Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine
Safar\Rabi-Ul-Awwal 1424 H
May 2003
Volume 16-05 No : 197
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Memons, Khojas, Cheliyas, Moplahs.... How Well Do You Know Them?


Memons, Khojas, Cheliyas, Moplahs....
How Well Do You Know Them?

The Muslim society has its own communities which have grown and achieved success in a slew of fields. How many of us really know the culture and traditions of the Memons, Khojas, Cheliyas or the Moplahs? In a special series exclusively for Islamic Voice, M. Hanif Lakdawala traces the origin and profiles of various Muslim communities providing intellectual enligtenment to the readers !


By A Staff Writer

Community is the basic foundational unit of the human society. It is the institution, which has survived changes and inspired individuals and groups to attain new heights in various fields. The Muslim society has its own communities, which have grown and achieved tremendous success in a slew of fields. No doubt, different communities have excelled in different fields, hence to group "successful communities" is a tough task.

Starting with this issue, Islamic Voice starts with the series of features on the various Muslim communities. The first is the general feature on the Muslim communities. In subsequent issues, individual communities will be featured.

Different communities who adopted Islam in different ways have different community names. In western India, the entrepreneur Gujarati Muslims - a mix of Memon, Bohra and Khoja, who adopted Islam influenced by different Muslim preachers, are markedly different from Muslims in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Follow their social habits and cultural traits, and the depth of their integration with the local society may surprise you. They neither spearheaded nor actively supported the Pakistan movement. They speak Gujarati, not Urdu. They are religious without being swayed by Muslim orthodoxies.

These three are the leading Muslim business communities with a significant presence in trade and industry. Community networking is the strongest in these three communities and their distinct culture and language act as a binding force. Cheliyas, this prosperous community of Muslims hailing originally from the Palanpur region was earlier in farming and used to supply milch animals to Mumbai. The Cheliyas are a group, which believes in simple living, their saving rates are high, they have no extravagant tastes and very often people from the villages put together their savings to start a hotel or restaurant, dairy farm or sweet- meat shops mainly in Mumbai, and Ahmedabad.

The Muslim communities of the coastal region, such as - Navayats of Bhatkal, Moplahs of the Malabar coast, Labbes of the Coromandal coast and the Bearys of Dakshina Kannada, Kokani of Maharashtra have their own unique traditions, marking it off from the others. Navayaths are the descendants of Arab and Persian immigrants. Navayaths have made a relentless search for their roots and have come up with a plausible answer. They are a small yet significant sect among the Muslims and are living mainly in and around Bhatkal in Karnataka. They have traced their ancestry to the Arab traders of the medieval. The influence of Persian language on the language spoken by the Navayaths is vividly evident and the existence of Persian elements in Navayaths culture strongly propound that a certain percentage of Navayaths hail from Iran. Besides these, Navayaths, however, are of firm opinion that they came from Hadramaut region in the Southeastern Yemen in the early 8th Century A D. The Beary community holds a very important place among the coastal Muslim communities. The Bearys evolved into a distinct community incorporating the Tulu language and culture and taking in the diverse traditions. The contribution of Bearys to the Kannada language is noteworthy

In south India, in the state of Kerala, the Moplah communities are descendants from Arab merchants. Mappila Rebellion of 1921 was a great chapter of India's freedom struggle. It was the expression of the built up frustration and rage amongst Muslims against British Government and landlords. Variyankode Kunhahammad Haji, Ali Musliar and Veliyankod Umar Khazi were the prominent Muslim leaders who led this rebellion. Kokanis of the coastal Maharashtra have made tremendous inroads in mercantile shipping. Most of the Kokanis are either on ship in various capacities or are in the gulf. Because of the remittances of the Gulf-employed and earning of mercantile shipping, Kokani Muslims are investing in education and entering business.

One of the backward communities, which is growing fast, is the Ansari community. They have used the OBC status to gain rapid stride in education. From weavers to professionals in the field such as medical, engineering and others, the progress of the Ansaris is quite visible. On the economic front, Ansaris are doing well. They control a large chunk of textile business in Bhiwandi and Malegaon in Maharastra.

Another well-known Indian Muslim community is the Pathans. The Pathan are Muslims who arrived from Afghanistan. They normally have their surname as Khan. The Pathan have an image of being brave, honest and righteous. Many Indians who adopted Islam adopted the surname Khan and they claim that they are Pathans, which is not always true. The original Pathans claim that they originate from the tribes of Israel.

There are important distinct features of various Muslim communities, which make them exclusive. The components, which make different Muslim communities stand apart from one another, are:

The Racial Components: The racial components that have gone into making the Muslim community are the, Arabs, Turks, Africans, and Mongols. These have got so intertwined that none of them can be found in their pure form in India today. Many settlers professing Islam actually settled here earlier than those today professing Hinduism.

Language: Language is an important source of diversity and unity. Apart from thousands of dialects, at least 65 per cent of the communities are bi-lingual and most rural communities are tri-lingual. The numerous mother tongues are important instruments of cultural expression and preservation of diversity. Language contact through bi- lingualism is a major vehicle for social and cultural interaction.

Occupation: 85 per cent of the Indian Muslim communities are rooted in their resources. The lives and livelihood, the occupations, dress patterns, and hut settlements of the different Muslim communities cannot be really separated from their landscape, climate and occupations deriving from their resources. Experts say, "Rooted-ness in the eco- cultural zone is an outstanding characteristic of our communities, no matter what label is attached to them". Even the migrants seek to identify themselves with their local environment except in the matter of languages they speak at home or in marriages.

55 per cent of the communities derive their names from the traditional occupations they pursue. Say, Bhuiyar (peasant), Alvan (salt maker), Churihar (bangle-maker), Lohar (blacksmith), Bunkar (weaver), Chitrakar (scroll-painter), and also gaddis, gujjars, julahas, dhobis, nai and Qureshi (Butcher)etc. etc. 14 per cent have their names associated with their environment i.e. mountains, plains rivers etc. 14 per cent from their places of origin, such as Mangrolia, Gond, Azmi, Mandankar,Mapla,etc.

Caste categories are also based on occupations. Many surnames derive from occupations pursued, offices traditionally held, and original villages, cutting across community boundaries and region. Patel, Naik, Khan, Khandwani are examples.

(Next issue onwards, each community will be profiled in a series on parameters of entrepreneurship, education, social and cultural development and their philanthropic activities.)

The writer can be reached at
mhl@rediffmail.com

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