In Methala, Kodungallur, in the Indian state of Kerala, stands a small, unassuming mosque with a pale blue exterior; if not for its minarets and small onion-dome, you could mistake it for a village schoolhouse, with its red roof and small square windows. There would be nothing particularity noteworthy in any of this, if it wasn’t for the fact that this particular mosque is 1400 years old, making it one of the first established mosques in the world. It is thought that it was first built in 629 AD, and though renovated and reconstructed several times, according to those who run the building, part of it has remained untouched and is still preserved. How, you may wonder, was a mosque built so far from Mecca and Madina, so early in the history of Islam? Due to the absence of clear, historical proof, the answer is not straightforward, though it certainly is fascinating.
The mosque is known as the Cheraman Juma Masjid, named after a ‘Cheraman Perumal’, a title used by the rulers of the Chera dynasty. The actual name of the king it’s named after is not known. Dr. Haseena V.A, (Assistant professor, Post Graduate Department of Economics, M.E.S Asmabi college,P.Vemaballur,Kodungallur,Kerala) in a paper entitled ‘Historical Aspects of the Legend of Cheraman Perumal of Kodungallur in Kerala’ (linked below), describes a popular rendition of the fascinating story:
“Once a king — a 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. Few months later, he got a few Arab visitors on their way to Ceylon and from them, the king learned that Prophet Muhammad was behind this miracle and he was the founder of a new religion. The king did something drastic. He abdicated the throne, divvied 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. Then to spread the religion in his homeland, the converted Perumal returned to Kerala, but he died somewhere along the way.”
The king, who knew he would soon die, wrote letters to his relatives in Kerala to whom he had partitioned his kingdom before leaving for Mecca. He gave them to Malik ibn Dinar, a Tabi’i (one who knew or came into contact with the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)), who, along with some companions, made his way to India, becoming the first Muslim to ever step foot in the Subcontinent. In the letters, the king had asked his relatives “to receive the bearers of the letter and to treat them well”, along with his wishes that mosques be built in Kerala to help spread the new religion. The letter was honoured, and Malik ibn Dinar and his companions went on to build a number of mosques, including the Cheraman Juma Masjid. Though not historically agreed upon, some believe Dinar was buried upon his death in Thalangara, Kasaragod, where the Malik Dinar mosque stands today. Another theory suggests he returned to Arabia and died there.
According to Dr Haseena, the first written account of a Kerala king meeting the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) appears in 1510, in the work of Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa. In subsequent centuries, different versions appear in other Portuguese works, as well as Dutch and Malayalam, and in the court chronicles of Calicut and Cochin. The accounts are not all uniform, there are several versions and discrepancies between them.
Needless to say, like much of Kerala’s ancient history, the absence of preserved historical documents makes it difficult to verify the various traditions and legends associated with the region. Many of these tales are so embedded in consciousness however, that the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi even gifted Saudi Arabia’s king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud a gold-plated replica of the mosque in a visit in 2016.
According to the management of the mosque itself, many of those who worship at the masjid today are non-Muslims, and it is open to people of all faiths. Inside, sits an ancient oil lamp which, many speculate, has been preserved for over 1000 years. Many come to the mosque with oil for the lamp as an offering. Though we may never know the exact truth of its origins, the king for whom it was built, or indeed, the one who built it, the small mosque and the intriguing tale associated with it, stand today, as a positive symbol of coexistence and a cross-cultural relationship that spans more than a thousand years.
Dr.Haseena V.A, “Historical Aspects of the Legend of Cheraman Perumal of Kodungallur in Kerala” (downloads pdf).