Arabic-Malayalam Texts at the British Library: Themes, Genres, and Production

In: International Journal of Islam in Asia
Mahmood Kooria PhD, Leiden University Leiden The Netherlands

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By the late nineteenth century, when printing press was popular across the world. In South Asia, there was increased production and dissemination of Tamil and Malayalam vernacular materials in Arabic script. This intermarriage of local languages with a cosmopolitan script was part of a larger trend of the time, and in South India those were advanced by Arabic-Malayalam and Arabic-Tamil literatures (also referred as Malabari and Arwī respectively). Hundreds of texts printed annually at the prime centres of Islamic printing on both Malabar and Coromandel coasts were circulated among mobile and immobile communities of the region across the Indian Ocean, Pacific and Atlantic littorals. The reach and impact of such vernacular printings are yet to be explored thoroughly, for these materials have been spread across several formal and informal collections and there has not been any systematic attempt to identify or catalogue them. In this article, I focus on uncatalogued Arabic-Malayalam materials at the British Library London on which I have been working on in the last few years. These materials from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries help us understand the history of the region, religion and printing. After a brief historical overview, I focus on some major features, themes, trends, places, and people in about 150 texts I consulted, and which I discuss in relation to broader histories of Arabic-Malayalam tradition.


The writing practices in the non-Arabic-speaking Islamic world have undergone comparable and connected trajectories in Asia, Africa, and Europe. In the last few decades, scholars have explored such shared developments in the use of Arabic script. They are often identified as ʿajamī (or such variants as ʿajamiyya and aljamiado), a term that literally means “foreign” but initially used by the Arab authors to indicate Persians and their language. The Arabic script practices in Africa have been at the centre of the recent research initiated along these lines.1 In Europe, the Spanish works written in Arabic characters after the Reconquista have taken a principal role in the existing scholarship.2 In the context of Asia, Southeast Asian tradition has attracted extensive attention, especially by the Dutch colonial and postcolonial scholarship. The Malay and Javanese texts and inscriptions written in Arabic script (usually called Jāwī and Pegon, respectively) provided rich resources on the Islamic and extra-religious past of the archipelago with their continuous usage from the early fourteenth century till the twentieth century. In South Asia too, similar writing practices have existed across several Indic languages varying from Gujarati to Bengali, Tamil, and Malayalam. Among these, the Tamil case (often called Arwī) has comparatively been well explored since the mid-twentieth century for its various historical, linguistic, literary, religious, and cultural specificities.3

The Arabic-Malayalam tradition,4 however, has not attracted much scholarly attention beyond some early studies on a few of its genres back in the late nineteenth century.5 Despite the fact that this literary tradition produced thousands of works in the last four centuries, we have only a handful of academic articles and an encyclopaedia entry available in English.6 In Malayalam, though not strictly academic, local scholars have produced descriptive and exploratory works in the last several decades.7 Nevertheless, there has been a recent upsurge of interest in these materials and a book and a few articles have come out in English in the last five years.8 Several doctoral researchers in India and abroad now study their historical, cultural, linguistic, religious, and literary dimensions.9 Local institutions such as the Mappila Heritage Library (MHL) in the University of Calicut, and Maha Kavi Moyinkutty Vaidyar Smaraka Library and Research Centre in Kondotty have taken remarkable initiatives to collect and digitalize the materials. The MHL has digitalized thousands of pages and has prepared an annotated bibliography in Malayalam.10

Until these recent local attempts to collect and catalogue Arabic-Malayalam materials came to the fore, the British Library (BL) hosted one of the richest collections in this literary tradition. It has preserved several hundred texts that have been forgotten or seized from circulation. With the support of Arani Ilankuberan (Curator for South Indian Collections) and Nur Sobers-Khan (Lead Curator for South Asia Collections), I began to catalogue the uncatalogued materials during my occasional visits to the BL between 2016 and 2019 (see Appendix I). I could not complete the cataloguing as the trips were interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. This essay is but a brief introduction to this collection rather than a comprehensive study or catalogue of the materials or a full-fledged overview of the Arabic-Malayalam literature. Here I only identify some major features, trends, places, and people I noticed in about 150 texts I consulted, and I elaborate on them in relation to the broader histories of the Arabic-Malayalam tradition. This essay does represent some of its main features, especially regarding genres, production, and postproduction. In the following, I start with a brief historical overview by way of putting into perspective the materials I have managed to consult and catalogue. I then pay attention to the major themes and genres, notable authors, publishers, and scribes, and some unique features in their production and postproduction.

1 The Tradition and the Collection

The birth and growth of Arabic-Malayalam was part of a larger textual and cultural nexus in the Indian Ocean world where traders, sailors, and scholars used the Arabic script to write local languages. Although it must have originated and been used as a trade language and scribal practice irrespective of religious affiliations, over time, it helped local Muslims to adapt, translate, and comment on Islamic teachings and texts and to articulate their own ideas with a notable influence of Arabic literary traditions and writing systems – what Ronit Ricci has identified as “the Arabic Cosmopolis” of South and Southeast Asia. In southern India, a significant number of poems, prose texts, commentaries, adaptations, translations, and recensions have been produced in Arabic-Malayalam and Arabic-Tamil. For Arabic-Malayalam as a literary tradition, Mappila Muslims were at the forefront of its expansion and survival across the centuries. For the mercantile and agrarian groups among them, it was a major medium of communication and even today it appeals to a considerable section of the community.

In Malabar, the practice of writing Malayalam in Arabic script was common in the sixteenth century, if not earlier. The earliest known text in this tradition was the Muḥy al-Dīn Māla by Qāḍī Muhammad al-Kālikūtī (d. 1617), a panegyric written in 1607 on the Sufi saint ʿAbd al-Qādir Jīlānī (d. 1166). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many more texts must have been produced, but only a few are known to have survived. From the seventeenth century only one more text is known: the Alif enna māṇikkam by Qāḍī Muḥy al-Dīn, son of Qāḍī Muhammad.11 Another text Veḷḷāṭṭi Masʾala has recently been ascribed to Qāḍī Muḥy al-Dīn, but nowhere in the work is his name mentioned.12 In the eighteenth century, we have three more texts written by the same author Kuññāyīn Musliyār (fl. 1785).

With the popularity of printing technology in the region by the mid-nineteenth century, the Muslims started to lithograph Arabic-Malayalam texts in large numbers. In fact, Arabic-Malayalam was printed for the first time in the 1670s and 1680s in Amsterdam in the celebrated Hortus Malabaricus, a comprehensive treatise on the flora of Malabar prepared by Hendrik van Rheede (1636–1691), a high-ranking officer in the Dutch East India Company. This twelve-volume work provided Latin names and details of 742 herbal plants from the region, along with names written in Malayalam, Konkani, and Arabic. The Arabic part is generally misunderstood as the names in Arabic language whereas those were Malayalam names written in Arabic script (see Figure 1). Beyond this idiosyncratic printing in the seventeenth century, any work from this literary tradition is not known to have printed until two centuries later.

In the late nineteenth century, the Arabic-Malayalam printing boomed and brought with it a revolution in production, distribution, and consumption of new materials. The literary sphere witnessed an exponential growth in the regional reading culture, and it catered for the growing demand through an intensive industry of authors, scribes, publishers, and distributors. After a century of high productivity, however, the tradition witnessed its decline. By the late twentieth century, a strong ‘reformist’ trend emerged within the community against the Arabic-script tradition. The reformists argued that Muslims should stop using it as it marginalizes them from the social mainstream that predominantly uses Malayalam-script based on the Grantha alphabets of Tamil-Brahmi origin.13 Their calls were coupled with state-level educational reforms, namely, the state-sponsored standardisation of spoken and written Malayalam. All these motivated many Muslims to abandon the script almost entirely and to ignore texts produced in the Arabic-Malayalam tradition. Hundreds and thousands of materials were thus destroyed intentionally or unintentionally. The Muslim religious organisation Samasta Kerala Jamʿiyyat al-ʿUlamā (est. 1925) and its educational wing (Vidyabhyāsa Board) still use the script for its textbooks in the primary and intermediate levels, although it is hardly used outside. Two organisations separated from this body (Kerala Samsthana Jamʿiyyat al-ʿUlamā [est. 1967] and All India Sunni Jamʿiyyat al-ʿUlamā [est. 1989]) also utilize the script in textbooks under their respective educational bodies. Notwithstanding these complex trajectories in the past, the growing academic interest in Arabic-Malayalam is a promising development in the present. The collection at the BL is therefore such a valuable treasure for researchers in the field.

Figure 1
Figure 1

An image from the Hortus Malabaricus by Hendrik van Rheede in which Arabic-Malayalam was printed for first time in the 1670s and 1680s. In this image of a coconut, the Malayalam name is written in Arabic characters in the third line on the upper right.

Citation: International Journal of Islam in Asia 3, 1-2 (2022) ; 10.1163/25899996-20230014

The BL materials were mostly printed between the 1870s and 1970s and therefore they must have been acquired in several phases over a century. Many uncatalogued materials under my focus are labelled as Arwī including the tentative boxes, while they in fact are Arabic-Malayalam. The curators assume that some of these were part of the British Museum and the India Office Library collections and got transferred along with many other holdings when the British Library was established in 1973. If so, it is intriguing why these specific materials have not been included in the early catalogues of Tamil and Malayalam of the British Museum despite their inclusion of many other Arwī and Arabic-Malayalam texts.14 Although this might indicate that the collection must have been acquired after the 1970s, some shelf marks and bibliographical details pasted onto the text indicate their earlier acquisition.

There are 362 uncatalogued texts in total, and I closely looked at about 150 texts. Out of these, thirty-three are in Arwī, one each in Malay, Sindhi, or Gujarati, and all the rest are in Arabic-Malayalam. The earliest Arabic-Malayalam works are printed in 1873, and the latest one is in 1981. They contain all sorts of materials, from pamphlets to long commentaries covering a wide range of subjects like hagiography, history, law, religion, customs, mysticism in several genres such as songs, prose, fiction, translations, and textbooks, reflecting the rich and diverse literary culture of the local Muslims, printed across a century from a variety of places. In the next sections, I shall deal with each of these topics in detail.

2 Seven Major Themes

We can classify the available Arabic-Malayalam texts on several different levels: on the basis of their topics and themes (religious, non-religious, political, hagiographical, etc.), genres (songs, prose, mix of both, etc.), functions (rituals, performance, pedagogy, etc.), production features, and paratexts. Each of these can be areas of future research, but here I highlight only a few of these to pinpoint the importance of the collection and to get an idea of its contents. I identify seven major themes based on the central subject areas: hagiography; historical events; exegesis; law and mysticism; polemics; social life; and healing practices. I shall discuss each of these in turn with reference to the texts from the collection.

Hagiographical texts constitute a major part of the collection. Starting with the praise of the Prophet Muhammad, his predecessors in Islam, his Companions, early and later Sufi saints and martyrs are the central protagonists. Many of these texts do provide insights into their biographies, but their focus is mainly on the veneration of their saintly qualities and miracles. We can identify four subcategories in the hagiographical texts: sīra, mawlid or manāqib, māla and qiṣṣa. The sīra is biography of the Prophet, and we have a few texts written in the early twentieth century.15 The mawlid and manāqib are written in praise of Sufi saints and martyrs but also about the Prophet. They combine prose and poetry, and most mawlids are in Arabic while manāqib can also be in Arabic-Malayalam.16 The terms are used interchangeably in the texts, they have been a very crucial part of Arabic-Malayalam literary production and they are represented as such in the collection.17 The mālas also have similar content, but they are purely in Arabic-Malayalam and they form the majority of the collection. The qiṣṣas (lit., “stories”) take up specific episodes from the life of a saint and narrativize those in poem or prose.18 The manāqib sometimes stand between mawlids and qiṣṣas and sometimes combine them.19 These four subcategories are therefore not strictly compartmentalized, and the hagiographical contents also extend beyond these categories.20

In hagiographical literature, two most important focal themes are the martyrs and local saints. The early battles of Islam such as Badr and Uhud are a persistent theme, along with a few local battles led by Muslims against the Portuguese intrusions in the sixteenth century or Hindu feudal lords in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The participants and martyrs of these battles are versified and praised.21 This recurrent narrativization of martyrdom, martyrs, and battles in nineteenth-century literature can be better understood against the backdrop of ongoing rebellions in Malabar against the British colonial administration and its local intermediaries. Among the local saints, the Ḥaḍramī émigré Sayyid ʿAlawi of Manpuram and Kuññi Aḥmad Taṇṇaḷ of Puthanpalli are two most important figures on whom we have several works. Some extra-local saints from within the Indian subcontinent (such as the saints of Nagore and Ajmer) and beyond were also part of the hagiographical literature.22 The eighth-and ninth-century Sufi saintly female figure Sayyida Nafisa (d. 830 CE), better known as Nafisat al-Misriyya, is a theme for at least two works.23

Some biographical works stand closer to an historical treatment of their subjects. A biography of Tipu Sultan (r. 1782–1799) with the subtitle yathārttha caritram or ‘the real history’ is an example.24 This usage of the word caritram for history should be noted as it is also used in reference to the sīra of the Prophet.25 Such works relate to the next theme: the historical events. Even though any text in the collection can be read for its historical value, such as the hagiographical works mentioned above, some texts addressed actual events and episodes with their own historical framework. In doing so, they employed such important terms as tārīkh and caritram to differentiate their works from the hagiographical texts. One important subtheme in such works is what can be identified as ‘the conquest literature’, or the literature on the expansion of Islam in the early centuries. In contrast, some texts dealt with events that happened in front of the authors’ eyes, such as two poems on natural calamities that happened in the region in 1909 and 1924.26 While the 1909 song talks about a cyclone at the port of Calicut, the 1924 song is about a flood in the Malayalam region and claims to narrate incidents not covered by other poems on the floods, along with a description of a flood in Punjab in the Kanni month of 1100 Malayalam era.27 The discovery of gold in Kolar in Karnataka and its usage is a theme of one text, while a tussle between two elephants and a car accident are some other historical episodes discussed in other works.28

Among the texts concerning Islamic scriptures, the collection contains a few exegetical texts of the Qurʾan.29 These are “commentarial translations” in which the authors comment on the Qurʾanic verses by translating them. Direct translation of the scripture has been a controversial topic in Islamic legal debates. The Hanafi jurists allowed it if the word-for-word translation (Ar. tarjama musāwiyya, equivalent translation) was accompanied by the Arabic original, but al-Shafiʿi and his followers argued that the scripture was untranslatable.30 The commentarial translation was thus a strategy for the Shafiʿi Muslims of Malabar to undercut the juridical restrictions of the school they followed. In the collection we have such commentarial translations on a few chapters of the Qurʾan, and we do not have any complete translations or exegeses even though it is said that the earliest complete translation in Arabic-Malayalam was done in the late nineteenth century.

Law and mysticism were major discussion points in the Islamic textual tradition, and Arabic-Malayalam was not different. Under the title of tarjama or otherwise, the authors dealt with several topics in Islamic law (especially according to the Shafiʿi school) and Sufism (Qadīriyya and Shādhiliyya orders). The legal texts included translations, commentaries, and adaptations or original works written on specific issues such as rituals (prayers, fasting), commerce and banking (as part of a local controversy on this topic), and marriage and crimes.31 We should draw a distinction between the mystical works from the aforesaid category of hagiography. In the category at hand, the discussions are more theological or doctrinal, dealing with ethical self and spiritual liberation.32 Relatedly, the collection also contains theological, doctrinal texts, such as on credal doctrine (ʿaqīda),33 and textbooks on theology, law, and mysticism. Some of these, according to the “notice” in the work, were used at an Islamic educational institution in Tirurangadi called Madrasat al-Islamiyya min Majlis Salah al-Muslimin.34 It demonstrates the appeal of the tradition as an effective pedagogical medium way before it was undergirded by the aforesaid Muslim organisations in their madrasa textbooks (established first in 1951 and now amounts to thousands of institutes).

Although all of the Arabic-Malayalam texts are very much ingrained in the social lives of the Muslims through rituals, performance and pedagogy, some texts did deal with mundane aspects of life, and they are useful for the reconstruction of a social history of the region. One text, for example, narrativizes the customs related to piercing ears, and it discusses the merits and demerits of this practice in the form of a conversational poem between two women from northern Malabar.35 The Ammayippattu is another instance, in which an anonymous author praises the aunt (the most important figure in a matrilineal household) for the way she treats her son-in-law.36 This text talks about the manners in which the aunt takes care of the family, the kinds of elaborate dishes she prepares when the son-in-law comes home, and the arrangements made inside and outside home. Many other texts take up the marriage ceremonies and the songs that were to be sung in marriages.37 Some works discussed such social customs by way of reforming the community and eradicating the traditional rituals which they saw as social evils practised in the name of religion.38 This was part of the ongoing revivalist attempts in the early twentieth century in which some scholars and leaders utilized the new technology to advance their reformist ideas. However, such “reformist literature” was marginal in Arabic-Malayalam printed texts, resonating what Francisca Orsini has argued for Hindi literature questioning the wide notion that the story of printing and religious publics in colonial India is a story of reformism and religious polemic.39

Although reformist literature is limited in the collection, there are a number of polemical works targeted at internal factions within the Muslim community. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Wahhabism had made headway within Malabar, and its adherents had expressed strong critiques of many local customs and traditions, some of which were promoted in the very Arabic-Malayalam literature, such as the hagiographical texts and their performative and ritual ceremonies. We have, therefore, a handful of texts against Wahhabism.40 Similarly, we also have polemics against other better-known sects such as the Qadianis,41 as well as some locally known groups.42 Again, these polemical works do not outnumber, or even come close to, the plethora of texts in other themes. Even so, they provide insights into the nuances and fault-lines of sectarian and communal debates among Malabari Muslims of the time.

Many other texts deal with healing practices prevalent in the region or adapted from the wider Islamic world. Some texts take up the treatments rooted in al-ṭibb al-nabawī, the Prophetic medicine, whereas others preferred folkloric or Ayurveda tradition. One text for example is exclusively on detoxification from venomous bites of snakes, scorpions, and dogs.43 As the traditional medicinal knowledge system has almost vanished from the region with the monopolization of Western medicine, this sort of text provides invaluable insight into the history of traditional medicine and healing practices in the region and beyond. Another work discusses the plague as wabā vasūri (published against the backdrop of the Spanish Flu of 1918),44 while yet other texts focus on talismans and related healing methods.45 It should be noted that many considerable Arabic-Malayalam poets were practitioners of Ayurveda medicine, as can be inferred from the title vaidyar they used as surnames. However, in their texts we rarely find direct discussion of medicinal materials, compared to the texts of the above category.

Besides these major themes, some texts took up such specific themes as political issues (both against the Khilafat Movement and in favour of it); issues of sex, sexuality, and marital relations;46 Arabic grammar (for instance, a text claiming that grammar would help students understand the language and meanings of the Qurʾan);47 mythical love poems;48 astrology;49 and dream interpretation.50 Some texts were multidisciplinary, and they aimed at educating Muslims on the foundations of Islam as well as history. For example, one widely circulated poetic text Safala māla deals with the battles of the Prophet Muhammad and descriptions of life in the hereafter, hell and heaven.51 Another text takes several scriptural, juridical, mystical, philosophical, and grammatical conundrums in the form of questions and answers as part of a debate that happened during the reign of the ʿAbbasid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786–809) in which a slave-girl answers all these questions from Muslim scholars.52 All these texts exemplify the variety of themes discussed in the Arabic-Malayalam tradition and their usefulness for reconstructing an intellectual and social history of the Malabar Muslims.

3 Six Genres

The major genres of the Arabic-Malayalam literature are also represented in the collection. Here I taxonomize six important ones: māla, pāṭṭu, tarjama, qiṣṣa, manāqib, and textbooks.

Māla is possibly the earliest genre in Arabic-Malayalam literature, as the first work available to us is a māla in praise of the Sufi saint ʿAbd al-Qādir Jīlānī. The māla literally means “necklace” but it symbolizes the tuneful confluence of meaningful words one after another as beads in a necklace. In several stanzas, the authors developed mālas of their own choice and length in praise of holy figures in Islamic history. In the first part, they praised the qualities and miracles of the saint, while in the second part they sought blessings from God through his/her mediation. Going beyond this general trend of hagiographical and divine nature, some mālas also dealt with themes varying from historical events (such as the māla that narrativizes a flood in early-twentieth century Malabar), legal and ethical questions, battles, and social and political issues.

The second most important genre is the pāṭṭu in which the authors versified mystical, mythical, historical, and religious themes. The term literally meant “song,” but it is part of a longer and diverse literary genre in the region in Arabic-Malayalam as well as Malayalam.53 Two texts available from the eighteenth century belong to this genre: the Kappappāṭṭu and Nūl Madḥ of Kuññāyīn Musliyār. The pāṭṭus mostly elaborated extra-religious themes and served a performative function, whereas the mālas mostly dealt with saintly figures and were recited in commemorative rituals and ceremonies. Two major Mappila performative artforms, oppana and kōlkkaḷi, used the pāṭṭus as songs for their rhythmic steps. In contrast, the mālas were sung in the mawlid ceremonies and related occasions.54 Even so, a stylistic differentiation between the pāṭṭus and mālas is difficult as we see similar features occurring in both genres over centuries. The differentiation, therefore, often depended on the authors’ identification of their work to either genre. To complicate this distinction further, some titles used māla and pāṭṭu simultaneously.55 This intermixture however seems to be a later phenomenon since the late nineteenth century. Four major subgenres of the pāṭṭus are “war song” (paṭappāṭṭu), “bird song: (pakshippāṭṭu), “letter song” (kattupāṭṭu), and “marriage song” (kalyāṇappāṭṭu). Some of these, especially the marriage songs, intersected with the performative function and were known as “oppana song” (oppanappāṭṭu). Beyond these, there also were pāṭṭus on local customs, flora, fauna, people, and objects (on topics as disparate as betel chewing or trains), and some of these are available in the collection.56

While māla and pāṭṭu are poetry, the third genre tarjama is purely prose. The tarjama, an Arabic term in itself meant for translation and biography but used in the Indian Ocean littoral to refer to different textual projects, including literal and commentarial translations. The Arabic verbal noun tarjama thus acquires a substantive meaning in Arabic-Malayalam for texts of various themes, sources, or commentaries whether religious or non-religious, biographical, legal, ethical, or even medical. The tarjamas were self-contained texts and were highly influenced by Arabic vocabulary which one uninitiated might not be able to comprehend. Many of the aforesaid texts of legal, ethical, historical, exegetical, and medicinal texts identify themselves as tarjama.57 Some of these texts intermixed actual translation with commentaries, while some stuck to the literal translations.58

The qiṣṣa is another idiosyncratic genre written both in poetry and prose. In prose, it is comparable to tarjama which took on more serious topics (such as scriptures, law, mysticism) while the qiṣṣa took light-weight topics such as stories of prophets, other historical and ahistorical people, and communities.59 For example, one qiṣṣa in the collection narrates stories and miracles related to the birth, life, battles, and death of Hamza bin ʿAbd al-Muttalib, uncle of the Prophet Muhammad,60 whereas another qiṣṣa tells a fiction (“katha” in Malayalam) on the love and marriage of its hero Qamar Zaman and the heroine Malikat al-Budur.61 Similarly, two early works narrate the mystical encounters between the historical figures and nonhuman figures such as jinn.62 This genre does not seem to care much about the historical and religious authenticity, while the tarjamas always were rooted in larger framework of religious truth and belief. In poetry, the qiṣṣa was a hybridized form in combination with the pāṭṭu genre. They were called qiṣṣappāṭṭu (and popularly “kessupāṭṭu”).63 However, in the early printed works the terms qiṣṣa and pāṭṭu were used uncompounded or employed only the term qiṣṣa.64

Manāqib is another important genre in which panegyrics of holy persons of local and wider Islamic tradition were sung and narrated. They mostly followed the patterns of the mawlid or mawlūd (panegyrics in honour of the Prophet or saints) in mixing prose and poetry in the same texts. They also mixed Arabic and Arabic-Malayalam in the songs and narratives, while the mawlids were entirely in Arabic. The most well-known mawlid from the region is Manqūṣ Mawlid ascribed to the jurist-cum-historian Zayn al-Dīn Jr. (fl. 1583), and it is arguably an abridgement of Subḥāna Mawlid ascribed to Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). These mawlids appear in the collection along with manāaqib on the eponymous founders of the four major Sufi orders: ʿAbd al-Qādir Jīlānī of the Qadīriyya order, Aḥmad al-Rifāʿī (d. 1182) of the Rifāʿī order, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Shādhilī (d. 1258) of the Shādhiliyya order, and Muʿin al-Dīn Chishtī (d. 1236) of the Chishtiyya order. These mawlids and manāqibs are still recited in parts of Malabar, where all the four mawlids are recited every day for a month, and men and women continue to memorize them.

With the popularisation of primary and secondary educational institutions across the region in the early twentieth century, textbooks became a most sought-after material. The Islamic learning centres such as ōttupaḷḷi, madrasa, and paḷḷidars stood outside the purview of colonial schools and therefore the Muslim teachers, authors, and printing presses had to address the demand by introducing a new genre to the Arabic-Malayalam literary tradition. In this genre, subjects varying from language and grammar to theology and law were discussed exclusively or in an interdisciplinary manner. The title is often distinguished by the use of the term “kitāb,” and they were printed multiple times to cater for the annual demands.65 The genre continues to remain relevant in the preliminary madrasas of the Samasta Kerala mentioned above.

In the textbooks, we can also see how different genres intersected thematically and generically. As we see in mālappāṭṭu and qiṣṣappāṭṭu where pāṭṭu was hybridized with other genres, the authors and publishers came up with new genres when the situations demanded the formation of new types of literature. This hybridization and formation of new genres represent the wider transformations in the Arabic-Malayalam literary tradition between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries adapting to the changing contexts. When literary, aesthetic, musical and linguistic tastes of the audience, authors, and performers shifted between different layers due to the internal and external catalysts (varying from the changes in mystical orientations to sectarian debates, colonial administration, agrarian revolts, migration and exile and kinship relations), the Arabic-Malayalam works reflected those transitions through new and hybridized genres.

4 Authors Known and Unknown

Beyond a few celebrated authors, biographies of most Arabic-Malayalam authors continue to be undocumented. The texts themselves provide little information on their authors, although many of the twentieth-century texts provide the exact address (district, taluk, village, and house name), occupations (vaidyar: Ayurveda practitioner; qāḍī: Islamic judge; musliyār and mawlawī: Islamic scholar; mudarris: teacher), religious achievements (haji: one who performed hajj pilgrimage), and occasional institutional affiliations. Here I do not attempt to map out such details on each author in the collection, but rather I point out the patterns that would help future scholars explore the biographies and socio-cultural contexts of the authors. I present only a few general observations on the basis of a closer look at the authors of the Arabic-Malayalam materials under examination.

Most authors of the texts in the collection are not widely known in the history of Arabic-Malayalam. There are certainly the works of well-known figures such as Qāḍī Muhammad, author of the first known text Muḥy al-Dīn Māla; Kuññāyīn Musliyār, author of three works in the eighteenth century; and, Mōyinkuṭṭi Vaidyar (d. 1892), the most prolific and most celebrated poet in the tradition. In the collection, there are multiple copies of their well-known texts, and some of these are printed by different publishers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, indicating their regular demand. Some of the works of Vaidyar were printed during his lifetime, unlike the posthumous printing of authors from the age of manuscripts or during the transition from manuscript culture to the one of print. This indicates that he must have grasped the nuances of print culture early on, the way many of his successors would do, and he benefited from copyright ownership and mass production of his works.66

Beyond them, there are other figures who are completely forgotten, yet need be thoroughly studied. One of them is Qāḍī Muḥy al-Dīn, the author of the second earliest known work in Arabic-Malayalam. The existing historiography of the tradition, including in Malayalam, provides only a fleeting reference to him. His Alif enna māṇikkam is available in the collection, and it is a remarkable work that combines a mystical, philosophical, philological, and theological approach to analysing monotheism. Similarly, another interesting figure is one K. V. Māmuṭṭi who appears in several texts as author, editor, copyist, and/or publisher. Multiple texts provide hints about his life and career, but overall, he seems to be a scholarly author who mastered the technique of printing and benefited from and contributed to the increasing demands from Arabic-Malayalam readers.

Another important author is P. K. Ḥalīma (1909–1959), a female author from Cochin. In a literary world dominated by male authors and publishers, her works stand out as one of the few successful women writers (other noted authors are P. ʿĀʾisha Kuṭṭi who wrote a māla on the death of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima; Kuṇṭil Kuññāmina who wrote the Badr Qiṣṣa; C. H. Kuññāʾisha and Āminakkuṭṭi). Their works question the dominant narrative during the colonial period and afterwards of Muslim women being illiterate.67 Ḥalīma’s Candira sundari māla is a widely popular text and at least two copies of it are available in the collection.68 It is a hagiographical poem on the marriage of ʿAʾisha with the Prophet Muhammad and on an argument between ʿAʾisha and Fatima about the latter’s mother, the Prophet’s first wife Khadija.

One noticeable issue is the geographical distribution of the authors. Most of them were concentrated in the colonial district of Malabar where the majority of Muslims in Kerala resided. Even so, many authors also came from the princely states of Travancore and Cochin where a considerable Muslim population had lived historically. They also used Arabic-Malayalam widely and contributed to its development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Two most eminent authors from Travancore are Nūḥ Kaṇṇu Musliyār and Vakkom ʿAbd al-Qādir Mawlawī (1873–1932). The former wrote on foundational Islamic teachings, law, mysticism and theology, while the latter translated Persian and Urdu works, published a newspaper in Arabic-Malayalam in 1918 at his hometown in Vakkom and refined the alphabet to represent all the Malayalam letters. Neither scholar is represented in the collection, but it does contain texts written by other authors from these regions as well.69

5 Clusters of Publishers

Publication of Arabic-Malayalam texts blossomed in the late nineteenth century, even though the script itself had made its presence known in the print world two centuries earlier in Amsterdam as mentioned above. The publishing enterprises initiated by individuals, who often named their printing presses after themselves or after an adjectival noun added to the word “Islam,” sprung up across the region over the decades. The Arabic-Malayalam publishers were not a single entity nor did they operate autonomously the way they might do today. Their management varied with some being managed by owners and workers at the printing presses themselves and some presses being managed by benefactors, that is, businessmen who published others’ works or owned copyrights. This complexity was important in the Arabic-Malayalam printing as most texts in the collection feature details about the printing press, its owner, copyright holder, and the date and place of printing.

In India, the earliest printing of Arabic-Malayalam was probably carried out in Bombay in the early nineteenth century. The city was an important centre for the production of Islamic texts at that time, and it catered not only for an Indian audience, but also for publishers from East Africa and Southeast Asia who also printed materials there. Some of the earliest Malay and Swahili texts were printed in Bombay before Singapore and Zanzibar rose as important publishing centres. On the publication of Arabic-Malayalam works, we have only fleeting references to a certain Aḥmad Koya from Calicut who travelled to Bombay in the early nineteenth century to lithograph the book he had written on Prophetic medicine.70 This work, along with other potential early Arabic-Malayalam publications from Bombay, may not have survived but we do have a similar title on Prophetic medicine published in Bombay 1887–1888 at a certain Shaʿban Muḥy al-Dīn Marghīni Press.71

Arabic-Malayalam printing boomed in Kerala in the 1860s and 1870s, when a group of Muslims from Thalassery in north Malabar started to print Islamic literature. They acquired the technology from the Christian missionaries, who established a printing press in Travancore in 1821 and published the first Malayalam book in 1824, and another in Thalassery itself in 1847. Once they possessed the technology, the Mappila Muslims not only printed Arabic-Malayalam literature, but also several other documents such as newspapers, notices, and pamphlets. Their initiatives were part of a few early attempts to establish printing presses in the region independent of the Christian missionary dominance of the technology. Local scholars say that the earliest printing press for Arabic-Malayalam was established in 1869 by one Adam Hajji at Kannur, but we have evidence for publication of Arabic-Malayalam as early as 1862, as at least three texts published in 1862–1863 are known to specialists.72 These publications stand in line with the nascent attempts of a few entrepreneurs in Calicut, Mundakkayam, and Thalassery to establish presses beyond the Christian missionary control and print books beyond their focus areas.73

The earliest six materials in the BL collection are all printed in 1873 at Thalassery in northern Malabar. One of these coincidentally includes the first known Arabic-Malayalam work.74 Two most important publishers from Thalassery in the 1870s and 1880s are Nīrāṭṭu Pīṭikayil Kuññi Aḥmad Tīkūkkal Tanṭārattu and Mēlēkaṇṭi Kōyā ʿAlī Hājī. The former was an employee at the Basel Mission’s press in Thalassery, and he started his own press to print Islamic texts. Some books mention that those were printed in their press but do not give a specific name to the press, as it would become common later. Besides them many other people opened their own publishing houses in the 1880s and 1890s,75 and the publishing industry in Thalassery was vibrant until the mid-twentieth century.

Printing made its in-roots in southern Malabar when a press was established in Tirurangadi in 1883. The place soon became an important centre of Arabic-Malayalam publishing. This press, ʿĀmir al-Islām Litho Power Press of Cālilakattu Aḥmad, gave rise to many other printing houses in Tirurangadi and adjacent areas such as Venniyur and Parappanangadi. Many publishers rose and fell along the way, but the ʿĀmir al-Islām Press (renamed later as C. H. Muhammad & Sons) survived in the region for more than a century, and its founder’s descendants became successful owners of individual publishing houses producing hundreds of works in Arabic-Malayalam along with countless copies of the Qurʾan and inexpensive Malayalam texts. A significant number of works in the collection, if not the majority, were printed in Tirurangadi.

Besides Thalassery and Tirurangadi, another important place from which the books in the collection are printed is Ponnani, the third and most important hub of Arabic-Malayalam printing. Ponnani was a long-standing centre of Islamic learning. The first press there (Muḥkī al-Gharāʾib owned by one Aṇiyārattu Ammu) was established at the end of the century by a printer who came there from Thalassery. In the height of printing culture, the place is said to have hosted more than a hundred presses. Although Arabic-Malayalam publishing vanished from Ponnani and Thalassery, it continues to flourish in Tirurangadi. In Cochin and Travancore too, there were important publishing houses, although most texts in the collection are printed in Malabar.

Following the chronology and geography of the materials in the collection, we can clearly identify a slower movement of printing from northern Malabar in the late nineteenth century to the southern Malabar in the twentieth century. Within southern Malabar the printing progressed between Ponnani and Tirurangadi but also in the adjacent areas. Within these shifts in printing culture and demands for books, the printers, printing presses, and publishers moved across the region looking for better prospects and markets. We see some publishers from Thalassery who opened presses in Ponnani and Tirurangadi. They must have moved to these places because these regions offered better prospects for the print culture. Similarly, we also witness the mobility of the press itself between these places. The presses and publishers could only continue to flourish in their activities by moving to the new locations. One telling example is the relocation of Kārakkāṭṭu [Kārakkal] Saʿīd ʿAlī’s press (named Muẓhir al-Muhimmāt) from Thalassery to Tirurangadi, and thanks to relocation it operated in the region for a long time until it was arguably shut down by the British colonial administration for printing a war song (paṭappāṭṭu) on a local rebellion.76

6 Physical Features: Title Pages

The Arabic-Malayalam texts have noteworthy peculiarities in their production. All these texts belong to a category of what Jan Just Witkam identifies as “printed manuscripts” for they are not typeset, rather they are written by a copyist and then lithographically reproduced. Therefore, their scribal practices, calligraphic varieties, script selections, and consistencies and inconsistencies are interfaced with the manuscript culture prevalent in the region. Their overall production technique and consequent social lives among the Muslims of Malabar and beyond in their everyday socio-religious and cultural realms are something worth pursuing in the framework of social codicology, which attempts to analyse the manuscripts in terms of their physicality and sociality, not only their contents. Here I make a few observations regarding the paratextual characteristics of the Arabic-Malayalam lithograph tradition.77

The title pages are the most interesting sites for paratextual analysis of the book. In the age of manuscripts, we witness a variety of creative and cosmic complexes in the front pages of the same text’s diverse manuscript copies. The title pages should be differentiated from the cover pages: in the case of manuscripts, the title page performed almost the same function as the cover pages in the age of print. In the context of print culture, the title page has now become standardized as a site for basic bibliographic details, whereas the lithographed texts, as the printed manuscripts, demonstrate a diversity of creativity in their combination of both manuscript and print cultures. It would require a full-length study to understand the nuances of these visual transitions and combinations of decorative tropes in the Arabic-Malayalam works. Nevertheless, two striking elements are the titles themselves and the artworks.

In the titles, Arabic-Malayalam texts demonstrated their linguistic and literary hybridity by providing multiple titles for the same book. The early texts in the collection printed in the 1870s used only a single line as title while later works bore separate titles in Arabic and Malayalam, usually providing the Arabic title first and separating it from the following title with a Malayalam term ennum (and also), enna (that is), or athavā (alias) (for an example, see Figure 2). Some works also provided long and short titles, others gave three or more titles, while yet others used paragraph-long descriptions referring to the genre, contents, and merits of reading and preserving the book. In most descriptive titles, one or two main titles in Arabic or Malayalam were highlighted in bold letters.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Title page of a qiṣṣappāṭṭu text with three titles: (a) Karāmāt al-Aẓam; (b) Ḥarb al-Ramla; and (c) Muḥy al-Dīn Qiṣṣappāṭṭu

Citation: International Journal of Islam in Asia 3, 1-2 (2022) ; 10.1163/25899996-20230014

Source: British Library, London. Photograph: Author
Figures 3 and 4
Figures 3 and 4

Title pages of two Arabic-Malayalam texts with calligraphic and floral illustrations

Citation: International Journal of Islam in Asia 3, 1-2 (2022) ; 10.1163/25899996-20230014

Source: British Library, London. Photograph: Author

The title pages also represented a form of artwork, which contained two main elements: calligraphy and drawing. The early printed works in the collection contained very little artistic expression in the title page as well as in the main body. However, in the following decades, various creative designs emerged to render the text more attractive while maintaining a general restraint from the depiction of living beings. The calligraphic images were drawn from the book’s titles or specific words related or unrelated to the contents (see Figures 2, 3 and 4). The drawings varied from floral imagery to geometric designs, arabesques, polygons, rectangles, triangles, and multilinear margins, and headpieces and tailpieces containing names of the author, book, and publisher.

7 Script and Scribes

In the Arabic-Malayalam texts in the collection, one can immediately notice that the scribes played a role equal to the contributions of publishers and authors. The copyists enabled the production of “printed manuscripts,” mediating between the manuscript and print cultures. In most Malabari manuscripts produced in the nineteenth century and before, now kept in private collections, mosque libraries, and a few European libraries, we rarely come across names and details of the scribes or date and place of copying. This situation of “invisible scribe” changes once we come to the Arabic-Malayalam printed text, where we find a standardized colophon with names, dates, and/or place of copying. This certainly was not an immediate transformation with the appearance of print: we barely see colophons in the early printed works from the early–1870s to late–1880s, but they become consistently present in the twentieth century.

Each copyist had his or her own peculiar styles and methods, but there was a pan-Malabari scribal style evolved for the Arabic-Malayalam texts. This style, popularly known as ponnāni lipi or “Ponnani script” (khaṭṭ al-funnānī, in Arabic), stood with its thick, square-like letters along with specific methods of adding vocalisation, diacritics, and writing certain letters. We do find the earlier forms of this script in less-thick yet more square-like letters in many Malabari manuscripts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some scholars say that it “is believed to have developed not later than the second century AH (eighth century CE), and hence next only to Kufic and Naskh scripts in antiquity.”78 But there is no reliable evidence to support this claim. However, it became a phenomenon through the popularisation of printing presses, and it was widely recognized in the region as a standard form of writing Arabic characters, not only for the Arabic-Malayalam texts but also the Arabic texts themselves, including the Qurʾan. It stood against the Middle Eastern standardized scripts such as the Naskh and the Uthmanic orthography (rasm al-ʿuthmānī). The Qurʾans written and printed in Ponnani script were pervasive in almost every Mappila Muslim household until its validity and merit as a script began to be questioned in the late twentieth century. Almost all the texts in the collection follow this characteristic style, whether scripture or a mythical poem reminding the reader of the heyday of Arabic-Malayalam scribal culture.

A cluster of scribes has been crucial to the popularisation of the Ponnani script and Arabic-Malayalam texts at large. As mentioned above, many works also contain fragmentary information on the copyists’ address, occupation, religious achievement, and institutional affiliation, all of which will help future researchers trace their socio-historical contexts. Among them, a scribal family and two scribes stand out in the collection at hand. The scribal family of one Kuññi Marakkār al-Fannurī79 and his three sons Mahmud, Muhammad, and Muḥy al-Dīn (who also signs off as “Moidu”), appear as copyists for many texts printed in the early twentieth century. The works they copied have been printed by various publishers in Tirurangadi and Ponnani, indicating that they must have worked as freelancers without being employed at a specific press. This stands in contrast to the case of another prolific copyist in the collection, Pōkkar bin Kuññippōkkar80 whose works are exclusively printed by one specific press, namely, C. H. Muhammad & Sons, also called Āmir al-Islam Litho Press. Similarly, another important prolific copyist, Muḥy al-Dīn bin ʿAbd al-Qādir, copied all the early works available in the collection and worked exclusively for the same publisher.81 In contrast to them, some scribes also were authors of the texts, while others were also editors (samśōdhakar) and publishers.82

8 Temptations of Transgression

Once the texts were authored, copied, edited, and printed, they entered not only a world of distributors, buyers, readers, and librarians but also a realm of competitors, thieves, pirates, and plagiarizers. These threatening and rewarding dimensions in the postproduction were an imperative concern for most Arabic-Malayalam authors and publishers in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Accordingly, they took various legal, religious, and paratextual measures to prevent their products being mishandled.

As early as 1867, the British colonial administration had started to register books printed in the country and to announce them in the quarterly lists of publications, following the newly introduced (Indian) Press and Registration of Books Act. Before and after this, the copyright acts of 1847 and 1914 were also in force. Together these regulations mandated that every book published in the country to be sent to the provincial secretariat for registration and infringement of such copyrighted works was criminalized. Although these regulations were in place in Madras province too, not all the publishers followed them. Many Arabic-Malayalam publishers did endeavour to register their works and we do see some of those appearing in the Madras Quarterly Lists of Publications from the 1870s onward, but it seems that they were only the tip of the iceberg of the actual number of books printed in the region. Those who did register the books declared it on the back page, as we see in several works in the collection.

More than the registration, the copyright infringement and pirated editions were a major challenge for the publishers and they invoked not only colonial regulations but also Islamic legal idioms and paratextual techniques to prevent the malpractices. The texts explain these intricacies in a unique addition: a full-page nōṭṭīs (“notice”) attached mostly to the end of the works. Under the forcefully boldened title nōṭṭīs, the publishers declared the official registration, transfer, and ownership of copyrights, warnings against any attempts to pirate, duplicate and plagiarize the text (for example, see Figure 5). They explain that all the original copyrights of this book have been given by the author to such and such publisher at such and such taluk office, the publisher has published the text in such and such press. Some publishers go one more step ahead and say that any copies without “my seal mark” should not be sold or bought by anyone. They also required the readers to verify the originality of the edition on the basis of the seals or signatures. Some of these notices made warnings in terms of divine and societal consequences such as potential punishments from God for stealing property, and curse from pious and virtuous people in this life and the next. Did these double-edged warnings rooted in the divine, colonial, and societal legal orders protect the texts from infringements and secure their copyright claims? We do not know. But the very insertion of these notices repeated in strong languages demonstrates that the transgressions were common, especially if and when a text became popular.

Figure 5
Figure 5

A nōṭṭīs (“notice”) in the last page of a hagiographical song titled Shaykh Māmukōya Māla and Shaykh Muḥammad Māla</