By : Mohammed Jehan Khan
The ethnicity and genealogy of South Asian Muslim is a complex matter. Since South Asia and it’s riches seduced travellers and invaders around the world, specially Muslims from West Asia, the Muslim population here is a great mixture of different ethnic group, however the Subcontinent Muslims trace two main ancestries. Muslims in the southern block of the indian subcontinent (specially Muslims in Kerala, Keelakarai and Muslims living in the Southern and western block of Sri Lanka) trace thier ancestry back to the Arab Traders who settled in the region some time between the 9th to 15th century AD, while Northern Muslim chunck have very complex Indo-Iranian-Turkco-Mongol ancesteries.
The Arab Halflings
During the 9th Century, what is called the “Medieval era” the Arab Islamic dynasties have reached their peaks.They expanded their voyages eastwards, towards India and China, in search of trade. In the 9th and 10th centuries, an assortment of Persians, Arabs, Abyssinians, all Muslims, speaking Arabic and therefore conveniently called ‘Arabs’ dominated the overseas trade from Baghdad/Basra/Hadramout to China. The Muslims of Sri Lanka and Kerala (a South Indian state) were a part of this trade operation.
According to Historians Elliot and Dowson in their book The History of India as told by its own Historians, the first ship bearing Muslim travellers was seen on the Indian subcontinent coast as early as 630 AD. There is evidence that there were Muslim merchant settlements in Sri Lanka as early as the 7th century. Dr. Shukri, a historian and an author, has used the Arabic (Kufi) inscriptions in Sri Lanka to throw light on the origins of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. He says that the Sri Lanka Moors originally came from Aleppo, a city in Syria. (‘Sri Lanka and the Silk Road of the Sea’ p181)
Marakkalayar/Sonahar (Tamil) or Marikkala/ Yonaka or Yon (Yon is a sanskrit word for West Asia and in Greek it is called Ion/Ionia) is a name given to the Moors of Sri Lanka and in Kerala they are known as the Maappilas or Marakkar which can be translated as (Marakkalam is a wooden boat) `boatmen’. The word Marakkar is usually derived from the Arabic `Markab’, a boat. The story goes that, when the first Arab traders landed on the shores of Sri Lanka, they were naturally asked by the natives, who they were, and where they came from. In answer they pointed to their boats, and pronounced the word Markab, and they became in consequence “Marakkalaya”, or the people of Markab.
By the time the Umayyad Caliphate formalised diplomatic relations with the court at Sinhalese Kingdom in around 12th to 15th century AD and a large number of Arab merchants established a community in the Western and Soutern Coastal cities of Sri Lanka and in Kerala and Some coastal districts in Tamil Nadu. They married local Sinhalese or Tamil women. But the relationship was of much longer standing and had developed from two sources. The first was the export from Sri Lanka of spices, notably cinnamon, and gems, the latter emphasised in an Arab name for the country Jairtu-ul Yaqut or the Island of Rubies. Ninth and tenth century Muslim writers mention also timber, kittul treacle (a palm extract) medicinal herbs and iron. The author of the Arab manuscript Akbar as-Sin wa-l-Hind (851 AD) describes an island off the coast of India called Langabalus [Lanka] where the local people offer from their boats “coconuts, sugarcane, bananas and palm wine: (a non alcoholic palm extract called ‘Kitul’ or ‘Peni’ in Sinhala) is a with beverage that is sweet like honey when one drinks it the moment it is tapped from the coconut palm, but if it is left for a little while it is transformed into wine, and, after a few days, into vinegar’.
There have been Islam in Sri Lanka and South India (Karnataka and Andra excluded) for well over a thousand years. Trading dhows plied the waters between the Middle East and the island known to Arab sailors – like the legendary Sinbad – as Serendib even in pre-Islamic times. The first Arab merchants and sailors may have landed on its shores during the Prophrt Muhammad (PBUH)’s life time. By the 10th century this predominantly Arab community had grown influential enough to control the trade of the south-western ports, whilst the Sinhalese and Malayali Zamorin kings generally employed Muslim ministers to direct the state’s commercial affairs.
However majority of the muslims in the Northern block of the subcontinent who call themselves Arab descendants, Hashemis, Syeds etc, descended from the untouchable hindu caste. Every single Muslim in the Indo-Pak region believes s/he is an Arab. If not direct Arab descent, then the illustrious ancestor had come from either Iran or Bukhara. Arab origin is the favourite fiction of all these people.
How The Northlings Were Islamised?
A ship filled with daughters of Arab and Moor traders who were trading in Sri Lanka was attacked by pirates from Darbal (what is now called Karachi, Pakistan) who captured and enslaved the women. Islam was fresh in Sri Lanka in 7th century BC and the Moorish Population of Sri Lanka had a great relationship with the Umayyad Caliphs. Seeking to liberate the women and punish the pirates, an expedition was sent out in 710AD, led by a 17 year old general Muhammad bin Qasim, a boy from the city of Ta’if.
Muhammad bin Qasim led his army of 6,000 soldiers to the far eastern reaches of Persia, Makran. He encountered little resistance as he made his way into Indian Subcontinent. When he reached the city of Nerun, on the banks of the Indus River, he was welcomed into the city by the Buddhist monks that controlled it. Most cities along the Indus thus voluntarily came under Muslim control, with no fighting. In some cases, oppressed Buddhist minorities reached out to the Muslim armies for protection against high caste Brahmin governors. Despite the support and approval of much of the population, the Raja of Sindh, Raja Dahir, opposed the Muslim expansion and mobilised his army against Muhammad bin Qasim. In 712, the two armies met, with a decisive victory for the Muslims. With the victory, all of Sindh came under Muslim control.
The caste system, which originated from Hindu belief, divided society up into very strictly controlled social classes. Those on top led wealthy, comfortable lives, while those on the bottom (particularly untouchables) were seen as the scourge of society, they lived in sheer missery untill Islam came to liberate them.
In fact, the Muslims of Indo-Pakistanian, Kashmiri and Bengal origin were probably from the this lower caste, as Islam offered them an escape from the oppressive social system they were accustomed to. Pre-Islamic India was entirely based on a caste system in which society was broken into separate parts, conversion to Islam happened in a step-by-step process. Often, entire lower castes would convert to Islam at a time. This would happen for many different reasons. Often, however, the equality Islam provided was more attractive than the caste system’s organised racism. There was no opportunity for social mobility or to achieve greater than what your parents achieved. By converting to Islam, people had the opportunity to move up in society, and no longer were subservient to the Brahman caste.
Consequently, even after conversion, their ancestors were poor agriculturists, were looked down upon by the Persians, Mughals and Arabs and even those who had converted earlier the same way as they were by the Brahmans when they professed their Vedic belief.
In their need to escape from this shame, within a generation or two, those early converts began the great lie of Arab ancestry to be equal to others. Their favourite lie was Syeddi and Hashemi lies that says they were direct descendants of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Nephew and son in law Ali Ibn Abitalib (RA) and this great lie became universal with time.
The challenge then is for all those Syeddis and Hashemis who have invented illegitimate fathers for themselves, to get theirselves tested (Yeah a DNA test) and know the bitter truth.