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Sayyid Muhammad Ali Shihab Thangal was one of the most influential religious and political leaders in Kerala. He belongs to a rare breed of leader, elevated the message of love, charity and harmony among the peoples from all walks of life, irrespective of their cast creed and community. The empowerment of Muslim community was his prime concern and he was successful to unite the all sects of Muslims in Kerala through his grassroots, but profound influence in their life. By his short but philosophic words and his blissful attitude towards political and other issues, Thangal got undisputed acceptability from the entire Kerala community.

Thangal, a 33rd generation member of Prophet Muhammad’s family by descent, studied at Al Azhar and Cairo universities after completing his studies home in local schools and traditional higher learning centers. Mastered in Arabic, English and French languages from Al-Azhar and awarded Doctoral Degree in Arabic Literature from Cairo University. He was offered many higher posts in the Arab world, but his father insisted him to return in order to continue his family tradition of leading and serving the poor society. He showed no interest in politics until the party picked him for the president's post on his father's death in 1975. However, chairing the party for long three decades with supreme power in hand, he never sought an elected office and kept always away from the lure of parliamentary politics. He has encouraged others also to keep the morale of democratic politics within the party and state. His eyes and ears were ever open for the poorest of the society and engaged up to the late hours of his living days to tackle the grievances of common people.

Thangal headed the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Kerala's third largest political party, set up in 1948 in Malabar, and then a part of the Madras province, the IUML faced political ostracism from other parties who called it communal and tried to link it with All India Muslim League (AIML), which is blamed for partition. Though the IUML had become a political force to reckon with by the time of Shihab Thangal’s time, the stigma of communalism continued. Through judicious handling of sensitive issues, Shihab Thangal succeeded in gaining for his party a public recognition as part of the secular mainstream, and credence as a party that upholds the secular ideal despite the religious tag in its name. He placed the problems of the Muslim community in the broad context of the social, economic and educational backwardness of large sections of the population, thus seeking solutions for community problems without triggering communal animosities. Tangal ensured that a majority of the state’s minority community kept its faith in mainstream society and politics. Making political ruling and opposition fronts with secular parties, he made possible a strong and confident integration between communities

His courage and commitment towards communal harmony was greatly appreciated and he assumed the role of a great wall denouncing the ultra communal voices by fortune seekers being trespassed to blind mass. Despite cries of revenge from certain sections in the wake of Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, he strongly ordered his followers to ensure the communal harmony is not disrupted. He specifically asked Muslims to take guard of Temples in Muslim localities and to ensure the safety of pilgrims travelling to the famous Shabarimala temple in the peak season of December. He always refused to make compromises for short-term gains. He never gave in to the cries from his critiques as well as from his followers to play with communal card considering on its short term benefit may lead to unbridgeable gulfs among communities.

As a scholar in jurisprudence and other Islamic schools he had to lead the community and Sharia affairs of more than 300 Mahalls/Jamaths throughout Kerala where his fathwas and edicts were the last word. Under his enthusiastic leadership hundreds of educational and charitable institutions were sprout and flourished within the country and abroad especially in gulf countries. His was the most sought presence and his blessings were inevitable to inaugurate any community empowerment movement or welfare ventures in and out the state. He has always given priority for institutions that blend religious and secular education. His just and short words were enough to end a years-long rivalry in family, business or society. Even the state high court referred protracted family feud to him only to be amicably solved in tears. In word and spirit he lived for the people, always cared for them, travelled from early morning to midnight for the needs and causes of the public and never shut his gates in front of anyone. Other members of his family are also doing the same. Despite of being a fiery orator or crafted writer he had been the most influential Muslim leader in the state.
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