Moor or Muslim? who came first? by Hafsah Isfahan (Explore Sri Lanka)

Ever think about it? Or arethey one and the same?

Well, if you guessed Muslim, you"d be wrong. Surprised? Don"t be, many Sri Lankans would have had to think that one through, and would still have come up with the wrong answer. Astonishingly the descendants of the Moors themselves, would think there was no difference as well.

Actually Arabs came to trade in Ceylon " a well known spice outpost " quite sometime before the advent of Islam in Arabia. "I seem to think these people were here before Mohamed. They were here as traders," says Sir Emerson Tennant, a widely respected historian. Prophet Muhammed, or Mohamed as the non-Muslims would say, passed away about 670 A.D. and Islam spread overseas as far ashore as Ceylon, only after his departure. The Arabs who settled in Ceylon at that time, were brought the message of Islam by the Arab Muslims " great sailors and a renowned maritime trading power; as preached not so long ago, by the one they called, "The light of Arabia". The Arab Muslims preached about the brotherhood of man and man"s accountability for his actions; that the wealthy had a duty towards their poorer brethren. They spoke so sincerely and with such fervency that the Ceylon Moors (Arabs) hearts were filled with a devotion to this faith that had sprung from the soil of their homeland. "The Mohammedan is a full blooded native of this country. He is just as much a native as a Sinhalese or Veddha because he is here for the last 2000 years" says Dr. W. Balendra L. M. S. (Ceylon) L. R. C. P. (London).

According to the research and investigation conducted by the anthropologist de la Hall Marret there is a pure Arabic stock " the Semitic type, the Persian type still in this country. "You can spot them out at once whether in Jaffna, Puttalam, Malwana, Galle or Trincomalee. Undoubtedly this Arabic/Semitic infusion dates back to the 8th century, or says de la Hall Marret, even longer.

The British school of thought, headed by Sir Alexander Johnstone also confirms this, agreeing that the Mohammedans were Arabs and they came into Ceylon during the 8th century and landed at Jaffna and also settled down in Colombo, Beruwela, Galle and Trincomalee. However Sir Emerson Tennant disagrees with this, his contention being that the Arabs came as traders before the dawn of Islam, to Ceylon, and settled down. They accepted Islam when it was preached to them by the Arab Muslims who came over after the demise of the Prophet of Islam.

The commercial capital of Ceylon is Colombo. This name is derived from "Cullambo" as the Abyssinians " who first settled here, later embracing Islam " called it. They were a civilized people having many arts and crafts and their settlement directly influenced the development of Colombo. "Hobson Jobson" is the name of a book by Colonel Yule, who proves by way of records that Colombo was mainly a Mohammedan centre at first. He also gives a description of Colombo as an Abyssinian outpost at that time. Moors had gone to the South of Spain and there they had found grand buildings. They had learned the art of building towns, regrouping the bungalows, bringing them to the standards that we now follow.

The Moorish influence on the Buddhist and Hindu civilization of Ceylon is clearly seen. "Marakkalage" meaning the house which belongs to the man who came in a big wooden vessel. This man taught the man in the village in which he chose to settle, how to build. The Moor learnt the art from the South of Spain, from the Roman and Grecian civilizations. As a result the history of Ceylonese development especially in the fields of building and navigation owes much to the influx and influence of the Ceylon Moor, both before and after the advent of Islam. Anthropologist de la Hall Marett, says that in Beligalla " a Veddha village " the commerce/trade revolved round a few of the important Mohammedan families. Transporting goods over a long distance was not practical on foot because of the time it took plus the limitations of what a single man could carry. The Mohammedan introduced the "Thavalam" or two bulls tied to a cart, thus showing the villagers how with the help of and harnessing of animals, more goods could be carried over longer stretches in a shorter period of time. This was the forerunner to the bullock cart which the Dutch introduced.

Many think that all Moors are traders or gem merchants. While this is not the case today, the precedent for this lies in our history which shows that the Moors followed up stones lying in the river beds of the Kaluganga, unearthed and brought them to the surface. Thus the gem industry was mainly in the hands of the Moors and in Ratnapura.

Embracing Islam, the Moors continued their age-old business of trading, which their religion told them, was good as long as it was done fairly and not with an extreme margin of profit. With the passage of time the Moors intermarried with the Sinhalese and today most cannot claim that they"re of pure Arabic/Semitic descent. However the fair skin " so prized in this country is a legacy which is still to be found in this land that the Arabs called "Serendib"