Sri Lanka Colombo Grand Mosque

The Grand Mosque, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Indo-Arab origins in Sri Lanka

The term Moor was first used by the Portuguese to refer to Muslim people of Arab and Indo-Arab origin. It did not include Muslims of Malay origin and those belonging to sub-continental groups such as the Borahs, Sindhis and the Marakkars of south India. Making up almost ten percent of the total population, Sri Lankan Moors today are the third largest ethnic group in the island.

Predominantly Muslim, the Moors customs and practices are dictated by Islamic law. Their genealogy is traced through the maternal line. The Moors’ primary language is an Arabic-influenced form of Tamil, although those from the central and southern parts of the island speak Sinhala, the Indo-European language of the Sinhalese majority. Most Sri Lankan Moors follow Sunni Islam through the Shafi school of thought. Their ancestry is traced to the Arab traders who settled on the island between the 8th and 15th centuries. They live primarily in coastal trading and agricultural communities and while preserving their Islamic cultural heritage also adopt many south Asian customs.

Drawn to Sri Lanka

Tradition has recorded that Muslims from the Malabar Coast in south India travelled to the island to pay homage to what they believed to be the footprint of Adam on the top of a mountain called Adam’s Peak. Before the end of the 7th century, encouraged by the cordial welcome offered by the local rulers and drawn by the island’s natural beauty and religious beliefs centred around Adam’s Peak, a growing colony of Arab merchants had established themselves on the island. Most lived in the western coastal areas and maintained cultural and commercial contacts with the Middle East.

By the beginning of the 16th century these descendants of the original Arab traders were very successful in trade and commerce and had integrated socially with the customs of the local people. Moors were found throughout the island but mostly in the urban coastal regions. They were, however, persecuted by the Portuguese on the basis of their religion and were forced to retreat into the central highlands and to the east coast. In recent times the civil war resulted in large population movements in the north of the island. This mainly affected the Moors. The once-flourishing Muslim community in the northern province was decimated by ethnic cleansing carried out by the Tamil Tigers in 1991.