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The First Indian Muslim

At the turn of the seventh century, a powerful South Indian king beheld an extraordinary astronomical event. Gazing at the stars sparkling above the Arabian Sea one night, he saw the moon divide into two halves, before it once again merged back into its customary shape. The awestruck king was Cheraman Perumal, the Hindu sovereign of the Chera dynasty, one of the three ancient Tamil royal houses that ruled over southern India. His realm was the westernmost portion of the Tamilakam, a region known to foreigners as Malabar or simply “the land of pepper”; its limits correspond more or less to those of the present-day Indian state of Kerala (which takes it names from the Chera dynasty). Upon witnessing this unwonted celestial occurrence, Cheraman Perumal summoned his Hindu astronomers, who although competent enough to accurately forecast eclipses, could not account for this unprecedented phenomenon. Later that night, however, it was revealed to the king in a dream that what he had seen in the night sky had been a miracle, performed by a man called Muhammad from a land across the sea.

Some years later, a group of Jewish and Christian traders disembarked on the Malabar Coast. They had come for the same reason that drew most travellers to this part of India: to purchase black pepper, the most important ingredient in the Indian Ocean spice trade, on which Malabar enjoyed a near-monopoly. Granted a royal audience, these traders told the king about an agitator back in Arabia, a man called Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd-Allāh who claimed to be a prophet and was said to have employed magic to split the moon. A few years later still, a group of Muslim pilgrims arrived at the Chera court on their way to Sri Lanka, where they intended to visit the venerated site of Adam’s Peak. The king quizzed these Muslims about their pilgrimage, but above all about their faith and its prophet. They related to him the miracle of the splitting of the moon, as recorded in sūrah al-Qamar (“The Moon”) of the Quran. The king requested that the pilgrims return to his court on their homeward journey. When they did so, he divided his realm among his ministers before joining the Muslims on their voyage back to Arabia. There, Cheraman Perumal was converted to Islam at the hands of the Prophet himself, becoming the first Indian Muslim. After a few years in Arabia, the convert king decided to return to his native land, but died on the Omani coast before he could set sail for India. Just before his death, however, he instructed a group of Arab Muslims in whose company he was travelling to proceed to Malabar regardless, and to propagate his new faith there. It was this group of Arabs who first introduced Islam to the Indian subcontinent.


Monsoon Islam

This apocryphal account of the South Indian ruler Cheraman Perumal epitomizes a particular trajectory of Islamic history as it intersects with the history of the Indian Ocean. The story-world of the legend – made up of rulers, traders, holy men, and pilgrims who are part of the trans-oceanic exchange of people, ideas, and patronage – is not invented of whole cloth but consistent with the way in which historians have come to understand the trading world of maritime Asia. In recent years, a growing number of studies has shifted our focus onto the languages, cultural content, political projects, and personal ambitions that traversed the ocean alongside trade. During the medieval period, the most momentous of these non-material transfers was the spread of Islam along the shores of monsoon Asia.1 As Muslim merchants established communities in all the flourishing port cities of the Indian Ocean, Islamic beliefs and practices were carried across vast distances and came into contact with diverse societies on a scale comparable only to the initial expansion of the caliphate during the seventh century. This movement along the maritime trade routes, however, was not predicated on military conquest, political hegemony, or imperial design: the expansion of Muslim communities across monsoon Asia between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries took place haphazardly, incidental to the development of Muslim trade networks. The principal agents in this extension of the medieval Muslim world were not sultans, soldiers, or scholars but ordinary, humdrum traders whose main objective was not to spread their faith but to turn a profit.

It is the central contention of this book that this process was fundamentally shaped by the interaction of these ordinary Muslims – ordinary in the sense in that they were neither representatives of state power nor recognized religious authorities – with non-Muslim societies.2 This dynamic informed the development of Islamic norms and practices even in those regions of the Indian Ocean that eventually came under Muslim rule and that over time developed into majority Muslim societies, such as the Swahili Coast, the Maldives, or Aceh. Islam was never a stable, monolithic entity, and in places across monsoon Asia, far from Arabia, local receptions, understandings, and practices were crucial to its historical development. The communities that grew out of the settlement of Muslim traders in port cities across maritime Asia have proved long-lasting: every major historic port-of-trade in the Indian Ocean has a Muslim community that in some way traces its history back to these premodern exchanges. The effects of the interaction between local societies and Islam, however, have differed widely. Some regions, such as East Africa or peninsular Southeast Asia, have been profoundly shaped by their interaction with Islamic beliefs, law, and institutions, while others such as southern India or southern China to a much lesser degree.

This book is a study of both these dynamics: the spread of Islam through the agency of Muslim merchants on the one hand, and the effects on Islam of their interaction with non-Muslim societies across the medieval Indian Ocean world on the other. In other words, it seeks to both look outwards, towards the movements of Muslim communities in space and time, as well as inwards, to ask how these communities understood and responded to changes in their social and political environments. The core argument is that during this period, a particular form of Islamic thought and practice emerged from these twin processes. This Monsoon Islam of the Indian Ocean was shaped by merchants not sultans, forged by commercial imperatives rather than in battle, and defined by the reality of Muslims living within non-Muslim societies.

Muslims in the trading ports of monsoon Asia observed the principal acts of their faith, the so-called pillars of Islam (arkān al-dīn), in the same manner as Muslims everywhere: they professed their belief in the one god with Muhammad as his messenger, performed the obligatory prayers, gave alms, fasted during the holy month, and strove to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. In other ways, however, they diverged. For example, they produced new interpretations of Islamic law designed to meet the specific needs of their heterogeneous communities; many prayed in buildings that looked like Hindu temples, and some worshipped saints outside of the Islamic tradition; some practised matrilineality contrary to the otherwise staunchly agnatic Islamic tradition; they professed new understandings of religiously sanctioned warfare (jihād), and to that end even re-defined what constitutes the “Muslim world” (dār al-Islām).

This apparent tension between orthopraxy and innovation reflects the broader challenge of reconciling Islam as an analytical category with Islam as a historical phenomenon. As Shahab Ahmed points out, any meaningful conceptualization “must come to terms with – indeed, be coherent with – the capaciousness, complexity, and, often, outright contradiction that obtains within the historical phenomenon that has proceeded from the human engagement with the idea and reality” of the Islamic faith.3 It is this human, historical engagement – in the form of religious thought, social practice, commercial connection, and political allegiance – that this book connotes as Monsoon Islam. To be sure, Monsoon Islam is by no means a discrete school of Islamic philosophy: it is an etic category that does not represent a deliberate or coherent set of doctrines. Instead, it describes how Islam was realized by Muslims in the context of the trading world of the premodern Indian Ocean; not as abstract principles but in specific acts, attitudes, and ideas that responded to concrete historical situations and challenges. Importantly, these acts, attitudes, and ideas, however contradictory they may appear at times, were made sense of and articulated in terms of Islamic precept, history, and law – in other words, they were understood by these Muslims as Islam.4

Monsoon Islam developed outside of the traditional Islamic heartlands and independent of the caliphate and its successor states, on the coastlines and in the trade emporia of the Indian Ocean. The term is emphatically not meant to suggest that this trajectory of Islamic history was defined by the monsoon as a climatic phenomenon, that somehow the weather patterns in regions affected by the Asian monsoon account for the prevalence of certain religious beliefs and attitudes there. Nor is it intended as a rebuttal to the kind of nineteenth-century orientalism that identified Islam as the natural religion of the desert: “Le désert est monothéiste”, in the words of Ernest Renan, “[s]ublime dans son immense uniformité”.5 Instead, the term summons the “deep structure element” underlying Indian Ocean trade during the age of sail: the system of seasonally opposing trade winds known as the monsoons.6 In his survey of global maritime history, Felipe Fernández-Armesto posits ebulliently that compared to the diktat of fixed wind systems, other motors of history, be they culture, politics, or economics, pale in significance: “In most of our explanations of what happened in history, there is too much hot air and not enough wind”.7

On account of the persistent maritime corridors created by its wind system, Monsoon Asia formed “a natural space that favoured the long-distance movement of people, commodities, languages and ideas”.8 The monsoons determined when ships could travel eastwards or westwards, where merchants settled, and how far their commercial networks extended. In the words of Michael Pearson, the doyen of Indian Ocean studies: “The implications of the monsoons are endless”.9 In the evolution of Islam across maritime Asia, the monsoons enabled and structured the exchanges and interactions that shaped how Islam came to be understood, communicated, and applied by Muslims living on the different coasts it connected. It is in this sense, as a link that fostered interaction, exchange, and relationships across the vast distances of the ocean, that the term monsoon is used in this book.

The world of Monsoon Islam was first and foremost a commercial realm, and many of its chief characteristics were defined by the imperatives of doing business in settings that were unfamiliar (in the sense of kinship ties), foreign (in the sense of political boundaries), and alien (in the sense of cultural difference). Embedded within these complex trade relations across the ocean were many other forms of exchange: of texts, for instance, but most importantly of people with their beliefs, customs, connections, and rivalries. At its core, Monsoon Islam was the product of the tension between the distant and the local, between these Muslims’ role in far-flung trading networks and an Islamic cosmopolis on the one hand and, on the other, their need to negotiate the specific social, economic, and political conditions of particular trading locations. Muslim trading communities were interlinked not only by mutual commerce but also by the need for religious and political institutions that could address the particular needs of these far-flung diasporic settlements.

Many of these institutions continue to define the character and structures of Islam across monsoon Asia. One example of this is Islamic law, which is usually seen as the defining hallmark of the influence that Arabic high culture had on the religion. But Muslims in maritime Asia found themselves confronted by issues that were not addressed in the classical legal texts of Islam; so Muslim judges and legists in India and elsewhere began to issue their own legal opinions (Ar., fatāwā) to address the specific problems faced by Muslims living in non-Muslim societies, a context that was simply not envisaged by the standard treatises. That there was a real need for such legal commentaries that addressed the everyday matters of social life within a non-Islamic society – that is, in a diaspora setting – is evident from the fact that these texts were almost immediately taken up by other Muslim communities across the Indian Ocean which faced the same situation. For example, a commentary on Islamic law composed in South India was quickly adopted in Java; in fact, in a legacy of these trans-oceanic, inter-diasporic exchanges, this same legal text continues to be used by Muslim judges in Indonesia even today.10

This example highlights that the spread of Islam across the Indian Ocean was not a unilateral transfer of a stable, fully formed prototype into new settings. To translate is to create anew: Monsoon Islam is the product of the creative, cumulative effort to translate Islam (as a set of religious beliefs, legal norms, and social practices) into new settings. This effort was rooted in the precepts of a universalist faith and its cosmopolitan idiom, but needed to be adapted and justified in ways that were intelligible and acceptable locally. The legend of Cheraman Perumal, the convert king, is another example of this creative effort to bridge the divide between the global and the local, to designate a place for Islam within the social and political landscape of medieval South India.

Monsoon Islam, then, offers a framework for conceptualizing a particular trajectory of Islamic history, one which evolved in the context of trade, accommodation, and the blending of practices and traditions. Arguably, it is this trajectory that has defined the lived reality of the majority of Muslims worldwide, even though it rarely figures in popular images of, or discourses about, Islam today. The history and legacy of this Monsoon Islam is the subject of this book.