Historical records show the involvement and influence of Indian Muslim society in the history of Kedah since the twelfth century and later with the Melaka sultanate in the fifteenth century. The community played an important role in the fields of trade and administration during the period before Melaka’s conquest by the Portuguese in 1511. They survived and prospered by dispersing from Melaka to places outside European control and continued to expand their trading activities. They were generally welcomed by the sultans of the Malay states. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Indian Muslim communities flourished in Johor, Perak, Kedah and Aceh and leading traders were appointed as ‘royal merchants’.
The existence of Masjid Kapitan Keling Pulau Pinang is a beacon marking the enduring role and significant contribution of the Indian Muslim community to the evolution of Penang for more than two centuries. The wider community originated from different regions of India and includes speakers of Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, Telegu and Punjabi; the Tamil Muslim community (also known as Chulias) is the largest ethnic group of Indian origin. The involvement of the community in the island’s social, economic, political and cultural development began with the founding of the settlement by Francis Light of the East India Company on 11 August 1786. But the presence of significant communities of Indian Muslims in the region goes back much further.
The Formation of Indian Muslim Society in Penang
With the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511, followed by the conquest of the Dutch in 1641, as well as the loss of Melaka’s status as an international entrepôt the Indian Muslim community was exiled to Kedah. Soon after Light took control of Penang the settlement developed into a dynamic centre of trade. These new circumstances prompted interest among some groups of Indian Muslims, especially from Kedah, who migrated to Penang. By 1794 Light reported there were around 2,000 people of Indian Muslim descent in Penang.
The major Indian Muslim groups to become established in Penang included the Maraikayar from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the Tamil-speaking Rawther, and groups from the regions of Thanjavur (Tanjore) and Ramnad, Tenkasi and Kadayanallur. Of these perhaps the most influential are the Maraikayar who trace their ancestry to mixed Tamil–Arab roots who originated from the Coromandel coast of southern India and have historically acted as an elite within the Muslim traders. Although the Maraikayar and Rawther have tended to be the dominant sub-ethnic groups in terms of social and economic status the majority of Tamil Muslims who migrated to Penang came from the Tanjore and Ramnad regions. In this process of assimilation, Tamil Muslim men who had the means married local women although many already had families back in India. Local woman were typically the daughters or granddaughters of earlier generations Tamil Muslim migrants to Penang.
Another sub-ethnic group is worth highlighting. The Jawi Peranakan used to be a large Indian Muslim community in colonial Malaya. They comprised an elite group who were the offspring of mixed marriages between Indian Muslims and Malays as well as other mixed marriages between the people of Arabic, Bengali, Punjabi, Acehnese, Siamese and Chinese descent. In socio-economic terms the Jawi Peranakan group tended to be involved in professional fields such as traders, government officials, accountants, land evaluators and translators in large companies due to their ability to speak other languages fluently. The community mostly lived in the environs of Chulia Road, Hutton Lane, Kedah Road, Burmah Road, Transfer Road, Macalister Road and Dato Keramat Road.
By the end of the nineteenth century the Jawi Peranakan had reached a level of stability and prosperity in both Penang and Melaka that they were able to publish their own newspaper, called Jawi Peranakan, which survived for almost 20 years. This paper was written published by a group of local Indian Muslims and became the first newspaper written in the Jawi script and became highly influential within Malaya. Seeds of nationalism began to be planted within the hearts of readers through the paper’s writings. Early Jawi Peranakan writers such as S.M. Yusoff and S.M. Zainal Abidin raised the issue of poverty and the lack in development within the Malay community. Efforts taken by the Jawi Peranakan group in raising political issues and making efforts to unite diverse communities were implemented by joining the Malay Recreation Club, Penang Malay Association and the Young Muslim Union.
Contributions of Indian Muslims in Penang
The influence of the Indian Muslims in the context of ‘Malay’ culture and language is very large. In relation to language, the Malay used in Penang is actually a version of Kedah Malay language which was modified to adapt to the needs of a cosmopolitan community which contained elements from southern India. Indeed the Malay language used in Penang contains the more Tamil loan-words than anywhere else in the country. The influence of Indian Muslims became increasingly widespread in terms of material culture, such as textiles, gold and jewellery, as well as offerings made during marriage ceremonies and other rituals. The evolution of the Indian Muslim community is also clear from their involvement in the processions associated with Muharram and the performances of boria, the traditional dance dramas. They were also engaged with social activities when many sports and arts clubs were established.
Among other cultural influences that have been introduced by the Indian Muslims is the use of a fabric in the Malay community known as pelikat. Kain pelikat or sarong pelikat comes from the port of Pulicat (Pazhaverkadu) in Tamil Nadu and is one of the main items of commerce within Maraikayar trade. The influence of Indian Muslims in food is equally evident, for example with the introduction of nasi kandar, steamed rice with a variety of curry dishes.
As already noted, the largest Indian Muslim community in Penang comes from Kadayanallur and Tenkasi. These groups are involved in the commercial sectors – for example, with tobacco products such as cigarettes, beedi and snuff powder, as well as purveyors of meat, fish and sundry items. Kadayanallur men migrated for the first time to Penang in the 1880s and 1890s during the great famine in India. While in Penang, they have worked as waterfront labourers, day labourers or street sweepers. However, their economic fortunes began to develop when they started a commercial relationship with the Indian Malabari group and began to trade in the Chowrasta market, selling meat, fish and vegetables.
Other communities from the southern part of Tanjore and Ramanad have been involved in the commercial sectors and have proved highly competitive, especially in the shipping industry. They provide ship agents to deal with provisioning, selling wax to repair damaged ships, providing boats, equipment and materials needed to load and unload goods from the ships, as well as providing shipping crew for cargo management. In addition to the shipping industry, in a small scale, the Indian Muslim community is also involved with businesses associated with materials – textiles, paper, stationery – boxed items and jewellery, as money changers and some of them also own restaurants, bread stores and frozen storage companies. The growing cooperation among the traders can be seen with the establishment of Persatuan Peniaga Muslim Pulau Pinang in 1912.
Community Societal Practices
The Indian Muslim community in Penang has, over the years, established many voluntary associations as a means of insuring that social, economic, religious and educational needs are met. The establishment of a union or association based on common descent started with the Kadayanallur and Tenkasi Tamil Muslim community. In 1929 the United Muslim Association was established followed by Anjuman Himayathul Islam (1930s), Union of Hidayathul Islam (1941), Kadayanallur Muslim Unity (1945), Tenkasi Muslim Benefit Society (1946) and Central Muslim Association. Later on, with newly-arrived Pakistani settlers, came the establishment of the Malayan Pakistani League. Based on a suggestion by Mohammed Ismail Sahib, the president of the All-India Muslim League, the Penang and Seberang Perai Muslim League was founded in 1949 and was registered in 1954 through a combination of all the Indian Muslim unions in Penang. The establishment of the Muslim League was a momentous turning point in the struggle for improvements for the Indian Muslim community and, in due course, for the eventual independence of Malaysia.
The Practice of Religious Endowments and Guidance Institutions
The Penang Indian Muslim community not only holds to the teachings of Islam but has also played a leading role in spreading the teachings of Islam throughout the whole of Malaya/Malaysia. The practice of setting up of mosques and donating land is one traditional practice of the wealthy portions of the community in Penang. Most of the land donated is located around Chulia Street. The construction of the mosque, a burial ground and a property for common use for the Islamic community was among the benefits obtained through the practice of donating lands. One of the most significant contributions – of enduring historical importance – was the construction of the Kapitan Keling Mosque in 1801. The mosque remains the largest donation made by the Indian Muslim community within the country. The Kapitan Keling Mosque was the state mosque until it was taken over by the newly built State Mosque in the 1980s.
Besides the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Indian Muslim community has also contributed to the construction of other early mosques in George Town. By the mid-1970s there were 69 mosques in Penang, 47 in the northeast and the rest in the southwest district. As many as 22 mosques in the northeast district were founded by individuals from Indian Muslim community.