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Writing a homeland: the creation of Muslim identity on an Islamic frontier

Dr. Sebastian R. Prange

This project studies the construction of a Muslim identity on India’s Malabar Coast.  Malabar never entered the Persianate literary world of Indo-Islam; instead, it became part of a different Islamic cosmopolis, centred not on caliphates and sultanates but around the trading world of the Indian Ocean and with Arabic as its lingua franca.  Expatriate and local Muslims in Malabar were faced with the task of defining a collective Islamic identity as a religious minority within a Brahman-dominated social order.  The projection of such an identity was of immediate significance to communal interests, which ranged from commercial and political matters, such as obtaining trading rights or the privilege to build mosques, to the negotiation of social issues such as commensality or intermarriage.
In the sixteenth century, the question of Muslim identity on the Malabar Coast became even more pressing.  Responding to Portuguese aggression specifically directed at them, Malabar’s Muslims sought to conceptualize the coast not only as a homeland to their communities but as an Islamic territory, despite the fact that the region remained under Hindu rule and with a majority Hindu population.  The purpose of this undertaking was to validate their own struggle as a legitimate jihād and thereby to impel foreign Muslims to assist them in it.  It is in sources from this period that, for the first time, the sense of a coherent pan-Malabari Muslim identity was articulated.  This transformation in the Muslims’ conception of Malabar is most clearly evident from literary works, which can be effectively contrasted to epigraphic evidence for earlier times.  Arabic poems, biographies, hagiographies, histories, and commentaries on Islamic law from this period coalesce to produce the sense of Malabar not just as a region where Muslims live under “infidel” rule, but as a veridical Islamic territory with Islamic institutions, an Islamic history, and its place in the wider world of the dar al-Islām.
In its combination, these texts from early-modern South India afford a fascinating case study of the adaptation of a universalistic idiom (drawn from the Islamic canon) and cosmopolitan language (Arabic) to produce a distinctively local Islamic identity.  The project seeks to analyze this manifold discourse and to situate it within the expanding scholarship on the formation of religious identities.  It particularly aims to contribute to the comparative historical study of minority Muslim communities in their negotiation with local belief systems, social orders, and power structures.  To this end, special emphasis is put on tracing the trans-oceanic trajectories of these texts from the vantage point of the Malabar Coast.