Sri Lankan Moor

Sri Lankan Moors
Group of early 20th century Sri Lankan Moors.
Total population
Greater than 1.8 Million
Regions with significant populations
 Sri Lanka 1,869,820 (9.23%)
Tamil, Sinhalese
Related ethnic groups
Arabs, Sri Lankan people

The Sri Lankan Moors (commonly referred to as Muslims) are the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka comprising 9.23% of the country's total population. They are predominantly followers of Islam. The Moors trace their ancestry to Arab traders (Moors) who settled in Sri Lanka some time between the 8th and 15th centuries.[2][3][4] The Arabic language brought by the early merchants is no longer spoken, though many Arabic words and phrases are still commonly used. Until the recent past, the Moors employed Arwi as their native language, though this is also extinct as a spoken language.

Moors today use Tamil as their primary language with influence from Arabic. Those from central and southern Sri Lanka also widely use Sinhala, an Indo-European language spoken by the ethnic Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka. There are many Muslim schools in Southern, Central and Western Sri Lanka that offer education in Sinhala medium along with Tamil medium. Some Madrasahs also teach in Sinhala.

The Sri Lankan Moors lived primarily in coastal trading and agricultural communities, preserving their Islamic cultural heritage while adopting many Southern Asian customs. During the period of Portuguese colonisation, the Moors suffered widespread persecution, and many fled to the Central Highlands and the East Coast, where their descendants remain.


The Tamils of Sri Lanka, throughout history, have attempted to categorize the Sri Lankan Moors as belonging to the Tamil ethnic group.[3] Arab traders however adopted the Tamil language when they settled in Sri Lanka.[4] This meant that mistakenly Tamils concluded that the Moors were from their race. The features of Sri Lankan Moors are also very different, they commonly have lighter skin tone and hair color. As a result some view the Sri Lankan Moors and Tamils as two ethnic groups, who speak the same language.[4]


Since the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Moors in Sri Lanka has grown from approximately 100,000 persons in the 19th century to over 2 million in 2005. (The population of Sri Lanka is 21,128,772 as of 2009.) In the past, Moors were found throughout Sri Lanka, mostly within urban coastal regions. However, during Portuguese rule in the 17th century they were persecuted on the basis of their religion and were forced to retreat into the Kandyan highlands and the East Coast, which were under the rule of Sinhalese kings. As a result, there are substantial Moor populations in these regions today. In recent times, the Sri Lankan Civil War has produced large population movements in the northern region of the country, resulting in significant demographic changes. Hence the once-flourishing Muslim (mostly Moor) community is now non-existent in the Northern Province of the country as a result of the Tamil Tigers' ethnic cleansing carried out by Tamil Tiger rebels in 1991. This caused the Moors to flee towards southern and western Sri Lanka. Most of the expelled Northern population now reside in the western Puttalam region of the country. Overall, the majority of Sri Lankan Muslims still reside in Sri Lanka, however there are small growing communities in the Arab World, Europe, North America and Australia.


East Coast Moors

On the east coast,Muslims reside in lands given to them by Senarat of Kandy[5] after they were persecuted by the Portuguese. Moors are primarily farmers, fishermen, and traders, but the present generation is a significant mark on Muslims education of the Island. Their family lines are traced through women, as in kinship systems of the southwest Indian state of Kerala, but they govern themselves through Islamic law.

Central and West Coast Moors

Many moors in the central and west of the island are related to business, industrialists, professionals or civil servants and are mainly concentrated in Kandy, Colombo, Kalutara, Beruwala, Puttalam and Mannar . Moors in the west coast trace their family lines through their father. Along with those in the Central Province, the surname of many Moors in Colombo, Kalutara and Puttalam is their fathers' first name, which is similar to the traditional Arab and Middle Eastern kinship system.


The Sri Lankan Moors possess a unique culture that differentiates them from the dominant Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups on the island.The cultural domain of Sri Lankan Moors has been strongly shaped by Islam, hence most customs and practices are dictated by Islamic law. While preserving many of their ancestral customs, the Moors have also adopted several South Asian practices.[6]


The Moors speak a modified form of the Tamil language influenced by Arabic. The dialect of the Moors are strongly influenced by Arabic and when comparing with a speech of a Tamil, one can easily identify the difference. For example, Tamils don't pronounce 'h' but use 'k' instead i.e. Kajj for Hajj or 'sh' but instead 's' i.e. Sakthi for Shakthi; the latter words which a Moor would say. However since there is not an official name for the dialect, it is commonly referred as Tamil. It is to be noted that there are certain words and phrases that are different from the original Tamil language spoken by the Tamils. some Moors still use Arabic to read and write in this 21st century. The Sinhala language has also had strong influence on speech, especially in the central region of Sri Lanka where most Moors are multilingual. Arabic is used extensively as a liturgical language. In the past, the Arwi language was used extensively by the Moor community, however it is now virtually extinct as a spoken language and is confined only to religious texts. Today, the Tamil script is commonly used; however the official script used in religious affairs is still Arwi, which is a modified form of the Arabic script.

Many Arabic and Arabized words exist in the form of Tamil spoken by Moors. Among many examples, greetings and blessings are exchanged in Arabic instead of Tamil, such as Assalamu Alaikum instead of Vanakkam and Jazakallah instead of Nandri. There are also words which evolved from Arabic such as Umma from Um and Subahu from Subh as well as words evolved from Tamil such as Nana from Anna and Thangachi from Thangai. There are also words which are unique to Moors such as Datha for sister and Kusuni for kitchen; which some say evolved from other languages which had an influence on the Moors such as Portuguese, Dutch, English and notably, Sri Lankan Creole Malay.

In recent times, with the advent of teaching Arabic as a compulsory language at schools and the rising of Islamic sentiments of Islamic people worldwide, Arabic has become more popular and used among Sri Lankan Moors.


Main article: Arwi language

Prior to the adoption of Tamil and Sinhala, the Arwi language was used as a native language by the Sri Lankan Moors. Arwi is linguistically related to both Semitic and Dravidian tongues now spoken predominantly in the Middle East and Southern India, respectively. It is also believed to be also related to Brahui, a Dravidian language spoken today by nearly 350,000 in East Baluchistan, Pakistan.

The linguistic "marriage" of Arabic with Sri Lankan dialects is a process that has been active in the region for several centuries. The distinctiveness of the speech behaviour of the Moors of Sri Lanka, has been referred to as Arabic-Tamil, Arabuthamul, Arwi, or Shonakam. It enjoys a religious knowledge affinity with a dialect of Jawi, used by the Malays of the island, as well as with other northern India derived languages such as Urdu, used by smaller groups of Muslims in the country. The linguistic medium of Arwi is composed of more than one set of grammars and vocabularies that a speaker may switch back and forth from, depending on the situation. Spoken forms of coastal regional Arwi also differ from central regional forms. Compared to many among the Sinhalese, Tamil, or Burgher peoples of Sri Lanka who have traditionally tended to be monolingual, Moors were much more at home with Sinhala and Tamil, and in some instances English, as well as Arwi.

Distribution of Moors in Sri Lanka based on 2001 and 1981 census.

As a written language Arwi employs an invented orthography for a creolized, or mixed, system of speech patterns. Arwi spoken in Sri Lanka, contained a mixture of words that have Semitic, Dravidian and Indo-European origins (i.e. Arabic, Tamil and Sinhalese, respectively). Research on its history has only very recently begun to appear in print. It is believed to have originated during the early stages of Islamizing contact between Sri Lankan peoples with Arab and Persian traders. The principles of its development and structure are possibly related to similar systems known for other similar Islamized speech and writing systems such as Maldivian, Jawi, Urdu, and Persian.

Arwi is known to be a matter of at least scholarly interest in some parts of Sri Lanka today. Languages such as Sinhala, Tamil and English have replaced it in many contexts. Several reasons can be attributed to the decline of Arwi including the popularization of English during colonial times and the lack of competitive printing facilities. Furthermore, the early 20th century adoption of an Arabic-dominant Islamic school curriculum by scholars has also contributed to the extinction of Arwi as a spoken language and its overall decline in Sri Lanka.

Today, the Arwi language exists only as a written medium for religious uses. Alongside standard Arabic, it is often used in formal religious ceremonies; however, unlike Arabic, Arwi is seldom taught in religious schools and is consequently in deep decline. The most notable usage of Arwi can be found in devotional chants such as the Talaifatiha, which is exclusively conducted exclusively by women during certain religious festivals.


Main article: Islam in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Moors are predominantly followers of Islam, hence their cultural identity is strongly defined by their religion. Unlike the Sinhalese and Tamil people who adhere to several faiths, virtually all Moors adhere to Islam, hence in a Sri Lankan context the term Muslim is often used interchangeably as both a religious and ethnic term to describe the Moors. Most Sri Lankan Moors follow Sunni Islam through the Shafi school of thought, though there are also small populations that follow other Islamic sects such as Shia Islam.

See also


Further reading

  • Victor C. de Munck. Experiencing History Small: An analysis of political, economic and social change in a Sri Lankan village. ISBN 5-484-01002-0
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