Monday, December 29, 2008


Islam in ancient Sri Lanka
Kamalika PIERIS

Islam is based on the vision and ideas of the Prophet Mohammed (570- 637 AD). The Muslim community originated when the Prophet Mohammad explained his vision of Islam to the Arabs at Mecca and Medina in the 7th century. In addition to religious beliefs, Islam also provided rules for secular life. There were Islamic laws and codes of conduct.

The first wave of Muslims to arrive in Sri Lanka came from West Asia.

This meant that Muslims were united by a common set of social norms. Mohammad's teachings stressed the equality of all Muslims. Mohammad inculcated a sense of brotherhood and a bond of faith among his followers. But this did not prevent Islam from dividing into two mutually antagonistic sects, the Sunni and Shia. The Shias are mostly in Iran and Iraq. The rest of the Muslim world, including Sri Lanka is Sunni.

The Sinhala king knew of the rise of Islam. His intelligence was good. The Iranian navigator, Buzburg Ibn Shahryar, who lived in the 10th century, recorded that in the 7th century, the Sinhala king (probably Aggabodhi III) had sent an embassy to the Prophet Mohammad.

By the time the envoy reached Medina the Prophet as well as the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, had died, so he met the Caliph Umar. On the return journey the envoy also died, and his servant returned to make a report to the Sinhala king.

Kiribamune says that Muslims had settled in Sri Lanka by the end of the 7th century. Some of them brought their wives and families with them but the majority married local women.

The first arrivals were from West Asia. They came from Arabia and the Persian Gulf area.

Around the 13th century second set of Muslims came into Sri Lanka from the Muslim communities of south India. Marina Azeez says Muslims from Kalyanapattam in Tamilnadu, established themselves in the eastern and western ports of Sri Lanka and continued to trade with India.

A 10th century Arab tombstone found in Colombo provides information on the establishment of Islam. The inscription written in Kufic characters states that the Muslim community in Colombo requested the Caliph of Baghdad to send a religious teacher who would instruct them in Islam. A religious teacher of great eminence named Khalid Ibn al Bakaya was sent by the Caliph in 940 AD. He organised the Muslims in Sri Lanka into a Muslim community and got a mosque built. He died 17 years later and was buried at Colombo. The Caliph of Baghdad sent a person to engrave the inscription on his tombstone. The inscription contains a prayer to Allah for the repose of the soul of Abu Bakaya. This tombstone is now in the National Museum, Colombo.

Arab authors record that the Sinhala king was particularly noted for its religious tolerance. Ibn Batuta wrote of Shaikh Usman of Shiraz who had his mosque outside the royal city of Konakr (unidentified). This priest, who had acted as a guide to pilgrims going up to Adam's peak had slaughtered a cow on the way. Instead of the usual punishment of beheading, his hand and foot were cut off. Since he was held in high esteem, he was compensated by a grant of taxes from a certain market. Ibn Batuta says the Sinhala king and his people visited him and held him in high regard. When the Portuguese sailed into Colombo in the 16th century, they saw the white walls of two mosques standing out clear from the background of green. In 1410, the Muslims of Colombo sent to Beruwela for a Katheeb, to officiate for them. Portuguese writers stated that the Muslim villages had quazis for religious instruction. Mosques of this period have not survived.

Sri Pada (Adam's Peak) became a favourite place of pilgrimage. The Muslims regarded Sri Pada as the place where Adam stood on one foot for seven years and thus his footprint was impressed on the solid rock. Sri Pada was known to the Muslims as 'Al Rohoun'. Muslim pilgrims to Adam's Peak increased over the period between the 9th and 14th centuries. Muslims came from abroad to worship there. Tabari writing in the 9th century mentions Sri Pada. The sea captain Sulaiman of Siraf recounts his visit to Sri Lanka in 850 AD and mentions a pilgrimage to Adam's peak. According to Muslim belief, Adam had put his other foot on Kuragala. Kuragala is another place of Muslim worship in Sri Lanka.

Ibn Batuta (14th century) said that there were two paths to Adams peak. Pilgrims went up the difficult path and descended down the easier path. He said that there were ten chains suspended from iron pegs for the support of the pilgrims. One of the chains was called the chain of the Islamic creed, because at this point, Muslims gripped with fear would automatically recite the Islamic prayer. Ibn Batuta also spoke of numerous caves along the route to Adam's peak which were associated with Muslims ascetics, such as cave of Usta Mahmud Luri and cave of Baba Khurzi. The caves were recognised halting places at Adam's Peak. A fragmentary inscription in Arabic characters dated to 13th century, was found in a cave known as Bhagvalena, lying about 100 ft below the summit on the northern route to Adams Peak. It is written by the side of a Sinhala inscription of Nissanka malla. It records an invocation for the blessing of the Prophet. A few other inscriptions have been discovered but they are damaged and illegible.

Initially the Sinhalese had been hostile towards Muslim worship at Sri Pada. It is said that this had changed when the great Sheikh, Abu Abdullah bin Khalif, a religious leader from Persia visited Sri Lanka in 929 AD. It is said that he had objected when his companions killed and ate an elephant at Sri Pada. They were in turn killed by elephants, but he had been spared and one of the elephants had lifted him on his back and brought him to a nearby village. Thereafter Muslims were allowed to perform the pilgrimage in peace' The Sheikh lived among the Sinhalese in Chilaw and later returned to Persia where he died in 943 AD. He had departed with unusually large gems which he presented to his king.

M. Yusuf writing in the University of Ceylon History of Ceylon suggests that the main purpose of going to Adam's Peak was not religion, but trade. The Muslims wished to penetrate the interior so as to get to the gems in the vicinity of Adams Peak. Muslims joined the pilgrim caravans, in the garb of ascetics, saying that Sumana kuta was linked with Adam's fall from Paradise. They used Christian beliefs for the purpose. Most pilgrims were traders as well. Yusuf says that obtaining access to the Peak probably took a long time. It would have involved a series of efforts spread over time.

Eventually Muslims were able to win the confidence of the local population and the Muslim traders were able to join the pilgrims, pay homage to the Peak and acquire the gems on their return.

The writings of M. Azeez, Premakumara de Silva, L Dewaraja, S. Kiribamune and S.M. Yusuf were used for this essay.

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