The Muslims of Sri Lanka

June 18, 2009 by  


By Geoffrey Cook, MMNS

Oakland–It is scarcely known that there is an ample society of Muslims caught within the middle of Sri Lanka (Ceylon’s) recent tragically war-torn civil insular nation-State. 

There are three major groups of Muslims in that island’s nation – the “Moors,” Indian (originally from the Subcontinent) Muslims and the Malays.  The two Islamic non-South Asian subminoritities – one from the Middle East and other from Southeastern Asia, with the long-standing immigrants from India, make up about the same percentage as European descendant settlers, the Burghers at 8%.  The rest of the population is made up of the ultra-orthodox Hindus in the Tamil areas, and the majority 70% are Buddhists.  The total population of all main groupings within the island is between 19 through 21 million (2009) persons.  In 2005, the Islamic “Moors” represented 2 million of these souls.  The “Moors” were descended from a troupe of traders from the Arabian Peninsula, who came to Colombo’s island between the Eighteenth until the Fifteenth Century (CE) supposedly (by tradition) from the Arabian Peninsula.  In fact, one source I evaluated claimed that the “Moors were traversing the Indian Ocean between Lanka and Mecca before the Hijra (622 CE).  Nonetheless, the “Moors” had settled partially on Lanka bringing Islam to their ancient culture to the island.  Yet, the earliest came late in the Seventh Century as traders between the Middle East and South Asia.  Yet, most did not settle down on this Southern Asian Island, and took up the culture of the Tamils after they established a permanent residence upon the soil.  Although they first employed Tamil as their “Father” tongue — that parole (speech) used outside the house — (they soon devised Awi, which, in turn has become archaic, was a mixture of Tamil and Arabic.)   By marrying converted wives, they became a multi-lingual, multi-cultural people — Tamil, Sinhalese and English — while maintaining their religion inviolate:  They are largely Sunni Muslims of the Shafi School.  Although they can be described as a multi-ethnic, and religious alliance, they lack a linguistic cohesion, though, anthropologically (since they are tri-lingual).

The second group of Muslims, the Malays, came with the Dutch military during the period when Amsterdam controlled the island, and settled there over Ceylon’s Netherlandish period.  The Malays (originally from) Indonesia, and, thus from insular Southeast Asian origin (Ja Minissu), are some of the most orthodox of Muslims in the world today, but, unlike the “Moors,” they did not take up the surrounding Tamil culture, but they resolutely stuck to an adapted Malay cultural and religious norm.  They make up the smallest of minorities – 5% of the total Lankan Islamic citizenry only.

The third group was an alignment of mainly – although not exclusively — South Indian Muslim merchants, who emigrated southward over several centuries and naturally integrated well into the predominantly Tamil (Hindu) culture there on the other side of “Adam’s Bridge” from Tamil Nadu.

The Muslims were well assimilated and accepted into Ceylonese society, but, during the recent civil war, the Tamil Tigers systematized a process of ethnic cleansing that the once flourishing “Moorish” and other Muslim masses are not represented in the Northern Province anymore.  Most of those inhabitants have been forcibly cast largely into the Puttalam Region.  Also, a small Diaspora has been arising in the Middle East, Australia and even North America.  Now, that the Tigers have been defeated, will Islam be allowed back into their former (own) homes with full property rights restored?  Much of this depends upon us individually, and the pressure we can exert upon our own governments plus the Sri Lankan government, and, thereby, institutions of the International Communities – the U.N. et al., and especially Islamic groupings!

The pictures of those large numbers of noncombatants wretchedly entrapped between the Government and the Tigers’ forces during the former’s last stand last stand are staggering.  Amongst them is a significant number of Muslims, and the Islamic charities must especially address their needs, and become involved in their resettlement back to their ancestral homes with other (First World/Western) International NGOs.

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