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Bringing home a new Islam

Migrants returning from the Persian Gulf with stricter views are altering the melting pot in an Indian province.

January 28, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

VENGARA, INDIA — The change came several years ago for Maryam Arrakal. Her husband brought a black, all-covering abaya back to this steamy, subtropical town from the desert sands of Saudi Arabia.

It contrasted starkly with the pastel saris she normally wore.

But in the 12 years that her husband, Kunchava, had been running a Saudi fabric shop, he had become detached from this melting pot of Muslims, Hindus and Christians, and more drawn to the Saudis' strict version of Islam.

"I used to dress much more colorfully," said Arrakal, standing amid diesel fumes and frenetic auto-rickshaw drivers in Vengara's one-street downtown, a 7-month-old baby in her arms and a black cloak shrouding her figure. "But my husband brought this for me and prefers me to wear it."

The migration to oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies of as many as one in five men from India's Kerala province has brought an influx of money that pays for food, shelter and education. It also funds dowries for their daughters and gifts for their wives.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Kerala: An article in Sunday's Section A referred to Kerala as a province of India. The regional governments in India are states.

But like many of the world's millions of economic migrants, the men bring back more than money.

In this case, they brim with provocative ideas about the proper way to worship. And they pay for plain green mosques with minarets and Arabic writing that are far different than the ornate and bulbous temples where Muslims have long worshiped here.

In Kerala, where Muslims are traditionally the poorest residents, those returning from the Persian Gulf say they are building pride in their community and connecting its members to the broader Islamic world. But others see the growth of sectarian politics and scattered religious violence as warning signs.

"Kerala was a place in India known for communal harmony," said Hameed Chennamangloor, a writer and former professor of English at the Government Arts and Science College in Calicut, the main city in the province's heavily Muslim north.

Historically, when rioting between Hindus and Muslims swept through India, Kerala remained calm.

Now, Chennamangloor said, "There has been a rise in fundamentalist tendencies among a certain segment of Muslims."

From 40 days to 4 hours

Trade winds across the Arabian Sea have carried merchants between the Persian Gulf and southern India since antiquity.

When they arrived after 40 days at sea, Arab traders would stow their ships within Kerala's network of inland waterways.

As the ships were loaded, the traders introduced local people to new ideas, melding the teachings of the Koran with local practices.

Over the centuries, Kerala developed a relaxed mix of cultures and religions. The old mosques where Muslims worshiped were indistinguishable from Hindu temples. Muslims, Hindus and Christians attended one another's ceremonies and festivals. The region's colorful Sufi-influenced Islam includes such customs as visits to jungle shrines and reverence for local saints.

But the weak economy forced many men to leave to find work. Filmmaker Abbas Pannakal said his late father boarded a rickety ship in 1970 for a journey to the United Arab Emirates that took two months and cost the lives of 17 passengers.

"At first only Muslims went," said Pannakal, who is making a documentary about Indian-Arab relations. "They were willing to risk everything because they had so little to lose."

As successive oil booms caused the Persian Gulf economy to soar, South Asians started migrating in droves. Air connections expanded. A trip to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates was whittled to four hours.

Scholars and government officials in India estimate that expatriate workers send back at least $20 billion a year. About 50% of Persian Gulf migrants from India come from Kerala.

Transforming faith

From the moment they arrive, migrants from Kerala are introduced to attitudes unknown at home. Some housing is for Hindus only; some employers openly prefer Muslims over Hindus or Christians.

Some migrant workers are invigorated by living in a country with a Muslim majority. Others less enthusiastic about their new home cling to their faith out of loneliness and a sense of isolation. But they find a different interpretation of Islam.

Arrakal's husband, Kunchava, 49, had little to do in his free time in Saudi Arabia but attend prayers and read the Koran. He gradually changed his views about life and faith, including how his wife dressed.

"In traditional Indian garb, the woman's stomach is bare," he said. "Islamic dress covers up all the body parts."

In study groups and at prayer gatherings throughout the Persian Gulf region, men such as Abdul Rahman Mohammed Peetee hammer away at Kerala's traditions. For them, paying homage to local saints or anyone other than God is sacrilege: The Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad contain all that any Muslim needs.

"You must study the Arab culture," Peetee, a Kerala native, told a gathering on the sixth floor of an office tower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The men howled in protest.

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