The origins of the Sri Lankan Moors is a matter that has aroused much controversy in academic circles. While it is generally believed that the Moors are descended from Arabian merchants who espoused local women, there are those historians who continue to argue that the Moors originally hailed from South India, mainly on the basis of their spoken language – Tamil. The present article proposes to show that the nucleus of the Moorish community comprises the descendants of Arabian settlers hailing from Iraq and the Arabian peninsula who arrived in the country during the medieval period. Oral tradition, genealogical records, anthropological details and literary, linguistic and epigraphic evidence will be adduced to support this view.
Alexander Johnston (Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 1827) has recorded that the first Muslims who settled in the country were, according to the tradition which prevails among their descendants, a portion of those Arabs of the House of Hashim (The Prophet Muhammad’s clan) who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the eighth century by the Umayyad Caliph Abd-al Malik bin Marwan, and who proceeding from the Euphrates southward, made settlements in the Concan, the southern parts of the Indian peninsula, Sri Lanka and Malacca. He adds that the division of them that came to Sri Lanka formed eight considerable settlements along the north-eastern, northern, and western coasts of the island,viz. at Trincomalee, Jaffna, Mantota-Mannar, Kudiraimalai, Puttalam, Colombo, Beruwala and Galle.
Genealogical records maintained by certain Moor families also bear testimony to their Arab ancestry. J. C. Van Sanden (Sonahar. A brief history of the Moors of Ceylon. 1926) cites literary evidence(viz. an old Arabic document in the possession of one of the oldest Moor families residing in Beruwala) in support of the claims of some Moorish folk of Beruwala who trace their ancestry to a scion of Arabian royalty who departed from Yemen in the 22nd Hijri year (C.644 A.C) in the time of the second Caliph Umar.
M. S. Ismail Effendi (Personages of the Past, Moors, Malays and other Muslims. 1982) has also cited substantial genealogical evidence showing the Arab origins of prominent Moor families. An Alutgama family, for example, traced its lineage to the first Caliph of the Islamic Commonwealth Abu Bakr (573-634 A.C.), while another traced its descent to one Badrudeen who evidently hailed from Iraq. Yet another family traced its descent to one Prince Jamaldeen, an Arab from Konia, who arrived in the country in 1016. Such patronymics as Baghdadi (the one from Baghdad) and Yemeni ( the Yemenite) which figure among the prominent Moor families cited in Effendi’s work indicate the diverse origins of the Moorish folk settled in Sri Lanka. The Nicholson Cove Tombstone inscription at Trincomalee refers to the deceased as the grand-daughter of Hussain Ibn Ali Al-Halabi, showing that her family hailed from Halab (Aleppo) in Syria. It is also well known that the Moors of Akurana trace their descent to three Arabian mercenaries who espoused Kandyan women during the reign of King Rajasinha II (1635-1687). The Gopala (Betge Nilame) family of Moors domiciled in Getaberiya in the Kegalle District likewise claim descent from Arab physicians (hakims) who arrived in the country from Sind during the reign of King Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) of Dambadeniya and espoused Kandyan women.
Epigraphic evidence may also be cited in this connection. Noteworthy is the Arabic tombstone inscription in Kufic characters concerning an Islamic cleric named Khalid Ibn Abu [B]akaya dated the Hijri year 337 A.H.(10th century) found at the Moorish burial ground near Colombo. According to local tradition, this cleric was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad to reform the Muslims of Colombo after hearing that these Muslims (who were then established as traders) were ignorant of, and inattentive to the real tenets of their religion (Johnston.1827). Besides this, seven other stones, including five gravestones, inscribed in Arabic dated from the 8th-16th century have been discovered. The earliest tombstone discovered in May 1976 at Madulbova bears the Hijri date 133 A.H.(8th century) . The fact that the Arabic language had been employed in the inscriptions suggests that the country’s Muslims, or at least a significant proportion of them were literate and conversant in Arabic.
The appellation given to the Moors by themselves as well as by others also indicate their Arab origin. The Moors have traditionally referred to themselves as Sonahar in their peculiar patois of Tamil, the pure Tamil form of which, Sonagar, refers to a native of Arabia (Sonagam).
The Sinhala term for the Moors Yon is related to the Sanskritic Yavana and Prakritic Yona used by the Indians to denote foreign peoples, especially the Arabs, Greeks and those who belonged to the vast Graeco-Bactrian region between Greece and India following Alexander’s conquests in the fourth century B.C. In Sinhala, however, the term yon appears to have been associated with the Arabs and Moors. Fernao de Queyroz in his Conquista Temporal e Espiritual de Ceylao (1687) has noted that the Sinhalese generally called the Moors Iona. That the term is closely connected with the Arabs is suggested by the Sinhala term for the ‘date palm’ yon-indi. Also consider the place-names Yon-vidiya ‘Moor Street’ and Yon-gala ‘Moor rock’.
Anthropological evidence may also be cited in this connection. The Kovul Sandeshaya (15th century) refers to Yon liya (Arab or Moor women) of golden hue (ranvan) at a village called Mahavaligama (probably Weligama) with its thriving bazaar full of traders, suggesting that these Yon were a relatively fair-complexioned folk, much like the true Arabs. According to the Physical Anthropology of Ceylon (1961), a comprehensive work dealing with the physical characteristics of the country’s various races, the skin colour of over thirty Moor subjects of the Jaffna district measured in the survey approximated that of the Aryan Sinhalese, which would suggest that they derive from a somewhat fair-skinned race. The work further shows that the Moors are a broad-headed or brachycephalic people as distinct from the long-headed or dolicocephalic Tamils. 32 Moors from Jaffna district measured in the survey showed a brachycephaly that closely approximated that of the Sinhalese. It is however doubtful whether this trait derives from the Sinhalese. It is more likely that it originated from Southern Arabia or Iraq, especially as there is literary evidence to show that many of the forbears of the Moors hailed from these regions.
It has been shown by C.G.Seligman ( The Physical characters of the Arabs. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society. 1917) that the Arabs of the Northern Arabian Peninsula and Sinai are predominantly long-headed while those of the south such as the Yemen are predominantly broad-headed. Citing anthropological evidence obtained from skeletal remains, he states that the Northern Arabs have been predominantly long-headed for the last 2000 years. The South Arabian brachycephaly, he believes to have derived from the Armenoid type found largely in the great brachycephalic area of Western Asia, viz. Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. This southern brachycephaly is thought to be an intrusive element borne to South Arabia, perhaps by sea, from the north-east, and it is likely that the Southern Arabian peninsula, like the Northern, was originally peopled by a dolichocephalic Semitic stock, upon which was later superimposed a brachycephalic element following some remote Armenoid immigration from the east, probably Mesopotamia. The aquiline nose, a characteristic of Semitic races such as the Arabs and Jews, is also prominent among the South Arabians (Seligman.1917). This too is significant as there are many Moors to-day who do possess prominent aquiline noses.
The adoption of Tamil on the part of the Moors is not inexplicable. It is probable that with the fall of Baghdad – the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate- to the Mongol hordes in the 13th century, the Arab merchants and settlers in the country and their mixed descendants would have had little option but to cease connections with their old home country and increasingly turn towards their South Indian, Dravidian-speaking co-religionists for commercial and cultural intercourse. Being a largely mercantile community themselves, they would have established and maintained close relations with the Muslim trading settlements in the South Indian coastal areas, especially since their livelihood depended largely on maritime trade. Tamil, it should be pointed out was the lingua franca of commerce in the region at the time. Such a situation could have easily led to the acceptance by the Moors, of Tamil as their spoken language over a period of time. Thus it would have been due to obvious reasons of convenience that the Moors came to speak Tamil as their ‘Home language’.
The period of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 A.C.) is regarded as the golden age of Arabian culture, science and commerce. The sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 and the other destructive acts perpetrated by them is said to have resulted in the downfall of the Arabian political and cultural heritage in the eastern part of the Arab world as well as in neighbouring countries like Iran. Indeed, the period from 1258 to the 18th century is known as the age of decadence of Arabic language, literature and the sciences. As such, it is not surprising that the Arabs and Moors established in the country should have ceased connections with the rest of the Arab world and eschewed their native Arab speech for a completely different and non-related language – Tamil. This process which is known as linguistic regression is not unknown amongst other nations and has taken place due to various political, social and economic factors. This has been the case with the Parsis of Western India who have eschewed their native Iranian speech for Gujarati and the Cape Malays of South Africa whose native Malay speech has been superseded by Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch.
It is however interesting to note that Tamil is fast dying out as the home language of the Moor youth of the Sinhalese-majority provinces and is being fast replaced by Sinhala, mainly due to education in the Sinhala vernacular. This trend is particularly evident in the upcountry and in the Southern and Western parts of the country. It is therefore clear that whatever their spoken language might be, the Moors form a distinct community with a religious and cultural identity of their own.