Reconnecting the Split Moon

Ophira Gamliel and Ines Weinrich

That some Muslim communities on the west coast of South India relate their origin to the story of the moon splitting is well-researched (Friedmann 1975; Kugle and Margariti 2017; Prange 2018). According to a well-known South Asian Arabic telling of the moon-splitting episode, Muḥammad’s opponents in Mecca asked him to split the moon as a proof for his claim to prophethood. God then had the moon split into two. This miracle did not only satisfy the opponents in Mecca, but the split moon furthermore was witnessed by the Keralan king Cēramān Perumāḷ in South India. This king later converts to Islam, divides his kingdom among people he favours, and travels to the Hijaz to meet the Prophet. He stays there for several years, marries an Arab Muslim woman, and finally decides to return to his country. The king dies on the way back, but his family and companions return to the Malabar Coast and erect religious endowments (waqf) with mosques in several port towns. This telling, mainly known as Qiṣṣat Shakarwatī Farmāḍ (Story of the Emperor Cēramān), henceforth Qiṣṣa, is preserved in at least two manuscripts in the British Library: IO Islamic 2807d (= Ms A), and Or 1738h (= Ms B).

Most scholars relied primarily on Ms A and do not address variances between the two manuscripts. Yet there are significant differences between both, and one of these relates precisely to the moon splitting. The split moon is mentioned in the Qurʾān (Q 54:1), where it is interpreted either as an eschatological sign or as a miracle that proved Muḥammad’s prophethood (Schöller 2004; Rubin 2010; Neuwirth 2017). In the course of the first Islamic centuries, the latter interpretation became elaborated and successively included in works on Muḥammad’s biography and special qualities, universal histories, and praise poetry to the Prophet. There are some peculiarities in the Qiṣṣa telling when compared with these genres; for instance, the detailed description of the proof that the opponents prescribe to Muḥammad. What struck us most, however, was the fact that both manuscripts report different versions of the moon splitting into two. In Ms A, the opponents postulate that:

the moon descends from the sky and enters your [Muḥammad’s] right sleeve and leaves from your left sleeve, and then enters your collar and splits into two halves, one leaving towards the East, one towards the West, and then returns like in a full-moon night to the centre of the sky. (fol. 86r–86v)

In Ms B, the moon simply splits in the sky upon the Prophet’s finger pointing at it. Like in Ms A, one half moves towards the East and the other towards the West, before uniting in the sky’s centre (fol. 75v–76r). An attempt at situating the version of the moon entering the Prophet’s gown in the West Asian Arabic scholarly tradition brings us to 14th-century Damascus. None of the earlier texts we examined so far includes the sleeve version.[1] Moreover, the sleeve is only referred to in a critique of versions told by storytellers (quṣṣāṣ). One of the most detailed references appears in the Universal History by the Damascene polymath Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373):

Regarding what some of the quṣṣāṣ tell, namely, that the moon came down to earth and moved into the Prophet’s sleeve and emerged from his other sleeve, there is no foundation (aṣl) for this. This is a fabricated lie with no truth in it, since the moon, when it split, did not leave the sky. (Ibn Kathīr 1997, 303)

We knew that the division of the kingdom and conversion of Cēramān Perumāḷ to Islam were part of the ethnohistories of Kerala like the Kēraḷōlpatti (KU) or the Kēraḷanāṭakam (KN). What we did not expect, however, was to find the moon-splitting episode as well.

We did anticipate serendipitous discoveries while exploring these origin legends of Kerala/Malabar. Gundert’s edited print of 1874 is well known to scholars (Zacharia 1992; Menon 2003; Narayanan 2013 [1996]; Veluthat 2009; Menon 2021), and we read it as a critical edition albeit silent about the sources, some of which must have been oral. The KN is less known, as it was published in print relatively recently (Sreenathan 2016; Veluthat 2019). It is written by Gundert’s hand with occasional English glosses, indicating it was incorporating different manuscripts besides information provided by interlocutors.

There were indeed a few discoveries such as an earlier conversion into Islam by a predecessor of the famous Cēramān Perumāḷ, that is Bāṇa, or Paḷḷibāṇa, Perumāḷ.[2] We encountered eight conversion tellings (four for each Perumāḷ), two in the KU and six in the KN. In the case of Bāṇa Perumāḷ, his conversion followed a religious contest between Muslims (bauddhanmār) and Brahmins, in which the former had the upper hand. Bāṇa Perumāḷ converts the whole country, while the Brahmins, defeated, retreat to Tṛkkariyūr. Finally, religious experts (śāstri) confront the Muslims, win the debate, and reestablish Brahmin ritual in the kingdom. Bāṇa Perumāḷ then retires as a Muslim to Mecca. In contrast, Cēramān Perumāḷ converts to atone for wrongly executing an innocent man, Paṭamala Nāyar, based on false accusations by his wife. Paṭamala Nāyar is rescued at the very last minute by the gods and taken to heaven on a celestial chariot. The king realises his grave mistake and asks: “What will my fate be?” Paṭamala Nāyar then advises him to convert into Islam and go on pilgrimage to Mecca.

After reading similar tellings of Paṭamala Nāyar’s advice, little surprises were expected further along the remaining few pages of the KN. Ostensibly, skimming through the last pages would have been sufficient for evaluating the narrative modulations. Somewhat atypically, though, on KN p. 27r, just as Paṭamala Nāyar is about to depart to heaven, a detailed date appears, “[at the] fourteenth [day] of the first half of the Kumbham month…” The narrative that follows is somewhat obscure, but a lexeme sticks out, white robe (veḷḷakuppāyam), indicating the presence of a Muslim on the scene and calling for a closer reading. Eventually, the moon splitting emerged. At this point it made more sense to leave Gundert’s text and search for the manuscript with this episode (Ma I 848, fol. 23v–24r). The text runs as follows:

As Paṭavalatta[3] Nāyar was leaving, Cēramāṃ Perumāḷ pleaded, “what will my fate be?” and Paṭavalatta Nāyar said: “In the north, at the ḥajj (aśu) of the rectangular city, there is an Arab (cōnakan) called Āliyār. If you meet him, he will ascertain the Fourth Veda and show you a sign. The fourteenth moon of the first half of the month of Kumbham will appear as proof and will rise shining. Then, you will see it split into two, emerging through the fold of the white robe of Āliyār, and descending upon the earth. You will see the rising of a splitting of that very [moon]. By noon it will become dark. After establishing there the Fourth Veda, you will approach the port of Tirumañca (Kodungallur) in a sailing vessel. That day, Muslim scholars (vēdakkār) will be summoned on board, and when they will take you with them to the ḥajj, you will obtain supreme redemption (atimōkṣam).”

Fol. 23v–24r of Ma I 848.
Fol. 23v–24r of Ma I 848. Public Domain (Universitätsbibliothek Tübingen)

Gundert must have had access to more than one telling with the moon splitting, as his text slightly differs from the text in Ma I 848. For example, it reads “half redemption” (pātimōkṣam) rather than “supreme redemption.” It is clear from his notes, however, that he did not realise that this was a rendition of the Arabic telling. It seems that this aspect of the KU tradition escaped the attention of scholars ever since.[4] This important variation in the story of Cēramān Perumāḷ’s conversion to Islam would have been easily missed again unless we were working together closely, across the otherwise disconnected disciplines of Arabic and South Asian Studies.

 

Bibliography

Alexander, P. C. 1947. “Palli Bana Perumal.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 10: 159–63.

Friedmann, Y. 1975. “Qiṣṣat Shakarwatī Farmāḍ: A tradition concerning the introduction of Islām to Malabar.” Israel Oriental Studies 5: 233–58.

Gundert, H. 2016. Kēraḷanāṭakam, ed. M. Sreenathan. Tirur: Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University.

Ibn Kathīr, ʿI. 1997. al-Bidāya wa-n-nihāya, vol. 4, ed. ʿA. b. ʿA. at-Turkī. Cairo: Hajar.

Kugle, S. and R. E. Margariti. 2017. “Narrating Community: The Qiṣṣat Shakarwatī Farmāḍ and Accounts of Origin in Kerala and around the Indian Ocean.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 60(4): 337–80.

Menon, D. 2021. “‘A Farrago of Legendary Nonsense’? Myth, Time, and History in the Keralolpatti.” In S. Kaul (ed.), Retelling Time: Alternative Temporalities from Premodern South Asia, pp. 185–99. London: Routledge.

Menon, T. M. (tr.). 2003. Kēraḷōpatti by Gundert. Thiruvananthapuram: International School of Dravidian Linguistics.

Narayanan, M. G. S. 2013 [1996]. Perumāḷs of Kerala: Brahmin Oligarchy and Ritual Monarchy: Political and Social Conditions of Kerala under the Cēra Perumāḷs of Makōtai (c. AD 800AD 1124). Thrissur: Cosmo Books.

Neuwirth, A. 2017. Der Koran. Band 2/1: Frühmittelmekkanische Suren. Berlin: Verlag der Weltreligionen.

Panikkassery, V. 2008. Kēraḷōlpatti. Kottayam: Current Books

Prange, S. R. 2018. Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast. Cambridge: CUP.

Rubin, U. 2010. “Muḥammad’s Message in Mecca: Warnings, Signs, and Miracles.” In J. E. Brockopp (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Muḥammad, pp. 39–60. Cambridge: CUP.

Schöller, M. 2004. Die Spaltung des Mondes. Untersuchungen zur Diskursivität im arabisch-islamischen Schrifttum. Unveröffentlichte Habilitationsschrift an der Philosophischen Fakultät zu Köln.

Varier, M. R. R. 2013. Kēraḷōlpatti Granthavari. Kottayam: SPCS.

Veluthat, K. 2009. “The Kēraḷōlpatti as History.” In K. Veluthat (ed.), The Early Medieval in South India, pp. 129–46. New Delhi: OUP.

—. 2019. “History as Performance: A Note on the Keralolpatti.” In K. Roy and N. Dayal (eds.), Questioning Paradigms, Constructing Histories: A Festschrift for Romila Thapar, pp. 351–69. Delhi: Aleph Book Company.

Zacharia, S. 1992. “Āmukha paṭhanam.” In A. Frenz and S. Zacharia (eds.), Herman guṇṭarṭṭə kēraḷōlpattiyum maṟṟum, pp. xii–lxvii. Kottayam: DC Books.

 

[1] There are, however, some manuscripts with stand-alone stories of the moon splitting, the context of which still awaits to be researched.

[2] Argued by some to have converted to Buddhism (Alexander 1947).

[3] A different spelling of Paṭamala Nāyar‘s name.

[4] Sreenathan transcribes nilāvil as if it is a part of the date, rather than nilāvə as an acting agent in the scene. The scene appears in Panikkassery (2008, 56), albeit without any commentary or disclosure of the manuscript source. Varier’s text has the Paṭamala Nāyar scene without the moon splitting (2013, 59, 85).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *