Sri Lankan Moors
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 the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, comprising 9.3% of the country's total population. They are mainly native speakers of the Tamil language with influence of Arabic words, however, some of them use Sinhalese as their native tongue. They are predominantly followers of Islam.
20th century Sri Lankan Moors
(9.2% of the Sri Lankan population) (2012)
|Regions with significant populations|
|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. The population of Moors are the highest in the Ampara, Colombo, Kandy and Trincomalee districts.
The Portuguese named the Muslims in India and Sri Lanka after the Muslim Moors they met in Iberia. The word Moors did not exist in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the Portuguese colonists. The term 'Moor' was chosen because of the Islamic faith of these people, and was not a reflection of their origin.
When the British finally colonized India and Sri Lanka, they introduced the term Ceylon Moors, to disambiguate from the Muslims under their rule in India. After independence was granted to Ceylon and its name was changed to Sri Lanka, the Ceylon Moors, became Sri Lankan Moors, which is the official term used in the English language to refer to this ethnic group today.
The Tamil term for Moors is Sonakar, which is thought to be derived from the word sunni. Others derive the word Sonakar or Sonar from Yona, a term originally applied to Greeks but also sometimes Arabs in the Pali language.
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. 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.
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.
Another view suggests that the Arab traders, however, adopted the Tamil language only after settling in Sri Lanka. 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. 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. A study on genetic variation indicates, a genetic relationship between Arabs and the Moors. 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.
|Prior to 1911, Indian Moors were included with Sri Lankan Moors.
Source:Department of Census
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. Alliances and intermarriages between both communities were observed in this period. They held close contact with other Muslims of Southern India through coastal trade.
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. Robert Knox, a British sea captain of 17th century, noted that the Kings of Kandy Kingdom built mosques for the Moors. 
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.
Tamil is the mother tongue of the community. Moorish Tamil bears the influence of Arabic. Furthermore, the Moors like their counterparts in Tamil Nadu, use the Arwi which is a written register of the Tamil language with the use of the Arabic alphabet. 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.
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 Sinhalease, Tamil and Arab heritage.
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.
- This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/.
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