Examining the historicity of Cheraman legend

On April 3 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted

According to oral tradition, Cheraman Perumal was the Chera King & a contemporary of the Holy Prophet.Cheraman Perumal went to Arabia and embraced Islam after meeting the Holy Prophet at Mecca.The mosque has an ancient oil lamp that is always kept burning and believed to be over a thousand years old.1

The Cheraman Juma mosque of Kodungallur now hosts a newly sculpted inscription which reads the mosque was constructed in 629 CE. If true, this tale confers upon Cheraman Juma Masjid a unique distinction of being the World’s third  oldest mosque after Mecca and Medina.  Below, we examine the historicity of these claims

Ceraman Juma Masjid of Kodungallur.Allegedly constructed in 629 CE

 

Sources of the “oral” history

The “oral tradition” of Cheraman is encountered in an Arabic document written in Malabar called Qissat Shakarwati Farmad. The legend can be summarised as follows2

Once upon a time, Indian king Cheraman Perumal was walking on the balcony of his palace when he spotted the moon splitting into two and joining back again. Bewildered, he consulted a few astrologers, who confirmed that such an event had indeed occurred and was not a mystical experience. They were not able to give him a satisfactory explanation. However, prophet Muhammad(PBUH) appeared in a dream and revealed that  it was his deed. Few months later, he got a few Arab visitors on their way to Adam’s footprint in Ceylon 2 and asked them to provide a ship to visit Mecca.The king abdicated the throne, divided up the kingdom and set sail to Mecca to meet this man. He met the Prophet and converted to Islam and lived in Arabia for a while. He married the sister of a Malik Ibn Dinar. Then to spread the religion in his homeland, the converted Perumal wanted to return to Kerala, but he died in Adan and had his tomb constructed. . Later, few of his followers reach Kodungallur and it is they who set up the first mosques, including the one at Kodungallur. According to the legend, Saraf Ibn Malik, Malik Ibn Dinar, Malik Ibn Habib, Ibn Malik and their wives and friends were responsible for establishing the first mosques at Kodungallur, Kollam (in North, not Quilon), Maravi (Matayi), Fakanur, Manjarur (Mangalore), Kanjirakuttu (Kasergode), Jarfattan (Karippat), Dahfattan (Dharmatam), Fandarina (Pantalayani Kollam) and Caliyath (Chaliyam near Beypore)

To summarise the legend

  1. King Cheraman Perumal witnessed splitting of the moon and saw Prophet Muhammad in a dream wherein Prophet  confirmed it was his deed
  2. He asked his Arab visitors to construct for him a ship to visit Mecca
  3. He visited Mecca, met the prophet and converted to Islam. He died in Aden(Yemen) before he could reach back kerala. The Muslims constructed his tomb
  4. His followers built mosques at all the major towns of  kerala

Besides the mythical aspects of the legend such as the prophet splitting the moon, there are historical problems too.  Malik Ibn Dinar the brother in law of Cheraman Perumal who had been introduced in this story as a contemporary follower of the prophet was actually born in c.658 CE, 26 years after the death of prophet. Most of the towns of Kerala mentioned in the legend did not exist during the time of Prophet Muhammad. There is no tomb of Cheraman Perumal in Aden or anywhere in the middle east. The tale of Cheraman dividing his kingdom also betrays a late zamorin date (c.1420) when Kerala had been politically  divided into three regions

Historical Sources

In 851 CE, Arab traveller Sulaiman visited Kerala. He found no Muslims or Mosques.3

An inscription of 875 AD which records the king of kerala providing refuge to the earliest group of Arab immigrants is the earliest attested proof of Muslim presence in kerala. 4 However, we have no idea whether the immigrants stayed in kerala or returned back to their country.  The Persian traveller Nakhuda Buzurg (c. 951) in his book ‘Ajaib Al-Hind’ speaks of Muslims travelling to  Kollam in kerala . However, he does not mention the presence of any mosque. Ibn E Batuta visted Kerala in c.1342. He talks about the Muslims of Kerala but makes no mention of either  Cheraman Perumal or his Mosque. Even the traveller Abd-Al-Razzaq(c.1442) mentions neither of them. However, he mentions two Jami Mosques only in Calicut(Calicut, not Kodungallur where Cheraman Masjid is located). Ibn-E-Batuta’s and Abd-Al-Razzaq’s testimony  is the first textual reference to the presence of mosques in kerala

None of the early or medieval travellers who visited Kerala has referred to the legend of Cheraman Perumal’s conversion  in their records. Thus Sulaiman, Al Biruni, Benjamin of Tuleda, Al Kazwini, Marco Polo, Friar Odoric, Friar Jordanus, Ibn Babuta, Abdur Razzak, Nicolo-Conti – none of these travellers speaks of the story of the Cheraman’s alleged conversion to Islam5.

This story of cheraman Juma Masjid is a tradition among the Mappillas of kerala. The Mapillas of kerala are a community formed by the Arab traders who inserted themselves into keralite society” by a  special islamic institution known as muta(temporary marriage) with the local fisherwomen.6 The offspring were raised in sunni Islam. Thus , the ethnogenesis of Mapilla was  a slow historical process which culminated only in 13th-14th centuries. This is when we encounter the presence of a community called Mapilla for the first time in history7

Historically, the Muslims in Kerala also consisted of another group called ‘paradesis’ or foreigners. These were Persian, Arab,  Turk and North Indian settlers8. There was innate rivalry between these two groups, and each claimed supremacy over another. As Buchanan noted in the early nineteenth century

“Being of Arabic extraction, the Mappillas look upon themselves as of more honourable birth than the Tartar Mussulmans of North India who of
course are of a contrary opinion” … 9

This fact is borne out by subsequent  history. Writing c.1510, The Portuguese author Barbosa is the first to mention the story of Cheraman’s conversion to Islam10. However, his story strikingly differs from Qissat Shakarwati Farmad in one aspect- Cheraman is dated to c.875 AD and does not meet the prophet. In this version, he was simply converted by Arab visitors to Kerala

For the source of Barbosa’s tale, we need to look no further than Sheikh Zain-Al-Din. Shaikh Zain-Al-Din(c.1580) in Tufat Al mujahiddin retells the story of Cherman Permula’s conversion to Islam, but even in this version Cheraman does not meet the prophet. He only dreams of the prophet and converts to Islam. Zain-Al-Din dates Cheraman Perumal to c.822 AD11. Talking about legend of Cheraman Perumal meeting the prophet, he says “this cannot be true12

We see rival groups at work. The legend of Cheraman Perumal meeting the prophet is a tradition popular among Mapillas of kerala and forms a part of their folklore. It is likely that the legend came into existence in order to prove the antiquity and respectable origin of Mapilla’s community by claiming that their king was converted by the prophet himself13. Zain Al-Din was an Arab settler in Kerala and as such he belonged to the pardesi(foreigner) group. No wonder he dismissed the Mapilla legend of Cheraman meeting the prophet as the  purpose of this legend was the glorification of his rival Mappillas

The Portuguese Christians used the legend to their meet their political ends. Writing c.1610,  Diogo de Coutos claimed that Cheraman Permual converted to Christianity and met Jesus Christ. The Portuguese fabrication was apparently based on the Muslim legend of Cheraman’s conversion to Islam14

Inscriptional evidence

The earliest mosques of kerala are not older than 14th century CE15. The earliest  mosque, based on architectural and inscriptional evidence is mithqalpalli mosque of Calicut (c.1339). However, it is almost impossible for these settlements to have been  older because Calicut sprung into existence as an important port town only in 12th-13 th century CE. Infact, there is no reference to Calicut anywhere in history before Ibn Batuta16 It is important to note that there is nothing archaic in Cherman Juma Masjid. The Cherman mosque does not house any historical inscription or any artefact17. The extant structure can be dated to 17th century at the earliest18

The inscriptional evidence and the testimony of travellers point out to the inception of mosques in 14th century AD when the ethonogenesis of Mapilla community took place They  dominated the trading business at ports, established mosques under the extensive patronage of zamorin kings and multiplied their settlements19

Indian evidence

The Malayalam book keralolpathi narrates the legend of Cheraman’s alleged conversion to Islam. However, according to this legend, Cheraman was last in the list of twenty five Perumal kings  who ruled kerala successively for twelve years each. According to this legend in keralolpathi,Cheraman was sent by vijayanagara king krishnadevaraya20.Further,  Cheraman was also the companion of shankaracharya who established customary rulers for everyone in kerala including foreigners such as Dutch, French and English.21

Keralolpathi mentions the presence of such foreigners as Dutch and English in kerala.  Thus, it could only be  dated it to 18th century at the earliest. The date of Cheraman’s conversion is given in keralolpathi as 345 CE! 22It could safely be inferred that keralolpathi borrowed the story of Cheraman’s conversion to Islam from Islamic sources and tried to fit it within an Indic framework. In other sections of keralolpathi, Cheraman is reported to have converted to Buddhism proving without a speck of doubt that this book  is a mere collection of legends. That Keralolpathi makes the great Shankaracharya (c.800) coeval with Krishnadevaraya(c.1525) and the British does not add much to its credibility.

Who was Cheraman Perumal?

The name ‘Cherman Perumal’ is first encountered in the Tevaram poems of the Great Shaivite poet Sundarar(c.730 CE). In Tevaram 7.39, also known as Tirut Tontat Kokai(‘List of the saints’), Cheraman perumal is named among the 63 great shaivite saints. He was known to be a  friend of  Sundarar He was also known in Tamil literature as Kalarirrarivar.   The extant works of Cheraman perumal are ponuvannattantati, tiruvalur mummanikkovai and tirukayilaya nanavula.23

These works help us to understand that Cherman Perumal was born in the  royal chera family at the capital city  Kodungallur of Malainatu  in what is today’s kerala.  According to periya puranam(c.1150), Cheraman perumal spent most of his childhood in the service of  Thiruvanchikkulam Shiva  temple at  Kodungallur24. Later, he turned out to be an able king who built ports and temples.  However, at a certain age he developed greater interest in spirituality and  met the great shaivite saint Sundarar 25. Together, they visited many shaivite centres of pilgrimage including Chidambaram. He became a great devotee of Lord Shiva and  sang poems to him. He composed the poem tirumaraikkattantati(now lost). While Sundarar sang patikam, cheraman sang antati26.It is mentioned in Periya Puranam  that he ascended to kailasha(the abode of Shiva) on a horseback along with his friend  Sundarar(who was mounted on an elephant) from Thiruvanchikkulam Shiva  temple of  Kodungallur27. This old temple was also mentioned in Thevaram hymns of Sundarar. The day of ascension to kailasha is called Cheraman day which is an annual event since then, celebrated with pomp and splendor. 28

 

 

Thiruvanchikkulam Shiva temple of Kodungallur from where Cheraman Perumal reportedly ascended to Kailasa

 

 

Even Shaikh Zain-Al-Din(c.1580) in Tufat Al mujahiddin(see above)  states  that Hindus believed  the king cheraman  Perumal ascended to the sky. They also believed that he would come down one day and that was the reason why they used to keep a pitcher of water and a pair of sandals with lit lamps and decorations at above mentioned cheraman’s native  Thiruvanchikkulam Shiva  temple of Kodungallur29

He continues to be celebrated as one of the greatest shaivite saints.

It  is to be noted that nowhere in his works or the later biographies written after his death is there any slightest trace of his conversion out of shaivism. As PC Alexander in his book ‘Dutch in Malabar’ says, he had been a shaivite all along. Beginning c.1000, the Chola rulers constructed monumental temples in the sites associated with the nayanars. Thus, their poems were sung in carnatic music and their tales sculpted all over the walls of temples. The stories of cheraman perumal and his friend sambandar were told throughout the bhakti age. Paintings were produced depicting  Sundarar reaching Kailasha  followed on horse back by cheraman Perumal .    .

A chola painting (c.1000) depicting the ascension of Cheraman Perumal and Sundarar to kailisa

 

 

A 19th century rendering of the above painting

 

At this point , it is important to note that Cheraman Perumal simply means ‘the great chera king’.  It denoted not a single name but a royal title that was assumed by many rulers of kerala30. However, the most prominent and remarkable amongst them was the shavite saint who went by this epithet. The later kulasekhara rulers of kerala(who ruled from c.820 to c.1194), who also assumed  the title of ‘cheraman perumal’, had a special reverence for this poet saint. Infact, the capital city of kulasekharas, Mahodayapuram, was built around the temple. The last of the kulasekhara rulers was Rama Varma kulasekhara, who also assumed the title of ‘cheraman perumal’. But we find that even this ruler does not show any trace of conversion to Islam, inspite of the book keralolpathi’s contention that last of cheramans converted to Islam (see above)

Thus, it becomes obvious that the story of conversion of Cheraman cannot be found in native sources. The question arises, what was the source of this legend?

Islamic roots of the legend of Cheraman’s conversion

The story of cheraman perumal’s conversion to Islam  actually was actually taken from older Islamic legends. There is an Islamic tradition concerning an Indian, a commoner but not king, embracing Islamic after witnessing the miracle of splitting of moon performed by prophet Muhammad. This story is related by Muhammad Ibn al-Husayn(c.1250). On his visit to India, he passed by a village and was informed that it was inhabited by a man called Sheikh Ratan31. This sheikh Ratan had witnessed the miracle of splitting of the moon. He met the prophet and embraced Islam. He was still alive when Muhammad Husayn(c.1250). visited him!32 It is related that he could live for over 600 years because of the blessing of prophet! Thus story was widely believed and quoted in the later chronicles33

These narratives of conversion of a renowned king of the past could also be found in older Islamic sources. For instance, it is stated (Quran 10.90) that Egyptian Pharaoh(c.1300 BCE) converted to Islam

In the riyat-Al-Auliya(c.1650), it is mentioned that the illustrious  king Hindu Bhoja also witnessed the miracle of splitting of the moon and was converted to Islam34. Further, he died before hijra era(c.623)35. Needless to say, this story is full of inconsistencies. First, Bhoja belonged to c.1200 AD and was not a contemporary of prophet. Further, Bhoja’s capital was located at Dhara and not Ujjain. At Abdullah Changal mosque(Madhya pradesh), there is an inscription dated to c.1436 which also talks about conversion to Islam of king Bhoja

It is clear  that these traditions came into existence  precisely because  the late local converts to Islam wanted  to prove the antiquity and respectable origin of their community36.. By depicting the first convert from Malabar as a king who was honoured and converted
by the Prophet himself, at a very early stage of his mission (before the hijra!),
was his companion for five years and died as a Muslim on his way to spread
Islam in his homeland, the tradition was likely to enhance the status of the
Mapilla community vis-a-vis other Muslim groups37.. This is especially relevant when we take into consideration the tensions between Mapillas and Paradesi Muslims as well as claims of relative supremacy38.

As Friedmann observes39.

The story of Cheraman, like that of Bhoja, is an expression of the Indian
Muslims’ desire to show that their conversion took place at a very early stage of
Islamic history. Both stories depict the first converts to Islam as kings

Conclusion

Taking into consideration all the aforementioned facts, a conclusion is arrived at

A ruler-saint known as Cheraman Perumal was, from the beginning of shaivite bhakti movement(c.700), highly regarded in the south and many legends arose around him. He became almost a southern counterpart of the great king Bhoja. He was famed throughout kerala and Tamilnadu. The later generations also held him in high regard

Arab Muslim immigrants first entered kerala in 875 AD. However, these were simply a few temporary merchants who  did not have much impact on the society or demographics . However, some of the Arab immigrants contracted  temporary marriages with the locals and the slow ethnic impact led to the ethnogenesis of a group called Mapillas by 14th century40.. The Mapillas could colonise the trade and become wealthy because the Hindus were forbidden to travels across the oceans according to Dharma shastras41. . They were also excellent fighters. For these reasons, they were highly patronised by the zamorins of calicut. By 15th century, they constructed mosques in the important cities of kerala

Although the Mapilla  equalled  the foreign Muslims in political and economic power, They were still looked down upon  because of their Indian origins. It is for these reasons that Malayali speaking Mapillas wanted to prove their antiquity of Islam. What better way to do this than claim than their great Malayali king Cheraman was himself converted to Islam by the prophet ? Soon, a place in Cheraman’s famed hometown of Kodungallur was identified as the site  where a mosque had been  built by his followers. The story of Cherman Perumal could be turned upside down by substituting his visit to Chidambaram with a visit to Mecca. The foreign Muslims contested the Malayali Mappilla claims that their king met the prophet. The Portuguese, who were initially content with  documenting the legend  in their memoirs, claimed that Cherman was converted by Jesus Christ himself to establish the antiquity of their own religion in Kerala. In the later centuries, the legend became firmly established and was incorporated into keralolpathi, a collection of legends

Footnote-

It is highly probable  that Malayalam calendar (c.826) commenced with what had been considered by Malayali Hindus in Medieval age  as the date of ascension of Cheraman Perumal 42.

Bibliography

  1. http://pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/pms-gift-to-the-king-of-saudi-arabia/
  2. a
  3. A Sreedhara Menon, A Survey Of Kerala History pp.95
  4. André Wink, Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early Medieval India
  5. A Sreedhara Menon, A Survey Of Kerala History pp.121
  6. André Wink, Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early Medieval India pp.71
  7. André Wink, Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early Medieval India pp.72
  8. André Wink, Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early Medieval India pp.75
  9. Malabar 2 vols Vol.1.23
  10. A Sreedhara Menon, A Survey Of Kerala History pp.121
  11. Tuhfat Al Mujahiddin, ed Qadri  p.16
  12. Tuhfat Al Mujahiddin, ed Qadri  p.17
  13. Friedmann. Qissar Shakarwati p.244
  14. A Sreedhara Menon, A Survey Of Kerala History pp.121
  15. Mehrdad Shokoohy, Muslim Architecture of South India p.137
  16. Medieval kerala p.24
  17. Mehrdad Shokoohy, Muslim Architecture of South India p.141
  18. Mehrdad Shokoohy, Muslim Architecture of South India p.142
  19. André Wink, Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early Medieval India pp.75
  20. Medieval kerala p.26
  21. Medieval kerala p.27
  22. A Sreedhara Menon, A Survey Of Kerala History pp.121
  23. Kamil Zvelebil, The smile of Murugan p.201
  24. Periya Puranam 37
  25. Periya Puranam 37
  26. Periya Puranam 37
  27. Periya Puranam 37
  28. K. V. Krishna Iyer ,”Cheraman Perumal-a new study”
  29. K. V. Krishna Iyer ,”Cheraman Perumal-a new study”
  30. A Sreedhara Menon, A Survey Of Kerala History pp.121
  31. Al-Isaba I pp.515
  32. Al-Isaba I pp.518
  33. Al-Isaba I pp.519
  34. Friedmann. Qissar Shakarwati p.243
  35. Friedmann. Qissar Shakarwati p.243
  36. Friedmann. Qissar Shakarwati p.243
  37. Friedmann. Qissar Shakarwati p.243
  38. Friedmann. Qissar Shakarwati p.244
  39. Friedmann. Qissar Shakarwati p.244
  40. André Wink, Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early Medieval India pp.71
  41. André Wink, Al-Hind, the Making of the Indo-Islamic World: Early Medieval India pp.73
  42. K. V. Krishna Iyer ,”Cheraman Perumal-a new study”

 

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Examining the historicity of Cheraman legend

  1. Marvellous research and composition. I follow you on twitter.
    Keep up work to shed light on the false ideas put forward by apologists.

    || Vidya dhanam sarva dhane pradhanam ||

    Knowledge and Enlightenment are the pre-requisite steps to put Islam and other totalitarian ideologies and its followers on back-foot and eventually break their back.
    Coming decades will be serious challenge to followers of Sanatana Dharma. Such knowledge will only reassert that Sanatana Dharma is open, ever adopting and embracing, unlike Islam – a vile, misogynist and hateful ideology.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Muslim and Christians are just two side of same coin. Both have mastered the art of twisting, deforming, lying by creating myth. St.Thomas myth has been injected in history in same way. How PM can deliver such type of comments without any R&D? What is the role of Foreign Ministry? or is it a deliberate attempt to grease the palm of saudi wahabists?

    Like

  3. Excellent and revealing analysis for people who have no expertise in countering the claim that Islam in Kerala started contemporary to Mohammad. Salute you for the work you are doing!!

    Like

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