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Sri Lankan Moors & Misconceptions

We all keep racial, religious, cultural and other misconceptions in our own minds and at the behest of those ‘others’.Sri Lanka is no exception. Granted however, that the country’s less than 20million people are divided between a dominant ethnic majority (Sinhala), two significant minorities (i.e. Tamil and Muslim), and myriad other sub-groups it’s hardly surprising that misconceptions about ‘the others’ are enmeshed in the Sri Lankan psyche and the social subconscious of its’ people.

What are misconceptions? Broadly defined a misconception is a wrong understanding; or a belief in a concept that is false. Largely innocuous even if left unchecked and unrestrained, a misconception becomes potentially dangerous, when it sinks into the realm of the stereotypical.

A stereotype – “an unvarying form or pattern; specific., a fixed or conventional notion or conception, as of a person, group, idea, etc., held by a number of people, and allowing for no individuality, critical judgment, etc.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary) – is the worst of the two vices.

Repeatedly, history has demonstrated the disastrous consequences of stereotypes. The world has witnessed all too well stereotypes of women (‘women are weak’), Africans (‘blacks are intellectually inferior’) and more recently Muslims (‘Muslims are terrorists’) thereby breeding precarious repercussions. Sociologically speaking, stereotypes are often viewed as necessary and inescapable. The mental categorization perpetuated by stereotypes is what enables us humans to simplify, predict and organize the world around us. It saves us the difficulty of having to take into account all the complexities of our world. Breaking down stereotypes therefore becomes a herculean task. Misconceptions however can be erased with the presentation of credible facts that establish the contrary in relation to the subject at hand.

So what are the misconceptions unique to the case of the Sri Lankan Muslim? ‘Muslims are rich’ and ‘Muslims add to the population like no other community’ are two misconceptions that come to mind instantaneously. My own life is dotted with several encounters with common misconceptions. On my first job at an advertising agency I was taken aback when I inadvertently came across a post-it note stuck on my interview assessment – a note evidently not intended for my viewing. Minutely inscribed were these words: “she is best suited for the job, but she looks so conservative.” This was an obvious reference to the hijab sitting comfortably on my head. That Muslim girls and women in hijab are ‘conservative’ is a common misconception in Sri Lanka. ‘Conservative’ connotes the sense of being unsociable, not progressive and generally not being the ‘go-getter’ Sri Lanka’s bustling private sector passionately seeks. Those ‘others’ often react with a look of shocked disbelief at the sight of hijabis at the helm of the corporate ladder. Fortunately though, with several hijabis daring to break the glass ceiling this misconception is on a downward spiral.

One particular misconception about the Muslims of Sri Lanka, namely the false belief that, ‘Moors are Tamils’ carries with it some serious connotations. Moors are “the descendants of Arabs who espoused local women they are largely a mixed race with a considerable infusion of Sinhalese and Dravidian blood.”

“The epithet (Moor), was borrowed (from the Spaniards) by the Portuguese, (the earliest colonizers of ‘Ceylon’ – as Sri Lanka was then known) who, after their discovery of the passage by the Cape of Good Hope, bestowed it indiscriminately upon the Arabs and their descendants, whom in the sixteenth century, found established as traders in every port on the Asian and African coast, and who had good reason to regard them as their most formidable competitors for the commerce of the East.”

Presently “Sri Lankan Muslims” are sub-divided as Ceylon Moors, Malays, Pakistani Moors and Indian Moors by the Census Department.

What is meant by ‘Moors are Tamils’ is that Moors do not form an ethnicity that is distinct from that of the Tamils of the country, and it is only religion that sets the two groups apart. Accordingly this argument supposes that, the Tamil race is sub-divided religiously into those who follow Islam,as distinct to those who embrace Hinduism or Christianity; like the Sinhala race, the group that adheres to Buddhism and the other to Christianity.

The misnomer that Moors are ethnologically Tamils, first found expression in a speech delivered by Hindu-Tamil Political leader Sir Ponnanbalam Ramanathan, in the heyday of colonial British divide and rule policy. Ramanathan based his contention primarily on the facts that Tamil was the spoken language of the Moors, that certain customs were common to Moors and Tamils (particularly in relation to marriage) and the etymology of the word ‘sonahar’(commonly used Tamil word to denote Moors). Vehemently opposing this contention was renowned Moorish Scholar and editor of Muslim Guardian I L M Abdul Azeez:

“In 1885, in the Ceylon Legislative Council, and in 1888, in the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), Mr Ramanathan, ……announced that the Ceylon Moors were Tamils in nationality and Mohammedans in religion. Though there is nothing humiliating in being Tamil in race, the persistent attempt of that gentleman in attributing to the Moors an origin which they do not claim, in spite of their assertion to the contrary, is annoying, if not offending; and it becomes very necessary that his statement should be examined and his references sifted before his conclusions are adopted.”

It has been proven beyond doubt that the Moors of Sri Lanka are “the descendants of those Arabian colonists, who settled in Ceylon many centuries ago. Alexander Johnston 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 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, established 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.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by other historians of the country including Dr. Lorna Dewaraja in “The Muslims of Sri Lanka, 1000 years of ethnic harmony 900-1915 AD”, Dr. M I M Shukri and Professor K M De Silva.

With reference to the etymology of the term Sonahar Hussien comments;

“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 dialect of Tamil, the pure Tamil form of which, Sonagar, refers to a native of Arabia (Sonagam).”

Refuting the argument that Moors are Tamils because their mother tongue is Tamil, Hussein says:

“Although it is likely that it was Arabic that was the spoken language of the early Arab settlers of the country, and perhaps of the early Moors whom they sired, it is today largely Tamil, and to a lesser extent Sinhala, that has become the ‘home language’, so to say, of the present-day Moor community. Arabic is today employed by them only as their liturgical language in their prayers and other religious observances. Tamil is by far the predominant speech of the Moors.

“The Tamil spoken by the Moors is however not quite the same as the Tamil spoken by the Tamils of Jaffna and South India. Indeed, this peculiar dialect or rather patois of the Moors is derogatorily referred to as ‘Sona Tamil’ by conservative Tamil folk. This Sona Tamil speech seems to have largely derived from a South Indian Tamil patois…..

“It has also been considerably influenced by other languages such as Arabic, Hindustani, and Sinhala, all of which goes on to show that it approaches a sort of Creole, albeit considerably influenced by a Tamil dialect …..”

In retrospect it appears that Ramanthan’s contentions were governed by political aspirations rather than a desire to set history straight.

“Moreover, it was thought, nay believed, that his (Ramanathan’s) object in calling the Moors, Tamils in race was to dissuade the Government from appointing a Moorish member in Council. It has leaked out then that the Government was contemplating the appointment of such ones, and making them understand that there was no necessity for taking such a step, as the Moors did not form a distinct race (Mr Ramanathan was then representing, in the Legislative Council, all the Tamil-speaking inhabitants of the Island).”

Relevant to this context is the findings of Dennis B Mcgilvry and Mirak Raheem in Muslim perspectives on the Sri Lankan conflict:

“Muslim leaders immediately perceived their well argued, but politically motivated conclusion that Moors were simply Muslim members of the Tamil “race” as an academic excuse for continued political domination of the Muslim community by the Tamil leadership. Although Ramanathan’s strategy failed when the British governor appointed a Moor to the Legislative Council a year later. His essay seemed to embody the patronizing Tamil outlook found on some parts of the island, where even today some high caste Tamils look down on Muslims as their inferiors and uneducated neighbors. Muslim/Tamil acrimony over the Ramanathan “ethnological” thesis has been festering for well over a century, evoking feelings of betrayal on the part of Tamil chauvinists, and the LTTE in particular over the Muslims alleged disloyalty of the Tamil nationalist cause.”

The writer of the above,Farwin Fousdeen is a Sri Lankan, freelance writer, currently based in Doha, Qatar. She contributes regularly to publications in Qatar and has worked with local and international NGOs in Sri Lanka in the field of Human Rights and Development

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