A Journey through History of Muslims in Sri Lanka

Education beyond the Digital Era

Prof. Rizvy Sheriff

Vidya Jyothi Mohamed Hussain Rezvi Sheriff, FRCP (Lon), FRCP (Edin), FRACP, FCCP, FSLCGP, FNASSL

Let me thank the Principal and the organizers of this Founders Day for having invited me to be the orator for this year. I had some difficulties in choosing a subject for this evening. I have decided to talk on a “Journey through History of museums in Sri Lanka to Education beyond the Digital era”. Firstly as I was planning to say a few words on some aspect of the need to establish our long history of existence in this country particularly in view of recent issues the community has to face. Some of these events have been captured by Mr. M I M Mohideen in these illustrated books.

It was being heard that we who participated in the full life of this country for well over 1500 years were being questioned now as to “what have we done for this country as a Muslim community” by some ill informed Buddhist priests backed by powerful politicians.

Although it seems to be superficially sorted out there is a need to put our record straight and rather than be complacent as a community.

I with the few other friends have resolved that Sri Lankan Muslims History which is written piecemeal needs aauthoritative historical record.

Certain regional community leaders have put on record for eg: books about Malvana Muslims, Eravur Muslims, Galle Muslims etc. but, we need several researched books on many aspects of the mark we have left in this country. I must commend very well research articles and books written by Mr. Asif Hussein on various aspects of occupational life of Sri Lankan Muslims from Ancient to modern times. More recent events in the historical landscaped of Sri Lankan Muslims has been captured effectively in the books and article written by Mr. Lathif Farook.

I also came across a very well researched article written by Ms. RamlaWahab on “Sonahar” – An exploration of the History of coastal moors of Ceylon (801 – 1658) in the Kadirgamar Review volume II 2014.

We have now formed a “Core Committee on the History of Muslims in Sri Lanka” and these days on the lookout for others who could contribute authenticated stories/ Scenarios which can enrich our true contribution to this country in various spectres of life. In every field be it business, the Professions, Crafts, Buildings, Agriculture, Political Leadership etc. we have contributed although not clearly documented. We see Muslims names such as Akbar town, Issadeen town and several roads and buildings named after Muslims who contributed to the common good in this country but, information about them is fast dwindling even amongst the Muslim public.

I must place on record a similar thought which occurred to late Marhoom Naleem Hadjiar of Beruwala who commissioned Dr. Shukri the Director of Naleemia Institute and funded a three day congress meeting of renowned historians of that time including Late Mrs. Lorna Devarajah. Dr. Shukri edited the collection of essays readout at this congress and this volume is considered a monumental contribution.

What is necessary was to document a good historical record written by historians. This new committee hopes to attract all those who wish to contribute to contact us. I wish to acknowledge an excellent piece of work by politician Mr. Hisbullah who has setup a heritage museum in Kaathankudy with many historic information.

Just for the record let me quote from the Transaction of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland volume I page 534 a letter written by Sir Alexander Johnston, Knt,., V.P. R. A S. Feb 3rd 1827.

“I have the honour to send you a facsmile of an inscription in Arabic found in Colombo (see slide) He states of the rich trade between the Mohammedan traders of Ceylon and Mohammedan capitalists of the coast of Malabar, Coromandel and Malacca a great
emporium of their trade in India. This trade has existed from end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 15th
century. It is likely that the Portuguese invasion of Ceylon and their animosity to Muslim Sailors and traders created
break up of this trading dominance.

This letter also quotes that Arabs from the house of Hashim in the early part of the 08th century during the tyrannical reign of Caliph Abdul Melek ben Merwan came down the Euphrates and made settlement in southern parts of Indian and in the Island of Ceylon and Malacca. It is recorded that 08 groups of them settled in Trincomale, Jaffna, Mannar, Coodramalle, Puttalam, Colombo, Beruwala (Baberyn) and one at Point de Galle.

So in the light of these writings of Sir Alexander Johnston to the Secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society on the Feb 3rd 1827 these historical documents were so useful to challenge the statement made by Mr. Ramanadhan in 1885 in Ceylon legislative Council and later in 1988 in the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) where he announced that the Ceylon Moors were Tamils in nationality and Mohammedan in religion.

It was the love of his community and the desire to remove as far as possible the misconception as to the origin and the period of
settlements in Sri Lanka (1200 plus in this record) which led Marhoom I L M Abdul Azeez one of the founders of Zahira College we celebrate today who republished the book titled “Criticism of Mr. Ramanadhans “Ethnology of the moors of Ceylon” which was originally published by MICH in 1957.

Lorna Devaraja in her articles date evidence of Arab coins of over 1600 years. I have read out to you small example of why documenting a comprehensive history of Muslims in Sri Lanka is so important for the future and I hope many of you listening here would pass on the message to interested person so that they can add to a collaborative effort. We would also like to receive small articles or photocopies or source material or other published works of any useful information in any of the three languages to be sent to our convener. Your contribution will be appropriately acknowledged.

I now wish to engage on some historical remarks on Muslim Education. In the early days the Mohammedans were largely involved in trade this was not only retail trade within the country but also they held lead position in maritime trading and import and export. They enjoyed a respected position in royalty because of their relationship with Arabian and Persian trade counter parts and their dominance as seafarers. It was only after Portuguese invasion leading to Muslims persecution that they lost some of their trading influence. Even today the community as whole have not lost their business abilities and marketing skills.

Education in English, Education of Muslim girls, Employment in the government sector have all been slow to be imbibed by the Muslim community much later than the Tamils and the Sinhalese in this country. Many of Zahira College founders have been in the forefront on promoting Muslim children to educate themselves in general education in the early part of the 20th century. There was an upward trend in MADRAZA education all over the country along with religious revival. Zahira College was born as part of the efforts of the Aligarh movement which played a vital role in generating the ideal of education and modern reflection among the then leaders of Muslims in Sri Lanka. In this struggle M C Siddhi lebbe A M Wapichichi Marikkar and Orabi Pasha the exiled Egyptian founded Zahira on 22 August 1892 (124 years ago) A M A Azeez quoted that in the history of Muslims education this date will be a memorable one. Buddhists under the leadership of Anagharika Dharmapala and the Hindus under the leadership of Armughanagawal soon followed by the Muslims as mentioned, marked the establishment of modern English education. C W W Kannangara was the father of free Education to all which gave the Sinhala majority early access to education in Sinhala. The Muslims at that time wanted their children to follow the father’s business and female child was protected and kept at home after only elementary education. There were fears that English Education Meant Christianity education.

I would be failing in my duty if I did not mention the names of Dr. Badiudden Mahmud, Dr. Dahanayake, SirRazik Fareed who have all helped in various ways to upgrade education of Muslims in Sri Lanka, Female education, and absorbing Muslims as Teachers.
What happened at Zahira in the meantime was development of infrastructure, Development of Hostel excellent principals such as T B Jayah and Senator A M A Azeez saw the glorious days of Zahira in Education, Sports and extracurricular activities. Maharoom Azeez’s vision was for Zahira to be “A center of Islamic culture and thought”.

Subsequently the changes in the educational system, conversion to fully private school etc. Zahira went through hard times. I have myself been a governor during some difficult times and I am happy that my close relative Mr. Fowzul Hameeda well known business entrepreneur is now the head of affairs and there is visible rapid growth in infrastructure new buildings and sport complexes.

I think we do not yet have the educational revival we expect. We must raise Zahira to a higher level with greater educational output. More children must enter university from our A / level classes. It must become an important responsibility of the teaching staff and the parents to focus on studies right through their school career whilst not neglecting a sport and extracurricular activities. The parents in particular must keep a close tabs on their children and keep them focused on learning activities.

Schools education is also undergoing much change worldwide. Children are being introduced early to activity based education in the primary classes and computer based education later on. The World Wide Web is a great source of information if used responsibly. Online education program are now available to all grades in many spheres of learning. Learning management systems for a example the Moodle helps teachers interact with students even after hours at weekends and holidays. It encourages small group discussions between students on the subject matters whilst the written discussion being visible to the teacher.

Even Examinations are being done in a computer interface rather than paper and pen and marking of answer script being easy by scanning answer sheets and quick release of results.

Thus in this digital age even Zahira needs to invest in computer laboratory and maybe I would like to hear that every A/level students would be caring his laptop to classes which are WIFI enabled. I am sure the culture of learning in this environment has to be encouraged and misuse of such facilities should be viewed with serious concern. It becomes the responsibility of teachers to ensure that students are familiar with the ethics and decency in communication proper use of social media and avoid being mischievous and getting in to trouble with the police. E learning and M learning is futuristic.

So once again let me thank the organizers for inviting me and giving me an opportunity to inspire some Zahirians and the audience on the importance of Sri Lankan Muslims history. This is a huge task and would require some interested student to do PhDs in this subjects supervised by learned Professors in history and even study historical sources in India, Egypt and West. In our committee we felt we would be happy to support two PhD students. So, this is an open invitation to two Zahirian graduates who are capable and interested in Muslim history to take up the challenge.

As Zahira College was in the forefront of reforming Muslim education and some of those Founders have contributed to Muslim history I got this opportunity to talk about them. Lastly at the request of the organizers for me to say few words on teaching in this digital age I feel I have tried to recommend it to Zahirians as well. However educated we are we should not forget our total subservience to our Lord Allah and that all knowledge flows from Allah and expect every Zahirians who passes out of this school to be a good citizen of Sri Lanka respecting other ethnic communities and their religions and make a special effort to follow Quran and Hadees as our final goal should be to reach Jinathulfirdouz.

I sincerely thank my teachers at Zahira College where I did my primary education which is an important phase of education of early moulding of culture, religion, behaviour and motivation for studies in an Islamic environment.

Thank you again. Assalamaliukum.

Vidya Jyothi Mohamed Hussain Rezvi Sheriff, FRCP (Lon), FRCP (Edin), FRACP, FCCP, FSLCGP, FNASSL is a Sri Lankan academic and physician. He was the Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine; Senior Professor of Medicine; Head of the Department of Clinical Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. He was also a Consultant Physician and Nephrologist National Hospital Sri Lanka.