Religious tolerance: The urgent need of the hour?

Friday, 12 April 2013 02:09 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Kasun Adikari

“We have still not got over the shock of the traumatic events of last July. It was a tragedy that we failed to avert. It was a tragedy that did the country no good. The duty, an inescapable duty, to the country is to see that another disaster of that nature never overtakes our people.” – S. D. Bandaranayake, reported in the Sunday Observer on 30 October 1983.

The local as well as international media is replete with accounts of ethnic and religious tension in Sri Lanka as there is a rapid increase in religious uprisings against our fellow citizens, the Muslims, countrywide. This is not a purely Muslim issue, but a national issue aimed at subverting the unity and dignity of our country. This is a challenge to the nation.

It’s telling that this is hardly the time for unnecessary ethnic posturing when there are other urgent issues in the country crying for our concern and attention. The purpose of this article is to recall some rich memories on the harmonious relationship between the Sinhalese and Muslims, a relationship which continued for more than thousand years.

The bond

The following words of Dr. Lorna Dewaraja, a prominent authority on the history of Sri Lanka, best explains the close bond of friendship and understanding between the Sinhalese and Muslims: “Historians have traditionally been attracted by wars and rebellions whereas the peaceful co- existence of groups of people over long periods tends to be overlooked… In the history of Sri Lanka few are aware of the harmonious relationship which had developed between the Sinhalese and the Muslims and that both have lived together peacefully for over a thousand years. Perhaps because it was such a peaceful relationship, it has passed unnoticed by the historian.”

The Muslims are peace-loving people. They have lived as a law-abiding people, for centuries, with the Sinhalese. They have not only lived among the Sinhalese but also with the Sinhalese. The Muslims have never called for the division of Sri Lanka. On the contrary, they have opposed division and stood by the Sinhalese. The close relationship has yielded mutual benefits for both communities. This relationship is now being put to the test.

History of Muslims of Sri Lanka1

“Sri Lanka, from its ethnic singularity in pre-Vijayan times, with her autochthonous people, the Vaeddhas, became multi-ethnic with the arrival of Sinhala Aryans and Tamil Dravidians from the North and South of India respectively. With the revelation of Quran and the spread of Islam, Sri Lanka could not remain uninfluenced and Arab settlements which had already emerged around the Island with trade and goodwill.” [‘History of Ceylon’ Sir Emerson Tennent, Lond. Longmans (1889)]

“Long before the days of the Prophet, the Arabs had made settlements along the trade routes between the Red Sea and China. In the 8th century, they were sufficiently numerous in South China to sack Canton. In the 9th century, there were small communities of Mohammadan merchants in several ports on the route to China. Hence, Sri Lanka was not unknown to the pre- Islamic Arabs prior to the 6th century A. D.” [‘A History of South East Asia’ D.G.E. Hall, Macmillan ed.3 (1970)]

It is a historically proven fact that the Arabs were here, well and truly settled down, even long before the advent of Islam. This is evidenced by the excavation of Arabic coins, ceramic storage jars known as “Sassanian Islamic” in ancient cities like Anuradhpaura under the UNESCO Cultural Triangle Project.

The first mention of Arabs in Ceylon appears to be in the Mahavansa (Ancient Sri Lankan history) account of the reign of the King Pandukabhaya, where it is stated that this king set apart land for the Yonas (Muslims) at Anuradhapura. It is estimated that the Arabs had settled in Sri Lanka and Sumatra by the 1st century A.D.2

Until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 the Muslims who were mainly Arabs were in complete control of both the external and internal trade of the country. Their influence in the economy of the country is borne by the fact that a Sri Lankan trade delegation was sent by Bhuveneka Bahu I (1273 - 1284 A.D.) to Egypt and it was led by Al-Haj Abu Uduman.

It is interesting to note that the Arab traders never ventured into war with the local rulers or colonisation of the land like the Portuguese, Dutch, and British did. They never had any desire of the exploitation and commercialisation of the local people and their land and only concentrated on trading and business in an open, honest, just, and fair manner. The Sinhalese Kings considered the Muslim settlements favourably. The reason was that the Muslim traders were economically and politically an asset to the Sri Lankan king.

Right through from the Anuradhapura period to Kandyan times there was a Muslim lobby operating in the Sri Lankan court. It advised the king on overseas trade policy. They also kept the king informed of developments abroad. The Muslim trader with his navigational skills and overseas contacts became the secret channel of communication between the court and the outside world.3 Muslims had already established their credibility as highly disciplined and honest tradesmen. Some of them were skilled Unani medical men. These Unani physicians were given a warm welcome in the Kandyan court and several of them established medical practice in places like Kandy, Mawanella, Matale, Akurana and Kurunegala.

Contribution to the motherland

The Muslims introduced to the island and practiced various skills specially those which were lacking in the country. It follows that the Muslims played a significant role in the foreign relations of Sri Lanka. High ranking Muslims were selected for important foreign assignments because they had sea-faring habits, international links, linguistic ability and they were well equipped with “smooth talk,” all of which were valuable attributes and made them particularly adept at diplomacy. It was seen that such ambassadorial duties had been traditionally assigned to Muslims by the Sinhala kings as far back as 1283.

The Muslims also proved to be useful and efficient warriors who fought on the side of the Sinhala kings. From the very beginning Muslims served in the armies of Sinhala kings and rose to very high military position. They fought for the Sitavaka, Kotte and Kandyan kings. They formed a sizeable component of the Kandyan king’s standing army throughout the existence of the kingdom.

Dewaraja says that when the Portuguese first appeared off the shores of Sri Lanka, the Muslims warned the king, sangha, nobles and the people of the potential threat to the country’s sovereignty. When the Portuguese tried to gain a foothold in Colombo, the Muslims provided firearms, fought side by side with the Sinhalese and even used their influence with South Indian powers to get military assistance to Sinhalese rulers. Through the intervention of the Muslims, the Zamorin of Calicut sent three distinguished Moors of Cochin with forces to help Mayadunne.

The Muslims of the Kandyan kingdom served the king in several ways and many of these services were of a confidential and honourable nature. History reveals that in 1762, when John Pybus, the Englishman travelled for 13 days from Trincomalee to Ganoruwa, the authorised representative of the king who attended on Pybus was a Muslim. The king was so pleased with his performance and was showered with gifts of gold.

A copper plate land grant dated 1765 found at the British Museum reveals the fact that Kirti Sri Rajasinha had sent his favourite Muslim physician, Gopala Mudaliyar to Pondicherry soliciting French assistance against the Dutch when the armies of the latter had occupied Kandy. The same document refers to an earlier mission when the same envoy was went to the Netherlands, showing the trust and confidence which the Kandyan kings placed on their Muslim subjects.

A much more responsible task within the palace in which Muslims were employed was the multange or royal kitchen. Employment in the royal kitchen was restricted to extremely trustworthy and reliable servants, since the king’s life depended on them. Quite apart from the fact that the Kandyan kings would have relished Muslim dishes, it is seen that the Muslims were considered very loyal supporters of the crown.

Although it is generally believed that the Muslims are versed only in the arts of trade and commerce it is apparent that there were other areas in which they excelled, one of which was medicine. Certain Sri Lankan Muslim families had distinguished physicians among their members, who rose to pre-eminence in the profession. The popularity of the Unani system is proved by the fact that Sinhala kings welcomed the Muslims and endowed them with grants of land.

From the foregoing analysis it is clear that the Muslims were a versatile group of people, who had mastered a variety of skills and served the country in many different ways.

Sila, Samadhi and Panna

The three basic principles of the Buddha’s teachings are Sila, Samadhi, Panna. Sila is the development of morality. Samadhi is concentration or introspection of the mind in order to understand the nature of the mind and how to control it and how to develop it

and how to make use of it. Panna is wisdom or enlightenment: the realisation of the real

nature of the life and the universe. The whole teaching of the Buddha is based on these

three pillars.

Buddhist morality, explained by the Buddha is not changeable for the advantage of men’s selfish desire. A person who strictly interprets authentic Buddhist texts, such as the Tripitaka, will not find any excuses to resort to violence. The Buddha preached compassion and wisdom and every sutra, when interpreted strictly, should lead one to follow the non-violent noble eightfold path. Since a lay disciple also follows the five precepts, such a person refrains from activities that cause harm to others.


From the above analysis it is evident that Sri Lanka has had a long history of religious and cultural co-existence and Muslims have always been loyal to the country. That is a great quality in the people who profess Islam. They have always shown loyalty and patriotism to the country.

There is no reason for religionists to hate one another and to harbour jealousy. Other religionists are also working for peace and are guiding the public to be better citizens. The educated and understanding fellow religionists will always respect the other man’s religious beliefs and practices and introduce the moderate way of life amongst their followers and advise them not to go to extremes. They also condemned brutality and devastation committed by people of the same religion.

Accordingly, unnecessary hostility and the vicious attacks on the Muslim community need to be checked before it grows into a surge. Religious intolerance must be avoided, otherwise the future generation will curse those who have destroyed such invaluable human treasure.


1 The writer is thankful to Dr. C. R. De Silva and Dr. Lorna Dewaraja for their scholarly research contributions on the subject.

2 ‘History of Ceylon- The Portuguese and Dutch Periods’ (1505-1796), Fr. S.G. Perera, Colombo (1955), Vol. 1. p 16

3 ‘The Muslims of Sri Lanka: 1000 years of ethnic harmony 900-1915 AD’ Dr Lorna, Colombo (1994)