Chronicle of an Exiled Scholar | Other Books

Book History

Chronicle of an Exiled Scholar

Local historians were instrumental in getting the history of Malabar recorded in the annals of South Asia. Malabar is blessed with some genuine history enthusiasts like KK Abdul Kareem, Abdul Rahiman Mangattu and Balakrishnan Vallikkunnu, who set out their journeys in search of manuscripts and narratives thereby making the lore of their land. Their motives were not a chair in prestigious universities or hefty grants from government bodies. They wanted to know how their forefathers lived and how the land where they were living was preserved despite diverse, distinct religious groups existing side by side. They are the true champions of history.

Of them, KK Muhammad Abdul Kareem was the pioneer, the bird which flew ahead of others. One of the avid historical interests of Kareem Mash-as he was fondly called-was the settlement of the Hadhrami diaspora, known in the seafaring regions as both traders and scholars, in Malabar and their dynamic socio-political intervention in the region. The diaspora had roots in Yemen, especially Hadhramaut and Zafar. A lineage of these scholars came to settle in Mampuram, near Tirurangadi, from 18th century onwards. The first among them was Sheikh Jifri Pokooya Tangal. He was succeeded by Syed Alwi Pookoya Tangal, the most revered of all Syeds in the tradition and by Syed Fazl Pookoya Tangal, a cosmopolitan in the sense of the word then extent. They were the spiritual guardians of Muslims, playing the role of juris scholars or Qadis. Their religious edicts proscribing caste regulation endeared them to the lower caste sections who converted to Islam to preserve their social status. This had enormous impact on the feudal agrarian system of the region  in which the lower caste sections were indentured labourers. The elites from all religious sections sided against them and with the help of the British crushed the agrarian rebellion which came to be organised with their blessings. Eventually, Syed Fazl Pookoya Tangal, was expelled by the British with the help of local elite leaders. He was the last member in the lineage who donned the robe of a spiritual mentor in Tirurangadi. After his expulsion he came to settle in Istanbul as a diplomat of the Ottoman Caliph. When the India's struggle for independence was in its heyday, freedom fighters like Muhammad Abdul Rahman tried to bring Syed back to Kerala believing that his presence would add hope and morale to the freedom struggle. The plan got foiled and Syed Fazl, who came somewhere close to the land, went back. He died in Turkey and was buried in Istanbul.

KK Muhammad Abdul Kareem was the prime chronicler of Hadhrami Syeds. He gathered manuscripts in which their eulogies and narratives are recorded. He preserved them for the coming generations of historians to read and retell. The fact his son KK Muhammad Abdul Sathar, former head of the history department, PSMO College, became one among them was, in the language of Roland E Miller, the continuity of a scholar chain. As Kareem Mash introduced Syed Alawi to the readers of Malayalam, Sathar Mash narrated Syed Fazl's life to a global audience in English. Perhaps, the cosmopolitanism of Fazl Tangal, glaringly suggested by the Cosmopolitan nature of Indian nationalism with Caliphate in its focus and with a prime agenda of installing Syed Fazl in the forefront, deserved a lingua franca, though ironically that of those who expelled him, to make him known to the world.

Sathar Mash's initial idea was to narrate the chronicle of all Syeds in the lineage. That was the thesis of his doctorate which he submitted to Other Books to consider for a book. Other Books Managing Editor Auswaf Ahsan singled Syed Fazl among the scholars owing to his aforementioned cosmopolitanism and to the fact that the agrarian revolution in Malabar reached the acme during the Lordship of Syed Fazl in the region. Syed Alawi's and Sheikh Jifri's career was more religious than socio-political in nature revolving especially around the bitter factionalism with the Kondotty Tangal. Dr Auswaf wanted the book to continue where Tuhfat al Mujahidin, the first ever title by Other Books, stopped.

Dr Auswaf had in mind a book, which should attract readers beyond academia. So a half journalistic, and half academic style can be ideal for the book. He roped in Shameer KS, who was listlessly shuttling between the New Indian Express news desk at Shivaji Nagar and a decrepit quarters in the narrow alleyway at Madivala in Bangalore. Shameer agreed to work in association with Sathar Mash. Shameer's affair with Other Books outlasted the book so much that he became one of the editors of Other Books.

An important event in the history of the book was the process of naming it. For Lord; Against all Lords was suggested in the beginning. But that appeared to imitate KN Panikker's title for a book-Against Lord and State. Dr Auswaf wanted the word Mappila in the title. The word Mappila was given arguably to early Christian and Muslim settlers and was not used in the beginning for foreign settlers. So to call Syed Fazl a Mappila is a token of respect for him. Syed Fazl inspired his struggle more with his absence than with his presence. Exile thus becomes a catalyst for social change. Muhammad Abdul Rahman Sahib realised that when he tried to bring Syed Fazl back to Malabar. So Mappila Leader in Exile became an apt title for the political biography of a scholar renowned in a renowned tradition.

All editors wanted the book to eschew cliches in the academic studies on Mappila lives. These cliches are caused by anachronistic reading of Marxian and other historical canons back into the text. Always there is a framework of an exploiter and the exploited. The ensuing struggle and tension came to acquire emotionalism and drama and high flown propaganda registers are used to describe the narrative.

Though Other Books set a standard for getting history narratives recast in an objective, and a post colonialist paradigm, we have yet to go far  to develop a language of our own in which history gets written. Many readers asked us to shed more light on Syed Fazl's career in Istanbul in the coming editions of the book than on the much-heard tales in the land.

Many readers, especially in foreign countries, struck friendship with us after reading the book. Engseng Ho, the Duke University anthropologist was one among them.