Power brokers and Saints – The case of Sayyid Fadl – The Mambram Pookoya Thangal

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Malabar & Istanbul – Late 19th Century

Two things made me pick up this topic for study. One - the fact that Sayyid Fadl spent his last years in Istanbul, a city I love, and two -the remark made by his recent biographer WC Jacob. Jacob was kind in mentioning a couple of my earlier articles on the Cherman Perumal in his book and remarked - That the myth is still relevant today, even in far-flung exotic locales such as North Carolina, is evinced in online blogs and amateur history sites. The blogger going by the name Maddy who is an electrical engineer in North Carolina maintains the blog Historic Alleys: Historic Musings from a Malabar Perspective. Well, Jacob, I doubt if anybody in N Carolina is interested in the Perumal, or Malabar, it just so happens that this Malabar history enthusiast who has written scores of articles on Malabar, lives in N Carolina, just like you are a resident in California. But your studies on Sayyid Fadl are top-notch, and I had the pleasure of reading all of them.

Having written previously about Fadl’s nemesis Conolly, I thought it would be great to track the passage of this intrepid preacher from Malabar to Istanbul. It would surprise you that the fervent Thangal of Mambram donned many roles after his deportation from Ponnani, he served as a learned man in Mecca, the Pasha of Dhofar, and finally as an advisor or Sayyid in the Ottoman courts at Istanbul before passing away in 1900, close to fifty years after leaving Malabar. At the same time, the British foiled every attempt of Fadl to retake his previous roles at Dhofar & Malabar, even though Fadl tried pandering to them in his later years. Let’s start his journey, at Malabar.

Writer and traveler Richard Burton had just left Calicut, after a stay as a guest of the collector Connolly. The busy entrepot of yore, at that point in time, had probably 20 Europeans living in the West Hill area. Burton pitied the Malabar expatriate’s life in September, during the monsoon; as he remarked “What a dreary life they must be leading, with no other sounds in their ears but the roaring wind, the pelting of the rain and the creaking of the palm trees.” It was a tranquil part of Malabar, a sleepy little hamlet as some others were to later describe the city. But was it? Beneath the tranquility of the tropical paradise lay a seething cauldron of discontent, religious fervor, and the brimming of a revolt rising to pressure cooker proportions. It had exploded a couple of times already.

The EIC bureaucracy was struggling to come to terms with its reasons and actions. The aftereffects of the EIC retaliation were soon to be felt on the figurehead of law and order in the area, the district collector HV Connolly. After 14 difficult years at Calicut, where he struggled with a revolt of a different kind with no straightforward rule book, creating solutions on the fly and keeping a reasonable amount of control on the district affairs, Connolly was assassinated towards the evening of the 11th of September 1855, at his home.

I must admit that the many books and chapters written about the Moplah revolts are polarized in favor of one or the other side, depending on the author. Some blamed the caste system, some blamed the landowners, some blamed the lack of education of the Moplah, many blamed the Mambram ‘Pookoya’ Thangal (Sayyid Fadl), others blamed the new lower (labor) class ‘inland or hill Moplah’ converts, many blamed the British for their heavy-handedness and the Moplah act, some said it was just personal revenge owing to a contractual matter between the accomplice of one of the murderers and Connolly during the canal construction, but well, it was, in reality, a combination of all this. First, we need a little understanding of the relative situation of that period.

Malabar 1805-1855 - The Moplah restlessness

The Pazhassi Rajah was killed in Nov 1805 and with it (barring another revolt in 1809) the Hindu populace of Malabar had warily settled down to a long period of British rule. The proud Nair resistance had been subdued, their leaders slain, and kings & suzerains gone, many decided that this was so fated by the course of destiny and started learning new trades such as overseeing the tilling and maintenance of ancestral property. While the coastal Moplah continued his trade, the inland Moplah (many of them recent converts) did not have lands of their own and were working for the landowners. Then there were Tharavadi Moplahs like the Manjeri Athan Kurikkal who were to figure in these revolts. The lands that some Moplahs had usurped during the Hyder – Tipu interlude had been taken back by the landlords who returned from Travancore and the issues and problems started over ownership and revenues came to the fore. The British sided with the landlords and with it the Moplahs directed their anger against the landlords and the British.

Then again, some say they were further instigated by the Arab religious leaders in their midst focusing on caste equality and so on. This by itself is a long case, best discussed separately on another day, for it requires even more thought and consideration. Suffice to state that the Moplahs were a discontented lot embarking on expressions of revolt, which though heroic if viewed through a narrow lens, were largely unproductive, and resulted in polarizing opinions against them even more as time went by. All it ended up was creating a caricature of the Moplah as a brutish, hopeless, and illiterate fanatic driven by religious fatwas in the minds of the ruling EIC. Between 1836-53, several outbreaks took place (some 22 or so).

The British retaliated in typical fashion, with a show of arms, confinement, deportation, collective fines, and confiscation of property and weapons. The community was getting hopelessly alienated by this time and some illiterate youngsters as I read, were led to believe that their jihad would reach an explosive and victorious end with overseas support by way of many ships arriving from Arabia loaded with arms, food, etc. for 40,000 people (Sadasivan- Social history of India) to annihilate the non-believers. Many a youngster or recently ‘capped’ person thus ended up as a Halar – a Shahid after the hal-ilakkam and conducted attacks on temples and landowners. Reasons attributed were - the retribution exacted on the Moplahs by the Hindus after Tipu was slain, and forced contributions towards temple constructions (this was a special case where the Manjeri Rajah insisted on it because his temple was destroyed by the Moplahs). Another reason stated was that the Hindus used courts and the British to get back lands that originally belonged to the Hindus but were demarcated for mosque construction etc. by Tipu Sultan.

The Thangal Syeds on their part tried to force the British to find solutions to a number of these issues by increasing mass awareness with the release of fatwas and booklets, but the outcomes on most occasions were indiscriminatory riots. As the British focused on the instigators to put an end to the disturbance, the Moplahs worked to increase their ground strength, which was creating more recruits & converts. For more details refer to the Conolly article.

Antecedents – Mambram Tangal

Sayyid Fadl’s father Alawi Thangal, after the death of its founders, the Alawi brothers, and coming from Yemen, was considered one of the great saints of Malabar. In the 1840s–1850s. Fadl, who had a political side as well, used his titular position to exhort the Eranad Moplahs to rebel, and partake in violent protests against the local Hindu landlords, also giving them his religious sanction. Indeed, quite learned, he had after his teens already performed the Hajj and spent over 5 years at Mecca and Medina. After the various attacks and riots, he refused to appear before the Malabar magistrates when summoned. According to him., the British response was akin to the Christian crusades, and he refused to accept the British sovereignty over the region.

Attracting the ire of the British administrators

Though he remained a mite in the EIC hide for long, it was Syed Fadl’s writing of an article on equality for lower Cheruman classes and how they should be addressed, etc., that signaled broader rebellions against the British and the Hindu landlords and attracted the ire of the British. Pressure was slowly brought on the Thangal to move out of the troubled area. But rumors flew thick & fast that the British were going to attack and forcibly capture the man. A show of force was made by the Moplahs with the amassing of several thousand men near his house. Connolly did not want to precipitate the issue and pressured the Thangal to go back to Arabia. On 21st Feb 1852, as his letter explains - The consequence of my resolve and of another visit to the Tangul by the same agent has been, as I am just informed by him, that the Tangul has determined on starting for Arabia with the whole of his family, some 60 or 70 people, in an Arab ship which will sail within twenty days. Thus, on 19th March 1852, the Hadhrami family of clerics that had arrived from Yemen centuries ago sailed out of their temporary abode.

So much about Fadl in Malabar. But this colorful and complex character proved to be even more active after his ejection from Malabar. Not only did he work for various other powers in various capacities, but it is also fascinating to see that he collaborated at times with the British as well, making it clear that his personality was quite different from that of just an aggrieved religious leader of Malabar who spent the rest of his life pining for his birthplace, and desiring to get back, as is usually pictured by his coreligionists in Malabar writings. The rest of his life was spent as a political leader adeptly playing nations and personalities against each other, working as a power broker of sorts among the higher echelons of affluent societies, and not at all as a pious religious leader or a saint. So, let’s take up the story after the ‘outlaw’ Mambram Pookoya Thangal left the shores of Malabar in 1852 and went on to become the revered and renowned Sayyid Fadl. Later Fadl was also accused of being complicit in the murder of Conolly in 1855.

Flight to Hijaz & Dhofar

Fadl moved to the Hijaz, i.e., the present West Coast of Saudi Arabia. Hijaz, one of the critical intersections of modern Empires, which offered a new life to the banished preacher, who donned new robes as a middleman broker. Seema Alawi explains - As he straddled between the Hijaz and Istanbul, he leaned on old and new contacts, striving to position himself as a key man, cashing in on the British, Dutch, and Ottoman rivalries in the region. Even though Fadl believed that his exile was voluntary and temporary, the British made the travel ban on him quite permanent, extending to his close family, and ensured that they remained under EIC observation in the Hijaz and at Constantinople.

Seeing that his travel was restricted and hoping to get some support to go back to Malabar, Fadal decided to approach the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul, stopping en route at Egypt. Though Abbas Pasha the governor asked him to stay there for longer, he did not and went to Istanbul where he talked to the powers there as well as the British Ambassador and secured letters for transit back to Malabar. But Fadl was blocked at Jeddah and though he tried to slip the net by moving to Aden, he found the venture of sailing to Calicut impossible.

Visit to Istanbul

Buzpinar states - In the mid-1850s Fadl made his first visit to Istanbul Although he did not stay long, he gained official Ottoman recognition of -his status as an influential Arab notable and a salary of 2,500 kuruş per month. Armed with this this imperial favor, Fadl made several abortive attempts to secure a high position in South Arabia. Thus, it was that he ended up in Mecca, three years later, and continued as an Arab preacher with a stipend from the Ottoman Sultan. The stipend of a thousand dollars and donations from Malabari pilgrims allowed him to maintain the many family members and followers (totaling 60 or so) who had followed him into exile. During the 1860s he spent most of his time between Mecca and Taif.

Responding to European pressure during the 19th century, the Ottomans began to curtail the once-legal slave trade. The place was in turmoil, and unrest followed. The English believed he was involved in the Jeddah massacre where some 20 Europeans were killed. Fadl wrote a treatise defending slavery, in support of his fellow Hadhramites. Between 1855 and 1858, they revolted against the slave restriction policies, and the powers in Istanbul, not quite liking this, stopped Fadl’s stipend. Jolted to his senses, Fadl hastily left for Istanbul to try and get the situation reversed, though some writers feel it was due to British pressure to get Fadl, the troublemaker, out of the Hijaz.

At Salalah, Dhofar

In 1860 he claimed that the Hadrami Sayyids were being maltreated by the local tribes and wished to rescue them with the support of the ai-Kathiri tribe of Zafar by, bringing the area between Hadramawt and Oman, thus far independent, under Ottoman control. Neither the Vali of Hijaz nor the Amir of Mecca supported this view and so Fadl traveled to Istanbul for support. Here he met Ali Pasha, the grand Wazir. Later, he tried to get an Istanbul military expedition in Yemen, to extend its march to Yafi, and to get him instated as the ruler of Yafi, but it did not bear fruit. 

In the Hijaz, Sayyid Fadl gained visibility via his political moves to become the ruler of Dhofar (in Hadhramaut, Yemen). The Sultan of Muscat, an ally of the British, claimed to be its political sovereign. Next, he managed to insert himself into the disturbed area of Zafar and declared the area as Ottoman territory in 1876 with himself proclaimed as its Governor/Pasha, stationing himself and his family at Salalah, but without even informing Istanbul. He then contacted the Sublime Porte and asked them for two shops and 500 soldiers.

Nevertheless, his authority was recognized by the al-Gharah and al-Kaihiri tribes that occupied much of Zafar and soon he was collecting and enforcing taxes, and customs duties as well as recruiting soldiers. But soon, the locals realized that he was on his own and without any Ottoman backing. In 1879, the al-Kathiris rebelled against Fadl, and he quickly surrendered, fleeing to Istanbul. He was then lodged at Nişantaşi and obtained an audience with Sultan Abdulhamid. Osman Bey, the palace chamberlain, was appointed to provide for Fadl's needs.

Constantinople, Sublime Porte, and British intrigues

The Suez Canal was inaugurated in 1869 and was mostly controlled by European powers. Global trade routes were impacted, political changes were hastened and European influence in the region increased. The overland Silk Road lost its importance, and so also the influence of the Ottomans on trade. British influence on Egypt increased, as the Egyptian government became virtually bankrupt, while Ottoman power over Egypt decreased. Poor harvests, dependence on foreign loans, and a hugely bureaucratic Ottoman government apparatus ensured that any directive or decision took an inordinate amount of time. The Russo-Turkish war became an additional drain, while additional issues cropped up at other frontiers. Turkey remained in limbo mainly because the Europeans wanted to maintain a balance of power in the area, as Austria and Russia were trying to increase their spheres of influence and territory at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Britain was instrumental in keeping them in check, and Istanbul was the destination Syed Fadl was headed to.             

Fadl had come to Istanbul with a clear objective: to convince the Sultan to back him militarily as well as politically in his efforts to regain Zafar. Though the Sultan supported him, the Porte (the council of ministers) did not, perhaps influenced by the British. The standoff between the palace and the Porte continued for a while, and the request was finally rejected by the Porte in Oct 1879, as it saw the area more under British suzerainty, rather than Ottoman, not wanting to disturb the balance.

The clever diplomat that Fadl had become, now started to work on the British in 1880, explaining that he had only friendly feelings towards England - What attracts Mussulmans like ourselves still more to the English government is her sincere friendship towards the Ottoman Empire, the only refuge of Islamism on account of the Caliphate. He added that the condition of the Turkish Empire was very critical, and in the event of a general collapse taking place, he wished to have friendship and to be under the protection of England, to whom all the Arabs looked as a just and righteous power.

Life in Istanbul 1870 -1900

In Istanbul, he projected his lofty lineage - Sahl Mawla ai-Duwayla al-Alawi al-Husayn better known as Sayyid Fadl Pasha, from the large and influential clan of Ba Alawi living in Hadramawt, more particularly from in and around the town of Tarim, also known as the Al-Shaykh Al-Sayyid Fadl Pasha Al Malibari Al Makki.

Between 1879 and until he died in 1900, he lived in Istanbul, as a special guest of Sultan Abdulhamid II. His main benefactor was Ali Pasha, who was quite impressed with Fadl’s knowledge of Arabian affairs and took to heart his advice for reforms in the Hijaz. He promoted the Khilafat and pan-Islamism, perhaps one of the first to do so, that was perhaps why the Moplahs of Malabar threw in their lot with Gandhiji, against the British. He is also considered to have influenced the Sultan to build the famed railway line between Damascus and Medina, having seen the tremendous impact and benefits railways proved for the British in India. He also tried to shake the British boat by promoting Turkish ships to transport Hajj pilgrims from India, creating a stir in the minds of British ship owners. Nothing came of it, as I understood.

During this sojourn, Fadl also tried to obtain permission to go back to Malabar, but the Sultan felt it prudent to keep him close and under supervision, perhaps influenced by the British who ensured that he remained in Istanbul, under a kind of seclusion or house arrest, with his family. The Sultan provided for his material needs, and in August 1880, he awarded him the rank of "vezir." Fadl proved to be a prolific writer writing about the Alawiyya and his father's miracles (keramat). Of his nineteen works five were published during his stay in İstanbul. Fadl passed away in Oct 1900, aged 77, and remains buried in Istanbul at the Sultan Mehmet Han Turbesi.

Other impressions –Al-Shaykh Al-Sayyid Fadl Pasha AL Malibari AL Makki

In his book about palace scandals, Egyptian Ibrahim al-Muwaylihi's Ma Hunalik mentions - Such was his repute as a sheikh, and so renowned was his lineage that other sheikhs used to kiss his hand. The Sultan once had to send the Superintendent of police Nazim Pasha to convey his annoyance about something Fadl had said, and they almost came to blows after Fadl spat on the emissary. Hunalik thought little of Fadl’s authorship and claims that Fadl’s books were mainly trumped up with tales of the glorious feats of his father and forbearers. He, according to Hunalik, kept buttering up the Sutan saying that he could become India’s emperor, and made tall claims that America would be converted to Islam. He does not seem to have been held in high esteem if Hunalik could be believed, despite what some authors and coreligionists have stated.

Being one among the four advisors to the Sultan, they frequently quarreled amongst themselves, and E Caffarel the French attaché states - These four personalities vie for the favors of the Sultan; their influence varies from day to day, according to [their] Master's whims; they envy one another, take over matters, spy on and denounce one another. They are supervised themselves by the sultan, who gets a full record of the guests they receive and of their every movement.

Many attempts to return to Mambram

With the forced abdication of Sultan Abdulhamid in 1909, Sahl, Fadl’s elder son decided it was time to move the family from Istanbul. He migrated to Latakia on the Syrian coast with a small stipend from the Turks. Sahl then tried hard to return to India and claim their land and wealth, which had by then been usurped by another Moplah family. Applications, petitions, and pleas were sent frequently to no effect. Then Sahl changed his tone and said that his father was the one against the British, not he or the rest of the family.

WC Jacob gives us a summary of Sahl’s missives - He first related how Fadl refused to accept a stipend of one thousand pounds a month from the British Government. He intimated that it was offered in 1854 as a just compensation through the High Commissioner in Jeddah after he revealed that Fadl and his family would not be allowed to return to India. Then, after the Dhofar episode, Sahl claimed he had developed ‘intimate relations of friendship’ with Lord Dufferin, the British Ambassador in Istanbul. The latter was apparently prepared to allow the family to return to Dhofar as agents of the British and presented terms which Sahl deemed ‘advantageous,’ but Fadl, ‘who was then the favorite of Abdul Hamid,’ rejected. The British did not budge.

Sahl wrote again, this time to the British King towards the end of 1919. In this correspondence, he essentially disavowed his father as stubbornly anti-British and as a result foolish in his actions. In return, he offered to pledge his ‘loyalty’ to the British Government in India, and in Dhofar, to ‘strive for the progress of the country and the enhancement of the prestige of the King.’ This was also useless.


After Sahl’s death, his brothers tried in the 1920s to break through the British surveillance net to reach and remain in India. There were numerous court cases and arguments about their property in Mambram, and many civil suits in court between the grandchildren and the Attakoya family, who claimed ownership of the land. Sayyid Fadl's son Sherief Yousuf Pasha was not allowed entry in 1921 because of the ongoing disturbances in Malabar. After the 1921 revolt, Muhammad Abdu Rahman Sahib took up the Fadl cause calling it the ‘Mambram restoration committee’. He arranged for Sayyid Ali to travel to Malabar via Ceylon, Ali was sent off from Calicut, and Rahman then managed to move him to French-administered Mahe, where he stayed for 8 months, after which he lost heart and returned to Egypt.

On 15th Sept 1937, the Moplah outrages act was canceled and there was no theoretical objection for the Fadl descendants to enter Malabar, thanks to Abdu Rahman’s tireless efforts. This also failed, however, and Rahman was jailed. Abdu Rahman passed away soon after his release and with him, the Fadl cause also met its end. I doubt if anyone from the family ever came back or saw the shores of Malabar.

So, friends, that gives you a more complete biography of the famed Mambram Thangal, and of his global travails. Whatever said and done, he was a person who lived and influenced the history of Malabar, positively for some, negatively for others.


Abduhamid ll and Sayyid Fadl Pasha of Hadramawt – An Arab Dignitary' s Ambitions (1876-1900) S Tufan Buzpinar
For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World – W C Jacob
Being and Becoming Anticolonial: The Life of Sayyid Fadl and the State of History – WC Jacob
The beginning/end of diaspora: A kernel of time in a mystical mode of existence – WC Jacob
Spies, Scandals, and Sultans Istanbul in the Twilight of the Ottoman Empire - Ibrahim al-Muwaylihi's Ma Hunalik
‘Fugitive Mullahs and Outlawed Fanatics’: Indian Muslims in nineteenth century trans-Asiatic Imperial Rivalries – Seema Alavi
Sufis and Scholars of the Sea: Family Networks in East Africa, 1860-1925 - Anne Ban
History of ba-alawis in Kerala - Mohammed Abdul Sathar

Syed Fadl’s Tomb at Istanbul – Click this link

Note: Salala is the same place where a dignitary from Malabar once visited, lived and died. See this article for details.


  1. Jaideep

    After reading this fascinating post , I have come to realize that the 2nd half of the 19th century was a period of major turmoil and strife in the relations between the Moplahs and the British . Land ownership and usurpation being a major flashpoint. As for the Thangal and his role in all this , well .. it is very difficult to decide whether he was a saint , a politician , an opportunist ...
    Maddy , you have aptly described him and his life as colorful and complex. He left footprints all over and mysteries too .
    Superb , Maddy !!

  1. Maddy

    thanks Jaideep,
    a very interesting person, without doubt. this just gives you a bird's eye view to his life..