The Kerala King Who Embraced Islam

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

This is an interesting story about Rama Varman Kulashekhara.  According to the Rameswarathukoil Inscription, Rama Varman Kulashekhara (r.a.), who reigned from 1090 CE to 1102 CE, was the last King of the Later Chera Dynasty and the first ruler of the independent Venad state from 1102 CE to 1122 CE.  The story of his conversion cannot be independently verified, though and was only transmitted after the coming of the Portuguese.  Nonetheless, the people of Malabar still believe it.

The Cheraman Juma Masjid is said to be the very first mosque in India, built in 629 CE by Malik ibn Dinar (r.a.).  It is in Methala, Kodungallur Taluk in the Indian state of Kerala.  It is believed that this mosque was first renovated and reconstructed in the 11th century CE.  Many non-Muslims conduct initiation ceremonies to the world of letters of their children here.  The mosque has an ancient oil lamp which always burns and which is believed to be more than a thousand years old.  People of all religions bring oil for the lamp as offering.  This is one of the few mosques in Kerala which allows entry for people of other religions.

This article is taken from “The Kerala King Who Embraced Islam” by Ali Akbar, 9th February, 2012.

For Arabs, Malabar was the most familiar place in the whole Indian subcontinent.  The relationship between Arabs and Malabar has a history that dates back centuries.  Arab merchants were trading spices such as ginger, pepper and cardamom as well as things like sword, ivory and silk from Malabar, and these were precious as well as prestigious commodities in Arab souks.  A sword from Malabar, an icon of the best blacksmith craftsmanship was a prestige symbol for Arabs.  Cultural exchange was also taking place through Arab merchants.  Hence, names of places in Malabar and their customs were quite familiar among the salesmen of Okaz souk in Ta’if.  Similarly, residents of Malabar were well aware of the changes happening in the Arabian peninsula.  Many Arabs selected “Hind” as name for their daughters.

It did not take much time to spread the news in Malabar, through Arab merchants, about the emergence of a prophet named Muhammad (s.a.w.) in Makkah and his religion, Islam.  When the moon was split into two as a miracle from Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), many people inside and outside the Arabian peninsula witnessed it.  Cheraman Perumal Rama Varma Kulashekhara (r.a.) was said to be the king of Kerala at that time.  He saw the miracle while he was relaxing on the rooftop of his palace in Kodungallore in a moonlit night.  The king had come to know about Islam through Arab merchants and became more curious to know about the Prophet (s.a.w.) and his religion after the moon-splitting incident.

A group of Arabs had come to Kodungallore at that time and met the king to get permission to visit Ceylon, the present Sri Lanka.  They wanted to visit the mountain which has the footsteps of Adam (a.s.), the first human being and the first prophet.  King Cheraman (r.a.) asked his Arab guests about the miraculous moon-splitting incident.  Sahir ad-Din ibn Baqi’ ad-Din al-Madani (r.a.), a prominent member of the team replied, “We are Arabs, we are Muslims.  We have come here to visit Ceylon.”  The king became more curious to hear about Islam directly from the residents of Madina, the center of Islam and the first capital of the Muslim state.

Sahir ad-Din (r.a.) gave convincing replies to all the questions asked by the king.  Cheraman then expressed his desire to embrace Islam and travel with them to meet the Prophet (s.a.w.).  This incident is well documented by Muhammad Hamidullah in his book “Muhammad Rasulullah,” William Logan in his book “Malabar Manual” and Ahmed Zainudhin Makthum in his work, Thufhath al-Mujahidin, as well as in the interview with Raja Valiya Thampuran of Kodungallore.

Before going to Makkah, the king divided his kingdom into three parts and appointed his sons and nephews to rule each province.  He also visited many of his relatives and employees to give them instructions.  He went to Kalankara to see his sister Sreedevi and told her about her decision to visit Makkah and embrace Islam.  His nephew, son of Sreedevi, was appointed to rule the present Kannur district.  He later embraced Islam and became Muhammad ‘Ali, who established the Kannur Arakkal royal family and became the first Adiraja.

The Arab visitors returned to Kodungallore from Ceylon to take King Cheraman (r.a.) along with them on their way back to Arabia.  The king was waiting for them.  They arrived in Shahr Muqla.  It is said the king met with the Prophet (s.a.w.) and this was mentioned by Balakrishnapillai in his book “History of Kerala: An Introduction.”

This historical meeting has been mentioned in the hadits by Imam al-Bukhari (r.a.) and Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (r.a.): “A king from India presented the Messenger of Allah with a bottle of pickle that had ginger in it.  The Prophet distributed it among his companions.  I also received a piece to eat.”

King Cheraman (r.a.) declared his conversion to Islam in the presence of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and adopted a new name, “Taj ad-Din”.  He later performed hajj.  As per the wishes of the Prophet (s.a.w.), a team of his companions led by Malik ibn Dinar (r.a.) started their journey with Taj ad-Din (r.a.) to propagate Islam in Kerala.  But along the way the king fell sick.  Before his death, the king had written a letter to his sons to receive Malik ibn Dinar’s (r.a.) team and to give them all necessary help.  The king later died and was buried in Zafar, now Salalah, in the Sultanate of Oman.

After landing in Musris, Kodungallore, Malik ibn Dinar (r.a.) met the ruler of the area and handed to him the king’s letter.  The ruler made necessary arrangements for them to propagate Islam.  Some history books say that a temple named Arathali was converted into a mosque and named after Cheraman in Kodungallore.  ibn Dinar (r.a.) and his colleagues built mosques in 12 places.  Surprisingly, all of them are situated along the coastal areas of Arabian Sea.  ibn Dinar (r.a.) died when he was in Butkal, Karnataka, and was buried there.  It is interesting that King Cheraman (r.a.) and Malik ibn Dinar (r.a.) were buried on the two banks of the Arabian Sea: Salalah and Butkal.

Three conditions are to be fulfilled for a person to become a swahabi or companion of the Prophet (s.a.w.).  First, he should embrace Islam from the Prophet (s.a.w.) or from his companion.  Second, he should spend at least a small period of his lifetime with the Prophet (s.a.w.).  And third, he should die as a Muslim.  Cheraman (r.a.) fulfilled all the three conditions and can be said that he was the only swahabi from Kerala, known to history.


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