Islam in Sri Lanka

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The green band on the Sri Lankan flag represents Islam and the Moorish ethnic group
The Jami Ul Alfar mosque in pettah area one of the oldest mosques in Colombo

'Islam in Sri Lanka is practiced by 9.7%[1] of the population of Sri Lanka. 1,967,227 persons adhering Islam as per the census of 2012.[1] The Muslim community is divided into three main ethnic groups: the Sri Lankan Moors, the Indian Muslims and the Malays, each with its own history and traditions. The attitude among the majority of people in Sri Lanka is to use the term "Muslim" as an ethnic group, specifically when referring to Sri Lankan Moors.

History of Islam in Sri Lanka[edit]

Distribution of Islam in Sri Lanka based on 2001 and 1981 (cursive) census

With the arrival of Arab traders in the 7th century CE, Islam began to flourish in Sri Lanka. The first people to profess the Islamic faith were Arab merchants and their native wives, whom they married after converting to Islam. By the 8th century CE, Arab traders had controlled much of the trade on the Indian Ocean, including that of Sri Lanka. Many of them settled down on the island in large numbers, encouraging the spread of Islam. However, when the Portuguese arrived during the 16th century, many of their descendants now called the Sri Lankan Moors - were persecuted.The Sinhalese ruler King Senarat of Kandy gave refuge to some of the Muslims in the central highlands and Eastern Province, Sri Lanka.[2]

During 18th and 19th centuries, Javanese and Malaysian Muslims bought over by the Dutch and British rulers contributed to the growing Muslim population in Sri Lanka. Their descendants, now the Sri Lankan Malays, adapted several Sri Lankan Moor Islamic traditions while also contributing their unique cultural Islamic practices to other Muslim groups on the Island.

The arrival of Muslims from India during the 19th and 20th centuries has also contributed to the growth of Islam in Sri Lanka. Most notably, Pakistani and South Indian Muslims have introduced Shia Islam and the Hanafi school of thought into Sri Lanka, however although most Muslims on the island still adhere to the traditional practices of Sunni Islam.

In modern times, Muslims in Sri Lanka are handled by the Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department, which was established in the 1980s to prevent the continual isolation of the Muslim community from the rest of Sri Lanka. Muslims of Sri Lanka, mostly from the Moor and Malay ethnic communities on the island with smaller numbers of converts from other ethnicities, such as the Tamils.

Muslims and Sri Lankan Civil War[edit]

The Sri Lankan Civil War was a 26 year conflict fought on the island of Sri Lanka between government and separatist militant organisation Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers). In this civil war Sri Lankan Muslim were targeted by LTTE and a few hundreds of Muslims died {cn}, hundreds of thousand were expelled from their homes and their property was destroyed .[citation needed]

The expulsion of the Muslims from the Northern province was an act of ethnic cleansing[3][4] carried out by the Tamil militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organization in October 1990. In order to achieve their goal of creating a mono ethnic Tamil state[5][6] in the North Sri Lanka, the LTTE forcibly expelled the 95,000 strong Muslim population from the Northern Province.[7]

The expulsion still carries bitter memories amongst Sri Lanka's Muslims. In 2002, the LTTE militant leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran formally apologized for the expulsion of Muslims from the North. There has been a stream of Muslims travelling to and from Jaffna since the ceasefire. Some families have returned and the re-opened Osmaniya College now has 60 students enrolled. Two Mosques are functioning again. According to a Jaffna Muslim source, there is a floating population of about 2000 Muslims in Jaffna. Around 1500 are Jaffna Muslims, while the rest are Muslim traders from other areas. About 10 Muslim shops are functioning and the numbers are thought to have grown.[8]

Sri Lankan Moors[edit]

Main article: Sri Lankan Moors

A significant Tamil-speaking Muslim population exists in Sri Lanka; however, unlike Tamil Muslims from India, they are not culturally linked with ethnic Tamils, they are therefore listed as a separate ethnic group in official statistics.[9][10] The Moor community of Sri Lanka also consists of Tamil Muslims migrated from Tamil Nadu region of India and converts from Sri Lankan Tamil community. The Moors had better social and economic mobility, thanks to the historic headstart they had in getting education and government jobs under British colonial rule.[11]

Typical early 20th century Moor gentlemen

The Sri Lankan Moors make up almost 9.2% of the population of the country. They are predominantly Sunni Muslims of Shafi School. The Moors trace their ancestry to Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka some time between the seventh and eighth centuries. The Arabic language brought by the early merchants is no longer spoken, though various Arabic words and phrases are still employed in daily usage. Until the recent past, the Moors employed Arwi as their mother tongue, though this is also extinct as a spoken language. Currently, the Moors in the east of Sri Lanka use Tamil as their primary language which includes many loan words from Arabic. Moors in the west coast are fluent in Sinhala, an Indo-European language spoken by the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka, but use English within the community. Thus, the Moors are a multilingual ethnic and religious group. 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 colonization, the Moors suffered from persecution, and many moved to the Central Highlands and Eastern Province, where their descendants remain.


There are 749 Muslim Schools in Sri Lanka, and 205 madrasas which teaching Islamic Education, and there is an Islamic university in Beruwala (Jamiya Naleemiya). Al Iman Schools in Colombo is the first of its kind Islamic school, teaching an integrated Islamic curriculum since 2008. In early 20th century there are few Muslim professionals in Accounts, Medical, Engineering, etc. But at present they are exceeding the national average. Due to lack of opportunity in Sri Lanka, many Muslim professionals are migrating to get jobs abroad, such as the Middle East, United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe.

East Coast Moors[edit]

On the eastern province of the country Muslims are predominant. These Muslims were settled on land given by the Sinhalese King Senarat of Kandy after the Muslims were persecuted by the Portuguese.[2] East coast Sri Lankan Moors are primarily farmers, fishermen, and per the controversial census of 2007 the moors are 5(only moors,not entire Muslims of the eastern province)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.[12]

West Coast Moors[edit]

Many moors in the west of the island are traders, professionals or civil servants and are mainly concentrated in Colombo, Kalutara, Beruwala, Dharga Town, Puttalam, Jaffna 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, thus retaining similarity to the traditional Arab and middle eastern kinship system.

The Malays[edit]

Main article: Sri Lankan Malays
Sri Lankan Malay Father and Son, 19th century

The Malays of Sri Lanka originated in Southeast Asia and today consist of about 50,000 persons. Their ancestors came to the country when both Sri Lanka and Indonesia were colonies of the Dutch. Most of the early Malay immigrants were soldiers, posted by the Dutch colonial administration to Sri Lanka, who decided to settle on the island. Other immigrants were convicts or members of noble houses from Indonesia who were exiled to Sri Lanka and who never left. The main source of a continuing Malay identity is their common Malay language (Bahasa Melayu), which includes numerous words absorbed from Sinhalese and the Moorish variant of the Tamil language. In the 1980s, the Malays made up about 5% of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka and, like the Moors, predominantly follow the Shafi school of thought within Sunni Islam.

Other Indian Muslims (Memons, Bohras, Khojas)[edit]

The Indian Muslims are those who trace their origins to immigrants searching for business opportunities during the colonial period. Some of these people came to the country as far back as Portuguese times; others arrived during the British period from various parts of India. Majority of them came from Tamil Nadu and Kerala states, and unlike the Sri Lankan Moors, are ethnically related to South Indians and number approximately 30,000. The Memon, originally from Sindh (in modern Pakistan), first arrived in 1870; in the 1980s they numbered only about 3,000, they mostly follow the Hanafi Sunni school of Islam.

The Dawoodi Bohras and the Khoja are Shi'a Muslims came from northwestern India (Gujarat state) after 1880; in the 1980s they collectively numbered fewer than 2,000. These groups tended to retain their own places of worship and the languages of their ancestral homelands.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Department of Census and Statistics,The Census of Population and Housing of Sri Lanka-2011
  2. ^ a b [1]
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Sri Lanka's Muslims: out in the cold". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 2007-07-31. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Ethnic cleansing: Colombo". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 2007-04-13. 
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ Hindu On Net. "A timely and prudent step by the LTTE". Retrieved 2006-04-30. 
  9. ^ de Silva, C.R. Sri Lanka — A History, pp. 3–5, 9
  10. ^ Department of Census and Statistics of Sri Lanka. "Population by Ethnicity according to District" (PDF). Retrieved 3 May 2007. 
  11. ^ Analysis: Tamil-Muslim divide
  12. ^ "Kmaraikayar". Retrieved 2007-07-02. 


  • Pieris, Kamalika. The Muslims and Sri Lanka.[3].Mission Islam, 2006.

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