Skip to main content

Islamism and Social Reform in Kerala, South India


This paper critiques ethnographic tendencies to idealise and celebrate sufi ‘traditionalism’ as authentically South Asian. We perceive strong academic trends of frank distaste for reformism, which is then inaccurately—and dangerously buttressing Hindutva rhetoric—branded as going against the grain of South Asian society. This often goes along with (inaccurate) branding of all reformism as ‘foreign inspired’ or wah'habi. Kerala's Mujahids (Kerala Naduvathul Mujahideen [KNM]) are clearly part of universalistic trends and shared Islamic impulses towards purification. We acknowledge the importance to KNM of longstanding links to the Arab world, contemporary links to the Gulf, wider currents of Islamic reform (both global and Indian), while also showing how reformism has been producing itself locally since the mid-19th century. Reformist enthusiasm is part of Kerala-wide patterns discernable across all religious communities: 1920s and 1930s agitations for a break from the 19th century past; 1950s post-independence social activism; post 1980s religious revivalism. Kerala's Muslims (like Kerala Hindus and Christians) associate religious reformism with: a self-consciously ‘modern’ outlook; the promotion of education; rallying of support from the middle classes. There is a concomitant contemporary association of orthoprax traditionalism with ‘backward’, superstitious and un-modern practices, troped as being located in rural and low-status locations.

Hide All
Abaza M. 2002. Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds. Curzon Routledge, London.
Abdel Rahman M. 2006. ‘Divine Consumption: Islam and Consumerism in Egypt’. In Rahman Abdel et al. . (eds.). Cultural Dynamics in Contemporary Egypt, Cairo Papers 27, 1 & 2.
Abdul Haque P. P. 1982. ‘Islahi Movement in Kerala’. Almuneer, February: 61–67.
Ahmad I. & Reilfeld H. (eds.). 2004. Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaption, Accommodation and Conflict. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Asad T. 1986. The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Washington, DC.
Bayly S. 1992. Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society 1700–1900. Cambridge University Prexss, Cambridge.
Blank J. 2001. Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras. Chicago University Press, Chicago.
Bowen J. R. 1993. Muslims Through Discourse: Religion and Ritual in Gayo Society. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Brenner S. 1996. “Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women and ‘the Veil’” American Ethnologist, 23 (4): 673697.
Dale S. F. 1980. The Mappilas of Malabar, 1498–1922: Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier. Clarendon, Oxford.
Dale S. F. 1997. ‘The Hadrami Diaspora in South-Western India: The Role of the Sayyids of the Malabar Coast. In Freitag U. & Clarence-Smith W. (eds.). Hadhrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s–1960s. Brill, Leiden.
Deeb L. 2006. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'I Lebanon. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Devika J. 2002. Domesticating Malayalees: Family Planning, the Nation and Home-Centred Anxieties in Mid-20th Century Keralam. Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, Kerala, India. Working Paper 340.
Eickelman D. F. & Piscatori J.. 1996. Muslim Politics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Eickelman D. F. & Salvatore A. (eds.). 2004. Public Islam and the Common Good. Brill, Leiden.
Ernadan K. V. K. 1979. Kuttichira Sunni Mujahid Vaada Pradivaada Samgraham. Irshadiyya Publications, Pulikkal, Kerala.
Ewing K. 1997. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and Islam. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
Fanselow F. 1996. ‘The Disinvention of Caste Among Tamil Muslims’. In Fuller C. (ed.). Caste Today, pp. 202226. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Freitag U. & Clarence-Smith W. (eds.). 1997. Hadhrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s–1960s. Brill, Leiden.
Freitag U. 2003. Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut. Brill, Leiden.
Fuller C. J. 1976. The Nayars Today. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Gardner K. 1985. ‘Mullahs, Migrants and Miracles: Travel and Transformation in Rural Bangladesh’. Contributions to Indian Sociology (ns). 27, 2: 213235.
Gellner E. 1981. Muslim Society. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Green N. 2005. ‘Mystical Missionaries in the Hyderabad State: Mu'in Allah Shah and his Sufi Reform Movement’. The Indian Economic and Social History Review. 42, 2: 187212.
Gupta C. 2002. Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India. Permanent Black, Delhi.
Haddad M. 2006. ‘The Manarists and Modernism’. In Dudoignon S. A., Hisao K. and Yasushi K. (eds.) Intellectuals in the Modern Islamic World: Transmission, Transformation and Communication. pp. 5573. Routledge, London.
Hermansen M. 2000. ‘Fakirs, Wahhabis and Others: Reciprocal Classifications and the Transformation of Intellectual Categories’. In Malik J. (ed.). Perspectives of Mutual Encounters in South Asian History, 1760–1860, pp. 2348. Brill, Leiden.
Hirschkind C. 2001. ‘Civic Virtue and Religious Reason: An Islamic Counterpublic’. Cultural Anthropology. 16, 1: 334.
Hirschkind C. 2006. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. Columbia University Press, New York, NY.
Ho E. 2006. The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Jasmine A. 2002. Social and Cultural Milieu of Muslims of South Kerala, 1850–1950: Contributions of Vakkam Maulavi. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Kerala, Trivandrum, Kerala.
Jeffery P., Jeffery R. & Jeffrey C.. 2004. “Islamization, Gentrification and Domestication: a Girls' ‘Islamic Course' and Rural Muslims in Western Uttar Pradesh’. Modern Asian Studies. 38, 1: 153.
Jeffrey R. (1976) 1994. The Decline of Nayar Dominance. Manohar: Delhi.
Jones C. 2007. “Fabric and Fetish: Debates on Busana Muslim in Contemporary Urban Indonesia.” Journal Fashion Theory, vol 11, issue 2/3.
Joshi S. 2001. Fractured Modernity: Making of a Middle Class in Colonial North India. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Kahn J. n.d. Clash of Universalisms: Reflections on Modernity, Asia and Exclusion, Lecture delivered at Asian Culture Symposium, Gwangju, Korea, February 2005.
Kodoth P. 2001. ‘Sexuality, Sambandham and Marriage Reform in Late Nineteenth Century Malabar’. Modern Asian Studies. 35, 2: 349384.
Laffan M. 2002. Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma Below the Winds. RoutledgeCurzon, London.
Mahmood S. 2004. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Manger L. 1998. Local Islam in Global Contexts. Curzon, London.
Mayaram S. 1997. Resisting Regimes: Myth, Memory and the Shaping of a Muslim Identity. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
McGilvray D. 1989. ‘Households in Akkaraipattu: Dowry and Domestic Organization Among Matrilineal Tamils and Moors in Sri Lanka”. In Gray J. N. et al. . (eds.) Society From the Inside Out: Anthropological Perspectives on the South Asian Household, pp. 192235. Sage, New Delhi.
McGilvray D. 1998. “Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim Ethnicity in Regional Perspective”. Contributions to Indian Sociology (ns). 32, 2: 433483.
McGilvray D. 2004. ‘Jailani: A Sufi Shrine in Sri Lanka’. In Ahmad I. & Reifeld H. (eds.). Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaptations, Accommodations and Conflict, pp. 273289. Social Science Press, Delhi.
Metcalf B. 1982. Islamic Revival in British India. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Metcalf B. 1976. ‘Review of Separatism Among Indian Muslims’. The Journal of Asian Studies. 35, 2: 339341.
Metcalf B. 2002. 1990. Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar: A Partial Translation with Commentary. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Miller R. E. 1992. Mappila Muslims of Kerala: a Study in Islamic Trends. Orient Longman, Madras, India.
Minault G. 1982. The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India. Columbia University Press, New York, NY.
Minault G. 1998. Secluded Scholars: Women's Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Mines M. 1973. ‘Muslim Social Stratification in India: The Basis for Variation’. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 28: 333349.
Mines M. 1975. ‘Islamisation and Muslim Ethnicity in South India’. Man (ns). 10, 3: 404419.
Mobini-Kesheh N. 1997. ‘Islamic Modernism in Colonial Java: The Al-Irshad Movement’. In Freitag U. & Clarence-Smith W. (eds.). Hadhrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s–1960s, pp. 231248. Brill, Leiden.
Nair R. 1993. ‘Origins of People's Library Movement in Kerala’. Granthana. 4, 1 & 2: 2936.
Osella F. & Osella C.. 2000. Social Mobility in Kerala: Modernity and Identity in Conflict. Pluto, London.
Osella F. & Osella C. 2003. “Migration and the Commoditisation of Ritual: Sacrifice, Spectacle and Contestations in Kerala, India”. Contributions to Indian Sociology. 37, 1 & 2: 109140.
Osella F. & Osella C.. 2006. ‘Once Upon a Time in the West? Stories of Migration and Modernity From Kerala, South India’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 12, 3: 569588.
Osella F. & Osella C.. 2007a. ‘“I am Gulf”: The Production of Cosmopolitanism in Kozhikode, Kerala, India’. In Simpson E. & Kress K. (eds.). Cosmopolitanism Contested: The Confluence of History and Anthropology in the Indian Ocean. pp. ???? Hurst, London.
Osella C. & Osella F. 2007b. ‘Muslim Style in south India’. Journal Fashion Theory. vol 11, issue 2/3: 1–20.
Osella F. & Osella C.. 2007c. ‘Muslim Entrepreneurs Between India and the Gulf’, ISIM Review. 19, 810.
Panikkar K. N. 1989. Against the Lord and the State: Religion and Peasant Uprisings in Malabar 1836–1921. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Pasha K. 1995. ‘Muslim Religious Education’. In Engineer Asghar Ali (ed.). Kerala Muslims: A Historical Perspective, pp. 133146. Ajanta, Delhi.
Rawther M. K. 1993. Moidu Moulavi: A Political Bibliography. Unpublished M.Phil Thesis, University of Calicut, Kerala.
Robinson F. 1993a. Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The Politics of the United Provinces Muslims 1860–1923. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Robinson F. 1993b. ‘Introduction to the Paperback Edition’. In Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The Politics of the United Provinces Muslims 1860–1923, pp. XIVXXV. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Robinson F. 2001a. ‘Islam and Muslim Society in South Asia’. In Robinson F.Islam and Muslim History in South Asia, 4465. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Robinson F. 2001b. The ‘Ulama of Farangi Mahal and Islamic Culture in South Asia. Permanent Black, Delhi.
Robinson F. 2004. ‘Other-Worldly and This-Worldly Islam and the Islamic Revival’. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. 14, 1: 4758.
Roy O. 2004. Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. Hurst, London.
Salvatore A. 1997. Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity. Ithaca Press, Reading, MA.
Samad M. A. 1998. Islam in Kerala: Groups and Movements in the 20th Century. Laurel Publications, Kollam, Kerala.
Sanyal U. 1996. Devotional Islam and Politics in British India: Ahmed Riza Khan and His Movement, 1870–1920. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Sathar M. A. 1999. History of Ba-'Alawis in Kerala (2 volumes). Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Calicut, Kerala.
Schomburg S. E. 2003. “Reviving Religion”: The Qadiri Sufi Order, Popular Devotion to Sufi Saint Muhyiuddin ‘Abdul Qadir al-Gilani, and Processes of ‘Islamization’ in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Harvard University.
Sikand Y. 2002. The Origins and Development of the Tablighi-Jama'at (1920–2000). Orient Longman, New Delhi.
Sikand Y. 2005. Bastions of the Believers: Madrasas and Islamic Education in India. Penguin, Delhi.
Sikand Y. 2007. ‘The Reformist Sufism of the Tablighi Jamaat: The Case of the Meos of Mewat’. In Hasan M. (ed.). Living with Secularism: The Destiny of India's Muslims, pp. 3762. Manohar, Delhi.
Simpson E. 2006. Muslim Society and the Western Indian Ocean: The Seafarers of Kachchh. Routledge, London.
Soares B. 2005. Islam and the Prayer Economy: History and Authority in a Malian Town. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, UK.
Srinivas M. N. 1966. Social Change in Modern India. Allied Publishers, Bombay, India.
Srinivas S. V. 1996. ‘Devotion and Defiance in Fan Activity’. Journal of Arts and Ideas. January: 67–83.
Sullami A. A. S. 2002. ‘Propagation in a Society with Multi-Religion: Its Style and Features’ (translated from Malayalam). In Souvenir of the Mujahid State Conference 2002, Calicut, Kerala.
Tarabout G. 1986. Sacrifier et Donner a Voir en Pays Malabar. Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, Paris.
Troll C. W. 1978. Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology. Vikas, New Delhi.
Vatuk S. 1996. “Identity and Difference or Equality and Inequality in South Asian Muslim society”. In Fuller C. (ed.). Caste Today, pp. 227262. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Verkaaik O. 2001. ‘The Captive State: Corruption, Intelligence Agencies, and Ethnicity in Pakistan. In Hansen T. B. et al. . (eds.). States of Imagination, pp. 345364. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
Verkaaik O. 2004. Migrants and Militants : Fun and Urban Violence in Pakistan. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Walsh J. E. 2004. Domesticity in Colonial India: What Women Learned When Men Gave Them Advice. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Watt C. A. 2005. Serving the Nation: Cultures of Service, Association and Citizenship in Colonial India. Oxford University Press, Delhi.
Werbner P. 2003. Pilgrims of Love: The Anthropology of a Global Sufi Cult. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.
Zaman M. Q. 1999. ‘Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan’. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 41, 2: 294323.
Zaman M. Q. 2004. ‘The ‘Ulama of Contemporary Islam and their Conceptions of the Common Good’. In Salvatore A. & Eickelman D. F. (eds.). Public Islam and the Common Good, pp. 129156. Brill, Leiden.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 10
Total number of PDF views: 72 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 358 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.