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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2786

The Muslim predicament: some reflections on local and international challenges

Dr. A.C.L. Ameer AliDr. A.C.L. Ameer AliAn oration delivered by - Dr. A.C.L. Ameer Ali, B.A (Hons.) (Cey), M. Phil (London), Ph.D. (W Aust) - Senior Academic, Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia

Assalamu alaikum

It was during a school holiday weekend in the year 1957 that marhoom Al-Haj Dr. A.M.A.Azeez travelled to Badulla to visit his lifelong intellectual friend and a great poet, the late Abdul Cader Lebbe, who was, at that time, the Head master of the then Government Muslim Mixed School in that town. That school has now been renamed as al-Adhan Muslim Maha Vidyalaya. The name Adhan was the nom de plume of that great poet during his early days. That name was given to the school by Lebbe's former students, to demonstrate their lasting gratitude to Lebbe's eighteen years of uninterrupted service to the Muslims of Badulla. At the end of the visit and on the eve of his departure to Colombo, Azeez inquired from his poet-friend the whereabouts of Lebbe's only son, the humble self After hearing that the boy was studying for his Senior School Certificate Examination at Vantharumoolai Central College, which is now the seat of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka, Azeez asked his friend to admit his son at Zahira College to continue with his pre-university studies. The son was duly admitted at Zahira in 1957.

It was the education that I received at Zahira under the Civil Service style administration of Azeez and the coaching of some able teachers like Sivathamby, Sameem, Shuaib, the late M.M.M. Mahroof and Selvanayagam that has enabled me today to stand before you to deliver this lecture. Later, when I set sail to London in 1967 for my post-graduate studies, I was surprised to see Azeez at the Colombo Fort Jetty. He came to bid his student bon voyage, an event that I will never forget in my life. It is a great honour and a privilege for me to deliver this lecture in memory of that great soul.

I have titled my lecture "The Muslim Predicament: Some Reflections on Local and International Challenges". It is a title that gives me a wide leverage to reflect upon the problems and challenges facing the Muslim community in this country, particularly the Eastern Province Muslims, in whose development Azeez had a special interest; in addition, the topic allows me to express my views after years of reading and research on some critical challenges that the Muslims are confronting in the international arena. In focusing on these issues I will endeavor to relate them to the thoughts and activities of Dr. A.M.A.Azeez.

As an astute student of history and with a passionate commitment to Muslim welfare, marhoom Al-Haj Dr. A. M. A. Azeez described the Eastern Province as Muslim's "Kaazh Poomi" (thsrriyu ). He introduced this apt expression in the foreword he wrote to his poet¬friend, Abdul Cader Lebbe's Iracool Cathakan, a composition in Tamil of one hundred poems of fourteen lines each with a two line dedication at the end of each poem to a praiseworthy personality, and in this case, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The word kaazh in Tamil has two meanings. One is and or dry, and the other is rooted or deeply buried. Having worked in the Kalmunai district as an Assistant Government Agent in the early 1940s, and having witnessed at first hand the fertility of the soil and extensive paddy fields of that region, I am certain that Azeez did not use the wordkaazh in its first meaning.

Historically, even before King Senarath of the ancient Kandyan Kingdom settled thousands of Muslims and their families, who escaped from the political and religious persecution in Sitawaka by the invading armies of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Muslims had lived along the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka. A tomb-stone excavated in Kattankudy with the date 896 allows us to believe that there were Muslims in the East in the ninth century, but only on the assumption that the date relates to the Gregorian calendar; on the contrary, if it refers to the Islamic Hijri calendar then it may coincide with the Senarath era. Even if we set aside that piece of evidence, the fact remains that Muslim traders of the Corommandel coast in South India had been frequenting the ports of Batticaloa and Trincomalee soon after Islam spread to that part of the sub-continent in the eighth century. Thus, Azeez's historical mind quite accurately detected the demographic roots of modem day Muslims of the Eastern Province penetrating deep into the medieval era. That justifies his description of that province as Muslims' kaazh poomi.

This expression also provides a strong theoretical edifice to the current defensive struggle the Muslims of that province are staging against some sinister forces that have determined to cleanse the area ethnically by forcibly getting rid of the Muslims. Unfortunately, the father of this expression is not with us today to witness the tragedy that is slowly unfolding in that region. This tragedy is compounded further by the notable absence of a national Muslim intellectual leadership of Azeez's calibre that could guide the young Muslim political activists, who, viewing from a distance as far as Australia, appears to lack clear direction and farsightedness.

The Eastern Province is kaazh poomi not only to Muslims but even to the Tamils. For centuries, these two communities, from Trincomalee in the north to Pottuvil in the south, have been living quite peacefully although in separate but tightly compacted demographic compartments. In that popularly quoted metaphor, pittu and coconut, the Muslim settlements of Mutur, Kinniya, Thoppur, Valaichenai, Oddamavady, Meeravodai Eravur, Kattankudy, Maruthamunai, Kalmunai, Sainthamarutur, Sammanthurai, Nintavur, Oluvil, Palamunai, Addlaichenai, Akkaraipattu, and Pottuvil are the most distinct layers of coconut that not only add colour but more importantly a delicious taste to chunks of Tamil flour baked from the pittu mould.

In this Tamil-Muslim ethnic and cultural tapestry of the Eastern Province, the Sinhalese added a third element. Demographic statistics show and historians and social scientists agree that there was a marked increase in the Sinhalese population ratio of the Eastern Province as a result of state aided colonisation schemes like Altai, Kantalai, Gal Oya, Well Oya, and Maduru Oya. These schemes skewed the demography of certain areas in favour of the Sinhalese, and their impact was furthet strengthened by the creation of electorates like Seruvila and Ampara in 1976. Thus, by the mid-1970s, the Eastern Province has been transformed from a Tamil-Muslim dominant region to a Sinhalese-Tamil-Muslim province with a tenuous demographic equilibrium.

Azeez was a historian and an avid reader of Islamic history. Inspired by the poetry of Allama Iqbal, he fell in love with Muslim Spain of the period from 711 to 1492. It was in this period of world history that the Urnayyads of Spain produced what has come to be known as La Convivencia, a model of ethnic and cultural integration in which three communities with three different cultures and religions namely, the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians, lived together side by side in peace and with dignity and each played a unique role in producing a civilization described by historians as "the ornament of the world". Muslim Spain that lasted for nearly eight centuries until the Catholic Inquisition began religiously cleansing the country, by forcing the Jews and Muslims to choose either conversion to Christianity or face certain death, was a classic example of religious and ethnic tolerance and social conviviality. No wonder, Muslim Spain, with Toledo as its centre, became a land of economic opulence and cultural efflorescence.

I cited this piece of history because the Eastern Province resembled a successful convivencia for centuries, and for nearly two decades after Sri Lanka's independence, it provided an opportunity to governments in Colombo to replicate that historical experience throughout the whole country. None of the governments that came to power after independence seem to have understood the economic terrain and social fabric of the province, let alone any attempt to replicate it. In a paper that I wrote to the Marga Institute in 2001, titled "Plural Identities and Political Choices of the Muslim Community" I made the following comment: "No Sri Lankan government since independence ever cared to consider the uniqueness of the Eastern Province ethnic-mix in formulating its domestic regional policies — an opportunity perhaps missed forever." I went on to say in that paper, "Without pandering to the demands of Buddhist religious and Sinhalese extremism had those governments respected the ethnic balance in the region when allocating new lands, the cry for federalism at that time would have lost one of its strong economic arguments. The Eastern Province, dotted with temples, vihares, churches, and mosques would have emerged as a classic model of multiculturalism in Sri Lanka."

The Muslims of the Eastern Province especially those who live to the south of Batticaloa have played in the past and are playing at present a crucial role in the food supply of this country. When King Senarath settled the Muslim refugees from Sitawaka along the eastern coastal districts in the sixteenth century, his immediate objective was strategic and political rather than economic. He wanted the Muslims to defend his Kingdom or more appropriately to bear the first brunt of any attack from foreign invasion if it were to come from the sea. However, these political refugees soon became an economic asset, a fact largely forgotten in recent historical research on the Muslims. True, those Muslims were traders originally, but as time rolled on they took advantage of their strategic location and diverted their attention from trading to farming, and became the economic backbone of the Kandyan kingdom. They cleared the jungles and grasslands in the interior and converted them into arable lands to produce rice. It is sheer fantasy based on emotional anger rather than on solid facts for some people to claim today that the kaazh poomi Muslims either forcibly or through commercial sagacity acquired lands in the past that belonged to some previous occupants. The economic history of this period tells a different story.

The Muslims who arrived from Sitawaka did not come empty handed and penniless. They were not economic refugees but enterprising traders who brought with them not only financial capital which they had accumulated in the past but also the commercial and managerial skill required to succeed in any economic venture. With money in their hands, with valuable skills on economic management acquired through decades of commercial experience, with a yearning to remain economically independent, and above all, with an unshakeable trust in God the All-Mighty, they directed their attention to agriculture, which at that time and in that region a sheer gamble in the rain. Their effort produced encouraging results. Of course later, when land became a saleable commodity under British colonialism, as some of these agriculturists became more affluent than others, they invested their surplus in extending the acreage of ownership by buying lands from those who wanted to sell. Buying and selling is a normal course of economic transaction in a market economy. Prices prevailing at a particular time and place reflect the prevailing economic circumstances of that time and place. It is economically irrational and socially unjust for some group of people to come now after centuries and claim that those transactions were made unfairly and should be rectified by dissolving those transactional contracts. This is a recipe for economic and social disaster.

Azeez served in this region as an Assistant Government Agent for two years in the 1940s. It was the time of Second World War and the country was facing food shortage. The government of the day set up Emergency Kachcheries to speed up food production. One of the objectives of these kachcheries was to distribute crown lands for clearance and cultivation. A grant of Rs. 20 per acre was paid for land clearance, and in addition 2.5 bushels of seed-paddy was given to farmers to start sowing. By the end of 1943, more than 12,000 acres of land had been allocated to thousands of farmers in the region which included not only Muslims, but also Tamils and Sinhalese. The region soon became the granary of the east. Azeez handled this task in an exemplary fashion without prejudice to any particular community. No wonder these farmers, out of gratitude to his services named a part of the lands so allocated as `Azeez thurai kandam'.

A farming community unlike a commercial community has more time at its disposal for leisure, which could be utilized for other economically or culturally productive purposes. I want to stress this point here to draw a qualitative distinction between the cultural contributions of the Muslims of the east in comparison to their counterparts in the rest of the island. The intention is not to belittle or denigrate the contributions that other Muslims have made, but to emphasize the point that farming communities have by nature of their profession an inherent advantage over the others in cultural pursuits.

My friend Jameel has painstakingly collected and documented - and he should be congratulated for this - hundreds of poems and other literary contributions made by the Muslims of this country in his book Kiraanmththu Ithayatn . In that collection, a greater part of the contribution has come from the kaazh poomi Muslims. Their kappa( paattu and kalikkampu, kavi and kuravai, oonjal paint and thalaatnt paartu, are all products of leisure

and not the outcome of pecuniary motive, which is not normally the case in a business community, which is always obsessed with profit making.

This occupational difference is also an important reason why the children of kaazh poorni Muslims had better opportunities to enhance their education rather than to engage in their parents' agricultural profession. A farmer's demand for labour reaches its peak during the sowing and harvesting seasons. But for a shop-keeper the demand for labour is constant throughout the day, month and year. This is why the shop-keeper would like to engage his children in the family business because it not only minimizes labour and management costs but also allows the profit to circulate within the family. The affluent farmers on the other hand can afford to send their children to schools and educate them. To them their children's labour is superfluous at most times. When Azeez was the principal of Zahira College, his boarding master the Late Mr. Izzadeen once commented that when the night train from Batticaloa arrived at the Maradana station in the morning of the first day of the College term, Zahira hostel would be full. Zahira provided the children of the farming elite in the Eastern Province a wonderful opportunity to become professionals. All this meant that the colonial description of the Ceylon Muslim community as a business community does not apply at all to Azeez's koazh poorni Muslims. It may apply to some pockets of Muslim settlement in this region like Kattankudy, but certainly not to those settlements to the south of Kattankudy.

Since 1983, the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Sri Lanka, the ongoing civil war, and the rising tide of ethno-nationalism has shattered the communal peace in the Eastern Province and has made the economy of its Muslims very fragile. A peaceful, multicultural, fertile and industrious region of the country, through short-sighted political maneuverings, ill-informed and prejudiced economic policies and conspiratorially engineered cultural programs has thrown this region into a cauldron of racial violence, economic stagnation and political turmoil.

Without enumerating the series of mini and major incidents of racial violence in the Eastern Province since 1985, about which you more than me are very well aware of, let me dwell on a few developments that have particularly impacted the Muslims over there. The most important of these is the loss of agricultural lands. The International Crisis Group, in its Asia Report no. 134, cites The Muslim Information Centre and states that the Muslims of the Eastern Province have lost a total of 63,000 acres of land since 1995, owing mainly to LTTE atrocities. However, one should also add to this figure the loss they have incurred due to the government's land policies under false pretensions. For example, the failed sugar plantation in Ampara in the nineteen sixties, the Digawapi Buddhist cultural precincts scheme in the 1990s, the so called archaeological excavation in Pottuvil to resurrect an ancient Buddhist temple in post-2000, and the designation of 600 acres in Mutur for a Special Economic Zone, are all projects that have intentionally or unintentionally taken away lands belonging to Muslims. One should not forget that it was the loss of land more than the threat to their language that actually provoked the Tamils to cry for a separate state.

A second area of concern is education. Without going into the whole complexity of this issue, I want to draw your attention to one aspect of it. This is in regard to the establishment of the South Eastern University in Oluvil. According to Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole, who was a member of the University Grants Commission during the planning stages of this university, this university, although technically is a national university, was intended to be a university for the Muslims. One should also acknowledge the political agitation led by the Late M. H. M. Ashraff, the founding father of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, to bring the university project to fruition. Billions of rupees were to be poured into this university to develop one of the least developed parts of Sri Lanka so that economic activity would grow around the university. To view this project from another angle, the South Eastern University was to be the apex of nearly five decades of Muslim agitation to establish a separate category of government educational institutions, peopled by Muslim children, taught by Muslim teachers, and supervised by Muslim inspectors and directors. A university with a Muslim identity would have been the crowning achievement of this growth process.

But Professor Hoole in a recent lecture that he delivered in Toronto, Canada, expressed his disappointment and said that the present government has planned to populate forty percent of
this university with Sinhalese students. There is nothing inherently wrong in this plan. After all, it is a national university. But the plan should be viewed in the context of a policy of the Eastern Province becoming Sinhala majority, aggressively promoted by the far right elements. A widely quoted statement by a leading Sinhalese politician, which said that "7% of Muslims hold 27% of land" in the Eastern Province, provoked an enraged reporter to counter that statement by pointing out that "25% Sinhalese (5% in 1921) hold 74%". To increase the number of Sinhalese graduands to 40% in the South Eastern University seems to be a part of this policy and is certainly going to aggravate an already tense situation in the province.

Finally, the archaeological excavations that I have already alluded to are again a sinister attempt at changing the demographic pattern of the province at the expense of the Muslims.

On top of these travails and traumas, the community is now forced to confront a new set of war lords led by the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).

The split in the LTTE between the Batticaloa faction and the Jaffna faction should not have come as surprise to any acute observer of Tamil politics. Long before the split occurred between the LTTE and the TMVP, in an article that I wrote in 1997 to the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs under the title "The Muslim Factor in Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis", I said the following: "Although the Batticaloa Tamils are emotionally united with their northern brethren because of the impending threat to Tamil and Tamil culture under Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism, in reality their unity appears to be one of caution and conditional... The different governments which came to power since independence never grasped the underlying dichotomy within the Tamil community. The Sinhalese politician assumed that every Tamil in the island is a threat to his community's existence and government policies were framed on the basis of that assumption... In reality just as the Muslims are afraid of the Tamil hegemony the Tamils in the East are also afraid of the Jaffna hegemony." If one were to read the various statements made by Colonel Karuna after he broke away from Pirabakaran one will not miss to detect the underlying fear of Karuna about Jaffna domination.

Even though TMVP under its new leader Pillayan is a splinter group that has vowed to confine its struggle solely within the Eastern Province and to bring about changes by participating in the parliamentary process, the second half of TMVP's nomenclature Viduthalai Pulikal throws an element of doubt in its declaration and begs the question whether this split is a temporary strategic ploy or a permanent reality. If it is real, may we ask them the question, vduthalai or liberation from whom, from the Sinhalese or from the Muslims, or from the parent LTTE? In any case, the current period of honeymoon between the government in Colombo and TMVP appears to be a marriage of convenience. However, some recent events in the Eastern Province indicate that TMVP is exploiting this marriage to make the Muslims suffer and fall out of favour with the government in Colombo.

In the light of all these difficulties that confront the kaazh poomi Muslims, the obvious question to ask is, how are these Muslims handling or how should they handle the difficulties and challenges? What is the future for these Muslims? Is there a way out of the predicament? More precisely, should the Muslims also join the already failed game of playing crude ethnic politics, as the Tamils and Sinhalese have been indulging in that since independence? A closer reading of the public utterances and reports by some prominent Muslim politicians in this country and a critical reading of their political alliances and summersaults will convince any rational analyst that that is what appears to be the chosen path of Muslim politics. This is unfortunate.

History teaches lessons to all of us, but when political leaders fail or refuse to learn from those lessons, history will punish them with vengeance. The ethnic war that is engulfing this country for the last twenty five years is history's punishment to the leaders' failure to learn in 1956. in 1958, in 1977, and in 1983. When peaceful changes are made impossible, violent changes become inevitable.

Azeez was a student of history and a great intellectual. As an intellectual the leadership he provided was unique. He even gave up his political party affiliations to preserve his intellectual integrity and independent thinking As a patriotic citizen of Sri Lanka he worked

for building bridges between the Sinhalese and Tamils and in doing so he commanded respect from both. It is this intellectual capacity and bridge building ability that is sadly lacking in the' current Muslim intellectual and political leadership. In fact there appears to be a Muslim intellectual lacuna in this country. Either the community does not possess any intellectuals, which cannot be true, or, the ones who are there are intentionally silent or involuntarily silenced. Whatever the reason for that silence, it is proving extremely costly to the community and the country. Edward Said, the great Palestinian thinker, scholar, and activist who passed away a couple of years ago, defined the role of the intellectual in the following words: "... (T)he intellectual, neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clich€s, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public."

Syed Hussain Alatas, the former professor of Malay Studies at the University of Singapore, when wrote on the topic of Intellectuals in Developing Societies warned us of the dangers of intellectuals remaining silent. When the intellectuals go down, the fools go up", he said, and according to him "There has never been any instance in history where the fools have succeeded in solving national problems... The concept of the fool is relative ... to the task. A minister may not be a fool as head of a family, but he may be one as head of his ministry. The fools, like the intellectual, can also constitute an influential group. If they control the nerve centres of our social and political order, it will take a long time to replace them because their tendency to breed is stronger than the intellectual can compete with, as the conditions required from their breeding is readily available and easily accomplished."

As a sign of hope and optimism for this country there is now emerging a group of independent thinkers, both from the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. They are coming together through various NGOs and are raising their voice of protest against the prevailing conditions of injustice. The erosion of democracy and freedom in this country, lack of transparency in decision making, loss of human rights, gross economic injustice against the week and the meek, ethnic myopia, environmental degradation, minority rights, national identity and security are some of the important issues about which these intellectuals are voicing concern and on which they are coming together with the crucial support of a few independent and daring journalists. This is a sign of optimism and hope in an otherwise atmosphere of pessimism and despair. It is the task of these intellectuals to create a public demand for a higher intellectual consciousness. In this rising collective voice of optimism and hope I see a glaring absence of a strong Muslim voice. It may be there, but it is not audible. It is time that the silent Muslim intellectuals in this country come out of their cocoon, like what Azeez did while he was alive, and add their voice to the rising clamour of protest against the `powerful and conventional'.

The kaazh poomi Muslims in particular and the Muslim community in general cannot receive redress to their grievances by playing ethnic politics. Ethnic based political parties and ethno¬nationalisms have ruined the peace and prosperity of this beautiful country. Whatever achievements that Muslims have made so far are the results of politics of pragmatism played within an inclusive political framework and not the results of naked and crude exclusive ethnic politics that some Muslim leaders are playing today. Muslims should get back to that politics of inclusiveness and reject politics of exclusiveness. To do that, they should first identify the intellectual and independent forces and their channels of communication that are aspiring to create an environment of inclusive politics. It is in the strength and success of those intellectual forces lie the peaceful survival of the minorities in the future. I am sure that Azeez the intellectual and independent thinker, Azeez the patriot, Azeez who spent a part of his prime life among the Muslims of the east, and above all, Azeez my mentor will be nodding his head in the grave on hearing these words.

We Muslims suffer from a disease of mistrust. Because of this disease we want to fight our battles on our own without joining hands with others who sympathize with our cause. Take for example the issue of Palestine. There are millions of non-Muslims who want to join us and protest against the Israeli Government's atrocities against the Palestinians. But because we portray this problem as a religious one and one between Islam and Zionism or between

Islam and the West we lose the wider support that our cause deserves. The Palestinian problem is a political issue and should be fought at that level with the help of others. Similarly, the problems that Muslims are facing in the East and in other parts of this country is apolitical problem and we should join hands with others who understand our predicament and carry our struggle jointly and with inclusiveness.

One sector of the Muslim community to whose upliftment Azeez was passionately committed was the Muslim women. I wish to reflect upon the reality of the status of women in Islam. For centuries, the orthodox ulema have kept one half of the Muslim population completely secluded. In the name of protecting female chastity and modesty the Muslim women have been kept illiterate and under permanent house detention. A simplistic reading or misinterpretation of the Quran, supported by the rulings of a gender-bias filth or religious laws, has driven us to this pathetic situation. For centuries, the role and place of women in the history of Islam has been deliberately distorted. Where is the Khadija in this history who was an independent business magnate, and who picked Muhammad the son of Abdullah, not only as her employee but also as her husband long before he was accepted by the people as Rasul. What was the influence of Khadija on Muhammad? Where is the Aisha, who led the Meccan forces to war against the fourth caliph Ali in the Battle of Camel in Medina? What was Aisha's role in the selection of the first Caliph? Where is the great sufi Rabiya who went with water in one hand to put out the fire in hell and with flame in the other to burn the paradise? How do we assess her talent in comparison to another great sufi, Hasan al-Basri? And, what happened to that woman who challenged the second caliph Omar during the sermon on Friday when that caliph wanted to change the quantum of the tnahr or the gift to the bride? Orthodoxy has buried all these models and their exemplary achievements. We all know about the Caliphs in Islam but how many of us know about the Sultanas and princesses in Islamic history? Islamic history has been misogynistic for a long time.

This misogynistic history is now being re-written by Muslim women themselves. For centuries it was the men who told the world what Islam said about women. Now, the women, thanks to the spread of female education, a positive legacy of westernization of Muslim countries and a burning desire of intellectuals and reformists like Azeez, are accessing to the same sources that male scholars and imams once accessed, and the results are refreshing. They are coming out with new meanings and more rational interpretations to some of the past events and conventional rulings in Islam. They are challenging our received wisdom. There is a new awakening among the Muslim women and that awakening needs universal encouragement. Incidentally, the word imam is gender neutral and males have no monopoly over it.

In the Muslim world the women need to be empowered in all respects. I am not calling for a feminist movement in the Western sense. I am calling instead for the Khadijaization of the Muslim women who should be economically independent, educationally well-equipped, politically alert and socially active. This class of Muslim women is the need of the time. The welfare of the Muslim community cannot be uplifted unless its female half is uplifted. The phenomenalsuccess of the microcredit scheme and the Grameen bank experiment in Bangladesh is a clear illustration of what women empowerment can do to the development of Muslim societies.

A woman is just another insan created by Allah who has endowed equally with all the faculties that Allah has granted to men. An insan is creative in essence and it is the duty of the society to remove any obstacle that prevents the blossoming of this creative faculty of insans. Islamic orthodoxy has been a killer of female creativity. Muslim women are breaking out of their shackles. Their struggle for emancipation from the bondage of tribal traditions and irrational customs has started. Hundreds of Muslim women intellectuals and activists in every part of the world are leading the struggle. It is a new and revolutionary wave that is lashing the intellectual and social beaches of Islam. In this country also Muslim women have established their own research and action forum. This gives me a sense of optimism and hope and it is a sign that another of Azeez's visions is becoming a reality.

Azeez was a devout Muslim. He had a deep understanding of the message of the Quran and the mission of the Prophet. He was, in addition, an Iqbalian visionary, fervently committed to

the principle of tawheed and its philosophical and practical underpinnings to religious belief, thought and observances. It is therefore fitting to spend the second half of this lecture to make some observations on the rising religiosity of Muslims in this country as well as in the Muslim world as a whole. In fact, an overtly increasing Islamic religiosity is a phenomenon noticeable throughout the Muslim world, whether the Muslims live as minorities, as in Australia and Sri Lanka, or, as a majority, in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia. "There will be a time when your religion will be like a hot piece of coal in the palm of your hand; you will not be able to hold it", said the Prophet of Allah (pbuh) while talking to his disciples in the 7" century Arabia. "Would this mean there would be very few Muslims?" one disciple questioned him later. "No", answered the Prophet, "they will be large in numbers, more than ever before, but powerless like the foam on the ocean waves." This was another piece of dialogue with immense perspicacity by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

With nearly twenty percent of the world population, sitting on nearly sixty percent of one of the most crucial resources that is in demand to sustain the current industrial economies, with sufficient financial reserves to cause a monetary tsunami in the financial markets, ( that tsunami has caused its destruction already without the Muslims doing anything) or to rescue the world from the effects of a financial storm, and with at least one country with proven nuclear power, Muslim societies all over the world are in turmoil and Muslims are being accused and branded as 'terrorists', 'extremists' and `fanatics'. As Professor Akbar S. Ahmed said, Islam is "under siege" the world over.

The economic difficulties that the world encountered in the late nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, which were compounded by increasing unemployment and rising inflation, a phenomenon which economists describe as stagflation, provided an added incentive to Muslim intellectuals to demonstrate to the world that Islam has a solution to rescue the world from its economic and social malaise. Many lavishly funded international conferences and colloquia were held in various parts of the world to attract the attention of world leaders and experts, with a view to convince them that Islam is a progressive force and an alternative paradigm which has the capacity to bring about a new world order, based on spirituality and socio-economic justice. The establishment of an Islamic economic and financial system, and the initiation of a process of Islamising knowledge and science, was proclaimed in these gatherings as the ultimate objectives of the new wave of Islamic revival.

What has actually happened instead over the last three decades is that the world of Islam, while some parts of it have emerged as the twenty-first century temples of conspicuous consumption, has come to be portrayed in general as a world of terror, a world of tyranny, a world of misogynists and a world of intolerance. The Islamic revival was given a political twist and received a new name in the international media and Western scholarship, Islamism, and the Islamists became a new target for attack denigration. How come a religion, which came to establish peace, to promote human dignity, and to fight against tyranny, oppression, inequality and injustice, received this negative connotation? There is obviously an error, a misunderstanding, and confusion between Islam as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) , and its later day practitioners, between the normative and the positive. The world of Islam is not the world of Muslims, and the world of present day Muslims is not the umnmh that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who was sent as ralnnatan lit almneen meaning a blessing to humanity, wanted to create. This difference between a progressive and dynamic original Islam as embedded in the teachings of the Quran and the life of the Prophet on the one hand, and the retrogressive and fossilized interpretations of those sources by a backward looking community of orthodox ulema on the other, was already identified by the twentieth century Muslim visionary Allama Muhammad Iqbal whose keen admirer was Azeez.

The Islamic revival also coincided with another international development. With the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, the militarized industrial sector of the West was in search of a new target or an excuse to maintain the momentum of its investment in militarization. Western intellectuals like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, along with those who crowded the think-tank of Washington Consensus, conveniently identified the Muslim world, largely ruled by a military-monarchic complex as a probable target. Saddam Hussein's misadventure in Kuwait provided the excuse for the continuation of military Keynesianism. What happened afterwards is all history now. Islam is under siege. Terrorism

and counter-terrorism, both being driven by the common desire of hegemony and intolerance, are setting the agenda for the whole world. The initial objectives of the Islamic revival have now been overtaken by the singular objective of rescuing the religion from the violent jihadists and their intellectual underwriters.

On this score, the crucial challenge facing the modern Muslim intellectuals is to liberate Islam from the clutches of orthodoxy. Professor Cantwell Smith, the Canadian Orientalist, in his book Islam in Modern History, categorised three types of Islam: the Quran Islam, the imam Islam, and the awam Islam. The last category refers to the Islam of the masses. This categorization, except for the first one, almost fits in with the categorization introduced by the great Imam al-Ghazzali in his Mishkat al-Anwar or The Niche of Lights, namely, Islam of the common people, Islam of the elite and Islam of the elite of the elite. I would like to rename these categories as Islam of the scripture, Islam of the preacher, and Islam of the practitioner. Of the three, Islam of the practitioner or popular Islam, according to Smith, "is superstition, obscurantism, (and) fetishism". The Islam of the preacher is "bogged down with the whole weight of out-of-date legalism"; and the Islam of the scripture or the true Islam as revealed in the Quran remained, for centuries, concealed to the vast majority of Muslims and controversial to the elite. Oliver Roy, in his book Globalised Islam sums up the situation quite succinctly: "A sacred book is not Napoleon's code or an insurance policy, where everything is put in unequivocal terms. By definition it has various meanings and is subject to argument and interpretation. If there is still a debate about what the Koran says, it means that nobody really knows, or at least that the people who think they know disagree among themselves — thus we find. Ourselves back to square one. The key question is not what the Koran actually says, but what Muslims say the Koran says." Without access to the true meaning of the Quran the vast majority of Muslims today have become prisoners of the second category, the Islam of the preacher. And it is this Islam that has become a social de-stabilizer and international peace-breaker.

The Islam of the preacher, in the name of going back to the Quran has actually made Muslim societies move away from the spirit and message of the Quran. The Quran welcomes pluralism and diversity and allows judgement of one's faith to Allah alone; whereas the preachers demand uniformity and conformity to their views and interpretations, and they judge all opinions and views contrary to theirs as bid'a or innovation, and therefore, heretical. This is the current crisis that the religion faces and the cause of the tragedy in the Muslim world. Historically, Muslims advanced in all areas of civilization when they encouraged pluralism and tolerated even heresy. The period of the Mu'tazilites in Islamic history and their contribution to the Renaissance of Europe has been largely forgotten by our students and scholars. The time has come to revisit this crucial period in Muslim history in order to assess how far Muslims have deviated from the spirit of the Quran, and how they have lost the vibrancy of moderate and creative Islam in the face of an oppressive orthodoxy. Taqlid or imitation has superseded ijtihad or interpretation. The preachers must realise that they have no monopoly over truth, and the path to discover the truth is multi-polar. This was the essence of Mu'tazilism and was the inspiration behind Allama Iqbal's critique of Mullah Islam. Azeez, as we know, was an Iqbalian visionary and was equally critical of the ritualised Islam of the Mullah. If there is a need for jihad today it is a jihad to bring back ijtihad. In the Arabic lexicology both words have the same root.

Looking at the local scene, the following developments will not miss the attention of any casual observer of Islam and Muslims. The number of mosques, newly built and/or renovated, some of them larger in size and more elaborate in design and architecture, has increased. Mosque attendance has swelled, thanks to the da'wa work of organizations like the Tabligh Jamaat. The number of pilgrims to Mecca for hajj and umra has grown by thousands, thanks to the revolution in transport and communication; hail and umra have, in fact, become profit making opportunities for enterprising businessmen, thanks to an open economy. Madarisof all shapes and sizes have also proliferated, although what is being taught in these madaris is another matter. Islamic books, magazines, Arabic calligraphic pictures, audio-cassettes and video-discs have multiplied, and the Internet is flooded with Muslim websites. On top of these, the attire of Muslim men and women has also become increasingly Arabized. This is obviously a mixed picture.

Every religion has two different dimensions. One is based on its rituals, icons, narratives, and legends; and the other is based on the values that it promotes. The first dimension emphasises the uniqueness or differentiation of that religion from the others, whereas the second shows the commonality among various religions. Religions today need to focus on the values that they promote rather than on their theological uniqueness and ritualistic individuality. Which religion in the world preaches against the values of tolerance, justice, generosity, compassion, human dignity, freedom, peace and harmony? If the answer is negative then why can't humanity build a world society based on these values? The distinctness of each religion in its first dimension should not be belittled but my point is that it is insufficient to build a harmonious world society. The Quran, in numerous instances calls for this approach to religion.

Islam in Sri Lanka is a minority religion and in that respect the problems it faces here are in many ways similar to the problems in other Muslim minority environments. For example, there are bureaucratic restrictions to erect mosques, to establish Muslim schools and madaris, to distribute funds collected for charity. There is also an increasing public disfavor to the Muslim attire and food. The majority communities are questioning the commitment of Muslims to integrate with the majority community and scenes of street violence between Muslims and others are also becoming a noticeable phenomenon. What has gone wrong? How should Muslim minorities living under non-Muslim majority regimes respond to these challenges? This is a new experience to which there is no guidance handed to us historically. The bulk of the filth that we know of was written and compiled for the Muslims, by the Muslims, and when the Muslims were the ruling power. If there was any model of Muslim experience or precedent in the history of Islam where the Muslims were a subject people under a non-Muslim regime, it was those few years when the nascent Muslim community from Mecca migrated to Abyssinia and sought refuge under a Christian regime during the time of the Prophet. How did the Muslims live there and what were the instructions of the Prophet to them are yet to be researched. In the meantime, because of the absence of a model some prominent Muslim scholars have undertaken a process of ijtihad to revisit the shariah in order to adapt it to a Muslim minority environment. This enterprise towards Filth al¬Agalliyyal, is being headed by two eminent Muslim scholars, Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani of Virginia in the United States, and Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Qatar. This is something to be welcomed by minority Muslims.

There is even call for a new open theology in Islam called kalam jadid. This is championed by another daring scholar Abdul Karim Soroush whose real name is Hossein Dabbah. In his view Islam may be divine and celestial but its interpretation is, as Rachid Benzine said, is "human and terrestrial". Religion, as Anouar Majid, the Professor of English at the University of New England feels, instead of being an authoritarian instrument must become a philosophy of dialogue and freedom both of which are essential to democracy. Until these ideas and efforts mature, there is a desperate need for interfaith dialogues. These dialogues should be aimed not at winning converts to one's religion but at clearing the misunderstanding about each other's religion. To the Muslims, the Quran, without any ambiguity, commands that there is no compulsion in religion; it lays down the rule that to you be your way and to me mine"; and it makes it clear that Allah created humanity into different nations to know each other and not to despise each other.

If these are not heavenly ordained guidelines for interfaith understanding and pluralism then what else is there? The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself launched the first interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians when he welcomed a Christian delegation from Najran and took them right inside his mosque in Medina to listen to their arguments. He allowed them to pray in one corner of the mosque while he prayed in the other corner. Similarly, the court of the Moghul Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century was a lively centre of religious dialogues. We are living in a global village in which people of different faiths and cultures are constantly on the move and are meeting with each other. This makes it even more imperative for us to start interfaith dialogues. In this respect, the western countries, and among them, Australia is leading the way. It is to the credit of this country that its governments have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in organizing such dialogues at international levels. For the last four years, in Jakarta in Indonesia in 2005, Cebu in Philippines in 2006, Waitangi in New Zealand in 2007, and Pnom Penh in Campuchea in 2008 such dialogues were held to promote interfaith understanding. The benefits of such dialogues are far reaching. In the context of Islam in Australia I can assure you that there has 10 been a noticeable difference between the ultra-negative public perception of Islam in 2001 and its positive perception in 2008. This is an experience worth duplicating in Sri Lanka and in the Indian subcontinent.

In talking about the West and its relationship with Islam, Muslim orthodoxy has developed a totally negative perception. It is time for a reappraisal of this attitude, as Azeez once wrote. No one can deny the fact that Islam and the West were on a collision course for many centuries. The Wars of the Crusades and the era of European colonization have left deep scars in the collective memory of Muslims. These pages of world history cannot be erased.

However, there is another side to this tragic history that has not been brought to light until very recently. That side tells us that even when the two entities collided, there were numerous occasions and episodes of cooperation and coexistence between the two. Zachary Karabell in his People of the Book and Richard Fletcher in The Cross and the Crescent have brought out to us this forgotten history of Islam and the West. In the light of these researches there is a need for a reappraisal of the relationship between Islam and the West. Ironically, it is the hated West that has become the epicentre of progressive Islamic thought today.

By way of illustrating my point, let me cite this episode from history. It was the great Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur who initiated the famous translation movement in the ninth century which rediscovered the ancient Greek intellectual treasures of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and others. Arabic language became the vehicle currency for the exchange of intellectual thought and storage of ancient European knowledge. Al-Mamun, the grandson of al-Mansur not only continued with the translation movement but also created the Baytul Hikma or the House of Wisdom which became the repository of those translated works. Incidentally, it was that translation movement started by the Arab Muslims that gave the English language the word dragoman a derivation from the Arabic word tarjuma. Today, that work of translation under the Arabic title al-Hikma is being continued in a reverse direction, i.e., from Arabic to English in the Brigham Young University, the heart of Mormon Christianity in the United States. Just as the works of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, and Socrates came to the world of Islam in the ninth century, the works of ibn-Sina, ibn-Rushd, al-Ghazzali, Mulla Sadra, and a host of other medieval Muslim savants are now being made available to the English speaking world. At a time when many Muslims are looking at the West-Islam relationship rather negatively, here is a positive development that they are refusing to acknowledge. This is not all.

Edward Gibbon, in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fantasised about the possible consequences of what would have happened had the battle between the Arabs and the Carolingian warlord Charles Martel in the year 733 been won by the Arabs. He wrote:

" A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland: the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or the Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet".

Today, without any invasion or battle, Islam and Islamic studies is being taught and researched practically in every major university in Europe, America, Canada, and Australia. It is not the Islam of the Orientalists which Edward Said brilliantly exposed in his seminal work, Orientalism, but the Islam of progressive and forward thinking Muslim scholars like Mohammed Arkoun, the late Ismail Farouki, Abdullahi al-Naim, Khaled Abou El Fad], Farid Esack, Amina Wadud, and a host of others who have embarked on a venture of reclaiming the beautiful Islam from the intransigent Muslim literalist exclusivists.

One of the positive fall outs from the prevailing turmoil in the Muslim world is the Muslim brain drain to the West. In one sense this is a colossal loss to the Muslim world; but in another it as a blessing in disguise. These immigrant Muslim intellectuals, because of the intellectual freedom they enjoy in the West are in a fortunate position to re-read, re-write, and re-teach without prejudice, without preconceived notions and above all, without the fear of the fatwa, not only Islamic theology but even Islamic history. It is my firm belief that if there is to be an Islamic renaissance in the future, that renaissance will radiate from the West and not from the Muslim world. In that sense, I strongly believe that the classical identification of the zone of Darul Islam and the zone of Darul Harb needs to be transposed now. The classical Darul Islam is the modem Darul Harb and vice versa.

While there is a need for interfaith dialogues between religions, in the context of modem day Islam and the growth of sectarianism in the Muslim countries, there is also a need for interfaith dialogues. This is another challenge that the Muslims are facing. The sectarian violence that is engulfing parts of the Middle East and Pakistan is also spilling over into other parts of the Muslim world. Sri Lanka is no exception if one were to recall the recent religious riots in Kattankudy. This violence once again goes to demonstrate the lack of proper understanding of the historical plurality of Muslim civilization, religion and culture. The Quranic dictum, "there is no compulsion in religion", applies not only to the world outside Islam but also within it. The Prophet is attributed to have said that there would be seventy three divisions among Muslims in the future. Did he ever say that they should fight against each other?

Muslims are indeed in a sad predicament, both locally as well as internationally. Locally, there is an urgent need to revisit our political strategies. In my view, it requires a fundamental change in political thinking. It is a change in which politics of inclusiveness and politics of pragmatism have to prevail over politics of exclusiveness and politics of ethnicity. Muslims cannot win their battles by fighting alone and they have to join hands with others who are prepared to sacrifice even their life and economic security to create a just society.

At the international level also, the time has come to think of the unthinkable and question much of our received wisdom. As Mohammed Arkoun demands, we need to re-read our history to reform ourselves rather than to be trapped by forces of subversion. We should keep babul ijtihad, or, the gates of interpretation open for ever. This is the ultimate challenge confronting the Muslim intellectuals. We have to remember repeatedly the Quranic verse, "innallaha la yu'ayyiry ma bigawmin hatta yu'ayyiru mafi anfusihim", Allah does not change any nation unless the individuals change themselves.

I began my lecture by recalling an event that took place between Azeez and my father, Poet Abdul Cader Lebbe. I also want to end this address with another episode. I was in Batticaloa on that fateful day in 1973, when I listened to the announcement over the radio that Azeez had passed away. I was immediately caught in a dilemma about breaking that news to my father. I was sure that he would be shocked. I waited until he finished his morning ablutions and had his breakfast. While he was in a relaxed mood and was chatting with me on other matters, with all the subtlety that I could command I told him the sad news. He was speechless for a moment. I sat with him for a while and asked whether we should go to the funeral. He said that we would miss it even if we started immediately. My father and his elder brother Ismail, who was also a Head Master, maintained a family diary in the form of a log book since the 1930s. I still have it with me. In that diary, on 25 November 1973, my father wrote the following entry about Azeez:


"When my son listened to the sad news over the radio and told me that AI-Haj A.M.A. Azeez, my close friend, the advisor on many aspects of my life, the one who encouraged me in my literary pursuits through his regular letters, the one of my age, and the one who came into contact with me from 1942, had passed away, I felt that I have lost the only refuge I had in this country and shed tears. It was he who guided my son from the beginning, for him to rise up to this status. I pray for his soul to be blessed. Because he has entered into my life-history, I feel reluctant to write anything about him within a few sentences." (A.A.C. Lebbe)

Even though Azeez is not with us his intellectual thoughts and his services to Muslims and this country will be remembered for ever. This lecture is my dedication to his memory.

Wafillahi tawfiq walhidaya wassalanmalaikunr warahmandlahi wabarakatuhu

Dr. A.C.L. Ameer Ali hails from Kattankudy in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, and is the son of the well known poet Marhoom Abdul Coder Lebbe. He was a distinguished student of Zahira College, Colombo during the Azeez era, and graduated with Honours in Economics from the University of Ceylon in 1964. He obtained a M.Phil. Degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Doctorate from the University of Western Australia.

He is a trained economist and has taught thousands of students in the University of Ceylon, the University of Brunei Darussalam and the University of Western Australia. His services were obtained by the South Eastern University in Sri Lanka as an academic advisor in 1998. He is presently a Senior Academic in Murdoch University of Western Australia.

His research interest is in the socio-economic development of Muslim minorities and in that area he has published dozens of research articles in international journals and presented papers at several international conferences in various parts of the world. He is the author 'From Penury to Plenty: Development of Brunei Darussalam from 1906 to Present'. He is also an associate editor of 'The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs'.

In Australia, he is one of the Muslim community's leading personalities. He has been the Vice President and then President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils for eight years, and was appointed by the Howard Government as the Chairman of the Muslim Community Reference Group. He is also an active participant in the international interfaith dialogues sponsored by the Australian Government. He is a member of the High Command Co¬ordinating Committee of the World Muslim League. Currently, he is the Vice-President of the Regional Da'wa Council of South East Asia and the Pacific (RISEAP).

– Asian Tribune -

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