A Review of “The Muslim Heritage of Eastern Sri Lanka”

Title: “The Muslim Heritage of Eastern Sri Lanka”

The book, a first of its kind, covers a whole range of topics relating to the Muslim heritage of the East contributed by leading scholars. It consists of 11 chapters, 200 photos and 301 pages.


Publishers: The Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum headed by Deshabandu Mrs. Jezima Ismail

Editors: S.H.M. Jameel and Asiff Hussein


Reviewed by: Prof. M.A.Nuhman, Professor of Tamil, University of Peradeniya

(October 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Muslim Heritage of Eastern Sri Lanka, is a major project completed and published by Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum. I have been closely associated with Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum for the last twenty years as a well wisher and a contributor. I have participated in some of their workshops and seminars and also contributed to some of their publications. Ideologically MWRAF is very close to me. It is not one among the conservative women’s organizations involved in petty affairs of upper class women’s lives. It is a progressive organization that has a radical outlook and is seriously involves in social research, advocacy and action oriented activities relevant to the Muslim community especially to the Muslim women and their progress in society. It has also close links with some of the important international women’s organizations, including Women Living under Muslim Law. Their publications and their social activities are the evidence of their merit.
This book, ‘The Muslim Heritage of Eastern Sri Lanka’, although rather different from their usual publications in content, is an important work and a lasting contribution to the socio-cultural studies of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
The socio-cultural life of the Muslims of Sri Lanka in general and particularly of the Eastern Muslims has so far not been studied well. It is a fertile field for sociologists, social and cultural anthropologists, linguists and folklorists. There are very few such specially trained Sri Lankan Muslim scholars working in this field today. Some of the foreign scholars have done some pioneering work in this area of studies during the last three or four decades. To my knowledge Nur Yalman was the pioneer who dealt with some of the cultural aspects of Eastern Muslims in his book Under the Bo Tree: Cast, Kinship and Marriage in the Interior of Ceylon, published in 1967. He included Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in his studies. He later motivated one of his students, Dennis McGilvray, to do his research in the East and he did his field work in Akkaraippattu for two years at the beginning of the 1970s on the matriclan system among the Muslims and Tamils of the area for his Ph.D. Later McGilvray extended his field work to cover the Batticaloa district and some part of the South. He is the only scholar who extensively studied the socio, cultural and political life of the Eastern Muslims and has published a number of scholarly papers and books on the subject. His recent book Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and the Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka is a comprehensive work on the subject based on the field studies he had done for the last 40 years.
From the 1980s onwards a number of Muslim intellectuals have shown interest in studying and recording the history, society, culture and politics of Sri Lankan Muslims. This is mainly because of the re-emergence of ethnic consciousness due to the ethnic conflict and separatist war in this country. They wanted to re-establish their identity through their history and cultural heritage and started to publish books and articles on the subject. History and traditions of Akkaraippattu and Puttalam were two pioneering works on this line published in the late 1980s and early 1990s respectively. They were followed by a number of such publications. When Mr. S H M Jameel was the Secretary of the Ministry of State for Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs, he undertook a project of writing district wise Muslim history and culture and the Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs has published twelve such books starting from 1991. Some enthusiastic individuals and groups were also engaged in such projects and published books on the history and culture of their own villages. Apart from this history writing there were a number of books and articles on folk songs and folk culture of the Muslims have been published during the last 30 or 40 years. Most of the authors of these books and papers were not professionally trained historians or folklorists and they had strong motivation to trace their glorious historical past and to prove their cultural merits. Therefore, one can find some stain of ethnic bias in these works, which is a common feature in such writings of the other ethnic communities in this country and many other communities of the world experiencing ethnic conflict and seeking separate identities.
It is in this background, I would like to look at the book Muslim Heritage of Eastern Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly it is a very important work on Sri Lankan Muslim cultural heritage. It is an excellent production with a large number of colour photographs and maps and the layout is beautiful. The cover design is attractive and the entire book is printed in quality art paper. It is a rich looking production that we can keep it in our personal library not only as a book but also as an art work. First I should congratulate the editors and the printer for this excellent production.
The motivation to bring out this book is stated by Jezima Ismail, Mirak Raheem and the editors in their notes. In Mirak Raheem’s words “the book has multiple aims: to records the distinctiveness of the Eastern Muslim community, or rather communities; to demonstrate the wealth of traditions to other ethnic communities; and to document dying traditions and customs.” According to Jezima Ismail “the lamentable decline of hallowed old customs and traditions, the gradual obliteration of some arts and crafts and the hardly noticeable fading of the folklore of this region” made them think of a permanent record and documentation. The editors also hope that “this work kindles an interest in preserving the arts and crafts, the customs and traditions of the Muslims of the East.” In short, the main objective of this book is to record and preserve the past and present cultural traditions of the Muslims of Eastern Sri Lanka. This objective is mostly achieved in the chapters of the book that deal with customs and rituals, arts and crafts and architecture, clothing and food culture, oral and written literature, economic activities, social organization and community leadership. The chapters try to give us a comprehensive view of the socio-cultural life of the Muslims of the region, focusing more on the South Eastern Region.
The book is divided into 10 chapters on different themes and consists of 14 papers. Most of them are well researched and effectively presented. The first and the last chapters are written by S H M Jameel. In the first chapter, History of the Muslim community of the Eastern Province, he provides a geographic, demographic and historical profile of the Muslims of the Eastern Province. He presents some valuable historical information for the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods of the Muslim history of the Province. It is one of the well documented chapters of this volume. In his last chapter ‘Social Relationship and Community Leadership’ Mr. Jameel deals with the matriclan kudy system, mosque administration, middle class formation and social mobility, emergence of political leadership and the ethnic harmony that existed in the past. He positively concludes his chapter with the vision for the future as follows: “The Eastern Province is therefore ideally placed to influence attempts at national reconciliation, inter-communal harmony, sustainable development, democracy at all levels and lasting peace with equity amongst all communities.” I think it is the vision for the whole nation.
The second chapter deals with some customs and rituals of the Muslims of the region. This chapter consists of two parts. Part one is written by Dennis McGilvray and the other part is written by Asiff Hussain. McGilvray’s paper “Celebrations of Maturity and Marriage” deals with the customary practices of boy’s circumcision, female puberty and marriage, based on his field work he did at Akkaraippattu in the early 1970s. It is a scholarly recording, description and interpretation of the practices that existed among the Muslims in the 70s and before. Most of the practices he describes have gradually faded away. Male circumcision today is mostly done by doctors at their clinics and Ostas also adopt modern medical techniques, female puberty has become inner family circles affairs; the midnight wedding has gone and it takes place in the evening. His observation on dowry and mahr is very important and still valid to a great extent. He says “while the Islamic concept of mahr goes against the grain of the matrilocal dowry-based marriage system of Eastern Sri Lanka, it was carefully observed as a technical requirement of the Muslim marriage law, and it provided a formal opportunity for the groom’s family to acknowledge its stake in the marriage.” Not only in the Eastern Sri Lanka but also in the other parts of the country, the obligatory Islamic practice of mahr has become symbolic and technical while dowry has become obligatory in the Muslim marriage contract.
In the second part of this chapter, the author Asiff Hussein describes the customs, rituals and believes related to birth and death among the Muslims of the East. In some cases he tends to differentiate the Islamic and customary or borrowed practices. However, he provides valuable information related to birth and death rituals and customs especially on female circumcision. Both the papers by McGilvray and Hussein on rituals and customs provide us a comprehensive view of the customary practices that existed and still continue to exist among the Muslims from their birth to death.
Apart from the chapter on the rituals and customs related to birth and death, Asiff Hussein has written three papers on culture related themes, namely Architectural Landscape, Dress and Ornamentation, and Food and Beverages. The fourth paper he has contributed is on Contemporary Economic Life. He has demonstrated his intellectual ability to deal with his subject academically. In his paper on Architectural Landscape, he provides information on constructions from field huts to modern storied buildings, mosque constructions and the construction of dwelling houses. His information on the changing system of the toilet facilities is valuable. He also provides rich information on clothing and ornamentation and food and beverages. There are two supplementary papers on same themes, clothing and food by Saseer, et al, which are very brief, since Hussein has already written on them elaborately.
The chapter on Arts and Craft by Dr. M S M Anes is very comprehensive and commendable. He tries to cover the three districts of the Eastern Province. He provides valuable information about folk theater, pole play or polladi, painting, music, martial art, handicraft and carpentry. This chapter as many other chapters, is historical and descriptive.
There are two chapters on literature in this volume. One is on folk or oral literature and the other is on written literature. Maruthur A. Majeed, a multi talented personality, a poet and a short story writer, has written on folk songs of the Muslims of the Eastern Sri Lanka. ‘Poems and Folk Songs in the Folkloristics of the Muslims of Eastern Sri Lanka’ is the title of the chapter. However, as many other writers of this volume he also concentrates only on the South Eastern region. South Eastern Muslims are well known for their rich and varied folk literary production and it was closely related to their agricultural practices. Owing to the modernization process, like many other cultural practices, folk literary production also has become mostly a past cultural practice. Mr. Majeed, who has already published a book on the subject, tries to analyze the features of the folk songs and also tries to periodize them chronologically. His chronological ordering of the folk songs seems to be merely speculative. He also states the original and distorted or deformed versions of folk songs. In oral literature there is no original and distorted version. There are only variations. Oral literature travels from place to place and person to person and takes different forms and versions. It is the inherent feature to the folk literature. No professional folklorist accepts the notion of original and distorted versions of any of the genre of folk literature.
‘Literary Pursuit of the Muslims of the Eastern Province’ is the chapter on written literature by Dr. Rameez Abdulla, an emerging intellectual and an academic of the younger generation. This chapter is also a comprehensive account of the literary development in the East including all three districts. He traces the literary development as early as possible from the mid 19th century to the present and analyses the various trends in the literary development.
Lastly, I should mention the two other papers on economic activities. Dr. S M M Ismail, the vice chancellor of the South Eastern University, in his paper on the Economic History of the Muslims of the Eastern Province, traces the economic history of the Eastern Muslims from the pre-colonial period to the modern. He concentrates on trade and commerce, agriculture, industry, finance and human resources. The second paper on the economic activities is by Asiff Hussein on Contemporary economic life of the Muslims of the Eastern Province. His main concentration is on agriculture, fishing and weaving. He also provides some information on some other economic activities like trade and livestock breeding. He welcomes the introduction of the Islamic banking system as a future prospect.
All the chapters in this volume, in one way or the other focus on cultural change. Cultural change is inevitable in social development. Society and culture are continuously changing. There are some social factors that accelerate cultural change. The process of modernization, modern education and social mobility, Islamic resurgence and Islamization are the three such factors that accelerated cultural changes among the Muslims of the East from the early 20th century. However these factors are not studied in this volume in detail.
This book will stand for a long time as an admirable and very useful document of socio cultural history of the Muslims of Eastern Sri Lanka. We must congratulate Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum for this valuable publication, Mrs. Jezima Ismail and Mirak Raheem, for their initiative and support, the editors Mr. S H M Jameel and Asiff Hussein for their excellent work and the contributors for their valuable documentations.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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