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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > The Tamil Heritage > Culture of the Tamils > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Studies> First International Tamil Conference Seminar > Some Aspects of the Muslim Society of Ceylon with Special Reference to the Eighteen Eighties - A. M. A. Azeez
First International Tamil Conference - Seminar
Some Aspects of the Muslim
Society of Ceylon with
[see also Muslims & Tamil Eelam ]
1. Muslims During the Medieval Period of Ceylon
"Before the end of the 7th century, a colony of Muslim merchants
Being great intermediaries of the trade between Europe and Asia, these settlers were valued for the commercial contacts they gained abroad for Ceylon and the economic stimulus they gave to local trade by the introduction of new crafts and improved methods of transport.5 As these Muslim settlers entertained no schemes of "temporal or spiritual conquest of Ceylon,5a the rulers and the peoples developed towards them a friendly and tolerant attitude; this favoured the growth of Muslim settlements along the coastal areas of Ceylon, where they lived in peace and prosperity, maintaining contacts, both cultural and commercial, with Baghdad and the other centres of the Muslim World.6
It is significant that the heyday of the Abbasid Caliphate was contemporaneous with the zenith of "the classical age of Sinhalese power."6a
After the 10th century, the Abbasid Empire was on the decline, while in Ceylon dynastic rivalries promoted political instability. As a result, Arab (Muslim) activities in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf and the Indian Ocean diminished immensely. In the Muslim World,6b Egypt was gaining prominence and Cairo replacing Baghdad as the Islamic Centre; there was, however, no lasting relationship between Egypt and Ceylon; and the one mission in 1283 from Bhuvaneka Bahu I to the Sultan of Egypt produced no results of consequence.7
But Muslim influences in Ceylon did not entirely cease on account of the more important development of the growth of (Arab) Muslim commercial activity along the Malabar Coast.8 The Muslims of Ceylon therefore came to rely largely for their contact with the Muslim World on Malabar, where at this time existed Muslim communities, of Arabs and converted Indians, culturally and socially distinct from the others of this area.
As a result of the increasing contacts, commercial and cultural, with these Muslims of Malabar, a new element, a South Indian one, was added into the composition of the Muslim (Arab) society of Ceylon, which lost its exclusively Arab character.9
Its communal integrity and cultural identity was however preserved, inspite of the racial admixture that now took place and the new manners and habits now acquired, on account of the large measure of autonomy they possessed in the governance of their affairs in their coastal settlements, where the practice of their laws and customs was freely allowed. This enabled them to cherish effectively the memory of their Arab origin and maintain unimpaired their religion of Islam as the base of their social structure."....the unifying influence of their religion has helped the descendants of these early Arab settlers to preserve a distinctive race consciousness..... "10
During the 14th century, the Sinhalese kings relied on these Muslims to ward off attacks by the Tamils from the North; with the decline of the Tamil power during the 15th century, the Muslims came to play an important role in the politics of the country and to occupy a dominant position in the trade, both internal and external, of Ceylon. "Their influence also spread to the interior. They took to peddling goods from ports to the hinterland and from the villages back to port."11 Not only were new settlements founded by them along the coast but village settlements in the interior also came into existence.11a
2. During the First Three Centuries of Western Domination
The European discovery and control during the 16th century of the oceanic route to India, via the Cape of Good Hope, not only signified the supersession of the thalassic age by the oceanic, but also effected a vital change in Asian politics.11b
It presaged the decline and fall of Muslim commercial supremacy in the Indian Ocean, as well as the advent and dominance of European naval power.12
When the Portuguese confronted the Muslims of Ceylon in 1505, they were a virile community, possessed of the monopoly of the Island's external trade and the near monopoly of its internal trade.13 They were regarded by the Portuguese as their formidable rivals in trade 14 and in faith their sworn enemies.14a
Therefore they were determined to destroy the commercial and political power of these Muslims, by expelling them from Ceylon, and thereafter to give them no footing in their (Portuguese) possessions, which in their view included not merely the lands concerned, but in contrast to the Muslim view, also the seas adjoining.15 The Muslims were thus compelled to take refuge in the territory of the Kandyan Kingdom which comprised "the central highlands and the eastern coast."16 Thus they who had been merchants now became farmers or hawkers.
And the Kandyan kings who could not allow their kingdom to become "an island within an Island", a land-locked dominion without an outlet to the ocean, came in turn to rely on these Muslims to undermine the policy of 'encirclement', that was the ultimate objective of the Portuguese and later of the Dutch and the British; thus emerged a new identity of interests between two indigenous communities, the Kandyan Sinhalese and the Muslims.17
The Dutch who superseded the Portuguese as rulers of the 'seaboard' were determined to exploit the commercial potentialities of Ceylon to the utmost possible extent. Profit was their sole motive, unlike the Portuguese to whom conquest and conversion were additional attractions. Therefore the Dutch promoted the cultivation of coconut and other products, developed canal communications, created monopolies of several trades, such as elephants, chanks, and competed in the "carrying trade" between South India and Ceylon.
They were not prepared to give the Muslims even a small share of their commercial gains; therefore they were not allowed to reside freely, without permits and passes, taxes and death duties, within the commercial areas, and especially Colombo or to continue their coastal trade.18
And yet the Dutch could not completely succeed in extinguishing the trade of the Muslims. Besides, the revenue derived from them by way of licences and taxes and the services exacted from them as soldiers and gem and pearl experts etc. compelled the Dutch, during the later years of their occupation to be somewhat less oppressive and ambivalent in their attitude towards these Muslims.19
To them the Portuguese on their arrival in Ceylon had given "an
oddly anomalous term"19a "the meaningless designation of
This same group of Muslims, now called Moors and during the early British period sometimes `Moormen' had been known previously as `Sonahar' derivable from `Sonaham' or `yavanam'.20a But from the Portuguese period onwards the term 'Moor' had come into vogue, used frequently as synonym for `Mahometans' or Muslims. 21 The Portuguese "divided mankind into Catholics, heretics, heathens and Moors." 21a
The term 'Moor', while it connotes unequivocally a member of a religious group professing Islam as their faith, in Ceylon usage, means one belonging to a racial group of Muslims, of Arab ancestry. Thus it has in addition, an ethnological connotation an aspect highlighted by the arrival, during the Dutch period, of the Malays, who, though Muslims themselves, were ethnologically different.21b
"The Malays whose numbers are very small, were originally imported to Ceylon from Java by the Dutch for military service, and some were Javanese princes and their attendants deported there (to Ceylon) for political reasons."22 So that at the beginning of the 19th century, the term 'Moor' or `Moormen' connoted all Mohamedans (Muslims), other than the Malays indigenous to Ceylon, apart from about 6 Moors who were not Muslims.23 Thus confirming that the term Moor, has a connotation, both religious and ethnological, the former prevailing. These Moors had been 'natives', an integral part or unit of Ceylon since about the close of the 7th century.24
In 1796 the British displaced the Dutch as the Dutch had previously superseded the Portuguese. But when the Kandyan territory which had so far remained independent came under the British Sovereign in 1815, there occurred an essential political change; namely, for the first time after several centuries, the entire Ceylon came under the sway of one political power. In consequence with the loss of Kandyan independence in 1815 the identity of interests that had existed previously throughout for about three centuries, between the Moors and the Kandyans ceased.
Besides, the trade policy of the new Western power, (namely the British) was much less unfavourable to the Moors than that of the Dutch. The Moors were now able to pursue, without positive hindrances, their coastal and "carrying" trades (between the ports of Ceylon and between (the ports of) Ceylon and South India respectively). In internal trade, the mercantilist policy of the Dutch was tending to give way under the British to a laissez-faire approach. The Moors thus found themselves on the whole, in a much better position than they had been under the Dutch.
The circumstances leading to the promulgation of the Code of Mohamedan Laws of 1806 25 had raised hopes in their minds that there would be no danger to their survival. These hopes now seemed quite possible of fulfilment, with the repeal in 1832, by the British Governor, of the Dutch proclamation, prohibiting the Moors from possessing houses and grounds within the commercial areas of Colombo.26
Almost simultaneously came the administrative unification of the whole of Ceylon and the abolition of rajakariya (forced labour) and of trade monopolies, in pursuance of the recommendations of the Colebrook Commission (1831-1832). With these a new era opened for the Moors of Ceylon. Western domination was hereafter not going to be specially oppressive to them; they could now feel they would no longer be singled out for obnoxious discrimination; and could now equally with the other communities of Ceylon, share the opportunities and also suffer the disabilities of the new (British) colonial rule.
3. The Five Decades Preceding (1832 1882)
A. Economic Stagnation Despite Opportunities of Employment
During the five decades preceding the Eighties, the economy of Ceylon underwent a fundamental change, which had been set in motion by the abolition of rajakariya and trade monopolies, and by the opportunities which were made available thereby to entrepreneurs and private investors. This change was accelerated by the special encouragement given to the investment of foreign capital, essentially British, and to the immigration of foreign labour, entirely Indian.
During this period, Ceylon witnessed the rise of the plantations and the gradual transformation of a feudal community into a commercial capitalist society; coffee became the principal and profitable export crop, at first cultivated in small plots and later in larger plantations on lands freshly opened up.27
The increased sea-borne trade with the West resulting from the rise of the plantations was stimulated by the construction of a net-work of roads commenced during the time of the Governor, Sir Edward Barnes (1824 -1831) and by the construction of the railway lines begun in 1867. This trade was further stimulated by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and by the construction of the Colombo Harbour (1873-1882).
As a result Colombo became increasingly important as "the centre of Government and trade, and to an almost exclusive degree, of manufacture, of the operations connected with the preparation for the market of the chief products of the Island and can rightly be included in that term."27a Specially benefitted were the Moors, on account of their traditions of trade and the lands they had acquired in the city of Colombo.
Moors were also found outside, "residing wherever the localities point a fair opening for trade or traversing the remote and secluded districts, to barter manufactured commodities for the produce of the interior."28
But the planting industry did much more for Ceylon, apart from the remarkable increase in the volume of the Island's external trade; it caused in addition, an increase in population, a rise in revenue and an expansion in the internal trade; besides it created new avenues of employment to the peoples (`natives') of Ceylon. The material progress of the country in particular of the planting districts, was thus immensely promoted.29
The Moors, though they much profited by this expansion of trade, both external and internal, do not appear to have taken sufficient advantage of the new enterprises which the planting industry brought in its train, such as contracts and work connected with buildings, transport and storage, investments in lands near plantations.29a
The commercial buoyancy of the Moors, so well evidenced by the dominant position they occupied in Pettah,30 the centre of general merchandise, as well as by the monopoly, they held, of the increasingly flourishing gem trade, blinded them to their economic stagnation. They were oblivious of the far-reaching consequences of the changing pattern in the economy of Ceylon.
Not only did they not venture into new fields available but also signally failed to improve their methods in business and trade; besides they were ignoring the implication of the serious competition they would soon be compelled to face as a result of the immigration in substantial numbers, from India, both North and South, of business men, both Hindus and Muslims, some of them Gujerati-speaking.31
B. Communal Unity in the Midst of Ethnological Diversity of the Muslims of Ceylon
The position was different with regard to the other section (or group) of the Muslim society the Malays. When the Dutch capitulated to the British, the Malay soldiers joined the British regiments, especially formed, and in later years augmented with recruits from Malaya.31a
On their disbandment in 1873, many of these Malays obtained employment under Government (especially in the Police Department) and in the European firms and plantations. The high proportion of the Malays in Government service is largely attributable to the knowledge of English they had acquired in the regimental schools they attended. 32 The Moors, on the other hand, were poorly represented in Government service. Even in 1901 out of a thousand Moors 16 were in Government employment, whereas out of a thousand Malays 263 were in Government employment.
But their (Moors and Malays) religious unity transcended this occupational disparity and other diversities, ethnological and liguistic. Though their home-languages were different, they attended the same schools and the same mosques; they were both governed by the same laws, e.g. the Mohamedan Code of 1806, and they observed the same festivals. Inter-marriages were common33; and specially in non-urban areas; their merger was easy.33a
C. New and Neglected Opportunities of Education
The new opportunities of education were, more or less, contemporaneous with the new opportunities of employment and they reacted on each other. The economic stagnation of the Muslims was largely due to their educational backwardness. To this was attributable the unfortunate incomprehension on their part of the changing pattern of the country as well as their lack of the essential education qualifications required for the large majority of the new occupation created by the economic changes. They were thus ill-equipped educationally on account of their attitude towards the Christian missionaries.33b
During the Seventies the Missions were having "few English and many vernacular schools and the Government more English schools and fewer vernacular," but during the Eighties, as a result of retrenchment brought about by the decline of 'King Coffee', some of the Government Schools were taken over by the missionary organisations and others ceased to exist.34 The `ridiculously small' attendance at schools of the children of the Muslims could be explained by their unwillingness, born of "the spirit of exclusiveness or separatism" to which the fear of conversion largely contributed. The Muslims were not unaware of the number of the Sinhalese and Tamil Christians increasing from year to year.
The Muslims therefore concluded that the cause of conversion to Christianity was English education in missionary institutions. They were prepared to forego the advantages of such education rather than risk the faith of their children. 34 The Mohamedan parent often chooses for his son while at school an education which will secure for him honoured place among the learnedof his own community rather than one which will command success in modern profession or in official life.
The years given to English and mathematics in a public school the young Mohamedan devotes to Arabic and the law and the theology of Islam. It is in High Schools and the higher standards that the absence or backwardness of Mohamedans is most conspicuous."35 Without English education it was not possible for the Muslims to take their due share in the general life of the country; as a result their political contribution was quite insignificant.
Not a single name of theirs seems to be associated with the agitation for constitutional reforms, that followed the resignation of the unofficial members of the Legislative Council in 1864 on the question of the military expenditure vote.35a No contribution of any significance seems to have been made by the Muslims to the agitation that was carried on during the Sixties and Seventies in respect of the Colombo Breakwater.
Though the Municipal Council was established in 1865 there was no Muslim member till 1876 and in the Legislative Council till 1889. Due to the absence of a paper of their own36 and owing to their general ignorance of the English language, the Muslims were oblivious of the changes that were taking place in the Muslim World; thus it was not possible for them to assess the situation, how an Europe energized by the Industrial Revolution was confronting a Turkey, once upon a time a great Muslim power, now out of date in knowledge and technology and riven with revolts.
Due to their cultural isolation even from neighbouring India, that had dated from the days of the Portuguese advent, their Muslim Theological Institutions, whose curricula in their heyday included several secular subjects,36a had deplorably deteriorated in standards. In consequence the Muslims became religiously obscurantist and intellectually sterile.
D. The Role of the Jum'a Mosque
If the Muslims had, as a result of the neglect, wilful neglect, of English education, put up a strong resistance to Westernization, and thereby lost many new opportunities of advancement, they had at the same time, by their imperviousness to proselytisation, successfully kept intact the confines of their fold, an accomplishment amply testified in the Census figures of 1881.
One of the factors contributory to this was the high veneration in which the Muslims held Jesus Christ with their own tenaciously-held version of his role, so vastly different from the Christians.37 Another factor was the socio-religious organisation, centred on the Jum'a mosque 37a functioning autonomously in every Muslim area, whether town or village.
In spite of the difficulties, political and economic, experienced by the Muslims since 1505, this organization, though without any central direction or elaborate rules of procedure, was kept intact even when migrations of Muslims took place within the Island, resulting from the severity of persecutions or the denial of employment. This was possible on account of the general piety of the local Muslims and the successful effort through their religious discourses of the Alims, men learned in Arabic and Islam.
Though not many in number, they were much respected as religious leaders; they wielded great influence on the Muslims of their generation.38 To many of the mosques were attached the mosque schools, much favoured in preference to the Government or missionary vernacular schools. Besides, the mosque authorities, in theory and in practice to some extent democratically chosen, were able to act as unofficial arbitration courts in many matters.38a Thus was the communal integrity of the Muslims the Moors and the Malays preserved.
4. The Eighties (1880 1889)
A. The Indigenous, Indian and Islamic Influences on the Muslim Awakening in Ceylon
The Buddhists and the Hindus of Ceylon had, by this time, woken to the diminution of their folds by the large number of converts to Christianity; for this the schools managed by the Christian missionaries were greatly responsible. Besides, the lure of the rulers' culture, the advantages of the English language, and the superiority of Western technology had all combined to cast a spell on the Buddhists and the Hindus, which, if continued unbroken, would undermine the foundations of their cultures.
For their survival with self-respect and strength, they found it necessary not only to revive their ancient learning and literature so intimately associated with their cultures but also devise a modus vivendi in which there was a satisfactory reconciliation between Western values and Eastern faiths. "With the arrival of Colonel Olcott in 1880, the Buddhists found an efficient leader who was capable of translating their religious and national aspirations to action, through a well conceived plan and programme.
Supported strongly by Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera, he organised an Island-wide movement for a system of Buddhist schools. Half a century of Christian dominated English education had convinced the Buddhists that, if any headway could be made in winning for the Buddhists their rightful place in society it was achievable only through a well-knit system of Buddhist schools."39 The Muslims were not unaware of these efforts. 40
The Hindus of Ceylon had in Sri La Sri Arumuga Navalar (1822 -1879) a leader who made an effective use of some of the methods successfully adopted by the Christian missionaries; he countered their efforts by the prasangams Saivite sermons he delivered, by the several schools he established where education could be imparted in a Hindu environment, by the printing press he founded, by the tracts and pamphlets he published, by the Readers and catechisms he produced, by the Tamil classics he critically edited, by the new prose-style he created and by the dialectical skill he displayed in his polemical writings.
In 1872 he established the Saivangila Vidyasalai the Anglo-Hindu School where English was taught with the necessary religious background. Though the school did not endure beyond four years, the example was not lost on his generation; for before the close of the century, was reborn as Jaffna Hindu College, providing inspiration for several Anglo-Hindu schools to follow in the ensuing years. 41
Navalar wrote in Tamil, in a prose-style, new, easy and popular; and Tamil was the only language known to the large majority of the Muslim literates, both Moors and Malays. Navalar's influence on Muslim thinking may be gauged from the tribute paid to him in an editorial of the Muslim Naisen for his simplified grammar of the Tamil language and from the views strongly expressed there, that books should be published not so much in verse, which would benefit only the Vidvans the learned but in prose, that would prove profitable to all.42
The Muslims were also generally aware of the far-sighted measures that had been taken by Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) to promote modern education among the Mussulmans (Muslims) of the Indian subcontinent. His crowning glory was the founding in 1875 of the Anglo Mohamedan College at Aligarh, where English education was imparted in an Islamic environment.43
Continued in four issues of the Muslim Naisen is a biographical sketch of Syed Ahmad Khan; in this sketch is particularly stressed his attitude towards English education and the bitter opposition he suffered from the obscurantists among his co-religionists. His exposition, in a published work, of the life of the Holy Prophet of Islam with view to countering some of the worst prejudices and misrepresentations then in vogue, and his explanations on the plan and programme of the Aligarh institution received special attention in this biographical sketch.
Although there is no pointed reference to the current relevance of his thought and activities in the Muslim context of Ceylon, the readers of the Muslim Naisen could not have failed to draw the necessary parallels and conclusions. 44 But to the few English educated Muslims, the name of Syed Ahmad Khan should have been quite familiar for several years previously and M. C. Siddi Lebbe, Proctor of Kandy (1838-1898) would be no exception.
Siddi Lebbe was a pioneer in the promotion of modern education among the Muslims of Ceylon. For this purpose he started an Arabic-Tamil Weekly.45 In its inaugural editorial, dated 21 December 1882 he stressed that while the other communities were steadily progressing educationally and otherwise, the Muslims, in contrast to their Arab forbears, were daily deteriorating in every sphere; therefore he exhorted his co-religionists to awake, arise and stop not till the educational goal was reached.46
In the same issue there was a news item announcing the impending arrival of Arabi Pasha; before the next issue was published on 22 January 1883, Arabi Pasha had already arrived. He who is today hailed as the Father of Egyptian Nationalism was then banished to Ceylon as an exile. Though Ceylon was selected by the British authorities for no particular reason, Arabi Pasha, when he came to know of this choice, remembered Ceylon as "the Paradise of Adam.47 On his arrival, he was given a royal welcome 48 by the Muslims and throughout his stay in Ceylon (1883-1901) he was their guide, philosopher and friend.49 On the day of his arrival itself, he was most anxious that the children of the exiles, both sons and daughters as well, should have all the advantages of English instruction.
At the interview he granted Siddi Lebbe a few days later,50 Arabi Pasha was apprised of the educational situation confronting the local Muslims and was successfully prevailed upon to use his prestige and position for the promotion of modem education among his co-religionists. Arabi Pasha had known the effects of the educational reforms undertaken in Egypt during the early years of the 19th century.
He had also known at first hand the problems of Pan-Islam, at that time closely associated with the Sultan of Turkey;51 of these the Muslims of Ceylon through him gained knowledge. They were not therefore going to be as opposed to English education as before, nor were they hereafter going to be culturally isolated. The accidental choice of Ceylon as the Egyptian's place of exile had thus produced consequences unintended. Arabi Pasha's discourses and exhortations had a catalystic effect on the progress of the Muslims of Ceylon.52
B. The First Anglo-Mahomedan School and the 'Muslim Naisen'
The Muslim Naisen, started by Siddi Lebbe almost simultaneously with the arrival of Arabi Pasha, began to exert a great influence on the community; it had the support of Arabi Pasha; it kept the readers in touch with the affairs of the Muslim world; it had subscribers throughout Ceylon and in South India, Singapore and Penang.53 On 8 October 1884 was established the first Anglo-Mahomedan School 54 and at a meeting of the Muslims of Colombo where Arabi Pasha himself was present, efforts were made to organize an endowment-fund and enlarge the institution; it was named Al-Madrasatul-Hairiyatul-Islamiyya 55 and a committee was formed for its efficient management.
The establishment of this institution was specially commended as an event of great significance to the Muslim community in the Ceylon News of 20 November 1884.56 The problem of the languages in the curriculum of the Ceylon Muslim pupils also engaged the attention of Siddi Lebbe; he advocated radical reforms in the methods of teaching the Holy Quran and the Arabic language; and explained that in the circumstances obtaining the Muslims should acquire a knowledge of Arabic, Tamil, English and Sinhala.57 These are views expressed in 1886, but are surprisingly topical.
5. The Eighties The Seed - Time of Progress
The establishment of this school in 1884 reflected the changed attitude of the Muslims and their striving for progress. The Muslims were no longer apathetic; they had realized that they were lagging behind their sister communities; they were now prepared to accept Governmental recognition in the matter of the registration of their marriages, even though a few of them strongly argued that it was wanton interference with the practice of their religion.58 They began to feel that the self-respect of the community and the extreme need for the preservation of its integrity demanded the presence of a Muslim in the Ceylon Legislative Council.59 They agitated and succeeded in 1889 when the Government decided that one of the two new unofficial members of the Council should represent the Mohamedan community.60
This agitation and the discussions that preceded the Ordinance No. 2 of 1888 dealing with the registration of Muslim marriages 61 showed that there was social consciousness roused among the Muslims of Ceylon; there was a fundamental change in their attitude towards modern education; they had now become alive, during the decade, to the quest for solutions of their chief problems. It could therefore be concluded that this decade the Eighties was the seed-time of the progress achieved during the subsequent years.