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Marakkala: the Sri Lankan Moors

 

By Dr. S. K. Vadivale

The Arabs who came for trade did not settle down in Ceylon. They were in fact a floating population along the Western and Southern coasts. On seeing the Portuguese they got so scared that they left their lucrative trade, their wives/concubines and children to the mercy of the Portuguese and fled, swearing not to come back. Yes, to this day they have not come back.

From 1311 to 1330, under orders from Ala-u-din, the Sultan of Delhi, Makik Kaffoor, Ghiyathu-d-din Dhamaghani, Khusuru Khan and other generals, demolished and devastated Hindu temples in the South and carried away the loot (gold, silver etc) to Delhi. The Southern region however, did not go under Muslim rule until 1330. In 1380 a powerful Tamil King, Kumara Kampan attacked the Muslim ruler Sikander, killed him in battle and drove the Muslim army out of Tamil country. As in the North, in the South too, Muslim conquerors, at the point of the sword, compelled Hindus, Jains and Buddhists to embrace Islam.

(Ref: History of India by Elliot, History of Tamil Nadu by Pro. N. Subramaniam).

It may be interesting to observe that while Christian missionaries converted non-Christians all over the world by persuasion, Muslim conquerors converted people of other faiths to Islam, at the point of the sword. With the fall of Muslim rule in the South in 1380, there was a renaissance among the Hindus and in the latter part of the 14th century, the converts were prosecuted until they fled the Tamil country in Marak Kalams (Wooden Boats) and landed on the coasts of Ceylon. Because they came in Marak Kalams the Sinhala people called them Marakkala Minissu. Yes, to this day, the Sinhalese call them Marakkala Minissu. Tamils in South India and Sri Lanka call them Sonahars, (Ref: Yarlpana Vaipava Malai 1736 by Mailvaganar Pulavar).

Arabs came to Ceylon in the 15th century not as conquerors or missionaries but as traders. The Arabs, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British did not bring their women folk with them. It is surprising that while the Europeans had taken Sinhala and Tamil women as wives/concubines, the Arabs had taken only Tamil women for their comfort and pleasure. That is, I believe the reason why there are no Sinhala Muslims in Sri Lanka. The reason why the Arabs were not interested in Sinhala women is not far to seek. The Arabs were keen on having as their companions only women who professed Islam.

Arabs would not have come to Ceylon in thousands. A couple of hundreds would have come with each expedition at intervals of say 12 to 24 months or so. The Arab factor would not therefore, have altered the ethnic or demographic pattern of the Tamil Muslims who had come from Tamil Nadu in the 14th century.

The Portuguese came to Ceylon in the 16th century as conquerors. They dubbed the Tamil Muslims `Moors', because as in Morocco, the Muslim of Portugal and Spain were called Moors. (Ref: The Story of Lanka by E. L. Blaze).

(a) Whereas the descendants of the Europeans (the Burghers) resemble their forefathers very closely, the Tamil-speaking Muslims who vociferously claim to be descendants of Arabs, do not have the slightest resemblance to an Arab in stature or complexion.

(b) The mother tongue of the Muslims is Tamil.

(c) The Muslims bear Tamil names e.g. Periya Marikkar, Sinna Lebbe, Pitchai Thamby, Hajira Ammah, Razeena Amma, etc.

(d) Unlike Arab women, local Muslim women bore their noses and put studs, use anklets and gold jewellery.

(e) Adult women wear sarees while teenagers wear Paa Vadai and Thaavani.

(f) Brothers' and sisters' children marry as first choice.

(g) The bride is given dowry which is contrary to Muslim Law. A Pakistani who was in Sri Lanka last year for Thableeq, condemned the dowry system practised by local Muslims.

(h) The bride-groom puts a Thali round the neck of the bride. This custom prevails only among Tamil Muslims and Tamil Christians of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

(i) In local Muslim houses Gingelly oil is included in the diet of girls who have attained maidenhood.

(j) Muslim physicians of Ceylon brought their medical literature from Kayal Pattanam in Tamil Nadu. (Ref: Avicenna 1967. Journal of the Unani Medical Students Union.)

(k) Tamil Nadu-type houses can still be seen in Muslim colonies of Mannar, Puttalam and Jaffna.

Muslims of Northern India belong to the Aryan stock, and are by ethnicity Rajputs, Gujeratis, Maharashtras, Punjabis, Kashmiris etc.. The inhabitants of West Bengal, Bangladesh and Orissa do not claim to be Aryans. They are Mongoloid Dravidians. The indigenous Muslims of Andhra, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil-Nadu, Maldives and Sri Lanka are Dravidians to the core. Sir P. Ramanathan, a scholar and statesman of international repute asserted in unequivocal terms that the Muslims of Ceylon were Tamils by ethnicity. Ethnicity does not change with change of faith. Ethnicity cannot be changed by Cabinet decisions or with the stroke of the pen. Can a leopard change its spots?

The name `Yawanas' first used to denote foreigners, was derived from the word Ionians (Greeks), with whom the Hindus first became acquainted. In the ancient Sanskrit and Tamil period, it denoted the Greeks but in subsequent times when the Greeks were succeeded by the Mohamedans, it was the Mohamedans who were denoted by that name. In later Sanskrit of the Vishnu Purana, we are to understand by Yavanas, not the Greeks but the Mohamadans.

The word Sonahars by which the Mohamadans are known in Tamil Nadu is merely a corruption of the Sanskrit word `Yavanas' Ref: Tamil Studies by M. Srinivasa. The words, Mohamedians, Muslims, Moors, Yonahars, (Sonahars) are synonyms for those professing Islam, irrespective of the ethnicity to which they belong. The sonahars of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka Tamils by ethnicity.

In the late 1950s, the late Gate Mudaliyar Kariapper, while addressing voters of the Eastern Province in support of the Federal Party, said ``None can dispute the fact that Tamil speaking Muslims of Ceylon are descendants of Tamil Hindus who embraced Islam in the latter part of the 14th century when South India was under Muslim rule. It is only religion that divides the Tamils and Muslims. By ethnicity Tamils and Muslims are one''.


Ethnicity of Sri Lankan Muslims

by Dr Uvais Ahamed

Dr S.K. Vadivale in his article `They came in Marak Kalams which appeared in the Daily News of September 9, seems to have taken great pains to establish the ethnicity of Muslims as Tamils. It has to be emphasized that this is hardly the time for unnecessary ethnic posturing when there are other urgent issues in the country crying for our concern and attention.

It is unfortunate that this article should appear at a time when the need of the hour is the development of a right frame of mind to live with a spirit of goodwill and understanding in an essentially multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

What is imperative in the context of the country's present predicament is not to harp on contentious and divisive issues but to try and concentrate on points of convergence and forge a common Sri Lankan identity. Within the framework of this identity every community in the country could be proud of its ethnicity, preserve its cultural identity and contribute towards an environment of peace and harmony in an otherwise tormented society.

Although the call for a Sri Lankan identity has been there for quite some time, unfortunately it has only been a dream and will continue to be a dream unless the likes of Dr Vadivale stop indulging in exercises which could not only create wrong impressions but also endanger the harmonious inter-communal relationships so essential for a united Sri Lanka.

Dr Vadivale's article is so replete with distortions of historical facts and disparaging innuendos that an adequate response is necessary to put the record straight. In doing so it is not my intention to delve deep into history to establish the origin of the Muslims in this country.

This has already been done by both Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals and historians like Dr. M.A.M. Shukri, Dr. Lorna Devaraja and Prof. K.M. de Silva and their books are freely available in all bookshops. I would only deal with some of the glaring misrepresentations, both for the sake of brevity and to dispel erroneous conclusions by the reading public.

He starts his article by saying `the Arabs who came for trade did not settle down in Ceylon'. There is a truth and an untruth in this statement. The truth is that they came for trade. Yes, they were peaceful traders and their motivation to come to the shores of Ceylon were not political subjugation, territorial expansion or religious proselytization.

It has to be noted that the Arabs went to the coasts of Malabar in neighbouring India before coming to Sri Lanka and there too it was trade which they did, and did not `at the point of the sword compel Hindus, Jains and Buddhists to embrace Islam', as stated by Dr Vadivale. Some did convert to Islam especially the women the Arabs married, but certainly not at the point of the sword. How can the same Arabs be `conquerors' in South India and peaceful traders in Ceylon.

The gross untruth in his statement, however is that the Arabs never settled down in this country. It is a historically proven fact that the Arabs were here, well and truly settled down, even long before the advent of Islam. This is evidenced by the excavation of Arabic coins in ancient cities like Anuradhpaura and the reference to plots of land set aside for the settlement of Yonas by King Pandukabhaya in the 5th century BC. `Yonas' is the word used for Arabs and their descendants, the Sri Lankan Moors, are still referred to as Yonas in Sinhala.

The Muslim presence, however, could be traced back to the time of Caliph Omar in early 7th century AD when Muslim traders who were entirely Arabs came to the Indian Ocean, settled down first in the South Western Coast of India and then came to Sri Lanka and settled down in the maritime provinces of the country. Some brought along their South Indian wives which explains the Tamil influence and some others took Sinhala wives.

Until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 the Muslims who were mainly Arabs were in complete control of both the external and internal trade of the country. Their influence in the economy of the country is borne by the fact that a Sri Lankan trade delegation was sent by Bhuveneka Bahu I (1273 - 1284 A.D.) to Egypt and it was led by Al-Haj Abu Uduman who was certainly not a Hindu converted to Islam.

Dr Vadivale further states that `on seeing the portuguese they (the Arabs) got so scared that they left their lucrative trade, their wives/concubines and children to the mercy of the Portuguese and fled, swearing not to come back. Yes to this day they have not come back'. I am constrained to think from what source he got this information, which is not only untrue but also unfair. The fact is when the Portuguese persecuted the Muslim traders who were mainly Arabs, they did not leave the country which had already become their home for several centuries, but began to move towards the Kandyan Kingdom where they were welcomed by the king.

They had already established their credibility as highly disciplined and honest tradesmen. Some of them were skilled Unani medical men. These Unani physicians were given a warm welcome in the Kandyan court and several of them established medical practice in places like Kandy, Mawanella, Matale, Akurana and Kurunegala.

The Muslims also proved to be useful and efficient warriors who fought on the side of the Sinhala kings against the Portuguese and the Dutch. King Senerath settled nearly 4000 Muslims, who escaped the wrath of Portuguese captain de Saa, in Batticaloa district. These settlers were the ancestors of the large concentration of Muslims in the populous areas like Kathankudy in the Eastern Province.

The Muslims of this country although they spoke Tamil, which is a mixture of Arabic and Tamil, always remained a distinct ethnic group. They spoke this version of Tamil while Arabic is still used for purposes of prayers, and in the early days the Arabic script was used to write Tamil.

Even today the Muslims use several Arabic words when they speak in Tamil. For instance they use the word `Kavin' for marriage and refer to the large plate used for traditional collective eating as `Sahan' - both Arabic words. What distinguished them as a separate group was Islam and Islamic religious and cultural practices.

In the early 16th century the Portuguese called them `Moors' a term which they used for the Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century. To preserve their identity as a separate ethnic group, the Muslim leaders like Sir Razik Fareed ensured that the children born to Muslim parents were registered as Ceylon Moors, so that the fact that they were a distinct ethnic cultural group will be reflected in their birth certificate.

Dr Vadivale laments that `the Tamil speaking Muslims who vociferously claim to be descendants of Arabs, do not have the slightest resemblance to an Arab in stature or complexion'. It would be the height of stupidity to expect the Muslims of Sri Lanka to maintain the same complexion of the original settlers after more than 1000 years of continuous existence in this country. Their stature of course does not suffer in comparison. One has to visit countries like Morocco, Oman and Yemen from where most of the Arab traders came to understand this fact.

I have to point out that there are no `Hajira Ammas' and `Razeena Ammas' in the Muslim community as stated by Dr. Vadivale. There are of course Hajira Ummas and Razeena Ummas which have Arabic derivation. Both Amma and Umma, I believe, stand for mother.

So let us live like children of one mother, the Lanka Matha, and avoid saying and doing things which could bring unnecessary cleavages in the two distinct ethnic groups, the Tamils and Muslims which have coexisted peacefully in this country for several centuries.