One of the oldest physical evidence discovered to-date of Muslims in Colombo (and Sri Lanka), is this ancient gravestone from the Hijri year 337 (948 AD). It was discovered in a Colombo Muslim cemetery in 1787 AD, during the Dutch rule of Ceylon.
Here is a photo of this ancient stone on display at the National Museum in Colombo 7. Museum description says, “Sir Alexander Johnston Inscription refers to a Muslim preacher sent to Colombo by the Caliph of Bagdad. The tomb-stone is dated to Hijra year 337 (948 AD) and belongs to the preacher In Abu Bakasa (or Nakasa) showered with blessings of the God.”
It is one of the the oldest physical evidence we have for Muslims in Colombo and the second oldest for Muslims in Sri Lanka. So it is a very important link to our history. Hence, it is important to learn about it, and preserve it for our present and future generations.
Copy of Inscription Published by Royal Asiatic Society of London in 1827
Below is a fac-simile copy this inscription sent to the Royal Asiatic Society of London by Sir Alexander Johnston in 1827.
English Translation by Professor Samuel Lee in 1827
Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland
A CUFIC INSCRIPTION FOUND IN CEYLON
COMMUNICATED BY SIR ALEXANDER JOHNSTON, V.P.R.A.S.
With an English Translation by Rev. SAMUEL LEE, AM
Professor of Arabic in the University of Cambridge
“In the name of the Compassionate and Merciful God. There is no god but God. Muhammad is the prophet of God. May the Blessing and Peace of God be upon him. O God pardon, have mercy upon the and pass away from (the sins of) thy servant, the son of thy servant, Khalid Ibn Abu Bakaya (takaya or Nakaya) (who) has left the world and (who) was dependent on Thee; but Thou wast sufficient without him (who) has departed to Thee, and Thou art his best place of departure. O God, pardon his sin, and his piety may remain and grant him his last (reward) and that he may be justified. And Protect Thou and multiply favor and security to him. And may He (God) appoint our excellent prophet supreme that he may afford to us and show us the truth clearly; for he has admonished with the established word and his decision has obtained, and his resistance is (as) the depth (lake) of reproach. Amen! Lord of the Worlds!
“It was written on the second day (of the week) five nights taken out of (the month) Rajab (5th of Rajab) in the year 337 (Hijra). And in the vicinity he completed a security for religion with (other) conveniences in the year 317 (Hijra). May God Give Blessings and Peace upon his Prophet Muhammad.”
History of the Inscription’s Discovery
As written by Sir James Emerson Tennent in 1859
“There formerly stood there (Colombo) in the Mahometan Cemetry, a stone with an ancient inscription in Cufic characters, which no one could decipher, but which was said to record the virtues of a man of singular virtue, who had arrived in the island in the tenth century. About the year 1787 AD, one of the Dutch officials removed the stone to the spot where he was building, ‘and placed it where it now stands, at one of the steps to his door’. This is the account given by Sir Alexander Johnston, who, in 1827 sent a copy of the inscription to the Royal Asiatic Society of London. Gildemeister pronounces it to be written in Carmathic characters and to commemorate an Arab who died AD 848 ……. A translation of the inscription by Lee was published in Trans Roy. Asiat. Soc. Vol I page 545, from which it apepars that the deceased Khalid Ibn Abu Bakaya, distinguished himself by obtaining security for religion, with other advantages, in the year 317 of the Hejira.” [“Ceylon” Vol I p58 n]
From Sir Alexander Johnston Letter to Royal Asiatic Society of London in 1827.
In 1806, while collecting, as I have already mentioned, the various usages and customs of the Mohammedan inhabitants of Ceylon, I directed my inquiries particularly to those customs and usages which could throw any light on the history of their early settlements and former commercial prosperity on that island, and their intimate connection and constant communication with the Caliphs of Baghdad, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries; and I was referred by all the Mohammedan priests, merchants, and mariners, by whom I was assisted in my inquiries, to the Cufic inscription of which the accompanying is the facsimile, as the oldest record on the Island which alluded to the intercourse that had subsisted in former days between the Caliphs of Baghdad and the Mohammedans of Ceylon.
The following is the tradition which prevails in Ceylon as to this inscription. That it is supposed to be the most ancient Mohammedan inscription on the island. That the Caliph of Baghdad, in the beginning of the tenth century, hearing that the Mohammedans, then established as traders at Colombo, were ignorant of and inattentive to the real tenets of their religion, sent a learned and pious priest from Baghdad to Colombo, with instructions to reform the Mohammedans of that place, by explaining to them the nature of their religion, and by making such establishments and erecting such a mosque at Colombo, as were likely to ensure for the future, their strict observance of the real spirit of Mohammedan worship. That this learned and pious man, after having erected a very extensive mosque at Colombo, and accomplished the object of his mission, died, and was buried at Colombo, close to the mosque he had erected. That after his death some learned persons were sent from Baghdad to Colombo by the Caliph, for the express purpose of engraving this inscription on his tomb-stone, and that this stone had remained on his grave undisturbed for nearly eight hundred years, till the Dutch Dissawa, or collector of Colombo, about forty years ago, removed it, along with some other stones, from the Moorish burying-ground near Colombo, to the spot where he was building a house, and placed it, where it now stands, as one of the steps to his house. The English of it was made by the Rev Samuel Lee AM, professor of Arabic at Cambridge, who is so celebrated all over Europe for the profound knowledge he possesses of the Hebrew, the Arabic, and other Oriental languages.
To the Secretary of
The Royal Asiatic Society
Where Is This 1,100-Year-Old Stone Inscription Now?
According to the Sri Lanka National Museum in Colombo 7, the stone pictured in the photo is the Colombo Muslim stone inscription from 948AD. But we think it doesn’t match the copy of the stone inscription made by Sir Alexander Johnston in 1827 (shown below). We invite you to compare them and decide. Is this really the stone found in the old Colombo Muslim cemetery? If not where is it? Is it mixed up in labeling with the other Arabic stone inscriptions in the Colombo Museum? We would be glad if a reader can follow up and verify this matter.
This stone inscription is known by various names. It’s known as the, “Sir Alexander Johnston Inscription”, “Colombo Arabic Stone Inscription”, “Colombo Kufic Inscription” and “Kolaba Arabi Sellipiya”.
1. A Criticism of Mr Ramanathan’s “Ethnology of the ‘Moors’ of Ceylon”