Skip to main content



ETHNONYMS: Mappilla, Moplah


The Mappila are Muslims who live along the Malabar Coast (now known as Malappuram District) of Kerala State in southwestern India. They now number about 6 million. "Mappilla" was used in the past as a respectable title; pilla was also used among honorable Christians and continues to be to this day. This term was also used to welcome and honor Foreign immigrants.

In Malappuram District, the temperature ranges up to about 27° to 32° C and drops to 21° C in the highlands. The southwest and northeast monsoons contribute to the average annual rainfall of 300 centimeters. Coconut palms and rice fields dominate the green scenery of the coastal area.

The language of the Mappila is Malayalam, a Dravidian language that has absorbed loanwords from Sanskrit, Arabic, and European languages. Arabic is generally used for religious purposes. Kerala is the most densely populated state in India and the educational level there is quite high.

History and Cultural Relations

Mappila were evidently first converted to Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries a.d. by traders who arrived in Kerala. The arrival of the Portuguese began to disrupt Mappila life in 1498. The Portuguese sought both economic and religious domination. Economically, they sought a share of the spice trade and a sea connection with the Far East. Their religious goals stemmed from the desire of the pope to conquer Islamic and Hindu Societies. The Portuguese had direct orders to establish their authority over the region so that the Catholic religion, business, and culture would flourish in a harmonious system that would be good for the church, the king and the people. The Portuguese period resulted in a decline in the indigenous economic system, estrangement from Hinduism, and increased bitterness and tension between the Christians and Muslims; finally, the Mappila became militant against the Portuguese. The area came under the political control of the British in the 1790s, and they ruled Malabar from 1792 to 1947. Mappila leaders agreed to pay the British for their protection of the territory and to accept advice from an appointed British administrator; but in 1921 the Mappila resistance began, continuing until India won its independence in 1947.


The overpopulation of Kerala, and especially of the Malabar area, has caused many economic problems. Today, most of the unemployed are educated people from universities or training schools. Another problem is that these people cannot find work in other states because each state wants to hire its own citizens first, before absorbing any outsiders. Agriculture is the main occupation of the Kerala, although land suitable for agriculture is limited. Cash crops earn a reasonable amount from export, but this has caused a shortage for local consumption. Rubber, pepper, cardamom, coconut, cashew nuts, tea, and coffee are the major cash crops. Food staples are rice, pulses, and sorghum. The area holds great forests that yield raw materials such as bamboo, charcoal, and gum. Industrial enterprises produce bricks and tiles and do oil milling. These factories employ a sizable percentage of the Population. Still Malabar remains economically a primitive and stagnant area, and it is not surprising that in recent years tens of thousands of residents have sought work in the Persian Gulf countries.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Matrilineality was introduced to the Mappila from the Nayar community that is also located in Malabar. Leadership and property ownership were traditionally vested in the oldest sister, a practice that was and is very rare in Islamic societies. A majority of the Mappila now follow the patrilineal system; only some wealthy families carry on the matrilineal tradition. Families maintain strong bonds and mostly live under one roof. But modern conditions are forcing this practice to change, with each nuclear family now often striving to own a home and concentrate on its own survival and prosperity.

Islam plays a major part in childbirth, marriage, death, and burial ceremonies. At marriage, the marriage contract and blessing are signed and read by a qazi, a religious judge. Following death, the Koran is chanted in the mosque, and then the body is buried facing toward Mecca. Prayers are chanted at home on the anniversary of a death. Mappila life has been influenced by new attitudes and they have become greatly concerned about their health and surroundings. Head shaving is not practiced any longer by Mappila men. The dowry system is becoming less prominent as the Mappila women change their social status to that of citizens of Kerala. Women's position as property is also changing, as women are now seeking higher education and becoming schoolteachers, doctors, etc. Traditionally, the women of lower laboring castes in Kerala were relatively free compared to women of upper castes, because they could do any available work, whereas the upper-class women could not do anything inappropriate to their social status; this situation is also changing for the better. Polygamy is not practiced, even though Islam permits men to marry up to four wives.

Social Organization

There are various distinctions within the Muslim group. One major distinction is between those of Indian and those of Foreign origin. Higher class status is enjoyed by those descended from the Prophet's family, the Sayyids. One internal distinction is between the Untouchables and the higher castes among the Mappilas. Another distinct group are all those of Arab descent.


Islam was introduced to Kerala in the seventh and eighth centuries by Sunni Arabs. Islam in all probability spread to Peninsular India from Kerala. Arabs came through Kerala for the purchase of pepper and slaves. Kerala was also a very convenient rest stop for merchants passing east and west through the Indian Ocean. These Muslim merchants established a harmonious relationship and introduced Islam to the people. The Mappila were ready psychologically for new changes Because of previous political and economic setbacks. Most Mappila today enrich their lives by prayers and Quranic readings. Mullahs (religious clergymen) are paid by families to visit and conduct special prayers or chant the Quran. Mappila attend a mosque for religious holidays and sometimes to listen to a preacher. Islam preaches that life is under one Lord and his command is one; but this idea has become perhaps less important for the Mappila as they struggle through life. Mappila culture is changing, with modern education and communist concepts playing a major role. The mullahs now can rely only on special occasions such as Ramadan for an opportunity to sermonize and strengthen the people's faith.

See also Malayali"


Ananthakrishna Iyer, L. K. (1912). "The Jonakan Mappilas." In The Tribes and Castes of Cochin. Vol. 2, 459-484. Madras: Higginbotham & Co. Reprint. 1981. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Miller, Roland E. (1976). Mappila Muslims of Kerala: A Study in Islamic Trends. Bombay: Orient Longman.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mappila." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 17 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Mappila." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (January 17, 2019).

"Mappila." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.