“We deeply regret our decision to live in this Islamic commune,” said a visibly distressed Yasir Amani, a resident of Athikkad village. “Those who injected the foolish idea in our minds are not with us anymore. Now, we are working to make our neighbourhood a multi-religious society. We want to wash away our sins.”

Till a few months ago, Athikkad was a nondescript village in the Mallapuram district of Kerala, unknown to most living outside the state. Since June, however, an Islamic commune there has been in the glare of the media and under the radar of the police and intelligence agencies, ever since a group of youngsters went missing from Kerala. The village is roughly 400 km north of Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital.

Salafi preacher Zubair Mankada had set up this commune in 2008 as a unique place to learn Salafism in an ideal Islamic environment. As many as 20 families from different parts of the state, including Yasir’s, migrated to the new settlement. Yasir was the preacher’s Man Friday and played an active role in building houses, guesthouses, a mosque and a madrassa on a four-acre plot, which was once a rubber plantation.

Salafism is an ultra-conservative Islamic movement that wants to return to the way of life of Prophet Muhammad and his followers.

Cracks began to appear in the commune five years after it was formed and Mankada bid goodbye to the residents in 2013. Eleven more families followed suit within a year. At present, eight families live in the commune.

The real trouble, however, began after reports emerged that 21 youth had gone missing from Kerala and were suspected to have joined the Islamic State. Suddenly, the spotlight turned on this Salafi commune, prompting visits by the police and the media. Though no links have been found between the commune and missing youth so far, what directed attention to the village was an ill-timed police complaint filed by a resident of the commune.

The idea of the commune

Mankada, who works as an Arabic teacher at a school in Nilambur, was a senior member of Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, a reformist religious organisation formed in 1950. Since its inception, Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen encouraged Muslims to understand the meaning of the Quran in Malayalam, promoted girls’ education and fought against many superstitions. The outfit supposedly has its roots in the Kerala Muslim Aikya Sangham (United Organisation of Kerala Muslims), founded in 1924, the leaders of which were actively involved in India’s struggle for independence.

Though it is today widely known as a Salafi outfit, the leadership of the KNM, till the late ’90s, did not subscribe to Salafi concepts that originated in Saudi Arabia. Their focus was on bringing about a Muslim renaissance, exhorting the community to educate themselves and liberate them from the clutches of superstition.

In 2002, however, the organisation split after debates on propagating Salafism failed to reach a consensus. One faction, led by Dr Hussain Madavoor, had argued that Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen should participate in social and political activities, while the rival faction wanted to adhere to Salafism. Mankada, who had worked in Saudi Arabia for some time, provided the much-needed theoretical support (based on Quran and Hadith) for the pro-Salafi group. Both the parent body and the breakaway group continue to be known as Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen.

The very next year, Mankada effected another split, as he walked out of the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen unceremoniously, terming the organisation itself as a sin.

The idea of commune came up at this juncture as his followers found it difficult to live in a society that, they believed, did not subscribe to Salafi principles.

Iron curtain

“When the commune was set up in 2008, we thought it was a God-sent opportunity to practise religion in a true Islamic environment,” said Yasir, sitting uncomfortably on a chair in his verandah. “Our life was confined to the commune, though we worked outside to make a living. We spent much of our time attending religious sermons, and offering prayers. We never interacted with the local community.”

He added: “In hindsight, I think we had set up a virtual iron wall around us. People viewed us with suspicion.”

Those who live in the neighbouring tribal colony across the road said they never interacted with members of the commune. “We never ventured into their unfenced area, nor did they invite us there,” said Rajesh, a labourer. “A lot of religious activities used to happen there.”

Ashokhan, another resident of the tribal colony said, “It is a village of ‘long beards’. They will not even look at us.”

In its early years, the commune garnered international attention as the best Salafi learning centre, thanks to the social media. Mankada’s reputation as a preacher too contributed to its popularity.

Foreign friction

The commune drew the attention of scholars from Yemen, home to Dammaj, an important centre of Salafi learning. However, Mankada did not subscribe to the views of the scholars, resulting in conflicts. Abu Amru, a disciple of prominent Yemeni preacher Yahya Al Hajooree, even denounced Mankada and his way of life.

However, while the scholars eventually left, Yemen Salafism, which forbade picturing living objects and imposed stringent dress code for men and women, found many takers in the commune. Disenchanted with the turn of events, Mankada eventually abandoned the commune.

“We follow puritanical Islam,” said Mujeeb Rahman, who bought a house in Athikkad four years ago. “It is wrong to call us Yemen Salafis. We imbibe good practices of Salafi outfits in Yemen and Saudi Arabia”

However, Rahman said he would leave the place soon. “It is difficult to practice my faith here peacefully thanks to the constant attention from the media and police.”

Of goats and pastures

Three years after Mankada left, Athikkad witnessed an influx of devout Muslims from different parts of Kerala. This caused the residents great discomfort.

Yasir filed a police complaint to look into the activities of the newcomers. “After Mankada’s exit, our neighbourhood was in the process of becoming a normal village [one for all communities],” he said. “But things began to go out of our control with the increase in the number of visitors.”

The complaint was registered at a time when details of the 21 missing people began to emerge. A couple of days later, relatives of an absconding youngster alleged that he used to visit Nilambur for religious preachings, and the accusation turned the spotlight on Athikkad.

Stories began to circulate that Athikkad residents reared goats, as the Prophet had.

“Anyone who visited the place could understand the reality,” said Yasir. “We never reared goats here. The media portrayed us negatively.”

Rahman said he would love to rear goats, but it was impractical to do it now. “I cannot make ends meet with goat farming,” he said.

The divisions

Mujeeb Rahman Kinaloor, editor-in-charge of Varthamanam Daily, a newspaper launched by the Hussain Madavoor faction of Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, said those who set up the commune are so-called Quetist Salafists – who ascribe to the ultraconservative Islamic views of Salafism, but are not politically active and do not ascribe to violence.

“They do not involve in larger issues that affect the society,” Kinaloor said.

Kinaloor said the undivided Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen had played a crucial role in improving the socio-cultural conditions of Muslims in Kerala even before Gulf boom. “It never looked at Saudi Arabia for guidance,” he said. “So it is not correct to describe it as a Salafi outfit. But splits in Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen and the organisational politics had driven many to different forms of Salafism.”

Kinaloor said that it is high time to check the negative influence of Salafism, especially among youngsters. “Religious organisations should look into ways to satiate the cravings of the new generation believers,” he said. “They should realise that devout Muslims would never approve of internal bickering. Moreover, they should rein in preachers with limited knowledge who create divisions in the society.”

Looking for change

Back in Athikkad, Yasir and his neighbours are busy laying the ground for change. They now want to reintegrate with society and are trying to make the commune a secular space. “Experience has taught me to differentiate between the religion and the world we live in,” he said. “Human beings cannot forever remain detached from the society based on their religious beliefs. Creating an Islamic village or any religious commune for that matter is an unrealistic idea.”

He hoped that the turbulent times were over and Athikkad would be transformed into a normal village, in which people who follow different faiths could co-exist, away from the media glare. “I hope the dream will be realised soon.”