Sri Lankan Moors

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Sri Lankan Moors
இலங்கைச் சோனகர்
Lanka moors.jpg
20th century Sri Lankan Moors
Total population
1,869,820 (2012 census)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Eastern 569,182
 Western 450,505
 North Western 260,380
 Central 252,694
Islam (mostly Sunni)
Related ethnic groups

Sri Lankan Moors (Tamil: இலங்கைச் சோனகர் colloquially referred to as Muslims) are the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, comprising 9.23% of the country's total population. They are native speakers of the Tamil language[3][4] and predominantly followers of Islam. The Tamil term for Muslims in Sri Lanka is சோனகர் (Sonakar), சோனர் (Sonar) or சோனி (Sooni) probably derived from Sunni.[5] While some sources describe them as a subset of the Tamil people who had adopted Islam as their religion and spoke Tamil as their mother tongue, which they continue to do so,[3][5][6][7][8] other sources trace their ancestry to Arab traders (Moors) who settled in Sri Lanka some time between the 8th and 15th centuries.[2][9][10][11] Moors today use Tamil as their primary language, with influence from Arabic.[6] The population of Muslims are the highest in the Ampara and Trincomalee districts respectively.

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


Origins theories

Tamil origin

Throughout history, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have tried to classify the Sri Lankan Moors as belonging to the Tamil ethnic group.[10] 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 significant families but not for the entire bulk of the community.[5] This is evidenced by the fact that, the Moors's Islamic Cultural Home, Colombo were unsuccessful in digging up the genealogical history of Muslim families with Arab descent, in any great numbers. I.L.M. Abdul Azeez (of the organization) seemed to have accepted the idea, when he observed that:

It may be safely argued that, the number of original settlers was not even more than a hundred.

Another theory claims, Sri Lankan Moors are not a distinct or self-defined people and the word (Moors) did not exist in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the Portuguese colonists.[12] The Portuguese named the Muslims in India and Sri Lanka after the Muslim Moors they met in Iberia.[13] Moreover, the term 'Moor' referred to only their religion and was no reflection on their origin.[5] Portuguese colonists persecuted, defeated and destroyed the Sri Lankan Moor settlements, warehouses and trading networks in several wars. Many defeated Moor refugees escaped to the interior in central Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese ruler King Senarat of Kandy gave refuge to some of the Muslims in the central highlands and Eastern Province, Sri Lanka.[14] The population of Sri Lankan Moors significantly declined during the Portuguese colonial rule.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( LTTE also 'Tamil Tigers') challenged the Moor identity in order to include them in their civil war against the Sri Lankan government. According to the LTTE propaganda the concept of Arab people descent was "invented" just to keep the Moor 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.[5][7][8]

Arab origin

The popular view suggests that the Arab traders adopted the Tamil language only after settling in Sri Lanka.[11] This version claims that the features of Sri Lankan Moors as different from that of Tamils; they commonly have lighter skin tone and hair color. Thus, some scholars classify the Sri Lankan Moors and Tamils as two distinct ethnic groups, who speak the same language.[11] 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.[5] However, a study on genetic variation indicates, an only below average genetic relationship between Arabs and the Moors.[9]

Historical population
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 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.[16]


Letters of the Arwi alphabet and their equivalent Tamil letter.

Tamil is stated to be the mother tongue of more than 90% of the community. Moorish Tamil bears the influence of Arabic.[6] Furthermore, the Moors like their counterparts[4][17] in Tamil Nadu, use the Arwi which is a written register of the Tamil language with the use of the Arabic alphabet.[18] 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.[4]

Most religious sermons are delivered in Tamil even in regions where Tamil is not the majority language. Islamic Tamil literature has a thousand-year heritage.[3]


The Moors practice several customs and beliefs, which they closely share with the Tamil people of other faiths. Tamil customs such as wearing the Thaali or eating Patchoru were widely prevalent among the Moors. Most of these practices feed to the view that Moors were Tamil converts to Islam from other faiths.[3][5]

Distribution of Languages and Religious groups of Sri Lanka on D.S. Division and Sector level according to 1981 Census of Population and Housing
Distribution of Moors in Sri Lanka based on 2001 and 1981 (italic) census. (Note: Large population movements have occurred since 1981, hence 2001 data for Northeastern areas (italic) do not exist
Distribution of Moors in Sri Lanka based on 2001 and 1981 census.

See also


  1. "A2 : Population by ethnic group according to districts, 2012". Census of Population & Housing, 2011. Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Race in Sri Lanka What Genetic evidence tells us". Retrieved 20 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Sri Lankan Muslims Are Low Caste Tamil Hindu Converts Not Arab Descendants". Colombo Telegraph. Retrieved 27 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 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
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 Mohan, Vasundhara (1987). Identity Crisis of Sri Lankan Muslims. Delhi: Mittal Publications. pp. 9–14, 27–30, 67–74, 113–118.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 Zemzem, Akbar (1970). The Life and Times of Marhoom Wappichi Marikar (booklet). Colombo.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Analysis: Tamil-Muslim divide". BBC News World Edition. Retrieved 6 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  10. 10.0 10.1 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  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. Pieris, P.E. "Ceylon and the Hollanders 1658-1796". American Ceylon Mission Press, Tellippalai Ceylon 1918
  14. [1]
  15. "Population by ethnic group, census years" (PDF). Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. Retrieved 23 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  17. 216 th year commemoration today: Remembering His Holiness Bukhary Thangal Sunday Observer – January 5, 2003. Online version accessed on 2009-08-14
  18. R. Cheran, Darshan Ambalavanar, Chelva Kanaganayakam (1997) History and Imagination: Tamil Culture in the Global Context. 216 pages, ISBN 978-1-894770-36-1

Further reading