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 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.