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Sri Lankan Muslims




       In the East, the Arabs struggled long with the Turks for absolute supremacy. Since both nations were powerful a protracted war followed. In the end, the Arabs lost, but they were not completely defeated for they continued to be the first sea-power in the Indian Ocean.


         More intimate relations between the Arabs and Ceylon commenced on 1st May, 712 A.D., when the great Sind invasion was undertaken by the famous boy-general, Mohamed Kassim. This campaign of slaughter and devastation, which led to the foundation of a great eastern empire, was provoked by the desire of Walid, the sixth Caliph, to punish the Karak and Mede pirates who plundered certain vessels returning from Ceylon laden with presents for the Caliphate.


         This transmission of presents from Ceylon to the Caliphate gives the impression that the Arab traders and settlers domiciled in the Island acknowledged the authority of their own Government. It also indicates that the power of the mother country was so far-reaching that not even her most distant sons could have lightly escaped their obligations. In this connection it is interesting to note that in Lane’s edition of the Arabian Nights, the story is related of Sinbad the Sailor, who, on his seventh voyage was shipwrecked whilst returning from Ceylon after having conveyed the presents of Haroun Al Raschid to the King of Serendib.


         Soon after the great invasion, vessels began to come out East in increasing numbers. With territorial expansion came the obvious development of trade. The spices of Ceylon which had gained fame already in the time of King Solomon was in greater demand as the sources of supply became better known. A flourishing trade was carried on in the export to Europe of the fragrant bark of the cinnamon bush.


         The produce of Ceylon was first shipped to Arabia whence it was transported to the shores of the Mediterranean. From there it was distributed throughout Europe where it was richly prized. This trade connection with Arabia is mentioned by Albert Gray in his English rendering of the French version of Defremery and Sanguinetti’s travels of Ibn Batuta. Gray says:


         From the swift rise of the Mohamedan power in the Seventh Century, down to the arrival of Vasco da Gama at Calient in 1498, the trade of Europe with the East, was in the hands of the Arabs. The carrying to Europe was done in their ships, but in the Indian seas, a vast coast trade was developed by all the nations of the Indian sea-board, Persians, he races of India, Ceylon, the Eastern Islands, and China.


         The next great Arab whose travels in Ceylon are well known, is Ibn Batuta. His descriptions of what he saw throw a flood of light on the customs and history of the period, in addition to the information of topographical interest which he records. He appears to have spent a much longer period in Ceylon than most others like him. During his sojourn he embarked on a pilgrimage to Adams Peak. For this purpose, the monarch of the maritime regions of Ceylon furnished him with an escort, palanquin-bearers, and the equipment necessary for a long and tedious journey.


          Describing the journey to the Sacred Mountain Batuta says:


         We left Bender Selaouat, a little town, and after quitting it we traversed some rough country, much of it under water. There were numbers of elephants there, which do no manner of harm to pilgrims, nor to strangers, and that is by the holy influence of Shaik Abou Abd Allah, son of Khafif, the first to open the way to visiting the foot


         The little township of Bender Selaouart which is mentioned here is said to be no other than Chilaw, the word “diving in water”; the reference is undoubtedly to the diving for oysters at the pearl banks off Chilaw. Even in the earliest days the services of the Arab divers of the Persian Gulf had to be requisitioned whenever it was decided to fish for oysters. Incidentally, as in the similarity between Kaly and Galle, in this case the Sinhalese name for Chilaw is Halawatta, which bears a strong etymological resemblance to Selaouat.