The Next Time You Tell Me To ‘Go Back To My Country’…

Ibn Batuta Leaving Tangier by Burt Silverman

..think about the fact that i’m just as ‘Sri Lankan’ as you. Probably even more so, depending on the definition.

The Muslims of Sri Lanka hark back to early Arab traders, everyone knows that, but the story is actually much more complex and interesting. Like any historical narrative, tradition or well known fact, this idea that Sri Lankan Moors are somehow descendant from Arab traders becomes multifaceted and many layered when you start zooming in on it with a keen historian’s eye*.

Arabs and Persians have been coming to Sri Lanka for trade from Pre-Islamic years and these were said to have converted when the religion spread across the Middle East. Members of the tribe of Hashim (The prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s tribe) are said to have settle here in the eighth century, fleeing from the clutches of the Caliph Ibn Marwan (Umayyad?).

Other accounts tell of two Yemeni princes that migrated here in the sixth century and settled in Beruwala and Mannar. Most accounts agree that a majority of Muslims also came here from India. They were of Arab and Tamil origin and traced their line back to Arab sailors who settled on the shores of South India.

Interestingly Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was said to have stuck by the latter and insisted that all Sri Lankan Muslims were ‘ethnologically Tamils’. This set off heavy arguments amidst accusations from Muslims that this was a blatant attempt to undermine their rights to separate political representation. But as this happened a century ago, and as Ramanathan’s arguments were properly proved wrong with various historical evidences, and because no one really gives a hoot where we’re from anymore, this doesn’t really bear any weight at all in current political thinking.

Getting back to the story. Muslims were always close to the Sinhala kings due to their geopolitical connections with the powerful Islamic empire; possession of ships and navigation skills; and power in trade.

After arrival, Muslims began to quickly exploit the island’s resources for exportation. And developed powerful lobbies in the courts of several Sri Lankan kings. The Sinhala kings bestowed land and near unlimited political and religious freedom on the Muslims, forging strong ties and friendships. When the Europeans came in the 15th century and the Islamic empire had begun to wane, the Muslims fled to the central lands where the Sinhala kings gave them lands, titles and jobs.

There used to be clearer ethnic demarcation between Muslims, with those hailing from the West coast being more likely of Arab descent and those lining the East coast descendant from Indians hailing from South Indian coastal states. But this distinction was blurred when they fled inland and they started intermarrying with each other, Sinhalese and Tamils. So the modern day Muslim’s blood is a smorgasbord of Sinhala, Arab, Sri Lankan Tamil and South Indian. If there is any race that probably represents all the major ethnicities of Sri Lanka in one, it is the Muslims.

Earlier, in the dawn of the 1300s, the Sinhala Kings’ dependence on Muslims increased when Arya Chakravarti swooped down (with a license to conquer from his Pandya overlords) from South India and kicked them out of their fertile lands of A’pura and Polonnaruwa. This invasion caused the Sinhala kings to move further and further South to places like Kurunegala, Gampola, Kandy and Kotte in search of safer places to rule.

This constant moving rendered them with no stable economy. The agrarian prosperity coupled with the irrigation engineering expertise that had long since functioned as the capable base of the Sinhala economy had collapsed and so it was round about this time that Sri Lanka started exporting its natural resources and became export oriented.

The Muslims were key in making this happen. Their entrepreneurial spirit had long since focused on getting caravans into the most inaccessible parts of the country in search of the island’s riches. The story of the footprint on Adam’s peak being that of Adam was said to have arisen both as a historical association with the ‘Fall from Grace’ and also as a convenient excuse to provide a spiritual reason to travel to the Sabaragamuwa, Sinhala people generally being accepting of anything and everything spiritual. The merchants who traveled thus would return laden with precious stones like diamonds and rubies which they then traded.

So by the time Arya Chakravarti swooped in, the Muslims were quite rich and influential. Their lobbies at the Sinhala King’s courts, mutual need and prevalent opportunities soon saw them becoming the veins trough which the Sri Lankan economic lifeblood began to flow. Spices such as cinnamon, elephants, ivory and gems were in heavy demand in Arabia, Egypt and Europe; Sri Lanka’s geocentrality meant that it was smack dab in the middle of the path to the far east as well; creating a lot of opportunities for mutual trade with the Chinese and Malays.

And Chakravarti didn’t sit back and relax while this was going on. He started sending his own ships on trade missions and was said to have connections all the way up to Egypt. Thus began an economic scuffle between the Sinhala kings and Muslims on one side of the Vanni jungles (now encroaching what used to be Rajarata) and Arya Chakravarti and his kingdom of Jaffna on the other.

Ibn Batuta made his famous visit to the Island in 1344, in the middle of all this. Chakravarti treated him with excessive hospitality and had so much influence that he was able to safely see Batuta to Adam’s peak and back. Batuta’s brother was the Sultan of Ba’ad and was a good pal of Chakravarti’s.

But the prosperity of Chakravarti’s Jaffna was short lived. In the 1370s it was politically eclipsed by spreading Vijayanagar influence in South India, leaving the whole island’s trading activities (including the much contested pearl farms of the Mannar coast) in the hands of the Muslims. Thus relationship between the Sinhala kings and Muslim traders continued and prospered greatly in the next decades.

As Arab power waned with the diminishing power of the Caliphate come the 14th and 15th centuries, trade along the East coast of Sri Lanka was increasingly monopolized by Tamil Muslims who sailed down from South India.

With the reduction of Arab ties and the influx of Indians, Muslims in Sri Lanka increasingly began looking to South India for religious guidance and hence soon adopted the Tamil language as their official mother tongue (as all education, books and scholars coming from India used Tamil). The Muslims themselves remained an anthropological mish mash of ethnicities overshadowed by a common religious identity that ignored racial and caste based boundaries.

Things were all fine and dandy of course, until the Europeans came in. Their ‘divide and rule’ policies, eradication of cultural identities, attacks on religion and downright conniving eventually lead to the riots of 1915, where for the first time in over a thousand years of ethnic harmony, tensions developed between Muslims and Sinhalese.

*The Muslims of Sri Lanka is quite an enlightening read. I’m still only through one chapter. Lorna Dewarajah is a cracking writer and has the rare trait in a historian of being able to relate her area of scholarship in the manner of an engrossing story that doesn’t fail to inform you. Its very rich in content and my summary of Chapter one just barely manages to brush the surface. Detailed evidences and references also provided.

  1. Awesome read and interesting stuff….when was this book published? does this goes on the talk abt the post-independent era as well?

    • Whacko said:

      No man, i think this deals with the history right until and around the period of the 1915 riots. I remember reading about the post independence era somewhere.. but can’t remember exactly where :/ And btw, are you going to see Metallica you lucky bugger?

      • Ahaha…yeah man! lol…try to come if you can…its freakin Metallica dude!!

  2. Navin said:

    Where can I get a copy? I’m reading Nath Yogasundram’s “The Indian Connection” right now, and its covers the same period.

    • Whacko said:

      Got it from VYB. But they might not always have it in stock. I had to specially order it and it took a couple of weeks to get. How’s Yogasundram’s book? does it talk more about the Pandyas?

  3. So why oh why do some Muslims cheer for the Pakistani cricket team and not the Srilankan? They should read your book! LOL

    • Whacko said:

      Lol yeah they probably should, the last place their from is probably Pakistan! I think they must do it out of a sense of havig a common religious identity though, i wouldn’t know for sure.

  4. Hisham Singalaxana said:

    Halik machan… I think you what you mean by ‘Muslims’ as a race here is the race of Moors, because what you have mentioned as muslims here are the Moors. A muslim can be of any race be it a sinhalese, a tamil, a burgher, a malay or moor. As long as they follow islam they are called a muslim.

    An interesting article nevertheless, but you forgot that not all muslims in sri lanka are moors so therefore the statements you have made above arent applicable to all Muslims. 🙂

    • Whacko said:

      That’s true, i haven’t mentioned the Malays much have i? But the book does deal with the Malays a bit too. For instance ‘Hamban’ comes from the Malay word for boat which is “sampan’, Hambantota being a harbor probably frequented by Malays. I think by Muslims she means everyone who eventually ended up following Islam, but there is a disclaimer in the book saying that the author had focused more on Ceylon and Coastal Moors and less on Malays, Borahs, Afghans etc.

      • Well then titling her book ‘Muslims of Sri Lanka’ is pervaricative. She’s reinforcing the idea held by the government that all the Moors are the only Muslim. If she was focusing on the Moors (even if she mentions the Malays fleetingly) ‘Moors of Sri Lanka’ would have been a better title.

        And pfft? Boats? The Malays of Sri Lanka have a very interesting and rich history. And a cursory mention in the disclaimer doesn’t come close to dispelling the misconception of the Muslims and their races.

      • Whacko said:

        Uhh, maybe you should read the book and then decide, or have a look at it at least. I probably mis-communicated some stuff. But you’re right, saying that all Muslims in Sri Lanka are Moors is not correct. Still haven’t read the whole book so don’t know what else is in it. And i don’t know yet if what happened subsequently to the whole Muslim populace is the same as what happened to the Moors. Are there any studies of Sri Lankan Malay history around?

    • Whacko said:

      Yup:) Its free to borrow after I’m done. Thanks! Where did you get your info on the plantation Tamils for that post you wrote btw?

  5. Outlook said:

    Muslims aren’t a race or an ethnic group – it’s a religious group. And the VAST MAJORITY of Sri Lankan Muslims are TAMILS who converted to Islam. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

  6. Does she mention the other Muslims? Because the government seems to be under the impression that the Moors are Muslims and the Malays, Memons and other Muslim races are different.

    It should be understood that Muslims are the people who follow Islam. That’s an entirely religious category. Moors, Malays, Memons, Gujaratis and Bohras are races- simply Muslims from different parts of the world.

    • Whacko said:

      You’re absolutely right, she does actually, but focuses more on the Moors for this particular academic piece. But refer my answer to Hisham above!

    • Whacko said:

      Thanks bro

  7. Good post! Lorna Devaraja is a living legend and her work has to be protected, one of the few scholars who challenges racist rhetoric with facts. I remember her years ago on that programme (Maha Sinhale wangsha kathawa or something) and she gave the host Jackson Anthony an intellectually torrid time.

    • Whacko said:

      haha that’d be something good to watch. any idea if its up on you tube?

  8. Angel said:

    Out of curiosity, when were you last told to go back “to your country”? :S

    • Whacko said:

      once, about a year ago. It rankled me muchly 🙂 to be fair, i think only a certain segment of xenophobic uber-patriotic people have that opinion

  9. Yes, there are records on the Malays. Since there Malays were here a little later we can actually traced back our origins to exactly which part of Malaysia or Indonesia we are from. There were however, a few Malays who were settled in Sri Lanka even before this… they were traders.

    Malay history is quite interesting… we’ve got a mix of the first traders, banished royalty (during the Dutch period) and military forces (Colonial era).

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