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Shihab Thangal: Kerala’s finest Muslim leader

SAYED Mohammed Ali Shihab Thangal was arguably the most famous leader of the Muslim community in the state of Kerala in south India.
He was born in l936 in Malapurram district, from where hundreds of thousands of people have come to Saudi Arabia as expatriates to take up different jobs ranging from laborers to senior doctors and engineers. The majority of them are workers mostly based in Jeddah. But they are in thousands in Riyadh, Madinah and the Eastern Province.
Keralites would easily make the largest single Indian community in the Gulf region, including the United Arab Emirates.
I have known them quite well since the 1980s and developed liking and respect for them so much that I tried my best to convince the publishers of this organization to let me try to launch a daily newspaper, which I named Malayalam News. Malayalam is the language of Kerala. This language is akin to Tamil, one of the major languages of India.
The paper was launched in l999 and has been doing quite well ever since despite the competition posed by several other newspapers printed here and in other Gulf countries. But this is not the story of the newspaper or the people; it is a short history of one of the greatest men of Kerala, Mohammed Ali Shihab Thangal. Very often his surname is spelled as Thankal.
Before and since the publication of the newspaper I visited Kerala and met him. I also had meetings with him during his frequent visits to the Kingdom. I found him to be a great leader and a highly respected politician and Islamic scholar. He went to Al-Azhar University where the medium was Arabic. In a few years, he graduated and was able to speak Arabic without a tinge of Indian accent. As usual he was calm, cool and collected and won the hearts and minds of all those around him. In due course he became one of the top leaders of the Muslims not only in Kerala but throughout India.
According to his biographies in different languages Thangal’s family belonged to Yemen in the southwest of Arabia adjacent to Saudi Arabia. He hailed from the province of Hadhramout which has had very close relations with India, especially Kerala and Hyderabad.
Millions of Yemenis and Indians traveled between the two countries even long before the British government colonized both the countries. Yemenis and Indians traded and many of them settled in each other’s territory especially after the advent of Islam as Yemenis were good international businessmen and worked zealously for the spread of Islam. Many from Hadhramout settled down in India and Indians remained in Yemen and later took up British passports since the southern part of Yemen was part of the British empire like India was.
I told Thangal that my eldest sister from my father’s first wife, as he had three altogether, had married Sayed Mohammed Abdo Ghanem Shihab from Hadhramout and so we had something in common. Possibly, our ancestors might have been related as the Shihabs of Yemen are well known citizens in Yemen until this day. He agreed and it was my pleasure to announce this relationship at a function in Jeddah where both of us were speakers.
Thangal married Shareefa Fatima Beevi, daughter of Sayed Abdul Rahman Bafakeeh Thangal. The Bafakeeh family of Kerala were also of Hadhrami origin as the name would indicate. On Aug. 1, 2009 he slipped and fell at home before suffering a cardiac arrest. He was buried at the Panakad Juma Masjid on the second of the month.
During his last visit to Jeddah he looked tired and I wondered why did he undertake the long trip where he was supposed to give many long speeches and have endless meeting with people but he said he could not have possibly declined the invitation of his many admirers and friends in the Kingdom. He said he had to come also because he liked the people and the country and also because he wanted to perform Umrah.
Few Muslim leaders in India have been liked and admired as Mohammed Ali Shihab Thangal.

— Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.