Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith island. Yet despite centuries of physical coexistence, ethnic, religious and linguistic differences continue to bring communities into conflict. Muslims in Sri Lanka (comprising around 9.7% of the population) are often vilified by both the Sinhalese majority (who are either Buddhist or Christian) and Tamil minority (either Hindu or Christian) for their religious beliefs, practices, and dress. Following the Easter Sunday suicide attacks in April 2019 – carried out by a group of extremists linked to the Islamist group, the National Thowheed Jamaat – the wider Muslim community faced a discriminatory and sometimes violent backlash. In 2020, as COVID-19 spread in Sri Lanka, Muslims were blamed for ‘spreading the disease’, and for wanting to bury their dead in line with traditional Islamic burial practices (as opposed to cremation as stipulated by the Sri Lankan government).
Prejudice against Muslims in Sri Lanka is underscored by the casual use of racial slurs. The Islamophobic nature of terms such as ‘thambiya’ and ‘hambaya’ has long been emphasized in academic writing and civil society awareness campaigns. Nevertheless, prolific use persists, as evidenced by Facebook memes and Twitter posts. For example, a post on the popular Facebook page ‘Samonim’ criticised the alleged behaviour of Muslims in response to COVID-19. Paraphrased to remove expletives, the post stated: ‘after hiding infected people, almost shutting down two hospitals, flouting curfew to practice their religion, they are asking to be buried too? Where are the thambis’ brains?’ The use of slurs is not restricted to social media. These racial slurs are also used in jest or mundane conversation.
Although the racialised and Islamophobic terms ‘thambiya’ and ‘hambaya’ enjoy contemporary currency, they are not of recent origin. Instead, they can be traced back to the period of British colonial rule in the late nineteenth century and the emergence of racialised colonial identities for Muslims, which continue to haunt Muslims in Sri Lanka today.
Britain colonised the island of Sri Lanka in 1815. Once it had crushed the remnants of resistance to its rule, the colonial state set about identifying the differences among their subjects. The British categorised groups in Sri Lanka, including Muslims, by ‘race’, and used this category in periodic censuses. The largest Muslim population in Sri Lanka were known as the ‘Moors’; a term inherited from Portuguese colonial occupation of Sri Lanka and also used by the Dutch from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. There were also a number of other Muslim groups identified during this period, such as the Malays, Bohras, Memons, and Afghans. The Moors remain the largest ethnic group within the Muslim religious community in Sri Lanka today.
In addition to the use of racial and ethnic labels, the British adapted a Tamil word to describe itinerant traders who were typically Muslim: ‘thambi’. The word ‘thambi’ means ‘younger brother’ in Tamil. Pejorative terms were used by the coloniser to describe certain types of labourers. The derogatory use of the term ‘thambi’ could be compared, for example, with the term ‘coolie’ to describe Indian Tamil labourers imported to work on Sri Lankan plantations. The British increasingly adopted it, however, to refer to Muslims in general. Commenting on the fez cap that many Muslims wore in Ceylon in 1903, John Ferguson wrote that ‘there is no mistaking our old friend “Tamby”… in the corner’. The image of a Moor is captioned ‘A Tamby’ in Arnold Wright’s Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907), a popular reference book in Ceylon at the time.
The decision to describe Muslims as ‘younger brothers’ should be understood in the context of a British preoccupation with organising racial groups – for instance, by categorising the population according to ‘race’ in the official census – and with establishing hierarchies between them. Scholar M.A Nuhman argues that ‘thambila’ (the plural of ‘thambiya’), since the early 20th century, has been an essentially ‘abusive’ term. Although it is not possible to speculate on the precise motivations behind the British adoption of the term ‘thambi’, it is clear that its effect was to diminish the status of Muslims. It stood as a casual reminder that they were, at best, ‘junior’ within the island’s polity. Racial hierarchies were constructed by the coloniser to reflect the colonial distribution of political power in Sri Lanka. The Ceylon Legislative Council, established in 1833, included three seats to represent the ‘natives’: the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Burghers (of mixed European descent). Muslims were not given separate representation but were inaccurately subsumed within the ethnic category ‘Tamil’. This was only corrected in 1889 with the establishment of a separate seat for Muslims.
The Moors were not a monolithic group, although the British categorised them as such throughout the 19th century. In 1911, however, for the first time, the British enumerated two separate groups of Moors in the census: ‘Ceylon Moors’ and ‘Indian Moors’. The Ceylon Moors traced their roots back to Arab traders who arrived in Lanka in around the eighth century. The second group – labelled Indian Moors– were recent immigrants from South India in the eighteenth century. The terminology of Indian Moors highlighted their ‘otherness’ or ‘foreignness’ based on geographical origins, suggesting that they did not share the ‘indigeneity’ or ‘authenticity’ the Ceylon Moors had in Sri Lanka.
This differentiation between the Moors was also reflected in the Tamil and Sinhala terms to describe the two groups. In Tamil, the Ceylon Moors were known as Sonahar and the Indian Moors were called Sammankarar. In Sinhala, Ceylon Moors were referred to as ‘Marakkalayo’ and Indian Moors as ‘Hambaya’. ‘Marakkalayo’ is a term that, Nuhman notes, has ‘a derogatory connotation’, used to describe the perceived ‘trickishness’ of the Moors (mahat kallakan) in trade. This sentiment was widely reflected in Sinhala newspapers between 1885 and 1920, as Moorish traders were the biggest rivals of Sinhalese traders in this period, and the latter often depicted the Moors as using their ‘cunning’ to get ahead in trade. Meanwhile, colloquial terms such as ‘hambaya’, Vijaya Samaraweera has observed, were wielded by the Sinhalese to highlight the ‘foreignness’ of the Indian Moors. Lorna Dewaraja suggests that the term ‘Hambaya’ or ‘Hambankaarayo’ comes from the Malay word ‘Champan’, which means ‘boat’, while ‘kaarayo’ indicates men or people. The term suggests that the people of the boat came from ‘outside’, denoting a sense of ‘otherness’.
The British, when creating separate ‘racial’ categories for ‘Indian’ and ‘Ceylon’ Moors in the 1911 census, appeared to be responding to distinctions between Moorish groups as perceived and maintained within local discourses. Curiously, the British do not appear to have made a distinction between Ceylon Moors and Indian Moors to further entrench their own position. This is because both the Ceylon Moor and Indian Moor populations were so negligible in size that they remained largely insignificant political actors (despite the significant role Muslims played in the economy in general). Instead, the Census Report for 1911 appears to categorise the Indian Moors alongside the Indian Tamils and Europeans as ‘immigrant races’, placing emphasis on their ‘foreignness’. The Ceylon Moors, in fact, attempted to distance themselves from their ‘Indian’ counterparts. For instance, I. L. M. Abdul Azeez, a leading Ceylon Moor, maintained that ‘South Indian Mohammedans are partly the descendants of Arabs – traders and missionaries – and partly the progenies of the Tamil converts to Islam’. He thus sought to position Indian Moors in contrast to the Ceylon Moors, who had ‘purer’ Arab roots. One of the material consequences of the construction of ‘otherness’ for these Indian Moors was that they were not given political representation at this time. The seat for the Muslim member in the Legislative Council was typically occupied by a Ceylon Moor.
Michael Roberts contends that, in the early twentieth century, ‘Hambaya’ was applied not only to Indian Moors but to Moors in general, arguing that ‘hamba’ ‘operate as a synecdoche, a trope by which a part denotes the whole.’ While the Sinhala press treated the ‘marakkalayo’ and ‘hambayo’ as two distinct groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, today there is no longer a discernible distinction between the two. Ceylon Moors and Indian Moors are known collectively by the religious identity marker ‘Muslim’ and the word ‘hambaya’ is used today to insult Muslims in general.
In the colonial period, the terms ‘thambi(ya)’ and ‘hambaya’ were used by a variety of actors in Sri Lanka to diminish the position of Muslims and to highlight their status as outsiders, implying that they did not necessarily belong in Sri Lanka. Today, ‘thambiya’ and ‘hambaya’ are unambiguously derogatory racial slurs, which continue to other and diminish. Their colonial origins may shed light on the roots of the harm they continue to perpetuate against Muslims in Sri Lanka: historically and today, they remind Muslims in Sri Lanka that they do not quite belong.
Shamara Wettimuny is a DPhil candidate in History at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on identity formation and religious violence in colonial Sri Lanka. She is a graduate tutor in global and imperial history at Worcester College, Oxford. She Tweets at @shamara4w.