Islamic education is for reconciliation

Prof. S. Sandarasegaram

Prof. S. Sandarasegaram Former Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Colombo

I am very thankful to the Principal of this reputed institution for inviting me to participate in this Founders’ Day function. I have to say that this is not my first visit to Zahira College. I have come here on several occasions, and I have spoken here and I know about this institution for a long time. Your school is reputed owing to many reasons. Products of this school have become highly reputed in this country. There were educationists like Jamaldeen, Sameem, whom I know very well and Professor Sinnathambi who is a renowned scholar in Tamil. Professor Ameer Ali from Kathankudi who is now in Austrialia, who was my teacher, also Professor Uzaimiyah who studied with me is now attached to the University of Darus Salam, Brunei. It was through the old Zahirian, Mr. Sameem who grew up with me in the same town – Badulla and passed away recently, I came to know the achievement of past and present Zahira.

During British Era there were many missionaries set up and there was kind of religious revival in the country. Establishment of Zahira College took place during this period of time. Population had to get admitted in the missionary schools where they had to study under a different religious environment. I think the Muslims were careful and they did not accept English Education. Even in India that was the same. In India, several studies have been made by various scholars about the Muslims in India. One reason for ignoring English education was that they were very much concerned about Madarasa education. Madarasas were not only teaching the religion, but also teaching regular subjects like science, mathematics, law etc..

So Muslims in India and Sri Lanka preferred Madarasa education. They ignored English Education in Sri Lanka but students belonged to other communities took advantage of the English Schools and were able to get government jobs whereas the Muslims were in a backward position as far as education was concerned. This point has been repeatedly expressed by Muslim scholars in Sri Lanka. In the latter part of the 19th century there was a religious revival. Anagarika Dharmpala started his Buddhist philosophical society and he was responsible for the Buddhist revival that took place at that time. Similarly, Tamils like Arumugam Nalavar and some others started the Hindu revival. It was Mr. Siddi Lebbe from Kandy who paid much attention to the backwardness in education of his community and promoted Muslim Education. This was around, I would say in 1875.

It was Mr. Wapichi Marikkar who in fact helped to establish Zahira College but the name was little different, it was a different name and it was only in 1913 I think the name Zahira College came into being. Until then the school was running as a Muslim boys’ school. Due to the religious revival that took place in the later part of 19th century, Muslim leaders came to understand the backwardness of the Muslims and they started establishing schools not only in Colombo but also in other places like Kandy, Badulla and so many places which could be traced. This is the beginning of Zahira.

As I stated earlier the old students of Zahira became very popular and eminent scholars in Sri Lanka. They even became University Professors and I have to tell you that Zahira College was the only educational institution which was teaching Arabic language as a subject and a few students entered the University of Colombo where they studied Arabic language and Islamic studies and they were sent abroad on scholarships. I think they went to Egypt and studied there and came back. And it is really interesting to note that the Department of Islamic studies and Arabic was established as soon the University was established in the year 1942 and this Department is there until today. As a result, other universities like University of Jaffna, Eastern University of Sri Lanka and even Colombo University started their Arabic Departments and now the South Eastern University in Oluwil has a fully-fledged faculty of Arabic and Islamic studies which is a very important development.

At this point, I request the Muslim educationist to study the strengths and weaknesses of Muslim education as this kind of study would help to plan Muslim education in the future. Planning is very important because it is said that “if you don’t plan you are planning for failure”. So you have to plan everything. I think in order to plan such things as far as education is concerned it is very important for us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of Muslim education in Sri Lanka. Now this is not the time for me to speak about the strengths and weaknesses because I have to tell you extensively on Muslim Higher Education in Sri Lanka in 1918’s.

I am very familiar with Muslim Higher Education, some of my colleagues wanted to write about Muslim School Education of Sri Lanka and I have written extensively and I have prepared some research papers on Muslim Higher Education in Sri Lanka. Nowadays, Muslim scholars themselves have taken over and I am little reluctant to do that kind of study and that is why Zahira College has invited me to deliver this lecture. With regard to Zahira College, I have to say that it is one of the most important Private Educational Institutions in Sri Lanka. Because in Sri Lanka after 1960’s, particularly after the takeover of schools the state school system has become very dominant in the School Education System in Sri Lanka and Zahira College was taken over and then because of some judicial affairs it was handed over again to the Muslim management. I think other than Zahira there is no other private institution as such but it is true that quite a good number of international schools are established by Muslims in which students study in English medium but as far as school education is concerned among the schools which are following the national curriculum Zahira College is important.

Another reason which I would like to point out is that Zahira College is very popular and it has a lot of reputation. When talking about the principals, there were highly reputed heads of the school managing Zahira College. Some of them were WapichiMarikkar, T. B Jayah, A.M.A Azeez, Siddi Lebbe and there were others like Orabi Pasha who was banished from Egypt, he came to Sri Lanka and he was helping the Principals of this school to establish Zahira, his name is also very important in the history of Zahira College. T.B. Jayah was also a leader of the school. It is a known fact that once it was proposed to transform Zahira College into a Muslim university, this is a very remarkable development but I have to tell you if you develop Zahira College as a university then we have to abolish this school, this a Tamil experience you know in Jaffna Parameshwara College was transformed into a university and Parameshwara was ultimately lost to the community. I wish to say that before transforming Zahira College into a university you have to think about this point but again there is a need for a Muslim University in Sri Lanka and now if you establish a Muslim university it has to be a separate entity. It should not abolish an existing educational institution.

As far as Private school education is concerned, I have to say that Sri Lankan tradition in recent times, particularly after independence – politically and socially there were lot of criticism against private institution and that was the reason why schools were taken over in 1960 and Sri Lanka went on to establish a national system of education with a state school system. When you say national system of education it is almost similar to a state system of education in which other parties are not allowed to establish schools. In Sri Lanka we have about 100 private schools and then again there are some private schools which are receiving some aid, assistance from the state. There are some schools which don’t receive any assistance. Thus there are two categories of private schools and now there is a third category that is the international schools, functioning outside the state school system. I do not propose to talk about international schools as it is out of place so as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. We are really against private schools which is really not correct.

Nowadays, you find that there is a trend of supporting private education in Sri Lanka because that is the reality throughout Asia. I need not to talk about the US or any other western countries about private education. As far as South Asian situation is concerned, India owns quite a good number of private schools; China is also having a larger share of private schools and so do Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh and Pakistan. All of these countries are encouraging private schools now. To make it very short, I wish to say that in Sri Lanka, we are not rejecting private education in this country, if you go through the recent reports on education put forward by the national educational commission: State support for the growth of private education in Sri Lanka are due multifaceted reasons. The state system of education is unable to meet the social demand, for education in Sri Lanka and that is one reason why Sri Lankan government or the policy makers in Sri Lanka have to support the growth of private education in Sri Lanka. Accordingly private schools are advised to make use of mother tongue as medium of instruction until Grade six. We say English medium education thereafter. Officially we call it bi-lingual education. The children have to learn a few subjects in their mother tongue (Tamil or Sinhala) and they are allowed to learn only 05 subjects in English medium. That is the government policy irreverent to argue about the medium of instruction at this forum but anyhow I have to point it out that international schools are allowed to teach in English Medium and sans any guidelines by the state about the curriculum provide by international schools. International Schools are following the British curriculum or some foreign curriculum with the nod by the policy makers. They are not critical about the curriculum that is being followed. So in a way I would say the government policy too favours private education in Sri Lanka to a certain extent. If you ask me whether we are against private education We are not against Zahira College providing education as private institution but there is a general tendency to put forward views against private education. In this country they say that private education is always having profit as a predominant motive and that is one reason why there is a kind of a view against private education but at the same we have to think about other factors. There are religious bodies, there are voluntary organizations, and there are community based institutions which are also established private educations entities. Zahira is one such example. I can’t say that Zahira is a profit making institution. Muslims have various other means of doing business. Not in education we have to be very mindful of that fact. Muslims have other opportunities they can do other business and they can earn money. Education cannot be considered as a commercial venture. Whereas, Muslims are concerned, I think that they are not of the opinion that the school was established for the purpose of education. Educating poor members of the community was very reason that Zahira College was established by educators.

Now let us switch in to future. Nowadays we talk about futurology. What is this futurology? All the years we were introducing educational reform to the country based on our part experience. We study the past, identify the short comings, identify the demerits of the system and we put forward various recommendations in order to rectify those demerits, but nowadays it is not the case there is a new futurological prospective in reforming education. For instance consider the total population of children in this country. There are approximately 4 million children who are going to live in this country in 2040. By 2040 4 million are not going to be in school they have to leave school and get out of the school and they have to go to the world of work they have to go out to the society. Where are they are going to live? What will be the kind of society in 2040? That is the point, what kind of a society will be having in 2040? What would be the needs of the society in 2040? What would be the challenges and situation by 2040? So now we have to think about what kind of challenges these children have to face. So we have to prepare these children in order to face these situations those needs and those challenges of 2040 that is future.

Now the educationalists are trying to understand the challenges that would be in 2040 and we have to reform our curriculum. We have to adjust our curriculum. We have to introduce certain changes in curriculum to train our children and to educate our children to face that situation in 2040. So this is futurological prospective. So if we go by that you see what will be the future of this country. I can give you some point which Zahira College Leadership can take into account.

Now, we are an emerging knowledge economy. It is true that we were an agricultural economy and we are remnants of agricultural economy. We are also an industrial economy. We have to be mindful that the whole world is moving towards a knowledge economy. Sri Lankan government has also declared that we are going to move towards knowledge economy, it is a declared policy of the government to establish knowledge in this country. Knowledge economy means; we all have to participate in knowledge economy is not only for Sinhalese or Tamils it is for all, so that means Muslims cannot keep away from the knowledge economy. Muslims have to be participants in the knowledge economy; we were just observers when the industrial revolution took place in Europe. We were just observers, Sri Lankans were observers. We were just watching what kind of things were taking place in Europe in the 18th century. I am not sure whether we were aware of the industrial revolution that was taking place in Europe, but now, there is knowledge revolution taking place in the world – throughout the world. How may I explain what is knowledge revolution. You might know about the Cheguevera Revolution – JVP revolution, Cuban revolution, Russian revolution, and then…Green revolution. So many revolutions have taken place in the world. Those are political revolutions sometimes agricultural revolution sometimes Industrial revolutions, but now I’m taking about knowledge revolution. Now a knowledge revolution is taking place throughout the world. What is this knowledge revolution? Knowledge revolution is….to make it brief, I would like to be very brief…. There are two important changes, transformations that are taking place in knowledge. One is that knowledge is produced very quickly, there is an exponential growth of the knowledge in the world, throughout the world knowledge production is taking place, we call it, production, we not only produce goods and services but also we produce knowledge. We are producing knowledge in the field of technology in the field of science, social sciences, humanity…., throughout the world knowledge is being produced by the universities, research institution individuals etc. Then as a result of this production of knowledge there is a knowledge revolution. Another view that I would like to tell you is the fact that from the 19th century to the 20th century it took 50 years to produce a body of knowledge, but now it takes only five years to produce the same body of knowledge, same quantum of knowledge same amount of knowledge, will take only 5 years that means it is very quick and therefore a kind of a knowledge revolution is taking place throughout the word, then another point I wish to tell you…. In the 20th century when knowledge is produced it took about…..say it took several years, as 5 years or 10 years for them to disseminate that knowledge throughout the world. For example if a book is produced in England it will take about 5 years for the book to reach Sri Lanka, and then we have to wait for five years for that book. There was no internet, no email…… no such technologies those days so it took about 5 years, by the time we receive the book the knowledge content becomes out of date, but nowadays the knowledge is spread very quickly. It is disseminated throughout the world in double quick time.

There are two revolutions one is knowledge, then the dissemination of the same production of knowledge. So that means a knowledge revolution is taking place, in knowledge economy a knowledge revolution is very important. So we can’t be just, Muslim community can be just observers of this knowledge revolution that is taking place throughout the world. So in Sri Lanka we Muslims have to be participants in the knowledge economy we have to be participants in the knowledge revolution that is taking place. When I say knowledge economy, knowledge revolution, dissemination of knowledge, education becomes important, so as far as knowledge economy is concerned. I have to tell you about a few characteristics of knowledge economy. So what is knowledge economy? In knowledge economy, knowledge is applied for production purposes, that mean you produce commodity you produce the services making use of knowledge that is available, but during the 19th century and the 20th century we were using capital, land entrepreneurship, so many other factors were used for the production of goods and services. Now I started telling you the characteristics of knowledge economy, the first characteristic is to assimilate the international knowledge, we need high quality education to assimilate the knowledge that is being produced throughout the world, then we have to disseminate that knowledge throughout the society. In this case, Zahira College can do a great service by assimilitating and disseminating knowledge. So these are the characteristics of knowledge economy, and I seriously consider Muslim schools in this counter including Zahira should play a very important role in propagating the idea of knowledge economy and making our children, Muslim children to participate in the knowledge economy as effective and efficient members.

This is my message…… We talk about reconciliation, which is a very important topic. Reconciliation, social integration, ethnic integration, social condition….these are the touch words nowadays. One important reason is that we are thinking of development, we are also formulating policies for development, , but it is a very simple view , in a very simplistic way I can say that without national integration, without social reconciliation, without amity among the ethnic groups it is impossible to become a highly developed country. Singapore became a developed country; it is more than a developed country. Malaysia also has a powerful economy, as a result of reconciliation that took place in these two countries. Also citizens are equal in that country their culture is given equal importance. So many things are there in Sri Lanka. If one wants to develop as a strong country then we have to get the support of all ethnic communities. Muslims have to participate, Sinhalese have to participate, and Tamils also have participated in the process of building an economy. Sri Lankan government has introduced several measures to promote social integration, national reconciliation through education.

I think Zahira College is also aware of that, I think Zahira College is fully equipped to promote the policies put forward by the government. What are those policies? The government would like the children to become trilingual. I think Zahira College is the best place, it is generally said that Muslims are trilingual; they are very fluent in Tamil, Sinhalese and English. There are quite a good number of Muslims who are good at all these three languages. They are literate in Sinhala, Tamil and English also. And some people are also jealous about that. They always talk about this in conferences, which is also true, but that does not mean that all Muslims are alike. There is also a substantial number of Muslims who are trilingual so it is that Zahira College is a very suitable place to promote trilinguilism. I know very well students are studying in English or bilingual medium, studying Sinhala medium and even Tamil medium. So this is a very good example you are showing, it is that we should develop as a good institution, at the same time, we also should develop as a model school, and I think Zahira College is a model in this respect. That is because you are teaching in three languages. I think if you study in this school for 12 or 13 years a child can easily become trilingual. This is one of the corner stones of Sri Lankan policy pertaining to reconciliation. So you are contributing, already you have started contributing towards this end knowingly or unknowingly… is number one factor.

At the same time we are talking multi-culturalism, I think if you trace the history of Zahira, quite a good number of Sinhalese student, good number of Tamil students have studied here. Nowadays, I don’t know the number of Tamil and Sinhalese student, studying here, but you have a good history. If we go through the statistics I find that once upto 1960, 138 students entered the university from Zahira, they entered various faculties, not only the arts faculty, they entered medicine, science and so many faculties. And if you go through their ethnic back ground you find that quite a good number of them where Sinhalese and another 20 or 25 student were Tamils? So that means Zahira was teaching students from all three communities, this also another vital point. And the Sri Lankan government would like to introduce amity schools in this country. There are some experts they say that schools are also partially responsible for the ethnic problems in the country. It is said that the Muslims have their Muslim schools, Tamils have their Tamil schools and Sinhalese are having their Sinhalese schools, but we have to understand that there is a historical justification for the establishment and development of these kinds of schools on ethnic back grounds. There are historical factors involved in this regard, which is difficult to explain. And therefore the government would like to establish new schools called amity schools in which all these children from these three ethnic communities go and study. Government is of that opinion and so do the policy makers. All these children from three different ethnic communities should study together in order to promote reconciliation, but I don’t think you can abolish these Muslim schools, abolish the Tamil schools and integrate all these schools into amity schools. That is not possible and I don’t venture to advocate that kind of policy in this country because that will create more problems in this country, but may be for the future it might be OK. I think in future Zahira, the school authorities can think about accommodating this multifaceted culture. There would be a very peaceful atmosphere here and I think Tamil and Sinhalese children can study peacefully and already they have done so. And another policy is to teach Sinhala to Tamil medium students and vice-versa and that too is taking place. So you are working for reconciliation I’m seriously telling Zahira College is working for reconciliation. So I wish Zahira College to move in this direction following the government policies that were put forward during the recent past.

Recently I was doing a study on Islam in Sri Lanka, so I had to research about the objectives of Islamic studies as I have been involved in the field of education for 4 to 5 decades, I found that the objectives of the Islamic studies are the same like the general education. We talk about education for instance let’s take- citizenship education which enables to develop good human beings, education for socialization, etc. We talk about education in general, but when I studied of Islamic view of education the objectives of Islamic studies I found out that it is the same. There are no such separate objectives for Islamic students, it’s the same. So I find that in Islamic education there is an inherent capacity, inherent trait to produce a good citizen who can live in a multi-cultural society. I found the Muslim students who go to a very good Muslim institution may be a Madarasa or even Zahira College could become a good citizen, a very good human being respecting other ethnic communities, respecting other religions. So in that point of view, Islamic education is itself is for reconciliation. So with these comments I conclude my speech and once again I am very thankful to all of you.

Prof. S. Sandarasegaram is a Former Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Colombo and member of the National Education Commission of Sri Lanka.