Old tombstones in the Coromandel Coast dating from the 1600s have inscriptions in Arabu Tamil, which is Tamil written in the Arabic script. Existing Arabu Tamil literature also dates from that period.
However, according to some, Arabu Tamil—or Arwi—existed even earlier, but records of its antiquity were lost or destroyed in the wars with the Portuguese. The Syrian Christians of Malabar had already been using Syriac script—another Semitic language—for writing Malayalam, and it may have been a precursor to Arabisation of the local script.
Arab outposts existed in these regions from the early days of Islam. Successive turmoil in the Arab heartland during the age of crusades occasioned the Arabs to increase their activity in South India, Sri Lanka, and the Malay Archipelago. One can only conjecture that Arabu Tamil and Arabi Malayalam rose in prominence along with Arabi Melayu (or Jawi, among the Malays) during the thirteenth-century, gaining increased sophistication during the 1500s.
The Arabs were experts in picking up new languages; however, the rise of Arabised Tamil, Malayalam or Melayu may have been the result of native efforts—although it is no coincidence that the three languages rose and fell in the same period in history. The growing influence of these languages was checked by the arrival of Portuguese, who had emerged from the Arab rule some two centuries earlier.
It is said that the Arwi system of writing originated in Kayalpatnam, an ancient Arab outpost in the Coromandel visited by both Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. The first documented large-scale arrival of Arabs in Kayalpatnam occurred in 842 CE when a group of Egyptians under one Muhammed Khalji fled persecution by the Abbasids.
However, Kayalpatnam was already a bustling Arab port then—the first mosque was said to have been built here in 633/640 CE, but it was reportedly destroyed during the Arab-Portuguese wars of 1533 CE. The second documented large-scale migration of Arabs to Kayalpatnam occurred in 1284 CE. In any case, all inscriptions during this period and in the next couple of centuries were in either Tamil or Arabic.
Arwi may have already been in use before the second migration, especially given the number of Turkish and Arabic loan words dominating any religious or personal discourse at that time. Similar is the case with Arabi Malayalam, although the earliest text is from the sixteenth-century—after the Portuguese departure. On the other hand, the oldest Arabi Melayu text in the Malay Archipelago is dated 702 AH (1303 CE).
Arwi consists of forty letters, out of which twenty-eight are from Arabic, and the remaining twelve are Tamil consonants and vowels; the Tamil letters with no phonetic equivalents are represented in modified Arabic script.
By 1580 CE, the Portuguese power began to wane not only in the Coromandel but also in other parts of India; their patrons—the Vijayanagar Empire—had fallen and they had to contend with the increasingly successful navies of the Kunjalis on the west and the rising power of the Dutch on the east. It was also the time when Arwi got a new lease of life. Hafiz Amir Wali Appa of Kayalpattinam is said to have re-introduced Arwi with a systematic literary style of writing. It ushered in the golden age for Arwi and the revival of religious activity.
In Ceylon, where the Portuguese destroyed all Moorish settlements over 200 years, generations of Muslims grew up without any religious leadership or instruction due to the cultural onslaught. Their plight moved the Dutch—who were now the new rulers after defeating the Portuguese—to invite religious scholars from Tamilnadu. Arwi again made inroads among the Ceylon Moors and set in motion a period of rapid revival.
Till about 1940s, Arwi newsletters and magazines were in circulation. It was a time when knowing Farsi or English was a sign of nobility among the wealthier, educated Tamil Muslims; Arwi was side-lined. However, Arwi’s decline was not unexpected. Its close association with religious literature was its main drawback.
Although experts say that Arwi literature covered many fields, the number Arwi scholars continued to decline. On the other hand, Arabu Malayalam barely survived with some support of community organisations; Bahasa Melayu became Latinised, although some traditional pockets in Malaya still use the Jawi script. In some seminaries of Tamilnadu, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, Arwi is still taught as part of religious education.
Mention must be made of a secret Moorish language technique called Mygurudu (in Malayalam) or Sabhashay in Tamil. Speakers transpose certain letters during communication—mostly orally—so that the code cannot be deciphered. Though unrelated to Arwi, these secret language techniques were used in times of conflicts to confound enemies while relaying messages. In Kerala, its use was widespread during the Moplah Rebellion of 1921. In Tamilnadu, Sabhashay is still used by old-timers in districts bordering the Malabar region.