Malappuram: The controversial Quran import and distribution involving Minister for Higher Education K T Jaleel has unintendedly brought to fore a historically important aspect of Arabic language and its Kerala connect.
A unique and important Arabic language font, believed to have originated in Kerala and used for centuries, is now on the verge of extinction.
For several centuries, the Quran, circulated in manuscript or print versions in Kerala, used a variety of Arabic font called ‘Funnani’ (Ponnani). This is also known as Hath Malabari Al Mushafi. After the Gulf boom and the influx of holy books printed in Arab countries, the Malabar variety of Arabic font slowly started waning. (Kerala's opposition parties had alleged that gold was smuggled into the state through diplomatic channels under the cover of religious books with the help of Jaleel.)
N A M Abdul Khader, former head of the Arabic Department of the University of Calicut, said Funnani Arabic font was very popular and common in Kerala until 2000.
“The holy books used in mosques and Madrassas in the state were in the Malabari font, as it was easy for Malayalis to read it. But, the popularity of standard variety of Arabic, in use in most Arab countries, started influencing people here and it has almost replaced the Malabar font,” Dr Khader said.
He rued that there was no effort on part of the authorities to preserve the indigenous variety of Arabic font believed to have originated in Malabar.
According to the book ‘Arabic Script Variations of Malabar’ published by the University of Calicut with the support of the National Mission for Manuscripts, New Delhi, the Funnani Arabic calligraphy is a highly refined, user friendly, compact and lovely form of Arabic writing.
“There is a special form of Arabic writing developed in Malabar, namely, ‘Funnani’ (Ponnani) font. The font was named after Ponnani (Funnai in Arabic), a coastal town of Malabar which was the oldest centre of Arabic and Islamic scholarship of Kerala, once known as ‘Makkah of Malabar.’ This variation is believed to have developed not later than the second century of Hijra era (8th century AD), and is hence next only to Kufi and Naskhi scripts in antiquity. This variation is little known outside Kerala,” the book says.
“The ancient Arabic script is believed to have been evolved from Aramaic and written from left to right. Arabic script had undergone transformation and reforms through ages. As a result of this expansion far and wide, Arabic script was subjected to regional influence which led to variations in the mode of writing. The well-known Arabic script variations prevalent in the Arab world are Naskhi, Ruqa’I, Thuluthi, Kufi, Raihani, Diwani and Farisi. Diwani Jali, Tughra and Sunbuli are some other variations mainly used for decorative writings and calligraphic works,” the book says.
It is believed that the Malabar variety also is a regionally-influenced style of writing.
According to Dr Khader, the Ponnani font was called Hath Malabari Al Kithabi when used in books other than Quran. If it is used for Quran, the font is called Hath Malabari Al Mushafi.
“The usage of the Malabari font was in practice even before the introduction of Arabic Malayalam fonts. Malabari font was used in some Arabic Malayalam books. ‘Muhiyudehen Mala’ was written in Arabic Malayalam font, so we can guess that the Funnani Arabic font was in use even before Muhiyudheen Mala,” he said. (Muhiyudheen Mala is an ode to Muhyadheen Abdul Khadir Al Gilani by poet Khazi Muhammad of Kozhikode. It was written four centuries ago).
“It was during the Caliphate of Usman, that Quran was compiled as a book. Holy books in Naskh Arabic font are used in a majority of Arabian countries. Since these books are printed following the standard rule, ‘Rasmul Usmani', they are known as Rasmul Usmani Quran. The Quran is printed in Parishi Font in the northern parts of India; this font is believed to have originated in Persia,” he said.
The ancestors of Sheikh Zainudheen Makhdoom of Ponnani were from Yemen. But there is no clear evidence on any Yemeni connection to the origin of the Khath Malabariya font.
Historian and former vice-chancellor of the University of Calicut, K K N Kurup, said it was not the influence of Sheikh Zainudheen Thangal that brought about the rise of this indigenous style. “Until the arrival of Mamburam Thangals (Sayyed origin) in the 17th century, Makhdums were the religious leaders of Muslims in Malabar. We have to assume that the font originated in Malabar itself,” he said.
Social critic and writer M N Karassery said Malabariya script was in practice in Malabar even before the period of Thunjath Ramanujan Ezhuthachan. “Arab people came to Malabar even before the arrival of Islam. We have evidence to show the presence of Muslims in Malabar in the 9th century itself. It was the manuscript version of Quran which was in circulation in those times. Muslims considered drawing haram, but they compensated it with elaborate calligraphy. This must have led to the origin of the different Arabic fonts,” he said.
(Nijeesh Narayanan is an independent journalist based in Kozhikode)