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Peaceful trade relations between Lanka and the Arabs before the Portuguese era

This book review examines the relations between ancient Sri Lanka and the Arab world as described in the book “Arabs of Serandib” by Dr. Rohitha Dasanayaka of the Department of History in the University of Peradeniya, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Published in 2018, the book had won the Sri Lankan State Literary award in the year 2019 for the best historical work. It looks at the earliest links between the Arab world and Lanka then called Serandib by travellers, especially Arab travellers. It had other names also, such as Saheelan (or Zeilan), Taprobane or Jaziratul or the Isle of rubies.

The book traces back Lanka’s trade relations with both the pre-Islamic and the post Islamic Arab world and highlights the cordial relations between the ancient Buddhist Kings of Lanka and the Arabs before and after the advent of Islam.

“When the people of Serandib and the surrounding areas came to know of the appearance of the Prophet of Islam and his message, they deputed an intelligent person from among themselves and sent him to Arabia to get information about the Prophet and to give a first-hand report,” Dasanayaka says.

When the deputed person reached Madina after a hazardous and long journey, Prophet Muhammad had died (A.D. 632) and even the caliphate of his successor Abu Bakr (A.D. 632-634) had ended and Umar (A.D. 634-644) was the caliph.

The messenger had met the caliph and heard in detail from him about the mission of the Prophet and his character. On the return journey the messenger had died on the Makran coast (West Pakistan) but his Indian servant who accompanied him succeeded in returning to Serandib to give his impressions on what he saw in Arabia and what he heard of the Prophet.

The earliest post-Islamic Arab-Sri Lanka relations were detailed by the Iranian navigator, Ibn Shahriyar (A.D. 953), who had furnished a detailed account of Sri Lanka in his book ‘Ajaib al Hindi’ or ‘Marvels of India.’

Ibn Shahriyar had written thus: “When the people of Serandib and the surrounding area came to know of the appearance of the Prophet of Islam and his message, they deputed an intelligent person from among themselves and sent him Arabia to meet him to get information about him and to give a firsthand report to his people.”

Rohitha Dasanayaka

Given the positive narration of the Indian servant about Islam, Lankans at the time were encouraged to increase trade with the Persian and Arabian regions which had by then embraced Islam. Dasanayaka’s book provides details on how much friendship and gift-exchange were taking place between Lanka and Arabia. Sinhalese kings sent pearls and many exotic gifts in fleets of ships and received equally exotic gifts.

Sri Lanka had been described as a ship building nation from 8th century onwards, and ships had also been sent as gifts to Arabian rulers. Lanka had been a popular destination for the Arabs to buy ship building material such as wood from the Jak tree.

It is pointed out that Lanka was a popular trade destination for Persians and Arabs also because it was famous for elephants, pearls, silver, gold and various other exotic products such as ginger. By the 4th and 5th centuries, Sri Lanka had well established trade with the Western world and China and had the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula keen to compete for trade in the island.

With regard to the ancient Arab’s mastery of the seas, it is pointed out that the Arabs were the heirs of nautical knowledge and the trading experiences of the Phoenicians who had their kingdom in Hadramaut in South Arabia.

The book ‘Arabs of Serandib’ points out that the discovery of Islam by Prophet Muhammad of the Querishi clan in the 7th century dovetailed with Arab expertise in seafaring, which in turn helped expand Islam from the confines of Arabia to other parts of the world.

The Persian manuscript, the Chachnamah is quoted to point out that the King of Serandib sent some curiosities and presents from the island of pearls in a small fleet of ships, boats, by sea, for the Hajjaj. The Lankan monarch had also sent some Abyssinian male and female slaves to the capital of the Khalifah. The Chacnamah is believed to have been written before 753 AD.

Friendly relations with Arabia and Sri Lanka are likely to have been initiated during the reign of Lankan King Manavamma in AD 684 – 718. The book citing contemporary Islamic Arwi literature points to Arab settlements during this time.

Apart from the Persians, Arabs and Abyssinians, who had settled close to harbors in Lanka from the 7th century onwards, merchants from Oman, Siraf and Yemen had settled down in Sri Lanka forming Arab settlements in the island. It is pointed out that a few coins of the Arab king Umayyad Caliph Al Wahad (AD 705 to 715) had been found in the country and kept in the Colombo museum.

Among the many other evidences given in the book for proving close ties with post-Islamic Arabia and Persia and other regions Islam spread to, is the tombstone of the Islamic preacher, Khalid Bin Abu Bakaya. It is the first Arabic epigraph to be found in Sri Lanka.

The preacher had been sent to Sri Lanka by the then emperor of Baghdad Caliph Al Muktafi bi ‘Illah on the request of merchants who came to Sri Lanka continually. He had been sent in the Hijra year 300 or AD. 912, and is said to have died in Sri Lanka 17 years later. The tomb stone sent by the Caliph was inscribed in Arabic, giving particulars about this Islamic teacher and placed on his grave by the Muslims of Lanka. It had remained there undisturbed for 800 years, till the Dutch period in Lanka. It is now in the national museum in Colombo.

Arabic, Greek and Roman Classical sciences and literary works were introduced to Ceylon when this Caliph was controlling the Persian Gulf and Busra and Islamic power was expanding across the Mediterranean.

On relations between Lanka and the Islamic world around AD 1169 – 93), during the time of King Saladin of the Ayyubid dynasty and the then Lankan King, Parakramabahu, it is said that religious differences did not figure in the robust international trade that was taking place between Lanka and the Arabs and many other peoples of the world. It is pointed out, quoting the chronicler Al Idrisi, that the Royal Council advising the Lankan king on trade matters had 4 Buddhists, 4 Christians, 4 Muslims, and 4 Jews.

It is also revealed that towards the 13th century, West Asian Muslim traders gradually withdrew from Indian Ocean trade. It is pointed out that after the Portuguese entry into the Indian Ocean region in the 15th century, the Sinhala Kings sought the help of the Zamorin of Calicut in Kerala through Muslim intermediaries to vanquish the Portuguese who were a common enemy.

It is pointed out that in early 15th century, due to the increase of Indian Muslim merchants along the coastal region of India, there was a rapid increase in Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka. The book says that the Portuguese historian Farnao de Queyroz had, in a tone of complaint, recorded that the Muslims arrived to Sri Lanka at a rate of five to six hundred a year. The Portuguese found in the Muslim traders a dangerous trading rival who they were determined to suppress.

The crux of the book is that the historic importance of the peaceful nature of the lucrative trade-influenced relations between Sri Lanka and the Arab world from the earliest times before and after the advent of Islam till the 15th century when the Portuguese changed the rules of the game against all Easterners.

We can see from these facts what a long and peaceful history the Sri Lankans shared with the Arab world.