Roots of Muslim identity in Sri Lanka
Today in New Delhi, India
Jan 19, 2019-Saturday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

Roots of Muslim identity in Sri Lanka

Lankan Muslims' search for identity began in the last two decades of 19th century, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2006 19:14 IST

A community's search for identity and its subsequent development as a political unit, stem from an environment of communalism.

The search for an identity, now referred to by the term "identitarianism" could be a reaction either to the hegemony of the majority community or to the communalism of a minority community.

In an evolving situation, communalisms tend to feed and encourage each other, compounding the problem and turning the entire political system into a communal one, as it has happened in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan Muslims' search for an identity began in the last two decades of the 19th century in response to the growing "identitarian" movements among the other two communities in the island, namely, the Sinhalas (who are an island-wide majority) and the Tamils (who are a majority in the North East).

The Sinhala and Tamil identitarian movements would not have triggered this response among the Muslims had they not threatened the security and identity of the Muslims.

While the Sinhala movement, led by Anagarika Dharmapala, dubbed the Muslims as unwelcome foreigners, the Tamil leaders attempted to subsume the Muslims' identity under the broader and secular, Tamil identity.

"The Moors became one of the first targets of Sinhala Buddhist intolerance. Dharmapala portrayed Muslim traders as unethical exploiters of Sinhala Buddhists.

The presence of butchers' shops, which were mostly owned and run by Muslims, and of mosques in sacred Buddhist cities like Anuradhapura was regarded by the revivalists as an affront to Buddhism and Buddhist culture," say F Zackariya and B Shanmugaratnam in their paper Communalisation of Muslims in Sri Lanka.

In his letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1915, Dharmapala wrote: "What the German is to the British, the Muhammedan is to the Sinlalese. He is an alien to the Sinhalese by religion, race and language. He traces his origin to Arabian (sic), whilst the Sinhalese traces his origin to India and Aryan sources."

Anti-Muslim sentiments, generated by an anti-trader feeling, led to rioting by the Sinhalas in 1915 in Kandy and other areas in the interior of Sri Lanka.

The insecurity created by this event was compounded when a leading Tamil, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who was hostile to the Muslims' claim to a separate identity, argued the case for the Sinhalese rioters.

Earlier, in 1888, Ramanathan had read a paper at the Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in which he said that in terms of history, language, culture and physical features, the Muslims of Sri Lanka were Tamils who had converted to Islam.

This assertion came at a time when the Muslims were seeking representation, separate from the Tamils, in the Legislative Council where these were considered as "Tamils" because they spoke Tamil at home.

To the Muslim elite, Ramanathan's thesis seemed to be motivated by the desire to deny them separate representation in the Council.

The British did not buy Ramanathan's theory. This was because one of their interests was to drive a wedge among the Tamil-speaking people.

MC Abdul Rahman was appointed the first Muslim member of the council.

In his work Unmaking the nation: the politics of identity and history in modern Sri Lanka, ICES, Colombo, 1995) Qadri Ismail says that the Muslim assertion of difference might not have been possible without the British colonial power which "recognised, encouraged and institutionalised Muslim differences."

However, despite Abdul Rahman's successful entry, there was a compelling need to rebut Ramanathan's thesis on the etymology of the Muslims.

ILM.Abdul Azeez, President of the Moors' Association, did this in detail in 1907. Azeez contended that the Sri Lankan Muslims or Ceylon Moors, were descendents of the elite Hashimite Arab traders.

Azeez and his followers propounded the theory that if the Muslims spoke Tamil it was because Tamil was the language of trade.

They granted that the early Arabs had taken Tamil wives, but contended that ethnicity and lineage should be along the father's line and not the mother's.

And as for their mother tongue, it was not Tamil as such, but "Arabic Tamil", which was Tamil mixed with Arabic words and written in the Arabic script.

In the earlier years, the Muslims were equidistant from the Sinhalese and the Tamils, as they feared both.

When they saw the British government supporting them against the Sinhalese during the 1915 riots, they turned to the Colonial power for protection and offered support in return.

When the Sinhala and Tamil elites formed the slightly anti-British Ceylon National Congress in 1917, the Muslims did not join it.

Switch to the Sinhala side

However, when it became clear that representative institutions would be introduced and that these would lead to an increase in the power of the Sinhala majority, the Muslims took a pro-Sinhala stand whenever the Sinhalas clashed with the Tamils.

The Ceylon Moors (as the indigenous Sri Lankan Muslims are called) sided with the Sri Lankan government when, soon after independence in 1948, it brought about a citizenship law which made about one million Indian immigrants non-citizens.

This despite the fact that among the affected 35,000 were Indian origin Muslims.

The next important act of appeasement of the state by the elite Muslims came in 1956, when they supported the Sinhala-Only Act, says Qadri Ismail.

This was in continuance of the policy of distancing themselves from the Tamils, who were fighting for parity for the Sinhala and Tamil languages in the functioning of the government.

Even though almost all Muslims had Tamil had their mother tongue, the leadership of the community felt that Tamil should not be emphasised.

When Badiudin Mahmud became Education Minister in the 1970s, he gave Muslim students the facility to learn through the English medium, a facility denied to Tamils and Sinhalas.

But the Sinhalas had no objection to that because it would help break the Tamil-Muslim nexus, which was based on a shared mother tongue.

First Published: Mar 27, 2006 17:23 IST