Dossier 21: Ethnic Identity, Religious Fundamentalism and Muslim Women In Sri Lanka

Publication Author: 
M.A. Nuhuman
February 1999
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1. Introduction:

An attempt is made in this paper to trace the development of ethnic consciousness and religious fundamentalism among Sri Lankan Muslims and the bearings of this development on Sri Lankan Muslim women.*

At the outset, I should clarify the use of the terms ethnic consciousness and fundamentalism. Both these terms are very popular and controversial in the current socio-political discourse. There are a number of definitions and disagreements about them. However, I use the term ethnic consciousness to refer to the awareness of group identity of a community, whether it be racial, national, tribal or religious aroused by political motivation and confrontation with other communities. I use the term fundamentalism to refer to a politico-religious phenomenon which emerges and exists in a religious community, the existence of which is challenged by some internal or external socio-political forces.

The core of fundamentalism, as Dilip Hiro (1989: 1-2) states it, is "the effort to define the fundamentals of a religious system and adhere to them." The form of fundamentalism varies from religious revivalism to extremist political movements. Islamic fundamentalism has acquired a derogatory meaning in the current Western political discourse mainly because of the fundamentalist political resistance against Western dominance in the Middle East. In this paper, however, I treat fundamentalism as a historically determined political ideology which has its roots in a specific socio-political environment of a religious community.

Ethnic identity and religious fundamentalism are inseparable and the two sides of the same coin as far as Sri Lankan Muslims are concerned. Before we consider the subject, the use of the term Sri Lankan Muslims should be clarified. Because 'Muslims' is a cover term which refers to a people who follow the religion of Islam, there is a confusion as to whether the Sri Lankan Muslims are an ethnic community or a religious community. According to Izeth Hussain (1993), since 'Muslim' is a religious categorisation, "it is incorrect to regard the Sri Lankan Muslims as constituting an ethnic group". Quadri Ismail (1995) too has argued that the Sri Lankan Muslim identity has changed from a racial into a religious one over the past few decades.

Traditionally and officially Muslims of Sri Lanka were identified as five different ethnic communities namely, Ceylon/Sri Lankan Moors, Indian/Coast Moors, Malays, Borahs and Memons. The latter two groups are North Indian business communities settled in Sri Lanka during the British rule and constitute less than 0.5% of the total Muslim population. They speak Gujarati and Urdu for their in-group communication and they are exclusively endogamous." Malays who settled in Sri Lanka came from Java and Malay peninsular mostly during the Dutch period. They were brought by the Dutch as either political exiles or to serve in their military establishment (Hussainmiya 1990:38). They constitute 3.83% of the total Muslim population and maintain their separate ethnic identity, though there is a tendency to assimilate with local Muslims through 'inter-marriages.

The term Moors (or its Tamil equivalent Sonakar) is not currently used by the Sri Lankan Muslims (Ceylon/Coast Moors) to refer to themselves. I do not think that the community as a whole ever used the term Moors to refer to themselves. It is a term first used by the colonial rulers, and then by the non-Muslims to refer to these communities. However, some sections of the Muslim elite were persistently using this term to refer to themselves for their own class interest during the colonial period and also after independence. But at present it is used only in some academic discussions or in some official documents and in some already registered bodies like ' the Moors Islamic Cultural Home' or streets names like Moor Street, etc. Otherwise they are referred to as Sri Lankan Muslims. In this paper, therefore, the phrase Sri Lankan Muslims is used in place of the word Moors. If we say Muslims in Sri Lanka it may include the other sub ethnic groups - Malays, Memons and Borahs, but with the adjective 'Sri Lankan' the word 'Muslims' specifically refers to the major Muslim group who had formerly been referred to as Ceylon Moors. The current socio-political situation of the Muslims in Sri Lanka restricts the meaning of the phrase Sri Lankan Muslims. This terminological shift is itself very significant in the development of ethnic consciousness which co-related with religious fundamentalism among Sri Lankan Muslims. Thus, in the Sri Lankan context it is clear that the Muslims constitute not only a religious category but also an ethnic category. Hence, the term Muslim is used to refer to both religion and ethnicity. The Indian Muslims (the Coast Moors) are no longer a visible ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Most of them returned to India due to citizenship problems and others gradually assimilated into the Sri Lankan Muslim community.

2. The development of ethnic consciousness:

Sri Lankan Muslims, the third largest ethnic community in Sri Lanka, have been living in this country for many centuries and were treated very well under the Sinhala kings during the pre-colonial period. They were settled in the coastal commercial towns of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) during this period and engaged mainly in trade and commerce. However, during the colonial period their very existence was challenged by the colonial rulers - by the Portuguese first and then by the Dutch who were bitter competitors of the Muslims in trade and they had to scatterdly resettle in the interior country side with the help of the Sinhala kings and engage in other occupations like agriculture, fishing and weaving for their livelihood.[1]

Sri Lankan Muslims were merely a silent cultural community until the beginning of the modern era, which is marked by the semi-capitalist transformation of the Sri Lankan society which had been taking place during the 19th century under British rule. During this period, the traditional feudal system and the self-reliant village social structure were gradually collapsing and a semi-capitalist social system based on a newly introduced colonial economy was emerging, introducing some new social class formations. The underdeveloped new colonial economy that replaced the older selfreliant social system was not capable of adequately catering to the needs of the newly emerged social classes, and this inevitably led to the different communities competing with each other for their economic prosperity on communal or ethnic lines. Thus, the history of modern Sri Lanka, beginning with the latter half of the 19th century, is also the history of the development of ethnic consciousness and conflict among the three major communities namely the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims, who were living in harmony throughout the pre-modern period except for some dynastic or royal conflicts.

Ethnic consciousness seeks a separate ethnic identity for a community, based on its cultural ideology and traditional mythology. The Sinhalese sought their identity in Buddhism and their imaginative historical mythology and the Tamils sought their identity first in Hinduism especially in Saivaism and later in their glorious linguistic and cultural heritage. Similarly, Sri Lankan Muslims sought their identity in Islam and their glorious Islamic historical past. Hence, religious revivalism was common among these communities during the late 19th century and it was also a process of the modernisation of Sri Lankan societies during that period.

Sri Lankan Muslims became an ethnically conscious and politically motivated community during the late 19th century because of the revivalist movements. According to the 1881 census there were 193,000 Muslims in Sri Lanka. They were a closed and traditional society and were comparatively backward in economy and modern education. However, there was a tiny elitist group which included the mercantile class and the emerging educated middle class centred mainly around Colombo and Kandy. It was this elitist group which was ethnically sensitive and politically motivated and led their community into the modern era through their revivalist activities. The Turkish, Egyptian and Indian revivalist and political movements were sources of inspiration to them. This period can be considered the first phase of the development of ethnic identity coupled with religious fundamentalism among Sri Lankan Muslims. Like their Christian, Buddhist and Hindu counterparts, the Muslim elites too used journalism as a powerful instrument to create ethnic awareness among the community. About fifteen journals and newspapers were published by Muslims during the late 19th and early 20th Century in Tamil and English.[2] These journals played a major role in formulating a religiously oriented ethnic ideology of Sri Lankan Muslims.

M.C. Siddi Lebbe (1838 - 1898), a lawyer by profession and a leading figure of the revivalist movement was the articulate representative of this ideology. He started his journal Muslim Nesan in 1882 and edited it for several years and was author to several books including the first Sri Lankan Tamil novel "Asanbey Sarithiram" ( the story of Asanbey) published in 1885 which represents his cultural ideology, He was very conscious of the religion and education of Sri Lankan Muslims and wanted to bring his community into the modern era through secular education provided in English. He realised that without English education, his community would not get its share in public life and would not advance further.

However, the Muslim community was not willing to enter into the modern education system introduced in the19th century, for several reasons. One was that most of the schools were established and controlled by the Christian missionaries. The traditional and conservative Muslims had the fear that English education may lead their children to Christianity, as they witnessed in Sinhalese and Tamil communities.[3] Hence, Siddi Lebbe wanted to establish separate schools for Muslims as did the Buddhist and Hindu revivalists. His dream was realised in November 1884 with the establishment of the first Muslim English school in this country - 'AL Madurasathul Khairiyyatul Islamiah' in Colombo.

Siddi Lebbe, his friends and followers got moral and intellectual support, and the community feeling was deepened with the arrival of the Egyptian exiles in the late 19th century. Arabi Pasha (1839 - 1911), the Egyptian nationalist rebel leader, Muhmood Samy Baroudi, the revolutionary nationalist poet and some other fellow rebels, most of them in their early forties and their family members arrived in Colombo on 10th of January 1883. They were well received by the local Muslims. A large number of them gathered at the Colombo Jetty to receive the exiles and Siddi Lebbe made the welcome speech. Though the exiles did not participate in the local politics as they expected to be, they intellectually inspired the local Muslims and involved in community development activities. As Vijaya Samaraweera (1979) pointed out the 'inspirational leadership' of Arabi Pasha was one of the contributing factors to the establishment of the first Muslim school in Colombo in 1884, nearly two years after his arrival. The Egyptian exiles were in Sri Lanka for nearly two decades. Arabi Pasha departed to Egypt on 18th September 1901 at the age of 61 "to die in his dear homeland and that his bones be buried in peace".[4] But the two decades were a very important period in the development of ethnic consciousness among Sri Lankan Muslims.

In 1891 the Muslim Educational Society was formed in Colombo and 'AI-Madurasathul Zahira', a modern school for Muslims was established in the next year. In the subsequent years some more schools were established, or attempted to be established, in Colombo, Kandy, Gampola, Kurunegala, Badulla, Galle and Matara for Muslim boys as well as for girls. Though progress in Muslim education in this period was very slow, it was strongly emphasised that "in order to take the proper place among our fellow country men we should educate our children " [Ceylon Mohammedan, 3 January 1901 - quoted in Vijaya Samaraweera 1979].

Ethnic consciousness developed among Muslims also in reaction to the Sinhala and Tamil hostilities towards them during the late 19th and early 26th centuries. The Sinhala upper class felt that the alien Muslims and some other foreigners were dominating the external and internal trade, and because of this, the Sinhalese - 'the sons of the soil' - were in a disadvantageous position. Kumari Jayawardena (1984, 1990) gives some details about the situation in trade in this period. According to her, by 1880 the Pettah trade was dominated by 86 Chetty and 64 Muslim firms and at the beginning of the twentieth century the external trade (the export and import) was dominated by seven leading Borah firms. The retail trade was also dominated largely by Muslims in the urban as well as in the rural areas. Thus, the Sinhala bourgeoisie faced severe competition from the minority Muslim community and they agitated against it. Anagarika Dharmapala, a veteran Buddhist revivalist leader was at the forefront of this agitation. He carried out a campaign directly against the Muslims. In 1915 just before the riots against Muslims began, he stated, " The Mohammaden, an alien people by Shylockian method, became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free from alien invaders... are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds... The alien South Indian Muhammedan comes to Ceylon sees the neglected villager, without any experience in trade... and the result is that the Mohammedan thrives and the son of the soil goes to the wall" (Kumari Jayawardena 1990: 24.)

This ideological agitation burst out into anti-Muslim riots in 1915 in which several hundred people died. Although the immediate reason for the riots was religious provocation near the Gampola Mosque, it was the inevitable reflection of the communal tensions created by the socio-economic development of that time. Muslims were severely affected by the riots. The British rulers imposed martial law to suppress the riots and arrested several Sinhala Buddhist leaders who had a hand in the riots. The government's reaction to the riots was criticised by Buddhists as well as by Tamil leaders especially by Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Tamil aristocrat and a long time member of the Legislative Council. Ramanathan persuaded the British rulers to release the Sinhalese leaders and in turn the members of Sinhalese elite celebrated the event and pulled the cart on which Ramanathan was seated through the Colombo streets.[5] Understandably, these events made the Muslim elites feel helpless between the two major competing communities and to rely on themselves for their political future. Thus, the anti-Muslim sentiment of the Sinhalese and the 1915 riots and the behaviour of the Tamil leadership had a lasting impact in consolidating the Muslim identity.

Since Muslims were emerging as a politically conscious minority, they had to safeguard their socio-political interests from the Tamils also who were not only numerically the largest, but also socially, a powerful minority in this country. This trend led the Muslims to seek a strong separate identity for themselves which could totally differentiate them from the Tamils apart from the fact that Muslims are also linguistically Tamil. This was evident in the debate on the ethnology of Muslims which was going on in the 1880s and after.

The debate was started by Ponnambalam Ramanathan in 1885. He stated in a legislative council debate on the Muslim Marriage Registration Ordinance, that Muslims were ethnologicalIy Tamils though they follow a different religion. Later, he substantiated his thesis academically in a paper he read at the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) in 1888 on 'the Ethnology of Moors of Ceylon'. His contention was bitterly resented and the Muslim elites reacted to it angrily. They thought that it was a plot to prevent their separate representation in an expanded Legislative Council. They rejected Ramanathan's thesis and tried to establish their own separate ethnological identity tracing their origin from the Arabs, specifically from the glorious Hashimite clan of Prophet Mohamed. Several Muslim elites, including Siddhi Lebbe, expressed their views in the debate. Siddhi Lebbe wrote a series of articles on the history of Ceylon Muslims in his paper Muslim Nesan from September 1885. The Muslim views got a comprehensive form with the publication of "A criticism of Mr. Ramanathan's Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon" later in 1907 by I.L.M. Abdul Azees, a disciple of Siddhi Lebbe and a Muslim ideologue who formed the Moor Union in 1900 and was also its founder-president.

In modern Sri Lankan history, we observe that each major ethnic group has created its own historiography in accordance with its ethnic ideology disregarding any scientific or objective methodology.[6] The Sri Lankan Muslim elite also did the same thing. Although they had a mixed origin and a close connection with the Tamils linguistically and to some extent culturally, they sought pure Arabic origin and tried to disown their linguistic and cultural affinity with Tamils due to the competition they faced with them in the socio-political domain.

We can see a distinct contrast in this respect between the Tamil speaking Muslims of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Both these communities speak Tamil as their mother tongue. However, the Tamil Nadu Muslims never hesitated to call themselves Tamils because they are linguistically Tamil. But calling a Tamil speaking Sri Lankan Muslim a Tamil has become a social taboo, because the historical experiences of these communities are different. In Tamil Nadu, unlike in Sri Lanka, the Muslim community did not face any major challenge from the Tamil majority, economically and politically, since the Muslims were not a competing community in Tamil Nadu.

A Sri Lankan Muslim is provoked when he hears a respectable Tamil Nadu Muslim calling himself a Tamil in a public meeting.[7] Similarly, for Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims in Tamil Nadu, it is very difficult to understand the conflict between Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka, because they knew only the Hindu - Muslim conflicts. In the Indian context, the contrast is between Hindus and Muslims, which is clearly based on religion. But in the Sri Lankan context, the contrast is between Tamils and Muslims. This contrast is not between the same categories of religion as in Hindus and Muslims or of language as in Sinhala and Tamil but between two different categories of language and religion. This clearly shows that the ethnicity of Sri Lankan Muslims is not defined by language also in the case of the Sinhalese and Tamils, but by religion. That is why Sri Lankan Muslims have been giving more importance to their religion than to their language.

As we have seen so far, a strong foundation was laid for a separate Muslim identity during the pre-independence period in Sri Lanka. The underdeveloped colonial economy, the emergence of new social classes, and the introduction of communal representation in political organisations were the major factors contributing to this development. The identity consciousness deepened and institutionally recognised throughout the post independent period and the whole Sri Lankan society was communalised due to the socio-political crisis the country experienced during this period. Two major Muslim political leaders, Sir Razik Fareed in the 1940s and the 1950s and Dr. Baddiudeen Mahmood in the 1960s and the 1970s made significant contributions to institutionalise the Muslim identity in Sri Lanka.

3. The emergence of a new political leadership:

In this section I would like to focus briefly on a new development of Muslim identity and the emergence of a new Muslim political leadership in Eastern Sri Lanka in the 1980s and after. The Sri Lankan Muslim political leadership had its base in the Western province for a long time because the Muslim mercantile class and the educated elites were centered on that province. Although nearly 30 % of the total Muslim population of this country is concentrated in the East, and they are the economically strong majority in the Ampara district, they did not seek a strong ethnic identity and a political leadership till the late 1930s because their socio-political situation did not demand such a development. They were mostly engaged in agriculture in a feudal setting and in petty trades. They did not enter the modern education system and produce an educated middle class elite. They had a cordial relationship with the Tamils, the other major ethnic community of that area and did not face any severe competition in economy and politics from them.

However, with the introduction of universal franchise in 1931 under the Donoughmore constitution the situation had been gradually changing. The Eastern Muslims too were becoming more and more ethnically conscious, and gradually entering into the modern education system and politics. It is evident in the formation of Kalmunai District Muslim Association in 1936 at Kalmunai. It was formed to consolidate the Muslim awareness and to protect their interest in public life.

P.M. Macbool Alim, the president of the Association published a booklet in 1937 entitled 'Muslimkalukkoor vignaapanam' (a call for Muslims) in which he emphasises the following four points).[8]

1) The unity of the Muslims of the region 'for their political victory, 2) their economic advancement, 3) the importance of modern education for Muslim males and females and 4) the employment opportunities for Muslims in the government sector. This obviously shows that they had come of age. During the post-independence period Eastern province Muslims seriously engaged in political battles for seats in parliament. Political opportunism, coupled with the scarcity of land, and economic competition created a mood of suspicion and hostility between Muslims and Tamils in the region and led even to some violent clashes in the 1950s and 60s. Later developments resulted in ethnic segregation of these communities to a certain extent.

In 1974 the Sri Lankan government introduced a system of standardisation for the University entrance examination (that is G.C.E. A/L) and a special quota for the backward districts by which the Eastern province youths both Tamils and Muslims were greatly benefited while the Jaffna Tamil youths were badly affected. The introduction of this new system paved the way for better opportunities in higher education for Muslims and created a new professional class and an educated elite among them. They are the more ethnically sensitive and opinion making social groups. These groups were the base for the new Muslim political leadership in the East and they formed a Muslim political party the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in 1980.

The need for a separate Muslim Political party was felt even two decades before in the East, especially in the Ampara District. The All Ceylon Islamic United Front was formed in 1960 by Mr. M.S. Kariappar, a popular Muslim politician of that time for his immediate political benefit, but the party did not succeed because there was no strong social base as such at that time. But in the 1980s the situation was entirely different. The development of the Tamil militancy in the North and East and their hostile attitudes towards Muslims since 1985 created a strong insecure feeling among Muslims, and intensified their ethnic sentiments. Tire SLMC under the charismatic leadership of M.H.M. Ashraff sparked off this sentiment by its verbal militancy with some spiritual colouring and became a major political force in the East specially in the Ampara District. After the first provincial council election held in 1987 the SLMC almost monopolised Muslim politics in the East and also emerged as one of the major forces in Sri Lankan national politics too. Thus, the last decade marks the highest stage in the development of Muslim consciousness in Sri Lanka.

4. Religious awareness and the rise of fundamentalism:

As I have mentioned earlier in this paper, the ethnicity and religion of Sri Lankan Muslims are inseparable and they had a reciprocal impact on the development of each other. It was widely felt in the late 19th century by the Muslim elites that religious awareness and spiritual development were necessary for the social mobility of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka. Until the middle of the 20th century, Sri Lankan Muslims mostly depended on South India for their traditional religious education and they had to go to Kelakkarai or Kayalpattinam to be trained in Islamic scholarship and to become Ulammas. However, the first Arabic college in Sri Lanka to train Sri Lankan Muslims in traditional Islamic scholarship was established in 1884 at Weligama by Seyid Mohamed Ibnu Ahmed Lebbe (1817 - 1898) popularly known as Maahppillai Lebbe Alim, an influential South Indian Muslim scholar who had a far reaching impact on the development of a kind of conservative traditional Islamic scholarship particularly a South Indian variety of it in Sri Lanka. Subsequently several Arabic colleges were established in Galle (1892), Kinniya (1899), Maharagama (1913) and Matara (1915) and hundreds of Alims were produced by these colleges. They were responsible for preaching Islam and to develop religious consciousness among Muslims. However, the South Indian version of Islam, which can be characterised as more ritualistic, was criticised later by the more fundamentalist Islamic movements during the post-independence period through which the Sri Lankan Muslims underwent a process of what we may call a cultural purification or Islamization.

Most of the revivalist leaders of the late 19th century who were on a double track, that is modernisation and Islamization, were also responsible for the development of religious awareness among Muslims. They thought that Islam should be the foundation for any modernisation process. Siddi Lebbe was a good example of this. He wrote several articles and books on Islam and spiritualism. His book 'Asrarul Alam' deals entirely with Islamic spiritualism. He also published a journal 'Gnanatheepam' (the light of wisdom) dedicated to religious affairs in 1892. While his 'Muslim Nesan' tried to politicise the Muslim community, 'Gnanatheepam' and his religious writings tried to give it a spiritual foundation. The beginning of the post-independence period also marks the second phase of the development of Islamic awareness among Sri Lankan Muslims.

Two important Islamic organisations were established in Sri Lanka in the mid-50s of this century. They are the Jamaat e Islami and the Tableq Jamaat movements. Jamaat e Islami, a fundamentalist organisation founded by Maulana Abulala Maududi in India in 1941 has become a strong religious and political movement in Pakistan during the last two decades. Although Jamaat e Islami had been functioning in Sri Lanka from 1947 it was officially established here in 1954 with the idea of Islamising the Muslim community in all its social aspects. It has attracted a considerable portion of the educated middle class and youths and has a few branches and numerous study circles Islandwide with more than 10,000 sympathisers. Jamaat e Islami as a well organised establishment has its own publication and propaganda machinery. Unlike the Pakistani 'head quarters', the Jamaat e Islami in Sri Lanka so far has not participated directly in politics, but is deeply involved in religious and other socio-cultural activities.

Tableeq Jamaat, comparatively a more conservative and fundamentalist international organisation which was also founded in India, was established in Sri Lanka in 1953 and has been fast developing here for the last two or three decades. The Tableeq movement unlike Jamaat e Islami concentrates only on religious activities particularly to get people involved in religious rituals like everyday prayers. Tableeq Jamaat, a very rigid sectarian organisation, has a large membership from the big business community to the wage labour class and from the highly educated intellectuals to uneducated farmers. They have their own code of conduct and wear their own special attire. They are very fanatic in religious affairs and are likely to become an endogamous religious sect in the future.

Another fundamentalist organisation is worth mentioning here. It is Jam iyyathu Ansaris Sunnathul Muhammatiyya (here after Jam iyya) which has its headquarters at Paragahadeniya in the Kurunegala district. The Jam iyya movement was founded in 1947 by Abdul Hameed AI Bakry (1909-1976), popularly known as Dharvesh, the native of Paragahadeniya. Though Jam iyyathu is not an island-wide organisation, it has strong holds in several places in this country especially in Kurunegala and Kalmunai.[9] Abdul Hameed gained his knowledge of Islamic theology at several Arabic colleges in Sri Lanka, South and North India and finally in Saudi Arabia. He spent more than a decade in Mecca learning Arabic, Islamic theology and Sharia. He returned to his native village in 1947 with the reformist spirit and a deep 'knowledge of orthodox Islam which was branded by hostile traditional native Islamic scholars as 'Wahabism', a Saudi Arabian version of fundamentalism.

Abdul Hameed was very intolerant of what he regarded as un-Islamic practices of fellow Muslims in this country. He accepted only the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet for religious sanctions and rejected all the customary folk religious practices from shrine worship to religious feasts as shirk and fit'at. He and his disciples went to the extent of destroying some shrines in his village and a case was filed against them in the District Court in 1948. He acquired many disciples but also made enemies during his religious campaign in the 1950s. Public religious debates were held in several places and one of the debates ended in violence at Kalmunai in 1951.

Abdul Hameed founded an Arabic college at Paragahadeniya which has become one of the largest Islamic Institutions in this country. He also started a propagandist journal Unmai Udayam (the Dawn of the Truth) in 1955 and was its chief editor for a long period. He was allowed to settle in Mecca with his family by King Abdul Azeez bin Abdul Rahman in 1971 and passed away there in 1976. The followers of the Jam iyya movement have become a distinct religious sect with in the Sri Lankan Muslim community. They have their own mosque and religious institutions. They differ from the other members of the community basically in their ritualistic religious practices and beliefs like many other fundamentalist groups.'

The impact of these organisations on the process of Islamization of Sri Lankan Muslim community, apart from the socio-political developments that I discussed earlier, is very great. They played a very significant role in the development of religious awareness and in deepening the ethnic consciousness and in almost creating a cultural homogeneity among Sri Lankan Muslims during the past two or three decades, although there is a serious ideological difference between them. The development of religious awareness among Sri Lankan Muslims is discernible in the extensively increased number of mosque goers during the past few decades and also in the increase of the number of mosques in rural as well as in the urban areas. It is also discernible in the renovation and expansion of mosques almost in all cities and in many villages in order to accommodate more people who come to pray, especially for Jumma prayers on Fridays.

5. Towards cultural purification:

The development of religious and ethnic consciousness led the Muslims to seek a separate cultural identity based on the fundamentals of their religion, Islam, to establish themselves as a distinct ethnic community in order to differentiate themselves from the other Sri Lankans especially from Tamils with whom they share the same language, Tamil, and other cultural features.

At first, the Muslims especially the Colombo based Muslim elites wanted to disown their mother tongue, Tamil and to adopt Arabic or some other alien language. They believed, or pretended to believe, that Arabic is or should be their mother tongue, although very few Sri Lankan Muslims could understand Arabic and no one used Arabic for their day to day communication.[10]

Siddhi Lebbe wrote in 1884 in his paper 'Muslim Nesan' that "Muslims should try to adopt Arabic as their home language. If Portuguese and Dutch who lived in Ceylon can forget their mother tongue and speak English why we can't forget Tamil and make Arabic our mother tongue" ( Ameen, 1990 p. 175). Siddhi Lebbe forgot the fact that the mother tongue is not a language that is chosen or learned, but is inherited or acquired. However, two years later Siddhi Lebbe changed his mind and put forward a four language policy for Muslims which was later advocated by many of his followers including A.M.A. Azeez after him. Siddhi Lebbe wrote in the same paper in 1886 that "we should learn Arabic since, Qur’an, our religious scripture is in Arabic, we should learn Tamil because we speak Tamil and who does not know it will become as a blind, we should learn English since it is the official language and we should also learn Sinhala because the majority of the people of this country speak it" (Ameen, 1990 :174). Here, too, we notice that he has given the first place to Arabic because it is the language of their religion, and Islam is the primary marker of their ethnic identity.

Although Sri Lankan Muslims do not speak Arabic, they consider it to be sacred and also use it as an inalienable cultural symbol. One important use of Arabic by Muslims is to name the members of their community and their social institutions. Sri Lankan Muslims exclusively use Arabic for their personal names. This was not so rigid half a century ago. Then there were three types of Muslim personal names:

1) purely Tamil names,
2) Tamil Arabic or Arabic - Tamil blend names and
3) purely Arabic names.

The first two types of personal names have gradually disappeared and the third type has now become exclusive due to the ethnic and religious consciousness and the process of cultural purification. In the earlier period Arabic personal names too were mostly nativised; that is the Arabic phonological patterns were assimilated according to the Tamil phonological patterns. For example, the following female personal names Katheesa Umma, Semilattumma, Seyinampu and Mukkulattu are the nativised forms of Katheeja, Jameela, Zainab and Um Kultum respectively. This type of nativisation gradually ceased and at present the Muslim personal names are pronounced and written as closely as to the Arabic originals.

The naming of social institutions in Arabic has also become an increasing cultural phenomenon among Sri Lankan Muslims. There is a tendency noticeable in the last few decades to use Arabic to name their schools, homes, business institutions and journals. For example, in the Amparai District 50 out of 95 Muslim schools have been renamed with an Arabic title within the last two decades as in Kalmunai Zahira college, Maruthamunai Al-Manar Vidyalaya, and Ninthavur Al-Ashrak Vidyalaya. Before this tendency arose, Muslim schools were named as Government Muslim Boys/ Girls/Mixed schools with their place names.

This renaming tendency is more noticeable in the urban areas than in the remote rural areas. For example, in the urban Kalmunai education district 15 out of 18 Muslim schools have been renamed, whereas in the Potuvil area only one out of 8 schools has been renamed.[11] This is a clear indication of the identity consciousness of the urban middle class elites and the trend of cultural purification or Islamisation among them. Most of the traditional and folk cultural practices have been gradually eliminated through this process of cultural purification from the early postindependence period. For example, folk theatre was a popular cultural performance among Muslims in the Eastern province and also in the Mannar and Puttalam areas at the eve of independence and also a little after that. This was an influence by the traditional folk plays (Naattukkuuttu) of the Tamils. A number of South Indian Islamic folk plays (Ali Paatusha Naadakam, Appaasi Naadakam and Thaiyaaru Sulthaan Naadakam) were performed on the rural stage. Some artists, all males, who participated in these plays am still living in the Ampara district. However, these performances were considered un-Islamic by the newly emerged religiously conscious groups and disappeared later. Likewise, the observance of the folk religious practices and marriage customs also disappeared or was reduced or became unpopular since they were considered to be un-Islamic.

The question whether a cultural practice is Islamic or un-Islamic became very important and was seriously discussed and sometimes provoked violence among various religious groups and even individuals throughout this period. Various sects and groups have developed their own interpretation of Islam and they sincerely believe and try to prove that only their interpretation is truly Islamic and try to impose it in practice. The development of ethnic and religious consciousness among Muslims had its impact especially on Muslim women for the last hundred years in this country positively as well as negatively. It is discussed briefly in the next section.

6. Gender segregation and subordination:

It can be argued from a historical perspective that Islam, the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet had given more rights and near-equality to the Muslim women than the women in other communities in that historical period. However, it is also true that Muslim women have been deprived of those rights and subordinated by men under the male dominated social system throughout the historical periods like any women who live under patriarchy all over the world. Sri Lankan Muslim women are no exception to this universal phenomenon.

Till the beginning of the revivalist period the existence of the Sri Lankan Muslim women was unknown in public life. They were confined to their homes. Only the revivalists wanted to bring them out of that segregation and challenged the conservative traditional social attitudes and practices. They thought that educating their women was a must for the upward social mobility of the community and tried to open separate schools for Muslim girls to provide modern education to them. Siddhi Lebbe was the main propagandist of female education of that time. This was a positive trend among ethnically motivated, educated Muslim men and political leaders throughout the modern period although there was a strong negative attitude towards female education among the conservative majority till the end of the 1940s.

The last hundred years in the history of Muslim education shows a slow but gradual and steady growth in the education of Muslim girls, although the ethnic ratio is still in a low state. The literacy rate of the Muslim women in 1921 was only 6%, but it has been raised to 75.5% at present. It is a fairly satisfactory development in comparison with the 82.5% of the overall female literacy rate in Sri Lanka. In 1942 only one Muslim female student entered the University of Ceylon. However, for the last ten years more than a hundred Muslim girls have been entering from many parts of Sri Lanka to the universities for several fields of study including medicine and engineering. It is noteworthy in this context that, according to the Universities Grants Commission Report, 32% of the total Muslim students who got admission to the universities for the academic year 1990/1991 were female students.

This is evidence that the rise of fundamentalism has never been an obstacle to Muslim female education. Instead it has become an incentive, since the education of Muslim women is not against the fundamentals of Islam. It is now socially accepted that Muslim girls should be educated although, some fundamentalist individuals are against sending Muslim girls for higher studies. However, there are certain socio-cultural factors which retarded the progress of Muslim female education.[12]

The employment of educated Muslim women was not socially accepted until the beginning of the post-independence period and even today it is not favourably considered by the conservative sections of the community and certain fundamentalist groups especially the Tabliq Movement. However, religion has not been a strong preventive factor of female employment since socio-economic factors have been more dynamic than religion in this respect. Until recently, employment for Muslim women was socially restricted only to the teaching profession. There was only one Muslim female teacher in 1944 in this country. However, with the growth of educational opportunities for Muslim women, the number of Muslim female teachers has been gradually increasing for the last fifty years. According to the 1991 School Census Report there are 5635 Muslim women in the teaching profession at present and 440 of them are graduate teachers. A separate teachers' training college for Muslim women was opened at Aluthgama in 1948. They were also admitted to the Addalachenai Muslim teachers college as co-trainees with males from 1970s.'

Muslim girls in considerable numbers have been willingly seeking various other employment opportunities for the last ten or fifteen years both in the public and private sectors due to the growth of their educational opportunities and the economic condition of the individual families. This is a significant advancement in the progress of Muslim women. There is another significant development in the opportunities for employment for Muslim women in the Middle East from 1975. Thousands of Muslim women from the low income groups have been migrating to the Middle East as cheap-labour house maids from almost every village and city for the last twenty years.[13] This has nothing to do with the process of Islamization or ethnic awareness. Arab employers prefer Muslim house maids, and the economic conditions of these women compel them to migrate leaving their families in Sri Lanka. None of the fundamentalist movements can prevent this female migration even though they do not approve of it.

Female migration for employment has far-reaching social and cultural implications both positive and negative. On the positive side, it grants freedom of movement and power of decision making and a leading role in the family for Muslim women to a certain extent which are against the fundamentalist doctrine. A recent study by Ameen (1995) reveals that most of the women decide on their own to go abroad as housemaids in the hope of earning some money for their future betterment. However, family disorganisation, the increasing divorce rate among them and the rather contemptuous social attitudes towards them are some of the negative aspects, and these have to be seriously considered.

In my opinion, the ideology of ethnic identity and religious fundamentalism does not have any serious negative impact upon Muslim women as far as their education and employment opportunities are concerned. Rather, it has played a positive role in educating Muslim women for the past hundred years which has inevitably led them to seek various employment opportunities. Changing socio-political realities and increasing pressure for finding means of economic survival pushed many women to seek available employment avenues. Here, Muslim women, like women from other communities, coped with the burden of managing household affairs, bringing up children and earning income for family upkeep. The conflicting roles allotted to women need to be highlighted.

Although mobility (limited in some sense) was approved of for economic reasons there were restrictions on women's decision making role within the household, for instance, consent to marriage. More and more women start working outside the home as a new form of resistance to family controls and imposed norms. However, ethnic identity and fundamentalism played an important role in gender segregation and the subordination of Muslim women in various socio-cultural institutions. It is well known that Sri Lankan Muslim women are heavily dominated by male chauvinistic ideology than are the women of the other communities in this country although the degree of domination varies according to the social class of the women.

A great majority of religion-conscious Muslim men believe that they are custodians of their women, and according to their ideology they have religious sanction for their belief. No religiously sensitive Muslim male accepts the concept of the equality of women. To them it is un-Islamic. This ideology of male supremacy leads to the subordination of women and the suppression of their identity and the development of their individual personality to a considerable extent.

In many ethnically conscious societies, the subordinated women become one of the symbols of ethnic identity, and the male dominated cultural ideology is imposed upon them and they are expected to behave according to this cultural ideology. Sri Lankan Muslim women too represent this situation. They have to accept female segregation and subordination to gain a respectable place in their social system. Islamic attire for women, 'purdah' or 'hijab' popularly known as 'fardah', is a manifestation of the ideology of female segregation and subordination which is an inherent feature of fundamentalism. There is no compulsorily prescribed Islamic dress for Muslim men. However, most of the religiously sensitive men wear a white lace cap as their ethnic symbol. The red Turkish fez was an identity symbol for many of the upper class Muslim men from the late 19th century to the middle of this century. Wearing the fez even became a big social issue in 1905 when the Chief Justice denied M.C. Abdul Cader, the first Muslim Advocate the right to wear his fez in the High Courts. The Muslim community protested and won their case. However, wearing a cap is not religiously obligatory for Muslim men. They are only required compulsorily to cover only the middle part of their body; that is between the navel and the knees.

For Muslim women it is obligatory to cover their whole body except the face, hands and feet because of their gender and sexuality. However, there is no prescribed Islamic dress for women. Nevertheless, Sri Lankan Muslim women did not observe purdah, the fundamentalist Islamic dress for women, until very recently. Traditionally they covered their heads with the head piece of their sari like the North Indian Hindu women who came under the influence of the Mogul culture and it was considered satisfactory for Muslim women to cover their heads with their sari when they appeared in public places. The educated and employed Muslim women did not observe even this practice. However, the situation has changed after 1985 because of the mounting ethnic tension and the rise of fundamentalism into a higher stage due to the spread of the ethnic conflict into the Muslim community and the oppression of Muslims by the Tamil militancy in the North and East on the one hand and the international Islamic resurgence motivated by the Iranian Islamic revolution on the other.

Due to this new development, after 1985 Sri Lankan Muslim women were compelled to wear hijab and it has become the school uniform for Muslim girls in all the Muslim schools except in the primary classes. The Muslim girls who attend non-Muslim schools also have to observe this. Anonymous letters were sent to certain schools in the Ampara district by some fundamentalist militant organisations threatening female teachers who are not observing hijab to expect severe punishment for their un-Islamic behaviour, and all employed Muslim women were psychologically compelled to wear hijab. In the universities only a few Muslim girls were covering their heads in the 1970s. But during the last ten years it has become obligatory to observe hijab and at present almost all the female Muslim students are observing it. Most of the male students and some fundamentalist organisations are vigilant about this.

Even though most of these women suffer from headaches and have other health problems due to hijab, especially during the peak of the summer season, it has become an obligatory social practice for both upper and middle class Muslim women. It has even become a status symbol for the upper class women in the urban areas. Hence, the imposition of hijab can be considered a fundamentalist victory over Sri Lankan Muslim women. However, a few highly educated westernised Muslim women who live in cosmopolitan cities like Colombo can afford not to observe hijab. Women from lower income groups who are outside the domination of fundamentalism can also behave in this way.

Another area under the influence of fundamentalism is that of performing arts like music, dance, drama and the film. According to the Sri Lankan version of fundamentalism these are un-Islamic and the fundamentalists are particularly against the women's participation in any performing arts and Sri Lankan Muslim women are denied the opportunity to develop their talents in the field of fine arts, through which the human personality and perception can be developed. Only girls under the age of ten are allowed to participate in cultural performances on the school or public stage.

In the mid-1970s when aesthetic education was introduced in the school curriculum Badiuddin Mahmood, the then Education minister and widely accepted Muslim political leader who contributed much to the development of Muslim education in this country, introduced the concept of Islamic music and dance and appointed Muslim women to teach these aesthetic subjects in Muslim schools. However, he had to face strong protests from fundamentalist circles for his initiative and it was abandoned immediately. In this context Muslim women's participation in film and drama is ruled out. A few years ago some tele-dramas were produced with Muslim female characters and telecast over the Rupavahini, the national television station. They were stopped later due to fundamentalist pressure. However, the fundamentalists are not against women's participation in radio broadcasting since it is a non-visual medium; and as a result we have a few talented Muslim female radio artists.

Sri Lankan fundamentalists are not willing to take into consideration the cultural practices in the Islamic world even in Iran. It is well known that the Islamic fundamentalist Iran has become one of the finest film producing countries in the world and has produced several talented actresses, female singers, painters and even film directors. However, the Sri Lankan fundamentalists, who have their own interpretation of Islam and who are suffering from a minority complex have the fear that if they allow their women to get out of their control Muslim society as a whole will collapse. The fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is always in favour of male domination and beneficial to the male. The interpretation of polygamy is a good example of this. Polygamy is a pre-Islamic practice in the male dominated Arabian society and exists in many patriarchal communities all over the world. According to an anthropological survey 75% of the world communities, small and large, practise polygamy (Murdock, 1957). It is a form of social institution, favourable to men, and allows a man to have many wives at a time. It came into practice at a particular historical period of social evolution.

Although Islam did not abolish this pre-Islamic practice of polygamy, it imposed a severe restriction on it. It prevents a man irrespective of his wealth and social position to have not more than four wives at a time, and also imposes a condition that he should treat his wives equally. Islam also advises a man not to marry a woman if he cannot give her both material and physical satisfaction. This was obviously a progressive step at a time when men were enjoying supreme power over women. This clearly shows that the spirit of Islam is not in favour of polygamy, though it allows it with restrictions. However, fundamentalists interpret Islam in favour of polygamy and defends polygamous practises as inherent nature and the inalienable right of human male and even go to the extent to say that it is necessary for the advancement of human civilisation.

The fundamentalists who follow the Shia doctrine not only defend polygamy but also practice Mut'a, the temporary marriage which is also a pre-Islamic practice that can be considered as legitimised prostitution in the modern sense. However, in Sri Lanka although it is religiously admitted and there are some isolated cases, polygamy is not a socially acceptable practice among Muslims and the indigenous cultural tradition of Sri Lankan Muslims is non in favour of the fundamentalist attitude in respect of polygamy. It is interesting that Sri Lankan fundamentalists, though they defend polygamy on principle, are also monogamous in practice due to the local tradition with a few exceptions. However, some fundamentalists propagate polygamy for their own benefit.

Another area of fundamentalist interpretation in favour of male domination is the Islamic personal law which covers marriage, divorce and inheritance. Fundamentalists all over the Islamic world consider this to be an inalienable part of Shariah which is divine in nature and oppose any modern rational interpretations and change in order to give equal status to women.

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad (1980: 351-4), a rational interpreter of the Qur’an usefully differentiates Deen from Sharia in his book Dharjumanul Qur’an. According to him, Deen represents the basic principles and value system of Islam which are universal and Sharia represents the laws and code of conducts of Islamic communities which are not universal and vary time to time and place to place according to the historical and social conditions of the Muslim communities. This is evident in the existence of different schools (Madhhabs) and interpretations of Sharia. For example, according to the Hanafi school a woman can divorce her husband only on the ground of sexual impotency. But Shafi and other schools permit her to ask for divorce on several other grounds also. According to the Shafi school which is practised in Sri Lanka, a woman cannot be appointed as a judge to a Quazi Court, and this is strictly followed here. However, in Pakistan where the Hanafi school is practised a woman can be appointed as Quazi and also in Indonesia, where the Shafi school is in practice. However, Sri Lankan fundamentalists are rigid and are not in favour of any significant change in Muslim personal law. It is a paradoxical situation that the fundamentalists do not allow Muslim women to be appointed as Quazis in their Sharia Courts while there are some Muslim women already working as judges and lawyers in Sri Lankan civil courts.

7. Conclusion:

In conclusion, I would say that the ideology of ethnic identity and fundamentalism has its roots in particular socio-political conditions which are local and global that activate and intensify ethnic tension and religious awareness in a plural society, and they have adverse effects not only on women who are passive and inarticulate under male domination but also on women who are assertive and independent. Ethnic and fundamentalist tension can be neutralised only through some political process which would grant equal and democratic rights to each community in that society to enable them to develop independently with mutual interaction. This is a precondition for the gender equality. These can be achieved only in an ethnically neutralised society, allowing full and equal participation of women in the socio-political arena and in economic production. However, women who live in Islamic societies face some specific problems pertaining to these societies. In an Islamic society, religion has a major role to play not only in one's personal and spiritual life but also in the whole range of social affairs and there is a strong tradition of male-dominated interpretation of Islam which legitimises gender inequalities and the subordination of women.

However, it should be insisted that Islam, the Qur’an and the Sunna, can be interpreted in favour of gender equality and women's participation in public life. Only a modern interpretation of Islam in favour of gender equality can give an ideological and religious foundation for the emancipation of Muslim women from male domination in under-developed Muslim societies. Feminists in the Islamic world are now engaged in this ideological discourse which has shed new light on Islamic thinking. However, Muslim women have a long way to go before they achieve emancipation.

The history of ethnic identity and religious fundamentalism of Sri Lankan Muslims described briefly in this paper shows the progressive advancements and setbacks of Sri Lankan Muslim women under male domination and I think that the setbacks are temporary and politically conditioned. A proper political solution to the on-going ethnic conflict, which we all eagerly expect, is a pre-condition for the development and liberation of all communities including women in this country.

Let us hope for a favourable positive change in the future.


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Reproduced with permission from Muslim Women's Research and Action Front (MWRAF).

Muslim Women's Research and Action Front
21/25, Polhengoda Gardens


[*] The author is very much indebted to Professor K. Sivathamby and Ms. Faizun Zackariya for their valuable comments and suggestions in improving the first draft of this paper.

[1] For details of early settlement of Sri Lankan Muslims see Lorna Devarajah (1990).

[2] Some of the journals and newspapers published by Muslims during this period are as follows: Putinalankari (1873), Muslim Nesan (1882), Sarvajana Nesan (1886), Kashpurran an Kalpil jan (1890). Saiful Islam (1890), Gnana Suriyan (1890), Islam Mittiran (1894), Assavapu (1900), Muslim Patukavalan (1901), Mispakul Islam (1906), Muslim (1909), Javahirul Ahlam (1910), Hankay Muslim (1914), Ceylon Mohammedan (1901). Muslim Guardian (1907) and Ceylon Muslim Review (1914).

[3] Thousands of Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus were converted to Christianity during this period. According to 1881 census there were 162.270 Sinhala Christians and 82.200 Tamil Christians in Sri Lanka. [4] For more details about Egyptian exiles in Sri Lanka see Arthur C. Dep (1980).

[5] A huge oil painting of this incident is still hanging on the wall of the Ramanathan Hall at the University of Jaffna.

[6] For a theoretical and critical account of this tendency, see Gunawardena. R.A.L.H. (1995).

[7] I personally observed this when I was attending the Fifth International lslamic Tamil Literary Conference held in Kelakkarai, Tamil Nadu in December 1990 in which several Sri Lankan Muslim scholars also participated.

[8] This booklet was published by the Association in order to get the support of the public for the political and social activities of Mudaliyar M.S. Kariyappar, the emerging political leader of that area.

[9] M.M.M. lbrahim (1996) gives more detailed information about the religious activities of Abdul Hameed AI Bakri in various parts of this country.

[10] For a detailed study of the use of Arabic among Sri Lankan Muslims, see Nuhman M.A. (1988).

[11] These information were gathered by the author during his field work in that area in 1988.

[12] These aspects have been studied in detail by Zulfika (1995).

[13] See Kiruga Fernando (1990) for some useful information on the migration of female labourers.