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Book review: The Tribute to the Strugglers

Reviewed by Yoginder Sikand

The Tuhfat al-Mujahidin or ‘The Tribute to the Strugglers’ is one of the earliest extant historical treatises about the southern Indian state of Kerala. Its author, the sixteenth century’s Shaikh Zainuddin Makhdum, hailed from the renowned Makhdum family from the town of Ponnani in Malabar, in northern Kerala. This family traced its descent to migrants from Yemen, who played a leading role in the spread of Islam in southern India.

Following in the footsteps of many of his forefathers, Shaikh Zainduddin rose to become a leading Islamic scholar. He spent ten years studying in Mecca, where he also joined the Qadri order of Sufism. On his return to his native Malabar, he spent almost four decades teaching at the central mosque in Ponnani, then a major centre for Islamic studies in southern India. He also served as the envoy of the Zamorins, the Hindu rulers of Calicut, to Egypt and Turkey.

Name of the Book: Tuhfat al-Mujahidin (translated from Arabic by S. Muhammad Husayn Nainar)
Author: Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum
Year: 2006
Pages: 139
Publisher: Islamic book Trust, Kuala Lumpur (www.ibtbooks.com) & Other Books, Calicut ([email protected])
Other Books,
P.B.No.620, 13/776,
I Floor, New Way Building,
Railway Link Road,
Ph: +91 495 2306808
Price not mentioned

The Tuhfat is one of Shaikh Zainuddin’s several works, and is the best known among them. A chronicle of the stiff resistance put up by the Muslims of Malabar against the Portuguese colonialists from 1498, when Vasco Da Gama arrived in Calicut, to 1583, it describes in considerable detail events, many of which that the author had himself 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. The book thus extols the virtues of jihad against oppressors, and, at the same time, also provides fascinating details about the history of Islam in Malabar, the relations between Muslims and Hindus in the region and the customs and practices of both.

Islam’s first contact with India is said to have taken place in Malabar, and Shaikh Zainuddin offers a popularly-held account of this. He writes of how the Hindu ruler of Malabar, impressed with a group of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Ceylon, converted to Islam and accompanied them back to Arabia. There, shortly before he died, he instructed them to return to Malabar. They did as they were told, and the king’s governors welcomed them, allowing them to settle along the coast and establish mosques. Gradually, he writes, the Muslim community began expanding through the missionary efforts of Sufis and traders.

Relations between Muslims and the Hindus of Malabar, Shaikh Zainudin observes, were traditionally cordial. The rulers of Malabar, all Hindus, treated the Muslims with respect, one reason being that the Muslims played a vital role in the region’s economy because of their control of the trading routes linking Malabar to other lands by sea. Hindu rulers even paid salaries of the muezzins and qazis and allowed the Muslims to be governed in personal matters by their own laws. Hindus who converted to Islam were not harassed, and, even if they were of ‘low’ caste origin, were warmly welcomed into the Muslim community. This was probably one reason for the rapid spread of Islam in the region.

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’. (This, Shaikh Zainuddin suggests, might be a result of the conversion of one of their kings, referred to earlier, to Islam ‘and of his supplications to this effect to God’). He also adds, ‘[The] people of Malabar are never treacherous in their wars’. At the same time, he notes with disapproval the deeply-rooted caste prejudices among the Malabari Hindus. So strict is the law of caste, he writes, that any violation of it results in excommunication, forcing the violator to convert to Islam or Christianity or become a yogi or mendicant or to be enslaved by the king. Even such a minor matter as a ‘high’ caste Hindu woman being hit by a stone thrown by a ‘low’ caste man causes her to lose caste. ‘How many such detestable customs!”, Shaikh Zainuddin remarks after recounting some of them. ‘Due to their ignorance and stupidity, they strictly follow these customs, believing that it is their moral responsibility to uphold them’, he adds. ‘It was while they were living in these social conditions that the religion of Islam reached them by the grace of Allah’, he goes on, ‘[a]nd this was the main reason for their being easily attracted to Islam’.

Of all the Hindu rulers of Malabar, the most powerful, and also the most friendly towards the Muslims, were the Zamorins of Calicut, who claimed descent from the king who is said to have converted to Islam and died in Arabia. 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 is at pains to note the contrast between the response of the Hindu 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’.

The Portuguese conquests, resulting in their wresting the monopoly over the Malabar spice trade from the Muslims, caused a rapid decline in Muslim fortunes, reducing the community to abject poverty. Shaikh Zainduddin describes the reign of terror unleashed on the Malabari Muslims, by the Portuguese, who were fired with a hatred of Islam and Muslims—indiscriminate killings of Muslims, rapes of Muslim women, forcible conversions of Muslims to Christianity, enslaving of hundreds of Muslims, destroying mosques and building churches in their place and setting alight Muslim shops and homes.

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.

This treatise is an indispensable source of Malabari history and would be invaluable to those interested in the history of Islam in South Asia. Much that Shaikh Zainuddin says with regard to the legitimacy of struggle against foreign occupation and oppression finds powerful echoes today.