By Rifai Naleemi –
Historical origins of Srilankan Muslims:
It is pathetic that some extremist Buddhist people are protesting against Muslims in Sri Lanka today for no reason. Muslim people have been accused of many social issues. They have done nothing wrong in Sri Lankan history and they have been accusing of spreading fundamentalism in Sir Lanka . They have been accused of supporting al-Qaida. They have been accused of supporting Taliban. They have been accusing of building more mosques in Sri Lanka. They have been accused of marrying Sinhalese girls. They have been accused of increasing their population. They have been accused of accumulating money by selling Halal food. They have been accused of forcing Buddhist people to eat halal food. They have been accused of being disloyal to Sri Lanka. This list of accusations could go on countless. But the entire Muslim community is innocent from all these allegations and accusations. There may have been some misunderstanding in some of these issues and yet, such misunderstanding should be clarified: We all need some clarity of thought on these issues: some of these issues are exaggerated and inflated very much by the some extreme people.
Muslim community is free from all these deliberate allegations and fabrication. All these accusations are baseless and deplorable denunciations. Despite these unfounded allegations Muslim people have been maintaining patience and indeed they have been praying for peace and calm to prevail in this beautiful Island. It is undeniable fact that the majority people in this country are Buddhists people and this is indeed a factual reality and others are minority communities: These two factual realities and Muslim people precisely appreciate and acknowledge this fact: We have been respecting Sinhalese people and their way of life and we never intended to inflict harm or hurt their religious feeling at all any time in Sir Lankan history. Historically speaking we have been defenders of this Island. There is no need to accuse Muslim people with all these unsubstantiated allegations for no reason.
It is pathetic to note that historical origins and antiquities of Muslim people have been badly questioned today by these extremist people. Moreover, mere existence of Muslim people has been threatened by this handful of people. Some deliberate attempts have been made to create doubt and suspicion about historical origin of Muslim people. What more surprising is that these so called guardians of Buddhism do not have any historical knowledge to speak about Muslim history? The historical origin and antiquity of Muslim people have been well recorded in Sri Lankan history books and I shall recall some of these records to demarcate Muslim loyalty, allegiance and patriotism to this nation.
Muslim people have been loyal citizens of this country for many centuries and we have hope and optimism that Muslim people will be loyal citizens of this country for ever as long as they live on this Island. We have one thousand years of proven history to say that we had been loyal citizens of this Island. Sri Lankan History itself testifies this. It is not my objective in this article to respond to all these unfounded accusations but rather I would like to narrate some historical events to exhibit Muslim loyalty to this country. I think that such historical narrations would encourage people to think objectively at this time without any prejudice or discriminations Sri Lankan people should think positively away from all types of racial discriminations and bias prejudices.
It is unfortunate that children in Sri Lankan schools do not have historical lessons to learn and understand the historical roots of minority communities in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Muslim history has not been taught in Sri Lankan schools, institutes and universities. Consequently, the majority of people in Sri Lanka have no any clue about Muslim peoples’ historical origin: It is duty of Sri Lankan educational establishments to educate students on this subject so that they would appreciate and acknowledge Muslim contributions in Sri Lanka. Such projects should be initiated by Sri Lankan government to foster peace and social harmony in Sri Lanka. Yet, historical contributions of minority groups have been deliberately ignored in Sri Lanka. We shall try here to trace historical origins of Muslims in Sri Lanka so that we people could appreciate their loyalty to this nation.
It has been often said that Sri Lankan Muslim people are not loyal to Sri Lanka but their loyalty rather lies somewhere in some Muslim countries: It is said that Sri Lankan Muslim has his one leg in Sri Lanka and other one somewhere else in a Muslim country: This allegation is a baseless allegation and historical and practical examples of Muslim people tell us that they have been loyal citizens of this country ever since they settled in the Island. There is no doubt about it. Did Muslim people take wealth of this nation out of this country as colonial powers did? Did they take destroy the natural resources of this country? Did they conspire to destabilize this nation at any time in the history?
A historical account of Muslim and Sinhalese relationship testifies an intimate communal bond between these communities. indeed, Arab traders got married Sinhalese ladies in early period of Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka: This happened with the consent of Sri Lankan kings: Why did Sinhalese kings allow Muslim people to settle in the Island. There were some socio-historical and economic reasons for such privilege offered to Muslim in the early period of Muslim history in Sri Lanka.
Early Muslim settlement in Ceylon:
Historical records tell us that in the pre-colonial historical times Arab people were sole traders in South East Asian countries. They were experts in the sea navigation and they engaged in sea trade in pre-colonial times. According to SG Perera. “The initial settlement of Arab took place in Sri Lanka during the reign of the King Pandukabhaya. It was reported that the King allocated lands for the Yonas (Muslims) at Anuradhapura. This historical account was recorded in (Mahavansa). (S.G Perera. P.16, the Portuguese and Dutch Period 1505-1796). This is what historical chronicle of Sri Lanka says about early Muslim settlement in Sri Lanka. It was argued that with the defeat and disintegration of Roman Empire in the 3rd A.D their trade domination was also gradually crumbled and disappeared. Historians argued that this trade vacuum was duly filled by Arab and Persians sea traders in the South eastern Asian countries. This was the time when Islamic Empire was rapidly expanding in the East and West. Historians are amazed at the rapid progress of Islamic empire in a short of period of time. During the Umayyad dynasty Islam spread so quickly in the west and East: It was reported that after the conquest of Persia (Iran) Syria and Egypt Arabs were able to control all important ports and trading centers between East and West It was reported that by about the 8th century A.D the Arabs had formed colonies at the important ports of Indian and Ceylon coastal areas. It was reported that presence of Arabs at the ports of Ceylon was confirmed by the discoveries of some inscriptions in Colombo, Trincomalee and Puliantivu. ((Kamalika Pieris. P.8 )
Sri Lankan Muslim history was recorded by Ibn Batuta in his travelogue. According to him at the end of the 7th century a colony of Muslim traders had settled and established in Ceylon. Arab people were attracted to Ceylon because of its beautiful natural splendour. Moreover, Adam Peak might have attracted them as well: In addition to this people in Ceylon in those days were so friendly and kind. This might have paved the way for the permanent settlement: Moreover, history attests that early settlers were well received by the kings on those days. Most of them lived in the coastal areas in peace and harmony with local people and they did maintain trade and cultural contacts with Islam Empire in Baghdad and other Islamic cities. Kamilika Pieris. P. 8 )
The historical origin of Sri Lankan Muslim has also been traced back to the House of Hashemite as well. According to Tikiri Abeyasinghale in his Portuguese Rule in Ceylon 1594-1612 the first Mohammadans of Ceylon were a portion of those Arabs of the House of Hashim, who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the 8th century by the tyranny of the Caliph Abdel Malik bin Marwan, and who proceeding from the Euphrates Southwards made settlements in the concan in the southern parts of the Peninsula of India, on the Island of Ceylon and Malacca. The divine of them which came to Ceylon formed eight considerable settlements along the North-East, North and Western cost of that Island, viz one at Trincomalee, one at Jaffna. One at Colombo, one at barbareen, and one at point de Galle. (T.Abeyasinghe. p. 192). As we noted earlier socio-political and religious historical circumstances and factors contributed to Muslim settlements in Ceylon: Kamilika Peiris identifies the following religious and economic factors for the growth of Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka.
It is true that Muslim do not have historical chronicles as Sinhalese and Tamil have and yet, Arab trade history could be traced from Silk route trade history. It is true that we Muslim have failed to do any systematic and scientific research about the historical origin of Muslim in Sri Lanka. Works of Arab historians may be useful in this regard to rewrite Muslim history in Sri Lanka: It is a monumental task for Muslim intellectuals and academics to peruse such academic studies rather than referring to recent historical works. We should go classical historical works to understand our own history.
1) Economic interests of Sinhalese kings:
During those days Sinhalese people were only interested in farming and cultivation and they rarely dared to venture out of Island for fear of their lives. The Muslim people dominated trade on the sea and lands. Thus, Sinhalese kings encouraged and favoured Muslim settlements in Ceylon for economic and trade interests: Because Muslim people had overseas contact in trade and politics: Muslim made Ceylon a famous place in the Middle East by this trade expansion and their contacts with Muslim world. This seems that Sinhalese kings permitted Muslim settlements because they brought wealth, incomes and prosperity to the Island:
2) Religious tolerance of local Sinhalese people is another main factor that contributed to the growth of Muslim settlements in Ceylon. (Kamilika Peiris. P. 9)
It was unthinkable that Muslim people would have settled in Ceylon those days without official invitation of Sinhalese kings and people. Those were days of piracies in the sea and lands. How could Muslims people settle in a stage land without official reception? How could they would have survived for the last 10 centuries had they not been welcomed in this Island? Sinhalese people were kinds and compassionate by nature that might have encouraged Muslim settlements. It was mutual interests of both communities that made Muslim settlement possible in Sri Lanka. The pattern of early Muslim settlements testify that Muslim came to Sri Lanka as traders and businessmen: Most of early settlements were wet up around the surrounding of posts and coastal areas on trade routes. It was unthinkable that early Arab traders would have accompanied with wives to Ceylon in those precarious long sea journey to Ceylon: Hence, it could be assumed that they would have married local women (Kamilika Peiris. P. 9). This would not have taken place without approval of Sinhalese kings. Religiously speaking such assumption was not unviable those days. Marrying more than one wife is traditional and religiously sanctioned in Islam.
Lorna Dewaraja in her book “ The Muslims of Sri Lankan: 1000 years of ethnic harmony: 900 A.D 1915AD argues that Muslims have got one thousand years of peaceful history in Sri Lankan soil and they managed to get on well with Sinhalese throughout this long period of history: She maintains that Muslim people have some traditional Sinhalese family names which clearly allude to their ancestral family roots of Muslim people today: while Muslim people maintain their original family trees they preserved their religious identity as well in their Islamic names: Sinhala names were used in profession and legal documents to testify their origin and ownership o properties and lands: (Dewaraja.pp12-13) This shows that Sri Lankan Muslims have been maintaining their cultural and religious identity while recognising their ancestral and family trees in the Island:
Lorna Dewaraja further contends that Muslim people and Sinhalese kings had amicable relationship from ancient time right thorough Kandyan epoch. The kings of Sri Lankan reckoned that Muslim traders were economically and politically an asset and for that reason Kings not only gave permission for Muslim people to settle in Sri Lanka but also guaranteed their safety and security (Dewaraja. P.4) otherwise, how could Muslim people survive throughout long period in Sri Lnaka and she further notes that “ 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 development abroad. The Muslim trader with his navigational skills and overseas contacts become the secret channel of communication between the court and the outside world” (Dewaraja.P.8).
What a shrewd diplomacy of Sri Lankan kings was this? It is unfortunate that in our modern time some politicians and some extremist Sinhalese people are short-sighted in their assessment of such broader diplomacy today. Those days Sri Lankan kings were cleaver enough to know the importance of international relationship for the prosperity of the nation. They knew well that such cordial relationship was beneficial to all. Some kings sent some Muslim people as ambassadors to some Muslim nations: It was recorded that “in the 13th century Al-Haj Aby Uthman was sent by the Sri Lankan kings Buvanekabahu 1 to the Mamluk court of Egypt to negotiate direct trade (Dewaraja. PP.8-16). They were cleaver enough to use skills and experience of Muslims for the greater benefits of countries. Muslims served in the courtyard of kings as security personals and officials because those days Kandiyan kings had faith and confidence in Muslims. Kings knew well that Muslims would not betray them in all circumstance. Some Muslims served as chefs and cooks in the courtyard of kings because Kings had faith in them that they would not harm them at all. Some Muslim people provided supervision during the great Buddhist religious functions and festivals.
To be continued next week.