Arab Origin

HOW TAMIL INFLUENCED THE MOOR COMMUNITY OF SRI LANKA, EVEN WITH AN ARAB ORIGIN?

The first wave of Muslims to arrive in Sri Lanka came from West Asia. The Arabs also expanded eastwards, towards India and China, in search of trade. In the 9th and 10th centuries, an assortment of Persians and Arabs 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. 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.

According to Tickri Abeysinghe, the Muslims of Sri Lanka were Driven from the Tigris and Euphrates Valley of Present day Iraq by the Tyranny of the Caliph Malik ibn Marwan.

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.

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’.

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 of Kochin (Kerala), Kayalpatnam (Tamil Nadu), Kaaraikudi (Tamil Nadu) and married local women. Thus Tamil and Malayalam came to be written in Arabic script, and was known as Arabic Tamil.

The Quran 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, so this made the Muslims of Sri Lanka to learn 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.

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

“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”

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.

By : Mohammed Jehan Khan

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