The strategic location of the island, in the Indian Ocean, together with some of the coveted goods it produced, resulted in a fair degree of foreign trade even from ancient times. The Romans discovered the commercial value of Sri Lanka in the first century A.D. and the island was visited by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, and Chinese traders. Sri Lankas trade offering included Cinnamon, which grew wild in the forests of the wet zone, precious stones, pearls, elephants and ivory.
While most of the traders were only visitors to the island, who made their fortunes and left, it was the Arabs who settled down, making Ceylon their home.
The Tamils of Sri Lanka, throughout history, have attempted to categorize the Sri Lankan Muslims as belonging to the Tamil race. This has been mainly for selfish reasons in a bid to eliminate the minority Muslim community from having its own unique identity. The Government of Sri Lanka, however, treats the Muslims as of Arab origin and as a distinct ethnic group from the Tamils.

The first mention of Arabs in Ceylon appears to be in the Mahavansa (Ancient Sri Lankan history) account of the reign of the King Pandukabhaya, where it is stated that this king set apart land for the Yonas (Muslims) at Anuradhapura-

With the decline of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century A.D., Roman trade also died out and the Arabs and Persians filled up the vacuum; engaging in a rapidly growing inter-coastal trade. After the conquest of Persia (Iran), Syria and Egypt, the Arabs controlled all the important ports and trading stations between East and West. It is estimated that the Arabs had settled in Sri Lanka and Sumatra by the 1st century -by about the 8th century A.D., the Arabs had formed colonies at the important ports of India, Ceylon and the East Indies. The presence of the Arabs at the ports of Ceylon is attested to by at least three inscriptions discovered at Colombo, Trincomalee and the island of Puliantivu-

The manner in which Islam developed in Sri lanka is very closely similar to that on the Malabar coast of India. Tradition has recorded that Arabs who had settled down on the Malabar coast used to travel from the port of Cranganore to Sri lanka on piligrimage to pay homage to what they believed to be the foot-print of Adam on the top of a montain, which, until today, is called Adams Peak.

Ibn Batuta, the famous 14th. century Arab traveller, has recorded many facets about early Arab influence in Sri lanka in his travelogues.

Before the end of the 7th. century, a colony of Muslim merchants had established themselves in Ceylon. Fascinated by the scenic splendour and captivated by the traditions associated with Adams Peak, Muslim merchants arrived in large numbers and some of them decided to settle in the island encouraged by the cordial treatement they received by the local rulers. Most of them lived along the coastal areas in peace and prosperity, maintaining contacts, both cultural and commercial, with Baghdad and other Islamic cities.

-the first Mohammadans of Ceylon were a portion of those Arabs of the House of Hashim, who were driven from Arabia in the early part of the 8th. century by the tyranny of the Caliph, Abdel Malik bin Marwan, and who proceeding from the Euphrates southwards made settlements in the concan in the southern parts of the peninsula of India, on the island of Ceylon and Malacca. The division of them which came to Ceylon formed eight considerable settlements along the Nort-East, North and Western coast of that island; viz., one at Trincomalee, one at Jaffna, one at Colombo, one at barbareen, and one at Point de Galle.-

It is perhaps reasonable, therefore, to assume that the Arabs, professing the religion of Islam, arrived in Sri Lanka around the 7th./8th. century A.D. even though there was a settled community of Arabs in Ceylon in pre-Islamic times.

The circumstances that helped the growth of Muslim settlements were varied. The Sinhalese were not interested in trade and were content in tilling the soil and growing cattle. Trade was thus wide open to the Muslims. the Sinhalese Kings considered the Muslim settlements favorably on account of the revenue that they brought them through their contacts overseas both in trade and in politics. The religious tolerance of the local population was also another vital factor in the development of Muslim settlements in Ceylon.

The early Muslim settlements were set up, mainly, around ports on account of the nature of their trade. It is also assumed that many of the Arab traders may not have brought their womenfolk along with them when they settled in Ceylon. Hence they would have been compelled to marry the Sinhalese and Tamil women of the island after converting them to Islam. The fact that a large number of Muslims in Sri Lanka speak the Tamil language can be attributed to the possibility that they were trading partners with the Tamils of South India and had to learn Tamil to successfully transact their business. The integration with the Muslims of Tamil Nadu, in South India, may have also contributed to this. It is also possible that the Arabs who had already migrated to Ceylon, prior to Islam, had adopted the Tamil language as a medium of communication in their intercourse with the Tamil speaking Muslims of South India. The Muslims were very skilful traders who gradually builtup a very lucrative trading post in Ceylon. A whole colony of Muslims is said to have landed at Beruwela (South Western coast) in the Kalutara District in 1024 A.D.

The Muslims did not indulge in propagating Islam amongst the natives of ceylon even though many of the women they married did convert. Islam did attract the less privileged low caste members of the Tamil community who found the factor of equality a blessing for their status and well-being.

There is also a report in the history of Sri Lanka of a Muslim Ruler, Vathimi Raja, who reigned at Kurunegala (North Central Province) in the 14th. century. This factor cannot be found in history books due to their omission, for reasons unknown, by modern authors. Vathimi Raja was the son of King Bhuvaneka Bahu I, by a Muslim spouse, the daughter of one of the chiefs. The Sinhalese son of King Bhuvaneka Bahu I, Parakrama Bahu III, the real heir to the throne was crowned at Dambadeniya under the name of Pandita Parakrama Bahu III. In order to be rid of his step brother, Vathimi Raja, he ordered that his eyes be gouged out. It is held that the author of the Mahavansa (ancient history of Ceylon) had suppressed the recording of this disgraceful incident. the British transaletor, Mudaliyar Wijesinghe states that original Ola (leaf script) was bodily removed from the writings and fiction inserted instead. The blinded Vathimi Raja (Bhuvaneka Bahu II or Al-Konar, abbreviated from Al-Langar-Konar, meaning Chief of Lanka of Alakeshwara) was seen by the Arab traveller Ibn Batuta during his visit to the island in 1344. His son named Parakrama Bahu II (Alakeshwara II) was also a Muslim. The lineage of Alakeshwara kings (of Muslim origin) ended in 1410. Although all the kings during this reign may not have been Muslims, the absence of the prefix -Shri Sangha Bodhi- (pertaining to the disciples of the Buddha) to the name of these kings on the rock inscriptions during this hundred year period may be considered as an indicator that they were not Buddhists. Further during Ibn Batutas visit a Muslim ruler called Jalasthi is reported to have been holding Colombo, maintaining his hold over the town with a garrison of about 500 Abyssinians.

In spite of this the Mulsims have always been maintaining very cordial relationships with the Sinhalese Royalty and the local population. There is evidence that they were more closer to the Sinhalese than they were to the Tamils. The Muslims relationship with the Sinhalese kings grew stronger and in the 14th. century they even fought with them against the expanding Tamil kingdom and its maritime influence.

By the beginning of the 16th. century, the Muslims of Sri Lanka, the descendants of the original Arab traders, had settled down comfortably in the island. They were very successful in trade and commerce and integrated socially with the customs of the local people. They had become an inseparable, and even more, an indispensable part of the society. This period was one of ascendancy in peace and prosperity for the Sri Lankan Muslims.

 

 

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