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Tamil Muslims
தமிழ் முஸ்லிம்கள்
Total population
~7 million
Regions with significant populations
India India 3 – 4 million
Sri Lanka Sri Lanka 2 million
 Malaysia 500,000
 Singapore 20,000[1]
Rest of the world 1 million
Related ethnic groups
Tamil Hindus, Indian Muslims, Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka, Dravidian people, Sri Lankan Moors, Jawi Peranakan, Kilakarai Moors, Lebbai, Marakayar, Rowther, Kayalar

Tamil Muslims (Tamilதமிழ் முஸ்லிம்கள், tamiḻ muslimgal ?) are Tamils with Islam as their faith. There are 3 to 4 million Tamil Muslims in India mostly in Tamil Nadu state. A significant Tamil-speaking Muslim population numbering 1.8 million[2] or more live in Sri Lanka.[3] There are around 500,000 in Malaysia and 20,000 in Singapore.[4] The cohort in Sri Lanka are also proficient in Arwi script of Tamil language. The community comprises largely urban traders rather than farmers. There is a substantial diaspora, particularly in South East Asia, which has seen their presence as early as the 13th century.[5] In the late 20th century, the diaspora expanded to North America and Western Europe. They are called Cholias in Myanmar, Mamak in Malaysia and Rathas in South Africa.[6]

Ethnic identity[edit]

A typical minaret of a mosque in Tamil Nadu as seen here of Erwadi in Ramanathapuram District

The term "Tamil Muslims" refers to a distinctive multi-ethnic coterie born out of miscegenation in South and South East Asia. As such, this term refers not only to ethnic Dravidians, but also a range of other social groups identified by their Islamic faith and their marital ties to the Tamil homeland. Members of these groups typically have divergent ancestries and historical connections to a range of geographic regions including South India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. Hence, their complexions range from fair to dark, facial bone structures range from sharp/oval to rounded.

The history and origin of these social groups relates to the mix of races and influences resulting from centuries of trade among the regions bordering the Indian Ocean, such as the South India-Arabia-East Africa triangular trade route, or the commercial and political links between the Tamil Coast and Southeast Asia, which were bolstered by the British-administered trading activities between its colonies in the Malay Peninsula and the Madras Presidency. By the 20th century, these races began to be listed as social classes in official gazettes of different nations as Lebbai, Marakayar, Rowther, Dekkani, Kayalar (in Maharashtra), Jawi Peranakan in Malaysia,[7][8][9][10] Cham (in Vietnam) and Chulia[11] (in Singapore).


Tamil Bell with its inscription and translation

Global purchasing power of the community in 2015 was estimated at almost $23 billion viz. $8 billion in Sri Lanka, $6 billion in Tamil Nadu, $5 billion in Malaysia, $1 billion in Singapore and $3 billion from rest of the world. The community has historically been money changers[12] (not money lenders) throughout South and South East Asia especially in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, etc.[13]

Businesses are also involved in various tertiary trades like retail, mutton shops, foreign bazaars,[14] pearl/gem trade[15] and leather.[16] The coloured stone business which Sri Lanka is famous for is in the hands of the community. Other than Gujaratis and Marwaris, this is the only community doing wholesale diamond business in ASEAN. Semiprecious stones like peridot, rubilite, amethyst, or moonstone are led by entrepreneurs from Thanjavur district. The largest exporters of leather products are from Vellore district. Independent shops in Burma Bazaar market of Chennai is led by entrepreneurs from Ramanathapuram. Due to new emerging opportunities, several middle class families resettled in the Persian Gulf and ASEAN.[17]

There are about 6,000 HNWI entrepreneurs within the community and at least one billionaire viz. B.S. Abdur Rahman (better known as the Buhari Group) who founded the conglomerate ETA Star Group, Star Health and Allied Insurance, Chennai Citi Centre, Crescent Engineering College, et al.. He owned over 70 ocean-going vessels.[18] Periya Thambi Nainar of the 17th century is widely regarded as the first rupee millionaire in the community as per the Chronicles of Thondaimaan[19][20] His altruist son Seethakaathi's biography was adapted for Tamil film in 2018.


After independence, rentiers and entrepreneurs from the community began to build schools and colleges throughout the Coromandel coast. Jamal Mohamed College in Trichy, Waqf Board College in Madurai and the New College in Chennai are well known colleges. In Tamil Nadu, the school education of the community is above average. But in higher and technical education, the community lags behind, due to entrepreneurial commitments and vocational jobs in the Persian Gulf and South East Asia. There are over 65 Tamil Muslim educational institutions in Tamil Nadu.


A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of India, was a career scientist turned statesman. At the age of 17, Rifath Shaarook designed world's lightest satellite called Kalam SAT.[21] Serial inventor Masha Nazeem received National Youth Award for her contributions to science and technology from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in 2018.[22] Three of her inventions are in the process of getting patented. She set up Masha Innovation Centre, a research laboratory and workshop in her hometown to build prototypes.[23][24]


Henna on a Muslim bride's hands, Tamil Nadu, India.

Legends and rituals[edit]

The Aqidah of the Tamil Muslims is based on Sunnah heavily influenced by the Qadiri flavour of Sufism. While Marakkayars adhere to Shafi school, Rowthers favour Hanafi madhab. The Shadhili flavour of Sufism is more prevalent in Sri Lanka. Coastal families tend to be matrilocal, matrilineal and matriarchal as male members work overseas for long terms. The nikkah (marriage) registers mahr (dower, not dowry), consent signature and witness. Monogamy and male circumcision are rigorously enforced.[25] Like the thali of Hindu marriages, Tamil Muslim brides wear a neck chain strung with black beads called karumani tied by the groom's elder female relative at the time of nikkah.[26] Whilst travelling, women typically wear white thuppatti, as a mark of modesty, (not black burqa) draped over their whole body, on top of the saree, but revealing face. Pilgrimage to dargahs (called ziyarat) on major life milestones like child births is generally tolerated.[27]

Keelakarai Jumma Masjid, built in 7th century, with prominent Tamil architectural characteristics, is one of the oldest mosques in Asia
Letters unique to Arwi The erstwhile Tamil-Arabic tongue of Muslims in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.


Tamil Muslim literature spans seven centuries ranging from mystical to medical, fictional to political, philosophical to legal. Though Sri Lankan Moors penned Tamil literature in Nastaliq script, known as Arwi, the practice did not find favour elsewhere.[28][29] The earliest Tamil Muslim literary works could be traced to the 14th century in the form of Palsanthmalai, a small work of eight stanzas. In 1572, Seyku Issaku, better known as Vanna Parimala Pulavar, published Aayira Masala Venru Vazhankum Adisaya Puranam detailing the Islamic principles and beliefs in a FAQ format. In 1592, Aali Pulavar wrote the Mikurasu Malai. The epic Seerapuranam (prophet Mohamed's biography) by Umaru Pulavar is dated to the 17th century[30] and still considered as the crowning achievement of Tamil Muslim literature. Other significant works of 17th century include Thiruneri Neetham by Sufi master Pir Mohammed, Kanakabhisheka Malai by Seyku Nainar Khan (alias Kanakavirayar), Tirumana Katchi by Sekathi Nainan and the Iraqi war ballad Sackoon Pataippor.[31] Notable publications of 18th century include Yakobu Sithat Patal, a medical primer on Siddha Vaithyam (distinguished from Ayurvedic medicine).[32]

Nevertheless, an independent and vigorous Tamil Muslim identity evolved only in the last quarter of the 20th century triggered by the rise of Dravidian nationalism and mass communications and lithographic technologies.[33][34] The world's first Tamil Islamic Literature Conference was held in Trichy in 1973. In early 2000. the Department of Tamil Islamic Literature was set up in the University of Madras.[35]

Literati such as Kavikko Abdul Rahman, Mu Metha, Kavi Ka. Mu. Sheriff, Jainulabudeen, Makkal Pavalar Inqulab, Manushyaputhiran and Rajathi Salma[36] helped push the frontiers of enlightenment into the 21st century.[37] The pioneering vernacular fortnightly magazine Samarasam was established in 1981 to highlight the community's causes.[38] Established in 1979, Islamic Foundation Trust has published 129 books in Tamil, 14 in English and 16 in Arabic languages. It has also brought out audio cassettes and CDs of the Quran.[39]


Vocabulary of the community includes several peculiar Malay[40] loanwords like thuppatti (purdah), nabi (messenger of god),[41] nonbu (fasting), kayili (lungi), chicha (younger paternal uncle), peribaapu (elder paternal uncle), peribuvva (wife of elder paternal uncle), chichani (wife of younger paternal uncle), pallivaasal (mosque), aanam (curry), et al. The vocabulary varies across sects and regions. Western and Northern districts of Tamil Nadu use different words influenced by Malayalam and Arabic.[42] The word Marakkayar comes from the Arabic markab meaning a boat.[43]


Cuisine of the community is a syncretic mixture of Tamil Hindu and Urdu Muslim recipes and flavours.[44] Its distinguishing feature is the total absence of hot kebab and pungent colorful spices that tend to permeate most Indian non-vegetarian food. The spice used is basically the same as those used by other South Indian communities, though the mixtures might vary. One special dish is 'kuruma' which is very low on chilly where the hotness is substituted by increasing the amount of white pepper, and with a heavy dose of poppy seed paste. This dish is further made richer by adding ground almonds and cashew nuts. Pandan leaves are used where it's available, especially in Sri Lanka and the Malay archipelago. This leaf gives out a distinct flavour only when cooked. In deltaic towns like Karaikal and Ambagarathur, sahan saappadu is the main style of food presentation in banquets (where two or more guests eat from one large round plate seated on the floor). In 1960s, the Buhari Hotel group in Chennai introduced a quick snack called Chicken 65 in the menu to critical acclaim nationwide. Malay influence is visible in food like murtabak which is typically taken as supper.

Use of masi or cured or dried tuna, which is powdered with many different items like ada urugai (whole lime pickled in salt without chillies), is prevalent in the coastal districts. The combination gives a sour taste and a peculiar flavor. Thought the diet is non-vegetarian, it seldom includes beef. Coconut oil is used for dressing while elder generation chew betel to finish off a heavy feast.[45]

Law and polity[edit]


In the early 19th century, Munshi Abdullah's essays on good governance and education reforms began to shape the modern Malaysian political system.

P. Kalifulla served as the minister for public works in the Cabinet of Kurma Venkata Reddy Naidu in 1937. He was sympathetic to the cause of Periyar E. V. Ramasamy and his Self-Respect Movement. He spoke against the introduction of compulsory Hindi classes in the Madras legislature and participated in the anti-Hindi agitations. He was a lawyer by profession and was known by the honorifics Khan Bahadur. He became the Dewan of Pudukottai after withdrawal from political work.

Sir Mohammad Usman was the most prominent among the early political leaders of the community. In 1930, Jamal Mohammad became the president of the Madras Presidency Muslim League.[46] Until then, the party was dominated by Urdu speakers. Yakub Hasan Sait served as a minister in the Rajaji administration. Allama Karim Gani, veteran freedom fighter and a close associate of Subash Chandra Bose, who hailed from Ilayangudi, served as Information Minister in Netaji ministry during the 1930s.


Since the late 20th century, politicians like Quaid-e-Millat (first President of Indian Union Muslim League) and Dawood Shah advocated Tamil to be made an official language of India due to its antiquity in parliamentary debates[47]

The community was united in a single political party under Quaid-e-Millath presidency for 27 years keeping rabble-rousers away until his death in 1972. Their support was invaluable for ruling parties in the state, as well as in the Centre. He was instrumental in framing and obtaining the minority status and privileges for minorities in India thus safeguarding the Constitution of India. His newspaper Urimaikkural was a very popular daily.

S. M. Muhammed Sheriff, a.k.a. 'Madurai Sheriff Sahib' was a charismatic and prominent leader groomed by Quaid-e-Millath. He was the first elected IUML MP from Tamil Nadu. He produced clear documentary evidence that Kachchatheevu belonged to India. During the Emergency, he was the advisor to the Governor.

M. M. Ismail became Chief Justice in 1979 and was sworn in as Acting Governor of Tamil Nadu in 1980. As Kamban Kazhagam president, he organised literary festivals, that focussed on classical Tamil literature. Justice S. A. Kader who was the Judge of Madras High Court during 1983-89 became the President of Tamil Nadu State Government Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission on retirement.[48]

In the early 1990s, the Indian National League split from the IUML.[49] The non-denominational social reform movements (called Ghair Muqallid) began to take the front stage[citation needed] (supposedly to fight superstition creep) spearheaded by P. Jainulabdeen further weakening the IUML and causing unrest among community elders who preferred status quo and conservatism. Nevertheless, the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazagham was constituted in 1995. This non-profit organisation quickly became popular and assertive among the working class youth. Later, the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, the political arm of TMMK was formed. But TMMK itself split to form the break-away organisation Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath soon. MMK contested in three seats and won two Assembly seats viz. Ambur (A. Aslam Basha) and Ramanathapuram (M. H. Jawahirullah).

Broadly speaking, Tamil Muslims tend to support laissez faire and free trade; and have been unimpressed by Communism as a public policy though fringe working class factions often called for affirmative action in the last quarter of the 20th century.[50]

Former Prime Minister of Malaysia Dr.Mahathir as well as Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, Zainuddin Maidin, Anwar Ibrahim, Khairy Jamaluddin, Nor Mohamed Yakcop and Zambry Abdul Kadir too are of Tamil origins.

In Sri Lanka, politicians such as Tuan Burhanudeen Jayah and Rauff Hakeem played a major role in asserting the rights of the Sri Lankan Moor community affairs. M. H. M. Ashraff launched the SLMC in 1981 at Kalmunai.

21st century[edit]

New generation of leaders like Daud Sharifa Khanum have been active in pioneering social reforms like independent mosques for women.[51][52][53][54]

MLAs and MPs such as A. Anwar Raja, J. M. Aaroon Rashid, Abdul Rahman, Jinna, Sheik Umar (Tut), Khaleelur Rahman, S. N. M. Ubayadullah, Hassan Ali and T. P. M. Mohideen Khan are found across all major Dravidian political parties like DMK, DMDK and AIADMK, as well as national parties like the INC.

At the age of 30, the award-winning documentarian Aloor Shanavas became the Deputy General Secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.[55][56]

Notable people[edit]


  1. ^ Mani, A. (1992). "Aspects of identity and change among Tamil Muslims in Singapore Aspects of identity and change among Tamil Muslims in Singapore". Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, Journal. 13 (2): 337–357. doi:10.1080/02666959208716253. 
  2. ^ Mattison Mines, Social stratification among the Muslims in Tamil Nadu, South India, Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India, ed. Imtiaz Ahamed, New Delhi, 1978; Muslim MerchantsThe Economic Behaviours of the Indian Muslim Community, Shri Ram Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, New Delhi, 1972
  3. ^ de Silva, C.R. Sri Lanka — A History, pp. 3–5, 9
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  11. ^ Zafar Anjum, Indians Roar In The Lion City.
  12. ^ N. Seeralan, The Survey of Ports and Harbours in Madras Presidency 1858 – 1900, unpublished M.Phil. thesis, Bharatidasan University, Tiruchirapalli, 1987, p. 31
  13. ^ Historical dominance on money changing business. Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  14. ^ C. W. E. Cotton, Handbook of Commercial Information for India, Trivandrum, 1942, p. 67
  15. ^ S. Arunachalam, The History of Pearl Fishery of Tamil Coast, Annamalai Nagar 1952, p. 11
  16. ^ Sanjay Subramanian, The Political Economy of Commerce, Southern India 1500 – 1650, New York 1990
  17. ^ T. Jayarajan, Social and Economic Customs and Practices of Marakkayars of Tamil Nadu — a case study of Marakkayars of Adiramapattinam, unpublished M.Phil. thesis, Bharatidasan University, Tiruchirapalli, 1990
  18. ^ Buhari Group's global reach[dead link]
  19. ^ Burten Stein, All the Kings' Manas and Papers on Medieval South Indian History, Madras 1984, p. 243
  20. ^ R. E. M. Wheeler and A. Ghosh Arikkamedu — an Indo-Roman Trading Centre on the East Coast of India, Ancient India, No.2, New Delhi 1956, pp. 17–124
  21. ^ Rifath Shaarook designs India's first femtosatellite
  22. ^ Masha Nazeem, inventor of 14 gadgets in 10 years, receives national award
  23. ^ The budding Indian scientist : Masha
  24. ^ Prolific inventor sets up Masha Innovation Center to build prototypes
  25. ^ Robert Caldwell, A Political and General History of the District of Tirunelveli in the Presidency of Madras, from the earliest period to its cession to the English Government in 1801 (Rpt) New Delhi, 1989, pp. 282–288
  26. ^ Syed Abdul Razack, Social and Cultural Life of the Carnatic Nawabs and Nobles — as gleaned through the Persian sources, unpublished M.Phil. thesis, University of Madras, 1980
  27. ^ Stephen F' Dale Recent Researches on the Islamic Communities of Peninsular India, Studies in South India, ed. Robert E. Frykenbers and Paulin Kolenda (Madras 1985)
  28. ^ Islam in Tamilnadu: Varia. (PDF) Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  29. ^ 216 th year commemoration today: Remembering His Holiness Bukhary Thangal Sunday Observer – January 5, 2003. Online version Archived 2012-10-02 at the Wayback Machine. accessed on 2009-08-14
  30. ^ The Diversity in Indian Islam. Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  31. ^ Imperial Gazetteer of India, London 1886, VIII p. 216; N. A. Ameer Ali, Vallal Seethakkathiyin Vaazhvum Kaalamum, Madras 1983, p. 30-31, Ka. Mu. Sheriff, Vallal Seethakkathi Varalaru, 1986, pp. 60–62, M. Idris Marakkayar, Nanilam Potrum Nannagar Keelakkarai, 1990
  32. ^ Durate Barbosa, The Book of Durate Barbosa: An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and their Inhabitants, ed. M. L. Dames, London Hakluyt Society, 1980, II, p. 124
  33. ^ Tamil Muslim identity. (2004-10-12). Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  34. ^ J.B.P.More (1 January 2004). Muslim Identity, Print Culture, and the Dravidian Factor in Tamil Nadu. Orient Blackswan. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-81-250-2632-7. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  35. ^ [1]Islamic Voice (magazine)
  36. ^ Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai. Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  37. ^ Rebel Poet in the Panchayat. (2004-06-26). Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  38. ^ Islamic Foundation Trust(IFT) Archived 2012-03-23 at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  39. ^ Samarasam Tamil Magazine. Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  40. ^ J. H. Garstin, Manual of South Arcot District, Madras 1878, p. 408
  41. ^ A Manual of Madras Presidency (ed) C. D. Macleans, Madras 1885, II, p. 423
  42. ^ S. M. H. Nainar (Tr) Tuhfat-ul-Mujahidin of Zainuddin, University of Madras, 1942, p. 6; Arab Geographers' knowledge of South India, University of Madras, 1942, pp. 53–56
  43. ^ Marakkayar is derived from Markab (boat)
  44. ^ Business Line Archived July 15, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  45. ^ Kumar Suresh Singh (2004). People of India: Maharashtra. Popular Prakashan. pp. 1930–. ISBN 978-81-7991-102-0. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
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  47. ^ Tamil Muslim Periyar Retrieved on 2012-06-27
  48. ^
  49. ^ Tamil Nadu / Chennai News : Indian National League State unit dissolved. The Hindu (2011-01-21). Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  50. ^ Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings — Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, Cambridge, 1989
  51. ^ Biswas, Soutik. (2004-01-27) World's first Masjid for Women. BBC News. Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  52. ^ Pandey, Geeta. (2005-08-19) World | South Asia | Women battle on with mosque plan. BBC News. Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  53. ^ S.T.E.P.S.
  54. ^ TMMK opposes separate mosque for women. Retrieved on 2012-06-27.
  55. ^ "Kunnam constituency candidates list". 
  56. ^ "Aloor shanavaz at age 30". 

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