By Uditha Devapriya –
දොර ඇරලා බලපන්
පායයි තව මොහොතින් නව රැස්
ඉර සේවය කරමින්
සිරිපා කඳු මුදුනින්
භාවා ආදම් මලෙයි
Open your door and look
In a moment more sunrays will dawn
Because of the sun’s great service
There will be paradise
On the summit of
— Mahagama Sekara, “Mak Nisada Yath”
The earliest recorded engagement of a Muslim with Samantakuta, according to Senerath Paranavitana, occurs in 851 CE in a travel account by an Arab merchant called Soleyman. However, Soleyman does not refer to it as aadam malayi, the name we see in the later Muslim reconstruction of the Peak. Instead he alludes to it as “Al-Rohoun”, a term the 9th century Indian poet Rajasekhara uses in the Balaramanaya. “Rohoun” was a corruption of Ruhuna, to which the area surrounding the mountain belonged; it was a term apparently used by Arabs and even Indians.
Marco Polo, the merchant from the Mediterranean, does not write at length about the Peak’s religious significance, and instead reports what he heard from the inhabitants of the country. A contemporary account, written much earlier, is that of the Franciscan priest Giovanni de’ Marignolli, who dwells at length on its geographic contours and cultural associations. Another contemporary, the scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta, is said to have gone on a pilgrimage under the patronage of the then King of Jaffna, after which he observed that an Imam by the name of Abu Abdallah, who died in 953 CE, was the first Muslim pilgrim to climb it. We can thus locate Muslim pilgrimages to the summit in around the 10th century CE.
Muslim engagement with Sri Lanka predates these pilgrimages, and Arab engagement predates even the coming of Islam. We know from the Mahavamsa that Pandukabaya, after winning his war against his uncles, settled the Yonas at the Western gate, and that “younna” was a term used to refer to the Moors by the Portuguese and the Dutch. But while records do sketch out the existence of pre-Islamic settlements, given that these texts were occupied more with ecclesiastical conquests than the day to day lives of the people, we can’t determine whether the yonas that Mahanama Thera refers to were the same younnas who became the Moors of Sri Lanka..
So not until the 6th century AD do we come across references to their settling in the country. From the accounts of merchants we can ascertain that there were three trade routes operating in the region: the Indian to the North, the Chinese to the East, and the Arab to the West. Sri Lanka’s receptivity to the influences of all three had a great deal to do with its emergence as a distinct geographic entity, separated from India. In any case, as historians like Fernand Braudel have noted, by the 7th century trade in the Far East was mainly carried on by the three economies mentioned above.
In what form did the Arabs come here, and where did they settle? We know the answer to the first question: they came as traders, and though they gained recognition from local rulers they desisted from participating in the administration of the country. To the second, however, we don’t know, since scholars are divided.
Some believe that they originally settled in the North in localities like Alupaanthi, Usaan, and Sonakan Palu, which substantiates the claim that they rapidly became a Tamil speaking community. Other scholars contend they moved further south-west; records indicate that a landing was made at Barberyn, modern day Beruwala, in 1024 AD. In fact two of the oldest Mosques in the country, Abrar and Ketchimalai, were built in Beruwela; the Abrar, the oldest, was constructed in 920 AD, indicating that a thriving Islamic community existed even back then.
Sri Lanka was not a thriving trade based civilisation, and though Fa-Hien wrote that the country was inhabited at first by yakshas and nagas who traded with merchants and sources indicate that in the pre-Vijaya era there was a firm agricultural society we cannot take these as evidence that the country was inclined towards commerce before the Indo-Aryan colonisation. In any case this was not a maritime society. Megasthenes does observe that elephants from Taprobana were superior to those from the mainland and we do come across accounts of large Sri Lankan ships conducting trade with China, which would show that we were a thriving export economy, but we don’t really know whether the country developed sophisticated mercantile practices before the Arabs began settling here.
In contrast to the later Western colonial powers and the Muslims themselves in other parts of the subcontinent, the Arabs formed one of the most peaceful ethnic groups here. Records indicate that the kings reciprocated their goodwill by encouraging them to build settlements. They soon became intermediaries, exporting cinnamon and other minerals and importing fabric and luxury goods. For their practices, they gained such a reputation that the Janavamsa bestowed on them a Sinhala epithet they carry to this day: marakkalaya (“much shrewdness”).
The adroitness with which they conducted themselves must be contrasted with the almost Evangelical zeal with which they were able to colonise the other parts of the region. This does not mean that they were hostile towards the local cultures the way that later colonial powers were. Vinod Moonesinghe, for instance, tells me of having come across night time Quran reading sessions in the Maldives; these sessions could only have been a creolisation of Buddhist pirith chanting ceremonies, which would have been obliterated after the country was converted to Islam in 1193 AD. In fact the fusion of these two cultures, the indigenous and the Muslim, was seen in North India as well, though perhaps because Islamisation was never carried out as zealously here they did not come together in Sri Lanka.
We can conjecture, though we can never verify, that Buddhists were quite tolerant of the practices of the Muslims even if they ran counter to the teachings of their faith. Paul Pieris in his account of Portuguese rule, referring to two authorities, tells us that after the marauding invaders made friendly overtures to Sinhala people and the latter reciprocated them, the Sinhala people were angered by attempts to kill their cattle. We know that the Muslim population in the island predated the Portuguese by at least nine centuries. Therefore, we can speculate that their customs were tolerated as those of a community which had been absorbed to the country, while the slaughter of cattle by a foreign people was looked at as an act of disrespect, if not aggression.
The ties between the Sinhala people and Muslims of the time were tested, and then strengthened, by attacks made on both groups by the Portuguese. Fresh from their Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese tried to exclude Muslim traders from the new country the capital of which they planned to establish a Fort at. In 1518 de Albergaria, the Governor, visited the king and asked him to move the Muslims out, but having conferred with his people, the latter was asked not to accede to it, since the Portuguese were seeking to impose their rule through deception; Pieris tells us that a case for the Islamic community was made there by Buddhist monks.
By now their reputation had transcended their position as traders; in fact, they had brought with them their renowned treatises on medicine, which no doubt endeared them to the kings: not only were they allowed to practice their religion freely, but they were also often employed as royal physicians. Owing to their widespread reputation, the rulers thus accommodated them whenever they were ostracised: Senarat of Kandy, for instance, settled some 4,000 Muslims along the Eastern coast in 1626 AD after they had been chased by the Portuguese from the Western coast.
On their part, the Muslims responded. Here we can recount two instances.
The first. It is said that Rajasinghe II of Kandy hid himself in a large tree in the village of Pangaragammana after fleeing from a failed encounter with the Portuguese, and when the Portuguese searching for him demanded of a Moor woman (who knew of his whereabouts) as to where he was hiding, and she refused to divulge the secret, they killed her immediately and cut her to pieces.
The second. There is an account of Narendrasinghe stopping at Sellankendal on his way to Navadkadu; the Moors of Sellankendal ensured his stay was as comfortable as possible. Later, when news of a would be usurper coming to assassinate the King compelled them to raise arms against the intruding forces, those who had come to pay respects to Narendrasinghe laid down their lives to protect him. For this gesture the grateful King is said to have presented the village with his personal flag, along with a horde of other invaluable symbols and items belonging to him.
All of this shows that we have to account for our history in order to bring together the ethnic, religious, and social groups of our country. Here I quote Vinod Moonesinghe: “[W]e must adjust our exclusivist historiographies. Like our ancestors, we should both emphasise the similarities and enjoy the diversity. The first step could be, as the late Regi Siriwardena suggested, highlighting ‘the diverse ethnic strands that have gone into the making of our nationhood and the various elements that these ethnic groups have contributed to our culture, and indeed to our daily existence’.”
I agree with him there. I think we all should.
*The writings of Premakumara de Silva, Megasthenes, Paul Pieris, Latheef Farook, and of course Vinod Moonesinghe were used for this article. Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com