By Anwar Haneefa
The appellation Mappila cannot be applied to all Kerala Muslims. The term ‘Mappila’ refers particularly to Muslims who live on the Malabar Coast and whose practices differ from those of other Muslims on the south western coast of India. The traditional customs practiced by the Mappila community range from Nercca (endowment), Urs (festivals), Mawlid (prophetic eulogies), Va’alu (sermons), which originated from the interpretations of Islam by their Ulema following the Usool. All these facets have collaboratively shaped the culture of the Mappila. Thus, the Mappilas cannot be imagined without those religious aspects.
In cultural and social life of the Mappilas, the practice of Va’alu or sermon has a special place. Anti-imperialist struggles under the Ulema, the pursuit of religious knowledge, and the expansion of the Dars system contributed to the emergence of Va’alu. The art of sermon or Va’alu was practiced mostly by the Ulema. However, over time there has been significant improvisation to the form owing to the alteration in the audience and its spiritual and ethical sense of listening. The beginning of reformist movements and exodus to the gulf in the 1920s and the 70s respectively carried the art of Va’alu wider and moulded it as a ‘popular cultural art’ form.
History of Va’alu in the Malabar Coast
The arrival of Islam on the Kerala coast is still a matter of debate among historians. The conversion of King Cheraman Perumal to Islam attests to the acceptability of Islam in the region. Professor Bahauddin writes that “the combination of various factors such as the conversion of Perumal, the arrival of Malik bin Dinar and his disciples and the trade relation with Arabs for centuries could have contributed to the slow but steady spread of Islam from the seventh century onwards.”
Amid these debates, the pivotal role of Malik bin Dinar and his disciples in the propagation of Islam across the Malabar Coast has been corroborated by authentic traditional and academic texts. One of the most influential methods used was the sermons (Va’alu), apart from the construction of Masjids and appointing Qazis. Although there is a lack of textual evidence, the history of sermons can be excavated from the very inception of Mappila cultural formation.
The spiritual and anti-colonial sermons of Makhdoom Kabeer are the first ones to be recorded with existing evidence. These sermons inspired the Mappilas to resist colonialism in the social and cultural spheres. Following him, Makhdoom Sagheer utilized sermons as a way to popularize his masterpiece, Fathul Mueen from the Masjidi Dars.
Apart from public sermons, there were sermons inside the Masjids after the Friday prayers, which too encouraged the believers to compile knowledge, both social and spiritual. Muta’allims (students of Dars) made the knowledge accessible to the community after Friday prayers. These students gained such knowledge after years of learning in the areas of jurisprudence, history, and faith. In the social context of the 15th and 16th centuries, Masjid sermons influenced commoners more than any other stories or written texts.
Since the transmission of these sermons was oral, there are no recorded histories of these orators from first decades of the 15th century to the last decades of 19th century. The sermons of Sayyid Alawi Mampuram and Umer Qazi Veliyamkode, among others, had created revolutions in the spiritual and moral spheres of the communities.
Language and form of Va’alu
In Peter Trudgill’s opinion, “there are discrete specialties and regio-communal differences for the oral literature from the formal literature.” As the Mappila oral literature was subaltern in its orientation and isolated from the formal literature of Kerala coast, Va’alu had an explicit linguistic domain reflective of the Mappila community.
The lexicon and accent of Va’alu was different from the colloquial oral literature. The artificial fluctuations in the tones for creating passion made it a mode of art form. Words used were not pure Malayalam colloquial or Arabic-Malayalam blend, but a diverse lexicon of Tamil, Urdu and Persian. Dr Hussain Randathani writes that “before the advent of Islam, Persian language had influence in Malayalam.”
The particular educational system followed in Masjidi Dars, anti-colonial struggles, and agriculture were factors in the formation of the unique cultural language and tone of Va’alu. The accent never created frustration or irritation for the community because they were highly linked to Masjids and Muta’allims. Since the structure of language was aligned to the mundane life of the community, orators never tended to make changes in the themes. Moreover, they believed that such a language was fit enough for influencing the minds of people and arousing their fervor.
K Moidu Moulawi recounts from his childhood the structure of Va’alu: “Surat Al-Fatiha will be chanted at first, then the gallery takes an oath starting with ‘Jaddidu’; next a supplication is held and it is entered to the Talaibarath’. There are three parts to Va’alu. In the first part, potency and divinity of the day’s matter are introduced; in the second, the jurisprudence rules of the relative matter are defined; and, in the third, an attractive history is narrated.
The distinctive language of Va’alu and its origin could be chronicled from the time of Makhdoom Kabeer and Dars system. There are different assessments regarding the formation of a distinct language of Va’alu. One of the sects assesses that Va’alu emerged as a transformation of ‘Nabatwi Khutuba’, which is traditionally followed in the Malabar Coast. The local narrations asses that the tone of Va’alu was one practiced by the Muta’allims and later transformed into a language.
Apart from the lexicon and tone, the gestures used also conveyed and accommodated a wide sense of meaning and had a massive impact on the community. The raised index finger during the sermon signified the real existence of Allah, which provided a spiritual ecstasy for the gallery. The use of different media made Va’alu a pluralistic interaction.
Social aspects and cultural formation
Va’alu was an all-encompassing social custom. While commenting on the influence of sermons, Byard writes that “the sermon’s topical range and social influence were so powerful in shaping cultural values, meanings and sense of corporate purpose, that even television pales in comparison.” Historical archives and local narrations document how communities covered great distance, sometimes as long as twenty kilometers, in order to listen to Va’alu. People often undertook adventurous journeys from Malappuram to Tirurangadi, Vengara to Kondotty by crossing hills, fields and meadows for attending Va’alu.
In Eijnatten’s opinion, the reason for religious communities focusing on sermon was “the effective, moral and spiritual regeneration of individual men and women,” that the sermons provided. The Va’alu was the channel for the amplification of religious knowledge and social awareness in the society. Moreover, there was no gender bias as it catered to both men and women because the aim of the Va’alu was the reformation from inside. Women often sat separate from men behind a curtain, which were made of torn clothes. This created an egalitarian platform for social cohesion and held the community to their tradition. Va’alu was also performed as a form of entertainment and relaxation for the agricultural laborers and other toilers.
While the sermons of Makhdooms and Umer Qazi extensively questioned colonial hegemony, the sermons of Pathi Abdul Khader Musliyar, Vaniyambalam Abdurahman Musliyar, EK Hassan Musliyar and Pangil Ahammedkutty Musliyar countered the reformists, who exhorted people to discard tradition and orthodoxy. This was because tradition and orthodoxy were the key foundations of Islam. As Talal Asad writes, “a tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.” Orthodoxy is crucial to all Islamic traditions. It is not a mere body of opinions but a distinctive relationship of power, wherever Muslims have “the power to regulate, uphold, require or adjust correct practices and to condemn, exclude, undermine or replace incorrect ones.”
Va’alu was also a source of earning for Muta’allims. They were usually sent to Dars when their guardian passed away and they faced financial crisis or starvation. The art of sermons provided them with financial support. There are many Ulema who were brought up by the society through these sermons and they led the community later. “The present condition of Mappila Muslims, feeling dignity was because of those Ulema who had the capacity to lead the community into the light of Islam, beauty of religious life and social efficiency of the religions, who patronized them.” Before the inflow of the gulf money, the earnings from the sermons sustained the religious institutions and helped in the growth of the community.
Va’alu had played and still plays a charismatic role in shaping the Mappila culture. It brought colossal transformations in the communities and created an aura around the community by isolating it from internal and external reformation, cultural degradation and alien subjugation. Andrew Mallory rightly says that the cultural regeneration among Mappilas had largely stemmed from “the impact of sermons.”
Anwar Haneefa is at present a research intern at Madeenathunnor, Calicut, Kerala. He is a writer, interviewer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of Muslim culture, Islamic jurisprudence and Western philosophy. He is also interested in orthodoxy, textual tradition and Ulema activism.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The Book that Made an Impact on Me in 2015’, edited by Tikuli, poet and blogger, Delhi, India.