16 November, 2018

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A Tribute To The Cordial Relations Between Muslims And Sinhalese In The Past

By Jezima Ismail

Deshabandhu Jezima Ismail

A one-time Minister of Foreign affairs A.C.S. Hameed once pointed out that “Historians have traditionally been attracted by wars and rebellions whereas the peaceful co-existence of groups of people over long periods tends to be overlooked”. He went on to say “in the history of Sri Lanka few are aware of the harmonious relationship which had developed between the Sinhalese, its indigenous inhabitants, and the Muslims who initially were foreigners, and that both have lived together peacefully for over a thousand years. Perhaps because it was such a peaceful relationship it has passed unnoticed by the historian”. This important piece of writing was in the foreword written to the book The Muslims of Sri Lanka. One thousand years of Ethnic Harmony 900-1915 by Dr. Lorna Dewaraja a well known Sri Lankan historian. The foreword brings to light many characteristics that marked the advent of the Muslims’ entry into the Island and which contributed to the peaceful co-existence of the two groups.

As a Sri Lankan Muslim I thank Allah that I was born in Sri Lanka and was able to live my life as a Muslim due to the tolerance and religious peace that emanated from Buddhism. Some years ago at a lecture session at the BMICH a professor waxed eloquent on the feelings he had for Sri Lanka and that this was the only place for him. In the course of his talk he turned round to me and said that if ever anything untoward happened I could of course seek refuge in Saudi or the Middle East. I for one was taken aback at this remark and saw no reason why I should ever leave my country. I had to make quite a sharp and almost a rude rejoinder “I don’t see why I need to seek shelter in any other country other than mine which is Sri Lanka. I was born here, bred here and will Insha Allah (God Willing) die here. These mistaken notions by people like these well meaning individuals do float around and of course the response is not to take them seriously. My feathers were ruffled no doubt but I did teach him a lesson on the pluralistic nature of our country which truly belongs to all of us, diverse communities that we are.

At this point I would like to go back to the foreword to the book which would enlighten through history the nature of the relationship between the Muslims and the Buddhists. As the foreword continues “unlike in India where Islam made its entry as a conquering proselytizing force, in Sri Lanka it appeared as the personal faith of a peaceful trading people who in course of time earned the goodwill, confidence and trust of the indigenous people. Buddhist ideals of tolerance and accommodation too were contributory factors. Besides there was hardly any economic factor that could have caused conflict. Therefore Muslim integration into Sinhala society proceeded at an even pace for which there are few parallels elsewhere in the world”. What has been mentioned are historical facts, born out of study and research and it is indeed heartwarming not only to know but to disseminate widely the kind of understanding between the Sinhalese the Muslims, especially today in view of the complexities all over the world which dogs sensitive area of human relationships. At this point of time in Sri Lanka we are at the end of a 30 year war and the thirst for peace grows apace in the welter of conflicting issues that naturally characterize the settling down of a nation to heal its wounds and transform the nation into not so much a modern miracle but a haven of peace with an enabling environment for human development and growth.

Talking of the history of a people, much effort has been made in the past few decades to record the history of Muslims in Sri Lanka and some excellent historical material is available. It is from these sources that much of the history of the Muslims contribution to harmony and understanding has been gleaned. I would like to refer to some excerpts from the book. This particular paragraph I am quoting contains truths which are of great value today.

“A study of Muslim minorities in a few other Asian countries like Thailand, Burma and China shows that whatever Muslim trading colonies developed into permanent settlements they were subjected to two pressures diametrically opposed to each other – a gravitational pull towards the Islamic core in order to preserve their Islamic identity and a similar pull in the opposite direction in an effort to integrate with the rest of the society as a means of survival in a foreign and sometimes hostile climate. In certain Asian situations the Muslims had to camouflage their culture from hostile eyes and remain Muslims indoors and play the semblance of being something else outdoors. These opposing forces have in many instances led to psychological stress, social unrest and sometimes even open rupture.

In Sri Lanka the Muslims did not undergo such a traumatic experience and they were able to maintain a delicate balance between the two contradictory forces thus preserving an unbroken record of peaceful co-existence with their neighbours. This was achieved in Sri Lanka with the least tension. The Islamic identity was maintained due to the spirit of religious tolerance prevailing in the country, which not only allowed but even encouraged the Muslims to strengthen their internal organization while the integration into Kandyan society was possible due no doubt to the flexibility of Kandyan institutions as well as the adaptability of the Muslims and their willingness to conform and compromise in so far as their religious susceptibilities were not endangered. For instance the Muslims served as officials in the administration of the state as well as of the Buddhist monasteries. It is noteworthy that the Muslims were functionaries in the Temple of the Tooth and participated in the ritual of the Esala Maha Perahera, the greatest pageant in the Buddhist world. This process of structural assimilation which took place without any erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of the Muslims is perhaps unique in minority-majority relations.”

The facts noted here are significant and cannot be easily forgotten. In the present context of growing hostility towards each other, fuelled no doubt by parochial-minded elements, these truths need to be remembered. It is not possible to illustrate the relationship in the many areas. I have just picked out a few samples. It must be remembered that everything did not always move smoothly. There were little breaks in the continuous line, little incidents, small events that caused small waves of eddying turbulences, little grey clouds that caused some thunder and heavy showers but that could be contained and served to restore cordial relations once more.

As a Muslim I am deeply concerned about what is happening in Sri Lanka. The unnecessary hostility and the vicious attacks by a small minority on the Muslim community needs to checked before it grows into a surge that could assume a force that cannot be quelled. Relationships need to be restored. Reconciliation and co-operation need focus. These need to be kneaded into the system. As Sri Lankans we all need to look into ourselves, turn the search light inwards and identify the problems within and resolve it through dialogue, discussion and negotiation.

Dwelling on memories recalled in this book ‘The Muslims of Sri Lanka’ – One thousand years of ethnic harmony 900 – 1915 – the present context is baffling, perplexing to say the least. Having lived in the country for almost seven and a half decades it is with great pride and happiness that I call myself a Sri Lankan, awarded the opportunity of living, working, playing and studying with diverse communities that go to form pluralistic Sri Lanka. The contributions of members of the different communities summed up to make this glorious Island. In all fields – political, social, economic, religious, educational and cultural, significant members of every community contributed. It is true that the effects of a virulent episode lasting for 30 years take time to heal, but the fact is simply stated. We as a nation have missed and are missing many opportunities for healing and transforming. In fact what I see from the experience of age, is the increasing growth of hostility, suspicion, prejudice and every other negative feeling that will contribute to the breakdown of relations.

I am reminded of the poem ‘Somehow, somewhere, something has gone wrong” – By Andre Auw. The little boy in the poem was in tears because his mother could not give him the popcorn he saw in the machine as the machine was broken. The mother echoes the boy’s grief because she compares the broken machine to the modern human being who has much that is needed by others but is unable to give it because somehow, somewhere, something has gone wrong in the area of relationship and it is in our hands to mend it. Individuals, groups, organizations, institutions are making great efforts but there seems to be a virulent minority, a very small coterie of misguided people who seem to be hell bent on destroying the nation’s fabric to create chaos and discord. They seem not to care a whit for our nation that bled for so long and now longs for peace.

That Sri Lanka is a pluralistic nation is an undeniable fact. It is the home of many a community who have contributed to its being and it is this variety, this unity in diversity that gives it strength and beauty. The Muslim community need not sit back in sackcloth and ashes and mourn dolefully on its woes sprung on it by a thoughtless minority. It is time to look deep within, try to find the causes and take pride in our Sri Lankan identity and work with vigour to uphold the nationhood of Sri Lanka in all its diversity so that peace reigns supreme throughout the land.

As I said before the path hasn’t been always smooth as from 900 – 1915. It’s against the backdrop of British occupation that brought in its wake some negative features, that the first serious riots took place in 1915. After 1915, an occurrence of a riot of the same nature as that of 1915 was the violence in 1975 when some Muslims were killed in the Puttalam mosque due to a misconception that the Muslims were an economically privileged group and which fact fired the major motivation for anti-Muslim hatred. More recently, there were some occurrences of vicious verbal attacks on Muslims by religious personalities, for instance the Dambulla mosque attack and the continued campaign of hate.
The media is replete with accounts of ethnic and religious tension. It has reached the echelon of political power and the air is hot with pronouncement and solutions. How does one respond – I together with a few others have started turning the search light inwards, seeking out reasons for this anti-Muslim feelings which are a definite impediment to the culture of peace. The prejudice, stereotyping and scapegoating I have found is often a result of biased media reporting. This is sad because media must actually play an important role in disseminating information to diffuse tension, not stoke it.
When I concluded this article with a focus on the 1000 years of peaceful relations between Muslim and the Sinhalese, I wondered what purpose I have fulfilled and experienced a warm positive feeling – about what had existed with a hope and prayer that it could be re-established.

I seem to be haunted by memories – one more before I conclude. D.B.S. Jeyaraj in his article “Sri Lanka as the age of 65 faces the unfinished task of building a ‘New’ Nation” – quotes three verses from W.S. Senior ‘Call to Lanka’ I felt the strength of the call and thought it would serve to awaken us all –

“But most shall he sing of Lanka
In the bright new days that come
When the races all have blended
And the voice of strife is dumb
When we leap to a single bugle
March to a single drum
March to a mighty purpose
One man from shore to shore
The stranger become a brother
The task of the tutor o’er
When the ruined city rises
And the palace gleams once more
Hark Bard of the fateful future,
Hark Bard of the bright to be;
A voice on the verdant mountains,
A voice by the golden sea.
Rise, Child of Lanka and answer,
Thy mother hath called to thee.”

 

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Latest comments

  • 1
    0

    A voice of love and tolerance amongst the babel of hate and discord. Heed the voice of peace and reject to voice of intolerance. Peace and Tolerance, Trust and Goodwill needs many years to build but can be destroyed in a few minutes due to lack of restraint by a few.

  • 1
    1

    She is great lady. There are few of her kind around today. It is pleasing to hear her voice of reason and equanimity.

    However, I want to point out the likes of BBS were restrained in their antics, rhetoric and venom spat against the Muslims, because of the threat posed by the vociferous and later militant Tamils. They were wise to keep the Muslim polity content and comfortable. It was tactically the right thing to do. This made the LTTE suspect the Muslims and alienated them stupidly, shortsightedly and inhumanely.

    Since the war is over now and the Tamils are no longer a challenge to their hegemony, their attention has been turned towards the Muslims who have become a successful, very visible, influential and relatively prosperous community. The Muslims are becoming what the Tamils were five to six decades back.

    Even if there are no valid reasons to alienate the Muslims, the reasons will be invented, as it was done in the case of the Tamils. Unless the government acts decisively and with a heavy hand, the situation will deteriorate to a point where hot headed Muslims will also react violently and a new battle will be joined. The vast majority of Sinhalese and Muslims will be victims or sad spectators to the madness that will over take this country again. Everyone has to be wary of current developments and aware of the dangerous consequences.

    I hope I am imagining things. I do not mind being proven wrong. I wish and pray I am wrong.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 1
    2

    back stabbers have no other choice other than to crawl. forget about halal and kosher , just eat what you get. mind you halal meat is given to muslims in uk prisons. but your condition in sri lanka appears to be worse than that of uk muslim prisoners. are there any laws in sri lanka prohibiting bikkus raping women and molesting children. however, there are laws prohibiting individual freedom and the peoples right to choose what they want to eat. what a f*****g democracy. as a vegetarian i would really like banning all dead meat whether halal or not.

    • 0
      1

      Dear Rama,

      I think you are giving up an opportunity to share your anger and frustrations with the rest of the CT community by being rather obtuse.

      If you would care to note, the CT edits out most of your comments and we are left wondering what is that you were trying to say.

      To you Muslims may be back stabbers, because we didn’t take up cudgels against the Sinhalese and I still have no regret for our stand. The reason being we as Muslims don’t have political ambitions, have co-existed with the Sinhalese for over 1000 years and don’t see any reason to change the status quo.

      To me your pronouncements smack of extreme racism and intolerance. We did not borrow your language. Some of you converted to Islam and continued the language, and those who came to Ceylon took Sinhala wives. So you see we are not a position to take sides.

      As far as the banning of meat in Sri Lanka, the Buddhists have been tolerant and allowed us to have Halal meat and I am grateful to them for not imposing their will on us. You if you had the choice would BAN meat.

      What we need is dialogue, sharing and accommodation. I know very well that we will be attacked, and it is question of when, and I am prepared for that eventuality when it happens.
      I am hopeful from whatever lies ahead, a greater nation will be born and will pave the way for peaceful co-existence.

      I invite you to look forward to that future!

  • 0
    1

    Sri lanka is no more a pluralistic society.Under the “King” we are one nation,with one religion & one race.That is what he meant by equality- one religion,one race. Your advice is like pouring water on the duck’s back. There is power behind these” minority” otherwise they won’t be so daring. We want to rewrite history We have tamed the Dravidians, the Christians and it is u r turn.

  • 1
    1

    Sri lanka is no more a pluralistic society.Under the “King” we are one nation,with one religion & one race.That is what he meant by equality- one religion,one race. Your advice is like pouring water on the duck’s back. There is power behind these” minority” otherwise they won’t be so daring. We want to rewrite history We have tamed the Dravidians, the Christians and it is u r turn.

  • 0
    1

    The Muslims in Sri Lanka will have to Unite as Muslims without any divisions and as one single voice to combat the menace of racial and religious attack. The future calls for Be Prepared and identify the enemy.

  • 0
    0

    A great woman and a loving grandmother. In the end we must understand we are all Sri Lankan regardless of religion and race. It is sad to see that a nation that has promoted such understanding and harmony among it’s many cultures is facing the problems we are today, but is my belief that a nation like ours has immense potential to be a demonstration of ethnic harmony. Mama and Papa keep up your great work and keep spreading your message of love and understanding to the nation we love dearly.

    I am truly blessed to have grandparents like you.

    • 1
      1

      aamil ismail, why do you say you love the country dearly. i predicted on another forum , honest to god i am sure bloggers on that forum will vouch for it that is “once the sinhala scum finished with tamils they will start on muslims”. i said this at that time because muslims on that forum were on the sinhala side. now they might say to themselves , after all rama wasn’t wrong.i don’t love or like sri lanka at all. in fact i hate that country and sinhala and muslim people. i consider sinhala scum as primitive savages and muslims as back stabbers. i will be over the moon if that country is destroyed by some natural disaster. hopefully it will happen some day.

      • 0
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        Troll. Go back to your cave.

    • 0
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      You grandmother is a great lady.
      I remember her lovely words still she gave at International women s day event at APIIT Law school.

      You are lucky to have a grandmother with a strong and fair voice.
      We are all Sri Lankans weather we are Musilm,Tamil,Christian and Burgher.
      This lady is a true patriot and a true Sri Lankan

  • 0
    1

    jezima ismail, when sinhala scum are saying that sri lanka is only for them and here you are saying that sri lanka belongs to you as well. if you Heep saying this i am sure you will be ridiculed by sinhala scum sooner or later. on the other hand i am happy that this has happened to muslims. i consider muslims as back stabbers . the reason being you borrowed our language to read , write and speak and then back stab us just to enjoy some privileges from sinhala scum. you are such an ungrateful lot and how can we ever forgive you. sinhala scum have become the custodians of imported mongolian buddha and mongolian buddhism. i don’t to this day understand the connection between black sinhala scum and yellow mongolian buddha. black bikkus including black mahanaai- aks are all dirty and filthy b*****s. i hate the b******s. i wish them all dead. anyway now that you can’t eat halal , why don’t you become a vegetarian.

    • 0
      0

      Please seek serious medical/psychological assistance before your dole runs out meanwhile stop displaying the character of a despicable creature to the Human Race in this respectable forum.

  • 0
    0

    A excellent article and an article passing a good message.
    Well done Madame Ismali.
    You are true patriot and you have a voice with a reason,faireness and equanimity.
    A great inspiration you are.
    This lady is a true patriot and I would say she is a better patriot than some of these so called Sinhalese Budhists and groups like Bodu Bala Sena who potray a fake image of patriosim and Buddhism.
    These people are just ruining the original philosphy of Buddhism.

    Iam a shamed to call myself a Sinhalese Buddhist sometimes.

    proud to have a great activist with a just voice in our country

  • 1
    0

    An excellent message to all. What is wrong in consuming Halal meat. In fact the best kind of meat to eat is meat of animals that have horns, hoofs and those taht chew the cud. All kinds of birds can be consumed. Of fish eat only those that have blood and scales and avoid the rest for a healthy life. However we tend to eat prawns cuttle fish and crabs.
    Benson

  • 1
    0

    Deshabandu Jezima Ismail the epitome of a genuine patriot of Sri Lanka.
    You are loved and respected by all Sri Lankans alike for not only your laudable contribution in the field of education but everything you stand for.

    May you live a long and healthy life dear Lady!

  • 1
    0

    A ray of hope, a message of peace and a bouquet of love from a lady who truly loves Sri Lanka. Please pray for those spewing hate in their comments on this forum.

  • 1
    0

    Thank you Mrs. Ismail for writing such a beautiful article reminding it is time to look inwards and bring the best in all to heal the beautiful motherland. Through your article you have reminded all of us that the differences we have are so little compared to the cordial relationship that have existed over a thousand years. What is so unique about Sri Lanka is that all races look alike I believe there is “Sinhala” in everyone of them. It is time not to let the motherland bleed once more over trivial issues, thank you for reminding all not to undo the bridges that were built through out history between Muslims and Buddhist. May sanity, love and understanding prevail.

  • 1
    0

    Well Said Mrs. Jezima Ismail.
    I am a Muslim and YES I am a Sri Lankan too. I love my country and nothing will change that. PEACE to all!

  • 1
    0

    A timely article to portray the true Muslim and their love for the county. Beautiful poem too. You are an inspiration to all of us when Muslims are facing the worst times we ever had.

  • 0
    1

    Rama, you are calling the Muslims’s the back stabbers! Then what do you call your LTTE brothers who forcefully chased all Muslims from Jafna with in 24hrs – suckers? Tossers or aren!t they the real back stabers?

  • 2
    0

    Lovely piece Aunty. The work that you and my grandfather have done are inspiring to us young one’s and the best way we can pay tribute to that is to follow in your footsteps the best we can. Aamil, totally agree with everything you have said. My volunteer work has taken me all over Sri Lanka and the single lesson that i have learned is this. Real change is born from the grassroots, in the hands of ordinary people. If we are so passionate about the creation and the protection of our individual rights, then we must carry the weight of responsibility that comes with it. The responsibility to be a good citizen, to understand, respect and appreciate our cultural diversity, our differences as well as the ability to celebrate what we have in common. If we want a society that is blind to race, caste, wealth, gender, where individual merit alone is the criterion for a person’s advancement, then we need to make sure that no matter what we do in our lives, we have a strong moral compass. Individual rights mean nothing if we don’t respect and work together in the community we live in. Both you and Appa have taught all of us that through example. So proud.x

  • 0
    1

    I AM A SRI LANKAN MUSLIM AND I HAVE HAD NO PROBLEMS WITH ANY OTHER
    ETHNIC OR RELIGIOUS GROUP. I PRACTICE THE ISLAM THAT IS THE QURAN
    THAT WAS REVEALED TO THE PROPHET, AND AS EXPLAINED AND PRACTICED BY HIM AND HIS NOBLE COMPANIONS.

    I WOULD KINDLY APPEAL TO HER NOT TO TALK ABOUT ISLAM, SINCE SHE IS
    IGNORANT OF THE BASIC CONCEPTS.

    SHE MAY HAVE DEGREES AND “PEDIGREES” AND MAY BE DOING A LOT IN THE NAME OF ISLAM, WHICH WILL NOT BE ACCEPTABLE TO ALLAH.

    AT A GATHERING OF THE “USUAL INTELLECTUALS LIKE HER” A NEW ONE AT THAT
    CALLED “THE COLOMBO FORUM” SHE HAS SAID THAT THERE IS NOTHING IN THE QURAN ABOUT HIJAB AND THAT IT IS CUSTOM IMPORTED FROM SAUDI ARABIA.
    JEZIMA YOU, YOUR MOTHER, YOUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN MAY NOT WEAR IT, BY YOUR NOT ACCEPTING THAT WHICH IS ALLAH’S COMMANDMENT,AND SAYING IT IS NOT IN THE QURAN, YOU GO OUT OF THE FOLD OF ISLAM.

    YOU FURTHER HAVE SAID;” I AM GLAD THAT THAT THE BODU BALA SENA HAS COME INTO EXISTENCE.QUESTIONING THE WEARING OF HIJAB AND NIQAB.
    YOU SAY”CHILDREN CRY WHEN THEY SEE A WOMAN WITH HER FACE COVERED”
    THEY MUST BE YOUR CHILDREN AND EASTERN PROVINCE CHILDREN.

    THE BODU BALA SENA TO DATE HAS ATTACKED MOSQUES MADRASSAHS MUSLIM BUSINESS ESTABLISHMENTS ETC BUT YOU ARE WITH THEM.YOU ARE VIRTUALLY
    APPROVING THEIR ACTIONS.

    THERE IS NO COMPULSION IN RELIGION. YOU ARE FREE TO JOIN THEM
    .

    THESE FORUMS IN WHICH YOU SPEAK FOR MUSLIMS ARE CREATED FOR
    CREATING PROBLEMS FOR MUSLIMS.

    YOU WOMAN !!!! YOU HAVE NO DAMN RIGHT TO TALK ON BEHALF OF MUSLIMS OR ISLAM.
    FROM THE TIME YOU JEZIMA AHMAD WERE IN THE UNIVERSITY,YOU
    NEVER BEHAVED AS A MUSLIM.

    YOU HAVE STILL TIME TO LEARN THE BASICS, AND REPENT.
    I AM SORRY FOR THE INNOCENT IGNORANT MUSLIM WOMEN WHO FOLLOW YOU.

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