Historical Berberyn (Beruwala) and Sri Lankan Arab Decandants

It was no surprise that Beruwela assumed such a significant position, as it is located at the centre of the ancient sea route between the East and the West, alongside other port cities such as Colombo and Galle. According to reliable historical records, the Arabs landed in Beruwela even before the advent of Islam which was in the 6th century A.D. After they embraced Islam, the Islamic tradition and culture too found its way into ancient Ceylon through Beruwela, paving the way for the Sinhala kings to establish a strong bond with the Islamic world.

Beruwela, according to some historians derived its name from two Sinhala words, viz. Be (lower) and Ruwala (sail), which denotes the place where the sails of the Arab merchant vessels were lowered. However another version traces the name to the famed North African (Berber) traveller Abu Yusuf al-Barbari, who is believed to have lived in Sri Lanka and Considered as the Father of Sri Lankan Moors.

In fact, Arabs called this place Berberyn. Berr..Berr.. means stop or pause. When the early Arab settlers arrived by sea and on sighting a tiny islet, they, overcome with joy, cried out “Berr..Berr..” to their oarsmen of the catamarans to stop. This island call Berberyn still adds picturesque atmosphere to the environ to the area in the sea waters almost facing Al-Fasiyathum Nasriya Muslim girls Vidyalaya, the first Muslim school set up in the island, thereby Beruwala assuming prominence in yet another domain i.e. pioneering Muslim female education at the very spot where our Moorish and Arabic forefathers landed.

The renowned Muslim traveller mentioned earlier, Ibn Batuta, who has written much about Sri Lanka in his travelling episodes, is also a Berber. The Arabs, who possessed a tremendous knowledge of the sea routes, were inevitably employed by the Sinhalese Kings to handle the country’s commerce and trade. They were also sent as ambassadors to the Islamic empires, which were in fact regarded as the ‘super powers’ of that era. A significant contribution of the Arabs in Sri Lanka, the Unani medicine system, found its way to this country through Beruwela. Tradition has it that in the 10th century, Prince Jamal-ud-din, the son of the Sultan of Konya (in Asia Minor) arrived here and practised Unani medicine.

Many Sri Lankan Moorish Unani physicians have had the honour to serve the kings in the palace as well. For instance, Muhandiram Mohamed Odeyar served as a physician to the Kandyan Kings.

Many Arab Merchants marched towards Sri Lanka from Hazramouth in Arabia (present day Yemen) in the 7th century A.D. It is said that four vessels sailed from Yemen with three Sultans, namely, Bad-ur-din, Salah-ud-din and Mohamed. They landed at Mannar, Puttalam, Beruwala and settled there, thus most of the Sri Lankan Moors resemble the physical feature of present day Yemeni people and adheres the same Yemen culture and Tradition. It is said that four vessels sailed from Yemen with three Sultans, namely, Bad-ur-din, Salah-ud-din and Mohamed. They landed at Mannar and settled there. Sad-ur-din the son of Mohamed, sailed further south along the West coast and settled in Beruwela (Ethnological survey of the Muslims of Sir Lanka – Sri Razik Fareed Foundation).

Our Arab Forefathers were inspired by the Islamic teaching of fairness in business dealings, as taught by the Holy Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), who was a trader himself when He received the Revelation from God Almighty. The Holy Quran too commands the faithful to “Give full measure when you measure, and weight with a balance that is straight: That is better and fairer in the final determination” (17:35). It was due to nurturing such traditions that the locals developed an immense trust in them.

In an era when there was no banking system, the Sinhalese used to deposit their jewellery and other items with Moors, when they leave their houses and go on Negam. Upon arrival they will receive their valuables correctly and safely. Even the jewelleries were always purchased from the Moors by the wealthy Sinhalese. even now Moors are known to the Majority people as trustworthies.

Our Moorish forefathers were not only Traders but also skill-ful Architects, which is evident by the beautiful ancient Mosques that are built in their era. Masjidul Abrar, Masjidul Alfar, Kechimalai Mosque and Colombo Moors street Grand Mosqueare some Examples of their Skilful works.

Tamil has gradually replaced Arabic as their language of communication, largely due to their interaction with the South Indian Muslim traders. The usage of Arabic-Tamil (Arwi) in which poems were composed eulogising the lives of the Holy Prophet, His Companions. Even today, many Muslim families are seen sitting together in a circle, singing these poems in a rhythmic tone. This practice has served as an important tool to inculcate Islamic values among Muslim children for centuries.

The Muslims were also equally adept in Sinhala, a trend that continues unabated to this day, although English too is used among a bulk of the present generation. For the Portuguese however, the all the Arabs have always been ‘Moors’,thier Traditional Enemies, who ruled Spain for eight hundred years between the 7th and 15th century A. D. When they saw the Arabs in Sri Lanka they used the same name to Denote the Muslim race. It is this reference that came here to stay and used by the Sri Lankan Muslims.

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