When Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented a gold-plated replica of the Cheraman Juma Masjid to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, he was underlining the trade links that existed between India and Saudi Arabia since the first millennium BC. But the Masjid is also the symbol of the peaceful entry of Islam into the Indian subcontinent followed by centuries of harmonious coexistence with religions.
Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungallur Taluk of Kerala is said to be the first mosque in India, constructed in the seventh century .
A local account of the mosque holds that Cheraman Perumal, the Chera King that ruled this part of south India in seventh century AD, had a dream of the moon splitting into two halves. None of his ministers could provide a satisfactory explanation, but a group of Arab traders on their way to Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, deciphered the dream as a divine call to embrace Islam. According to tradition, Prophet Mohammad performed the miracle of splitting the moon in Arabia.
Cheraman Perumal is said to have been satisfied by the interpretation and soon travelled to Mecca and embraced Islam. The King died before he could return to Kerala, but before he died, he instructed Malik ibn Dinar, one of the disciples of Mohammad, to spread Islam in India and build mosques in various parts of Kerala. The Cheraman Perumal Masjid was thus the first mosque to be constructed and Malik ibn Dinar became its first Ghazi.
A symbol of thriving commerce between India and the Arab world
Whether or not the folklore surrounding the origin of the mosque is true is a matter of speculation. However, the story’s significance lies in the reference to Arab traders visiting India as early at the seventh century AD. As a coastal trading society, international trade was an enormous part of Kerala’s history and economy, especially Kodungallur, then called Muziris by foreign traders. Spices, the fuel of the ancient world’s trading networks, were its principal commodity of export. Since 3000 BC Assyrians and Babylonians had been trading with Kerala. By the beginning of the first millennium AD, the Egyptians and Greeks, as well as the Chinese had started trading with the Malabar coast.
The Arabs were pioneers in international trade much before Islam spread its wings. “Essentially, everyone came to Kerala for its spices, but the Arabs were the most successful at not only discovering direct sea routes but also sustaining regular contact. This meant that they and their network became the strongest in international waters, till the appearance of the Portuguese over a thousand years later,” said Manu Pillai, the author of “The Ivory Throne : Chronicles of the House of Travancore”. It is only the coming of the Europeans traders that disrupted Arab control of international trade in India.
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An emblem of religious harmony
However, there is another aspect of the origin of the mosque that is important to note. Long before the first sword of Islam was raised in Sind around the 13th century, the religion had arrived through the peaceful embassies of commerce in India.
It is believed that the place at which the mosque now stands was previously occupied by a Buddhist Vihara. But Buddhism was already dying in Kerala, and the space was relinquished in favour of this new religion of the Arab traders. Another account states that the Hindu King who took over Kodungallur, after Cheraman left for Mecca, helped Malik Ibn Dinar convert a local Hindu temple into the mosque. While mosques all over the world face the Mecca, this one faces the East since it was originally built as a Hindu temple. The interiors of the mosque still carry traditional Hindu motifs and a brass oil lamp, generally found in Hindu temples here, is kept inside the mosque.
“What the Cheraman mosque really represents is a vibrant tradition in Kerala of embracing not only ideas and people from around the world that came to its shores but also religions,” said Pillai. The Arabs and their religion were welcome in Kerala, which has a long history of embracing various religious faiths and ideas; they were given royal patronage and support by local rulers; trade brought them prosperity and wealth, and therefore naturally they grew into a very influential section of Kerala society.