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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Selected Writings - Shan Ranjit

Sri Lanka Muslims: 
Tamil Converts or Arab Descendents?

29 October 2000

"....Who are the Sri Lankan Muslims? Are they Tamil converts or had they arrived in the island from far. Why do they mistrust the Tamils � especially Jaffna Tamils? This article attempts to answer some of these questions..." [see also Muslims & Tamil Eelam]

bullet Introduction
bullet Origin of Sri Lanka Muslims 
bullet Sri Lanka Muslims: Descendents of Arabs? 
bullet Sri Lanka Muslims under Portuguese and Dutch Rule
bullet Kandyan Kings rescue the Muslims
bullet Sri Lanka Muslims & the British
bullet Christian Missionaries & the Muslims  
bullet Confrontation between Eelam Tamils & Muslims - Sir P.Ramanathan's Role
bullet Sinhala - Muslim Riots: Ramanathan supports the Sinhalese  
bullet Ramanathan defends Sinhala racists before the Crown
bullet Muslim - Eelam Tamil conflict in the political arena
bullet G.G.Ponnambalam & the Muslims
bullet Politics of Ashroff
bullet Conclusion 


A couple of years back my Sinhala friend and my self were having a quiet dinner at a sea �side restaurant in Mt. Lavinia. Suddenly my friend focused his conversation on the present ethnic crisis in his homeland. Even though we have been best friends from our kindergarten days, we had never agreed on how the ethnic issue should be solved. Then, out of the blues he said

� The Sinhalese thought that by chasing the Tamils out of Colombo, they could control the real estate and economy. But the Ashroff�s people have simply overwhelmed us. They are every where and control everything in Colombo.� To day the Sri Lankan Muslims are the most politically powerful people in Sri Lanka. It is most ironic that the most politically powerful personality in Sri Lanka is neither Chandrika nor Ranil Wickremasinghe but Hakeem. He can demand and get whatever he wants.

Who are the Sri Lankan Muslims? Are they Tamil converts or had they arrived in the island from far. Why do they mistrust the Tamils � especially Jaffna Tamils? This article attempts to answer some of these questions.

Origin of Sri Lanka Muslims  

The adherents of Islam in Sri Lanka belong, chiefly , to three different ethnic backgrounds viz, the Sri Lankan Moors, The Indian Moors and the Malays. The term ` Moors' was applied to the Arab Muslims and their descendants by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the term referred to their religion and was no reflection on their origin. Even the Indian Muslims traders who used to visit Ceylon and operated mostly around the coastal towns (coast moors) were called Moors. 

The Sri Lanka Moors are also known as SONHAHARS- those permanently settled in Sri Lanka - and the Indian Moors as the SAMMANKARS- those who were in Ceylon for trading purposes and intended to return to India. The Malays, who also profess the Islamic faith, are considered as a separate group by the moors , owing to their distinct ethnic background, culture and westernized life style.

Sri Lanka Muslims: Descendents of Arabs? 

The Muslims of Sri Lanka , the Moors, trace their ancestry to the Arab traders of the past, the date of whose settlement in Sri Lanka is not certain. It is however believed that the first Mohammedans who settled in Sri Lanka were Hashemites, who fled from the Arabia in the 7th or 8th century. These Hashemite immigrants are believed to have settled at various port towns of Ceylon. 

According to some historians, these Hashemite immigrants also settled along the Malabar coast of present State of Kerala in India, and used to visit Ceylon for trading purposes and some eventually settled in Ceylon. The religious tolerance of the Sinhalese kings and the local population made the living conditions conducive to the Arab settlers. The Sinhalese were not interested in the trading activities at that time. 

The Arab settlers had come in to close contact with the Tamil community, especially along Manthottam (present Mannar), during their trading operations and this prompted them to take more Tamil women as their wives. This might have been the reason for the Tamil influence on the Ceylonese Muslim community. The Moors not only adopted Tamil as their mother-tongue but also the Tamil customs and habits.

Sri Lanka Muslims under Portuguese and Dutch Rule

By the beginning of the 16th century, Muslims became well settled in Ceylon and had got adapted to the Ceylonese customs and habits. When Portuguese set foot in Ceylon in 1505, the Muslims of Ceylon tried their best to keep the Portuguese out of Ceylon, thinking that they might pose a threat to their trading activities, especially the cinnamon trade. But the ruler of the Kotte kingdom at that time, Bhuvanekabahu VII, actively sought the help of the Portuguese to keep away his more daring and ambitious younger brother and the ruler of the Sitavaka kingdom, Mayadunne. 

Hence, Bhuvanekabahu ignored pleas of Muslims, not to allow the Portuguese in Ceylon. As the time went by, due to the stiff competition offered by the Portuguese in the Cinnamon and other trade activities, the Muslims' trade was badly affected. Hence, the Muslims had to flee the Kotte kingdom to Sitawaka. But the Sitawaka kingdom also fell to the Portuguese in 1593 and the Muslims, numbering around 4000, fled to Kandy - the lone Sinhalese kingdom at that time. The Kandyan kingdom was ruled by Senarat, who openly welcomed the fleeing Muslims. At this time, the Kandyan kingdom also included some parts of the present Eastern district of Ceylon, and King Senarat settled these Muslims in and around the eastern district of Ceylon.

Kandyan Kings rescue the Muslims  

Portuguese made several attempts to capture the Kandyan kingdom but were unsuccessful. Eventually they signed a peace treaty with the Kandyan king Senarat in 1617. Keeping in view of the great help rendered by the Muslims to his kingdom, Senarat managed to get a clause included in the peace treaty, which granted protection to the Muslims in Kandy and also to their trading activities in the Kandyan territories. 

The Muslims also played a prominent role when Rajasingha II of Kandy sought the help of the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese in 17th century. The Dutch, who succeeded the Portuguese, also attempted to expel the Muslims from not only the import-export trade, but also from the retail trade. They made it very tough for the Muslims when it came to immigration, residence and land ownership of the Muslims in the Dutch possessions in Ceylon.

Sri Lanka Muslims & the British   

By 1802, the British had made Ceylon one of their colonies , and by 1818 they had overthrown the last Nayakar dynasty at Kandy and had gained full control of Ceylon. The British were not as bad as the Portuguese or the Dutch to the Muslims. And hence the Muslims lent their support to the British in overthrowing the Kandyan kingdom. 

With the industrial progress in England, the British exploited the mineral and forest resources in Ceylon. This led to newer and better trade opportunities for the Muslims in Ceylon. When the British introduced the Coffee plantations in 1820, it was the Muslims who introduced the THAVALM system, for carrying supplies to and the produce from the plantations. They were also actively involved in Arrack and toddy tapping. When the crown land was disposed in 1833, for cinnamon plantations, the Muslims expanded their business interests further.

Christian Missionaries & the Muslims  

By the latter part of the 19th century, they were becoming prosperous since there was no economic or religious prosecution against them. But, they were behind the other people of the Island in one respect- Education. The Tamils and the Sinhalese were taking full advantage of the education offered by the missionary schools. But the Muslims, deliberately kept their children out of these schools on account of their fear of the nature of the education offered by these missionary schools. 

Though the schools at this time was more secular in content, the Muslims, feared the policy of devoting the first hour to Christian religious education in Missionary schools. Grants -in- aid were not extended to schools that did not teach the Christian religion. But these policies changed, when the Morgan commission recommended the establishment of village schools and grant-in-aid were provided to those schools without the necessity of providing Christian religious instructions. And hence the Muslims, slowly started to send their children to these schools.

Gradually, the Muslims were beginning to realize the need of the English education. Sidde Lebbe, a proctor from Kandy , was in the forefront on this issue. Arabi Pasha, an exile from Egypt, also told Muslims that they need not fear the impact of the western thought and language on Islam. This led to the creation of the first Muslim school in Sri Lanka, Zahira college, in 1892.

Confrontation between Eelam Tamils & Muslims - Sir P.Ramanathan's Role

The seed for the current Eelam Tamil- Muslim confrontation was created as early as 1885, when Ponnambalam Ramanathan (later Sir) argued for a greater representation for the Tamils in the legislative council. But the Muslims also demanded for a separate representation for their community since the felt that they had a distinct ethnic and religious identity. But Ramanathan did not agree on this and some what wrongly argued that most of the Muslims were Tamil converts, and hence did not require a separate representation.

P.Ramanathan further angered the Muslim community, when he read a paper before the Royal Asiatic Society on `Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon' in 1888. In this paper, he attempted to prove the similarities between the Ceylon Moors and the Eelam Tamils , there by claiming that Moors were , ethnologically, Tamils. 

He pointed out that the Moors like the Tamils, believed in almanac, and would never solemnize a marriage during the `nahas' period- short time during the lunar month. He also pointed out to the close resemblance between the Muslim and Tamil weddings - like tying Thali, Arathi ceremony, offering of betal leaves at functions, and the acceptance of Stridhanam (dowry). He also pointed out to the similarities in the practice of divorce and wills between these two communities.

Muslim were furious over the attempt by Ramanathan to prove that they were all Tamil converts to Islam. And hence they started to identify them selves as a distinct ethnic group, with ties to the Arab Muslims and started to identify themselves with the Arab world. They celebrated the coronation of the Turkish Emperor in 1900 in Colombo. They started to learn Arabic, a language that they had forgotten a long time ago. 

They grieved the death of the Leaders of the Arab world. They also discarded the local 'Surat caps' and favored the Arabic `Fez' caps and the Arabic dress. They carefully avoided showing any concern over incidents in India involving Muslims lest the Tamils should translate such concern as evidence of the Indian origin of the Ceylonese Moors.

Sinhala - Muslim Riots: Ramanathan supports the Sinhalese  

The Sinhalese - Muslim riots in 1915 and the support rendered by Ramanathan to the Sinhalese led to the irreparable damage in the Tamil - Muslim relation. In 1915, the Coast Moors (also known as Indian Moors or Malabar Muslims) had come to dominate the retail trade in Colombo. This was strongly resented by a group of Sinhala people, led by Anagarika Dharmapala. In 1915, Anagarika Dharmapala wrote as follows:

"The Mohammedans, an alien people. By Shylockian methods they (Muslims) became prosperous like Jews. The Sinhalese, sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free from alien invaders. The alien South Indian Mohammedan comes to Ceylon , sees the neglected villager without any experience in trade .And the result is that Mohammedan thrives and the son of soil goes to the wall."

It was this hostile background that led to the first ever racial riots in Ceylon. It is believed that the Indian moors had allegedly thrown stones at the tom-tom beating procession of the Gampola Perahera. This stoning incident provided an opportunity for the Sinhalese let up their pent up frustrations and revenge against the Indian Moors. 

They went on a large scale of looting and killing of the Muslims. The British government found fault with the Sinhalese and declared martial law and came hard on the Sinhalese and the Buddhists. They arrested the Buddhist leaders, including D.S. Senanayake, his brother F.R. Senanayake and A.E. Gunasinghe for inciting the riots. 

It was against  this background that Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to defend these racist Sinhala leaders and speak against the Muslims. It was the very same Sinhala Leaders that Ponnambalam defended, who would later betray the Tamils.

Ramanathan defends Sinhala racists before the Crown  

Before P. Ramanathan's proposed visit to England to give evidence against the Muslims, the Muslims tried their best to prevent his visit. They wrote to the King stating that Ramanathan was prejudiced towards the Ceylonese Muslims. 

But Ramanathan went to England and gave damaging testimony against the Muslims. 

He pleaded for the release of the Buddhist leaders, and asked the British authorities to show leniency towards the Sinhala rioters. Ramanathan made a clear distinction between the Coast Moors (Muslims who had settled from India) on whom he put the blame for the riots and the Ceylon Moors (Muslims who had settled from the Arabia in the 7th century) , whom he referred in favorable terms. 

But the Muslims thought the attack on the Coast Moors was an attack on their entire community. This incident created a permanent wedge between the Tamil and the Muslim communities that will come to haunt for many decades later. The Muslims never trusted the Tamil politicians from this time onwards. Ramanathan foolishly thought that the Tamils had to co - exist with the Sinhalese, and hence did not want to antagonize the Sinhala Buddhists.

Muslim - Eelam Tamil conflict in the political arena 

The first State Council under the Donoughmore constitution was inaugurated on the 7th of July 1931 . On the basis of  territorial representation, only one Muslim was elected (Sir Macan Markar) from the eastern district. But in the second state council (1936-1947) not a single Muslim was elected. 

At this time, 'Muslim politics' was controlled by wealthy Muslim traders from the western province. They felt that their interests and businesses would be protected if they would co-operate with the Sinhalese.

There were signs at this time that the British would hand over the entire country to the Sinhalese. These Muslims from the western province did not pay much attention to their poor farming brothers from the Eastern district. They treated them like second class citizens and took them for granted. There was no 'Ashrofs' or 'Hakeems' at that time in the Eastern province. 

Muslims firmly believed that cooperating with the Tamils would further enhance Ramanathan's theory that most Muslims were Tamil converts. They wanted to avoid this at all cost. In 1936, Sir Macan Markar, one of the prominent Muslims, stated as follows:

"The minorities (I am not speaking for Jaffna or Batticaloa) do not want equal representation with Sinhalese. But what we want is adequate representation and good government. I prefer the country to be ruled by the Sinhalese."

G.G.Ponnambalam & the Muslims  

Lord Soulbury came to Ceylon in 1945 to advise the government on further legislative reforms. The Tamils under the leadership of G.G. Ponnambalam, put forward the "fifty-fifty' demand. This demand envisaged that half the seats in the parliament goes to the Sinhalese and the balance half goes to the minorities...

As a minority group, engaged in business activity, the prosperity of the Muslims depended on the attitude of the Sinhalese towards them. They also felt that by joining with the Tamils, they would loose their separate ethnic identity. They were also reminded of Ramanathan's and G.G. Ponnambalam's attitude towards them. Hence they took a pro Sinhala stand before the Soulbury commission. They wanted the commission to treat them as a separate ethnic group.

In 1943, another prominent Muslim member, Sir Razeek Fareed, supported J.R. Jayawardene's motion for making Sinhala as the only official language. Sir Razeek, described this pro Sinhala attitude as being full of political sagacity'. This `political sagacity' of the Muslims was well played against the Tamils by the Sinhalese. 

In return, the Sinhala leaders gave these wealthy Muslim politicians from the western province some minor concessions. Sir Razeek Fareed even went to the extent of saying that the Tamils were responsible for their community's sufferings. He told about the harsh treatment of Muslims at the hand of the Tamils. He vehemently deplored the Tamil attempt to depict the Muslims as a part of the Tamil community. He asserted that Ceylon Moors were not Tamils but were the proud progeny of a heroic race - the Arabs. 

The existence of 'Muslims Tamils in Ceylon' , Sir Razeek Fareed was to say was the sordid imagination of Mr. Ponnambalam. He once retorted 

"not one of us will tolerate we being called a Tamil convert and that from South India. We the Moors, will fight to the last cent, the last drop of our blood and our last breath to nail , to counter this falsehood that we are Tamils."

During a debate in the parliament, Sir Razeek Fareed once chided the late Amirthalingam:

" Please do not worry about us. We are now separating ourselves absolutely from you. Do not worry us any more. We know how to steer our boat. Thanks for your steering all these days and to the rocks."

Politics of Ashroff

The work of the late Ashroff in Muslims politics has not only changed the scenario but will be felt for many more decades. He was a dynamo who made a great impact. He was extremely lucky in the sense that when he rose to prominence, Tamil parliamentary politics had withered and there were no Tamil politician of his caliber to challenge his leadership in the eastern province.

People who knew the late Ashroff would say that he had made up his mind a very long time ago to take over the Muslim leadership from those Muslims who mainly lived in Colombo. He strongly felt that these Colombo Muslim brothers took for granted their poor eastern Muslim brothers. 

To achieve his goal , Ashroff enrolled himself at the law college. Those who were contemporaries of Ashroff would recall him as a hard working and very ambitious young man. He edited the law college Tamil magazine. When he passed out - he did not top the batch- he took out a full page advertisement in most of the Tamil papers announcing his graduation. His law college friends were not surprised about these advertisements, knowing the predilection that Ashroff had for his own political self promotion.

Ashroff contested under the TULF banner in the 1977 general elections. He belonged to a wealthy Muslim family from the Pottuvil district. Ashroff, the smart and shrewd politician used the TULF only as a stepping stone to achieve his own political ambitions. 

After the 1983 riots he realized very early that the Tamils politicians were a spent force. He was politically astute enough to form his own party. To bring all the Muslims under his leadership, he polarized Muslims politics for his own selfish gains. 

Like his predecessors , he was careful to separate his minority community from the other major minority community in the island - Eelam Tamils. He wanted his people to stand out and maintain a separate identify. 

When I was a teenager in Colombo, you could count the number of the school going Muslims girls covering their heads. My Colombo Muslims friends would have laughed if they had known that one of their Muslim brothers from Pottuvil would be their leader.

All this changed with the arrival of Ashroff. Certain unfortunate incidents - like the killings of the Muslims in the Eastern province and the displacement of the Muslims from Jaffna - only made him even more acceptable to all the Muslims. He had a powerful presence , and believed that he was the Moses who had come to salvage his people not only from the Sinhalese but also from the Eelam Tamils. Like his predecessors, Ashroff firmly believed that his people survival depended on not antagonizing the Sinhalese.


The Muslims had cooperated with the Sinhalese for a long time. There is no doubt that  some of the Sri Lanka Muslims are of Arab decent. But they do not want to accept the fact that they are at least in part an extraction of the Tamil / Indian stock and not entirely Arab. We, Tamils are also partly to be blamed for this. The Muslims should be allowed to determine their own future. If they want to live in Eelam with us as equal citizens then it is fine. But if they want to separate from us, let them separate.

Note: It is not only ironic but hilarious that the man who coached the South Indian actor Kamalahasan's to talk and play like a Jaffna man in his latest movie, Thenali, is none other than a Sri Lankan Muslim - Abdul Hameed, formerly an announcer of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting cooperation.


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