Malayalam, a Dravidian language, in terms of the number of speakers, ranks the eighth among the fifteen major languages of India. Total number of Malayalam Speakers world wide is estimated as 40 million. The word Malayalam originally meant mountainous country. (mala = mountain + alam = place). It consists of 53 letters including 20 vowels and 33 consonants. The oldest record about Kerala is in a rock edict by Emperor Asoka between BC 272 and BC 232. Earliest Malayalam pieces are found from 830 C.E, using Brahmi scripts. The Grantha script, the fore father of modern Malayalam <http://www.ancientscripts.com/malayalam.html> scripts, is one of the earliest Southern scripts to emerge from the Brahmi script. It was the 16th century, Thunchathu Ramanujam Ezhuthachan gave a distinct style to the language. Today, there are about 170 daily newspapers, 235 weekly, and 560 monthly periodicals in Malayalam language. Hindi, the national language of the Union, is the mother tongue of only about 20% of the Indian population, including the vast regions of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where as Malayalam, the only Keralites’ language is the mother tonuge of about 3.62% of Indians.
There had been much trade and commerce between India (especially Kerala) and Arabia even before the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The first Muslim merchant who visited Kerala was Sulaiman in 851 C.E. Cheraman Perumal, one of the kings of Kerala, embraced Islam and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. on the way of his return trip he fell sick and passed away, but a group of devotee Muslims including Malik ibn Dinar (R.A) accompanied with him, was given introductory letters to proceed to Musiris, the Chera capital. In Kerala they were treated as the royal guests. After wards the first masjid was estabilshed in Cranganore, then in Quilon, Madayi, Kasargod, Srikantapuram, Dharmapattanam, and Chaliyam.
By the 12th century, there were at least ten major settlements of Muslims distributed from Kollam in the south to Mangalore in the north each centered around the masjid. Mean time, one of the ruling kingdom at Arakkal, Kannur had embraced Islam. The primacy in trade, the spread of the faith and the experience of the sea made Muslims a prominent class and dear to the rulers, especially to the Samutiris, the ancient rulers of Malabar. By fifteenth century Islamic constructions reached considerable heights. Ibn Battuta, in the 14th century, gives detailed information on Kerala Muslims. In his travelogue he wrote: “… Muslims are the most highly honored people……..” Consequently, the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries Muslims florished economically and numerically. At the same age the Arabic Language got a higher position. It is said that, there were even bilingual translators of Arabic language for the King Samudiri.
The Malayalam alphabet then was only in its immature state. Due to the caste system in the Hindu religion, known as “Chathurvarnya”, the Upper Castes only were allowed to get education and it was through Sanskrit. Caste is believed to have begun in India with the Aryan invaders around 1500 BC and its origin could be found in the Rik Veda, 10: 90: 12, as per it there are 4 castes. Bhagvat Gita (18:41) and Manusmruthi clearly mentioned the duties of each castes. These are:
1. Brahmins: priests and thinkers who were supposed to guide policy and preserve ideals.
2. Kshathriyas: the rulers or warriors.
3. Vaishyas: the agriculturists, artisans, and merchants.
4. Sudras: the laborers, or the unskilled workers
Those who did menial jobs such as washing, cleaning, sweeping, leather work, etc. were considered as outcaste (not belonging to any of the castes listed above). These outcastes were the untouchables and were the majority of Keralites. Even Their presence in public places would pollute the upper classes. It was these untouchables, who were kept away from literacy, got great affection to Islam due to its social equality. Thus there gathered a mass amount of illiterate people under the shelter of Islam.
Here genius Muslim Scholars fulfilled the very basic need of the new converters, i.e, religious education, by implementing a new style of writing. Here comes the importance of Arabi-Malayalam scripture. It is nothing but to write Malayalam language using Arabic alphabets. In other perspective, the Arabi-Malayalam became a good chance to the untouchables to get education. To make them literates, by this implementation, no doubt, was a revolution. It is proud to say that when a majority of Keralites were illiterates, Kerala Muslims were literates through their own technic of best utilization Arabic alphabets. Muslims used to write letters, books, songs etc. using Arab - Malayalam scripture.
Malayalam being a Dravidian language, there were many problems to write Malayalam using Arabic letters, a Semitic language. Only 28 letters were available in Arabic language to pronounce 53 letters in the Malayalam language. It was overcome by taking the help of Farsi (Persian) alphabets. The letters like ‘Pa’, ‘gha’ ‘kha’, ‘nga’,’ nja’, ‘zha’,’ga’, ‘cha’ were not available in the Arabic alphabets. The scriptures which stand for zha, cha, pa, ga (Ý, º, É ·) are ژ, چ, پ, گ respectively in Arabi - Malayalam. These letters though look like Arabic letters, are not. All these letters were taken from the Persian alphabets. The Persian language being the daughter of Arabic language the adoption simply becomes a mutual co-operation between the same family members.
The history of Arabi-Malayalam scripture could be linked with the history on the spreading of Islam. The spreading of Islam in other perspective was the spreading of Arabic language. After a certain period of Islam, a vast area of the global surface came under the vocal control of Arabic language. Further more, it was used to write a number of Indo-European languages of the region like Farsi in Iran, Urdu in Pakistan, Pashto in Afghanistan, Kashmiri, Kurdish, Punjabi and Sindhi. In the past it has been used to write Turkish and Malay, both of which use the Roman alphabet today.
There are many old songs like Badr padappattu, Uhd Padappaattu, Khaibar Padappattu, Malappuram Padappatt, and etc. written in Arabi-Malayalam scripture. Many books also were written, like Niskarakkanakk, Manasikul Haj etc... There were magazines and even news papers published using this scripture. Now majority of basic Madrassa in Kerala use the same scriptures for their Text Books and a magazine named ‘Al-Muallim’ is published in which one part is reserved for the Arabi - Malayalam scripture.
All the old Mappila songs (a special category of Muslim songs) were written in Arabi -Malayalam. The term ‘Mappila’ being the Muslims in Malabar, the main theme of Mappila Songs is Islamic; naturally a number of Arabic words and terms are used in the songs. Some definition makers went to explain Mappila Songs as the songs in Arabi-Malayalam, and they added it is nothing but the Arabi-Malayalam Manipravalam. 'Manipravalam' is a mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit languages. This definition creates a misconception that Arabi-Malayalam is a new language. As a learnt person of both Malayalam and Arabic languages and also a Mappila song writer, I can give assurance that those definition makers were actually ignorant. All my Mappila Songs - today some of them are even on the completion stages- are written in pure Malayalam alphabets. More over, nowadays many of the Arabi-Malayalam work like Badr Padappattu etc… are transliterated to pure Malayalam scripture.
The definition makers have to understand that a language simply means its grammar. Imagine the hospitals where English words are predominantly mixed with other languages. Here, the locality people grasp the speech where as an English man does not. Will it be English language? No. It is a well known matter that Malayalis always have welcomed other languages to coexist with their own. So various languages got influence in it. The influence of Sanskrit is most prominent in the Brahimin dialects and least in the Harijan dialects. Loanwords from English, Syrian, Latin, and Portuguese abound in the Christian dialects. Likewise, there will be a number of Arabic words in Muslim literature. It is what is seen in the Arabi-Malayalam literature. There fore Arabi-Malayalam is not at all a separate language and the Mappila Songs are not the songs of a different language.
Like the Arabi-Malayalam scriptures, there are Arabi-Tamil scripture, Arabi-Telugu scripture and etc… in pertinent areas. All these alphabets will say the same story as that of Arabi-Malayalam for their reason to come into being. And all these show the influence of Arabic language on various languages.
The benefits of using the style are many. For many Arabic letters, there are no equivalent Malayalam letters. There fore one has to write either Arabic words in between malayalam or has to go for inappropriate Malayalam transliteration. If it is written in Arabi-Malayalam scripture, no such problems would be there.
We can see that the ancient age Muslim scholars did whatever then requirement. There fore, what we have to do is to think, find out and fulfill what the present society needed. May the Almighty Allah guide us.