Muslims make up 9.7 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. They are third largest religious group in the country. Of these most are Tamil-speaking Moors (making up 9.2 percent of the total population). Most Sri Lankan Muslims are Sunnis.

Muslims are the second largest minority after the Tamils. The fall into three groups: 1) Tamil-speaking Muslim Moors (about 90 percent of the Muslims in Sri Lanka); 2) Malays (about 6 percent of the Muslims); 3) Indian Muslims, mostly ethnic Tamils from southern India (about 4 percent of the Muslims) and sometimes called Indian Moors. .Some Sinhalese are Christians but hardy any are Muslims. Muslims may be referred to as Moors or Malays.

Arab Muslim traders began to frequent the island of Sri Lanka from as early as the A.D. eighth century taking with them versions of Islam current in the locales of their origins. Over the centuries many other Muslims migrated to Sri Lanka from south India and Malaysia.

Muslims in Sri Lanka comprise a group of minorities practicing the religion of Islam. As in the case of the other ethnic groups, the Muslims have their own separate sites of worship, religious and cultural heroes, social circles, and even languages. The three Muslim communities — the Sri Lankan Moors, the Indian Moors, and the Malays — each with its own history and traditions. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

History of Muslims in Sri Lanka

In the. 8th century, not long after Muslim Arabs settled in India, they began arriving in Sri Lanka. According to legend the established themselves at Bentotta and married Sinhalese women. By the 10th century they were powerful traders in the region. The 13th century traveler and historian Ibn Battuta described Colombo as a Muslim city. At that time the influence of the Muslim Delhi sultanate reached to far south of India. An Arabized dialect written in Arabic script (not in use today) was widely used and an epic of the life of the Prophet written in this language. [Source: Jay DiMaggio”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Arab-Muslim remained influential in trade under the Portuguese. Malays from Indonesia were introduced in the 17th century by the Dutch, when they controlled Malaysia and Indonesia. They were brought to Sri Lanka to work as laborers. These Malays are a largely urban people today and they still speak Malay and have their own customs. There is a sizable number of them in Hambantota. The Indian Muslims arrived with the British in the 19th century, mainly as traders. Few, however, were given Sri Lankan citizenship, and many were sent back to India. |~|

By the fifteenth century, Arab traders dominated the trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Some of them settled down along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, married local women, and spoke Arabized Tamil rather than pure Arabic. Their families followed Islam and preserved the basic doctrines and Islamic law, while also adopting some local social customs (such as matrilineal and matrilocal families) that were not part of early Islamic society in the Arabian Peninsula. When the Portuguese took control in the sixteenth century, they persecuted the Muslim traders of the southwest coast, and many Muslims had to relocate in the Central Highlands or on the east coast. They retained their separate religious identity, but also adopted some aspects of popular religion. For example, pilgrimage sites, such as Kataragama, may be the same for Muslims as for Hindus or Buddhists, although Muslims will worship at mosques rather than reverence the Buddha or worship Hindu gods. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The growth in ethnic consciousness during the last two centuries has affected the Muslim community of Sri Lanka. Muslim revivalism has included an interest in the Arabic roots of the community, increased emphasis on the study of Arabic as the basis for understanding the Quran, and an emphasis on separate schools for Muslim children. Whether there should be an independent Islamic law for Muslims, preserving the distinct moral culture passed down from Muhammad, is a continuing issue. On a number of occasions, agitation has developed over attempts by the Sri Lankan government to regulate Muslim marriage and inheritance. In order to prevent further alienation of the Muslim community, in the 1980s the government handled its dealings with Muslims through a Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department.

According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “In the closing decades of the twentieth century, the Muslim community experienced fundamental changes because of international and national religious and political dynamics. The spread of Sunni-based conservative practice from the Middle East has contributed to a homogenization process among Sri Lanka's Muslims. Local practices related to the idiosyncratic character of religion in Sri Lanka are increasingly eschewed by Muslim religious leaders in an effort to establish greater orthodoxy throughout the community. Muslim children are increasingly educated exclusively at Koranic-based schools or within the context of international schools, thus leading them to experience, in their youths, further separation from Hindu and Sinhala children. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

During the past 20 years Muslim females have begun to wear burkhas to cover their heads in public, further marking their identities as distinctively Muslim. At the same time, the civil war in the country has exacerbated relations between Tamils and Muslims. In the early 1990s Muslims were expelled from the northern region of the country by Tamil militants, and several episodes of communal violence between Muslims and Tamils, especially in eastern regions of the island, have created serious tensions. Muslims have also clashed periodically with Sinhalas in Colombo and in the Kandyan highlands, mostly over economic issues. Within the current context of political negotiations to settle the civil war, the Muslim community is demanding political representation separate from the Sinhala and Tamil communities in order to help secure a degree of autonomy within the possibility of a new federal political state.

Muslims have traditionally been among those mos opposed to more autonomy for Tamils. Muslims have accused the Tamil Tigers of harassment, extortion and attacks.

Three Muslim Groups: Sri Lankan Moors, Indian Moors and Malays

The Sri Lankan Moors make up 93 percent of the Muslim population and 7 percent of the total population of the country (1,046,926 people in 1981). They trace their ancestry to Arab traders who moved to southern India and Sri Lanka some time between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, adopted the Tamil language that was the common language of Indian Ocean trade, and settled permanently in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Moors lived primarily in coastal trading and agricultural communities, preserving their Islamic cultural heritage while adopting many southern Asian customs. During the period of Portuguese colonization, the Moors suffered from persecution, and many moved to the Central Highlands, where their descendants remain. The language of the Sri Lankan Moors is Tamil, or a type of "Arabic Tamil" that contains a large number of Arabic words. On the east coast, their family lines are traced through women, as in kinship systems of the southwest Indian state of Kerala, but they govern themselves through Islamic law. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

The Indian Moors are Muslims who trace their origins to immigrants searching for business opportunities during the colonial period. Some of these people came to the country as far back as Portuguese times; others arrived during the British period from various parts of India. The Memon, originally from Sind (in modern Pakistan), first arrived in 1870; in the 1980s they numbered only about 3,000. The Bohra and the Khoja came from northwestern India (Gujarat State) after 1880; in the 1980s they collectively numbered fewer than 2,000. These groups tended to retain their own places of worship and the languages of their ancestral homelands. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

The Malays originated in Southeast Asia. Their ancestors came to the country when both Sri Lanka and Indonesia were colonies of the Dutch. Most of the early Malay immigrants were soldiers, posted by the Dutch colonial administration to Sri Lanka, who decided to settle on the island. Other immigrants were convicts or members of noble houses from Indonesia who were exiled to Sri Lanka and who never left. The main source of a continuing Malay identity is their common Malay language (bahasa melayu), which includes numerous words absorbed from Sinhalese and Tamil, and is spoken at home. In the 1980s, the Malays comprised about 5 percent of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Muslims made up 7.36 percent of the total population of Sri Lanka in 1989. Sri Lanka Moors Malays and Indian Moors are the three Muslim groups recognized by the Sri Lankan government. In the 1984 government census there were 1.1 million Sri Lanka Moors, 60,000 Malays and 40,000 Indian Moors, the majority of whom are ethnic Tamils from southern India [Source: Jay DiMaggio”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Jay DiMaggio wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Tamil is the established tongue of the Sri Lanka Moors. In recent years, because of political considerations, many have learned the Sinhala language and some children study it in school. A handful speak Sinhala in the hill areas at home; however, Tamil remains the language of education for the majority up through the university level. All religious literature and sermons are given in Tamil. Malays speak Malay at home, although they do not write it, and they prefer to educate their children in English. With the exception of the Bohras, who are Shiites, all of the other groups are Sunni Muslims.|~|

Muslim Laws in Sri Lanka

The Muslim special laws are applicable to people who follow Islam. In all areas of family the Muslim law applies and, unlike with Kandyans, in the event of marriages between Muslims, they do not have the option of marrying under the General law at all. Marriage, divorce and all other related areas are governed by the Marriage and Divorce (Muslim) Act No. 13 of 1951 and the subsequent amendments. The act states that the law is applicable to marriages and divorces and other matters connected herewith, of Muslim inhabitants of Sri Lanka. This Act covers a range of areas and clarifies the situation of women belonging to the Shafi sect. The Act also goes on to state that the status and rights and obligations of the parties shall be determined according to the Muslim law governing the sect to which the parties belong and that non/registration of marriage alone will not in/validate a marriage or divorce which would otherwise have been valid/invalid according to the law of the sect. [Source: Ramani Muttettuwegama, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The areas of intestate succession and donations are dealt with by the Muslim Intestate Succession Ordinance No.10 of 1931 (MISO) that is applicable to the intestacy of and donations made by Muslims either domiciled or owning immovable property in Sri Lanka. The Act merely states that the law applicable will be that of the relevant sect and it is necessary to examine the Muslim law itself in order to ascertain its contents. It is important to note that both Acts make provisions for the laws governing each sect that the person in question belongs to prevail, notwithstanding anything to contrary in the Act itself.

Moors of Sri Lanka

The Muslim Moors is the name traditionally used by Europeans to describe the Tamil-speaking Muslims of Sri Lanka. Also known as Marakkala, Musalman, Sonakar and Sonar, they live mostly in the eastern coastal region and the central highlands but are scattered through the country. [Source: Jay DiMaggio”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “The Moors trace their descent back to Arab traders who came and stayed in Sri Lanka and married local Tamil or Sinhalese women. While both Tamils and Sinhalese historians and politicians have claimed that Moors are really a sub-branch of their respective ethnic groups, Moors reject all such claims, asserting that they are the descendants of Arabic merchants who settled in Sri Lanka and eventually married Tamil or Sinhala women who had converted to Islam. Sri Lankan Moors view themselves as a separate ethnic group with distinctive social, religious, and cultural customs. Indeed, there are Moor families that claim descent to the Prophet Mohammed. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

Jay DiMaggio wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “A consensus on the name for Sri Lanka Muslims has not been arrived at. The appellation "Moor" (from the Portuguese) is not used by the population to identify themselves. The Sinhalese use the term "Muslim" or "Marakkala" after a leading Muslim family name. Sri Lanka Muslims occasionally call themselves "Sonakar" or "Sonar," therefore setting themselves apart from the Muslims of south India. The Urdu appellation "Musalman" is used principally around the Colombo area (the Sri Lankan capital). In government publications the designation "Tamil" implies Hindu or Christian; Muslims are listed as Moors. The motivation is political, to represent a larger proportion of Sinhalese to Tamil speakers in the population. |~|

One Moor custom that is closer to local people in Sri Lanka than with other Muslims is that cross-cousin marriages are preferred and parallel cousin marriages have traditionally been forbidden as is the case with Sinhalese and Tamils. A few urban Muslims today, however, permit parallel-cousin marriage. Due to the proximity of Hindu neighbors many Muslim peasants have matrilineal clans. Sri Lanka Muslims have their own laws concerning marriage, inheritance and marriage registrations.

Many Muslim families with daughters give a dowry to the families of the groom. A girl's parents customarily look for a suitable groom. The two families bargain on a dowry. The girl's family assumes most of the expense of marriage, entertaining as many as several hundred people. The marriage ceremony is usually done in accordance with Muslim laws and customs. An evening reception is held at the home of the bride or a hotel. As part of the ceremony the bride is presented with a necklace with a crescent on it. After marriage the couple usually resides at the bride's house. This practice is followed by all Sri Lankan Muslims. The couple may remain there for some months or years. Divorce and polygamy are rare. A large number of men take brides from any Muslim category except the barber caste.

Businesses and Castes of the Moors of Sri Lanka

The Muslim Moors have traditionally been involved in trade and business and have been particularly known for their involvement in the mining and sales of gems. Those in the gem business have traditionally been centered in Colombo. The majority of Moor are small time village or town level entrepreneurs or merchants. Some on the east coast are fishermen.

There are many regional and caste Muslim groups. They include the Marakkayas, a leading business group in and around Colombo. The Marakkalarayars are a group associated with Sri Lankan port towns. They are said to have been traders since the time of King Solomon. The Maulanas or Sayyids claim descent patrilineally from the Prophet or those close to him. The Lebbe have traditionally been imam. “These groups are like lineages but mostly without any great degree of lineage links. They also serve many of the functions of caste, although endogamy is not practiced as a cultural precept. Barbers form the most separate Muslim group. They are called Nasuvar in the west and Ostas in the east. They have the lowest social status and are practically endogamous, operating as a separate caste.

Jay DiMaggio wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The majority of Muslims are involved in business ventures. Preeminent are the gem-trading families, who control the extraction and selling of gems almost exclusively. Most of them reside in Colombo and the other big city areas. Next in prominence are the city entrepreneurs, who change their businesses from time to time with the changes in limited manufactured goods and imports. The majority are small traders who run small shops in the rural and village areas. A few have gone into the professions; however, most have largely ignored modern secular education. There are some small Muslim fishing villages and masons on the island. On the east side of Sri Lanka there are some Muslim peasant farmers. The Marakkayas (also Maraikkars or Marikkars) represent a leading business group in and around Colombo. An important Muslim caste in port towns is the Marakkalarayaras. They have a long tradition of trading in ships, dating back to King Solomon.

Origin of the Moors

Asiff Hussein, a journalist and writer, wrote: “The origins of the Sri Lankan Moors is a matter that has aroused much controversy in academic circles. While it is generally believed that the Moors are descended from Arabian merchants who espoused local women, there are those historians who continue to argue that the Moors originally hailed from South India, mainly on the basis of their spoken language — Tamil. The present article proposes to show that the nucleus of the Moorish community comprises the descendants of Arabian settlers hailing from Iraq and the Arabian peninsula who arrived in the country during the medieval period. Oral tradition, genealogical records, anthropological details and literary, linguistic and epigraphic evidence will be adduced to support this view. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Alexander Johnston (Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 1827) has recorded that the first Muslims who settled in the country were, according to the tradition which prevails among their descendants, a portion of those Arabs of the House of Hashim (The Prophet Muhammad's clan) who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the eighth century by the Umayyad Caliph Abd-al Malik bin Marwan, and who proceeding from the Euphrates southward, made settlements in the Concan, the southern parts of the Indian peninsula, Sri Lanka and Malacca. He adds that the division of them that came to Sri Lanka formed eight considerable settlements along the north-eastern, northern, and western coasts of the island,viz. at Trincomalee, Jaffna, Mantota-Mannar, Kudiraimalai, Puttalam, Colombo, Beruwala and Galle.

"The name Moor has been given by the Romans to the inhabitants of North Africa from the actual Morocco to the actual Mauritania the word is from: am-mori the descendants of Amor the fourth son of Kana the lived first in Palestine and immigrated on the third millenaire to North Africa some of them was black and some other were fair skin the am-mori people are divided in many tribes at least seven tribes the larger are the Huassa and the Yoruba who live in Nigeria, there are some Am'mori people in China"

Genealogical records maintained by certain Moor families also bear testimony to their Arab ancestry. J. C. Van Sanden (Sonahar. A brief history of the Moors of Ceylon. 1926) cites literary evidence(viz. an old Arabic document in the possession of one of the oldest Moor families residing in Beruwala) in support of the claims of some Moorish folk of Beruwala who trace their ancestry to a scion of Arabian royalty who departed from Yemen in the 22nd Hijri year (C.644 A.C) in the time of the second Caliph Umar.

M. S. Ismail Effendi (Personages of the Past, Moors, Malays and other Muslims. 1982) has also cited substantial genealogical evidence showing the Arab origins of prominent Moor families. An Alutgama family, for example, traced its lineage to the first Caliph of the Islamic Commonwealth Abu Bakr (573-634 ), while another traced its descent to one Badrudeen who evidently hailed from Iraq. Yet another family traced its descent to one Prince Jamaldeen, an Arab from Konia, who arrived in the country in 1016. Such patronymics as Baghdadi (the one from Baghd) and Yemeni ( the Yemenite) which figure among the prominent Moor families cited in Effendi's work indicate the diverse origins of the Moorish folk settled in Sri Lanka. The Nicholson Cove Tombstone inscription at Trincomalee refers to the deceased as the grand-daughter of Hussain Ibn Ali Al-Halabi, showing that her family hailed from Halab (Aleppo) in Syria. It is also well known that the Moors of Akurana trace their descent to three Arabian mercenaries who espoused Kandyan women during the reign of King Rajasinha II (1635-1687). The Gopala (Betge Nilame) family of Moors domiciled in Getaberiya in the Kegalle District likewise claim descent from Arab physicians (hakims) who arrived in the country from Sind during the reign of King Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) of Dambadeniya and espoused Kandyan women.

Dr. S. K. Vadivale wrote: “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.” [Source: Dr. S. K. Vadivale, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Epigraphic, Linguistic and Anthropological Evidence on the Origin of the Moors

Asiff Hussein wrote: “Epigraphic evidence may also be cited in this connection. Noteworthy is the Arabic tombstone inscription in Kufic characters concerning an Islamic cleric named Khalid Ibn Abu [B]akaya dated the Hijri year 337 A.H.(10th century) found at the Moorish burial ground near Colombo. According to local tradition, this cleric was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad to reform the Muslims of Colombo after hearing that these Muslims (who were then established as traders) were ignorant of, and inattentive to the real tenets of their religion (Johnston.1827). Besides this, seven other stones, including five gravestones, inscribed in Arabic dated from the 8th-16th century have been discovered. The earliest tombstone discovered in May 1976 at Madulbova bears the Hijri date 133 A.H.(8th century) . The fact that the Arabic language had been employed in the inscriptions suggests that the country's Muslims, or at least a significant proportion of them were literate and conversant in Arabic. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The appellation given to the Moors by themselves as well as by others also indicate their Arab origin. The Moors have traditionally referred to themselves as Sonahar in their peculiar patois of Tamil, the pure Tamil form of which, Sonagar, refers to a native of Arabia (Sonagam). The Sinhala term for the Moors Yon is related to the Sanskritic Yavana and Prakritic Yona used by the Indians to denote foreign peoples, especially the Arabs, Greeks and those who belonged to the vast Graeco-Bactrian region between Greece and India following Alexander's conquests in the fourth century B.C. In Sinhala, however, the term yon appears to have been associated with the Arabs and Moors. Fernao de Queyroz in his Conquista Temporal e Espiritual de Ceylao (1687) has noted that the Sinhalese generally called the Moors Iona. That the term is closely connected with the Arabs is suggested by the Sinhala term for the 'date palm' yon-indi. Also consider the place-names Yon-vidiya 'Moor Street' and Yon-gala 'Moor rock'.

Anthropological evidence may also be cited in this connection. The Kovul Sandeshaya (15th century) refers to Yon liya (Arab or Moor women) of golden hue (ranvan) at a village called Mahavaligama (probably Weligama) with its thriving bazaar full of traders, suggesting that these Yon were a relatively fair-complexioned folk, much like the true Arabs. According to the Physical Anthropology of Ceylon (1961), a comprehensive work dealing with the physical characteristics of the country's various races, the skin color of over thirty Moor subjects of the Jaffna district measured in the survey approximated that of the Aryan Sinhalese, which would suggest that they derive from a somewhat fair-skinned race. The work further shows that the Moors are a broad-headed or brachycephalic people as distinct from the long-headed or dolococephalic Tamils. 32 Moors from Jaffna district measured in the survey showed a brachycephaly that closely approximated that of the Sinhalese. It is however doubtful whether this trait derives from the Sinhalese. It is more likely that it originated from Southern Arabia or Iraq, especially as there is literary evidence to show that many of the forbears of the Moors hailed from these regions.

It has been shown by C.G.Seligman ( The Physical characters of the Arabs. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society. 1917) that the Arabs of the Northern Arabian Peninsula and Sinai are predominantly long-headed while those of the south such as the Yemen are predominantly broad-headed. Citing anthropological evidence obtained from skeletal remains, he states that the Northern Arabs have been predominantly long-headed for the last 2000 years. The South Arabian brachycephaly, he believes to have derived from the Armenoid type found largely in the great brachycephalic area of Western Asia, viz. Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. This southern brachycephaly is thought to be an intrusive element borne to South Arabia, perhaps by sea, from the north-east, and it is likely that the Southern Arabian peninsula, like the Northern, was originally peopled by a dolichocephalic Semitic stock, upon which was later superimposed a brachycephalic element following some remote Armenoid immigration from the east, probably Mesopotamia. The aquiline nose, a characteristic of Semitic races such as the Arabs and Jews, is also prominent among the South Arabians (Seligman.1917). This too is significant as there are many Moors to-day who do possess prominent aquiline noses.

The adoption of Tamil on the part of the Moors is not inexplicable. It is probable that with the fall of Baghdad — the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate- to the Mongol hordes in the 13th century, the Arab merchants and settlers in the country and their mixed descendants would have had little option but to cease connections with their old home country and increasingly turn towards their South Indian, Dravidian-speaking co-religionists for commercial and cultural intercourse. Being a largely mercantile community themselves, they would have established and maintained close relations with the Muslim trading settlements in the South Indian coastal areas, especially since their livelihood depended largely on maritime trade. Tamil, it should be pointed out was the lingua franca of commerce in the region at the time. Such a situation could have easily led to the acceptance by the Moors, of Tamil as their spoken language over a period of time. Thus it would have been due to obvious reasons of convenience that the Moors came to speak Tamil as their 'Home language'.

The period of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 ) is regarded as the golden age of Arabian culture, science and commerce. The sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 and the other destructive acts perpetrated by them is said to have resulted in the downfall of the Arabian political and cultural heritage in the eastern part of the Arab world as well as in neighbouring countries like Iran. Indeed, the period from 1258 to the 18th century is known as the age of decadence of Arabic language, literature and the sciences. As such, it is not surprising that the Arabs and Moors established in the country should have ceased connections with the rest of the Arab world and eschewed their native Arab speech for a completely different and non-related language — Tamil. This process which is known as linguistic regression is not unknown amongst other nations and has taken place due to various political, social and economic factors. This has been the case with the Parsis of Western India who have eschewed their native Iranian speech for Gujarati and the Cape Malays of South Africa whose native Malay speech has been superseded by Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch.

It is however interesting to note that Tamil is fast dying out as the home language of the Moor youth of the Sinhalese-majority provinces and is being fast replaced by Sinhala, mainly due to education in the Sinhala vernacular. This trend is particularly evident in the upcountry and in the Southern and Western parts of the country. It is therefore clear that whatever their spoken language might be, the Moors form a distinct community with a religious and cultural identity of their own.

Are Sri Lankan Moors Descendants of Tamils Rather Than Arabs?

Dr. S. K. Vadivale wrote: “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. [Source: Dr. S. K. Vadivale, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

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 Muslims.

The word Sonahars by which the Muslims 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''.

Orang Melayu: The Muslim Malays of Sri Lanka

Asiff Hussein wrote: “Renowned for their martial prowess and happy go-lucky attitude, Sri Lanka"s Malay folk have but a relatively short history in the country, albeit a very fascinating one. This small Muslim community which comprises of about 50,000 persons are mainly descended from Javanese political exiles (nobles and chieftains), soldiers and convicts, who arrived in the island from Dutch-occupied Java during the period of Dutch colonial rule in Sri Lanka from 1658 " 1796. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Although the vast majority of Sri Lankan Malays are of Javanese ancestry, there are also considerable numbers descended from the folk of other islands in the Indonesian archipelago such as the Balinese, Tidorese, Madurese, Sundanese, Bandanese and Amboinese. Thus the ethnic term "Malay" should not be misconstrued as indicating their origin from the Malayan peninsula. Although there do exist Sri Lankan Malays descended from the folk of the Malayan peninsula, their numbers are very few indeed. The local Malays refer to themselves as orang Java (people of Java) and orang Melayu (Malay people) while the majority Sinhalese community call them Ja-minissu (Javanese people).

Indonesian political exiles comprised a significant portion of the early Malay population brought hither by the Dutch. These exiles posed a serious political threat to the Dutch East India company (or "vereenigde oost indische compagnie", known as the VOC for short) which had its headquarters in Batavia (the Dutch name for Jakarta). Sri Lanka and the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa were the principal centers of banishment for such exiles. According to B.A. Hussainmiya (Lost cousins, the Malays of Sri Lanka. 1987) there must have been at least 200 members of this eastern nobility including the younger members of aristocratic families born in the island, in the latter part of the 18th century.

This is indeed a significant number considering the fact that during this time, the entire Malay population in the island amounted to about 2400 persons. However, during the early British period, Governor Maitland (1805 " 1811) who believed the exiles to be "a great pecuniary burden to the colonial revenue, besides being a danger to the British interests in the island", took measures to expel them.

Although the Dutch authorities in Batavia were reluctant to take back the exiles, Maitland"s threat that he would forcibly "send them in one his Majesty"s cruises to the Eastward to be landed among these islands", sufficed to change their minds. However, a few exiles who had espoused local women stayed back and gave rise to a small community of Malays claiming aristocratic status.

However, it was the Malay soldiers brought hither by the Dutch to garrison their strongholds, who comprised the bulk of the Malay community in the island. By the turn of the 18th century, there were about 2200 Malay soldiers in the island. Malay troops are said to have taken part in the wars of the Dutch against the Portuguese such as the storming of Galle (1640), the siege of Colombo (1656) and the capture of Jaffna (1658). The Malays also served in the Dutch wars against the Kandyan Kingdom (17th "18th centuries).

Malays of Sri Lanka During the British Period

Asiff Hussein wrote: With the surrender of the Dutch to the British in 1796, the Malay soldiers were absorbed by the British military, and so served them as they had done their predecessors, the Dutch. The British authorities who were not unaware of the martial prowess of the Malays, imported over 400 Madurese soldiers and about 228 Javanese soldiers along with their families from 1813 " 1816. This was during the brief period of British rule over Java from 1811 " 1816. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Following the Dutch takeover of Java in 1816, the British had to turn elsewhere for the supply of Malay soldiers and set up recruiting offices, which were however a miserable failure. Captain Tranchell"s mission (1856 " 1857) which travelled extensively in the East Indies including stopovers in Brunei, Lubuan, Pahang and Kelatan, managed to recruit only seven Malays, which prompted a contemporary British officer, Cowan, to remark: "The expedition and the expenditure as compared with the proceeds of it must show these four of five (Malay recruits) to be about the most expensive in the British army." He says that everyone of them were subsequently set at liberty as they were physically unfit for fighting when they arrived at headquarters.

As for convicts, these comprised petty officials and commoners deported by the VOC. However, these were very few compared to the soldiers. It has been shown that in 1731, there were 131 of these convicts serving the VOC in Sri Lanka, besides those convicts serving in the army and those who had been set free. Although it appears that the majority of Malays did not bring their womenfolk with them, there is evidence to show that a good many of them did.

Christopher Schwitzer, a German resident of Dutch Ceylon alludes (1680) to Amboinese soldiers in the Dutch service who had Amboinese Sinhalese, and Tamil wives, so that we may assume that some of the Malays, especially the soldiery, brought their wives with them. However, as borne out by later Dutch records, the Malays preferred to marry local Moor women, due to their common religious background.

Intermarriage with Sinhalese women has however also been considerable since the 19th century. It is for this reason that local Malays somewhat differ physically from their brethren in the Indonesian archipelago.

Culture of the Malays of Sri Lanka

Asiff Hussein wrote: As for Malay culture, we know that the Malay language (known to local Malays as "bahasa Melayu") is still a living one and is spoken in Malay homes, though there is evidence to show that it is being fast replaced by Sinhala. The local Malay language which somewhat differs from standard Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) and standard Malaysian (bahasa Malaysia) was however a thriving one in the olden days, so much so that two Malay newspapers, Alamat Lankapuri and Wajah Selong in Arabic script (known to local Malays as the Gundul script) were published in the latter part of the 19th century. As Hussainmiya (Lost cousins 1987) has noted, Sri Lanka"s Malays have belonged to a fairly literate society. Although a great part of their literature, which includes "Hikayats" (prose works) and "Syairs" (works in verse) have had their origins from classical Malay works popular throughout the Malay world, a considerable number of such works have had their origins amongst the local Malay community. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The Hikayats which have derived from Arabian, Persian, Indian and Javanese sources, comprise of fantastic tales including romances, legends and epics. Some of the notable Hikayats found in Sri Lanka are the Hikayat Amir Hamzah, Hikayat Isma Yatim and Hikayat Indera Kuraisy. According to Hussainmiya (1987) the Hikayat Indera Kuraisy is peculiar to Sri Lanka. This fantastic Malay romance, which is interspersed with pantuns (traditional Malay quatrains) relate the adventures of the hero Indera Kuraisy who departs from his homeland Sarmadan in order to win the heart of the inapproachable princess, Indera Kayangan.

The Syairs are Malay classic poetry that have for long captured the fancy of local Malay folk. Two notable local syairs are the syair syaikh Fadlun, a romance-epic narrating the story of the pious Fadlun who lived in Arabia during the times of the Caliph Omar, and the syair Kisahnya Khabar Orang Wolenter Bengali which describes the armed skirmish between Malay and Bengali soldiers in Colombo on New Years Day 1819. These Hikayats and Syairs were also written in the Gundul script. However, despite attempts at reviving the Malay language, it is fast dying out and giving way to Sinhala.

The vast majority of vernacular- educated Malay youth today speak Sinhala at home. In spite of all this, it can still be said that the local Malays have been much more conservative than their brethren domiciled in South Africa (Cape Malays) who have had similar beginnings but have ceased to speak that Malay language long ago (as far back as the 19th century, as evident from John Mason"s "Malays of Cape Town" 1861). This is despite the fact that the Cape Malays constitute a community three times as large as the Sri Lankan Malay community. There have of course been numerous attempts at reviving the local Malay language and culture by such organizations as the Sri Lanka Malay Confederation, an umbrella organization of the local Malay community. The second Malay world symposium held in Colombo in August 1985, and co-sponsored by the Malay Confederation and Gapena, the Malaysian Writers Federation, is a case in point.

To this day, the Malays have jealously retained certain aspects of their culture, examples being the honorific Tuan which precedes the names of Malay males, their family names, social customs and culinary habits. Today there exist many Malay family names that have fiercely resisted the inroads made by Islamic Arab names; these include Jaya, Bongso, Tumarto, Kitchil, Kuttilan, Kuncheer and Singa Laksana. Although Malay social customs such as those pertaining to births, circumcisions and marriages are not significantly different from those of their Moorish co-religionists, there nevertheless do exist a few practices that do differ. A practice peculiar to the Malays until fairly recent times was the singing of pantuns on such festive occasions. The Malays have also retained some of their traditional fare such as nasi goreng (Fried rice), satay and Malay Kueh (cakes and puddings). Pittu (rice-cake) and babath (tripe) is another favourite dish that has found much favour amongst other communities as well. Traditional Malay dress has however ceased to exist for some time. Local Malay women, like their Moorish sisters, dress in sari (Indian-style with a hood left at the back to cover the head when going outdoors) instead of the traditional Malay Baju and Kurung. However, it is possible that the sarong which Malay men as well as those of other communities wear at home is a recent introduction from the archipelago.

It appears that in the olden days, Sinhalese, Moor and Tamil folk wore a lower garment similar to the Indian dhoti and not exactly the same garment we know as the sarong, whose name itself is of Malay origin. The arts of batik printing and rattan weaving, both lucrative cottage industries in the country, also owe their origins to the Malay. Source: Explore Sri Lanka

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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