Monsoon Mosque: Medieval Malabar in Transoceanic Contexts

By Sebastian Prange

 “A Malabar Mosque,” photograph pasted into a missionary report, c. 1901. Basel Mission Archives / Basel Mission Holdings, ref. no. QC-30.111.0010This mosque on the Malabar Coast, in what is now the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, does not look as a mosque is supposed to look: it does not have a dome, nor a minaret, nor an enclosed courtyard. Instead, it looks a lot like local Hindu temples. It stands as a physical exemplar of a particular strand of Islamic thought and practice that emerged among Muslim merchant communities across the trading ports of maritime Asia. This "Monsoon Islam" of the Indian Ocean was shaped by merchants and itinerant mystics rather than by sultans and scholars, forged by commerce rather than in battle, and defined by the reality of Muslim merchants living within non-Muslim societies rather than by imperialist mindsets. The concept of Monsoon Islam connotes a world of religious thought, social practice, commercial connections, and political allegiances that developed outside of the traditional Islamic heartlands and independent of the caliphate and its successor states. At its core, it was the product of the tension between the distant and the local, between these Muslims' role in far-flung trading networks and an Islamic cosmopolis on the one hand and, on the other, their need to negotiate the specific social, economic, and political conditions of particular trading locations-a mosque that looks like a temple is one outcome of such negotiations and accommodations. The world of Monsoon Islam was above all a commercial realm, and many of its chief characteristics were shaped by the imperatives of doing business across the vast distances of the Indian Ocean. But embedded in these mercantile interactions were many other forms of exchange: of texts, for instance, but most importantly of people and their beliefs, customs, connections, and rivalries. The "Monsoon Mosque", then, is a way for us to visualize a particular trajectory of Islamic history, one which evolved in the context of trade, accommodation, and the syncretic blending of practices and traditions. Arguably it is this trajectory that has defined the lived reality of the majority of Muslims worldwide, even though it rarely figures in popular images of or discourses about Islam today.

Sebastian Prange Sebastian R. Prange is an Assistant Professor of South Asian and Islamic history at the University of British Columbia. He received his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and has since held appointments in Canada, Germany, and the US. He is currently completing the manuscript of his first book, Monsoon Islam: Trade and Community in the medieval Indian Ocean World, which is an examination of the commercial, religious, and political networks that linked South India, Arabia, and Southeast Asia into a conjoined trading world.