Muslims: An ethnic group or an ideological group?

Muslims, contrary to common perception are an “ideological group” as opposed to being an “ethnic group”. They are differentiated by the strength of their faith, and not by their race, colour or tribe.

Sinhalese, Tamils or Arabs are ethnic groups, which subscribe to various linguistic or geographical connotations. But a Muslim is defined by his faith, i.e. his ideology which is Islam.

A fellow blogger had mentioned in his blog that:

“On the point about Muslims being an ethnic group, I think a problem is that in many European countries Muslims in a given nation are overwhelmingly from one particular ethnic group. So of course it is easy to think of them as an ethnic group. Bertram lives in England, where brown (“Asian”) and Muslim intersect pretty well (though many Asians are not Muslim, almost all Muslims are Asian). In France, the preponderance of Muslims is North African. In Germany, it is Turks. And so on. The Muslim ~ ethnic group conflation is easy in nations where Islam and ethnicity have a strong co relational relationship. In contrast, this couldn’t happen in the United States, where Muslims are multiethnic, ranging from black converts to immigrants from the Middle East and Asia.” [link]

A Marxist is an individual who ideologically subscribes to the philosophy of Karl Marx, Freidrich Engels and some others, thus it would be ridiculous to expect a Marxist to differentiate or salute his fellow comrades as a Sinhalese Marxist, a Tamil Marxist or an Arab Marxist.

The same analogy can be crudely yet effectively be applied to the case of a Muslim, where one Muslim greets a fellow Muslim as another who subscribes to his own ideology than as someone who belongs to another ethnicity.

Arabs have been coming to Sri Lanka for trade, long before the advent of Islam to the Arabian Peninsula. And as it turns out to be this cycle continued with no change whatsoever except that after the seventh century A.D the Arabs who were coming to Sri Lanka were subscribing to a new and different ideology i.e. Islam, which had a bearing on all spheres of their life, be it political, social or economical.

The Muslims, as they were called thereafter came to the Island for trade, and some settled in the island, maintaining a harmonious relationship with the Sinhalese and Tamils, to the extent that they got married to Sinhalese and Tamil women, and thereby their cultural and social practices merged into the local cultural sphere.

But then the question arises, why do most Muslims in Sri Lanka speak Tamil, I converse well in English and Sinhalese, with due credit to the fact that I had my schooling in these media, and the little Tamil that I know may be attributed to the Tamil that I have grasped at social or sometimes family circles.

As Wikipedia puts it ..

“The early Muslim settlements were set up mainly around ports on account of the nature of their trade. It is also assumed that many of the Arab traders may not have brought their womenfolk along with them when they settled in Ceylon. Hence they would have been compelled to marry the Sinhalese and Tamil women of the island after converting them to Islam. The fact that a large number of Muslims in Sri Lanka speak the Tamil language can be attributed to the possibility that they were trading partners with the Tamils of South India and had to learn Tamil to successfully in order to carry out their business. The integration with the Muslims of Tamil Nadu, in South India, may have also contributed to this. It is also possible that the Arabs who had already migrated to Ceylon, prior to Islam, had adopted the Tamil language as a medium of communication in their intercourse with the Tamil speaking Muslims of South India.”

In the immediate aftermath of independence, when federalism was first being discussed as a form of governance and even during some other instances,some of the Tamil political elite for hitherto known and unknown reasons wanted to merge the Muslims into the umbrella “Tamil speaking people”, it was to negate these definitive political twists in the local political sphere that the then Muslim elite and Muslim Intellectuals alike felt the imperative need to stamp the Muslims with an independent Identity.

Eventually the Muslim Influentials came up with the term “Sri Lankan Moor”.

“Etymologically, the term “Moor” was first applied by the Portuguese, who labeled all Muslims after their enemies, the Moors,whom they fought in Iberia for centuries. For example, Filipino Muslims are called Moros because of the similar Spanish usage of the term, even though Filipino Muslims had no historical contact with Moors.” (Wikipedia)

In the fold of Islam, language, colour or local culture are immaterial in its judgement of a Muslim, and therefore the aforementioned terms are not even considered criteria in which one Muslim is considered superior to another.

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (Quran)

These factors naturally negate nationalism as a form of political or spiritual leverage in the fold of Islam. Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, outlined certain guidelines in life in his last Hajj, the Hajjatul Widah, soon after which he passed away. He left behind the following statement for all men to sit and think about,
“The aristocracy of yore has been trampled under my feet, the Arab has no superiority over the non Arab, and the non Arab has no superiority over the Arab, also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action. All are children of Adam, and Adam was made of earth.”

It is also worth noting that, it was Arab Nationalism that was instrumental in disintegrating the Ottoman Empire. Some Arabs (Muslims) who had been injected and were indoctrinated by Nationalist thought, were not very comfortable with the fact that Ottoman Turks (Muslims) were the rulers of their land, this climate in which Arab Nationalism abrogated Islamic Ideology and practice, was exploited by imperialist powers, and thereby these imperialist powers used the Arabs to fight the Turks, and the rest is History.

Thus it is suitable reiterating the fact that Muslims are an ideological community, as opposed to the common misconception of them being an ethnic community.

Raashid Riza.

Raashid is a Core Group Member of Beyond Borders Sri Lanka and a student of architecture. He maintains a blog named ‘Navigating on balance’ which he updates from time to time.

Beyond Borders is a Voluntary, Youth-led, Youth-run initiative active in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. More about who we are and what we do can be found here and here. If you find work we do interesting and think you can make a contribution, send us your application. We are officially on the look out for new people.


Posted on 07/06/2007, in Identity, Opinions, Peace-Conflict-Governance, Sri Lanka, Youth-Culture-Society. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. very interesting observations, lot of people think that muslims are actually tamil and they came from tamilnadu.

  2. Raashid machan,

    Correct me if i am wrong. Your argument bases itself on the hypothesis that Muslims share a common religion and thus an ideology and thus are an ideological group rather than an ethnic one.

    I have one question for you if that is the case then do u consider a malay a muslim or is there a difference? Because as far as i know there is an “ethnic” difference between the malay and muslim community even though they share the same religion. Do malays then still fall in to the same ideological group?

    A chirstian interested in finding out.

  3. @ mike : Thanks bro,

    @ negligible minorist : your question satisfies me that you have understood the essence of my post. Indeed malays are an ethnic group as opposed to an ideological group, most of my malay friends are muslim, and I also have a few malay friends who are christian!! u can clarify my statement from the malay association if you will. But if he subscribes to an Islamic Ideology, then he is a muslim, and it is UNISLAMIC for a muslim (non malay) to discriminate another muslim just because he is malay, I would like to take you back to the Quran verse that i have quoted above..

    “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”

  4. Machang, recognizing with an ethnic identity doesn’t mean that there is necessarily ‘discrimination’ on part of other ethnic identities..

    i agree with most of what you say, but i think there is a sense of identity of other than being muslims lot of people who believes in Islam. and i think there are elements which can be attributed as ethnic to muslims, say for example bengali muslims tended to differ from their counterparts from (what was) west Pakistan and so on.

    In the Sri Lankan context, where your arguments are perhaps most valid, there seems to be a parity of status between ‘Muslims’ and other ethnicities so you could consider, if not by principle by practice that ‘muslim’ is in fact an ethnicity.. ? 🙂

  5. Yes Deane, but i think most sri lankan non-muslims equate ‘muslim’ to sri lankan moor, and identify other muslim denominations, malays, and bohras .. differently.

  6. @deane: machang i do agree with what u have said, and i said “discrimination” as a worst case scenario, and it is not a word as per my intention to indicate as to whether this is indeed happening or not happening, and yes this post is most applicable to sri lankan context, as u were told, even though the title doesnt suggest it 🙂

    @negligible: mach, u raised a valid point and from your reaction, i understand that i have acidentally omitted other muslim communities like malay,memon,bohras, indian muslims etc etc..

    @ deane and Negligible : true, people belong to several ethnicities and to diffrent cultures, but what keeps muslims as muslims amidst their cultural,traditional geographical diffrences is the fact that they share the same ideology.

    Muslims may have cultural diffrences, and its true that Malays are different from moors, in various aspects..the food they eat, their traditional clothing etc, and the same applies to deanes example of bengali muslims and thier counter parts,, and they are free to be different and there is no issue whatsoever, except that their traditions and culture does not take precedence over Islamic Jurisprudence (derived by their faith)…Muslims all over the world arent alike, they naturally have diffrences inherent in them due to varius reasons. but they would agree on the common essence – Islamic jurisprudence..

    very simple example,traditionally muslims in sri lanka (moors,malays,bohras,memons others etc) may be differnt due to their various linguistic,ethnic or georgraphical routes, hence they may have several different dishes of food which may starkly contrast to each other, and they naturally can be different, but where they wont be different is that all of them will strictly avoid the consumption of pork or alcohol, as per the dictates of Islamic Juriprudence.

    Hence, any muslim may have any difference culturally, but all those differences would be within the confines/ parameters of Islamic Law.

    This is a very vast topic, and my few replies or teh post itself does not do justice to it,if time allows it i will indeed do a seperate post on the topic.

  7. Raashid,

    You bring up a very pertinent issue here. But would you say the fact that the exclusiveness of islam, the fact that it is an ideology is what is making people to embrace radical islam? because they feel victimised because the world is so ‘non-islamic’ ? what would you say?


  8. @ Vivek :

    Islam should not be measured in today’s context , as Muslims of today are far from Authentic Islam due to nearly six centuries of western domination and thereby indoctrination. Today mostly the Islam that u find is ritualistic as coined or programmed by the six centuries of western dominant thought system. Due to this Muslims face the world either apologetically, reactionarily or secularly. The one who looks at the world apologetically always tries to make Islam match with western thoughts, thereby trying not to be inferior. The others who respond to the west in a reactionary form takes the west in a confrontational form without clear understanding of what Islam stands for and vis a vis West. Similarly the secular Muslims are of a paradigm as of the west that are religious ritualistically but secular in thought where the religion is iconic.

    The above set of Muslims are groping in the dark and behaving like the five blind men defining the elephant.

    Islam as shown by the Qur’an, the prophet and his companions brought a new vision and guidance system of life in the then world of corruption, plunder and human enslavement, like our contemporary world. Islam liberated mankind from these shackles whether be inside i.e. spiritual, or outside in the macro environment. This liberation theology brought both bouquet and brickbats. Islam never was an emasculated religion, as opposed to this, it is a religion of liberation as noted above, and therefore Islam both its ideology and its adherents followers when truly seek guidance from its fountain source of the Qur’an and the Guidance of the prophet and adopt to contemporary life would turn them to be Moses in facing Pharaoh, Jesus in facing Romans and Muhammad in facing the Mercantilist Pagan Arabs of the time all for the sake of justice and fairplay. Axiomatically it is known that today’s radical thought is tomorrow’s liberal thought as shown in the history of thought.

    There is no radical Islam. Islam is a liberation theology which guides mankind to fight against all form of slavery and oppression be it physical, psychological, economical, social etc etc and directs them to obey the sole creator of the universe who is omniscient, omnipotent and just.

    “Radical Islam” is a creation of the modern western hegemonies, similar to coining of the term “Christian Fundamentalism” in the early 18th century when atheism and materialism became the secular ideology of the west.

  9. do you people believe in punishing the son for the sins of his father?

  10. punish the son for the sins of the father????!!!! thats insane, and no there is no such inclination in Islam. But rather a father is blessed even after his death for the virtues his son does, as the father had taken pains to bring up a virtuous son.

  11. ethnichybrid

    Kadalay the punishing the sons concept is taken from the Bible – the sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons. It is not a Muslim concept.
    Raashid it isjustmy personal opinion that instead of lumping all persons who profess the faith of Islam as belonging to the ethnic group “Muslims” as it is practiced now in Sri Lanka, we should go back to maintaining the ethnic difference. Because what about a Sinhalese, Burgher or Tamil convert to Islam. Would their ethnicity suddenly change? Surely not! Islam is a religion, not an ethnicity, making it an ethnicity removes all the cultural heritage that Muslims come with, be it food, dress, language, traditions etc.

  12. It is pretty funny how some people mix everything, they think that being a Muslim has to do with the country or race, the mix Arabs with Muslims, even tough Islam was revealed in Arab land most of the Muslims are not arabs.

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