Moshe Yegar and Early Muslim Settlement in Burma

by Aman Ullah 
Moshe Yegar and Early Muslim Settlement in Burma

By Aman Ullah

[Moshe Yegar, was a Second Secretary at the Embassy of Israel in Rangoon during early 1960s. During his stay in Burma he submitted a thesis on the subject “Muslims in Burma” for my M. A. degree to the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His subject was to deal with the Muslim community in Burma from the eleventh century up until the year 1962 with a purpose of reconstructing the chronological history of the community and to follow the main trends that characterized that community. This article is some extraction of his thesis.]

Muslim seamen first reached Burma in the ninth century. As far as they were concerned, the concept “Burma” referred only to the coastal regions of Lower Burma and Arakan. Although geographically on the perimeter of the major trade routes, Burma nevertheless enjoyed rather lively shipping activity which brought in its wake the beginnings of a Muslim settlement. Chinese travelers found Persian colonies on the borders of Burma and Yunan as early as 860. Among the many Muslim travelers who wandered eastward, most of whom hoped to reach China, were several who managed to get to Burma, too. Southern Burma is mentioned in the writings of the Persian traveler, Ibn Khordadhbeh, and of the Arab, Suleiman, both of the ninth century; and of the Persian traveler, Ibn al-Faqih, of the tenth century. The Arab historian, al-Maqdis (tenth century) describes the ramified trade activity conducted the length of the shores of India, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, the East Indian islands, and Ceylon. Since the Burmese were not a seagoing people, it is reasonable to assume that the “Pegu” seamen mentioned in this source refer to the Arab and Persian sailors who settled in the city of Pegu, or their descendants. It would seem that Muslim trade colonies were already established in Pegu by the ninth century and that Arab merchant vessels often visited there.

Southern Burma, or more exactly, the coastal regions of Arakan, the Delta of the River Irrawaddy, Pegu, and Tenasserim, was known to the Muslim sailors of that period who traded in the eastern waters. The first Muslim colonies in Burma were colonies of such traders. Not all of them came by choice; some of them, because of shipwreck, were forced to seek refuge on shore, and remained to settle.

The very first traders to be mentioned in Burmese chronicles, who were assumed to be Muslims, are the two sons of an Arab merchant saved from his shipwrecked vessel on the shores of Martaban. They apparently reached Burma in the year 1055, during the reign of King Anawratha (1044—1077). One of the sons was Shwepyin-gyi and the other, Shwepyin-nge. They became horsemen in the service of the King, but were put to death by his order, when he returned from battle and stopped off at a village not far from Mandalay in order to build a pagoda there. This punishment was meted out to them for their refusal to help in building the pagoda. The local villagers believe that their spirits reside in the pagoda. In the pagoda area the eating of pork is forbidden in reverence to their memory. The Buddhists and the Muslims of the region both celebrate the memory of the brothers to this very day, although on different dates.

The second mention in the chronicles is from the days of King Sawlu (1077-1088) who succeeded his father Anawratha to the throne. In his youth he was educated by a Muslim Arab. On ascending the throne, he appointed the son of his teacher, Yaman Khan,( in the Burmese language, his name is pronounced Yaman Khan (instead of Rahman Khan). as Governor of the city Ussa (which is the Pegu of today). The nucleus of Muslim settlement in the interior of Burma dates from the reign of Kyanzittha who in his wars took many Indians captive, Muslims among them, and settled them on the land in various places throughout his kingdom.

There were Muslims in Burma in the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, but details concerning their numerical strength and their status are not available. Perhaps this lack of source material merely bears witness to the possibility that they just did not constitute an important factor at that time.

In the year 1277 Burma was exposed to another Muslim force from the East, from China. The armies of Khublai Khan which over-ran Burma in that year were Turkish Muslims, under the command of Nasser ed-Din, the son of the Governor of Yunan. The Mongolian rulers of China during that period were not Muslims, although Muslims did occupy important positions in China. This temporary Muslim conquest left no mark upon Burma at all, nor did the conquest that followed in 1283-1284. The Tartars were content merely to post an occupation force in the city of Bhamo; several years later, in 1285-1287, they attacked Pagan and destroyed it. Thus, was the dynasty brought to the end.

European travelers visiting the coastal cities of Burma in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries described the colonies of Muslim merchants they found there, and their activity. Athanasius Nitikin, a Russian merchant who traveled in Asia in 1470, described Pegu as a port settled by “Indian Dervishes. In using the term, “Dervishes”, he apparently meant Muslims.
The Portuguese traveler, Duarte Barbosa, who visited India in the years 1501-1516, mentions the commerce carried on between India and Pegu by Muslims, infidels (Hindus?), and Christians. He gives a detailed list of goods and mentions that the ships’ route went from China via Molucca, Malacca, Sumatra, Pegu, Bengal, and Ceylon to the Red Sea. Many Muslims live in Pegu. “Moorish” setups export from Pegu sugar, lacquer, and rubies and import cottons, silks, opium, copper, silver, herbs, medicaments, etc. He also mentions Martaban, which then belonged to Pegu, as a city where Muslims live. About Tenasserim, whose importance as a port to Southeast Asia increased in the fifteenth century, he says that there are “many Muslim merchants and non-believers. They have many ships which sail to Bengal, Malacca and to many other places”.

Tenasserim and Mergui were also known in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to European sailors who described them as Muslim cities trading with Malacca, Bengal, and Mecca.
Arab traveler, Ibn Battuta of the fourteenth century, and the Portuguese Barbosa of the sixteenth century, both mention the Martaban jars that the Muslim seamen used.

In the second half of the sixteenth century the importance of the city Bassein rose as a port for the export of wood. Ships loaded up there and carried the timber to Mecca [Mokka?] where the Turks were building their own ships”. In addition to the export of wood, in the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, ship-building and ship-repair also developed as an industry in Burma; this owed to the plentiful supply of teak wood. Syriam, and later Dela and Rangoon, became important shipbuilding centers where vessels were built mostly for Arab and Armenian merchants.

Mergui, then ruled by the Siamese kingdom, was an important Muslim trade center during the seventeenth century; “… neither the Burmese nor the Siamese counted for much in the port …, it was the Mahomedans, chiefly from India, who dominated the commercial situation … Mergui was Siam’s port on the Bay of Bengal … dealers lived at Ayudhya, Tenasserim and Mergui, who received from China and Japan goods in demand in India and Persia, or vice versa … the dealers in this trade were Mahomedans from India and Persia, who had settled in Siam. Neither the Siamese nor the Burmese have ever possessed gifts comparable to the Indians for international commerce and navigation”.

A British trader in Mergui, reporting in 1678, said: “The Mahomedans had worked up the trade with great ability. They controlled flourishing businesses and with their wealth had become so important that they held also the key administrative appointments … the Governor of Mergui, the Viceroy of the Province of Tenasserim, and the Governors of all the principal towns on the overland route between Tenasserim and Ayudhya were either Indians or Persians”.

These Muslims, mostly from southern India, were not acceptable to the native population. At the end of the seventeenth century, with the coming of the British and the French to the area, most of the Muslims were removed from office and some were even massacred.
The descendants of these Arab, Persian and Indian Muslim traders formed the original nucleus of the “Burman Muslim” community which, in the days of the Burmese Kingdom, was known as the Pathee or Kala.

As the years passed, the number of Muslims in Burma increased, partly as a result of the growing numbers of descendants from mixed marriages and partly because of the arrival of growing numbers of Muslim traders and adventurers. There is no evidence that Islam gained a foothold in Burma through conversion, as happened in Malaya and Indonesia; its growth was due solely to immigration and the progeny of mixed marriages.

The continued contact of Muslim traders with Burma from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries did leave some traces. It resulted in the infiltration into the Burmese vocabulary of some Arab and Persian words, mainly in the fields of navigation and trade.