MUSLIMS OF CEYLON ARTICLE IN THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF ISLAM


Edited by B. Lewis, Ch. Pellat and J. Schacht 

Published by E.J. Brill, Leiden and Luzac & Co., London in 1961 (New Edition) 

CEYLON.   The Muslims constitute only 6.63% of Ceylon’s population-roughly 550,000 out of a total of 8,000,000. Of this community, which is multi-racial in its composition, the Ceylon Moors form the most significant element and count 463,963. The Malays are the next in importance. They number 25,464. Nearly all of the remaining groups are of Indian origin; their ancestors first came to Ceylon after the British occupation of its Maritime Provinces during the 18th century.

 
As a result of the insufficiency of available evidence and the lack of sustained effort and encouragement in respect of the investigations involved which require a good knowledge of several languages, each of them with a different background and most of them with distinctive characters, the ethnology of the Ceylon Moors has yet remained an inadequately explored field of research. A scientific and comprehensive treatment of the subject would indeed illumine some of the obscure aspects of Ceylon’s history-e.g., the nature and extent of the contacts the Muslims of Ceylon (Moors) had for several centuries with their brethren in faith in lands far and near; the political relations which Ceylon through these Muslims maintained with the Muslim World particularly during its period of glory; and the volume of Ceylon’s external and internal trade and its geographical distribution during the early centuries.
 
The Muslims of Ceylon were given the appellation of ‘Moors’ by the Portuguese who first came to Ceylon in 1505 and encountered these Muslims as their immediate rivals to trade and influence. This name, however, has persisted having gained currency in Ceylon through its wide use by the Colonial Powers concerned, even though this term ‘Moors’ had been previously unknown among the Muslims themselves. ‘Sonahar’ was the name familiar to them, deriving its origin from ‘Yavanar’, an Indian word connoting foreigners especially Greeks or Arabs. 
 
These Moors were the descendants of Arab settlers whose numbers were later augmented by local converts and immigrant Muslims from South India. With regard to the date of the arrival of the first Arab settlers, Sir Alexander Johnstone holds that it was during the early part of the 2nd/8th century, “The first Mohammedans who settled in Ceylon were according to the tradition which prevails amongst their descendants, a person of those Arabs of the house of Hashim who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the eighth century by the tyranny of the Caliph ‘Abd al-Melel b. Merwan, and who preceeding from the Euphrates southward, made settlements in the Concan, in the southern parts of the peninsula of India, on the island of Ceylon and at Malacca. The division of them which came to Ceylon formed eight considerable settlements along the north-east, north, and western coasts of that island; viz: one at Trincomalee, one at Jaffna, one at Mantotte and Mannar, one at Coodramalle, one at Puttalam, one at Colombo, one at Barbareen and one at Point-de-Galle.”
 
The presence of these settlers is strikingly corroborated by the accounts found in  Muslim  sources  with  regard  to  the  proximate  cause  of  the Arab conquest   of   Sind,   during   the  time  of  Caliph  al-Walid.  His  governor, al-Hadjdjadj of ‘Irak, initiated this conquest, under the leadership of ‘Imad al-Din Muhammad b. Kasim, as a punishment for the plunder of the ships that carried the families of the Arabs who had died in Ceylon, together with presents from the King of Ceylon to the Caliph. 
 
It is reasonable to suppose that during the 2nd/8th century and subsequent centuries these Arabs came in increasing numbers and settled down in Ceylon without entirely losing touch with the areas of their origin. Ceylon exercized a special fascination on these seafaring Arabs as a commercial junction of importance which afforded possibilities of profitable trade in pearls, gems, spices and other valued articles. Settlement was encouraged by the tolerant and friendly attitude of the rulers and people of the Island.
 
After the sack of Baghdad in 1258 A.D., Arab activities of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean diminished considerably. Muslim influence, however, did not thereby cease entirely. It began to emanate from India where by the 7th/13th century the Muslims had firmly established themselves along the western coast and possessed a virtual monopoly of external trade.
 
It may therefore be concluded that the Muslims of Ceylon began, as a result, to rely on India for their cultural leadership as well as for their commercial contacts. An Indian element was thus added into the composition of the local Muslim (Moor) community. Despite the racial admixture that took place in consequence and the new manners and customs that were acquired, the individuality of the community was preserved on account of the cherished memory of its Arab origin and the emphasis that was placed on Islam as the base of its communal structure.
 
These Muslims were not treated as aliens, but were favoured for the commercial and political contacts with other countries they gained for Ceylon, for the revenue they brought to the country and the foreign skills they secured, e.g., medicine and weaving. Besides they encouraged local trade by the introduction of new crafts, e.g., gem-cutting and of improved methods of transport, e.g., thavalam-carriage-bullocks. They were therefore allowed to establish their local settlements, e.g., Colombo, Barberyn, with a measure of autonomy and with special privileges. The important seaports of Ceylon were virtually controlled by these Muslims  (Moors).
 
With the advent of the Portuguese in 1505 the Muslims (Moors) suffered a change in their status from which they never again recovered. The Portuguese regarded them as their rivals in trade and enemies in faith. The Dutch who superseded the former as rulers of the sea-board were not prepared to give the Muslims even a small share of their commercial gains and therefore promulgated harsh regulations to keep them down. Deprived of their traditional occupation, many of them were forced to take to agriculture. To this could be mainly attributed the concentrations of Muslim peasantry in areas like Batticaloa.
 
It was during the Dutch period the Malays-who form an important element of the Muslim community of Ceylon-came to Ceylon, many of them brought by the Dutch as soldiers to fight for them and some as exiles for political reasons. When the Dutch capitulated to the British, the Malay soldiers joined the British regiments specially formed. On their disbandment the Malays settled down in Ceylon. Their separate identity has been preserved by the Malay language which they still speak in their homes.
 
The British did not follow the undiluted policy of proselytization pursued by the Portuguese. Nor were the British so harsh as the Dutch in their economic exploitation of Ceylon. To that extent, under the new rulers, the Muslims fared better. Yet they could not gain any special favour, on account of their irreconcilable attitude towards the ways and culture of the West which they identified  with Christianity. This, no doubt, handicapped the Muslims severely in the political, economic and educational spheres but ensured the preservation of their communal individuality despite the smallness of their numbers and the loss of cultural contacts with the Muslim World. As a result till about the beginning of the current century the Muslims of Ceylon remained culturally isolated, educationally backward and politically insignificant.
 
The Muslims, however, could not continue to ignore the trend of events taking place in Ceylon and India. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who founded in 1875 the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, was the leader of the Aligarh Movement in India with the emphasis on educational reforms. Arumuga Navalar, who countered the efforts of the Christian Missionaries in North Ceylon, established in 1872 an English school under Hindu management. The Buddhist Theosophical Society established an English school in 1886 which finally developed into the present Ananda College. In this year the Anagarika Dharmapala who was actively associated with the inauguration of this Society resigned his Government post to devote his entire time to Buddhist activities. During this period the Muslims of Ceylon had in M.C. Siddi Lebbe a leader of vision who understood the significance of these changes. He had for several years canvassed the opinion of his co-religionists for a new educational approach but he had not been heeded. It was at this time, in 1883, that ‘Urabi Pasha (q.v.) came as an exile to Ceylon. He provided a powerful stimulus for a reappraisal on the part of the Muslims of Ceylon in regard to their attitude towards modern education and Western culture. All these together culminated in the establishment in 1892 of Al-Madrasa al-Zahira under the patronage of ‘Urabi Pasha which has since blossomed into Zahira College, Colombo.
 
The Ceylon Muslims-apart from isolated instances-belong to the Shafi’I school of Sunnis. In the realm of Law the following special enactments pertaining to them may be cited-the Mohammedan Code of 1806 relating to matters of succession, Inheritance etc., Mohammedan Marriage RegistrationOrdinance no. 8 of 1886 repealed by Ordinance no. 27 of 1929 and now superseded by the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act no. 13 of 1951 which confers upon the Kadis appointed by the Government exclusive jurisdiction in respect of marriages and divorces, the status and mutual rights and obligations of the parties; the Muslim Intestate Succession Ordinance no. 10 of 1931 and the Muslim Mosques and Charitable Trusts or Wakfs Act no. 51 of 1956 which provides a separate Government Department with a purely Muslim Executive Board. Of these the Mohammedan Code of 1806 is of special value to students of Islamic Civilization, for it contains many provisions which are in conflict with the principles of Muslim law stated in standard text books on that subject. Wherever such conflict occurs the view has been taken that it is the duty of the courts in Ceylon to give effect to the provisions of the Code, which formed the statute law of this country, although they may clash with well-established principles of Muslim law.
 
The Muslims of Ceylon received their first political recognition when in 1889 a nominated seat was assigned to them in the Legislative Council. This representation was increased to 3 elected members in 1924. The Donoughmore Constitution of 1931 abolished communal representation but the Soulbury Constitution of 1947 envisaged a certain measure of communal representation through territorial electorates specially delimitated. In the present House of Representatives, elected in 1956, there are 7 Muslim M.P.s among 95 territorially elected members.
 
Bibiliography: Tennent, Ceylon, An Account of the Island-Physical, Historical and Topographical, London 1859;  Fr. S.G. Perera, City of Colombo 1505-1656  Ceylon Historical Association 1926;  Instructions from Governor-General and Council of India to the Governor of Ceylon 1656-1665,Colombo 1908;  Queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, Colombo 1930;  I.L.M. Abdul Azeez, A Criticism of Mr. Ramanathan’s Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon, Colombo 1907;  M.M. Uwise, Muslim Contribution to Tamil Literature, Ceylon 1953;  M.C. Siddi Lebbe, Muslim Neisan, An Arabic Tamil Weekly. (1882-1889), Ceylon;  Ceylon Census Reports 1901, 1911, 1946; Report of the Special Commission on the Ceylon Constitution 1928, His Majesty’s Stationery Office;  Report of the Commission on Constitutional Reform, Cmd 6677, 1945;  Jennings & Tambiah, The Dominion of Ceylon, London 1952;  Tamil Lexicon, University of Madras 1928;  Massignon, Annnaire du Monde Musulmon, 155.          
                             
(A.M.A. AZEEZ)
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