Islam and learning among Malays

By B. A. Hussainmiya
Malays in Sri Lanka Series Part 4


Baba Zain Jurangpati, a Malay alim from Kandy, and his family, c.1900.
A Sri Lankan Moor gentleman, Hon. M.C. Abdul Rahman.
The Sri Lankan Malays are among the strongest adherents of Islam on an island where a 70% of the population are Buddhists while others follow Hinduism and Christianity. Unlike the South African Malays who underwent religious crisis during 18th and 19th centuries as a result of settling in a remote part of the world where Islam was hardly known, the Sri Lankan Malays, lived among a strong Muslim community in the island -the Moors - whose ancestry dates back to the early days of Islam.

The Muslim Moors, an ubiquitous minority of nearly 8% of the current population in the island numbering more than one and half million people, have lived throughout the island with major concentration is in the Eastern province.
The Moors are mainly the offspring of Arab and South Indian Muslims who speak Tamil as their mother tongue. The Portuguese who first met the dark Muslim 'Mouros' of Mauritania in the African coast in the early sixteenth century, applied the term pejoratively to other Eastern Muslims, including the Moros of the Phillippines.

The Arab and Persian ancestors of the Moors had dominated the entire maritime route from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to Canton in China. Many of them married into local communities forming settlements in the port cities of Malabar and Mabar Coasts in the southern India. Their descendants moved to Sri Lanka virtually dominating the island trade. Seeking commercial prosperity, the Sinhalese kings offered them settlement privileges.
A tenth century Arabic Text, Ajaib al Hind, (Marvel of India) composed by Ibn Shahriyar, says that the Sinhalese King Aggabodhi III sent a fact finding mission to Arabia during the time of the Prophet to know more about his teachings. After hazardous ocean travel, the delegation reached Arabia only during the reign of Caliph Omar (654-664). The Arabs had been attracted to the resplendent island, known as Serandib or Seilan, well-known for its gem-riches and serenity. Another major attraction was the Adam's Peak where Prophet Adam is believed to have set foot as attested in medieval Arabic writings. The renowned Muslim traveller Ibn Batuta who visited Sri Lanka in the 14th century to see the Adam's Peak, lists other Muslim visitors from the 10th century. Such was the esteem in which Sri Lanka was held among the Arab West and through them in the Malay East.

The presence of Moor - Muslims in large numbers certainly proved a great boon to the newly arrived Malays. More importantly, the island was also a centre of Islamic learning where celebrated religious teachers and Islamic mystics attracted traders and intellectuals. For instance, Shaikh Nuruddin ar Raniri, the Gujerati scholar who founded Malay-Islam in the court of Alauddin Ri'ayat Shah of Aceh in the island of Sumatra in the 17th century perfected his knowledge of Islam during his sojourn in Sri Lanka as attested by the text Tuhfah-e-Serandib, (Ar. Key to Serandib). Various Javanese chronicles make references to Islamic activities in Sri Lanka. Professor M. C. Ricklefs, leading expert on Javanese history, points out that the Javanese exiles who learnt Islam in Sri Lanka carried high esteem in their own country. For example, Radin Adipati Natakusuma, the Javanese chief minister who was banished to Ceylon in 1743, after his return to Java in 1768 was made chief of Islamic officials in the court of Jogyakarta. Likewise, Pengeran Wirakusuma, born in Sri Lanka to a leading Javanese noble and acquired Islamic knowledge in the island, became the leader of another Islamic group in 1781 and then the religious advisor at the Jogyakarata court.

Babad Mangkubumi, the famous Javanese chronicle mentions that in the 18th century the Javanese exiles became spiritual pupils to two Ceylonese Muslim Sufi masters namely Sayyid Musa Ngidrus, and Ibrahim Asmara. It further narrates the experience of the wife of Pengeran Natakusuma describing her husband's religious experiences in Ceylon. She told King Pakubuwana III that the royal exiles, became the students of the above Sufi masters, "whose magical powers achieved wonderous things." As the story goes, at the great recitations of the Quran each Friday, Javanese fruits and delicacies were "magically transported to Sri Lanka". She also related how the merchants and ship-captains from such far away places as Surat, Bengal, and Selangor sat at the feet of these teachers in Colombo.

Despite the legendary overtones of these tales, the Dutch records testify that such religious gatherings did take place in Sri Lanka albeit banned by the Dutch government who feared the power of Islam. They tried to prevent the gatherings in their maritime territories by imposing severe punishment on those involved - the [Muslim]'yogis' and 'heathen mendicants'- by chaining them for life.

Indeed the recent discovery of Malay manuscripts in Sri Lanka shows the existence of dozens of significant Islamic/Malay Kitabs, scriptures and works of Islamic jurisprudence. These include the famous works of Sirat al Mustaqim and Bustan As Salatin, by Syaikh Nuruddin ar-Raniri and other well-known Malay-Islamic writers such as Samad al- Palembani, Shamusuddin al-Pasai, Dawud al-Pattani and so on. The local Malays also avidly read Islamic epics such as Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah and Hikayat Amir Hamza. Some rare Malay-Islamic texts, some written by the local Malays Ulamas found only in Sri Lanka. Almost certainly some of these texts did form part of the library belonging to Javanese-Malay royal exiles from the 17th century.

The Malays, patronised by the British, built their own mosques in the military cantonments of Colombo, Kandy, Badulla, Kurunegalle, and Hambantota so that they could conduct their sermons in their own language. However, they could also congregate in mosques in the Moor areas. Occasionally there had been disputes among the congregations about belongingness to mosques of certain social groups.

The strength of Islamic practices among the community has contributed at times to an exaggerated claim that most saints, (Walis) in Sri Lanka have hailed from the Malay community. Particularly famous are the tombs of Saint Tuan Bagus Balangkaya buried at the Colombo grand mosque and Pengiran Adipati at the Kehelwatte Peer Saibo mosque in Colombo. Tombs of Malay saints abound in other Malay localities in the island as well. Whatever the case may be, it remains the fact that the strength of Malay Islam in Sri Lanka has been reinforced by their co-religionists, the majority Tamil-speaking Moors, who shared their resources, mosques and religious texts with their Malay brethren.
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