Muslim leadership: Imperative for change

Tuesday, 2 October 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Because of the leaders’ opportunistic politics and self-motivated economic and social manoeuvres, the Muslim community in general has lost the mutual trust and social cordiality that were built over centuries of coexistence. The greatest challenge facing future leadership is to recover this loss. That is the only way to prevent the recurrence of anti-Muslim violence witnessed in recent times – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara



Wealth and piety had been the historical legitimisers of Muslim leadership in Sri Lanka. Wealth was accumulated either through inheritance or from trade and commerce. Of the two, trade has a special relationship with the religion of Islam. It remains the most representative of Islam’s professions. 

For example, the Prophet himself was a trader, his first wife Khadija was one of the wealthiest trading magnates in Mecca, and so were a few of the Prophet’s closest friends and followers. The Quran itself uses commercial terminologies as metaphors to impart its messages. It is trade that introduced Islam into Sri Lanka, originally from the Middle East and later from India. 

The Muslim community started as a trading community and remained so until recent times, although one section of it took to agriculture after the 16th century. Finally, it was this commitment to trade and business that earned the community the colonial sobriquet “business community”. Hence, it was natural that Muslim leadership had its origins in wealthy business families, concentrated mostly around Colombo.

Early emergence of Muslim leadership

Piety legitimised leadership in an indirect way. Not all wealthy are pious and not all pious are wealthy. Piety is entirely a personal matter between a believer and the Creator, and there is no standard measure of assessing whether one is genuinely pious or not. However, to ordinary Muslims a person’s piety could be gauged by that person’s commitment to the five pillars of Islam namely, the confession, daily prayers, fasting, zakat (obligatory charity) and pilgrimage to Mecca. The last of these, when performed, automatically carries the title Haji, which adds to a person’s religiosity and respectability in the community. Commitment to these religious obligations certify one as a practicing Muslim. 

In addition to this the extent of one’s involvement in mosque affairs, such as participating in mosque administration and maintenance, care for the welfare of mosque functionaries such as imams and muezzins and managing madrasas (religious schools) enhance a person’s leadership claim. Long before the Wakfs Board was established in 1956, it was private individuals and families that administered and governed charitable religious institutions. A popular belief that God favours those who are pious cleansed the wealth of the pious from all sins in its accumulation. 

Demonstration of piety naturally won the admiration of the ulama, whose opinion carried decisive weight among their followers. Long before S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike discovered the political value of Buddhist monks, Muslim leaders realised the power of the ulama to win political support from the masses. The ulama, because of their claimed monopoly over religious knowledge, had the credentials to certify a person’s piety. Thus, wealth and piety with support from the ulama played a deterministic role in the early emergence of Muslim leadership. 

Political opportunities

To this class of Muslim leaders, political opportunities during and after the colonial era provided an opportunity to exploit their business skill to bargain and win favours from the rulers to benefit themselves and their community. Party politics that developed over the years extended this opportunity even further. Sectional interests prevailed over national interests during debates in the parliament. 

For instance, when the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and the subsequent Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949 were introduced in the legislature Muslim leaders supported both mainly because repatriation of Indian and Pakistani businessmen would mean less competition to local Muslim businesses. 

Similarly, when the national language issue came up in the 1950s Muslim parliamentarians unanimously opted for Sinhalese, even though Tamil is the mother tongue of vast majority of Muslims, because Sinhalese is the language of the majority who patronised Muslim businesses. Even today it is in the interest of business that majority Muslim voters sympathise with the United National Party, which stands for free market and private enterprise. 

Intellectual element

A notable feature of this business-ulama leadership however, was the absence of a secular intellectual element. There were a few Muslim legal professionals but not an intellectual class as such to speak of. The delayed entry of Muslims to secular education was the main reason for this shortage. It was not until after the 1960s and particularly after the 1990s that one could see the emergence of a secularly educated Muslim group, thanks to the services of one charismatic leader, Badiuddin Mahmud, popularly known as Badi. Incidentally, he was the first Muslim professional educationist to hold a cabinet position. 

Badi, a product of Aligarh University in India and contemporary of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, was the Minister of Health from 1960 to 1963 and then Minister of Education from 1970 to 1977. His term as Minister of Education marked a turning point in the history of Muslims in this country. 

Sometime in 1972, he invited all Muslim leaders for a crucial meeting at his Colombo residence, in which he urged them to change the outlook and direction of the community from being wedded to trade and business to other pursuits and professions and thereby remove the colonial image of a business community. Single handed, he devoted his time and effort to improve the standard of Muslim education so that future leaders in his community would emerge from an educated class. The present generation of Muslim scholars and professionals in the country, and the current crop of Muslim politicians, are indeed the products of the Badi Revolution. 

Although Badi’s efforts provided great impetus to secular learning in the community and was responsible to a large extent in creating a class of Muslim educationists and professionals, his measures did not change the structure and nature of religious education. The ulama of today are, no doubt, more articulate and better organised than their predecessors. Yet, they remain even more conservative than before on issues affecting the welfare of the community. 

The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the apex institution of religious functionaries, is heavily influenced by ultra-orthodox ideologies with backing from the business elite. What this means is that the new class of politicians even though they are more secularly educated than their predecessors cannot function as effective leaders without the support of the ACJU and the business sector. 

The prevailing impasse in reforming the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) reflects this ineffectiveness. This is one side of the problem facing Muslim political leadership. It cannot break away from the historical business-ulama nexus that has kept the community’s vision short-termist and ethno-religious centric rather than national and future oriented.

From another side however, this ethno-religious centric vision is not unique to Muslim political leadership. It is unfortunately the reigning characteristic of all political leaders and parties in the country. National interest is sacrificed for the sake of sectional gains, and politics is viewed as a zero sum game, where one community’s gain is believed to be another’s loss. There is therefore a need for change in the character of political leadership in all communities, but to the Muslim community in particular this change is imperative. Why?

Failure in leadership

Muslims rank third in population strength and unlike the Sinhalese and Tamils, they are impacted more by developments outside the country due to their religious connection to the world of Islam. Religiously, the Muslims of Sri Lanka are part of a world community of nearly 1.6 billion or nearly one-fifth of world population. Whether one likes it or not, the fact of the matter is Muslim countries are at the centre of several running international disputes and debates in this unipolar world. Islam and Muslim economies are also subjects of constant global polylogue, the tenor and outcome of which impact the image and conditions of Muslims living as minorities in plural societies. 

Local Muslims may have no involvement in any of these events, like for instance the blasting by the Taliban of the historic Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan; yet, they became targets of sneer and physical harassment. Likewise, when sections of local Muslims blindly follow the cultural traits and practices of Islamic sects that are historically disconnected to Sri Lanka a natural suspicion is aroused within other communities regarding Muslim indigenousness. These are very sensitive areas that call for an enlightened and farsighted leadership to navigate the community through testing waters. 

When Muslim leaders fail to comprehend local sensitivities to alien influences, be it cultural ideological or otherwise, and are not equipped with a practical agenda to counter those influences, the community’s future and peaceful coexistence are jeopardised. Since the 1980s, Sri Lankan Muslim leadership has tragically failed in this area. 

A historical miss

More important than this is the failure of this leadership to play the role of an honest broker and bridge builder between the other two communities that are still showing no sign of narrowing differences between them. This is a historical miss on the part of Muslim politicians from the time of independence. 

Muslims, living cheek by jowl with Tamils in the north and east and with Sinhalese in the rest of the country, with fluency in both Sinhalese and Tamil languages, and with centuries of close acquaintance with the religious and cultural values of the two communities is excellently placed to play the role of an impartial intermediary in solving issues arising between the two brethren communities. 

To play that role however, requires a leadership with intellectual sagacity, patriotic commitment and subtle Chanakyam. In the past, there were one or two Muslim leaders who possessed these qualities and tried to mediate, but by the time they intervened the differences between the two communities had widened to dangerous levels. Regrettably, these qualities are scarcely evident in the current leadership. 

Because of the leaders’ opportunistic politics and self-motivated economic and social manoeuvres, the Muslim community in general has lost the mutual trust and social cordiality that were built over centuries of coexistence. The greatest challenge facing future leadership is to recover this loss. That is the only way to prevent the recurrence of anti-Muslim violence witnessed in recent times. 

Search for an alternative 

The time has arrived therefore for Muslims to search for an alternative and quality leadership to lead them in this troubled environment. Obviously, the onus of this search falls not on the ordinary masses but on the intelligentsia that has emerged after the 1980s. 

While part of this intelligentsia remains chorus singers to the current leadership and conservative religious establishment, there is another, more youthful, that shows signs of originality in thought and a desire to change the status quo. What is more encouraging is the presence within this group a number of educated and professional Muslim women who are prepared to express, in spite of opprobrium from the conservatives, their concerns about certain retrogressive developments within the community. 

What is needed is a local “republic of letters” or an intellectual academy to bring these groups under one umbrella. That academy should have the courage and intellectual capacity to confront the ruling orthodoxy. It should actively engage in constructive ijtihad (new interpretation of old dictums) to counter that orthodoxy, which is trapped in tamadhhub (partisanship in Schools of Law) and taqlid (imitation) oriented. 

The newly constructed ideas and arguments should ultimately reach the public through the pulpit, which requires a new generation of ulama trained not only in Islamic theology but also in other academic disciplines. The collaboration between the intelligentsia and the new generation of ulama will pave the way for a new breed of political leadership. The need for this change is extremely imperative to face a turbulent future. 


(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)

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