by N.M Ameen
An important part of the Medina society were recognized as a distinct, autonomous Respected religious leaders, distinguished guests and everyone present for this National Conference today, first let me greet you all by saying Assalamu Alaikum, Ayubowan, Wannakam and Good Evening. It is indeed my pleasure to be at this august assembly and share some thoughts with you on the role of Religion in reconciliation from a Muslim perspective.
Distinguished Guests, I think we can all agree that the most important task today for us in Sri Lanka is to work on reconciliation – create an atmosphere for peaceful living among all communities, and create mutual trust through the establishment of social justice. Truthfully speaking, communal disharmony by any means in society is an awful social disease, religion can play a vital role in combating this disease.
Majority of people in Sri Lanka who belong to the four major religions followed in our motherland do fortunately, adhere to the noble teachings of their respective religions. This is a positive sign for us. As the speaker representing the religion of Islam, I would like to present the Islamic viewpoint with regard to creating an atmosphere of peaceful co-existence through reconciliation.
Islam believes and teaches that reconciliation through self restraint is the best and the most effective way of observing and sustaining peace in society. In this regard Islam enjoins Muslims to establish peace even if it causes unilateral sacrifice and patience. Islam strongly believes in the unity of mankind and people speaking different languages and belonging to different nations is only for the purpose of identification as it says in the Quran:
Oh! Mankind we created you from a single pair of male and female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous of you. (Holt Quran 49:13)
Again it says: The truth is from your Lord, let him who will believe, and let him who will reject, (it) (Quran 18:29)
It’s clear from the above Quranic statement that every individual is free to exercise his choice in respect of belief, conviction and worship. To ensure the prevalence of peace within society, Islam has given numerous commandments to words achieving that. The Prophet of Islam (May Peace be upon him) for instance observed – “A believer is one from whom people feel secure as regards their lives and property.” Another tradition of the Prophet said – “By God, he is not believer (Muslim) from whose nuisance, his neighbor is not safe”
Islam totally rejects discrimination against anyone on the basis of color, race, ethnicity, profession, geographical living etc. It also prohibits threatening, using abusive words, or publishing anything that could stir up racial hatred.
According to the teachings, everyone is a creation of God and therefore must be respected. History tells us that Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) made a black African his first prayer caller. It is this broad concept of tolerance as expounded by Islam, which made Muslims coexist with other communities and religious groups for centuries in an atmosphere and environment of peace and harmony. With the migration of the prophet from Makkha to Madinah and the establishment of the first Islamic state, the Jews who formed community within the Islamic state.
Allah epitomizes religious tolerance in the Qur’an in a nutshell:
“Lakum deenukunm wa liya deen – Your religion is for you and my religion is for me (109:6)”
Compulsion in any issue is totally rejected by Islam. The Holy Qur’an says:
“La ikraahu fiddeen – there is no compulsion in religion” (2: 256)
Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) set wonderful examples for us to follow, when we live as a part within a different communities. He stood up when a funeral procession of a Jew passed him, and when asked by companions as to why he stood up for a Jews funeral the prophet replied, “all human are equal in nature and it is our duty to pay respect to the departed soul.”
We all agree that religion is a powerful component of cultural norms and values because it addresses the most intense existential issues of human life like freedom and certainty, fear and faith, right and wrong, scared and profane, religion is deeply implicated in individual and social conceptions of peace. We Muslims do share a common calling to work for peace. This calling is rooted in the Qur’an Chapter 5 verse 48 which enjoins humanity to “strive as in a race in all virtues.” Within the Muslim community this calling has manifested and will no doubt continue to manifest in varied ways that reflect continuous efforts to interpret and apply foundational Islamic values in specific historical, social and cultural situations. Peace occupies a central position among Islamic percepts where it is closely linked to justice and human flourishing, which in turn necessitates reconciliation. It is through reconciliation that communities can understand and support each other not only for the peaceful living of contemporary society, but also for the future generations. Islam stands firm on this principle
Religious leaders in our society have always performed and are still performing their important function as educators in societies, in order to create an environment of peaceful living. They contribute much to make respective followers behave in a manner which furthers, rather than disrupts the divine harmony. But it is unfortunate that some ill motivated elements, perhaps supported by interested groups have in the recent past engaged in shattering the hopes of dedicated religious leader in building a peaceful society. The recent events which have resulted in hate speeches aimed towards particular communities bear witness to this. I will touch on this vileness a little bit.
I will not delve in to the recent assault on the Muslim community by a very small group of extremists who are probably trying to join the political bandwagon using hate speech and racism as their mechanism to achieve their political ambitions. Majority of the Buddhists are peace-loving citizens who have lived, worked, and continue to treat the Muslims as a part of their extended family. I thank them for their kindness and sincerity. We heard the extremist elements propagating here that Muslims were brought to Sri Lanka as late as 1921 to work on road constructions, but Lorna Deveraja in her book ‘The Muslims of Sri Lanka,’ clearly records the early roots of Muslims in Sri Lanka.
I would like to talk to briefly about the contributions made by Arab Muslims traders who later introduce Islam to this nation. Muslims as a community have and continue to respect the laws of the land and have worked for the territorial integrity of this blessed nation, they have never worked against the Sri Lankan nation.
The Arabs as you know, came here as traders even before the emergence of Islam in the present perfect form that occurred in the early 7th century. These Arab traders who came in the pre 7th century period settled in Sri Lanka along the costal belt. They used Sri Lanka as a collection and distribution center and their business was with the mariners. Chinese sailors too came to Sri Lanka with silk and the Arabs brought merchandise from the west. This is evidence in our historical records.
When Islam emerged in its present perfected form, the Arabs who were the first believers brought the religion of Islam to their trading nations. It has been recorded that by the 10th century, the Arab community was well settled in Sri Lanka, they chose the costal region as their home for obvious reasons and maintained very cordial relationship with the local population as well as their trading partners. Further it is recorded that as early as the thirteenth century, Al-Haj Abu-Uthman was sent by the Sinhala King to the Mamluk court of Egypt to negotiate direct trade relations between the two countries. Even today we find names in Kandy starting with ‘Thaanapathilage-gedara’ which literally means from the house of the Ambassador. Even my family name carries the vaasagama- ‘Waidhyathilaka Muhandiramlaege Gopala Mudhiyansalaage.’ So I do not accept it when people say we are recent immigrants who came to work on road construction.
By the time the Portuguese arrived in 1505, the Muslim community, which had the confidence of Sinhala rulers was influential in the costal areas of Ceylon. The main reason for the confidence of the Sinhala rulers was the Muslim’s honesty and lack of political ambition. The Portuguese found this to be a threat to their religion and commerce and attempted to forbid the practice of Islam. This forced Arab/Muslims to move to the interior of the country. Here they were welcomed by the Kandyan kingdom which allowed for the free practice of their religion. As traders, and with their excellence in medicine they made valuable contributions to the Kandyan economy. Even today, there are a number of families involved in Ayurvedic medicine whose ancestors brought the Unani medicine and other scientific knowledge to the Sinhala Kingdom. I must say that many of the renowned medicine men came from my home district of Kegalle.
History also reveals that during the period of colonialism, the Muslims of Sri Lanka defended the Island against the colonial powers and stood with Sri Lankan Kings at all times in history, never being traitors to the Island at any point. Muslim leaders fought along Sinhalese leaders to liberate the Island from British rule as well.
In contemporary times we have had great Muslim leaders who were involved with the freedom struggle, as well as contributing to the development of Sri Lanka along with the Sinhala and Tamil leadership. The names which come to mind include Muslim intellectuals like the late Siddi Lebbe, A.M.A Azeez, Dr. T.B Jayah, Sir Razick Farees, Dr.Badiudeen Mahumud, A.C.S Hameed, A.M Bakir Maker etc, who not only believed in living in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, but also contributed to peaceful living. They in fact contributed a lot towards religious reconciliation – the theme for which we are here today.
During the protracted civil war, the Muslims believed in a united Sri Lanka and also had to pay a heavy price due to the ethnic cleansing undertaken by the LTTE in 1990. As you are aware the entire Muslim population of the Northern Province was forced to leave with less than 24 hours notice, leaving behind all their possessions and to this day, these people continue to live in camps without the ability to go back to their original houses. This is also an important aspect to be considered in the reconciliation process.
It is often claimed that Sri Lanka is only for the Sinhalese, the extremist say Tamil Nadu is for the Tamils, and Saudi Arabia for the Muslims, but I consider Sri Lanka my own country and motherland. I was born here and I want to die here as a true Sri Lankan, contributing and inducing my fellow men and women to contribute towards peaceful living through reconciliation. Let us all unite and live as one family – Insha Allah
*N.M. Ameen – Journalist and the President of Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum. Speech delivered by Mr. N.M. Ameen at the National Conference ‘the Role of Religion in Reconciliation’ on July 23, 2013.