It is indeed a privilege to be at this distinguished gathering, assembled as we are to honuor the memory of a great son of Sri Lanka and of the Muslim Community.  Marhoom A.M.A. Azeez was a man of many parts – a many faceted personality indeed.  What is unique is that, despite his versatility, he excelled in every sphere in which he participated. He was an academic and an intellectual of the highest calibre.  He was an administrator belonging to the elite Civil Service, an educationist, a Member of the Legislature, social worker and the founder of several Muslim Organizations.  He also served as a Member of the Public Service Commission and at one time or the other, as a Member of the Court, the Council and the Senate of the University of Ceylon.  I can go on and on. But it is not necessary to eugolise him.  The memory of Mr. Azeez is neither dim nor distant.  Indeed, whilst most of his detractors have been relegated to the limbo of history, Mr. Azeez is remembered with respect and gratitude by the community even today.  However, despite all his manifold achievements, the cause of Muslim education was indeed his strongest passion. His founding of the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund and his stewardship of Zahira College for 13 years which are generally accepted as the golden era of Zahira are sufficient monuments to his memory.

In the sphere of education, we Muslims and indeed our nation is at a water shed approaching the next millennium and awaiting the recommendations of the National Education Commission.  Hence, it is but fitting that the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Foundation should have chosen as the topic for today’s presentation –

“Education – The Challenges Facing the Muslim Community”

It will be appropriate to recall the words of the late Dr. A.M.A. Azeez who, addressing the Muslim Educational Conference on the 15th May 1943 stated :

            “ Education and education alone is the master key that would unlock all the doors to progress and that in any social programme of Muslims, the just and foremost place should definitely and distinctly be given to education.”

The wise words of a man born at the beginning of the fading century are most relevant today, as the community now faces the challenges of the next century.

However, before I proceed, I must sound a note of caution.  I myself do not claim to be a specialist or to have any specialized knowledge of education.  But, I do believe that Lailaha Illallah and that the Holy Prophet Muhammed is indeed Allah’s final Messenger, is the greatest truth that was ever revealed to mankind.  Therefore, I speak to you simply as a concerned Muslim in the hope that if I do pin point some of the problems, the educationalists will come up with the answers.

Let us look at some of the significant steps that have taken in the field of education.  Shortly before independence, there was a change in the medium of instruction in the primary school and the provision of free education from the kindergarten to the university.  The social, political and cultural forces that gathered momentum during the pre-1956 era had its impact in the field of education too.  The medium of instruction was changed from English to the mother tongue – Sinhala and Tamil.  The demand for equal opportunities by non-Christian religious groups led to the Assisted Schools and Training Colleges Act.  By this law, the large majority of the denominational schools came under the control of the State.  These changes brought in their wake challenges to the Muslims, spread as we are throughout the length and breadth of country,  the fact that one-third of the Muslim population live in predominantly Tamil areas and two-thirds live in the Sinhala areas necessarily conditioned our attitude to the medium of instruction.  The declaration of Sinhala as the official language of the country in 1956 rendered the problem even more acute.  The Muslim community which had, for whatever reason, mainly adopted Tamil, found itself in a dilemma.

The Muslims living in predominantly in Sinhala area where bi-lingual and in fact a good number were tri-lingual.  Although Tamil was spoken at home and was the vehicle of religious literature and religious instruction, most of the Muslims in the Sinhala area were also Sinhala speaking in various degrees.  It was felt that opportunities for employment in the Government Sector were greater if we switched to Sinhala as the medium.  However, the Muslims were cautious.  Most of the Tamil schools in the rural areas continued with the Tamil medium. The change took place mainly in the urban area, especially with the take over of the denominational schools, Sinhala being the medium in these schools.  The rural Muslim parents who were affluent and sought to educate their children in urban schools also opted for Sinhala.  We do not know the exact statistics as to what percentage of Muslim students are in the Sinhala medium.  Knowledgeable sources put it at 10 per cent and it is bound to grow.

As a matter of expediency, generally speaking, the Muslims living in the Sinhala areas adopted Sinhala as the medium of instruction whilst those in the Tamil speaking areas continued with Tamil as the medium of instruction.  Although, the choice must necessarily  left to the parents, the issue needs to be examined in the light of our experience over the years.  With the wisdom of hindsight it has been pointed out that the expectation that the adoption of Sinhala would prove fruitful in the field of public sector employment, has not been met.  Statistics show that it has been otherwise.

Moreover, the younger generation in the community appear to be split on linguistic lines.  The Sinhala educated and the Tamil educated sections appear to be isolated from each other.  It has been suggested that English could be a link language. However, regard to the availability of English teachers and facilities for the teaching of English this does not appear to be a meaningful possibility.  Hence, some steps to prevent this deepening isolation is imperative.  There is also an acute shortage of religious literature in Sinhala.  The prescribed literature in Sinhala has concepts which are not reconcilable with Islamic views and values.  Are we endangering our little ones by exposing them to such ideas at a formative age?  Our Moulavies and Ulema have not attuned themselves to the language change.  Most of our children attending Sinhala medium schools are unable to understand the Kothuba delivered on Fridays which in the main is in the Tamil language.  Hence, you will agree with me that the issue needs to be examined.  I may add that the All Ceylon Muslim Educational Conference has throughout  advocated the four languages formula – Arabic for religion.  In regard to the medium of instruction, it will be eighter Sinhala or Tamil depending on the parents’ choice.  If Sinhala is chosen as the medium of instruction, Tamil would be the link language and vice versa.  English would, as an international language, serve as a window to the outside world and as an access to science and technology. Of course, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a matter which merits fuller examination.  It is a difficult problem but let us therefore not pretend that there is no problem.  Let us also bear in mind that whatever we advocate has to be implemented by the State.

The problem of school admission is a real and acute one.  It was said that the take over of assisted schools was to bring about equality in the educational sphere – to provide equal opportunities in education to all.  The reality is that, at the time of the take over, the only Muslim school providing quality education was Zahira College, Colombo.  The prestigious schools were run by non-Muslim bodies.  They were the Christian Missionary schools and schools such as Ananda College run by the Buddhist theosophical Society.  There was also the Hindu Educational Movement commenced by Arumuga Navalar in Jaffna which led to the establishment of the Jaffna Hindu collage.  But apart from Zahira there was no central society for education for the Muslims on the lines of the Buddhist Theosophical Society of its counterpart in Jaffna for Hindus.

The only Muslim school of repute was Zahira.  Most Muslims who wished a quality education for their children had to resort to the denominational schools which had been founded by non-Muslim organizations.  With the take over of these schools, Muslims soon found that entry to these schools was blocked.  The principles of these schools resorted to an unwritten rule of maintaining the proportion of the various ethnic communities at the time of the take over. It was claimed that there was an agreement between the Government and the administration of these schools at that time that this proportion was to have maintained.

This unwritten rule has recently acquired official recognition.  As usual, the Ministry of Education has now called for applications for admission of children to Year 1 in Government Schools for the year 1999.  The conditions of admission are set out in the Ministry Circular bearing No.1996/14 of 12.8.1996 and the amending  circulars of 5.6.1997.  However, if you peruse this circular as amended you will find a new condition.  The new condition is set out in Section 20F.  The circular has now officially recognized this hitherto unwritten rule.  Section 20F states that “the religious percentage that existed at the time of take-over of schools by the Government  should be considered in the filling of vacancies”.  This has the effect of preventing children of certain communities and religions from getting admission to popular schools.  For example, a Christian majority school at the time of take-over would be entitled to restrict the admission of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim children.  Likewise, Hindu and Muslim schools will also be entitled to restrict non-Hindu and non-Muslim children.  However, the reality is a that the Muslim community is the worst affected.  At the time of the take over there were 2,604 assisted schools in the country of which 48 opted to continue as private schools.  There were hardly any prestigious schools which had a Muslim majority student population.  The situation is rendered even more acute.  As you are aware, 25 per cent of the vacancies is reserved for children of past pupils.  A further 20 per cent is kept for children whose brothers and sisters are attending the same school.  In addition, 8 per cent of the vacancies are reserved for children of Government servants on transfer.  The resultant position is that 53 per cent of the vacancies in denominational schools which has been taken over is effectively reserved for that particular denomination.  Consequently, Muslims who unfortunately has no prestigious schools at the time of the take-over are the worst affected.

Dr. A.R. Mohamed of the University of Peradeniya and Mr. A.M. Sameem, a former Director of Education and an educationist, have made an in-depth study of the problem of school admission as faced by the Muslim community.  They have pointed out that, when applications were called for school admissions upto 1995, the requirement was continuous permanent residence from the 1st of January of the preceding year.  However, in 1996 this requirement was raised to 3 years as at the closing date of applications.  Subsequently, for the years 1998 and 1999, it was raised to 6 years and the maximum marks allotted for residence increased from 7 marks for 1996 to 20 marks for 1999.  The area rule is naturally disadvantageous to Muslims living in small concentrations away from Sinhala settlements, when seeking admission to Sinhala medium schools.  Moreover, the present application of the area rule deprive the children admission to popular schools for a large number of Tamil and Muslim children who have been displaced from the North and Ethnic disturbances.  A fair number of these displaced persons have taken up residence in the Colombo district.  The present application of the area rule shuts them out from the popular schools.

What then is the remedy ?

As  an interim measure, the Muslims should demand and obtain a fair percentage in admission to non-Muslim colleges.  We can ask for a review taking into consideration the growth and changes in population during the last 35 years.  It must be remembered that, at the time of the take over, the population was about 8 million.  It now stands at 18 million.   Surely it is unfair to freeze the percentages fixed 35 years ago.

This can only be a short term measure.

In the long term, we must establish a few Muslim schools in the main cities.  It is a tragedy to see Muslims in the cities run from pillar to post to get their children admitted to one of the good schools.

Let us take stock of ourselves.  The truth is that we depended on others to do the job for us.  We were quite content to admit our children to non-Muslim schools without pausing to create schools of our own.  The impassioned speech of Siddi Lebbe in 1891 in the Maradana mosque hall led to the formation of the Colombo Muslim Educational Society.  With the active patronage of Orabi Basha  and the philanthropy of Wapichi Marikkar, Zahira College came into being.  But we stopped at that and we fell into a slumber.

It is  time to follow in the tradition of Siddi Lebbe, Wapichi Marikkar, T.B. Jayah and A.M.A. Azeez.  We must remember that Zahira College, Maradana was established not by the Government but by the initiative of enlightened members of the Community.  The Christian Missionaries established their own schools.  Let us remind ourselves of Arumuga Navalar and his Hindu Educational Board and the Buddhist Theosophical Society.  Let us now, even belatedly, follow these examples.  For years we have been prepared to pay huge sums of money to admit our children to prestigious schools, that is, non-Muslim denominational schools which opted to remain as private schools.  Can we not then pool these resources to establish our own schools?  It’s heartening to find that there are some international schools under Muslim management which provide a quality education.  This shows that we have the expertise and the personnel to establish schools of our own. Can we not create some central authority of our own to establish schools for the community.  In this context I appeal for a change in attitudes.  The experience has been that money is forthcoming for the building of mosques.  But if appeals are made for educational purposes, such appeals do not receive the same response.  Mosques certainly are necessary.  Let us not forget that Allah’s rewards are high to those who promote ilm.

There is another issue on which the community appears to be divided and which brings out strong emotions.  That is the future of what are styled Muslim schools.  It is generally accepted that these schools are overcrowded, are under-staffed and lack of proper facilities.  Indeed, Muslim schools have received very step-motherly treatment for lack of political clout as we are dispersed throughout the country.  Wherever there has been a concentration of Muslims such as in Batticaloa and Kalmunai, the Muslims have been able to secure some funds for Muslim schools.  Similarly, in areas represented by a high profile Muslim Parliamentarian, for instance, Akurana, some State assistance has been forthcoming.  But by and large, these schools are in a neglected state.  For example, there are 750 Government Muslim schools in Sri Lanka.  In 1997, a sample survey of 292 Muslim schools in 20 districts was conducted by the All Ceylon Muslim Educational Conference.  The survey revealed a shortage of 1364 teachers.  This led the Conference conclude that there were about 3500 vacancies for teachers of all categories in the 750 Government schools. The problem of teacher vacancies is only a fragment of the problems in Muslim schools.

The National Education Commission has recommended that the school system be reorganized into two categories :

1. Junior Schools with Grades 1 to 9
2.Senior Secondary Schools with Grade 10 to 13

What then is the position of Muslim schools? The report is silent on this. Within the community divergent views have been expressed both in favour and against the continuance of Muslim schools. The All Ceylon Muslim Education Conference has come out strongly in favour of the continuance of Muslim schools on the ground that these schools preserve and promote the religious and cultural identity of the Muslims. Let us not throw the baby with the bath water. To my mind, idea that Muslim schools should be brought into a national stream should be dismissed. It is a leap in the dark and fraud with danger. The remedy would be to have a sub-department with the necessary staff and resources to ensure that the quality of these schools is improved.

A study of statistics relating to University admissions of Muslim students shows that we have been able to secure our national average only in Arts and Law. In Medicine, Dental Surgery and the sciences, we are well below our national average. Would not our children left out in the new age of technology and science? Are we adopting disciplines which the other communities have abandoned as being no longer fruitful or relevant? Do our children have access to schools which prepare them for a science oriented career. Do Muslim majority schools have qualified teachers and laboratory facilities? Does the present set up deflect our children into flooding the category of the educated unemployed?

Apart from university education, we seem to be indifferent to technical and vocational training. These training opportunities are provided or conducted by both private and public sector organizations coming under the Ministry of Higher Education. It is done through the poly-technical and junior technical training institutes. The poly-technical institutes have courses upto technician levels. The junior technical institutes provide training for craft level. The Moratuwa University and the Hardy Technical Institute at Amparai conduct full time technician courses leading to a National Diploma in Technology. The Ceylon-German Technical Training Institute is the foremost training institution for the training of skilled technicians in the field of automobile and the allied trades. We are faced with the problem of a large percentage of school drop-outs. Moreover, very few of the school leavers find themselves employment in trade or commerce and a large percentage of them are in agricultural areas. Studies reveal that our youth are not inclined towards vocational or technical education. Muslim organizations should counsel youth and alert them to the job opportunities and employment prospects that go with vocational or technical education. Muslim organizations could attract our youth to vocational training by granting financial assistance to needy youths on the basis of re-payment once they secure employment. Muslim industrialists and entrepreneurs should locate their industries and work places in Muslim areas.

The problem of the high drop-out rate among Muslim students in Sri Lanka is a matter of great concern. Investigations have revealed that the factors which contribute to drop-outs among Muslim students may be categorized as follows :


1.Environment : Many Muslim settlements are situated a considerable distance away from the main towns and the leading schools which is the Central School. These settlements are not served with effective public transport. This difficulty in particular affects students who pursue an education in the science stream as they must necessarily attend the Central School. The difficulty of traveling to and from school tends to encourage drop-outs particularly among girls. 

2.Income differentiation : The poorer sections of the community find it difficult to finance their children and as such the children are forced to seek employment more often of a menial nature. The well-to-do interrupt the education of their daughters as they are of the view that their female children do not need to earn a living. 

3.Early marriage : In some rural areas the practice of giving female children in marriage at an early age is a contributory factor. 

4.Parental attitude : Co-education is frowned upon by orthodox Muslim parents who tend to remove their female children from school on this account. 

5.Social reasons : The refusal by some school authorities to permit the wearing of the Hijab and the stress of wearing such dress amongst non-Muslim students even when such dress is permitted has contributed to Muslim girls dropping out from schools. 

6.Lack of parental motivation : There is parental indifference and as a result children lose interest in education, persistently obtain low grades, fail examinations and drift away from schools. 

7.Foreign employment : The absence of parents who leave the Island for the purpose of employment more often than not in the Middle East, results in the children being neglected and consequently dropping out of school due to lack of parental supervision. Moreover, our youth are attracted by foreign employment even of a menial nature and leave school to seek greener pastures abroad particularly in the Middle-East. In this context, out teachers should come forward as advisors and counselors and counter this trend.


I have upto now dealt with the bread and butter aspects of education. But Islamic education does not have such a limited or negative objective. Therefore, let me focus on a higher plane. The Islamic view of education is that it is one and indivisible. Its main task is to foster piety. It asserts the mundane life but seeks to serve a higher purpose, to inculcate piety or Taqwa and prepare man for total submission to the Will of Almighty Allah.

The tragic situation of our norms and values being eroded by the educational structure is in part a colonial legacy. Let us look at the scenario in colonial times. Imagine a Muslim boy attending an elite school in British times. He would in all probability be steeped in the Classics. If you ask him who Homer was, where Vergil lived and Cicero died, he certainly will have the answers. He will tell you what great things the Romans and the Greeks did. But ask him whether he knows of Omar and he would be surprised. Now let us take a Sinhalese boy in British times. He will not know much about Dutugemunu or Parakramabahu. He would certainly know much of the glories and the past greatness of Sri Lanka. But he too, like his Muslim counterpart, would have known all about the Romans and Greeks. Let us take the students of today. The Muslim boy and his Sinhala brother will both know about the glories of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. But ask the Muslim boy about the sagacious Ali, after whom Dr. Azeez named his second son, Sumeyha – the first martyr of Islam, or the exploits of Khalid Ibunu Waleed – the mighty warrior of Islam – and he will be surprised. Do not blame the boy but blame our educational system.

Education as an institution, is primarily instrumental to the regeneration of a culture provided it is geared towards the right ideals. Muslim education has for long been dominated by Madrasas. Unfortunately Madrasas do not lay sufficient emphasis on science and learning. The modern system of education on the other hand, has also failed to inspire Muslim youth with Islamic ideals and has resulted in creating cultural and moral conflicts. Therefore, the need to steer a new course of independent thinking, a rational and discreet blending of the modern with the Islamic systems in order to Islamize the entire formal and non-formal education of Muslim children was stressed and solutions suggested in the two World Conferences on Muslim Education.

What is needed is the teaching of the entire range of subjects from the Islamic point of view. This would mean the evolution of Islamic concepts in every branch and field of studies. Certain concepts and theories that are antithetical to the spirit of Islam such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, have to be eliminated from the courses taught to Muslim children. The task is challenging but if Muslim education has to be employed as an agent of cultural transformation and Islamization, then it has to be taken up in earnest. Of course we live in a multi national and multi-lingual society and we constitute 8 per cent of the population. Therefore, what we advocate has to be something within the realm of reality.

That indeed is the long term objective. But presently we Muslims in Sri Lanka have no alternative but to fall in line with national policy. We must therefore examine the present educational mechanisms to make room for our cultural preservation.

In this context Sri Lanka is unique, in that the State has taken the responsibility of the moral training of school children by making religion a compulsory subject from pre-school to year 11. In order to benefit from this the quality of the teachers of “Islam” should be improved and the curriculum re-structured. The teachers should be able to impart Islamic values and present Islam as it truly is – a viable and robust system valid for all times. The student should be made aware of the rich Islamic heritage and equipped to find solutions to present day problems within the Islamic Systems.

May I give an illustration. It is fashionable these days to speak of human rights. We are made to believe that human rights are of recent origin. The students are taught that human rights were only recognized after the UN declaration on human rights. But is any Muslim child taught that the Holy Prophet’s Final Address at Arafat is truly one of the greatest human rights documents of all time. So, you see, we must create an awareness of the Islamic tradition among our children. The education imparted to them must have an Islamic orientation and not a Western or other bias.

The curriculum of the Arabic Madrasas should be broadened. Social Science, Modern Philosophy and comparative religion could be introduced as allied subjects. Already some Madrasas are addressing this aspect. Moulavi teachers will then be able to present the Islamic view point in regard to basic issues where there is a conflict between Islam and the non-Islamic environment, in which modern day youth are exposed to doubt and sceptism.

Muslim training colleges should be geared to produce Muslim teachers who could view the whole concept of education and educational problems from an Islamic standpoint. The first world conference on Muslim education held in Mecca Al-Mukarrama under the auspices of the King Abdul Aziz University spotlighted the role of the Muslim teacher in society and made some important recommendations. In Sri Lanka we could broad-base the curriculum of the Muslim training colleges so as to expose Muslim teachers to the Islamic concept of knowledge and Muslim theories of education. Western educational theories are taught in training colleges. The educational theories of Muslim thinkers like Al-Ghazali, Ibh-khaldun and Iqbal must be included. An Islamic orientation must be given in respect of modern social sciences like history and geography within the national curriculum.

We should cater to Muslim students studying in non-Muslim schools. Student seminars, where subjects such as Islamic concepts of morality, Islamic Interpretation of history, Islam’s approach to Science and Scientific problems could be periodically discussed. We could also organize student camps where students could be given training in Islamic practices.

We must strive therefore to evolve a system of education which preserves our religious and cultural heritage within the framework of a national educational system. It is only then that we could, whilst making a positive contribution towards the national welfare yet maintain our Islamic values and identity. The Muslim student should be weaned away from the mindset that we are backward. We can do this only if our children are exposed to the great cultural and religious heritage that we are heirs to.

The late A.M.A. Azeez had a vision of a Muslim University on the lines of the famous Aligarh University. Unfortunately, he could not bring his dream to pass. The controversy raised by his detractors in no way diminished his sincerity of purpose. Being bred in the Islamic tradition of discussion, transparency and Mashura, he was tolerant of dissenting views. But he was anguished by the intensity of the personal attacks of pure abuse and vituperation which did no credit to the intelligence or the standing of those who waged the baron controversy. The South Eastern University of Sri Lanka came into being in 1996. This University is in its nascent stages. Dr. Zakir Hussein before becoming the President of India, was the Vice chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. At one of its convocations he declared that people would be judged by the way they treated Aligarh University. In the same strain, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka would be judged by the way in which we deal with the South Eastern University.

I do not pretend that I have dealt with all the educational problems of the Muslims. I have referred to the problems which I feel are urgent and important in the context of current events. I may certainly have omitted some of them. But we do have special and urgent problems and in facing these challenges we can draw inspirations from the ideals and the work and life of the late Dr. A.M.A. Azeez.

May Almighty Allah accept his services and grant him Firdous. Verily, we are from Allah and unto Him we return ! This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is an eternal truth.

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