Prof. M A NuhmanIt is indeed a great honour to me to be invited to deliver the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Memorial Oration this year. I wish to express my thanks to the Executive Committee of the Azeez Foundation, especially its President Mr. S.H.M. Jameel and Mr. Ali Azeez, the son of A.M.A. Azeez and the Treasurer of the Azeez Foundation.

I was not fortunate to have a personal acquaintance with A.M.A. Azeez, but I became his admirer after I started reading him from the late 1960s. Azeez was in Kalmunai, my native place, as an Assistant Government Agent for nearly 2 years from 1942 and he left Kalmunai in January 1944, seven months before my birth. However, my father, P. M. Macbool Alim was one of his close associates and one of the members of the Finance Committee of the Kalmunai Muslim Educational Society initiated by Azeez in 1942.

I was living at Kollupitya in Colombo in the early 1970s, in close proximity to the Azeez residence that was in Cinnamon Gardens, but I lost all the opportunities to meet him and to have personal contact with him in his life time due to my ignorance and shyness. But I had an opportunity to listen to his speech when I was a student at the Addalaichchenai Teachers’ Training College in 1963. I do not remember the contents of his speech but the manner in which he delivered his speech, bending over the podium, is still fresh in my mind. It was not an oration but like a personal conversation with us. What I felt was his simplicity and intimacy.

A.M.A. Azeez, (1911-1973), a reputed Sri Lankan Muslim intellectual was born and received his primary and secondary education in Jaffna and served as a civil servant, Senator and Principal of Colombo Zahira College. He was very much respected by both Muslims and Tamils and also by the Sinhalese for his services to the communities and to the nation.

Susil Sirivardana correctly portrays Azeez as an ‘Iconic Nation Builder’ as his thinking and activities were to promote our country as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and a multi-lingual nation1. He had plenty of opportunities to work closely with other community leaders, intellectuals and professionals to promote social integration.

Azeez was a social critic and a critical thinker but he never had been an antagonist. He was more generous to focus only the positive side of Anagarika Dharmapala2 who was a vehement critic of Muslims and who sowed the seeds of hate in the minds of a section of Buddhist of this country against Muslims during the early 20th century that led to the anti Muslim riots in 1915 and has a far reaching impact until today.

I consider Azeez as one of the makers of Sri Lankan Muslim mind. After Siddi Lebbe, he was the most influential intellectual that the Muslim community ever produced. He was more modern than any of the Muslim leaders of his time not in appearance but in thinking and action. He tried to meaningfully integrate modernity with tradition. He was a realist, a pragmatist and a rational thinker who wanted his community to be continuously in progress. He thought that modern education is the only tool for the progress and upward social mobility of the Muslim community from its backwardness. He also thought that choosing a proper language for education is essential for the advancement and integration of the Muslim community. He has extensively written and spoken on the subject of language and education of Sri Lankan Muslims, continuously for more than three decades from the early 1940s. Even after forty years of his demise in 1973, I think, most of his writing on this subject is still relevant to us, as we could not overcome the dilemma of language and education that we have been experiencing for the last hundred years. We follow the tract of history blindly without knowing our destination.

That is why I have chosen a topic for this occasion: Language and Education of Sri Lankan Muslims: Problems and Prospects. Already I have dealt with this subject in my book Sri Lankan Muslims: Ethnic Identity within Cultural Diversity and in a few other articles. However, today I would like to focus on three areas which have been seriously problematic regarding to our language and education from the late 19th century to date. They are: the problems of mother tongue, medium of education, and the dichotomy between modern and religious education. I would like to deal with these one by one.

Language and Education

Language and education are inherently related. We receive our education and accumulate our knowledge through a language. Language is closely related to the socio-cultural and political life of a community. There is no community without a language. Thus language plays a major role in human societies. It is the part and parcel of social life.

Education is an important indicator of the social and cultural advancement of a community as a whole. It equips peoples to solve their problems and to lead a better life. Islam, the Qur’an and Sunna insist us to educate ourselves and search for knowledge. We proudly speak about this on the platforms but the present reality is different. Statistics show that Muslims are the largest illiterate and uneducated population of the world today. It indicates a serious problem of the Muslim world. However, we, the Sri Lankan Muslims, are in a better position. Our literacy rate and the level of education are high compared to the other Muslim population of the developing countries. But our problems are unique and we have to seriously look into that.

The Problem of Mother Tongue

Sri Lankan Muslims who emerged as a culturally conscious and a politically motivated minority community in modern Sri Lanka are not certain of their mother tongue. Although, a vast majority of them speak Tamil as their mother tongue, they do not show any emotional attachment towards it. This seems to be contradictory but the contradiction is our reality.

Sri Lankan Muslims, who have at least a thousand years of continuous history in this country, 3 speak Tamil not only in the North and East but also in the isolated villages surrounded by predominantly Sinhala speakers in the South. However, the Sri Lankan Muslim elite have been more reluctant to accept Tamil as their mother tongue from the late 19th century obviously for political reasons. They wanted to assert their separate ethnic identity in order to differentiate themselves from the Sri Lankan Tamils whose mother tongue is also Tamil. The Muslim elite argued and maintained that Tamil was not their own language but a borrowed one since they assume that they are the direct descendants of the Arab traders denying their mixed origin. Even in the late 1980s a reputed Sri Lankan Muslim scholar M. M. Uwise maintained that Tamil is the adopted language of Sri Lankan Muslims. According to Uwise “The Tamil language being the language of trade in the areas where the forefathers of the Muslim community settled, they had no difficulty in adopting Tamil as their language of communication with the resident population as well as among themselves and thereby lost interest in Arabic as the spoken language.”4

Since, most of the Muslim elite were uncertain and confused about their mother tongue or their own language, whatever it is, there was a continuous debate among them regarding their mother tongue and their language of education. At first, the Muslims, especially the Colombo based Muslim elite, wanted to disown Tamil as their mother tongue and to adopt Arabic or another language. They believe or pretended to believe that, Arabic is or should be their mother tongue since they traced their origin to the Arab traders, although, very few Sri Lankan Muslims could understand Arabic and no one uses Arabic in day to day communication.

Siddi Lebbe (1838-1898), a leading figure in the Muslim revivalist movement in the late 19th century, wrote in 1884 in his news paper Muslim Nesan that “Muslims should try to adopt Arabic as their home language. If the Portuguese and Dutch who live in Ceylon can forget their mother tongue and speak English why can’t we forget Tamil and make Arabic our mother tongue?”5

Siddi Lebbe ignored the fact that the mother tongue is not a language that is chosen or learned, but it is naturally inherited or acquired. However, two years later Siddi Lebbe changed his mind and put forward a four language policy for the Muslims. He wrote in the same paper in 1886 that “it is important to us who live in this country, to learn Arabic, Tamil, English and Sinhala. In the first place, it is most important to learn Arabic since, our religion, our prayer, and Qur’an are in Arabic. Secondly Tamil; since, it is the language we speak and one who does not know it would be like a blind, and he would need another person’s help. Thirdly English; since it is the language of the rulers, to do any job this language is essential. Fourthly Sinhalese; knowing this language would be very useful since the majority of this country is Sinhalese.”6 Here too we can notice that he has given first place to Arabic because it is the language of the religion of the Muslims which is the primary marker of their ethnic identity.

Badiuddin Mahmud (1904-1997) an emerging politician in the 1940s and ‘50s who would become a powerful Muslim political leader in the 1960s and ‘70s was propagating among the Southern Muslims as far back as from 1938 to learn Sinhala and adopt it as their mother tongue.7

The four language policy of Siddi Lebbe for Muslims was later advocated by many of his followers especially, by A.M.A. Azeez who argued for Tamil as the mother tongue of the Sri Lankan Muslims. He wrote an article in 1941 on the subject entitled “The Ceylon Muslims and the Mother Tongue: Claims for the Tamil Language.”8

He defines mother tongue as “the language in which the mother speaks to the child….the language in which the wife and husband address each other and both of them talk to their children”, and he adds, “Ordinarily there should be in a community no doubt as to what its mother tongue is. But in the case of the Ceylon Moors, confusion in some quarters has arisen as a result of many of the Moors being bilingual and some of them being dissatisfied with the present position and wanting to go after a new mother tongue….some are tempted to advocate Arabic as their future mother tongue and others Sinhalese and still others English. These advocates do not, however, come from the Northern or Eastern parts of Ceylon where no doubt of any kind is entertained as regards to the future status of Tamil.” He also says that “it is unfortunate that there should be some amount of doubt and confusion in a vital matter of this nature with which the cultural and educational future of this community is inextricably involved.”  And he goes on to say, “To answer to the question, what is the mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors, should not be difficult. It is certainly Tamil. The Moors who occupy the Northern and Eastern parts of Ceylon speak no other language. If any of them know another language it is in addition to Tamil, and not in place of it. The Moors occupying the remaining portions of Ceylon speak both Tamil and Sinhalese, and a good number of the male members are equally fluent in both languages. But even in these parts no Ceylon Moor is found whether male or female, who cannot speak Tamil. And all of them use Tamil as their home language. Broadly speaking, the women in these parts are less fluent in Sinhalese than the men. This is a clear indication that Tamil is the mother tongue of the Moors.”

He was not supportive of the idea of switching over to another language. Finally he says that:

“No Ceylon Moor could possibly contemplate the division of his community into two sections, one continuing to have Tamil as the mother tongue and the other choosing a different language. Tamil should therefore continue to be the mother tongue of the Ceylon Moors, whether for its intrinsic value or on account of the extreme difficulty of adopting another. That Tamil already possesses a large amount of first-rate Muslim literature, thanks to the poets and writers of South India, and it is the language used in the ‘kutbas’ and ‘hathees’ of the local ‘imams’ and ‘alims’ are features in favour of Tamil.”

Azeez also argued against some of the English educated Muslim elite who wanted English to be their mother tongue. He wrote in 1953 as follows:

“For the Muslims to look upon English as their mother tongue, merely because they have been given the option of having their children taught in English, is just a fiction, if not a myth. This myth is effectively exploded when we study the linguistic background of the Muslims of Ceylon. As far as I am aware, there is not a single Muslim family in Ceylon, where the home language is English. Several Muslim homes are of course bilingual but even among them, the language of ordinary intercourse is not English. Thus there is neither logic nor realism in the attitude of the Muslims, if they are determined to continue to exercise their option in favour of English.”9

After fifty years of this statement by Azeez, now we see a different scenario, a growing tendency to neglect Tamil and leaning towards Sinhala or English among the Muslims although a vast majority of them still speak Tamil as their mother tongue and use it for their in-group communication wherever they live.

At this point it is appropriate to focus on the problems of medium of education that causes a language shift leading to linguistically dividing the Muslim community.

The Problem of the Medium of Education:

Switching over to Sinhala or English

The medium of education can be defined as the language through which one receives his/her whole education over a specific period. It is almost unanimously accepted by the educationists that one’s mother tongue or the first language should be the language of education at least in the primary and secondary levels. However, there are many societies in the contemporary world, that face some or other problems with regard to the medium of education.

There is a growing tendency among the Southern Muslims to switch over to Sinhala as the medium of instruction during the last few decades and it was also a controversy among the Muslims for a long time.

Sri Lankan societies faced problems of the language of education only when the British colonial rulers introduced the modern education system in this country. Until then the Sri Lankan communities including the Muslims received their traditional education through their mother tongues which remained intact even during the Portuguese and Dutch rule.

The British introduced secular modern education in English in this country in the early 19th century. Christian Missionaries opened English medium schools in the major cities throughout the country. The Sinhalese and the Tamils were largely absorbed into that system since English had become essential for the upward social mobility under the colonial rule.

However, the Muslims resisted modern education in the English medium for a long time. The reasons might be their misconception of English education, orthodoxy, poverty and the close links of English with Christian proselytization. They continued to follow their traditional system of religious education. Although the Muslim revivalists led by Siddi Lebbe tried to bring the Muslim community into the Modern education system from the end of the 19th century and opened English schools for boys and girls in several parts of the Island, the progress of the Muslims in English education was not satisfactory even at the beginning of the 20th century. Higher education among the Muslims was almost zero. As M.M.M. Mahroof pointed out, “among 90 senior boys who passed the Cambridge Examination in 1902 only one was a Muslim; among 116 junior boys in the Examination in the same year there were only 2 Muslims. There were no Muslim girls either in the senior or junior division.”10 English literacy rate among Muslims was much lower even in 1911 than the other communities: Ceylon Moors 1.7%, Ceylon Tamil 4.9% and low country Sinhalese 3.5%.

However, the situation gradually improved from 1930 onwards due to the steps taken at the national level by the government to promote education in the country. It had direct impact on Muslim education too. In 1931 primary education was made compulsory and the government opened more schools island wide. In 1945 free education was introduced throughout the country. Because of these new developments at the national level and some positive steps taken by the Muslim political and intellectual leadership drastically increased the number of the school going Muslim students and it became the fashion  to the upper class Muslims of the urban areas to send their children to the English medium schools.

During this period there was a voice emerging for vernacular education in our country as was the case in India and some other countries under colonial rule. The debate on the importance of the vernacular education continued in the Legislative Council and outside till the 1950s and commissions were also set up. As a result, in 1945 the vernacular was made the medium of education in all primary schools. However, the Muslim leadership did not support this change. Ironically the Muslims, who were first rejecting English education for a long time, now insisted that English should continue as their medium of education as it was essential for their progress. Because of the resistance of the Muslim elite the Muslim children were exempted and the Muslim parents were given the option to choose either Tamil or Sinhala or English as the medium of instruction of their children. According to Azeez “practically every parent opted for English wherever such facilities were available and the wisdom of this decision very few questioned.”

Azeez was very critical of this decision. He wrote in 1953 as follows: “One has therefore only to envisage the conditions in the country fifteen or twenty years hence to realize the unwisdom on the part of a comparatively small community such us the Muslims to continue to exercise their option in favour of English when the English medium has been abandoned by both the Sinhalese and the Tamils who form more than 92% of the population. The Muslims once made the blunder of ignoring English, when the other communities were insistently clamouring for and obtaining more and better English. Now when English is losing its pride of place by the impact of events, the Muslims will blunder again, if they look upon the English medium as their panacea…. The counsel of wisdom as well as safety is for the Muslims to have complete identity of interests with the other communities in the matter of language. The Muslims must therefore adapt themselves to this transition; the alternative involves a swift and sure penalty – isolation and consequent denial of their rightful place in the country.”11

However, fortunately or unfortunately for the Muslims, English could not continue to be a medium of education from the late 1950s. After the political change in 1956 the vernacular education came in to practice up to the university level. All the schools in this country gradually changed to vernacular education dropping English as the medium of instruction and the Muslims had to choose either Tamil or Sinhala as their language of education. As a result, after 1960 a large numbers of Southern Muslims were gradually motivated to choose Sinhala for several reasons.

Although, the Southern Muslim students had opted for the Sinhala medium even before1940, the number was very few. During the last three or four decades it has been gradually increasing and it may further increase in the future. At present around 25% of the total Muslim students’ population are in the Sinhala medium, either in the Sinhala schools in the South or in the Muslim schools that are conducting Sinhala medium classes. Although, it is difficult to get the exact details of the Sinhala medium Muslim students, according to a data we collected ten years ago around 50,000 were studying in many of the Sinhala schools in the 19 districts of Southern provinces, and also in 23 Muslim schools which are conducting Sinhala medium classes now.

For example in the two leading Muslim schools in Colombo, the Muslim Ladies’ College and the Zahira College, more than 60% of the total student population is in the Sinhala medium. If we take the Muslim Ladies’ College alone 68% at the primary level, 55% at the secondary level and 57% at the higher secondary level were studying in Sinhala medium five years ago. The highest percentage in the primary level shows the growing trend towards the Sinhala medium. The information that two Muslim schools, one in Colombo and other in Kurunegala Districts, conduct only Sinhala medium classes is very significant in this respect.

The provincial and district level statistics show some significant differences. First let us look at the provincial statistics. Western 50%, Southern 42%, Uva          27%, Central 15%, Sabaragamuwa 14%, North West 7%, North Central 02%, Eastern            0.32%

The above statistics show that the Muslim students have chosen Sinhala medium to varying degrees. The percentage in the Eastern, North Central and North Western Provinces is insignificant and in the other five provinces it is very significant. The district level statistics gives us some more information. The following 10 districts show significant percentage of Sinhala medium students: Galle 60%, Colombo 50%, Hambantota 41%, Ratnapura 33%, Nuwara Eliya 32%, Badulla         28%, Gampaha 27%, Kandy 15%, Kurunegala 12%, Kalutara 11%.

According to the above statistics in 7 districts more than 25% of the Muslim students are in the Sinhala medium. Galle, Colombo and Hambantota show the highest percentage. This clearly shows a significant shift in the medium of instruction among the Southern Muslims. It is also an indication of a shift in their mother tongue, leading to divide the community into two linguistic groups namely Tamil speaking and Sinhala speaking that was anticipated by Azeez far back as in 1941.12 Azeez continuously argued that Tamil should be the mother tongue and the medium of education of Sri Lankan Muslims. However, history takes us in its own path against the will and wishes of individuals. After fifty years of gradual shift in the medium of education, now we have a Sinhala speaking younger generation within the Muslim community and we can anticipate a clear linguistic division after another fifty years.

Sri Lankan Muslims are the victims of their population distribution and their sociolinguistic conditions determine their choice of language.

Re-emergence of English and the International Schools

Now I want to focus another turn in our language and education that is the re-emergence of English and the mushrooming of the so-called international schools.

If the Bandaranaike lead ‘pancha balavegaya’ revolution in 1956 blindly closed the doors for English in this country and paved the way for the emergence of monolingual communities in our multi lingual nation, the 1977 political change marked an opposite turn. It opened the doors for globalized economy, foreign capital and English. IT and English have become the ‘saviours’ of the nation. This is the case in many other developing countries. World Bank and IMF promote globalization in the developing countries in order to safeguard the interest of foreign capital. It reflects in education too. The global market does not need intellectuals; it needs skilled labourers, technocrats and professionals. Universities are expected to produce such personalities but not intellectuals and critical thinkers. Humanities and social sciences are devalued. Subjects like applied sciences, commerce, management, marketing, tourism, IT and English are promoted. The value based education is replaced by the market based education in the globalized world.

We should understand the re-emergence of English in this background. English is not only a language of communication or a language of knowledge, but it is also a language of power. In fact it is the language of global power. We cannot and should not avoid English in the present context; but we should not fall blindly in to the global trap. English should be taught effectively in the schools as a second language but the English medium education at the school level is still problematic not only in Sri Lanka but also in the other post-colonial countries.

However, on the directive of the Ministry of Education a large number of government schools now conduct English medium classes at the secondary and higher secondary levels without sufficient and competent teaching staff in many of them. They call them bilingual education, a few subjects are taught in English and a few other subjects are taught in the mother tongue of the students.

A large number of Muslim parents eagerly send their children to the English medium classes not only in the urban areas like Colombo and Kandy but also in the semi urban and the rural areas like Mawanella, Kalmunai, Akkaraippattu Addalaichenai and Sammanthurai. At present 43 Muslim schools are conducting English medium classes islandwide. Kandy, Kalutara, Kalmunai, Kegalle, Colombo, Matale, Kurunegala and Puttalam Districts are leading in this respect. Parents do not know the real situation – the insufficient teaching staff and the capability of their children. According to the information I gathered from some of the teachers and principals in the Kalmunai area, with a few exceptions the situation is not satisfactory. Although one or two schools have sent few of their English medium students to the universities and dedicated to continue the English medium, the motivation behind this trend and the educational and social consequences have to be seriously studied in our context.

The craze for English medium education now has become a global phenomenon and it is also an inherent aspect of globalization. As English has become a tool for social power, English teaching has become a big business in many countries including the countries like China. However, educationists and sociologists are very critical of this trend although their voice is unheard. Recently I read an important article on this subject by Guangwei Hu an Associate professor, at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The title of the article is “The Craze for English medium Education in China: driving forces and looming consequences.” He concludes his paper as follows: “Chinese-English bilingual education not only perpetuates the existing unequal and hierarchical distribution of power and access to cultural and symbolic capital but is creating new forms of inequality and further differentiating the Chinese society.” It is the case in India and would be in Sri Lanka.

At this point I should say few words on the complete English medium education given from the primary classes in the so-called International schools. For the last two or three decades the international schools are mushrooming everywhere in the Island particularly in the Muslim areas. There is no authentic statistics of these schools and the student population. According to ‘the Report on Issues Related to Education of the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka’ submitted to the Minister of Education in 2009, there are 20 such schools managed by Muslims in the city of Colombo and this is the situation in many of the Provincial Capital Cities and approximately 18000 – 20000 thousand students are attending, the Report says.13 However, we do not have the exact data of the schools and the students. The number might be more. A friend of mine told me that there are 16 such schools in Akurana alone.

These schools are not monitored by the Ministry of Education. They are registered under Company Law at the Ministry of Commerce and managed by individuals independently. This indicates how the education has become a commercial venture in our country. The capacity of teaching staff, facilities and the qualities are questionable in many of these schools. However, a large number of the Muslim parents send their children to these so-called International Schools for various reasons. Most of them are crazy of English education and wanted their children speak English. For them English is equal to knowledge, prestige and pride. They do not have the intention to educate their children continuously. Those who find it difficult to get admission in the Government schools, especially to grade one – it is a real problem for many – also send their children to these international schools without any other alternative. They are like the passengers who got into the bus without knowing their destination. 

Schooling of Muslim Children and the school facilities are very much neglected especially in the Sinhala Majority South both by the Muslim community itself and the state and that is one of the reasons for the mushrooming of international schools. This phenomenon has to be studied seriously to find suitable solutions.

Whatever the problems related to the language and education that the Muslim community is facing today, Muslim education in this country has been developing slowly but steadily for the last hundred years amidst these problems. The number of schools and school going children are increased. There are 800 Muslim schools island wide and more than 350,000 students are attending these schools, although with minimum facilities particularly in the Southern Districts. The number of university graduates and post-graduates, men and women, in different fields has also increased, although, their ethnic ratio is still in a low state, comparing with the other ethnic groups. There is a growing middle class and a professional class and also university academics among the Muslim community. There are two colleges of education exclusively for Muslims and also a national university predominantly for Muslims situated in the South East. Our Muslim youths, boys and girls, in considerable number also go abroad each year for their higher studies in different fields. This may give a picture that Muslims are advancing in Education. I think it is true only in a technical sense.

I have a question whether we are an educated community at large in its true sense capable to solve rationally our socio cultural problems that we are facing in the modern age. Our tendency is to go back to our tradition and to our religious leadership for solutions to our problems, but our religious leadership is mostly conservative and sectarian and also has developed an antipathy towards modernity and cultural change. At this point it is better to look at briefly the state of religious education in our country.

The State of Islamic Education and Arabic Colleges

Until the end of 19th century, education means only the religious education and according to an Education Department Report, in 1883 there were 5910 Qur’an madrasas throughout the country and these were the centres of Muslim education. They taught the Muslim children to read Qur’an and the Islamic practice. Till the middle of the 20th century the Sri Lankan Muslims mostly depended on South India for their traditional religious education and they had to go to Kiilakkarai or Kaayalpatinam to be trained in Islamic scholarship and to become ulama. However, the traditional Islamic teaching in Sri Lanka as against modern education and modernization and to keep the Muslim community within the traditional Islamic frame was started in the late 19th century. The Madrasatul Bari, the first Arabic college in Sri Lanka to train Sri Lankan Muslims in traditional Islamic scholarship, was established in 1884 at Weligama in the Southern Province. Following this several Arabic colleges established in Galle (1892), Kinniya (1899), Maharagama (1931) and Matara (1915) and hundreds of ulama were produced by these colleges. They were responsible for preaching Islam and to develop religious consciousness among the Muslims.

After Independence Arabic colleges mushroomed in Sri Lanka owing to the Islamic resurgence. From 1884 to 1950 only 15 Arabic colleges were established in Sri Lanka. However, from 1950 to 2000 a little more than 100 colleges were established. That shows the trend of traditional Islamic resurgence during the period. At present more than 150 Arabic colleges are functioning in our country. In the year 2000 there were 101 Arabic colleges registered at the Department of Muslim Cultural Affairs. Others were not registered. Among the registered colleges 88 were for men and 13 for women.14 Around 1000 students pass out annually as maulawis from these Arabic colleges. There is a recent trend of starting ‘informal’ Arabic colleges in the mosques by the Islamic groups and individuals in many parts of the country. However, there is no authentic information about these ‘informal’ colleges.

Most of the students of these madrasas come from lower income families, and orphans are also enrolled. There are a few colleges established specially for orphans. Some of the parents send their delinquent children to these colleges to bring them up as good and respectable persons. Some of the dedicated members of the Islamic da’wah movements also send at least one of their children to these colleges to dedicate them to the service of Allah. The middle and upper class parents rarely send their children to these madrasas.

Most of these madrasas still teach the subjects based on the Darse Nilami curriculum designed by Maulana Mulla Nilamuddeen of India in the middle of the 18th century. This curriculum includes the subjects, Arabic language and grammar, logic, philosophy, tafzir, and Sharia.15 Modern developments of thought in the Islamic world are not incorporated into their curriculum and they strictly adhere to the traditional interpretation of Islam of a particular school of their choice. A vast majority of these madrasas follow the Shafi school of thought. They exclude the secular subjects introduced by the modern educational system.

However, there have been some positive changes in the curriculum at least in some of the Arabic colleges from 1970s. They incorporated the school curriculum as part of their teaching programme. They also prepare their students for the public examinations of G.C.E. (O/L) and (A/L) conducted by the Department of Examinations. Most of the madrasa students wanted to sit these examinations in order to secure Government jobs and the madrasa administrations had to arrange special classes or allow their students to study themselves to sit this examination.

In all these Arabic colleges, the main component of teaching – the Arabic and Islamic component – is mostly on the conservative traditional line. They give more importance to sharia as a sacred and static doctrine of Islamic law without a proper understanding of the evolutionary nature of sharia. They do not take account of the ever changing nature of society and they are unable to interpret Islam as a religion suitable to the contemporary modern world.16

Most of the ulama, who pass out from these Arabic colleges have developed an antipathy towards the new cultural changes. I personally witnessed the worst kind of such antipathy a few years ago. A young maulavi seriously criticized in his Friday sermon in a Kandyan village mosque the use of toothpaste and brush for cleaning mouth instead of using meswak which was used by the Prophet and his companions. Ironically, a tiny FM microphone attached to his outer garment took his voice to the amplifier and the electric fans were working inside the mosque, which were unimaginable during the Prophet’s time. This indicates the type of training they receive from these madrasas.

Arabic competence is also very poor among the students. They are taught mostly in the Tamil medium. According to Barie, a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Peradeniya, only 5% of the students of these colleges have a good competence in Arabic, because the teaching methods are more traditional and not innovative. A principal of a leading Arabic college in the Ampara District told me that they could not employ even their students to their teaching staff because of their competence in Arabic is not up to the expected standard. It is regrettable that after seven to eight years of teaching Arabic, the Arabic colleges could not produce maulavis who are competent in Arabic, the language of Qur’an.

Siddi Lebbe in the late 19th century seriously criticized the content and the methods of teaching in the Arabic colleges in his time.17 He wrote lengthily about this in his book Asrarul Aalam which is still valid in our context too. It is appropriate to quote one of his paragraphs here:

 “Language is a key with which the door of the repository of knowledge should be opened and the riches taken out. Most of the theologians and sheikhs in this country are in the situation of those who, holding a key that cannot open the door of the repository, thinking that they have made all the riches in their own. People maintaining religious schools should heed what I have said above and affect changes.”

However, as we noted here, there is no drastic change in the curriculum, the method of teaching and the training given in most of the Arabic colleges even in the 21st century. In my opinion, the Departments of Arabic and Islamic Studies in our Universities too not substantially differentiate themselves from these Arabic colleges in content and approach. It is unfortunate that our religious leadership, the ulama, is unable to lead us to solve our problems we face in the rapidly changing world.

Dichotomy between Religious and Modern Education

To conclude my talk, finally, I want to say a few words about the dichotomy between the religious and modern education. It is obvious that we, specifically our theologians firmly maintain a dichotomy between modern and religious education and keep them separately without trying to rationally integrate them. For many of us the modern education gives us knowledge that is non Islamic which only helps us in our worldly affairs, to get us jobs and to our upward social mobility. On the other hand, the religious education gives us knowledge that is Islamic, and divinely that only will lead us to our permanent place in the next world. Some extreme Islamic groups still argue that education means only religious education and secular education is un-Islamic.

However, Islam, the Qur’an does not compartmentalize the knowledge (ilm) into two incompatible categories. It insists us to think and search for knowledge and to discover the secrets of nature and the universe created by Allah. The early Muslims who followed this path laid the foundation and paved the way for the modern science. Unfortunately they could not continue to change the world. The theologians of the middle ages closed the doors for independent scientific thinking and made Islam mere ritualistic undermining the spiritual dynamics of Islam in the name of Sharia. However, the Christian West picked up the scientific knowledge produced by the early Muslims and went far to discover the laws of nature and the universe and produced the modern science and technology and transformed the world rapidly. Now we have become mere consumer of their discoveries and the victims of their dominance.

This dichotomy between Modern and religious education places us in a dilemma. We couldn’t rationally integrate them to find solution for our problems of modern times, although the Qur’an insists us to think and use our reason. The problem of moon sighting during the month of Ramadan is a very simple example. We all feel uncomfortable and critical about this problem but we are unable to find a rational solution using our knowledge of modern science to prepare a permanent Islamic calendar. We think it is against Sharia. But we calculate our prayer times minutely into seconds and prepare annual calendar for daily prayer using our modern knowledge, although our prophet did not use such accurate calendar or time clock. But we couldn’t use the same knowledge and principle to calculate a lunar calendar because of our misconception of Sharia.

Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, a great Islamic scholar and a rational interpreter of Qur’an, who was the first Minister of Education of Independent India, 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 permanent. Sharia represents the laws and code of conduct of Islamic communities which are not universal and vary from time to time and place to place according to the historical and social conditions of the Muslim communities.18 If the Muslims consider this differentiation seriously and use their knowledge of modern education and reason to place Sharia in its historical context in order to understand it properly, we can overcome number of problems the tradition poses on us. We will become modern in its multiple sense and we can establish Islam as a religion of modern world.

Muslims are in a socio cultural and political crisis all over the world, on the one hand due to the hegemonic powers, on the other hand due to their own dilemma of handling modernity and tradition. We should use the Qur’anic principles of independent and rational thinking to overcome the problems. We should develop a holistic view on modern and religious education and should rationally integrate them. I think that is the key to our success.



1.      Sirivardana, Susil (2009), Dr. A.M.A. Azeez – Iconic Nation Builder, Dr. A M A Azeez Foundation, Colombo.

2.     Azeez, A.M.A. (2011) The West Reappraised, Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Foundation, Colombo.Pp.29-42

3.     Dewaraja, Lorna (1994), The Muslims of Sri Lanka: One Thousand Years of Ethnic Harmony 900 – 1915, Lanka Islamic Foundation, Colombo

4.     Uwise, M.M. (1986) “The Language and Literature of the Muslims” in An Ethnological Survey of the Muslims, Sir Razik Fareed Foundation, Colombo. P.150

5.     Quoted in Ameen, M.I.M. (2000) Ilankai Muslimkalin Varalaarum Kalaasaaramum, Al Hasanath Publication, Hemmathgama, P.121

6.     Nahiya, A.M. (1991), Azeezum Thamilum, IQRA Publishers, Ninthavur,Pp.9-10.

7.     Haseer, A.W.M. (1989), Enkal Thalaivar Badiuddeen, Thamil Manram, Galhinna, Pp.224-226

8.     Azeez, A.M.A. (2009), Muslim Education in Sri Lanka, Dr. A M A Azeez Foundation, Colombo. Pp.177-181

9.     Azeez, A.M.A. (2009) P.66

10.  Mahroof, M.M.M. (1986), “The Fortunes of the Muslims in the Period 1901 – 1948” in An Ethnological Survey of the Muslims, Sir Razik Fareed Foundation, Colombo. P.98

11.  Azeez, A.M.A. (2009), P.65

12.  Azeez, A.M.A. (2009) P.181

13.  Ministry of Education (2009), Report on Issues Related to Education of the Muslim Community of Sri Lanka, Colombo, Pp. 61-63

14.  Barie, M.S.A. (2004), ‘Ilankay Arapu Madarasaakkalin Paadattiddam – Poothanaamurai –oru Vimarsana Aayvu” in Rabita, Vol.1 2004, Beruwala, Pp 16-27

15.  Saeed, Javaid (1994), Islam and Modernization: A Comparative Analysis of Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, Prager Publishers, London, Pp103-107

16.  Ahamed, Akbar S. (2003) Islam Under Siege, Vistar Publishers, New Delhi, Pp144-145

17.  Siddi Lebbe (1983), Asrarul Aalam, Moor Islamic Cultural Home, Colombo

18.  Azad, Maulana Abul kalam (1980) Tarjuman al Qur’an, Vol.1, Sahitya Academy, New Delhi, Pp.351-354


About the Speaker

Dr. M. A. Nuhman (1944 – ), a Retired Professor of Tamil is a well known poet, literary critic, linguist and a creative translator in Tamil.

He obtained his BA and B Phil in Linguistics at the University of Colombo, MA in Tamil at the University of Jaffna and PhD in Linguistics at the Annamalai University, India and he was teaching Tamil language, literature and Linguistics at the University of Jaffna and the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka for more than thirty years from 1976 until his retirement in 2009. He has also worked as an academic consultant at the South Eastern University and the Open University of Sri Lanka. He was a Visiting Professor at the Tamil University in India, the University of Malaya, Malaysia and the SIM University of Singapore.

He has also worked as a teacher in various government schools in different parts of the country for 15 years before he joined the university system.

He was a member of the Board of Directors of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and was a member of the Official Language Commission, Sri Lanka and the Academic Board of the National Institute of Language Education and Training. Presently he is a member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Contemporary Indian Studies, University of Colombo.

As an author, editor and translator he has published 35 books in Tamil as well as in English apart from a large number of articles and poems published in various journals and magazines. 

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One comment

  1. Assalamu Alaikum Warahamathullahi Wabarakathuhu

    Analysis by Dr Nuhman is plausible however he has not touched the reason why Muslims are still behind in obtaining admission to local Univerities. In my opinion the children from the affluent families do get their education in English and proceed abroad for their higher education.  On completeion most of them settled down abroad and few who returns,obtain jobs in the Mercantile sector. Those who do not go abroad do qualify locally through foriegn universities in Sri lanka and again get absorbed into mercantile sector.

    To get into local Government  Service , one have to enter local universities and this is little difficult for Muslims as they lack proficiency in both Tamil and Sinhla. Alhamdulillah those Muslims who are residing in North nad East are equally proficient in Tamil and do get admission to the local Universities administered in Tamil but those children who study in Sinhala are less fortunate and do not get achance to enter Universities, adminstered in Sinhala. Hence we need to stress the importance of proficency in Sinhala, specially in South.

    If English is introduced as media of instruction,  Muslims will have an equal opportunities  and we will icrease our entry to local Universities as this is what required to raise the standard of education among poor Muslim families


    AGA Barrie, P.Eng

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