The Memons – An Important Muslim Minority of Sri Lanka
By Hameed Karim Bhoja
The Memons of Sri Lanka constitute a small but important minority community in the island, numbering a mere 7000 persons in a nation of over 20 million. Their contribution to the national life of the country has nevertheless been significant.
They have contributed immensely to the economic life of the country, not only as importers and traders of various essential goods, but also as manufacturers and exporters of high quality garments that have today become a major source of foreign earnings. They also have their own member of parliament, the Hon. Hussein Bhaila who presently serves as Deputy Minister of Plan Implementation under the UPFA Government and is in charge of all matters connected with the implementation of the Mahinda Chintanaya, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s vision and aspirations for National Development Programme.
The Memons though now a Muslim people, trace their origins to a Hindu trading community known as the Lohanas who lived in Sind in present-day Pakistan. They are believed to have embraced Islam around the fifteenth century. The story of their conversion finds mention in the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency as follows: “Maulana Abdul Kadir Muhi-yud-din Gilani, the Saint of Saints, died at Baghdad in A.D.1165 (H.561). On his deathbed he ordered one of his sons, Taj-ud-din, to settle in India and display to its people the light of Islam. In A.D.1421 (H.838) Sayad Eusuf-ud-din Hadri, fifth in descent from Taj-ud-din, in a miraculous dream was ordered to set sail for Sindh and guide its people in the right way of Islam. When Sayad Eusuf-ud-din reached Sindh, its capital was Nagar- Thatta and its ruler was a chief of the Samma dynasty (A.D.1351-1521) with the title of Markab Khan who received Sayad Eusuf-ud-din with honour and treated him as his guest. At this time, Ma’nekji, the head of the eighty-four nukhs or divisions of the Lohana community was in favour at the court of Markab Khan. Markab Khan became a follower of the Sayad and Ma’nekji with two of his three sons and 700 Lohana families followed their ruler’s example. Of the two sons of Ma’nekji who became converts, Ravji was called Ahmed and Ravji’s sons Sundarji and Hansraj were named Adam and Taj Muhammad. On their conversion, the saint changed the name of the community from Mota and Lohana to Mu’amin or Believers and investing Adam with a dress of honour, appointed him hereditary head of the new community with his seat at Wara near Thatta”.
The Memons subsequently migrated southwards to the Kathiawad Peninsula of Gujarat where they formed settlements such as Kutiyana, Porbandar and Upleta. It is from this region that the Memons domiciled in Sri Lanka have their origins. The early Memons who resorted to Sri Lanka did so to engage in textile trading. They would purchase textiles from India and sell them locally as they had a good demand here. The first Memon arrival in the island is said to have been an individual named Abdul Rahman who arrived here in 1870. This early migrant also known as Manna Seth began here as an itinerant peddler of textiles in Jaffna before settling in Pettah and building up a considerable business.
With time, Memons originating from Kutiyana and other parts of Gujarat had begun to steadily resort to the island for business purposes, but it was only the men who came here. The women were left behind in their homes in Kathiawad. However, with the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, those Memons who had their businesses and families here became citizens. They looked upon Sri Lanka as their own country and set about giving their best to it.
The Memons like their Lohana ancestors are a largely business community, though many have now taken to industrial activity and the professions as well. Among the early Memon firms were A. R. Kareem & Co established as far back as 1895. By the 1930s many Memon merchants had set up shop in the Pettah area of Colombo and other major towns such as Galle and Kandy. Although many of these firms initially traded in textiles, it was not long before the more enterprising among them came to realize the benefits of getting into garment manufacturing, particularly for the lucrative US and European markets. Thus arose the big-time Memon firms like Brandix, EAM Maliban, Timex Garments and Lucky Industries which today rank among the top apparel exporters, bringing in valuable foreign exchange earnings to the country.
Other areas were also explored for business prospects, among them the production and export of agricultural produce, manufacture of pharmaceuticals and aviation which was successfully pursued by the Expolanka Group, a large Memon business concern headed by Osman Kassim who also serves as Chairman of Amana Investments which pioneered interest-free Islamic banking in the country. There were others like Phoenix Industries, which got into the manufacture of plastic items and is today a market leader in this area. Yet others got into the food business, among them Chinatown Halal Restaurant in Colpetty, Queen’s Café in Bambalapitiya and Sweet Court in Wellawatte.
The Memons are on the whole a religious community and have established mosques and madrasas in many parts of the island for the benefit of the larger Islamic fraternity. They also have their own mosque, the Memon Hanafi Mosque in Third Cross Street, Pettah, where Friday sermons are delivered in the Urdu language with which many of them are familiar. They also have their own Madrasa, Faiz-e-Raza established a little over ten years ago to meet the religious needs of the community, particularly of its younger members, by promoting the study of the Quran, hadith and the Arabic and Urdu languages.
The Memons, unlike the majority of the country’s Muslims who follow the Shafi School of Islamic jurisprudence are zealous adherents of the Hanafi School of law founded by Imam Abu Hanifah. They have their own Quazi or judge who settles civil disputes according to this school, the present Quazi being A. A. M. Illiyas.
The Memons also have a distinct cultural identity, which closely resembles that of other Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. Their Memon language is an Indo-Aryan tongue believed to have derived from Sindhi, though heavily overlaid with Gujarati elements. Many however understand Urdu, which serves as a lingua franca among the Muslims of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Even the practices relating to the major events of life such as marriage closely resemble those prevailing among Indian Muslims. These include the Viaji Raja, the formal seeking of the bride’s consent shortly before the marriage ceremony and other pre-nuptial practices such as the Mehendi ceremony where a red dye known as Mehendi (Lawsonia inermis) is applied on the bride’s hands and feet to form beautiful designs.
Nay, even the attire is similar. Men prefer the long shirt and ijar (pyjama) while women commonly wear the shalwa-khameez, a most feminine two-piece garment of Indian origin. The womenfolk are also extremely fond of typical Indian jewellery such as nose studs, which are even worn by the young girls. Thus the Memons could be said to represent a typical Indian migrant community who have jealously preserved their traditional way of life. They have however sought to live on friendly terms with the other communities of the island and are proud of their contribution to the national life of the country, which they have now come to regard as their homeland.
It is opportune to mention here that the Memon Association of Sri Lanka (MASL) today celebrates its 50th Anniversary. The Association formed in 1956 by well-known Memon personalities of the day such as Prof. Rauf Pasha, Dr. Ibrahim Dangra and Haji Usman Bhaila JP was then known as the Memon Association of Ceylon and based in Hulftsdorp. It later shifted to the Memon Hall in Colpetty and now serves as a forum for bringing the community together on many an occasion, be it a religious event such as the Eid festival or more mundane activities such as the regular six-a-side softball cricket tournaments which it organizes.
The Association also heavily involves itself in charitable activities not only towards the larger Muslim fraternity, but also the country at large. This was seen in the recent Tsunami disaster of December 2004 when the MASL made an immense contribution to the relief effort by visiting the affected areas and distributing supplies to those who badly needed them in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. An International NGO, Gift of the Givers Foundation-South Africa, headed by a South African Memon was one of the first to arrive with relief measures for the Tsunami victims. The Foundation built and handed over 50 houses in Sarvodayapuram, in Pottuvil in the Eastern Province. The Association continues to organize free medical camps and eye camps for deserving persons of all communities.
Today, as the Memon Asociation of Sri Lanka celebrates its 50th Anniversary, it is worthwhile mentioning the immense contribution to the community made by Dr. A. A. M. Haroon, the present President of the Association and his young and dynamic team, particularly for their bold decision to host the 4th World Memon Conference to be held in Colombo from 19th – 21st May. This event, it is hoped, would not only help Memons establish and revive old ties, but also expand business opportunities which will benefit the country as a whole.
The author is a well-known member of the Memon community and has been heavily involved in social service activities, particularly in his role as Co-ordinator of the Gift of the Givers Foundation South Africa, which contributed immensely to Post-Tsunami relief operations in the island. He has also co-authored along with Asiff Hussein, a monumental work on the community ‘Memons of Sri Lanka’ - Men* Memoirs *Milestones (2006)