Forty-five-year-old Mujeeb Rahman sighs at the sight of yet another reporter at his doorstep. His is the second house in the Salafi commune in Nilambur village. He was about go out with his daughter, but agreed to talk and invited me in. Like him, most residents of the commune do not understand why they are suddenly at the centre of the country’s attention. Some shy away from speaking to the media, but others talk to journalists so that they dispel misconceptions about their way of life.
Mujeeb led me up to the second floor where they lived. On seeing me, his 4-year-old son quickly hides behind his mother Najma.
“Many reporters and policemen have come here to question us in the past week. Now my son is scared of outsiders. He thinks they have come to take him away,” Najma says.
Mujeeb’s four-member family is one of 11 others living in a commune in Malappuram district, in isolation from the rest of Athikkad village. But their lifestyle has attracted unwanted attention from the police, public and the media after 21 people from different parts of Kerala left their homes, allegedly to join the Islamic State. They were mostly Salafis.
The sudden, unwanted spotlight has made Mujeeb think about returning to his parents’ house in Aricode, about an hour away. If they do, Najma will be relieved. Their daughter Aamna now goes to a school 4 kms away, after the school in the commune was shut. They would then be able to send Aamna to the Aricode school where her two elder daughters study. It not only teaches the Quran but also mandates that the girls cover their faces.
A man named Subair Maankada, who taught Arabic at a school in Athikkad, started the commune a little away from the village about 10 years ago. Nearly all of the families who live here, have in the past been connected to the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM), a group of clerics, thinkers and scholars which was founded in the 1950s underpinned by Salafi thought.
In the widest sense of the term, Salafis are people who believe that the right way of life was the one led by the early Muslims – those who lived within 400 years of Prophet Mohammed's death. They believe the lives of people of that time are worth emulating, down to the last detail, hence the focus on religious scriptures.
With the idea of practising these beliefs, he bought a three-acre plot of land outside Athikkad village, set up a school and a Salafi masjid. He sold 10-cent plots to each of 17 families.
The residents of the commune share common values, but they do not all practice these values in a uniform manner. They lead a simple, minimalist life, with what they see are necessities, such as a motorcycle for commuting.
Mujeeb moved in with his family around five years ago. “We came here to lead a religious, peaceful life,” he says. But it was not just religious beliefs alone that prompted him to make the decision.
In 2004, Mujeeb returned to India from Saudi Arabia, where he worked in the sales department of a company. His parents were unhappy with his decision and wanted him to continue to work there. The differences with his family coincided with a growing dissatisfaction with formal religious structures. He had grown up in a family that was part of the KNM but he himself became disenchanted with being part of a formal religion-based association. The Salafi commune in Athikkad was a way out – he need not live with his parents, and did not have to give up his beliefs for it.
Najma’s family too belongs to the KNM but regarded many Salafi practices as extreme.
“I began to cover my face after coming here. My parents were unhappy that I adopted this way of life, and even now they tell me that this is not the right way. But we believe that this is true Islam. A woman’s face is to be seen only by her husband, what’s wrong with that?” Najma says.
Many of the women in the commune cover their faces when venture out of their homes. On Fridays, many women go to a Salafi masjid two kilometres from Athikkad for prayers.
A year after they moved, Mujeeb set up a shop in Nilambur town. “The local residents used to think that we are conservative, that we were inclined towards terrorist ideas. But, after I set up the shop, people began to be less wary of us,” Mujeeb says. Mujeeb looked me in the eye as he spoke, unlike some of the other men in the colony.
“All of us are responsible for our actions in this life, which determines whether we go to heaven or hell. To reach heaven, we are willing to abide by the Quran. You think we don’t desire to live in a stylish manner? But we have come here to live in this isolated place, to learn more about Islam and live accordingly, only for the promise of reaching heaven,” says 29-year-old Mariam.
Notice board at the masjid
Mariam began to observe Salafi practises in 2008, after she married Abdul Rahim. Initially, her parents did not want her to marry Abdul, who was born into a Hindu family. But they finally relented in 2008, convinced that Prajosh was a better Muslim, since he learnt the religion enough to adopt it in 2005 and changed his name to Abdul. A BE.d student then, Abdul’s family objected to his decision, but later complied with his wishes.
Mariam’s family are Sunni Muslims, but she could always relate to Salafi teachings. That’s why for six years after their wedding, neither she nor Abdul attempted to get a loan to buy a house even though they didn’t have the money. “We finally bought this house two years ago, with our hard-earned money and some that our parents gifted us,” Mariam says.
She does not want a TV in her house as she considers much of the content is vulgar and is a distraction from her duties. But she is not averse to reading up about Islam on the internet. Similarly, many of the residents of the commune do no watch films, or do anything else that might distract them.
The entire conversation with 45-year-old Shiju Salim took place with him looking at something above my head. He said it was forbidden for him to look at any woman other than his wife.
Shiju moved into the neighbourhood with his wife and two children only a month-and-a-half ago. One of the reasons for their decision to move from Aricode was that they had heard that a madarassa would be started soon. “It would be very difficult to we live like this in Nilambur town or any other crowded place. After all, we are all humans...we would end up looking at something we are not meant to...”
He makes it clear that he wants the misconceptions about his fellow Salafi neighbours dispelled. In the context of the 21 Kerala people who are thought to have joined IS, Shiju says that if young men were joining IS believing it to be their duty according to Islam, “they do not understand what true Islam is”.
Shiju was introduced to Salafism 10 years ago, when he happened to listen to a speech in Kozhikode by a preacher named MM Akbar. His curiosity roused, he began to read the Quran and interpret it on his own. “I read the portion about war, which explains how one should fight on the battlefield. When my family opposed my inclination towards Salafism and said I was turning extremist, I decided it was my duty to protect my belief and took a sickle to fight them,” he recollects.
He threatened some of his family members with a sickle once, but did not attack them. It was soon after that, that he says, he was set on the right path by Salafi preachers. They told him that he shouldn’t interpret the Quran on his own, as it gives rise to multiple, incorrect, interpretations.
“There is a context to the Quran. The portion about war is in the context of self-defence, with clear instruction that women, children, religious places should not be attacked. But people who call themselves Muslims and go by the literal meaning end up joining IS, believe it to be their duty. But they are terribly wrong,” he declares.
Shiju considers everybody who does not follow Salafism as non-Muslim. He says “fake muslims” do not follow Quran in its entirety and consider themselves Muslims only to avail of government benefits. “They are not true Muslims…they don’t know what true Islam is…,” he declares.
Once, Shiju himself was one such “non-Muslim”. He was born into a Sunni family in Varkala in Kollam district, had was not religious by his own admission. He says his family were Muslims “only by name”.
50-year-old Soonitha lives with her husband Swalih and their three grown-up children. When they began to live in the commune two years ago, they built their house opposite the newly reopened commune masjid. She is sceptical of the people who come “to understand their way of life, but report negative things”.
“I don’t understand why the police come here asking whether we send our kids to school regularly, or whether we knew the people who went missing. We want to live in peace,” Soonitha says and withdraws into a bedroom.