The Arab Story
The lure of spices is what attracted ancient Arabs, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians to the Malabar Coast in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE. They started coming to Kerala before the 4th century BCE. The connection between Kerala and the Arabian Peninsula dates back to the 7th century when Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf came to the southern coast of Malabar for the coveted spices. As the monsoons delayed their journey back home, many Arab traders chose to settle in Kerala and married locals instead. This resulted in the formation of the Muslim Mappila community. So, the primary reason for Arab traders coming to Kerala was the spice trade, but over time, they established strong trade links and even settled in the region, contributing to the multicultural society of Kerala.

The Arabs started the shipbuilding industry in Kerala by bringing their knowledge and skills in making dhows, which are traditional Arabian trading vessels. They were attracted by the availability of good quality timber and the presence of skilled craftsmen in the Malabar region. They also established trade relations with the local rulers and the people, and some of them even settled in Kerala and formed the Muslim Mappila community. The shipbuilding industry in Kerala flourished for centuries, until the advent of iron and steel ships. The main center for making urus, the name given to the wooden ships in Kerala, was Beypore, an estuarine port in Kozhikode district. The urus was built by joining planks of wood without any blueprints, relying on the memory and experience of the shipwrights. The urus were used for trade, travel, and warfare, and was admired for its beauty and durability. Today, the shipbuilding tradition in Kerala is almost extinct, but some craftsmen still make miniature models of urus as souvenirs.

The Arabs have made significant contributions to the Kerala community in various fields such as trade, culture, religion, and society. Some of the prominent Muslim families in Kerala are also of Arab origin or descent.

Here are some of the highlights of the Arab influence on Kerala:

  • Trade: The Arabs were the first to establish trade relations with Kerala, even before the advent of Islam. They were attracted by the spices, teakwood, ivory, and other products of the Malabar coast. They also brought their knowledge and skills of making dhows, which are traditional Arabian trading vessels, and started the ship building industry in Kerala.
  • Culture: The Arabs enriched the culture of Kerala by introducing their language, literature, art, music, and cuisine. The Arabi Malayalam script, which is a variant of the Arabic script, is used to write the Mappila dialect of Malayalam. The Mappila literature consists of various genres such as ballads, folk songs, poems, and stories that reflect the Islamic faith and history of the Mappilas. The Mappila art forms include Oppana, a dance form performed by women during weddings, and Duff Muttu, a percussion ensemble using a frame drum called duff. The Mappila music is influenced by the Arabic melodies and rhythms, and uses instruments such as harmonium, tabla, and violin. The Mappila cuisine is a blend of the Malabar and Arabian culinary traditions, and features dishes such as biryani, pathiri, alisa, and muttamala.
  • Religion: The Arabs were the first to propagate Islam in Kerala, and it is believed that Islam spread to other parts of India from Kerala. The first mosque in India, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, was built in Kodungallur, Kerala, in the 7th century by Malik bin Dinar, an Arab companion of Prophet Muhammad. The Mappilas are the descendants of the Arab traders who married the local women and settled in Kerala. They follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Sunni branch of Islam. They also have a strong Sufi tradition, and venerate the saints and shrines of Kerala.
  • Society: The Arabs have contributed to the social development of Kerala by establishing educational institutions, charitable organizations, and political movements. The Jami’a Nooriyya Arabic College, founded in 1950 by Sheikh Abubakr Ahmad, is one of the leading Islamic seminaries in India. The Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama, founded in 1926 by Sheikh Muhammad Karakunnu, is the largest Muslim organization in Kerala, and runs thousands of schools, orphanages, hospitals, and other welfare institutions. The Indian Union Muslim League, founded in 1948 by Qaid-e-Millat Muhammad Ismail, is a major political party in Kerala, and advocates for the rights and interests of the Muslim community.

Some of the prominent Muslim families in Kerala that have Arab ancestry or connections are:

  • The Arakkal family, the only Muslim royal family in Kerala, who ruled the Arakkal kingdom in Kannur. They claim to be the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima.
  • The Keyi family, a wealthy and influential merchant family in Thalassery, who trace their origin to the Yemeni tribe of Banu Tamim.
  • The Thangals, the religious and spiritual leaders of the Mappilas, who belong to the Sayyid lineage of the Prophet Muhammad.
  • The Rawthers, the traders and landlords of Palakkad, who migrated from the Rawther region of Yemen in the 12th century.
  • The Lebbais, the traders and scholars of Kanyakumari, who are the descendants of the Arab settlers who married the local women of the Lebbai caste.