The Muslims and Sri Lanka – Historical perspective

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).

By Kamalika Pieris

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