The word Mappila (sometimes pronounced as Moplah) comes from the ancient Dravidian language, meaning “great child” (maha, “great” and pilla, “child”). The Mappilas today are, for the most part, descendants of foreign traders from the Middle East who visited the southwestern coast of India, known as the Malabar Coast, through Indian Ocean trade routes.
Notably, the exemplary character and honesty of these foreign traders impressed the native Hindu rulers in this part of India.1 The well-known Indian historian M.G.S. Narayanan in his book Perumals of Kerala asserts that Cherman Perumal, a prominent trader, was one of the earliest people in India to embrace Islam, and according to records, this took place during the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ 2. Historical records also corroborate the fact that Islam first reached India via Kerala and the Mappilas were the first Muslim community in India.
Often, the cultural and spiritual transformation of a region finds expression in its literary traditions. In the context of the Malabar region, the art of panegyric songs has played a crucial role in celebrating and immortalizing the lives of revered figures. Panegyric songs, a form of praise and tribute, have served as a medium encompassing the entire spectrum of a subject’s life, in particular the prophets and spiritual leaders. This article explores the profound impact of prophetic panegyrics on the spiritual civilization of the Malabar region, shedding light on its poetic frameworks and their socio-economic and political implications.
The art of panegyric songs served as a conduit for spiritual and cultural enlightenment in the Malabar region. Through the ages, the legacy of panegyric poetry continues to remain ingrained in the hearts and minds of the region’s inhabitants, symbolizing the enduring power of literature in shaping civilizations. Among the notable genres of compositions include Mappilappattu (songs of the Mappilas), Padappattu (battle songs), and Qissappattu (narrative songs). In addition, the Qasidah Burda dedicated to the Prophet ﷺ composed by the famed Egyptian poet al-Busiri, bears an unparalleled influence in the region — as it does across the globe. These literary masterpieces have endured the test of time, testifying to the profound influence of panegyric poetry in shaping the spiritual and cultural landscape of the region.
Formation of Arabi-Malayalam: A Bridge Between Cultures
When Islam was introduced to the Kerala coast, the Mappilas underwent a unique linguistic transformation. Instead of fully embracing Arabic as their mother tongue, they ingeniously devised a new language called Arabi-Malayalam to foster communication within their community. This innovative hybrid played a crucial role in shaping and negotiating the identity of the Mappilas. Mappilappattu, as a poetic expression, then took root in the realm of Arabi-Malayalam literature. 3
It is believed that Arabi-Malayalam was in existence in Malabar as early as the 9th or 10th century. Scholars, such as Shamshad Hussein, have mentioned that Arabi-Malayalam emerged as a progressive language due to the long-standing trading relations between the Arabs and the Malabar Coast. He notes however that some among the ulema (Islamic scholars) resisted the idea of studying Malayalam, sufficing with the study of the language of the revelation. Other researchers, such as Keedakkadan Muhammed Abdul Kareem, attribute the formation of Arabi-Malayalam to Arab missionaries who sought to convey the message of Islam more effectively to the local people. In Abdul Kareem’s view, this led to the Mappilappattu, evolving as a means of poetic expression of Arabi-Malayalam literature, spiritual devotion, and cultural preservation for the Mappilas.4
The Role of Arabi-Malayalam in Education and Resistance
Historically, the local community relied considerably on Arabi-Malayalam to disseminate knowledge and education. Despite being marginalized in mainstream culture and Western scientific knowledge, the anti-colonial sentiment among the Mappilas drove them to hold onto their unique traditions, especially Arabi-Malayalam. The ulema among the Mappilas of that time also encouraged the community to take up this sacred task. The well-known book Tuhfat-al-Mujahidin “Glory to Victory of Martyrs,” authored by 16th-century scholar Sheikh Zainuddin Makhdum, was written to motivate Mappilas to revolt against the Portuguese imperialists in Malabar. In an attempt to embolden the Mappilas of that time, he describes a brief history of Mappilas’ origins, the cruel and unjust atrocities committed by the Portuguese, and factual evidence from Islamic texts to fight against injustice and oppression.
Additionally, the advent of Portuguese colonization brought forth a period of hostility and ushered in a deluge of atrocities that the Mappilas had to endure. In response, Sheikh Zainuddin Makdhum’s Tuhfat-al-Mujahidin vividly recounts the sufferings inflicted upon the local populace by the Portuguese. During those turbulent times, Mappilas would go on to create secret languages such as maikurud and akkakkettu, with the latter serving as a covert means of communication during widespread riots in the Malabar region.
The Significance of Mappila Literature
Historians agree that literary contributions played a pivotal role in both the anti-colonial struggle and the socialization process of the Mappila community. While not all works of the Mappilas are considered Mappilappattu, those that prominently feature the community’s struggles and experiences hold a special place in Mappila literature. Mappilas have developed their own community-internal literacy system, with Muhyudheen mala, serving as an exemplar during marriage proposals. If a bride was unable to recite two lines from the poem in Arabi-Malayalam, she was deemed unqualified, even though this poem was not part of the madrasa curricula.
The diverse classifications of literary works played a pivotal role in fortifying the Mappila community of Malabar. They laid the foundation for a cohesive socialization process, fostering a sense of cultural identity and resilience among the Mappilas. We will now turn to the Qasidah Burda, Mappilappattu, Malappattu, and Padappattu and understand their role in preserving Islamic spirituality.
The Poem of the Mantle: Qasidah Burda in Kerala
The Qasidah Burda, also known as The Poem of the Mantle, was composed by the acclaimed Egyptian poet, al-Busiri in the 7th century AH. This masterpiece of panegyric enjoys a unique position as one of the most widely recited and memorized poems around the world. The global reach of the Burda is awe-inspiring, crossing linguistic barriers and resonating with diverse cultures, resulting in its widespread acceptance across the world as a unifying force in the praise of the Prophet ﷺ 5.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the people of Malabar ardently embraced the Burda, incorporating it into their lives through regular recitations during weekly, monthly, and annual gatherings. This enduring tradition has persisted for centuries, transcending time to find relevance in the present day. A vivid illustration of this can be observed in the region of Tirur, where ritual performances of any renowned mawlid along with the Burda, called the naattumoulid have become a deep-rooted practice. These gatherings emerged as a prominent facet of Islamic socialization during the nineteenth century contributing to the strengthening of communal bonds through shared recitations, sessions on the meanings of the Mawlid and feasts towards the end of it.
Mappilappattu, understood as songs of the Mappila, is the term given to lyrical songs in Arabi-Malayalam by Mappilas of the Malabar region in Kerala, India. The song is compiled with a rich variety of customs and traditions of Kerala. Apart from these using Arabi-Malayalam, it uses Persian, Hindustani, and Tamil words in the song while the grammatical structure is based upon the Malayalam language itself. The captivating rhythm and fabulous tunes are the distinguishing qualities of this poetic genre. This style of Mappila songs was composed in parallel to the Manipravalam tradition in Malayalam poetry, which involved the mixing up of Sanskrit and Malayalam languages. Deeply rooted in the cultural practices of Kerala, they encapsulate the cultural essence of the Mappila community.6 Mappilappattu can be further classified into the following sub-genres: malapattu, padappattu and qissappattu which are discussed below.
Every malapattu poem begins with the traditional formula: invoking Allah’s name (bismi), praising Him (hamd) and the Prophet ﷺ (salat). The defining characteristic of this poem is praise for the saints of Allah (‘awliya), the focal theme around which the poem revolves. This poetic expression gains its distinctiveness from a mixture of Arabic, Persian, Tamil, Malayalam and Sanskrit in an austere fashion. The art of Malappattu is best exemplified by the renowned Muhyudheen mala, considered the oldest mala according to historians. Penned by Qazi Muhammed of Calicut in 1607 (782 AH), it narrates the story of the Baghdadi Sufi saint, Muhyudheen Abdul Qadir Jilani and boasts of an impressive lineage through time, having survived for over five centuries.
The poetic style and artistic brilliance of Muhyudheen mala are reasons for its literary growth, earning it the distinction of being the first classical work of Mappila Malayalam:
“Kasamerumravil nadannangu pokumbol
Kai viral chuttackikattinadannovar“
In the depths of the night, he walked,
using his fingers as a guiding light
In addition to its literal meaning, the verses allude to Sheikh Jilani’s services to the Muslim community, protecting them by wiping out the prevalent ignorance. Further verses serve to beautifully extol the virtues of the Baghdadi saint:
“Balath shareeath nnum kadalullovar
Idath haqeeqath ennum kadalullovar”
His right (hand) was blessed with the exoteric sciences (sharia),
and left (hand) with the esoteric sciences (haqiqah)
Following in the footsteps of Muhyudheen mala, numerous other mala songs emerged, each dedicated to certain revered figures. For instance, the Badar mala, dedicated to the warriors of Badr, the Rifai mala to the famous Iraqi saint Ahmed Kabir Rifai, and many more. Other types of malas such as Nool Mala, penned by Kunhayan Musaliyar of Thalassery, narrate the tale of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. He achieved fame for Kappappattu or the first printed and published Mappila songbook.7 Such compositions excelled in praising spiritual figures, preserving traditions and offering moral guidance.
These stirring battle songs commemorate acts of rebellion and resistance, symbolizing the indomitable spirit of the people in times of strife.8 The 19th-century sub-genre of Mappilappattu, known as Padappattu, found its niche in Arabic-Malayalam literature through its distinctive tonality and emotive texture, expressing the nuances of its context and social history. The Mappilas of Malabar, akin to other regions worldwide, resisted the British notion of an “integrated nation,” and continued to assert their cultural distinctiveness through Padappattu.
Lastly, we have Qissappattu, which literally means narrative or story-like (qissa) songs. Unlike Padappattu which exclusively deals with battle songs, they are much larger in scope by recollecting inspiring stories of prophets, and saints, along with historic battles. The poem’s theme is a well-known battle in Islamic history, the Battle of Badr. This is the first battle between Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and his enemies in Makkah. It was a grave battle as far as the Prophet’s ﷺ mission was concerned, as it was a fight upholding the principles of virtue: a battle between truth and falsehood.
At the time Badar Padappattu was composed by Moyinkutty Vaidyar, often referred to as the Mahakavi (great poet), British hegemony over Malabar was at its peak ringing in three-quarters of a century of rule in Malabar. It was a period of confrontation between Mappila peasants and Jenmis supported by British authorities. Vaidyar’s Badar Padappattu played an integral role in the struggle, acting as a catalyst indirectly promoting the interests of poor peasants against landlordism and colonialism and rousing their sentiments through religious appeal.
In sum, Mappila literature reflects the aspirations, struggles, love, and affection of the Mappila community across the ages. Luminaries such as M.T. Vasudevan Nair have described Mappila songs as the “cultural fountains of a bygone age.” Unfortunately, however, there has been a recent growing trend of “cacophony” in newer Mappila songs, and a disappearance of imaginative sensibilities in modern poets. Critics have raised concerns about the deviation from the original folk idiom and tunes (Ishals), urging instead the preservation of the authentic Mappila songs.
Nonetheless, these poetic works have successfully instilled religious ideas and cultural values among the Malabar Muslims. As part of the popular tradition, they bear cultural significance, elucidating local values and recounting regional histories specific to various regions. Their legacy endures, perpetuating the rich cultural heritage of the Mappila community while sparking reflections on preserving its original essence amid contemporary transformations. By paying homage to revered saints and historical events, these songs continue to inspire spiritual devotion and foster cultural identity among the people of Malabar.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.Endnotes
- Hashim, 2019
- Narayanan, 2018
- S ParameswaraIyer, Ulloor, Kerala SahityaCharitram, Volume I, 1953, p.228.
- Mohamed, K.M. “Influence Of Arabic On Mappila Songs”, Journal Of Kerala Studies, Vol: 6, 1979.
- Bensen, Patrick. “An Introduction to Qasidah Burdah: The Most Famous Poem in the World.” Imam Ghazali Institute, Imam Ghazali Institute, 5 June 2023, www.imamghazali.org/blog/introduction-to-qasidah-burdah
- Parameswaran Pillai, Erumeli, MalayalaSahityamKalakhtangalilude, p.155.
- “Tracing the History of Mappila Songs: Azeez Tharuvana in Conversation with Faisal Elettil.” YouTube, 27 June 2017, youtu.be/XwHCDgjice4?si=isRO41q72ON1ruZd.
- S.F.Dale, The Mappilas of Malabar 1498-1922, Islamic Societies in the South Asian Frontier, Oxford, 1980.
Mufassir Iqbal is currently pursuing his B.B.A-L.L.B degree at Markaz Law College, Calicut, Kerala. He is also studying the traditional Islamic sciences at World Institute for Research in Advanced Sciences, Markaz Knowledge City.