by Ayesha Saldanha

Early Arab trade encounters first brought Arabic to India’s southern coasts. Used as a lingua franca in ports, the language’s influence grew with the arrival of Islam, and its association with religion gave it and its script a sacred status. Today, while Arabic is spoken by few in South India, versions of the Arabic script are still used to write local languages by a number of Muslim communities, some of whom trace their ancestry to Arabs who came to the subcontinent for trade.

When Vasco da Gama arrived at the busy trading port of Calicut (today known as Kozhikode) on India’s southwestern coast in 1498, he had two letters with him from the king of Portugal. They were introductions to be handed over to the local ruler, and one was in Portuguese, the other in Arabic.

According to historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the Portuguese letter could not be read by anyone at the court of the ruler, and da Gama did not trust the Muslims at the court to translate the Arabic letter in his favour. He asked for an Arabic-speaking Christian to be brought to assist, but the youth who was produced could only speak Arabic, not read it. Da Gama in the end had to rely on four Muslims to translate the message from the Portuguese king.

Until the arrival of the Portuguese in the region, Arabs (including Arabic-speaking Jews) dominated maritime trade in the Indian Ocean – such as the pepper trade on India’s west coast – and Arabic was widely known and used as a lingua franca in trading centres.

In fact the first people encountered by da Gama’s party in Calicut were “two Moors from Tunis.” When the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta visited Calicut in 1342, a century and a half before da Gama, he described a cosmopolitan society with Arabs holding prominent positions:

The amir of the merchants there was Ibrahim Shahbandar, of the people of Bahrain, a worthy man, of generous habits, at whose house the merchants used to gather and to eat at his table.

Trade contacts meant that Arabs and the Arabic language were present in parts of India centuries before Islam arrived. With the religion’s arrival, the use and influence of Arabic increased. It eventually changed from a language used for trade to one associated exclusively with religion. In contrast, the Persian language, brought to India by various Persianate dynasties, became the language of the court and administration as well as high culture, and it was used by both Muslims and Hindus. Because of this, much of the Arabic vocabulary later absorbed by Indian languages was in fact Perso-Arabic vocabulary – Arabic words that had earlier been absorbed into Persian.

Today, while economic relations have changed and Arab traders no longer head to the Indian coast as they once did, the influence of Arabic – particularly its script – lives on in a number of languages used by South Indian Muslim communities.

South India’s coastal Muslims

Various Muslim communities on India’s southern coasts trace their ancestry to Arabs and Persians who came to the subcontinent for trade, or in some cases to escape oppressive rule in their homelands. The fact that these communities developed through contact with traders rather than as a result of conquest meant that despite being Muslim, they had good relationships with the local Hindu rulers, and they grew through conversion and intermarriage.

Anthropologists Filippo and Caroline Osella quote a version of an old story related to them by Ahmed Koya, a Muslim in Calicut/Kozhikode, which tells a common narrative of the religious tolerance that existed:

The first Arab trader who arrived here went to meet the Rajah. The Arab gave the Rajah a jar of pickle and asked him to keep it safe until his return the following season. After one year he returned and the Rajah gave him the jar back. The trader opened it and took out a gold coin. It was a test: as the Rajah proved trustworthy, the Arabs began to trade in Kozhikode. The Zamorin Rajah was very fond of Arab traders and gave them honours and land. He encouraged local people to marry Arabs and convert to Islam.

The coastal Muslims had little contact with the Persianate culture which developed in the north of India from the eleventh century. Their societies were shaped instead by connections across the Indian Ocean.

Over time various Muslim communities in India adopted the Arabic or Perso-Arabic script for their own languages. Abdur Rahoof Ottathingal of Leiden University describes this as “a powerful form of practicing Islamic textuality”; the communities asserted their Muslim identity by using a version of the Arabic script.

In South India these languages included Konkani, Malayalam and Tamil, whose forms written with Arabic script are known as Nawayathi, Arabi-Malayalam, and Arwi.


The Nawayath are a Muslim community who live predominantly in the town of Bhatkal and the northern parts of coastal Karnataka in the southwest of India. Bhatkal has a population of 32,000, of which nearly 75 percent are Muslims, the majority of them Nawayath. The community today has strong links with the Gulf, where many Nawayath go to work.

A number of communities in western and southern India are known as Nawayath, and they all share coastal origins. It is not certain where the name “Nawayath” comes from. Two possibilities are that it means “newly arrived” or “newcomers,” or originates from the Persian word nakhuda, which means “shipowner” or “captain.”

Both refer to the Arabs and Persians who came to live on the coast, although there is no agreement as to their exact place of origin. One story is that they were Arabs who escaped from the tyrannical rule of Al-Ḥajjaj bin Yusuf in Basra at the end of the seventh century. Other theories are that the Nawayath descend from Sunni Persians escaping oppression, or that they originally came from a place called Na’at in Yemen.

The community speaks Nawayathi, which is Konkani with some Arabic, Persian and Urdu vocabulary. However, Nawayathi speaker Shaad Hassan Damudi, owner of a restaurant in Bangalore which serves Nawayathi cuisine, says the Urdu words are a recent addition to the language.

In 1976 a newspaper in the Nawayathi language was launched. Called Naqsh-e-Nawayath, it keeps members of the community, now spread around the world, in touch with events in Bhatkal.

The use of Urdu has increased among the Nawayath just as it has in other South Indian Muslim communities, because of its association with Muslim identity. Nawayathi is still spoken, and although it is not taught in schools, its use is encouraged by organisations like Nawayath Mehfil. Damudi is positive about Nawayathi’s future: “I don't think it’s going to die.”


Thanks to the trading settlements on India’s west coast, Islam arrived with Arab traders in Malabar (the northern part of today’s state of Kerala) soon after its establishment in the Arabian peninsula. Over time two Muslim communities evolved in Malabar: the foreign and the native. The latter were known as the Mappilas, and the community developed through Arab sailors and merchants marrying local women, as well as Hindus converting to Islam. Today the Mappilas are the largest Muslim group in Kerala.

Arabi Malayalam is a form of Malayalam used mainly by the Mappila community. It includes some Arabic, Persian, Tamil and Urdu vocabulary, and is written with an adapted Arabic script. It is not clear when it came into existence; scholars have dated its origin between 500 to 1,500 years ago.

Historically it was used by the community as a medium of religious instruction. It helped the Mappilas preserve what lecturer Saidalavi Cheerangote has called “the purity attributed to Arabic,” the sacred association that the Arabic language had for the community.

In time, Arabi-Malayalam moved beyond the realm of religion and began to be used for literature. A rich tradition of prose, poetry and songs developed, including martial songs describing the community’s struggle against the Portuguese.

These Arabi-Malayalam texts, says Shameer KS, executive editor of the website Islam Interactive, are “more authentic sources of the tradition of Islamic thought in Kerala” than the texts written in Arabic by local Muslim scholars.

For a long time local scholars were opposed to the Mappilas learning Malayalam (which they considered the language of Hindus) and English (the language of the colonial power). In contrast, Arabi-Malayalam was viewed as a “progressive” language.

However, when a drive for modernisation began in the early 20th century, Arabi-Malayalam began to be seen as “backwards.” Various local movements, inspired by Syrian-Egyptian scholar Rashid Rida and Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh, began to propagate reforms of Islam and the Islamic education system in Kerala. The reformists were particularly critical of Sufi practices, and because Arabi-Malayalam was identified with Sufism, they encouraged learning Malayalam and English as a sign of so-called modernity.

Over time, the use of Arabi-Malayalam has declined, but it is still used today as a medium of instruction in the thousands of madrasas – Islamic schools for children – run by the religious education bodies Samastha Kerala Islam Matha Vidyabhyasa Board and Samastha Kerala Sunni Vidyabhyasa Board.

Attempts to revive Arabi-Malayalam are being made by Calicut University, which plans to launch a digitised Mappila Heritage Library. Thousands of pages from Arabi-Malayalam texts and books will be available online.


Arwi is a form of Tamil written in a modified Arabic script which was once widely used by Muslim communities in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The term “Arwi” can also be used to describe an Arabic-influenced style of Tamil prose, as well as dialects of Tamil spoken by Muslims.

Just like Nawayathi and Arabi-Malayalam, Arwi evolved as a result of Arab encounters on South India’s coast. The late Sri Lankan scholar M. M. M. Mahroof suggested that Arwi could have been invented as a matter of necessity by Arabic-speaking shipmasters and traders who needed to make records of their commercial transactions, and started transliterating the local language in Arabic script with some modifications.

For Torsten Tschacher, professor at Freie Universität Berlin, Arwi’s development was religiously motivated; writing their own language in the Arabic script enabled Tamil Muslims to use Arabic religious words without translation and distortion. Also, as Arabic was studied for the purpose of reading the Qur’an, using the Arabic script was a matter of practicality and in many cases increased literacy, especially among Muslim women. Tschacher gives the example of the town of Koothanallur in Tamil Nadu, where most people could read and write only the Arabic script, and not the Tamil script, as late as the first half of the twentieth century.

Arwi’s “golden age” was at the end of the nineteenth century, perhaps due in part to the British colonial notion – also found among Urdu-speakers – that Tamil-speaking Muslims were not “proper” Muslims. Producing Arwi literature may have been a way to assert the community’s close connection with Arabic.

Shortly afterwards, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, knowledge of the language, particularly the script, started to decline. The spread of modern – that is, non-religious – education in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, with the requirement to learn the Tamil script, meant that the use of Arwi became redundant.

In addition, the rise in the use of Urdu among Tamil Muslims over the years means that today they actually find Arwi more difficult to read, because Urdu and Arwi adapted the Arabic script differently. The letters each script uses to represent sounds not found in Arabic vary, says Tschacher, because “the Arwi script is part of a very different history”.

A third reason for the decline of Arwi, like that of Arabi-Malayalam, is the Islamic reform movement that began in the early twentieth century, and was against popular Sufi practices. Older Arwi texts were often connected to Sufi tariqas, so were rejected by opponents of Sufism.

Today just a few schools, colleges and mosques in Tamil Nadu teach Arwi and use Arwi texts. Some Arwi texts are being republished in the Tamil script to reach a contemporary Muslim readership, but the Arwi script is unlikely to be revived. According to Tschacher, many Tamil Muslims are not even aware of the existence of Arwi anymore.

Lasting Arab connections

Today in India there are still a number of communities that claim Arab origins. In the 2001 census, more than 50,000 people reported Arabic as their mother tongue, approximately half of them in the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

However, a note of caution should be sounded about such self-identification. In the words of Pakistani author Salman Rashid: “Arab origin is the favourite fiction of all subcontinental Muslims.” Interestingly enough, genetic research suggests that South Indians – in this case the Mappila community – are more likely to have Arab ancestry than North Indians are.

The presence of Arabs along South India’s coasts – one that extended up until the 1970s in the case of Calicut/Kozhikode which saw a resurgence of Arab trade from the nineteenth century – is well documented. Today the situation is reversed. A man called Abdulhussein notes in a conversation with Filippo and Caroline Osella: “The last Arab boat came here in 1975. They found oil, made huge fortunes. What is the point of them coming here? Now it is Malayalis who go to the Gulf!”

For hundreds of years Arab traders were drawn to India’s ports to seek their fortune, but today Indians from those same coastal areas head to the Gulf to work, continuing a centuries-old circulation of people, ideas and goods – as well as linguistic interactions – between India and the Arab world.

Ayesha Saldanha is a writer and Arabic translator. After many years living in Bahrain, she is currently based in Bangalore.