The Cheraman Juma Mosque is believed to be the oldest mosque in India, a claim that is not generally disputed by any potential rivals (although the current building dates from a later period). According to legend, it was established directly by a merchant and follower of the Prophet Muhammad just a few years before the Prophet’s death. Many Muslims honor it as the Mother Mosque of India, and it is a popular pilgrimage site for both Muslims and non-Muslims. It is locally famous for an oil lamp which has been in use for over a thousand years.
Adventurous merchants from the Arabian Peninsula have visited the wealthy southern coasts of India since time immemorial. The advent of Islam and the expansion of trade routes only increased this activity, and by the late 620s the earliest traders who converted to Islam began visiting the Malabar Coast on the southern tip of the Subcontinent.
According to tradition, one Cheraman Perumal, an important ruler in Southern India, personally travelled to Arabia where he met the Prophet Muhammad. There he converted to Islam and determined to make the realm of Chera friendly to Muslims. In 629, a group of merchant-ambassadors under the leadership of Malik Ibn Dinar travelled to India and formally established the first Muslim community there.
Ibn Dinar arrived in what is now the state of Kerala, where he built one of the world’s first mosques outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Interestingly, this was not far from where Jewish merchants had established the first Jewish community in India over fifteen centuries wearlier, and which would also be the first place that Portuguese Christian merchants would visit nearly a thousand years later.
While the Muslim community was never a large one (at least in comparison to the massive Muslim populations established in the north in later centuries), it take strong root and has survived to the present day. Although rebuilt in the 11th century and renovated many times since, the Cheraman Juma Mosque remains one of the most historic and revered in the country.
The Cheraman Juma Mosque is, not surprisingly a relatively small affair that evokes its antiquity as the country’s first mosque. In fact, it almost looks like a much larger mosque that has been shrunk down, with a tiny blue dome and tiny minarets. The mosque stands in a large, open compound separated from the street by a simple gate. Due to major renovations in recent years, it does not appear from the outside to be nearly fourteen centuries old.
The interior is small, with some elements of the 11th century reconstruction evident. It can only accommodate a few hundred worshippers at a time. The mosque’s greatest treasure is an oil lamp which may date back to the original 7th century community. According to tradition, it has always been kept lit, and many pilgrims donate oil to keep it burning.
The Cheraman Juma Mosque is located on the north side of the city of Methala, approximately 700 miles down the coast from the city of Mumbai. As of this writing no visitor information for the mosque was available. Web: www.cheramanmosque.com (official website).
Southern India does not enjoy the huge number and variety of magnificent mosques that exist in Northern India. However, there is the Malik Ibn Dinar Mosque in Kasargod, which also dates from very early times and is home to the tomb of Ibn Dinar.