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"Islam Deepam magazine" (1921) from the Vakkam Maulavi Foundation Library. Image taken by the author.
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Malabar Rebellion, Self-Cultivation and Multiple Meanings of Khilafat/Caliphate

Khilafat in the narratives during the rebellion represented freedom, dignity, justice and universal brotherhood instead of the restoration of an empire. The article briefly examines multiple possibilities the term Khilafat or Caliphate offered to the indigenous anti-colonial struggle of Malabar in India in the 20th century.

“They were collecting money for ‘Swayambharanam’ [self-rule]. There is no Khilafat here. Khilafat is a Turkey matter” (186).

This statement was made by Varian Kunnath Kunjahammad Haji, who was called Khilafat (or Caliphate) leader by the British, that refuses the claim that the principle cause of the Mappila uprising in the Malabar Region of South India was the dream for a Khilafat Raj. Although Varian Kunnath Kunjahammad Haji refuted the claim that the rebellion was not to restore the Ottoman rule or Khilafat Raj in Malabar, the notion of Khilafat (I will be using the term “Khilafat” hereon, as it was used in the memoirs of the rebellion) played an important role in Malabar rebellion. Many pamphlets and Fatwas issued during the Rebellion are found to be exhorting the community to struggle for the Khilafat. But if it was not for the Khilafat of Turkey, what did the term mean in the context of the rebellion?

Many writers have already pointed out multiple factors behind the rebellion. Agrarian crisis, land tenure policy changes, existing oppressive social practices, colonial rule and emerging nationalist feelings were indicated as major causes for the rebellion. Stephan Dale points out that some of the scholars reduced the complexity of the rebellion to its agrarian dimension. Dale instead stressed the religiosity of the Rebels. He writes, “participants conducted each attack as a religious act – as a jihad, a war for Islam” (86). He thinks that Jihad here is not necessarily translated as war against non-Muslims, rather they were guided by strong anti-Colonial feelings. This was evident in the rebels’ attacks on colonial institutions. Besides, there were long-term tensions between the Janmi (landlord) class and the poor tenants belonging to both Hindu and Muslim communities. Nevertheless It is important to note that Mappila tenants had an ideology to justify their resistance while Hindus did not. The lack of political ideology among Hindu tenants is presumably due to the gradual process of Brahmanization (or subordination of other sects and communities into the Brahmin priestly rule). As Mappila Muslims had the privilege of intermediaries of trade with the wider Islamic World, caste-based restrictions limited maritime possibilities for Hindus and their assimilation to other social groups. In the words of Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth-century traveller, “the Muslims are the people who are most respected in this country, but the natives do not eat with them and don’t allow them to enter their houses” (74). In contrast to the Hindus, marked by “stereotype ritual isolation and the unusually rigid caste barriers and concepts of pollution” (72) the “Mappilas, assimilating converted Hindus from early on, became ethnically quite diverse” (75).

The diversity and assimilative characteristics gave Mappila Muslims a peculiar form of life that expanded further to many regions in Malabar. But the inability and confusion of the Portuguese and later British officlas in understanding the racial and caste mixture of Mappila Muslims led to the creation of a new category called “fanatic.” The category of fanatic was employed to erase the hybridity of caste and racial composition of Mappila Muslims and to reconstitute them as colonial subjects, so that they can be conveniently inserted into (logic of) History. This subjugation of Mappila Muslims to the logic of History provoked among them an urge to rekindle their imaginative space of Khilafat as a horizon capable of building a world in which they are not a scandalous presence. Instead of being a political project centred on a territorial conception, Khilaft here represented an extraterritorial imagination of a community that allows Muslims to live as minor subjects within various socio-cultural formations. This minor subject within privileged sovereignty enabled a critical position which necessitated multiple meanings to Khilafat or Caliphate in the context of Malabar. Khilafat in this scheme appears more concerned with imagining a space of self-cultivation than with a political institution.

The Series of outbreaks between 1836 and 1921 in the districts of Malabar against the landlord and British Colonial forces were also a result of the problem of sovereignty in 19th-century Malabar. Various stakeholders in these outbreaks such as converted lower caste groups, anti-colonial nationalists, oppressed peasants and troubled Islamic scholars were concerned with the question of sovereignty of which they were deprived. The existing material conditions aggravated this concern and notions like Khilafat here acted more than an institution. The notion of Khilafat sprouted among them a form of life that imagines an ethical enactment and envisions a new Islamic politics that can transcend the particularity of royal, clerical, or mystical earthly sovereignties.

To illustrate this point I am examining two materials collected from my research field. One is an article published in a vernacular magazine and the other is a fatwa issued in favour of the rebellion. The  article was published in a local magazine in support of the Khilafath Movement in 1921. This article, published in the magazine called Islam Deepam (the light of Islam) and titled Khilafathum Islam Mathavum (Khilafath and the religion of Islam) was written by a local scholar named Sayyeed M Bava. The article fiercely supported the Khilafat movement and refuted the argument of some of the scholars (ulema) who claimed that the ongoing campaign for Khilafat has nothing to do with Islam. It is also true that the Khilafat movement and Malabar rebellion had not gathered enough support from a large section of the Muslims then. Bava called the scholars who raised doubts about the notion of Khilafat in Malabar colonial agents. According to him, the primary motive behind the Khilafath Movement is not an impending political revolution in India nor the prevailing hatred against the British. It is an answer to God’s call to live a correct life. It is also essential for the survival of Islam and to save it from human corruption. Interestingly the article also defined Khilafath as responsible government (Utharavthitha Bharannam), which echoes the then-existing popular movement for responsible government in the South Indian princely state of Travancore.

He further wrote that “Khalif” is not a special status of the one who holds the position but a moral accountability to both God and the subjects. Rightfulness, energy and freedom are the prime characteristics of a Khalif. Khilafath should ensure values such as universal brotherhood and equality (Sarva Sahoadhryam and samathwam). There should be no difference between the ruler and the ruled, rich and poor, owner and labourer and teacher and student: all are equal before God.

To illustrate this point he provided an example of mosque. According to him, the mosque is a space of equality. In a mosque, nobody gets special treatment or reservation. The only preference before God goes to the ones who perform their duty well and attain high virtue in this world. Thus he asserted that Khilafath is an exemplification of this moral character.

The notion of Khilafath as freedom of the people from the oppressive rule can be found in a fatwa issued by a Muslim scholar during the rebellion. For example Muhimmat-al Mu’minin (the full title of the fatwa is Tharjuma Muhimmat al Mu’minin fi Tarki Muvalati A’dai al dini, wa Nusrat khilafati Sayyidi al Mursaleen Wa Tanzeehi Jazeerat al Arabi Min al Mushrikeen)  issued by Aminummandakath Parikutty Musliyār was a crucial one that encouraged the Mappila Muslims to actively participate in the Khilafat movement. In response to the popularity of this fatwa, British officials  issued an order in the Madras Gazatteer of 1921 to ban it and deemed that the holding of the published version of this fatwa would amount to criminal act. The fatwa uses religious idioms such as Darul -Harb (adobe of war) Darul Islam (adobe of Islam), Kufr (false ideologies) Farz (mandated), Imam (leader) and Jihad (dedication to the cause) etc in support of the anti-colonial nationalist movement. Musliyār in this fatwa also criticized pro-British Muslims and called them heretics. Using Qur’anic verses and prophet’s sayings, he argued that one should not support the oppressor whomsoever he may be; he will be thrown in hell. The fatwa also stated that there is nothing wrong in joining hands with the non-Muslims who supported the Muslims in their cause. Kafir in this fatwa signified the ones who supported the colonial rule. The fatwa identified Christians and Jews as oppressors, rather than as religious actors. It was also stated that cooperating with zalim (oppressors) in any circumstance is not acceptable. The fatwa was intended to give theological legitimacy to the Khilafath movement and garner support from the wider Muslim community. The idea of Khilafath here represented and inspired anti-imperialist politics. The fatwa also refuted a specific type of Islamic theodicy that argued that the war against Zalim would invite aafat (calamity) and halak (destruction) to the community.

The fatwa stated that the fight against the British became compulsory (farz- ain) upon all Muslims who are residing in the country. Fraught with religious idioms, the fatwa was issued as an anti-imperialist text in favour of the Khilafath committee that joined hands with Gandhi’s Congress party. Khilafath in this fatwa represented svarajya or self-rule. It is also important that Khilafat in this narrative was portrayed as representing freedom, dignity, justice and universal brotherhood. This narrative also reminds us of the political and theological crisis of the time. The period  as Wilson Jacob points out was marked by the crisis caused by the changing notion of sovereignty between God, empire and local cultural authorities. Therefore, the call for moral unity purveyed through the movement for Khilafat in Malabar became a resource for Muslims to address this crisis. Portrayed as a moral imagination, Khilafath in the discourse of the Malabar rebellion emerged as a call for developing an ethical life for Muslims in line with the anti-colonial attitude and a neutral place where all social antagonisms (such as Hindu Vs Muslims) are obliterated. In addition, Khilafath in this context also poses a critique to the forms of theodicy which justify the suffering in the world. With this critique, the idea of Svaraj (self-rule)  was reinterpreted as an activity of self-cultivation through a “look within” and an “excavation downwards by pointing towards hybridity and pluralism” (151). The inadequacy of  trans-Atlantic political theory and theology that Akash Singh Rathore pointed out can thus be addressed through the resources offered by the discourse of Khilafat in Malabar.

Malabar Rebellion, Self-Cultivation and Multiple Meanings of Khilafat/Caliphate

Khilafat in the narratives during the rebellion represented freedom, dignity, justice and universal brotherhood instead of the restoration of an empire. The article briefly examines multiple possibilities the term Khilafat or Caliphate offered to the indigenous anti-colonial struggle of Malabar in India in the 20th century.


If we understand political theology as the mobilization of theological ethos to manage political existence in the world, or theodicial redemption of being-in-the world of oppression and domination, the theology operational here could thus be tentatively called an anti-political theology. Anti-politics in the sense of the rejection of politics in favor of the immediacy of the oppositional freedom, and in its indifference in articulating sovereign futurities, which promise liberation in another worldly political order. In its fatal determination to rebel, it speaks only (or is only able to) of the irredeemability of this world.

History, Memory, and the Everyday: Life in the Time of Rebellion

This article demonstrates how the living memories of Malabar rebellion evade the logic of the historical narrative. The native memory of the rebellion appears to have subverted the neatly drawn schemes such as ‘Hindu’ vs ‘Muslim’, ‘cruelty’ vs ‘compassion’, and ‘horror’ vs ‘fascination’ etc. that animate the logic of historical writing.

“War” in The Time of The Rebellion: Between Colonial and Decolonial Narratives About Malabar of 1921

This blog post investigates and problematizes a certain narrative strategy in the historiography of Malabar rebellion, in which “war” (“yudham”) and “riot” (“lahala” or “mutiny”) were configured on the model of “politics” and “religion”. The post asks what kind of sovereign formation was imagined in such a narrative strategy and why it needs to be addressed.

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