Konkani / Kokani Muslims is a Muslim sub-ethnic group of Maharashtrian Muslims living in the Konkan region of India. They speak the Konkani language. A good number of them live in Mumbai. There is a large Konkani Muslim diaspora community of economic migrants working in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, the UK, the USA and South Africa (where they have been established for almost a century).
Muslims from the Maharashtrian districts of Raigad, Thane, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg and Goa state are generally regarded as Konkani Muslims. The Muslims of Southern Raigad and Ratnagiri district speak a dialect of the Marathi language called Bankoti/Sangameshwari, while those from southern Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg and Goa speak the Konkani language. Muslim people of south Sindhudurg near Malvan and the former Maratha princely states of Sawantwadi and Oros speak a dialect of Marathi / Konkani called Malvani language.
Konkani Muslims trace their ancestry back to the Arab traders who arrived on the Western coast of India during the medieval era while some are descended from intermarriages with converts. In medevial times there was trading between the ports in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Yemen and the Indian ports of Sopara, Goa and Mahim. One of the Princely States of India, the Janjira State in the Konkan region was politically dominated by Konkani Muslims but ruled by the Siddis . Although the Siddis had settled in India, they are supposed to originate from Habash (Modern day Ethiopia).
Muslims of the Konkan and Malabar coasts represent the oldest Islamic settlements in India. The most obvious characteristic of these Muslims is the common origin as maritime mercantile communities. In addition to their status as the vanguards of Islam in India, they are especially interesting to students of Islam in the Indian Subcontinent, because they evolved in areas of continuing upper caste Hindu political and social dominance. Muslims first arrived in the Konkan in 699, according to Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, less than 70 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad in circa 632. In other words some Muslims were already present in India a decade before the invasion of Sindh by Muhammad Bin Qasim in 711. Thus Konkani Muslims, along with the Moplahs are among the oldest Muslim communities in India. In the 1300 years of their existence, they have been acutely conscious of being Muslim as well as being perceived as such by others. Throughout their long history, the Konkani Muslims have overcome the triple challenges of surviving the assimilative power of syncretistic Hinduism, the crusading zeal of the Portuguese backed by their armed invasions in the sixteenth century, and the subsequent challenge posed by westernization as represented by the British colonial power. Surviving as a distinct Muslim community is no small achievement particularly when seen in the light of the fact there were no Muslim political powers to protect them when they first landed, nor when the power of Muslim sultanates waned in the eighteenth century. The story of the Konkani Muslims despite its antiquity and success is a mystery to most outsiders. Among the Konkani Muslims, the community’s history is not known in a clear, systematic manner either. A Review of Literature on the Konkani Muslims Beyond the scattered and occasional references to the Konkani Muslims in the writings of travelers and geographers, there is no detailed account of the Konkanis in sociological or anthropological literature. Indian sociologist Victor S. d’Souza, author of The Navayats of Kanara informs us that he had "made a detailed field study of the cultural traits of the Navayats of the Deccan and the Konkani Muslims too," , though it appears to have remained unpublished. The late Professor A.R. Saiyed (1931-89) conducted research entitled "Muslims of Konkan: An Explorative [sic] Study," but it never materialized beyond an investigation of purdah among the Konkani women. Some years (1989-94) later Muhi al-Din Mumin received a grant from the Indian Council of Historical Research to study the Konkani Muslim communities in the medieval period. However, I have not been able to see it as a published work. A.R. Momin did a comparative study of the social mobility among Muslims in Bhiwandi comparing the Konkanis and the weavers called Momins. So far as I have been able to locate, no other studies of the Konkani Muslims are available. What follows then is my own research based on published materials dispersed in various writings and also on personal interviews conducted with community activists, field observations in Mumbai, and informed journalists in the Konkan.
Saint Makhdoom Ali Mahimi
Makhdoom Ali Mahimi (1372-1431) was a Sufi saint from the Konkan in India, widely acknowledged for his scholarly treatise, liberal views and humanist ideals. Mahimi was born into a family of Arab travellers who had settled down on the island of Mahim, one of the seven islands that later formed the city of Bombay (now Mumbai).
Not much is known of his early childhood. He later became the disciple of Mohiuddin Ibne Arabi, a Spanish based saint revered by Muslims. Mahimi's reputation grew after the Sultan of Gujarat, Ahmed Shah of the Muzaffarid dynasty, chose him to be the town's Qazi (the head Muslim cleric of a town).
Mahimi was the first Indian scholar to have written an exegesis on the Qur'an, which gained critical acclimation from numerous Islamic scholars including Shah Waliullah. Authoring a total of nineteen books, he was given the moniker Qutb-e -Kokan (Kokan's Pole Star). Mahimi is revered by both the Muslims and Hindus, all Muslim sects hold him in high esteem. After his death in 1431, he was buried in Mahim itself. The site later became a Dargah (shrine) for devotees.
Early Muslim Settlements
From time immemorial there had been traffic between the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and India. India’s west coasts of Gujarat, Konkan, and Malabar traded with countries of the western Indian Ocean. The Arabs had shown themselves to be brave and skillful seamen; the term Arabian Sea was no misnomer for the western part of the Indian Ocean. Long before the Greeks first entered Asia, the Arabs had crossed the ocean to India and had penetrated the countries of South East Asia. Much before the Portuguese appeared in Asian waters, the Arabs had made themselves familiar with the eastern coast of Africa almost as far as its southern tip. They came to trade and not to conquer. But like the Christians in later times, they had their coastal settlements, and had intermarried with the local inhabitants.
In circa 699, a group of Arabs in Basra left the province to escape the tyrannical Ummayad Governor Hajaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi. These refugees evidently found welcome on the Konkan coast. The region from Khambat in Gujarat to Chawl in Konkan came under the control of the Raskhtrakutas who ruled for some two centuries between 733-975 from Malkhed. Although they were ‘infidels’ as the Arab traveler Masudi says, "amongst the kings of Sindh and Hind none treat the Muslims who are established in their domains with more distinction than the Ballahara (i.e. the Rashtrakutas). In the cities of the Ballahara kingdom the Muslims ‘were honored and protected’ and they were allowed to erect their own mosques. Masudi writes that the largest settlement was that of about 10,000 in the district of Saymur (Chawl). These were a permanently established group by the tenth century, with ancestors who had come from Siraf (Persia), Oman, Hadramawt, Basra, Baghdad, and other cities in the Middle East, now ‘wearing the same dresses and having their beards grow in the same manner as the infidels.’ Masudi refers to them as Bayasira (singular Baysari), explaining that this means they are ‘Muslim born in al-Hind of Muslims parents. From among the merchants of great distinction, one was customarily appointed by the Ballahara as the head (Hamza) of the Muslim community. Consequently, even though Muslims were excluded from political power, ‘none but Muslims ruled over them on the part of the Ballahara (min qibali Ballahara). The Persian traveler Buzurg ibn Shariyar of Ram-Hurmuz was familiar with a man from Siraf, Abbas ibn Mahan, who was the chief of Saymur. More information is available in the writings of classical geographers such as Yaqut Hamawi (d. 1229) in his Mujam al-buldan written in 1154 and in al-Idrisi’s (d. 1166) Nuzhat al-mushtaq in 1224. The Arab geographers’ account of Muslims is confirmed by Sanskrit epigraphic evidence in the tenth century. This occurs in a grant of Rashtrakuta monarch, Indra III (reigned 915-28), found at theseaport town of Chinchani in Thane. The Chinchani inscription records the recipient of a land grant whose name is Mohamati, which a modern scholar David Pingree identifies as the Sanskritization of Muhammad. Ranabir Chakravarti, another scholar familiar with Sanskrit epigraphy, has arrived at the same conclusions. What is clear from the scattered writings of the early medieval travelers and geographers is that Muslims of Arab extraction were present in clusters from the close of the seventh century on the Konkan coast, and kept arriving until the middle of the tenth century. They enjoyed religious freedom to build and worship in mosques, and the local rulers granted them a degree of internal autonomy to the extent that a Muslim ruled his coreligionists on behalf of the Raja. The fact that some Arab merchants settled in India meant that at least some of the profits of the overseas trade remained in the country. A Dutch factor Pieter van der Broecke encountered Arab merchants settled in India wherever he turned in the Red Sea-Hadramawt area in early 17th century.
Nawayats and Konkani Muslims
The various Muslim communities that sprang up on the Konkan coast of India in the seventh century share three common characteristics: the first is a common origin in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf region, second is a common adherence to the Shafi’i madhab, or school of Islamic law, (founded by Imam Shafii, d. 819) and finally the common descent from Arab mariners and merchants. Among these communities at least three groups came to be called Nawayats. The name appears in a variety of forms in Arabic, Urdu and English, including Nait, Naiti spelled with the letters "ta" or "te". The mariners among the Arabs and Persians of the time were no doubt called Na-Khuda, a combination of Naav (Boat) and Khuda (Lord), both words of Old Persian. The composite word thus means "Boat-Lord". The Arab and Persian Na-Khudas have been translated into English as mariners, sailors, sea-farers, ship captains, ship owners, and the like. There is controversy among the Nawayat scholars and academic researchers regarding this term. Based on a detailed and sophisticated philological analysis D.V. Chauhan has concluded in his important study that "the term Navait in the Arabo-Iranian historical sources and also in Indian languages is in fact the Prakritisation of the Arabo-Iranian term navakidh, shipowners." The term "navakhidh" (correct transliteration nawakhid) is most likely to have become "nawayat" as persuasively argued by D.V. Chauhan. Regardless of the origin and meaning of the term Nawayat, it is clear that there are three groups of Muslims who are descended from the Arab immigrants and their progeny and dispersed to various parts of western and southern India. The first group of Nawayats are those who live predominantly in the town of Bhatkal, in North Kanara district in the southern state of Karnataka. The second group of Nawayats are those who live, among other places, in Chennai (Madras) and Hyderabad. The Chennai and Hyderabad Nawayats are closely linked with ties of kinship and intermarriage. According to the Gazetteer of the Bombay City and Island "the Muslims of the coast of Bombay State now styled Konkanis were formerly known as Naitias or Navayats Our concern heretofore is with the third group of historical Nawayats who were initially called Nawayat but are now known as Konkani Muslims inhabiting the region of Konkan as described earlier.
Muslim Conquest of the Deccan and Konkan
The Muslim position was further transformed in 1294 with the invasion and eventual annexation of the Deccan by Sultan Alauddin Khilji of Delhi. Although the conquest of the Deccan was no more than a looting expedition in the beginning, it sowed the seeds of territorial occupation and the subsequent inroads into Konkan itself when Dabhol (not to be confused with Dabhel, further northwest on the Sindh coast) was overrun by Malik Kafur, the trusted general of Alauddin Khilji in 1312. The Khiljis were overthrown by the Tughlaqs, and they in turn by the disgruntled Amirs who founded the Bahmani Kingdom in the Deccan in 1347. As recorded by Firishta, a medieval Persian historian, the two major ports of Konkan, Chawl in the north and Dabhol in the south became part of the Bahmani Kingdom and upon its breakup at the dawn of the sixteenth century, the ports came into the possession of Ahmednagar and Bijapur kingdoms respectively. The Konkan ports flourished under Muslim rule and carried on multiple trade exchanges with other coastal and overseas ports, and with inland trade centers. In the early sixteenth century the busy port of Chawl attracted a "great concourse of ships," and served as an alternate entreport for the textiles of Cambay (Khambat) in Gujarat; the spices, coconuts, and areca nuts of Malabar; and grain and cloth of the Deccan. Dabhol thrived on trade not only with Cambay and Malabar, but also with the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Bassein, Thane, Danda Rajpur, and Sangameshwar were other active coastal ports. Although the Konkan ports handled a far smaller volume of trade relative to that of Gujarat, Malabar, and Coromandel ports, they formed a convenient mid-way point on the sea route from Southeast Asia to the Red Sea. Most of the of Konkan ports had a substantial trading population of Muslims as noted by the Portuguese Barbosa in the sixteenth century. In addition to the ship-building and commercial activities at the ports, some Muslims acquired positions at Bijapur’s Adil Shahi court, exemplified by the case of Mulla Ahmad Naita and the appointment of Qazis and Pesh Imams by Adil Shahi authorities in Konkan. Archaeological research reveals traces of Muslim presence in the medieval period through Arabic and Persian inscriptions (from 14th century) in mosques, forts, and tombs dating from the mid-seventeenth century.
Archaeological Remains of the Muslim Era
Writing toward the end of the nineteenth century historian A.K. Nairne observed that "the remains of Musalman buildings in the Konkan are few and unimportant. Dabhol was so frequently burnt by the Portuguese, and Chaul so thoroughly destroyed by Shivaji that there is little more than enough to show that they were once great places. At both there are a number of tombs scattered about, but none of great pretension. At Dabhol there is a fine mosque with dome and minarets standing close to the water’s edge, and now almost buried in coconut trees. It is of considerable size, and its situation is striking, but is should not be thought very much of in Gujarat or any other district rich in Muslim remains. The site of the Muslim city of Chaul is even more covered by coconut gardens than Dabhol. The most striking ruin is a Hammam Khana or bath, containing one large central chamber and two smaller ones, all octagonal and each lighted by a circular opening in the cupola which covers it. At Kalyan, formerly called Islamabad, there is a large Musalman population and several mosques in use. There is however nothing either old or remarkable except one mosque, which would be very fine if it had a dome in proportion to its other parts. This stands on the edge of a noble pond, round which there are many tombs and other indistinguishable remains, as well as one considerable building said to be the tomb of a governor named Mortada Khan, on which is the date H. 1108. This is probably the person called by the Portuguese Mortada Khan, Nawab of Bhiwandi, who ravaged their territories at various times about 1690. The absence of other buildings is due to the ravages to which this district was subjected in the early days of Shivaji. [John] Fryer, who traveled in India from 1673 to 1676, speaks of the remains of the Musalman city of Kalyan, then only recently destroyed, as noble and striking, and goes so far as to call them "the most glorious ruins the Mahommedans in the Deccan ever had occasion to deplore." At Kharepatan, there are the foundations of a large Musalman town in a fine situation and a great number of tombs, but no building remains standing. At Rajpuri near Janjira, now a wretched looking village, there are the tombs of four of the [Siddi] Nawabs situated in a pretty glen and close to the creek. There are, of course, tombs and mosques of an ordinary description in many places, but none architecturally remarkable. The tomb of a saint at Bhiwandi, said to have been previously a diwan of Bijapur, and that of a princess at Lanja said to have been the daughter of one of the Bijapur kings, may be mentioned." Speaking of the various forts, Nairne says, " at Vijaydurg, the most massive of the buildings within and in the fort walls are evidently Musalman. At Avchitgad, the crenelated battlements of the outer wall seem to prove the same origin. The island fort of Arnala near the mouth of the Vaitarna appears to be entirely Musalman, with domes, Saracenic arches, octagonal recesses,and other features never seen in Maratha forts, though there are also marks inside of its Hindu occupation. But there is scarcely any mention to be found of any of the Konkan forts in the records of the Musalman time... The picturesque bridge at Nagothna ... is said to have been built about 1582 by... Kazi Alauddin of Chaul and as this date is between the siege of Chaul during the alliance of Musalman kings against the Portuguese and the activity of Nizam Shahi troops at the same place twenty years later, it may without improbability be assumed that the bridge was built to facilitate the march of the troops from Ahmadnagar to Chaul... The chief peculiarity of the bridge is its narrowness, the space between the parapets being only nine feet nine inches. Villages with Musalman names are often met with, of the origins of which nothing can be heard. Two small districts, close to Dabhol retain the names they received from the Mahommedans, though everywhere else the ancient Hindu names of prants and tarafs have been preserved. These are Haveli Jaafarabad containing thirty seven villages, and Haveli Ahmadabad containing twenty-one, and the probability is that when Dabhol was first taken by the Musalmans these villages were assigned for the support of the governor and his establishment."
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 Ratnagiri. 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, Potricks, 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 Mughal 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 Mughal 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 Indian 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 the Marathi (Devanagari) 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 Nastaliq (Urdu) alphabet. 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 Ahmedabad 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 Sir Syed 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 Sir Syed 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 Sir Syed 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 Maharashtra 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 certified as Hindi films, with a high content of Urdu songs and dialogues 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 Punjabi, 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 latter 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 continued 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 Mulla, Zakaria, 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".
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.
Konkani Muslim Economy and Society Today
As a minority within a minority, the Konkani Muslims do not exhibit political preferences greatly different from Muslims of other Caste, ethnic, linguistic, or sectarian backgrounds. Thus in the 1930s and 1940s, many supported the Muslim League, exemplified by the cases of Aziz Abdulghaffar Kazi (MLA, 1937-46) and Waziruddin Ahmad Parkar (MLA, 1946-52) just as men like Muin al-Din Haris, (1907-83) a member of the Maharashtra State Legislative Assembly remained a firm supporter of the Indian National Congress.
His example has been followed by men like Ghulam Mustafa Faqih, (1909-94) (Minister in Maharashtra state cabinet), Husain Dalwai, former MLA, as well as Rafiq Zakaria. Born in 1920, Zakaria was the author of several books on Islam and Muslims in India. He held Maharashtra state cabinet posts for a number of times (minister for public health, in 1960s and 1970s) as well as the inspiration behind founding of Muslim educational and charitable institutions such as the Maulana Azad College in Aurangabad and Maharashtra College in Mumbai. Politically the most successful Muslim to date has been Abd al-Rahman Antulay, (b. 1929) becoming Chief Minister of Maharahstra (between June 1980 and January 1982) and later on elected to Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian parliament in 1996 from the Colaba constituency on a Congress Party ticket, though defeated in 1998 elections. He also served as minister for health during the prime ministership of Narasimha Rao, 1995-96. The integration of the Konkani Muslim society within the larger Maharashtrian society no doubt played a part in Antulay’s election as Chief Minister of India’s most industrialized state, besides his own superior organizational skills and the leadership qualities, although he claims to have been victimized in a bribery case due to his being a Muslim.
The major outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in Bombay in January 1993 shortly after the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 was the worst since independence. However, the coming to power of the blatantly anti-Muslim Shiv Sena party has sent shock waves among Muslims communities of all categories in Maharashtra.
There is a concerted attempt by the Shiv Sena government to erase aspects of Muslim culture in the state including those associated with the Sufis, as exemplified by the attempt to claim the Dargah of Haji Malang in Kalyan as one belonging to a Hindu Macchindranath.
Economy and Migration Pattern
The main occupation of most Konkanis is agriculture, followed by animal husbandry. Barring Mumbai, the greater portion of Konkan is generally backward industrially and agriculturally. For instance, the Ratnagiri district, the heart of Konkan is generally hilly, with several creeks. The hilly terrain does not give much scope for cultivation, though rice is grown wherever possible. There is some forest wealth. The district is the home of the alphonso variety of mango, renowned and exported worldwide. Harvesting and marketing mangoes is a lucrative, though only a seasonal business.There is plenty of sea food such as shrimps, prawns, and a variety of fish. In the last several decades, the mechanization of fishing has brought prosperity to some families. The amendment of the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act of 1956, giving the tiller the right of the land ownership deprived some Konkani Muslims of some privileges relating to rice cultivation. Subsequently the legislation regarding the allotment of forest resources to cooperative societies as opposed to individual owners curtailed the wealth of some Konkani families. Some consequently took to the powerloom industry in Bhiwandi. But on the whole the region remains undeveloped and its natural resources yet to be exploited. As a result the entire Konkan belt became a satellite society to Bombay, with both Hindus and Muslims seeking jobs in the great metropolis and elsewhere. A demographer has found simultaneously depletion of Muslim population in Ratnagiri and manifold increase in Bombay and Thane, so it can be inferred that Ratnagiri’s loss has been Bombay and Thane’s gain.
In the nineteenth century, the career of Sardar Abd al-Haq, (1853-96) shows a meteoric rise and fall. Coming from Konkan at the young age of 20, he entered the Nizam’s civil service, and received the title of Dilayr Jang, ending his career as the Agent of the Hyderabad State Railways in London before a mining scandal led to his fall. Konkani Muslims have sought careers beyond the country’s shores in significant numbers. Several Konkanis found jobs or businesses in the oil rich Arab sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, (estimated numbers between 3000-4000) East Africa (5000) South Africa, (40,000-50,000) Britain (7000, of which a majority came into Britain via East Africa), North America (3000-5000), Southeast Asia and Australia (1000), according to Abdullah Muqaddam of Kokani World Muslim Federation. When Mukhtar Mohiuddin of Blackburn, UK, a native of Borli Panchattan, won a huge lottery, the media focused attention on the Konkanis in England.
The existence of Konkani Muslim Club, in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Konkani World Muslim Federation in London are indications of an emerging diaspora. Following the footsteps of some of their forefathers, large number of Konkani Muslims can be found in the Indian and foreign merchant navies.
The Muslim community of the Konkanis have survived thirteen hundred years in India. As the oldest surviving Muslim community, their history is truly fascinating. Sea-faring commerce demands exchange of capital and enterprise among peoples of difference races, religions, and cultures. This probably explains why, despite the advent of foreign immigrants - Persians, Arabs, Jews, Christians of various denominations, and the Parsis in the coastal areas of Gujarat, Konkan and Malabar - the local societies did not undergo ethno-religious strife, so common a feature of upper and peninsular India. Since the early Arabs were either refugees or traders and not contestants for power as in the Deccan and North India, the integration but not assimilation of the Arabs and their progeny was a smoother process in Konkan. Trade in goods and services involves exchange, unlike extraction of revenues by the force of arms. Thus trade contributed to the harmonious relations between the Muslims and the local communities. It is stark example that exemplifies the nature of the native Hindu population to accept and help assimilate and blend the migrant Muslims into their new land; similar to the Parsi, Jewish and African settlers most of whom came to the Indian coast to escape intolerance in their lands of origin.
Famous Konkani Muslims
- Makhdoom Ali Mahimi - Sufi Saint of Mahim
- Abdul Rehman Antulay - Politician, ex-Chief Minister of Maharashtra
- Mukri - Hindi Film Actor
- Shafi Inamdar - Hindi Film Actor
- Fareed Zakaria - Editor, Newsweek
- Rafique Zakaria - Famous Islamic Scholar and MP
- Ghulam Parkar - Indian Cricketer
- Usman Hajwane - Poet, Writer
- Zakir Naik - Founder and President of the Islamic Research Foundation
- Sharaf Kamali - Poet
Author: Dr. Omar Khalidi