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Tamil Muslims Kumar, Harini


Tamil Muslims are a community in southern India who practice Islam. Although a very diverse group, they share some common religious, cultural, and linguistic affinities. They are primarily located in Tamil Nadu, India, with populations spread across India, Sri Lanka, South East Asia, Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), and the United States. Muslims in Tamil Nadu are not a monolithic community; they speak multiple languages (mainly Tamil, Urdu, Telugu, and Bohri Gujarati), and have diverse histories and practices. This entry primarily focuses on Tamil-speaking Muslims in India. Islam has a long and distinctive history in the Tamil region, at least since ninth century through centuries-old Arab trade, and largely separate from the more familiar narratives of Muslim conquest in north India. The circulation of religious practices and the maintenance of oceanic connections is an important aspect of both Tamil Muslim history as well as the present. The Tamil region has had historical connections with the Bay of Bengal littoral through the circulation of Muslims and their textual practices—between Tamil-speaking South India (Ma’bar) and Southeast Asia (Nusuntara)—since at least the fifteenth century. Coastal trading towns in Tamil Nadu became well-known for their religious spaces and institutions—mosques, dargahs (tomb-shrines of Muslim saints), and madrassas (Islamic religious schools). It was not just the southern coastal belt but also northern Tamil Nadu where notable Islamic seminaries were established. The inland city of Madurai was briefly ruled by the Madurai Sultanates in the fourteenth century, while the Urdu-speaking Arcot Nawabs have also had a presence in the region since the seventeenth century. A simplified sociological and caste-like classification of Tamil-speaking Muslims exists, namely the distinction between Maraikkayar (elite, coastal Sunni Muslims who were originally seafaring merchants), Lebbai (religious scholars but from a lower social-economic strata), and Rowther (descendants of former Muslim cavalrymen who traded in horses). However, scholars such as Torsten Tschacher have cautioned against the homogenizing imperative and orientalist presuppositions of such sociological distinctions. Although this terminology continues to be used by Muslims today, the diverse ways in which people self-identity with one “sub-group” or the other cannot stand in for a classificatory schema. Today, Tamil Nadu is home to various Muslim shrines (dargahs), important pilgrimage centers, historical mosques built in the Dravidian style of architecture, and Islamic seminaries. Tamil Muslim cuisine is distinctive, with influences from Arab, Malay, Sri Lankan, and Southeast Asia regions.

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