An 1873 illustration of an Arab dhow ship: Arabs dominated the trade routes in the Indian Ocean from the sixth century until the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century

Source: Picture Collection, Mid-Manhattan Library, The New York Public Library

Preserving Sri Lanka’s interests and ensuring her prosperity in a global trading network has demanded a cautious and balanced foreign policy through time. As a maritime hub or rond-point in the Indian Ocean, the island of Sri Lanka historically stands at a midpoint from a nautical perspective. The Lloyds Marine Intelligence Unit (London) documents – “the Indian Ocean is an inescapably central feature of global maritime trade. The Indian Ocean is undeniably the world’s most important trading crossroads”.

Origins of large scale trade

Historically, merchants of the Silk Road widely plied on a caravan route across land followed an overland commercial network broadly referred to in Persian as K`arwansa`rai .Ports rose in prominence and critical importance over time as the scale of trade increased. Large ships such as Arab dhows prominently featured in Indian Ocean trading activity as it could carry loads of cargo across seas on a scale much higher than caravans. The triangular lateen shaped sail of the dhow of the Indian Ocean was markedly different to the junks that sailed the South China Sea and square sailed ships of the Mediterranean. Linking cargo carried on dhow ships to port towns in the Indian Ocean Region, the Silk Road of the sea rose to prominence with the island of Sri Lanka’s position being highlighted in an elaborate system of seaborne activity. The reason for Sri Lanka being key to maritime activity is its location at the southern extremity of the South Asian subcontinent and historical openness to cultures well beyond that of its surrounding regions, while preserving the widely practiced philosophy of Buddhism.

Al Bahar Al Hind was the pre- ninth century Arab cartographic term for the Indian Ocean. This term was used to chart the sea route from Arabia through the island of Serendib to China. The route dominated by the Arabs in the Golden Age of Islam was from Zanzibar to Maldives through South-West Sri Lanka to Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond. The primary purpose of this travel was trade, exchange, profit and in some instances, persecution. The interconnectedness of Muslim societies across place, time and culture are identifiable. This identification would take into account two factors in re-approaching the narrative of both a commercial and cultural history. Firstly, it should aim to loosen the compartmentalized approach to identities within national borders. Secondly, the Connected History approach put forth by historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam would involve a focus on connections, movements, transfers, influences, relations, and even continuities that have long been ignored or minimized.

Through the multiple lenses the South and South East Asian littoral can be viewed, this article draws on Arab maritime heritage including Islamic and pre-Islamic astronomical and cartographic imagination tradition in which the island of Sri Lanka holds a prominent position.

Sri Lanka on the Arab spiritual map

In a shipping network of Arab dhow vessels geared to carry large cargo plying back and forth, the exchange and influence of ideas were inevitable. While the South-West of Sri Lanka remained a trading hub the spiritual mapping of Arabs led them off the path of commerce and exchange to the revered mountain of Adam’s Peak.

Well known through the Arab world was the Mountain of Serendib , better known to us  as Adam’s Peak. The rock print on summit of the Adam’s Peak is venerated by Muslims as the imprint of Adam’s foot is simultaneously venerated by Brahmans and Buddhists as the imprint of Lord Siva’s and Lord Buddha’s footprint respectively. The repetition in the travel accounts of Ibn Battuta(The fourteenth century Moroccan traveller ) of dervishes returning from visiting ‘The Foot’ of Adam in Serendib  is evidence that Serendib was also an island of religious and spiritual importance to the Muslim world. Ibn Batuta visited Sri Lanka to seek out the mountain as he describes as a location on Earth ‘just forty leagues from Paradise’.

Folk navigational astronomy predating scientific tradition

The importance of astronomy within Arab sailing sciences and Islam’s sacred geography cannot be undermined. Firstly, astrological time-keeping was the most accurate method of determining the time for ritual prayer and declaring religious festivals. Secondly, the navigation through stars, specially the Pole Star helped Muslims pray toward the direction of the Islamic spiritual centre, the Ka`bah in the city of Mecca in West Asia. Apart from the religious necessity of the science of astronomy-the practical use in sailing remained key to Arab merchant domination of the Southern Ports of Sri Lanka. Additionally, it scientifically provided the advantage of navigating monsoon winds confirming naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean. David. A. King in his description of Southern Arab astrological knowledge speaks of this knowledge being a branch of a folk astronomical tradition that focused on practical science rather than conforming to scientific tradition. Thus, the rich pre Islamic Arab and Islamic astrological tradition reflect the intertwined nature of navigation for spiritual and practical use.

The expansionist ambitions in the Golden Age of Islam and advanced Arab sailing techniques far predate European dominance of the Indian Ocean. The extent to which Sri Lanka’s isolation as an island or connectivity through ports with fellow Muslim travellers and settlers outweighed one another is debatable. However, a broad overview of the histories of the oldest mosques across the countries may point to the history of Muslim travellers largely shaping an existing Sri Lankan Muslim identity and commercial culture.