Another look at Malabar Mappilas
Lakshmi's is a lucidly written book. However, there are many gaps in it. Although she says that she is concerned with the whole of what was formerly British Malabar, the bulk of the evidence comes from the northern parts, and that too the towns of Kozhikode, Thalasseri and Kannur. This distorts the picture heavily. For instance, while her finding that the “Islamisation” — a questionable idea in itself — of Malabar was through the Arabs who came to the Malabar coast as seamen, etc. who got into marital relations with the local women may be defended for the coastal region, it does not explain the bulk of the Muslim population in the interior. The heavy Muslim presence in the interior regions, such as the Valluvanad and Eranad Taluks of old South Malabar, will have to be explained in a different way — the migration of Mappilas, particularly following Portuguese atrocities, along the rivers and their settling there with agriculture as livelihood. So, the life-world and even social structure of the Mappila peasant of Eranad and Vallivanad differed considerably from those of the Mappilas of Kozhikode or Thalasseri or Kannur. The reader will not be able to appreciate this difference from the book, not to speak of finding an explanation for it. This will stand in the way of a correct understanding of the Muslim peasants of Malabar.
Another difficulty is in the historical understanding of the Muslim settlements and their growth. A considerable source, the Tuhfat-ul-Mujahiddin, could have been used with profit by the author. This failure is all the more striking as she is not unaware of this source, as a misquotation on p. xix shows: the Tuhafat does not use the word “Hindu” to denote the Nairs and others of Malabar. This failure limits the perspective of the author and therefore the book is less valuable than it could have been.
The author's understanding is marred also by a lack of familiarity with the places and men she is dealing with: for an example, Vakkom Maulavi is represented as from Vaikkom, perhaps because she does not know that the Maulavi did not hail from the same place where the major satyagraha had taken place. So also, a failure to place the “social reform” movements within the perspective of the over-all context of “renaissance” in Kerala makes it appear as something unique among the Muslims. It is not without significance that the leaders of this movement were largely from the south while the bulk of the population was in the north — a point missed by the author.
There are many errors of details, again arising from a lack of familiarity with the subject and the literature. When, for instance, it is stated that the “Jews arrived in Cochin as early as 68 AD”, the author shows her ignorance of the fact that Cochin itself came into existence only in the 14 century! And, the last chapter, which ends with a “standing applause” is less than academic in nature. A serious subject like this can do very well without such paeans