November 4, 2020

Coming of the Arab Muslims in Arakan


By Dr. Abdul Karim

The Muslim infiltration into Arakan has started earlier in history. The oft-quoted statements of the Arab geographers and traders are important sources to reconstruct the history of the coming of the Muslims. Referring to early geographers Harvey writes as follows:[1]

“Ptolemy, the Greek geographer, writing in A.D. 140 even mentions a Tugma Metropolis, in a spot curiously like Upper Burma, as if it were Tagaung. But it is to Prome that the Chinese pilgrims chiefly refer when, in their travels, they speak from hearsay of Burma; and to the Arabs, whose shipping predominated in the eastern seas from the eighth to the sixteenth century, Burma was Arakan and Lower Burma: -

“They say that the king of Rahma (Lower Burma) has fifty thousand elephants. His country produces cloth made of velvety cotton and aloe wood of the sort called Kindi. (Ibn Khordadzbeh years 844-8, Persian traveller from Basra, in Ferrand.) 


“The king of Rahma enjoys no great repute … His troops are more numerous than those of Ballahra, Gudjra and Tekin. They say that when he marches to battle, he is accompanied by about fifty thousand elephants. He campaigns only in winter indeed his elephants cannot stand thirst and so they can go forth only in winter. They say that in his army the washermen amount to between ten to fifteen thousand. In his states are found cloths not found elsewhere; a dress made of such cloth is so fine and light that it can pass through a signet ring. It is of cotton. We have seen a sample. For barter the people use cowries, which form their currency. But gold, silver, aloes are also found and a stuff called camtara (yak hair) whereof fly-flaps are found. The same country produces … the rhinoceros, an animal which has on his forehead a single horn, and in this horn is a human figure…. We have eaten the flesh. He is found in other parts of Ind. but here the horn is more beautiful, often containing the image of a man, peacock, fish or anything else. The Chinese make girdles of this horn and pay high price among themselves, upto three or four thousand dinar and even more according to the figure’s beauty. These horns are bought with cowries. (Sulayman, Year 851 …….)


“In Ind. lies a realm called Rahma, bordering on the sea. Its ruler is a woman. It is revenged by the plague, and any man who comes from elsewhere in Ind. and enters the country, dies there. Yet many come by reason of the great profits to be made. (Ibn al-Fakih, Persian Traveller, Year 900-Ibid.)”

There are some of the extracts from the writings of old Arab and Persian writers, all of whom mentions a place or kingdom which they called Rahma and which Harvey identifies with lower Burma. Other Arab geographers, al-Masudi, al-Idrisi also refer to the kingdom of Rahma and historians of early Bengal have much speculated about the identify Rahma with the kingdom of Dharmapala of the Pala dynasty in Bengal or in other words they identify Rahma with Bengal.[2]


In the golden age of the trading activities of the Arabs, their merchant-vessels used to ply all over the sea- coast from the Red Sea to the Chinese coast, and this golden age of the Arabs continued at least up to the 17th century. With the coming of the Europeans with their superior vessels and huge capital, the Arabs began to lose hold on their eastern trade. It develops upon the geographers and scholars to do researches on all matters connected with trade and commerce, the location and nature of the sea-ports, availability of commodities, their places of origin, price and facts of other nature. In later time, i.e. during the hey-day of European trade with East Indies, European scholars and traders also did the same kind of research for the benefit of their traders. These Arab Geographers refer to various trade centres on the cost of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, although unfortunately most of these places cannot be identified at present with the knowledge at our disposal. The modern scholars have tried to identify two places- Samandar and Ruhmi. The first is identified with Chittagong [3] and the second is identified with both Bengal and lower Burma as we have seen above. Whether or not, the kingdom of Rahma is to be identified with Bengal or Lower Burma, these accounts of the Arab geographers leave no doubt that the Arabs were acquainted with and the Arab traders frequented the ports of Bengal, Arakan, Burma and other coastal kingdoms. If the Arabs visited the Chittagong port, they were also acquainted with Arakan and came into contact with the Arakanese kings. So, the identification of Rahma is immaterial for the purpose of our present study, there is no doubt that the Arabs had contact with Arakan during the 8th to 10th centuries of the Christian era. A part from the general statements of the Arab geographers, there is positive local evidence of the early Arab contact with Arakan. In the Arakanese traditional history, it is stated that in the reign of Mahatoing Tsandaya (788-810 A.D) several Arab ships wrecked off the coast of Rambi Island (Ramree), the Muslim sailors somehow escaped and swam into the shore. In the Arakanese history they are called kula-s or foreigners. When they were taken and produced before the king, the latter allotted a piece of land for them and they were allowed to settle there.[4]


This is the first evidence of the Muslim settlement in Arakan. R.B. Smart writes in the British Burma Gazetteer as follows: [5] “The local histories relate that in the ninth century several ships were wrecked on Ramree Island and the Mussalman crews sent to Arakan and placed in villages there. They differ but little from the Arakanese except in their religion and in the social customs which their religion directs, in the writing they use Burmese, but amongst themselves employ colloquially the language of their ancestors.”


This is a very important piece of evidence regarding the origin of the Rohingyas. These shipwrecked Arab Muslims became the nucleus of the Muslim population of Arakan; later other Muslims from Arabia, Persia and other countries entered into Arakan. The important point to be noticed about these shipwrecked Muslims is that they have stuck to their religion. i.e. Islam and Islamic social customs. Though they used local language and also adopted other local customs, they have retained the language of their ancestors (probably with mixture of local words) in dealing among themselves. Another point to be noted is that the Arab shipwrecked Muslims have retained their religion, language and social customs for more than a thousand years. Later on, of course other Arabs also come in the trading and other pursuits and some of them have stayed on in Arakan and in this way people of Arab blood increased as time passed by. So, the Rohingyas have been staying in Arakan for more than a thousand years. 


Notes and References

1. G.E. Harvey, History of Burma, pp. 9-10.

2. H. Hodivala: Studies in Indo-Muslim History, p.5; Proceedings of the Pakistan History Conference, Karachi Session, 1951, p. 198.

3. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan, Vol. VIII. No. 2, 1963, pp. 13-24

4. JASB, Vol. X. Part I, 1844, p. 36.

5. British Burma Gazetteers. Vol. A, 1917, District Akyab. P. 90.


Professor Abdul Karim M.A. Ph.D. (Dhaka), Ph.D. (London), FASB, was born at village Chapachari, P.S. Banskhali, in the district of Chittagong, Bangladesh. He was educated in the Chittagong Islamic Intermediate College, Dhaka and London Universities. He was in the teaching staff of the Dhaka and Chittagong Universities and was for same years a senior Fellow in the Rajshahi University. He, in turn, occupied the posts of Professor of History, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Vice-Chancellor of the Chittagong University. He has so far published 29 books (9 in English and 20 in Bengali) and more than 200 articles both in Bengali and English.

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