25 May, 2019

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Where “Muslim” Is An Ethnic Label As Well As A Religious Typification

By Michael Roberts

Dr. Michael Roberts

From Waleel Aly to Greg Sheridan and Brendan O’Neill[1] the foreign writers who have ventured to comment on the recent Islamic jihadist attacks in Sri Lanka have invariably considered the category “Muslim” to be a religious identity. This is not completely erroneous. But this reading obscures the fact that the term is also an ethnic concept when placed in juxtaposition with the terms Sinhalese (Sinhala) and Tamils. Within the island one must attend carefully to the context of usage. Not surprisingly, these foreign reporters are unaware of these nuances. 

Those whom we refer today in Sri Lankan English as “Muslim” were described till about the 1930s as “Mohammedan” and/or “Moor.” The term “Moors’’ was a racial category rendering them different from the term “Malay” – so that the Malays were a separate category under “RACE” in the 1921 census and counted as distinct from the Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Europeans, Burghers & Eurasians, Veddas and “Others.”[2] This differentiation is enshrined in the Sinhala speech insofar as Malays are identified as ja, javun or javo; while the Moors are described as yon or marakkala or thambiyo.

There is a looseness and some slippage however — because marakkala and thambi can also refers to “Mohammedans” and/or “Muslims” (and therefore could conceivably embrace most Malays?). The Mohammedans (Moors) were, in their turn, differentiated into “Ceylon Moors” and “Indian Moors” — with the former attributing themselves with Arab descent rather than Indian descent. 

This picture is further complicated by the presence in the island, and particularly in Colombo, of small trading and business communities from India who adhere to strands of the Mohammedan or Muslim faith: namely, the Borahs, Memons, Sindhis – communities that are not from the Sunni side of the Islamic religious order. 

Therefore, “Mohammedan” (or Muslim) takes its meaning from its context of usage. In juxtaposition with the categories Burgher, Sinhalese, Tamil, Malay, it is an ethnic label. Where aligned in distinction from Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, it is a religious category. It therefore carries a duality of meaning. This dual-sidedness is accentuated by the Sinhala usage. The Sinhala word, marakkala (Moor), is often used to refer to Mohammedans as well. Though there is ambiguity on this point, marakkala does not, unlike the English word “Mohammedan” (Muslim), usually encompass the (Malays). 

Indeed, the more erudite Sinhala word for Moors was yon (yona and yonaka) in distinction from javun, javo, ja. Thus, Piyadasa Sirisena the Sinhala activist and polemicist directed his chauvinist diatribes in both literary novels and newspaper spats at the yon[3]. I am reliably informed that this label is no longer widespread insofar as the English word “Muslim” has been incorporated in Sinhala-speech as a group-marker. When Sinhalese today wish to be caustic and derogatory, the term they deploy is likelsy to be hambaya or hambayo (plural) – a word that has a long history[4].

Another appellation that was in use in the past was thambi and thambiya – with the plural being thambiyo or thambiyas. The inflection “ya” and its context of usage can render the word into a disparaging epithet.

Given such dualities, and the ambiguities attached to the everyday usage of such terms, it is not surprising that one finds the terms “Moor” and “Mohammedan” being used interchangeably in the official British literature, sometimes in the same document[5]. Indeed, it is probably because of such ambiguity, and because the category Mohammedan is both an ethnic and a religious label, that the term “community” has become such an important part of the English vocabulary in Asia. 

If one visits the Census of Ceylon 1921 one will find one section devoted to the “Races.” These groups are identified as Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Europeans, Burghers & Eurasians, Malays, Veddas, and Others. The Moors in their turn were subdivided into “Ceylon Moors” and “Indian Moors.” The 1963 Census seems to have been the last enumeration which sustained this internal differentiation: recording 55,400Indian Moors or 0.52% of the total population[6].

The census work seems to be cast in archaic stone because even to this day the enumeration does not adhere to local argot (in the practice of using “Muslim” as an ethnic label); but “describes  the ethnic groups as follows: Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamil, Indian Tamil, Sri Lanka Moor, Burgher, Malay, others” (email note from KK de Silva – see below). However, it is likely that the enumerators on the ground sorted this out in pragmatic ways and converted answers that said “muslim” or “marakkala” into the box “Moors.”

APPENDIX: Ethnographic Data via Inquiry sent to Email Contacts

Please comment and Correct me if I err:

A = I notice that reportage abroad –but also maybe in Sri Lanka – treats the term “Muslims’ as a religious category. But in my view the term is often an ethnic concept when placed in juxtaposition with Sinhalese (Sinhala) and Tamils. Correct?

B = in this regard clearly we must look at Sinhala usage” where I believe the term marakkala  or yon [or “Mulsim’ inserted into Sinhala talk] is an ethnic term in the sense jaatiya or daya or janavargaya.

Michael

ANSWERS FROM EARLY BIRDS

Vinod Moonesinghe, 1 May 2019

Correct. It is analogous to the term “Jews”. Like the Jewish people in medieval times, Sinhalese or Tamil people may become Muslim by religious conversion, most often cemented by marriage. In the Kandyan kingdom, Muslims were traders and money lenders. According to Davy, they were considered to belong to the Karawa caste, who also traded.

They are distinct from other Muslim ethnic groups, such as Malays, Bhoras or Memons.

Merchants were known as “hambankarayo”, derived from “hambaankarayo” (a “hambaan” being a country craft, from “sampan”) and the term is also used in the Kandyan provinces for peddlers.  Muslims being traders, they were also identified thus, and they came to be known as “hambayo”. Initially the term may have been used for coast Muslims as distinct from marakkala (“Moor”) for Ceylon Muslims,

Marakkala is rarely used today, the Muslims preferring to be known as “muslim”. The preferred colloquial term among the Sinhalese is “thambi”, originally a term of respect, but now derogatory.

Hassina Leelarathna, 1 May 2019

I was not aware that Malays were referred to as marakkala (other than in error).  Wouldn’t go down well with many Malays — at least the older generations.

To let you into a community secret — there’s a derogatory Malay word for Moors: killin (pronounced kill-inn not killing). There’s also some reverse slippage with Moors being referred to as Hambaya, which, as you might know, originally referred to Hambantota Malays, used now for all Malays (also derogatory).

There’s also some reverse slippage with Moors being referred to as Hambaya, which, as you might know, originally referred to Hambantota Malays, used now for all Malays (also derogatory).

Correct. It is analogous to the term “Jews”. Like the Jewish people in medieval times, Sinhalese or Tamil people may become Muslim by religious conversion,

Gerald Peiris, 1 May 2019

Michael

My understanding is that all adherents of Islam (the religion) are correctly referred to as Muslims.

I also understand that religion is one of the main ‘markers’ of ethnicity. That is to say, an ‘ethnic group’ is identified by its distinctiveness in religion, or language (usually the ‘mother tongue’), or caste, or tribe or even the geographical area (‘region’) of origin/habitat or a mix of any of these markers.

The term yon or yonaka is hardly ever in use now – but some of the older writers of fiction in Sinhala like Piyadasa Sirisena and W. A. de Silva used them as a designation for all Muslims or more specifically Muslims from Afghanistan. ‘Thambi’, (despite its meaning ‘younger brother’ in Thamil, is also in also use as a reference to Muslims. ‘Hambayo’ is a derogatory term used by our jackals to refer to Muslims.

I and several others like me use terms like Sinhala and Thamil in our references to language, and ‘Sinhalese’ and ‘Tamil’ to refer to the ethnic group, which, I believe, is the correct usage.

Regards, Gerry

Sunil Vijaya, 1 April 2019

first and foremost, learn to write plain simple English!  I learnt this in that great country called Canada. you don’t need to write legal English to request an explanation!  sometimes when people write English first u need to decipher the words and then u need to decipher what they mean!

A. Yes, you are correct. the term islamist is more appropriate eq. burgher = muslim. – a collective term.

B, yona was used in ancient times – anu kings had jews UDEV and arabs YONAS in the cabinet.  maybe marakkala like hambayas is a derogatory term stemmed out of disliking.

the word JATIYA has been commonize now in sri lanka to identify all us sinhela(?) or sri lankan – hela people (?) which encompass sinhala, tamil, muslim, burgher.

those days it was sinhala jaathiyer – demala jaathiyer. now there is new twist.  well i think its time to de-tribalise sri lanka! and think sri lankan and act sri lankan.

I am no scholar not an expert on this.

K. K. De Silva, 1 May 2019

Prof. Michael

A – During our school days, the word used to denote Sri Lankans who followed the Islam religion was ‘Moor’. If I am not mistaken, the word “Moor’ was used even in reporting statistics by the Dept. of Census and Statistics. However, there were others who followed the Islam religion like the Malays. The Malays were not called Moors but I believe both groups were classified as Muslims.

B – During our school days, ‘marakkala’ was the word used in Sinhala for Sri Lankans who followed the Islam religion. The word ‘yonaka’ was also used in Sinhala to describe this category. The Malays were not called ‘marakkala’ but I think the word ‘ja’ was used in Sinhala to describe them.

In addition, there were others like the Borah community, the Afghan (money lending) community, Parsi community etc who followed the Islam religion

You are right.

Regards

K

PS Prof. Michael, …. I checked up the Dept of Census and Statistics website and found that they do not use the word Muslim, but describe the ethnic groups as follows: Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamil, Indian Tamil, Sri Lanka Moor, Burgher, Malay, others.

Vasantha Premaratne, 1 May 2019

Dear Professor,

Personally I think Muslim is essentially an ethno-religious category. As far as I know three aren’t Muslim Christians, Muslim Hindus etc. This is different when it comes to Malays I guess

End Notes

[1] “Sheridan’s Concise Overview of Security Failures and the Islamic Extremist Threat in Sri Lanka … and This World,” 29 April 2019, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/?p=35291&preview=true … & Brendan O’Neill, “Double Standards among Liberals in the West: No RAGE from Sri Lankan Horrors in Contrast with Reaction to Christchurch,” 29 April 2019, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2019/04/28/double-standards-among-liberals-in-the-west-no-rage-from-sri-lankan-horrors-in-contrast-with-reaction-to-christchrch/

[2] See Report on the Census of Ceylon, 1921 Vol I—Part I, pp 191-232.

[3] On this dimension, see the details in Roberts et al, People Inbetween, Colombo, Sarvodaya Publications, 1989, pp. 10-14, 17-19.

[4] As Vinod Mooneisnghe notes, the term seems to originate from the trading activity of the Muslim in-migrants and derives from the Cantonese term sampan which described the type of boats utilized by the Malays and some Moor traders.

[5] See FG Tyrell, “Memo on Disturbances in Gampola,” 12 July 1907, DNA, 83/1373. For the context and details of the 1915 anti-Moor pogrom see Roberts, “Marakkala Kolahalaya: Mentalities directing the Pogrom of 1915,” in Roberts, Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009, pp. 113-154.

[6] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Sri_Lanka.

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  • 5
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    Thank You to Dr Roberts for this enlightening article.

    I am just worried that these recent pestilential events will mean the end of Sri Lankan life as we know it. I expect I will not enjoy another five-star evening ifthar in a five-star hotel during Ramazan. Will I ever be able to greet some of my old Muslim buddies with that familiar ‘ado thambiya’ ever again? Will, I ever be chastised for eating (even occasionally) at Pilawoos, as is my secret pleasure?

    Those of us who passed on the urgent warnings of our despairing Muslim friends about the festering evil in our midst were never believed. No chance, even when it came from proper intelligence sources. It must then be true, that the only advice President Gamarala takes these days is from his Malabe sasthra-karaya.

    The times, they are surely changing.

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      Spring Koha

      Sumandiran MP was alluding to a new conspiracy theory.
      Is there any truth in it or what made this lawyer man to commit himself to something on the record that is confidential?

      By the way have you heard any ruling on the Eater Sunday carnage by Lord Michael Morris, Baron Naseby who is the ultimate authority on Sri Lankan affairs?

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    Dear Dr. MR,
    You’re right in general terms. But there is a difference. There is no people or nation is identified by religious name. Jews are ethnic identity and not religious one, even though people mix them up conveniently. Likewise, “Muslim” is simply a religious identity. But, unfortunately the “Jihadee” mindset comically creates an useless identification of “Muslim” on each and every thing. eg. Take Arab they identify themselves as “Arab” regardless of Muslim or Christian Arab or Yazidee Arab or an atheist Arab( we may see in the future Buddhist or Hindu Arab). So religiously Muslims of SL must have a clear ethnic identity, due to its fine mixture with many origins. Persians, Arabs, Sinhalese and ( low cast Tamils of the Tamilnadu- this is only to make (Tamil high cast) Ronan and again high cast Siva Sanker and people like them happy) My answer is that our ethnic name is not Muslim, but “Sonakar”in Tamil, “Yonakka ” in Sinhalese. And if you want “Moors”( conveniently) in English. High cast Tamil Ronan and Silva Sankar, Dr. MR is the right person for you further wrestling in this subject.Therefore I rest my case.

    • 5
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      Stating the truth makes you angry, as you people want to create new identities based on myths. . You are no Sonakar or Yonnaka ( Greek/western Asian) or Moor( Berber North African) . The Arab Persian, Sinhalese element ( most Sinhalese themselves, especially the coastal variety are themselves of recent Tamil origin) and what ever the Sri Lankan Muslims want to claim as part of their ethnic make up , whilst denying their more than 90-95% largely low caste ( fact not mean as an insult) is only miniscule. Therefore they are basically Tamil Hindu or Tamils who belonged to other religions who converted to Islam. Some by force , most to escape the Hindu caste system. 99% of this slight admixture took place in their original homeland in South India and not in the island. You can have a different identity but the identity should be correctly based on your actual origin , Tamil Dravidian Muslims, not based on miniscule amounts of Western Asian ( Sonakar) or non existent North African Moor blood. You are more than 90-95% Tamil Dravidian origin and this is the origin that should be correctly recognised as you origin, not small miniscule amounts of Arab, Persian, Camel , Sheep , Dung Beetle or any other. Your culture for centuries was very Tamil and you followed the Sufi Islam that was peculiar to Tamil Muslims until you people deliberately decided to Arabise and radicalise your selves.

    • 4
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      Contd: All ethnicities have slight admixture of other people/races but this slight admixture does not define them. Even the modern day Tamils are a mixture of Dravidian, Aryan, Australoid, Arab, Persian, Greek, Roman , other European and east Asian . So will the Sinhalese and other ethnicities. So stop posting garbage to justify your lies. DNA has also proved the Sri Lankan Muslims are basically Dravidian and are closely related to the South Indian people and to South Indian Muslims not to Arabs, Persians , Camels or Dung Beetle. This means all this little admixture that Sri Lankan Muslims love to highlight as their origin , are not worth talking about. The word Moor given by the Portuguese to all South Asian Muslims , had nothing to do with race or ethnicity , they used it in terms of religion , as the only Muslims they met prior to their discovery voyages , were the Moors of North Africa. The opportunistic immigrant South Indian origin converted Tamil Dravidian Muslims of Sri Lanka, with small amounts of Arab, Persian and whatever slight admixtures , that will be found in equal amounts in non Muslim Tamils and even many Sinhalese, jumped on this incorrect name , to justify and create a new identity for them for political and economic benefits , especially for their southern elite and politicians and then started highlight the miniscule amounts of Arab, Persian , Camel and Dung Beetle origin they had and down play their actual more than 90-95% Dravidian Tamil origin. The British encouraged this for their divide and rule policy but really did not take this Arab/Persian or whatever origin claim seriously and for most purposes lumped the Sri Lankan Muslims with the Tamils.

    • 3
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      Contd: However after independence the Sinhalese and the island’s selfish power hungry Muslim elite and politicians deliberately made this a big issue. You are one of them . Trying to act reasonable but in reality trying to purport this myth and ridicule me and the truth that I state , as you do want this to be told , so have now reluctantly admitted to the Tamil ( largely low caste ) origin of the Sri Lankan Muslims, as you have no other way but still are trying to highlight the miniscule amounts of Arab, Persian and other origin to the Sri Lankan Muslim genepool , as something large. When challenged to produce evidence of Arab or other western Asian origin for the Sri Lankan Muslims , the Moors Islamic Council could not. They were only able to produce evidence of a distant male Arab ancestor for around 100- 200 prominent Muslim families in the island. These people will make up the most around 40000 in a population of 1.8 million Sri Lankan Muslims around 2.22% of the island’s Muslim population and even amongst these people other than this distant male Arab or whatever ancestor , 90% or more of all their other ancestors would have been Tamils. I did not want to comment but you deliberately dragged me into this and tried to ridicule me and the truth what I stated, as you and the rest of the island’s brainwashed Muslims do not like the truth. The problem in this island is both the Sinhalese and the Muslims want to create lies and myths about their origin and these claims are taken to the extreme. They do not want to acknowledge their actual Tamil/Dravidian origin and heritage and give the island’s Tamils their due rights. Now you get Fake Aryan Sinhalese Buddhist Fascists and Fake Arab Wahhabi.Salafists , both committing dragging the island down with ridiculous claims and horrible atrocities and the victims largely Tamils.

    • 0
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      Yugoslavia recognized Muslims as a nationality.
      The Muslims are a distinct nationality in China called the Hui.
      *
      The Muslims of this country are a mixed race. Many of have features pointing to Arab (much less Persian) ancestry, but not totally Arab. There were of course local converts and immigrants from South India.
      Arab visitors who settled adapted Tamil because it was the predoimant language of the region at the time.
      Being free of the fetters of caste mixing among Muslims war freer than among Tamils or Sinhalese.
      The term Moor was imposed by the British but it referred to the Arabs of Maghreb and later Spain.
      The term Yonaka/Sonaka probably has its roots in Yavana, a reference to the Greeks at a time.
      *
      Warning: Don’t take for granted claims to high caste by any joker, ask for DNA evidence.

      • 1
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        Well known Tamil hater, fake intellect and apologist for Sinhalese and Muslim extremism and racism get your facts correct. Instead of constantly posting your two cents worth garbage and making a fool of yourself here. The Muslims of former Yugoslavia are correctly classified as Slavic Muslims of Bosnia/Herzegovina, identifying their correct racial/ethnic origin . They are not just called Muslims but Slavic Muslims , just like Arab Muslim , Turkish Muslim etc. They speak a language or dialect called Bosnian which is a dialect of Serb/Croat as they are white Slavic Europeans who converted to Islam during the Ottoman rule. Some of them may have Arab or Turkish ancestry but this is like the Sri Lankan Muslims is minor. Only the ethnic Chinese who are Muslims are called Hui and not the Turkic Muslims in China. This denotes they are ethnically Chinese but Muslim by religion.

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        Contd: No one including me denies that there is some Arab amongst certain Muslim families in the island . However even amongst these families the Arab element is miniscule and they are largely of Dravidian Tamil origin . Either from Tamil Nadu or then Tamil Kerala. Lots of Sinhalese and Tamils also have very light skin and have very Arab, Greek and other European features, however none of them claim to be Arab , Greek or European but state that they are Sinhalese or Tamil as this is their predominant origin and heritage Muslims are conveniently claiming this and highlighting these miniscule amount of Arab and other western Asian origin as their sloe origin or heritage or stating they have significant amount of this origin when in reality it is not . Arab or part Arab origin is only confined to a few hundred families who will make up less than 3% of the island’s Muslim population. The rest are all Dravidian Tamil ( largely low caste) converts to Islam and this is a fact. Trying to claim an Arab heritage for an entire population which only less than 3% of them partially have is like the 1.3 million Sinhalese and Tamil Christians in the island claiming European origin/heritage and as proof of this , showing the part European 40000 strong Burgher community. They did not adapt Tamil , they speak Tamil as they are Tamil.

  • 2
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    Who are ‘Demala’ and what is “Demala Bhashawa’?
    —-
    According to my understanding Sinhalayo used the term ‘Demala’ to Dravidians who invaded Sinhale. King Gamini Abhaya (aka Dutu Gemunu) used the term ‘Demalu’ in his famous statement. British identified the people brought to this country from Hindusthan by colonial rulers as ‘Malabars’. I guess because a large number of them were from ‘Malabar’. That could be the reason why ‘Yapanaya Demala’ people use a Malabari customary law called ‘Thesawalamei’ with regard to the ownership of land.
    It was Ponnambalam Arunachalam involved in preparing the Census Report in 1911 who had changed the term ‘Malabars’ to ‘Ceylon Tamils’. Before that, the term ‘Tamil’ has not been used in this country. I can’t understand the logic behind making a distinction ‘Ceylon/Sri Lankan Tamils’ and ‘Indian Tamils’. All the Tamils/Demalu who live in Sri Lanka have their origin in southern Hindusthan/Tamil Nadu. To be fair to the ‘Indian Tamils’ all these people should be identified as ‘Tamils’ in English and ‘Demala’ in Sinhala. Wellala Demalu might not like that.

    • 3
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      Eagle Blind Eye

      “Who are ‘Demala’ and what is “Demala Bhashawa’?”

      They were the ancestors of your great grandparents who came all the way from South India on Kallathonies and spoke Tamil until your great grandparents found it politically expedient to convert to Sinhala/Buddhist fascism.

      Here you are …………………. spewing …………..

  • 1
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    It is True, Sri lanka is doing something wrong. It should be identified only as Sinhala and Tamil or Singlish and Tamilsh something like that. Politicians should not mix Ethnic name and the religion.The problem is VOTES and political donations. Muslims buy Car permits too. that is another. I do not know who sold the Car permit to the major suicide bomber who had a three storey house. I heard he had a JEwellery shop – LAk vijaya Mal or something. I think even MS may have signed for him to import gold.

  • 1
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    In the mid-forties came the language-divide which turned into language/religion-divide. This ‘ethnicity’ based on language/religion is very much Lankan and is not recognised by Social Scientists.
    How come we do not have, at this point in time, the caste brought in?
    .
    In the mid-forties the language-divide was designed to disempower the political clout of minorities. Soon after independence in 1948, the then GoSL, to splinter the minorities, offered a separate status for Lankan Muslims and made them ‘honorary Us’. The Lankan Muslim identity grew.
    .
    When the civil war ended, BBS was created, patronised and encouraged by the then GoSL. The intention was clear in the June 2014 Aluthgama pogrom. Was the 2019 Easter Sunday Carnage a result of this?
    .
    There are reasons to believe that behind all this and the ‘Sinhala Only’ thingy are business rivalry.
    There is a topic for research. An unprejudiced sharp mind is a pre-requisite.

  • 1
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    The Muslims [ General and widely used term for those who practice Islam], never liked the terms Thambiya, Hambaya, Marrakala, Yonaka etc etc.They considered it to be an insult to be referred with such terms. I understand that in the Eastern Province they were called Kakka!
    With upward social mobility, they now want to identify themselves as Arabs!
    Old Codger, commenting famously said that the Sinhalese prefer to identify themselves as originating from North India, and the Muslims from Arabia. They appear to shun their true origin from South India!
    Whatever term that is used in this academic exercise by Dr.MR. the fact remains that Islamic Terror is here to stay for many more moons.

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      Plato

      “With upward social mobility, they now want to identify themselves as Arabs!”

      If I am not mistaken it was in the late 1800 a popular Egyptian who had settled in this island started the campaign to identify every follower of Islam an Arab or a Muslim. He was later deported back to Egypt by the Colonial Rulers.

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    The Moors (Muslims) Of Sri Lanka

    The Sri Lankan Moors (commonly referred to as Muslims) are the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka comprising 8% of the country’s total population. The bulk of the ‘Moors’ in Sri Lanka came from South India. The fact is that Islam had come to South India (Chera/Kerala) direct from the country of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in the 7th century, while it reached North India much later. Arab traders used to visit the western coast of India (Coastal Malabar) as early as the 7th century AD. Malabar region in South India was a link between them and ports of South East Asia to trade. They intermarried with local people (Hindus) in Malabar and with this admixture the large Muslim community of Kerala evolved. The first Indian mosque (Cheraman Juma Masjid) was built in 621 CE by the last ruler of the Chera Kingdom, who converted to Islam and facilitated the proliferation of Islam in Malabar.

    Those who adopted the religion of the Arabs in the Tamil country (Kerala/Tamil Nadu) came to be referred to as ‘Sonakar’ (Jonakar or Chonakar) irrespective of their racial origin. The ‘Sonakar’ were not Arabs but Malabars/Tamils (Hindus) from the Malabar and Coromandal coasts of South India who were the earliest converts to Islam in South India. Writers such as Humayun Kabir (Indian Heritage) has pointed out that the majority of the Muslims of South India are converts to Islam (from Hinduism) and not Arabs or Arab mixed.

    Continued…

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    Barbosa in his account of the Island in 1519 in his book ‘Economic, Political and Social Geography of Maritime Asia’ says, a large numbers of ‘Moors’ from the South Indian (Malabar and Coromandel) Coasts resorted constantly to Sri Lanka. Barbosa speaks of their heads covered with handkerchiefs and of their earrings so heavy that they hang down to their shoulders. A handkerchief was necessary to cover their shaven crowns, while the earrings indicated most emphatically their South Indian origins. They lived primarily in coastal trading and agricultural communities, preserving their Islamic customs and the South Indian language/culture. (It describes a lot more about them).

    A good number of Malabar Muslims (Sonakar) were enlisted in the naval force of Zamorin and given the title of Marakkar (so named because they were using wooden boats). The Marakkar established a monopoly in the commercial activities in the Indian Ocean and one of their main trade was spices. The South Western coast of Sri Lanka where the premium quality spices (such as cinnamon) were grown was the first landing/settling place of the Marakkar (Marakkala Minissu) in Sri Lanka. They are the people who brought the banana known today among the Sinhalese as Koolikutu (from Kozhikode/Malabar), in Jaffna they call it Kappal palam (because they brought it in the ship/Kappal from the Kozhikode port). Vattil Appam is a Malabar dish introduced to Sri Lanka by these Marakkar/Sonakar Muslims (Moors). Since then it has got modified in Sri Lanka as Watalappam and certain amount of its taste has changed.

    Continued…

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    One of the famous Malabar Merchants who traded in cinnamon with Sri Lanka and sold them to the Portuguese in Calicut/Kozhikode (before the Portuguese came to Ceylon) was the Markar family. Later, some members of the Markar family (the Marakkar/Sonakar/Moor Muslim families) settled in the Island. It is the members of the Markar family who took the ‘Parangiya to Kotte’ when the Portuguese wanted to meet the King of Kotte and we all know how the Parangiya went to Kotte.

    The settlement at Beruwala (South-West coast of Sri Lanka), which the Sri Lankan ‘Muslims/Moors’ generally admit to be the first of all their settlements, took place not earlier than the 14th century (after 1344). Ibn Batuta (Arab explorer from Morocco) visited the Island in 1344, but makes no mention of any ‘Muslims/Moors’ at Beruwela (or anywhere else in the Island) though it lay directly on his route from Galle to Colombo.

    The South Western coast of Sri Lanka where the premium quality spices (such as cinnamon) were grown was the first landing/settling place of the Marakkar/Jonakar/Moor Muslims of Malabar in Sri Lanka in the 14th century. The affairs of Sri Lanka (economy) during the time of Bhuvanaike Bahu (King of Kotte) was in most critical condition. Within a short period, all the trade in the Island was in the hands of the Moors and they were more powerful than the natives. The wealth which this trade had brought to the country rendered them powerful and gave them ascendency over the Sinhalese rulers. Their aim at that time was to become the absolute rulers of Sri Lanka.

    Continued…

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    The arrival of the Portuguese saved the Sinhalese from the Moors becoming the rulers. When the Portuguese arrived, it was the Moors who first organised resistance against them and urged King Bhuvanaike Bahu, and his brothers Mayadunne and Vijayabhu to oppose the Portuguese. However, the Portuguese not only took over the trade but also persecuted the Moors and saved the Sinhalese from the slavery of the Moors. The Portuguese treated them harshly, they suffered widespread persecution because (1) they refused to become converts to Christianity (2) they were their rivals in trade. Professor Courtnay in his ‘History of Ceylon’, (pp. 13-14) says that had not the Portuguese come to Sri Lanka the entire Island would have come under the control of the Moors. Due to the Portuguese persecution, the Moors were seeking help from King Senarat of Kandy who settled them in the North-Eastern Coasts of Sri Lanka.
    Every Muslim (Moor) village in Sri Lanka from South-West to North-East carries with it a Tamil/Malabar name (Peruveli aka Beruwela, Sammanturai, etc), a pointer to the fact that the original Moor occupants had hailed from Malabar and spoke from the beginning the Malabar/Tamil language, whatever their present ‘nationality’, ‘race’ and ‘language’ might be. Some of them still bear Malabar names like Periya Marikkar, Sinna Lebbe, Pitchai Thamby and so on.

    Continued…

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    It is wrongly believed in Sri Lanka that the Sri Lankan Muslims (Moors) descend from Moorish Arab merchants who married native (Sinhalese & Tamil) wives after having them converted to Islam. The fact is, bulk of the ‘Moors’ in Sri Lanka, as it has been amply demonstrated, are not Moorish Arab Merchants but Tamil/Malabar speaking Sonakar/Marakkar who came from South India. Except for a few visitors like Ibn Battuta, the Arabs did not come direct to Sri Lanka. If they had come to Sri Lanka (South Western coast) direct from the Middle East and married to Sinhalese women, today their descendants (Sri Lanka Moors) should be speaking Arabic or Sinhala as their mother tongue but throughout the island even today their mother tongue is Malabarish Tamil.

    There is hardly any difference between ‘Ceylon Moors’ and ‘Indian/Coast Moors’. The difference between ‘Ceylon Moors’ and ‘Indian/Coast Moors’ is, the ‘Ceylon Moors’ represent the earlier Muslim settlers/traders in Ceylon from South India (before the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka). The ‘Indian Moors’ consists of those who came recently to Sri Lanka from South India (after the Portuguese period). Other than the Moors, there are also other Muslims in Sri Lanka such as the Malays & Javas (Malaya & Indonesia), the Memens (Pakistan) and the Borahs (North India).

    This is the brief history of the Tamil speaking Moors/Muslims of Sri Lanka also known as Sonakar/Jonakar (in Tamil) or Marakkala (in Sinhala). They are actually a mixture of Malabar/Tamil Hindus and Arabs who came from Malabar for spice trading and settled in Sri Lanka in the 14th century.

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      “Malabarish Tamil”
      Can you give examples of “Malabarish Tamil” spoken by Muslims?
      *
      Muslim Tamil has Arab influence and its local variants are influenced by the regional dialect of Tamil.
      Read the great scholar AMA Azeez on Arabuth Thamiz.

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        Chera/Kerala (Malabar/Calicut/Kozhikode) was also a Tamil kingdom in the 7th century. Most of the Arab traders took Malabar (Hindu) women as their wives (they are entitled to have 4 wives). Their descendants were known as Sonakar. The Sri Lankan Moors (Sonakar/Marakkar) are not Arabs who took Ceylon wives but Malabars who came from Calicut/Kozhikode with their Malabar wives. Their spoken language (mother tongue) is Malabarish Tamil, very similar to what is spoken in Calicut/Kozhikode but it has got modified in Sri Lanka with time and location.

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    Thank you Hatim Effendi for taking me for a walk along the corridors of History.Great piece.

    This is a must reading for Governor Hisbullah and his followers who are under the illusion that they are of Arabic stock!

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