Sri Lankan Moors

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Sri Lankan Moors
இலங்கைச் சோனகர்
Ali Zahir Moulana.jpg
Lanka moors.jpg
20th century Sri Lankan Moors
Total population
1,869,820 (2012 census)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Eastern 569,182
 Western 450,505
 North Western 260,380
 Central 252,694
Islam (mostly Sunni)
Related ethnic groups

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 native speakers of the Tamil language[3][4] and predominantly followers of Islam. While some sources describe them as a subset of the Tamil people who had adopted Islam as their religion and spoke Tamil as their mother tongue, which they continue to do so,[5][3][6][7][8] other sources trace their ancestry to Arab traders (Moors) who settled in Sri Lanka some time between the 8th and 15th centuries.[9][10][11][2] Moors today use Tamil as their primary language, with influence from Arabic.[5]

Kechimalai Mosque, Beruwala. One of the oldest mosques in Sri Lanka. It is believed to be the site where the first Arabs landed in Sri Lanka



Origins Theories[edit]

Tamil origin[edit]

Main article: Tamil Muslim

Throughout history, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have tried to classify the Sri Lankan Moors as belonging to the Tamil ethnic group.[10] The Tamil term for Muslims in Sri Lanka is சோனகர் (Soonagar) or சோனி (Sooni) probably derived from Sunni. Their view holds that the Sri Lankan Moors were simply Tamil converts to Islam. The claim that the Moors were the progeny of the original Arab settlers, might hold good for a few families but not for the entire bulk of the community.[6] This is evidenced by the fact that, the Moors's Islamic Cultural Home, Colombo were unsuccessful in digging up the genealogical history of Muslim families with Arab descent, in any great numbers. I.L.M. Abdul Azeez (of the organization) seemed to have accepted the idea, when he observed that:

It may be safely argued that, the number of original settlers was not even more than a hundred.

Another theory claims, Sri Lankan Moors are not a distinct or self-defined people and the word (Moors) did not exist in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the Portuguese colonists.[12] The Portuguese named the Muslims in India and Sri Lanka after the Muslim Moors they met in Iberia.[13]

The concept of Arab descent was thus, invented just to keep the community away from the Tamils and this 'separate identity' intended to check the latter's demand for the separate state Eelam and to flare up hostilities between the two groups in the broader Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.[6][7][8]

Arab origin[edit]

Another view suggests that the Arab traders, however, adopted the Tamil language only after settling in Sri Lanka.[11] The Tamils mistakenly 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. Scholars classify the Sri Lankan Moors and Tamils as two distinct ethnic groups, who speak the same language.[11] This view is dominantly held by the Sinhalese favoring section of the Moors as well as the Sri Lankan government which lists the Moors as a separate ethnic community.[6]


The Jami-ul-Alfar Mosque in Pettah, Colombo was built in 1901.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Moors in Sri Lanka has grown from approximately 228,000 persons to approximately 1.9 million in 2012. (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 suffered religious persecution and retreated into the Kandyan highlands and the East Coast, which were under the rule of Sinhalese kings. As a result, substantial Moorish populations still exist in these regions today.

The Sri Lankan Civil War of the late 20th century 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 has now disappeared from the Northern Province due to the Tamil Tigers' ethnic cleansing in 1991. The Moors fled toward 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 diaspora communities in the Arab World, Europe, North America and Australia.


Historical population
Year Pop. ±%
1881 184,500 —    
1891 197,200 +6.9%
1901 228,000 +15.6%
1911 233,900 +2.6%
1921 251,900 +7.7%
1931 289,600 +15.0%
1946 373,600 +29.0%
1953 464,000 +24.2%
1963 626,800 +35.1%
1971 828,300 +32.1%
1981 1,046,900 +26.4%
1989 (est.) 1,249,000 +19.3%
2001 1,339,300 +7.2%
2012 1,869,820 +39.6%
Prior to 1911 Indian Moors were included with Sri Lankan Moors.
Source:Department of Census
& Statistics
Data is based on
Sri Lankan Government Census.

East Coast Moors[edit]

On the east coast,Muslims reside in lands given to them by Senarat of Kandy after they were persecuted by the Portuguese.[15] Moors are primarily farmers, fishermen, and traders, but the present generation has become more educated and is moving into professional positions. Their family lines are traced through women, as in kinship systems of the southwest Indian state of Kerala. They abide by Islamic law.[citation needed]

Central and West Coast Moors[edit]

Many Moors in the central and west of the island are engaged in business, industry, professions or the civil service. They are mainly concentrated in Kandy, Colombo, Kalutara, Beruwala, Puttalam and Mannar . Moors in the west coast have a patrilineal kinship system, tracing descent through their father. Along with those Moors of the Central Province, those in Colombo, Kalutara and Puttalam use their father's first name as a surname, similar to the traditional style of Arab and Middle Eastern naming patterns.


The Sri Lankan Moors have been strongly shaped by Islamic culture, with many customs and practices according to Islamic law. While preserving many of their ancestral customs, the Moors have also adopted several South Asian practices.[16]


Main article: Tamil language
Letters of the Arwi alphabet and their equivalent Tamil letter.

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 some differences. Certain words and phrases have been modified from the original Tamil language as spoken by the Tamils. Some Moors in the 21st century still read and write in Arabic. Furthermore, the Moors like their counterparts[4][17] in Tamil Nadu, use the Arwi which is a written register of the Tamil language with the use of the Arabic alphabet.[18]


Distribution of Languages and Religious groups of Sri Lanka on D.S. Division and Sector level according to 1981 Census of Population and Housing
Distribution of Moors in Sri Lanka based on 2001 and 1981 (italic) census. (Note: Large population movements have occurred since 1981, hence 2001 data for Northeastern areas (italic) do not exist
Distribution of Moors in Sri Lanka based on 2001 and 1981 census.
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 and Sufi Islam.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "A2 : Population by ethnic group according to districts, 2012". Census of Population & Housing, 2011. Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. 
  2. ^ a b "Race in Sri Lanka What Genetic evidence tells us". Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  3. ^ a b "Sri Lankan Muslims Are Low Caste Tamil Hindu Converts Not Arab Descendants". Colombo Telegraph. Retrieved 27 July 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Torsten Tschacher (2001). Islam in Tamilnadu: Varia. (Südasienwissenschaftliche Arbeitsblätter 2.) Halle: Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. ISBN 3-86010-627-9. (Online versions available on the websites of the university libraries at Heidelberg and Halle: and
  5. ^ a b McGilvray, DB (November 1998). "Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim ethnicity in regional perspective". Contributions to Indian Sociology: 433–483. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d Mohan, Vasundhara (1987). Identity Crisis of Sri Lankan Muslims. Delhi: Mittal Publications. pp. 9–14,27–30,67–74,113–118. 
  7. ^ a b Zemzem, Akbar (1970). The Life and Times of Marhoom Wappichi Marikar (booklet). Colombo. 
  8. ^ a b "Analysis: Tamil-Muslim divide". BBC News World Edition. Retrieved 6 July 2014. 
  9. ^ Papiha, S.S.; Mastana, S.S. and Jaysekara, R. (October 1996). "Genetic Variation in Sri Lanka" 68 (5). pp. 707–737 [709]. JSTOR 41465515. 
  10. ^ a b de Munck, Victor (2005). "Islamic Orthodoxy and Sufism in Sri Lanka". Anthropos: 401–414 [403]. JSTOR 40466546. 
  11. ^ a b c Mahroof, M. M. M. "Spoken Tamil Dialects Of The Muslims Of Sri Lanka: Language As Identity-Classifier". Islamic Studies 34 (4): 407–426 [408]. JSTOR 20836916. 
  12. ^ Ross Brann, "The Moors?", Andalusia, New York University. Quote: "Andalusi Arabic sources, as opposed to later Mudéjar and Morisco sources in Aljamiado and medieval Spanish texts, neither refer to individuals as Moors nor recognize any such group, community or culture."
  13. ^ Pieris, P.E. "Ceylon and the Hollanders 1658-1796". American Ceylon Mission Press, Tellippalai Ceylon 1918
  14. ^ "Population by ethnic group, census years". Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  15. ^ Minister Hakeem urge apologies from Maha Sangha and JHU. (10 August 2012)
  16. ^ McGilvray, D.B (1998). "Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim ethnicity in regional perspective". Contributions to Indian Sociology 32 (2): 433. doi:10.1177/006996679803200213. 
  17. ^ 216 th year commemoration today: Remembering His Holiness Bukhary Thangal Sunday Observer – January 5, 2003. Online version accessed on 2009-08-14
  18. ^ R. Cheran, Darshan Ambalavanar, Chelva Kanaganayakam (1997) History and Imagination: Tamil Culture in the Global Context. 216 pages, ISBN 978-1-894770-36-1

Further reading[edit]