Why Vakkom Moulavi Matters Today?

vakkam moulavi
Vakkom Moulavi

Problems of Engaging Modernity and the Muslim Reform Movement in Kerala…. This article is written in commemoration of the 145th anniversary (28 December) of Vakkom Moulavi who played a major role in reforming the Muslim community in Kerala.

Even as Kerala has been in the midst of resuscitating the ‘cultural capital’ of the early 20th century ‘renaissance’ (a term widely used to denote the ‘reform’ and ‘restructuring’ of the social sphere), in the background of the Sabarimala temple entry issue and the ‘women’s wall’ being organised as part of gender equality campaign, questions have been asked if the efforts underway constituted a ‘communal’ agenda, sidelining (if not undermining) many facets of ‘renaissance’ that got underway within and across minority communities and castes in the state. The opposition parties in the state have come down heavily against the LDF Government, calling it a ‘majoritarian wall’ in total disregard of the reforms that took place within the Muslim and Christian communities.

The Government, in fact, had invited nearly 200 such organisations to discuss the social strategies of dealing with the crisis that got worsened during the last several weeks, but some sections deliberately kept out of it. This included several Muslim organisations who apparently got confused with the question in regard to the ‘inheritance’ of ‘Muslim renaissance.’ The dominant sections of the traditional Muslim community (having affiliation with the Sunni organisations) never accepted the contributions of the major Muslim reformers of Kerala like Vakkom Moulavi et al. Even those who claim themselves as ‘inheritors’ of renaissance/reform movement among them are not sure about their role in a women empowerment/gender equality campaign in the present context. However, they all agree that the state of Kerala has been going through a critical phase of communalisation which the Sangh Parivar organisations are determined to cash in on in the background of the Sabarimala issue. This certainly calls for a revisit of the process of communalisation in the state and how it has, over years, undermined the reform agenda of the Muslim community.

Communalism in modern India

Communalism has been a critical problem of modern India and it unfolds itself in the ever-intensifying scenario of social tensions and conflicts across the country. Though long-acclaimed as the bastion of secularism in India, Kerala society too is confronting the complex process of communalisation and its accompanying social conflicts. Locating the sources of communalisation and their socio-historical context could well be an important task of social scientists in addressing the complex issues underlying the phenomenon [1]. Communalisation is certainly a part of, if not the by-product of, the over-all socio-economic processes taking place in the Indian and global context. No doubt, the share of ‘history’ is also significant, particularly when ‘history’ itself could emerge as a legitimising factor for communalisation.

Many questions are raised in the contemporary debates on communalism whether stagnation and regression of secularisation in Kerala should be understood in terms of the failure of social reform or the inability of social reform to address the whole lot of challenges of modernity. The implicit assumption of such questioning is that any social reform agenda must necessarily be a complete whole having a broad spectrum of politico-economic objectives. Also, such debates uncritically ignore the limits and possibilities of the social reform process within the existing socio-political milieu. Therefore, any stocktaking in terms of “success or failure” may end up with stereotypical readings of the social reform process—that too without understanding its internal dynamics, probably with unrecognized prejudices. Shouldn’t we enquire whether the reform process itself had undergone internal changes and contradictions because of various cross-undercurrents within? We should begin our analysis by a deeper understanding of the wider socio-political realm, within which the social reform process took place. In fact, the wider socio-political realm, by and large, sustained different combinations of social tensions and conflicts—within and across cultures/religions –- as a result of the cross-undercurrents within the Indian nationalism and the stratagem employed by the colonial apparatus, the effects of both have far-reaching implications for social reforms, extending to even Kerala.

That communalism emerged in this setting of colonial modernity is not a new argument. The stagnation and regression of the secularisation process can, thus, be located within modernity itself. Modernity as such was a critical domain to be understood in a wider realm of the structural changes brought about by colonialism and the inevitable responses generated in the context of nationalist politics. Nationalism itself was a problematique engaged differently by different forces. Communal politics in India, in its real sense, began as a response to the structural changes brought about by colonialism and the inevitable race for power and privileges. The mindsets of upper class Hindus and upper class Muslims were moulded by these factors of structural changes that were later interpreted to mean as endemic feelings of cultural/religious dichotomy, if not of distrust. Thus, the history of communalism goes back to the conditions which disrupted social harmony with the onslaught of colonialism. The question here is whether the social reform process had its inevitable share in the making of various identities both at the macro and micro levels. When this is addressed in the context of the social reform among the Muslims of Kerala, several points merit our attention.

Muslim Reform Movement

The emerging criticisms of the Muslim reform process in Kerala that there was “near complete absence of engagement with the enlightenment paradigm” or “a realistic engagement with modernity” are not only exaggerated but they tend to dampen our intellectual propensity to study social reform process in its complexity and in its socio-historical context.[2] The reform among the Muslims of Kerala did not have a uniform, unilinear character due to the particular circumstances under which it emerged and had to sustain itself. The experiences of south Kerala (Travancore-Cochin) and north Kerala (Malabar) differed, as they had undergone different socio-historical processes and changes. But there had been as many tensions within each segment, as there were between the north and the south.

The Muslim reform process in Kerala extending over half a century since 1880s had different engagements with modernity – from an accommodation within the colonial modernity to expanding concerns of nationalism and the politics of bargain within. The dominant stream of the reform agenda among the Muslims was spearheaded by Sanahullah Makhti Thangal (1847-1912), Vakkom Abdul Cader Moulavi (1873-1932), Sheikh Mohammed Hamadani Thangal (died in 1922), Maulana Chalilakathu Kunjahammed Haji (1856-1919), K.M.Moulavi (died in 1964), et al. under the Islahi movement. They addressed many critical issues of religion and society, thereby taking up the challenges of modernity in right earnest. At no point did they disengage themselves from the enlightenment paradigm. Their voices were not only inspiring but got manifested in their profound thoughts and activities through organisations such as Mohammadiya Sabha in Kannur, Chirayainkil Thaluk Muslim Samajam, Lajunathul Mohammadiya Sangham in Alappuzha, Muslim Aikka Sangham in Kodungaloor, Kerala Naduvattul Mujahideen etc.

The Muslim reform movement, as it was underway profoundly till the early thirties in Kerala, did not seek “a return to the Islamic polity” of a pristine purity, as speculated by many, but it was forward looking, critically and constantly engaging with the challenges presented by modernity. For instance, Makhti Thangal, the pioneer of Muslim reform movement, began his career as a British official, but opted to remain in the realm of Islah, seeking to engage with modernity. On one end of the spectrum, he confronted the Church missionaries who propagated a highly distorted image of Islam; on the other hand, Thangal exhorted the Muslims to come out of their social seclusion to undertake English education (besides in their mother tongue, Malayalam) and through it the emerging challenges of modernity[3]. Makhti Thangal was not anti-British in his essential character, just as Sir Syed Ahamed Khan was during this time, but sought to uplift the Muslims from their self-imposed backwardness and to prepare them to face challenges of modern times.

vakkom moulavi journalism swadeshabhimani.jpg.image .784.410

Similarly, Vakkom Moulavi’s Islahi [4] movement, which spanned over the first three decades of the 20th century, was addressing the challenges of modernity and the critical issues presented by the enlightenment paradigm. The very launching of Swadesabhimani (Patriot) in 1905 heralded the beginning of this engagement. Moulavi’s Swadesabhimani was the first newspaper in Kerala which established communication links with the London-based Reuter. The press itself was imported from England. Those who would talk about Swadesabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai seldom mention about the moving spirit behind it and the symbiotic relationship that prevailed between Vakkom Moulavi and Ramakrishna Pillai[5] While the Islahi movement was profoundly social, it also exhibited its politico-religious commitments. It was essentially anti-colonial in character; yet it did not seek to offer any Islamic alternative in political terms. Instead, Vakkom Moulavi’s major initiative was to liberate the Muslims from the morass of self-delusions to which they had fallen for so long. But this should not be interpreted to mean a mere ‘purification’ campaign, as argued by some[6], calling for a return to the pristine purity of the holy texts. Moulavi had an entirely different approach to the importance of the holy texts, which exhibited both hermeneutical as well as social foundations. Both were combined in the very principle of ijtihad[7], to which he was profoundly committed. The principal aim of the Islahi movement should therefore be kept in perspective. It was primarily a call for engaging with modernity, and the Muslims were called upon to come forward to understand both religion and modern society in dialectical terms, not to the level of discarding one in favour of the other. Most historians tend to ignore this, for one reason or other.

Those who underestimate Vakkom Moulavi’s Islahi movement try to disregard its inherent potential as such. His basic position on religious reforms centres on the concept of ijtihad. Moulavi strongly argued that the door of ijtihad couldn’t be closed[8]. He exhorted the Muslims to rediscover and reinstate ijtihad, the principle of independent judgment with a view to rebuilding the shariat in the light of modern thought and experience [9]. Moulavi’s adherence to the Islamic hermeneutical tradition could be seen in his insistence on individual ijtihad, which was not only permitted but was essential to arrive at decisions where the holy texts were either ambiguous or silent. His perspicuous analysis on the laws of Islam further provides evidences of his rational approach. Even while affirming that “the laws of Islam concerning spiritual matters are eternal,” he strongly argued that “the laws of Islam concerning temporal matters are not immutable, and hence depending on the conditions of time and place, they are subject to change”[10]. The most radical of his views can be seen in his perspectives on the Islamic laws. Vakkom Moulavi said that the Muslims should address their socio-economic problems even transcending the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence if they were unable to equip them [11]. Obviously, the Islahi movement Vakkom Moulavi, carried on for three decades, did not seek a mere pilgrimage to the past, but it was a progressive engagement with modernity. It addressed not only the questions of laws and beliefs in Islam, but took up challenges of modern education, including women’s education, gender justice, rational outlook on social and religious matters etc[12].  Needless to say, very few ulama could accept Moulavi’s exegesis concerning spatio-temporal matters. That is why he had to face stiff opposition from orthodox elements who were only concerned about the scriptural matrix of Islam, besides keeping the community in perpetual ignorance and superstition.

Even as Vakkom Moulavi’s Islahi movement got underway (in the most dynamic way with multiple agenda of reforms), traditional Mullahs rose in revolt against the mission he had set in motion. They obviously did not have any scholarship or any sense of the implications of modernity. This led them to initiate a counter campaign even calling Vakkom Moulavi ‘kafir’ (infidel/disbeliever) and ‘Wahhabi’ (a derogatory term used against Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab and his followers). It is true that Moulavi Moulavi had written about Wahhab (as part of cataloging the reform efforts in the Islamic history) pointing to his mission of ‘purging’. But Moulavi never considered himself as a Wahhabi. Rather many of his modernist views were derived from the writings and perspectives of Al-Ghazali  (whose Kīmyāyé Sa’ādat [The Alchemy of Happiness] he translated into Arabic Malayalam), Muhammad Abduh of Egypt (whose ‘Al-Manar’ had deeply influenced him), Shah Waliullah (1703–1762)  Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838-1897) and Syed Ahmad Khan (1817 -1898).  A common thread of all these traditions is the humanism embedded in Islam and its potential to engage modernity and all its challenges.

Moulavi’s movement saw positive results when there was general receptivity to his call. However, since the early 1930s, it did not progress further in a wider realm due to the particular circumstances imposed by the nationalist politics, on the one hand, and the politics of bargain on the other.

While the Mappila resistance to the British rule, through a series of rebellions since the 19th century has been identified as an appropriate response to the colonial policy, the 1921 uprising earned the ‘disrepute’ as ‘communal’ because, the Mappilas were believed to have drawn inspiration from Islamic texts and sought to establish ‘‘Khilafat kingdoms.” But little did we see the impact of the political call sent out by the Khilafat movement, set in motion by the so-called secular, nationalist Congress under Mahatma Gandhi. The Mappilas, inspired by Gandhiji and the nationalist Congress who favoured mixing up religion with politics as a tactical struggle, soon found the Congress virtually disowning them. Even Gandhiji became critical of the rebellion and the Mappilas, while conveniently forgetting the fact that the stage was partly set by the Congress itself with its launching of the Khilafat movement as a tactical realm of confronting the British for their betrayal in Turkey[13]. This seemed to have a lasting impression on even secular Muslims of Kerala, particularly in Malabar. The situation was aptly summed up by E.M.S. Namboodirippad:

The Hindu intelligentsia of Malabar started going more or less in the same direction as their counterparts in North India. The Arya Samaj and other Hindu communal organisations came and started their work in Malabar, first by way of affording relief to Hindu refuges fleeing from the areas of the rebellion, then by reconverting those Hindus who had been forcibly converted to Islam by the rebels and ultimately going to the extent of converting Muslims to Hinduism. The Muslim intelligentsia were terror-stricken because of the post-rebellion repression that they had to go through but were nevertheless extremely indignant. They could do nothing, but be resentful for the time being, but that was by itself sufficient for the creation of an atmosphere ideally suited for communal squabbles[14].

Locating the site of communalism, E.M.S. writes:

In fact, the Malabar Congressmen themselves were split into Hindus and Muslims. When they started reorganising the Congress in the post-rebellion years, there were virtually two centres of the Congress – one Hindu and the other Muslim – each having its own paper, Mathrubhumi and Al-Ameen. It is also remarkable that some Hindu Congressmen were themselves the organizers of the Hindu Mahasabha. The gulf between the two groups was so wide that though each claimed to be a group of congressmen, one could not cooperate with the other even in organising the Congress[15].

The analysis of E.M.S. holds importance even today. The formation of Muslim League in Kerala in the mid-thirties was the logical culmination of this Muslim alienation started in the post-rebellion period. This was accentuated by a host of problems emanating from the nationalist scene since the 1920s just as the Congress-Hindu Mahasabha hobnobbing, the Nehru Report, issues of cow slaughter etc. The emergence of the League could thus be seen as a setback to the secular politics in the country. Communal politics gained strength since the 1920s, and it continued to affect secularisation and democratisation process in India. Kerala was not immune to these cross-undercurrents in the nationalist politics. However, the gains of social reform process could not be consolidated in the emerging scenario of the Congress-League tussle. Meanwhile, the situation created by the absence of a strong leadership, after Vakkom Moulavi, was soon to be appropriated by the more orthodox Ulama, on the one hand, and the Jamaat-i-Islami on the other. Kerala Naduvatul Mujahiden, however, continued to strive hard to make inroads into the Muslim masses. But this was considerably constrained by the emerging confrontation and competition within the Muslim community for leadership. The most long-lasting setback of the reform process started in the late 1950s when all religious and communal forces arrayed themselves against the democratically elected communist government in Kerala under the banner of vimochana samaram. Ever since, the successive governments in Kerala have been engaging the religious and communal forces in the state, most strategically, in the electoral process.


Thus, the present-day communalisation cannot be seen in isolation by merely searching for its roots in the social reform process. The problem lies with modernity itself, with the way it was engaged by both the colonial apparatus and the nationalist leadership. Its genesis could be traced back to the structural changes brought about by colonialism and the manner in which the upper class Hindus and Muslims responded to them. The metropolitan capital succeeded in widening the gulf, as it would ultimately undermine the strident anti-colonial struggle. Situated as it was, between the colonial apparatus and the emerging nationalist movement, the social reform process could not be expected to address larger issues of facilitating capitalism or agrarian reform or labour process or commodity production. It was rather too much to expect such a broad-based agenda from the social reform movements.

Though the Muslim reform process did not continue beyond 1930s, the gains of the same did have a lasting influence on the socio-body politic of Kerala. The secular-democratic process gained momentum over a period of three-four decades since 1930s, and the entire social fabric of Kerala remained strong, at least until the early 1980s. Caste-based, religion-based, community-based organisations began to gain strength across the world since the early 1980s when neoliberalism got underway rejuvenating the far-right and all reactionary forces. Kerala society, having been exposed to these influences in a variety of ways, could not escape from the emerging scenario of caste/communal consolidations because the capital accumulation process taking place at the national and global levels along neoliberal lines called for caste-based, religion-based, and community-based social capital formations in order to offset any class-based resistance to the policies of modern techno-capitalism. The emergence of the Modi Government in 2014 further encouraged the communal forces across the country to consolidate the far-right mobilization. This wider realm of communalisation process cannot be glossed over when we engage ourselves in locating the sites of its origin.

(This is a revised paper I had presented at the University of Calicut in a seminar organised by the Department of History, a decade and a half ago, on the theme “Kerala Renaissance and Social Reform Process: A Contemporary Reappraisal.” For details see  K.M. Seethi, “Communalism and the Muslim Reform Movement in Kerala: Problems of Engaging with Modernity,” VMMRC, 2 September 2006).

Notes and References

[1] For a cross section of studies relating to communalism, see K. N. Panikkar (ed.),   Communalism in India: History, Politics and Culture (New Delhi: Manohar 1991); Gyanendra Pandey, The Constructions of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press 1990); Ram Puniyani, Communal Politics: Facts versus Myths (New Delhi: Sage 2003); Asghar Ali Engineer, Communalism in India (New Delhi: Vikas 1995); Bipan Chandra, Communalism in Modern India (New Delhi: Vikas 1984) and; Bipan Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India (New Delhi: Orient Longman 1981).

[2] An instance of the refusal/inability to understand such reform attempts in a broader perspective can be seen in the work of Roland Miller, a Canadian scholar who had lived in Kerala for nearly a quarter of a century to study the Mappilas. Even while Miller acknowledged that “the wind of change” in Islamic reform in Kerala “blew from the south” in the personality of Vakkom Moulavi, he could not fully grasp the depth of his thought and came to the slapdash conclusion that Moulvai’s reform was basically a “conservative reform.” See Roland E. Millar, Mappila Muslims of Kerala: A Study in Islamic Trends (Madras: Orient Longman 1992): 270-74; also see Jose Abraham, Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modernity in India, Socio-Political and Religious Thought of Vakkom Moulavi (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

[3] See Makthi Thangalude Sambhoorna Krithikal (Tirur: Kerala Islamic Mission 1981): 632-46.

[4] Conceptually, Islah unfolds the broad agenda of reform within the community.

[5] See T. Venugopalan,
Swedesabhimani: Rajadrohiyaya Rajyasnehi (Kochi: The Kerala Press Academi, 1996): 43-56 and 218-59. While acknowledging the relationship between Moulavi and Pillai in the right spirit, Venugopalan, like many others, failed to grasp the essence of the Islahi movement, which led him say that Vakkom Moulvai was neither a religious reformer nor a religious modernist (225).

[6] See Ibid

[7] Ijtihad has different connotations in the Arabic lexicon, but, in the main, it implies “strenuous endeavour” – an intellectual activity denoting the pursuit of an individual scholar to derive rules from the authentic texts (the Quran and the Hadith) without relying on the opinion of other scholars. This is what Iqbal called the principle of movement in Islam. See Bernard G. Weiss, “Ijtihad,” in The Encyclopaedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan 1987), vol.7: 90-92; also see Sir Mohammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of religious Thought in Islam (Lahore: S.H. Muhammad Ashraf 1982):148.

[8] Vakkom Moulvi,
Lau-ssabah (Nilakkamukku: Islam Dharmaparipalana Sangham, 1930); This has been reproduced in Vakkom Moulaviyude Thiranjedutha Krithikal (Vakkom: Vakkom Moulavi Publications 1979), edited by S. Mohamed Abda, 312-13 (hereafter cited as Selected Works),

[9] See
Selected Works: 91.

[10] Ibid: 129.

[11] Vakkom Moulavi, “Islam Mathanaveekaranam,” in
Sahrudayopaharam (Idava: Bharakkathul Muslimmen 1930); also see Selected Works”167-68.

[12] See Vakkom Moulavi, “ Nammude Sthreekal,” Al-Islam, Vol. 1, No.1, April 1918; also see Selected Works:185-87.

[13] See W.C. Smith, Modern Islam in India (London: Victor Gollancz 1946), p.207; also see Gail Minault, The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press 1982).

[14] See E.M.S. Namboodiripad,
Kerala Society and Politics: An Historical Survey (New Delhi: National Book Centre 1984): 121.

[15] Ibid:122.


The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at  [email protected]


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