By Rifat Halim –
The recent execution of Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia has underlined the bogus claim of Arab ancestry by Sri Lankan Muslims (formerly known as Ceylon Moors). Ms. Nafeek, a domestic worker from a poor family in the East of Sri Lanka, spoke no language but Tamil. She requested a Tamil translator but was provided with a Malayalam-speaking minor employee whose command of the Tamil language was said to be insufficient. The Saudi authorities showed no clemency. Also, they refused to recognize her as a person of Arab descent. Her status was indistinguishable from that of any foreigner in that country.
A fierce controversy has been raging for many years in the country about the origins of the Tamil-speaking Muslims. In 1885, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan stated in a speech to the Ceylon Legislative Council that the Tamil-speaking Muslims are low caste Hindus who converted to Islam. Ramanathan’s thesis was that the Ceylon Moors, as the Sri Lankan Muslims were then called, were Muslim by religion and Tamil by ethnicity. Therefore, they did not deserve a separate seat in the Legislative Council.
In a paper presented to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1888, Ramanathan said the Tamil-speaking Muslims share more than just a language with the Tamils. He provided clinching evidence of the Tamil cultural features of the Tamil-speaking Muslims in the island. He pointed to Tamil customs such as tying the Tali , the eating of Patchoru, and the use of Alatti, that were prevalent among the Tamil-speaking Muslims. Many Sri Lankan Muslim names such as Periya Marikkar and Sinna Lebbe are clearly Tamil. Also, he said that the Tamil Hindus and the Tamil-speaking Muslims were physically indistinguishable.
Ramanathan later became the first elected leader of the country. He defeated Sir Marcus Fernando in the famous battle for the Educated Ceylonese Seat in 1911.
Over 128 years after Ramanathan’s speech, his thesis is intensely relevant. In every part of the Indian subcontinent, the Muslims claim South Asian descent except for the Tamil-speaking Muslims of Sri Lanka. The Tamil-speaking Muslims in India identify themselves as Tamils. The former President of India Abdul Kalam, a nuclear scientist, unequivocally calls himself a Tamil. AR Rahman, the Grammy award-winning musician states considers himself a Tamil.
Other leaders of Indian subcontinent have similarly embraced their South Asian ancestry. In India, many Muslims identify themselves as Kannadigas, Gujaratis, Kashmiris, Tamils and Malayalees. MA Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, said he was a Gujarati. ZA Bhutto always said that he was a Sindi. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman stated that he was a Bengali. The vast majority of Bangladeshi say they are Bengalis. The largest ethnic group in Pakistan are the Punjabis. There is even a small Tamil Muslim community in Karachi.
Tamil is the mother tongue of over 99% of the Sri Lankan Muslims. The Islamic sermons are overwhelmingly delivered in Tamil even in the Sinhalese majority districts of Kandy, Matara and Galle. Gujarati Muslims in Sri Lanka like myself cannot follow the Islamic sermons in that inpenetrable Dravidian language.
The Sri Lankan Muslim claim of Arab ancestry is not corroborated by the Arabs themselves. They treat the Sri Lankan Muslims as lowly converts speaking a strange tongue. Many Tamil-speaking Muslims from Sri Lanka have gone to the Middle-East looking for a homecoming. But, the homecoming was not forthcoming, as the cruelty inflicted on Rizana Nafeek shows.
There can be no greater endorsement of Ramanathan’s view than the hysterical response of the Sri Lankan Muslims. Massive tomes consisting of fake geneology and spurious theories have published to support the Arab origins. Ramanathan has been angrily vilified well into the 21st century. Anger often follows an uncomfortable truth.
The angry authors include ILM Abdul Azeez, the President of the Moors Union, who claimed in the Muslim Guardian in 1907 that “Most of the ancestors of the Ceylon Moors were, according to tradition, members of the family of Hashim.” He did not explain how the vast majority of the Ceylon Moors do not speak a single word of Arabic, but overwhelming speak Tamil. Other specious claims have been made by irate academics such as Qadri Ismail and Mirak Raheem. These include the curious claim that the Arab traders spoke Tamil because they married Tamil women.
The anti-Halal campaign of the Bodhu Bala Sena has put the Muslims of Sri Lanka back in the spotlight. Former Ambassador Izeth Hussain has written in the Island recently that the Sri Lankan Muslims are the most servile minority in the country.
Izeth Hussain is correct. Sri Lankan Muslims have prostrated themselves in front of the communal Sinhalese politicians. Sir Razik Fareed voted for Sinhala to be made the sole official language in 1944 and 1956. In 1948-9, Dr. MCM Kaleel and Dr. TB Jayah, who were both in the Cabinet, supported the disenfranchisement of the Indian community. In August 1983, Dr Kaleel, then President of All Ceylon Muslim League, justified the massacre as a legitimate response to the Tamil demand for separate state. He objected to the walkout in the Indian Parliament by the Indian Muslim League, who were protesting against the anti-Tamil pogrom. Dr. Kaleel was blind to the fact that many Muslims were killed in the 1983 as they were mistaken for Tamils.
The Sri Lankan Muslim are neither fish nor fowl. The Arabs have rejected them. The Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus are aghast at their specious claims.
Hence, it is high time that the Sri Lankan Muslims embrace their Tamil ethnicity. Tamil is the oldest spoken language in the Indian subcontinent. Islamic Tamil literature has a thousand year heritage. Tamil is the most secular language in this region. There is a vast body of Tamil literature that embraces Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism and Islam. Ramanathan was an apostle of peace and unity. Following him will bring unity to this island and end the misgivings of this complexed minority.