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Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs


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Indian Muslims in Malaysia: A


Sociological Analysis of a Minority
Ethnic Group
Osman Abdullah Chuah , Abdul Salam M. Shukri & Mohd Syukri
Yeoh
Published online: 25 Aug 2011.

To cite this article: Osman Abdullah Chuah , Abdul Salam M. Shukri & Mohd Syukri Yeoh (2011)
Indian Muslims in Malaysia: A Sociological Analysis of a Minority Ethnic Group, Journal of Muslim
Minority Affairs, 31:2, 217-230, DOI: 10.1080/13602004.2011.583513
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13602004.2011.583513

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Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 31, No. 2, June 2011

Indian Muslims in Malaysia: A Sociological Analysis


of a Minority Ethnic Group

OSMAN ABDULLAH CHUAH, ABDUL SALAM M. SHUKRI and


MOHD SYUKRI YEOH

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Abstract
This article analyses the status of Indian Muslims in Malaysia from a historical perspective and its definition as a minority ethnic group. It also highlights the political
reality of the Indian Muslims, particularly as a smaller and relatively insignificant
minority group in comparison with the numerically larger Malays as well as the nonMuslim Chinese and Hindu Indians. It describes the social interactions of the
various ethnic groups in Malaysia and the Indian Muslims as a minority fighting
for their identity and survival. It discusses the position of the Indian Muslims
with particular reference to Article 152 of the Malaysian Constitution which
states that a Malay person is defined as one speaking the Malay language, practicing Malay customs, and following the religion of Islam. The great contributions of
Indian Muslims are also elaborated. This inquiry highlights the reality facing the
Indian Muslims in Malaysia today: they have no political power but remain a marginalized minority in the midst of Malay political domination and Chinese economic
hegemony. Indeed they are facing the grim prospect of permanent bifurcation of their
identitysome are slowly but surely being assimilated into the Malay cultural
milieu, mainly through marriage and for political expediency, on the one hand
and others stubbornly resist this cultural absorption, and resiliently retain and preserve their ethnic traditions and purity.
Introduction
This article presents a study of Indian Muslims in Malaysia, their history and sociocultural backgrounds. It will also examine the definition of Indian Muslims and of
ethnic group as well as minority and majority groups. The paper will highlight the political reality of the Indian Muslims in Malaysia particularly with regard to the presence of a
much larger number of Indian Hindus and Chinese and also the majority Malays, in
comparison with the small number of Indian Muslims. The paper will also examine
the implications of Article 152 of the Malaysian constitution which defines Malays
as those speaking the Malay language, practicing Malay customs and following
Islam. We shall then discuss the impact of this provision in the constitution on the
minority communities in Malaysia, including the Indian Muslims.
Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-cultural country. It is strategically
located between the sea routes of China, Japan and India, and the European nations.
From the past, it is the meeting place of the various religions including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and others. Nearly all the worlds well-known religions are represented here. The Malays represent the largest ethnic population
covering about 50% of the population, with all Malays following Islam, and there is an
ISSN 1360-2004 print/ISSN 1469-9591 online/11/020217-14 2011 Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs
DOI: 10.1080/13602004.2011.583513

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additional 10% of non-Malay Muslims in Malaysia. In 2003, the total population of


Malaysia was 23.5 million with Malays constituting 12.6 million; the Chinese 6
million; non-Malay bumiputras 2.8 million; Indians 1.8 million; and others constituting
0.3 million.1 The total Malaysian population in 2008 was 27.75 million, with the
Malay population increasing at a very rapid rate, and the Chinese and the Indians at a
slower rate. Thus, the Malay population is about 13.87 million, the Chinese 7 million
and the Indians 2.3 million in 2007.2
The Indian Muslims in Malaysia may be defined as local born Muslims and converted
Muslims and their descendants in Malaysia. The local born Indian Muslims may be from
sons and daughters of Indian Muslim immigrants or the children of the converted
Muslims mainly from Hinduism to Islam. According to an estimate by Persekutuan
Indian Muslim Malaysia (PERMIM), which is the Federation of nearly all the registered
non-Governmental Indian Muslim Organizations in Malaysia, there are 500,000 Indian
Muslims in Malaysia. However, according to the Federal Authority of Islam in Malaysia,
JAKIM (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia) in 2007, the Indian Muslim population in
Malaysia was about 800,000.
In Malaysia, Islam is under the jurisdiction of the state. JAKIM acts as the central coordinating authority from the federal government. Most Indian Muslims generally speak
Tamil, as 90% of them originally came from Tamil Nadu. There are also Indian
Muslims coming from Kerala, India, and they are known as Malabaris. There are also
Indian Muslims coming from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and other places in India speaking
Malayalam, Urdu and Gujarati. Before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, all the
Indian Muslims in Malaysia were classified as Indian Muslims, but after the creation of
Pakistan, many are now referred to as Pakistani Muslims. Today there is also a mosque
known as Masjid Pakistan in Kuala Lumpur. In this study, when we refer to Indian
Muslims in Malaysia, we exclude those who had already been converted into
Malays, as it is quite difficult to differentiate them when they self-identify themselves
as Malays.
In Malaysia, one of the trends in the Muslim intergroup relationships, especially
among the minorities, is the assimilation into the Malay ethnic group. That is, living
among a variety of multi-Islamic ethnic groups, the small Muslim ethnic groups tend
to be assimilated into the ways of the Malays in terms of language, religion, and
culture. Tunku Zainah Ibrahim made a study of the Miri people in Sarawak, who had
been totally converted into Malays.3 Wan Abdul Halim Othman completed an indepth study of the diverse Malay ethnic groups, including several smaller ethnic
groups of Muslims originating from Java and Sumatra, as well as scattered groups of
Arabs, Chinese Muslims and the natives of Sarawak and Sabah, who had all been
Malayanised.4 In fact, living in Malaysia, continuous contacts, interactions and
socio-cultural immersions have resulted in the smaller ethnic groups being gradually
absorbed into the larger Malay ethnic milieu. As a result of this osmotic process, they
go through a transformative shift, via identity conflict and diffusiondiscarding their
former identity, language and culture and re-emerging as Malays. The fast track, of
course, is through marriage with the Malaysa guaranteed passport to masok
Melayu (or to be converted to Malay).
This is typical of the Indian Muslims in Malaysia, since many of them have been
assimilated into the Malay society. A newly emerging people in Malaysia are the
Mamak, who are the off-spring of the marriage of Malays and Indians. Some of them
cannot speak their own original mother-tongues, e.g. Indian sub-dialects like Tamil or
Malyalam, though all of them can speak Malay. Today, there are many who identify

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219

themselves only as Malays and carry names such as Merican, Shah, and attachments such
as Koya, Begum, or Beevi and others, which would not be used by the Malays.5 (In
Malaysia, no Malay will name their son Shah.)
The other identity of Indian Muslims in Malaysia is their birth certificate, which is
similar to the Hindu Indians, with A/L (anak lelaki or son of) or A/P (anak perempuan
or daughter of), instead of bin or binte for the Malays. This is also inserted into
their identity card or MyCard or passport. For the Malays in Malaysia, their birth certificate, identity card or MyCard and passport generally do not have this identity. Normally
the word bin is used to mean son of, whereas binte is used for daughter of. Even this is
beginning to change. Indian Muslims in Malaysia are abandoning the use of A/L and A/P
in their birth certificates, preferring to be identified as bumiputras, the group that is
entitled to privileges such as preferential quotas in university admission, scholarships
and financial aid, special housing incentives and discounts, and other opportunities in
business and employment normally unavailable to non-bumiputras.
The Indian Muslims in Malaysia in many ways constitute a very unique ethnic minority
group. A minority group may be defined as follows:
A group of people, because of their physical or cultural differences, are singled
out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal
treatment and who therefore regard themselves as objects of discrimination.
The existence of the minority group in a society or nation also implies the existence of a corresponding dominant group with higher social status and greater
privilege. The dominant group is known as the majority group.6
Usually, a member of a minority group is not able to resign or escape by merit, whatsoever
his/her unique characteristics, and is simply treated in the defining case as unit member of
the minority group.7 Usually, the minority groups also do not have any political power in
comparison to the majority group. Thus, minority is also defined as those with no political power in contrast to the corresponding majority group which is defined as the political
controlling force. In the Malaysian cases, the Indian Muslims, like the other minority
groups such as the non-Muslim Chinese and Indians, belong to the minority groups.
The Malay is the majority group, the dominant political force.
HinduMuslim Dynamics in India
The Indian Muslims in India were rulers for eight centuries (the famous Taj Mahal and
other historical landmarks are symbols of this). The Muslim rule in various forms lasted
from the eleventh to the nineteenth century until the Mughal ruler was defeated by the
British in 1857 and India was colonized. Following the freedom struggle when the partition of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan took place in 1949, there
were large numbers of Muslims in India who suddenly became a minority. In 1999,
India had a total population of 1.13 billion. The Muslims in India are estimated at
12% of the population, or approximately 135 million. They constitute the largest
Muslim minority community in the world. Most Muslims in India are in urban centers
and found all over the country, yet they remain a minority in all the provinces (except
in Kashmir), compared with the Hindus. Most of the Indians are Hindus and they are
politically dominant. Inter-religious conflict and riots do occur frequently in India. In
some parts of the country the Muslims and non-Muslims co-exist peacefully but in
other parts they could not see eye to eye. Conflicts and race riots were frequent. The
Muslims in India faced persecution and discrimination in all fieldsin employment

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opportunities, in education, etc. There was also a common perception that if the
Muslims become numerically larger than the Hindus in any state, they would secede
from India.8
There is little record on the precise date of arrival of Indian Muslims in Malaya,
Sarawak, and Sabah. But it is certain that it was earlier than the coming of the British
in Penang. Some of the Indian Muslims could have arrived in the Malaya Peninsula as
early as the Malacca Sultanate in the sixteenth century, as there were Indian Muslim merchants in Malacca. Whereas in Sarawak, when the British Rajah Brooke II was the ruling
power, a piece of land was given to the Indian Muslims in Kuching to build the present
Masjid India.
The differences in these groups of Indian Muslims from non-Muslim Indians are not
only due to religious practices but also a burden of historical past. Conflicts between
Hindus and Muslims in India and the political, economic, educational competition for
community interest in their home country had left scars among their forefathers as
they arrived in Malaya. Even today the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India
continues to create tension for them even in their adopted country, Malaysia. Besides,
the religious, cultural, and social differences also keep them apart. Thus there is the historical remnant of the past as the Indian Muslims were one time the rulers until the
Moghul Empire fell to the British rule and as the new rulers the British adopted a
hostile policy towards the Muslims in the sub-continent. They persecuted and alienated
the Indian Muslims and discriminated against them for jobs and employment, etc. They
were denied government jobs and educational and business opportunities. Only when
Sayyid Ahmad Khan (18171898), the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, persistently tried to discuss and plead with the British, then the government changed the
policy and became more open to offering jobs to Indian Muslims. However, by 2007,
after 60 years of achieving independence, India has only two Muslim universities,
Aligarh and Jamia Millia Islamia, serving 151 million Muslims in India, comprising
13.4% of the population of more than a billion.9
Even now, in India, very few Indian Muslims are employed in government services,
especially jobs in security and law enforcement, with hardly 2% employed as police officers. During racial riots and communal conflicts, many Muslims in India have become
victims. This of course does not mean that Hindus do not suffer as well, but with 98%
of the police force being Hindu, and with the political power and majority status they
enjoy, the Hindus remain more protected.10 However, not all places in India have communal riots, for example in Mumbai, Hindus and Muslims co-exist peacefully. In
Kashmir, on the other hand, there is a long ongoing conflict between the two communities.11 Indian Muslims are usually victims of terrorism in times of communal and religious riots in India. Politically, they are a minority ethnic group under-represented in the
state assemblies and in the Parliament. This is perhaps because the Muslim community in
India is sparsely distributed all over India. In the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House) with a
total membership of 244, only 27 are Muslims, and in the Lok Sabha (Lower House),
there are 46 Muslim members out of the total number of 456.12 The Indian Muslims
are blamed for many things in India, one of which is the partition of India and Pakistan.
In India, the population growth among the Muslims is greater compared to that of the
Hindus. The Hindus frequently express fear that if the Muslims outnumber them in a
hitherto Hindu majority state, they would secede from India. Except for the state of
Kashmir, Hindus are in the majority in all other states in India. It is under this background that we can see the relationship of the Indian Muslims and Hindus now living
in Malaysia.

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Malay Attitude towards the Indian Muslims in Malaysia


Qualitatively, the attitude of the Malays towards the Indian immigrants can be surmised
by comparing two different historical epochs. In the eighteenth century, or earlier, during
the Malacca Sultanate, most of the Indians arriving from India were Muslim merchants.
They were well received by the Malay elite or royal family. They had access to the royal
court and mixed well with the Malay elite. They could move freely in the elite circles and
enjoyed very good and positive relations with the Malay aristocrats in the state. These
Indian Muslims also possessed the skill and technical know-how for creating a
booming trading port for the Malay Sultanate. This brought prosperity and wealth to
the Malay sultanate. Parameswara, the ruler of Malacca, established a commercial
centre in Malacca in 1411, and in 1424 he embraced Islam and changed his name to
Megat Iskandar Shah and married a Muslim princess from Pasai. This definitely signaled
the influence of the Indian Muslim merchants in this region.13
Another Indian Muslim merchant, during this period, marrying into the royal family
was Kapitan Keling Caudeer Mohideen Merican. He headed a committee to build the
Kapitan KelingMosque in Penang and married Tunku Maheran or Tunku Wan Chik
Cik Taiboo at the request the Sultan of Kedah.14
All these facts indicate that the Indian Muslims in the eighteenth century or earlier were
welcomed by the Malays, especially the Malay aristocrats in the society. They were also
very influential among the elite Malay social circles, probably due to their prowess in
trade and their wealthy status. However, the positive attitude towards the Indian
Muslims changed after 1824 when the British started to import laborers, including convicts from India, to work in the Straits Settlements, especially in the sugar and rubber
plantations in Penang. Perhaps, these Indian laborer immigrants were not of good character, compared with the Indian Muslim merchants during the Malacca Sultanate. Furthermore, the Malays were denied the jobs taken up by these immigrant laborers. Thus
the Malay Union was formed in Singapore in 1931 for Malays only. It fought for the
rights of the Malays and non-Malays were excluded by its constitution. From then
onwards, the attitude of the Malays towards Indian Muslims also changed.15

Indian Muslim Converts in Malaysia


Historical evidence indicates that Islam was introduced into Sumatra from Arabia.
However, there is no sound historical source of support. Evidence indicated it was the
Indian Muslim merchants who were responsible for the spread of Islam in Sumatra.16
In Malaya, when the Malacca Sultan Parameswara embraced Islam, many Indian
Muslim merchants married the women of the elite Malay families of the Malay Sultanate,
and were assimilated into the Malay society. The Indian Muslims (mostly merchants)
came to Malaya much earlier than the Western colonizers. The Malay Annals mentioned
of the succession to the throne of Shah Jihan, the Indian Muslim Mughal Emperor, as
early as 1205.17 Later on, following intermarriages, conversion to Islam spread to the
other parts of Malaya and the Malay Peninsula and it continues until today. Many
non-Malays also adopted Islam. According to a JAKIM official in charge of preaching
to the Indians in Malaysia, there are at least 30,000 to 40,000 Hindus who converted
to Islam.18
In analyzing the situation of the Indian Muslims in Malaysia, Jan Stark begins with
quoting Dru Gladney: A majority is made not born.19 Stark examines the shifting identity of the Indian Muslims and the de-construction of the categories of races in Malaysia.

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Since independence on August 31,1957 and especially in the era of Prime Minister,
Tunku Abdul Razak, the introduction of Bumiputra and non-Bumiputra in the new
economic and education policy have had a great impact on all races including the
Indian Muslims. The Malays as bumiputras enjoy better privileges and easier ways to
obtain licenses for businesses, entrances to public universities with scholarship; even purchasing a new house is cheaper for them compared with the non-bumiputras. The
Chinese and Indians from the non-Islamic faith do not enjoy these facilities. From the
time of the colonization, the Indian Muslims were unlike the Malays, Chinese and
Indians of non-Islamic faith as the Malay stayed in the rural areas; the non-Muslim
Chinese in the town and mining areas; the Indian Hindus in the estate; whereas the
Indian Muslims were dispersed out in the town areas. Jan Stark was right in concluding
that the Indian Muslims were more successful as businessmen and traders compared with
the Malays.
However, the shifting identity of the Indian Muslims collided with the reality of the political power of the Malays as the bona fide bumiputra group during the era of Second Prime
Minister, Tun Abdul Razak. If the Indian Muslims wished to be associated with the
mainstream of political power, and did not want to be marginalized (as their names are
similar to those of the Malays), they could have joined the Malay political party and
became successful. Tun Dr Muhathir Muhammad was an example. He joined the
United Malay National Organization and became the third Prime Minister of Malaysia.
If he had insisted on being an Indian Muslim and maintained his Indian Muslim identity,
he would most probably not have any chance of becoming the longest-reigning Prime
Minister of Malaysia. Now, he quite openly urges the Indian Muslims not to emphasize
too much on their Indian identity. As a matter of fact, he is not the exception. There are
several Indian Muslim ministers in Malaysia who have become prominent politicians,
after silencing their Indian Muslim identity and becoming Malays. The words of
Dru Gladney ring true as the majority are made not born. These Indian Muslims
now identify themselves as Malays and join the Malay political party and become ministersempowering themselves and are no longer marginalized. Thus being in the majority
means power and political control; they have transformed themselves from a non-entity
into the ruling majorityGladney was right.
However, there are Indian Muslims in Malaysia who resist the ethnic conversion. They
would rather go to India and marry an Indian spouse than become a Malay (or masuk
Melayu). Invariably, they have chosen to remain a minority group, subject to discrimination in job applications and selection into public universities and other socio-economic
opportunities. In this case, in Malaysia, there are also many Tamil Islamic schools using
Tamil as the medium of instruction. Thus, we have both resistance to ethnic identity
change as well as intentional choice favoring ethnic change (to become Malays or bumiputras) among the Indian Muslims in Malaysia. Those who resist transformation or
change of identity, remain Indians. These Indian Muslims were a marginalized minority.
They face discrimination in job opportunities, in trade and commerce, and their children
do not enjoy the same privileges extended to Malay bumiputra children with regard to
selection to public universities, and financial assistance.
Contributions of Indian Muslims in Malaysia
There is no record of when the first Indian Muslims came to Malaya. Admittedly, they
were in Malaysia before 1786, earlier than the arrival of the British. Indian Muslim merchants were living in Kuala Kedah before 1786, and by 1796, there were 1000 Indian

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Muslim merchants in George Town. The majority of the Indian Muslims, almost 90%,
were Tamils from Tamil Nadu, in southern India. These Tamil Muslims were made up
of the Marikas and the Rawther. Marikas is taken from Tamil which means Malakalayar
or people of the wooden boat, and Rawther means people, guardians of the elephants and
horses of the kings armies. The Marikas subscribed to the Shafi school of Islamic law
and Rawther were followers of the Hanafi order. The present Malay Merikan families
are descendants of the Marikas; and the present Rautins trace their roots to the
Rawther. These were both Indian Muslim clans.
There was also a loosely-formed Indian Muslim community known as the Thankasu
Muslims or Kadaya Nallur Muslims. These groups of Indian Muslims in Penang originated from Trineveli, a densely populated Muslim sector of Tamil Nadu, and Kadaya
Nallur, a big town there. They came to Malaya with their families and did not disperse;
they stayed concentrated either in Penang or in Singapore, but also trickled into the inner
Malay federated states. Another group of Indian Muslims was from the districts of
Ramnad and Tagore of Tamil Nadu. They were frequently called Patai Muslims by
the Thankasu Indian Muslims. The Patai Muslims are typically Indian business men.20
Other than the Tamil Indian Muslims, there are also the Kerala Indian Muslims
coming from Kerala, India. They were known as Malabar Muslims and were addressed
as kaka which means brother. There were quite a considerable number of them staying in
the Transfer Road and Beach Street area in Penang. They formed a Malabar community
with their own mosque. During the Second World War, the mosque was bombed and
destroyed. This was the evidence of their presence.21
Another group of Indian Muslims were known as Bengal Muslims, arriving in Penang
before the birth of the nations of India and Pakistan, and prior to the establishment of the
state of Bangladesh. They were responsible for building the Masjid Bengal in Leith Street
and formed a settlement in Butterworth, Penang. There are also the Gujarati Muslims
coming from the state of Gujarat. Another group of Indian Muslims, colloquially
known as Bombay Muslims, were from the Northern Indian state of Maharashtra.
This consists of only a small number; and there were small numbers of other Indian
Muslims coming from other northern parts of India too.22
Professions and Occupations of Indian Muslims in Penang
Thankasi Indian Muslims were very hard working merchants. They were the manufacturers of cigars, beedis and snuffing powders. They opened grocery stores, selling beef
and fish, vegetables and other goods. Their women supplied various kinds of spices.
Some of the men worked as laborers in the wharf of the Penang shipyard. Others
worked under the government PWD and town council and in the waterworks. With
the passage of time, many of their children became highly educated, and they became
medical doctors, engineers, and other professional people in the private and government
sectors. One of the most well known was Tan Sri Ali Abu Hassan, a well-known economist and ex-Governor of Bank Negara.
The other groups of Indian Muslims in Penang were generally businessmen involved in
shipping, as shipping agents, ship chandlers, suppliers of boats, forklifts, equipment for
loading and unloading. They also supplied laborers for cargo handling. They were importers of cereals, groceries and other consumer products. Their imports consisted of textiles, papers and stationery and they also became traders of their imported
commodities. They also became traders of gold, jewelry, diamonds and gem stones.
They were also money changers and sellers of old coin and used stamps. They were

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restaurant operators, bakery and cold-storage owners. They were practically in all types of
businesses. However, the children of the present generation of Indian Muslims are not as
industrious and enterprising as the previous generations. Many of the successful enterprises of the forefathers of Indian Muslims, which had been a great achievement and providing wealth to their families, were either sold off to others or folded up. However, some
of these enterprises held by the Indian Muslims diversified and expanded into big corporations. Al-Barakah is one of these successful corporations. However, there is also a social
trend that a number of Indian Muslims have been assimilated into the Malay community
and became successful. These groups of assimilated Indian Muslims would not claim to
be Indian Muslims but Malays, although in real fact, they are the descendents of Indian
Muslims.
Religious Contributions of Indian Muslims
One of the great contributions of Indian Muslims is the spread of Islam to the whole of the
Malay Peninsula. Many of the traditional accounts indicated that it is either the Arabs or
Indian Muslim merchants who were responsible for the spread of Islam to the Malays.
Few books have been written about why all the Malays are Muslims. It is the researchers
opinion that Malays were very loyal to the Sultan, and when the Sultan embraced Islam
and changed his name from Parameswara to Megat Iskandar Shah, many Malay elites
also became Muslims and marriages were arranged between their daughters and the
Indian Muslim merchants. When this happened, the commoners, in turn, followed the
Sultan and the elite, to become Muslims.
Similarly, when a Malay from a royal family of the Malacca Muslim sultanate married
another member of a royal family of the Hindu faith, the royal family of the non-Muslim
faith also converted to Islam. This too was followed by conversion of elite Malays, and
subsequently the commoners. This seems to be a reasonable explanation why all
Malays are Muslims in Malaysia. However, the catalyst for this was the influence of
the Indian Muslim merchants. They were welcomed by the royal elite and could penetrate the royal court freely. The marriage of Megat Iskandar Shah to the Pasai princess
was only the beginning of this process. The end result was that all the Malays became
Muslims.
Besides this, there were several other important religious contributions. One of which
was the setting up of mosques in the country. In the past, there was no governmental contribution like now. The Indian Muslims were responsible for constructing many mosques
throughout the whole of Malaysia. Masjid Jamek in Jalan Tun Perak, Kuala Lumpur, with
its Indian design, is strong evidence of the influence of Indian Muslims, and Masjid India
in Kuala Lumpur, which is still under a committee of Indian Muslims, are good
examples. The most outstanding example is the beautiful pre-independence mosque,
built by a committee headed by an Indian Muslim Kapitan Keling Muhideen, on a
waqf land in Penang. Perhaps this is the biggest waqf land in the whole of Malaysia.
The mosque was built in 1881 and upgraded a few times, and is now under the official
purview of the Pejabat Agama Islam of Penang (State Islamic Religious Department of
Penang).
Other than this mosque, there were several other mosques built by Indian Muslims in
Penang. Masjid Alimsa was built in 1811 by Indian Muslims on a waqf land. The founder,
Shaykh Abdul Kadeer, was buried in the mosque. The Nagoor Derga and Anjuman
Himayatul Islam built in 1930, both in Chulia Street Penang, too, were constructed by
Indian Muslims. In addition to these, there is the Masjid Bengal in Leith Street, built

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in 1801, the Rawanna Mosque in Perak Road, Masjid Maqbul in Julutong, Masjid Jalan
Berangin and Masjid Abdul Wahab in Macalister Road, Masjid Shaik Daud in Kampong
Melayu, Masjid Yusuf in Doby Ghaut, the Dato Koya Derga in Transfar Road, and the
Indian Muslim Mosque in Butterworth. These were all built by Indian Muslims.
The construction of all these mosques indicates the spiritual attachments of the Indian
Muslims with Islam in Penang, Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur, other than Masjid India and
Masjid Pakistan, there was also a Masjid in Sri Petaling, built by Jamaah Tabligh, a movement started from India. Other than mosques, numerous madrasah or schools for learning and reading the Quran and Islamic teaching, was set up throughout Penang and
other parts of the nation. In Sri Petaling, the mosque also has an institute for memorizing
the Quran. Sometimes, teachers from India are recruited to teach their children in the
al-madrasah.23

Social Activities of Indian Muslims


Islam encourages its followers to render their social obligations to the poor and needy.
Thus, in Penang, the Indian Muslims extend a lot of help to the orphans and give scholarships for them to pursue their studies. There are many Indian Muslim organizations that
did this in Penang. They also helped victims of natural disasters and distributed money to
the poor, helped the handicapped and donated money to those in need. Among the
organizations doing these were the Penang Muslim League, an Indian Muslim organization with many affiliates. It has a building and offers free medical services for the people,
in addition to the above mentioned aids to others. It also represents the community in the
state Islamic religious department and the Zakat Board. There are several Muslim nonGovernmental organizations doing this in Penang and other places in Malaysia. In
Penang, there are the Butterworth Indian Muslim Association, Iqbal Islamic Association,
Central Muslim Organization, Muslim Youth Club, Iman Society formed in 1991,
Persatuan Nurul Islam formed in 1946, Kadayanallur Muslim Association in 1946,
Persatuan Hidayathul Islam formed in 1941, Anjuman Himayathul Islam formed in
1930, and also the United Muslim Association formed in 1920 with its big building on
Transfer Road. There are at least 15 Indian Muslim Organizations, each with their
own building in Penang. All of them provided aid and scholarships to the needy and
poor people and to the orphans.24

Political Achievements of Indian Muslims


The Muslim League of Penang is currently a social organization only. However, it was an
active political organization until 1974. It was an affiliate of UMNO and a member of the
Penang Alliance. It fielded three candidates for the municipal election including A.M.
Abu Bakar, S.M. Ali, Thyub Khan, and they all won. It is interesting to note that this
party supported the MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) to open a branch in Penang
and join the Alliance. Now, the tables are turned. When the KIMMA (Congress
Indian Muslim Malaysia) the political arm of the Malaysian Indian Muslims, applied
to join the Barisan Nasional (National Front), it was strongly objected to by the MIC.
As membership of the Barisan Nasional needs a consensus to become member,
KIMMA was kept out of the Barisan Nasional. Now, the Penang Muslim League is
only a social organization with many Indian Muslim associations affiliated to it. It has
lost its political clout.

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Languages of Indian Muslim Organizations in Penang


It is expected of any race and ethnicity to desire to maintain its identity, its culture and
value system. Language is one of the key markers of racial identity. The Indian
Muslims in Penang, Malaysia, love and respect their mother tongues, especially the
Tamil. The Thenkasi Indian Muslims came to Malaya with their families. As early as
the 1930s they set up Tamil schools to continue the usage of their mother tongue. The
Anjuman Tamil School was started in 1932 and the United Muslim Tamil School in
1934, besides the Thankasi Tamil Muslim School in 1950. They maintained the
school and paid for their teachers. Nowadays, most of the schools mentioned are taken
over by the religious department of the state government. However, a survey done in
Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan, in Kampong Pandan and Masjid India, Kuala
Lumpur, showed that the use of the Tamil language as a medium of instruction is still
maintained in their madrasahs
The Indian Muslims too produced many writers, poets, speakers and scholars of literature in the nation. Indian Muslims were responsible for the formation of the North
Malaya Tamil Writers Association based in Penang. The first President of this association
was KKD Muhammad Ibrahim and Nakambadi Karim, a poet, was its first secretary.
Both were Indian Muslims. The second President of the association was J.M. Hussein,
another famous Indian Muslim short story writer. There were many other well known
Indian Muslims known for their literary work, such as Othman Gani (Chitramozhi
Pulavar), who has trained many youth speakers. A.E. Muhammad Ibrahim was
another well known Indian Muslim and short story writer in Penang.

Sarawak Indian Muslims


The Malaysian Sarawak Indian Muslim community comprised of members of different
ethnic groups. The Tamil Muslims coming from Tamil Nadu made up 90% of the
Indian Muslim community in Sarawak. There were also the Malabari Muslims coming
originally from Kerala, and Uttar Pradeshi Muslims coming from Uttar Pradesh.
There were approximately 400 of them in Kuching who originally arrived during the
rule of Rajah Charles Brooke. However, now there are only 30 Uttar Pradeshis and
even fewer Malabaris.25 In the past, before the Second World War, the Malabari
Indian Muslims operated restaurants and small scale food and beverage businesses
(ice-kachang). The Uttar Pradeshis operated bakeries and dairy farms. They supplied
most of the fresh milk to the residents of Kuching. They also managed bullock cart transportations. After World War II and after the formation of Malaysia in 1963, the Chinese
monopolized the food and drink business. The Tamil Indian Muslims also had their
share of the restaurant business, but there were also other contenders, like the Sikhs. Presently, there are only one or two Uttar Pradeshi bakeries, and still fewer run by the Malabaris. The Tamil Indian Muslims had taken most of the Indian Muslim restaurants and
the Uttar Pradeshis are trying to revive their bakery business but with only one or two
small bakery shops.26
With the exception of 40, the 400 Indian Muslims in Sarawak are all Tamils. There
were also Indian Muslims after having intermarried with the Malays and produced a
hybrid population of between 3,000 and 4,000 peranakan. The figure of 400 Indian
Muslims did not include these peranakan. They could write and read Tamil and the
young ones could communicate in Tamil. They were proud of their ethnic roots. Over
the years, these 400 Indian Muslims had intermarried with the Malays in Sarawak,

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which was common in South East Asia. Thus there was family here for them as well as
another family at home in India. As they were very concerned about the dilution of
their ethnic identity, they spoke and wrote Tamil, whereas the majority of the hybrids
could not communicate well in the Tamil language.
There was a sort of split personality among these hybrid children. While officially they
are the bumiputras, they also had great social, economic and language links with the
Indian Muslims. They were also easily assimilated into the Malay community. Most of
these people worked in the civil service and could easily come to the aid of the Tamil
Muslims, if they faced any problem. The majority of pure Tamil Muslims maintained
a strong sense of their ethnic cohesion and identity. They still maintained their traditional
business waysselling clothes, groceries, medicine, etc. They also lived mostly on India
Street, whereas a few of them lived on the adjacent Gambier Street. Some operated as
small vendors. Their business center was in the heart of the city but they lived at the outskirts of Kuching. It was this area that became known as Keling Street at first, but the
Tamil Muslims were offended by this name, and it was changed to India Street. But
the kampong came to be known as Kampong India, as most of the Indian Muslims
were staying here. This place also became their religious and cultural center. Like the
Tamil Muslims in this region, they were very religious and under Rajah Brooke II,
they applied for a piece of land to build a mosque and were granted. They built a
mosque in 1872 which was first known as Keling Mosque, and was later changed to
Masjid India. Since then, the Masjid was the religious center of the Tamil Muslims.
Now the function is taken over by the state under its department of religion but with an
Indian Muslim Committee managing it. They also build shop lots attached to the
mosques which could accommodate 1,000 people in the Friday congregational prayer.
There are many shop lots leading from Masjid India to India Street built by the
mosque. These shops are rented out to the Indian Muslims and also to the Chinese.
In 1937, the Tamil Indian Muslims also built a madrasah to cater to the needs of their
people. It was built at the initiative of Mohammad Shariff, an Indian Muslim who was
the head of Committee of the Masjid India. The Madrasah was known as al-Madrasah
al-Islamiyyah Kuching. It served to disseminate Islamic knowledge to the Tamil
Muslims and also the Malays. Most of the Muftis and some personalities of Sarawak
graduated from this school. The school now employs two teachers and has about 80 to
90 students on its rolls.
The Masjid India still serves as a cultural, religious and social centre for the Tamil
Muslims even though there is a National Masjid here built by the government. It continued to be useful as most of the Tamil Muslims continue to use the mosque while they also
frequent the State National Mosque. There were two imams at Masjid India in Sarawak
a Malay and a Tamil. Sermons were given in Tamil and Malay alternatively. Jalan India
and Masjid India, and Kampong India are places of Indian Muslim culture, religion and
commerce. The Indian Muslims in Sarawak had been present for at least 30 years before
Sarawak joined Malaysia in 1963. The number of Indian Muslims coming to Malaysia
had declined because the entry of foreigners was restricted by immigration laws after
Sarawak joined Malaysia in 1963. It was much easier before independence. As stated
above, the Indian Muslim communities existed earlier since Rajah Charles Brookes
time and they have enjoyed a very harmonious relationship with the local Malays.
However, ever since independence, the activities of the Indian Muslim community had
declined, and that of the Malays had increased; whereas in the past the role of Indian
Muslims was more prominent. In the process, many Indian Muslims married the local
Malays. Both communities could now propagate Islam together and provide Islamic

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education. In the past, since the Indian Muslims were economically well off, they were
held in high esteem by the Malays, but this role was now eroded. There were several
factors. First the community was small. Then there was no new blood from India.
Third, with the building of the new state mosque, Masjid India would not be the sole religious focus in the area. Besides, the fund for activities including Masjid India was contributed privately and individually, whereas the state mosque is funded by the
government and hence it controls the activities and the functions. There was also a
$20-million national mosque with a madrasah built by the state. Now, Masjid India
and al-Madrasah Al-Islamiyyah Kuching were not the only Islamic institutions. The
Malays are politically strong now and were no longer, unlike before, only seeking help
from external sources. The Malay communities do not need to rely on the Tamil
Indian Muslims economically, educationally and religiously. Before Sarawak joined
Malaysia in 1963, the Malays were more dependent on the Indian Muslims. Now, the
Malays hold the political power, and thus state government funds can be channeled to
them. For example, the state mosque of Kuching, built near Masjid India, was an
example. Under the British, there was no problem for Indian Muslims, especially the
scholars coming to Sarawak, to help in the running of the Masjid India, or give moral
support in Kuching. After Sarawak becomes part of Malaysia, scholars coming from
India to work were hampered by the new visa requirements enforced by new immigration
policies.
The relationship between the Tamil Muslims and Malays are very close. Members of
the older generation of Tamil Muslims have become prominent residents here. The
young ones are Malaysians. Many children of the Tamil Muslims are encouraged to
marry within their own ethnic group, but there are no restrictions for marriage with the
Malays. Some of the children have been sent to universities in India. One of the fears
of the Indian Muslims is that the state government would take over the management
of the Committee of the Masjid India Kuching. The Indian Muslims hope that the government would still recognize their contribution to religion, education and social work,
and would not take over the management committee of the mosque, among which all
members are Indian Muslims.
Finally, there was also in 1942 the formation of the Muslim League in Kuching. This
became necessary as in the Second World War the Japanese would not deal with
the affairs of Indian Muslims through any individual or group. The formation of the
League was to facilitate communication with the Japanese. Now, the Muslim League
is one of the affiliated members of PERMIM, the Federation of all registered nonGovernmental Indian Muslim Organizations in Malaysia.

Conclusion
This article provides a brief overview of the background of the Indian Muslims in Malaysia. The stated population of 500,000 Indian Muslims is only an estimate. As a fact,
nobody can know the exact numbers of Indian Muslims in Malaysia because many
have already been assimilated and self-identify themselves as Malays. The Indian
Muslims in Malaysia are a minority ethnic group coming mainly from Tamil Nadu
and other places in India, and are united by the common faith of Islam. As a minority
ethnic group, compared with the majority Malays, they are frequently assimilated into
Malay ethnicity. The main concentration of Indian Muslims is in Penang and the
Wilayah Persekutuan of Kuala Lumpur.

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Furthermore, the Indian Muslims are not concentrated in specific areas, like the
Hindus in the state. They are dispersed throughout the nation, staying mostly in the
urban areas. Another point of interest is that the Indian Muslims could be the cause of
the conversion of all Malay races to Islam. Their contribution towards Islam cannot be
denied. For example, they were responsible for building many mosques in the country.
In Penang, at least 22 out of the 68 mosques were built by them. In Sarawak, the
Masjid India in India Street and also the Madrasah produced many great scholars. So
is the Masjid India in Kuala Lumpur and other places. This is possible, as in the beginning, the Indian Muslims were well received by the elite in the Malay sultanate in the
eighteenth century, judging from the two royal marriages in Malacca and in Penang.
But now the situation is different. The Malays are strong politically and many Indian
Muslims in Malaysia require the help from the government. The young generation of
Indian Muslims is not as enterprising as the previous generations. The businesses of
their grandparents, except for a few, are declining. Thus, many need help for their education and businesses from the government. Their influence has dwindled and with the
emerging of the Malays as the prominent political power and also the Chinese as the
major economic force, their impact overall has almost diminished. Their political and
economic roles are getting marginalized. Consequently, many of them would like to be
assimilated to be Malay so that they can enjoy the same political rights as Malays.
However, there are also many Indian Muslims who want to maintain their ethnic identity.
They send their children to the Tamil madrasahs so that they can speak and write the
Tamil language. Besides, a number of them have even gone to Tamil Nadu, India and
married Tamil wives so that they can maintain the Indian Muslim identity. They also
send their children to India for their higher studies.
To conclude, there are two ethnic forces among the Indian Muslims in Malaysia. One
is the assimilation force. From the sixteenth century until now, many Indian Muslims
have been assimilated into the Malay communities. Some have resisted this trend and
remain loyal to their Indian Muslim ethnic identity. Many of them are in the middle of
these two forces, that is, if they get married with the Malays, the possibility for them to
be assimilated is great. If they send their children to the Tamil madrasahs and go to
India to marry Tamil spouses, then of course they would strengthen and retain their
Indian Muslim ethnic identity.

NOTES
1. Year Book of Malaysia Statistics, Kuala Lumpur: Government Publisher, 2003, pp. 3537.
2. Ibid.
3. Tunku Zainah Ibrahim, Malay Ethnicity in Sarawak: A Case Study of the People in Mirik, unpublished Master Thesis, Penang: Universiti Sains Malaysia, 1972.
4. Wan Abdul Halim Othman, Ethnogenesis: A Case Study of the Malay ethnicity in Malaysia, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bristol, 1978.
5. Merican is derived from the word Maricas which means keeper of the boats from India.
6. Louis Wirth, Race and Public Policy, Scientific Monthly, April 1944, pp. 302312; Louis Wirth,
The Problems of Minority Group, in The Science of Man in the World Crisis, ed. Ralph Linton,
New York: Columbia University Press, 1945, pp. 347372.
7. G. E. Simpson and J. M. Yinger, Racial and Cultural Minority, New York: Plenum Press, 1985, p. 9.
8. Interview with an Indian lecturer working at the International Islamic University, Malaysia in 2008.
9. Ausaf Ahmad, Indian Muslims: Issues in Social and Economic Development, New Delhi: Karma Publisher, 1993, p. 79.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.

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12. Ibid., p. 27.


13. Khoo Kay Kim, Malay Attitude towards Indian Muslims in Malaysia, in Indian Communities in
South East Asia, eds. Kernial Singh Sandu and A. Mani, Singapore: Institute of South East Asian
Study, 2006, pp. 266287.
14. Yasmin Merican,The Forgotten Saint Pathini Fatimah, in The Other Malaysia, 5 February 2007.
15. Khoo Kay Kim, Malay Attitude towards Indian Muslims, op. cit., pp. 266267.
16. Snouck Hurgronje, LArabie et les Indes Neerlandaises (The Arabs and the Dutch East Indies),
Revue de IHistoire des Religions, Vol. vii, p. 69 as cited by T. W. Arnold, The Spread of Islam in the
World: A History of Peaceful Preaching, New Delhi, Goodword Book, 2001, p. 366, No. 2.
17. Arnold, The Spread of Islam, Ibid., p. 366.
18. Interview with JAKIM in 2007 and PERMIM officer on 18th September 2008.
19. See, Jan Stark, Indian Muslims in Malaysia: Images of Shifting Identities in the Multi-Ethnic State,
Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 3, December 2006, pp. 383398.
20. Seeni Naina Mohamed, Indian Muslims in Penang: Role and Contributions, Colloquium on
Indians in Penanga Historical Perspective, organized by Penang Heritage Trust and The
Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Penang Sept., 22, 2001. Available online at: http://
search.yahoo.com/search?p=seeni+naina&vc=&fr=yfp-t-305&toggle=1&cop=mss&ei=UTF-8&fp_
ip=MY
21. Ibid.
22. Interview with the Penang Muslim League Committee on 10 November 2009.
23. Interview with the Mosque Management Committee on 9 December 2009.
24. Interview with the Penang Muslim League Committee on 15 November 2009.
25. D. S. Ranjit Singh, Indians in East Malaysia, in Indian Communities in South East Asia, eds. Kernial
Singh Sandu and A. Mani, Singapore: Institute of South East Asia Studies, Singapore University,
2006, pp. 568584.
26. Ibid.