Muslims and Sri Lanka
By Kamalika Pieris
The first wave of Muslims to arrive in Sri Lanka came from West
Asia. Therefore let us briefly look at the Muslim achievements in
West Asia. Islam originated in the Arab Peninsula, where the Prophet
Mohammed preached in 622 AD. Islamic religious teachings are held
in the Koran and the Islamic social life is guided by the Islamic
Sharia Law. The Arabs, once converted to Islam, went on an expansionist
spree which eventually swallowed up Egypt, Syria, Persia, Iraq and
finally, in 711 AD, Spain. Virtually all those countries had their
own civilisations prior to Islamisation. Persia had developed the
Persian script and had the Zoroastrian religion. But they all converted
to Islam and accepted the Arabic language. By the end of the 8th
century, the Islamic empire extended from Persia to Spain and included
parts of Northern Africa as well. There were two political centres.
Firstly, Damascus (660-750 AD) and thereafter Baghdad (750-1258
Between the 8th and 12th centuries, there developed a great Islamic
civilisation, intellectually brilliant, wealthy and enterprising.
This Islamic civilisation developed an urban civilisation well before
Europe, which got there several centuries later. Cairo in Egypt,
Damascus in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq were very advanced cities
with paved streets, tiled floors, public baths, bookshops, libraries,
and universities. There developed a distinct Islamic art and architecture,
which is visible even today. There were great scholars, best known
of whom is Avicenna, of Persian origin, (980-1037 AD). His medical
writings were used in medical schools in France, Spain and Italy
as late as 1650.
owes much of its knowledge of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and
philosophy to Arabic writings. These writings preserved Greek thought
as well. The Arabic writers also functioned as a conduct for the
transmission of ideas from India and China. The Arabic scholars
formulated the oldest known trignometric tables, introduced Indian
numerals, known Arabic numerals, and compiled astronomical tables.
They established obsrvatories to study the heavens. In the field
of optics and physics, they explained phenomena such as refraction
of light, and the principle of gravity. They made significant advances
in chemistry. They discovered potash, alcohol, silver nitrate, nitric
acid, sulphuric acid and mercury chloride. They originated processes
such as distillation and sublimation.
made significant advances in medicine. Many drugs now in use are
of Arab origin. They established hospitals with a system of internees.
Discovered causes of certain diseases and developed correct diagnoses
of them, proposed new concepts of hygiene, made use of anesthetics
in surgery with newly innovated surgical tools and introduced the
science of dissection in anatomy. They furthered the scientific
breeding of horses and cattle, and improved upon the science of
navigation. They also developed a high degree of perfection in art
of textiles, ceramics and metallurgy. (Most of this information
has been taken from references in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 ed.
were greatly impressed by Arabic scholarship. There was considerable
cultural interaction between the two groups, with much of it taking
place in the Mediterranean shoes, particularly Spain and Sicily.
It is not generally known that Arabic culture influenced French
culture as well. There are words of Arabic origin in the French
language. More importantly, voluminous Latin translations were made
in the 12th century, of major Arabic writings. These were studied
successively at the major emerging intellectual centres of Europe,
such as Italy, France and later England and Germany. It should also
be noted that during this time, Arabic had become, not only a religious
language, but also the main international language of the region.
(lingua franca). It was also the main language for scholarship.
The Arabs also
expanded eastwards, towards India and China, in search of trade.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, an assortment of Persians, Arabs,
Abyssinians, all Muslims, speaking Arabic and therefore conveniently
called 'Arabs' dominated the overseas trade from Baghdad to China.
The Muslims of Sri Lanka were a part of this trade operation. There
is evidence that there were Muslim merchant settlements in Sri Lanka
as early as the 7th century. M. A. M. Shukri has used the Arabic
(Kufi) inscriptions in Sri Lanka to throw light on the origins of
Sri Lanka's Muslims. He says that the Sri Lanka Moors originally
came from Aleppo, a city in Syria. ('Sri Lanka and the Silk Road
of the Sea' p181). Apparently there is an Arabic document in the
possession of one of the oldest Moor families in Beruwela. It said
that in 604 AD two sons of the Royal family of Yemen came to Lanka,
one settled in Mannar the other in Beruwela (Daily News 25.9. 98.
started in Mantai, and thereafter spread systematically in the trading
ports. Archaeological evidence, such as tomb stones, indicate that
there were Muslim settlements in 10th century, in Anuradhapura,
Trincomalee and Colombo. Thereafter, there were Muslim settlements
in the port towns along the southwestern seaboard, such as Beruwela
in her book "The Muslims of Sri Lanka, 1000 years of ethnic
harmony 900-1915 AD" (Lanka Islamic Foundation, 1994) has studied
the situation of the Muslims in Sri Lanka, with particular reference
to the Kandyan Period. She makes several important points.
makes a comparison between the way Muslim settlers were treated
in Sri Lanka and the way they were treated in Burma, China and Thailand.
In Burma, Thailand and China, Muslim traders established trading
posts which eventually became permanent settlements. Every Burmese
Muslim had two names, one, Burmese and the other Arabic. For all
practical purposes, only the Burmese name was used. Further the
Burmese king forbade the slaughter of goats and fowl and forced
the Muslims to listen to Buddhist sermons. In China too, the Muslims
had two names. They used the Chinese name and spoke Chinese and
used their Arabic names only with fellow Muslims. In Thailand too,
the Muslims were obliged to camouflage their Muslim identity from
hostile eyes. (Dewaraja. p 6, 13, 15). In Sri Lanka, the Muslims
had no such problems. As we all know, the Muslims use their Arabic
or Persian names very openly and proudly. Even today, the Muslims
in Kandyan areas have 2 names, a traditional Sinhala family name
denoting the person's ancestry and profession and an Arabic name.
For all practical purposes, only the Arabic name is known and used.
The Sinhala name is used only in legal documents and is useful in
proving long residence in the island and ownership of land. (Dewaraja.
In the latter
half of the 13th century, with the decline of the Caliphate of Baghdad,
Arab commercial activity in the Indian Ocean decreased. This trade
was taken over by the Indian Muslims of Gujerat and other Indian
centres. Hindu merchants did not travel. They were based in India.
They exported their marchandise in Muslim owned vessels. Thus colonies
of Islamised Indians came up in the ports in India's south western
(Malabar) and south eastern (Coromandel) coasts right up to Bengal.
Thus thriving centres of Muslim commercial activity studded the
Indian coastline. Subsequently, colonies of such Indo-Arabs emerged
along the coasts of Sri Lanka. These settlements were described
by the Dutch and British as 'Coast Moors'. (Dewaraja p 41, 43).
The second wave
of Muslims came to Sri Lanka from South India. They were the descendants
of earlier Arab traders who had settled in South Indian ports and
married local women. Thus Tamil and Malayalam came to be written
in Arabic script, and was known as Arabic Tamil. The Koran was translated
into Arabic Tamil. It was translated into Sinhala only recently.
Since it was compulsory for Muslim children to read the Koran, they
had to know Arabic Tamil. This partly explains why Muslims who have
lived for centuries in wholly Sinhala speaking areas retained Arabic
Tamil as their 'mother tongue'. Generations of Sri Lankan Tamils
went to theological institutions in Vellore to study Islamic learning.
It has also been suggested that Muslims speak Tamil because Tamil
was widely used in maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean (Dewaraja
points out that during the time of the Sinhala kings, from the ancient
period, right upto the Kandyan Period, there was racial amity between
the Sinhalese and the Muslims. The reason was that the Muslim traders
were economically and politically an asset to the Sri Lankan king.
The King therefore provided protection and permission for the traders
to settle in Sri Lanka (Dewaraja p 4).
through from the Anuradhapura period to Kandyan times there was
a Muslim lobby operating in the Sri Lankan court. It advised the
king on overseas trade policy. They also kept the king informed
of developments abroad. The Muslim trader with his navigational
skills and overseas contacts became the secret channel of communication
between the court and the outside world" (Dewaraja p 8). The
Sri Lankan kings encouraged the Muslims to maintain their links
with the Islamic world as this was mutually beneficial. In the 13th
century, Al Haj Aby Uthman was sent by the Sri Lankan king, Bhuvanekabahu
I to the Mamluk Court of Egypt to negotiate direct trade. They were
sent on important and confidential missions to South India right
up to Kandyan times. The Muslims of Sri Lanka spoke Tamil and other
South Indian languages and some even spoke Portuguese (p 8, 16).
that when the Portuguese first appeared off the shores of Sri Lanka,
the Muslims warned the king, sangha, nobles and the people of the
potential threat to the country's soveriegnty. When the Portuguese
tried to gain a foothold in Colombo, the Muslims provided firearms,
fought side by side with the Sinhalese and even used their influence
with South Indian powers to get military asistance to Sinhalese
rulers. Through the intervention of the Muslims, the Zamorin of
Calicut sent three distinguished Moors of Cochin with forces to
help Mayadunne (p 50).
When the Dutch
appeared and persecuted the Muslims in their coastal settlements,
the Muslims ran to the Kandyan Kingdom. Senerat (1604-1635) and
Rajasimha II (1635-1687) settled these Muslims in the Eastern coast.
Senerat settled large numbers of Tamils and Muslims in Dighavapi
area of Batticaloa to revive the paddy cultivation. There were roads
leading from Kandy to Batticaloa passing through Minipe and Vellassa
out that it is clear from the writings of Pybus that even in 1762
the authority of the King of Kandy was strongly felt in areas around
Trincomalee even among his Muslim and Tamil subjects. It is necessary
for us to bear in mind that the Kandyan Kings saw themselves as
kings of the whole country. Through Kottiyar in Trincomalee, Batticaloa,
Kalpitiya and Puttalam they traded with India, and the Muslims and
Chetties acted as the middlemen. From Kottiyar (Trincomalee) to
Kandy there was a land route following the Mahaweli. Muslims had
pack oxen and caravans and travelled this rout. The resting places
on this route became the nucleus of later Muslim settlements (Dewaraja
p 91, 125, 126).
made welcome in the Kandyan Kingdom. They were integrated into Kandyan
society primarily by giving them duties which related to the King's
administration. They were made a part of the Madige Badda or Transport
Department. They were allowed to trade in arecanut, which was a
royal monopoly. The Muslims from Uva, which was near the salterns,
had to bring salt as part of their obligatory service (Dewaraja
p 100-101). In addition to this, select Muslims were involved in
the Maligawa rituals and were given Maligagam lands. Their duties
included salt, hevisi, silversmith (acari) also the higher function
of kariya karavanarala. Therefore the Muslims were involved however
minimally in the administrative and ritual aspects of the Dalada
Maligawa as well (Dewaraja. p 107-8, 110). In addition, Muslims
also functioned as weavers, tailors, barbers, and lapidarists (p
functioned as physicians, and presumably they practised Unani medicine.
Dewaraja states that at this time, Unani had been practised in its
pure form in towns like Colombo, Galle and Beruwela (p 128). A Muslim
physician named Sulaiman Kuttiya who was practising in Galle was
invited to the Kandyan court, taken into royal service and given
land near Gampola. His descendants who lived till 1874 carried the
prefix "Galle Vedaralala" (p 91). The most renowned of
these Muslim physicians were the Gopala Moors of Gataberiya in the
Kegalle District. The family traces its pedigree to a physician
from Islamic Spain, whose descendants migrated to the Sind in Northern
India, from where they were ordered to come to Sri Lanka to attend
on King Parakramabahu II of Dambadeniya (1236-1270) (p 128). The
Gopala descendants continued to function as physicians to the king,
during reigns of Rajadirajasinghe (1782-1798) and Srivickrama Rajasinghe.
(1798-1815). The Dutch also appointed two Muslims as local physicians
in their hospitals, and one of them, Mira Lebbe Mestriar was thereafter
appointed as Native Superintendent of the Medical Department in
1806 by the British (p 133).
function of he Muslims in the Kandyan Court, was that they acted
as envoys to the King. One Muslim envoy had been sent to the Nawab
of Carnatic. Another had been sent to Pondicherry soliciting French
assistance against the Dutch, in 1765. The King also made use of
his Muslim subjects to keep abreast of developments outside his
kingdom. The Muslims were useful in this respect because of their
trade links and knowledge of languages (p 135-136).
were received favourably in the Kandyan Kingdom, as far as can be
seen. Robert Knox says that charitable Sinhala people giftd land
to Muslims to live (Dewaraja p 115). Muslims adopted the outward
appearance and dress and manners of the Sinhalese. Even James Cordiner
couldnot see the difference (p 120). In Galagedara there are yet
two villages occupied only by Muslims, surrounded by Sinhala villages.
These two villages had Masjids (p 104). Masjids were built on lands
donated by the king. Present Katupalliya and Meera Makkam Masjid
in Kandy were built on land gifted by the king. The architcture
of the Katupalliya is Kandyan. (p114-115). Ridi Vihare in Kurunegala
gave part of its land for a Masjid and allocated a portion of land
for the maintenance of a Muslim priest (p 113).
In 1930, in
Rambukkana many Muslim boys had received their education in Buddhist
monasteries. Many of them studied Sinhala and idigenous medicine.
Facilities were provided for the Muslim boys to say their prayers
and attend Koranic classes, while living in the temple. In this
remote village in Rambukkana, Muslims made voluntary contributions
towards the vihara and they participated in the Esala Perahera.
The drumers voluntarily stopped the music when they passed Masjid
(Dewaraja p 113).
Between Hammer and Anvil: Sri Lanka's Muslims
a symmetrically conical mountain set in the gorgeous hill country
of southern Sri Lanka, is sacred to all of the island's main faiths.
There is a strange indentation set in the living rock of the summit.
To the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (69% of the total population)
it is the footprint of the Buddha Gautama. The Tamil Hindus (21%)
know better - it is, of course, the sacred footprint of the God
Shiva. Then again, the island's Muslims (7%) insist, it is the footprint
left by Adam when, cast out of the Garden of Eden by a wrathful
God, he fell to earth in the place nearest to that celestial grove
in terms of beauty, fertility and climate - Sri Lanka.
In happier times
Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim - together with the island's Catholic
Christians, who believe the footprint to be that of St Thomas -
were content to disagree amicably, sharing the pilgrimage season
between December and April each year, when every night thousands
of people climb the seemingly endless stairs to the 2,224 metre
summit and await the sunrise.
As the whole
world knows, those days of inter-racial and inter-denominational
harmony are long gone - though not at Adam's Peak, secure in the
government-dominated Sinhala heartland. Rather the troubles are
at the other end of the island, where for twenty years, ever since
the simmering hostility between Buddhist Sinhalese and Tamil Hindu
exploded into open warfare, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE) have pursued their struggle for a separate Tamil state.
As the third,
and smallest, of the island's racial-religious communities, the
Sri Lankan Muslims - generally if confusingly known as "Moors"
- have become the forgotten losers in this vicious struggle. The
Tamils, evidently misclassified by the British during their long
hegemony in South Asia as a "non-martial race", have fought
with an extraordinary fanaticism under the cold command of the LTTE
leader Velupillai Prabhakharan. From the earliest days of the war
they did not hesitate to employ "ethnic cleansing" - that
late 20th century euphemism for genocide - against Sinhalese villagers
living in the north. Subsequently, and with the same ruthlessness,
the same tactic has been used against Muslims.
why this should be so, it is necessary to examine the anomalous
situation of the Sri Lankan Moors - Tamil speakers who yet, for
the most part, support the Sinhalese-dominated government of Chandrika
There have been
Muslims in Sri Lanka for well over a thousand years. Trading dhows
plied the waters between the Middle East and the island known to
Arab sailors - like the legendary Sinbad - as Serendib even in pre-Islamic
times. The first Muslim merchants and sailors may have landed on
its shores during the Prophrt Muhammad's life time. By the 10th
century this predominantly Arab community had grown influential
enough to control the trade of the south-western ports, whilst the
Sinhalese kings generally employed Muslim ministers to direct the
state's commercial affairs. In 1157 the king of the neighbouring
Maldive Islands was converted to Islam, and in 1238 an embassy to
Egypt sent by King Bhuvaneka Bahu I was headed by Sri Lankan Muslims.
From about 1350
onwards the predominantly Arab strain in Sri Lankan Islam began
to change as Tamil Muslims from neighbouring South India moved to
the island in increasing numbers. By the late 15th century, when
Portuguese vessels first arrived in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka's
Muslims were truly indigenous to the island, representing a mixture
of Sinhalese, Arab and Tamil blood, and speaking Tamil with Arabic
overtones, sometimes known as "Tamil-Arabic". None of
this made any difference to the newly-arrived Portuguese, for whom
all Muslims were "Moors" - the name given to their traditional
enemies in Morocco and southern Spain. The name Moro - employed
as a derogatory designation by the Portuguese - stuck, and is today
"worn with pride" by Sri Lankan Muslims, in much the same
way as the "Moros" of the southern Philippines.
In Sri Lanka,
as everywhere they went, the Portuguese made a special point of
persecuting the Muslims. As a consequence, many fled the western
littoral which had passed under Portuguese control, and settled
in the north and east of the island where their descendants live
to the present day. A hundred years later, in 1656, when the Dutch
replaced the Portuguese, a third (and final) element was added to
the island's Muslim population - the Malay. Malay sailors had been
visiting Sri Lanka for centuries using long-distance outrigger canoes;
now, with the arrival of the Dutch, many more were brought from
Java to serve their Dutch colonial rulers in Sri Lanka. In time
they were absorbed into the island's ethnically diverse Muslim community,
though even today many Sri Lankan Muslims identifying themselves
as "Malays" rather than "Moors" can be found
living in Western Province, and especially in Colombo.
Today Sri Lanka's
Muslims live scattered throughout the island, from Galle in the
south to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula in the north. Generally
they are involved in commerce, from running local dry goods stores
to dominating the wealthy gem business associated with Ratnapura
- "Jewel City" and much of the capital's import-export
business. In the disputed north and east of the country, where the
LTTE are currently battling the Sri Lankan armed forces, many Muslims
are farmers or fishermen, living in small villages far from the
protection of government forces. It is these people - the poorest
of the island's "Moors", descendants of the orginal refugees
displaced by the Portuguese four hundred years ago - that are now
caught up in the struggle for "Tamil Eelam".
Most Moors speak
Tamil as their first language, regarding Sinhalese and English as
languages of commerce to be used in their business dealings. Despite
this linguistic affinity they do not consider themselves Tamil,
however, and have precious little sympathy for the Tamil Tigers'
cause. Rather they tend to support the government, albeit passively,
wishing simply to pursue their business interests with the full
freedom of religion they have long been accustomed too. Unfortunately,
this is no longer possible. In those areas contested by the LTTE
with a substantial Muslim population - for example, Northern Province's
Vavuniya District, and Eastern Province's Tricomalee and Batticaloa
Districts - they are under serious pressure.
seems, the Tamil separatists hoped to enlist the Tamil-speaking
Moors in their struggle for an independent Tamil state encompassing
all of Northern and Eastern Provinces. When the Moors remained aloof
- and even indicated support for the government position - they
became identified as enemies. Worse than that, as Tamil-speakers
there seemed, to Tiger minds at least, an element of treason in
their lack of support. Subsequently, as the LTTE struggle for secession
developed into open warfare with the government in Colombo, Prabhakharan,
showing characteristic ruthlessness, targeted the Moors for "ethnic
cleansing" - that is, physical expulsion or elimination - from
the lands sought by the Tigers as a Tamil homeland.
The Tigers first
began to attack the Moors on a systematic basis over a decade ago.
In August, 1990, in two separate incidents, more than 230 Muslims
were massacred at prayer at towns near Pulmoddai, in the north-east
of the island. At the same time Prabhakharan gave notice that the
entire Muslim population of Northern Province, including the then
rebel-held capital of Jaffna, should leave contested areas forthwith
or face being killed. An estimated one hundred thousand people were
affected by this threat, many of who have since fled to government-controlled
areas in the centre and south of the island. Tens of thousands were
made destitute, the majority of whom still eke out a living in refugee
camps. Following this incident, Muslim fishermen became a favourite
target of LTTE maritime patrols, and Muslim businessmen a preferred
target for abduction and ransom.
in the north and east have responded by voicing their own claims
for autonomy in the region, making it clear that - should the LTTE
reach an agreement with Colombo on autonomous status - they would
seek to opt out from Tamil control. Prabhakharan's response has
been as vigorous and ruthless as ever. If the Muslims won't accept
Tamil rule, they must be expelled from Northern Province and Eastern
Province en masse.
Caught in the
intricate and seemingly endless web of violence between Tamil Hindu
and Sinhalese Buddhist, Sri Lanka's Muslims are increasingly desperate,
unsure which way to turn, and whom to trust. Forgotten victims of
a particularly vicious war, they are trapped between hammer and
anvil, a long way indeed from the Garden of Eden.
A brief history
of the Muslims of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, known
to the ancients as Ceylon, has been recorded in history books as
a country that has had many visitations from foreign travellers
throughout the ages. The people are mainly Buddhist, with a complex
mixture of Hindus, Muslims, Roman Catholics and other Christian
denominations. The main race are the Sinhalese while the Tamils,
Muslims and Burghers (Anglo-Sri Lankans) form the remaining. The
Muslims of Sri Lanka are a very small minority amounting to approximately
10% of a total population of 16 Million people. They claim descendancy
from the Arab traders, who made Sri Lanka their home even before
the advent of Islam. The Tamils comprise around 25% of the population.
Sri Lankan Muslims
can be categorized into two distinct sub groups, the Moors and the
Malays. The former is the name given to them by the Portuguese colonial
rulers who used the word Moros to identify Arabs in general. The
Malays are a group of Muslims who originated from Java and the Malaysian
Peninsula. They differed from the Moors, both, in their physical
appearance as well as in the language they spoke which was a mixture
of Malay and local dialects.
of Sri Lanka have a colorful history behind them punctuated by a
long spell of hardship suffered during the Portuguese and Dutch
ocupation of the Island. It is much to their credit that they withstood
the onslaught of economic constraints, political intrigues and religious
persecution to stay behind and survive. Most other peoples may have
packed their bags and left for good. They not only saved their religion
from the Christian enemies but also rebuilt the economy, slowly
and steadily, by the 18th century when the British took over control
of the island from the Dutch.
isolated from the main centers of Islamic culture and civilization
the Muslims of Sri Lanka were forced to interact closely with their
neighbours, the Muslims of South India, in order to preserve their
identity. Had they been denied this slender link, it is possible
that, they may have lost their distinct Islamic character completely.
However, it must be observed that this link has also caused many
Indian (Hindu) traditions and rituals to creep into their culture
and life style, some of which, even though vehemently anti-Islamic,
are still practised to date. Lack of a correct understanding of
the teachings of Islam has been the main cause of this sad situation.
to the local conditions in various ways and also contributing largely
to the Islands economic prosperity, the Muslim community of Sri
Lanka, unlike the Hindu Tamils of the Northern Province, has saved
itself from any major clash with the indigenous Sinhalese population.
They have also been able to receive a fair share in the countrs
Politics and Administration by virtue of their hard work and also
of being an important minority whose support has been vital to all
the political groups in the country. Although it may be said that
the Muslim community was not politically dominant at any stage,
yet, it is certainly true that they manouvered their political activity
without much noise, unlike the Tamils.
This work attempts
to present a brief history of the Muslims of Sri lanka from their
early Arab trader beginnings to the present day minority community
that is fully integrated into the Sri
Sri Lanka (previously known as Ceylon) lies of the south-east of
the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The pear shaped island, often referred
to as the pearl of the east is separated from mainland India by
a narrow strip of water called the Palk Straits.
Being in such close proximity to and having such easy access from
India, it might be expected that Sri Lanka received a large number
of migrants from its neighbour from pre-historic times. The original
inhabitants of the island are believd to be an aboriginal tribe
called the Veddahs. The Sinhalese, presently the majority community,
are supposed to be the descendants of the colonists, led by Vijaya,
from the valley of the Ganges who settled in the island around the
6th century B.C. Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese, is an Aryan
language, closely related to Pali. Buddhism was introduced to Sri
Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa during the period
between India and Sri Lanka are traced to the 3rd century B.C. Historians
have not been able to pin-point the actual date of establishment
of Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka. However, during the 3rd century
B.C. a Tamil General, Elara, set up a Tamil Kingdom at Anuradhapura,
in the North Central Province, and ruled there for 44 years. He
earned a reputation for his just and impartial administration among
the Sinhalese and Tamils and was thus called Elara the Just.
location of the island, in the Indian Ocean, together with some
of the coveted goods it produced, resulted in a fair degree of foreign
trade even from ancient times. The Romans discovered the commercial
value of Sri Lanka in the first century A.D. and the island was
visited by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, and Chinese traders.
Sri Lankas trade offering included Cinnamon, which grew wild in
the forests of the wet zone, precious stones, pearls, elephants
While most of the traders were only visitors to the island, who
made their fortunes and left, it was the Arabs who settled down,
making Ceylon their home. Furthermore as the Muslims of Sri lanka
claim their desecndancy from the Arabs it is imprtant to look at
the information available on the advent of the Arabs to the island.
The Tamils of Sri Lanka, throughout history, have attempted to categorize
the Sri Lankan Muslims as belonging to the Tamil race. This has
been mainly for selfish reasons in a bid to eliminate the minority
Muslim community from having its own unique identity. The Government
of Sri Lanka, however, treats the Muslims as of Arab origin and
as a distinct ethnic group from the Tamils.
Fr. S.G. Perera
in his book -History of Ceylon for Schools- Vol. 1. The Portuguese
and Dutch Periods, (1505-1796), Colombo (1955), The Associated Newspapers
of Ceylon Ltd., p 16, writes,
-The first mention
of Arabs in Ceylon appears to be in the Mahavansa (Ancient Sri Lankan
history) account of the reign of the King Pandukabhaya, where it
is stated that this king set apart land for the Yonas (Muslims)
With the decline
of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century A.D., Roman trade also died
out and the Arabs and Persians filled up the vacuum; engaging in
a rapidly growing inter-coastal trade. After the conquest of Persia
(Iran), Syria and Egypt, the Arabs controlled all the important
ports and trading stations between East and West. It is estimated
that the Arabs had settled in Sri Lanka and Sumatra by the 1st century
A.D. K.M. De Silvas, Historical Survey, Sri Lanka - A Survey, London
(1977), C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., p 50, states,
-by about the
8th century A.D., the Arabs had formed colonies at the important
ports of India, Ceylon and the East Indies. The presence of the
Arabs at the ports of Ceylon is attested to by at least three inscriptions
discovered at Colombo, Trincomalee and the island of Puliantivu-
The manner in
which Islam developed in Sri lanka is very closely similar to that
on the Malabar coast of India. Tradition has recorded that Arabs
who had settled down on the Malabar coast used to travel from the
port of Cranganore to Sri lanka on piligrimage to pay homage to
what they believed to be the foot-print of Adam on the top of a
montain, which, until today, is called Adams Peak.
the famous 14th. century Arab traveller, has recorded many facets
about early Arab influence in Sri lanka in his travelogues.
Before the end
of the 7th. century, a colony of Muslim merchants had established
themselves in Ceylon. Fascinated by the scenic splendour and captivated
by the traditions associated with Adams Peak, Muslim merchants arrived
in large numbers and some of them decided to settle in the island
encouraged by the cordial treatement they received by the local
rulers. Most of them lived along the coastal areas in peace and
prosperity, maintaining contacts, both cultural and commercial,
with Baghdad and other Islamic cities.
Tikiri Abeyasinghe in his Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, 1594-1612,
Colombo (1966), Lake House Investments Ltd., p 192, tradition has
-the first Mohammadans
of Ceylon were a portion of those Arabs of the House of Hashim,
who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the 8th. century
by the tyranny of the Caliph, Abdel Malik bin Marwan, and who proceeding
from the Euphrates southwards made settlements in the concan in
the southern parts of the peninsula of India, on the island of Ceylon
and Malacca. The division of them which came to Ceylon formed eight
considerable settlements along the Nort-East, North and Western
coast of that island; viz., one at Trincomalee, one at Jaffna, one
at Colombo, one at barbareen, and one at Point de Galle.-
It is perhaps
reasonable, therefore, to assume that the Arabs, professing the
religion of Islam, arrived in Sri Lanka around the 7th./8th. century
A.D. even though there was a settled community of Arabs in Ceylon
in pre-Islamic times.
that helped the growth of Muslim settlements were varied. The Sinhalese
were not interested in trade and were content in tilling the soil
and growing cattle. Trade was thus wide open to the Muslims. the
Sinhalese Kings considered the Muslim settlements favorably on account
of the revenue that they brought them through their contacts overseas
both in trade and in politics. The religious tolerance of the local
population was also another vital factor in the development of Muslim
settlements in Ceylon.
The early Muslim
settlements were set up, mainly, around ports on account of the
nature of their trade. It is also assumed that many of the Arab
traders may not have brought their womenfolk along with them when
they settled in Ceylon. Hence they would have been compelled to
marry the Sinhalese and Tamil women of the island after converting
them to Islam. The fact that a large number of Muslims in Sri Lanka
speak the Tamil language can be attributed to the possibility that
they were trading partners with the Tamils of South India and had
to learn Tamil to successfully transact their business. The integration
with the Muslims of Tamil Nadu, in South India, may have also contributed
to this. It is also possible that the Arabs who had already migrated
to Ceylon, prior to Islam, had adopted the Tamil language as a medium
of communication in their intercourse with the Tamil speaking Muslims
of South India. The Muslims were very skilful traders who gradually
builtup a very lucrative trading post in Ceylon. A whole colony
of Muslims is said to have landed at Beruwela (South Western coast)
in the Kalutara District in 1024 A.D.
did not indulge in propagating Islam amongst the natives of ceylon
even though many of the women they married did convert. Islam did
attract the less privileged low caste members of the Tamil community
who found the factor of equality a blessing for their status and
There is also
a report in the history of Sri Lanka of a Muslim Ruler, Vathimi
Raja, who reigned at Kurunegala (North Central Province) in the
14th. century. This factor cannot be found in history books due
to their omission, for reasons unknown, by modern authors. Vathimi
Raja was the son of King Bhuvaneka Bahu I, by a Muslim spouse, the
daughter of one of the chiefs. The Sinhalese son of King Bhuvaneka
Bahu I, Parakrama Bahu III, the real heir to the throne was crowned
at Dambadeniya under the name of Pandita Parakrama Bahu III. In
order to be rid of his step brother, Vathimi Raja, he ordered that
his eyes be gouged out. It is held that the author of the Mahavansa
(ancient history of Ceylon) had suppressed the recording of this
disgraceful incident. the British transaletor, Mudaliyar Wijesinghe
states that original Ola (leaf script) was bodily removed from the
writings and fiction inserted instead. The blinded Vathimi Raja
(Bhuvaneka Bahu II or Al-Konar, abbreviated from Al-Langar-Konar,
meaning Chief of Lanka of Alakeshwara) was seen by the Arab traveller
Ibn Batuta during his visit to the island in 1344. His son named
Parakrama Bahu II (Alakeshwara II) was also a Muslim. The lineage
of Alakeshwara kings (of Muslim origin) ended in 1410. Although
all the kings during this reign may not have been Muslims, the absence
of the prefix -Shri Sangha Bodhi- (pertaining to the disciples of
the Buddha) to the name of these kings on the rock inscriptions
during this hundred year period may be considered as an indicator
that they were not Buddhists. Further during Ibn Batutas visit a
Muslim ruler called Jalasthi is reported to have been holding Colombo,
maintaining his hold over the town with a garrison of about 500
In spite of
this the Mulsims have always been maintaining very cordial relationships
with the Sinhalese Royalty and the local population. There is evidence
that they were more closer to the Sinhalese than they were to the
Tamils. The Muslims relationship with the Sinhalese kings grew stronger
and in the 14th. century they even fought with them against the
expanding Tamil kingdom and its maritime influence.
By the beginning
of the 16th. century, the Muslims of Sri Lanka, the descendants
of the original Arab traders, had settled down comfortably in the
island. They were evry successful in trade and commerce and integrated
socially with the customs of the local people. They had become an
inseparable, and even more, an indispensable part of the society.
This period was one of ascendancy in peace and prosperity for the
Sri Lankan Muslims.
Sri Lankan Muslims include the Malays although they form a separate
group by themselves. Even the earliest census of Sri Lanka (1881)
lists the Muslims as Moors and Malays separately. Malays too, follow
the Islamic religion just like the Moors.
The real beginning of the Malays in Sri Lanka dates back to the
13th. century. Husseinmiya writes,
arrival of Malays in Sri Lanka took place in the 13th. century.
Chandra Bhanu, the Malay King of Nakhon Sri Dhammarat in the Isthmus
of Kra on the Malay Peninsula invaded Sri Lanka in A.D. 1247, with
Malay soldiers. He was determined to possess the relics of the Buddha
from the Sinhalese kingdom. In a second invasion he brought soldiers
50 year rule of northern Ceylon in the 13th. century is remembered
by such place names as Java Patnam (Jaffna), Java Kachcheri (Chavakachcheri),
Hambantota etc. Most authors have, yet, linked the origin of the
Malays in Ceylon to the period when the uisland was ruled by the
Dutch. Murad Jayah in -The plight of the Ceylon Malays today-, MICH
Silver Jubilee Souvenir, 1944-1969, Colombo (1970), p 70, writes,
-In 1709 Susana
Mangkurat Mas, king of Java, was exiled to Sri Lanka by the Dutch
with his entire retinue. He was followed in 1723 by 44 Javanese
princes and noble men who surrendered at the battle of Batavia and
exiled to this country with their families. These familes formed
the nucleus from which the Malay community grew.-
-The Dutch continued
to bring more -Java Minissu- (Malay people) as exiles, and employed
them to fill the ranks of the army, the police force, the fire brigade,
the prison staff and other services. They formed the bulk of the
servicemen during the Dutch occupation and the early British times.
The British too imported Malay families for settlement in Ceylon
with the idea of raising a regiment. The Kings colors were awarded
in 1801 to the Ceylon Malay Regiment, the first Asian to receive
attempts of the British to attract more Malays from overseas, the
meagre salaries paid to the malay soldiers coupled with more avenues
for lucrative employment in the plantation industry, resulted in
the disbandment of the malay Regiment in 1873. The Malays released
from the army were absorbed into the police and the fire brigade
The mother tongue
of Malays is Malay (Bahasa Melayu). Murad Jayah writes,
has been preserved in this country for over 250 years due to the
fact that the original exiles from Indonesia were accompanied by
their womenfolk and it was not necessary for them to find wives
among Sinhalese and Tamil women, unlike the Arab ancestors of the