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Sri Lankan Moors (Tamil: இலங்கைச் சோனகர், translit. Ilaṅkaic Cōṉakar; Sinhalese: ලංකා යෝනක, translit. Lanka Yonaka formerly Ceylon Moors; colloquially referred to as Muslims or Moors) are an ethnic minority group in Sri Lanka, comprising 9.3%[3][better source needed] of the country's total population. They are mainly native speakers of the Tamil language with influence of Sinhalese and Arabic words, however, some of them use Sinhalese as their native tongue.[4][5][6] They are predominantly followers of Islam.[7]

Sri Lankan Moors
இலங்கைச் சோனகர்
ලංකා යෝනක
Lanka moors.jpg
20th century Sri Lankan Moors
Total population
(9.2% of the Sri Lankan population) (2012)[2]
Regions with significant populations
 Eastern 569,182
 Western 450,505
 North Western 260,380
 Central 252,694
Islam (mostly Sunni)
Related ethnic groups

The Moors trace their ancestry to Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka in waves beginning from the 8th century.[8][9][10] The population of Moors are the highest in the Ampara, Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts.



Kechimalai Mosque, Beruwala. One of the oldest mosques in Sri Lanka. It is believed to be the site where the first Arabs landed in Sri Lanka

The Portuguese named the Muslims in India and Sri Lanka after the Muslim Moors they met in Iberia.[11] The word Moors did not exist in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the Portuguese colonists.[12] The term 'Moor' was chosen because of the Islamic faith of these people, and was not a reflection of their origin.[13]

The Tamil term for Moors is "Sonakar", which is thought to be derived from the word sunni.[13][14] The Tamil term Sonakar along with the Sinhalese term Yonaka, has been thought to have been derived from the term Yona, a term originally applied to Greeks, but sometimes also Arabs.[15][16]


Origins theories

Scholars holds the view that the Sri Lankan Moors are descendant of the Marakkar, Mappilas, Memons and Pathans of South India.[17]

Another view suggests that the Arab traders, however, adopted the Tamil language only after settling in Sri Lanka.[10] This version claims that the features of Sri Lankan Moors as different from that of Tamils. The cultural practices of the Moors also vary significantly from the other communities on the island. Thus, most scholars classify the Sri Lankan Moors and Tamils as two distinct ethnic groups, who speak the same language.[10] This view is dominantly held by the Sinhalese favoring section of the Moors as well as the Sri Lankan government which lists the Moors as a separate ethnic community.[13]

Although caste system is not observed by the Moors such as the other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, their kudi system (matriclan system) is an extension of the Tamil tradition.[18]

Medieval Era

Year Pop. ±%
1881 184,500 —    
1891 197,200 +6.9%
1901 228,000 +15.6%
1911 233,900 +2.6%
1921 251,900 +7.7%
1931 289,600 +15.0%
1946 373,600 +29.0%
1953 464,000 +24.2%
1963 626,800 +35.1%
1971 828,300 +32.1%
1981 1,046,900 +26.4%
1989 (est.) 1,249,000 +19.3%
2001 1,339,300 +7.2%
2012 1,869,820 +39.6%
Prior to 1911, Indian Moors were included with Sri Lankan Moors.
Source:Department of Census
& Statistics
Data is based on
Sri Lankan Government Census.

The Sri Lankan Moors along with Mukkuvar dominated once in medieval era the pearl trade in Sri Lanka.[20] Alliances and intermarriages between both communities were observed in this period.[21] They held close contact with other Muslims of Southern India through coastal trade.[22]

The Moors had their own court of justice for settling their disputes. Upon the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century, larger population of Moors were expelled from cities such as the capital city Colombo, which had been a Moors dominated city at that time. The Moors were thus migrating towards east and were settled there through the invitation of the Kingdom of Kandy.[22] Robert Knox, a British sea captain of 17th century, noted that the Kings of Kandy Kingdom built mosques for the Moors.[23]


The Sri Lankan Moors have been strongly shaped by Islamic culture, with many customs and practices according to Islamic law. While preserving many of their ancestral customs, the Moors have also adopted several South Asian practices.[24]


Letters of the Arwi alphabet and their equivalent Tamil letter.

Tamil is the mother tongue of the community. Moorish Tamil bears the influence of Arabic.[7] Furthermore, the Moors like their counterparts[25][26] in Tamil Nadu, use the Arwi which is a written register of the Tamil language with the use of the Arabic alphabet.[27] The Arwi alphabet is unique to the Muslims of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, hinting at erstwhile close relations between the Tamil Muslims across the two territories.[25]

Religious sermons are delivered in Tamil even in regions where Tamil is not the majority language. Islamic Tamil literature has a thousand-year heritage.[28]


The Moors practice several customs and beliefs, which they closely share with the Arab, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese People. Tamil and Sinhala customs such as wearing the Thaali or eating Kiribath were widely prevalent among the Moors. Arab customs such as congregational eating using a large shared plate called the 'sahn' and wearing of the North African fez during marriage ceremonies feed to the view that Moors are of mixed Sinhalese, Tamil and Arab heritage.[28][13]

There have been a growing trend amongst Moors to rediscover their Arab heritage and reinstating the Arab customs that are the norm amongst Arabs in Middle East and North Africa. These include replacing the sari and other traditional clothing associated with Sinhalese and Tamil culture in favour of the abaya and hijab by the women as well as increased interest in learning Arabic and appetite for Arab food by opening restaurants and takeaways that serve Arab food such as shawarma and Arab bread.

The late 19th century saw the phase of islamization of Sri Lankan Moors, primarily under the influence of M. C. Siddi Lebbe. He was a leading figure in the Islamic revival movement, and strenghtned the Muslim identity of the Sri Lankan Moors.[29] He was responsible for the ideological framework for the Muslim ethnicity in Sri Lanka.[30]

Muslims and Sri Lankan Civil War

The Sri Lankan Civil War was a 26-year conflict fought on the island of Sri Lanka between government and separatist militant organisation Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers). In this civil war Sri Lankan Muslim were targeted by LTTE and a few hundred Muslims died, whilst hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes and their properties were destroyed. LTTE tried to make northern Sri Lanka into a Tamil country called Tamil Eelam.[31]

Since 1888 under the initiative of Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the Sri Lankan Tamils launched a campaign to classify the Sri Lankan Moors as Tamils, primarily to bolster their population numbers for the impending transition to democratic rule in Sri Lanka.[32] Their view holds that the Sri Lankan Moors were simply Tamil converts to Islam. The claim that the Moors were the progeny of the original Arab settlers, might hold good for a few families but not for the entire bulk of the community.[13]

The concept of Arab descent was thus, invented just to keep the community away from the Tamils and this 'separate identity' intended to check the latter's demand for the separate state Tamil Eelam and to flare up hostilities between the two groups in the broader Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.[13][33][34]

The expulsion of the Muslims from the Northern province was an act of ethnic cleansing[35][36] carried out by the Tamil militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organization in October 1990. In order to achieve their goal of creating a mono ethnic Tamil state[37][38] in the North Sri Lanka, the LTTE carried out pograms and forcibly expelled the 95,000[dubious ] strong Muslim population from the Northern Province and confiscated their properties and destroyed the Mosques.[39]

The pogram and expulsion by LTTE still carries bitter memories amongst the Sri Lanka's Muslims. In 2002, the LTTE militant leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran formally apologized for the pogram and expulsion of the Muslims from the North.[40][41] There has been a stream of Muslims travelling to and from Jaffna since the ceasefire. Some families have returned and the re-opened the Osmania College now has 60 students enrolled. Osmania College was once a prominent educational institution for the city's Muslim community.[42][43] According to a Jaffna Muslim source, there is a floating population of about 2,000 Muslims in Jaffna. Around 1,500 are Jaffna Muslims, while the rest are Muslim traders from other areas. About 10 Muslim shops are functioning and the numbers are slowly growing.[44]

See also


  1. ^ "A2 : Population by ethnic group according to districts, 2012". Census of Population & Housing, 2011. Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Population of Sri Lanka by ethnic group 1881 to 2012". 
  4. ^ Minahan, James B. (2012-08-30). Ethnic Groups of South Asia and the Pacific: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-59884-660-7. 
  5. ^ Das, Sonia N. (2016-10-05). Linguistic Rivalries: Tamil Migrants and Anglo-Franco Conflicts. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-046179-9. 
  6. ^ Richardson, John Martin (2005). Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Terrorism, and Development from Sri Lanka's Civil Wars. International Center for Ethnic Studies. ISBN 9789555800945. 
  7. ^ a b McGilvray, DB (November 1998). "Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim ethnicity in regional perspective". Contributions to Indian Sociology: 433–483. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  8. ^ Papiha, S.S.; Mastana, S.S.; Jaysekara, R. (October 1996). "Genetic Variation in Sri Lanka". 68 (5): 707–737 [709]. JSTOR 41465515. 
  9. ^ de Munck, Victor (2005). "Islamic Orthodoxy and Sufism in Sri Lanka". Anthropos: 401–414 [403]. JSTOR 40466546. 
  10. ^ a b c Mahroof, M. M. M. "Spoken Tamil Dialects Of The Muslims Of Sri Lanka: Language As Identity-Classifier". Islamic Studies. 34 (4): 407–426 [408]. JSTOR 20836916. 
  11. ^ Pieris, P.E. "Ceylon and the Hollanders 1658-1796". American Ceylon Mission Press, Tellippalai Ceylon 1918
  12. ^ Ross Brann, "The Moors?", Andalusia, New York University. Quote: "Andalusi Arabic sources, as opposed to later Mudéjar and Morisco sources in Aljamiado and medieval Spanish texts, neither refer to individuals as Moors nor recognize any such group, community or culture."
  13. ^ a b c d e f Mohan, Vasundhara (1987). Identity Crisis of Sri Lankan Muslims. Delhi: Mittal Publications. pp. 9–14,27–30,67–74,113–118. 
  14. ^ Pulavar, Mātakal Mayilvākan̲ap (1999). The Yalpana-vaipava-malai, Or, The History of the Kingdom of Jaffna. Asian Educational Services. p. 82. ISBN 9788120613621. 
  15. ^ Fazal, Tanweer (2013-10-18). Minority Nationalisms in South Asia. Routledge. p. 121. ISBN 978-1-317-96647-0. 
  16. ^ Singh, Nagendra Kr; Khan, Abdul Mabud (2001). Encyclopaedia of the World Muslims: Tribes, Castes and Communities. Global Vision. ISBN 9788187746102. 
  17. ^ Holt, John (2011-04-13). The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press. p. 429. ISBN 0-8223-4982-5. 
  18. ^ Klem, Bart (2011). Islam, Politics and Violence in Eastern Sri Lanka. The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 70, No. 3. p. 737. 
  19. ^ "Population by ethnic group, census years" (PDF). Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  20. ^ Hussein, Asiff (2007). Sarandib: an ethnological study of the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Asiff Hussein. p. 330. ISBN 9789559726227. 
  21. ^ McGilvray, Dennis B. (2008-04-16). Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. Duke University Press. p. 77. ISBN 0-8223-8918-5. 
  22. ^ a b MAHROOF, M.M.M. Impact of European-Christian Rule on the Muslims of Sri Lanka: A Socio-Historical Analysis. Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad: Islamic Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4. pp. 354, 356. 
  23. ^ MAHROOF, M.M.M. (1991). Mendicants and Troubadours: Towards a Historical Taxonomy of the Faqirs of Sri Lanka. Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad: Islamic Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4. p. 502. 
  24. ^ McGilvray, D.B (1998). "Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim ethnicity in regional perspective". Contributions to Indian Sociology. 32 (2): 433–483. doi:10.1177/006996679803200213. 
  25. ^ a b Torsten Tschacher (2001). Islam in Tamilnadu: Varia. (Südasienwissenschaftliche Arbeitsblätter 2.) Halle: Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. ISBN 3-86010-627-9. (Online versions available on the websites of the university libraries at Heidelberg and Halle: and
  26. ^ 216 th year commemoration today: Remembering His Holiness Bukhary Thangal Sunday Observer – January 5, 2003. Online version accessed on 2009-08-14
  27. ^ R. Cheran, Darshan Ambalavanar, Chelva Kanaganayakam (1997) History and Imagination: Tamil Culture in the Global Context. 216 pages, ISBN 978-1-894770-36-1
  28. ^ a b "Sri Lankan Muslims Are Low Caste Tamil Hindu Converts Not Arab Descendants". Colombo Telegraph. Retrieved 27 July 2014. 
  29. ^ Holt, John Clifford (2016-09-30). Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka. Oxford University Press. p. 23. ISBN 9780190624392. 
  30. ^ Nuk̲amān̲, Em Ē; Program, ICES Sri Lanka; Studies, International Centre for Ethnic (2007). Sri Lankan Muslims: ethnic identity within cultural diversity. International Centre for Ethnic Studies. p. 104. ISBN 9789555801096. 
  31. ^ "Sri Lanka – Living With Terror". Frontline. PBS. May 2002. Retrieved 9 February 2009. 
  32. ^ "A Criticism of Mr Ramanathan's "Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon" - Sri Lanka Muslims". Sri Lanka Muslims. 2017-04-21. Retrieved 2017-11-24. 
  33. ^ Zemzem, Akbar (1970). The Life and Times of Marhoom Wappichi Marikar (booklet). Colombo. 
  34. ^ "Analysis: Tamil-Muslim divide". BBC News World Edition. Retrieved 6 July 2014. 
  35. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  36. ^ "Sri Lanka's Muslims: out in the cold". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 2007-07-31. 
  37. ^ Retrieved 2011-11-20.  Missing or empty |title= (help)[dead link]
  38. ^ "Ethnic cleansing: Colombo". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 2007-04-13. 
  39. ^ The “liberation” of the east heightens the anxieties of the Muslim community about its role in the new scheme of things. Archived 2009-08-09 at the Wayback Machine.
  40. ^ SUBRAMANIAN, T.S. (May 10, 2002). "Prabakaran in First Person". Frontline. 
  41. ^ "Hon. V. Prabhakaran : Press Conference at Killinochi 2002". EelamView. Archived from the original on 2016-04-06. 
  42. ^ Palakidnar, Ananth (15 February 2009). "Mass resettlement of Muslims in Jaffna". Sunday Observer. 
  43. ^ Holmes, Walter Robert (1980), Jaffna, Sri Lanka, Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society of Jaffna College, p. 190 
  44. ^ Hindu On Net. "A timely and prudent step by the LTTE". Archived from the original on 2004-12-07. Retrieved 2006-04-30. 

Further reading