origins of the Sri Lankan Moors is a matter that has aroused much
controversy in academic circles. While it is generally believed that the
Moors are descended from Arabian merchants who espoused local women, there
are those historians who continue to argue that the Moors originally hailed
from South India, mainly on the basis of their spoken language - Tamil. The
present article proposes to show that the nucleus of the Moorish community
comprises the descendants of Arabian settlers hailing from Iraq and the
Arabian peninsula who arrived in the country during the medieval period.
Oral tradition, genealogical records, anthropological details and literary,
linguistic and epigraphic evidence will be adduced to support this view.
Alexander Johnston (Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great
Britain and Ireland. 1827) 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 (The Prophet
Muhammad's clan) 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, made 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 along the north-eastern, northern, and western coasts of the
island,viz. at Trincomalee, Jaffna, Mantota-Mannar, Kudiraimalai, Puttalam,
Colombo, Beruwala and Galle.
name moor has been given by the romans to the inhabitants of noth
africa from the actual morocco to the actual mauritania the word is
from: am-mori the descendants of Amor the fourth son of Kana the lived
first in Palestine and immigrated on the third millenaire to North
africa some of them was black and some other were fair skin the am-mori
people are divided in many tribes at leat 7 tribes the larger are the
Haoussa and the youruba who live in Nigeria,there are some am'mori
people in china"
Genealogical records maintained
by certain Moor families also bear testimony to their Arab ancestry. J. C.
Van Sanden (Sonahar. A brief history of the Moors of Ceylon. 1926) cites
literary evidence(viz. an old Arabic document in the possession of one of
the oldest Moor families residing in Beruwala) in support of the claims of
some Moorish folk of Beruwala who trace their ancestry to a scion of Arabian
royalty who departed from Yemen in the 22nd Hijri year (C.644 A.C) in the
time of the second Caliph Umar.
M. S. Ismail Effendi (Personages of the Past, Moors, Malays and other
Muslims. 1982) has also cited substantial genealogical evidence showing the
Arab origins of prominent Moor families. An Alutgama family, for example,
traced its lineage to the first Caliph of the Islamic Commonwealth Abu Bakr
(573-634 A.C.), while another traced its descent to one Badrudeen who
evidently hailed from Iraq. Yet another family traced its descent to one
Prince Jamaldeen, an Arab from Konia, who arrived in the country in 1016.
Such patronymics as Baghdadi (the one from Baghdad) and Yemeni ( the
Yemenite) which figure among the prominent Moor families cited in Effendi's
work indicate the diverse origins of the Moorish folk settled in Sri Lanka.
The Nicholson Cove Tombstone inscription at Trincomalee refers to the
deceased as the grand-daughter of Hussain Ibn Ali Al-Halabi, showing that
her family hailed from Halab (Aleppo) in Syria. It is also well known that
the Moors of Akurana trace their descent to three Arabian mercenaries who
espoused Kandyan women during the reign of King Rajasinha II (1635-1687).
The Gopala (Betge Nilame) family of Moors domiciled in Getaberiya in the
Kegalle District likewise claim descent from Arab physicians (hakims) who
arrived in the country from Sind during the reign of King Parakramabahu II
(1236-1270) of Dambadeniya and espoused Kandyan women.
Epigraphic evidence may also be cited in this connection. Noteworthy is the
Arabic tombstone inscription in Kufic characters concerning an Islamic
cleric named Khalid Ibn Abu [B]akaya dated the Hijri year 337 A.H.(10th
century) found at the Moorish burial ground near Colombo. According to local
tradition, this cleric was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad to reform the
Muslims of Colombo after hearing that these Muslims (who were then
established as traders) were ignorant of, and inattentive to the real tenets
of their religion (Johnston.1827). Besides this, seven other stones,
including five gravestones, inscribed in Arabic dated from the 8th-16th
century have been discovered. The earliest tombstone discovered in May 1976
at Madulbova bears the Hijri date 133 A.H.(8th century) . The fact that the
Arabic language had been employed in the inscriptions suggests that the
country's Muslims, or at least a significant proportion of them were
literate and conversant in Arabic.
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 patois of Tamil, the pure Tamil form
of which, Sonagar, refers to a native of Arabia (Sonagam).
The Sinhala term for the Moors Yon is related to the Sanskritic Yavana and
Prakritic Yona used by the Indians to denote foreign peoples, especially the
Arabs, Greeks and those who belonged to the vast Graeco-Bactrian region
between Greece and India following Alexander's conquests in the fourth
century B.C. In Sinhala, however, the term yon appears to have been
associated with the Arabs and Moors. Fernao de Queyroz in his Conquista
Temporal e Espiritual de Ceylao (1687) has noted that the Sinhalese
generally called the Moors Iona. That the term is closely connected with the
Arabs is suggested by the Sinhala term for the 'date palm' yon-indi. Also
consider the place-names Yon-vidiya 'Moor Street' and Yon-gala 'Moor rock'.
Anthropological evidence may also be cited in this connection. The Kovul
Sandeshaya (15th century) refers to Yon liya (Arab or Moor women) of golden
hue (ranvan) at a village called Mahavaligama (probably Weligama) with its
thriving bazaar full of traders, suggesting that these Yon were a relatively
fair-complexioned folk, much like the true Arabs. According to the Physical
Anthropology of Ceylon (1961), a comprehensive work dealing with the
physical characteristics of the country's various races, the skin colour of
over thirty Moor subjects of the Jaffna district measured in the survey
approximated that of the Aryan Sinhalese, which would suggest that they
derive from a somewhat fair-skinned race. The work further shows that the
Moors are a broad-headed or brachycephalic people as distinct from the
long-headed or dolococephalic Tamils. 32 Moors from Jaffna district measured
in the survey showed a brachycephaly that closely approximated that of the
Sinhalese. It is however doubtful whether this trait derives from the
Sinhalese. It is more likely that it originated from Southern Arabia or
Iraq, especially as there is literary evidence to show that many of the
forbears of the Moors hailed from these regions.
It has been shown by C.G.Seligman ( The Physical characters of the Arabs.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society. 1917) that the Arabs of the
Northern Arabian Peninsula and Sinai are predominantly long-headed while
those of the south such as the Yemen are predominantly broad-headed. Citing
anthropological evidence obtained from skeletal remains, he states that the
Northern Arabs have been predominantly long-headed for the last 2000 years.
The South Arabian brachycephaly, he believes to have derived from the
Armenoid type found largely in the great brachycephalic area of Western
Asia, viz. Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. This southern brachycephaly is
thought to be an intrusive element borne to South Arabia, perhaps by sea,
from the north-east, and it is likely that the Southern Arabian peninsula,
like the Northern, was originally peopled by a dolichocephalic Semitic
stock, upon which was later superimposed a brachycephalic element following
some remote Armenoid immigration from the east, probably Mesopotamia. The
aquiline nose, a characteristic of Semitic races such as the Arabs and Jews,
is also prominent among the South Arabians (Seligman.1917). This too is
significant as there are many Moors to-day who do possess prominent aquiline
The adoption of Tamil on the part of the Moors is not inexplicable. It is
probable that with the fall of Baghdad - the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate-
to the Mongol hordes in the 13th century, the Arab merchants and settlers in
the country and their mixed descendants would have had little option but to
cease connections with their old home country and increasingly turn towards
their South Indian, Dravidian-speaking co-religionists for commercial and
cultural intercourse. Being a largely mercantile community themselves, they
would have established and maintained close relations with the Muslim
trading settlements in the South Indian coastal areas, especially since
their livelihood depended largely on maritime trade. Tamil, it should be
pointed out was the lingua franca of commerce in the region at the time.
Such a situation could have easily led to the acceptance by the Moors, of
Tamil as their spoken language over a period of time. Thus it would have
been due to obvious reasons of convenience that the Moors came to speak
Tamil as their 'Home language'.
The period of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 A.C.) is regarded as the
golden age of Arabian culture, science and commerce. The sacking of Baghdad
by the Mongols in 1258 and the other destructive acts perpetrated by them is
said to have resulted in the downfall of the Arabian political and cultural
heritage in the eastern part of the Arab world as well as in neighbouring
countries like Iran. Indeed, the period from 1258 to the 18th century is
known as the age of decadence of Arabic language, literature and the
sciences. As such, it is not surprising that the Arabs and Moors established
in the country should have ceased connections with the rest of the Arab
world and eschewed their native Arab speech for a completely different and
non-related language - Tamil. This process which is known as linguistic
regression is not unknown amongst other nations and has taken place due to
various political, social and economic factors. This has been the case with
the Parsis of Western India who have eschewed their native Iranian speech
for Gujarati and the Cape Malays of South Africa whose native Malay speech
has been superseded by Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch.
It is however interesting to note that Tamil is fast dying out as the home
language of the Moor youth of the Sinhalese-majority provinces and is being
fast replaced by Sinhala, mainly due to education in the Sinhala vernacular.
This trend is particularly evident in the upcountry and in the Southern and
Western parts of the country. It is therefore clear that whatever their
spoken language might be, the Moors form a distinct community with a
religious and cultural identity of their own.