KONKANI MUSLIMS SINCE THE NINETEENTH CENTURY – Masjid Alfalah

KONKANI MUSLIMS SINCE THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

According to a British colonial official Arthur Crawford “The Konkan Mahommadan occasionally settles in the Deccan; he is to be found at Poona, but is to be seen at his best in a comparatively small region, to wit, the Khed and Dapoolie talukas, sub-districts of Ratanagiri. There will be found a few small clusters of villages, situated not only on the borders of the Jogabarree and Washistee rivers, but lying well inland also, which, with the exception of just enough Mahratta cultivators to carry on farm labor, and a few Mahars to act as watchmen, guides and messengers, are entirely populated by Mahommedans, who at once impress the observer as worthy of special study. Their dress to begin with, is remarkable, in as much as they surmount the usual Mahommedan jacket, shirt and pyjamas, with a large Brahminical turban, casting a scarf or shawl round their necks, very much in the fashion of that worn by Brahmins in gala dress. Somehow the costume, incongruous as it may appear from this description, goes exceedingly well with the grave demeanor, handsome features, and dignified bearing of the wearers. They are usually rather above average height and always well built, with small, well-proportioned hands and feet; their profiles are clear cut, the nose generally aquiline; full frank eyes, and massive foreheads; the whole betokening their descent from the best Mahommedan blood in India. Their presence as superior landowners in this out-of-the-way part of western India, is very difficult to account for; but probably their ancestors received grants of their lands for services performed during the Beejapur and Mogul dynasties. Judging from the number of ruined mosques and “peer’s” (saints) tombs scattered about, there must have been rather a large Mahommedan population in that neighborhood at some time or other before the Peishwa’s raj. Large numbers of them, however, abandoned their lands and villages as they became surrounded by Brahmin and Mahratta Khotes (middlemen or farmers of revenue). A few of the wealthier of the best of the old families only remain now, and many of these are dying out or have been driven by adverse circumstances to seek a livelihood elsewhere. Mahommedans are invariably kind and liberal landlords, but they are shockingly bad farmers and cultivators, and their personal expenditure is lavish and extravagant compared with that of their Hindu neighbours. As a natural consequence, they fall an easy prey to local usurers, who are the real owners of most of their villages now.Great numbers of these Mahommedans flocked to the service of the British government during the settlement of the Konkan after the overthrow of the Peishwa [in 1818]: they were largely employed in the Customs Department, and many of the first mamlutdar and mahalkarees (middlemen or farmers of revenue) were taken from the old Mahommedan families at and near Bankote and the Khed subdistricts, where the Parkars, Potrocks, Sajanees and others were very influential and very deservedly respected. The chief revenue official in 1820 was a splendid old gentleman, the head of the Parkars of Bankote, who despite his advanced age, insisted on leading the stormers at the capture of several forts by Colonel Prothero and other commanders. Several of his descendants rose to high official rank in various departments, and one of them was very many years ago, State Karbharee (prime minister) to the late Nawab of Janjira. When I first went to Ratnagiri in 1859-60, Mr. Turquand’s chitnis (secretary) was a Mahommedan: there were also two Mahommedan mamlutdars and several mahalkarees. Gradually the Brahmins have shouldered them out of every post: impoverished and apathetic, their families have been indifferently educated, so that they have never qualified for government service, except in the lower grades of the police. ‘Tis a thousand pities! For the Konkanee Mussalman is intelligent, resolute, faithful, and thoroughly to be depended upon in an emergency.”

RISE OF BOMBAY AND KONKANI MUSLIM MIGRATION

When the English, French, and other European East India Companies opened their direct trade with India in the seventeenth century, their activities centered on the rich commercial provinces of Gujarat, Bengal, and peninsular India along the Malabar and Coromandel coasts. On the west coast the commercial magnet was Surat, the chief Mogul port, where the English utilized the existing commercial infrastructure, availability of merchandise, shipping facilities, and access to its inland and oceanic communication network. By contrast, the Konkan coast attracted only minor and sporadic European contact in the form of smaller factories at Rajapur (English and French), Malvan (English) and Vengrula (Dutch) with the major exception of Bombay. Among other reasons, the Mogul ban on foreign fortifications in their territories compelled the English to look for an alternative site, and Bombay became that site after it was ceded by the Portuguese to the English in 1661. Gradually Bombay emerged as the center of trade and commerce. The spread of western education in the mid nineteenth century coupled with the introduction of industrial technology in the fields of cotton textile manufacture and railway construction accelerated Bombay’s growth. Thus in the later half of the nineteenth century, Bombay emerged as the cotton mill center of India and as a major terminus on the extensive railway network which spanned the entire subcontinent. Bombay’s oceanic communications improved vastly with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which made it the chief Indian port city closest to Britain. The Konkan port towns, usually smaller than the inland towns were completely dwarfed by Bombay. With the emergence of Bombay as the industrial, educational, economic and communication center of India, the people of Konkan were attracted to the city in search of job opportunities.

The shrine and tomb of the saint Shaykh Makhdum Faqih Mahaimi, also known as Ali Paru dates from 1431, indicating Muslim presence in Bombay centuries before it became the great metropolis. The better known shrine and tomb of Haji Ali on an island in the little bay that was once the mouth of the Great Breach does not appear in any account or map of the city until late nineteenth century.

The influx to Bombay included the Konkani Muslims too. Muslims began settling in Bombay as early as the beginning of the 18th century, in Mahim, the northernmost of the seven original islands making Bombay. They were attracted to Bombay by the maritime nature of its European occupants, settled there and amassed wealth first as ship’s masters and sailors, and then as merchants and shipowners The great success stories of Bombay magnates are those of the Parsis, Marwaris, and the Gujaratis, but “similar riches were made by those Konkani Muslim families, such as the Kurs, the Roghays, and the Ghattays, who entered the China trade and also traded in pearls with Madras. Muhammad Ali Roghay, who earned the title Nacoda (nakhuda) because of the large number of ships he owned, traded in China in partnership with one of the [Parsi] Readymoneys. The Konkani Muslim shetias (magnates) had a considerable advantage in the trade, because, like the Parsis, their community had long been associated with shipbuilding.

Konkani Muslims later on settled in the eastern part of the native quarter of Bombay, near where the Jama Masjid was built around Dongri fort on a tank and gardens belonging to a Konkani Muslim. This Konkani Muslim was none other than Muhammad Ali Roghay, who also enlarged and repaired the Jama Masjid in 1830s. Construction of this mosque began in 1775 and completed in 1808. The Jama Masjid is Bombay’s most important mosque and lies in the commercial center. Located at the junction of Shaykh Memon Street and Janjikar Street, it forms the most important landmark on this important road. A symphony of domes and minarets with ornate entrances, the mosque has a two storied prayer hall, which is a recurring feature in all Mumbai mosques. The second story has a tiled sloping roof designed to take into account the heavy rainfall during the monsoons. A special feature of the Jama Masjid is its large pool on which the prayer hall is built. Water is pumped up to the ablution area.

URDU LANGUAGE, EDUCATION AND IDENTITY

Konkani Muslims are fluent in Konkani, an Indo-Aryan language grammatically and structurally close to and written in Marathi script. Konkani is the official language of Goa, a neighboring state. The Konkani dialect spoken by Muslims is heavily infused with words of Arabic and Persian origin. But Konkani was not used by the Muslim intelligentsia for scholarship, barring a handful of religious tracts transcribed in it using the Urdu letters.

Konkani remains the common language of public communication in the rural area, and in semi-urban and urban areas Urdu is often an alternative language. Children are taught to learn and memorize the Qur’an for use in the five prescribed daily prayers. The knowledge of Arabic is restricted to a very small class of people who have had access to schools of higher Islamic education. Many Konkani ulama wrote scholarly works on Qur’an and Islamic studies, exemplified by the cases of Ahmad ibn Abd al-Qadir Konkani, (d. 1320.) and Shaykh Abd Allah Konkani (d. 1325.) and the better known Shaykh Makhdum Ali Mahaimi (1372-1431) in the medieval period, and the case of Shaykh Abd al-Samad Sharaf al-Din (1901-1906) in our own time.

Leaving aside this small group of scholars, common Konkani Muslims, like their coreligionists in the 19th century Bombay Province lagged far behind Hindus and Parsis in education, as noted by the government reports of the time. The difficulties facing Muslims in acquiring modern education were recognized by the more enlightened members of the faith. One of the original members of the Bombay Board of Education, a Konkani Muslim named Muhammad Ibrahim Muqba, had been successively munshi to the East India Company cadets, interpreter to the Supreme Court and magistrate of the Court of Petty Session. He was very much aware of the need to create an interest in higher English education among Muslims, and had himself founded an Urdu school in Bombay and prepared books for it. Although the school did not prosper, it produced at least one pupil who continued his education until 1840 at the Elphinstone Institution. This was Ghulam Muhammad Munshi, the grandson of an Ahmadabad Muslim who had prospered in Bombay as a laundryman for washing Europeans’ clothes. Munshi sought and received, after initial hesitation, the cooperation of Muslim commercial magnates of Bombay to establish educational institutions for children of the community, his efforts accelerated after a visit to Aligarh and contacts with Sayyid Ahmad Khan there.The first to lend a hand was the Tayyibji family of Sulaymani Bohras, headed by brothers Qamar al-Din and Badr al-Din. The Tayyibjis had already formed an organization of their own to feed, clothe, and educate boys of their community who managed to get to Elphinstone High School. Their endeavors in assisting Munshi attracted the interest and friendship of Muhammad Ali Roghay, (1852-1910) the man who had helped build the Jama Masjid. Roghay though in his early twenties, was a landlord of great wealth and position.

Roghay had been well educated and was influenced by the ideas of Sayyid Ahmad Khan, to which he advanced his even more liberalism. ‘His ideas were all of the most modern type,’ remarked the Victorian traveler and Islamophile Wilfrid S. Blunt, after meeting him 1883, ‘far too modern on some point to please me. Roghay’s interest in Sayyid Ahmad Khan brought him into contact with Ghulam Muhammad Munshi when the latter returned to Bombay from a visit to Northern India. He called on Roghay and described to him the anjumans that had been established to help Muslims in several cities, Roghay consulted the Tayyibjis, and in March 1876 the Anjuman-i Islam of Bombay was founded. The Anjuman’s aim was “the amelioration of the Mohammedan community and to effect some improvement in their education, and moral and social state.” 43 From 1874 to 1880 Qamar al-Din Tayyibji was its President and Roghay its Vice-President. In 1889, Roghay rose to be the President of the Anjuman remaining in office until 1890. When the first school of the Anjuman opened, Roghay rose to the occasion with a princely donation of 10,000 making him the largest single donor. The Anjuman, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 1986, is the premier educational institution founded by Muslims for Muslim education in Maharahstra today .

In addition to imparting modern education, its role in the spread of Urdu among Konkani and other Muslims is clearly crucial. The language of instruction of the Anjuman schools is Urdu, and it runs as many as 25 schools in Mumbai, Pune, and several towns of Konkan. The example of the Anjuman was replicated in other neighboring towns, in Bhiwandi for instance by the Kokan Muslim Education Society (KMES) founded in 1927 with a number of schools. In late 1999 the KMES was in the process of establishing a medical school.

A detailed study of Urdu schools in the region from 1903-95, entitled Konkan main Urdu taalim, by Abd al-Rahim Nishtar shows the growth of Urdu schools in the area. The Konkani Muslims today are equally at ease in Urdu as well as native Konkani. Their socialization with the Urdu speaking Deccani and North Indian Muslims resident in Mumbai and elsewhere accelerated familiarity with Urdu. As Urdu is the richest repository of literature in Islamic studies, and since it is associated with the aristocratic culture of Deccan and North India through its status as the language of power, authority, and law courts, it began to be widely adopted by Bombay Muslims such as the Konkanis and the Tayyibji family as far back as the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century, the spread of Urdu, particularly through poetic symposia called mushairas and mystical music called qawwali performed at the Islamic shrines further intensified the familiarity with Urdu. Movies produced in the Bombay studios erroneously certified as Hindi films, with high content of Urdu songs and dialogs played their own role in the popularization of Urdu. The advent of radio and television quite literally brought Urdu programs to homes almost everywhere in the region.

The Konkani intelligentsia is now thoroughly Urduized. In this process of Urduization, defined as the learning of Urdu, its use in formal education and mass communication, the role played by the monthly journal Naqsh-Kokan, published since 1962 is crucial. The Naqsh is a virtual chronicle of the Konkani Muslim society and its institutions for more than three decades. Led by its energetic founder Dr.Abd al-Karim Naik, its publications in Urdu on Konkani history and culture are the primary source of information indispensable for any understanding of the Konkani Muslim community today.

The efforts of the Naqsh is supplemented by other literary associations such Konkan Urdu Writers’ Guild, which publishes a quarterly journal Tarsil since 1994.

The wholesale adoption of Urdu by the Konkani Muslims has brought the group into the mainstream of Urdu culture of the Deccan and North India, in the same manner as it has the Panjabi, Kashmiri, Memon, and Meo Muslims of India and Pakistan, in contrast to the indifference of the Bohras and Khojas toward Urdu. If several generations of Kokanis receive their basic education in Urdu, it is likely that most will be homogenized with the Urdu speakers in the rest of India.

SOCIAL STRATIFICATION AMONG KONKANI MUSLIMS

The Konkani Muslims are divided into at least two major categories, namely those who are the progeny of Arab intermarriages with the women of the cultivating castes, and those who are converts to Islam. The former are known as the Jamaatis, and the later as Daldis; the later however, resent this term and prefer being called Mahigir (fishermen), another indication of the desire of some Konkanis for Arabic/Persian terms instead of Indian, which can be interpreted as another instance of homogenization with the Urdu speaking Muslim communities. The Jamaatis are conscious and proud of their Arab ancestry and constitute the elite group. The Mahigirs are the descendants of the Kolis, the Konkan fishermen. The Mahigirs continue their traditional occupation even in the late 1990s. The two Konkani groups are spatially differentiated due to occupational differences. Mahigirs live in the fishing villages by the creeks, whereas the Jamaatis are mainly concentrated in the inland villages as agriculturists and as those involved in forestry and mango orchards.

The Konkanis possess most of the important attributes of an ethnic group. Like the Moplahs of Malabar, they are the progeny of Arab immigrants and Indian women, they speak the same dialect of Konkani language, and marry among themselves, in anthropological terms they are generally endogamous. Yet, according to A.R. Momin, “the Konkani Muslim community has a well defined system of ranking and stratification. Topmost in the hierarchy are those who distinguish themselves from the rest on account of purity of descent and ancestral nobility. Families with surnames like Faqih, Farid, Khatib, Patel, Burbere, Narvil, Hani, Qazi, Tase, [among others] and Muallim belong to this category. Next come people with surnames like Chivne, Bolinjkar, Bhoje, and Jairumi. They are considered to be lower down in the hierarchy on account of differences in occupation and family background.

Some of them are believed to have married or kept Hindu women in the nearby villages and so their families carry a stigma.
Lower than these two are the Wazah (or Wajas as they are locally known). The Wazahs were traditionally a weaving sub-caste. Some of them formerly used to sell dried fish which is considered to be a lowly occupation in the Konkani Muslim subculture. Until quite recently, the Wazahs were supposed to be next to the lowest in the hierarchy, almost to the extent of being outside the group. They used to live in separate localities. Until a few years ago, there used to be no intermarriage between the Wazahs and other Konkani Muslims. Till very recently, the Wazahs did not observe purdah which the Konkani Muslims of Bhiwandi consider to be a mark of backwardness.

Of late the Konkani Muslims have started giving their girls in marriage to the Wazahs as a consequence of the impact of industrialization, Islamization and the spread of modern education. However, this privilege is restricted to those Wazah boys who have acquired wealth and education and have thereby raised their status in the social hierarchy. At the lowest rung of the hierarchy are the Telis. The Telis are oil-pressers. They came to Bhiwandi from the neighboring villages. Though settled among the Konkani Muslims, they were barely considered a part of the group. Their dialect, rituals and customs are the same as those of the Konkanis, but there is no intermarriage between them and the latter”.

Finally, a group of Muslims known as “Chorvad” (in Raigarh district) are considered to be the illegitimate offspring of Konkani Muslim landlords and Koli peasant women.

The expansion of communication network leading to ease, frequency, and decreasing cost of travel led to greater socialization between and among various sub-groups of the Konkani Muslims. Spread of modern education universally tends to level the ground between various groups, and the Konkanis are no exception. The leveling of ground is greatly aided by accelerating Islamization (defined in our context as the rejection of beliefs, customs, rituals, and structures originating from non-Islamic sources and the adoption of the Islamic notion of the equality of believers, (female and male) further decreasing the boundaries between Konkani sub-groups. However, marriages are still arranged by the parents, although independent mate selection commonly known as “love marriages” through contacts at college and work place is not uncommon. Most middle class Konkani Muslim families prefer marriage within their own group, failing which second preference is given to the Deccani Muslims, followed by other Urdu speaking Muslims. Considerations of education, occupation, and wealth are always present in negotiations for marriage, as is the case in any other ethnic group, thus A.R. Momin reports Konkani intermarriages with upwardly mobile Momins of Bhiwandi.

Divorce and remarriage is rare among the Konkanis, but it is likely that both may increase as a result of expanding modernization and westernization. Marriage age for women has increased as a result of longer years spent in college education. An inadvertent outcome of large scale male migration is the relaxation of purdah among Jamaati women in Ratnagiri as women are forced into roles and responsibilities held previously by men, according to A. R. Saiyed.