Moor of Sri Lanka

ETHNONYMS: Marakkala, Musalman, Sonakar, Sonar

A consensus on the name for Sri Lanka Muslims has not been arrived at. The appellation "Moor" (from the Portuguese) is not used by the population to identify themselves. The Sinhalese use the term "Muslim" or "Marakkala" after a leading Muslim family name. Sri Lanka Muslims occasionally call themselves "Sonakar" or "Sonar," therefore setting themselves apart from the Muslims of south India. The Urdu appellation "Musalman" is used principally around the Colombo area (the Sri Lankan capital). In government publications the designation "Tamil" implies Hindu or Christian; Muslims are listed as Moors. The motivation is political, to represent a larger proportion of Sinhalese to Tamil speakers in the population.

Muslims represent 7.36 percent of the total population of Sri Lanka (1989). Sri Lanka Muslims represent a number of different ethnic groups, three of which are recognized in the 1984 government census: Sri Lanka Moors (1.1 million); Malays (60,000); and Indian Moors, the majority of whom are ethnic Tamils from southern India (40,000). Tamil is the established tongue of the Sri Lanka Moors. In recent years, because of political considerations, many have learned the Sinhala language and some children study it in school. A handful speak Sinhala in the hill areas at home; however, Tamil remains the language of education for the majority up through the university level. All religious literature and sermons are given in Tamil. Malays speak Malay at home, although they do not write it, and they prefer to educate their children in English. With the exception of the Bohras, who are Shiites, all of the other groups are Sunni Muslims.

Soon after settling in India, Muslim Arabs began arriving in the eighth century. According to legend, they established themselves in Bentotta and married Sinhala women. By the tenth century, they were a powerful merchant class. According to the historian Ibn Battuta, in the thirteenth century, Colombo was a Muslim city, while the Delhi sultanate's influence reached to the southern tip of India. An Arabized dialect written in Arabic script (not in use today) grew, and an epic of the life of the Prophet was popularized. The Malays were introduced by the Dutch from Indonesia as laborers. They are an urban population maintaining their own customs and language. The Indian Muslims came in the British period during the nineteenth century, mainly as traders. Few, However, are given Sri Lankan citizenship, and many have been sent back to India.

The majority of Muslims are involved in business ventures. Preeminent are the gem-trading families, who control the extraction and selling of gems almost exclusively. Most of them reside in Colombo and the other big city areas. Next in prominence are the city entrepreneurs, who change their businesses from time to time with the changes in limited manufactured goods and imports. The majority are small traders who run small shops in the rural and village areas. A few have gone into the professions; however, most have largely ignored modern secular education. There are some small Muslim fishing villages and masons on the island. On the east side of Sri Lanka there are some Muslim peasant farmers.

There are many caste, lineage, and family groups. The Maulanas or Sayyids claim descent patrilineally from the Prophet or those close to him. The Marakkayas (also Maraikkars or Marikkars) represent a leading business group in and around Colombo. An important Muslim caste in port towns is the Marakkalarayaras. They have a long tradition of trading in ships, dating back to King Solomon. The Lebbe or Lebbai serve principally as prayer leaders and preachers. These groups are like lineages but mostly without any great degree of lineage links. They also serve many of the functions of caste, although endogamy is not practiced as a cultural precept. Barbers form the most separate Muslim group. They are called Nasuvar in the west and Ostas in the east. They have the lowest social status and are practically endogamous, operating as a separate caste. Due to the proximity of Hindu neighbors many Muslim peasants have matrilineal clans.

Marriage and inheritance practices do not always follow Muslim tradition. Cross-cousin marriage is preferred and parallel-cousin marriage forbidden in keeping with Dravidian kinship rules and Tamil and Sinhala marriage conventions. A few urban Muslims today, however, permit parallel-cousin marriage. A girl's parents by custom look for a suitable groom. The two families bargain on a dowry. The girl's family assumes most of the expense of marriage, entertaining as many as several hundred people. The wedding ritual is simple, in accordance with Muslim custom; however, the bride must be present because in Sri Lanka the groom adorns her with a wedding necklace usually having a crescent on it. Postmarital residence is at the bride's house among all Sri Lankan Muslims, and the couple may remain there for some months or years. Divorce is rare, and polygyny insignificant. A large number of men take brides from any Muslim category except the barber caste.


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Maloney, Clarence (1984). "Sri Lanka." In Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, edited by Richard V. Weekes, 723-727. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Mauroof, Mohamed. "Aspects of Religion, Economy, and Society among the Muslims of Sri Lanka." Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s. 6:66-83.

Robinson, Francis, ed. (1989). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yalman, Nur (1967). Under the Bo Tree: Studies in Caste, Kinship, and Marriage in the Interior of Ceylon. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.


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