Muslims in Sri Lanka – some impressions

Sri Lanka, until 1972 known as Ceylon, currently has a population of about 21 million people. With approximately 10 % of these being Muslims, Islam constitutes the third most dominant religion in the country. Muslims are mostly found in the Eastern Province, at the western coast, and in the urban centres such as Colombo and Galle.

Moors, Malays, Memons
The Muslim community  in Sri Lanka includes three main ethnic groups: i) the Moors, ii) Malays, and iii) Memons.
About 95 % of the Muslims in Sri Lanka are Moors (Hussein 2011: 1-649). The term seems to derive from the Portugese „Mauro“ meaning being of Arab or Moroccan origin. Prakrit texts from the 5th century refer to the Arab traders as Yonas (from Sanskrit Yavana, lit. Greeks). In Sinhala Moors are referred to as marakkala minisun, lit. ship-people. The Sri Lanka Moors are Shafiites and not Malikites as the Moroccans. It is important to note that the Arab traders were in Sri Lanka before Islam became a religion.The early Moors dominated the maritime trade, later established pearl fisheries and the gem trade in Sri Lanka.

About 4 % of the Muslims in Sri Lanka are Malays. „Sri Lanka’s Malays are largely descended from political exiles including nobles and chiefs, soldiers, convicts, and freed slaves from the Indonesian archipelago who were brought over to the island during the period of the Dutch occupation which lasted from 1658-1796.“ (Hussein 2011: 650). Malay Muslims hence are mostly found today at the Southern coast (particular in Hambantota District) and in Colombo, in particular in Slave Island (Colombo 2).

The Malay Military Mosque, Java Lane 2, Slave Island, Colombo.

The Malay Military Mosque, Java Lane 2, Slave Island, Colombo.

Newspaper article on „Tablighi Jama’at misleading young Malay Muslims in Sri Lanka“.

Among the Muslims in Sri Lanka are about 7.000 Memons, traders from Gujarat. Memons speak mostly Urdu today and trade mostly with India and Pakistan. The vast majority of Memons live in Colombo today. In 1956 the Memon Association of Sri Lanka (MASL) was founded in Colombo with an impressive head office on Galle Road 320/1 with an own wedding hall. Their motto is „Unity, Discipline, Service“.

Asiff Hussein and Hameed Karim (2006) authored an interesting publication introducing the main Memon families, their businesses and achievements in Sri Lanka.

Kareem Hamid Bhoja and Thomas K. Gugler.

The principal Memon Mosque in Sri Lanka is the Memon Hanafi Mosque, Third Cross Street, Pettah, Colombo:


Bohras are a subsect of Ismaili Shia Islam following Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin (Blank 2001). In Sri Lanka there are four Bohra mosques built by Shias of Indian origin. The oldest one is in Galle, one in Jaffna, one in Pettah in Colombo and the largest and latest one is this in Colombo 4. It was established in 2000 and is only accessible for Bohras.

Inside the Bohra Mosque. The second and third floor is for women, hence the white curtains.

Transnational Islam

The Tablighi Jamaat is active in Sri Lanka since the late 1950s (Gugler 2011). Since 1980 the Tablighi markaz is located in this building at Lukmanjee Square, Colombo 14. The first picture shows the mosque, the second residential housings for male travellers – just outside of the compound is another residential house for female travellers.

Tablighis recently face increased opposition from different sides. As the above cited news article „Malay saints and shrines in Sri Lanka“ indicates, Muslim activists unite to declare Tablighis a foreign Wahhabi force. In January 2012 the government of Sri Lanka ordered the first mass expulsion of Tablighi preachers, expelling 161 preachers.

Inside the Tablighi compound this is the AR Rashad Arabic College.

The most important counter-movement of the Deobandi Tablighi Jama’at is the Barelwi missionary movement Da’wat-e Islami (Gugler 2011). The Faizan-e Madinah of Dawat-e Islami in Colombo opened in 2008 on Messenger Street (Colombo 12). The Faizan-e Madina in Colombo is the single centre of Dawat-e Islami in Sri Lanka. Its amir, Mawlana Ilyas Qadiri Attar, visited Sri Lanka twice, in 1980 for a missionary journey and in 1999 to visit his sister, who was at this time living in Colombo. The ground floor is the mosque and boys madrasa, the second floor hosts the rooms in which the boys studying at the madrasa live.

The picture is taken during the weekly ijtima on Thursday evenings.

Next to the Faizan-e Madina is a shop of the Maktabat al-Madina chain seeling Dawat-e Islami publications, DVDs and devotional paraphernalia. Besides the publications from India (in Tamil) and Pakistan (in Urdu), so far 15 publications were translated in Colombo into Sinhala – these are printed locally.

Madrasat al-Madina for boys inside the Faizan-e Madina in Colombo. There are 12-15 students currently enrolled.

A 14-year old student of the Madrasat al-Madina giving dars during the weekly ijtima. The language used for this is Tamil.


Established in 1505, the Colombo Grand Mosque is the oldest mosques in Colombo and probably the largest mosque in Sri Lanka.

Wudhu khana and stairs to the main floor inside Colombo Grand Mosque.

Inside Colombo Grand Mosque. One floor can host 4,500 people. There are three floors plus a basement. On Fridays up to 20,000 Muslim men come here to pray.

Jami ul al-Far Jummah Mosque was built in 1938 in Colombo.

Inside Jami ul al-Far Jummah Mosque, Colombo.

Dargah of Shaikh Usman Walyullah and mosque, opp. Odel, Slave Island, Colombo.

Pigeons, a symbol of peace, are being fed in front of the dargah.

Shaikh Usman Walyullah Mosque.

Dua at the grave of Shaikh Usman Walyullah.

The green pieces of cloth are wishes placed by Muslims. There is a coin in every piece of cloth. Buddhists perform a parallel practice at their holy sites.


Galle – pronounced gawl in English and gaarle in Sinhala – is the main and the capital city of the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. Its port was Sri Lanka’s main port for more than 200 years, transforming Galle into a city for traders and travellers. The first specific reference for Galle was left by the Muslim traveller Masudi in the 11th century. Ibn Batuta referred to Galle as Qali when he visited the city in 1344. And the Time Magazine labelled Galle „South Asia’s Latest Boomtown“ in its edition from 3rd March 2003. Galle’s long-time librarian, Norah Roberts, authored the often-cited and highly readable history of the city, „Galle: As Quiet as Asleep“ (first published in 1993). Today about 30 % of the population in Galle are Muslims.

The older part of Galle is dominated by the Galle Fort, which was declared a World Heritage Site by the Unesco in 1988. Started by the Portugese in 1588, but mainly built by the Dutch after 1663, the Galle fort is the largest remaining fortress in Asia, making Galle the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia. Today about 50 % of the residents inside the Galle fort are Muslims.

Two mosques inside the colonial Dutch Galle Fort.

The main mosque in town is the beautiful Meera Mosque inside Dutch Galle Fort built in 1909. The very same site was a Portuguese cathedral before. The bayan is given in Tamil language.

In 1918 the Galle Muslim Cultural Association was established.Since 1965 the Galle Muslims Cultural Association is based in this building inside the Fort. The GMCA has branches in Washington and the UK. It publishes the magazine „The Young Muslim“ and organizes festivals like Mawlid to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Bahjathul Ibrahimya or Arabic College in Galle was established in 1892 and founded by Sir Mohamed Macan Markar’s mother. Until today it is managed and entirely fincanced by the Macan Markar family (Roberts 2006: 50). It was the first Arabic College in Sri Lanka that issued Mawlani certificates, qualifying the recipients to become Arabic / Islamic teachers at private or governmental colleges or become the head and kathi (qazi) of a mosque.

Class room at the Arabic college.

The Arabic college in Galle Dutch Fort teaches currently about 60 Muslims and educates them as Imams or madrasa teacher. The course takes eight years. From the seven lecturers one comes from al-Azhar and is financed by the Egyptian embassy (every three years a new graduate from al-Azhar comes here to teach). This is the house in which the students live.

Talapitiya Juma Mosque, Galle. Its an Ahl-e Sunnat mosque. Tablighis are not allowed here. The mosque is about 200 years old. It has 3 floors and hosts about 2,000 Muslim men on Fridays. There is no space for women.

Juma Qadiriya Mosque is the largest mosque in Galle and about 120 years old. Its located in Kandewatta.

Wudhu khana, Kandewatta Qadiriya Mosque.

Sufi shrine and mosque at Gintota, Galle.

Shaikh Hussain Wali Allah came from South India and died in the 19th century.

View from the sea of the Gintota shrine and mosque.

Meeran Mosque, Gintota, was built in 1904.

Gintota mosque and dargah next to the sea, Galle.

Makuluwa, dargah and mosque.

Sufi grave of a Yemeni Shaikh from the 8th century.

This mosque in Makuluwa, Galle, seems to be one of the oldest in Sri Lanka. It is said to be 1300 years old – and the walls are indeed several meters thick inside.

26-year old fashion designer Kareem converted to Islam from Buddhism two years ago „because Islam is so much more free!“

Jumah Mosque, Osanagoda, Galle.

The new „Muslim issue“: Mosque demolition movement

Buddhist-Muslim relations have mostly been peaceful, with first serious riots sparking off first in 1915. However, this conflict has also been interpreted as an economic conflict between Sinhala traders and Indian Muslims traders (Jayawardena 2003).

Three years ago, the conflict with the Tamils ended. After the „Tamil issue“ it seems now, that a „Muslim issue“ is nurtured. Since April 2012 a Buddhist leader, Ven. Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero, calls with increasing aggression for the demolition of a mosque in Dambulla (Central Province), supposedly built on sacred Buddhist ground. Hundreds of monks and thousands of lay activists support the anti-Muslim protest movement in Dambulla. Sources indicate that the President of Sri Lanka as well supports or even directed Ven. Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero to threaten the local Muslims.

In the Eastern Province, which was recently „liberated“ from the Tamils, Buddhists started under massively increased military presence to install Buddhist idols next to mosques. Buddhist monks claim they need more temples for the soldiers. This is interpreted by Muslims as provocation as neighborhoods were previously either Muslim or Buddhist and places of worship kept a respectful distance from each other.

Also the number of Sinhala anti-Muslim hate-websites has recently increased dramatically.

The Pakistan connection: Drugs & illegal immigration

Legal action however is mostly taken against Muslims with connection to Pakistan due their involvement in drug trafficking. Sri Lanka suffers from a dramatically high number of heroine victims (Dias/Farisz 2011). Heroine is usually imported to Sri Lanka from Afghanistan via Pakistani smugglers.

Opium preparation.

In January 2012 state agencies expelled 161 Muslim preachers from the Tablighi Jama’at, officially because of visa issues (BBC).


I would like to thank the Gerda Henkel Foundation for field research support and Asiff Hussein for his comments.

Further readings:

Blank, Jonah (2001): Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewaraja, Lorna (1994): The Muslims of Sri Lanka: One Thousand Years of Ethnic Harmony, 900-1915. Colombo: Lanka Islamic Foundation.

Dias, Supun / Hafeel Farisz: „Heroin and its victims“, in: Daily Mirror, 01.11.2011.

Farook, Latheef (2009): Nobody’s People: The Forgotten Plight of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. Colombo: South Asia News Agency.

Gugler, Thomas K. (2011): Mission Medina: Da’wat-e Islami und Tablighi Jama’at. Würzburg: Ergon.

Hussein, Asiff (2011): Sarandib: An Ethnological Study of the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Battaramulla: Neptune Publications.

Hussein, Asiff (2008): The Lion and the Sword: An Ethnological Study of Sri Lanka. (Vol. 2). Colombo: s.n.

Hussein, Asiff & Hameed Karim Bhoja (2006): Memons of Sri Lanka: Men, Memoirs, Milestones. Colombo: Memon Association of Sri Lanka.

Jayawardena, Kumari (2003): Ethnic and Class Conflict in Sri Lanka: The Emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist Consciousness, 1883-1983. Colombo: Sanjiva.

Roberts, Norah (2006): Galle: As Quiet as Asleep. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

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