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Published On:28 July 2013
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Islam in India and Sri Lanka

Arabs in Indian oceans : One thousand years of peace and Harmony

By Tariq A. Al-Maeena

During the 9th Century, what's we call the "Medieval era" the Arab Islamic dynasties have reached their peaks.They expanded their voyages eastwards, towards India and China, in search of trade. In the 9th and 10th centuries, an assortment of Persians, Arabs, Abyssinians, all Muslims, speaking Arabic and therefore conveniently called 'Arabs' dominated the overseas trade from Baghdad/Basra/Hadramout to China. The Muslims of Sri Lanka and Kerala (a South Indian state) were a part of this trade operation.

According to Historians Elliot and Dowson in their book The History of India as told by its own Historians, the first ship bearing Muslim travellers was seen on the Indian subcontinent coast as early as 630 AD. There is evidence that there were Muslim merchant settlements in Sri Lanka as early as the 7th century. M. A. M. Shukri has used the Arabic (Kufi) inscriptions in Sri Lanka to throw light on the origins of Sri Lanka's Muslims. He says that the Sri Lanka Moors originally came from Aleppo, a city in Syria. ('Sri Lanka and the Silk Road of the Sea' p181)

Apparently there is an Arabic document in the possession of one of the oldest Moor families in Beruwela. It said that in 604 AD two sons of the Royal family of Yemen came to Lanka, one settled in Mannar the other in Beruwela (Daily News 25.9. 98. p 16).

Marakkalayar/Sonahar (Tamil) or Marikkala/ Yon (Sinhala) is a name given to the Moors of Sri Lanka and in Kerala they are known as the Mappilas or Marakkar which can be translated as (Marakkalam is a wooden boat) ‘boatmen’. the word Marakkar is usually derived from the Arabic ‘Markab’, a boat. The story goes that, when the first Arabic Yemenis landed on the shores of Sri Lanka, they were naturally asked by the natives, who they were, and where they came from. In answer they pointed to their boats, and pronounced the word Markab, and they became in consequence "Marakkalaya", or the people of Markab.

In the latter half of the 13th century, with the decline of the Caliphate of Baghdad, Arab commercial activity in the Indian Ocean decreased. This trade was taken over by the Indian Muslims of Gujarat and other Indian centres. Hindu merchants did not travel. They were based in India. They exported their marchandise in Muslim owned vessels. Thus colonies of Islamised Indians came up in the ports in India's south western (Malabar) and south eastern (Coromandel) coasts right up to Bengal. Thus thriving centres of Muslim commercial activity studded the Indian coastline. Subsequently, colonies of such Indo-Arabs emerged along the coasts of Sri Lanka. These settlements were described by the Dutch and British as 'Coast Moors'.

When the Portuguese first appeared off the shores of Sri Lanka, the Muslims warned the king, sangha, nobles and the people of the potential threat to the country's soveriegnty. When the Portuguese tried to gain a foothold in Colombo, the Muslims provided firearms, fought side by side with the Sinhalese and even used their influence from with the Malabar Zamorin South Indian powers to get military asistance to Sinhalese rulers. Through the intervention of the Muslims, the Zamorin of Calicut (Kozhikode) sent three distinguished Moors of Cochin with forces to help Mayadunne.

When the Dutch appeared and persecuted the Muslims in their coastal settlements, the Muslims ran to the Kandyan Kingdom. Senerat (1604-1635) and Rajasimha II (1635-1687) settled these Muslims in the Eastern coast. King Senerath appointed nearly 4000 Moorish Arab warriors in his army against dutch, these warriors were the ancestors of the large concentration of Muslims in the populous areas like Kathankudy in the Eastern Province. In Sri Lanka, as everywhere they went, the Portuguese made a special point of persecuting the Muslims. As a consequence, many fled the western littoral which had passed under Portuguese control, and settled in the north and east of the island where their descendants live to the present day. during the 15th century AD, 10,000 Arab soldiers and their families were slaughtered in Weligama (Arabic: as-Salawat, a city further to the south of Berberyn sinhala Beruwala) mercilessly by the Portuguese who were renowned for their barbarity towards those who oppose them. The family names of the current Muslims in the region affirm the early ancestry.

Arabs also functioned as physicians in Sri Lanka and Kerala, and presumably they practised Unani medicine. at this time, Unani had been practised in its pure form in towns like Calicut (India), Cochin (India), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Galle (Sri Lanka) and Beruwela (Sri Lanka).

The Dutch also appointed two Arabs as local physicians in their hospitals, and one of them, Mira Lebbe Mestriar was thereafter appointed as Native Superintendent of the Medical Department in 1806 by the British.

Another important function of he Muslims in the Kandyan Court, was that they acted as envoys to the King. One Arab Muslim envoy had been sent to the Nawab of Carnatic. Another had been sent to Pondicherry soliciting French assistance against the Dutch, in 1765. The King also made use of his Muslim subjects to keep abreast of developments outside his kingdom. The Arab Muslims were useful in this respect because of their trade links and knowledge of languages.

There have been Arabs in Sri Lanka for well over a thousand years. Trading dhows plied the waters between the Middle East and the island known to Arab sailors - like the legendary Sinbad - as Serendib even in pre-Islamic times. The first Arab merchants and sailors may have landed on its shores during the Prophrt Muhammad (PBUH)'s life time. By the 10th century this predominantly Arab community had grown influential enough to control the trade of the south-western ports, whilst the Sinhalese kings generally employed Muslim ministers to direct the state's commercial affairs.

(Courtesy: Mareeg.com)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on July 28, 2013. Filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on July 28, 2013. Filed under , , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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