Islamic trade in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
In the 7th century, the Sinhala king (probably Aggabodhi III) had sent an envoy to the Prophet Mohammad. By the time the envoy reached Medina the Prophet as well as the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, had died, so he met the Caliph Umar. On the return journey the envoy also died, and his servant returned to make a report to the Sinhala king.
by Kamalika Pieris - Dec 2008
Islam is based on the vision and ideas of the Prophet Mohammed (570- 637 AD). Mohammed was a prosperous trader, living in Mecca. He was not a desert Arab. Islam took root in the towns of Mecca and Medina. Medina readily accepted Mohammed and his followers in 622 AD. Mecca was reluctant to support Mohammed, but accepted Islam when Mohammed marched in and conquered Mecca in 630 AD. Thereafter Mohammed’s followers, led by his father in law, Abu Bakr, brought the various Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula under their control through a series of successful military campaigns. The Arab tribes united under the banner of Islam.
Mohammad inculcated a sense of brotherhood and a bond of faith among his followers. Mohammad’s teachings stressed the equality of all Muslims. In addition to religious beliefs, Islam also provided rules for secular life. There were Islamic laws and codes of conduct. This meant that Muslims were united by a common set of social norms as well. But this did not prevent Islam from dividing into two mutually antagonistic sects, the Sunni and Shia. The Shias are mostly in Iran and Iraq. The rest of the Muslim world, including Sri Lanka is Sunni.
The Sinhala king knew of the rise of Islam. His intelligence was good. The Iranian navigator, Buzburg Ibn Shahriyar, who lived in the 10th century, recorded that in the 7th century, the Sinhala king (probably Aggabodhi III) had sent an envoy to the Prophet Mohammad. By the time the envoy reached Medina the Prophet as well as the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, had died, so he met the Caliph Umar. On the return journey the envoy also died, and his servant returned to make a report to the Sinhala king.
Caliph Umar, who took over as the leader of the Muslim community when Abu Bakr died, directed his followers to invade the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires. Byzantium (Istanbul) and Persia (Iran) offered little resistance. They were exhausted after engaging in long wars. Persia was conquered by 637 AD. Persians embraced Islam and adopted the Arabic script. Then other kingdoms also went under Islam. Egypt was conquered in 646 AD and Spain in 711 AD.
The Muslims eventually created the largest empire that the ancient world had seen. At its peak, the Islamic empire included the southern sections of Spain and Portugal together with the kingdoms of northern Africa such as Morocco, Libya, Egypt and Ethiopia. It controlled all of west Asia ending at Afghanistan and Pakistan. This empire was ruled by the Umayyad caliphs from 661-750 AD and by the Abbasid caliphs from 750-945. The Umayyad were based in Syria. The Abbasid caliphs ruled from Baghdad. After the Abbasid caliphs, a variety of rulers, mostly Turkish, ruled different areas of the empire. Byzantium came under the rule of the Seljuk Turks from 1071 to 1453. It was under the Ottoman Turks from 1453 to 1918.
The Islamic civilization benefited from the achievements of the civilizations they conquered. Several features of Islamic architecture such as the dome, the column and the arch came from the Byzantine civilization. Muslims also inherited the western segment of the international trade route. This segment of the seaborne trade was under Persia, Ethiopia and Egypt long before Islam appeared. When the Arabs conquered these three kingdoms they automatically acquired the dominant position held by these three kingdoms in seaborne trade. The ‘Muslim merchant’ was therefore an amalgam of many nationalities such as Persians, Arabs and Ethiopians. They all followed Islam and spoke Arabic and were commonly referred to as ‘Arabs.’
The unification of trade activities under the Islamic banner strengthened the trading enterprise. Navigation and shipping improved. The concept of Islamic brotherhood helped trading activity. The Muslim trader could travel from Europe to China confident of the hospitality of fellow Muslims at almost any seaport at which he called. By the 8th century the European trade with Asia was taken over by the Muslims and by the 15 century, Muslims were dominating the overseas trade from Baghdad to China. Trade settlements were established at ports along the route, with a large settlement at Canton. Some traders operated from port to port.
Arabs had found out how to make use of the monsoon. Ships sailing from Red Sea ports would wait for the southwest monsoon to start and would then set sail. The returning monsoon from across India in the winter would bring the ships back. Muslim ships rounded Sri Lanka into the Bay of Bengal, and went past Nicobar Islands, Kedah to China with stops as intermediate ports . The last stop to wait for the change of monsoon was Sri Lanka. On leaving the Malabar coast, the next landmark they looked out for was Adams Peak.
Sri Lanka therefore became a permanent base of operations for the Muslim trader. Three Muslim writers of the 10th century, Istakhri, Ibn Hawqual and Maqdisi, speak of Sri Lanka as the final destination of Muslim navigators. Sri Lanka was used for stopovers as well. Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka started in the 7th century. By the 13th and 14th centuries, there were Muslim settlements along the south-western coast at ports such as Colombo, Beruwela and Galle. Siriweera says that some of these Muslims were of Arab origin, while others were of Indian and Malaysian origin.
The Sinhala king had extensive trade relations with Islamic states. Arab writer Wassaf, writing in the 13th century, seemed to suggest that the advantage of trade between Sri Lanka and the Muslims were weighted in favour of Sri Lanka. The gold and silver coins of almost every Muslim dynasty of Baghdad, Alexandria, North Africa and northern India belonging to the period between the 8th and 15th century have been found in Sri Lanka in the area between Colombo and the central hills. Arabian coins of 12th and 13th century have also been found in the area south of Colombo near the coast in Kalutara district.
There is evidence that the Sinhala kings traded directly with the leading Islamic kingdoms. Buvaneka bahu I (1272-1284) wanted direct trade with Egypt. In 1283, he sent an envoy to Cairo, to Sultan Qulaun, (1279-1290) head of the Mamluk court of Egypt. This envoy was led by Al Haj Abu Uthuman. The king had sent a letter enveloped in ‘stuff resembling the bark of a tree,’ and enclosed in a golden box. The letter was written in indigenous characters ‘upon the bark of a tree.’ As no person in Cairo could read its contents, the ambassador explained it contents verbally,
The king’s message said that he had sent away an envoy from Yemen. He wanted diplomatic contact with Egypt instead. The king wanted envoys stationed in Sri Lanka and at Aden. Aden controlled access to the Red Sea. He said that he could provide pearls, precious stones of every kind, elephants, cotton textiles, Brazil wood, and cinnamon. He had trees with wood suitable for spears. He also said that he could build and supply twenty ships per year. We do not know what happened after that, but a number of coins belonging to the Babri Mamluks of Cairo have been discovered between Colombo and Kandy. Most belong to the period of Sultan Qulaun.
Sri Lanka imported several items from the Islamic states. West Asian perfumes and incense were well known and sought after in Sri Lanka. Saddharmaratnavaliya (13th century) refers to four kinds of scents, saffron, sandalwood, frankincense and Turkish oil. The Sinhalese called them ‘kokum, yon pup, tuvarala and turuk tel’. Idrisi who was a contemporary of Parakrama bahu I says the Sinhala king imported wine from Iraq to be re-sold in the country.
Sri Lanka also exported to the Islamic states. According to several Arab writers such as Istakhri, (10th century) and Ibn Shahriyar, the Muslim traders were interested in several local products. These included aloes, medicinal herbs, and iron. Persian geographer Kazwini (13th century) mentions gold work, silver work and pearls. Ibn Sina and Al Beruni speak of Sri Lanka’s quartz. Kitul treacle, called ‘dooshab’, was coveted by Muslim kings and nobles. This dooshab was considered to be superior to the treacle from Iran. Ships from Oman and Yemen used to visit Sri Lanka in the 11th century to obtain items needed for ships, such as rope, timber for planing and trunks of coconut trees for masts. They also placed orders for ships.
Muslim traders were interested in the island’s valuable timber and the local spices, particularly cinnamon. The earliest foreign reference to our cinnamon is in a 10th century text by the Arab writer Shahriyar. Several letters found in Cairo, dated to 12th century, and written by Jewish merchants refer to Sri Lanka as a source for cinnamon.
However, the greatest interest was for Sri Lankan gems, for which there was a world market. The Arab name for Sri Lanka ‘Sarandib’ means land of rubies. Al Idrisi (12th century) describes Adam’s Peak and says that on and around this mountain, all kind of rubies and various types of precious stones are found. Marco Polo (1254-1324) said that Sri Lanka produced superb rubies, sapphires, topazes, amethysts, garnets and many other precious stones. He said the king possesses the finest ruby that exists in this world. Ibn Batuta noted that the more valuable stones were reserved for the king. The rest belonged to those who found them. Ibn Wahab (9th century) says that gems were either mined or collected from the mouth of rivers.
The writings of Marina Azeez, L. Dewaraja, S.A. Imam, S. Kiribamune, C.W. Nicholas, W.M. Sirisena, W.I. Siriweera and R. Thapar were used for this essay.