A woman writes about her spiritual journey while entering a mosque in Kerala that opened its doors to women for only the second time in three decades.

Nadapuram Mosque in KeralaWikimediaCommons/Khaiseaa
Features Gender Monday, March 28, 2022 - 14:12

“What’s there in a masjid for a woman?” my mother-in-law asked, annoyed, when someone in the family mentioned an event where a revered local mosque was being thrown open for the faithful women for two days after three decades in my in-laws’ home town, Nadapuram, a village in Kerala’s Kozhikode district. Unlike Salafi Muslims, women in traditional families like ours are not fond of attending religious congregations at the mosque. Shafi’te jurisprudence in Islam discourages the practice. “You’d like to go there, wouldn’t you?” my mother-in-law was asked. “Yes, why not?” she retorted, drawing laughter, largely from male family members. Bizarrely, I couldn’t giggle, nor could my mother-in-law.

The conversation was followed by a flood of news, posters and write-ups on the event on social media, largely on WhatsApp. It inspired imaginations and dreams of accessing the hitherto inaccessible place of worship for women. My first thoughts were to offer two Raka’t* namaz at the masjid. Will they allow women to offer namaz? Worry began to cloud my thoughts.

When did I first see the Nadapuram Palli (mosque)? I began scrolling down the pages of my life book. My life story has been partitioned between two places – Parappangadi, where I was born and grew up, and Purameri, where my husband’s home is. Both the places were known for their mediaeval Swaroopams – Parappanad and Kadathanad – seats of power that ruled and administered large swathes of land and people in old times. The mosque, or ‘palli’, is historically positioned at one of the mediaeval local towns of Kadathanad. William Logan, the Scottish chronicler of Malabar, has mentioned the town and its masjid in his celebrated work, Malabar Manual.

I moved to Purameri after marriage. On my wedding day, we had a 100-km journey from Parappangadi to Purameri. At my home, everyone was referring to my husband’s place as Nadapuram, not Purameri, which is 3 km away from Nadapuram. The wedding procession – comprising many cars and a bus – moved swiftly. At a stop, someone pointed finger at a majestic old Kerala-style building and told me, “This is Nadapuram Palli.” I smiled in confusion. Sensing my unfamiliarity with the structure, the relative who had pointed out the mosque began singing a line from an old Malayalam movie: “Nadapuram palliyile chandankudatthinu” (For the Chandanakkudam festival in Nadapuram mosque). I nodded my head, partly irritated by the way he sang that lovely song. I glanced in the direction of his finger and only saw a pathway leading up to the entrance of the mosque. The vehicle revved and life moved on.

I was six or seven years old when our family had gone to visit the famous shrine of Sayyid Alavi Thangal a.k.a Mamburam Thangal, situated in a place called Mamburam. It was only a 7 km drive from my hometown. An introverted and stubborn child, I was afraid of Mamburam, where beggars would line up and disabled people with amputations would chant strange hymns. The stories I had heard of child abductors and magical seers had made me feel edgier on that day. But as I grew older, my spiritual dependence on the Mamburam Thangal also grew. The Sufi mystic, who, back in the early half of the 19th century, caused headaches for the British administration in Malabar, was a source of solace for thousands of needy people in the region and beyond. His legacy left an unending spiritual mark on Mamburam, and people from the adjacent areas pay homage to the mystic from time to time – especially prior to important family festivities such as marriage – and seek his blessings.

While travelling to CKG Memorial College, Perambra, where I taught for a while, I would pass through Nadapuram. And it became a daily routine to have a glance of the masjid while sitting in the bus. Unlike travelling in a car, the high seats in the bus made it possible to experience the beauty of the building’s elegant architecture, arousing a feeling as though I was seeing a heavenly creature. Surely, heaven is made for the afterlife – a forbidden place for terrestrial life – thanks to the sin committed by Havva and Adam, may almighty be pleased with them. Similarly, the gate of the Masjid was also closed for us women, and only our corpse would be allowed to enter its premises.

I made up my mind and decided to leave for the masjid early in the morning on the given date after Nadapuram Palli decided to open its gates to women. Women from the neighbourhood had approached my mother-in-law and requested her to take them along with us. I insisted on going early in the morning. My voice inside me seemed to be saying, go as early as possible or you won’t make it. And so we did – my husband’s mother and I – rejecting suggestions to travel in the afternoon. I performed Wudu, the practice of ritual washing before prayer at home, and kept alive the intention to offer two Raka’t at the mosque. Of course, doubts were looming on whether the authorities will allow us, women, to prostrate on the floor inside the holy masjid, where only men are allowed to offer namaz. We got into an auto-rickshaw. 

The road which leads to Nadapuram was experiencing traffic congestion on that day. “Women are going to flood the town today, it seems,” said the driver. My mother-in-law smirked at him, disapproving his patronising tone. The rickshaw stopped near the outer entrance of the mosque. While the driver was handing back the change, accidentally his hand touched mine, spoiling the Wudu, the ablution. I lost my hope of offering namaz in the historic monument. My disappointed self held my mother-in-law’s hand and walked towards the masjid. Crowds were growing larger and larger. A four-metre wide and more than ten-metre-long pathway – paved with antique-looking stones – ended at a portico. The entrance of the portico resembled a feudal tharavad (homestead) with a wooden bar acting as a gate. The upper edge of the portico – half-triangular in shape and decorated with wooden works – welcomed the believer to the house of the almighty. A crescent and star adorned the wall of the portico. I withdrew my eyes from the portico and tried to fix my gaze on the building itself – a giant flying bird-like Masjid – began unravelling before me. The feathered friend was perhaps waiting for the Miraj* journey to heaven.

I saw a woman offering namaz on the ground floor of the mosque and felt goosebumps. I hoped there would be a water pipe around. Fortunately, there was a Wudu Khana and I, along with my mother-in-law, performed Wudu and moved onto the inner yards of the masjid. I looked around. The masjid was less crowded and there were plenty of empty places. I chose an isolated spot on the left side of the mosque. If you use the flying bird analogy to describe the masjid structure, I stood facing the qibla on the right wing of the bird.

Wajjahthu Wajhiya Lilladhi fathara samawati val ard*... Surely, I am facing him, the one who creates heaven and the earth. I started offering namaz, the communion with the almighty. I tried to concentrate, but I couldn’t. After a while, as my lips were reciting verses from the holy book, suddenly the face of Amina Thatha came into my thoughts. 

My inner consciousness began to trade words with her. A short woman with dark skin, Amina Thatha exemplified spirituality in my childhood days. Many years ago, she had assured me, a pestering girl, of a beautiful journey towards Erwadi, a place of pilgrimage in Tamil Nadu. Her stories – full of angels and jinns – made me aspire to become like her, a beevi. She is our neighbour, who visits Mamburam shrine on Thursdays and goes to Erwardi every month. Why did she come to me when I was offering namaz? But later I thought, why wouldn’t she? After all, she was the one who had sowed the seeds of the dream of visiting Erwardi in me. But it was also Thatha, who made me detest Erwardi. Her son had an intellectual disability, and she had taken him to Erwadi, with the hope of finding a ‘cure’, but somehow lost him – he went missing. I cried that day. I firmly believed in those days that she had abandoned her child. When I finally entered the halls of the almighty, why did she come into my mind to disturb me? I began reciting a verse from a chapter, the Qadr (the fate), from the holy book and reverted to the communion with the master. After namaz, it was time to explore the masjid.

The sanctum sanctorum of the mosque lies at the western end, where a highly decorated wooden Mimber, a pulpit, is located. From here, the Qadi delivers the religious sermon during the Friday congregation. I touched the pulpit and imagined Umara (political) and Ulama (religious) leaders sitting in rows listening to the Friday sermons. There were many qabars (graves) inside the mosque, but since there is no information provided, I couldn’t confirm the identities. I took a moment and prayed for them.

The Nadapuram masjid is not only known for its heritage and traditional Kerala-style architectural beauty, but is also considered a great seat of learning. In old Islamic circles, Nadapuram is also called the second Ponnani (a town in Kerala considered to be a centre of Islamic learning). We climbed an almost vertical wooden stairway to the upper chamber of the mosque. Some nosing treads of the stairs have corroded due to frequent usage. The first floor is a centre of learning visited by world-renowned Islamic scholars. The recent history of Nadapuram Masjid is associated with the late scholar Keezhana Oor, also known as Kunhabdulla Musliar. Renowned for his scholarship in fiqh and other Islamic systems of learning, he died two decades ago. There is a popular story about his piety and mysticism. One day, a father and son from a distant place visited the masjid with the hope of meeting Keezhana Oor. When they reached the mosque, someone told them the master is on the first floor, delivering classes. The father and son climbed the same stairs that I had climbed to reach the first floor. When Keezhana Oor inquired about the purpose of their visit, the father narrated his worries. The son who accompanied him was deaf and mute and an only child. The teary-eyed father asked him to do something for the child – perform some sort of Karamath or miracle. 

With a smile, Keezhana Oor told them that he is helpless, and he is not that pious or mystic to change fate by making a request to the almighty. But since the father kept on insisting, the master said: “What can we do if you are not understanding me? Okay, let's recite al-Fatiha and make a dua.” They offered Fatiha and bid adieu to the master. The son was walking in the front row when they were climbing down the wooden ladder. Unexpectedly, he lost his control and fell. He shouted, “Appa.. appa.. (father.. father).” The father, stunned at the development, realised that the purpose of his visit had been fulfilled. 

I explored the places where this scholar took classes and saw various books on the shelves. The second floor, completely made of wood, is a place of great comfort. The wind blows from every direction. For my husband, who had told me not to miss the second floor, it was the most attractive part of the mosque. I would call this a Kerala-styled gazebo placed on the top of the masjid. The mosque, surrounded by the graveyard, becomes fully visible from the top floor. One of the post-marriage thoughts that greatly disturbed me was where I will be buried after death. I didn’t want to be buried here in Nadapuram, but I changed my mind after this visit. I found a lonely spot – away from the roadside and nearer to the masjid – a preferable place for my eternal resting. I prayed to the almighty for the same.

While we were returning, purdah-clad women were going in droves towards the masjid, as if a river, which was denied its normal flow, had reclaimed its path to the sea.

Noorjahan T is an independent researcher and a Postgraduate from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU

Footnotes

*Rakat, pronounced Rak'ah, is a single iteration of prescribed movements performed by Muslims as part of their prayer.

*Miraj refers to the second part of the journey Prophet Muhammed undertook to heaven after travelling from Mecca to Jerusalem.

*Wajjahthu Wajhiya Lilladhi fathara samawati val ard is the dua offered at the beginning of namaz (prayer)

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