Time-tested bond of Sinhala-Muslim Friendship

Time-tested bond of Sinhala-Muslim Friendship


The Muslims of Sri Lanka, since ancient times, have been in peaceful coexistence with the other communities of the Island and has proved to be an integral and inseparable component of the Sri Lankan society.

According to ancient chronicles, traders from countries like Rome, Greece, Persia( Iran ), China, India etc visited Sri Lanka on trade missions. Arab merchants having maintained a friendly relationship with natives, had ventured into the interior and coastal areas of Ceylon for trading, even before the advent of Islam. Arabs were only interested in trading and commerce in Sri Lanka in an honest and a just manner The present-day Muslims of Sri Lanka, could, therefore, be considered the descendants of many of these Arabs, Persians, Indians, and Malays etc.

During mediaeval times, foreign trade had been flourishing in Sri Lanka, in view of the island’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean and the variety of goods offered to the traders like spices, cinnamon and other rare items such as precious gems, pearls, ivory etc. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century A.D., trade expeditions were fading off. The Arabs and Persians made use of this opportunity to fill the void and continued to engage in inter-coastal trade. Muslim merchants had arrived in large numbers as a result of traditions associated with Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) and the cordial treatment meted out by the local rulers. Most of the foreign traders visited the island for their trade benefits and left the Island after making their fortunes. But Arabs opted to settle down, making Ceylon their homeland. The majority of them lived along the coastal areas in peace and tranquillity, side by side with Sinhala families.

Many of the Arab traders may not have brought their womenfolk along with them when they settled in Ceylon. Nevertheless, many of them married native women who later embraced Islam

Traders who landed in Ceylon, explored into the interior of the villages and met the local traders in search of trade opportunities. Foreign traders are known to have taken with them for trade and barter commodities found in high demand at that time such as clothes, jewellery and foodstuffs like dried fish.( www.sailanmuslim.com:The unbreakable bond: Why Sinhala-Muslim relations have stood the test of time: Asiff Hussein).

According to travelogues of Ibn Battuta, (the renowned 14th century Arab traveller), after the conquest of Persia (Iran), Syria and Egypt, the Arabs had dominated all the salient ports and trading stations between East and West. It had been estimated that the Arabs had settled in Sri Lanka and Sumatra by the 1st century A.D. Before the end of the 7th century, a group of Muslim merchants had established themselves in Ceylon.

The first mention of Arabs in Ceylon appears to be in the Mahavamsa ‘the Great Chronicle of Ceylon’, in an account of the reign of the King Pandukabhaya, it has been stated that this king set apart lands for the `Yonas’ ( Arabian traders) on the side of the western gate of Anuradhapura. (Perera B.J. `Ceylon Historical Journal-Vol.1’). This may indicate an Arab presence in the island even before the advent of Islam, in 7th century. (Fr. S.G. Perera in his book -History of Ceylon for Schools- Vol. 1. The Portuguese and Dutch Periods, (1505-1796), Colombo (1955),

In the 7th century, when the people of Ceylon heard of the Prophetic mission during the reign of Aggrabodhi III, a delegation had been dispatched from Ceylon on a fact-finding mission to Arabia. The mission started when the Prophet himself was living but was able to reach Arabia only during the time of Caliph Umar (654-664), Hence it is highly probable that Arab settlements existed in Ceylon even prior to the 7th century.

The Sinhalese Kings considered the Muslim settlements favourable. Many of the Arab traders may not have brought their womenfolk along with them when they settled in Ceylon. Nevertheless, many of them married native women who later embraced Islam.

The second wave of Muslims had come from South India. They are the descendants of earlier Arab traders who had settled in South Indian ports and were married to local women. Colonies of such Indo-Arabs emerged along the coasts of Sri Lanka. These settlements were described by the Dutch and British as ‘Coastal Moors’. (Lorna Dewaraja p 41, 43).

From the Anuradhapura period to Kandyan times there was a Muslim lobby operating in the Sri Lankan court. It advised the king on overseas trade policies. They kept the king abreast of developments outside his kingdom. One Muslim envoy had been sent to the Nawab of Carnata by a King. Another had been sent to Pondicherry soliciting French assistance against the Dutch, in 1765. The Muslim trader with his navigational skills and overseas contacts coupled with their multi-lingual ability (p 135-136). became the secret channel of communication between the court and the outside world” (Lorna Dewaraja p 8). The Sri Lankan kings encouraged the Muslims to maintain their links with the Islamic world as this was mutually beneficial. In the 13th century, Al Haj Abu Uthman was sent by the Sri Lankan king, Bhuvanekabahu I to the Mamluk Court of Egypt to negotiate direct trade. They were sent on important and confidential missions to South India right up to Kandyan times.

Lorna Dewaraja says that when the Portuguese tried to gain a foothold in Colombo, the Muslims gave early warning to the King, nobles and the Sanga, provided firearms, fought side by side with the Sinhalese and even used their influence with South Indian powers to get military assistance to Sinhalese rulers. Through the intervention of the Muslims, the Zamorin of Calicut who ruled Kerala at that time sent three distinguished Moors of Cochin with forces to help King Mayadunne (p 50).
Invading Portuguese grabbed the trade forcefully from the Muslims and gave an ultimatum for them to leave the territory of the Portuguese in Ceylon. The invaders then started persecuting the Muslim traders who were mainly Arabs, but they did not flee the country which had become their homeland for several centuries. They began to move towards the Kandyan Kingdom seeking refuge. Kandyan kingdom welcomed the Muslims as by this time the Muslim traders have proved their credibility as highly disciplined and honest traders. When the Dutch invaded Sri Lanka and persecuted the Muslims in their coastal settlements, the Muslims had retreated and had sought refuge from the Kandyan Kingdom. King Senerat (1604-1635) and Rajasingha II (1635-1687) had been sympathetic towards the Muslims and settled them in the Eastern coast. According to Robert Knox, King Senerat had settled approximately 4000 Muslims who escaped the wrath of the Portuguese and Dutch in the district of Batticaloa to revive the paddy cultivation. ( Mahavansa.blogspot.com, The Terrible atrocities committed by the Portuguese13-06-2006) These settlers were believed to be the ancestors of the large concentration of Muslims from areas like Kathankudy in the Eastern Province.

Muslims had been funtioning as physicians, and presumably they practised Unani medicine system, which found its way to this country through Beruwela

Muslims were integrated into Kandyan society primarily by giving them duties which related to the King’s administration. They were made a part of the Madige Badda or Transport Department. They were allowed to trade in areca nut, which was a royal monopoly. The Muslims from Uva, which was near the salterns, had to bring salt as part of their obligatory service (Dewaraja p 100-101). In addition to this, selected Muslims were involved in the Maligawa rituals and were given Maligagam lands. Their duties included salt, hevisi, silversmith (Acari) also the higher function of kariya karavanarala. Therefore the Muslims were involved in the administrative and ritual aspects of the Dalada Maligawa as well (Dewaraja. p 107-8, 110). In addition, Muslims also functioned as weavers, tailors, barbers, and lapidarists (p 137-138).
Muslims had been functioning as physicians, and presumably, they practised Unani medicine system, which found its way to this country through Beruwela. Tradition has it that in the 10th Century, Prince Jamal-ud-din, the son of the Sultan of Konya (in Asia Minor) arrived here and practised Unani medicine.

According to Dr. C. G. Uragoda, Unani physicians at first transmitted their medical knowledge orally to members of their own families. Later, information was written down in Tamil language in Arabic script and kept within the family. Many of the medicinal plants found in the Kandyan areas and used in Ayurveda began to be employed in the Unani system too. Unani drugs were brought to the country by trading vessels coming from Arabia and the Persian Gulf. These drugs consisted of mainly syrups, which contained ingredients such as rose petals, grapes, dates and musk. Many local constituents were also made use of. Dewaraja states that at this time, Unani had been practised in its purest form in towns like Colombo, Galle and Beruwela (p 128). A Muslim physician named Sulaiman Kuttiya who was practising in Galle was invited to the Kandyan court, taken into royal service and given land near Gampola.

His descendants who lived till 1874 carried the prefix “Galle Vedaralala” (p 91). The most renowned of these Muslim physicians were the Gopala Moors of Gataberiya in the Kegalle District. The family traces its pedigree to a physician from Islamic Spain, whose descendants migrated to the Sind in Northern India, from where they were ordered to come to Sri Lanka to attend on King Parakramabahu II of Dambadeniya (1236-1270) (p 128). The Gopala descendants continued to function as physicians to the king, during reigns of Rajadirajasinghe (1782-1798) and Sriwickrama Rajasinghe. (1798-1815). The Dutch also appointed two Muslims as local physicians in their hospitals, and one of them, Mira Lebbe Mestriar who was later appointed as Native Superintendent of the Medical Department in 1806 by the British (p 133).

Waidyasekera Duwegoda Ranasinghe Mudiyanselage M. M. M. Irshad who is an Ayurvedic physician from Talduwa in Awissawella. claims that he is a descendant of the lineage of royal physicians who served King Rajasinghe1 of Seethawaka. According to him, he belongs to the fourteenth generation. How Irshad’s ancestors came to Talduwa in Avissawella during the reign of Rajasinghe 1 is a tale worth relating.

According to him Rajasinghe’s queen suffering from an incurable ailment had been attended to by many renowned physicians without success. When Irshad’s ancestor arrived the king with a desire to test his competence had tied a thread to the foot of a table and given it to the physician. He rightly recognised it as a lifeless nerve. Next the thread was tied to the foot of a cat and yet again he identified it correctly. Thirdly the thread was tied to the queen’s hand and the physician recognised it as the nerve of a living being. The king taken up by his cleverness assigned him the task of curing the queen. When the queen was cured completely, the king as an act of tribute settled the Muslim physician and his family in Talduwa.

Irshad claimed that all his ancestors even his father had studied under monks. He had studied for three years in a temple. Most of their medicinal recipes are written on ola leaf in Sanskrit. They are forced to learn Sanskrit to prepare the medicines. Irshad still possesses a number of ola leaf writings in Sanskrit, Sinhala and Tamil. His ancestors specialised in curing skin diseases and paralysis, and even today people arrive in their numbers from as far as the Maldives to meet Irshad.(From Arabia to Thalduwa by Jennifer Paladino: Sunday times 22-09-1996). Dr. Lorna Dewaraja further states that the Muslims not only served the king as physicians but also as traders Soldiers, Lekams and Disavas. They were often bestowed with the titles of Madige Badda Disava and Madige Badda Lekam.

Many Muslims of the Kandyan districts have had definite hereditary patronymics of the vāsagam type found among the Sinhalese. This is the ge- or gedara-nama, a Sinhala term meaning ‘house name’. For instance, one could still find among the Kandyan Moors patronymics like Aracchige, Lekamge, Galgedara, Lindegedara, Kandegedara, Vedaralalage-gedara, Gurunehelage-gedara, Muhandiramla-gedara, Vidanalage-gedara, Kali Mudiyanselage-gedara, Yahakugamhala-gedara, Kotmale Adappala-gedara and Nagahadeniyagedara. This type of surname precedes one’s Arabic personal name. Thus we find names like Alakoladeniya Gedara Yusuf Lebbe, Kurugoda Vidanalage Gedara Abdul Hamid Wahabdin and Kandeedara Abdul Gafur Sitti Nafiya. Such ge-names seem to have been in existence for a considerable period of time, for among the names of 17th, 18th and 19th century Kandyan Moor physicians given by Mohamed Sameer (Personages of the Past.

When the queen was cured completely, the king as an act of tribute settled the Muslim physician and his family in Talduwa   

Moors, Malays and other Muslims of the past of Sri Lanka.1982) we come across names like Meegahayate gedere gurunanalage Uduma Lebbe, Liyamagaha Kotuwe Wederale Sulaiman Lebbe, Rajakaruna Behethge Mudiyanse Abdul Qadir and Palkumbure Vaidyatileke Rajakaruna Gopalana Mudiyanselage Mohamed Udayar. What is however interesting is that the Moors of the maritime districts like Alutgama, Beruwala and Maggona also formerly bore ge-names which is widely attested in the Dutch Tombs covering the period 1766-1771 where we find such names like Ibrahim Tandellage Ahamadoe Nainde, Daroebesie Lienege Oemoer Lebbe, Iratnewalli Aratjege Oedoema Lebbe, Ismail Mokedonge Oemoer Lebbe, Pawelekodige Sleman Lebbe, Kopeaediaerlage Ibrahim Lebbe, Mamina Marekelage Ahamadoe and Assena Lebbelage Potoema Natja (Sri Lanka National Archives Dutch Tombos 1/3807 & 1/ 3764).

It is possible that such names, at least in some instances, were originally borne by the Sinhalese ancestress of these Moor families who passed it down to their offspring, thus ensuring its continuity. In the alternative, it would indicate the readiness of the Moors to adopt the salient features of the host culture so as to identify themselves more closely with their Sinhalese. There is reason to believe that at least a few ge-names such as Muhandiramlāge borne by a number of Moor families were acquired as a result of their ancestors being appointed to the high office of Muhandiram etc by the Kandyan kings. The same may hold true of names like Vidanalage ‘House of the Village Head-man’.Vedaralalage ‘House of the Physician’ indicates that the folk bearing this name are descended from medical men.

The Muslims of the Eastern Province are also known to possess kudis or matrilineal clans among them with names of Sinhala origin, namely, Ranasinga Mudaliyar Kudi and Verrisinga Aracci Kudi , Sinhalese derived names meaning ‘Clan of the Lion of War Chieftain’ and ‘Clan of Lion Hero Headman’ respectively ( See Crucible of Conflict. Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. Dennis Mc. Gilvray.2008). This may well suggest that the ancestors of these clans were Sinhalese, which is surprising given the overwhelming influence of the Tamil social milieu in the life of the Muslims of these parts.

( www.sailanmuslim.com: The unbreakable bond: Why Sinhala-Muslim relations have stood the test of time: Asiff Hussein).

Lorna Dewaraja vividly explains that during the time of the Sinhala kings, from the inception, right up to the Kandyan Period, there was racial amity between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. The reason for this was that the Muslim traders were economically and politically considered an asset by the Sri Lankan king.

The Muslims were received favourably in the Kandyan Kingdom, as far as can be seen. Robert Knox says that charitable Sinhala people gifted land to Muslims to live (Dewaraja p 115). Muslims adopted the outward appearance and dress and manners of the Sinhalese. It is said that even James Cordiner could not distinguish the differences between Muslims and Sinhala (p 120). In Galagedara there are yet two villages occupied only by Muslims, surrounded by Sinhala villages. These two villages had Mosques (Dewaraja p 104).

The Muslims were received favourably in the Kandyan Kingdom, as far as can be seen. Robert Knox says that charitable Sinhala people gifted land to Muslims to live (Dewaraja p 115). Muslims adopted the outward appearance and dress and manners of the Sinhalese.

Mosques were built on lands donated by the King. Present Katupalliya and Meera Makkam Mosque in Kandy were built on land gifted by the King. The architecture of the Katupalliya is Kandyan. (p114-115). Ridi Vihare in Kurunegala gave part of its land for a Mosque and allocated a portion of land for the maintenance of a Muslim priest (p 113).

In 1930, in Rambukkana many Muslim boys had received their education in Buddhist monasteries. Many of them studied Sinhala and indigenous medicine. Facilities were provided for the Muslim boys to say their prayers and attend Koranic classes while living in the temple. In this remote village in Rambukkana, Muslims made voluntary contributions towards the vihara and they participated in the Esala Perahera. As a mark of respect, the drummers voluntarily stopped beating of drums and paid obeisance when they passed the Mosque (Dewaraja p 113).

The relations that have existed between the Sinhalese and Muslims of Sri Lanka since ancient times illustrates the ethnic harmony in a pluralistic and multi-ethnic society. By and large, the Sri Lankan Muslims are peace loving and God fearing. Right from the inception, they have exhibited their goodwill, generosity and a great degree of resilience towards all. Past history is a starked reminder to the present generation for peaceful coexistence. Of late emergence of business rivalry, irreligious intolerance, petty jealousies etc is on the rise and takes centre stage of racial tensions. Hate speech, including social media posts, could easily whip up unscrupulous crowds on trivial issues into frenzy and cause anti-Muslim sentiments, turmoil and mayhem in the country.

Most of the time, these are the machinations of insignificant groups with vested interest. Yet, as a nation with a past bitter 30-year experience of ethnic unrest, an eye to an eye and a tooth to a tooth politics will get us nowhere. Today the Muslims are at the crossroads. It is crystal clear that groups espousing violence in the name of any religion have no place among peace-loving citizens. Ironically, a majority of the victims of racial tension in Sri Lanka and elsewhere have always been found to be Muslims. Any incident of isolated nature has to be taken up in the correct perspective of the Law of the land and timely tackled by the Police or the Security Forces.. This course of action would prevent organized gangs to take the law into their hands.

The relations that have existed between the Sinhalese and Muslims of Sri Lanka since ancient times illustrates the ethnic harmony in a pluralistic and multi-ethnic society 

In this backdrop, it would be prudent to go the extra mile to train our citizens to cherish pluralism and tolerance from the childhood starting from school going days. Emphasis should be laid on the need for racial harmony through amity and coexistence. Emotional intelligence, beliefs, values and discipline may have to be instilled in the minds of people.

One must not forget the fact that united we stand and divided we fall. Let the bygones be bygones and usher in a new era of peace and harmony!: “Hatred begets hatred and violence begets violence” and “To err is human and to forgive is divine “Sabbe satta bhavanthu sukhitatta”.


About editor 3042 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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