In the name of a misunderstood identity, Lankan Muslims are getting isolated: Prof. Ali

By Frances Bulathsinghala Courtesy Daily FT

Sri Lanka is currently wedged between Buddhist fundamentalism and rigid Orthodox Islam that have made inroads into the country in the past 40 years or so. Both Buddhists and Muslims have forgotten the magnanimity and tolerance of the Sinhalese who welcomed Muslims into the country centuries ago. Sadly, Muslims have forgotten that they embraced Sri Lankan and not Arabian culture when they decided to live in Sri Lanka as Sri Lankans. It was Buddhist compassion, which made Buddhist monarchs of ancient Sri Lanka welcome believers of other religions and extended their unparalleled hospitality. The experience of the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka until ethno-nationalism raised its ugly head in the 20th century was pleasantly unique,” says Professor Ameer Ali, a scholar of Economics and the former President of the Australian Federation of Islam Councils. Prof. Ameer Ali juxtaposes his analysis of the history of Buddhist compassion in Sri Lanka with explanations of the cosmopolitan outlook of Islam in the medieval era that allowed the Caliphate to welcome intellectuals and theologians of other faiths to settle in Baghdad, Cordoba, Istanbul and Delhi, which ultimately produced a civilisation unmatched by any other at that time. He explains that the convivencia” model in Muslim Spain, which allowed people of different faiths to administer their affairs according to their own religious principles and traditions, had a parallel in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka where the Buddhist monarchs also did not interfere in the administration of Muslim affairs. Muslims in turn did not have any qualms in living peacefully amongst their Buddhist hosts. This is how religious harmony and social equilibrium was built in Sri Lanka. This is the need of the day,” states Prof. Ameer Ali who holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Western Australia and has taught Economics in the University of Ceylon, Murdoch University, University of Brunei and the University of Western Australia.

Below is a discussion with Prof. Ameer Ali:

Q: Why don’t the Muslim intelligentsia, writers, opinion leaders including political leaders, address the issue of the growing cultural gap between the Muslims and other Sri Lankans? Why don’t they even introspect and debate this issue among themselves? 

A: Everyone is scared of the orthodox ulema controlled by ACJU, who may issue a fatwa calling such scholars as heretics. The tragedy is that the so called intellectuals do not want to speak out in public although in private they concede that the community needs progressive leadership. One can forget about the politicians because they will lose votes if they criticise the status quo.

Q:Until Wahabi–Salafi Islam was imported into Sri Lanka ​fromSaudi Arabia, Sri Lankan Muslims had a strong Lankan identity that was especially strong during the days of the Lankan monarchy, which led to Muslims being given refuge in the East of the country by the then Lankan King so they could escape fromconversions to Catholicism forced by the Portuguese. And we know Muslims were very much part of the Buddhist culture and traditions of Sri Lanka, such as making offerings to the Kandyan Pererahera festivities. But this has been changing with the rise of puritanical Islam. Do you think this distancing away from Lankan identity by Sri Lankan Muslims and embracing a Saudi Islamic identity and a dress code, is the root of Sinhala Buddhist fears and extremist views/phobias by some members of the Buddhist clergy and some Sinhala Buddhists? 

A: Muslims confuse culture with religion. Religion is only one of the elements that make up one’s culture. Local history and traditions, geography and climate, population mix and language are other elements that influence culture. In the case of dress any dress can be Islamic as long as it complies with the requirement about modesty as emphasised in the Holy Quran. Muslims still do not have a clear idea about the term modesty. Extravagant display of one’s beauty is frowned upon in Islam. In fact that sort of display is not encouraged in any religion.

However, the dress one wears must be suitable to the climatic environment of one’s country. What is necessary in a hot desert environment is not suitable in a humid climatic environment like Sri Lanka. The cotton sari worn by Indian and Sri Lankan women for centuries with a piece of it covering the head is Islamic enough and satisfies the modesty requirement. The Pakistani shalwar with a shawl thrown over the head also satisfies Quranic expectation and climatically suitable.

I remember that in the ‘60s and ‘70s even Sinhalese and Tamil girls were wearing the shalwar to schools and work. But the abaya, niqab, and burka belong to another culture, history and environment. They are a product of a patriarchal society which treated the woman as a piece of property.The colour black, which was the colour of the Abbasids who succeeded the Umayyads in the 8th century, was chosen to mourn for the loss of members of the Prophet’s family killed by the Umayyads. It has now been misconstrued as the Islamic colour. Who are these people mourning for now?

Q:Modesty is equally emphasised in the Quran for men and women. Am I right? If so, in practice, why is it taken out of proportion for women, where it is a common sight in venues such as restaurants or outdoors to see fully covered women accompanied by men in shorts?

A:Modesty is both for men and women. I know several incidents where fully covered women have been unnecessarily put into embarrassing situations. This is unwanted and should be avoided.Only education can bring changes and that education has to come from the pulpit from more enlightened imams. Where are they in Sri Lanka?

Q:In basic social psychology it is clear that when a human being dresses covered up from head to toe, with only eyes visible, (and that too at times covered in net or cloth) that there can be no social interaction. In schools and universities this can lead to serious segregation and promotion of the ghetto mentality that is displayed by sections of the Muslim community of Sri Lanka. Do you think being covered up like this is actually a requirement of Islam which was at one point of history seen as being more progressive than Christianity?

A: In the name of a misunderstood identity, Muslims are getting isolated. This is a regrettable development since 1980s. There is also something unfair about the fully covered dress with a window for the eyes to see. While it allows the wearer to see clearly the full figure of a man in front of her, that opportunity is denied to the man in front to see the wearer’s face. Is this fair? There is a saying in Tamil to the effect that one’s face is the reflection of the beauty of one’s heart. That means those who cover their face actually are covering their heart. May be their heart is ugly.

Q:After your recent talk ‘Buddhist Compassion and Islam’s cosmopolitanism’, at the Walpola Rahula Institute on 15 May, you referred to a recent incident in a Tamil school in the East where one Muslim teacher insisted on dressing in the abaya. You took the side of argument of the Tamil teachers stating that the dominant culture of the school should be respected and that the ‘human rights argument’ was not valid in this context. As an observer, I would simplify your comments as meaning that in a multi cultural society there must be some compromise and give and take between communities, depending on the dominant culture of the district/community/location, etc. How would you elaborate on this and advice both Buddhists and Muslims on how to adjust their ideologies and beliefs and avoid rigid carved in stone mentalities. 

A: Tolerance and compromise are essential elements of successful democracies. If someone wants to join or work for an institution then that person should abide by the rules and regulations of that institution. If unwilling to do that one should not go there at all. It is this principle that was broken at that school in Trincomalee, which led to unwarranted accusations and insults. If you want to enter a mosque you should take off your shoes. You cannot enter with your shoes and then argue in terms of human rights.

Q: Soon after your recent talk you mentioned in the discussion that ensued, that the Sharia Law tells Muslims how to behave towards and live with religious groups that make up a minority populace but that it does not teach Muslims how to live as a minority community under a majority ethnic group. What are your recommendations and advice to the custodians of Islam (the Islamic clergy of Sri Lanka)?

A: What the clergy refers to as Sharia is the fiqh or rules and regulations derived from the Quran and Hadiths by Muslim Jurists who lived in the 8th and 9th centuries. They did an excellent job at that time. These rules fall into different schools of interpretation. What we have in Sri Lanka belong to the Safiite school of Islamic jurisprudence even though there is a small minority that follows other schools of jurisprudence. These rules were derived and prescribed for Muslims by Muslims when Muslims were a hegemonic power.

Today more than one-third of world Muslims live as minorities in more than 100 countries. Time and circumstances have changed and the laws need reforms. Muslim experts in the West are currently engaged in compiling a new set of fiqh to meet current challenges. This is a vast topic impossible to cover adequately in this answer. All I can say is this: There is hardly any Islamic religious scholar or religious institution in Sri Lanka today that is equipped with the vast knowledge which is required to reinterpret the holy texts to meet modern challenges.

Q: In the discussion that took place after your lecture at the Walpola Rahula Institute, I asked you a question on whether the Muslim clergy (as in the case of the Catholic Jesuits) are involved incomparative religious studies (for the cause of promoting similarities in religious philosophies and not for the cause of nitpicking and fault finding, as Salafi Islamic preacher Zakir Naik does) and you replied that under the current Wahabi–Salafi surge that there is ‘no chance of it’. Then, where do we begin? I ask this question in the backdrop of Saudi Arabia currently going on a ‘modernising’ spree and where interestingly some social media posts by Lankan Muslims criticise this move.

A: Comparative religious studies and analytical religious studies stopped in the Muslim world after the 12th century. The study of Kalam as it was known then came to a halt and it should be reintroduced. In a plural society like Sri Lanka, everyone should have an understanding of each other’s religion, not to belittle the others or to convert one to the other, but to create a harmonious relationship among believers of different religions. This should be introduced in our schools.

Q: So you think comparative religious philosophy should be incorporated into the Lankan school curricula and education on ethno religious lines abandoned?

A: This is imperative.

Q: Would you agree that it is important to study one’s own religious roots through other lenses (other than faith alone) such as history, anthropology, philosophy and psychology? 

A:This is a must. It was on that basis that the Muslim philosophers of the Abbasid era were able to provide rational explanations to the verses in the Quran.

Q: Islamic history is replete with poets who shone in their wisdom and mystical poetry where pure love equals the concept of God and beauty is spoken of as a pure wonder of God. Sadly this richpoetic legacy is not kept alive or promoted widely today.Your thoughts?

A:It is a strange irony in history of Islam that the entire poetic works of Rumi, Hafiz, Saadi, Nijami, Khayyam and many other Sufis are bubbling with beauty and divine romance, and the revolt of orthodoxy in the 12th century has killed this heritage. The Wahabi imams have even prohibited music. According to the Quran, Prophet David was given the gift of music. If God has given music as a gift to one of his prophets, who is man to prohibit it? What an irony?

Q: In attending many interesting public seminars held in Sri Lanka such those on Vedic philosophy/Buddhist philosophy, I have found the audience is mixed to include Sri Lankan Christians, Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus (including clergy members) but almost always (unless it is some specifically NGO funded event) Muslims are notable absentees. Could you comment?

A: This is unfortunate and adds further to the isolation of Muslims.Even secular Muslim scholars find it difficult to attract a Muslim audience when they want to speak on a mundane subject. To that extent the clergy has indoctrinated the Muslim masses with anti-secular teachings. This indoctrination has a long history for me to elaborate in full.

Q:You opined during your recent talk that ‘if one cannot live with a Sinhala Buddhist villager, one cannot live with anyone’. You referred to many humane qualities inherent in the Sinhalese villager. How do you think the situation has come to current state that there is a lot of hate against Muslims expressed by some Sinhalese Buddhists?

A: They can see a definite change in the external appearance of Muslim men and women which is confronting. To the ordinary villager something that is unordinary creates fear and suspicion. This is natural in any society.Why do we make ourselves the other” by unwanted changes? This is not intentional on the part of Muslims but an unintended consequence of mimicking features foreign to this country and its culture.

Q: Sufis and Malay Muslims are some of the Islamic communities in Sri Lanka that are struggling to keep their identity and beliefs amidst the Wahabi dominance that has asserted itself in this country. Sufism was once dominant in Sri Lanka and Sufi saints/poets/preachers who propagated universal love and wisdom based from the Quran have won much love and popularity across the world. Do you think that the philosophy of Sufism, which is seen as a pacifist branch of Islam as opposed to the current militant Islam, could ‘save the world’ so to speak?

A: Sufism is inclusive whereas Wahabi conservatism is exclusive. By condemning Sufism and destroying sufi shrines these conservatives have caused irreparable damage to a cosmopolitan civilisation. I will give you a simple example, which I observed while in Sri Lanka a few days ago. The mosque at Kataragama, which also has a sufi shrine, is neglected by the community while it has constructed ostentatious mosques in other places. Kataragama is a place where all religions meet and all worshippers gather. In addition, tourists from foreign countries also visit this place. Shouldn’t this mosque be kept beautiful and attractive?

Compare the beauty of the mosque and its shrine in Nagoor in Tamil Nadu, which attracts not only Muslim devotees but also Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and so on. I feel that either the Department of Muslim Religious Affairs or the Wakf Board should take over this mosque and manage it. Wahabism hates the Sufis and that explains the neglect of this shrine. This again is a vast topic for me to cover in this answer. While militant Islam, like militant Buddhism divides communities, Sufism like the true Dhamma unites them.

Q: You described yourself as a rationalist. Could you explain from the rationalist point of view the freedom for people not to believe in God (where their morals are dictated by rationale and conscience, which functions independently of religion)? I ask this in context where in some parts of the world people are lynched for even a vague questioning of what Islam expects people to believe although the actual reality is that the crux of religions such as Christianity and Islam is based more on the individual versions of Prophets across the Old Testament, the New Testament and also the Quran. Don’t you think it is intellectually normal for a person to question, if they wish,accounts of people down the ages who thought they were God or Son of God or Prophets of God? Where do you stand in the argument of rationality that allows people to question, debate or even debunk ‘religion’?

A:In the history of Muslims there were many who remained agnostics or atheists. Freedom of and from religion coexisted especially during the Abbasid rule from 750-1258.Some of the Mu’tazilite rationalists did not believe in God and God’s revelation. The Syrian blind poet Abu al-Ala Ahmad ibn Abd Allah al-M’aarri (973-1057) who in his ‘Risalat al Ghufran’ or A Divine Comedy, visits paradise and meets heathen poets who have found forgiveness. Ma’arri was a sceptic of religions. Here is one of the gems he wrote: Each generation of men follows another and turns the old lies into the new religion. Which generation was given the right path?” A statue of this poet remained proudly preserved in Syria until the ISIS murderers destroyed it.

Q: Across ages there has been hundreds of belief systems, many originally connected with animism. Reflecting philosophically, would you agree that these forms of ‘religions’ were far less harmful to society that the current ones, which functions mainly as political labels and are used by countries and communities to dominate, conquer or control human beings?

A:Animism, although less harmful to societies, was the product of a particular age when reason was not the supreme arbiter of human actions. This is why it died before the power of human reasoning.

Q:A person’s diet is generally based on the produce available in the country of birth. Christianity and Islam originated in arid, desert land where there was no abundant vegetation. Because of this lack of vegetation, meat eating was considered to be necessary and was interpreted as God giving man command over all other beings, to use them for consumption if necessary.Meat eating is however not really necessary in the Sri Lankan context and beef eating in particular is known to have caused a cultural gap between the Muslims and Christians vs. the Buddhists. This is a sensitive subject and I do not infer that all Buddhists are pure vegans or vegetarians or practicing ahimsa which should be towards all beings and not just select beings. But I nevertheless ask the question as to why we do not find many Muslims choosing the non violent path of diet in a country such as Sri Lanka when there are hundreds and hundreds of vegetables, grains and fruits to eat? (I would ask the same question from Christians, Catholics and Buddhists). 

A: Even among animals there are herbivorous, omnivorous and carnivorous creatures. So too among humans. Is one better than the other, I don’t know. I myself do not like beef but I prefer other meats. My problem with animal slaughter is the way the animals are treated in Sri Lanka. We do not have modern abattoirs. There is absolute cruelty to animals when dragged to the slaughterhouses. An island that is fertile and surrounded by the ocean should consume more vegetables and fish than meat. Why is this country not self-sufficient in the consumption of fish?

Currently there is a countrywide protest in Australia against live sheep export to the Middle East. Some of the videos showing animal cruelty in Muslim slaughterhouses that I saw made me join this protest movement. In a Buddhist society like Sri Lanka I agree that animal slaughter is abominable. However, when some Buddhists, themselves consume meat how can we prevent others from consuming it?

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