Sri Lankan Moors

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Sri Lankan Moors
இலங்கைச் சோனகர்
ලංකා යෝනක
Lanka moors.jpg
20th century Sri Lankan Moors
Total population
(9.2% of the Sri Lankan population) (2012)[2]
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 (Tamil: இலங்கைச் சோனகர், translit. Ilaṅkaic Cōṉakar; Sinhalese: ලංකා යෝනක, translit. Lanka Yonaka; formerly Ceylon Moors; colloquially referred to as Muslims or Moors) are the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, comprising 9.3% of the country's total population. They are mainly native speakers of the Tamil language with influence of Arabic words, however, some of them use Sinhalese as their native tongue.[3][4][5] They are predominantly followers of Islam.[6]

The Moors trace their ancestry to Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka in waves beginning from the 8th century.[7][8][9][10] The population of Moors are the highest in the Ampara, Colombo, Kandy and Trincomalee districts.


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

The Portuguese named the Muslims in India and Sri Lanka after the Muslim Moors they met in Iberia.[11] The word Moors did not exist in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the Portuguese colonists.[12] The term 'Moor' was chosen because of the Islamic faith of these people, and was not a reflection of their origin.[13]

When the British finally colonized India and Sri Lanka, they introduced the term Ceylon Moors, to disambiguate from the Muslims under their rule in India. After independence was granted to Ceylon and its name was changed to Sri Lanka, the Ceylon Moors, became Sri Lankan Moors, which is the official term used in the English language to refer to this ethnic group today.

The Sinhalese term for the Moors is Yonaka which was inherited by the Sinhalese language from Pali.[14]

The Tamil term for Moors is Sonakar, which is thought to be derived from the word sunni.[13][15] Others derive the word Sonakar or Sonar from Yona, a term originally applied to Greeks but also sometimes Arabs in the Pali language.[16]


Origins theories[edit]

Scholars holds the view that the Sri Lankan Moors are descendant of the Marakkar, Mappilas, Memons and Pathans of South India.[17]

Since 1888 under the initiative of Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the Sri Lankan Tamils launched a campaign to classify the Sri Lankan Moors as Tamils, primarily to bolster their population numbers for the impending transition to democratic rule in Sri Lanka.[18] 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.[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 Tamil Eelam and to flare up hostilities between the two groups in the broader Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.[13][19][20]

Another view suggests that the Arab traders, however, adopted the Tamil language only after settling in Sri Lanka.[10] This version claims that the features of Sri Lankan Moors as different from that of Tamils; The cultural practices of the Moors also vary significantly from the other communities on the island. Thus, most scholars classify the Sri Lankan Moors and Tamils as two distinct ethnic groups, who speak the same language.[10] 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.[13] A study on genetic variation indicates, a genetic relationship between Arabs and the Moors.[8] Although caste system is not observed by the Moors such as the other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, their kudi system (matriclan system) is an extension of the Tamil tradition.[21]

Medieval Era[edit]

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.

The Sri Lankan Moors along with Mukkuvar dominated once in medieval era the pearl trade in Sri Lanka.[23] Alliances and intermarriages between both communities were observed in this period.[24] They held close contact with other Muslims of Southern India through coastal trade.[25]

The Moors had their own court of justice for settling their disputes. Upon the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century, larger population of Moors were expelled from cities such as the capital city Colombo, which had been a Moors dominated city at that time. The Moors were thus migrating towards east and were settled there through the invitation of the Kingdom of Kandy.[25] Robert Knox, a British sea captain of 17th century, noted that the Kings of Kandy Kingdom built mosques for the Moors. [26]


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.[27]


Letters of the Arwi alphabet and their equivalent Tamil letter.

Tamil is the mother tongue of the community. Moorish Tamil bears the influence of Arabic.[6] Furthermore, the Moors like their counterparts[28][29] in Tamil Nadu, use the Arwi which is a written register of the Tamil language with the use of the Arabic alphabet.[30] The Arwi alphabet is unique to the Muslims of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, hinting at erstwhile close relations between the Tamil Muslims across the two territories.[28]

Religious sermons are delivered in Tamil even in regions where Tamil is not the majority language. Islamic Tamil literature has a thousand-year heritage.[31]


The Moors practice several customs and beliefs, which they closely share with the Arab, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese People. Tamil and Sinhala customs such as wearing the Thaali or eating Kiribath were widely prevalent among the Moors. Arab customs such as congregational eating using a large shared plate called the 'sahn' and wearing of the North African fez during marriage ceremonies feed to the view that Moors are of mixed Sinhalease, Tamil and Arab heritage.[31][13]

There have been a growing trend amongst Moors to rediscover their Arab heritage and reinstating the Arab customs that are the norm amongst Arabs in Middle East and North Africa. These include replacing the sari and other traditional clothing associated with Sinhalese and Tamil culture in favour of the abaya and hijab by the women as well as increased interest in learning Arabic and appetite for Arab food by opening restaurants and takeaways that serve Arab food such as shawarma and Arab bread.

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.

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. ^
  3. ^ Minahan, James B. (2012-08-30). Ethnic Groups of South Asia and the Pacific: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781598846607. 
  4. ^ Das, Sonia N. (2016-10-05). Linguistic Rivalries: Tamil Migrants and Anglo-Franco Conflicts. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190461799. 
  5. ^ Richardson, John Martin (2005). Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Terrorism, and Development from Sri Lanka's Civil Wars. International Center for Ethnic Studies. ISBN 9789555800945. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "Race in Sri Lanka What Genetic evidence tells us". Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Papiha, S.S.; Mastana, S.S.; Jaysekara, R. (October 1996). "Genetic Variation in Sri Lanka". 68 (5): 707–737 [709]. JSTOR 41465515. 
  9. ^ de Munck, Victor (2005). "Islamic Orthodoxy and Sufism in Sri Lanka". Anthropos: 401–414 [403]. JSTOR 40466546. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Pieris, P.E. "Ceylon and the Hollanders 1658-1796". American Ceylon Mission Press, Tellippalai Ceylon 1918
  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. ^ a b c d e f Mohan, Vasundhara (1987). Identity Crisis of Sri Lankan Muslims. Delhi: Mittal Publications. pp. 9–14,27–30,67–74,113–118. 
  14. ^ Fazal, Tanweer (2013-10-18). Minority Nationalisms in South Asia. Routledge. p. 121. ISBN 9781317966470. 
  15. ^ Pulavar, Mātakal Mayilvākan̲ap (1999). The Yalpana-vaipava-malai, Or, The History of the Kingdom of Jaffna. Asian Educational Services. p. 82. ISBN 9788120613621. 
  16. ^ Singh, Nagendra Kr; Khan, Abdul Mabud (2001). Encyclopaedia of the World Muslims: Tribes, Castes and Communities. Global Vision. ISBN 9788187746102. 
  17. ^ Holt, John (2011-04-13). The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press. p. 429. ISBN 0822349825. 
  18. ^ "A Criticism of Mr Ramanathan's "Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon" - Sri Lanka Muslims". Sri Lanka Muslims. 2017-04-21. Retrieved 2017-11-24. 
  19. ^ Zemzem, Akbar (1970). The Life and Times of Marhoom Wappichi Marikar (booklet). Colombo. 
  20. ^ "Analysis: Tamil-Muslim divide". BBC News World Edition. Retrieved 6 July 2014. 
  21. ^ Klem, Bart (2011). Islam, Politics and Violence in Eastern Sri Lanka. The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 70, No. 3. p. 737. 
  22. ^ "Population by ethnic group, census years" (PDF). Department of Census & Statistics, Sri Lanka. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  23. ^ Hussein, Asiff (2007). Sarandib: an ethnological study of the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Asiff Hussein. p. 330. ISBN 9789559726227. 
  24. ^ McGilvray, Dennis B. (2008-04-16). Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. Duke University Press. p. 77. ISBN 0822389185. 
  25. ^ a b MAHROOF, M.M.M. Impact of European-Christian Rule on the Muslims of Sri Lanka: A Socio-Historical Analysis. Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad: Islamic Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4. pp. 354, 356. 
  26. ^ MAHROOF, M.M.M. (1991). Mendicants and Troubadours: Towards a Historical Taxonomy of the Faqirs of Sri Lanka. Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad: Islamic Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4. p. 502. 
  27. ^ McGilvray, D.B (1998). "Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim ethnicity in regional perspective". Contributions to Indian Sociology. 32 (2): 433–483. doi:10.1177/006996679803200213. 
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ 216 th year commemoration today: Remembering His Holiness Bukhary Thangal Sunday Observer – January 5, 2003. Online version accessed on 2009-08-14
  30. ^ R. Cheran, Darshan Ambalavanar, Chelva Kanaganayakam (1997) History and Imagination: Tamil Culture in the Global Context. 216 pages, ISBN 978-1-894770-36-1
  31. ^ a b "Sri Lankan Muslims Are Low Caste Tamil Hindu Converts Not Arab Descendants". Colombo Telegraph. Retrieved 27 July 2014. 

Further reading[edit]