Colombo Telegraph

Reform & Sri Lankan Muslims

By N.M. Rishard

N.M. Rishard

“Reform” is one of the widely used terms in modern world, in which a bunch of theories and concepts are introduced by the scholars in order to make changes in their particular context. Meanwhile, reform is a dynamic as well as a progressive process that might take several decades to move a society from one level to another. By looking into some experiences of reform projects all around the countries we can summarize that some ended up with failure and others with success. It’s noticeable that every ethnic or religious group has its own way forward for reform when it comes to pluralistic society. Muslims of Sri Lanka is also not an exceptional community and they have been involving in reforming process for decades. Following paragraphs prefer to shed light on major two spheres: Islamic movements and Muslim religious leadership.

Muslims in Sri Lanka have formed several movements that maintain different approaches to practice and preach Islamic principles and norms. While observing each of these movements, we can categorize them into three namely Traditional, Literal and Reform. Movements that depend on traditional approach do not pay specific attention to the social affairs of the society as well as country. They have a policy that they never interfere or interpret the political scenario. Further, they won’t come forward to change the evils that are rampant around them. Rather, they content merely with practicing some rituals. Instead of depending primarily on human efforts for succeeding in social reforms which is supposed to happen gradually, they await for divine miracles to be descended from sky.

On the other side, some reform movements that have been working for decades are making effort to reform the society as well as to contribute the nation. They argue that Islam emphasizes on social engagement and reformation and the latter can be happened gradually not radically. The ways they follow in order to reform the society are moderate and gradual. They totally agree that educating the public is one of the premier ways to cultivate their mind, heart and actions. The point where some intellectuals disagree with them is, they mostly depend on adaptation reform rather than transformational reform. However, they appreciate them for their internal serious discussions, which have emerged only few years ago, on how to come forward to communicate and contribute in national issues such as uplifting education and protecting the environment from pollution.

Literal approach is practiced by some movements and they have divided into number of groups. They mostly interpret the premier sources, AL-Quran and prophetic traditions, literally and don’t prefer to go beyond literal meaning. The main different between reform and literal approaches is the former focuses on the text and context while the later concerns on the text only without having a deep understand on context. Reform approach has dialectical and dual ways process and the literal approach has only one-way process. Scholars from reform approach strongly believe that the dialectical process is one of the essentials during interpreting the text, in which, at the beginning, the interpreter looks at the particular environment where the Quranic verses were applied and how the prophet Muhammad handled and managed to solve the social issues like poverty and discriminating women. Then he comes to current context aiming to apply the fundamental ethical frame in order solve, manage or reduce the particular problem.

This would be a very brief introduction to the approaches of the movements that prevail within the Muslim Community in Sri Lanka. There is another thing to be reiterated when we discuss on the reform projects of Sri Lankan Muslim society. All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU), which is considered as the leading institution and has more authority and power than others, is mostly depends on Traditional approach. Its reflections and implications can be seen in thoughts and activities of most of its members, who graduated from very traditional Madrasas. Similarly, this reflects in its legal opinions that are frequently uploaded in their websites and published in leaflets. The particular institution has been in practice of traditional approach and adopted strict policies with regards to implementation of Islamic Jurisprudence. Apart from that, it does not have enough courage to welcome or include other approaches into the institutional frame. “Exclusive approach” is maintained by the institution instead of “Inclusive approach”. This may cause a worst impacts and consequences in reforming project of Sri Lankan Muslims. Muslim intellectuals like university lecturers, experts and professionals are somewhat reluctant to absorb this type of approach. Establishment of National Shoora Council (NSC), which consists of academicians and experts from various fields in order to confront the modern challenges, is a vivid testimony for afore said reluctance. This hypothetical statement should be tested via a research work.

None of Sri Lankan Muslims will disagree on the point that ACJU should adopt ‘inclusive’ approach instead of ‘exclusive’. However, they will disagree with the point, from where the reform project should be started. Here I wish to indicate some basic points that are very essential when it comes to dealing with crisis in religious leadership.

1.    As of me, I would say the curriculum of Madrasa (Arabic college) is primary root cause for this crisis. It should be revisited, reversed and reformed. Most Madrasas, from where the future religious leaders are produced, depend merely on classical books alone rather than maintaining a balance between traditional and modern. It is undeniable that the Madrasa student should be educated both text and socio-economic political context where he lives. He should be taught even basic knowledge on history, politics, new world order, comparative religions and so on.

2.    ACJU should design a pragmatic mechanism to adapt inclusive approach keeping aside discrepancies and dissensions. As elaborated earlier, currently, traditional approach has a great influence in this organization and other approaches are marginalized to some extent. It can be observed in each and every decisions and legal opinions that have been published by ACJU. Religious personals from various movements and approaches, without any discrimination, should be included considerably. This will create an amicable atmosphere where traditions and approaches can meet together, discuss the issues and come to fruitful conclusions. I strongly believe that this is not an easy task meanwhile it is not an impossible task too.

3.    Muslims have another alternative option. National Shoora Council is healthier than ACJU structurally even though the former was initiated only few years ago and the latter has been working for decades. Experts, activists and professionals from various fields such as economics, politics, psychology and religion have been predominantly included by NSC while only religious clergies are permitted to have membership in ACJU. Current situation is quite complex. It would be very difficult to confront contemporary issues without having profound knowledge about the socio- political context. From this background, strengthening NSC also would be a preferable strategy for Sri Lankan Muslims in order to uplift the society as well as to contribute the nation. The rivalry that can be emerged in upcoming years between these two institutions is unpreventable.

These are only few suggestions that can be developed in future. Moreover, it is worthy to note that critical researches on Muslim organizations and their approaches must be carried out in order to come up with optimum solutions for internal crisis.

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