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The Zainuddin Makhdum's of Malabar

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

While we have a number of first person reports of medieval Malabar from European writers such as Castaneda, Correa, Barbosa, Jordanus, Pietro Della Valle, Varthema and so on, they are relatively circumspect in that those accounts are tainted by religious fervor or tilt to glorify the greatness of the European king and his minions the admirals or viceroys such as Vasco De Gama, Cabral and so on and the barbarism of the natives of Malabar (viewed using a European Christian standard). Nevertheless, they provide an account of the times which are sometimes amusing but at the same time providing a historic setting, accounting the valor and courage of the European traders who believed in wresting away the riches of Malabar by might, all because of the fickle European palate which could not stand rotting meat and needed pepper to preserve it a little longer.

Alas! If only refrigeration had been invented earlier!

In the middle of them all, we have a few others who put pen to paper. We do have Jewish traders who wrote about their trade from even earlier times, like those found in the Genizah scrolls, we have accounts of Pliny from ancient times, we have Chinese travelers like Ma Huan and we have other travelers like Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo.

From the Malabar side though the scribes were busy writing palace chronicles and financial accounts or ‘Granthavaris’, they hardly made a mention about the politics of the time. During the late medieval, we even had Vella Namuthiri writing in highly original Malayalam style about the brief Hyder Ali interlude. Much of those except the Vella chronicles are still not available in the public domain for a student or history buff. But there was one other who lived and wrote in the early medieval; and that was Sheikh Zainuddin 2 (Zainuddin 1's writings are unfortunately rare). The Tuhfat al Mujahideen is a valuable piece of writing though exhorting religious action in the end, but only against the Portuguese invader. So let us now see what this is all about. To get to Zainuddin though, you have to read through two translations of his work, one made by Indian experts in Arabic, while the other was the old English translation by Lt Rowlandson.

Zainuddin 2' s 'Tuhfat al-Mujahidin' or 'Tribute to the strugglers' (gift to the holy warriors) was perhaps one of the two documents that provided the Moplah perspective during those turbulent times, a time when the age old peaceful trade equations were threatened. It was a period where the Moplah or Arab or Jewish trader in Malabar or even their very existence was threatened by the marauding Portuguese in big ships with the might of their guns and the use of deceit, bribery & treachery. The equation of balance where the traders traded and the rulers maintained peace and prosperity for a commission from the trade, was threatened by these men who came to conquer, pillage and perhaps continue their European wars against Islam which was until then of no consequence to the Moplas of Malabar. It was this spillover from Europe of resistance and outrages against the Ottoman hold over the Indian oceans that upset this equilibrium.

It was the time when crusades were waged to liberate Europe from the Ottomans, not any longer to take over the holy land at Jerusalem as the earlier crusades were meant to do. This was when in an ironic series of events, during the middle of the 15th century, the Latin Church (Roman Catholic Church) tried to organize a new crusade aimed at the restoration of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire which was gradually being torn down by the advancing Ottoman Turks.One important reason was the need to overcome the expensive eastern trade routes, dominated first by the republics of Venice and Genoa in the Mediterranean, and then controlled by the Ottoman Empire after the conquest of  Constantinople in 1453, barring European access, and going through North Africa and the historically important combined land-sea routes via the Red Sea. Both spice and silk were big businesses of the day, and arguably, spices which were used as medicine drugs and preservatives was something of a necessity—at least to those Europeans of better than modest means.
So we come to Malabar, the land of pepper and ports where all the goods from the orient were made available by traders of many nations for transshipment via the Red Sea to Alexandria and ports of the Mediterranean. Here in Malabar situated the kingdom of the Zamorin where the Arabs, Jews, Chettys, Syrian Catholics and Moplah’s traded in peace, eking out their means to peaceful livelihood, broken occasionally by quarrels between the Zamorin and the Cochin king. Here lived the Makhdums of Ponnani, notably the two Zainuddin Makdum’s.

But before we get to Zainuddin Makhdum 2, we have to learn about the learned Zainuddin Thangal 1 and other members of the illustrious family.

The family traces their earliest origins to a place very similar in name to Malabar called M'abar in Yemen, some 30 km north of today's Dhamar. But I am not convinced that the Mabar used in this context is really the same as Ma’bar in Yemen, for around that time, there existed a Sultanate of Ma’bar covering the South Indian Coromandel region(M'abar means crossing point – perhaps signifying the crossing point to Ceylon or to the Eastern oceans).. Originally the Coromandel Coast (Kayal, Kilkara, Madura, Trichy, Nagore etc – creating the Cholamandalam) was termed Ma’bar according to historians with the name going back to the 12th century. For the moment I will leave this piece of information in the backburner and get back to the Sultanate of Ma’bar separately in another blog. Let us just conclude that Sheikh Zanudin1 was from the Coromandel Ma’bar, possibly Kayal. Zainuddin's ancestors chose themselves to add the Al M'abari themselves denoting they were from Ma’bar in the Kayalpatanam area (later the Marakkars came from that region as well - refer my earlier article on this subject).
Zainuddin 1

Shiekh Ali Ahmed Al Ma’abari was the first to move from the Kayalpattanam area to the Kochangadi in Cochin around the 15th century. His relocation was meant to provide religious education to the many Moplahs in Cochin. Accompanied by brother Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Ahmed Maabari, they settled down in Kochi. Zainuddin 1 was born to Ali Ahmed around 1465. His full name was Shieh Zainudin ibn Ali Ahmad Al Ma'bari or better known as the Makhdum Thangal 1, Abuyahya or as Zainuddin 1 (Some writers mention Al Malbari but it is actually Al Ma'bari). Zainuddin 1 was brought up by uncle Ibrahim after his father died. They soon moved to Ponnani where Zainuddin mastered the education basics and then moved to Calicut for further studies under Quadi Abubakker Fakhruddin. Later he travelled to Mecca where he continued his education for 7 years. After this his next natural destination was the Al Ahsar University in Egypt. The master finally returned back after spending another 5 years there. His first observation after return was the oppressive atmosphere created by the Portuguese settlers. To counter that in an organized way, he decided to create a place of learning for the youth and that was how the Juma (Juma Ath) mosque and the open Madrassa attached to it in the lines of Al Ahsar Cairo were first created. The people of Ponnani gave him the honorable title Makhdum (acc to Prof Abdu Rahman). Zheikh Zainuddin Makhdum thence became a revered teacher of Malabar and his weapon to the youth was learning. He brought in the 'vilakkiruthal' (sitting by the brass lamp) ceremony to honor the best students who were interested in higher studies. The Vilakkathirikkuka ceremony is when the most learned student or students sit next to the brass lamp in the Juma Masjid and next to the Makhdum himself. Such a chosen person is thence called Musaliyar. As the Portuguese attacks increased Zainuddin worked with the Zamorin in ensuring that there was a united Nair - Moplah response towards them even as a few Moplah traders were happily working purely for profit with the Portuguese traders. The Tahrid jihad war poem was written by him around this period exhorting Moplahs to align themselves with the Zamorin's forces. It was unique in the sense that it was not a religious jihad, but a call for united confrontation towards the Portuguese oppressors. It is believed that Zainuddin 2 also used these verses in his Tuhfat Al Mujahideen which of course obtained much better coverage in later times. A history reader should therefore note that the first record of the times was actually provided by Zainuddin 1 in Tahrid (Tahrid Ahlil Iman ala jihadi abda tilsulban) many years before the Tuhfat was written. These were the writings that prodded the Marakkars forward in their fight against the Portuguese. Zainiddun 1 passed away in 1522, aged 57 and lies buried in the Juma Masjid at Ponnani.

The amicable relations between the Hindu and Muslim communities at that time is exemplified by this interesting observation. The mosque at Ponnani was built for Zainuddin 1 (the big Juma Masjid or Juma Ath mosque) by a Hindu carpenter or Ashari fondly known as Ashari Thangal. Even today you can see his signature on the mosque beam (see picture). The mosque was constructed around 1519-20, and renovated in AD 1753-54. Until the arrival of the Mamburam Thangals (of Sayyed origin) in the 17th century, the Makhdums were the religious leaders of the Moplahs in Malabar. Parallel to the 'wilayat' concept of the Chistis, the Zamorin used to send a ceremonial robe to the Ponnani leaders during the Ariyittuvazhcha or accession ceremony

After Zainuddin, his son Sheikh Abdul Aziz became the Makhdum of Ponnani. This Abdul Aziz was the one who led an attack against the Portuguese at the Chaliyam fort in 1571. His second son Sheikh Ammed Zainuddin ibn Mohammed Al Ghazali was the Quadi in North Malabar – located in the Chombal Mahi area and to him was born Zanuddin 2. As the Zainuddin 2 was from Chombal in Kanchirapalli near Mahe, the Chombal sheikhs or Soubals as Arabs called them are next in importance to Ponnani sheikhs.

Zainuddin 2

Zainuddin 1’s son Muhammad al Ghazali bore Zainuddin 2 into the 16th century, in 1531 to be precise, and the boy quickly followed the footsteps of the illustrious grandfather. His father died when he was young and soon the boy found himself in the care of uncle Abdul Aziz Mukhdam at Ponnani. After primary and Islamic education at Ponnani, he traveled to Mecca where he spent some ten years mastering the religious texts. Coming back to Ponnani he became a revered teacher at the Madrassa, where he taught for another 36 years. He was a skilled orator who always despaired in the fact that the Moplahs never had an Emir to follow, though always working hard with the Zamorin as an emissary in building alliances with the rulers of Turkey, Egypt and neighboring lands such as Bijapur. It was tragic that all these allies were faced with bigger problems of their own around the time Malabar had the Portuguese as foes and could not thus forcefully support the Zamorin against them. But as a historian he was reasonably fair in documenting the times. Let us now take a look at the book. Zainuddin wrote the book sometime before 1583. The text was first translated in 1833 by Lt Rowlandson after a Portuguese translation was made by David lopes. Many other translations followed and today we have the authoritative version by SMH Nainar.

The book details some of the background of the Moplah origins in Malabar, the story of Cheraman Perumal, the arrival of the De Gama and the later fights by the people of Malabar against the Al Afrunj or the franks. (The English were termed Al Inkitar and the Spaniards Al Andaloos, whereas the French were Al Fransawee). In the middle chapters he details the Nair society and the various differences with the Moplah culture.

The Tuhfat is one of Shaikh Zainuddin’s several works, and is the best known among them. A chronicle of the resistance put up by the Muslims of Malabar against the Portuguese colonialists from 1498, when Vasco Da Gama arrived in Calicut, until 1583 when the author died, it describes in considerable detail events, many of which Zainuddin 2 had witnessed and lived through. It was intended, as Shaikh Zainduddin says, as a means to exhort the Malabar Muslims to launch a struggle or jihad against the Portuguese invaders.

Sheikh Zainuddin explains the curious customs of Hindu Malabar to the uninitiated, such as the concept of Koodipaka, where entire generations fight against what they feel is injustice, until death. He also mentions the complete absence of treachery and deceit in Malabar wars, a situation that was used by the Portuguese and the Dutch to their advantage. They brought into the fray the new moral – that nothing is unfair in war. He mentions how the Hindu customs of inheritance and other matters are followed by some Muslim families especially in North Malabar. He mentions how the rule of seniority is strictly followed in ascension to the throne, be the person be an aged person, invalid or mute (Note this is actually jut a figure of speech as I am aware of such a happening only in the case of Mookarasu in nearby Karnataka & not in Malabar. But there have been many aged Zamorins).

The Tuhfat describes how the Zamorins turned down bribes offered by the Portuguese to expel the Muslims, and of how they, along with Nair Hindu and Muslim forces, engaged in numerous battles with the Portuguese, who are said to have singled out the Muslims for attack and persecution.

Shaikh Zainuddin’s observations about the Hindus of Malabar are remarkable for their sense of balance and sympathy. Of the Hindu rulers, he says, ‘There are some who are powerful and some comparatively weak. But the strong, as a matter of fact, will not attack or occupy the territory of the weak’. He continues to show amazement about how nobody usurps the throne by breaking this rule. Zainuddin confirms that the Nairs were a warrior caste and were always involved with such activity. As he writes all this, he clarifies that he is only explaining the communities & their culture and that they have no bearing whatsoever on what is to come or what he has to say, but mainly providing perspective.

Zainuddin 2 also despaired about the lack of coordinated support by the various Muslim leaders in the plight of Malabar - He says as follows on the contrast between the response of the Zamorins to the plight of the Malabar Muslims with that of several Muslim Sultans in other parts of India, who were approached for help in expelling the Portuguese. ‘The Muslim-friendly Zamorin’, he writes, ‘has been spending his wealth from the beginning’ for the protection of the Malabari Muslims from the depredations of the Portuguese. On the other hand, he rues, ‘The Muslim Sultans and Amirs—may Allah heighten the glory of the helpful among them—did not take any interest in the Muslims of Malabar’.
Interestingly Zainuddin chose Adil Ali Shah as his patron for some special reason. Whether it was due to increased monetary support is not clear and it is even more strange that Zainuddin, obviously a Sunni found support from a Shiah ruler in this cause.

As the book blurb puts it - In appealing to the Malabari Muslims to launch jihad against the Portuguese, Shaikh Zainuddin makes clear that this struggle is purely a defensive one, directed at only the Portuguese interlopers and not the local Hindus or the Hindu Zamorins, for whom he expresses considerable respect. Nor is it, he suggests, a call to establish Muslim political supremacy and control. Jihad, then, for Shaikh Zaiuddin, was a morally just struggle to restore peace in Malabar and expel foreign occupiers, to return to a period when Muslims and Hindus in the region lived together in harmony.

He died in 1583 AD and lies buried in Chombal. The death at a critical juncture robs historians of a perspective of the times when the Zamorin established a treaty with the Portuguese and the period of his estrangement with the Kunjali marakkar.

Even though small in size, the text provides much information of the medieval period in Malabar history, when the Zamorins grip on Malabar weakened and when the age old culture was overrun by the Portuguese, hastening the curtain drop on the 500 odd years period during which the Zamorins had nurtured Malabar. But the Portuguese were to be overrun soon by the Dutch, followed by the Mysore forces who rode down to wreak havoc and finally the English would rang the death knell to that period of Malabar’s glory.

Tufat al Mujahideen - Nainar
Tufat al Mujahideen - Rowlandson
Historiography of the Muslim world - Vol 1A Samiuddin & NK Singh
Kerala Muslims - KT Hussein
Kerala Muslim history - P SyedMohammed

Courtesy Twocircles