Slippages: Where “Muslim” is an Ethnic Label as Well as a Religious Typification

Michael Roberts

From Waleel Aly to Greg Sheridan and Brendan O’Neill[1] the foreign writers who have ventured to comment on the recent Islamic jihadist attacks in Sri Lanka have invariably considered the category “Muslim” to be a religious identity. This is not completely erroneous. But this reading obscures the fact that the term is also an ethnic concept when placed in juxtaposition with the terms Sinhalese (Sinhala) and Tamils. Within the island one must attend carefully to the context of usage. Not surprisingly, these foreign reporters are unaware of these nuances.

A Moor gentleman -as depicted in Wright’s Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon 1905

Those whom we refer today in Sri Lankan English as “Muslim” were described till about the 1930s as “Mohammedan” and/or “Moor.” The term “Moors’’ was a racial category rendering them different from the term “Malay” – so that the Malays were a separate category under “RACE” in the 1921 census and counted as distinct from the Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Europeans, Burghers & Eurasians, Veddas and “Others.”[2] This differentiation is enshrined in the Sinhala speech insofar as Malays are identified as ja, javun or javo; while the Moors are described as yon or marakkala or thambiyo.

There is a looseness and some slippage however — because marakkala and thambi can also refers to “Mohammedans” and/or “Muslims” (and therefore could conceivably embrace most Malays?). In the pas , moreover, the Mohammedans (Moors) were, in their turn, differentiated into “Ceylon Moors” and “Indian Moors” — with the former attributing themselves with Arab descent rather than Indian descent.

This picture is further complicated by the presence in the island, and particularly in Colombo, of small trading and business communities from India who adhere to strands of the Mohammedan or Muslim faith: namely, the Borahs, Memons, Sindhis – communities that are not from the Sunni side of the Islamic religious order. They are only about 0.4 per cent of the total populace listed as Muslim, but include many rich capitalists and members of the haute bourgoeisie in Colombo.

Therefore, “Mohammedan” (or Muslim) takes its meaning from its context of usage. In juxtaposition with the categories Burgher, Sinhalese, Tamil, Malay, it is an ethnic label. Where aligned in distinction from Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, it is a religious category. It therefore carries a duality of meaning. This dual-sidedness is accentuated by the Sinhala usage. The Sinhala word, marakkala (Moor), is often used to refer to Mohammedans as well. Though there is ambiguity on this point, marakkala does not, unlike the English word “Mohammedan” (Muslim), usually encompass the (Malays).

Indeed, the more erudite Sinhala word for Moors was yon (yona and yonaka) in distinction from javun, javo, ja. Thus, Piyadasa Sirisena, the Sinhala activist and polemicist, directed his chauvinist diatribes in both literary novels and newspaper spats at the yon.[3] I am reliably informed that this label is no longer widespread insofar as the English word “Muslim” has been incorporated into Sinhala-speech as a group-marker. When Sinhalese today wish to be caustic and derogatory, the term they deploy is likely to be hambaya or hambayo (plural) – a word that has a long history.[4]

Another appellation that was in use in the past was thambi and thambiya – with the plural being thambiyo or thambiyas. The inflection “ya” and its context of usage can render this word too into a disparaging epithet.

Given such dualities, and the ambiguities attached to the everyday usage of such terms, it is not surprising that one finds the terms “Moor” and “Mohammedan” being used interchangeably in the official British literature, sometimes in the same document.[5] Indeed, it is probably because of such ambiguity, and because the category Mohammedan is both an ethnic and a religious label, that the term “community” has become such an important part of the English vocabulary in Asia.

If one visits the Census of Ceylon 1921 one will find one section devoted to the “Races.” These groups are identified as Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Europeans, Burghers & Eurasians, Malays, Veddas, and Others. The Moors in their turn were subdivided into “Ceylon Moors” and “Indian Moors.” The 1963 Census seems to have been the last enumeration which sustained this internal differentiation: recording 55,400 Indian Moors or 0.52% of the total island population.[6]

The census work seems to be cast in archaic stone because even to this day the enumeration does not adhere to local argot (in the practice of using “Muslim” as an ethnic label); but “describes  the ethnic groups as follows: Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamil, Indian Tamil, Sri Lanka Moor, Burgher, Malay, others” (email note from KK de Silva – see below). However, it is likely that the enumerators on the ground sorted this out in pragmatic ways and converted answers that said “muslim” or “marakkala” into the box “Moors.” We require someone to talk to these enemrator and pofficials in the Ceenssu Department to calrify matters on this point.

APPENDIX: Ethnographic Data via Inquiry sent to Email Contacts

Please comment and Correct me if I err:

A = I notice that reportage abroad –but also maybe in Sri Lanka – treats the term “Muslims’ as a religious category. But in my view the term is often an ethnic concept when placed in juxtaposition with Sinhalese (Sinhala) and Tamils. Correct?

B = in this regard clearly we must look at Sinhala usage” where I believe the term marakkala  or yon [or “Mulsim’ inserted into Sinhala talk] is an ethnic term in the sense jaatiya or daya or janavargaya.



Vinod Moonesinghe, 1 May 2019

Correct. It is analogous to the term “Jews”. Like the Jewish people in medieval times, Sinhalese or Tamil people may become Muslim by religious conversion, most often cemented by marriage. In the Kandyan kingdom, Muslims were traders and money lenders. According to Davy, they were considered to belong to the Karawa caste, who also traded.

They are distinct from other Muslim ethnic groups, such as Malays, Bhoras or Memons.

Merchants were known as “hambankarayo”, derived from “hambaankarayo” (a “hambaan” being a country craft, from “sampan”) and the term is also used in the Kandyan provinces for peddlers.  Muslims being traders, they were also identified thus, and they came to be known as hambayo”. Initially the term may have been used for coast Muslims as distinct from marakkala (“Moor”) for Ceylon Muslims,

Marakkala is rarely used today, the Muslims preferring to be known as “muslim”. The preferred colloquial term among the Sinhalese is “thambi”, originally a term of respect, but now derogatory.

Hassina Leelarathna, 1 May 2019

I was not aware that Malays were referred to as marakkala (other than in error).  Wouldn’t go down well with many Malays — at least the older generations.

To let you into a community secret — there’s a derogatory Malay word for Moors: killin (pronounced kill-inn not killing). There’s also some reverse slippage with Moors being referred to as Hambaya, which, as you might know, originally referred to Hambantota Malays, used now for all Malays (also derogatory).

There’s also some reverse slippage with Moors being referred to as Hambaya, which, as you might know, originally referred to Hambantota Malays, used now for all Malays (also derogatory).

Correct. It is analogous to the term “Jews”. Like the Jewish people in medieval times, Sinhalese or Tamil people may become Muslim by religious conversion,

Gerald Peiris, 1 May 2019


My understanding is that all adherents of Islam (the religion) are correctly referred to as Muslims.

I also understand that religion is one of the main ‘markers’ of ethnicity. That is to say, an ‘ethnic group’ is identified by its distinctiveness in religion, or language (usually the ‘mother tongue’), or caste, or tribe or even the geographical area (‘region’) of origin/habitat or a mix of any of these markers.

The term yon or yonaka is hardly ever in use now – but some of the older writers of fiction in Sinhala like Piyadasa Sirisena and W. A. de Silva used them as a designation for all Muslims or more specifically Muslims from Afghanistan. ‘Thambi’, (despite its meaning ‘younger brother’ in Thamil, is also in also use as a reference to Muslims. ‘Hambayo’ is a derogatory term used by our jackals to refer to Muslims.

I and several others like me use terms like Sinhala and Thamil in our references to language, and ‘Sinhalese’ and ‘Tamil’ to refer to the ethnic group, which, I believe, is the correct usage.

Regards, Gerry

Sunil Vijaya, 1 April 2019

first and foremost, learn to write plain simple English!  I learnt this in that great country called Canada. you don’t need to write legal English to request an explanation!  sometimes when people write English first u need to decipher the words and then u need to decipher what they mean!

A. Yes, you are correct. the term islamist is more appropriate eq. burgher = muslim. – a collective term.

B, yona was used in ancient times – anu kings had jews UDEV and arabs YONAS in the cabinet.  maybe marakkala like hambayas is a derogatory term stemmed out of disliking.

the word JATIYA has been commonize now in sri lanka to identify all us sinhela(?) or sri lankan – hela people (?) which encompass sinhala, tamil, muslim, burgher.

those days it was sinhala jaathiyer – demala jaathiyer. now there is new twist.  well i think its time to de-tribalise sri lanka! and think sri lankan and act sri lankan.

I am no scholar not an expert on this.

KK De Silva, an Aloysian mate from yesteryear, 1 May 2019

Prof. Michael

A – During our school days, the word used to denote Sri Lankans who followed the Islam religion was ‘Moor’. If I am not mistaken, the word “Moor’ was used even in reporting statistics by the Dept. of Census and Statistics. However, there were others who followed the Islam religion like the Malays. The Malays were not called Moors but I believe both groups were classified as Muslims.

B – During our school days, ‘marakkala’ was the word used in Sinhala for Sri Lankans who followed the Islam religion. The word ‘yonaka’ was also used in Sinhala to describe this category. The Malays were not called ‘marakkala’ but I think the word ‘ja’ was used in Sinhala to describe them.

In addition, there were others like the Borah community, the Afghan (money lending) community, Parsi community etc who followed the Islam religion

You are right.



PS Prof. Michael, …. I checked up the Dept of Census and Statistics website and found that they do not use the word Muslim, but describe the ethnic groups as follows: Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamil, Indian Tamil, Sri Lanka Moor, Burgher, Malay, others.

Vasantha Premaratne, 1 May 2019

Dear Professor,

Personally I think Muslim is essentially an ethno-religious category. As far as I know three aren’t Muslim Christians, Muslim Hindus etc. This is different when it comes to Malays I guess?

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, 2 May 2019

You are right the term “Muslim” is an ethnic category as “Moors” is. In Tamil “Islam” or “Islamiyar” is the religious term. Islamiyar means persons
belonging to the Islamic faith.




This compendium was written without reference to two books in my possession which are, clearly, vital instruments which I will be proceeding to consult over the next month.

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

MAM Shukri: Muslims of Sri Lanka, Beruwela, 1986


[1]  Sheridan’s Concise Overview of Security Failures and the Islamic Extremist Threat in Sri Lanka … and This World,” 29 April 2019, … & Brendan “O’Neill, “Double Standards among Liberals in the West: No RAGE from Sri Lankan Horrors in Contrast with Reaction to Christchurch,” 29 April 2019,

[2] See Report on the Census of Ceylon, 1921 Vol I—Part I, pp 191-232.

[3] On this dimension, see the details in Roberts et al, People Inbetween, Colombo, Sarvodaya Publications, 1989, pp. 10-14, 17-19.

[4] As Vinod Mooneisnghe notes, the term seems to originate from the trading activity of the Muslim in-migrants and derives from the Cantonese term sampan which described the type of boats utilized by the Malays and some Moor traders.

[5] See FG Tyrell, “Memo on Disturbances in Gampola,” 12 July 1907, DNA, 83/1373. For the context and details of the 1915 anti-Moor pogrom see Roberts, “Marakkala kolahalaya: Mentalities directing the Pogrom of 1915,” in Roberts, Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2009, pp. 113-154.

[6] See


Filed under communal relations, disparagement, ethnicity, heritage, landscape wondrous, life stories, Muslims in Lanka, politIcal discourse, riots and pogroms, sri lankan society, unusual people, world events & processes

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