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Islamic Traditionalism in a Globalizing World: Sunni Muslim identity in Kerala, South India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 2021

School of Global Studies, University of Sussex Email:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Madras Email:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Madras Email:


In our ethnography among traditionalist Sunni Muslims of Kerala, South India, we observe the emergence of new intellectual critiques of Islamic reformism and a revival of ‘traditional’ Islamic articulations. A new class of traditionalist Sunni ulama, claiming to be ‘turbaned professionals’, plays an instrumental role in providing epistemic sanctioning to ‘traditional’ Islamic piety while simultaneously grounding it within the discourses and processes of neoliberal developmentalism. Such assertions of traditionalist Sunni Muslim identity challenge the conventional understanding of Islamic reformism as a hallmark of the progressive understanding of faith and traditionalism as its ‘anti-modern’ other. The article argues that this discursive shift of Sunni Islamic traditionalism in Kerala since the 1980s from defensive to more assertive forms has to be located in the context of wider socio-economic change within the community facilitated by structural as well as cultural forces of globalization. We point out that this process traverses the local, national, and global scales of identification, and results in intense negotiations between local identifications and ‘true Islamicate global imaginations’. These negotiations bring in new discourses around the question of ‘authentic’ Islamic practices and sensibilities among the traditionalist Sunni Muslims, forcing us to locate the question of their identity formation beyond the boundaries of communities and the nation states that ensconce them.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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The authors thank the two anonymous reviewers of Modern Asian Studies for their extremely helpful comments and suggestions. They also thank Dr Nandagopal Menon and Dr Torsten Tschacher for their valuable comments on the earlier drafts of the article. Thanks are also due to Dr Eleanor Newbigin for her constant support and insightful suggestions throughout the review process.


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27 Menon, ‘Islamic Renaissance’, p. 275.

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35 The madrasa system was established as an alternative to Othupallis, which were fast transforming into schools under the colonial rule that made secular education compulsory in Othupallis in the aftermath of the Malabar rebellion of 1921, arguably intended at combating the ‘religious-fanatic’ spirit of Mappila Muslims.

36 Markaz Rubi Jubilee Souvenir, Kozhikode: Jamia Markazu Saqafathi Sunniyya, 2018, pp. 27–29.

37 Panangangara, ‘Keraleeya Muslim Charithraparisarathil’, p. 152.

38 Ibid., p. 160.

39 Coordination of Islamic Colleges, available at [accessed 9 December 2020].

40 Markazu Tharbiyyathil Islamiyyah, available at [accessed 9 December 2020].

41 Interview with Dr Zubair Hudawi, 19 May 2016.

42 Interview with Mr Abdul Latheef Saqafi, 5 May 2018. Name changed for anonymity.

43 While AP Sunnis cite Samastha's deviation from the traditionalist path as the reason for the split, many leaders of Samastha attribute it to the alleged financial irregularities by Kanthapuram pertaining to Areekadu mosque construction and his friction with other prominent leaders within the organization.

44 The Indian Union Muslim League, established on 10 March 1948, emerged as the single largest political party representing Kerala Muslims in the postcolonial period through a unique engagement of religion-based political mobilization of Muslims with secular-democratic politics in India. It succeeded in negotiating the intra-community rift between traditionalists and reformists to a large extent by articulating the need for political unity among Muslims to deal with the imperatives of post-partition democratic politics while simultaneously pushing the Sunni traditionalists towards ideas of moderate reform for community development and progress. See, Wright, T. P. Jr, ‘The Muslim League in South India since Independence: A Study in Minority Group Political Strategies’, The American Political Science Review, vol. 60, no. 3, 1966, pp. 579599CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chiriyankandath, J., ‘Changing Muslim Politics in Kerala: Identity, Interests and Political Strategies’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 16, no. 2, 1996, pp. 257271CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Santhosh, R. and Visakh, M. S., ‘Muslim League in Kerala: Exploring the Question of “Being Secular”’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 55, no. 7, 2020, pp. 5057Google Scholar.

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54 Markaz Knowledge City, ‘Education’.

55 Relief and Charitable Foundation of India, ‘Share to Care’, available at [accessed 9 December 2020].

56 SYS Sixty Year Souvenir, Kozhikode: IPB Books, 2015, p. 12.

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60 Manthrichoothal, as it is popularly known among traditional Muslims in Kerala, is a ritual practised by Sunni clergy in which they spit/blow into a bowl of water to treat ailments and to ward off evils.

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67 The Sunni traditionalists point out that the radical Islamic puritanical strand within reformism is not altogether new, as one finds early signs of it in the close ties that mujahid movement had developed with Arab religious scholars and Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia such as Umm al Qura University (founded in 1949) in Mecca, Muhammad ibn Saud of Riyadh (founded in 1953), and Islamic University of Madina (founded in 1961) that facilitated Salafi theological indoctrination (colloquially referred to as Saudi Salafism) among Kerala's Muslims during the early years of reform.

68 While the group led by Hussain Madavoor (also referred to as the Markazudawa faction) provided a broader definition of the idea of dawat to include volunteerism and social activism, the official leaders of KNM insisted on its strict interpretation as religious propagation. The Madavoor group's active involvement in the highly acclaimed palliative-care movement of Kerala, for instance, owes much to such forms of secular Islamic activism of this group.

69 M. P. Prashanth, a journalist in Kozhikode who assiduously follows the intra-community debates within Kerala Muslims, puts the number of splinter groups among mujahids at present as six: KNM official faction, KNM Markazudawa, Wisdom Islamic Organization, Dammaji Subair Mankada group (Ilmusalaf telegram group that is against Yahya Hajoorie), Dammaji Hajoorie group (Al Ilmia telegram group), and Zakkariya Swalahi group.

70 A case has also been registered against Salafi preacher Shamsudheen Palath for delivering hate speeches with the intent of instigating communal divide and disrupting the communal harmony. In the controversial speech delivered in 2014 at Karapparamb (Kozhikode district), Shamsudheen Palath invoked the concept of Al-Wala-Wal_Bara to argue that abstaining from all sorts of genuine emotional and affectionate relationships with non-Muslims (Kafirs) and strong displays of intolerance against them remain fundamental to dawah and the propagation of towhid.

71 Reports suggest that the Muslim youth who fled to ‘join the Caliphate’ were heavily influenced by Salafi ideology and some were even closely linked to the Peace International School, an educational institution run by Salafi activist M. M. Akbar. In many of the propaganda messages sent by these ISIS recruits through digital platforms such as Telegram and WhatsApp, one finds constant references to the impossibility of living in a multi-cultural society such as Kerala as a ‘true’ Muslim. Marked by a condemnation of traditional religious practices including modes of religious education, they emphasize the prospects of understanding ‘true’ Islam through the Internet and an open acknowledgement of Salafi theological indoctrination for helping to understand hijra and the commitment to violent jihad. See M. Varier, ‘Voice Note by ISIS Terrorist Declares Peace School in Kerala Has Their Supporters’, The News Minute, published online on 10 April 2018, available at [accessed 9 December 2020].

72 M. P. Prashanth, ‘KNM Faction to Drop “Salafi” Tag, Adopt “Islahi”’, The Times of India, published online on 8 February 2019, available at [accessed 9 December 2020].

73 M. P. Prashanth, ‘The Sufi Question’, The Times of India, published online on 13 May 2017, available at [accessed 9 December 2020].

74 Menon, ‘What Do Polemics Do?’, p. 129.

75 Ibid., p. 128.

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80 Ibid., p.278.

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83 Ibid., p. 108.

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85 ‘Kerala Niqab Row: Withdraw Circular, or Face Action, Warns Samastha’, The Times of India, published online on 14 May 2019, available at [accessed 9 December 2020].

86 See Devika, J., ‘Rockets with Fire in Their Tails? Women Leaders in Kerala's Panchayats’, in Interrogating Women's Leadership and Empowerment, Goyal, O. (ed.), New Delhi: Sage, 2015, pp. 42– 53Google Scholar.

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88 Kersten, ‘Islamic Post-traditionalism’, p. 487.

89 A. R. Ottathingal, ‘When Sufis Challenge the Dictates of Keralite Islamic Organizations’, Café Dissensus, published online on 27 October 2013, available at [accessed 9 December 2020].

90 Sufi shrines such as Mamburam Makham near Malappuram and C.M. Waliullahi (Madavoor) dargah near Kozhikode have become cites of contention between EK and AP Sunni groups of late.

91 Hefner, ‘Multiple Modernities’, pp. 83–104.

92 Ibid., p. 98.

94 See Kooria, M. and Pearson, M. N. (eds.), Malabar in the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism in a Maritime Historical Region, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018Google Scholar; Prange, S. R., Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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