by N. Madhavankutty

Source: by N. Madhavankutty, resident editor of The New Indian Express.

It is now both easier and harder to view Muslims as persons – Roland e Miller (Muslim Friends)

Easier, because you live closer to the Muslim than even before. Harder, because it is more difficult than before to overcome the politically reinforced stereotype of your Muslim neighbor as the other. The importance of Syed Muhammad Ali Shihab Thangal for Kerala is here. He may not be your ideal public figure, spiritual leader, but you trust him.

Shihab Thangal, the public figure who has just completed an eventful quarter century in quiet stewardship of the Indian Union Muslim League, arguably the one remaining mainstream parliamentary political party of Indian Muslims with a significant following in an unmistakable dove. Not in the sense of being meek but in the truly Islamic sense of a peacekeeper to his people, as the Muslim phrase of everyday greeting “Assalamu Alaikum” thoughtfully evokes. “Peace be unto you.”

In a democracy you really don’t fancy any one holding any office for that length of time and especially if that office has come his or her way by way of some birthright. But in the case of Shihab Thangal who was reluctant to take over the parties reins from his father PMSA Pookoya Thangal and has worn his political mantle so lightly, you tent to forgive. For you know that the price you pay for peace in such trying times is never too high.

This is not the place or the time to discuss if his own party would have fared better in Karla’s realpolitik under any other leader. The League had in the past more charismatic supremos. Shihab Thangal’s own father-in-law Syed Abdul Rahman Bafaqi Thangal was one. But the party never had anyone with Shihab Thangal’s natural Sufi grace and charm and a cool head over the shoulders wit that has given Kerala a quarter century of relative communal calm. Whether the Muslim League is still communal or not, is only a matter of detail.

Shihab Thangal has a doctorate in religion from Cairo’s Al Azhar University. But his success with his religion rests less on scholarship than on the spiritual aura that goes with Thangal title. The Thangals, like Sayyeds in the north, trace their lineage to the Prophet’s family. Religion and family no doubt play a part in the Thangal mystique as his detractors rightly claim. Then, it is also a fact that that Shihab Thangal in his full – sleeved shirt and mundu and black furcap has succeeded where more traditional religios in their awesome head wraps and full flowing robes has failed.

Even if the Thangal mystique were to explain his spell over the Mappilas, the mystery of his undisputed appeal as a friend of non-Muslims would remain unanswered. As in the case of the late CH Muhammad Koya, the non-Muslim is able to sense a personal sincerity in his ways even when they are not ready to trust his party. Thus, like the unassuming comma in a sentence, Shihab Thangal is both connects and separates Kerala’s Muslim milieu and the world; as delicately as he blends in himself the best of Islamic, Indian and Malayalee identities.

The religion that Shihab Thangal practices is down to earth as his politics with its sound expediency and a firm commitment to personal word of honour. His Kodappanakkal ancestral home in Panakkad in Malappuram on a Tuesday or Saturday is evidence of that. It is only daybreak and the courtyard of already full of ordinary men and women waiting to unburden heir everyday woes to the Thangal seek his intercession, advice and wise counsel. In his prayer to Allah they seem to find their solace, in his justice, satisfaction. There could be no better political education for any leader than this intimate knowledge of the gravest and most trivial goings on in the domestic life of the poor.

And the result of this education has been Shihab Thangal’s personal transparency, to be what he is in public. I still remember that day back in the early eighties when as a reporter I waited for him in the portico of his Panakkad home for my first interview. He emerged smiling from his study with a pack of 555 cigarettes in his hand and a whiff of eaude toilette. Strange habits for a political leader, I had thought then and still do. He is 65 now and I don’t know if he has still the fondness for fine foreign things. I wish he did, if only to mock the hell out of the rest of political tribe.