The Muslims have lived for many centuries in Jaffna, forming an integral part of Jaffna Society. The port of Jaffna and the smaller port of Kayts had ancient trade connections with the Arab and Moor traders who dominated the Indian Ocean East-West trade route between the 7th to 16th Century A.D. These ports lying near Mannar, one of the main ancient pearl fishing area, helped Jaffna gain importance with these ancient International Muslim traders.
Jaffna used to supply the ancient Arab traders with rare commodities of the time, like the chaya root (red dye). [Sir Alexander Johnston, 1827] Ancient Arab divers used to collect, dry and make a fair trade of sea slugs washed up on the shores of Mandativu island a few miles from Jaffna, which once had a great demand in China [p57, Sarandib, Asiff Hussein]
According to tradition, Muslims had settled in the Jaffna peninsula as early as the 8th Century A.D. They were those of the House of Hashim who arrived in Ceylon as refugees driven out of Arabia by Caliph Abdul Malik bin Marwan (685-705). In 1827, Sir Alexander Johnston in a presentation to the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain states a tradition that claimed that, “the division of them who came to Ceylon formed eight considerable settlements along the north-east, north, and western coasts of that Island viz one at Trincomalee, one at Jaffna, one at Mantota and Mannar, one at Coodramale, one at Puttalam, one at Colombo, one at Barbaryn, and one at Point-de-Galle…”
Muslims During Jaffna Kingdoms (1250-1619 AD)
The Jaffna kingdoms (Kingdom of Aryacakravarti) were small regional monarchies or fiefdoms that came into existence around the town of Jaffna on the Jaffna peninsula. They existed intermittently as a independent or semi independent regional kingdom in northern Sri Lanka during these centuries.
Jaffna Aryacakravarti Kingdom period records indicate Muslim traders as well as sea pirates of Mapilla (Kerala Muslims) and Moor ethnicities were in the Kingdom. [Abeysinghe, T Jaffna Under the Portuguese, p.4]
According to the earliest historiographical literature of the Kingdom of Jaffna, Vaiyaapaadal, datable to 14th-15th century CE., in verse 77 lists the Choanar (Arabs) along with Kuchchiliyar (Gujaratis) and Papparavar (Berbers specifically and Africans in general) and places them under the caste category of Pa’l’luvili who are believed to be cavalrymen of Muslim faith.
During the 12th & 13th centuries, “great Mohammedan (Muslim) merchants of Mannar and Mantotte received into the immense warehouses, the most valuable produce of the island from their subordinate agents…from those at Jaffna the chaya root or red dye…” [Sir Alexander Johnston, 1827] Red dye was a rare and extremely valuable commodity in ancient times, affordable only by royalty and the rich. The tradition of red carpet welcome ceremonies has its roots due to this rarity.
Jaffna Muslims & Portuguese Rule (1619-1658)
By the time Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the 16th Century A.D., the Jaffna peninsula seems to have had a substantial Muslim population thriving on trade. These Muslim traders, according to E B Debenham (1905) went in gangs as far as the Wanni to collect Avaram bark used locally as tannin, while the sale of the exotic sea-food Beche-de-Mer was in their hands, and following their religious, cultural and educational traditions. [p1, One Distinguished Family of Moor Street Jaffna]
Portuguese reached Sri Lanka in 1505, but Jaffna Kingdom continued for a century more, until the last Jaffna ruler was ousted and hanged by the Portuguese in 1619. But during this period there were several battles between Jaffna and Portuguese and intense Roman Catholic missionary activities taking place in Jaffna and Mannar areas which would have greatly affected the Muslim populations of these areas at the time.
Portuguese rule in Jaffna was brief lasting only a few decades from 1619 to 1658. There rule saw the population in the area decrease due to excessive taxation, as most people fled the core areas of the former Jaffna kingdom.
Jaffna Muslims During Dutch Rule (1658-1796)
Jaffna was also the last Portuguese stronghold in Sri Lanka. Malay Muslim troops are said to have taken part in the wars of the Dutch against the Portuguese in the capture of Jaffna (1658).
Father Philippus Baldaeus, a Dutch minister who visited and documented life in Jaffna in 17th century, refers to Muslims having schools in the Jaffna peninsula.
Fernao de Queyroz in his, “Conquista Temporal e Espiritual de Ceylao” (1687) refers to a mosque in Jaffna.
The current Jaffna Grand Mosque was built during the Dutch colonial period. It is said this historic mosque was built by Dutch rulers for the use of Muslims in 1713 A.D.
A Dutch census taken in 1790 CE in Jaffna records Choanakar, with 492 male adults and probably by this time generally meaning the Muslims, is found mentioned as a separate community.
During this colonial period Jaffna Muslims, like the rest of the Island, kept away from the established schools due to the fear of Christian proseletyzation.
Jaffna Muslims During British Rule (1796-1948)
British rule was more tolerent towards all communities in Sri Lanka. They adapted a more liberal economic, administrative and educational policies than their predecessors.
This was the time many Muslims in the Jaffna region began attending Christian schools and learning the English language which was necessary for day-to-day transactions. [p2, One Distinguished Family of Moor Street Jaffna] With the opening of many schools in the Jaffna peninsula, the Muslims showed interest in education by attending schools, and like the Jaffna Tamils built up a proud educational tradition. There were many Jaffna Muslim academics, poets, scholars in Tamil and Arabic, Government servants, social workers and politicians.
The proud educational tradition built up by Jaffna Muslims includes many former civil servants, educationalist, lawyers and leaders of Muslim community. Among them former Zahira Principal AMA Azeez, Supreme Court Judge Abdul Cader, Appeal Court Judge MM Jameel and Education Director Munsoor are some of the leading lights of the Jaffna Muslims. There were also Jaffna Municipal Councillors and two MMCs Basheer and Sultan had been deputy – mayors and acting mayors of Jaffna.
In 1936, the Kathi Courts were introduced in Jaffna to handle Muslim divorce cases. S.M. Aboobucker was appointed as the Kathi for Jaffna, Point Pedro and Kayts. He performed well in this position and with his extraordinary ability in reconciling the parties there were very few divorce cases.
A branch of the All Ceylon Muslim League was formed in Jaffna in 1941. Kathi S.M. Aboobucker J.P. was its first president. From 1944 to 1947 he was elected as President of the All Ceylon Muslim League thereby becoming the first Muslim outside Colombo that post. Kathi S.M. Aboobucker gave evidence at the Soulbury Commission as the Jaffna representative.
Post-Colonial Sri Lanka (1948-current)
Until the war with LTTE in 1980s, Jaffna was Sri Lanka’s second most populous city after the commercial capital of Colombo.
Jaffna Muslims in this era were leading traders in the Jaffna Peninsula and later dominated the hardware, lorry transport, jewellery, tailoring and meat trades. According to Journalist By D.B.S.Jeyaraj, at one time the Jaffna new market built by Mayor Alfred Duraiappah was virtually dominated by Muslims.
The Tamil spoken by the general Sri Lanka Moor population is not quite the same as the Tamil spoken by the Tamils of Jaffna and South India. The Moor Muslims have a peculiar Tamil dialect which is sometimes refered to by Moors as Arabu-Tamul or derogatorily referred to as ‘Sōna Tamil’ by conservative Tamil folk. But the speech of the Jaffna Muslims and other northern Moors shows a greater degree of Jaffna Tamil influence than rest of the country. Even after the expulsion, Jaffna Muslims still tend to speak their conservative Tamil speech in the areas they have settled in.
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1. One Distinguished Family of Moor Street Jaffna by Marina Ismail & Ali Azeez
2. A Criticism of Mr Ramanathan’s “Ethnology of the ‘Moors’ of Ceylon” by I L M Abdul Azeez,
4. KATHI S.M. ABOOBUCKER J.P. – Muslim Leader of Jaffna – By Ali Azeez
5. Grand Mosque in Jaffna
6. Jaffna Kingdom
7. Portuguese conquest of the Jaffna kingdom
8. KATHI S.M. ABOOBUCKER J.P. – Muslim Leader of Jaffna By Ali Azeez