ETHNONYM: Kodikkalkaran ("betel-vine people")
Labbai are one of the four Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu State. The Ravuttan, Marakkayar, and Kayalan form the rest of the Islamic community. According to tradition, the name "Labbai" was given to them by the Arabs, meaning "Here I am." Previously the Labbais were few in number and were under the control of other Muslims and Hindus. In order to get their attention and be recognized, the Labbais Traditionally would cry loudly, "Labbek," meaning "We are your servants."
Tamil is their main language, mostly spoken in the household. People living in the cities do speak Urdu, but they do not recognize it as their main language. In some Arab-influenced towns such as Nagapattinam and Kayalpatnam, Labbai Muslims write Tamil using Arabic script, the only People to do so.
The origin of the Labbais is not clear, but a few speculations have been recorded. The historian Mark Wilks suggests that in the early eighth century a.d. the governor of Iraq, Hijaj Ben Gusaff, drove a number of people, including fellow Muslim citizens, into exile by his barbaric actions. Some migrated to the western coast of India and others east of Cape Comorin. The Labbais are descended from the latter group. Another version says that the Labbais are descendants of Arabs who came to India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries for trade. But these Arabs were persecuted by the Moguls and were forced to flee the country, leaving behind their belongings and children born to Indian mothers.
Labbais are known as traders, although residents of different areas have different occupations. In the Mysore region, they are vendors of hardware, merchants, coffee traders, and owners of other profitable businesses. In the South Arcot District of Tamil Nadu, they grow betel nuts, manage a skin trade, are small shopkeepers, and trade at the seaports. The women of this district are expert at weaving mats, which are considered a valuable source of income. The Labbais of the Madurai District seem to have chosen a quite different means of subsistence: many are well known as smiths and others are boatworkers and fishers. In general, they are recognized as skilled and expert traders.
The Labbais worship as Muslims and recently this has had great influence on their life expectations. About 80 percent of the Muslims in Tamil Nadu are Muslim Tamils and the remaining 20 percent include the Mapillas and Urdu speakers such as Sheikh, Sayyid, Sharif, Pathan, Ismaili, Navayat, Daudi Bohra, and Wahabi. Labbais and Ravuttans follow the Hanafi school, a branch of the Sunni sect. Their Religious practices demonstrate an orthodox way of living where men and their children go to the mosques to pray, while women stay at home to pray. Religious books are in Arabic and hold a sacred position. It is considered a duty to publish books in Arabic and distribute them among people. The Muslims do not recognize the caste system of Hindus, even though in the rural areas they are recognized as ethnically different from Hindus and are categorized as a separate caste. Girls do not marry before puberty. They practice the Islamic ritual except in some areas where they have adopted a Hindu wedding ceremony. Marriage with a mother's brother's daughter is the ideal, if and only if she is the right age. Kin marriages are common to hold together the ties between families, but no marriage occurs with parallel cousins. Family gatherings and visits are used by the older family members to find mates for their young ones.
Mines, Mattison (1984). "Labbai." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes. Vol. 1, 431-436. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Thurston, Edgar, and Kadamki Rangachari (1909). "Labbai." In Castes and Tribes of Southern India, edited by Edgar Thurston and Kadamki Rangachari. Vol. 4, 198-205. Madras: Government Press. Numerous reprints.