A language, no matter how new it is, is not immune to changes. Sometimes these changes accumulate to give us another dialect or a new writing system altogether. And this is what happened with Malayalam.
Centuries of interactions with the Middle East gave birth to a new form of Malayalam which spoke both of the native culture, and the borrowed one – Arabi Malayalam.
What is Arabi Malayalam?
Arabi Malayalam is the common writing system for Malayalam spoken in the Malabar region and is commonly a script for Mappila Malayalam (a mixture of colloquial North Kerala dialect of Malayalam and Arabic).
It originated in the southern Malabar region of the state but is currently a common script for the Malayali diaspora in Singapore and Malaysia.
The vocabulary of Arabi Malayalam mostly consists of standard Malayalam, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, north Malabari dialect, Arabic, and Persian.
Arabic only had 28 alphabets as against 53, which was required to write Malayalam. So, Arabi Malayalam borrowed some letters from Persian, which made the phonetics easy.
Of course, it posed some difficulty because both the languages belong to different branches. Arabic is Semitic, whereas Malayalam is Dravidian. But over time, the vocabulary enhanced and we arrived at its present form.
How did it come about?
Interactions of Kerala with the Middle East is not new.
Unlike in the North, where Islam was mostly brought by Persian invaders, the arrival of the religion in Kerala is very different.
Kerala was always a strategic location for trade between different empires and kingdoms.
Therefore a lot of Arab traders started coming to the region in the 7th century AD.
As a result of this cultural exchange over some years, it is believed that the last Chera king, Cheraman Perumal, embraced Islam, and traveled to Madina.
After the death of the King, many of his subjects followed his lead and embraced Islam.
The community of Muslims arising from the result of this trade is known as Mappila. The contact with these Arab traders made a profound blend of their culture along with that of the Middle Eastern.
Arabi Malayalam has a rich literature. Although the medium has been wearied over some years as it is slowly falling into disuse, still many madrassas continue to impart an education in the script.
It is said that the literature of Arabi Malayalam was very important in educating people about the basic tenets of Islam in the region of Malabar.
Many Sanskrit texts were often translated in Arabi Malayalam but the 90% of the Arabi Malayalam texts haven’t been translated yet. Though Mahakavi Moinkutty Vaidyar is still celebrated across Kerala for his poems, mostly about the Prophet and his battles.
Madrassas are also the keepers of fading languages or scripts – Arabi Malayalam in this case.
A better approach towards Islamic institutions can actually open doors for understanding the interactions with different cultures.
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