The Muslim Moors in Sri Lanka: Commensality in the Moulding of Distinctive Being

Michael Roberts

The article by Wilfrid Jayasuriya on “The Force of the Moors” in Sri Lanka generated an ethnographic note which led to clarifications from Mohamed Mowzil and Ameer Ali.[1] They provided details about the practices followed by the Moor (Muslim) people in the course of meals termed sawan and kidu. This practice of feeding oneself from the same communal dish in the centre of a small table is especially marked on days of feast or collective recollection. In some instances, the family collective would include men and women. Where outsiders (usually bosom friends or distinguished personnel) are party to this intimate occasion, only males would participate in this practice.

Sawan and kidu therefore fall squarely within the anthropological concept of COMMENSALITY – a term which any dictionary would describe as “the practice of eating together.”

These details lead me to explore the significance of this practice in fostering “collective identity” among the Sri Lankan Muslims and deepening the subjectivities that gird their collective identity.

The concept of “collective identity” has been deployed by me from way back in the 1970s to embrace political belongings that embrace post-1789 “nationalisms” as well as pre-1789 loyalties and the reproduction of these collective subjectivities amidst latter-day nationalisms.[2] — ith 1789 marking the French Revolution and all that it meant for world history. As such, the concept also encompasses the expressions of Hindu and Muslim loyalties in violent forms during “communal conflict” in continental India[3] and the several clashes between religious groups in British Ceylon.[4]

Within Sri Lanka in British times, those whom we recall “Muslims” today were generally referred to as “Mohammedans” and/or “Moors” till a change was introduced in the 1930s.  Glance at any of the decennial census tables from 1881 onwards and you will see the term “Moors” listed within the headings for “Races in Ceylon.” This listing distinguished them from the “Malays” who were listed in a separate column and were also marked out quite clearly in the Sinhala language as ja – even though both would be embraced under one heading as marakkala when the context demanded reference to religious affiliations.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Moors were also referred to as “Mohammedans” – with the latter designation being replaced by the term “Muslims’ from the 1930s.  As such, the collective label and identity “Mohammedan” or “Muslim” carried an ethnic meaning when placed beside [or against] the categories “Sinhalese,” “Tamils,” et cetera. This legacy continues into the present day – so one must beware of falling into the trap of seeing the term “Muslim” as only braced against the Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic and Protestant collective identities. In confronting, or being confronted by, violent Sinhalese (who could be Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant)[5] the Muslims become an ethnic grouping.

Thus contextualized, let me reflect on the sawan meal as one among several practices that deepen the commitment to Muslimness within Sri Lanka among those nurtured in the island. To this practice, I conjoin the distinct Muslim funerary practices which set them apart from neighbours and friends who are not Moor Muslim. Their religious injunctions enforce burial of corpses within 24 hours. A corpse is never enclosed in a coffin, but reverentially wrapped in cloth.

Disham Shyam Careem of The Fort, Galle

Men hoist the corpse on a stretcher known as a sandaq carried shoulder height. On one occasion about 10-15 years back when I was driving down Torrington Rd in Colombo 5, I faced and drove past a phalanx of men proceeding down the road with a sandaq heading for the Jawatte Cemetery and chanting …. chanting …. chanting. These chants, in my reading, were as melodious as powerful. The impact is etched in my memory.

Thus, my experience of this funerary practice from a position outside the fold was a recognition of its distinctiveness and its potential power within those embracing the moment as a collective act of faith and identity. I suggest, here, that such a practice would promote the depth and breadth of collective being as “Sri Lankan Muslim.” So, too, do the specific practices of commensality encoded within their lifeways which served as the entry point for this article.

 Sri Lankan Muslims chant during a funeral procession October 31, 2002 a day after a Muslim was killed during clashes between Muslims and majority Sinhalese in the center of capital Colombo over the planned building of a mosque

The chanting on the way to burials, I have been informed by two Muslim friends, Mohamed Mowzil and ACL Ameer Ali, is referred to as “shahada[6] and/or “kalima.[7] It seems that this practice is now an activity buried in the past – “an innovation not practised now” in Mowzil’s words.[8] The rejection of shahada in recent times is attributed by Ameer Ali[9] to the impact of Wahhabism (generating significant questions which take us into a tributary channel that would divert one from the focus here).[10]

In brief, I am marking two of the meaningful life-ways that have set the Muslims (Moors) of Sri Lanka today – and the Mohammedans of the pre-1930s British era – apart from the other residents in the island, whether Burgher, Malay, Sinhalese, Tamil or British. These lines of historical exploration require reflexive reviews by Muslim investigators which bring in other practices that contributed to their collective identity in ways that differentiated them from other Sri Lankans.

The long history of localised clashes every now and then with Sinhala neighbours would have served as one factor in this process of community identity and political loyalty.[11] The pogrom directed against the Moors in May-June 2015 in the southwestern quadrant (including Kandy, Gamopla and Matale) would have been onset of incidents that remained sharply etched in their memories — a moment receiving recall when local clashes in the here and now occurred.

Here, now, in 2019, after some local jihadists perpetrated the 21/4 atrocities, our own lines of inquiry should  direct attention towards the manner in which the internal debates leading to the abandonment of shahada marked the powerful infusion of Wahhabi thinking[12] within the SL Muslim peoples in ways that have emphasized their links with the worldwide Islamic ummah and renders them “Sri Lankan Muslim” rather than “Muslim Sri Lankan”[13] – with the universal ummah subordinating their geographical location in Sri Lanka within the embrace and demands of the worldwide religious firmament.


ABC 2019 “Sri Lanka: Hoping for Harmony,” 23 June 2019, ………………………………………………..—hoping-for-harmony/11205798

Ameer Ali, ACL 1981 “The 1915 racial riots in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): a reappraisal of their causes,” South Asia, n. s. 4: 1-20.

Ameer Ali, ACL  2009a “The Transformation of Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka and the Growth of Wahhabism from the 1980s,” 5 May 2009,

Ameer Ali, ACL 2019b “How Extremisms have fed off Each Other in Sri Lanka, 1950s-to-2019 … and still proceeding,”  6 May 2019,

Chakravarti, Uma & Haksar, Nandita 1987 The Delhi riots, Delhi: Lancer International.

Cook, David 2006 Understanding Jihad, University of California Press.

Cook, David 2015 ‘Jihad’, ‘Martyrdom Operations’, and Mohammed Atta’s Injunction in the “last Night’, before 9/11,” 12 May 2015,

Engineer, Ashgar Ali (ed).1987 Ethnic conflict in South Asia, Delhi: Ajanta Publications.

Farasat, Warisha 2013The Forgotten Carnage of Bhagalpur,” Economic & Political Weekly 48/3,

Hassan, Riaz 2016 “ISIS and the Caliphate,” Australian Journal of Political Science,

Jayasuriya, Wilfrid 2019 “The Force of the Moors: Reflections Historical and Ethnographic,” 25 June 2019,

Kannangara, A.P. 1984 “The riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: a study of the roots of communal violence,” Past & Present,102: 130-65.

MA Nuhman, M. A. 2007 Sri Lankan Muslims: Ethnic Identity within Cultural Diversity, Colombo, ICES

Roberts, Michael (ed.) 1979 Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Sri Lanka during the Modern Era, Colombo: Marga Publications.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Meanderings in the Pathways of Collective Identity and Nationalism”, in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 1-90.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900-1940”, in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 337-60.

Roberts, Michael 1994 “The imperialism of silence under the British raj: arresting the drum,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “Mentalities, ideologues, assailants, historians and the pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81.

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Teaching lessons, removing evil: strands of moral puritanism in Sinhala nationalist practice,” South Asia, Special Issue, XIX: 205-20.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “Marakkala kolahalaya: Mentalities directing the Pogrom of 1915,” in Roberts, Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009, pp. 113-154.

Roberts, Michael 2017 “Anguish as Empowerment … and A Path to Retribution,” 22 March 2017,

Roberts, Michael 2019 “Slippages: Where ‘Muslim’ is An Ethnic Label as well as a Religious Typification,”  3 May 2018,

Roberts, Michael 2019  “”The Clash of Civilisations and Hate at the Heart of 21/4 in Sri Lanka,”14 May 2019,

Shukri, MAM 1986 Muslims of Sri Lanka, Beruwela.

Thuppahi Item:  2019 The Death Toll in Sri Lanka: Ethnicity,”  4 May 2019,

Wickremaratne. L. A. 1969 “Religion, nationalism and social change in Ceylon, 1865-1885,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 56: 123-50.


[1] Mowzil is a friend who works at the ICES, Colombo and Ameer Ali was a former colleague at Peradeniya University who now lives in Perth after a teaching stint at UWA. Both have been helpful and responded immediately to my queries. Ameer aAi also hails from the Eastern Province; so his life world experience is pertinent to the context described by Wilfrid Jayasuriya as well as the principal agents behind 21/4 in Sri Lanka.

[2] I introduced this formulation in presentations at the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya University in the early 1970s (see Roberts 1978 and 1979; also note Roberts 1978).

[3] On this complex topic, for starters see Engineer 1987; Farasat 2013; and Chakravarti & Haksar 1987. Also see my venture, “Anguish as Empowerment,” 2017.

[4] See Kannangara 1984; Ameer Ali  1981 and Roberts 2009.

[5] Albeit speculatively, I note that it is probable that the retaliatory violence unleashed on innocent Muslim people in the Negombo, Gampaha and Kurunegala localities in early May 2019 included a sprinkling of Christians.

[6] Shahada = “the testimony”… is an Islamic creed, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, declaring belief in the oneness of God (tawhid) and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s prophet. The declaration, in its shortest form, reads (right to left in Arabic):

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh

IPA: [laː ʔɪˈlaːha ˈʔɪl.lɑɫˈɫɑː mʊˈħammadʊn raˈsuːlʊlˈɫɑː]

There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God


[7] Kalima refers to “The Six Kalimas, texts to memorize to learn the fundamentals of Islam” ….

[8] Email note, 27 June 2019.

[9] Email note, 27 June 2019.

[10] This is an important field of investigation. I would like to know where precisely in Sri Lanka –whether  in the Eastern regions, south western low country, Akurana-Kandy or Puttalam localities — the rejection of shahada was initiated and who the reformers were.

[11] Speaking purely from imprecise memory, I can refer to a (a) a clash in Gampola in 1974; (b) one in the Galle area in 1981 arising from a dispute between owner and tenant; (c) one in the Katukuranda locality in the 1990s reported to me by Rohan Bastin and Chandra Vitharana; (d) several clashes in Mawanella in 1991 and subsequently in recent times; and (e) one at Beruwela about ten years back. It is important for someone to chart all these clashes –mostly localised and/or small in scale though they were (unlike the recent Alutgama and Diagana incidents).

[12] On Wahhabism see David Cook 2006 and 2015.

[13] Through this formulation I attempt to mark the nestling of the first term within the foundational second term. However, this practice is not a universally recognised convention. Even Shukry Cassim (an epitome of Sri Lankanness in my reading) told the world: “I’m not a Muslim in Sri Lanka, I’m a Sri Lankan Muslim. I was born in Sri Lanka. My mother was born in Sri Lanka. My father was born in Sri Lanka. My grandfather was born in Sri Lanka. My great-grandfather was born in Sri Lanka. So, I am as Sri Lankan as anyone is.”

AN EMAIL MEMO from Gerald Peiris, Professor of Geography, Peradeniya University, 30 June 2019:

I accessed Internet on the subject of ‘Islamic Burial Rites’ and found so many writings that appear authoritative, as for instance the one in the following blog:

I read two of the more promising ones and browsed several others. What all these make clear is the prevalence of an all-Islamic similarity in the basics, and minor variations at ‘regional’ and/or community levels. Equality cutting across racial, sectarian, and socio-economic differentiations is prescribed. But in this as well as in other human affairs, some are more equal than others.

Since my home at Primrose Road is surrounded by ‘upper-middle class’ Muslim houses, I have seen quite a few of these rites over the past 37 years. In almost all cases, there were large numbers of visitors, many arriving in private vehicles. What appears to be emphasized is that, although there is personal (but well concealed) grief, there is also a display of contentment probably based on the belief that the dearly beloved is returning to Allah.

I am a bit surprised at your mentioning that you found (many years ago) the chanting during the funeral procession on its way to the burial ground to be quite impressive (that might not have been your exact word). Here in my neighbourhood [in Kandy], what is seen and heard to be typical is a rumble of what sounds like prayers in Arabic.

The only person I could ask about these things is [a professional Muslim man nearby – a person who has worked in England and West Asia] and one of the friendliest of men. He says that there has been absolutely no influence of Wahhabism on these traditions.

But he could himself well be inclined towards non-violent forms of Wahhabism. His entire family is from Kattankudy. More importantly, his wife (a charming lady) was conducting over several years what people in the area referred to as a ‘Madraasa‘, located in a large Muslim house along the lane that branches off from Primrose road, to which many Muslim children were being brought. When I once asked him about what is happening, he said that these children are brought there to learn Arabic so that they could get good jobs in the Middle East. A reasonable explanation. That institution has been closed down — but at least from about a year before 4/21 Wahhabist explosion.

Amen, ….. Gerry


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Filed under communal relations, cultural transmission, ethnicity, historical interpretation, Islamic fundamentalism, life stories, politIcal discourse, religiosity, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, Uncategorized

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