Islam constitutes about a quarter of the population of the state of Kerala ,their population is unevenly distributed with the bulk of them concentrated in the districts of malappuram and kozhikode.Islam came to the malayali shores through trade like elsewhere in the indian ocean region. The newly converted Arab traders settled along the coast , building the first mosque at Kodungallur by the 7th century AD . A few of these arab settlers took malayali wives(mappila = groom) from the coastal communities , who in turn became the first indigenous converts to the new faith . Coastal communities at the time including fishermen and petty traders found themselves at odds with the dominant religions of the time – Jainism , Buddhism and Brahmanism , due to their emphasis on non violence and ritual purity. They were classified as the outcasts decided to try out the new faith which was more inclusive and egalitarian . As Hinduism evolved over the next centuries , Brahmanising the Dravidian cults , a stricter variant of caste system came up pushing the existing social equations into dissaray . Unlike the rest of India where there was a four fold classification of varnas , Kerala had just two varnas – Brahmanas and Shudras . Anyone and everyone other than the Brahmins including the ruling dynasties were put under the shudra bracket . Absence of the vaishya caste that too in a region that depended heavily on trade was an anomaly which was soon filled by the Arabs and the Mapillas .
The second chera empire disintegrated by the twelfth century AD . Local chieftans started to assert their Independence with Valluvanad becoming the supreme power in North , with the right to conduct Mamangam – The trade cum martial arts festival . This once in 12 years gathering was attended by chieftans of all desams from Thekkamkur in the south to Chirakkal up north. The most powerful of them was given the perpetual right to preside over the gathering and to use it as a platform to show off his prowess.The flooding of Periyar and the decline of Mahodayapuram lead to the rise of Calicut as the major port in the region. zamorin , the ruler of Calicut encouraged Mappillas to settle in the city in his effort to transform it into the trade emporium of the the West coast. Islam flourished under the zamorin who granted them rights at par with Nairs , including the the right to carry arms . The Calicut Navy was recruited exclusively from the Mappila caste . There was a tradition among the fishermen of Calicut to bring up their elder sons as Muslims , who could later man the nations ships.
Thanks to the flourishing trade with the Arabs , Calicut became an economic powerhouse overnight. But in the local power structure it was still a second rate power subservient to Valluvanad . According to a popular folklore , During one of the mamangams , the Zamorin took with him one of the prominent Mapillas of Calicut . Seeing his King being treated like a vassal the Mapilla vowed to make the Zamorin the steward of the next Mamangam and in this process making Calicut the supreme power in Kerala. Over the next twelve years the Zamorin who is also called Erlipad ( ruler of Eranad ) started conquering Valluvanad and the adjoining areas with his massive Nair – Mapilla army. As promised , the Mapillas gave the Zamorin the Mamangam before the next chapter and he became overlord of the whole of the erstwhile Chera dominion. . The Valluvakonathiri ( The ruler of Valluvanad ) realizing the importance of Mapillas started inviting them to settle in his domain and over time they became an integral part of the Valluvanadan social fabric. Though Mapillas saw reverses during the Portuguese period they regained their stature in no time becoming one of the prominent communities in Malabar,
The decendants of Arabs and the indigenous Mapillas who constituted the Malayali Muslims were still a small community in numerical terms till the 18th century , mainly confined to coastal areas and smaller towns . The large scale proselytization of the rural masses of Eranad occurred in the 18th century and Valluvanad in the 19th century. The main reason for this mass conversion was the increasing rigidity of the Caste system . The Thiyya caste and the untouchables found Islam an easy way to escape the tyranny of the Nairs and Brahmins . Unlike the Chirakkal country to the North or Cochin to the south , Eranad and Valluvanad were centers of orthodox Brahmanism . Most of the land was under Brahman Illams or Nair Tharavads with the other castes reduced to being tenants or laborers who were nothing more than slaves. The laws of purity and pollution made their life even more miserable . Once they converted to Islam their social status rose manifold and were even allowed to walk beside their erstwhile masters. Islam also liberated their women folk from being the sexual slaves of the higher castes.
With the inclusion of Thiyyas and other lower castes , Dravidian mysticism which was prevalent among these sections became a part of Mapilla culture . Even today Eranad and Valluvanad is littered with tombs of saints and fakirs whose mythology is strikingly similar to Hindu tribal beliefs revered by rural folk of the region. The conversion was not limited to lower and Intermediate castes only , even a few Nair families embraced Islam due to the works of fakirs and saints.
The history of peaceful spread of Islam in the region was interrupted by the Mysorean invasion in the late 1700s. The Nairs who were the chief antagonists to both Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan were massacred in their thousands and their women and children forcibly converted to Islam. Hyder Ali took upon himself to oversee the conversion process. He declared Nairs to be the lowest of the castes and took away their right to bear arms. Nairs being the martial class found it demeaning . The proclaimation also said that they could get back their privileges once they converted to islam. This oppression forced Nairs and other aristocratic families to flee Malabar .The repression under Tippu was even brutal. Once the British re established order the Landlords were brought back and reinstated as Zamindars. Their fellow caste men who were forcefully converted were not allowed to return to their original faith and their properties were confiscated and redistributed among the returnees. This laid the foundation for the agrarian unrest to follow in the next two centuries.
The Mysore invasion , which turned the Muslims against the Hindus including their patron – the Zamorin ( who committed suicide in his palace) was the watershed moment in the history of Malabar. From then on Mapillas were not just seen as a caste within the larger Hindu fold but as an alien faith. This division was reiterated during the Mapilla rebellions in the 19th and 20th century. Though Mapilla rebellions were agrarian in nature , directed against the Landlords and the British , it quickly turned communal with higher castes being the targets of peasant fury. Many instances of forced conversions were reported from Eranad and Valluvanad . The Khilafat movement in 1920s turned bloody in many parts of Valluvanad with the area between Areakode and Thootha being declared an Islamic Nation forbidden for Kafirs by Variankunnathu Kunjahammad Haji.
The Malabar variant of Islam is unique in its own ways . A malayali Muslim is a peculiar blend of Nair, Ezava and Arab influences . The Mapilla Malayalam of Eranad and Valluvanad is a mix of Tamil-Malayalam substrata with Sanskrit and Arabic , It is one of the least studied variants of Malayalam which according to me is unfair as it is a treasure trove for both linguists and historians. The Mapilla culture which include dance forms , folklores and Mapilla pattus have its own place in Malabar. sadly, the salafist forces ,which aims to homogenise Islam throughout the world is slowly exerting its pressure here too. This has led to divisions with in the community and outside. The steps needed to conserve this culture must come from within the community or else it would be swallowed by both modernism and salafism.