Veneration of the Prophet Muhammad in an Islamic Pillaittamil

Article excerpt


ACCORDING TO TAMIL TRADITION, pillaittamil poems are, par excellence, the poetry of childhood. In fact, the name of the genre means "Tamil [poetry] to or for a child (pillai)." As part of the conventionally accepted framework for the pillaittamil, poets--virtually all male--take on the persona of a female care-giver, often the mother of the baby. Traditional commentators interpret the verses of the poem as tracing the activities of an infant as it grows up.(3) Although the individual topics of each section do not compose a pattern that traces the total development of a child, they do highlight certain kinds of activities that a child performs at different stages of development. Intriguingly, however, pillaittamil poets do not limit themselves to depicting the childhood of the poem's subject; instead they juxtapose material from the period of infancy with great deeds performed by the subject during his or her adult years.

The pillaittamil genre, which had its origins in twelfth-century court poetry in praise of a king (in the area that is today the Indian state of Tamilnadu), later became popular among Hindu poets as a way to praise various deities. The earliest extant Hindu pillaittamil of this second kind dates from the fifteenth century; since that time Hindu poets have written over three hundred pillaittamils addressed to gods, goddesses, saints, and gurus. Especially within the Saivite tradition, poets wrote a large number of poems in this genre to Murukan, son of Siva, and to the goddesses, conceived of as consorts to Lord Siva.

A number of Islamic Tamil writers adopted traditional Tamil literary genres in order to compose religious texts for their communities, thereby enriching Tamil literature in many ways.(4) Islamic literature in Tamilnadu has a long and diverse history.(5) Although a number of writers chose to express themselves in Arabic and Persian,(6) others composed in Tamil--some writing in Arabic script and others in Tamil script. Although many wrote in literary genres derived from the Persio-Arabic tradition, others appropriated Tamil literary genres. Although some adopted primarily narrative genres, others were attracted to poetry composed of discrete verses.(7) The pillaittamil genre offered Islamic poets who wished to write in Tamil language and script, and to use a literary genre composed of discrete verses, a unique framework within which to express praise and veneration.

When Islamic poets composed in the genre, however, they did not compose pillaittamils to Allah. This genre involves the envisioning of its subject in a particular form, an enterprise contrary to the spirit of the Quranic verse, "No vision can grasp Him" (Sura 6). More specifically, Sura 112 of the Quran says "He did not beget, nor was he begotten," which excludes representation of the divine in any human form, including that of a baby. Given orthodox Muslim repugnance to representing or anthropomorphizing Allah, the absence of pillaittamils to Allah is not unexpected.

Islamic poets have used the genre, however, to praise a number of those venerated within the faith, most notably the Prophet Muhammad, but also members of his family, and various walis whose tombs are revered in Tamilnadu.(8) The earliest four Islamic pillaittamils date from the eighteenth century, and Islamic pillaittamils continue to be written today. Two were addressed to women (one to Fatima and another to Ayisha(9)), the rest to men. Of the twenty extant Islamic pillaittamils, six are addressed to the Prophet Muhammad. Scholars of Islamic Tamil literature recognize Napikal Nayakam Pillaittamil as an especially excellent example of a pillaittamil to the Prophet Muhammad. When selecting the pillaittamil tradition, Muslims adopted a well-established and sophisticated poetic form.

All pillaittamils share a ten paruvam (section) structure. The topics or activities highlighted in each paruvam are prescribed by literary tradition. …