ‘purification’ campaign, as argued by some,[6] calling for a return to the pristine purity of the holy texts. Moulavi had an entirely different approach to the importance of the holy texts, which exhibited both hermeneutical as well as social foundations. Both were combined in the very principle of ijtihad,[7] to which he was profoundly committed. The principal aim of the Islahi movement should therefore be kept in perspective. It was primarily a call for engaging with modernity, and the Muslims were called upon to come forward to understand both religion and modern society in dialectical terms, not to the level of discarding one in favour of the other. Most historians tend to ignore this, for one reason or other.

Those who underestimate Vakkom Moulavi’s Islahi movement try to disregard its inherent potential as such. His basic position on religious reforms centres on the concept of ijtihad. Moulavi strongly argued that the door of ijtihad couldn’t be closed.[8] He exhorted the Muslims to rediscover and reinstate ijtihad, the principle of independent judgement with a view to rebuilding the shariat in the light of modern thought and experience.[9] Moulavi’s adherence to the Islamic hermeneutical tradition could be seen in his insistence on individual ijtihad, which was not only permitted but was essential to arrive at decisions where the holy texts were either ambiguous or silent. His perspicuous analysis on the laws of Islam further provides evidences of his rational approach. Even while affirming that “the laws of Islam concerning spiritual matters are eternal,” he strongly argued that “the laws of Islam concerning temporal matters are not immutable, and hence depending on the conditions of time and place, they are subject to change.”[10] The most radical of his views can be seen in his perspectives on the Islamic laws. Vakkom Moulavi said that the Muslims should address their socio-economic problems even transcending the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence if they were unable to equip them.[11] Obviously, the Islahi movement Vakkom Moulavi, carried on for three decades, did not seek a mere pilgrimage to the past, but it was a progressive engagement with modernity. It addressed not only the questions of laws and beliefs in Islam, but took up challenges of modern education, including women’s education, gender justice, rational outlook on social and religious matters etc.[12] Needless to say, very few ulama could accept Moulavi’s exegesis concerning spatio-temporal matters. That is why he had to face stiff opposition from orthodox elements who were only concerned about the scriptural matrix of Islam, besides keeping the community in perpetual ignorance and superstition. Moulavi’s movement saw positive results when there was general receptivity to his call. However, since the early 1930s, it did not progress further in a wider realm due to the particular circumstances imposed by the nationalist politics, on the one hand, and the politics of bargain on the other.

While the Mappila resistance to the British rule, through a series of rebellions since the 19th century has been identified as an appropriate response to the colonial policy, the 1921 uprising earned the ‘disrepute’ as ‘communal’ because, the Mappilas were believed to have drawn inspiration from Islamic texts and sought to establish ‘‘Khilafat kingdoms.” But little did we see the impact of the political call sent out by the Khilafat movement, set in motion by the so-called secular, nationalist Congress under Mahatma Gandhi. The Mappilas, inspired by Gandhiji and the nationalist Congress who favoured mixing up religion with politics as a tactical struggle, soon found the Congress virtually disowning them. Even Gandhiji became critical of the rebellion and the Mappilas, while conveniently forgetting the fact that the stage was partly set by the Congress itself with its launching of the Khilafat movement as a tactical realm of confronting the British for their betrayal in Turkey.[13] This seemed to have a lasting impression on even secular Muslims of Kerala, particularly in Malabar. The situation was aptly summed up by E.M.S. Namboodirippad:

The Hindu intelligentsia of Malabar started going more or less in the same direction as their counterparts in North India. The Arya Samaj and other Hindu communal organisations came and started their work in Malabar, first by way of affording relief to Hindu refuges fleeing from the areas of the rebellion, then by reconverting those Hindus who had been forcibly converted to Islam by the rebels and ultimately going to the extent of converting Muslims to Hinduism. The Muslim intelligentsia were terror-stricken because of the post-rebellion repression that they had to go through but were nevertheless extremely indignant. They could do nothing, but be resentful for the time being, but that was by itself sufficient for the creation of an atmosphere ideally suited for communal squabbles.[14]

Locating the site of communalism, E.M.S. writes:

In fact, the Malabar Congressmen themselves were split into Hindus and Muslims. When they started reorganising the Congress in the post-rebellion years, there were virtually two centres of the Congress – one Hindu and the other Muslim – each having its own paper, Mathrubhumi and Al-Ameen. It is also remarkable that some Hindu Congressmen were themselves the organizers of the Hindu Mahasabha. The gulf between the two groups was so wide that though each claimed to be a group of congressmen, one could not cooperate with the other even in organising the Congress.[15]

The analysis of E.M.S. holds importance even today. The formation of Muslim League in Kerala in the mid-thirties was the logical culmination of this Muslim alienation started in the post-rebellion period. This was accentuated by a host of problems emanating from the nationalist scene since the 1920s just as the Congress-Hindu Mahasabha hobnobbing, the Nehru Report, issues of cow slaughter etc. The emergence of the League could thus be seen as a setback to the secular politics in the country. Communal politics gained strength since the 1920s, and it continued to affect secularisation and democratisation process in India. Kerala was not immune to these cross-undercurrents in the nationalist politics. However, the gains of social reform process could not be consolidated in the emerging scenario of the Congress-League tussle. Meanwhile, the situation created by the absence of a strong leadership, after Vakkom Moulavi, was soon to be appropriated by the more orthodox Ulama, on the one hand, and the Jamaat-i-Islami on the other. Kerala Naduvatul Mujahiden, however, continued to strive hard to make inroads into the Muslim masses. But this was considerably constrained by the emerging confrontation and competition within the Muslim community for leadership.


Thus, the present-day communalisation cannot be seen in isolation by merely searching for its roots in the social reform process. The problem lies with modernity itself, with the way it was engaged by both the colonial apparatus and the nationalist leadership. Its genesis could be traced back to the structural changes brought about by colonialism and the manner in which the upper class Hindus and Muslims responded to them. The metropolitan capital succeeded in widening the gulf, as it would ultimately undermine the strident anti-colonial struggle. Situated as it was, between the colonial apparatus and the emerging nationalist movement, the social reform process could not be expected to address larger issues of facilitating capitalism or agrarian reform or labour process or commodity production. It was rather too much to expect such a broad-based agenda from the social reform movements.

Though the Muslim reform process did not continue beyond 1930s, the gains of the same did have a lasting influence on the body politic of Kerala. The secular-democratic process gained momentum over a period of three-four decades since 1930s, and the entire social fabric of Kerala remained strong, at least until the early 1980s. Caste-based, religion-based, community-based organisations began to gain strength across the world since the early 1980s when neoliberalism got underway rejuvenating the New Right and all reactionary forces. Kerala society, having been exposed to these influences in a variety of ways, could not escape from the emerging scenario of caste/communal consolidations because the capital accumulation process taking place at the national and global levels along neoliberal lines called for caste-based, religion-based, and community-based social capital formations in order to offset any class-based resistance to the policies of modern techno-capitalism. This wider realm of communalisation process cannot be glossed over when social scientists engage themselves in locating the sites of its origin.

*The author is Reader, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam.

Notes and References

[1] For a cross section of studies relating to communalism, see K. N. Panikkar (ed), Communalism in India: History, Politics and Culture (New Delhi: Manohar, 1991); Gyanendra Pandey, The Constructions of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990); Ram Puniyani, Communal Politics: Facts versus Myths (New Delhi: Sage, 2003); Asghar Ali Engineer, Communalism in India (New Delhi: Vikas, 1995); Bipan Chandra, Communalism in Modern India (New Delhi: Vikas, 1984) and; Bipan Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1981).

[2] An instance of the refusal/inability to understand such reform attempts in a broader perspective can be seen in the work of Roland Miller, a Canadian scholar who had lived in Kerala for nearly a quarter of a century to study the Mappilas. Even while Miller acknowledged that “the wind of change” in Islamic reform in Kerala “blew from the south” in the personality of Vakkom Moulavi, he could not fully grasp the depth of his thought and came to the slapdash conclusion that Moulvai’s reform was basically a “conservative reform.” See Roland E. Millar, Mappila Muslims of Kerala: A Study in Islamic Trends (Madras: Orient Longman, 1992), pp.270-74.

[3] See Makthi Thangalude Sambhoorna Krithikal (Tirur: Kerala Islamic Mission, 1981), pp.632-46.

[4] Conceptually, Islah unfolds the broad agenda of reform within the community.

[5] See T. Venugopalan, Swedesabhimani: Rajadrohiyaya Rajyasnehi (Kochi: The Kerala Press Academi, 1996), pp. 43-56 and 218-59. While acknowledging the relationship between Moulavi and Pillai in the right spirit, Venugopalan, like many others, failed to grasp the essence of the Islahi movement, which led him say that Vakkom Moulvai was neither a religious reformer nor a religious modernist (p.225)..

[6] See Ibid., p.226.

[7] Ijtihad has different connotations in the Arabic lexicon, but, in the main, it implies “strenuous endeavour” – an intellectual activity denoting the pursuit of an individual scholar to derive rules from the authentic texts (the Quran and the Hadith) without relying on the opinion of other scholars. This is what Iqbal called the principle of movement in Islam. See Bernard G. Weiss, “Ijtihad,” in The Encyclopaedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan 1987), vol.7. Pp.90-92; also see Sir Mohammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of religious Thought in Islam (Lahore: S.H. Muhammad Ashraf, 1982), p.148.

[8] Vakkom Moulvi, Lau-ssabah (Nilakkamukku: Islam Dharmaparipalana Sangham, 1930); This has been reproduced in Vakkom Moulaviyude Thiranjedutha Krithikal (Vakkom: Vakkom Moulavi Publications, 1979), edited by S. Mohamed Abda, pp.312-13 (hereafter cited as Selected Works),

[9] See Selected Works, p. 91.

[10] Ibid., p. 129.

[11] Vakkom Moulavi, “Islam Mathanaveekaranam,” in Sahrudayopaharam (Idava: Bharakkathul Muslimmen, 1930); also see Selected Works, pp.167-68.
[12] See Vakkom Moulavi, “ Nammude Sthreekal,” Al-Islam, Vol. 1, No.1, April 1918; also see Selected Works, pp.185-87

[13] See W.C. Smith, Modern Islam in India (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946), p.207; also see Gail Minault, The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982)..

[14] See E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Kerala Society and Politics: An Historical Survey (New Delhi: National Book Centre, 1984), p.121.

[15] Ibid., p. 122.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Vakkom Majeed

Vakkom Majeed (S. Abdul Majeed) was a politician-extraordinary in the socio-political realm of Kerala in the 20th Century. He was a veteran Freedom Fighter and a former member of the Travancore-Cochin State Assembly. A great nationalist that he was, Vakkom Majeed belonged to a tradition of politics that was intrinsically value-based, secular and humanistic.

Majeed Sahib was born on December 20, 1909, at Vakkom village near Chirayinkil, (Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala) in a well-known Poonthran Vilakom family. Vakkom Majeed was the nephew of Vakkom Abdul Khader Moulavi, a visionary, a social reformer, an educationist, a prolific writer, a fearless journalist and, above all, a patriot. He did his primary education at St. Joseph High School, Anjengo. He was married to Suleha Beevi, the niece of Vakkom Moulavi. They had two daughters, Fathima and Shameema.

Vakkom Majeed was attracted to the social reform movement of his uncle, Vakkom Moulavi, as well as Narayanaguru. He came to politics in his early school days. When the Indian National Movement emerged in Kerala, Vakkom Majeed was in the forefront of its leadership. He was one of the early architects of the Indian National Congress in Travancore. As a young man, he also became greatly involved in the social reform movement. Majeed was one of the few Congress leaders in Travancore who exhibited enormous courage by participating in the Quit India movement in 1942 and got arrested. He remained in jail for several months. Subsequently, when the idea of “independent Travancore” was mooted, Majeed was a staunch opponent of it and took part in the agitation against the move. He was again incarcerated again for several months.

A staunch opponent of the “Two-Nation” theory and Pakistan movement, Vakkom Majeed argued that only a secular-nationalist India could keep the heart and soul of the masses together. In 1948, he was elected (unopposed) to the Travancore-Cochin State Assembly from the Attingal constituency. When the tenure of his term came to an end in 1952, he decided to eschew practical politics and took to serious reading. He was attracted to the writings of Bertrand Russell, M.N. Roy and several French writers. Majeed was opposed to doctrinaire politics and argued for secular-humanist perspective in politics and social issues. Majeed upheld the values of liberalism and modernism in Islam and called for the return of Ijtihad (freedom of thought) in Islamic traditions. He equally valued the thoughts of Narayanaguru and pointed to the increasing relevance of a “casteless” society.

When the INA hero Vakkom Kadir was sentenced to death by the British, Vakkom Majeed visited him in the Madras Central jail. It was Vakkom Majeed who brought Kadir’s last letter to his father before the hanging.

The last three decades of Vakkom Majeed was the decades of his intense exploration and reading (and rereading) of nationalist history, ideology and practice.

In 1972, during the Silver Jubilee celebration of Indian Independence, the nation honored him by giving 'Tamrapatra' for his participation in the Indian Freedom Struggle. He received the 'Tamrapatra” from the then Prime Minister, Smt.Indira Gandhi. This great and fearless freedom fighter and nationalist breathed his last on July 10, 2000.

By K.M.Seethi

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mohammed Eeza

“Mohammed Eeza”

Mohammed Eeza was a son of a great social and religious reformer of Kerala, Vakkom Moulavi. A perceptive writer and thinker, Eeza left behind a rich tradition, long sustained by Vakkom Moulavi but lying dormant in the post-Moulavi era, which sought to combat religious conservatism and orthodoxy while fully adhering to a genuine secular, pluralist political agenda.
Born in 1929, Eeza had his early education in the erstwhile state of Travancore in the most difficult circumstances. He was only three when Vakkom Moulavi died and, therefore, he had to learn by himself the value and significance of the mission his father had undertaken which spanned over three decades. Eeza went to Madras in pursuit of higher studies and it was there that he came into contact with modern trends in Islam, philosophy and politics. He came back to his home village a different man. By that time Eeza had developed an interest in Marxism (of course, not of the Stalinist doctrinnaire variety) and even worked with the KSP (and subsequently the RSP) for a while. Soon he found himself a prisoner in this field and decided to eschew party politics. This, by and large, helped facilitate a safe return to the intellectual domain where he took to writing, offering new insights into politics, literature, philosophy and religion.
Eeza began his career as a teacher which he continued till retirement in the mid-1980s. The earliest of his writings appeared in the 1950s in K Balakrishnan's Kaumudi. His writings also appeared in Mathrubhoomi, Kala Kaumudi, Chitra Karthika, Kerala Kaumudi and Chintha. Eeza also wrote a lengthy article on Albert Camus which exposed the intellectual dishonesty of the critics of Malayalam literature at that time who not only failed to understand Camus' writings, but continued to cast aspersions on him. Likewise, Eeza's intervention in the context of the Shah Banu controversy provided a sense of direction to the ongoing Shariat debate. He had warned that Muslim orthodoxy and fundamentalism would not only generate the potential for ruin and decay within, but bring in unforeseen consequences for the secular fabric of society. Eeza's forebodings came true when both Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists swelled their ranks, capitalising on each other's unyielding conservatism. This further forced him to take up an exhaustive study on religious fundamentalism which appeared in a series of articles in Chintha weekly, under the caption 'Islamic Fundamentalism: Myth and Realty'. These articles reflected his depth of knowledge, religious acumen, world vision and social commitment. It is no exaggeration to say that there is hardly any work on the subject in Malayalam which paralleled the insights and scholarship of Eeza.

Mohammed Eeza was one of the founding architects of the Vakkom Moulavi Foundation which, since its inception in the early 1980s, has been a leading intellectual forum in the state's capital. He was the manager of the Foundation till he breathed his last on January 17, 1999, striving hard to resuscitate the forgotten mission of Vakkom Moulavi. Eeza was a man of exceptional qualities.

By K.M.Seethi