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A brief history of the Muslims of Sri Lanka

Introduction

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.

The Muslims 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.

Being geographically 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.

Having adapted to the local conditions in various ways and also contributing largely to the Island’s 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 country’s 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 Lankan society.

Historical Background

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 307-267 B.C.

Trade relations 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”.

The strategic 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 Lanka’s trade offering included Cinnamon, which grew wild in the forests of the wet zone, precious stones, pearls, elephants and ivory.

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 Arabs:

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) at Anuradhapura”

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 the foot-print of Adam on the top of a montain, which, until today, is called Adams Peak.

Ibn Batuta, 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.

According to Tikiri Abeyasinghe in his “Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, 1594-1612”, Colombo (1966), Lake House Investments Ltd., p 192, tradition has it that,

 “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.

The circumstances 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.

The Muslims 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 well-being.

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 batuta’s 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 Abyssinians.

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.

The Malays:

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,

 “The definite 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 from India”.

Chandra Bhanu’s 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 King’s colors were awarded in 1801 to the Ceylon Malay Regiment, the first Asian to receive that Honor”.

The unsuccessful 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 services.

The mother tongue of Malays is Malay (Bahasa Melayu). Murad Jayah writes,
 “Bahasa Melayu 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 Ceylon Moors”.
 

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