Tamil Muslims

Majority of Muslims in the state of Tamil Nadu, India and Sri Lanka speak the Tamil language. Here is 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.

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 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
Lankan society.

The Arabs

The Tamils of Sri Lanka, throughout history, have attempted to categorize the Sri Lankan Muslims as belonging to the Tamil race. 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 what they believed to be 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 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 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 Bhanus 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 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.

They came in Marak Kalams

By Dr. S. K. Vadivale (Source: Daily News - Features 09/09/97)

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

(Source: Daily News - Features 22/09/97)
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.