The complex issue of the origin of the Moors of Sri Lanka
Posted on November 29th, 2021

By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today

Colombo, November 29: There is no doubt as to where certain Muslim communities in Sri Lanka, such as the Malays, Bohras, Memons and Pathans, came from. But theories on the origin of Sri Lankan or Ceylon Moors, who are the majority among Muslims in the island, are both varied and controversial.

Today, the Ceylon Moors emphatically claim that they are of Arab origin. But Sri Lankan scholar Ameer Ali says that they are of mixed origin in his paper in Asian Studies entitled: The Genesis of the Muslim Community in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): A Historical Summary.

Ameer Ali says that the Ceylon Moors were initially known by the Tamil name Sonahar and also by the Sinhalese name Marakkalaminusu. Some were known as Hambankaraya in Sinhala and Saamaankarar in Tamil, the former stemming from their arrival by Sampans (Malay boats) and the latter because they sold goods (Saamaan is Goods in Tamil). Colloquially, they were known as Tambi or Kakka.

Ameer Ali says the term Moor came from the Latin root ‘Mauri’ which referred to the people of the Roman province of Mauretania which included present-day Western Algeria and North-East Morocco. The Portuguese chronicler about Ceylon, Fernao De Queyroz, said that the Muslims of Ceylon were called ‘Mouros’ as they were from Muritania”.  Eventually ‘Mouros’ became ‘Moors’ under British dispensation.   

However, the Ceylon Muslims themselves adopted the term ‘Moor’ much later, due to a local political exigency at the end of the 19 th., Century. There was an urgent need to differentiate themselves from the Ceylon Tamils. In 1885 and 1888, the Tamil leader Ponnambalam Ramanathan floated the theory that Ceylon Muslims were not a distinct ethnic or racial group but were Tamils converted to Islam. If the government were to accept Ramanathan’s thesis, the Muslims would not be able to get representation in the legislature where the nominees were chosen on a communal basis. Muslims would have been subsumed under the category Tamils”. The term Moor, favored by the Muslim leaders, found its place in the Ceylon Citizenship Act in 1949.     

However, among Tamil speakers, the Ceylon Muslims are known as  Sonakar. It could be a Tamil pronunciation of the Arabic word Sunni” an Islamic sect. Tamil-speaking Muslims of both Ceylon and India call themselves Sunnattu jama’attar (Those who belong to the Sunni sect). There is an other theory that Sonaka is a Tamil corruption of the Sanskrit word ‘Yavana’ a term used for foreigners from the West.

Moors are also called ‘Marakkalaminusu’ or by the Tamil name Marakkayar which means people who came by or plied Marakkalam or wooden vessels. The Maraikkayars of South India trace their origin also to the Arabic term for boat, ‘Markab’.   

There is another theory which says that Muslims came to Tamil Nadu and Ceylon as refugees from Iraq in the 7 th. and 8th.Centuries AD. But pre-Islamic Arabs had connections with Ceylon much before that. Ameer Ali quotes Joseph Desomogyi to say that the Arab connection in the Indian Ocean goes back to the days of the Phoenicians. ” The Arabs traded between Madagascar and Sumatra via Ceylon as early as 310 BC.

But the most significant of all the references is that which Geiger quotes from the ancient Pali chronicle Mahavamsa; according to which in the fourth century BC, Anuradhapura, the Sinhalese capital, had near its western gate, a ground set apart for the Yonas (Yavanas or Sonakar) who were Arab traders.

Besides the Arabs, traders from Persia also had contacts with Ceylon before the birth of Islam. Just before the advent of Islam, Persians dominated the Indo-Arabian trade as intermediaries for the silk trade between China and the West”. And Ceylon was the entrepot for sea trade, between China and the Near East. The Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta, who was in Ceylon in 1344 A.D, reported that King Aria Chakravarthi of Jaffna spoke Persian.

Indian Connection

On the Indo-Arab connection, historian K.M.Panikkar says that the similarity in the peculiar nature of the social organization in pre-Islamic Arabia and on the western coast of Southern India, especially in Malabar, facilitated the free mingling of the Arabs with the women of South-West India.”  He further says: it is reasonable to suppose that at least after the time of Caliph Omar, trade with Malabar was exclusively in the hands of the Moors.” After the  7 th., Century, Arab traders came in large numbers, married Indian women and settled as permanent communities.

The Mapilla (Moplahs) Muslims of Kerala and the Lebbes and Maraikkayars of the Coromandel coast are the descendants of these settlements. Ameer Ali notes that in Ceylon, many of the Moors in the 19 th., Century carried the name Lebbe or Maraikkar or both as part or parts of their full names (such as for example, Segu Lebbe Maraikkar Muhammad Ali Maraikkar and Ahamathu Lebbe Meera Lebbe). They spoke the Tamil language and even physically resembled the South Indian Muslims.

A majority of the 19 th. Century Moors in Ceylon must have been the descendants of the Maraikkayars of the Coromandel Coast (in Tamil Nadu) and particularly of Porto Novo, Nagore, Muttuppettai and Kayalpatnam,” he says.

In the 12 th. and 13 th., centuries, the Muslims in Ceylon had attained the highest degree of their commercial prosperity and political influence” in the island, Ameer Ali notes. This was also the period when the Muslims on the opposite coast had similar success in the economic and political spheres.  

Panikkar says that the rise of the Zamorin of Calicut (in Kerala) as the leading ruler on the West Coast of India in the 13 th. Century was possible partly because of the support of the Moorish settlers who  contributed so largely to the prosperity and power of his kingdom.” The Zamorin’s naval forces were under Muslim command, and it was with the help of these Muslim mariners, that he was able to defeat his enemies. The Zamorin’s Muslim fleet had come to the aid of Ceylonese kings in their fight against the Portuguese. Indo-Ceylon trade passed from the hands of the Hindu traders to those of the Muslims.

Amer Ali points out that it is significant that a tradition relating to the Muslim village of Beruwela on the west coast of Ceylon speaks of a colony of Muslims from Kayalpatnam in Tamil Nadu settling there towards the middle of the 14 th., Century.

Hence it is not unreasonable to conclude that Muslims from South India must have traded with and sometimes settled here in the coastal districts of Ceylon between the 12 th., and 13 th.,centuries. As a result of this influx from India, the strain of Persian and Arab blood in the community must have been gradually weakened as it happened in South India itself. Thus when the Portuguese arrived in Ceylon at the beginning of the 16 th., Century the port of Colombo had developed into a colony of Moors of Indian origin.”  

Because of Portugues and Dutch hostility, from the 16 th. to the 19 th, Century, until the British arrived in early 19 th. century, the influx of Muslims from India on the Ceylonese West coast was limited. But the East coast was open as Portuguese power there was weak. This enabled the Ceylon Moors to trade with the East Coast of India freely.

It is evident that the majority of the Moors who lived in Ceylon at the beginning of the nineteenth century were the descendants of those Indian Muslims who came centuries earlier and who were themselves of mixed origin, while a minority was of either Arab or Persian descent amongst whom some had come long before Islam was born and some thereafter,” Ameer Ali concludes.

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