Muslim identity and caste

by Izeth Hussain

One of the most important matters to be cleared up in promoting Muslim-Tamil relations is that of Muslim identity in relation to the Tamil caste system. Among the most prominent of the Tamil attacks set off by my four-part article on Tamil racism and 13 A have been the ones by Paul: he has been inveighing, week after week in response to my articles as well as other articles, against the Sri Lankan Muslims for denying that they are largely Tamil converts to Islam who married low-caste Tamils. He has kept reiterating "low caste Tamils" like hammer blows in practically every verbose response of his. He has also been ridiculing Muslims for claiming to be Arabs despite the fact that the Arabs hold them in contempt. His racist hatred was shown some time ago when he wrote that the Muslims were multiplying "like rats".

The notion that the Sri Lankan Muslims are really Tamils was first given classic expression by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan in the late nineteenth century. He was quickly identified by the Muslims as anti-Muslim, and certainly some things he wrote give that impression. More than one Muslim has told me in recent times that he had either said or written that to educate one Muslim would be the equivalent of killing one Tamil. Taking count of some things recently publicized by Rajan Hoole I would say – using today’s terminology – that Sir PR was a reactionary casteist racist, while not discounting his many very positive achievements. Our Paul therefore has a very distinguished pedigree, and evidently represents an enduring strand of very negative Tamil perceptions about the Muslims. In this article I want to point out that those very negative Tamil perceptions are based on utterly silly misconceptions. I feel confident that my arguments in this brief article will eventually lead to the removal of a thoroughly irrational irritant in Muslim-Tamil relations.

The first point I want to make is that the SL Muslims are on average lighter in colour than the Tamils and the Sinhalese. My late friend Nissanka Wijeratne, Cabinet Minister and Ambassador, used to hold that the SL Muslims had a substantial proportion of Arab blood in them, the truth of which could be demonstrated by a simple experiment: go to any queue in Colombo and isolate the fairer ones and it will be found that most of them are Muslims. I would agree with that, and so certainly would most unprejudiced observers. I must now make some parenthetical clarifications before proceeding further. When we talk of SL Muslims we mostly mean the Moors – I am one of them. In addition there are the Malays, the Borahs, and the Memons, all of whom are lighter in colour than the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The second clarification is that we are here talking of averages: there are many Tamils and Sinhalese who are pale in colour or very fair, but on average they are darker than the Muslims. My third clarification is that to say that one ethnic group is fairer than another does not mean that a claim to racial superiority is being made. It is purported to be a factual statement which carries no value judgments with it at all.

What is the explanation for the colour difference to which I am pointing? It is known that Arab traders were coming to this island even from pre-Islamic times, and it is also known that they did not bring their females along with them, so that evidently they intermarried with local females, some with the Sinhalese in the hill country and elsewhere, and more with the Tamils in the maritime areas. It seems to be a reasonable hypothesis that after an initial Muslim nucleus was formed in this island, its members tended to intermarry within that nucleus, and that could be the reason for their persisting lighter colour. There were of course the Tamil Muslims who migrated to this island from South India. Presumably they intermarried with the Muslims who were already established here. I am writing this article at a commonsensical level not a scholarly one and I now therefore pose a commonsensical question. If all these Muslims are really Tamils, why is it that the Tamils themselves call these Muslims not "Tamils" but "Sonakars"? I pose another commonsensical question also. If the vast majority of the SL Muslims were Tamils who came from South India, why did the indigenous Muslims call Muslim immigrants from South India "Coast Moors"? That was the practice until recent decades.

It seems evident that the SL Muslims have been constituted by three different races: Arab, Tamil, and Sinhalese, with the Arab component not insubstantial if we are to go by the criterion of color. But I think that the question of Muslim racial origin is not of the slightest importance. I have considered it here only because it has apparently loomed large in Tamil consciousness from the time of Ramanathan. What is important is ethnicity, a matter of nurture and not nature, of culture and not genes. The fact that Muslims follow Islam makes them thoroughly distinct from the Tamils. I will cite just one example to show the importance of ethnicity over race. Bengali Hindus and Muslims share the same language and are of the same race, but the difference of religion – one of the factors constituting ethnicity – made Bengal one of the worst sites of rioting during the Partition. The truth is that because of differing ethnicity the Muslims and the Tamils have very little in common. That fact should not be obscured by nonsense about Muslims being Tamil.

I come now to the charge that the SL Muslims are the product of Tamil converts to Islam marrying low caste Tamils – a notion that clearly makes the Tamil Islamophobes ecstatic. That is quite likely because in Sri Lanka there seem to be no high caste Tamils. According to the Hindu Varna system the highest of the SL Tamils, the Vellalas, are Sudras, the lowest of the castes. I hope no Tamil takes umbrage over what I am saying here – I am merely applying the Hindu Varna system to the SL Tamil caste system However I believe that all that is really of no importance at all. What is important is that when someone outside the caste system marries a person of low caste, he is not lowering himself into the caste system but is taking that person outside the caste system. He should be seen as a liberator. That would certainly be true when a Muslim marries a low caste person because Islam places a high value on equality and unity, and according to the Koran human beings are the Vice-regents of God on earth.

It appears from material appearing in the Colombo Telegraph that Tamils have serious misconceptions about the Muslims, misconceptions that can bedevil Muslim-Tamil relations to a serious extent. I can attest that we Muslims never had any serious identity problem. We were aware of the Ramanathan thesis that we were really Tamils, but that caused more amusement than rage, and it certainly did not lead to an identity problem. I believe that the reason is that we Muslims had an instinctive grasp of the importance of the factor of ethnicity which made us very different from the Tamils. The idea that our ancestors could have married low caste Tamils never figured in our consciousness. If that had been brought to our notice as a fact, we would have given it no importance because the notion that some human beings are born inferior and have to occupy inferior stations throughout their lives is totally alien to the Islamic mind, something too ridiculous to be taken seriously. I think it is time to stop blabbering inanely about the identity or commonality of the Tamil speaking peoples. It is time to acknowledge the differences between us and deal with them in a spirit of pragmatic accommodation.

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