Muslims of Sri Lanka

The island of Sri Lanka, situated in the Indian Ocean, has an extent of an area of 65525 sq. km. The administrative units of Sri Lanka consist of 9 provinces, 25 districts, 160 electorates. Sri Lanka has a multi-ethnic and multi religious population that has made this island their home from antiquity. The census reports of this island have adopted a dual classification of the people in terms of the religion and of ethnicity. The statistics reveal the pluralistic nature of Sri Lankan society and the diffusion and inter-relation of several cultures. The latest census conducted shows that the total population of Sri Lanka is 18.4 million.

Buddhism, which is practiced by the Sinhalese, is the dominant religion constituting 70%. The Hindu religion practiced by the Tamils forms 15%. The Muslims constitute 8% and the Christians 7%. The main languages are Sinhala spoken by Sinhalese practicing Buddhism and Tamil spoken by the Hindus and the Muslims. English is generally used and widely prevalent.

The Muslim community of Sri Lanka consists mainly of the Moors who are the descendents of the Arab traders who settled in this island from 7th century AD, and the Malays who are descendents of Malays who were brought to Sri Lanka by the Dutch. There is also fair number of Indian Muslims who had migrated from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka for purpose of trade and then settled down.

The Muslims are scattered all over the island and they do not account for an absolute majority (50% plus one) of the population in any district of Sri Lanka. However, in one district, Ampara in the Eastern province they are the largest single ethnic group. In three other districts Trincomalee, Mannar and Baticaloa they account for more than a fifth of the population of the district. These three districts and Ampara, which are in the east of the island, account for only about 1/3 of the total Muslim population. The remaining 2/3 are scattered over the island with more conspicuous concentrations in the Western coastal districts of Colombo, Kalutara and Puttalam and in Kandy in the central highlands. The Muslims are mainly concentrated in urban areas and the one factor, which led to the islandwide scatter, and the urban settlement of the Muslim population is their migration in search of trading opportunities, because the majority of them are engaged in business and trade.

The Sri Lankan Muslims have long been identified as an educationally backward community. Their main interest, it was said, was in business and not in education. In broad terms this is true but the situation is rapidly changing. Now there is a considerable interest in education and an increasing number of students are gaining admission to various faculties of the universities. As a result there are Muslim teachers both male and female and there are also professionals such as doctors, engineers, accountants, managers and academics in different faculties of the national universities. In fact one of the leading surgeons in Sri Lanka Professor A.H. Sherifdeen is a Muslim. Prof. Sherifdeen who is the Professor of Surgery in the University of Colombo was recently elected as the president of the college of surgeons.

The Muslim community, being a minority, faces number of social, political, economic and cultural problems. The major problem is the preservation of the Islamic identity in pluralistic society. They are also facing many problems in the political field due to the ethnic problem and there are a number who have been driven out from their traditional villages in the North (Mannar and Jaffna districts) due to ethnic war and are living as refugees


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