Sri Lankan Moors

Sri Lankan Moors
Sri Lankan Moors
20th century Sri Lankan Moors
Group of early 20th century Sri Lankan Moors.
Total population
~2 million (2005)
Regions with significant populations
 Sri Lanka 8% or ~2 million (2005)
Middle East

Tamil, Sinhalese (formerly Arwi and Arabic)



Related ethnic groups

Arabs, Sri Lankan people

The Sri Lankan Moors (commonly referred to as Muslims) are the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka comprising 8% of the country's total population (approx. 2 million people in 2005). They are predominantly followers of Islam. The Moors trace their ancestry to Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka some time between the 8th and 15th centuries. The Arabic language brought by the early merchants is no longer spoken, though many Arabic words and phrases are still commonly used. Until the recent past, the Moors employed Arwi as their native language,[1] though this is also extinct as a spoken language.

Moors today use Tamil as their primary language with influence from Arabic.[1] Those from central and southern Sri Lanka also widely use Sinhala, an Indo-European language spoken by the ethnic Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan Moors lived primarily in coastal trading and agricultural communities, preserving their Islamic cultural heritage while adopting many Southern Asian customs. During the period of Portuguese colonisation, the Moors suffered widespread persecution, and many fled to the Central Highlands and the East Coast, where their descendants remain.



The Jami-ul-Alfar Mosque in Pettah, Colombo was built in 1901.

The Tamils of Sri Lanka, throughout history, have attempted to categorize the Sri Lankan Moors as belonging to the Tamil race. However many Moors feel that this is wrong. Scientifically they are different races, due to the fact that after the Arab traders settled in Sri Lanka and adapted to the Tamil language, so that it was easier for them to communicate with the Tamils. This meant that mistakenly Tamils concluded that the Moors were from their race. The features of Sri Lankan Moors are also very different, they commonly have lighter skin tone hair color. Therefore they are two completely different races, who speak the same language. Tamil culture and traditions are very different. Tamils follow the Hindu culture and religion whereas the Sri Lankan Moors follow the Arabic cultural traditions and practise the religion Islam. It is claimed that this was a bid to eliminate the minority community from having its own unique identity. The Government of Sri Lanka, however, treats the Muslims as of origin and as a distinct ethnic group compared to the Tamils.[1]

The manner in which Islam developed in Sri Lanka is very similar to that on the Malabar Coast of India. Tradition has recorded that Arabs who had settled down on the Malabar coast used to travel from the port of Cranganore to Sri Lanka on pilgrimage to pay homage to what they believed to be the footprint of Adam on the top of a mountain, which, even today, is called Adam's Peak.[1]

Ibn Batuta, the famous 14th-century Arab traveller, recorded many facets about early Arab influence in Sri Lanka in his travelogues.

Before the end of the 7th century, a colony of Muslim merchants had established themselves in Ceylon. Fascinated by the scenic splendour and captivated by the traditions associated with Adam's Peak, Muslim merchants arrived in large numbers and some of them decided to settle in the island encouraged by the cordial treatment they received by the local rulers. Most of them lived along the coastal areas in peace and prosperity, maintaining contacts, both cultural and commercial, with Baghdad, Hadramout, Oman and other Islamic cities.[1]

According to Tikiri Abeyasinghe in his Portuguese Rule in Ceylon, 1594–1612, Colombo (1966), Lake House Investments Ltd., p 192, tradition has it that,

[...]the first Mohammadans of Ceylon were a portion of those Arabs of the House of Hashim, who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the 8th. century by the tyranny of the Caliph, Abdel Malik bin Marwan, and who proceeding from the Euphrates southwards made settlements in the concan in the southern parts of the peninsula of India, on the island of Ceylon and Malacca. The division of them that came to Ceylon formed eight considerable settlements along the Nort-East, North and Western coast of that island; viz., one at Trincomalee, one at Jaffna, one at Colombo, one at barbareen, and one at Point de Galle.[...]

The first Arabs who practiced Islam arrived in Sri Lanka around the 7th–8th century, and there is evidence that there was a settled community of Arabs in Ceylon in pre-Islamic times.[1]

The circumstances that helped the growth of Muslim settlements were varied. Most of the majority Sinhalese depended more on agriculture than trade, thus trade was open to the Muslims. The Sinhalese Kings considered the Muslim settlements favorably on account of the revenue that they brought them through their contacts overseas both in trade and in politics. The religious tolerance of the local population was also another vital factor in the development of Muslim settlements in Ceylon.[1]

Kechimalai Mosque, Beruwala. One of the oldest mosques in Sri Lanka. It is believed to be the site where the first Arabs landed in Sri Lanka

The early Muslim settlements were set up mainly around ports on account of the nature of their trade. It is also assumed that many of the Arab traders may not have brought their womenfolk along with them when they settled in Ceylon. Hence they would have been compelled to marry the Sinhalese and Tamil women of the island after converting them to Islam. The fact that a large number of Moors in Sri Lanka speak the Tamil language can be attributed to the possibility that they were trading partners with the Tamils of South India and had to learn Tamil in order to carry out their business. The integration with the Muslims of Tamil Nadu (Marakkar), in South India, may have also contributed to this. Moors are also sometimes referred to as Marakkala in Sinhala language. It is also possible that the Arabs who had already migrated to Ceylon, prior to Islam, had adopted the Tamil language as a medium of communication in their intercourse with the Tamil-speaking Muslims of South India. The Muslims were very skillful traders who gradually built-up a very lucrative trading post in Ceylon. A whole colony of Arab Muslims is said to have landed at Beruwela (South Western coast) in the Kalutara District in 1024.[1]

Though the Muslims did not engage in propagating Islam amongst the natives of Ceylon, many of the native women they married were converted to Islam.[1]

There is also a report in the history of Sri Lanka of a Muslim ruler, Vathimi Raja, who reigned at Kurunegala (North Central Province) in the 14th century. This factor cannot be found in history books due to their omission, for reasons unknown, by modern authors. Vathimi Raja was the son of King Bhuvaneka Bahu I, by a Muslim spouse, the daughter of one of the chiefs. The Sinhalese son of King Bhuvaneka Bahu I, Parakrama Bahu III, the real heir to the throne was crowned at Dambadeniya under the name of Pandita Parakrama Bahu III. In order to be rid of his step brother, Vathimi Raja, he ordered that his eyes be gouged out. It is held that the author of the Mahavamsa (ancient history of Ceylon) had suppressed the recording of this disgraceful incident. The British translator, Mudaliyar Wijesinghe, states that original Ola (leaf script) was bodily removed from the writings and fiction inserted instead. The blinded Vathimi Raja (Bhuvaneka Bahu II or Al-Konar, abbreviated from Al-Langar-Konar, meaning Chief of Lanka of Alakeshwara) was seen by the Arab traveller Ibn Batuta during his visit to the island in 1344. His son named Parakrama Bahu II (Alakeshwara II) was also a Muslim. The lineage of Alakeshwara kings (of Muslim origin) ended in 1410. Although all the kings during this reign may not have been Muslims, the absence of the prefix -Shri Sangha Bodhi- (pertaining to the disciples of the Buddha) to the name of these kings on the rock inscriptions during this hundred year period may be considered as an indicator that they were not Buddhists. Further during Ibn Batuta's visit a Muslim ruler called Jalasthi is reported to have been holding Colombo, maintaining his hold over the town with a garrison of about 500 Abyssinians.[1]

In spite of this the Muslims have always maintained very cordial relationships with the Sinhalese Royalty and the local population. There is evidence that they were closer to the Sinhalese than to the Tamils. The Muslims' relationship with the Sinhalese kings grew stronger and in the 14th century they even fought with them against the expanding Tamil kingdom and its maritime influence.[1]

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Muslims of Sri Lanka, the descendants of the original Arab traders, had settled down comfortably on the island. They were very successful in trade and commerce and integrated socially with the customs of the local people. They had become an inseparable, and even more, an indispensable part of society. This period was one of ascendancy in peace and prosperity for the Sri Lankan Muslims.[1]


Since the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Moors in Sri Lanka has grown from approximately 100,000 persons in the 19th century to over 2 million in 2005. (The population of Sri Lanka is 21,128,772 as of 2009.) In the past, Moors were found throughout Sri Lanka, mostly within urban coastal regions. However, during Portuguese rule in the 17th century they were persecuted on the basis of their religion and were forced to retreat into the Kandyan highlands and the East Coast, which were under the rule of local kings. As a result, there are substantial Moor populations in these regions today. In recent times, the Sri Lankan Civil War has produced large population movements in the northern region of the country, resulting in significant demographic changes. Hence the once-flourishing Muslim (mostly Moor) community is now non-existent in the Northern Province of the country as a result of the Hindu Tamil Tigers' ethnic cleansing carried out by Tamil Tiger rebels in 1991. This caused the Moors to fled towards the southern and western Sri Lanka. Most of the expelled Northern population now reside in the western Puttalam region of the country. Overall, the majority of Sri Lankan Muslims still reside in Sri Lanka, however there are small growing communities in the Arab World, Europe, North America and Australia.


Distribution of Moors in Sri Lanka based on 2001 and 1981 (italic) census. (Note: Large population movements have occurred since 1981, hence 2001 data for Northeastern areas (italic) do not exist

East Coast Moors

On the east coast, Last generation of Sri Lankan Moors are primarily farmers, fishermen, and traders, but the present generation is a significant mark on Muslims education of the Island. Their family lines are traced through women, as in kinship systems of the southwest Indian state of Kerala, but they govern themselves through Islamic law.[2]

Central and West Coast Moors

Many moors in the central and west of the island are related to business, industrialists, professionals or civil servants and are mainly concentrated in Kandy, Colombo, Kalutara and Beruwala. Moors in Puttalam and Mannar predominantly make a living as prawn farmers, and fishermen. Moors in the west coast trace their family lines through their father. Along with those in the Central Province, the surname of many Moors in Colombo, Kalutara and Puttalam is their fathers' first name, which is similar to the traditional Arab and Middle Eastern kinship system.


The Sri Lankan Moors possess a unique culture that differentiates them from the dominant Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups on the island. The cultural domain of Sri Lankan Moors has been strongly shaped by Islam, hence most customs and practices are dictated by Islamic law. While preserving many of their ancestral customs, the Moors have also adopted several South Asian practices.[1]


Sri Lankan Moors are predominantly followers of Islam, hence their cultural identity is strongly defined by their religion. Unlike the Sinhalese and Tamil people who adhere to several faiths, virtually all Moors adhere to Islam, hence in a Sri Lankan context the term Muslim is often used interchangeably as both a religious and ethnic term to describe the Moors. Most Sri Lankan Moors follow Sunni Islam through the Shafi school of thought, though there are also small populations that follow other Islamic sects such as Shia Islam.


The Moors speak a modified form of the Tamil language influenced by Arabic.[1] However since there is not an official name for the dialect, it is commonly referred as Tamil, however there are certain words and phrases that are different from the original Tamil language thats spoken by the Tamils. some Moors still use Arabic to read and write in this 21st century. The Sinhala language has also had strong influence on speech, especially in the central region of Sri Lanka where most Moors are multilingual. Arabic is used extensively as a liturgical language. In the past, the Arwi language was used extensively by the Moor community, however it is now virtually extinct as a spoken language and is confined only to religious texts. Today, the Tamil script is commonly used; however the official script used in religious affairs is still Arwi, which is a modified form of the Arabic script.[3]

Many Arabic and Arabized words exist in the form of Tamil spoken by Moors. Among many examples, greetings and blessings are exchanged in Arabic instead of Tamil, such as Assalamu Alaikum instead of Vanakkam and Jazakallah instead of Nandri. Furthermore, to a smaller extent words have also been absorbed from Portuguese, Dutch, English and notably, Sri Lankan Creole Malay.

In recent times, with the advent of teaching Arabic as a compulsory language at schools and the rising of Islamic sentiments of Islamic people worldwide, Arabic has become more popular and used among Sri Lankan Moors.


Prior to the adoption of Tamil and Sinhala, the Arwi language was used as a native language by the Sri Lankan Moors. Arwi is linguistically related to both Semitic and Dravidian tongues now spoken predominantly in the Middle East and Southern India, respectively. It is also believed to be also related to Brahui, a Dravidian language spoken today by nearly 350,000 in East Baluchistan, Pakistan.[citation needed]

The Arwi alphabet.

The linguistic "marriage" of Arabic with Sri Lankan dialects is a process that has been active in the region for several centuries. The distinctiveness of the speech behaviour of the Moors of Sri Lanka, has been referred to as Arabic-Tamil, Arabuthamul, Arwi, or Shonakam. It enjoys a religious knowledge affinity with a dialect of Jawi, used by the Malays of the island, as well as with other northern India derived languages such as Urdu, used by smaller groups of Muslims in the country. The linguistic medium of Arwi is composed of more than one set of grammars and vocabularies that a speaker may switch back and forth from, depending on the situation. Spoken forms of coastal regional Arwi also differ from central regional forms. Compared to many among the Sinhalese, Tamil, or Burgher peoples of Sri Lanka who have traditionally tended to be monolingual, Moors were much more at home with Sinhala and Tamil, and in some instances English, as well as Arwi.

As a written language Arwi employs an invented orthography for a creolized, or mixed, system of speech patterns. Arwi spoken in Sri Lanka, contained a mixture of words that have Semitic, Dravidian and Indo-European origins (i.e. Arabic, Tamil and Sinhalese, respectively).[3] Research on its history has only very recently begun to appear in print. It is believed to have originated during the early stages of Islamizing contact between Sri Lankan peoples with Arab and Persian traders. The principles of its development and structure are possibly related to similar systems known for other similar Islamized speech and writing systems such as Maldivian, Jawi, Urdu, and Persian.

Arwi is known to be a matter of at least scholarly interest in some parts of Sri Lanka today. Languages such as Sinhala, Tamil and English have replaced it in many contexts. Several reasons can be attributed to the decline of Arwi including the popularization of English during colonial times and the lack of competitive printing facilities. Furthermore, the early 20th century adoption of an Arabic-dominant Islamic school curriculum by scholars has also contributed to the extinction of Arwi as a spoken language and its overall decline in Sri Lanka.

Today, the Arwi language exists only as a written medium for religious uses. Alongside standard Arabic, it is often used in formal religious ceremonies; however, unlike Arabic, Arwi is seldom taught in religious schools and is consequently in deep decline. The most notable usage of Arwi can be found in devotional chants such as the Talaifatiha, which is exclusively conducted exclusively by women during certain religious festivals.

See also


Hindustan Times.2006

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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