March 23, 2013

The Muslims and Sri Lanka



By Kamalika Pieris 
The first wave of Muslims to arrive in Sri Lanka came from West Asia. Therefore let us briefly look at the Muslim achievements in West Asia. Islam originated in the Arab Peninsula, where the Prophet Mohammed preached in 622 AD. Islamic religious teachings are held in the Koran and the Islamic social life is guided by the Islamic Sharia Law. The Arabs, once converted to Islam, went on an expansionist spree which eventually swallowed up Egypt, Syria, Persia, Iraq and finally, in 711 AD, Spain. Virtually all those countries had their own civilisations prior to Islamisation. Persia had developed the Persian script and had the Zoroastrian religion. But they all converted to Islam and accepted the Arabic language. By the end of the 8th century, the Islamic empire extended from Persia to Spain and included parts of Northern Africa as well. There were two political centres. Firstly, Damascus (660-750 AD) and thereafter Baghdad (750-1258 AD).


Between the 8th and 12th centuries, there developed a great Islamic civilisation, intellectually brilliant, wealthy and enterprising. This Islamic civilisation developed an urban civilisation well before Europe, which got there several centuries later. Cairo in Egypt, Damascus in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq were very advanced cities with paved streets, tiled floors, public baths, bookshops, libraries, and universities. There developed a distinct Islamic art and architecture, which is visible even today. There were great scholars, best known of whom is Avicenna, of Persian origin, (980-1037 AD). His medical writings were used in medical schools in France, Spain and Italy as late as 1650.


Western Europe owes much of its knowledge of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy to Arabic writings. These writings preserved Greek thought as well. The Arabic writers also functioned as a conduct for the transmission of ideas from India and China. The Arabic scholars formulated the oldest known trignometric tables, introduced Indian numerals, known Arabic numerals, and compiled astronomical tables. They established obsrvatories to study the heavens. In the field of optics and physics, they explained phenomena such as refraction of light, and the principle of gravity. They made significant advances in chemistry. They discovered potash, alcohol, silver nitrate, nitric acid, sulphuric acid and mercury chloride. They originated processes such as distillation and sublimation.

Arabic scholars made significant advances in medicine. Many drugs now in use are of Arab origin. They established hospitals with a system of internees. Discovered causes of certain diseases and developed correct diagnoses of them, proposed new concepts of hygiene, made use of anesthetics in surgery with newly innovated surgical tools and introduced the science of dissection in anatomy. They furthered the scientific breeding of horses and cattle, and improved upon the science of navigation. They also developed a high degree of perfection in art of textiles, ceramics and metallurgy. (Most of this information has been taken from references in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 ed. 1995).

Christian scholars were greatly impressed by Arabic scholarship. There was considerable cultural interaction between the two groups, with much of it taking place in the Mediterranean shoes, particularly Spain and Sicily. It is not generally known that Arabic culture influenced French culture as well. There are words of Arabic origin in the French language. More importantly, voluminous Latin translations were made in the 12th century, of major Arabic writings. These were studied successively at the major emerging intellectual centres of Europe, such as Italy, France and later England and Germany. It should also be noted that during this time, Arabic had become, not only a religious language, but also the main international language of the region. (lingua franca). It was also the main language for scholarship.

The Arabs also expanded eastwards, towards India and China, in search of trade. In the 9th and 10th centuries, an assortment of Persians, Arabs, Abyssinians, all Muslims, speaking Arabic and therefore conveniently called 'Arabs' dominated the overseas trade from Baghdad to China. The Muslims of Sri Lanka were a part of this trade operation. There is evidence that there were Muslim merchant settlements in Sri Lanka as early as the 7th century. M. A. M. Shukri has used the Arabic (Kufi) inscriptions in Sri Lanka to throw light on the origins of Sri Lanka's Muslims. He says that the Sri Lanka Moors originally came from Aleppo, a city in Syria. ('Sri Lanka and the Silk Road of the Sea' p181). Apparently there is an Arabic document in the possession of one of the oldest Moor families in Beruwela. It said that in 604 AD two sons of the Royal family of Yemen came to Lanka, one settled in Mannar the other in Beruwela (Daily News 25.9. 98. p 16).

Muslim settlements started in Mantai, and thereafter spread systematically in the trading ports. Archaeological evidence, such as tomb stones, indicate that there were Muslim settlements in 10th century, in Anuradhapura, Trincomalee and Colombo. Thereafter, there were Muslim settlements in the port towns along the southwestern seaboard, such as Beruwela and Galle.

Lorna Dewaraja, in her book "The Muslims of Sri Lanka, 1000 years of ethnic harmony 900-1915 AD" (Lanka Islamic Foundation, 1994) has studied the situation of the Muslims in Sri Lanka, with particular reference to the Kandyan Period. She makes several important points.

Firstly, she makes a comparison between the way Muslim settlers were treated in Sri Lanka and the way they were treated in Burma, China and Thailand. In Burma, Thailand and China, Muslim traders established trading posts which eventually became permanent settlements. Every Burmese Muslim had two names, one, Burmese and the other Arabic. For all practical purposes, only the Burmese name was used. Further the Burmese king forbade the slaughter of goats and fowl and forced the Muslims to listen to Buddhist sermons. In China too, the Muslims had two names. They used the Chinese name and spoke Chinese and used their Arabic names only with fellow Muslims. In Thailand too, the Muslims were obliged to camouflage their Muslim identity from hostile eyes. (Dewaraja. p 6, 13, 15). In Sri Lanka, the Muslims had no such problems. As we all know, the Muslims use their Arabic or Persian names very openly and proudly. Even today, the Muslims in Kandyan areas have 2 names, a traditional Sinhala family name denoting the person's ancestry and profession and an Arabic name. For all practical purposes, only the Arabic name is known and used. The Sinhala name is used only in legal documents and is useful in proving long residence in the island and ownership of land. (Dewaraja. p 12-13).

In the latter half of the 13th century, with the decline of the Caliphate of Baghdad, Arab commercial activity in the Indian Ocean decreased. This trade was taken over by the Indian Muslims of Gujerat and other Indian centres. Hindu merchants did not travel. They were based in India. They exported their marchandise in Muslim owned vessels. Thus colonies of Islamised Indians came up in the ports in India's south western (Malabar) and south eastern (Coromandel) coasts right up to Bengal. Thus thriving centres of Muslim commercial activity studded the Indian coastline. Subsequently, colonies of such Indo-Arabs emerged along the coasts of Sri Lanka. These settlements were described by the Dutch and British as 'Coast Moors'. (Dewaraja p 41, 43).

The second wave of Muslims came to Sri Lanka from South India. They were the descendants of earlier Arab traders who had settled in South Indian ports and married local women. Thus Tamil and Malayalam came to be written in Arabic script, and was known as Arabic Tamil. The Koran was translated into Arabic Tamil. It was translated into Sinhala only recently. Since it was compulsory for Muslim children to read the Koran, they had to know Arabic Tamil. This partly explains why Muslims who have lived for centuries in wholly Sinhala speaking areas retained Arabic Tamil as their 'mother tongue'. Generations of Sri Lankan Tamils went to theological institutions in Vellore to study Islamic learning. It has also been suggested that Muslims speak Tamil because Tamil was widely used in maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean (Dewaraja p 17).

Lorna Dewaraja points out that during the time of the Sinhala kings, from the ancient period, right upto the Kandyan Period, there was racial amity between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. The reason was that the Muslim traders were economically and politically an asset to the Sri Lankan king. The King therefore provided protection and permission for the traders to settle in Sri Lanka (Dewaraja p 4).

"Right through from the Anuradhapura period to Kandyan times there was a Muslim lobby operating in the Sri Lankan court. It advised the king on overseas trade policy. They also kept the king informed of developments abroad. The Muslim trader with his navigational skills and overseas contacts became the secret channel of communication between the court and the outside world" (Dewaraja p 8). The Sri Lankan kings encouraged the Muslims to maintain their links with the Islamic world as this was mutually beneficial. In the 13th century, Al Haj Aby Uthman was sent by the Sri Lankan king, Bhuvanekabahu I to the Mamluk Court of Egypt to negotiate direct trade. They were sent on important and confidential missions to South India right up to Kandyan times. The Muslims of Sri Lanka spoke Tamil and other South Indian languages and some even spoke Portuguese (p 8, 16).
Dewaraja says that when the Portuguese first appeared off the shores of Sri Lanka, the Muslims warned the king, sangha, nobles and the people of the potential threat to the country's soveriegnty. When the Portuguese tried to gain a foothold in Colombo, the Muslims provided firearms, fought side by side with the Sinhalese and even used their influence with South Indian powers to get military asistance to Sinhalese rulers. Through the intervention of the Muslims, the Zamorin of Calicut sent three distinguished Moors of Cochin with forces to help Mayadunne (p 50).

When the Dutch appeared and persecuted the Muslims in their coastal settlements, the Muslims ran to the Kandyan Kingdom. Senerat (1604-1635) and Rajasimha II (1635-1687) settled these Muslims in the Eastern coast. Senerat settled large numbers of Tamils and Muslims in Dighavapi area of Batticaloa to revive the paddy cultivation. There were roads leading from Kandy to Batticaloa passing through Minipe and Vellassa (p 127).
Dewaraja points out that it is clear from the writings of Pybus that even in 1762 the authority of the King of Kandy was strongly felt in areas around Trincomalee even among his Muslim and Tamil subjects. It is necessary for us to bear in mind that the Kandyan Kings saw themselves as kings of the whole country. Through Kottiyar in Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Kalpitiya and Puttalam they traded with India, and the Muslims and Chetties acted as the middlemen. From Kottiyar (Trincomalee) to Kandy there was a land route following the Mahaweli. Muslims had pack oxen and caravans and travelled this rout. The resting places on this route became the nucleus of later Muslim settlements (Dewaraja p 91, 125, 126).

Muslims were made welcome in the Kandyan Kingdom. They were integrated into Kandyan society primarily by giving them duties which related to the King's administration. They were made a part of the Madige Badda or Transport Department. They were allowed to trade in arecanut, which was a royal monopoly. The Muslims from Uva, which was near the salterns, had to bring salt as part of their obligatory service (Dewaraja p 100-101). In addition to this, select Muslims were involved in the Maligawa rituals and were given Maligagam lands. Their duties included salt, hevisi, silversmith (acari) also the higher function of kariya karavanarala. Therefore the Muslims were involved however minimally in the administrative and ritual aspects of the Dalada Maligawa as well (Dewaraja. p 107-8, 110). In addition, Muslims also functioned as weavers, tailors, barbers, and lapidarists (p 137-138).

Muslims also functioned as physicians, and presumably they practised Unani medicine. Dewaraja states that at this time, Unani had been practised in its pure form in towns like Colombo, Galle and Beruwela (p 128). A Muslim physician named Sulaiman Kuttiya who was practising in Galle was invited to the Kandyan court, taken into royal service and given land near Gampola. His descendants who lived till 1874 carried the prefix "Galle Vedaralala" (p 91). The most renowned of these Muslim physicians were the Gopala Moors of Gataberiya in the Kegalle District. The family traces its pedigree to a physician from Islamic Spain, whose descendants migrated to the Sind in Northern India, from where they were ordered to come to Sri Lanka to attend on King Parakramabahu II of Dambadeniya (1236-1270) (p 128). The Gopala descendants continued to function as physicians to the king, during reigns of Rajadirajasinghe (1782-1798) and Srivickrama Rajasinghe. (1798-1815). The Dutch also appointed two Muslims as local physicians in their hospitals, and one of them, Mira Lebbe Mestriar was thereafter appointed as Native Superintendent of the Medical Department in 1806 by the British (p 133).

Another important function of he Muslims in the Kandyan Court, was that they acted as envoys to the King. One Muslim envoy had been sent to the Nawab of Carnatic. Another had been sent to Pondicherry soliciting French assistance against the Dutch, in 1765. The King also made use of his Muslim subjects to keep abreast of developments outside his kingdom. The Muslims were useful in this respect because of their trade links and knowledge of languages (p 135-136).

The Muslims were received favourably in the Kandyan Kingdom, as far as can be seen. Robert Knox says that charitable Sinhala people giftd land to Muslims to live (Dewaraja p 115). Muslims adopted the outward appearance and dress and manners of the Sinhalese. Even James Cordiner couldnot see the difference (p 120). In Galagedara there are yet two villages occupied only by Muslims, surrounded by Sinhala villages. These two villages had Masjids (p 104). Masjids were built on lands donated by the king. Present Katupalliya and Meera Makkam Masjid in Kandy were built on land gifted by the king. The architcture of the Katupalliya is Kandyan. (p114-115). Ridi Vihare in Kurunegala gave part of its land for a Masjid and allocated a portion of land for the maintenance of a Muslim priest (p 113).

In 1930, in Rambukkana many Muslim boys had received their education in Buddhist monasteries. Many of them studied Sinhala and idigenous medicine. Facilities were provided for the Muslim boys to say their prayers and attend Koranic classes, while living in the temple. In this remote village in Rambukkana, Muslims made voluntary contributions towards the vihara and they participated in the Esala Perahera. The drumers voluntarily stopped the music when they passed Masjid (Dewaraja p 113). 

Between Hammer and Anvil: Sri Lanka's Muslims


Adam's peak, a symmetrically conical mountain set in the gorgeous hill country of southern Sri Lanka, is sacred to all of the island's main faiths. There is a strange indentation set in the living rock of the summit. To the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (69% of the total population) it is the footprint of the Buddha Gautama. The Tamil Hindus (21%) know better - it is, of course, the sacred footprint of the God Shiva. Then again, the island's Muslims (7%) insist, it is the footprint left by Adam when, cast out of the Garden of Eden by a wrathful God, he fell to earth in the place nearest to that celestial grove in terms of beauty, fertility and climate - Sri Lanka.

In happier times Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim - together with the island's Catholic Christians, who believe the footprint to be that of St Thomas - were content to disagree amicably, sharing the pilgrimage season between December and April each year, when every night thousands of people climb the seemingly endless stairs to the 2,224 metre summit and await the sunrise.

As the whole world knows, those days of inter-racial and inter-denominational harmony are long gone - though not at Adam's Peak, secure in the government-dominated Sinhala heartland. Rather the troubles are at the other end of the island, where for twenty years, ever since the simmering hostility between Buddhist Sinhalese and Tamil Hindu exploded into open warfare, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have pursued their struggle for a separate Tamil state.

As the third, and smallest, of the island's racial-religious communities, the Sri Lankan Muslims - generally if confusingly known as "Moors" - have become the forgotten losers in this vicious struggle. The Tamils, evidently misclassified by the British during their long hegemony in South Asia as a "non-martial race", have fought with an extraordinary fanaticism under the cold command of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakharan. From the earliest days of the war they did not hesitate to employ "ethnic cleansing" - that late 20th century euphemism for genocide - against Sinhalese villagers living in the north. Subsequently, and with the same ruthlessness, the same tactic has been used against Muslims.

To understand why this should be so, it is necessary to examine the anomalous situation of the Sri Lankan Moors - Tamil speakers who yet, for the most part, support the Sinhalese-dominated government of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

There have been Muslims in Sri Lanka for well over a thousand years. Trading dhows plied the waters between the Middle East and the island known to Arab sailors - like the legendary Sinbad - as Serendib even in pre-Islamic times. The first Muslim merchants and sailors may have landed on its shores during the Prophrt Muhammad's life time. By the 10th century this predominantly Arab community had grown influential enough to control the trade of the south-western ports, whilst the Sinhalese kings generally employed Muslim ministers to direct the state's commercial affairs. In 1157 the king of the neighbouring Maldive Islands was converted to Islam, and in 1238 an embassy to Egypt sent by King Bhuvaneka Bahu I was headed by Sri Lankan Muslims.

From about 1350 onwards the predominantly Arab strain in Sri Lankan Islam began to change as Tamil Muslims from neighbouring South India moved to the island in increasing numbers. By the late 15th century, when Portuguese vessels first arrived in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka's Muslims were truly indigenous to the island, representing a mixture of Sinhalese, Arab and Tamil blood, and speaking Tamil with Arabic overtones, sometimes known as "Tamil-Arabic". None of this made any difference to the newly-arrived Portuguese, for whom all Muslims were "Moors" - the name given to their traditional enemies in Morocco and southern Spain. The name Moro - employed as a derogatory designation by the Portuguese - stuck, and is today "worn with pride" by Sri Lankan Muslims, in much the same way as the "Moros" of the southern Philippines.

In Sri Lanka, as everywhere they went, the Portuguese made a special point of persecuting the Muslims. As a consequence, many fled the western littoral which had passed under Portuguese control, and settled in the north and east of the island where their descendants live to the present day. A hundred years later, in 1656, when the Dutch replaced the Portuguese, a third (and final) element was added to the island's Muslim population - the Malay. Malay sailors had been visiting Sri Lanka for centuries using long-distance outrigger canoes; now, with the arrival of the Dutch, many more were brought from Java to serve their Dutch colonial rulers in Sri Lanka. In time they were absorbed into the island's ethnically diverse Muslim community, though even today many Sri Lankan Muslims identifying themselves as "Malays" rather than "Moors" can be found living in Western Province, and especially in Colombo.

Today Sri Lanka's Muslims live scattered throughout the island, from Galle in the south to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula in the north. Generally they are involved in commerce, from running local dry goods stores to dominating the wealthy gem business associated with Ratnapura - "Jewel City" and much of the capital's import-export business. In the disputed north and east of the country, where the LTTE are currently battling the Sri Lankan armed forces, many Muslims are farmers or fishermen, living in small villages far from the protection of government forces. It is these people - the poorest of the island's "Moors", descendants of the orginal refugees displaced by the Portuguese four hundred years ago - that are now caught up in the struggle for "Tamil Eelam".

Most Moors speak Tamil as their first language, regarding Sinhalese and English as languages of commerce to be used in their business dealings. Despite this linguistic affinity they do not consider themselves Tamil, however, and have precious little sympathy for the Tamil Tigers' cause. Rather they tend to support the government, albeit passively, wishing simply to pursue their business interests with the full freedom of religion they have long been accustomed too. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible. In those areas contested by the LTTE with a substantial Muslim population - for example, Northern Province's Vavuniya District, and Eastern Province's Tricomalee and Batticaloa Districts - they are under serious pressure.

Initially, it seems, the Tamil separatists hoped to enlist the Tamil-speaking Moors in their struggle for an independent Tamil state encompassing all of Northern and Eastern Provinces. When the Moors remained aloof - and even indicated support for the government position - they became identified as enemies. Worse than that, as Tamil-speakers there seemed, to Tiger minds at least, an element of treason in their lack of support. Subsequently, as the LTTE struggle for secession developed into open warfare with the government in Colombo, Prabhakharan, showing characteristic ruthlessness, targeted the Moors for "ethnic cleansing" - that is, physical expulsion or elimination - from the lands sought by the Tigers as a Tamil homeland.

The Tigers first began to attack the Moors on a systematic basis over a decade ago. In August, 1990, in two separate incidents, more than 230 Muslims were massacred at prayer at towns near Pulmoddai, in the north-east of the island. At the same time Prabhakharan gave notice that the entire Muslim population of Northern Province, including the then rebel-held capital of Jaffna, should leave contested areas forthwith or face being killed. An estimated one hundred thousand people were affected by this threat, many of who have since fled to government-controlled areas in the centre and south of the island. Tens of thousands were made destitute, the majority of whom still eke out a living in refugee camps. Following this incident, Muslim fishermen became a favourite target of LTTE maritime patrols, and Muslim businessmen a preferred target for abduction and ransom.

Muslim leaders in the north and east have responded by voicing their own claims for autonomy in the region, making it clear that - should the LTTE reach an agreement with Colombo on autonomous status - they would seek to opt out from Tamil control. Prabhakharan's response has been as vigorous and ruthless as ever. If the Muslims won't accept Tamil rule, they must be expelled from Northern Province and Eastern Province en masse.
Caught in the intricate and seemingly endless web of violence between Tamil Hindu and Sinhalese Buddhist, Sri Lanka's Muslims are increasingly desperate, unsure which way to turn, and whom to trust. Forgotten victims of a particularly vicious war, they are trapped between hammer and anvil, a long way indeed from the Garden of Eden. 

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