By Ameer Ali –
From the 8th century, when history recorded its first evidence of Muslim arrival in Sri Lanka, to the 16th century, when the Portuguese set foot in the island, the Land of Rubies (Jazirat al-Yakut), as Sri Lanka was described by Al-Balazuri, a 9th century Arab historian, was the safest abode for Muslims in the Asian region. Arab and Persian traders, travellers and mystics frequented the island, not only in search of spices and precious stones but also in pursuit of that legendary footprint of the first man, Adam. It was commerce and curiosity and not conquest and conversion that brought the Muslims to the shores of Sri Lanka. These visitors were welcomed with open arms by the island’s Buddhist rulers, who, driven by the economic motive of gaining access to the country’s products in the then flourishing Caliphate markets, extended the Buddhist hospitality and tolerance towards Muslims and their Islamic faith. It was in the spirit of that tolerance and cordiality, and perhaps to ingratiate himself with Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the Umayyad Governor of Iraq, that the Sri Lankan monarch sent as gift the widows of some Arab merchants who died in Sri Lanka. How this incident eventually became the casus belli for the conquest of Sind by Muhammad bin Qasim is a separate story. What matters are the historical facts that cemented the centuries old Buddhist-Muslim peaceful coexistence in Serendib, another Arabic name for Sri Lanka. Apart from the commercial interest however, there was another reason for this hospitality that has escaped attention in the writings and research of local historians.
Eighth century was the meeting point in history between Islam and Buddhism. While Islam penetrated into the heart of Central Asia and North West India at that time, Buddhism retreated from those regions and began spreading around the Bay of Bengal and inner Asia. Within the world of Islam, there was a dynastic change in 750 from Umayyads to the Abbasids, and the seat of the Caliphate shifted from Damascus to Baghdad. In the wars that took place in this dynastic struggle, there was one Buddhist family, which played a prominent role. This was the family of Barmakids, who controlled the famous Nawbahar monastery in Balkh in Afghanistan. One of the Barmakids, Khalid ibn Barmak converted to Islam and aided Abu Muslim in his war preparations against the Umayyad ruler Marwan. Later, during the rule of Caliph al-Mansur, Khalid became a vizier. His son, Yahya tutored Mansur’s son, the legendary Harun al-Rashid and the Barmak family rose to dizzying heights during Harun’s rule before the entire family had a fatal ending at the hands of the same ruler. However, Islamic civilization owes a debt to this Buddhist family because it was one of the Barmakids, who had a hand in designing the circular model of the Abbasid capital, Baghdad, based on the monumental Buddhist Round City of Erk Kala in Merv. The Barmakids were also instrumental in shifting the focus of the Abbasid translation movement, which until then was concentrating on the intellectual output of ancient Greece, towards India. According to Johan Elverskog,“the Barmakid viziers not only sent envoys to India to bring back medicines, texts, and scholars, but they also promoted Islamic engagement with the East. To this end they supported the translation of Sanskrit texts into Arabic so that this material be accessible to Muslim scholars.”(Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2010, pp. 60-61). Frederick Starr, in his seminal publication, Lost Enlightenment (Princeton University Press, Princeton, Oxford, 2013), goes on to add that, “For centuries the Buddhist Barmaks had served as cultural intermediaries between India and Central Asia. … Now the Barmaks continued this tradition as Muslims, forging a link between Eastern learning and Baghdad” (p. 135).
What is the relevance of all this to medieval Sri Lanka? At a time when there were no newspapers or other modern means of gathering information it was direct contact with people and the messages and stories that they brought with them that helped widening peoples’ intellectual horizon. The link with Buddhism and the rise to fame of Buddhists in the Caliphate must have been news carried to Sri Lanka through the Arab and Persian visitors. What news that circulated in the bazaar must have reached the royal household through state officials and spies. One cannot therefore avoid the conclusion that the Buddhist monarchs being aware of the coalescence of the two civilizations in the Islamic caliphate were too willing to accommodate the Muslim visitors and allowed them to become long-term residents, which formed the nucleus of the Muslim community in this country. This solidly built Buddhist-Islam and Sinhalese-Muslim religious and ethnic cohabitation, which the colonial interregnum failed to destroy and which withstood even the 1915 riots, made Sri Lanka the safest abode for Muslims in the Asian region.
Why then did it become an insecure abode?
Much of the blame should be laid at the door of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Before explaining this argument further a few words on nationalism are necessary as backdrop.
The spirit of nationalism, a product of 17th century Europe, can be a uniting as well as a dividing force in plural societies depending on the circumstance. Nationalism as a supra-force can unite the different components of a plural society to fight against a common enemy. In fact, it was the supranational spirit which was responsible in many cases to achieve independence from colonialism. However, when nationalism allows sub-nationalisms to crop up that can become the poison to destroy plural societies. This was the story behind the collapse of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and also the story behind the current ethnic tumult in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka did not achieve independence from British colonialism by way of any armed struggle, but rather obtained it like a gift when the British ran away from India. Hence, there was no need for a supra-nationalist spirit to grow up to unite the various ethnic and religious elements in the country’s plural make up, but several sub-nationalisms developed each uniting its own group to protest against foreign domination. The most prominent of these was Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. This sub-nationalism that grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was more or less an intellectual campaign with the primary objective of raising Sinhala Buddhist consciousness against foreign political and economic domination. In the post-independence era however, this sub-nationalism became a political weapon in the hands of politicians to win power through electoral politics. When SWRD, the Oxford educated and a brilliant orator in English, who struggled to speak his mother tongue Sinhalese, introduced the Sinhala Only campaign it was primarily intended to rally the Sinhala Buddhist masses to defeat the UNP at the elections. By the time he realised that he had sacrificed by that measure the long-term stability of the country for short term political gain it was too late for damage control and the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist genie killed him. Once the genie was taken out of the bottle no government that came after SWRD was prepared to put it back. They needed it desperately to win electoral political contests.
In the wake of LTTE’s demand for Eelam, which threatened to bisect the country physically, the psychological fear of the Sinhalese that they were about to lose the only land they have to call their home whipped up the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist myopia with virulence. Even a comprehensive military victory against the LTTE has not removed that fear. The fact that the Eelam campaign has now become transnational will keep this nationalism alive for years to come. But more importantly and in the current context this nationalism only serves the purpose of winning elections. In the hands of power hungry Sinhalese politicians supported by a small minority from the Sangha, and who have no solutions to offer to the grinding economic, environmental, social and administrative issues facing the common man, ethnic cum religious nationalism has become the only trump to capture power. Thus, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in the hands of a vocal minority has now transmogrified into a poisonous philosophy of ethnic cleansing. This philosophy created the political psychosis that produced the Ampara mayhem a week ago, and before that in Alutgama, Gintota and in various other places. It is that psychosis once again turned a crime committed by a few Muslim drunkards in Digana, into a pretext for Muslim cleansing in the hands of a mob led by one notorious Buddhist monk. The silence of the rulers to condemn the instigators, its failure to punish the criminals involved and its tardiness in compensating the victims speak volumes about its own readiness to exploit this psychosis whenever it suits them.
Have the Muslims themselves contributed to this sad outcome? Part II will answer this question.
*To be continued..
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia