K.K Muhammad Abdul Kareem: Treasurer of Mappila History
Obituary of Kerala Muslim chronicler and renowned historian KK Muhammad Abdul Kareem; written in 2005.
Historians become histories very rarely; Keedakkattu Kavungalakkandiyil Mohammed Abdul Kareem – Kareem master, as he was lovingly called by his disciples and friends – but was that. Writing history was not a profession for him, it was a mission: to painstakingly search the roots of his people, and record it, so that his community would be proud of their past, and survive towards a vibrant future.
He was born on June 1, 1932 at a village near to Kondotty – in Malappuram district – a place famous for Mappila poet Moyinkutty Vaidyar. Kareem’s father was Keedakkattu Kavungalakkandiyil Beeran Kutty, a school teacher and a repository of traditional knowledge. His mother was Keedakkattu Thekkuveettil Fathimakkutty.
By training, KK Muhammed Abdul Kareem was a primary school teacher, who retired as the head master of his own school in 1987. He died on April 7 2005; marking the end of his encyclopedic scholarship on his people’s history.
His journeys were long and lone. But without his travels, many pages of Kerala Muslim history would have been blank and ambiguous. He took physical pain and mental agony to walk to remote villages in Kerala, searching the invaluable documents and information about Kerala Muslim’s past in politics and culture. He wrote in-depth biographies of renowned reformers and revivalists without which it’s almost impossible to trace the socio-cultural life of Kerala, at least of Muslims, centuries back.
Though not academically qualified to be an “accredited historian”; he was, in his lifetime, with no exaggeration, the living authority of the Kerala Muslim history. His works may not strictly fall under the category of “academic” historiography, particularly in a typical western way. But if you sideline his works, you fail yourself, being unable to go forward. Practically, all eminent academic historians who worked on Kerala Muslim history essentially got heavy intellectual assistance from Kareem master. He was affectionately generous in helping anyone who sought guidance from him. Being very hospitable, he warmly welcomed every student of history, whether she’s of school age or of international scholarship. He was a walking library of Mappila knowledge and heritage.
As he told to this writer in an interview, the methodology he followed in writing history was that of Ibn Khaldun. “If a historian gets an information about the past, he should verify it with the logic of credibility”, Kareem master would quote Khaldun, his mentor. He had had unique views and style. But the “objectivity” of his findings is hardly challenged. He was widely respected and relied upon by all streams of historians in Kerala. Also, it is to be added that, despite his Salafi orientation in theology, he was very tolerant and not hostile to the Sunni traditions of Mappila culture. At least in his geneation of Kerala Salafism, this was a rarity.
Kareem master’s another major interest was Mappila literature and culture. Though the literary tradition and heritage of the Mappila community – from its indigenous Arabic origin and development through Arabic Malayalam and other mixed languages – is admirably rich, the Kerala mainstream society was hardly aware of it. He painstakingly collected them and compiled the works of many major poets. Some of his attempts to discover some important manuscripts and old fatwas were failures; but he was never exhausted in his unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
More than he wrote history, he collected history; and preserved them like a “watchman”. Still, it’s amazing that Kareem master wrote nearly 75 original books – small and big. Each of them was for a purpose, resulting from original researches. It was well-known in his close circles that for many books, he never received any royalty from the publishers. Nor did he complain against any publisher.
His most praised work is “Mahathaya Mappila Sahitya Parambaryam” (The Great Literary Tradition of Mappilas), a full volume on all Mappila writers till date, which he co-authored with famous scholar C.N. Ahammed Maulavi. His most popular book is a collection of folktales on Mangattachan and Kunjayan Musliyar, two legends in Kerala’s oral history. This book was sold more than fifty-five editions and is counted in academic circles as a very important folklore resource.
Kareem master enjoyed wide friendship from persons of diverse areas in the society. Historians from the west, who studied about Kerala Muslims, too depended on him. Stephen Frederick Dale, whose doctorial thesis at Oxford University is on Kerala Muslim’s past (The Mappilas of Malabar 1498 – 1921), says in the preface of his work that he mainly used the works and documents of Kareem master’s personal library. Likewise, Roland E Millar, a famous British historian and author who penned Mappila Muslims of Kerala also acknowledge the help received from the master. Miller had been a close friend of Kareem master.
Kareem master was a typical Mappila: a warm, courageous, hospitable human being who was genuinely interested in people’s lives and issues. Sometimes, he paid for his innocence, too. Some very important documents and manuscripts were never returned to him by certain scholars who used it for their academic needs.
He was awarded by many organizations in his lifetime. However, for him, the sweat and thirst he suffered was not for money or awards. He recorded history for coming generations, for their information and enlightenment. “If nobody records the past, our children would be deprived of a history”, he would say if asked about his undying enthusiasm, despite his weakening health.
Wherever there were seminars of history in the universities of Kerala, Kareem master was there in the front row of audience and he would loudly correct the blunders or mistakes uttered from the stage, by academically qualified professors and researchers of history. This picture eloquently reflects one of the roles he performed. After Kareem master’s demise, hardly anyone remains in his generation, with such spirited commitment and enthusiasm to make people informed of the Mappila community’s rich and nuanced past.
[By MUHAMMED NOUSHAD. This was originally written for Meantime magazine in 2005.]