Sri Lanka is composed of a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious population which has made this island their home from antiquity. The statistics reveal the pluralistic nature of Sri Lankan society and the diffusion and inter- relation of several cultures. This is the great beauty of this country. Sri Lanka comprises of the major ethnic group, the Sinhalese, in addition to other groups such as Tamils and Muslims. Sri Lankan Muslims are the second largest minority group in the island, after the Tamils. There was migration from India to this island 2500 years ago while Arabs maintained an intimate trade relation with Ceylon.
Ancient Arab link with Sri Lanka
The first mention of Arabs in Ceylon appears to be in the Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon, in an account of the reign of the King Pandukabhaya, it is stated that this king set apart land 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 coming of Islam, in 7th century.
From very early times, it was the Arabs who brought merchandise and bartered them for the spices that Sri Lanka had to offer. The Arabs have been renowned to travel long distances in their caravans, on the desert sands, guided by the stars. They were therefore, one of the first people to navigate the uncharted high seas, and the oceans. They were the first to learn to take advantage of the monsoons, and knew the relationship of the moon to the tides. Soon they gave up the practice of hugging the coasts of Persia and India to reach Ceylon.
Early Muslim settlement
In the 7th century, Ceylon's connection with Arabia should have been very close indeed as we learn that during the reign of Aggrabodhi III a delegation was dispatched from this island on a fact-finding mission to Arabia, when the people of this country heard of the Prophetic mission. Though the mission set out when the Prophet himself was living, it was able to reach Arabia only during the time of Caliph Umar (654-664), but the chief envoy died on the way, but the Hindi servant is reported to have reached the island to tell the tale. So it is highly probable that Arab settlements existed in Ceylon prior to the 7th century, which became the precursors of Muslim settlements that followed in the 7th century. H.W. Cordington (`A short History of Ceylon') London, 1939) says that the Muslims were first heard of in Ceylon, in the early eighth century. This was based on the grounds that gold coins of most of the dynasties of Egypt and parts of Asia, were in circulation around that time, particularly during the 12th and 13th centuries.
The early settlements of Arab Muslims in this island were largely, if not solely centred around the coastal ports since their main activity was maritime trade. Arab Muslims gradually assumed significant positions in the island's trade because of their honesty and friendliness. Thus, they became a powerful factor in the island's international standing because of their language skills. As foreign trade grew in importance, the Arab Muslims appear to have settled down in large numbers in the coastal areas. In the course of time they moved on into the interior of the island. As the Arab settlements increased, the all Sinhalese rulers seem to have responded tolerantly and benevolently towards them. The Arabs returned the favour with their strong loyalty to the kings and the country.
Muslims in Medieval Sri Lanka (10 - 14 century)
With the increase in the importance of foreign trade, the Muslim settlements in the coastal areas especially around the ports increased. The traders of this period seem to have risen to very influential positions even functioning as advisors on foreign trade to Sinhalese kings. So much so, that Marco Polo (A.D. 1293) when he arrived, found the Muslims monopolizing trade. An important source of first-hand information about the early Arabs could be found in the travelogue of Ibn Battuta, the celebrated 14th century traveller. During the course of his pilgrimage to Adams peak in 1344, lbn Battuta trekked through the jungles of the island, passing through Chilaw. Ibn Battuta describes his journey in detail as he says; "when I entered the presence of the Sultan( king) Ayri Shakarwati, he rose to meet me, seated me beside him and spoke most kindly to me. He said "Your companions may land in safety and will be my guests until they sail, for the Sultan and I are friends". (`The travels of IbnBattuta'). This shows that the king knew about Muslims before their arrival in this island and was respecting the Muslims.
Predictably, the Arab Muslims had been enriched by drafts of Muslims from many countries. There were the Muslims from Kerala, particularly from the area of Cochin, Malabar and Tavancore; from the district of Ramnad, Tirunelveli and Tanjore. The entry of Muslims of various cultures continued throughout the centuries. The Malays and Javanese, the Bugis, the Mollucans, the Sumatrans would have settled in Sri Lanka long ago, in the south west and east of Sri Lanka.
There is reason to believe that many Arabs who arrived in Sri Lanka, during mediaeval times, came as mercenaries to fight for pecuniary gain for one or other of contending native princes or parties. The native Sinhalese were evidently little disposed to literary service and hence Arab mercenaries were much in demand. Says the Venetian traveller Marco Polo: "The people of `Seilan' are no soldiers and when they need soldiers they get Saracen troops from foreign parts." Similarly , the early Dutch visitors to the island such as Joris Van Spilbergen who visited the country in 1602 found armed soldiers of various nations such as Turks (Turken) and Arabs or Moors (Mooren) serving the King of Kandy. (Asiff Hussain, `Sarandib: An Etnological Study of the Muslims of Sri Lanka') Throughout the years, the Muslims of Sri Lanka have closely cooperated with other communities living here. While positive interaction was universal among the Muslims, the higher echelons were close to the Sinhala Kings and other decision makers. The assistance of Muslim traders was sought after by Sinhala kings. For instance, in 1238, the Muslim traders were instrumental in planning and implementing the commercial mission of Buvenakhabahu Ito, the Sultan of Egypt.
The Muslims of the island as far back as the seventh century A.D. brought with them their Islamic way of life. However they inter married with the local population and adopted their way of life as far as it was in keeping with Islamic tradition. Although the Muslims were traders, they have contributed in various fields such as agriculture, fishing, medicine, military pursuits, politics, transportation and education, especially to the sovereignty and integrity of this country. All these also point to the fact that Muslims always contributed positively to the Sri Lankan culture, trade and governance and were never a divisive force, even today they remain so.
Writer is the President Federation of Thihariya mosques and former research officer of the Department of Muslim Cultural Affairs, Colombo
From Sri Lanka Daily Mirror, 2008 August 07 Article