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The Memon Community of Sri Lanka

Introduction

The Memon Community are one of the many widely dispersed peoples of Asia across the globe. This erstwhile business community claim their roots from the state of Gujarat in Northern India and have migrated through time in search of greener pastures, settling down in many nations establishing their very own smaller Memon communities within these lands. They are found in very large numbers in the bustling business cities of Karachi, Mumbai, Surat, Chennai, Dhoraji and Hyderabad in south Asia. Sizeable communities are also found in South Africa, particularly in Pretoria, Pietersburgh and Pietermaritzburg, and also in Burma, BanglaDesh and Sri Lanka. Others are scattered across Europe, the UK, the USA and particularly in the western parts of Portugal.

The total Memon population across the world is estimated to approximately over 1 Million with the vast majority located in the Indian subcontinent. The breakdown is as follows:-

India - 550,000

Pakistan - 415,000

South Africa - 25,000

United KIngdom - 22,000

Sri Lanka - 6,000

Burma = 5,000

BanglaDesh - 3,000

 

The Lohana Theory

 

The Lohana Theory on the origin of the Memon community states that they were originally from the Hindu Merchant Community of Lohana's living in the Sind who were converted to Islam sometime circa 1423 in the early part of the fifteenth century. The story goes on to say that the conversion was carried out by a Muslim Saint and the community was given the name "Moomin", which means "believer" in Arabic, which then has evolved into the present day "Memon" name. No doubt this theory has many varied versions attached to it based on the fact that the community never kept written records gf their history and culture during those times. Most of the versions of the varying stories wee passed down from generation to generation through oral communication imbibed with folklore for more spice and passion.

 

The Encyclopedia of Islam, a well known work on Islam and Muslim Communities across the globe published in London, states that the Memons are a trading community of Gujarat who claim to have embraced the religion of Islam around the 12th Century. They are said to have been converted to Islam from the trading Lohana and Kutch Bania castes living in Sind and Kutch either by a son or a descendant of the famous saint Abdul Qadir Jailani (Vol VI.1990). This statement seems to be derived from the original legend of the community published in the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency in the latter part of the 19th Century as follows:-

 

"Maulana Abdul Kadir Muhi-yud-din Gilani, the Saint of Saints, died at Baghdad in AD 1165 (H.561). On his deathbed he ordered one of his sons, Taj-ud-din, to settle in India and to display to its people the light of Islam.

 

In AD 1421 (H.838) Sayad Eusuf-ud-din Hadri, fifth in descent from Taj-ud-din, in a miraculous dream was ordered to set sail for Sindh and guide its people to the right way of Islam.

 

When Sayad Eusuf-ud-din reached Sind, its capital was Nagar-Thatta and its ruler was a chief of the Samma dynasty (AD.1351-1521) with the title of Markab Khan who received Sayad Eusuf-ud-din with honor and treated him as his guest. At this time, Ma'nekji, the head of the eighty four nukhs or divisions of the Lohana community was in favor at the court of Markab Khan. Markab Khan became a follower of the Sayad and Ma'nekji with two of his three sons and 700 Lohana families followed their rulers example. Of the two sons of Ma'nekji, who became converts, Ravji was called Ahmed and Ravji's sons Sundarji and Hansraj were named Adam and Taj Muhammad. n their conversion, the saint changed the name of their community from Mota and Lohana to Mu'amin or Believers and investing Adam with a dress of honore, appointed him hereditary head of the new community with his seat at Wara near Thatta".

 

Many may ask the pertinent question as to from where the Bombay Gazetteer derived its narrative? The Gazetteer does mention that the source of the story is attributed to an Urdu booklet titled "Nuzhat-ul-Akbar" (aka the Abrajul Haq) written by one Sayad Amir-ud-din Nuzhat in 1873. Nuzhat himself claims to have been given the story by a rather obscure figure named Pir Buzurg Ali of Mundra in Kacch. The authors of the Bombay Gazetteer were however of the view that the story was probably true because it had been derived from three respectable sources, viz "the pedigree of the Holy Sayad Buzurg Ali; sanads, or patents, of the headship of the community conferred on Ma'nekji, the first Lohana convert to Islam and in the possession of Seth Shabena Bhuj, Manekji's descendantg in Bombay; Sanads, or Patents, in the possession of Joshi Bhojaji, a descendant of Hansraj, son of Ramani, the caste priest of the Lohanas at the time of their conversion".

 

Other Theories

 

Besides the Lohana conjecture there are also many other alternate theories on the origins of the Memons. One, propounded by Abdul Rahman, holds that the Lohanas who converted to Islam were not an insignificant trading community, but rather rulers of Sind who had their capital at "Brahmanabad" or "City of Brahmins". They are said to have converted as Muhammad bin Qasim the Arab Conqueror of India arrived in that country in 712 AC.

 

Yet another, popularized by Naz Mongroli, holds that the Memons were originally not a Hindu but a Buddhist caste engaged in the weighing of precious stones and that their name is, in fact, derived from 'mai', meaning one who weighs and 'man', meaning precious stones. This caste is said to have converted to Islam upon Bis Qassim's victory over the Hindu King Dahir in the early 8th century.

 

Another theory, publicized by Muhammad Qassim Barla, holds that the Memon converts to Islam originated not from the Lohanas, but from some low caste Hindus settled down around the Sind and Kacch coasts who were given protection by their Muslim rulers at a spot between Makran and Sistan. These protected subjects became known as Ma'maum meaning 'protected' subsequently changing to Memon.

 

Finally, there is the theory postulated by Karimbaksh Khalid which holds that the Memons were originally Arabs hailing from Qa'tif near Ta'if in the Arabian Peninsular who belonged to the tribe of Banu Tamim. They are said to have constituted the right-wing of the army of the army of Bin Qassim, the Arab Conqueror of Sind known as Maymenah or "rightwingers" which designation later became Memon.

 

All the alternative theories, however, do not have as much credibility as the original Lohana theory on account of their lack of substantial evidence and inferior sources whose integrity is questionable.

 

 

'The Memons - Important Muslim minority of Sri Lanka'

Hameed Karim Bhoja - DN Wed May 31, 2006

Community: The Memons of Sri Lanka constitute a small but important minority community in the island, numbering a mere 7000 persons in a nation of over 20 million. Their contribution to the national life of the country has nevertheless been significant.

They have contributed immensely to the economic life of the country, not only as importers and traders of various essential goods, but also as manufacturers and exporters of high quality garments that have today become a major source of foreign earnings.

They also have their own member of parliament, the Hussein Bhaila who presently serves as Deputy Minister of Plan Implementation under the UPFA Government and is in charge of all matters connected with the implementation of the Mahinda Chintanaya, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's vision and aspirations for National Development Programme.

Early origins

The Memons though now a Muslim people, trace their origins to a Hindu trading community known as the Lohanas who lived in Sind in present-day Pakistan. They are believed to have embraced Islam around the fifteenth century.

The story of their conversion finds mention in the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency as follows: "Maulana Abdul Kadir Muhi-yud-din Gilani, the Saint of Saints, died at Baghdad in A.D. 1165 (H.561). On his deathbed he ordered one of his sons, Taj-ud-din, to settle in India and display to its people the light of Islam.

In A.D. 1421 (H. 838) Sayad Eusu-uf-din Hadri, fifth in descent from Taj-ud-din, in a miraculous dream was ordered to set sail for Sindh and guide its people in the right way of Islam. When Sayad Eusuf-ud-din reached Sindh, its capital was Nagar - Thatta and its ruler was a chief of the Samma dynasty (A.D. 1351-1521) with the title of Markab Khan who received Sayad Eusuf-ud-din with honour and treated him as his guest.

At this time, Ma'nekji, the head of the eighty-four nukhs or divisions of the Lohana community was in favour at the court of Markab Khan. Markab Kahan became a follower of the Sayad and Ma'nekji with two of his three sons and 700 Lohana families followed their ruler's example.

Of the two sons of Ma'nekji who became converts, Ravji was called Ahmed and Ravji's sons Sundarji and Hansraj were named Adam and Taj Muhamman. On their conversion, the saint changed the name of the community from Mota and Lohana to Mu'amin or Believers and investing Adam with a dress of honour, appointed him hereditary head of the new community with his seat at Wara near Thatta".

The Memons subsequently migrated southwards to the Kathiawad Peninsula of Gujarat where they formed settlements such as Kutiyana, Porbandar and Upleta. It is from this region that the Memons domiciled in Sri Lanka have their origins. The early Memons who resorted to Sri Lanka did so to engage in textile trading.

They would purchase textiles from India and sell them locally as they had a good demand here. The first Memon arrival in the island is said to have been an individual named Abdul Rahman who arrived here in 1870. This early migrant also known as Manna Seth began here as an itinerant peddler of textiles in Jaffna before settling in Pettah and building up a considerable business.

With time, Memons originating from Kutiyana and other parts of Gujarat had begun to steadily resort to the island for business purposes, but it was only the men who came here.

The women were left behind in their homes in Kathiawad. However, with the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, those Memons who had their businesses and families here became citizens. They looked upon Sri Lanka as their own country and set about giving their best to it.

Social Life

The Memons are on the whole a religious community and have established mosques and madrasas in many parts of the island for the benefit of the larger Islamic fraternity. They also have their own mosque, the Memon Hanafi Mosque in Pettah, where Friday sermons are delivered in Urdu language with which many of them are familiar. They also have their own Madrasa, Faiz-e-Raza established a little over ten years ago to meet the religious needs of the community.

The Memons, unlike the majority of the country's Muslims who follow the Shafi School of Islamic jurisprudence are zealous adherents of the Hanafi School of law founded by Imam Abu Hanifah. They have their own Quazi or judge who settles civil disputes according to this school.

The Memons also have a distinct cultural identity, which closely resembles that of other Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. Their Memon language is an Indo-Aryan tongue believed to have derived from Sindhi, though heavily overlaid with Gujarati elements. Many however understand Urdu, which serves as a lingua franca among the Muslims of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent.

Even the practices relating to the major events of life such as marriage closely resemble those prevailing among Indian Muslims.

These include the Viaji Raja, the formal seeking of the bride's consent shortly before the marriage ceremony and other prenuptial practices such as the Mehendi ceremony where a red dye Mehendi (Lawsonia inermis) is applied on the bride's hands and feet to form beautiful designs. Even the attire is similar. Men prefer the long shirt and ijar (pyjama) while women commonly wear the shalwa-khameez, a most feminine two-piece garment of Indian origin.

The womenfolk are extremely fond of typical Indian jewellery. Thus the Memons could be said to represent a typical Indian migrant community who have jealously preserved their traditional way of life. Memon Association

It is opportune to mention here that the Memon Association of Sri Lanka (MASL) today celebrates its 50th Anniversary. The Association formed in 1956 by well-known Memon personalities of the day such as Prof. Rauf Pasha, Dr. Ibrahim Dangra and Haji Usman Bhaila. It was then known as the Memon Association of Ceylon and based in hulftsdorp.

Today, as the Memon Association of Sri Lanka celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is worthy to mention the immense contribution made towards community by Dr. A. A. M. Haroon, the present President of the Association and his young and dynamic team, particularly for their bold decision to host the 4th World Memon Conference held in Colombo from May 19-21.

In 1907, the leading Memon firm in Colombo was that of Janoo Hassan, with headquarters in India and branches all over India and Burma (Wright 1907: pp 494).

Memon Family Names